HotFreeBooks.com
The Lone Wolf - A Melodrama
by Louis Joseph Vance
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"Here," Lanyard said, indicating a second cigarette.

And then, with a movement so leisurely and careless that his purpose was accomplished before the other in his preoccupation was aware of it, the adventurer leaned forward and swept up the prints from the counterpane in front of Monsieur Ducroy.

"Here!" the Frenchman exclaimed. "Why do you do that?"

"Monsieur no longer questions their authenticity?"

"I grant you that."

"Then I return to myself these prints, pending negotiations for their transfer to France."

"How did you come by them?" demanded Monsieur Ducroy, after a moment's thought.

"Need monsieur ask? Is France so ill-served by her spies that you do not already know of the misfortune one Captain Ekstrom recently suffered in London?"

Ducroy shook his head. Lanyard received this indication with impatience. It seemed hardly possible that the French Minister of War could be either so stupid or so ignorant....

But with a patient shrug, he proceeded to elucidate.

"Captain Ekstrom," he said, "but recently succeeded in photographing these plans and took them to London to sell to the English. Unfortunately for himself—unhappily for perfidious Albion!—Captain Ekstrom fell in with me and mistook me for Downing Street's representative. And here are the plans."

"You are—the Lone Wolf—then?"

"I am, as far as concerns you, monsieur, merely the person in possession of these plans, who offers them through you, to France, for a price."

"But why introduce yourself to me in this extraordinary fashion, for a transaction for which the customary channels —with which you must be familiar—are entirely adequate?"

"Simply because Ekstrom has followed me to Paris," Lanyard explained indulgently. "Did I venture to approach you in the usual way, my chances of rounding out a useful life thereafter would be practically nil. Furthermore, my circumstances are such that it has become necessary for me to leave France immediately—without an hour's delay—also secretly; else I might as well remain here to be butchered.... Now you command the only means I know of, to accomplish my purpose. And that is the price, the only price, you will have to pay me for these plans."

"I don't understand you."

"It is on schedule, is it not, that Captain Vauquelin of the Aviation Corps is to attempt a non-stop flight from Paris to London this morning, with two passengers, in a new Parrott biplane?"

"That is so.... Well?"

"I must be one of those passengers; and I have a companion, a young lady, who will take the place of the other."

"It isn't possible, monsieur. Those arrangements are already fixed."

"You will countermand them."

"There is no time—"

"You can get into telephonic communication with Port Aviation in two minutes."

"But the passengers have been promised—"

"You will disappoint them."

"The start is to be made in the first flush of daylight. How could you reach Port Aviation in time?"

"In your motor-car, monsieur."

"It cannot be done."

"It must! If the start must be delayed till we arrive, you will give orders that it shall be so delayed."

For a minute the Minister of War hesitated; then he shook his head definitely.

"The difficulties are insuperable—"

"There is no such thing, monsieur."

"I am sorry: it can't be done."

"That is your answer?"

"It is regrettable, monsieur..."

"Very well!" Lanyard bent forward again, took a match from the stand on the bedside table, and struck it. Very calmly he advanced the flame toward the cigarette containing the roll of inflammable films.

"Monsieur!" Ducroy cried in horror. "What are you doing?"

Lanyard favoured him with a look of surprise.

"I am about to destroy these films and prints."

"You must never do that!"

"Why not? They are mine, to do with as I like. If I cannot dispose of them at my price, I shall destroy them!"

"But—my God!—what you demand is impossible! Stay, monsieur! Think what your action means to France!"

"I have already thought of that. Now I must think of myself."

"But—one moment!"

Ducroy sat up in bed and dangled hairy fat legs over the side.

"But one moment only, monsieur. Don't make me waste your matches!"

"Monsieur, it shall be as you desire, if it lies in my power to accomplish it."

With this the Minister of War stood up and made for the telephone, in his agitation forgetful of dressing-gown and slippers.

"You must accomplish it, Monsieur Ducroy," Lanyard advised him gravely, puffing out the flame; "for if you fail, you make yourself the instrument of my death. Here are the plans."

"You trust them to me?" Ducroy asked in astonishment.

"But naturally: that makes it an affair of your honour," Lanyard explained suavely.

With a gesture of graceful capitulation the Frenchman accepted the little roll of film.

"Permit me," he said, "to acknowledge the honour of monsieur's confidence!"

Lanyard bowed low: "One knows with whom one deals, monsieur!... And now, if you will be good enough to excuse me...."

He turned to the door.

"But—eh—where are you going?" Ducroy demanded.

"Mademoiselle," Lanyard said, pausing on the threshold—"that is, the young lady who is to accompany me—is waiting anxiously in the garden, out yonder. I go to find and reassure her and—with your permission—to bring her in to the library, where we will await monsieur when he has finished telephoning and—ah—repaired the deficiencies in his attire; which one trusts he will forgive one's mentioning!"

He bowed again, impudently, gaily, and—when the Minister of War looked up again sheepishly from contemplation of his naked shanks—had vanished.

In high feather Lanyard made his way to a door at the rear of the house which gave upon the garden—in his new social status of Governmental protege disdaining any such a commonplace avenue as that conservatory window whose fastenings he had forced on entering. And boldly unbolting the door, he ran out into the night, to rejoin his beloved, like a man waking to new life.

But she was no more there: the bench was vacant, the garden deserted, the gateway yawning on the street.

With a low, stifled cry, Lanyard turned from the bench and stumbled out to the junction of the cross-street. But nowhere in their several perspectives could he see anything that moved.

After some time he returned to the garden and quartered it with the thoroughness of a pointer beating a covert. But he did this hopelessly, bitterly aware that the outcome would be precisely what it eventually was, that is to say, nothing....

He was kneeling beside the bench—scrutinizing the turf with microscopic attention by aid of his flash-lamp, seeking some sign of struggle to prove she had not left him willingly, and finding none—when a voice brought him momentarily out of his distraction.

He looked up wildly, to discover Ducroy standing over him, his stout person chastely swathed in a quilted dressing-gown and trousers, his expression one of stupefaction.

"Well, monsieur—well?" the Minister of War demanded irritably. "What—I repeat—what are you doing there?"

Lanyard essayed response, choked up, and gulped. He rose and stood swaying, showing a stricken face.

"Eh?" Ducroy insisted with an accent of exasperation. "Why do you stand glaring at me like that—eh? Come, monsieur: what ails you? I have arranged everything, I say. Where is mademoiselle?"

Lanyard made a broken gesture.

"Gone!" he muttered forlornly.

Instantly the countenance of the stout Frenchman was lightened with a gleam of eager interest—inveterate romantic that he was!—and he stepped nearer, peering closely into the face of the adventurer.

"Gone?" he echoed. "Mademoiselle? Your sweetheart, eh?"

Lanyard assented with a disconsolate nod and sigh. Impatiently Ducroy caught him by the sleeve.

"Come!" he insisted, tugging—"but come at once into the house. Now, monsieur—now at length you enlist all one's sympathies! Come, I say! Is it your desire that I catch my death of cold?"

Indifferently Lanyard suffered himself to be led away.

He was, indeed, barely conscious of what was happening. All his being was possessed by the thought that she had forsaken him. And he could well guess why: impossible for such an one as she to contemplate without a shudder association with the man who had been what he had been! Infatuate!—to have dreamed that she would tolerate the devotion of a criminal, that she could ever forget his identity with the Lone Wolf. Inevitably—soon or late—she must have fled that ignominious thought in dread and horror, daring whatever consequences to escape and forget both it and him. And better now, perhaps, than later....



XVIII

ENIGMA

He found no reason to believe she had left him other than voluntarily, or that their adventures since the escape from the impasse Stanislas had been attended upon by spies of the Pack. He could have sworn they hadn't been followed either to or from the rue des Acacias; their way had been too long and purposely too roundabout, his vigilance too lively, for any sort of surveillance to have been practised without his remarking some indication thereof, at one time or another.

On the other hand (he told himself) there was every reason to believe she hadn't left him to go back to Bannon; concerning whom she had expressed herself too forcibly to excuse a surmise that she had preferred his protection to the Lone Wolf's.

Reasoning thus, he admitted, one couldn't blame her. He could readily see how, illuded at first by a certain romantic glamour, she had not, until left to herself in the garden, come to clear perception of the fact that she was casting her lot with a common criminal's. Then, horror overmastering her of a sudden she had fled—wildly, blindly, he didn't doubt. But whither? He looked in vain for her at their agreed rendezvous, the Sacre Coeur. She had neither money nor friends in Paris.

True: she had mentioned some personal jewellery she planned to hypothecate. Her first move, then, would be to seek the mont-de-piete— not to force himself again upon her, but to follow at a distance and ward off interference on Bannon's part.

The Government pawn-shop had its invitation for Lanyard himself: he was there before the doors were open for the day; and fortified by loans negotiated on his watch, cigarette-case, and a ring or two, retired to a cafe commanding a view of the entrance on the rue des Blancs-Manteaux, and settled himself against a day-long vigil.

It wasn't easy; drowsiness buzzed in his brain and weighted his eyelids; now and again, involuntarily, he nodded over his glass of black coffee. And when evening came and the mont-de-piete closed for the night, he rose and stumbled off, wondering if possibly he had napped a little without his knowledge and so missed her visit.

Engaging obscure lodgings close by the rue des Acacias, he slept till nearly noon of the following day, then rose to put into execution a design which had sprung full-winged from his brain at the instant of wakening.

He had not only his car but a chauffeur's license of long standing in the name of Pierre Lamier—was free, in short, to range at will the streets of Paris. And when he had levied on the stock of a second-hand clothing shop and a chemist's, he felt tolerably satisfied it would need sharp eyes—whether the Pack's or the Prefecture's—to identify "Pierre Lamier" with either Michael Lanyard or the Lone Wolf.

His face, ears and neck he stained a weather-beaten brown, a discreet application of rouge along his cheekbones enhancing the effect of daily exposure to the winter winds and rains of Paris; and he gave his hands an even darker shade, with the added verisimilitude of finger-nails inked into permanent mourning. Also, he refrained from shaving: a stubble of two days' neglect bristled upon his chin and jowls. A rusty brown ulster with cap to match, shoddy trousers boasting conspicuous stripes of leaden colour, and patched boots completed the disguise.

