But it was in an oddly disgruntled humour that he turned in—he who had been so ready to twit Crane with his fantastic speculations concerning the English girl, who had himself been the readiest to endue her with the romantic attributes becoming a heroine of her country's Secret Service! What if he must now esteem her in the merciless light of to-night's exposure, as the most pitiable of all human spectacles, a poor lovesick thing sans dignity, sans pride, sans heed for the world's respect, a woman pursuing a man weary of her?
He resented unreasonably the unreasonable resentment which the affair inspired in him.
What was it to him? He who had struck off all fettering bonds of common human interests, who had renounced all common human emotions, who had set his hand against all mankind that stood between him and that vengeful purpose to which he had dedicated his life! He, the Lone Wolf, the heartless, soulless, pitiless beast of prey!
God in Heaven! what was any woman to him?
ON THE BANKS
Unaccountably enough in his esteem, and more and more to Lanyard's exasperation, the evil flavour of that overnight incident lasted; it tinctured distastefully his first waking thoughts; and through all that fourth day at sea his mood was dark with irrational depression.
And the fifth day and the sixth were like unto the fourth.
Constantly he caught himself on watch for the young woman, wondering how she would comport herself toward him, unwilling witness though he had been to that shabby scene.
But, save distantly at meal times, he saw nothing of her.
And though he knew that she was much on deck after midnight, he was studious to keep out of her way. The tedium of stopping in a stuffy stateroom, when the spell of restlessness was on him, waiting for the sounds of his neighbour's return before he might venture forth, was nothing; anything were preferable to figuring as the innocent bystander at another encounter between the Brooke girl and her reluctant lover....
Then that happened which lent the business another complexion altogether. Its second phase, of close development, drew toward an end. Subtle underlying forces began to stir in their portentous latency.
The rapiers which thus far had merely touched, shivering lightly against each other, measuring each its opponent's strength, feeling out his skill, fell apart, then re-engaged in sharp and deadly play. Steel met steel and, clashing, struck off sparks whose fugitive glimmerings lightened measurably the murk....
On the sixth night out, at eleven o'clock as a matter of routine, the smoking room was closed for the night, terminating an uncommonly protracted and, in Lanyard's esteem, irksome sitting at cards. Well tired, he went immediately to his quarters, undressed, stretched out in his berth, and switched off the light.
Incontinently he found himself bedevilled by thoughts that would not rest.
For upward of an hour he lay moveless, seeking oblivion in that very effort to preserve immobility, while the Assyrian, lunging heavily on her way, moaned and muttered tedious accompaniment to the chant of the working engines.
Despairing at length, and fretted by the closeness of his quarters, he got up, dressed sketchily, and was shrugging into his fur-lined coat when he heard the door to the adjoining stateroom open and close, stealth in the sound of it.
At that he hung up his overcoat, and threw himself down with a book on the lounge seat beneath the port. The novel was dull enough in all conscience; for that matter no tale within the compass of the cunningest weaver of words could have enthralled his temper at that time.
He read and read again page after page, but without intelligence.
Between his eyes and the type-blackened paper mirages of the past trembled and wavered; old faces, old scenes, old illusions took unsubstantial form, dissolved, blended, faded away: a saddening show of shadows.
His heavy eyelids drooped; slumber's drowsy vestments trailed lazily athwart the sea of consciousness....
A slight noise startled him, either the shutting of the door to Stateroom 27, or the sound of the book dropping from his relaxed grasp. He sat up and consulted his watch. The hour was half after twelve.
The ship's bell sounded remotely a single, doleful stroke.
He might have dozed five minutes or fifteen—long enough at least to leave its tantalising effect of sleep desperately desirable, mockingly elusive, almost grasped, whisked beyond grasping. And with this he was aware of something even less tangible, a sense of something amiss, of something vaguely wrong, as of an evil spirit stalking furtively through the darkened labyrinth of the ship ... as impalpable and ineluctable as miasmic exhalations of a morass....
Lanyard passed a hand across his forehead. Had he been dreaming, then? Was this merely the reaction from some bitter nightmare? He could not remember.
On sheer impulse he stood up, extinguished the light, opened the door. As he did this he noted that a light burned in Stateroom 27, visible through the ventilating grille. So the girl must have returned while he slept. Or had she neglected to turn the switch when she went out? He could not be certain.
On the threshold he paused a little, attentive to the familiar rumour of the ship by night: the prolonged sloughing of riven waters down the side, gnashing of swells hurled back by the bows, sibilance of draughts in alleyways, groaning of frames, a thin metallic rattle of indeterminate origin, the crunching grind of the steering gear, the everlasting deep-throated diapason of the engines, somewhere aft in that tier of staterooms a persistent human snore ... nothing unusual, no alarming discordance....
Yet the feeling that mischief was afoot would not be still.
Lanyard moved down to the junction of the thwartship passage with the fore-and-aft alleyway.
Here he commanded a view of the promenade-deck landing and the main companionway, all in darkness but for a feeble glimmer of reflected starlight through the open deck port on the far side of the vessel. Beyond this the rail was stencilled against the dull face of the sea with its far lifting and falling horizon; within, no more was visible than the dimmed whiteness of the forward partition, the dense, indefinite mass of balusters winding up to the boat-deck, and the flat plane of the tiled landing.
On this last, near the mouth of the port alleyway, half obscured by the intervening balusters, something moved, something huge, black, and formless swayed and writhed strangely, and in the strangest silence, like a dumb, tormented misshapen brute transfixed to one spot from which its most anguished efforts might not avail to budge it.
Lanyard ran forward, rounded the well of the companionway, and pulled up.
Now the nature of the thing was revealed. Blackly silhouetted against the square of the doorway two human figures were close-locked and struggling desperately, straining, resisting, thrusting, giving, recovering ... and all with never a sound more than the deadened thump of a shifting foot or the rasp of hard-won breathing.
For several seconds the spectator could not distinguish one contestant from the other. Then a change in the fortunes of war enabled him to make out that one was a woman, the other, and momentarily more successful, a man. Slender and youthful and strong, she fought with the indomitable fury of a pantheress. He on his part had won this much temporary advantage—had broken the woman's clutch upon his throat and was bending her back over his hip, one hand fumbling at her windpipe, the other imprisoning her two wrists.
Yet she was far from being vanquished. Even as Lanyard moved toward the pair, she drove a savage knee into the man's middle and, as he checked instantaneously with a grunt of pained surprise, regained her footing and planted both elbows against his chest, striving frantically to free her hands.
Simultaneously Lanyard took the fellow from behind, wound an arm around his neck, jerked his head sharply back, twisted his forearm till he released the woman's wrists, and threw him with a force that must have jarred his every bone.
The woman staggered back against the partition, panting and sobbing beneath her breath. The man rebounded from his fall with astonishing agility, and flew back at Lanyard. An object in his right hand gave off the dull gleam of polished steel.
Lanyard, his automatic in his stateroom, in the pocket of the overcoat where he had deposited it when meaning to go out on deck, lacked any means of defense other than his two hands; but his one-time fame as an amateur pugilist had been second only to his fame as a connaisseur d'art; and to one whose youth had been passed in association with the Apaches of Paris, some mastery of la savate was an inevitable accomplishment.
A lightning coup de pied planted a heel against one of the man's shins, and his onslaught faltered in a gust of curses. Then the point of his jaw received the full force of Lanyard's right fist with all the ill will imaginable behind it. The man reared back, reeled into the black mouth of the alleyway, fell heavily.
Even so, he demonstrated extraordinary vitality and appetite for punishment. He had no more gone down than the adventurer, peering into the gloom, saw him struggle up on his knees. Instantly Lanyard made toward him, intent on finishing this work so well begun, but in his second stride tripped over a heavy body hidden in the shadows, and pitched headlong. Falling, he was conscious of a flashing thing that sped past his cheek, immediately above his shoulder. There followed an echoing thud against the forward partition.
Picking himself up smartly, Lanyard crept several paces down the alleyway, flattening against the wall, straining his vision, listening intently, rewarded by neither sign nor sound of his antagonist.
That one must have been swift to advantage himself of Lanyard's tumble. If he had not vanished into thin air, or gone to earth in some untenanted stateroom thereabouts, he found in the close blackness of that narrow passage a cloak of positive invisibility to cover his escape.
And there is little wisdom in stalking an armed man whom one cannot see, with what little light there is at one's own back.
So Lanyard went back to the landing, stepping carefully over the obstacle which had both thrown him and saved his life—the supine body of a third man, motionless; whether dead or merely insensible, he did not stop to investigate. His immediate concern was for the woman.
As he came upon her now, she stood en profile to the partition, tugging strongly at something embedded in the woodwork close by her side, between her waist and armpit. At the sound of his approach she looked up with a tremor of apprehension quickly calmed.
"Monsieur Duchemin! If you please—"
Lanyard, in no way surprised to recognise the voice of Miss Cecelia Brooke, stepped closer. "What is it?" he enquired; and then, bending over to look, found that her cloak was pinned to the partition by the blade of a heavy knife buried a full half of its considerable length.
"He threw it as you fell," the girl explained. "I was in the direct line."
"Permit me, mademoiselle...."
He laid hold of the haft of the weapon and with some difficulty withdrew it.
"Who was it?" he asked, weighing the knife in his palm and examining it as closely as he could without the aid of light.
