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The False Faces
by Vance, Louis Joseph
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"Thank you so much. Good morning, Dr. Apthorp."

Lanyard was passing the desk when Blensop rose, and the footman was entering with his salver.

"A lady to see Colonel Stanistreet, sir—by appointment, she says."

Blensop glanced at the card. At the same time Stanistreet came in from the garden, leaving Stone to potter about visibly in the distance.

"Miss Brooke is here, sir," the secretary announced.

"Ask her to come in, please."

The footman retired.

"Howson is resting easily, Dr. Apthorp reports," Blensop added, going back to the safe. "Has Stone turned up anything of interest, sir?"

"Footprints," Stanistreet replied with a snort of moderate impatience. "He's quite upset since I've informed him the man who made them is—"

"Good God!"

The interruption was Blensop's in a voice strangely out of tune. Stanistreet wheeled sharply upon him.

"What the deuce—!" he snapped.

By every indication the secretary had suffered the most severe shock of his experience. His face was ghastly, his eyes vacant; his knees shook beneath him; one hand pressed convulsively the bosom of his waistcoat. His endeavours to reply evoked only a husky, rattling sound.

"What the devil has come over you?" Stanistreet insisted.

The rattle became articulate: "I've lost it! It's gone!"

"What have you lost?"

"N-nothing, sir. That is—I mean to say—my fountain pen."

"The way you take it, I should say you'd lost your head," Stanistreet commented. "You must have dropped the thing somewhere. Look about, see if you can't find it."

Thus admonished, the secretary began to search the floor with frantic glances, and as the footman ushered in Cecelia Brooke, Lanyard saw the young man dart forward and retrieve the pen with a start of relief wellnigh as unmanning as the shock of loss had seemed.

With that Lanyard's interest in the fellow waned; he was too poor a thing to consider seriously; while here was one who compelled anew, as ever when they met, the homage of sincere and marvelling admiration.

Yet another of those miracles of feminine adaptability and makeshift had brought the girl to this meeting in the guise of one who had never known a broken night or an hour's care, with a look of such fresh tranquility that it seemed hardly possible she could be one and the same with that wilted little woman whom Lanyard had left in the gray dawn at the entrance to the Hotel Knickerbocker. A tailored suit, necessarily borrowed plumage, became her so completely that it was difficult to believe it not her own. Her eyes were calm and sweet with candour; her colour was a clear and artless glow; the hand she offered the Briton was tremorless.

"Colonel Stanistreet?"

"I am he, Miss Brooke. It is kind of you to call so early to relieve my mind about your brother. I have known Lionel so long...."

"He is resting easily," said the girl. "His complete recovery is merely a matter of time and nursing."

"That is good news," said Stanistreet. "Monsieur Duchemin I believe you know."

"I have been fortunate in that at least."

Gravely Lanyard saluted the hand extended to him in turn. "Mademoiselle is most gracious," he said humbly.

"Then—I understand—Monsieur Duchemin must have told you—?" The girl addressed Stanistreet.

"Permit me to leave you—" Lanyard interposed.

"No," she begged—"please not! I've nothing to say that you may not hear. You have been too much involved—"

"If mademoiselle insists," Lanyard demurred. "I feel it is not right I should stay. And yet—if you will indulge me—I should like very much to demonstrate the truth of an old saw...."

Two confused looks were his response.

"I fear I, for one, do not follow," Stanistreet admitted.

"I will explain quite briefly," Lanyard promised. "The adage I have in mind is as old as human wit: Set a thief to catch a thief. And the last time it was quoted in my hearing, it was not to my advantage. I recall, indeed, resenting it enormously."

He paused with purpose, looking down at the desk. A pad of blank paper caught his eye. He took it up and examined it with an abstracted manner.

"Well, monsieur: the application of your adage?"

"Colonel Stanistreet, what would you think if I were to tell you the combination of your safe?"

"I should be inclined to suspect that you were the devil," Stanistreet chuckled.

"By all accounts a gentleman of intelligence: one is flattered.... Very well: I proceed to demonstrate black art with the aid of this white paper pad. The combination, monsieur, is as follows: nine, twenty-seven, eighteen, thirty-six."

A low cry of bewilderment greeted this announcement. Blensop had drawn near and was eyeing Lanyard as if under the influence of hypnotism.

"How—how do you know that?" he asked in a broken voice.

"Clairvoyance, Mr. Blensop. I seem to see, as I hold this pad, somebody writing upon it the combination for the information of another who had no right to have it—somebody using a pencil with a hard lead, Mr. Blensop; which was very foolish of him, since it made a distinct impression on the under sheet. So you see my magic is rather colourless, after all.... Now, a wiser man, Mr. Blensop, would have used a pen, a fountain pen by preference, with a soft gold nib, well broken. That would leave no impression. If you will lend me the beautiful pen I observe in your pocket, I will give a further demonstration."