Monsieur and madame of the conciergerie he deceived with a yarn of selling his all to purchase the motor-car and embark in business for himself; and with their blessing, sallied forth to scout Paris diligently for sight or sign of the woman to whom his every heart-beat was dedicated.

By the close of the third day he was ready to concede that she had managed to escape without his aid.

And he began to suspect that Bannon had fled the town as well; for the most diligent enquiries failed to educe the least clue to the movements of the American following the fire at Troyon's.

As for Troyon's, it was now nothing more than a gaping excavation choked with ashes and charred timbers; and though still rumours of police interest in the origin of the fire persisted, nothing in the papers linked the name of Michael Lanyard with their activities. His disappearance and Lucy Shannon's seemed to be accepted as due to death in the holocaust; the fact that their bodies hadn't been recovered was no longer a matter for comment.

In short, Paris had already lost interest in the affair.

Even so, it seemed, had the Pack lost interest in the Lone Wolf; or else his disguise was impenetrable. Twice he saw De Morbihan "flanning" elegantly on the Boulevards, and once he passed close by Popinot; but neither noticed him.

Toward midnight of the third day, Lanyard, driving slowly westward on the boulevard de la Madeleine, noticed a limousine of familiar aspect round a corner half a block ahead and, drawing up in front of Viel's, discharge four passengers.

The first was Wertheimer; and at sight of his rather striking figure, decked out in evening apparel from Conduit street and Bond, Lanyard slackened speed.

Turning as he alighted, the Englishman offered his hand to a young woman. She jumped down to the sidewalk in radiant attire and a laughing temper.

Involuntarily Lanyard stopped his car; and one immediately to the rear, swerving out to escape collision, shot past, its driver cursing him freely; while a sergent de ville scowled darkly and uttered an imperative word.

He pulled himself together, somehow, and drove on.

The girl was entering the restaurant by way of the revolving door, Wertheimer in attendance; while De Morbihan, having alighted, was lending a solicitous arm to Bannon.

Quite automatically the adventurer drove on, rounded the Madeleine, and turned up the boulevard Malesherbes. Paris and all its brisk midnight traffic swung by without claiming a tithe of his interest: he was mainly conscious of lights that reeled dizzily round him like a multitude of malicious, mocking eyes....

At the junction with the boulevard Haussmann a second sergent de ville roused him with a warning about careless driving. He went more sanely thereafter, but bore a heart of utter misery; his eyes still wore a dazed expression, and now and again he shook his head impatiently as though to rid it of a swarm of tormenting thoughts.

So, it seemed, he had all along been her dupe; all the while that he had been ostentatiously shielding her from harm and diffidently discovering every evidence of devotion, she had been laughing in her sleeve and planning to return to the service she pretended to despise, with her report of a fool self-duped.

A great anger welled in his bosom.

Turning round, he made back to the boulevard de la Madeleine, and on one pretext and another contrived to haunt the neighbourhood of Viel's until the party reappeared, something after one o'clock.

It was plain that they had supped merrily; the girl seemed in the gayest humour, Wertheimer a bit exhilarated, De Morbihan much amused; even Bannon—bearing heavily on the Frenchman's arm—was chuckling contentedly. The party piled back into De Morbihan's limousine and was driven up the avenue des Champs Elysees, pausing at the Elysee Palace Hotel to drop Bannon and the girl—his daughter?—whoever she was!

Whither it went thereafter, Lanyard didn't trouble to ascertain. He drove morosely home and went to bed, though not to sleep for many hours: bitterness of disillusion ate like an acid in his heart.

But for all his anguish, he continued in an uncertain temper. He had turned his back on the craft of which he was acknowledged master—for a woman's sake; for nothing else (he argued) had he dedicated himself to poverty and honest effort; and what little privation he had already endured was hopelessly distasteful to him. The art of the Lone Wolf, his consummate cunning and subtlety, was still at his command; with only himself to think of, he was profoundly contemptuous of the antagonism of the Pack; while none knew better than he with what ease the riches of careless Paris might be diverted to his own pockets. A single step aside from the path he had chosen—and tomorrow night he might dine at the Ritz instead of in some sordid cochers' cabaret!

And since no one cared—since she had betrayed his faith—what mattered?

Why not...?

Yet he could not come to a decision; the next day saw him obstinately, even a little stupidly, pursuing the course he had planned before his disheartening disillusionment.

Because his money was fast ebbing and motives of prudence alone—if none more worthy—forbade an attempt to replenish his pocketbook by revisiting the little rez-de-chaussee in the rue Roget and realizing on its treasures, he had determined to have a taximeter fitted to his car and ply for hire until time or chance should settle the question of his future.

Already, indeed, he had complied with the police regulations, and received permission to convert his voiture de remise into a taxicab; and leaving it before noon at the designated depot, he was told it would be ready for him at four with the "clock" installed. Returning at that hour, he learned that it couldn't be ready before six; and too bored and restless to while away two idle hours in a cafe, he wandered listlessly through the streets and boulevards—indifferent, in the black melancholy oppressing him, whether or not he were recognized—and eventually found himself turning from the rue St. Honore through the place Vendome to the rue de la Paix.

This was not wise, a perilous business, a course he had no right to pursue. And Lanyard knew it. None the less, he persisted.

It was past five o'clock—deep twilight beneath a cloudless sky—the life of that street of streets fluent at its swiftest. All that Paris knew of wealth and beauty, fashion and high estate, moved between the curbs. One needed the temper of a Stoic to maintain indifference to the allure of its pageant.

Trudging steadily, he of the rusty brown ulster all but touched shoulders with men who were all that he had been but a few days since— hale, hearty, well-fed, well-dressed symbols of prosperity—and with exquisite women, exquisitely gowned, extravagantly be-furred and be-jewelled, of glowing faces and eyes dark with mystery and promise: spirited creatures whose laughter was soft music, whose gesture was pride and arrogance.

One and all looked past, over, and through him, unaffectedly unaware that he existed.

The roadway, its paving worn as smooth as glass, and tonight by grace of frost no less hard, rang with a clatter of hoofs high and clear above the resonance of motors. A myriad lights filled the wide channel with diffused radiance. Two endless ranks of shop-windows, facing one another—across the tide, flaunted treasures that kings might pardonably have coveted—and would.

Before one corner window, Lanyard paused instinctively.

The shop was that of a famous jeweller. Separated from him by only the thickness of plate-glass was the wealth of princes. Looking beyond that display, his attention focussed on the interior of an immense safe, to which a dapper French salesman was restoring velvet-lined trays of valuables. Lanyard studied the intricate, ponderous mechanism of the safe-door with a thoughtful gaze not altogether innocent of sardonic bias. It wore all the grim appearance of a strong-box that, once locked, would prove impregnable to everything save acquaintance with the combination and the consent of the time-lock. But give the Lone Wolf twenty minutes alone with it, twenty minutes free from interruption—he, the one man living who could seduce a time-lock and leave it apparently inviolate!...

To one side of that window stood a mirror, set at an angle, and suddenly Lanyard caught its presentment of himself—a gaunt and hungry apparition, with a wolfish air he had never worn when rejoicing in his sobriquet, staring with eyes of predaceous lustre.

Alarmed and fearing lest some passer-by be struck by this betrayal, he turned and moved on hastily.

But his mind was poisoned by this brutal revelation of the wide, deep gulf that yawned between the Lone Wolf of yesterday and Pierre Lamier of today; between Michael Lanyard the debonnaire, the amateur of fine arts and fine clothing, the beau sabreur of gentlemen-cracksmen and that lean, worn, shabby and dispirited animal who had glared back at him from the jeweller's mirror.

He quickened his pace, with something of that same instinct of self-preservation that bids the dipsomaniac avert his eyes and hurry past the corner gin-mill, and turned blindly off into the rue Danou, toward the avenue de l'Opera.

But this only made it worse for him, for he could not avoid recognition of the softly glowing windows of the Cafe de Paris that knew him so well, or forget the memory of its shining rich linen, its silver and crystal, its perfumed atmosphere and luxury of warmth and music and shaded lights, its cuisine that even Paris cannot duplicate.

And the truth came home to him, that he was hungry not with that brute appetite he had money enough in his pocket to satisfy, but with the lust of flesh-pots, for rare viands and old vintage wines, to know once more the snug embrace of a dress-coat and to breathe again the atmosphere of ease and station.

In sudden panic he darted across the avenue and hurried north, determined to tantalize himself no longer with sights and sounds so provocative and so disturbing.

Half-way across the boulevard des Capucines, to the east of the Opera, he leapt for his life from a man-killing taxi, found himself temporarily marooned upon one of those isles of safety which Paris has christened "thank-Gods," and stood waiting for an opening in the congestion of traffic to permit passage to the farther sidewalk.

And presently the policeman in the middle of the boulevard signalled with his little white wand; the stream of east-bound vehicles checked and began to close up to the right of the crossing, upon which they encroached jealously; and a taxi on the outside, next the island, overshot the mark, pulled up sharply, and began to back into place. Before Lanyard could stir, its window was opposite him, and he was looking in, transfixed.

There was sufficient light to enable him to see clearly the face of the passenger—its pale oval and the darkness of eyes whose gaze clung to his with an effect of confused fascination....

She sat quite motionless until one white-gloved hand moved uncertainly toward her bosom.

That brought him to; unconsciously lifting his cap, he stepped back a pace and started to move on.

At this, she bent quickly forward and unlatched the door. It swung wide to him.

Hardly knowing what he was doing, he accepted the dumb invitation, stepped in, took the empty seat, and closed the door.

Almost at once the car moved on with a jerk, the girl sinking back into her corner with a suggestion of breathlessness, as though her effort to seem composed had been almost too much for her strength.

Her face, turned toward Lanyard, seemed wan in the half light, but immobile, expressionless; only her eyes were darkly quick with anticipation.

On his part, Lanyard felt himself hopelessly confounded, in the grasp of emotions that would scarce suffer him to speak. A great wonder obsessed him that she should have opened that door to him no less than that he should have entered through it. Dimly he understood that each had acted without premeditation; and asked himself, was she already regretting that momentary weakness.

"Why did you do that?" he heard himself demand abruptly, his voice harsh, strained, and unnatural.

She stiffened slightly, with a nervous movement of her shoulders.

"Because I saw you... I was surprised; I had hoped—believed—you had left Paris."