There was no reply. Directly her cloak was freed, the girl had moved hastily away to the body over which Lanyard had stumbled. He heard an imploring whisper—"Please!"—and looked up to see her on her knees.
"Who, then, is this?" he demanded, joining her.
"Lionel—Lieutenant Thackeray. Please—O please!—tell me he is not dead."
Her voice broke; he saw her slender body convulsed with racking emotions. Kneeling, Lanyard made a hasty and superficial examination, necessarily no more under the conditions.
"His heart beats," he announced—"he breathes. I do not think him seriously injured." He made as if to get up. "I will get a light—a flash-lamp from my stateroom—or, better still, the ship's surgeon—"
Her hand fell upon his arm. "Please, no! Not that—not now. Later, if necessary; but now—surely, you can help me carry him to his stateroom."
"You know the number?"
"It's close by—30."
"Find it, and light up. No—leave this to me; I can carry him without assistance."
The girl rose and disappeared. Lanyard passed his arms beneath the Englishman's body, gathered him into them, and struggled to his feet: no inconsiderable task.
Light gushed from an open doorway, the third aft from the landing. Staggering, the adventurer entered and deposited the body upon the berth. Immediately the girl closed and bolted the door, then passed between him and the berth to bend over the unconscious man. He lay in deep coma, limbs a-sprawl, unpleasant glints of white between his half-closed eyelids, his breathing stertorous through parted lips. Free of its sling, his wounded arm dangled over the edge of the berth. In putting him down, Lanyard had remarked that its sleeve had been slit to the shoulder, and that its bandages were undone. Now, in amazement, he saw the arm was firm and muscular, with an unbroken skin, never a sign of any injury in all its length.
Gently the girl lifted the lieutenant's head to the light, discovering a hideously bruised swelling at the base of the skull, blood darkly matting the close-clipped hair.
She requested without looking round: "Water, please—and a towel."
Obediently Lanyard ran hot and cold water into the hand-basin in equal proportions.
"Would it not be well now to call the ship's surgeon?" he suggested diffidently.
"Is that necessary? I am something of a nurse. This is simply a bad contusion—no worse, I believe. He was struck down from behind, a cowardly blow in the dark, as he started to go up on deck. I had been waiting for him. When he didn't come I suspected something was wrong. I came down, found him lying there, that brute kneeling over him."
She spoke coolly enough, in contrast with the high excitement that inflamed her eyes as she turned away from the berth.
"Monsieur Duchemin, are you armed?"
"I have this," he said, exhibiting the knife thrown by the would-be murderer—a simple trench dagger, without distinguishing marks of any sort.
"Then take this, please." Extracting an automatic pistol from a holster belted beneath Thackeray's coat, she proffered it. "You won't mind staying here a moment, standing guard, while I fetch a dressing from my room?"
Before he could utter a word of protest she had slipped out into the alleyway, shutting the door behind her.
When several minutes had passed the adventurer found himself beset by increasing concern. This long delay seemed not only inconsistent with her solicitude, but indicated a possibility that the girl had braved unwisely the chance of a resumption of hostilities on the part of her late and as yet anonymous assailant.
Darkening the room as a matter of common-sense precaution, Lanyard, pistol in hand, stepped out into the alleyway in time to see the girl in the act of rising from her knees on the landing, near the spot where Thackeray had fallen. The light of her flash-lamp was blotted out as she came hurriedly aft.
Perplexed, he turned back and switched on the light as she entered.
Her eyes challenged his almost defiantly.
"Was I long?" she asked, breathless. "I dropped something...."
Lanyard bowed without speaking. Instinctively he knew that she was lying; and divining this in his attitude, she coloured and, disconcerted, turned away. For a moment, while she busied herself arranging on a convenient chair an assortment of first-aid accessories, he fancied that her half-averted face wore a look of sullen chagrin, with its compressed lips, downcast eyes, and faintly gathered brows.
But directly she needed assistance, and requested it of him in a subdued and impersonal manner, showing a countenance devoid of any incongruous emotion.
Lanyard, lifting the lieutenant's head and heavy torso, helped turn him face downward on the berth, then stood aside, thoughtfully watching the girl's deft fingers sop absorbent cotton in an antiseptic wash and apply it to the injury.
After a little, he said: "If mademoiselle has no more immediate use for me—"
"Thank you, monsieur. You have already done so very much!"
"Then, if mademoiselle will supply the name of this assassin—"
"I know it no more than you, monsieur!" She glanced up at him, startled. "What do you mean to do?"
"Why, naturally, lodge an information with the captain concerning this outrage—"
"Oh, please, no!"
At a loss, Lanyard shrugged eloquently.
"Not yet, at all events," she hastened to amend. "Let Lionel judge what is best to be done when he comes to."
"But, mademoiselle, who can say when that will be?" He pointed out the ugly, ragged abrasion in the young Englishman's scalp exposed by the cleansing away of the clotted blood. "No ordinary blow," he commented; "something very like a slung-shot or a loaded cane did that work. If I may venture again to advise—unless mademoiselle is herself a surgeon—"
Her colour faded and she caught her breath sharply. "You think it as serious as all that?"
"I do not know. Such a blow might easily fracture the skull, possibly bring about a concussion of the brain. Regard, likewise, his laborious breathing. I most assuredly advise consulting competent authority."
She did not immediately answer, turning back undivided attention to her task; but he noticed that her hands were tremulous, however, dextrously they finished dressing and bandaging the hurt; and deep distress troubled the handsome eyes she turned to his when she rose.
"You are right," she murmured—"unquestionably right, monsieur. We must have the surgeon in...."
But when Lanyard advanced a hand toward the bell-push, to call the steward, she interposed in quick alarm:
"No—if you please, a moment; I must have time to think!" Her slender fingers writhed together in her agony of doubt and irresolution. "If only I knew what to do...."
Lanyard was dumb. There was, indeed, nothing helpful he could offer, who was without a solitary tangible or trustworthy clue to the nature of this strange business.
He owned himself sadly mystified. In the light—or, rather, the shadow—of this latest development, his revised suspicions seemed unwarranted to the point of impertinence; unless, of course, one assumed the unknown assailant to be a rejected lover or wronged husband. And somehow one did not, in the presence of this clear-eyed, straight-limbed, courageous young Englishwoman, so wanting in self-consciousness.
And yet ... what the deuce was she to this man whom, indisputably, she followed against his wish?
And what conceivable chain of circumstances linked their fortunes with his, and that double burglary of the first night out with this murderous assault of to-night?
Nor was to-night's work, considered by itself, lacking in questionable features.
Why had Thackeray carried that sound arm in a sling? How had its bandages come to be unwrapped? Not in struggles before being placed hors de combat, for he had never had a chance to resist. Had his assailant, then, unwrapped it subsequently? If so, with what end in view?
Why had this Miss Cecelia Brooke, surprising the thug at his work, joined battle with him so bravely and so madly without calling for help?
What hidden motive excused this singular hesitation to summon the surgeon, this reluctance to inform the officers of the ship?
What duplicity was that which the girl had paraded concerning her procrastination when Lanyard had surprised her on her knees out there on the landing?
If this were what Lanyard had first inclined to think it, Secret Service intrigue, surely it was weirdly intricate when an English girl hesitated to safeguard an Englishman by taking into her confidence the officers of a British ship, British manned!
Nevertheless, and however much he might wonder and doubt, Lanyard would never question her. Never of his own volition would he probe more deeply into this mystery, take one farther step into the intricacies of its maze.
So, in silence, he waited, passively courteous, at her further service if she had need of him, content if she had not, tolerant of her tacit prayer for time in which to think a way out of her difficulties.
After some few moments he grew uncomfortably aware that he had become the object of a speculative regard not at all unfavourable.
He indulged in a mental gesture of resignation.
Then what he had feared befell, not altogether as he had apprehended, but in the girl's own fashion, if without material difference in the upshot.
"I am afraid," said she in an even voice, so quietly pitched as to be inaudible to any eavesdropper. "This becomes a task greater than I had dreamed, more than my wits can cope with. Monsieur Duchemin...."
She hesitated. He bowed slightly. "If mademoiselle can make any use of my poor abilities, she has but to command me."
"We—I have much to thank you for already, monsieur, much more than I can ever hope to reward adequately—"
"Reward?" he echoed. "But, mademoiselle—!"
"Please don't misunderstand." She flushed a little, very prettily. "I am simply trying to express my sense of obligation, not only for what you have already done, but for what I mean to ask you to do."
Again he bowed, without comment, amiably receptive.
She resumed with perceptible effort: "I can trust you—"
"You must make sure of that before you do," he warned her, smiling.
"I am sure," she averred gravely.
"You know nothing concerning me, mademoiselle—pardon! For all you know I may be the greatest rogue in Christendom. And I must tell you in all candour, sometimes I think I am."
"What I may or may not know concerning you, Monsieur Duchemin, is immaterial as long as I know you are what you have proved yourself to me, a gentleman, considerate, generous, brave, and—not inquisitive."
He was frankly touched. If this were flattery, tone and manner robbed it of fulsomeness, rendered it subtle beyond the coarser perceptions of the man. He knew himself for what he was, knew himself unworthy; and that part of him which was unaffectedly French, whether by accident of birth or influence of environment, and so impulsive and emotional, reacted in spontaneous gratitude to this implicit acceptance of him for what he strove to seem to be.
