Her glance wavered: her colour deepened. "I don't understand..." she murmured.
"Nor I," he confessed in a tone as low....
A sudden grumble from the teakettle provided welcome distraction. Lanyard lifted it off the flames and slowly poured boiling water on a measure of tea in an earthenware pot.
"A cup of this and something to eat'll do us no harm," he ventured, smiling uneasily—"especially if we're to pursue this psychological enquiry into the whereforeness of the human tendency to change one's mind!"
And then, when the girl made no response, but remained with troubled gaze focused on some remote abstraction, "You will have tea, won't you?" he urged.
She recalled her thoughts, nodded with the faintest of smiles—"Yes, thank you!"—and dropped into a chair.
He began at once to make talk in effort to dissipate that constraint which stood between them like an unseen alien presence: "You must be very hungry?"
"Sorry I've nothing better to offer you. I'd have run out for something more substantial, only—"
"Only—?" she prompted, coolly helping herself to biscuit and potted ham.
"I didn't think it wise to leave you alone."
"Was that before or after you'd made up your mind about me—the latest phase, I mean?" she persisted with a trace of malice.
"Before," he returned calmly—"likewise, afterwards. Either way you care to take it, it wouldn't have been wise to leave you here. Suppose you had waked up to find me gone, yourself alone in this strange house—"
"I've been awake several hours," she interposed—"found myself locked in, and heard no sound to indicate that you were still here."
"I'm sorry: I was overtired and slept like a log.... But assuming the case: you would have gone out, alone, penniless—"
"Through a locked door, Mr. Lanyard?"
"I shouldn't have left it locked," he explained patiently.... "You would have found yourself friendless and without resources in a city to which you are a stranger."
She nodded: "True. But what of that?"
"In desperation you might have been forced to go back—"
"And report the outcome of my investigation!"
"Pressure might have been brought to induce admissions damaging to me," Lanyard submitted pleasantly. "Whether or no, you'd have been obliged to renew associations you're well rid of."
"You feel sure of that?"
"How can you be?" she challenged. "You've yet to know me twenty-four hours."
"But perhaps I know the associations better. In point of fact, I do. Even though you may have stooped to play the spy last night, Miss Bannon—you couldn't keep it up. You had to fly further contamination from that pack of jackals."
"Not—you feel sure—merely to keep you under observation?"
"I do feel sure of that. I have your word for it."
The girl deliberately finished her tea, and sat back, regarding him steadily beneath level brows. Then she said with an odd laugh: "You have your own way of putting one on honour!"
"I don't need to—with you."
She analyzed this with gathering perplexity. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean, I don't need to put you on your honour—because I'm sure of you. Even were I not, still I'd refrain from exacting any pledge, or attempting to." He paused and shrugged before continuing: "If I thought you were still to be distrusted, Miss Bannon, I'd say: 'There's a free door; go when you like, back to the Pack, turn in your report, and let them act as they see fit.'... Do you think I care for them? Do you imagine for one instant that I fear any one—or all—of that gang?"
"That rings suspiciously of egoism!"
"Let it," he retorted. "It's pride of caste, if you must know. I hold myself a grade better than such cattle; I've intelligence, at least.... I can take care of myself!"
If he might read her countenance, it expressed more than anything else distress and disappointment.
"Why do you boast like this—to me?"
"Less through self-satisfaction than in contempt for a pack of murderous mongrels—impatience that I have to consider such creatures as Popinot, Wertheimer, De Morbiban and—all their crew."
"And Bannon," she corrected calmly—"you meant to say!"
"Wel-l—" he stammered, discountenanced.
"It doesn't matter," she assured him. "I quite understand, and strange as it may sound, I've very little feeling in the matter." And then she acknowledged his stupefied stare with a weary smile. "I know what I know," she added, with obscure significance....
"I'd give a good deal to know how much you know," he muttered in his confusion.
"But what do you know?" she caught him up—"against Mr. Bannon—against my father, that is—that makes you so ready to suspect both him and me?"
"Nothing," he confessed—"I know nothing; but I suspect everything and everybody.... And the more I think of it, the more closely I examine that brutal business of last night, the more I seem to sense his will behind it all—as one might glimpse a face in darkness through a lighted lattice.... Oh, laugh if you like! It sounds high-flown, I know. But that's the effect I get.... What took you to my room, if not his orders? Why does he train with De Morbihan, if he's not blood-kin to that breed? Why are you running away from him if not because you've found out his part in that conspiracy?"
His pause and questioning look evoked no answer; the girl sat moveless and intent, meeting his gaze inscrutably. And something in her impassive attitude worked a little exasperation into his temper.
"Why," he declared hotly—"if I dare trust to intuition—forgive me if I pain you—"
She interrupted with impatience: "I've already begged you not to consider my feelings, Mr. Lanyard! If you dared trust to your intuition—what then?"
"Why, then, I could believe that Mr. Bannon, your father ... I could believe it was his order that killed poor Roddy!"
There could be no doubting her horrified and half-incredulous surprise.
"Roddy?" she iterated in a whisper almost inaudible, with face fast blanching. "Roddy—!"
"Inspector Roddy of Scotland Yard," he told her mercilessly, "was murdered in his sleep last night at Troyon's. The murderer broke into his room by way of mine—the two adjoin. He used my razor, wore my dressing-gown to shield his clothing, did everything he could think of to cast suspicion on me, and when I came in assaulted me, meaning to drug and leave me insensible to be found by the police. Fortunately—I was beforehand with him. I had just left him drugged, insensible in my place, when I met you in the corridor.... You didn't know?"
"How can you ask?" the girl moaned.
Bending forward, an elbow on the table, she worked her hands together until their knuckles shone white through the skin—but not as white as the face from which her eyes sought his with a look of dumb horror, dazed, pitiful, imploring.
"You're not deceiving me? But no—why should you?" she faltered. "But how terrible, how unspeakably awful! ..."
"I'm sorry," Lanyard mumbled—"I'd have held my tongue if I hadn't thought you knew—"
"You thought I knew—and didn't lift a finger to save the man?" She jumped up with a blazing face. "Oh, how could you?"
"No—not that—I never thought that. But, meeting you then and there, so opportunely—I couldn't ignore the coincidence; and when you admitted you were running away from your father, considering all the circumstances, I was surely justified in thinking it was realization, in part at least, of what had happened that was driving you away." She shook her head slowly, her indignation ebbing as quickly as it had risen. "I understand," she said; "you had some excuse, but you were mistaken. I ran away—yes—but not because of that. I never dreamed ..."
She fell silent, sitting with bowed head and twisting her hands together in a manner he found it painful to watch.
"But please," he implored, "don't take it so much to heart, Miss Bannon. If you knew nothing, you couldn't have prevented it."
"No," she said brokenly—"I could have done nothing ... But I didn't know. It isn't that—it's the horror and pity of it. And that you could think—!"
"But I didn't!" he protested—"truly I did not. And for what I did think, for the injustice I did do you, believe me, I'm truly sorry."
"You were quite justified," she said—"not only by circumstantial evidence but to a degree in fact. You must know ... now I must tell you ..."
"Nothing you don't wish to!" he interrupted. "The fact that I practically kidnapped you under pretence of doing you a service, and suspected you of being in the pay of that Pack, gives me no title to your confidence."
"Can I blame you for thinking what you did?" She went on slowly, without looking up—gaze steadfast to her interlaced fingers: "Now for my own sake I want you to know what otherwise, perhaps, I shouldn't have told you—not yet, at all events. I'm no more Bannon's daughter than you're his son. Our names sound alike—people frequently make the same mistake. My name is Shannon—Lucy Shannon. Mr. Bannon called me Lucia because he knew I didn't like it, to tease me; for the same reason he always kept up the pretence that I was his daughter when people misunderstood."
"But—if that is so—then what—?"
"Why—it's very simple." Still she didn't look up. "I'm a trained nurse. Mr. Bannon is consumptive—so far gone, it's a wonder he didn't die years ago: for months I've been haunted by the thought that it's only the evil in him keeps him alive. It wasn't long after I took the assignment to nurse him that I found out something about him.... He'd had a haemorrhage at his desk; and while he lay in coma, and I was waiting for the doctor, I happened to notice one of the papers he'd been working over when he fell. And then, just as I began to appreciate the sort of man I was employed by, he came to, and saw—and knew. I found him watching me with those dreadful eyes of his, and though he was unable to speak, knew my life wasn't safe if ever I breathed a word of what I had read. I would have left him then, but he was too cunning for me, and when in time I found a chance to escape—I was afraid I'd not live long if ever I left him. He went about it deliberately; to keep me frightened, and though he never mentioned the matter directly, let me know plainly, in a hundred ways, what his power was and what would happen if I whispered a word of what I knew. It's nearly a year now—nearly a year of endless terror and..."
Her voice fell; she was trembling with the recrudescent suffering of that year-long servitude. And for a little Lanyard felt too profoundly moved to trust himself to speak; he stood aghast, staring down at this woman, so intrinsically and gently feminine, so strangely strong and courageous; and vaguely envisaging what anguish must have been hers in enforced association with a creature of Bannon's ruthless stamp, he was rent with compassion and swore to himself he'd stand by her and see her through and free and happy if he died for it—or ended in the Sante!
"Poor child!" he heard himself murmuring—"poor child!"
"Don't pity me!" she insisted, still with face averted. "I don't deserve it. If I had the spirit of a mouse, I'd have defied him; it needed only courage enough to say one word to the police—"
"But who is he, then?" Lanyard demanded. "What is he, I mean?"
"I hardly know how to tell you. And I hardly dare: I feel as if these walls would betray me if I did.... But to me he's the incarnation of all things evil...." She shook herself with a nervous laugh. "But why be silly about it? I don't really know what or who he is: I only suspect and believe that he is a man whose life is devoted to planning evil and ordering its execution through his lieutenants. When the papers at home speak of 'The Man Higher Up' they mean Archer Bannon, though they don't know it—or else I'm merely a hysterical woman exaggerating the impressions of a morbid imagination.... And that's all I know of him that matters."