"Without you? Hardly!"

"But you must," she insisted—"you must go, as quickly as possible. It isn't safe—"

"I'm all right," he insisted—"able-bodied—in full possession of my senses!"

"But any moment you may be recognized—"

"In this rig? It isn't likely.... Not that I care."

She surveyed his costume curiously, perplexed.

"Why are you dressed that way? Is it a disguise?"

"A pretty good one. But in point of fact, it's the national livery of my present station in life."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Simply that, out of my old job, I've turned to the first resort of the incompetent: I'm driving a taxi."

"Isn't it awfully—risky?"

"You'd think so; but it isn't. Few people ever bother to look at a chauffeur. When they hail a taxi they're in a hurry, as a rule— preoccupied with business or pleasure. And then our uniforms are a disguise in themselves: to the public eye we look like so many Chinamen!"

"But you're mistaken: I knew you instantly, didn't I? And those others—they're as keen-witted as I—certainly. Oh, you should not have stopped on in Paris!"

"I couldn't go without knowing what had become of you."

"I was afraid of that," she confessed.

"Then why—?"

"Oh, I know what you're going to say! Why did I run away from you?" And then, since he said nothing, she continued unhappily: "I can't tell you... I mean, I don't know how to tell you!"

She kept her face averted, sat gazing blankly out of the window; but when he sat on, mute and unresponsive—in point of fact not knowing what to say—she turned to look at him, and the glare of a passing lamp showed her countenance profoundly distressed, mouth tense, brows knotted, eyes clouded with perplexity and appeal.

And of a sudden, seeing her so tormented and so piteous, his indignation ebbed, and with it all his doubts of her were dissipated; dimly he divined that something behind this dark fabric of mystery and inconsistency, no matter how inexplicable to him, excused all her apparent faithlessness and instability of character and purpose. He could not look upon this girl and hear her voice and believe that she was not at heart as sound and sweet, tender and loyal, as any that ever breathed.

A wave of tenderness and compassion brimmed his heart; he realized that he didn't matter, that his amour propre was of no account—that nothing mattered so long as she were spared one little pang of self-reproach.

He said, gently: "I wouldn't have you distress yourself on my account, Miss Shannon... I quite understand there must be things I can't understand—that you must have had your reasons for acting as you did."

"Yes," she said unevenly, but again with eyes averted—"I had; but they're not easy, they're impossible to explain—to you."

"Yet—when all's said and done—I've no right to exact any explanation."

"Ah, but how can you say that, remembering what we've been through together?"

"You owe me nothing," he insisted; "whereas I owe you everything, even unquestioning faith. Even though I fail, I have this to thank you for—this one not-ignoble impulse my life has known."

"You mustn't say that, you mustn't think it. I don't deserve it. You wouldn't say it—if you knew—"

"Perhaps I can guess enough to satisfy myself."

She gave him a swift, sidelong look of challenge, instinctively on the defensive.

"Why," she almost gasped—"what do you think—?"

"Does it matter what I think?"

"It does, to me: I wish to know!"

"Well," he conceded reluctantly, "I think that, when you had a chance to consider things calmly, waiting back there in the garden, you made up your mind it would be better to—to use your best judgment and—extricate yourself from an embarrassing position—"

"You think that!" she interrupted bitterly. "You think that, after you had confided in me; after you'd confessed—when I made you, led you on to it—that you cared for me; after you'd told me how much my faith meant to you—you think that, after all that, I deliberately abandoned you because I suddenly realized you had been the Lone Wolf—!"

"I'm sorry if I hurt you. But what can I think?"

"But you are wrong!" she protested vehemently—"quite, quite wrong! I ran away from myself—not from you—and with another motive, too, that I can't explain."

"You ran away from yourself—not from me?" he repeated, puzzled.

"Don't you understand? Why make it so hard for me? Why make me say outright what pains me so?"

"Oh, I beg of you—"

"But if you won't understand otherwise—I must tell you, I suppose." She checked, breathless, flushed, trembling. "You recall our talk after dinner, that night—how I asked what if you found out you'd been mistaken in me, that I had deceived you; and how I told you it would be impossible for me ever to marry you?"

"I remember."

"It was because of that," she said—"I ran away; because I hadn't been talking idly; because you were mistaken in me, because I was deceiving you, because I could never marry you, and because—suddenly— I came to know that, if I didn't go then and there, I might never find the strength to leave you, and only suffering and unhappiness could come of it all. I had to go, as much for your sake as for my own."

"You mean me to understand, you found you were beginning to—to care a little for me?"

She made an effort to speak, but in the end answered only with a dumb inclination of her head.

"And ran away because love wasn't possible between us?"

Again she nodded silently.

"Because I had been a criminal, I presume!"

"You've no right to say that—"

"What else can I think? You tell me you were afraid I might persuade you to become my wife—something which, for some inexplicable reason, you claim is impossible. What other explanation can I infer? What other explanation is needed? It's ample, it covers everything, and I've no warrant to complain—God knows!"

She tried to protest, but he cut her short.

"There's one thing I don't understand at all! If that is so, if your repugnance for criminal associations made you run away from me—why did you go back to Bannon?"

She started and gave him a furtive, frightened glance.

"You knew that?"

"I saw you—last night—followed you from Viel's to your hotel."

"And you thought," she flashed in a vibrant voice—"you thought I was in his company of my own choice!"

"You didn't seem altogether downcast," he countered, "Do you wish me to understand you were with him against your will?"

"No," she said slowly.... "No: I returned to him voluntarily, knowing perfectly what I was about."

"Through fear of him—?"

"No. I can't claim that."

"Rather than me—?"

"You'll never understand," she told him a little wearily—"never. It was a matter of duty. I had to go back—I had to!"

Her voice trailed off into a broken little sob. But as, moved beyond his strength to resist, Lanyard put forth a hand to take the white-gloved one resting on the cushion beside her, she withdrew it with a swift gesture of denial.

"No!" she cried. "Please! You mustn't do that... You only make it harder..."

"But you love me!"

"I can't. It's impossible. I would—but I may not!"

"Why?"

"I can't tell you."

"If you love me, you must tell me."

She was silent, the white hands working nervously with her handkerchief.

"Lucy!" he insisted—"you must say what stands between you and my love. It's true, I've no right to ask, as I had no right to speak to you of love. But when we've said as much as we have said—we can't stop there. You will tell me, dear?"

She shook her head: "It—it's impossible."

"But you can't ask me to be content with that answer!"

"Oh!" she cried—"how can I make you understand?... When you said what you did, that night—it seemed as if a new day were dawning in my life. You made me believe it was because of me. You put me above you—where I'd no right to be; but the fact that you thought me worthy to be there, made me proud and happy: and for a little, in my blindness, I believed I could be worthy of your love and your respect. I thought that, if I could be as strong as you during that year you asked in which to prove your strength, I might listen to you, tell you everything, and be forgiven.... But I was wrong, how wrong I soon learned.... So I had to leave you at whatever cost!"

She ceased to speak, and for several minutes there was silence. But for her quick, convulsive breathing, the girl sat like a woman of stone, staring dry-eyed out of the window. And Lanyard sat as moveless, the heart in his bosom as heavy and cold as a stone.

At length, lifting his head, "You leave me no alternative," he said in a voice dull and hollow even in his own hearing: "I can only think one thing..."

"Think what you must," she said lifelessly: "it doesn't matter, so long as you renounce me, put me out of your heart and—leave me."

Without other response, he leaned forward and tapped the glass; and as the cab swung in toward the curb, he laid hold of the door-latch.

"Lucy," he pleaded, "don't let me go believing—"

She seemed suddenly infused with implacable hostility. "I tell you," she said cruelly—"I don't care what you think, so long as you go!"

The face she now showed him was ashen; its mouth was hard; her eyes shone feverishly.

And then, as still he hesitated, the cab pulled up and the driver, leaning back, unlatched the door and threw it open. With a curt, resigned nod, Lanyard rose and got out.

Immediately the girl bent forward and grasped the speaking-tube; the door slammed; the cab drew away and left him standing with the pose, with the gesture of one who has just heard his sentence of death pronounced.

When he roused to know his surroundings, he found himself standing on a corner of the avenue du Bois.

It was bitter cold in the wind sweeping down from the west, and it had grown very dark. Only in the sky above the Bois a long reef of crimson light hung motionless, against which leafless trees lifted gnarled, weird silhouettes.

While he watched, the pushing crimson ebbed swiftly and gave way to mauve, to violet, to black.



XIX

UNMASKED

When there was no more light in the sky, a profound sigh escaped Lanyard's lips; and with the gesture of one signifying submission to an omen, he turned and tramped heavily back across-town.

More automaton than sentient being, he plodded on along the second enceinte of flaring, noisy boulevards, now and again narrowly escaping annihilation beneath the wheels of some coursing motor-cab or ponderous, grinding omnibus.

Barely conscious of such escapes, he was altogether indifferent to them: it would have required a mortal hurt to match the dumb, sick anguish of his soul; more than merely a sunset sky had turned black for him within that hour.

The cold was now intense, and he none too warmly clothed; yet there was sweat upon his brows.

Dully there recurred to him a figure he had employed in one of his talks with Lucy Shannon: that, lacking his faith in her, there would be only emptiness beneath his feet.

And now that faith was wanting in him, had been taken from him for all his struggles to retain it; and now indeed he danced on emptiness, the rope of temptation tightening round his neck, the weight of criminal instincts pulling it taut—strangling every right aspiration in him, robbing him of the very breath of that new life to which he had thought to give himself.

If she were not worthy, of what worth the fight?...

At one stage of his journey, he turned aside and, more through habit than desire or design, entered a cheap eating-place and consumed his customary evening meal without the slightest comprehension of what he ate or whether the food were good or poor.

When he had finished, he hurried away like a haunted man. There was little room in his mood for sustained thought: his wits were fathoming a bottomless pit of black despair. He felt like a man born blind, through skilful surgery given the boon of sight for a day or two, and suddenly and without any warning thrust back again into darkness.

He knew only that his brief struggle had been all wasted, that behind the flimsy barrier of his honourable ambition, the Lone Wolf was ravening. And he felt that, once he permitted that barrier to be broken down, it could never be repaired.

He had set it up by main strength of will, for love of a woman. He must maintain it now for no incentive other than to retain his own good will—or resign himself utterly to that darkness out of which he had fought his way, to its powers that now beset his soul.