"Mademoiselle is gracious beyond my deserts," he protested. "Only let me know how I may be of use...."
"In three ways: Continue to be lenient in your judgments, and ask me no more questions than you must because ... I may not answer...." Her hands worked together again. She added unhappily, in a faint voice: "I dare not."
That, too, moved him, since he had been far from lenient in his judgments. He responded the more readily: "All that is understood, mademoiselle."
"Please go at once back to your stateroom, and as quietly as possible. There is a bare chance you were not recognised, that nobody knows who came to my aid to-night. If you can slip away without attracting attention, so much the better for us, for all of us. You may not be suspected."
"Trust me to use my best discretion."
"Lastly ... take and keep this for me, till I ask you for it again. Hide it as secretly as you can. It may be sought for, is certain to be if you are believed to be in my confidence. It must not be found. And I may not want it again before we land in New York."
She extended a hand on whose palm rested a small and slender white cylinder, no longer and little thicker than the toy pencil that dangles from a dance-card: a tight roll of plain white paper enclosed in a wrapping of transparent oiled silk, gummed fast down its length and, at either end, sealed with miniature blobs of black wax.
"Will you do this for me, Monsieur Duchemin? I warn you, it may cost you your life."
He took it, his temper veering to the whimsical. "What is life?" he questioned. "A prelude—perhaps an overture to that great drama, Death. Who knows? Who cares?"
She heard him in a stare. "You place no value on life?"
"Mademoiselle," he said, "I have lived nearly thirty years in this world, three years in the theatre of war, seldom far from the trenches of one front or another. I tell you, I know death too well...."
He shrugged and put the roll of paper away in a pocket.
"You understand it must not be taken from you under any circumstance? As a last resort, it must be destroyed rather than yielded up."
"It shall be," he said quietly. "Is there anything more?"
She shook her head, thoughtfully knuckling her underlip.
"How can I communicate with you in event of necessity after we get to New York?" she asked.
"I shall stop for a week or two at the Hotel Knickerbocker."
"If anything should happen"—with a swift glance of anxiety toward the motionless figure in the berth—"if anything should prevent my calling for it within a week after our arrival, you will be good enough to deliver it to—" She caught herself up quickly, the unuttered words trembling on her lip. "I will write down the address of the person to whom you will deliver it, and slip it underneath the door between our rooms—first making certain you are there to receive it—if I do not ask you to return the—thing—before we land."
"That shall be as you will."
"When you have memorized the address you will destroy it?"
"Depend on that."
"I think that is all. Thank you, Monsieur Duchemin—and good-night."
She extended her hand. He saluted it punctiliously with fingertips and lips.
"If you will put out the light, mademoiselle, it may aid me to get away unseen."
She nodded and offered him Thackeray's pistol. "Take this. O, I have another with me."
Lanyard accepted the weapon and, when she had darkened the room, opened the door, slipped out, and closed it behind him so noiselessly that the girl could not believe he was gone.
Nothing hindered his return to Stateroom 29.
Fully two minutes after he had locked himself in he heard the distant clamour of the annunciator, calling a steward to Stateroom 30.
He sat for a long time on the edge of his berth, elbow on knee, chin in hand, unstirring, gaze fixed upon that little cylinder of white paper resting in the hollow of his palm, in profoundest concentration pondering the problems it presented: what it was, what possession of it meant to Michael Lanyard, what safe disposition to make of it pending welcome relief from this unsought and most unwelcome trust.
This last question alone bade fair to confound his utmost ingenuity.
As for what it was, Lanyard was well satisfied that he now held the true focus of this conspiracy, a secret of the first consequence, far too momentous to the designs of England to be entrusted, though couched in the most cryptic cipher ever mind of man devised, even to cables or mails which England herself controlled.
Solely to prevent this communication from reaching America, Lanyard believed, Germany had sown mines broadcast in all the waters which the Assyrian must cross, and had commissioned her U-boats, without fail and at whatever cost, to sink the vessel if by any accident she won safely through the mine-fields.
In the effort to steal this secret, German spies had sailed on the Assyrian knowing well the double risk they ran, of being shot like rats if found out, of being drowned like neutrals if the ship went down through the efforts of their compatriots.
It was the zeal of Potsdam's agents, seeking the bearer of this secret, which had caused the rifling of Miss Brooke's luggage when she fell under suspicion, thanks to her clandestine way of coming aboard; and through the same agency young Thackeray had been all but murdered when suspicion, for whatever reason, shifted to him.
To insure safe transmission of this communication, England had held the Assyrian idle in port, day after day, while her augmented patrols scoured the seas, hunting down ruthlessly every submarine whose periscope dared peer above the surface, and while her trawlers innumerable swept the channels clear of mines.
To prevent its theft, Lieutenant Thackeray had invented the subterfuge of the "wounded" arm, amid whose splints and bandages (Lanyard never doubted) the cylinder had been secreted.
Finally, it was as a special agent, deep in her country's confidence, that this English girl had smuggled herself aboard at the last moment, bringing, no doubt, this very cylinder to be transferred to the keeping of Lieutenant Thackeray or, perhaps, another confrere, should she find reason to think herself suspected, her trust endangered.
Nothing strange in that; women had served their countries in such capacities before; the secret archives of European chancellories are replete with their records. Lanyard himself remembered many such women, brilliant mondaines from many lands domiciled in that Paris of the so-dead yesterday to serve by stealth their respective governments; but never, it was true, a woman of the caste of Cecelia Brooke; unless, indeed, this were an actress of surpassing talent, gifted to hoodwink the most skeptical and least susceptible of men.
Lanyard's train of thought faltered. New doubt of the girl began to shadow his meditations. Contradictory circumstances he had noted intruded, uninvited, to challenge overcredulous conclusions concerning her.
Would any secret agent worth her salt invite suspicion by making such a conspicuously furtive embarkation, by such ostentatious avoidance of her fellow passengers, by surrounding herself with an atmosphere of such palpable mystery? Would such an one confess she had a "secret" to an utter stranger, as she had to Lanyard that first night out? Would she, under any conceivable circumstances, entrust to that same stranger that selfsame secret upon whose inviolate preservation so much depended?
And would she make love-trysts on the decks by night?
Would a brother-agent take her in his arms, then reprove her with every symptom of vexation for her "madness," her "insanity," her "nonsense" that was like to "drive me mad"?—Thackeray's own words!
Vainly Lanyard cudgelled his wits for some plausible reading of this riddle.
Was this Brooke girl possibly (of a sudden he sat bolt upright) a Prussian agent infatuated with this young Englishman and by him beloved in spite of all that forbade their passion?
Did not this explanation reconcile every apparent inconsistency in her conduct, even to the entrusting to a stranger of the stolen secret, the purloined paper she dared not keep about her lest it be found in her possession?
Lanyard's eyes narrowed. Visibly his features hardened. If this surmise of his were any way justified in the outcome, he promised Miss Cecelia Brooke an hour of most painful penitence.
Woman or not, she need not look for mercy from him, who must ever be merciless in his dealings with Ekstrom's crew.
To be made that one's tool!
The very thought was intolerable....
As for himself, possession of this paper meant that pitfalls were digged for his every step.
If ever the British found cause to suspect him, his certain portion would be to face a firing squad in dusk of early day.
If, on the other hand, these Prussian agents on board the Assyrian ever got wind of the fact that the cylinder was in his care, his fate was apt to be a knife between his ribs the first time he was caught alone and—with his back to the assassin.
Two courses, then, were open to him: the most sensible and obvious, to go straightway to the captain of the Assyrian, report all that he knew or surmised, and turn over the paper for safekeeping; one alternative, to hide the cylinder so absolutely that the most drastic search would overlook it, yet so handily that he could rid himself of it at an instant's notice.
But the first course involved denunciation of the Brooke girl. And what if she were innocent? What if, after all, these doubts of her were the specious spawn of facts misinterpreted, misconstrued? What if she proved to be all she seemed? Could he, even though what he had warned her he might be, the greatest rogue unhung, be false to a trust reposed in him by such a woman?
As to that, there was no question in his mind; he would never betray her, lacking irrefutable conviction that she was an employee of the Prussian spy system.
Then how to hide the paper?
Kneeling, Lanyard drew from beneath the berth his bellows-bag, selected from its contents a black japanned tin case containing a rather elaborate though compact trench medicine kit, the idle purchase of an empty afternoon in London. Extracting from its fittings a small leather-covered case, he replaced the kit, relocked and shoved the bag back beneath the berth.
Then, standing over the hand-basin, he opened the leather-covered case. Its velvet-lined compartments held a hypodermic syringe and needle, and a glass phial of twenty-four one-thirtieth grain morphia tablets.
Uncorking the phial, he shook out all the tablets, replaced three, then slid the paper cylinder into the tube; it fitted precisely, concealed by the label of the manufacturing chemist, leaving room for six more tablets. Lanyard inserted four on top of the cylinder, moistening the lowermost slightly to make it stick, recorked the phial, and returned it to its compartment.
Next he dissolved three morphia tablets in a little water in the bottom of a glass, filled the syringe with the strong solution, fitted on the needle, squirted most of the contents down the waste-pipe, and consigned the remaining tablets to the same innocuous fate.
Finally he replaced needle and syringe in the case, let the glass which had held the solution stand without rinsing, and put the open case upon the shelf above the basin.