"But why, if you believe all this—how did you at length find courage—?"
"Because I no longer had courage to endure; because I was more afraid to stay than to go—afraid that my own soul would be forfeit. And then, last night, he ordered me to go to your room and search it for evidence that you were the Lone Wolf. It was the first time he'd ever asked anything like that of me. I was afraid, and though I obeyed, I was glad when you interrupted—glad even though I had to lie the way I did.... And all that worked on me, after I'd gone back to my room, until I felt I could stand it no longer; and after a long time, when the house seemed all still, I got up, dressed quietly and ... That is how I came to meet you—quite by accident."
"But you seemed so frightened at first when you saw me—"
"I was," she confessed simply; "I thought you were Mr. Greggs."
"Mr. Bannon's private secretary—his right-hand man. He's about your height and has a suit like the one you wear, and in that poor light—at the distance I didn't notice you were clean-shaven—Greggs wears a moustache—"
"Then it was Greggs murdered Roddy and tried to drug me! ... By George, I'd like to know whether the police got there before Bannon, or somebody else, discovered the substitution. It was a telegram to the police, you know, I sent from the Bourse last night!"
In his excitement Lanyard began to pace the floor rapidly; and now that he was no longer staring at her, the girl lifted her head and watched him closely as he moved to and fro, talking aloud—more to himself than to her.
"I wish I knew! ... And what a lucky thing, you did meet me! For if you'd gone on to the Gare du Nord and waited there....Well, it isn't likely Bannon didn't discover your flight before eight o'clock this morning, is it?"
"I'm afraid not...."
"And they've drawn the dead-line for me round every conceivable exit from Paris: Popinot's Apaches are picketed everywhere. And if Bannon had found out about you in time, it would have needed only a word..."
He paused and shuddered to think what might have ensued had that word been spoken and the girl been found waiting for her train in the Gare du Nord.
"Mercifully, we've escaped that. And now, with any sort of luck, Bannon ought to be busy enough, trying to get his precious Mr. Greggs out of the Sante, to give us a chance. And a fighting chance is all I ask."
"Mr. Lanyard"—the girl bent toward him across the table with a gesture of eager interest—"have you any idea why he—why Mr. Bannon hates you so?"
"But does he? I don't know!"
"If he doesn't, why should he plot to cast suspicion of murder on you, and why be so anxious to know whether you were really the Lone Wolf? I saw his eyes light up when De Morbihan mentioned that name, after dinner; and if ever I saw hatred in a man's face, it was in his as he watched you, when you weren't looking."
"As far as I know, I never heard of him before," Lanyard said carelessly. "I fancy it's nothing more than the excitement of a man-hunt. Now that they've found me out, De Morbihan and his crew won't rest until they've got my scalp."
"Professional jealousy. We're all crooks, all in the same boat, only I won't row to their stroke. I've always played a lone hand successfully; now they insist on coming into the game and sharing my winnings. And I've told them where they could go."
"And because of that, they're willing to——"
"There's nothing they wouldn't do, Miss Shannon, to bring me to my knees or see me put out of the way, where my operations couldn't hurt their pocketbooks. Well ... all I ask is a fighting chance, and they shall have their way!"
Her brows contracted. "I don't understand.... You want a fighting chance—to surrender—to give in to their demands?"
"In a way—yes. I want a fighting chance to do what I'd never in the world get them to credit—give it all up and leave them a free field."
And when still she searched his face with puzzled eyes, he insisted: "I mean it; I want to get away—clear out—chuck the game for good and all!"
A little silence greeted this announcement. Lanyard, at pause near the table, resting a hand on it, bent to the girl's upturned face a grave but candid regard. And the deeps of her eyes that never swerved from his were troubled strangely in his vision. He could by no means account for the light he seemed to see therein, a light that kindled while he watched like a tiny flame, feeble, fearful, vacillant, then as the moments passed steadied and grew stronger but ever leaped and danced; so that he, lost in the wonder of it and forgetful of himself, thought of it as the ardent face of a happy child dancing in the depths of some brown autumnal woodland....
"You," she breathed incredulously—"you mean, you're going to stop—?"
"I have stopped, Miss Shannon. The Lone Wolf has prowled for the last time. I didn't know it until I woke up, an hour or so ago, but I've turned my last job."
He remarked her hands were small, in keeping with the slightness of her person, but somehow didn't seem so—wore a look of strength and capability, befitting hands trained to a nurse's duties; and saw them each tight-fisted but quivering as they rested on the table, as though their mistress struggled to suppress the manifestation of some emotion as powerful as unfathomable to him.
"But why?" she demanded in bewilderment. "But why do you say that? What can have happened to make you—?"
"Not fear of that Pack!" he laughed—"not that, I promise you."
"Oh, I know!" she said impatiently—"I know that very well. But still I don't understand...."
"If it won't bore you, I'll try to explain." He drew up his chair and sat down again, facing her across the littered table. "I don't suppose you've ever stopped to consider what an essentially stupid animal a crook must be. Most of them are stupid because they practise clumsily one of the most difficult professions imaginable, and inevitably fail at it, yet persist. They wouldn't think of undertaking a job of civil engineering with no sort of preparation, but they'll tackle a dangerous proposition in burglary without a thought, and pay for failure with years of imprisonment, and once out try it again. That's one kind of criminal—the ninety-nine per-cent class—incurably stupid! There's another class, men whose imagination forewarns them of dangers and whose mental training, technical equipment and sheer manual dexterity enable them to attack a formidable proposition like a modern safe—by way of illustration—and force its secret. They're the successful criminals, like myself—but they're no less stupid, no less failures, than the other ninety-nine in our every hundred, because they never stop to think. It never occurs to them that the same intelligence, applied to any one of the trades they must be masters of, would not only pay them better, but leave them their self-respect and rid them forever of the dread of arrest that haunts us all like the memory of some shameful act.... All of which is much more of a lecture than I meant to inflict upon you, Miss Shannon, and sums up to just this: I've stopped to think...."
With this he stopped for breath as well, and momentarily was silent, his faint, twisted smile testifying to self-consciousness; but presently, seeing that she didn't offer to interrupt, but continued to give him her attention so exclusively that it had the effect of fascination, he stumbled on, at first less confidently. "When I woke up it was as if, without my will, I had been thinking all this out in my sleep. I saw myself for the first time clearly, as I have been ever since I can remember—a crook, thoughtless, vain, rapacious, ruthless, skulking in shadows and thinking myself an amazingly fine fellow because, between coups, I would play the gentleman a bit, venture into the light and swagger in the haunts of the gratin! In my poor, perverted brain I thought there was something fine and thrilling and romantic in the career of a great criminal and myself a wonderful figure—an enemy of society!"
"Why do you say this to me?" she demanded abruptly, out of a phase of profound thoughtfulness.
He lifted an apologetic shoulder. "Because, I fancy, I'm no longer self-sufficient. I was all of that, twenty-four hours ago; but now I'm as lonesome as a lost child in a dark forest. I haven't a friend in the world. I'm like a stray pup, grovelling for sympathy. And you are unfortunate enough to be the only person I can declare myself to. It's going to be a fight—I know that too well!—and without something outside myself to struggle toward, I'll be heavily handicapped. But if ..." He faltered, with a look of wistful earnestness. "If I thought that you, perhaps, were a little interested, that I had your faith to respect and cherish ... if I dared hope that you'd be glad to know I had won out against odds, it would mean a great deal to me, it might mean my salvation!"
Watching her narrowly, hanging upon her decision with the anxiety of a man proscribed and hoping against hope for pardon, he saw her eyes cloud and shift from his, her lips parted but hesitant; and before she could speak, hastily interposed:
"Please don't say anything yet. First let me demonstrate my sincerity. So far I've done nothing to persuade you but—talk and talk and talk! Give me a chance to prove I mean what I say."
"How"—she enunciated only with visible effort and no longer met his appeal with an open countenance—"how can you do that?"
"In the long run, by establishing myself in some honest way of life, however modest; but now, and principally, by making reparation for at least one crime I've committed that's not irreparable."
He caught her quick glance of enquiry, and met it with a confident nod as he placed between them the morocco-bound jewel-case.
"In London, yesterday," he said quietly, "I brought off two big coups. One was deliberate, the other the inspiration of a moment. The one I'd planned for months was the theft of the Omber jewels—here."
He tapped the case and resumed in the same manner: "The other job needs a diagram: Not long ago a Frenchman named Huysman, living in Tours, was mysteriously murdered—a poor inventor, who had starved himself to perfect a stabilizator, an attachment to render aeroplanes practically fool-proof. His final trials created a sensation and he was on the eve of selling his invention to the Government when he was killed and his plans stolen. Circumstantial evidence pointed to an international spy named Ekstrom—Adolph Ekstrom, once Chief of the Aviation Corps of the German Army, cashiered for general blackguardism with a suspicion of treason to boot. However, Ekstrom kept out of sight; and presently the plans turned up in the German War Office. That was a big thing for Germany; already supreme with her dirigibles, the acquisition of the Huysman stabilizator promised her ten years' lead over the world in the field of aeroplanes.... Now yesterday Ekstrom came to the surface in London with those self-same plans to sell to England. Chance threw him my way, and he mistook me for the man he'd expected to meet—Downing Street's secret agent. Well—no matter how—I got the plans from him and brought them over with me, meaning to turn them over to France, to whom by rights they belong."
"Without consideration?" the girl enquired shrewdly.
"Not exactly. I had meant to make no profit of the affair—I'm a bit squeamish about tainted money!—but under present conditions, if France insists on rewarding me with safe conduct out of the country, I shan't refuse it.... Do you approve?"
She nodded earnestly: "It would be worse than criminal to return them to Ekstrom...."