And ... he didn't care.

Quite without purpose he sought the machine-shop where he had left his car.

He had no plans; but it was in his mind, a murderous thought, that before another dawn he might encounter Bannon.

Interim, he would go to work. He could think out his problem while driving as readily as in seclusion; whatever he might ultimately elect to do, he could accomplish little before midnight.

Toward seven o'clock, with his machine in perfect running order, he took the seat and to the streets in a reckless humour, in the temper of a beast of prey.

The barrier was down: once more the Lone Wolf was on the prowl.

But for the present he controlled himself and acted perfectly his temporary role of taxi-bandit, fellow to those thousands who infest Paris. Half a dozen times in the course of the next three hours people hailed him from sidewalks and restaurants; he took them up, carried them to their several destinations, received payment, and acknowledged their gratuities with perfunctory thanks—thoroughly in character—but all with little conscious thought.

He saw but one thing, the face of Lucy Shannon, white, tense, glimmering wanly in shadow—the countenance with which she had dismissed him.

He had but one thought, the wish to read the riddle of her bondage. To accomplish this he was prepared to go to any extreme; if Bannon and his crew came between him and his purpose, so much the worse for them—and, incidentally, so much the better for society. What might befall himself was of no moment.

He entertained but one design, to become again what he had been, the supreme adventurer, the prince of plunderers, to lose himself once more in the delirium of adventurous days and peril-haunted nights, to reincarnate the Lone Wolf and in his guise loot the world anew, to court forgetfulness even at the prison's gates....

It was after ten when, cruising purposelessly, without a fare, he swung through the rue Auber into the place de l'Opera and, approaching the Cafe de la Paix, was hailed by a door-boy of that restaurant.

Drawing in to the curb with the careless address that had distinguished his every action of that evening, he waited, with a throbbing motor, and with mind detached and gaze remote from the streams of foot and wheeled traffic that brawled past on either hand.

After a moment two men issued from the revolving door of the cafe, and approached the cab. Lanyard paid them no attention. His thoughts were now engaged with a certain hotel particulier in the neighbourhood of La Muette and, in his preoccupation, he would need only the name of a destination and the sound of the cab-door slammed, to send him off like a shot.

Then he heard one of the men cough heavily, and in a twinkling stiffened to rigidity in his seat. If he had heard that cough but once before, that once had been too often. Without a glance aside, hardening his features to perfect immobility, he knew that the cough was shaking the slighter of those two figures.

And of a sudden he was acutely conscious of the clearness of the frosty atmosphere, of the merciless glare of electricity beating upon him from every side from the numberless street lamps and cafe lights. And poignantly he regretted neglecting to mask himself with his goggles.

He wasn't left long in suspense. The coughing died away by spasms; followed the unmistakable, sonorous accents of Bannon.

"Well, my dear boy! I have to thank you for an excellent dinner and a most interesting evening. Pity to break it up so early. Still, les affaires—you know! Sorry you're not going my way—but that's a handsome taxi you've drawn. What's its number—eh?"

"Haven't the faintest notion," a British voice drawled in response. "Never fret about a taxi's number until it has run over me."

"Great mistake," Bannon rejoined cheerfully. "Always take the number before entering. Then, if anything happens ... However, that's a good-looking chap at the wheel—doesn't look as if he'd run you into any trouble."

"Oh, I fancy not," said the Englishman, bored.

"Well, you never can tell. The number's on the lamp. Make a note of it and be on the safe side. Or trust me—I never forget numbers."

With this speech Bannon ranged alongside Lanyard and looked him over, keenly malicious enjoyment gleaming in his evil old eyes.

"You are an honest-looking chap," he observed with a mocking smile but in a tone of the most inoffensive admiration—"honest and—ah—what shall I say?—what's the word we're all using now-a-days?—efficient! Honest and efficient-looking, capable of better things, or I'm no judge! Forgive an old man's candour, my friend—and take good care of our British cousin here. He doesn't know his way around Paris very well. Still, I feel confident he'll come to no harm in your company. Here's a franc for you." With matchless effrontery, he produced a coin from the pocket of his fur-lined coat.

Unhesitatingly, permitting no expression to colour his features, Lanyard extended his palm, received the money, dropped it into his own pocket, and carried two fingers to the visor of his cap.

"Merci, monsieur," he said evenly.

"Ah, that's the right spirit!" the deep voice jeered. "Never be above your station, my man—never hesitate to take a tip! Here, I'll give you another, gratis: get out of this business: you're too good for it. Don't ask me how I know; I can tell by your face—Hello! Why do you turn down the flag? You haven't started yet!"

"Conversation goes up on the clock," Lanyard replied stolidly in French. He turned and faced Bannon squarely, loosing a glance of venomous hatred into the other's eyes. "The longer I have to stop here listening to your senile monologue, the more you'll have to pay. What address, please?" he added, turning back to get a glimpse of his passenger.

"Hotel Astoria," the porter supplied.

"Very good."

The porter closed the door.

"But remember my advice," Bannon counselled coolly, stepping back and waving his hand to the man in the cab. "Good night."

Lanyard took his car smartly away from the curb, wheeled round the corner into the boulevard des Capucines, and toward the rue Royale.

He had gone but a block when the window at his back was lowered and his fare observed pleasantly:

"That you, Lanyard?"

The adventurer hesitated an instant; then, without looking round, responded:

"Wertheimer, eh?"

"Right-O! The old man had me puzzled for a minute with his silly chaffing. Stupid of me, too, because we'd just been talking about you."

"Had you, though!"

"Rather. Hadn't you better take me where we can have a quiet little talk?"

"I'm not conscious of the necessity—"

"Oh, I say!" Wertheimer protested amiably—"don't be shirty, old top. Give a chap a chance. Besides, I have a bit of news from Antwerp that I guarantee will interest you."

"Antwerp?" Lanyard iterated, mystified.

"Antwerp, where the ships sail from," Wertheimer laughed: "not Amsterdam, where the diamonds flock together, as you may know."

"I don't follow you, I'm afraid."

"I shan't elucidate until we're under cover."

"All right. Where shall I take you?"

"Any quiet cafe will do. You must know one—"

"Thanks—no," said Lanyard dryly. "If I must confabulate with gentlemen of your kidney, I prefer to keep it dark. Even dressed as I am, I might be recognized, you know."

But it was evident that Wertheimer didn't mean to permit himself to be ruffled.

"Then will my modest diggings do?" he suggested pleasantly. "I've taken a suite in the rue Vernet, just back of the Hotel Astoria, where we can be as private as you please, if you've no objection."

"None whatever."

Wertheimer gave him the number and replaced the window....

His rooms in the rue Vernet proved to be a small ground-floor apartment with private entrance to the street.

"Took the tip from you," he told Lanyard as he unlocked the door. "I daresay you'd be glad to get back to that rez-de-chaussee of yours. Ripping place, that.... By the way—judging from your apparently robust state of health, you haven't been trying to live at home of late."

"Indeed?"

"Indeed yes, monsieur! If I may presume to advise—I'd pull wide of the rue Roget for a while—for as long, at least, as you remain in your present intractable temper."

"Daresay you're right," Lanyard assented carelessly, following, as Wertheimer turned up the lights, into a modest salon cosily furnished. "You live here alone, I understand?"

"Quite: make yourself perfectly at ease; nobody can hear us. And," the Englishman added with a laugh, "do forget your pistol, Mr. Lanyard. I'm not Popinot, nor is this Troyon's."

"Still," Lanyard countered, "you've just been dining with Bannon."

Wertheimer laughed easily. "Had me there!" he admitted, unabashed. "I take it you know a bit more about the Old Man than you did a week ago?"

"Perhaps."

"But sit down: take that chair there, which commands both doors, if you don't trust me."

"Do you think I ought to?"

"Hardly. Otherwise I'd ask you to take my word that you're safe for the time being. As it is, I shan't be offended if you keep your gun handy and your sense of self-preservation running under forced draught. But you won't refuse to join me in a whiskey and soda?"

"No," said Lanyard slowly—"not if you drink from the same bottle."

Again the Englishman laughed unaffectedly as he fetched a decanter, glasses, bottled soda, and a box of cigarettes, and placed them within Lanyard's reach.

The adventurer eyed him narrowly, puzzled. He knew nothing of this man, beyond his reputation—something unsavoury enough, in all conscience!— had seen him only once, and then from a distance, before that conference in the rue Chaptal. And now he was becoming sensitive to a personality uncommonly insinuating: Wertheimer was displaying all the poise of an Englishman of the better caste More than anybody in the underworld that Lanyard had ever known this blackmailer had an air of one acquainted with his own respect. And his nonchalance, the good nature with which he accepted Lanyard's pardonable distrust, his genial assumption of fellowship and a common footing, attracted even as it intrigued.

With the easy courtesy of a practised host, he measured whiskey into Lanyard's glass till checked by a "Thank you," then helped himself generously, and opened the soda.

"I'll not ask you to drink with me," he said with a twinkle, "but— chin-chin!"—and tilting his glass, half-emptied it at a draught.

Muttering formally, at a disadvantage and resenting it, Lanyard drank with less enthusiasm if without misgivings.

Wertheimer selected a cigarette and lighted it at leisure.

"Well," he laughed through a cloud of smoke—"I think we're fairly on our way to an understanding, considering you told me to go to hell when last we met!"

His spirit was irresistible: in spite of himself Lanyard returned the smile. "I never knew a man to take it with better grace," he admitted, lighting his own cigarette.

"Why not! I liked it: you gave us precisely what we asked for."

"Then," Lanyard demanded gravely, "if that's your viewpoint, if you're decent enough to see it that way—what the devil are you doing in that galley?"

"Mischief makes strange bed-fellows, you'll admit. And if you think that a fair question—what are you doing here, with me?"

"Same excuse as before—trying to find out what your game is."

Wertheimer eyed the ceiling with an intimate grin. "My dear fellow!" he protested—"all you want to know is everything!"

"More or less," Lanyard admitted gracelessly. "One gathers that you mean to stop this side the Channel for some time."

"How so?"

"There's a settled, personal atmosphere about this establishment. It doesn't look as if half your things were still in trunks."

"Oh, these digs! Yes, they are comfy."

"You don't miss London?"