A light tapping sounded on the panels of his door.
"Well? Who's there?"
"Your steward, sir. Captain Osborne's compliments, an' 'e'd like to see you in 'is room as soon as convenient, sir."
"You may say I will come at once."
"'Nk you, sir."
A summons to have been expected as a sequel to the surgeon's report after attending Lieutenant Thackeray; none the less, Lanyard had not expected it so soon.
Authority, he reflected, ran true to form afloat as well as ashore; it was prompt enough when required to apply a pound or so of cure. Surely the officers, at least the captain, must have been advised why this voyage was apt to prove exceptionally hazardous; and surely in the light of such information it had been wiser to set armed watches on every deck by night, rather than permit the lives of passengers to be imperilled through the possible activities of Prussian agents among them incogniti.
And now that he was reminded of it, was not this, perhaps, but a device of the enemy's to decoy him from the comparative safety of his stateroom?
It was with a hand in his jacket pocket, grasping Thackeray's automatic, that he presently left the room. The alleyway, however, was deserted except for his steward; who, as he appeared, turned and led the way up to the boat-deck.
Rounding the foot of the companionway, Lanyard contrived a hasty glance down the port alleyway. The door to Stateroom 30 was on the hook; a light burned within. Outside a guard was stationed, a sailor with a cutlass: the first application of the pound of cure!
At the heels of his guide, he approached a door in the deck-house, devoted to officers' accommodations, beneath the bridge. Here the steward knocked discreetly. A heavy voice grumbling within was stilled for a moment, then barked a sharp invitation to enter. The steward turned the knob, announced dispassionately "Monseer Duchemin," and stood aside. Lanyard entered a well-lighted room, simply but comfortably furnished as the captain's office and sitting room; sleeping quarters adjoined, the head of a berth with a battered pillow showing through a door a foot or so ajar.
Four persons were present; the notion entered Lanyard's head that a fifth possibly lurked in the room beyond, spying, eavesdropping: not a bad scheme if Thackeray had an associate on board whose identity it was desirable to keep under cover.
The door closed gently behind him as he stood politely bowing, conscious that the four faces turned his way were distinguished by a singular variety of expression.
Miss Cecelia Brooke was nearest him, beside a chair from which she had evidently just risen, her pretty young face rather pale and set, a scared look in her candid eyes.
Beyond her, the captain sat with his back to a desk: a broad-beamed, vigorous body, intensely masculine, choleric by habit, and just now in an extraordinarily grim temper, his iron-gray hair bristling from his pillow, and his stout person visibly suffering the discomfort of wearing night-clothes beneath his uniform coat and trousers. Bending upon Lanyard the steel-hard regard of small, steel-blue eyes, he drummed the arms of his chair with thick and stubby fingers.
To one side, standing, was the third officer, a Mr. Sherry, a youngish man with a pleasant cast of countenance which temporarily wore a look, rarely British, of ingrained sense of duty at odds with much embarrassment.
Lastly Mr. Crane's lanky person was draped, with its customary effect of carelessness, on one end of the lounge seat. He looked up, nodded shortly but cheerfully to Lanyard, then resumed a somewhat quizzical contemplation of the half-smoked cigar which etiquette obliged him to neglect in the presence of a lady.
"This is the gentleman?" Captain Osborne queried heavily of the girl. Receiving a murmured affirmative, he continued: "Good morning, Monsieur Duchemin.... Thanks, Miss Brooke; we won't keep you up any longer to-night."
He rose, bowed stiffly as Mr. Sherry opened the door for the girl, and when she was gone threw himself back into his chair with a force which made it enter a violent protest.
"Sit down, sir. Daresay you know what we want of you."
"It is not difficult to guess," Lanyard admitted. "A sad business, monsieur."
"Sad!" the captain iterated in a tone of harsh sarcasm. "That's a mild name to give murder."
Even had it not been blurted violently at him, that word was staggering. The adventurer echoed it blankly. "You can't mean Lieutenant Thackeray—?"
"Not yet, though doctor says it may come to that; the poor chap's in a bad way—concussion."
"So one feared. But monsieur said 'murder'...."
Captain Osborne sat forward, steely gaze mercilessly boring into Lanyard's eyes. "Monsieur Duchemin," he said slowly, "Lieutenant Thackeray was not the only passenger to suffer through to-night's villainy. The other died instantly."
"In God's name, monsieur—who?"
"Mr. Bartholomew!" A memory of that brisk little body's ruddy, cheerful, British personality flashed athwart the screen of memory. Lanyard murmured: "Incredible!"
"Murdered," the captain proceeded, "in Stateroom 28. Lieutenant Thackeray and he were friends, shared the suite. Apparently Mr. Bartholomew heard some unusual noise in 30 and left his berth to investigate. He was struck down from behind as he approached the communicating door. The murderer had got in by way of the sitting room, 26."
Mr. Sherry added in an awed voice: "Frightful blow—skull crushed like an eggshell."
There was a pause. Crane thoughtfully relighted his cigar, and wrapped his right cheek round it. The captain glared glassily at Lanyard. Mr. Sherry looked, if possible, more uncomfortable than ever. Lanyard pondered, aghast.
Ekstrom's work, of a certainty! This was his way, the way he imposed upon his creatures. Ekstrom, ever a killer, obsessed by the fallacious notion that dead men tell no tales....
And Bartholomew had been in this mess with Thackeray, both of them operatives of the British Secret Service!
"Miss Brooke has given her version of the attack on Lieutenant Thackeray," the captain pursued. "Be good enough to let us have yours."
Succinctly Lanyard recounted the happenings between the moment when premonition of evil drew him from his stateroom and the moment when he returned thereto.
He was at pains, however, to omit all mention of the cylinder of paper; that, pending definite knowledge to the contrary, was a sacred trust, a matter of his honour, solely the affair of the Brooke girl.
The captain squared himself toward Lanyard, his face louring, his jaw pugnacious.
"How did you happen to be up and dressed at that late hour, so ready to respond to this—ah—premonition of yours?"
"I sleep not well, monsieur. It was my intention to go on deck and endeavour to walk off my insomnia."
Captain Osborne commented with a snort.
"Why did you leave Miss Brooke alone before she called the doctor?"
"At mademoiselle's request, naturally."
"You'd been deuced gallant up to that time. I presume it didn't occur to you that the young woman might need further protection?"
Lanyard shrugged. "It did not occur to me to refuse her request, monsieur."
"Didn't it strike you as odd she should wish to be left alone with Lieutenant Thackeray?"
"It was not my affair, monsieur. It was her wish."
"Excuse me, cap'n." Crane sat up. "I'd like to ask Mr. Lanyard a question."
But Lanyard had prepared himself against that, and acknowledged the touch with a quiet smile and the hint of a bow.
"U.S. Secret Service," Crane informed him with a grin. "Velasco spotted you—had seen you years ago in Paruss—tipped me off."
"So one inferred. And these gentlemen?" Lanyard indicated the captain and third officer.
"I wised them up—had to, when this happened."
"Naturally, monsieur. Proceed...."
"I only wanted to ask if you noticed anything to make you think perhaps there was an understanding between Miss Brooke and the lieutenant?"
"Why should I?"
"I ain't curious why you should. What I want to know is, did you?"
"No, monsieur," Lanyard lied blandly.
"The little lady didn't seem to take on more'n she naturally would if the lieutenant'd been a stranger, eh?" "How to judge, when one has never seen mademoiselle distressed on behalf of another?"
Crane abandoned his effort, resuming contemplation of his cigar.
"Now we come to the point. Monsieur Lanyard, or whatever your name is."
"I have found Duchemin very agreeable, monsieur le capitaine."
"I daresay," Captain Osborne sneered. He hesitated, glowering in the difficulty of thinking. "See here, Monsieur Duchemin—since you prefer that style—I'm not going to beat about the bush with you. I'm a plain man, plain-spoken. They tell me you reformed. I don't know anything about that. It's my conviction, once a thief, always a thief. I may be wrong."
"Right or wrong, monsieur might easily be less offensive."
The captain's dark countenance became still more darkly congested. Implacable prejudice glinted in his small eyes. Nor was his temper softened by the effrontery of this offender in giving back look for look with a calm poise that overshadowed his arrogance of an honest, law-abiding man.
He made a vague gesture of impatience.
"The point is," he said, "this crime was accompanied by robbery."
"Am I to understand I am accused?"
"Nobody is accused," Crane cut in hastily.
"You have found no clues—?"
"What I want to say to you, Monsieur Duchemin, is this: the stolen property has got to be recovered before this ship makes her dock in New York. It means the loss of my command if it isn't. It means more than that, according to my information; it means a disastrous calamity to the Allied cause. And you're a Frenchman, Monsieur—Duchemin."
"And a thief. Monsieur le capitaine must not forget his pet conviction."
"As to that, a man can't always be particular about the tools he employs. I believe the old saying, set a thief to catch a thief, holds good."
"Do I understand," Lanyard suggested sweetly, "you are about to honour me by utilizing my reputed talents, by commissioning a thief to catch this thief of to-night?"
"Precisely. You know more of this matter than any of us here. You were at hand-grips with the murderer—and let him get away."
"To my deep regret. But I have told you how that happened."
"Seems a bit strange you made no real effort to find out what the scoundrel looked like."