"That's my view of the matter."
"But these?" The girl rested her hand upon the jewel-case.
"Those go back to Madame Omber. She has a home here in Paris that I know very well. In fact, the sole reason why I didn't steal them here was that she left for England unexpectedly, just as I was all set to strike. Now I purpose making use of my knowledge to restore the jewels without risk of falling into the hands of the police. That will be an easy matter.... And that brings me to a great favour I would beg of you."
She gave him a look so unexpectedly kind that it staggered him. But he had himself well in hand.
"You can't now leave Paris before morning—thanks to my having overslept," he explained. "There's no honest way I know to raise money before the pawn-shops open. But I'm hoping that won't be necessary; I'm hoping I can arrange matters without going to that extreme. Meanwhile, you agree that these jewels must be returned?"
"Of course," she affirmed gently.
"Then ... will you accompany me when I replace them? There won't be any danger: I promise you that. Indeed, it would be more hazardous for you to wait for me elsewhere while I attended to the matter alone. And I'd like you to be convinced of my good faith."
"Don't you think you can trust me for that as well?" she asked, with a flash of humour.
"To believe ... Mr. Lanyard," she told him gently but earnestly, "I do believe."
"You make me very happy," he said ... "but I'd like you to see for yourself.... And I'd be glad not to have to fret about your safety in my absence. As a bureau of espionage, Popinot's brigade of Apaches is without a peer in Europe. I am positively afraid to leave you alone...."
She was silent.
"Will you come with me, Miss Shannon?" "That is your sole reason for asking this of me?" she insisted, eyeing him steadily.
"That I wish you to believe in me—yes."
"Why?" she pursued, inexorable.
"Because ... I've already told you."
"That you want someone's good opinion to cherish.... But why, of all people, me—whom you hardly know, of whom what little you do know is hardly reassuring?"
He coloured, and boggled his answer.... "I can't tell you," he confessed in the end.
"Why can't you tell me?"
He stared at her miserably.... "I've no right...."
"In spite of all I've said, in spite of the faith you so generously promise me, in your eyes I must still figure as a thief, a liar, an impostor—self-confessed. Men aren't made over by mere protestations, nor even by their own efforts, in an hour, or a day, or a week. But give me a year: if I can live a year in honesty, and earn my bread, and so prove my strength—then, perhaps, I might find the courage, the—the effrontery to tell you why I want your good opinion.... Now I've said far more than I meant or had any right to. I hope," he ventured pleadingly—"you're not offended."
Only an instant longer could she maintain her direct and unflinching look. Then, his meaning would no more be ignored. Her lashes fell; a tide of crimson flooded her face; and with a quick movement, pushing her chair a little from the table, she turned aside. But she said nothing.
He remained as he had been, bending eagerly toward her. And in the long minute that elapsed before either spoke again, both became oddly conscious of the silence brooding in that lonely little house, of their isolation from the world, of their common peril and mutual dependence.
"I'm afraid," Lanyard said, after a time—"I'm afraid I know what you must be thinking. One can't do your intelligence the injustice to imagine that you haven't understood me—read all that was in my mind and"—his voice fell—"in my heart. I own I was wrong to speak so transparently, to suggest my regard for you, at such a time, under such conditions. I am truly sorry, and beg you to consider unsaid all that I should not have said.... After all, what earthly difference can it make to you if one thief more decides suddenly to reform?"
That brought her abruptly to her feet, to show him a face of glowing loveliness and eyes distractingly dimmed and softened.
"No!" she implored him breathlessly—"please—you mustn't spoil it! You've paid me the finest of compliments, and one I'm glad and grateful for ... and would I might think I deserved! ... You say you need a year to prove yourself? Then—I've no right to say this—and you must please not ask me what I mean—then I grant you that year. A year I shall wait to hear from you from the day we part, here in Paris.... And to-night, I will go with you, too, and gladly, since you wish it!"
And then as he, having risen, stood at loss, thrilled, and incredulous, with a brave and generous gesture she offered him her hand.
"Mr. Lanyard, I promise...."
To every woman, even the least lovely, her hour of beauty: it had not entered Lanyard's mind to think this woman beautiful until that moment. Of her exotic charm, of the allure of her pensive, plaintive prettiness, he had been well aware; even as he had been unable to deny to himself that he was all for her, that he loved her with all the strength that was his; but not till now had he understood that she was the one woman whose loveliness to him would darken the fairness of all others.
And for a little, holding her tremulous hand upon his finger-tips as though he feared to bruise it with a ruder contact, he could not take his eyes from her.
Then reverently he bowed his head and touched his lips to that hand ... and felt it snatched swiftly away, and started back, aghast, the idyll roughly dissipated, the castle of his dreams falling in thunders round his ears.
In the studio-skylight overhead a pane of glass had fallen in with a shattering crash as ominous as the Trump of Doom.
Falling without presage upon the slumberous hush enveloping the little house marooned in that dead back-water of Paris, the shock of that alarm drove the girl back from the table to the nearest wall, and for a moment held her there, transfixed in panic.
To the wide, staring eyes that questioned his so urgently, Lanyard promptly nodded grave reassurance. He hadn't stirred since his first, involuntary and almost imperceptible start, and before the last fragment of splintered glass had tinkled on the floor above, he was calming her in the most matter-of-fact manner.
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "It's nothing—merely Solon's skylight gone smash!"
"You call that nothing!" she cried gustily. "What caused it, then?"
"My negligence," he admitted gloomily. "I might have known that wide spread of glass with the studio electrics on, full-blaze, would give the show away completely. The house is known to be unoccupied; and it wasn't to be expected that both the police and Popinot's crew would overlook so shining a mark.... And it's all my fault, my oversight: I should have thought of it before.... High time I was quitting a game I've no longer the wit to play by the rules!"
"But the police would never...!"
"Certainly not. This is Popinot's gentle method of letting us know he's on the job. But I'll just have a look, to make sure.... No: stop where you are, please. I'd rather go alone."
He swung alertly through to the hall window, pausing there only long enough for an instantaneous glance through the draperies—a fugitive survey that discovered the impasse Stanislas no more abandoned to the wind and rain, but tenanted visibly by one at least who lounged beneath the lonely lamp-post, a shoulder against it: a featureless civilian silhouette with attention fixed to the little house.
But Lanyard didn't doubt this one had a dozen fellows stationed within call....
Springing up the stairs, he paused prudently at the top-most step, one quick glance showing him the huge rent gaping black in the skylight, the second the missile of destruction lying amid a litter of broken glass—a brick wrapped in newspaper, by the look of it.
Swooping forward, he retrieved this, darted back from the exposed space beneath the shattered skylight, and had no more than cleared the threshold than a second something fell through the gap and buried itself in the parquetry. This was a bullet fired from the roof of one of the adjoining buildings: confirming his prior reasoning that the first missile must have fallen from a height, rather than have been thrown up from the street, to have wrought such destruction with those tough, thick panes of clouded glass....
Swearing softly to himself, he descended to the kitchen.
"As I thought," he said coolly, exhibiting his find.
"They're on the roof of the next house—though they've posted a sentry in the street, of course."
"But that second thump—?" the girl demanded.
"A bullet," he said, placing the bundle on the table and cutting the string that bound it: "they were on the quivive and fired when I showed myself beneath the skylight."
"But I heard no report," she objected.
"A Maxim silencer on the gun, I fancy," he explained, unwrapping the brick and smoothing out the newspaper.... "Glad you thought to put on your hat before you came down," he added, with an approving glance for the girl; "it won't be safe to go up to the studio again—of course."
His nonchalance was far less real than it seemed, but helped to steady one who was holding herself together with a struggle, on the verge of nervous collapse.
"But what are we to do now?" she stammered. "If they've surrounded the house—!"
"Don't worry: there's more than one way out," he responded, frowning at the newspaper; "I wouldn't have picked this place out, otherwise. Nor would Solon have rented it in the first instance had it lacked an emergency exit, in event of creditors.... Ah—thought so!"
"Troyon's is gone," he said, without looking up. "This is to-night's Presse.... 'Totally destroyed by a fire which started at six-thirty this morning and in less than half an hour had reduced the ancient structure to a heap of smoking ashes'! ..." He ran his eye quickly down the column, selecting salient phrases: "'Believed to have been of incendiary origin though the premises were uninsured'—that's an intelligent guess!... 'Narrow escape of guests in their 'whatyemaycallems....'Three lives believed to have been lost ... one body recovered charred almost beyond recognition'—but later identified as Roddy—poor devil! ... 'Two guests missing, Monsieur Lanyard, the well-known connoisseur of art, who occupied the room adjoining that of the unfortunate detective, and Mademoiselle Bannon, daughter of the American millionaire, who himself escaped only by a miracle with his secretary Monsieur Greggs, the latter being overcome by fumes'—what a shame!... 'Police and firemen searching the ruins'—hm-hm—' extraordinary interest manifested by the Prefecture indicates a suspicion that the building may have been fired to conceal some crime of a political nature.'"
Crushing the newspaper between his hands, he tossed it into a corner. "That's all of importance. Thoughtful of Popinot to let me know, this way! The Prefecture, of course, is humming like a wasp's-nest with the mystery of that telegram, signed with Roddy's name and handed in at the Bourse an hour or so before he was 'burned to death.' Too bad I didn't know then what I do now; if I'd even remotely suspected Greggs' association with the Pack was via Bannon.... But what's the use? I did my possible, knowing the odds were heavy against success."
"What was written on the paper?" the girl demanded obliquely.
He made his eyes blank: "Written on the paper—?"
"I saw something in red ink at the head of the column. You tried to hide it from me, but I saw.... What was it?"
"Oh—that!" he laughed contemptuously: "just Popinot's impudence—an invitation to come out and be a good target."
She shook her head impatiently: "You're not telling me the truth. It was something else, or you wouldn't have been so anxious to hide it."
"Oh, but I assure you—!"
"You can't. Be honest with me, Mr. Lanyard. It was an offer to let you off if you'd give me up to Bannon—wasn't it?"
"Something like that," he assented sheepishly—"too absurd for consideration.... But now we're due to clear out of this before they find a way in. Not that they're likely to risk a raid until they've tried starving us out; but it would be as well to put a good distance between us before they find out we've decamped."
He shrugged into his borrowed raincoat, buttoned it to his chin, and turned down the brim of his felt hat; but when he looked up at the girl again, he found she hadn't moved; rather, she remained as one spellbound, staring less at than through him, her expression inscrutable.
"Well," he ventured—"if you're quite ready, Miss Shannon—?"
"Mr. Lanyard," she demanded almost sharply—"what was the full wording of that message?"
"If you must know—"
He lifted a depreciative shoulder. "If you like, I'll read it to you—or, rather, translate it from the thieves' argot Popinot complimented me by using."
"Not necessary," she said tersely. "I'll take your word for it.... But you must tell me the truth."
"As you will.... Popinot delicately suggested that if I leave you here, to be reunited to your alleged parent—if I'll trust to his word of honour, that is, and walk out of the house alone, he'll give me twenty-four hours in which to leave Paris."
"Then only I stand between you and—"
"My dear young woman!" he protested hastily. "Please don't run away with any absurd notion like that. Do you imagine I'd consent to treat with such canaille under any circumstances?"
"All the same," she continued stubbornly, "I'm the stumbling-block. You're risking your life for me—"
"I'm not," he insisted almost angrily.
"You are," she returned with quiet conviction.
"Well!" he laughed—"have it your own way!..."
"But it's my life, isn't it? I really don't see how you're going to prevent my risking it for anything that may seem to me worth the risk!"
But she wouldn't laugh; only her countenance, suddenly bereft of its mutinous expression, softened winningly—and her eyes grew very kind to him.
"As long as it's understood I understand—very well," she said quietly; "I'll do as you wish, Mr. Lanyard."
"Good!" he cried cheerfully. "I wish, by your leave, to take you out to dinner.... This way, please!"
Leading through the scullery, he unbarred a low, arched door in one of the walls, discovering the black mouth of a narrow and tunnel-like passageway.
With a word of caution, flash-lamp in his left hand, pistol in right, Lanyard stepped out into the darkness.
In two minutes he was back, with a look of relief.
"All clear," he reported; "I felt pretty sure Popinot knew nothing of this way out—else we'd have entertained uninvited guests long since. Now, half a minute...."
The electric meter occupied a place on the wall of the scullery not far from the door. Prying open its cover, he unscrewed and removed the fuse plug, plunging the entire house in complete darkness.
"That'll keep 'em guessing a while!" he explained with a chuckle. "They'll hesitate a long time before rushing a dark house infested by a desperate armed man—if I know anything about that mongrel lot!... Besides, when they do get their courage up, the lack of light will stave off discovery of this way of escape.... And now, one word more."
A flash of the lamp located her hand. Calmly he possessed himself of it, if without opposition.
"I've brought you into trouble enough, as it is, through my stupidity," he said; "but for that, this place should have been a refuge to us until we were quite ready to leave Paris. So now we mustn't forget, before we go out to run God-only-knows-what gauntlet, to fix a rendezvous in event of separation.... Popinot, for instance, may have drawn a cordon around the block; we can't tell until we're in the street; if he has, you must leave me to entertain them until you're safe beyond their reach.... Oh, don't worry: I'm perfectly well able to take care of myself....But afterwards, we must know where to find each other. Hotels, cafes and restaurants are out of the question: in the first place, we've barely money enough for our dinner; besides, they'll be watched closely; as for our embassies and consulates, they aren't open at all hours, and will likewise be watched. There remain—unless you can suggest something—only the churches; and I can think of none better suited to our purposes than the Sacre-Cour."
Her fingers tightened gently upon his.
"I understand," she said quietly; "if we're obliged to separate, I'm to go direct to the Sacre-Cour and await you there."
"Right! ...But let's hope there'll be no such necessity."
Hand-in-hand like frightened children, these two stole down the tunnel-like passageway, through a forlorn little court cramped between two tall old tenements, and so came out into the gloomy, sinuous and silent rue d'Assas.
Here they encountered few wayfarers; and to these, preoccupied with anxiety to gain shelter from the inclement night, they seemed, no doubt, some student of the Quarter with his sweetheart—Lanyard in his shabby raincoat, striding rapidly, head and shoulders bowed against the driving mist, the girl in her trim Burberry clinging to his arm....
Avoiding the nearer stations as dangerous, Lanyard steered a roundabout course through by-ways to the rue de Sevres station of the Nord-Sud subway; from which in due course they came to the surface again at the place de la Concorde, walked several blocks, took a taxicab, and in less than half an hour after leaving the impasse Stanislas were comfortably ensconced in a cabinet particulier of a little restaurant of modest pretensions just north of Les Halles.
They feasted famously: the cuisine, if bourgeois, was admirable and, better still, well within the resources of Lanyard's emaciated purse. Nor did he fret with consciousness that, when the bill had been paid and the essential tips bestowed, there would remain in his pocket hardly more than cab fare. Supremely self-confident, he harboured no doubts of a smiling future—now that the dark pages in his record had been turned and sealed by a resolution he held irrevocable.
His spirits had mounted to a high pitch, thanks to their successful evasion. He was young, he was in love, he was hungry, he was—in short—very much alive. And the consciousness of common peril knitted an enchanting intimacy into their communications. For the first time in his history Lanyard found himself in the company of a woman with whom he dared—and cared—to speak without reserve: a circumstance intrinsically intoxicating. And stimulated by her unquestionable interest and sympathy, he did talk without reserve of old Troyon's and its drudge, Marcel; of Bourke and his wanderings; of the education of the Lone Wolf and his career, less in pride than in relief that it was ended; of the future he must achieve for himself.
And sitting with chin cradled on the backs of her interlaced fingers, the girl listened with such indulgence as women find always for their lovers. Of herself she had little to say: Lanyard filled in to his taste the outlines of the simple history of a young woman of good family obliged to become self-supporting.
And if at times her grave eyes clouded and her attention wandered, it was less in ennui than because of occult trains of thought set astir by some chance word or phrase of Lanyard's.
"I'm boring you," he surmised once with quick contrition, waking up to the fact that he had monopolized the conversation for many minutes on end.
She shook a pensive head. "No, again.... But I wonder, do you appreciate the magnitude of the task you've undertaken?"
"Possibly not," he conceded arrogantly; "but it doesn't matter. The heavier the odds, the greater the incentive to win."
"But," she objected, "you've told me a curious story of one who never had a chance or incentive to 'go straight'—as you put it. And yet you seem to think that an overnight resolution to reform is all that's needed to change all the habits of a life-time. You persuade me of your sincerity of today; but how will it be with you tomorrow—and not so much tomorrow as six months from tomorrow, when you've found the going rough and know you've only to take one step aside to gain a smooth and easy way?"
"If I fail, then, it will be because I'm unfit—and I'll go under, and never be heard of again.... But I shan't fail. It seems to me the very fact that I want to go straight is proof enough that I've something inherently decent in me to build on."
"I do believe that, and yet..." She lowered her head and began to trace a meaningless pattern on the cloth before she resumed. "You've given me to understand I'm responsible for your sudden awakening, that it's because of a regard conceived for me you're so anxious to become an honest man. Suppose ... suppose you were to find out ... you'd been mistaken in me?"
"That isn't possible," he objected promptly.
She smiled upon him wistfully—and leniently from her remote coign of superior intuitive knowledge of human nature.
"But if it were—?"
"Then—I think," he said soberly—"I think I'd feel as though there were nothing but emptiness beneath my feet!"
"And you'd backslide—?"
"How can I tell?" he expostulated. "It's not a fair question. I don't know what I'd do, but I do know it would need something damnable to shake my faith in you!"
"You think so now," she said tolerantly. "But if appearances were against me—"
"They'd have to be black!"
"If you found I had deceived you—?"
"Miss Shannon!" He threw an arm across the table and suddenly imprisoned her hand. "There's no use beating about the bush. You've got to know—"
She drew back suddenly with a frightened look and a monosyllable of sharp protest: "No!"
"But you must listen to me. I want you to understand.... Bourke used to say to me: 'The man who lets love into his life opens a door no mortal hand can close—and God only knows what will follow in!' And Bourke was right.... Now that door is open in my heart, and I think that whatever follows in won't be evil or degrading.... Oh, I've said it a dozen different ways of indirection, but I may as well say it squarely now: I love you; it's love of you makes me want to go straight—the hope that when I've proved myself you'll maybe let me ask you to marry me.... Perhaps you're in love with a better man today; I'm willing to chance that; a year brings many changes. Perhaps there's something I don't fathom in your doubting my strength and constancy. Only the outcome can declare that. But please understand this: if I fail to make good, it will be no fault of yours; it will be because I'm unfit and have proved it.... All I ask is what you've generously promised me: opportunity to come to you at the end of the year and make my report.... And then, if you will, you can say no to the question I'll ask you and I shan't resent it, and it won't ruin me; for if a man can stick to a purpose for a year, he can stick to it forever, with or without the love of the woman he loves."
She heard him out without attempt at interruption, but her answer was prefaced by a sad little shake of her head.
"That's what makes it so hard, so terribly hard," she said.... "Of course I've understood you. All that you've said by indirection, and much besides, has had its meaning to me. And I'm glad and proud of the honour you offer me. But I can't accept it; I can never accept it—not now nor a year from now. It wouldn't be fair to let you go on hoping I might some time consent to marry you.... For that's impossible."
"You—forgive me—you're not already married?"
"Or in love with someone else?"
Again she told him, gently, "No."
His face cleared. He squared his shoulders. He even mustered up a smile.
"Then it isn't impossible. No human obstacle exists that time can't overthrow. In spite of all you say, I shall go on hoping with all my heart and soul and strength."
"But you don't understand—"
"Can you tell me—make me understand?"
After a long pause, she told him once more, and very sadly: "No."
Though it had been nearly eight when they entered the restaurant, it was something after eleven before Lanyard called for his bill.
"We've plenty of time," he had explained; "it'll be midnight before we can move. The gentle art of house-breaking has its technique, you know, its professional ethics: we can't well violate the privacy of Madame Omber's strong-box before the caretakers on the premises are sound asleep. It isn't done, you know, it isn't class, to go burglarizing when decent, law-abiding folk are wide-awake.... Meantime we're better off here than trapezing the streets...."
It's a silent web of side ways and a gloomy one by night that backs up north of Les Halles: old Paris, taciturn and sombre, steeped in its memories of grim romance. But for infrequent, flickering, corner lamps, the street that welcomed them from the doors of the warm and cosy restaurant was as dismal as an alley in some city of the dead. Its houses with their mansard roofs and boarded windows bent their heads together like mutes at a wake, black-cloaked and hooded; seldom one showed a light; never one betrayed by any sound the life that lurked behind its jealous blinds. Now again the rain had ceased and, though the sky remained overcast, the atmosphere was clear and brisk with a touch of frost, in grateful contrast to the dull and muggy airs that had obtained for the last twenty-four hours.
"We'll walk," Lanyard suggested—"if you don't mind—part of the way at least; it'll eat up time, and a bit of exercise will do us both good."
The girl assented quietly....
The drum of their heels on fast-drying sidewalks struck sharp echoes from the silence of that drowsy quarter, a lonely clamour that rendered it impossible to ignore their apparent solitude—as impossible as it was for Lanyard to ignore the fact that they were followed.
The shadow dogging them on the far side of the street, some fifty yards behind, was as noiseless as any cat; but for this circumstance—had it moved boldly with unmuffled footsteps—Lanyard would have been slow to believe it concerned with him, so confident had be felt, till that moment, of having given the Pack the slip.
And from this he diagnosed still another symptom of the Pack's incurable stupidity!
Supremely on the alert, he had discovered the pursuit before they left the block of the restaurant. Dissembling, partly to avoid alarming the girl, partly to trick the spy, he turned this way and that round several corners, until quite convinced that the shadow was dedicated to himself exclusively, then promptly revised his first purpose and, instead of sticking to darker back ways, struck out directly for the broad, well-lighted and lively boulevard de Sebastopol.
Crossing this without a backward glance, he turned north, seeking some cafe whose arrangements suited his designs; and, presently, though not before their tramp had brought them almost to the Grand Boulevards, found one to his taste, a cheerful and well-lighted establishment occupying a corner, with entrances from both streets. A hedge of forlorn fir-trees knee-deep in wooden tubs guarded its terrasse of round metal tables and spindle-shanked chairs; of which few were occupied. Inside, visible through the wide plate-glass windows, perhaps a dozen patrons sat round half as many tables—no more—idling over dominoes and gossip: steady-paced burghers with their wives, men in small ways of business of the neighbourhood.
Entering to this company, Lanyard selected a square marble-topped table against the back wall, entrenched himself with the girl upon the seat behind it, ordered coffee and writing materials, and proceeded to light a cigarette with the nonchalance of one to whom time is of no consequence.
"What is it?" the girl asked guardedly as the waiter scurried off to execute his commands. "You've not stopped in here for nothing!"
"True—but lower, please!" he begged. "If we speak English loud enough to be heard it will attract attention.... The trouble is, we're followed. But as yet our faithful shadow doesn't know we know it—unless he's more intelligent than he seems. Consequently, if I don't misjudge him, he'll take a table outside, the better to keep an eye on us, as soon as he sees we're apparently settled for some time. More than that, I've got a note to write—and not merely as a subterfuge. This fellow must be shaken off, and as long as we stick together, that can't well be done."
He interrupted himself while the waiter served them, then added sugar to his coffee, arranged the ink bottle and paper to his satisfaction, and bent over his pen.
"Come closer," he requested—"as if you were interested in what I'm writing—and amused; if you can laugh a bit at nothing, so much the better. But keep a sharp eye on the windows. You can do that more readily than I, more naturally from under the brim of your hat.... And tell me what you see...."
He had no more than settled into the swing of composition, than the girl—apparently following his pen with closest attention—giggled coquettishly and nudged his elbow.
"The window to the right of the door we came in," she said, smiling delightedly; "he's standing behind the fir-trees, staring in."
"Can you make out who he is?" Lanyard asked without moving his lips.
"Nothing more than that he's tall," she said with every indication of enjoying a tremendous joke. "His face is all in shadow...."
"Patience!" counselled the adventurer. "He'll take heart of courage when convinced of our innocence."
He poised his pen, examined the ceiling for inspiration, and permitted a slow smile to lighten his countenance.
"You'll take this note, if you please," he said cheerfully, "to the address on the envelope, by taxi: it's some distance, near the Etoile.... A long chance, but one we must risk; give me half an hour alone and I'll guarantee to discourage this animal one way or another. You understand?"
"Perfectly," she laughed archly.
He bent and for a few moments wrote busily.
"Now he's walking slowly round the corner, never taking his eyes from you," the girl reported, shoulder to his shoulder and head distractingly near his head.
"Good. Can you see him any better?"
"This note," he said, without stopping his pen or appearing to say anything "is for the concierge of a building where I rent stabling for a little motor-car. I'm supposed there to be a chauffeur in the employ of a crazy Englishman, who keeps me constantly travelling with him back and forth between Paris and London. That's to account for the irregularity with which I use the car. They know me, monsieur and madame of the conciergerie, as Pierre Lamier; and I think they're safe—not only trustworthy and of friendly disposition, but quite simple-minded; I don't believe they gossip much. So the chances are De Morbihan and his gang know nothing of the arrangement. But that's all speculation—a forlorn hope!"
"I understand," the girl observed. "He's still prowling up and down outside the hedge."
"We're not going to need that car tonight; but the hotel of Madame Omber is close by; and I'll follow and join you there within an hour at most. Meantime, this note will introduce you to the concierge and his wife—I hope you won't mind—as my fiancee. I'm telling them we became engaged in England, and I've brought you to Paris to visit my mother in Montrouge; but am detained by my employer's business; and will they please give you shelter for an hour."
"He's coming in," the girl announced quietly.
"No—merely inside the row of little trees."
"The boulevard side. He's taken the corner table. Now a waiter's going out to him."
"You can see his face now?" Lanyard asked, sealing the note.
"Nothing you recognize about him, eh?"
"You know Popinot and Wertheimer by sight?"
"No; they're only names to me; De Morbihan and Mr. Bannon mentioned them last night."
"It won't be Popinot," Lanyard reflected, addressing the envelope; "he's tubby."
"This man is tall and slender."
"Wertheimer, possibly. Does he suggest an Englishman, any way?"
"Not in the least. He wears a moustache—blond—twisted up like the Kaiser's."
Lanyard made no reply; but his heart sank, and he shivered imperceptibly with foreboding. He entertained no doubt but that the worst had happened, that to the number of his enemies in Paris was added Ekstrom.
One furtive glance confirmed this inference. He swore bitterly, if privately and with a countenance of child-like blandness, as he sipped the coffee and finished his cigarette.
"Who is it, then?" she asked. "Do you know him?"
He reckoned swiftly against distressing her, recalling his mention of the fact that Ekstrom was credited with the Huysman murder.
"Merely a hanger-on of De Morbihan's," he told her lightly; "a spineless animal—no trouble about scaring him off.... Now take this note, please, and we'll go. But as we reach the door, turn back—and go out the other. You'll find a taxi without trouble. And stop for nothing!"
He had shown foresight in paying when served, and was consequently able to leave abruptly, without giving Ekstrom time to shy. Rising smartly, he pushed the table aside. The girl was no less quick, and little less sensitive to the strain of the moment; but as she passed him her lashes lifted and her eyes were all his for the instant.
"Good night," she breathed—"good night ... my dear!"
She could have guessed no more shrewdly what he needed to nerve him against the impending clash. He hadn't hesitated as to his only course, but till then he'd been horribly afraid, knowing too well the desperate cast of the outlawed German's nature. But now he couldn't fail.
He strode briskly toward the door to the boulevard, out of the corner of his eye aware that Ekstrom, taken by surprise, half-started from his chair, then sank back.
Two paces from the entrance the girl checked, murmured in French, "Oh, my handkerchief!" and turned briskly back. Without pause, as though he hadn't heard, Lanyard threw the door wide and swung out, turning directly to the spy. At the same time he dropped a hand into the pocket where nestled his automatic.
Fortunately Ekstrom had chosen a table in a corner well removed from any in use. Lanyard could speak without fear of being overheard.
But for a moment he refrained. Nor did Ekstrom speak or stir; sitting sideways at his table, negligently, with knees crossed, the German likewise kept a hand buried in the pocket of his heavy, dark ulster. Thus neither doubted the other's ill-will or preparedness. And through thirty seconds of silence they remained at pause, each striving with all his might to read the other's purpose in his eyes. But there was this distinction to be drawn between their attitudes, that whereas Lanyard's gaze challenged, the German's was sullenly defiant. And presently Lanyard felt his heart stir with relief: the spy's glance had winced.
"Ekstrom," the adventurer said quietly, "if you fire, I'll get you before I fall. That's a simple statement of fact."
The German hesitated, moistened the corners of his lips with a nervous tongue, but contented himself with a nod of acknowledgement.
"Take your hand off that gun," Lanyard ordered. "Remember—I've only to cry your name aloud to have you torn to pieces by these people. Your life's not worth a moment's purchase in Paris—as you should know."
The German hesitated, but in his heart knew that Lanyard didn't exaggerate. The murder of the inventor had exasperated all France; and though tonight's weather kept a third of Paris within doors, there was still a tide of pedestrians fluent on the sidewalk, beyond the flimsy barrier of firs, that would thicken to a ravening mob upon the least excuse.
He had mistaken his man; he had thought that Lanyard, even if aware of his pursuit, would seek to shake it off in flight rather than turn and fight—and fight here, of all places!
"Do you hear me?" Lanyard continued in the same level and unyielding tone. "Bring both hands in sight—upon the table!"
There was no more hesitation: Ekstrom obeyed, if with the sullen grace of a wild beast that would and could slay its trainer with one sweep of its paw—if only it dared.
For the first time since leaving the girl Lanyard relaxed his vigilant watch over the man long enough for one swift glance through the window at his side. But she was already vanished from the cafe.
He breathed more freely now.
"Come!" he said peremptorily. "Get up. We've got to talk, I presume—thrash this matter out—and we'll come to no decision here."
"Where do we go, then?" the German demanded suspiciously.
"We can walk."
Irresolutely the spy uncrossed his knees, but didn't rise.
"Walk?" he repeated, "walk where?"
"Up the boulevard, if you like—where the lights are brightest."
"Ah!"—with a malignant flash of teeth—"but I don't trust you."
Lanyard laughed: "You wear only one shoe of that pair, my dear captain! We're a distrustful flock, we birds of prey. Come along! Why sit there sulking, like a spoiled child? You've made an ass of yourself, following me to Paris; sadly though you bungled that job in London, I gave you credit for more wit than to poke your head into the lion's mouth here. But—admitting that—why not be graceful about it? Here am I, amiably treating you like an equal: you might at least show gratitude enough to accept my invitation to flaner yourself!"
With a grunt the spy got upon his feet, while Lanyard stood back, against the window, and made him free of the narrow path between the tree-tubs and the tables.
"After you, my dear Adolph...!"
The German paused, half turned towards him, choking with rage, his suffused face darkly relieving its white scars won at Heidelberg. At this, with a nod of unmistakable meaning, Lanyard advanced the muzzle of his pocketed weapon; and with an ugly growl the German moved on and out to the sidewalk, Lanyard respectfully an inch or two behind his elbow.
"To your right," he requested pleasantly—"if it's all the same to you: I've business on the Boulevards..."
Ekstrom said nothing for the moment, but sullenly yielded to the suggestion.
"By the way," the adventurer presently pursued, "you might be good enough to inform me how you knew where we were dining—eh?"
"If it interests you—"
"I own it does—tremendously!"
"Pure accident: I happened to be sitting in the cafe, and caught a glimpse of you through the door as you went upstairs. Therefore I waited till the waiter asked for your bill at the caisse, then stationed myself outside."
"But why? Can you tell me what you thought to accomplish?"
"You know well," Ekstrom muttered. "After what happened in London ... it's your life or mine!"
"Spoken like a true villain! But it seems to me you overlooked a conspicuous chance to accomplish your hellish design, back there in the side streets."
"Would I be such a fool as to shoot you down before finding out what you've done with those plans?"
"You might as well have," Lanyard informed him lightly ... "For you won't know otherwise."
With an infuriated oath the German stopped short: but he dared not ignore the readiness with which his tormentor imitated the manoeuvre and kept the pistol trained through the fabric of his raincoat.
"Yes—?" the adventurer enquired with an exasperating accent of surprise.
"Understand me," Ekstrom muttered vindictively: "next time I'll show you no mercy—"
"But if there is no next time? We're not apt to meet again, you know."
"That's something beyond your knowledge—"
"You think so? ... But shan't we resume our stroll? People might notice us standing here—you with your teeth bared like an ill-tempered dog.... Oh, thank you!"
And as they moved on, Lanyard continued: "Shall I explain why we're not apt to meet again?"
"If it amuses you."
"Thanks once more! ... For the simple reason that Paris satisfies me; so here I stop."
"Well?" the spy asked with a blank sidelong look.
"Whereas you are leaving Paris tonight."
"What makes you think that?"
"Because you value your thick hide too highly to remain, my dear captain." Having gained the corner of the boulevard St. Denis, Lanyard pulled up. "One moment, by your leave. You see yonder the entrance to the Metro—don't you? And here, a dozen feet away, a perfectly able-bodied sergent de ville? Let this fateful conjunction impress you properly: for five minutes after you have descended to the Metro—or as soon as the noise of a train advises me you've had one chance to get away—I shall mention casually to the sergo—that I have seen Captain Ek—"
"Hush!" the German protested in a hiss of fright.
"But certainly: I've no desire to embarrass you: publicity must be terribly distasteful to one of your sensitive and retiring disposition.... But I trust you understand me? On the one hand, there's the Metro; on the other, there's the flic; while here, you must admit, am I, as large as life and very much on the job! ... And inasmuch as I shall certainly mention my suspicions to the minion of the law—as aforesaid—I'd advise you to be well out of Paris before dawn!"
There was murder in the eyes of the spy as he lingered, truculently glowering at the smiling adventurer; and for an instant Lanyard was well-persuaded he had gone too far, that even there, even on that busy junction of two crowded thoroughfares, Ekstrom would let his temper get the better of his judgment and risk everything in an attempt upon the life of his despoiler.
But he was mistaken.
With a surly shrug the spy swung about and marched straight to the kiosk of the underground railway, into which, without one backward glance, he disappeared.
Two minutes later the earth beneath Lanyard's feet quaked with the crash and rumble of a north-bound train.
He waited three minutes longer; but Ekstrom didn't reappear; and at length convinced that his warning had proved effectual, Lanyard turned and made off.
For all that success had rewarded his effrontery, Lanyard's mind was far from easy during the subsequent hour that he spent before attempting to rejoin Lucy Shannon, dodging, ducking and doubling across Paris and back again, with design to confuse and confound any jackals of the Pack that might have picked up his trail as adventitiously as Ekstrom had.
His delight, indeed, in discomfiting his dupe was chilled by apprehension that it were madness, simply because the spy had proved unexpectedly docile, to consider the affaire Ekstrom closed. In the very fact of that docility inhered something strange and ominous, a premonition of evil which was hardly mitigated by finding the girl safe and sound under the wing of madame la concierge, in the little court of private stables, where he rented space for his car, off the rue des Acacias.
Monsieur le concierge, it appeared, was from home; and madame, thick-witted, warm-hearted, simple body that she was, discovered a phase of beaming incuriosity most grateful to the adventurer, enabling him as it did to dispense with embarrassing explanations, and to whisk the girl away as soon as he liked.
This last was just as soon as personal examination had reassured him with respect to his automobile—superficially an ordinary motor-cab of the better grade, but with an exceptionally powerful engine hidden beneath its hood. A car of such character, passing readily as the town-car of any family in modest circumstances, or else as what Paris calls a voiture de remise (a hackney car without taximeter) was a tremendous convenience, enabling its owner to scurry at will about cab-ridden Paris free of comment. But it could not be left standing in public places at odd hours, or for long, without attracting the interest of the police, and so was useless in the present emergency. Lanyard, however, entertained a shrewd suspicion that his plans might all miscarry and the command of a fast-travelling car soon prove essential to his salvation; and he cheerfully devoted a good half-hour to putting the motor in prime trim for the road.
With this accomplished—and the facts established through discreet interrogation of madame la concierge that no enquiries had been made for "Pierre Lamier," and that she had noticed no strange or otherwise questionable characters loitering in the neighbourhood of late—he was ready for his first real step toward rehabilitation....
It was past one in the morning when, with the girl on his arm, he issued forth into the dark and drowsy rue des Acacias and, moving swiftly, crossed the avenue de la Grande Armee. Thereafter, avoiding main-travelled highways, they struck southward through tangled side streets to aristocratic Passy, skirted the boulevards of the fortifications, and approached the private park of La Muette.
The hotel particulier of that wealthy and amiable eccentric, Madame Helene Omber, was a souvenir of those days when Passy had been suburban. A survival of the Revolution, a vast, dour pile that had known few changes since the days of its construction, it occupied a large, unkempt park, irregularly triangular in shape, bounded by two streets and an avenue, and rendered private by high walls crowned with broken glass. Carriage gates opened on the avenue, guarded by a porter's lodge; while of three posterns that pierced the walls on the side streets, one only was in general use by the servants of the establishment; the other two were presumed to be permanently sealed.
Lanyard, however, knew better.
When they had turned off from the avenue, he slackened pace and moved at caution, examining the prospect narrowly.
On the one hand rose the wall of the park, topped by naked, soughing limbs of neglected trees; on the other, across the way, a block of tall old dwellings, withdrawn behind jealous garden walls, showed stupid, sleepy faces and lightless eyes.
Within the perspective of the street but three shapes stirred; Lanyard and the girl in the shadow of the wall, and a disconsolate, misprized cat that promptly decamped like a terror-stricken ghost.
Overhead the sky was breaking and showing ebon patches and infrequent stars through a wind-harried wrack of cloud. The night had grown sensibly colder, and noisy with the rushing sweep of a new-sprung wind.
Several yards from the postern-gate, Lanyard paused definitely, and spoke for the first time in many minutes; for the nature of their errand had oppressed the spirits of both and enjoined an unnatural silence, ever since their departure from the rue des Acacias.
"This is where we stop," he said, with a jerk of his head toward the wall; "but it's not too late—"
"For what?" the girl asked quickly.
"I promised you no danger; but now I've thought it over, I can't promise that: there's always danger. And I'm afraid for you. It's not yet too late for you to turn back and wait for me in a safer place."
"You asked me to accompany you for a special purpose," she argued; "you begged me to come with you, in fact.... Now that I have agreed and come this far, I don't mean to turn back without good reason."
His gesture indicated uneasy acquiescence. "I should never have asked this of you. I think I must have been a little mad. If anything should come of this to injure you...!"
"If you mean to do what you promised—"
"Do you doubt my sincerity?"
"It was your own suggestion that you leave me no excuse for doubt..."
Without further remonstrance, if with a mind beset with misgivings, he led on to the gate—a blank door of wood, painted a dark green, deeply recessed in the wall.
In proof of his assertion that he had long since made every preparation to attack the premises, Lanyard had a key ready and in the lock almost before they reached it.
And the door swung back easily and noiselessly as though on well-greased hinges. As silently it shut them in.
They stood upon a weed-grown gravel path, hedged about with thick masses of shrubbery; but the park was as black as a pocket; and the heavy effluvia of wet mould, decaying weeds and rotting leaves that choked the air, seemed only to render the murk still more opaque.
But Lanyard evidently knew his way blindfold: though motives of prudence made him refrain from using his flash-lamp, he betrayed not the least incertitude in his actions.
Never once at loss for the right turning, he piloted the girl swiftly through a bewildering black labyrinth of paths, lawns and thickets....
In due course he pulled up, and she discovered that they had come out upon a clear space of lawn, close beside the featureless, looming bulk of a dark and silent building.
An admonitory grasp tightened upon her fingers, and she caught his singularly penetrating yet guarded whisper:
"This is the back of the house—the service-entrance. From this door a broad path runs straight to the main service gateway; you can't mistake it; and the gate itself has a spring lock, easy enough to open from the inside. Remember this in event of trouble. We might become separated in the darkness and confusion...."
Gently returning the pressure, "I understand," she said in a whisper.
Immediately he drew her on to the house, pausing but momentarily before a wide doorway; one half of which promptly swung open, and as soon as they had passed through, closed with no perceptible jar or click. And then Lanyard's flash-lamp was lancing the gloom on every hand, swiftly raking the bounds of a large, panelled servants' hall, until it picked out the foot of a flight of steps at the farther end. To this they moved stealthily over a tiled flooring.
The ascent of the staircase was accomplished, however, only with infinite care, Lanyard testing each rise before trusting it with his weight or the girl's. Twice he bade her skip one step lest the complaints of the ancient woodwork betray them. In spite of all this, no less than three hideous squeals were evoked before they gained the top; each indicating a pause and wait of several breathless seconds.
But it would seem that such servants as had been left in the house, in the absence of its chatelaine, either slept soundly or were accustomed to the midnight concert of those age-old timbers; and without mischance, at length, they entered the main reception-hall, revealed by the dancing spot-light as a room of noble proportions furnished with sombre magnificence.
Here the girl was left alone for a few minutes, while Lanyard darted above-stairs for a review of the state bedchambers and servants' quarters.
With a sensation of being crushed and suffocated by the encompassing dark mystery, she nerved herself against a protracted vigil. The obscurity on every hand seemed alive with stealthy footfalls, whisperings, murmurings, the passage of shrouded shapes of silence and of menace. Her eyes ached, her throat and temples throbbed, her skin crept, her scalp tingled. She seemed to hear a thousand different noises of alarm. The only sounds she did not hear were those—if any—that accompanied Lanyard's departure and return. Had he not been thoughtful enough, when a few feet distant, to give warning with the light, she might well have greeted with a cry of fright the consciousness of a presence near her: so silently he moved about. As it was, she was startled, apprehensive of some misadventure, to find him back so soon; for he hadn't been gone three minutes.
"It's quite all right," he announced in hushed accents—no longer whispering. "There are just five people in the house aside from ourselves—all servants, asleep in the rear wing. We've got a clear field—if no excuse for taking foolish chances! However, we'll be finished and off again in less than ten minutes. This way."
That way led to a huge and gloomy library at one extreme of a chain of great salons, a veritable treasure-gallery of exquisite furnishings and authentic old masters. As they moved slowly through these chambers Lanyard kept his flash-lamp busy; involuntarily, now and again, he checked the girl before some splendid canvas or extraordinary antique.
"I've always meant to happen in some day with a moving-van and loot this place properly!" he confessed with a little affected sigh. "Considered from the viewpoint of an expert practitioner in my—ah—late profession, it's a sin and a shame to let all this go neglected, when it's so poorly guarded. The old lady—Madame Omber, you know—has all the money there is, approximately, and when she dies all these beautiful things go to the Louvre; for she's without kith or kin."
"But how did she manage to accumulate them all?" the girl wondered. "It's the work of generations of passionate collectors," he explained. "The late Monsieur Omber was the last of his dynasty; he and his forebears brought together the paintings and the furniture; madame added the Orientals gathered together by her first husband, and her own collection of antique jewellery and precious stones—her particular fad...."
As he spoke the light of the flash-lamp was blotted out. An instant later the girl heard a little clashing noise, of curtain rings sliding along a pole; and this was thrice repeated.
Then, following another brief pause, a switch clicked; and streaming from the hood of a portable desk-lamp, a pool of light flooded the heart of a vast place of shadows, an apartment whose doors and windows alike were cloaked with heavy draperies that hung from floor to ceiling in long and shining folds. Immense black bookcases lined the walls, their shelves crowded with volumes in rich bindings; from their tops pallid marble masks peered down inquisitively, leering and scowling at the intruders. A huge mantelpiece of carved marble, supporting a great, dark mirror, occupied the best of one wall, beneath it a wide, deep fireplace yawned, partly shielded by a screen of wrought brass and crystal. In the middle of the room stood a library table of mahogany; huge leather chairs and couches encumbered the remainder of its space. And the corner to the right of the fireplace was shut off by a high Japanese screen of cinnabar and gold.
To this Lanyard moved confidently, carrying the lamp. Placing it on the floor, he grasped one wing of the screen with both hands, and at cost of considerable effort swung it aside, uncovering the face of a huge, old-style safe built into the wall.
For several seconds—but not for many—Lanyard studied this problem intently, standing quite motionless, his head lowered and thrust forward, hands resting on his hips. Then turning, he nodded an invitation to draw nearer.
"My last job," he said with a smile oddly lighted by the lamp at his feet—"and my easiest, I fancy. Sorry, too, for I'd rather have liked to show off a bit. But this old-fashioned tin bank gives no excuse for spectacular methods!"
"But," the girl objected, "You've brought no tools!"
"Oh, but I have!" And fumbling in a pocket, Lanyard produced a pencil. "Behold!" he laughed, brandishing it.
She knitted thoughtful brows: "I don't understand."
"All I need—except this."
Crossing to the desk, he found a sheet of note-paper and, folding it, returned.
"Now," he said, "give me five minutes...."
Kneeling, he gave the combination-knob a smart preliminary twirl, then rested a shoulder against the sheet of painted iron, his cheek to its smooth, cold cheek, his ear close beside the dial; and with the practised fingers of a master locksmith began to manipulate the knob.
Gently, tirelessly, to and fro he twisted, turned, raced, and checked the combination, caressing it, humouring it, wheedling it, inexorably questioning it in the dumb language his fingers spoke so deftly. And in his ear the click and whir and thump of shifting wards and tumblers murmured articulate response in the terms of their cryptic code.
Now and again, releasing the knob and sitting back on his heels, he would bend intent scrutiny to the dial; note the position of the combination, and with the pencil jot memoranda on the paper. This happened perhaps a dozen times, at intervals of irregular duration.
He worked diligently, in a phase of concentration that apparently excluded from his consciousness the near proximity of the girl, who stood—or rather stooped, half-kneeling—less than a pace from his shoulder, watching the process with interest hardly less keen than his own.
Yet when one faint, odd sound broke the slumberous silence of the salons, instantly he swung around and stood erect in a single movement, gaze to the curtains.
But it had only been a premonitory rumble in the throat of a tall old clock about to strike in the room beyond. And as its sonorous chimes heralded two deep-toned strokes, Lanyard laughed quietly, intimately, to the girl's startled eyes, and sank back before the safe.
And now his task was nearly finished. Within another minute he sat back with face aglow, uttered a hushed exclamation of satisfaction, studied his memoranda for a space, then swiftly and with assured movements threw the knob and dial into the several positions of the combination, grasped the lever-handle, turned it smartly, and swung the door wide open.
"Simple, eh?" he chuckled, with a glance aside to the girl's eager face, bewitchingly flushed and shadowed by the lamp's up-thrown glow—"when one knows the trick, of course! And now ... if one were not an honest man!"
A wave of his hand indicated the pigeonholes with which the body of the safe was fitted: wide spaces and deep, stored tight with an extraordinary array of leather jewel-cases, packets of stout paper bound with tape and sealed, and boxes of wood and pasteboard of every shape and size.
"They were only her finest pieces, her personal jewels, that Madame Omber took with her to England," he explained; "she's mad about them ... never separated from them.... Perhaps the finest collection in the world, for size and purity of water.... She had the heart to leave these—all this!"
Lifting a hand he chose at random, dislodged two leather cases, placed them on the floor, and with a blade of his pen-knife forced their fastenings.
From the first the light smote radiance in blinding, coruscant welter. Here was nothing but diamond jewellery, mostly in antique settings.
He took up a piece and offered it to the girl. She drew back her hand involuntarily.
"No!" she protested in a whisper of fright.
"But just look!" he urged. "There's no danger ... and you'll never see the like of this again!"
Stubbornly she withheld her hand. "No, no!" she pleaded. "I—I'd rather not touch it. Put it back. Let's hurry. I—I'm frightened."
He shrugged and replaced the jewel; then yielded again to impulse of curiosity and lifted the lid of the second case.
It contained nothing but pieces set with coloured stones of the first order—emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, rubies, topaz, garnets, lapis-lazuli, jacinthes, jades, fashioned by master-craftsmen into rings, bracelets, chains, brooches, lockets, necklaces, of exquisite design: the whole thrown heedlessly together, without order or care.
For a moment the adventurer stared down soberly at this priceless hoard, his eyes narrowing, his breathing perceptibly quickened. Then with a slow gesture, he reclosed the case, took from his pocket that other which he had brought from London, opened it, and held it aside beneath the light, for the girl's inspection.
He looked not once either at its contents or at her, fearing lest his countenance betray the truth, that he had not yet succeeded completely in exorcising that mutinous and rebellious spirit, the Lone Wolf, from the tenement over which it had so long held sway; and content with the sound of her quick, startled sigh of amaze that what she now beheld could so marvellously outshine what had been disclosed by the other boxes, he withdrew it, shut it, found it a place in the safe, and without pause closed the door, shot the bolts, and twirled the dial until the tumblers fairly sang.
One final twist of the lever-handle convincing him that the combination was effectively dislocated, he rose, picked up the lamp, replaced it on the desk with scrupulous care to leave no sign that it had been moved, and looked round to the girl.
She was where he had left her, a small, tense, vibrant figure among the shadows, her eyes dark pools of wonder in a face of blazing pallor.
With a high head and his shoulders well back he made a gesture signifying more eloquently than any words: "All that is ended!"
"And now...?" she asked breathlessly.
"Now for our get-away," he replied with assumed lightness. "Before dawn we must be out of Paris.... Two minutes, while I straighten this place up and leave it as I found it."
He moved back to the safe, restored the wing of the screen to the spot from which he had moved it, and after an instant's close examination of the rug, began to explore his pockets.
"What are you looking for?" the girl enquired.
"My memoranda of the combination—"
"I have it." She indicated its place in a pocket of her coat. "You left it on the floor, and I was afraid you might forget—"
"No fear!" he laughed. "No"—as she offered him the folded paper—"keep it and destroy it, once we're out of this. Now those portieres..."
Extinguishing the desk-light, he turned attention to the draperies at doors and windows....
Within five minutes, they were once more in the silent streets of Passy.
They had to walk as far as the Trocadero before Lanyard found a fiacre, which he later dismissed at the corner in the Faubourg St. Germain.
Another brief walk brought them to a gate in the garden wall of a residence at the junction of two quiet streets.
"This, I think, ends our Parisian wanderings," Lanyard announced. "If you'll be good enough to keep an eye out for busybodies—and yourself as inconspicuous as possible in this doorway..."
And he walked back to the curb, measuring the wall with his eye.
"What are you going to do?"
He responded by doing it so swiftly that she gasped with surprise: pausing momentarily within a yard of the wall, he gathered himself together, shot lithely into the air, caught the top curbing with both hands, and...
She heard the soft thud of his feet on the earth of the enclosure; the latch grated behind her; the door opened.
"For the last time," Lanyard laughed quietly, "permit me to invite you to break the law by committing an act of trespass!"
Securing the door, he led her to a garden bench secluded amid conventional shrubbery.
"If you'll wait here," he suggested—"well, it will be best. I'll be back as soon as possible, though I may be detained some time. Still, inasmuch as I'm about to break into this hotel, my motives, which are most commendable, may be misinterpreted, and I'd rather you'd stop here, with the street at hand. If you hear a noise like trouble, you've only to unlatch the gate.... But let's hope my purely benevolent intentions toward the French Republic won't be misconstrued!"
"I'll wait," she assured him bravely; "but won't you tell me—?"
With a gesture, he indicated the mansion back of the garden.
"I'm going to break in there to pay an early morning call and impart some interesting information to a person of considerable consequence—nobody less, in fact, than Monsieur Ducroy."
"And who is that?"
"The present Minister of War.... We haven't as yet the pleasure of each other's acquaintance; still, I think he won't be sorry to see me.... In brief, I mean to make him a present of the Huysman plans and bargain for our safe-conduct from France."
Impulsively she offered her hand and, when he, surprised, somewhat diffidently took it, "Be careful!" she whispered brokenly, her pale sweet face upturned to his. "Oh, do be careful! I am afraid for you...."
And for a little the temptation to take her in his arms was stronger than any he had ever known....
But remembering his stipulated year of probation, he released her hand with an incoherent mumble, turned, and disappeared in the direction of the house.
THE FORLORN HOPE
Established behind his splendid mahogany desk in his office at the Ministere de la Guerre, or moving majestically abroad attired in frock coat and glossy topper, or lending the dignity of his presence to some formal ceremony in that beautiful uniform which appertained unto his office, Monsieur Hector Ducroy cut an imposing figure.
Abed ... it was sadly otherwise.
Lanyard switched on the bedside light, turning it so that it struck full upon the face of the sleeper; and as he sat down, smiled.
The Minister of War lay upon his back, his distinguished corpulence severely dislocating the chaste simplicity of the bed-clothing. Athwart his shelving chest, fat hands were folded in a gesture affectingly naive. His face was red, a noble high-light shone upon the promontory of his bald pate, his mouth was open. To the best of his unconscious ability he was giving a protracted imitation of a dog-fight; and he was really exhibiting sublime virtuosity: one readily distinguished individual howls, growls, yelps, against an undertone of blended voices of excited non-combatants...
As suddenly as though some one, wearying of the entertainment, had lifted the needle from that record, it was discontinued. The Minister of War stirred uneasily in his sleep, muttered a naughty word, opened one eye, scowled, opened the other.
He blinked furiously, half-blinded but still able to make out the disconcerting silhouette of a man seated just beyond the glare: a quiet presence that moved not but eyed him steadfastly; an apparition the more arresting because of its very immobility.
Rapidly the face of the Minister of War lost several shades of purple. He moistened his lips nervously with a thick, dry tongue, and convulsively he clutched the bed-clothing high and tight about his neck, as though labouring under the erroneous impression that the sanctity of his person was threatened.
"What do you want, monsieur?" he stuttered in a still, small voice which he would have been the last to acknowledge his own.
"I desire to discuss a matter of business with monsieur," replied the intruder after a small pause. "If you will be good enough to calm yourself—"
"I am perfectly calm—"
But here the Minister of War verified with one swift glance an earlier impression, to the effect that the trespasser was holding something that shone with metallic lustre; and his soul began to curl up round the edges.
"There are eighteen hundred francs in my pocketbook—about," he managed to articulate. "My watch is on the stand here. You will find the family plate in the dining-room safe, behind the buffet—the key is on my ring—and the jewels of madame my wife are in a small strong-box beneath the head of her bed. The combination—"
"Pardon: monsieur labours under a misapprehension," the housebreaker interposed drily. "Had one desired these valuables, one would readily have taken them without going to the trouble of disturbing the repose of monsieur.... I have, however, already mentioned the nature of my errand."
"Eh?" demanded the Minister of War. "What is that? But give me of your mercy one chance to explain! I have never wittingly harmed you, monsieur, and if I have done so without my knowledge, rest assured you have but to petition me through the proper channels and I will be only too glad to make amends!"
"Still you do not listen!" the other insisted. "Come, Monsieur Ducroy—calm yourself. I have not robbed you, because I have no wish to rob you. I have not harmed you, for I have no wish to harm you. Nor have I any wish other than to lay before you, as representing Government, a certain matter of State business."
There was silence while the Minister of War permitted this exhortation to sink in. Then, apparently reassured, he sat up in bed and eyed his untimely visitor with a glare little short of truculent.
"Eh? What's that?" he demanded. "Business? What sort of business? If you wish to submit to my consideration any matter of business, how is it you break into my home at dead of night and rouse me in this brutal fashion"—here his voice faltered—"with a lethal weapon pointed at my head?"
"Monsieur will admit he speaks under an error," returned the burglar. "I have yet to point this pistol at him. I should be very sorry to feel obliged to do so. I display it, in fact, simply that monsieur may not forget himself and attempt to summon servants in his resentment of this (I admit) unusual method of introducing one's self to his attention. When we understand each other better there will be no need for such precautions, and then I shall put my pistol away, so that the sight of it may no longer annoy monsieur."
"It is true, I do not understand you," grumbled the Minister of War. "Why—if your errand be peaceable—break into my house?"
"Because it was urgently necessary to see monsieur instantly. Monsieur will reflect upon the reception one would receive did one ring the front door-bell and demand audience at three o'clock in the morning!"
"Well ..." Monsieur Ducroy conceded dubiously. Then, on reflection, he iterated the monosyllable testily: "Well! What is it you want, then?"
"I can best explain by asking monsieur to examine—what I have to show him."
With this Lanyard dropped the pistol into his coat-pocket, from another produced a gold cigarette-case, and from the store of this last with meticulous care selected a single cigarette.
Regarding the Minister of War in a mystifying manner, he began to roll the cigarette briskly between his palms. A small shower of tobacco sifted to the floor: the rice-paper cracked and came away; and with the bland smile and gesture of a professional conjurer, Lanyard exhibited a small cylinder of stiff paper between his thumb and index-finger.
Goggling resentfully, Monsieur Ducroy spluttered:
"Eh—what impudence is this?"
His smile unchanged, Lanyard bent forward and silently dropped the cylinder into the Frenchman's hand. At the same time he offered him a pocket magnifying-glass. "What is this?" Ducroy persisted stupidly. "What—what—!"
"If monsieur will be good enough to unroll the papers and examine them with the aid of this glass—"
With a wondering grunt, the other complied, unrolling several small sheets of photographer's printing-out paper, to which several extraordinarily complicated and minute designs had been transferred—strongly resembling laborious efforts to conventionalize a spider's web.
But no sooner had Monsieur Ducroy viewed these through the glass, than he started violently, uttered an excited exclamation, and subjected them to an examination both prolonged and exacting.
"Monsieur is, no doubt, now satisfied?" Lanyard enquired when his patience would endure no longer.
"These are genuine?" the Minister of War demanded sharply, without looking up.
"Monsieur can readily discern notations made upon the drawings by the inventor, Georges Huysman, in his own hand. Furthermore, each plan has been marked in the lower left-hand corner with the word 'accepted' followed by the initials of the German Minister of War. I think this establishes beyond dispute the authenticity of these photographs of the plan for Huysman's invention."
"Yes," the Minister of War agreed breathlessly. "You have the negatives from which these prints were made?"