"Rather! But I shall appreciate it all the more when I go back."

"Then you can go back, if you like?"

"Meaning your impression is, I made it too hot for me?"

Wertheimer interposed with a quizzical glance. "I shan't tell you about that. But I'm hoping to be able to run home for an occasional week-end without vexing Scotland Yard. Why not come with me some time?"

Lanyard shook his head.

"Come!" the Englishman rallied him. "Don't put on so much side. I'm not bad company. Why not be sociable, since we're bound to be thrown together more or less in the way of business."

"Oh, I think not."

"But, my dear chap, you can't keep this up. Playing taxi-way man is hardly your shop. And of course you understand you won't be permitted to engage in any more profitable pursuit until you make terms with the powers that be—or leave Paris."

"Terms with Bannon, De Morbihan, Popinot and yourself—eh?"

"With the same."

"Mr. Wertheimer," Lanyard told him quietly, "none of you will stop me if ever I make up my mind to take the field again."

"You haven't been thinking of quitting it—what?" Wertheimer demanded innocently, opening his eyes wide.

"Perhaps..."

"Ah, now I begin to see a light! So that's the reason you've come down to tooling a taxi. I wondered! But somehow, Mr. Lanyard"—Wertheimer's eyes narrowed thoughtfully—"I can hardly see you content with that line... even if this reform notion isn't simple swank!"

"Well, what do you think?"

"I think," the Englishman laughed—"I think this conference doesn't get anywhere in particular. Our simple, trusting natures don't seem to fraternize as spontaneously as they might. We may as well cut the sparring and go, down to business—don't you think? But before we do, I'd like your leave to offer one word of friendly advice."

"And that is—?"

"'Ware Bannon!"

Lanyard nodded. "Thanks," he said simply.

"I say that in all sincerity," Wertheimer declared. "God knows you're nothing to me, but at least you've played the game like a man; and I won't see you butchered to make an Apache holiday for want of warning."

"Bannon's as vindictive as that, you think?"

"Holds you in the most poisonous regard, if you ask me. Perhaps you know why: I don't. Anyway, it was rotten luck that brought your car to the door tonight. He named you during dinner, and while apparently he doesn't know where to look for you, it is plain he's got no use for you—not, at least, until your attitude towards the organization changes."

"It hasn't. But I'm obliged."

"Sure you can't see your way to work with us?"

"Absolutely."

"Mind you, I'll have to report to the Old Man. I've got to tell him your answer."

"I don't think I need tell you what to tell him," said Lanyard with a grin.

"Still, it's worth thinking over. I know the Old Man's mind well enough to feel safe in offering you any inducement you can name, in reason, if you'll come to us. Ten thousand francs in your pocket before morning, if you like, and freedom to chuck this filthy job of yours—"

"Please stop there!" Lanyard interrupted hotly. "I was beginning to like you, too... Why persist in reminding me you're intimate with the brute who had Roddy butchered in his sleep?"

"Poor devil!" Wertheimer said gently. "That was a sickening business, I admit. But who told you—?"

"Never mind. It's true, isn't it?"

"Yes," the Englishman admitted gravely—"it's true. It lies at Bannon's door, when all's said.... Perhaps you won't believe me, but it's a fact I didn't know positively who was responsible till to-night."

"You don't really expect me to swallow that? You were hand-in-glove—"

"Ah, but on probation only! When they voted Roddy out, I wasn't consulted. They kept me in the dark—mostly, I flatter myself, because I draw the line at murder. If I had known—this you won't believe, of course—Roddy would be alive to-day."

"I'd like to believe you," Lanyard admitted. "But when you ask me to sign articles with that damned assassin—!"

"You can't play our game with clean hands," Wertheimer retorted.

Lanyard found no answer to that.

"If you've said all you wished to," he suggested, rising, "I can assure you my answer is final—and go about my business."

"What's your hurry? Sit down. There's more to say—much more."

"As for instance—?"

"I had a fancy you might like to put a question or two."

Lanyard shook his head; it was plain that Wertheimer designed to draw him out through his interest in Lucy Shannon.

"I haven't the slightest curiosity concerning your affairs," he observed.

"But you should have; I could tell you a great many interesting things that intimately affect your affairs, if I liked. You must understand that I shall hold the balance of power here, from now on."

"Congratulations!" Lanyard laughed derisively.

"No joke, my dear chap: I've been promoted over the heads of your friends, De Morbihan and Popinot, and shall henceforth be—as they say in America—the whole works."

"By what warrant?"

"The illustrious Bannon's. I've been appointed his lieutenant—vice Greggs, deposed for bungling."

"Do you mean to tell me Bannon controls De Morbihan and Popinot?"

The Englishman smiled indulgently. "If you didn't know it, he's commander-in-chief of our allied forces, presiding genius of the International Underworld Unlimited."

"Bosh!" cried Lanyard contemptuously. "Why talk to me as if I were a child, to be frightened by a bogey-tale like that?"

"Take it or leave it: the fact remains.... I know, if you don't. I confess I didn't till to-night; but I've learned some things that have opened my eyes.... You see, we had a table in a quiet corner of the Cafe de la Paix, and since the Old Man's sailing for home before long it was time for him to unbosom rather thoroughly to the man he leaves to represent him in London and Paris. I never suspected our power before he began to talk...."

Lanyard, watching the man closely, would have sworn he had never seen one more sober. He was indescribably perplexed by this ostensible candour—mystified and mistrustful.

"And then there's this to be considered, from your side," Wertheimer resumed with the most business-like manner: "you can work with us without being obliged to deal in any way with the Old Man or De Morbihan, or Popinot. Bannon will never cross the Atlantic again, and you can do pretty much as you like, within reason—subject to my approval, that is."

"One of us is mad," Lanyard commented profoundly.

"One of us is blind to his best interests," Wertheimer amended with entire good-humour.

"Perhaps... Let it go at that. I'm not interested—never did care for fairy tales."

"Don't go yet. There is still much to be said on both sides of the argument."

"Has there been one?"

"Besides, I promised you news from Antwerp."

"To be sure," Lanyard said, and paused, his curiosity at length engaged.

Wertheimer delved into the breast-pocket of his dress-coat and produced a blue telegraph-form, handing it to the adventurer.

Of even date, from Antwerp, it read:

"Underworld—Paris—Greggs arrested today boarding steamer for America after desperate struggle killed himself immediately afterward poison no confession—Q-2."

"Underworld?" Lanyard queried blankly.

"Our telegraphic address, of course. 'Q-2' is our chief factor in Antwerp."

"So they got Greggs!"

"Stupid oaf," Wertheimer observed; "I've no sympathy for him. The whole affair was a blunder, from first to last."

"But you got Greggs out and burned Troyon's—!"

"Still our friends at the Prefecture weren't satisfied. Something must have roused their suspicions."

"You don't know what?"

"There must have been a leak somewhere—"

"If so, it would certainly have led the police to me, after all the pains you were at to saddle me with the crime. There's something more than simple treachery in this, Mr. Wertheimer."

"Perhaps you're right," said the other thoughtfully.

"And it doesn't speak well for the discipline of your precious organization—granting, for the sake of the argument, the possibility of such nonsense."

"Well, well, have your own way about that. I don't insist, so long as you agree to join forces with me."

"Oh, it's with you alone, now—is it? Not with that insane fiction, the International Underworld Unlimited?"

"With me alone. I offer you a clear field. Go where you like, do what you will—I wouldn't have the cheek to attempt to guide or influence you."

Lanyard kept himself in hand with considerable difficulty.

"But you?" he asked. "Where do you come in?"

Wertheimer lounged back in his chair and laughed quietly. "Need you ask? Must I recall to you the foundations of my prosperity? You had the name of it glib enough on your tongue the other night in the rue Chaptal.... When you've done your work, you'll come to me and split the proceeds fairly—and as long as you do that, never a word will pass my lips!"

"Blackmail...!"

"Oh, if you insist! Odd, how I dislike that word!"

Abruptly the adventurer got to his feet. "By God!" he cried, "I'd better get out of this before I do you an injury!"

The door slammed behind him on a room ringing with Wertheimer's unaffected laughter.



XX

WAR

But why?—he asked himself as he swung his cab aimlessly away—why that blind rage with which he had welcomed Wertheimer's overtures?

Unquestionably the business of blackmailing was despicable enough; and as a master cracksman, of the highest caste of the criminal world, the Lone Wolf had warrantably treated with scorn and contempt the advances of a pariah like Wertheimer. But in no such spirit had he comprehended the Englishman's meaning, when finally that one came to the point; no cool disdain had coloured his attitude, but in the beginning hot indignation, in the end insensate rage....

He puzzled himself. That fit of passion had all the aspect of a psychical inconsistency impossible to reconcile with reason.

He recalled in perplexity how, toward the last, the face of the Englishman had swum in haze before his eyes; with what disfavour, approaching hatred, he had regarded its fixed, false smirk; with what loathing he had suffered the intimacy of Wertheimer's tone; how he had been tempted to fly at the man's throat and shake him senseless in reward of his effrontery: emotions that had suited better a man of unblemished honour and integrity subjected to the insolent addresses of a contemptible blackguard, emotions that might well have been expected of the man Lanyard had once dreamed to become.

But now, since he had resigned that infatuate ambition and turned apostate to all his vows, his part in character had been to laugh in Wertheimer's face and bid him go to the devil ere a worse thing befall him. Instead of which, he had flown into fury. And as he sat brooding over the wheel, he knew that, were the circumstances to be duplicated, his demeanour would be the same.

Was it possible he had changed so absolutely in the course of that short-lived spasm of reform?

He cried no to that: knowing well what he contemplated, that all his plans were laid and serious mischance alone could prevent him from putting them into effect, feeling himself once more quick with the wanton, ruthless spirit of the Lone Wolf, invincibly self-sufficient, strong and cunning.

When at length he roused from his reverie, it was to discover that his haphazard course had taken him back toward the heart of Paris; and presently, weary with futile cruising and being in the neighbourhood of the Madeleine, he sought the cab-rank there, silenced his motor, and relapsed into morose reflections so profound that nothing objective had any place in his consciousness.

Thus it was that without his knowledge a brace of furtive thugs were able to slouch down the rank, scrutinizing it covertly but in detail, pause opposite Lanyard's car under pretext of lighting cigarettes, identify him to their satisfaction, and hastily take themselves off.