"It was dark in that alleyway, monsieur."
The captain made an inarticulate noise, apparently meant to convey an effect of ironic incredulity. More intelligible comment was interrupted by a ring of the telephone. He swung around, clapped receiver to ear, snapped an impatient "Well?" and listened with evident exasperation.
Lanyard's eyes narrowed. This business of telephoning was conceivably well-timed; not improbably the captain was receiving the report of somebody who had been sent to search Stateroom 29 in Lanyard's absence. He wondered and, wondering, glanced at Crane, to find that gentleman watching him with a whimsical glimmer which he was quick to extinguish when the captain said curtly, "Very good, Mr. Warde," and turned back from the telephone, his manner more than ever truculent.
"Mr. Lanyard," he said—"Monsieur Duchemin, that is—a valuable paper has been stolen, an exceedingly valuable document. I don't know which carried it, Lieutenant Thackeray or Mr. Bartholomew. But I do know such a paper was in their possession. And to the best of my knowledge, we three were the only ones on board that did know it. And it has disappeared. Now, sir, you may or may not be deeper in this affair than you have admitted. If you are, I'd advise you to own up."
"Monsieur le capitaine implies my complicity in this dastardly crime!"
Osborne shook his head doggedly. "I imply nothing. I only say this: if you know anything you haven't told us, my advice is to make a clean breast of it."
"I have nothing to tell you, monsieur, beyond the fact that I find you, your tone, your manner, and your choice of words, intolerably insolent."
"Then you know nothing—?"
"Monsieur!" Lanyard cried sharply.
"Very good," the captain persisted. "I'll take your word for it—and give you till we take on our pilot to find the real criminal and make him give up that paper."
"And if I fail?"
"Not a soul on board leaves the Assyrian till the murderer and thief are found—if they are not one."
"But that is a general threat; whereas monsieur has honoured me by making this a personal matter. What punishment have you prepared for me specifically, if I fail to accomplish this task which baffles your—shrewdness?"
"I'll at least inform the port authorities in New York, tell them who you are, and have you barred out of the country."
"I want to say, Lanyard," Crane interposed, "this isn't my notion of how to deal with you, or in any way by my advice."
"Thank you, monsieur," the adventurer replied icily, without removing his attention from the captain. "What else, Captain Osborne?"
"That is all I have to say to you to-night, sir. Good-night."
"But I have something more to say to you, monsieur le capitaine. First, I desire to give over to you this article which it will doubtless please you to consider stolen property." Lanyard placed the automatic pistol on the desk. "One of Lieutenant Thackeray's," he explained; "at Miss Brooke's suggestion, I borrowed it as a life-preserver, in event of another brush with this homicidal maniac."
"She told us about that," Osborne said heavily, fumbling with the weapon. "What else, sir?"
"Only this, monsieur le capitaine: I shall use my best endeavour to uncover the author of these crimes. If I succeed, be sure I shall denounce him. If I succeed only in securing this valuable paper you speak of, be equally sure you will never see it; for it shall leave my hands only to pass into those which I consider entirely trustworthy."
"The devil!" Captain Osborne leaped from his chair quaking with fury. "You dare accuse me of disloyalty—!"
"Now you mention it...." Lanyard cocked his head to one side with a maddening effect of deliberation. "No," he concluded—"no; I wouldn't accuse you of intentional treason, monsieur; for that would involve an imputation of intelligence...."
He opened the door and nodded pleasantly to Crane and the third officer.
"Good-night, gentlemen," he said silkily. "Oh, and you, too, Captain Osborne—good-night, I'm sure."
IN STATEROOM 29
In spite of his own anger, something far from being either assumed or inconsiderable, Lanyard was fain to pause, a few paces from the deck-house, and laugh quietly at a vast and incoherent booming which was resounding in the room he had just quitted—Captain Osborne trying to do justice to the emotions inspired in his virtuous bosom by the cheek of this damned gaol-bird.
But suddenly, reminded of the grim reason for all this wretched brawling, Lanyard shrugged off his amusement. Beneath his very feet, almost a man lay dead, another perhaps dying, while the beast who had wrought that devilishness remained at large.
He comprehended in a wondering regard that wide, star-blazoned arch of skies, that broad, dark, restful mystery of waters, that still, sweet world of peace through which the Assyrian forged, muttering contentedly at her toil ... while Murder with foul hands and slavering chops skulked somewhere in the darkened fabric of her, somewhere beyond that black mouth of the deck-port yawning at Lanyard's elbow.
From that same portal a man came abruptly but quietly, saw Lanyard standing there, gave him a staring look and grudging nod, and strode forward to the captain's quarters: Mr. Warde, the first officer.
Lanyard recollected himself, and went below.
Still the sailor guarded the door in that port alleyway; but now it stood wide, and Cecelia Brooke was on its threshold, conversing guardedly with the surgeon. Even as Lanyard caught sight of them, the latter bowed and turned aft, while the girl retreated and refastened the door on its hook.
Thus reminded of Crane's shrewd questions, Lanyard was speculating rather foggily concerning the reason therefor as he turned down the passage to his own quarters. What had the American noticed, or been told, to make him surmise covert sympathy between the girl and the lieutenant?
He caught himself yawning. Drowsiness buzzed in his brain. He had an incoherent feeling that he would now sleep long and heavily. Entering his stateroom, he put a shoulder against the door, pushing it to as he fumbled for the switch. The circumstance that the lights were no longer burning as he had left them failed to impress him as noteworthy in view of his belief that, by the captain's orders, Mr. Warde had been ransacking his effects in his absence.
But when no more than a click responded to a turn of the switch, the room remaining quite dark, Lanyard uttered an imprecation, abruptly very wide awake indeed.
Before he could move he stiffened to positive immobility: the cool, hard nose of a pistol had come into contact with his skull, just behind the ear.
Simultaneously a softly-modulated voice advised him in purest German: "Be quite still, Herr Lanyard, and hold up your hands—so! Also, see that you utter no sound till I give you leave.... Karl, the handkerchief."
Lanyard stood motionless, hands well elevated, while a heavy silk blindfold was whipped over his eyes and knotted tight at the back of his head.
"Now your paws, Herr Lone Wolf—put them together behind your back, prudently making no attempt to reach a pocket."
Obediently Lanyard permitted his wrists to be caught together with a second silk handkerchief. He could feel a slight sensation of heat upon his hands, and guessed that this was caused by the light of a flash-lamp held close to the flesh. None the less he took the chance of clenching his fists and tensing the muscles of his wrists.
The bonds were made painfully fast. Still it did not seem to occur to his captors to oblige their prisoner to open his hands and relax his wrists. Lanyard perceived a glimmer of hope in this oversight: the enemy was normally stupid.
"Now the lights again."
After a little wait, during which he could hear the bulbs being pressed back into their sockets, the switch clicked once more.
"And now, swine-dog!"—the pistol tapped his skull significantly—"if you value your life, speak, and speak quickly. Where is that document?"
"Document?" Lanyard repeated in a tone of wonder.
"Unless you are eager to explore the hereafter, tell us where we may find it without delay."
"Upon my word, I don't know what you're talking about."
"You lie!" the German snapped. "Face about!"
Somebody grasped his shoulders roughly and swung him round to the light, the nose of the pistol shifting to press against his abdomen.
"Search him, Karl."
Unseen hands investigated his pockets cunningly. As they finished, the man who answered to the name of Karl became articulate for the first time, following a grunt of disappointment:
"Nothing—he has it not upon him."
"Look more thoroughly. Did you think him idiot enough to carry it where you'd find it at the first dip? Imbecile!"
For the purpose of this second search Lanyard's garments were ripped open, and the enemy made sure that he carried nothing next his skin more incriminating than a money-belt, which was forcibly removed.
"His shoes—see to his shoes!" the first speaker insisted irritably. "Sit down, Lanyard!"
A petulant push sent the adventurer reeling across the cabin to fall upon the lounge seat beneath the port. With some effort he assumed a sitting position, while Karl, kneeling, hastily unlaced and tore off his shoes and socks.
"Nothing, captain," was the report.
"Damnation!... Continue to search his luggage. Leave nothing unexamined. In particular look into every hole and corner where none but a fool would attempt to hide anything. This fine gentleman imagines we value his intelligence too highly to believe he would leave the paper in plain sight."
To an accompaniment of sounds indicating that Karl was obeying his superior, this last resumed in a tone of lofty contempt:
"How is it you have abandoned the habit of going armed, Herr Lone Wolf? That is not like you. Is it that you grow unwary through drug-using? But that matters nothing. We have more important business to speak over, you and I. You will be very, very docile, and answer promptly, also in a low voice, if you would avoid getting hurt. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," Lanyard replied, furtively working at the bonds on his wrists.
"Good. We speak together like good friends, yes?"
"Naturally," said Lanyard. "It is so conducive to chumminess to be caressed with an automatic pistol—you've no idea!"
"Oblige by speaking German. Our ears are sick with all this bastard English. Also, more quietly speak. Do not put me to the regrettable necessity of shooting you."
"How regrettable? You didn't stick at braining those others—"
"Hardly the same thing. You are not like those English swine. You are French; and Germany has no hatred for France, but only pity that it so fatuously opposes manifest destiny. In truth, you are not even French, but a great thief; and criminals have no patriotism, nor loyalty to any State but their own, the state of moral turpitude."