The eyes of the secretary shifted wildly. He hesitated, moistening dry lips with the tip of a nervous tongue.

"And don't try to get out of it, Mr. Blensop, because I am armed and don't mean to let you escape. Besides, that good Mr. Stone patrols the garden." Lanyard's tone changed to one of command. "That pen, monsieur!"

Blensop's hand faltered to his waistcoat pocket, hesitated, withdrew, and feebly extended the pen.

"I think you are the devil," he stammered in an under-tone—"the devil himself!"

Deftly unscrewing the pen-point, Lanyard inverted the barrel above the desk.

The cylinder of paper dropped out.

"And now, Colonel Stanistreet, if you will call Mr. Stone and have this traitor removed...."



XXIII

AMNESTY

When Stanistreet had gone out in company with Stone, and the broken, weeping Blensop, ending a scene indescribably painful, a lull almost as uncomfortable to Lanyard ensued.

Then—"How did you guess?" Cecelia Brooke asked in wonder.

Discountenanced by the admiration glowing in her eyes, Lanyard stood fumbling with the disjointed members of Blensop's pen.

"Do not give me too much credit," he depreciated: "anybody acquainted with that roll of paper could have guessed that an empty fountain pen would furnish an ideal place of concealment for it. Moreover, just before you came in, that traitor missed his pen, and his consternation betrayed him beyond more doubt to one whose distrust was already astir. As for the other, it was true: Blensop did write down the combination on this pad, using a pencil with a hard lead; the marks are very plain."

"But for whose use?"

"Ekstrom—Anderson—was here last night, and saw Blensop alone. Colonel Stanistreet was not at home. Knowing what we know now, that Blensop was a creature of the German system here, bought body, soul, and conscience through its studied pandering to his vices, we know he could not well have refused to surrender the combination on demand."

"Still I fail to understand...."

"Ekstrom, being Ekstrom, could not resist the opportunity to play double. Here was a property he could sell to England at a stiff price. Why not despoil the enemy, put the money in pocket, then return, steal the paper anew for the use of Germany, and collect the stipulated reward from that source? But he reckoned without Blensop's avarice, there; he showed Blensop too plainly the way to profit through betraying both parties to a bargain; Blensop saw no reason why he should not play the game that Ekstrom played. So he stole it for himself, to sell to Germany, but being a poor, witless fool, lacking Ekstrom's dash and audacity, was foredoomed to failure and exposure."

The girl continued to eye him steadfastly, and he as steadfastly to evade her direct gaze.

"Nothing that you tell me detracts from the wonder of your guessing so accurately," she insisted. "Now I know what Mr. Crane said of you was true, that you are one of the most extraordinary of men."

"He was too kind when he said that," Lanyard protested wretchedly. "It is not true. If you must know...."

"Well, Monsieur Lanyard?"

Her tone was that of a light-hearted girl, arch with provocation. Of a sudden Lanyard understood that he might no longer stop here alone with her.

"If you will be a little indulgent with me," he suggested, "I will try to explain what I mean."

"And how indulgent, monsieur?"

"I have a whim to take the air in this garden. Will you accompany me?"

"Why not?"

As she led the way through the French windows, he noted with deeper misgivings how her action matched the temper of her voice, how she seemed to-day more deliciously alive and happier than any common mortal.

So light her heart! And all since she had found him here!

At his wits' ends, he conceded now what he had so long denied. With all her wit and wisdom, with all her charm of beauty, winsomeness, and breeding, with all her ingrained love of truth and honesty, she was no more than Nature had meant her to be, a woman with woman's weakness for the man she must admire. She liked him, divined in him latent qualities somehow excellent. Something in him worked upon her imagination, something, no doubt, in the overcoloured, romantic yarns current about the Lone Wolf, and so had touched her heart. She liked him too well already, and she was willing to like him better.

But that must never be. He must rend ruthlessly apart this illusion of romance with which she chose to transfigure the prowling parasite of night, the sneaking thief....

The garden was sweet with the bright promise of Spring. A few weeks more, and its formal walks would wend a riot of flowers. Now its sunlight made amends for what it lacked in beauty of growing things; and its air was warm and fragrant and still in the shelter of the red-brick walls.

Midway down that walk, by the side of which a thief had skulked nine hours ago, near that door whose lock had yielded to his cunning keys, the girl paused and confronted Lanyard spiritedly as he came up with heavy step and hang-dog head.

"Well, monsieur?" she demanded. "Do you mean to tantalize me longer with your reticence?"

But something in the haggard eyes he showed her made the girl catch her breath.

"What is it?" she cried anxiously. "Monsieur Duchemin, what is your trouble?"