Not until they were quite disappeared did the driver of the cab ahead dare warn him.

Lounging back, this last looked the adventurer over inquisitively.

"Is it, then," he enquired civilly, when Lanyard at length looked round, "that you are in the bad books of the good General Popinot, my friend?"

"Eh—what's that you say?" Lanyard asked, with a stare of blank misapprehension.

The man nodded wisely. "He who is at odds with Popinot," he observed, sententious, "does well not to sleep in public. You did not see those two who passed just now and took your number—rats of Montmartre, if I know my Paris! You were dreaming, my friend, and it is my impression that only the presence of those two flies over the way prevented your immediate assassination. If I were you, I should go away very quickly, and never stop till I had put stout walls between myself and Popinot."

A chill of apprehension sent a shiver stealing down Lanyard's spine.

"You're sure?"

"But of a certainty, my old one!"

"A thousand thanks!"

Jumping down, the adventurer cranked the motor, sprang back to his seat, and was off like a hunted hare....

And when, more than an hour later, he brought his panting car to a pause in a quiet and empty back-street of the Auteuil quarter, after a course that had involved the better part of Paris, it was with the conviction that he had beyond question shaken off pursuit—had there in fact been any attempt to follow him.

He took advantage of that secluded spot to substitute false numbers for those he was licensed to display; then at a more sedate pace followed the line of the fortifications northward as far as La Muette, where, branching off, he sought and made a circuit of two sides of the private park enclosing the hotel of Madame Omber.

But the mansion showed no lights, and there was nothing in the aspect of the property to lead him to believe that the chatelaine had as yet returned to Paris.

Now the night was still young, but Lanyard had his cab to dispose of and not a few other essential details to arrange before he could take definite steps toward the reincarnation of the Lone Wolf.

Picking a most circumspect route across the river—via the Pont Mirabeau—to the all-night telegraph bureau in the rue de Grenelle he despatched a cryptic message to the Minister of War, then with the same pains to avoid notice made back toward the rue des Acacias. But it wasn't possible to recross the Seine secretly—in effect, at least —without returning the way he had come—a long detour that irked his impatient spirit to contemplate.

Unwisely he elected to cross by way of the Pont des Invalides—how unwisely was borne in upon him almost as soon as he turned from the brilliant Quai de la Conference into the darkling rue Francois Premier. He had won scarcely twenty yards from the corner when, with a rush, its motor purring like some great tiger-cat, a powerful touring-car swept up from behind, drew abreast, but instead of passing checked speed until its pace was even with his own.

Struck by the strangeness of this manoeuvre, he looked quickly round, to recognize the moon-like mask of De Morbihan grinning sardonically at him over the steering-wheel of the black car.

A second hasty glance discovered four men in the tonneau. Lacking time to identify them, Lanyard questioned their character as little as their malign intent: Belleville bullies, beyond doubt, drafted from Popinot's batallions, with orders to bring in the Lone Wolf, dead or alive.

He had instant proof that his apprehensions were not exaggerated. Of a sudden De Morbihan cut out the muffler and turned loose, full strength, the electric horn. Between the harsh detonations of the exhaust and the mad, blatant shrieks of the warning, a hideous clamour echoed and re-echoed in that quiet street—a din in which the report of a revolver-shot was drowned out and went unnoticed. Lanyard himself might have been unaware of it, had he not caught out of the corner of his eye a flash that spat out at him like a fiery serpent's tongue, and heard the crash of the window behind him as it fell inward, shattered.

That the shot had no immediate successor was due almost wholly to Lanyard's instant and instinctive action.

Even before the clash of broken glass registered on his consciousness, he threw in the high-speed and shot away like a frightened greyhound.

So sudden was this move that it caught De Morbihan himself unprepared. In an instant Lanyard had ten yards' lead. In another he was spinning on two wheels round an acute corner, into the rue Jean Goujon; and in a third, as he shot through that short block to the avenue d'Antin, had increased his lead to fifteen yards. But he could never hope to better that: rather, the contrary. The pursuit had the more powerful car, and it was captained by one said to be the most daring and skilful motorist in France.

The considerations that dictated Lanyard's simple strategy were sound if unformulated: barring interference on the part of the police—something he dared not count upon—his sole hope lay in open flight and in keeping persistently to the better-lighted, main-travelled thoroughfares, where a repetition of the attempt would be inadvisable—at least, less probable. There was always a bare chance of an accident—that De Morbihan's car would burst a tire or be pocketed by the traffic, enabling Lanyard to strike off into some maze of dark side-streets, abandon the cab, and take to cover in good earnest.

But that was a forlorn hope at best, and he knew it. Moreover, an accident was as apt to happen to him as to De Morbihan: given an unsound tire or a puncture, or let him be delayed two seconds by some traffic hindrance, and nothing short of a miracle could save him....

As he swung from the avenue d'Antin into Rond Point des Champs Elysees, the nose of the pursuing car inched up on his right, effectually blocking any attempt to strike off toward the east, to the Boulevards and the centre of the city's life by night. He had no choice but to fly west-wards.

He cut an arc round the sexpartite circle of the Rond Point that lost no inch of advantage, and straightened out, ventre-a-terre, up the avenue for the place de l'Etoile, shooting madly in and out of the tide of more leisurely traffic—and ever the motor of the touring-car purred contentedly just at his elbow.

If there were police about, Lanyard saw nothing of them: not that he would have dreamed of stopping or even of checking speed for anything less than an immovable obstacle....

But as minutes sped it became apparent that there was to be no renewed attempt upon his life for the time being. The pursuers could afford to wait. They could afford to ape the patience of Death itself.

And it came then to Lanyard that he drove no more alone: Death was his passenger.

Absorbed though he was with the control of his machine and the ever-shifting problems of the road, he still found time to think quite clearly of himself, to recognize the fact that he was very likely looking his last on Paris ... on life....

But a little longer, and the name of Michael Lanyard would be not even a memory to those whose lives composed the untiring life of this broad avenue.

Before him the Arc de Triomphe loomed ever larger and more darkly beautiful against the field of midnight stars He wondered, would he reach it alive....

He did: still the pursuit bided its time. But the hood of the touring-car nosed him inexorably round the arch, away from the avenue de la Grande Armee and into the avenue du Bois.

Only when in full course for Porte Dauphine did he appreciate De Morbihan's design. He was to be rushed out into the midnight solitudes of the Bois de Boulogne and there run down and slain.

But now he began to nurse a feeble thrill of hope.

Once inside the park enclosure, he reckoned vaguely on some opportunity to make sudden halt, abandon the car and, taking refuge in the friendly obscurity of trees and shrubbery, either make good his escape afoot or stand off the Apaches until police came to his aid. With night to cloak his movements and with a clump of trees to shelter in, he dared believe he would have a chance for his life—whereas in naked streets any such attempt would prove simply suicidal.

Infrequent glances over-shoulder showed no change in the gap between his own and the car of the assassins. But his motor ran sweet and true: humouring it, coaxing it, he contrived a little longer to hold his own.

Approaching the Porte Dauphine he became aware of two sergents de ville standing in the middle of the way and wildly brandishing their arms. He held on toward them relentlessly—it was their lives or his—and they leaped aside barely in time to save themselves.

And as he slipped into the park like a hunted shadow, he fancied that he heard a pistol-shot—whether directed at himself by the Apaches, or fired by the police to emphasize their indignation, he couldn't say. But he was grateful enough it was a taxicab he drove, not a touring-car: lacking the body of his vehicle to shield him, he little doubted that a bullet would long since have found him.

In that dead hour the drives of the Bois were almost deserted. Between the porte and the first carrefour he passed only one motor-car, a limousine whose driver shouted something inarticulate as Lanyard hummed past. The freedom from traffic dangers was a relief: but the pursuit was creeping up, inch by inch, as he swung down the road-way along the eastern border of the lake; and still he had found no opening, had recognized no invitation in the lay of the land to attempt his one plan; as matters stood, the Apaches would be upon him before he could jump from his seat.

Bending low over the wheel, searching with anxious eyes the shadowed reaches of that winding drive, he steered for a time with one hand, while the other tore open his ulster and brought his pistol into readiness.

Then, as he topped the brow of the incline, above the whine of his motor, the crackle of road-metal beneath the tires, and the boom of the rushing air in his ears, he heard the sharp clatter of hoofs, and surmised that the gendarmerie had given chase.

And then, on a slight down-grade, though he took it at perilous speed and seemed veritably to ride the wind, the following machine, aided by its greater weight, began to close in still more rapidly. Momentarily the hoarse snoring of its motor sounded more loud and menacing. It was now a mere question of seconds....

Inspiration of despair came to him, as wild as any ever conceived by mind of man.

They approached a point where, on the left, a dense plantation walled the road. To the right a wide foot walk separated the drive from a gentle declivity sown with saplings, running down to the water.

Rising in his place, Lanyard slipped from under him the heavy waterproof cushion.

Then edging over to the left of the middle of the road, abruptly he shut off power and applied the brakes with all his might.

From its terrific speed the cab came to a stop within twice its length.

Lanyard was thrown forward against the wheel, but having braced in anticipation, escaped injury and effected instant recovery.

The car of the Apaches was upon him in a pulse-beat. With no least warning of his intention, De Morbihan had no time to employ brakes. Lanyard saw its dark shape flash past the windows of his cab and heard a shout of triumph. Then with all his might he flung the heavy cushion across that scant space, directly into the face of De Morbihan.

His aim was straight and true.

In alarm, unable to comprehend the nature of that large, dark, whirling mass, De Morbihan attempted to lift a warding elbow. He was too slow: the cushion caught him in the face, full-force, and before he could recover or guess what he was doing, he had twisted the wheel sharply to the right.

The car, running a little less than locomotive speed, shot across the strip of sidewalk, caught its right forewheel against a sapling, swung heavily broadside to the drive, and turned completely over as it shot down the slope to the lake.

A terrific crash was followed by a hideous chorus of oaths, shrieks, cries and groans. Promptly Lanyard started his motor anew and, trembling in every limb, ran on for several hundred yards. But time pressed, and the usefulness of his car was at an end, as far as he was concerned; there was no saying how many times its identity might not have been established by the police in the course of that wild chase through Paris, or how soon these last might contrive to overhaul and apprehend him; and as soon as a bend in the road shut off the scene of wreck, he stopped finally, jumped down, and plunged headlong into the dark midnight heart of the Bois, seeking its silences where trees stood thickest and lights were few.