The speaker interrupted himself to relish his wit with a thick chuckle. And Lanyard's jaws ached with the strain of self-control. He continued to pluck at the folds of silk while concentrating in effort to memorise the voice, which he failed utterly to place. Undoubtedly this animal was a shipboard acquaintance, one who knew him well; but those detestable German gutturals disguised his accents quite beyond identification.
"For all that, you are not wise so to try my patience. I permit you five minutes by my watch in which to make up your mind to surrender that document."
"How often must I tell you," Lanyard enquired, "all this talk of documents is Greek to me?"
"Then you have five minutes to brush up your classical education, and translate into terms suited to your intelligence. I will have that document from you or—in four more minutes—shoot you dead."
To this Lanyard said nothing. But his patient attentions to the handkerchief round his wrists were beginning perceptibly to be rewarded.
"Moreover, Herr Lanyard, you will do yourself a very good turn by confessing—entirely aside from saving your life."
"How is that?"
"Providing you persuade me of your good faith, I am empowered to offer you employment in our service."
Lanyard's breath passed hardly through a throat swollen with rage, chagrin, and hatred, all hopelessly impotent. But he succeeded in preserving an unruffled countenance, as his captor's next words demonstrated.
"You are surprised, yes? You are thinking it over? Take your time—you have three minutes more. Or perhaps you are sulky, resenting that our cleverness has found you out? Be reasonable, my good man. Think: you cannot be insensible to the honour my offer does you."
"What do you want of me?"
"First, that paper—thereafter to use your surpassing talents to the glory of God and Fatherland. In addition, you will be greatly rewarded."
"Now you do begin to interest me," Lanyard said coolly.... Surely he could contrive some way to slay this beast with his naked hands! He must play for time.... "How rewarded?"
"As I say, with a place in the Prussian Secret Service, its protection, freedom to ply your trade unhindered in America, even countenanced, till that country becomes a German province under German laws."
"But do I hear you offer this to a Frenchman?"
"Undeceive yourself. Men of all nations to-day, recognising that the star of Germany is in the ascendant, that soon all nations will be German, are hastening to make their peace beforehand by rendering Germany good service."
"Something in that, perhaps," Lanyard admitted thoughtfully.
"Think well, my friend.... Yes, Karl?"
The voice of the other spy responded sullenly: "Nothing—absolutely nothing."
"Two minutes, Herr Lanyard."
Of a sudden Lanyard's face was violently distorted in a grimace of terror. He lurched his shoulders forward, openly struggling with his bonds.
"But—good God!" he protested in a voice of terror, "you can't possibly be so unreasonable! I tell you, I haven't got your damned paper!"
A loop of the handkerchief slipped over one hand.
"Be still! Cease your struggles. And not so loud, my friend!" The peremptory voice dropped into mockery as Lanyard, pale and exhausted, sat back trembling—and a second loop of silk dropped over the other hand. "So you begin to appreciate that we mean business, yes? One minute and thirty seconds!"
"Have mercy!" the adventurer whined desperately—and licked his lips as if he found them dry with fear. Now both hands were all but wholly free. True: he remained blindfolded and covered by a deadly weapon. "Give me a chance. I'll do anything you wish! But I can't give you what I haven't got."
"Be silent! Here, Karl."
There was a sound of unintelligible murmuring as the two spies conferred together. Lanyard writhed in apparent extremity of terror. His hands were free. He sought hopelessly for inspiration. What to do without arms?
"Be grateful to Karl. He urges that perhaps you know nothing of the document."
"Don't you think I'd tell if I did know?"
"Then you have one minute—no, forty seconds—in which to pledge yourself to the Prussian Secret Service."
"You want me to swear—?"
"Then hear me," said Lanyard earnestly: "You damned canaille!" And in one movement he tore the bandage from his eyes and launched himself head foremost at the man who stood over him.
He caught part of an oath drowned out by the splitting report of a pistol that went off within an inch of his ear. Then his head took the man full in the belly, and both went sprawling to the deck, Lanyard fighting like a maniac.
Sheer luck had guided clawing fingers to the right wrist of his antagonist, round which they shut like jaws of a trap. At the same time he wrenched the other's arm high above his head.
Momentarily expecting the shock of a bullet from the pistol of the second spy, he found time to wonder that it was so long deferred, and even in the fury of his struggles, out of the corner of one eye caught a fugitive glimpse of a tallish man, masked, standing back to the forward partition in a pose of singular indecision, pistol poised in his grasp.
Then the efforts of his immediate adversary threw him into a position in which he was unable to see the other.
Of a sudden the stateroom was filled with the thunder of an automatic, its seven cartridges discharged in one brisk, rippling crash.
It was as if a white-hot iron had been laid across Lanyard's shoulder. Beneath him the man started convulsively, with such force as almost to throw him off bodily, then relaxed altogether and lay limp and still, pinning one of Lanyard's arms under him.
Its visor displaced, the face of Baron von Harden was revealed, features distorted, eyes glaring, a frozen mask of hate and terror.
His arm free, the adventurer rolled away from the corpse in time to see the open window-port blocked by the body of the other spy.
Gathering himself together, he snatched up the pistol that dropped from the inert grasp of the dead man, and levelled it at the port.
But now that space was empty.
He rose and paused for an instant, his glance instinctively seeking the ledge above the hand-basin.
The hypodermic outfit was there, but minus the phial.
In the alleyway rose a confusion of running feet and shouting tongues. A heavy banging rang on the door to Stateroom 29. Crane's nasal accents called upon Lanyard to open.
Upon the authors of that commotion Lanyard wasted no consideration whatever. Let them knock and clamour; he had more urgent work in hand, and knew too well the penalty were he stupid enough to unbolt to them. Their bodies would dam the doorway hopelessly; insistent hands would hinder him; innumerable importunate enquiries would be dinned at him, all immaterial in contrast with this emergency, a catechism one would need an hour to satisfy. And all attempts would be futile to make them understand that, while they plagued him with futile questions, a murderer and spy and thief was making good his escape, being afforded ample opportunity to slough all traces of his recent work and resume unchallenged his place among them.
No; if by any freak of good fortune, any exertion of wit or daring, that one were to be apprehended, it must be within the next few minutes, it could only be through immediate pursuit.
Nor did the adventurer waste time debating the better course. With him, whose ways of life were ceaselessly beset by instant and mortal perils, each with its especial and imperative demand upon his readiness and ingenuity, action must ever press so hard upon the heels of thought as to make the two seem one.
For that matter, the whole transaction had been characterised by almost unbelievable rapidity. And that square opening of the window-port was hardly vacant when Lanyard sprang to his feet; the fugitive had barely time to find his own upon the outer deck before Lanyard leaped after him; the first thumps upon the panels of his door were still echoing when he thrust head and shoulders out of the port and began to pump the automatic at a shadow fleeing aft upon that narrow breadth of planking between rail and wall.
Then, at the third shot, the automatic jammed upon a discharged shell.
Exasperated, the adventurer cast the weapon from him, shrugged hastily out of his unfastened coat and waistcoat, hitched tight his belt, and clambered through the port.
Dropping to the deck, he turned in time to see the fugitive dart round the shoulder of the superstructure.
As Lanyard gained the after rail of the promenade deck a man standing on the boat-deck at the head of the companion-ladder greeted him with pistol fire. He dodged back, untouched, and instantaneously devised a stratagem to cope with this untoward development.
Overhead, at the side, a lifeboat hung on its davits, ready for emergency launching, the gap in the rail which it filled when normally swung inboard spanned only by a length of line. And the darkness in the shadow of the boat was dense, an excellent screen.
Climbing upon the rail, Lanyard grasped the edge of the deck overhead and drew himself up undetected by his quarry, whom he espied still holding the head of the companion ladder, hidden from the bridge by the after deck-house, standing ready to shoot Lanyard should he attempt to renew the pursuit by that approach.
At the same time, "Karl" seemed mysteriously occupied with some object or objects in whose manipulation he was hampered to a degree by the necessity under which he laboured of holding his pistol ready and dividing his attention.
A man of good stature, broad at the shoulders, slender at the hips, he poised himself with athletic grace—the lower part of his face masked by what Lanyard took to be a dark silk handkerchief.
Lanyard heard him swearing in German.
Then a brisk little spray of sparks jetted from the flint and steel of a patent cigar-lighter in the hands of the spy. And as Lanyard rose from his knees after ducking beneath the line, a stream of fatter sparks spat from the end of a fuse.
The man leaned over the rail and cast a small black object to which the sputtering fuse was attached, down to the main deck.
As it struck midway between superstructure and stern it burst into brilliant flame, releasing upon the night an electric-blue glare that must have been visible from any point within the compass of the horizon.
A yell of profane remonstrance saluted the light, and throughout the brief passage that followed Lanyard was conscious that pistols and rifles on the after deck below were making him and his antagonist their targets.
Before the German could face about, Lanyard, moving almost noiselessly in his bare feet, had covered more than half the intervening space. In another breath he might have had the fellow at a disadvantage. But the distance was too great. Twice the automatic blazed in his face as he closed in, the bullets clearing narrowly—or else he fancied that their deadly cold breath fanned his cheek.
Then the spy's weapon in turn went out of action. Half blinded, Lanyard clipped the man round the body and hugged him tight, exerting all his skill and strength to effect a throw.