"Only this truth that I must tell you," he said bitterly: "I merely played a part back there, just now. There was neither wit nor guess-work in that business; once I had seen Blensop's panic over the fancied loss of his pen, the rest was knowledge. I saw him and Ekstrom together last night—skulking in those windows, I watched them; and though in my denseness I didn't understand, I saw him write upon that pad, tear off and give the sheet to Ekstrom. And I knew Ekstrom had not succeeded in stealing back what he had sold to Colonel Stanistreet, knew he was guiltless in fact if not in deed."

"But—how could you know that?"

"Because I was there, in the room, when he entered it after it had been shut up for the night."

Conscious of her hands that fluttered like wounded things to her bosom, he looked away in misery.

"What were you doing there?" she whispered in the end.

"Trying to find that paper, which I had seen Ekstrom sell to Colonel Stanistreet, so that I might make good my promise and relieve your distress by returning it to you. I had opened the safe before he entered, and searched it thoroughly, and knew the paper was not there—though at that time it never entered my thick head to suspect Blensop of treachery. It was neither Blensop nor Ekstrom, Miss Brooke ... it was I who stole that necklace."

She made no sound and did not stir; and though he dared not look he knew her stricken gaze was steadfast to his face.

"I will say this much in my defence: I did not come with intent to steal, but only to take back what had been stolen from me, and return it to you, who had trusted it to my care. I wanted to do that, because I did not then understand the ins and outs of this intrigue, and had no means of knowing how deeply your honour might be involved."

"But you did not take that necklace!"

"I am sorry.... I saw it, and could not resist it."

"But Mr. Crane assured me you had given up all that sort of thing years ago!"

"Notwithstanding that, it seems I may not be trusted...."

After another trying silence she declared vehemently: "I do not believe you! You say this thing for some secret purpose of your own. For some reason I can't understand you wish to abase yourself in my sight, to make me think you capable of such infamy. Why—ah, monsieur!—why must you do this?"

"Because it isn't fair to represent myself as what I am not, mademoiselle. Once a thief, always—"

"No! It isn't true!"

"Again I am sorry, but I know. You have been most generous to believe in me. If anything could save me from myself, it would be your confidence. That, I presume, is why I felt called upon to undo my thieving, and make good the loss. The money Colonel Stanistreet paid Ekstrom is now in the safe, back there in the library. The necklace is ... here."

Blindly he thrust the tissue packet into her hands.

"If you will consent to return it to its owner, when I have gone, I shall be most grateful."

Her hands shook so that, when she would open the packet, it escaped her grasp and dropped into a little pool of rain-water which had collected in a hollow of the walk. Lanyard picked it up, stripped off the soiled and sodden paper, dried the necklace with his handkerchief, replaced it in her hand.

He heard the deep intake of her breath as she recognized its beauty, then her quavering voice: "You give this back because of me...!"

"Because I cannot be an ingrate. I know no other way to prove how I have prized your faith in me.... And now, with your leave, I will go away quietly by this garden gate—"

"No—please, no!"

"But—"

"I have more to say to you. It isn't fair of you to go like this, when I—"

She interrupted herself, and when next she spoke he was dashed by a change in her voice from a tone of passionate expostulation to one of amused animation.

"Colonel Stanistreet!" she called clearly. "Do come here at once, please!"

Startled, Lanyard saw that Stanistreet had appeared in the French windows in company with Crane. In response to Cecelia's hail both came out into the garden, Stanistreet briskly leading, Crane lounging at his heels, champing his cigar, his weathered features knitted against the brightness of the sun.

"Good morning, Miss Brooke. Howdy, Lanyard—or are you Duchemin again?" he said; but his salutations were lost in the wonder excited by the girl's next move.

"See, Colonel Stanistreet, what we have found!" she cried, and showed him the necklace. "I mean, what Monsieur Duchemin found. It was he who saw it, lying beneath that rose-bush over there. Your burglar must have dropped it in making his escape; you can see the paper he wrapped it in, all rain-wet and muddied."

Stanistreet's eyes protruded alarmingly, and his face grew very red before he found breath enough to ejaculate: "God bless my soul!" Breathing hard, he accepted the necklace from Cecelia's hands. "I must—excuse me—I must tell my sister-in-law about this immediately!"

He turned and trotted hastily back into the house.

Crane lingered but a moment longer. His cheek, as ever, was bulging round his everlasting cigar. Was his tongue therein as well? Lanyard never knew; the man's eyes remained inscrutable for all the kindly shrewdness that glimmered amid their netted wrinkles.

"Excuse me!" he said suddenly. "I got to tell the colonel something."

He got lankily into motion and presently passed in through the windows....

Irresistibly her gaze drew Lanyard's. He lifted careworn eyes and realized her with a great wistfulness upon him.

She awaited in silence his verdict, her chin proudly high, her face adorably flushed, her shining eyes level and brave to his, her generous hands outstretched.

"Must you go now?" she said tenderly, as he stood hesitant and shamed. "Must you go now, my dear?"

THE END

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