Later, like some worried creature of the night, panting, dishevelled, his rough clothing stained and muddied, he slunk across an open space, a mile or so from his point of disappearance, dropped cautiously down into the dry bed of the moat, climbed as stealthily a slippery glacis of the fortifications, darted across the inner boulevard, and began to describe a wide arc toward his destination, the hotel Omber.



XXI

APOSTATE

He was singularly free from any sort of exultation over the manner in which he had at once compassed his own escape and brought down catastrophe upon his self-appointed murderers; his mood was quick with wonder and foreboding and bewilderment. The more closely he examined the affair, the more strange and inexplicable it bulked in his understanding. He had not thought to defy the Pack and get off lightly; but he had looked for no such overt effort at disciplining him so long as he kept out of the way and suspended his criminal activities. An unwilling recruit is a potential traitor in the camp; and retired competition isn't to be feared. So it seemed that Wertheimer hadn't believed his protestations, or else Bannon had rejected the report which must have been made him by the girl. In either case, the Pack had not waited for the Lone Wolf to prove his insincerity; it hadn't bothered to declare war; it had simply struck; with less warning than a rattlesnake gives, it had struck—out of the dark—at his back.

And so—Lanyard swore grimly—even so would he strike, now that it was his turn, now that his hour dawned.

But he would have given much for a clue to the riddle. Why must he be saddled with this necessity of striking in self-defence? Why had this feud been forced upon him, who asked nothing better than to be let alone? He told himself it wasn't altogether the professional jealousy of De Morbihan, Popinot and Wertheimer; it was the strange, rancorous spite that animated Bannon.

But, again, why? Could it be that Bannon so resented the aid and encouragement Lanyard had afforded the girl in her abortive attempt to escape? Or was it, perhaps, that Bannon held Lanyard responsible for the arrest and death of Greggs?

Could it be possible that there was really anything substantial at the bottom of Wertheimer's wild yarn about the pretentiously named "International Underworld Unlimited"? Was this really a demonstration of purpose to crush out competition—"and hang the expense"?

Or was there some less superficially tangible motive to be sought? Did Bannon entertain some secret, personal animus against Michael Lanyard himself as distinguished from the Lone Wolf?

Debating these questions from every angle but to no end, he worked himself into a fine fury of exasperation, vowing he would consummate this one final coup, sequestrate himself in England until the affair had blown over, and in his own good time return to Paris to expose De Morbihan (presuming he survived the wreck in the Bois) exterminate Popinot utterly, drive Wertheimer into permanent retirement at Dartmoor, and force an accounting from Bannon though it were surrendered together with that invalid's last wheezing breaths....

In this temper he arrived, past one in the morning, under the walls of the hotel Omber, and prudently selected a new point of attack. In the course of his preliminary examinations of the walls, it hadn't escaped him that their brick-and-plaster construction was in bad repair; he had marked down several spots where the weather had eaten the outer coat of plaster completely away. At one of these, midway between the avenue and the junction of the side-streets, he hesitated.

As he had foreseen, the mortar that bound the bricks together was all dry and crumbling; it was no great task to work one of them loose, making a foothold from which he might grasp with a gloved hand the glass-toothed curbing, cast his ulster across this for further protection, and swing himself bodily atop the wall.

But there, momentarily, he paused in doubt and trembling. In that exposed and comfortless perch, the lifeless street on one hand, the black mystery of the neglected park on the other, he was seized and shaken by a sudden revulsion of feeling like a sickness of his very soul. Physical fear had nothing to do with this, for he was quite alone and unobserved; had it been otherwise faculties trained through a lifetime to such work as this and now keyed to concert pitch would not have failed to give warning of whatever danger his grosser senses might have overlooked.

Notwithstanding, he was afraid as though Fear's very self had laid hold of his soul by the heels and would not let it go until its vision of itself was absolute. He was afraid with a great fear such as he had never dreamed to know; who knew well the wincing of the flesh from risk of pain, the shuddering of the spirit in the shadow of death, and horror such as had gripped him that morning in poor Roddy's bed-chamber.

But none of these had in any way taught him the measure of such fear as now possessed him, so absolute that he quaked like a naked soul in the inexorable presence of the Eternal.

He was afraid of himself, in panic terror of that ego which tenanted the shell of functioning, sensitive stuff called Michael Lanyard: he was afraid of the strange, silent, incomprehensible Self lurking occult in him, that masked mysterious Self which in its inscrutable whim could make him fine or make him base, that Self impalpable and elusive as any shadow yet invincibly strong, his master and his fate, in one the grave of Yesterday, the cup of Today, the womb of Tomorrow....

He looked up at the tired, dull faces of those old dwellings that loomed across the way with blind and lightless windows, sleeping without suspicion that he had stolen in among them—the grim and deadly thing that walked by night, the Lone Wolf, creature of pillage and rapine, scourged slave of that Self which knew no law....

Then slowly that obsession lifted like the passing of a nightmare; and with a start, a little shiver and a sigh, Lanyard roused and went on to do the bidding of his Self for its unfathomable ends....

Dropping silently to the soft, damp turf, he made himself one with the shadows of the park, as mute, intangible and fugitive as they, until presently coming out beneath the stars, on an open lawn running up to the library wing of the hotel, he approached a shallow stone balcony which jutted forth eight feet above the lawn—an elevation so inconsiderable that, with one bound grasping its stone balustrade, the adventurer was upon it in a brace of seconds.

Nor did the long French windows that opened on the balcony offer him any real hindrance: a penknife quickly removed the dried putty round one small, lozenge-shaped pane, then pried out the pane itself; a hand through this space readily found and turned the latch; a cautious pressure opened the two wings far enough to admit his body; and—he stood inside the library.

He had made no sound; and thanks to thorough familiarity with the ground, he needed no light. The screen of cinnabar afforded all the protection he required; and because he meant to accomplish his purpose and be out of the house with the utmost expedition, he didn't trouble to explore beyond a swift, casual review of the adjoining salons.

The clock was chiming the three-quarters as he knelt behind the screen and grasped the combination-knob.

But he did not turn it. That mellow music died out slowly, and left him transfixed, there in the silence and gloom, his eyes staring wide into blackness at nothing, his jaw set and rigid, his forehead knotted and damp with sweat, his hands so clenched that the nails bit deep into his palms; while he looked back over the abyss yawning between the Lone Wolf of tonight and the man who had, within the week, knelt in that spot in company with the woman he loved, bent on making restitution that his soul might be saved through her faith in him.

He was visited by clear vision of himself: the thief caught in his crime by his conscience—or whatever it was, what for want of a better name he must call his conscience: this thing within him that revolted from his purpose, mutinied against the dictates of his Self, and stopped his hand from reaping the harvest of his cunning and daring; this sense of honour and of honesty that in a few brief days had grown more dear to him than all else in life, knitting itself inextricably into the fibre of his being, so that to deny it were against Nature....

He closed his eyes to shut out the accusing vision, and knelt on, unstirring, though torn this way and that in the conflict of man's dual nature.

Minutes passed without his knowledge.

But in time he grew more calm; his hands relaxed, the muscles of his brow smoothed out, he breathed more slowly and deeply; his set lips parted and a profound sigh whispered in the stillness. A great weariness upon him, he rose slowly and heavily from the floor, and stood erect, free at last and forever from that ancient evil which so long had held his soul in bondage.

And in that moment of victory, through the deep hush reigning in the house, he detected an incautious footfall on the parquetry of the reception-hall.



XXII

TRAPPED

It was a sound so slight, so very small and still, that only a super-subtle sense of hearing could have discriminated it from the confused multiplicity of almost inaudible, interwoven, interdependent sounds that make up the slumberous quiet of every human habitation, by night.

Lanyard, whose training had taught him how to listen, had learned that the nocturnal hush of each and every house has its singular cadence, its own gentle movement of muted but harmonious sound in which the introduction of an alien sound produces immediate discord, and to which, while at his work, he need attend only subconsciously since the least variation from the norm would give him warning.

Now, in the silence of this old mansion, he detected a faint flutter of discordance that sounded a note of stealth; such a note as no move of his since entering had evoked.

He was no longer alone, but shared the empty magnificence of those vast salons with one whose purpose was as furtive, as secret, as wary as his own; no servant or watchman roused by an intuition of evil, but one who had no more than he any lawful business there.

And while he stood at alert attention the sound was repeated from a point less distant, indicating that the second intruder was moving toward the library.

In two swift strides Lanyard left the shelter of the screen and took to cover in the recess of one of the tall windows, behind its heavy velvet hangings: an action that could have been timed no more precisely had it been rehearsed; he was barely in hiding when a shape of shadow slipped into the library, paused beside the massive desk, and raked the room with the light of a powerful flash-lamp.

Its initial glare struck squarely into Lanyard's eyes, dazzling them, as he peered through a narrow opening in the portieres; and though the light was instantly shifted, for several moments a blur of peacock colour, blending, ebbing, hung like a curtain in the darkness, and he could see nothing distinctly—only the trail traced by that dancing spot-light over walls and furnishings.

When at length his vision cleared, the newcomer was kneeling in turn before the safe; but more light was needed, and this one, lacking Lanyard's patience and studious caution, turned back to the desk, and, taking the reading-lamp, transferred it to the floor behind the screen.

But even before the flood of light followed the dull click of the switch, Lanyard had recognized the woman.

For an instant he felt dazed, half-stunned, suffocating, much as he had felt with Greggs' fingers tightening on his windpipe, that week-old night at Troyon's; he experienced real difficulty about breathing, and was conscious of a sickish throbbing in his temples and a pounding in his bosom like the tolling of a great bell. He stared, swaying....

The light, gushing from the opaque hood, made the safe door a glare, and was thrown back into her intent, masked face, throwing out in sharp silhouette her lithe, sweet body, indisputably identified by the individual poise of her head and shoulders and the gracious contours of her tailored coat.

She was all in black, even to her hands, no trace of white or any colour showing but the fair curve of the cheek below her mask and the red of her lips. And if more evidence were needed, the intelligence with which she attacked the combination, the confident, business-like precision distinguishing her every action, proved her an apt pupil in that business.