That effort failed; his onslaught was met with address and ability that all but matched his own. The animal he embraced had muscles like tempered springs and the cunning and fury of a wild beast in a trap. For a moment Lanyard was able to accomplish no more than to smother resistance in a rib-crushing embrace; no sooner did he relax it than all attempts to shift his hold were anticipated and met half way, forcing him back upon the defensive.
Yet he was given little chance to prove himself the master. The first phase of the struggle was still in contest when the rear door of the smoking room opened and a man stepped out, paused, summed up the situation in a glance, seized Lanyard from behind.
The adventurer felt his arms grasped by hands whose strength seemed little short of superhuman, and wrenched back so violently that his very bones cracked. Fairly lifted from his feet, he was held as helpless as an infant kicking in the arms of its nurse.
Released, the other spy stepped back and swung his left fist viciously to Lanyard's jaw. Something in the brain of the adventurer seemed to let go; his head dropped weakly to one side. The man who had struck him said quietly, "Loose the fool, Ed," and followed as Lanyard reeled away, striking him repeatedly.
For a giddy moment Lanyard was darkly conscious—as one dreams an evil dream—of blows raining mercilessly about his head and body, blows that drove him back athwartships toward a fate dark and terrible, a great void of blackness. He felt unutterably weary, and was weakened by a sensation of nausea. Beneath him his knees buckled. There fell one final blow, ruthless as the wrath of God.
He was falling backward into nothingness, into an everlasting gulf of night that yawned for him....
As he shot under the guard rope and into space between the edge of the deck and the keel of the lifeboat, the spy rounded smartly on a heel and darted to the smoking-room door. His confederate was in the act of stepping across the raised threshold. He followed, closed the door.
The first officer, charging aft from the bridge, rounded the deck-house and pulled up with a grunt of surprise to find the deck completely deserted....
The shock of icy immersion reanimated Lanyard.
He felt himself plunging headlong down, down, and down to inky depths unguessable. The sheer habit of an accustomed swimmer alone bade him hold his breath.
Then came a pause: he was no more descending; for a time of indeterminate duration, an age of anguish, he seemed to float without motion, suspended in frigid purgatory. Against his ribs something hammered like a racing engine. In his ears sounded a vast roaring, the deafening voices of a thousand waterfalls. His head felt swollen and enormous, on the point of bursting wide.
Without warning expelled from those depths, he shot full half-length out of water, and fell back into the milky welter of the Assyrian's wake.
Instinctively he kept afloat with feeble strokes.
The cold was bitter, as sharp as the teeth of death; but his head was now clear, he was able to appreciate what had befallen him.
Already the Assyrian, forging onward unchecked, had left him well astern, her progress distinctly disclosed by that infernal bluish glare spouting from her after deck.
She seemed absurdly small. Incredulity infected Lanyard's mind. Nothing so tiny, so insignificant, so make-believe as that silhouette of a ship could conceivably be that great liner, the Assyrian....
Temporarily a burning pain in his left shoulder drove all other considerations out of mind. The salt water was beginning to smart in the raw, superficial wound made by that assassin's bullet ... back there in the stateroom ... long ago....
Then the cold began to bite into his marrow, and he struggled manfully to swim, taking long, slow strokes, at first comparatively powerful, by insensible degrees losing force.
Just why he took this trouble he did not know: for some dim reason it seemed desirable to live as long as possible. Withal he was aware he could not live. Whether careless or utterly ignorant of his fate, the Assyrian was trudging on and on, leaving him ever farther astern, lost beyond rescue in that weird, bleak waste. Even were an alarm to be given, were she to stop now and put out a boat, it would find him, if it found him at all, too late.
The cold was killing.
He felt very sleepy. Drowsily he apprehended the beginning of the end. His senses, growing numb with cold, presently must cease to function altogether. Then he would forget, and nothing would matter any more.
Yet the will to live persisted amazingly. Had Lanyard wished it he could not have ceased to swim, at least to keep afloat. Vaguely he wondered how people ever managed to commit suicide by drowning; it seemed to pass human power to resist that buoyancy which sustained one, to let go, let one's self go down. Impossible to conceive how that was ever done....
Why should he care to go on living?
No reading that riddle!...
On obscure impulse he gave up swimming, turned upon his back, floated face to the sky, derelict, resigning himself to the cradling arms of the sea. The gradual, slow rocking of the swells soothed his passion like a kindly opiate. The cold no more irked him, but seemed somehow strangely anodynous. Imperturbably he envisaged death, without fear, without welcome. What must be, must....
For all that, life clutched at him with jealous hands. More than ever sleepy, before he slept that last, long sleep he must somehow solve this enigma, learn the reason why life continued so to allure his failing senses.
Athwart the drab texture of consciousness wild fancies played like heat lightning in a still midsummer night.
Death's countenance was kind.
That wide field of stars, drooping low and lifting away with rhythmic motion, would sometime dip swiftly down to the very sea itself and, swinging back, take with it his soul to some remote bourne....
The deeps were yielding up their mysteries. Past him a huge pale monster swept at furious pace, hissing grimly as it passed, like some spectral Nemesis pursuing the Assyrian.
Indifferently he speculated concerning the reality of this phenomenon.
The heave of a swell enabled him to glance incuriously after the steamship. She seemed smaller, less genuine than ever, a shadow shape that boasted visibility solely through that unearthly light on her after deck. Even that now had waned to a mere glimmer, the flicker of a candle lost in the immensities of that night-bound world of empty sky and empty ocean. Even as he that had been named Michael Lanyard was a lost light, a tiny flame that guttered toward its swift extinction....
Why live, when one might die and, dying, find endless rest?
Like a blazing thunderbolt one word rent the slumbrous web of sentience: Ekstrom!
Galvanised by the flood of hatred unpent by the syllables of that name, Lanyard began again to swim, flailing the water with frantic arms as if to win somewhither by the very violence of his efforts.
This the one cogent reason why he must not, could not, die....
Unjust to require him to give up life while that one lived. Unfair.... It must not be!...
Across the sea rolled a dull, brutish detonation. The swimmer, swung high on the bosom of a great swell, saw a vast sheet of fire raving heavenward from the Assyrian.
It vanished instantly.
When his dazzled vision cleared, he could see no more of the ship. He imagined a faint, wild rumour of panic voices, conjured up scenes of horror indescribable as that great fabric sank almost instantaneously, as if some gigantic hand plucked her under.
What had happened? Had the accomplices of the dead Baron von Harden set off an infernal machine aboard the vessel? In the name of reason, why? They had got what they sought, that accursed document, whatever it was, that page torn from the Book of Doom. Then why...?
And to what end had they exploded that light bomb on the after deck?
To make the Assyrian a glaring target in the night—what else? A target for what?...
Of a sudden all rational mental processes were erased from Lanyard's consciousness. A wave of pure fear flooded him, body, mind, and soul. He began to struggle like a maniac, fighting the waters that hindered his flight from some hideous thing that was lifting up from the ocean's ooze to drag him down.
He heard a voice screaming thinly, and knew it was his own.
The impossible was happening to him, out there, alone and helpless on the face of the waters. A shape of horror was rising out of the deep to engorge him. He could feel distinctly the slow, irresistible heave of its bulk beneath him. His feet touched and slipped upon its horrible sleek flanks.
His most desperate efforts were all unavailing. He could not escape. The thing came up too rapidly. Following that first mad thrill of contact with it underfoot, he was lifted swiftly and irresistibly into the air. Almost instantly he was floundering in knee-deep waters that parted, cascading away on either hand. Then, elevated well above the sea, he slid and fell prone upon a slimy wet surface.
His clawing hands clutched something solid and substantial, an upright bar of metal.
Incredulously Lanyard pawed the body of the monster beneath him. His hands passed over a riveted joint of metal plates. Looking up, he made out the truncated cone of a conning tower with its antennae-like periscope tubes stencilled black upon the soft purple of the star-strewn sky.
Slowly the truth came home: a submarine had risen beneath him. He lay upon its after deck, grasping a stanchion that supported the small raised bridge round the conning tower.
He sobbed a little in sheer hysteric gratitude, that this miracle had been vouchsafed unto him, that he had thus been spared to live on against his hour with Ekstrom.
But when he sought to drag himself up to the bridge, he could not, he was too weak and faint. Ceasing to struggle, he rested in half stupour, panting.
With a harsh clang a hatch was thrown back. Rousing, Lanyard saw several figures emerge from the conning tower. Men uncouthly clothed in shapeless, shiny leather garments, straddled and stretched above him, filling their lungs with the sweet air. He tried to call to them, but evoked a mere rattle from his throat.
Two came to the edge of the bridge and stood immediately over him, fixing binoculars to their eyes, their voices quite audible.
A pang of despair shot through Lanyard when he heard them conferring together in the German tongue.
Death, then, was but a little delayed.
Thereafter he lay in dumb apathy, save that he shivered and his teeth chattered uncontrollably.
Through the torpor that rested like a black cloud upon his senses he caught broken phrases, snatches of sentences:
"... sinking fast ... struck square amidships ... broke her back...."
"... trouble with her boats. There goes one over!..."
"... fools jumping overboard like cattle...."
"What's that rocket? Do the swine want us to shell their boats?"
"Why not? They're asking for it!"
One of the officers lowered his glasses and barked a series of sharp commands. The crew on deck leaped to attention. One leaned over the conning-tower hatch and shouted to his mates below. A hatch forward of the tower opened, and a quick-firing gun on a disappearing carriage swung smoothly and silently up from its lair.
The other officer, looking down, started violently.
"Verdammt! What's this?"
The first rejoined him. "Impossible!"
"Impossible or not—a man or a cadaver!"
"Have him up and see...."
By order, two of the crew dragged Lanyard up to the bridge, supporting him by main strength while the officers examined him.
"At the last gasp, but alive," one announced.
"How the devil did he get out here?"
"From the Assyrian—"
"Impossible for any man to swim this far since our torpedo struck—"
"Then he must have gone overboard before it struck—or was thrown—"
A cry of alarm from the group about the gun, awaiting final orders to open fire upon the Assyrian's boats, interrupted the conference. The officers swung away in haste.
"Hell's fury! what's that searchlight?"
"A Yankee destroyer—in all probability the one we dodged yesterday afternoon."
"She'll find us yet if we don't submerge. Forward, there—house that gun! And get below—quickly!"
During a moment of apparent confusion, one of the men sustaining Lanyard caught the attention of an officer.
"What shall we do with this fellow, sir?" he enquired.
"Leave him here to sink or swim as we go down," snapped the officer—"and be damned to him!"
With a supreme effort the adventurer sank his fingers deep into the arms of the two men.
"Wait!" he gasped faintly in German. "On the Emperor's service—"
"What's that?" The officer turned back sharply.
"Imperial Secret Service," Lanyard faltered—"Personal Division—Wilhelmstrasse Number 27—"
A brilliant glare settled suddenly upon the deck of the submarine, and was welcomed by a panicky gust of oaths. One officer had already popped through the conning-tower hatch, followed by several of the crew. There remained only those supporting Lanyard, and the second officer.
"Take him below!" the latter ordered. "He may be telling the truth. If not...."
In the distance a gun boomed. A shell shrieked over the submarine and dropped into the sea not a hundred yards to starboard. The men rushed Lanyard toward the conning tower. He tried feebly to help them. In that effort consciousness was altogether blotted out....
When he opened his eyes again he was resting, after a fashion, naked between harsh, damp blankets in a narrow, low-ceiled bunk inches too short for one of his stature.
After an experimental squirm or two he lay very still; his back and all his limbs were stiff and sore, his bullet-seared shoulder burned intolerably beneath a rudely applied first-aid dressing, and he was breathing heavily long, labouring inhalations of an atmosphere sickeningly dank, close, and foul with unspeakable stenches, for which the fumes of sulphuric acid with a rank reek of petroleum and lubricating oils formed but a modest and retiring background.
Also his head felt very thick and dull. He found it extremely difficult to think, and for some time, indeed, was quite unable to think to any purpose.
His very eyes ached in their sockets.
In the ceiling glowed an electric bulb, dimly illuminating a cubicle barely big enough to accommodate the bunk, a dresser, and a small desk with a folding seat. The inner wall was a slightly concave surface of steel plates whose seams oozed moisture. In the opposite wall was a sliding door, open, beyond which ran a narrow alleyway floored with metal grating. Everything in sight was enamelled with white paint and clammy with the sweat of that foetid air.
Over all an unnatural hush brooded, now and again accentuated by a rumble of distant voices and gusts of vacant laughter, once or twice by a curious popping. For a long time he heard nothing else whatever. The effect was singularly disquieting and did its bit to quicken torpid senses to grasp his plight.
Sluggishly enough Lanyard pieced together fragments of lurid memories, reconstructing the sequence of last night's events scene by scene to the moment of his rescue by the U-boat.
So, it appeared, he was aboard a German submersible, virtually a prisoner, though posing as an agent of the Personal Intelligence Department of the German Secret Service.
To that inspiration of failing consciousness he owed his life, or such of its span as now remained to him, a term whose duration could only be defined by his ability to carry off the imposture pending problematic opportunity to escape. And, assuming that this last were ever offered him, there was no present possibility of guessing how long it might not be deferred.
Its butcher's mission successfully accomplished, the U-boat was not improbably even now en route for Heligoland, beginning a transatlantic cruise of weeks that might never end save in a nameless grave at the bottom of the Four Seas.
Only the matter of impersonation failed to embarrass in prospect. A natural linguist, Lanyard's three years within the German lines had put a rare finish upon his mastery of German. More than this, he was well versed in the workings of the Prussian spy system. As Dr. Paul Rodiek, Wilhelmstrasse Agent Number 27, he was safe as long as he found no acquaintance of that gentleman in the complement of the submarine; for, largely upon information furnished by Lanyard himself, Dr. Rodiek had been secretly apprehended and executed in the Tower the day before Lanyard left London to join the Assyrian.
But the question of the U-boat's present whereabouts and its movements in the immediate future disturbed the adventurer profoundly. He was elaborately incurious about Heligoland; and several weeks' association with the Boche in the close quarters of a submarine was a prospect that revolted. Wellnigh any fate were preferable....
Uncertain footsteps sounded in the alleyway, paused at the entrance to his cubicle. He turned his head wearily on the pillow. In the doorway stood a man whose slenderly elegant carriage of a Prussian officer was not disguised even by his shapeless wreck of a naval lieutenant's uniform, a man with a countenance of singularly unpleasant cast, leaving out of all consideration the grease and grime that discoloured it. His narrow forehead slanted back just a trace too sharply, his nose was thin and overlong, his mouth thin and cruel beneath its ambitious mustache a la Kaiser; his small black eyes, set much too close together, blazed with unholy exhilaration.
As soon as he spoke Lanyard understood that he was drunk, drunk with more than the champagne of which he presently boasted.
"Awake, eh?" he greeted Lanyard with a mirthless snarl. "You've slept like the dead man I took you for at first, my friend—a solid fourteen hours, my word for it! Feeling better now?"
Lanyard's essays to reply began and ended in a croak for water. The Prussian nodded, disappeared, returned with an aluminium cup of stale cold water mixed with a little brandy.
"Champagne if you like," he offered, as Lanyard, painfully propping himself up on an elbow, gulped like an animal from the vessel held to his lips. "We are holding a little celebration, you know."
Lanyard dropped back to the pillow, the question in his eyes.
"Celebrating our success," the Prussian responded. "We got her, and that means much honour and a long furlough to boot, when we get home, just as failure would have spelled—I don't like to think what. I shouldn't care to fill the shoes of those poor devils who let the Assyrian escape them off Ireland, I can tell you."
Something very much like true fear flickered in his small eyes as he pondered the punishment meted out to those who failed.
So the U-boat was homeward bound! Strange one noticed no motion of her progress, heard no noise of machinery.
"Where are we?" Lanyard whispered.
"Peacefully asleep on the bottom, about five miles south of Martha's Vineyard, waiting till it is dark enough to slip in to our base."
The Prussian hiccoughed and giggled. "On the south shore of the Vineyard," he confided with alcoholic glee: "snuggest little haven heart could wish, well to the north of all deep-sea traffic; and the coastwise trade runs still farther north, through Vineyard Sound, other side the island. Not a soul ever comes that way, not a soul suspects. How should they? The admirable charts of the Yankee Coast and Geodetic Survey"—he sneered—"show no break in the south beach of the island, between the ocean and the ponds. But there is one. The sea made the breach during a gale, our people helped with a little Trotyl, tides and storms did the rest. Now we can enter a secluded, landlocked harbour with just enough water at low tide, and lie hidden there till the word comes to move again—three miles of dense scrub forest, all privately owned as a game preserve, fenced and patrolled, between us and the nearest cultivated land—and friends in plenty on the island to keep all our needs supplied—petroleum, fresh vegetables, champagne, all that. Just the same we take no chances—never make our landfall by day, never enter or leave harbour except at night."
He paused, contemplating Lanyard owlishly. "Ought not to tell you all this, I presume," he continued, more soberly, though the wild light still flickered ominously in his eyes. "But it is safe enough; you will see for yourself in a few hours; and then ... either you are all right, or you will never live to tell of it. We radio'd for information about Wilhelmstrasse Number 27 just before dawn, after we had dodged that damned Yankee destroyer. Ought to get an answer to-night, when we come up."
Heavier footsteps rang in the alleyway. The Prussian made a grimace of dislike.
"Here comes the commander," he cautioned uneasily.
A great blond Viking of a German in the uniform of a captain shouldered heavily through the doorway and, acknowledging the salute of the rat-faced subaltern with a bare nod, stood looking down at Lanyard in taciturn silence, hostility in his blood-shot blue eyes.
"How long since he wakened?" he asked thickly, with the accent of a Bavarian.
"A minute or two ago."
"Why did you not inform me?"
The tone was offensively domineering, thanks like enough to drink, nerves, and hatred of his job and all things and persons pertaining to it.
The subaltern coloured. "He asked for water—I got it for him."
The commander stared churlishly, then addressed Lanyard: "How are you now?"
"Very faint," Lanyard said truthfully. But he would have lied had it been otherwise with him. It was his book to make time in which to collect his thoughts, concoct a bullet-proof story, plan against an adverse answer to that wireless enquiry.
"Can you eat, drink a little champagne?"
Lanyard nodded slightly, adding a feeble "Please."
The Bavarian glanced significantly at his subaltern, who hastened to leave them.
"Who are you? What is your name?"