His thoughts were all in a welter of miserable confusion. He knew that this explained many things he would have held questionable had not his infatuation forbidden him to consider them at all, lest he be disloyal to this woman whom he adored; but in the anguish of that moment he could entertain but one thought, and that possessed him altogether—that she must somehow be saved from the evil she contemplated....

But while he hesitated, she became sensitive to his presence; though he had made no sound since her entrance, though he had not even stirred, somehow she divined that he—someone—was there in the recess of the window, watching her.

In the act of opening the safe—using the memorandum of its combination which he had jotted down in her presence—he saw her pause, freeze to a pose of attention, then turn to stare directly at the portiere that hid him. And for an eternal second she remained kneeling there, so still that she seemed not even to breathe, her gaze fixed and level, waiting for some sound, some sign, some tremor of the curtain's folds, to confirm her suspicion.

When at length she rose it was in one swift, alert movement. And as she paused with her slight shoulders squared and her head thrown back defiantly, challengingly, as one without will of his own but drawn irresistibly by her gaze, he stepped out into the room.

And since he was no more the Lone Wolf, but now a simple man in agony, with no thought for their circumstances—for the fact that they were both house-breakers and that the slightest sound might raise a hue-and-cry upon them—he took one faltering step toward her, stopped, lifted a hand in a gesture of appeal, and stammered:

"Lucy—you——"

His voice broke and failed.

She didn't answer, more than by recoiling as though he had offered to strike her, until the table stopped her, and she leaned back as if glad of its support.

"Oh!" she cried, trembling—"why—why did you do it?"

He might have answered her in kind, but self-justification passed his power. He couldn't say, "Because this evening you made me lose faith in everything, and I thought to forget you by going to the devil the quickest way I knew—this way!"—though that was true. He couldn't say: "Because, a thief from boyhood, habit proved too strong for me, and I couldn't withstand temptation!"—for that was untrue. He could only hang his head and mumble the wretched confession: "I don't know."

As if he hadn't spoken, she cried again: "Why—why did you do it? I was so proud of you, so sure of you, the man who had turned straight because of me!... It compensated... But now...!"

Her voice broke in a short, dry sob.

"Compensated?" he repeated stupidly.

"Yes, compensated!" She lifted her head with a gesture of impatience: "For this—don't you understand?—for this that I'm doing! You don't imagine I'm here of my own will?—that I went back to Bannon for any reason but to try to save you from him? I knew something of his power, and you didn't; I knew if I went away with you he'd never rest until he had you murdered. And I thought if I could mislead him by lies for a little time—long enough to give you a chance to escape—I thought —perhaps—I might be able to communicate with the police, denounce him——"

She hesitated, breathless and appealing.

At her first words he had drawn close to her; and all their talk was murmurings. But this was quite instinctive; for both were beyond considerations of prudence, the one coherent thought of each being that now, once and forever, all misunderstanding must be done away with.

Now, as naturally as though they had been lovers always, Lanyard took her hand, and clasped it between his own.

"You cared as much as that!"

"I love you," she told him—"I love you so much I am ready to sacrifice everything for you—life, liberty, honour——"

"Hush, dearest, hush!" he begged, half distracted.

"I mean it: if honour could hold me back, do you think I would have broken in here tonight to steal for Bannon?"

"He sent you, eh?" Lanyard commented in a dangerous voice.

"He was too cunning for me... I was afraid to tell you... I meant to tell—to warn you, this evening in the cab. But then I thought perhaps if I said nothing and sent you away believing the worst of me—perhaps you would save yourself and forget me——"

"But never!"

"I tried my best to deceive him, but couldn't. They got the truth from me by threats——"

"They wouldn't dare——"

"They dare anything, I tell you! They knew enough of what had happened, through their spies, to go on, and they tormented and bullied me until I broke down and told them everything... And when they learned you had brought the jewels back here, Bannon told me I must bring them to him—that, if I refused, he'd have you killed. I held out until tonight; then just as I was about to go to bed he received a telephone message, and told me you were driving a taxi and followed by Apaches and wouldn't live till daylight if I persisted in refusing."

"You came alone?"

"No. Three men brought me to the gate. They're waiting outside, in the park."

"Apaches?"

"Two of them. The other is Captain Ekstrom."

"Ekstrom!" Lanyard cried in despair. "Is he——"

The dull, heavy, crashing slam of the great front doors silenced him.



XXIII

MADAME OMBER

Before the echo of that crash ceased to reverberate from room to room, Lanyard slipped to one side of the doorway, from which point he could command the perspective of the salons together with a partial view of the front doors. And he was no more than there, in the shadow of the portieres, when light from an electrolier flooded the reception-hall.

It showed him a single figure, that of a handsome woman, considerably beyond middle age but still a well-poised, vigorous, and commanding presence, in full evening dress of such magnificence as to suggest recent attendance at some State function.

Standing beneath the light, she was restoring a key to a brocaded hand-bag. This done, she turned her head and spoke indistinguishably over her shoulder. Promptly there came into view a second woman of about the same age, but even more strong and able of appearance—a serving-woman, in plain, dark garments, undoubtedly madame's maid.

Handing over the brocaded bag, madame unlatched the throat of her ermine cloak and surrendered it to the servant's care.

Her next words were audible, and reassuring in as far as they indicated ignorance of anything amiss.

"Thank you, Sidonie. You may go to bed now."

"Madame will not need me to undress her?"

"I'm not ready yet. When I am—I'm old enough to take care of myself. Besides, I prefer you to go to bed, Sidonie. It doesn't improve your temper to lose your beauty sleep."

"Many thanks, madame. Good night."

"Good night."

The maid moved off toward the main staircase, while her mistress turned deliberately through the salons toward the library.

At this, swinging back to the girl in a stride, and grasping her wrist to compel attention, Lanyard spoke in a rapid whisper, mouth close to her ear, but his solicitude so unselfish and so intense that for the moment he was altogether unconscious of either her allure or his passion.

"This way," he said, imperatively drawing her toward the window by which he had entered: "there's a balcony outside—a short drop to the ground." And unlatching the window, he urged her through it. "Try to leave by the back gateway—the one I showed you before—avoiding Ekstrom——"

"But surely you are coming too?" she insisted, hanging back.

"Impossible: there's no time for us both to escape undetected. I shall keep madame interested only long enough for you to get away. But take this"—and he pressed his automatic into her hand. "No—take it; I've another," he lied, "and you may need it. Don't fear for me, but go—O my heart!—go!"

The footfalls of Madame Omber were sounding dangerously near, and without giving the girl more opportunity to protest, Lanyard closed the windows, shot the latch and stole like a cat round the farther side of the desk, pausing within a few feet of the screen and safe.

The desk-lamp was still burning, where the girl had left it behind the cinnabar screen; and Lanyard knew that the diffusion of its rays was enough to render his figure distinctly and immediately visible to one entering the doorway.

Now everything hung upon the temper of the house-holder, whether she would take that apparition quietly, deceived by Lanyard's mumming into believing she had only a poor thievish fool to deal with, or with a storm of bourgeois hysteria. In the latter event, Lanyard's hand was ready planted, palm down, on the top of the desk: should the woman attempt to give the alarm, a single bound would carry the adventurer across it in full flight for the front doors.

In the doorway the mistress of the house appeared and halted, her quick bright eyes shifting from the light on the floor to the dark figure of the thief. Then, in a stride, she found a switch and turned on the chandelier, a blaze of light.

As this happened, Lanyard cowered, lifting an elbow as though to guard his face—as though expecting to find himself under the muzzle of a revolver.

The gesture had the calculated effect of focussing the attention of the woman exclusively to him, after one swift glance round had shown her a room tenanted only by herself and a cringing thief. And immediately it was made manifest that, whether or not deceived, she meant to take the situation quietly, if in a strong hand.

Her eyes narrowed and the muscles of her square, almost masculine jaw hardened ominously as she looked the intruder up and down. Then a flicker of contempt modified the grimness of her countenance. She took three steps forward, pausing on the other side of the desk, her back to the doorway.

Lanyard trembled visibly....

"Well!"—the word boomed like the opening gun of an engagement—"Well, my man!"—the shrewd eyes swerved to the closed door of the safe and quickly back again—"you don't seem to have accomplished much!"

"For God's sake, madame!" Lanyard blurted in a husky, shaken voice, nothing like his own—"don't have me arrested! Give me a chance! I haven't taken anything. Don't call the flics!"

He checked, moving an uncertain hand towards his throat as if his tongue had gone dry.

"Come, come!" the woman answered, with a look almost of pity. "I haven't called anyone—as yet."

The fingers of one strong white hand were drumming gently on the top of the desk; then, with a movement so quick and sure that Lanyard himself could hardly have bettered it, they slipped down to a handle of a drawer, jerked it open, closed round the butt of a revolver, and presented it at the adventurer's head.

Automatically he raised both hands.

"Don't shoot!" he cried. "I'm not armed——"

"Is that the truth?"

"You've only to search me, madame!"

"Thanks!" Madame's accents now discovered a trace of dry humour. "I'll leave that to you. Turn out your pockets on the desk there—and, remember, I'll stand no nonsense!"

The weapon covered Lanyard steadily, leaving him no choice but to obey. As it happened, he was glad of the excuse to listen for sounds to tell how the girl was faring in her flight, and made a pretence of trembling fingers cover the slowness with which he complied.

But he heard nothing.

When he had visibly turned every pocket inside out, and their contents lay upon the desk, the woman looked the exhibits over incuriously.

"Put them back," she said curtly. "And then fetch that chair over there—the one in the corner. I've a notion I'd like to talk to you. That's the usual thing, isn't it?"

"How?" Lanyard demanded with a vacant stare.

"In all the criminal novels I've ever read, the law-abiding householder always sits down and has a sociable chat with the house-breaker—before calling in the police. I'm afraid that's part of the price you've got to pay for my hospitality."

She paused, eyeing Lanyard inquisitively while he restored his belongings to his pockets. "Now, get that chair!" she ordered; and waited, standing, until she had been obeyed. "That's it—there! Sit down."

Leaning against the desk, her revolver held negligently, the speaker favoured Lanyard with a more leisurely inspection; the harshness of her stare was softened, and the anger which at first had darkened her countenance was gone by the time she chose to pursue her catechism.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse