THE LONE WOLF
LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE
ROBERT AITKEN SWAN
WHOSE FRIENDSHIP I HAVE TRIED
IN MANY OTHER WAYS, THIS
YARN WITH DIFFIDENCE IS
NOTE: This is the fourth of the Lone Wolf stories. Its predecessors were, in chronological sequence, "The Lone Wolf," "The False Faces," "Red Masquerade."
Each story, however, is entirely self-contained and independent of the others.
If it matters....
LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE
Westport—9 September, 1921.
I WALKING PAPERS
II ONE WALKS
III MEETING BY MOONLIGHT
V PHINUIT & CO
VII TURN ABOUT
VIII IN RE AMOR ET AL
IX BLIND MAN'S BUFF
X BUT AS A MUSTARD SEED
XI AU REVOIR
XII TRAVELS WITH AN ASSASSIN
XIV DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND
XVI THE HOUSE OF LILITH
XVII CHEZ LIANE
XVIII BROTHER AND SISTER
XIX SIX BOTTLES OF CHAMPAGNE
XX THE SYBARITES
XXII OUT OF SOUNDINGS
XXIII THE CIGARETTE
XXIV HISTORIC REPETITION
XXV THE MALCONTENT
XXVI THE BINNACLE
XXVII CA VA BIEN!
THE LONE WOLF
Through the suave, warm radiance of that afternoon of Spring in England a gentleman of modest and commonly amiable deportment bore a rueful countenance down Piccadilly and into Halfmoon street, where presently he introduced it to one whom he found awaiting him in his lodgings, much at ease in his easiest chair, making free with his whiskey and tobacco, and reading a slender brown volume selected from his shelves.
This degage person was patently an Englishman, though there were traces of Oriental ancestry in his cast. The other, he of the doleful habit, was as unmistakably of Gallic pattern, though he dressed and carried himself in a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon fashion, and even seemed a trace intrigued when greeted by a name distinctively French.
For the Englishman, rousing from his appropriated ease, dropped his book to the floor beside the chair, uprose and extended a cordial hand, exclaiming: "H'are ye, Monsieur Duchemin?"
To this the other responded, after a slight pause, obscurely enough: "Oh! ancient history, eh? Well, for the matter of that: How are you, Mister Wertheimer?"
Their hands fell apart, and Monsieur Duchemin proceeded to do away his hat and stick and chamois gloves; while his friend, straddling in front of a cold grate and extending his hands to an imaginary blaze, covered with a mild complaint the curiosity excited by a brief study of that face of melancholy.
"Pretty way you've got of making your friends wait on your pleasure. Here I've wasted upwards of two hours of His Majesty's time..."
"How was I to know you'd have the cheek to force your way in here in my absence and help yourself to my few poor consolations?" Duchemin retorted, helping himself to them in turn. "But then one never does know what fresh indignity Fate has in store..."
"After you with that whiskey, by your leave. I say: I'd give something to know where you ignorant furriners come by this precious pre-War stuff." But without waiting to be denied this information, Mr. Wertheimer continued: "Going on the evidence of your looks and temper, you've been down to Tilbury Docks this afternoon to see Karslake and Sonia off."
"A few such flashes of intelligence applied professionally, my friend, should carry you far."
"And the experience has left you feeling a bit down, what?"
"I imagine even you do not esteem parting with those whom one loves an exhilarating pastime."
"But when it's so obviously for their own good..."
"Oh, I know!" Duchemin agreed without enthusiasm. "If anything should happen to Karslake now, it would break Sonia's heart, but..."
"And after the part he played in that Vassilyevski show his lease of life wouldn't be apt to be prolonged by staying on in England."
"I agree; but still—!" sighed Duchemin, throwing himself heavily into a chair.
"Which," Wertheimer continued, standing, "is why we arranged to give him that billet with the British Legation in Peking."
"Didn't know you had a hand in that," observed Duchemin, after favouring the other with a morose stare.
"Oh, you can't trust me! When you get to know me better you'll find I'm always like that—forever flitting hither and yon, bestowing benefits and boons on the ungrateful, like any other giddy Providence."
"But one is not ungrateful," Duchemin insisted. "God knows I would gladly have sped Karslake's emigration with Sonia to Van Dieman's Land or Patagonia or where you will, if it promised to keep him out of the way long enough for the Smolny Institute to forget him."
"Since the said Smolny inconsiderately persists in failing to collapse, as per the daily predictions of the hopeful."
"But aren't you forgetting you yourself have given that Smolny lot the same and quite as much reason for holding your name anathema?"
"Ah!" Duchemin growled—"as for me, I can take care of myself, thank you. My trouble is, I want somebody else to take care of. I had a daughter once, for a few weeks, long enough to make me strangely fond of the responsibilities of a father; and then Karslake took her away, leaving me nothing to do with my life but twiddle futile thumbs and contemplate the approach of middle age." "Middle age? Why flatter yourself? With a daughter married, too!"
"Sonia's only eighteen..."
"She was born when you were twenty. That makes you nearly forty, and that's next door to second childhood, Man!" the Englishman declared solemnly—"you're superannuated."
"I know; and so long as I feel my years, even you can abuse me with impunity."
But Wertheimer would not hear him. "Odd," he mused, "I never thought of it before, that you were growing old. And I've been wondering, too, what it was that has been making you so precious slow and cautious and cranky of late. You're just doddering—and I thought you were simply tired out and needed a holiday."
"Perhaps I am and do," said Duchemin patiently. "One feels one has earned a holiday, if ever anybody did in your blessed S. S."
"Ah! You think so?"
"You'd think so if you'd been mucking round the East End all Winter with your life in your hands."
"Still—at your age—I'd be thinking about retiring instead of asking for a rest."
Although Duchemin knew very well that he was merely being ragged in that way of deadly seriousness which so often amuses the English, he chose to suggest sourly: "My resignation is at your disposal any time you wish it."
"Accepted," said Wertheimer airily, "to take effect at once."
To this Duchemin merely grunted, as who should say he didn't consider this turn of conversation desperately amusing. And Wertheimer resuming his chair, the two remained for some moments in silence, a silence so doggedly maintained on both sides that Duchemin was presently aware of dull gnawings of curiosity. It occurred to him that his caller should have found plenty to do in his bureau in the War Office....
"And to what," he enquired with the tedious irony of ennui, "is one indebted for this unexpected honour on the part of the First Under-Secretary of the British Secret Service? Or whatever your high-sounding official title is..."
"Oh!" Wertheimer replied lazily—and knocked out his pipe—"I merely dropped in to say good-bye."
Duchemin discovered symptoms of more animation.
"Hello! Where are you off to?"
"Nowhere—worse luck! I mean I'm here to bid you farewell and Godspeed and what not on the eve of your departure from the British Isles."
"And where, pray, am I going?"
"That's for you to say."
Monsieur Duchemin meditated briefly. "I see," he announced: "I'm to have a roving commission."
"Worse than that: none at all."
Duchemin opened his eyes wide.
"'The wind bloweth where it listeth,'" Wertheimer affirmed. "How do I know whither you'll blow, now you're a free agent again, entirely on your own? I've got no control over your movements."
"The S. S. has."
"Never no more. Didn't you tender me your resignation a moment ago? Wasn't it promptly accepted?"
"Look here: What the devil——!"
"Well, if you must know," the Englishman interrupted hastily, "my instructions were to give you your walking papers if you refused to resign. So your connection with the S. S. is from this hour severed. And if you ain't out of England within twenty-four hours, we'll jolly well deport you. And that's that."
"One perceives one has served England not wisely but too well."
"Shrewd lad!" Wertheimer laughed. "You see, old soul, we admire you no end, and we're determined to save your life. Word has leaked through from Petrograd that your name has been triple-starred on the Smolny's Index Expurgatorius. Karslake's too. An honour legitimately earned by your pernicious collaboration in the Vassilyevski bust. Karslake's already taken care of, but you're still in the limelight, and that makes you a public nuisance. If you linger here much longer the verdict will undoubtedly be: Violent death at the hands of some person or persons unknown. So here are passports and a goodish bit of money. If you run through all of it before this blows over, we'll find a way, of course, to get more to you. You understand: No price too high that buys good riddance of you. And there will be a destroyer waiting at Portsmouth to-night with instructions to put ashore secretly anywhere you like across the Channel. After that—as far as the British Empire is concerned—your blood be on your own head."
The other nodded, investigating the envelope which his late chief had handed him, then from his letter of credit and passports looked up with a reminiscent smile.
"It isn't the first time you've vouched for me by this style. Remember?"
"Well, you've earned as fair title to the name of Duchemin as I ever did to that of Wertheimer."
But the smile was fading from the eyes of the man whom England preferred to recognize as Andre Duchemin.
"But where on earth is one to go?" "Don't ask me," the Englishman protested. "And above all, don't tell me. I don't want to know. Since I've been on this job, I've learned to believe in telepathy and mind reading and witchcraft and all manner of unholy rot. And I don't want you to come to a sudden end through somebody's establishing illicit intercourse with my subconscious mind."
He took his leave shortly after that; and Monsieur Duchemin settled down in the chair which his guest had quitted to grapple with his problem: where under Heaven to go?
After a wasted while, he picked up in abstraction the book which Wertheimer had been reading—and wondered if, by any chance, he had left it there on purpose, so strong seemed the hint. It was Stevenson's 'Travels with a Donkey.' Duchemin was familiar enough with the work, and had no need to dip anew into its pages to know it offered one fair solution to his quandary.
If—he assured himself—there were any place in Europe where one might count on being reasonably secure from the solicitous attentions of the grudge-bearing Bolsheviki, it was the Cevennes, those little-known hills in the south of France, well inland from the sea.
A little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy ... notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension was Mr. Stevenson's point of departure on his Travels with a Donkey. Monsieur Duchemin made it his as well; and on the fourth morning of his hegira from England set out from Le Monastier afoot, a volume of Montaigne in his pocket, a stout stick in his fist—the fat rucksack strapped to his shoulders enabling this latter-day traveller to dispense with the society of another donkey.
The weather was fine, his heart high, he was happy to be out of harness and again his own man. More than once he laughed a little to think of the vain question of his whereabouts which was being mooted in the underworld of Europe, where (as well he knew) men and women spat when they named him. For his route from the Channel coast to Le Monastier had been sufficiently discreet and devious to persuade him that his escape had been as cleanly executed as it was timely instigated.
Thus for upwards of a fortnight he fared southward in the footsteps of Mr. Stevenson; and much good profit had he of the adventure. For it was his common practice to go to bed with the birds and rise with the sun; and more often than not he lodged in the inn of the silver moon, with moss for a couch, leafy boughs for a canopy and the stars for night-lights—accommodations infinitely more agreeable than those afforded by the grubby and malodorous auberge of the wayside average. And between sun and sun he punished his boots famously.
Constant exercise tuned up muscles gone slack and soft with easy living, upland winds cleansed the man of the reek of cities and made his appetite a thing appalling. A keen sun darkened his face and hands, brushed up in his cheeks a warmer glow than they had shown in many a year, and faded out the heavier lines with which Time had marked his countenance. Moreover, because this was France, where one may affect a whisker without losing face, he neglected his razors; and though this was not his first thought, a fair disguise it proved. For when, toward the end of the second week, he submitted that wanton luxuriance to be tamed by a barber of Florac, he hardly knew the trimly bearded mask of bronze that looked back at him from a mirror.
Not that it mattered to Monsieur Duchemin. From the first he met few of any sort and none at all whom a lively and exacting distrust reckoned a likely factor in his affairs. It was a wild, bold land he traversed, and thinly peopled; at pains to avoid the larger towns, he sought by choice the loneliest paths that looped its quiet hills; such as passed the time of day with him were few and for the most part peasants, a dull, dour lot, taciturn to a degree that pleased him well. So that he soon forgot to be forever alert for the crack of an ambushed pistol or the pattering footfalls of an assassin with a knife.
It was at Florac, on the Tarnon, that he parted company with the trail of Stevenson. Here that one had turned east to Alais, whereas Duchemin had been lost to the world not nearly long enough, he was minded to wander on till weary. The weather held, there was sunshine in golden floods, and by night moonlight like molten silver. Between beetling ramparts of stone, terraced, crenellated and battlemented in motley strata of pink and brown and yellow and black, the river Tarn had gouged out for itself a canyon through which its waters swept and tumbled, as green as translucent jade in sunlight, profound emerald in shadow, cream white in churning rapids. The lofty profiles of its cliffs were fringed with stunted growths of pine and ash, a ragged stubble, while here and there chateaux, forsaken as a rule, and crumbling, reared ruined silhouettes against the blue. Eighteen hundred feet below, it might be more, the Tarn threaded lush bottom-lands, tilled fields, goodly orchards, plantations of walnut and Spanish chestnut, and infrequent, tiny villages that clung to precarious footholds between cliffs and water.
On high again, beyond the cliffs, stretched the Causses, vast, arid and barren plateaux, flat and featureless save for an occasional low, rounded mound, a menhir or a dolmen, and (if such may be termed features) great pits that opened in the earth like cold craters, which the countryfolk termed avens. A strange, bleak land, inhospitable, wind-harried, haunted, the home of seven howling devils of desolation...
Rain at length interned the traveller for three days in a little place called Meyrueis, which lies sweetly in the valley of the Jonte, at its confluence with the Butezon, long leagues remote from railroads and the world they stitch together—that world of unrest, uncertainty and intrigue which in those days seemed no better than a madhouse.
The break in the monotony of daily footfaring proved agreeable. It suited one well to camp for a space in that quaint town, isolate in the heart of an enchanted land, with which one was in turn enchanted, and contemplate soberly the grave issues of Life and Death.
Here (said Duchemin) nothing can disturb me; and it is high time for me to be considering what I am to make of the remainder of my days. Too many of them have been wasted, too great a portion of my span has been sacrificed to vanities. One must not forget one is in a fair way to become a grandfather; it is plainly an urgent duty to reconcile oneself to that estate and cultivate its proper gravity and decorum. Yet a little while and one must bid adieu to that Youth which one has so heedlessly squandered, a last adieu to Youth with its days of high adventure, its carefree heart, its susceptibility to the infinite seductions of Romance.
Quite seriously the adventurer entertained a premonition of his to-morrow, a vision of himself in skull-cap and seedy clothing (the trousers well-bagged at the knees) with rather more than a mere hint of an equator emphasized by grease-spots on his waistcoat, presiding over the fortunes of one of those dingy little Parisian shops wherein debatable antiques accumulate dust till they fetch the ducats of the credulous; and of a Sunday walking out, in a shiny frock-coat with his ribbon of the Legion in the buttonhole, a ratty topper crowning his placid brows, a humid grandchild adhering to his hand: a thrifty and respectable bourgeois, the final avatar of a rolling stone!
Yes: it is amusing, but quite true; though it would need a deal of contriving, something little short of a revolution to bring it about, to precisely such a future as that did Duchemin most seriously propose to dedicate himself.
But always, they say, it is God who disposes....
And for all this mood of premature resignation to the bourgeois virtues Duchemin was glad enough when his fourth day in Meyrueis dawned fair, and by eight was up and away, purposing a round day's tramp across the Causse Noir to Montpellier-le-Vieux (concerning which one heard curious tales), then on by way of the gorge of the Dourbie to Millau for the night.
Nor would he heed the dubious head shaken by his host of Meyrueis, who earnestly advised a guide. The Causses, he declared, were treacherous; men sometimes lost their way upon those lofty plains and were never heard of more. Duchemin didn't in the least mind getting lost, that is to say failing to make his final objective; at worst he could depend upon a good memory and an unfailing sense of direction to lead him back the way he had come.
He was to learn there is nothing more unpalatable than the repentance of the headstrong....
He found it a stiffish climb up out of the valley of the Jonte. By the time he had managed it, the sun had already robbed all vegetation of its ephemeral jewellery, the Causse itself showed few signs of a downpour which had drenched it for seventy-two hours on end. To that porous limestone formation water in whatever quantity is as beer to a boche. Only, if one paused to listen on the brink of an aven, there were odd and disturbing noises to be heard underfoot, liquid whisperings, grim chuckles, horrible gurgles, that told of subterranean streams in spate, coursing in darkness to destinations unknown, unguessable.
His path (there was no trace of road) ran snakily through a dense miniature forest of dwarfed, gnarled pines, of a peculiarly sombre green, ever and again in some scant clearing losing itself in a web of similar paths that converged from all points of the compass; so that the wayfarer was fain to steer by the sun—and at one time found himself abruptly on the brink of a ravine that gashed the earth like a cruel wound. He worked his way to an elevation which showed him plainly that—unless by a debatable detour of several miles—there was no way to the farther side but through the depths of the ravine itself.
If that descent was a desperate business, the subsequent climb was heartbreaking. He needed a long rest before he was able to plod on, now conceiving the sun in the guise of a personal enemy. The sweat that streamed from his face was brine upon his lips. For hours it was thus with Duchemin, and in all that time he met never a soul. Once he saw from a distance a lonely chateau overhanging another ravine; but it was apparently only one more of the many ruins indigenous to that land, and he took no step toward closer acquaintance.
Long after noon, sheer fool's luck led him to a hamlet whose mean auberge served him bread and cheese with a wine singularly thin and acid. Here he enquired for a guide, but the one able-bodied man in evidence, a hulking, surly animal, on learning that Duchemin wished to visit Montpellier-le-Vieux, refused with a growl to have anything to do with him. Several times during the course of luncheon he caught the fellow eyeing him strangely, he thought, from a window of the auberge. In the end the peasant girl who waited on him grudgingly consented to put him on his way.
In a rocky gorge, called the Rajol, a spot as inhumanly grotesque as a nightmare of Gustave Dore's, with the heat of a pit in Tophet, he laboured for hours. The hush of evening and its long shadows were on the land when finally he scrambled out to the Causse again. Then he lost his path another time, missed entirely the village of Maubert, where he had thought to find a conveyance, or at least a guide, and in the silver and purple mystery of a perfect moonlight night found himself looking down from a hilltop upon Montpellier-le-Vieux.
Rumour had prepared him to know the place when he saw it, nothing for its stupendous lunacy. Heaven knows what convulsion or measured process of Nature accomplished this thing. For his part Duchemin was unable to accept any possible scientific explanation, and will go to his grave believing that some half-witted cyclops, back beyond the dimmest dawn of Time, created Montpellier-le-Vieux in an hour of idleness, building him a play city of titanic monoliths, then wandered away and forgot it altogether.
He saw what seemed to be a city at least two miles in length, more than half as wide, a huddle of dwellings of every shape and size, a labyrinth of narrow, tortuous streets broken here and there by wide and stately avenues, with public squares and vast cirques (of such amphitheatres he counted no less than six) and walls commanded by a citadel.
But never door or window broke the face of any building, no chimney exhaled a breath of smoke, neither wheel nor foot disturbed these grass-grown thoroughfares.... Montpellier-the-Old indeed! Duchemin reflected; but rather Montpellier-the-Dead—dead with the utter deadness of that which has never lived.
Marvelling, he went down into the city of stone and passed through its desolate ways, shaping a course for the southern limits, where he thought to find the road to Millau. Fatigue alone dictated this choice of the short cut. But for that, he confesses he might have gone the long way round; he was no more prone to childish terrors than any other man, but to his mind there was something sinister in the portentous immobility of the place; in its silence, its want of excuse for being, a sense of age-old evil like an inarticulate menace.
Out of this mood he failed to laugh himself. Time and again he would catch himself listening for he knew not what, approaching warily the corner of the next huge monolith as if thinking to surprise behind it some ghoulish rite, glancing apprehensively down the corridors he passed, or overshoulder for some nameless thing that stalked him and was never there when he looked, but ever lurked impishly just beyond the tail of his eye.
So that, when abruptly a man moved from behind a rock some thirty or forty paces ahead, Duchemin stopped short, with jangled nerves and a barely smothered exclamation. Possibly a shape of spectral terror would have been less startling; in that weird place and hour humanity seemed more incongruous than the supernatural. It was at once apparent that the man had neither knowledge of nor concern with the stranger. For an instant he stood with his back to the latter, peering intently down the aisle which Duchemin had been following, a stout body filling out too well the uniform of a private soldier in the American Expeditionary Forces—that most ungainly, inutile, unbecoming costume that ever graced the form of man.
Then he half turned, beckoned hastily to one invisible to the observer, and furtively moved on. As furtively his signal was answered by a fellow who wore the nondescript garments of a peasant. And as suddenly as they had come into sight, the two slipped round a rocky shoulder, and the street of monoliths was empty.
MEETING BY MOONLIGHT
Now granting that a soldier should be free to spend his leave where he will, unchallenged, it remained true that the last of the A.E.F. had long since said farewell to the shores of France, while the Tarn country seemed a far cry from the banks of the Rhine, in those days still under occupation by forces of the United States Regular Army. Then, too, it was a fact within the knowledge of Monsieur Duchemin that the uniform of the Americans had more than frequently been used by those ancient acquaintances of his, the Apaches of Paris, as a cloak for their own misdoings. So it didn't need the air of stealth that marked this business to persuade him there was mischief in the brew.
But indeed he got in motion to investigate without stopping to debate an excuse for so doing, and several seconds before he heard the woman's cries.
Of these the first sounded, shrill with alarm, as Duchemin turned the corner where the prowlers had gone from sight. But a high wall of rock alone met his vision, and he broke into a run that carried him round still another corner and then plumped him headlong into the theatre of villainy.
This was open ground, a breadth of turf bordering on one of the great cirques—a rudely oval pit at a guess little less than seven hundred feet in its narrowest diameter and something like four hundred in depth, a vast black well against whose darkness the blue-white moonglare etched a strange grouping of figures, seven in all.
On his one hand Duchemin saw a woman in mourning clasping to her bosom a terrified young girl, the author of the screams; on the other, three men close-locked in grimmest combat, one defending himself against two with indifferent success; while in between stood a third woman with her back to and perilously near the chasm, shrinking from the threat of a pistol in the hands of the fourth man.
This last was the one nearest Duchemin, who was upon him so suddenly that it would be difficult to say which was the more surprised when Duchemin's stick struck down the pistol hand of the other with such force as must have broken his wrist. The weapon fell, he uttered an oath as he swung round, clutching the maimed member; and then, seeing his assailant for the first time, he swooped down to recover the weapon so swiftly that it was in his left hand and spitting vicious tongues of orange flame before Duchemin was able to get in a second blow.
But there was the abrupt end of that passage. Smitten cruelly between the eyes, the fellow grunted thickly and went over backwards like a bundle of rags, head and shoulders jutting out over the brink of the precipice so far that, though his body checked perceptibly as it struck the ground, his own weight carried him on, he shot out into space and vanished as though some unseen hand had lifted up from these dark depths and plucked him down to annihilation.
The young girl shrieked again, the woman gave a gasp of horror, Duchemin himself knew a sickish qualm. But he had no time to spare for that: it was going ill with the man contending against two. The adventurer's stick might have been bewitched that night, so magical was its work; a single blow on the nearest head (but believe it was selected with care!) and instantaneously that knot of contention was resolved into its three several parts.
The smitten clapped hands to his hurt, moaning. His brother scoundrel started back with staring eyes in which rage gave place to dismay as he grasped the change in the situation and saw the stick swinging for his head in turn. He ducked neatly; the stick whistled through thin air; and before Duchemin could recover the other had turned and was running for dear life.
Duchemin delayed a bare instant; but manifestly his assistance was no more needed here. In a breath he who had been so recently outmatched recollected his wits and took the initiative with admirable address. Duchemin saw him fly furiously at his late opponent, trip and lay him on his back; then turned and gave chase to the fugitive.
This was the masquerader in the American uniform; and an amazingly fleet pair of heels he showed, taking into account his heaviness of body. Already he had a fair lead; and had he maintained for long the pace he set in the first few hundred yards he must have won away scot-free. But whether he lacked staying powers or confidence, he made the mistake of adopting another and less fatiguing means of locomotion. Duchemin saw him swerve from his first course and steer for a vehicle standing at some distance—evidently the conveyance which had brought the sightseers to view the spectacle of Montpellier-le-Vieux by moonlight.
Waiting in the middle of a broad avenue of misshapen obelisks, a dilapidated barouche with a low body sagging the lower for debilitated springs, on either side its pole drooped two sorry specimens of crowbait. And their pained amazement was so unfeigned that Duchemin laughed aloud when the fat rogue bounded to the box, snatched up reins and whip and curled a cruel lash round their bony flanks. From this one inferred that he was indifferently acquainted with the animals, certainly not their accustomed driver. And since it took them some moments to come to their senses and appreciate that all this was not an evil dream, Duchemin's hands were clutching for the back of the carriage when the horses broke suddenly into an awkward, lumbering gallop and whisked it out of reach.
But not for long. Extending himself, Duchemin caught the folded top, jumped, and began to clamber in.
The man on the box was tugging fretfully at something wedged in the hip-pocket of his breeches; proof enough that he was not the original tenant of the uniform, since it fitted too snugly to permit ready extraction of a pistol in an emergency.
But he got no chance whatever to use the weapon; for the moment Duchemin found his own feet in the swaying vehicle he leaped on the shoulders of the other and dragged him backwards from the box.
What followed was not very clear to him, a melange of impressions. The mock-American fought like a devil unchained, cursing Duchemin fluently in the purest and foulest argot of Belleville—which is not in the French vocabulary of the doughboy. The animals at the pole caught fire of this madness and ran away in good earnest, that wretched barouche rolled and pitched like a rudderless shell in a crazy sea, the two men floundered in its well like fish in a pail.
They fought by no rules, with no science, but bit and kicked and gouged and wrenched and struck as occasion offered and each to the best of his ability. Duchemin caught glimpses of a face like a Chinese devil-mask, hideously distorted with working features and disfigured with smears of soot through which insane eyeballs rolled and glared in the moonlight. Then a hand like a vice gripped his windpipe, he was on his back, his head overhanging the edge of the floor, a thumb was feeling for one of his eyes. Yet it could not have been much later when he and his opponent were standing and swaying as one, locked in an embrace of wrestlers.
Still, Duchemin knew as many tricks of hand-to-hand fighting as the other, perhaps a few more. And then he was, no doubt, in far better condition. At all events the fellow was presently at his mercy, in a hold that gave one the privilege of breaking his back at will. A man of mistaken scruples, Duchemin failed to do so, but held the other helpless only long enough to find his hip-pocket and rip out the pistol—a deadly Luger. Then a thrust and a kick, which he enjoyed infinitely, sent the brute spinning out to land on his head.
The fall should have broken his neck. At the worst it should have stunned him. Evidently it didn't. When Duchemin had scrambled up to the box, captured the reins and brought the nags to a stop—no great feat that; they were quite sated with the voluptuousness of running away and well content to heed the hand and voice of authority—and when, finally, he swung them round and drove back toward the cirque, he saw no sign of his Apache by the roadside.
So he congratulated himself on the forethought which had possessed him of the pistol. Otherwise the assassin, since he had retained sufficient wit and strength to crawl into hiding, could and assuredly would have potted Monsieur Duchemin with neither difficulty nor compunction.
Not five figures but four only were waiting beside the cirque when, wheeling the barouche as near the group as the lay of the ground permitted, he climbed down. A man lay at length in the coarse grass, his head pillowed in the lap of one woman. Another woman stood aside, trembling and wringing aged hands. The third knelt beside the supine man, but rose quickly as Duchemin drew near, and came to meet him.
In this one he recognised her to whose salvation Chance had first led him, and now found time to appreciate a face of pallid loveliness, intelligent and composed, while she addressed him quietly and directly to the point in a voice whose timbre was, he fancied, out of character with the excellent accent of its French. An exquisite voice, nevertheless. English, he guessed, or possibly American, but much at home in France....
"Monsieur d'Aubrac has been wounded, a knife thrust. It will be necessary to get him to a surgeon as quickly as possible. I fancy there will be none nearer than Nant. Do you know the way?"
"One can doubtless find it," said Duchemin modestly. "But I myself am not without knowledge of wounds. Perhaps..."
"If monsieur would be so good."
Duchemin knelt beside the man, who welcomed him with open eyes and a wry smile that was almost as faint as his voice.
"It is nothing, monsieur—a clean cut in the arm, with some loss of blood."
"But let me see."
The young girl in whose lap rested the head of Monsieur d'Aubrac sat back and watched Duchemin with curious, grave eyes in which traces of moisture glimmered.
"Had the animal at my mercy, I thought," d'Aubrac apologised, "when suddenly he drew that knife, stuck me and broke away."
"I understand," Duchemin replied. "But don't talk. You'll want all your strength, my friend."
With his pocket-knife he laid open the sodden sleeves of coat and shirt, exposing an upper arm stained dark with blood that welled in ugly jets from a cut both wide and deep.
"Artery severed," he announced, and straightened up and looked about, at a loss. "My pack—?"
One's actions in moments of excitement are apt to be largely directed by the subconscious, he knew; still he found it hard to believe that he could unwittingly have unshipped and dropped his rucksack while making ready to pursue the American uniform. Nevertheless, it seemed, that was just what he had done.
The woman who had spoken to him found and fetched it from no great distance; and its contents enabled Duchemin to improvise a tourniquet, and when the flow of blood was checked, a bandage. During the operation d'Aubrac unostentatiously fainted.
The young girl caught her breath, a fluttering hiss.
"Don't be alarmed, mademoiselle," Duchemin soothed her. "He will come round presently, he will do splendidly now till we get him to bed; and then his convalescence will be merely the matter of a while of rest."
He slipped his arms beneath the unconscious man, gathered him up bodily and bore him to the carriage—and, thanks to man's amusing amour propre, made far less of the effort than it cost him. Then, with d'Aubrac disposed as comfortably as might be on the back seat, once again pillowed in a fashion to make any man envious, Duchemin turned to find the other women at his elbow. To the eldest he offered a bow suited to her condition and a hand to help her into the barouche.
Her agitation had measurably subsided. The gentle inclination of the aged head which acknowledged his courtesy was as eloquent of her quality as he found the name which she gave him in quavering accents.
"Madame de Sevenie, monsieur."
"With madame's permission: I am Andre Duchemin."
"Monsieur Duchemin has placed us all deeply in his debt. Louise ..." The girl in the carriage looked up and bowed, murmuring. "Mademoiselle de Montalais, monsieur: my granddaughter. And Eve ..." She turned to the third, to her whose voice of delightful accent was not in Duchemin's notion wholly French: "Madame de Montalais, my daughter by adoption, widow of my grandson, who died gloriously for his country at La Fere-Champenoise."
When she had graciously permitted Duchemin to assist her to a place in the carriage, Madame Sevenie turned immediately to comfort her granddaughter. It was easy to divine an attachment there, between d'Aubrac and Louise de Montalais; Duchemin fancied (and, as it turned out, rightly) the two were betrothed.
But Madame de Montalais was claiming his attention.
"Monsieur thinks—?" she enquired in a guarded tone, taking advantage of the diversion provided by the elder lady to delay a little before entering the barouche.
"Monsieur d'Aubrac is in no immediate danger. Still, the services of a good surgeon, as soon as may be ..."
"Will it be dangerous to wait till we get to Nant?"
"How far is that, madame?"
Duchemin looked aside at the decrepit conveyance with its unhappy horses, and summed up a conclusion in a shrug.
"Millau is nearer, is it not, madame?"
"But Nant is not far from the Chateau de Montalais; and at La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite our automobile is waiting, less than two miles below. The chauffeur advised against bringing over the road from La Roque to Montpellier; it is too rough and very steep."
"Oh!" said Duchemin, as one who catches a glimmering of light.
"Madame's chauffeur is waiting with the automobile, no doubt?"
"But assuredly, monsieur."
He recollected himself. "We shall see what we shall see, then, at La Roque. With an automobile at your disposal, Nant is little more distant than Millau, certainly. Nevertheless, let us not delay."
"Monsieur is too good."
Momentarily a hand slender and firm and cool rested in his own. Then its owner was setting into place beside Madame de Sevenie, and Duchemin clambering up to his on the box.
The road proved quite as rough and declivitous as its reputation. One surmised that the Spring rains had found it in a bad way and done nothing to better its condition. Deep ruts and a liberal sprinkling of small boulders collaborated to keep the horses stumbling, plunging and pitching as they strained back against the singletrees. Duchemin was grateful for the moonlight which alone enabled him to keep the road and avoid the worst of the going—until he remembered that without the moon there would have been no expedition that night to view the mock ruins of Montpellier by its unearthly light, and consequently no adventure to entangle him.
Upon this reflection he swore softly but most fervently into his becoming beard. He was well fed up with adventures, thank you, and could have done very well without this latest. And especially at a time when he desired nothing so much as to be permitted to remain the footloose wanderer in a strange land, a bird of passage without ties or responsibilities.
He thought it devilish hard that one may never do a service to another without incurring a burden of irksome obligations to the served; that bonds of interest forged in moments of unpremeditated and generous impulse are never readily to be broken.
Now because Chance had seen fit to put him in the way of saving a hapless party of sightseers from robbery or worse, he found himself hopelessly committed to take a continuing interest in them. It appeared that their home was a chateau somewhere in the vicinity of Nant. Well, after their shocking experience, and with the wounded man on their hands—and especially if La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite told the story one confidently expected—Duchemin could hardly avoid offering to see them safely as far as Nant. And once there he would be definitely in the toils. He would have to stop in the town overnight; and in the morning he would be able neither in common decency to slip away without calling to enquire after the welfare of d'Aubrac and the tranquillity of the ladies, nor in discretion to take himself out of the way of the civil investigation which would inevitably follow the report of what had happened in Montpelier.
No: having despatched a bandit to an end well-earned, it now devolved upon Andre Duchemin to satisfy Society and the State that he had done so only with the most amiable motives, on due provocation, to save his own life and possibly the lives of others.
He had premonitions of endless delays while provincial authorities wondered, doubted, criticised, procrastinated, investigated, reported, and—repeated.
And then there was every chance that the story, thanks to the prominence of the persons involved, for one made no doubt that the names of Sevenie and Montalais and d'Aubrac ranked high in that part of the world—the story would get into the newspapers of the larger towns in the department. And what then of the comfortable pseudonymity of Andre Duchemin? Posed in an inescapable glare of publicity, how long might he hope to escape recognition by some acquaintance, friend or enemy? Heaven knew he had enough of both sorts scattered widely over the face of Europe!
It seemed hard, indeed....
But it was—of course! he assured himself grimly—all a matter of fatality with him. Never for him the slippered ease of middle age, the pursuit of bourgeois virtues, of which he had so fondly dreamed in Meyrueis. Adventures were his portion, as surely as humdrum and eventless days were many another's. Wars might come and wars might go: but his mere presence in its neighbourhood would prove enough to turn the Palace of Peace itself into Action Front.
Or so it seemed to him, in the bitterness of his spirit.
Nor would he for an instant grant that his lot was not without its own, peculiar compensations.
At La Roque, a tiny hamlet huddled in the shadow of Montpellier and living almost exclusively upon the tourists that pass that way, it was as Duchemin had foreseen, remembering the American uniform and the face smudged with soot—that favourite device of the French criminal of the lower class fearing recognition. For there it appeared that, whereas the motor car was waiting safe and sound enough, its chauffeur had vanished into thin air. Not a soul could be found who recalled seeing the man after the barouche Tiad left the village. Whereupon Duchemin asked whether the chauffeur had been a stout man, and being informed that it was so, considered the case complete. Mesdames de Sevenie et de Montalais, he suggested, might as well then and there give up all hope of ever again seeing that particular chauffeur—unless by some mischance entirely out of the reckoning of the latter. The landlord of the auberge, a surly sot, who had supplied the barouche with the man to act as driver and guide in one, took with ill grace the charge that his employee had been in league with the bandits. But this was true on the word of Madame de Montalais; it was their guide, she said, whom Duchemin had driven over the cliff. And (as Duchemin had anticipated) her name alone proved enough to silence the landlord's virtuous protestations. One could not always avoid being deceived, he declared; he knew nothing of the dead man more than that he had come well recommended. With which he said no more, but lent an efficient if sullen hand to the task of transferring d'Aubrac to the motor car.
D'Aubrac came to, while this was being accomplished, begged feebly for water, was given it with a little brandy to boot and, comfortably settled in the rear seat, between Louise de Montalais and her grandmother, relapsed once more into unconsciousness.
Learning that Madame de Montalais would drive, Duchemin dissembled a sigh of relief and, standing beside the car, doffed his cap to say good-bye. He was only too happy to have been of such slight service as the circumstances had permitted; and if at any time he could do more, a line addressed to him at Nimes, poste restante ....
"But if Monsieur Duchemin would be good enough," Madame de Sevenie interposed in a fretful quaver—"and if it would not be taking him too far out of his way—it is night, anything may happen, the car might break down, and I am an old woman, monsieur, with sorely tried nerves—"
Looking down at him from her place at the wheel, Madame de Montalais added: "It would be an act of charity, I think, monsieur, if it does not inconvenience you too greatly."
"On the contrary," he fabricated without blushing, "you will be obliging a weary man by putting him several miles on his way."
He had no cause to regret his complaisance. Seated beside Madame de Montalais, he watched her operate the car with skilful hands, making the best of a highway none too good, if a city boulevard in comparison with that which they had covered in the barouche.
Following the meandering Dourbie, it ran snakily from patches of staring moonlight to patches of inky shadows, now on narrow ledges high over the brawling stream, now dipping so low that the tyres were almost level with the plane of broken waters.
The sweep of night air in his face was sweet and smooth, not cold—for a marvel in that altitude—and stroked his eyelids with touches as bland as caresses of a pretty woman's fingers. He was sensible of drowsiness, a surrender to fatigue, to which the motion of the motor car, swung seemingly on velvet springs, and the shifting, blending chiaroscuro of the magic night were likewise conducive. So that there came a lessening of the tension of resentment in his humour.
It was true that Life would never let him rest in the quiet byways of his desire; but after all, unrest was Life; and it was good to be alive tonight, alive and weary and not ill-content with self, in a motor car swinging swiftly and silently along a river road in the hills of Southern France, with a woman lovely, soignee and mysterious at the wheel.
Perhaps instinctively sensible of the regard that dwelt, warm with wonder, on the fair curve of her cheek, the perfect modelling of her nose and mouth, she looked swiftly askance, after a time, surprised his admiration, and as if not displeased smiled faintly as she returned attention to the road.
Duchemin was conscious of something like a shock of emotion, a sudden surging of some hunger that had long lain dormant in his being, unsuspected, how long he could not surmise, gaining strength in latency, waiting to be awakened and set free by one careless, sidelong look and smile of a strange woman.
"Eve," he whispered, unheard, "Eve de Montalais ..."
Then of a sudden he caught himself up sharply. It was natural enough that one should be susceptible to gentler impulses, at such a time, under circumstances so strange, so unforeseen, so romantic; but he must not, dared not, would not yield. That way danger lay.
Not that he feared danger; for like most of mankind he loved it well.
But here the danger held potentialities if not the certainty of pain—pain, it might be, not for one alone.
Besides, it was too absurd ....
PHINUIT & CO.
In the upshot, however, the necessity of his dismal forebodings had nothing to do with the length of time devoted by Monsieur Duchemin to kicking idle heels in the town of Nant; where the civil authorities proved considerate in a degree that—even making allowance for the local prestige of the house of Montalais—gratified and surprised the confirmed Parisian. For that was just what the good man was at heart and would be till he died, the form in which environment of younger years had moulded him: less French than Parisian, sharing the almost insular ignorance of life in the provinces characteristic of the native boulevardier; to whom the sun is truly nothing more or less than a spotlight focussed exclusively on Paris, leaving the rest of France in a sort of crepuscular gloom, the world besides steeped in eternal night.
The driver-guide of La Roque turned out to have been a thorough-paced scamp, well and ill-known to the gendarmerie; the wound sustained by Monsieur d'Aubrac bore testimony to the gravity of the affair, amply excusing Duchemin's interference and its fatal sequel; while the statements of Mesdames de Sevenie et de Montalais, duly becoming public property, bade fair to exalt the local reputation of Andre Duchemin to heroic stature. And, naturally, his papers were unimpeachable.
So that he found himself, before his acquaintance with Nant was thirty-six hours of age, free once more to humour the dictates of his own sweet will, to go on to Nimes (his professed objective) or to the devil if he liked. A freedom which, consistent with the native inconsistency of man, he exercised by electing to stop over in Nant for another day or two, at least; assuring himself that he found the town altogether charming, more so even than Meyrueis—and sometimes believing this fiction for as much as twenty minutes at a stretch.
Besides, the weather was unsettled ....
The inn, which went by the unpretending style of the Grand Hotel de l'Univers, he found clean, comfortable, and as to its cuisine praiseworthy. The windows of the cubicle in which he had been lodged—one of ten which sufficed for the demands of the itinerant Universe—not only overlooked the public square and its amusing life of a minor market town, but commanded as well a splendid vista of the valley of the Dourbie, with its piquant contrast of luxuriant alluvial verdure and grim scarps of rock that ran up, on either side the wanton, glimmering river, into two opposed and overshadowing pinnacles of crag, the Roc Nantais and the Roc de Saint Alban—peaks each a rendezvous just then for hosts of cloud that scowled forbiddingly down upon the peaceful, sun-drenched valley.
Moreover, even from the terrasse of the cafe below, one needed only to lift one's eyes to see, afar, perched high upon a smiling slope of green, with the highway to Millau at its foot and a beetling cliff behind, the Chateau de Montalais. Seated on that terrasse, late in the afternoon of his second day in Nant, discussing a Picon and a villainous caporal cigarette of the Regie (to whose products a rugged constitution was growing slowly reconciled anew) Duchemin let his vision dwell upon the distant chateau almost as constantly as his thoughts.
He was to dine there that very evening. Even taking into account the signal service Duchemin had rendered, this wasn't easy to believe when one remembered the tradition of social conservatism among French gentlefolk. Still, it was true: Duchemin of the open road was bidden to dine en famille at the Chateau de Montalais. In his pocket lay the invitation, penned in the crabbed antique hand of Madame de Sevenie and fetched to the hotel by a servitor quite as crabbed and antique: Monsieur Duchemin would confer a true pleasure by enabling the ladies of the chateau to testify, even so inadequately, to their sense of obligation, etc.; with a postscript to say that Monsieur d'Aubrac was resting easily, his wound mending as rapidly as heart could wish.
Of course Duchemin was going, had in fact already despatched his acceptance by the hand of the same messenger. Equally of course he knew that he ought not to go. For a man of his years he was, as a matter of training and habit, amazingly honest with himself. He knew quite well what bent his inclination toward visiting the Chateau de Montalais just once before effecting, what he was resolved upon, a complete evanishment from the ken of its people. He had yet to hold one minute of private conversation with Eve de Montalais, he had of her no sign to warrant his thinking her anything but utterly indifferent to him; and yet....
No; he wasn't ass enough to dream that he was in love with the woman; to the contrary, he was wise enough, knew himself well enough, to know that he could be, easily, and would be, given half a chance to lose his head.
His warning had been clear beyond mistake, in that hour in the motor car on the road from La Roque to Nant, when Nature, as she sometimes will, incautiously had shown her hand to one whom she herself had schooled to read shrewdly, letting him discern what was her will with him, the snare that was laid for his feet and in which he must soon find himself trapped beyond extrication ... always providing he lacked the wit and resolution to fly his peril, who knew through bitterest of learning that love was never for him.
Now he had seen Madame de Montalais another time, and had found that she fitted to the sweetest detail of perfection his ideal of Woman.
On the previous afternoon, meeting the ladies of the chateau by arrangement in the bureau of the maire, Duchemin had sat opposite and watched and listened to Eve de Montalais for upwards of two hours—as completely devoted to covert study of her as if she had been the one woman in the room, as if the girl Louise, Madame de Sevenie, and the officials and functionaries of Nant had not existed in the same world with her. And in that tedious and constrained time of formalities he had learned much about her, but first of all, thanks to the uncompromising light of day that filled the cheerless room, that moonlight had not enhanced but rather tempered the charms of person which had the night before so stirred his pulses.
Posed with consummate grace in a comfortless chair, a figure of slender elegance in her half-mourning, she had narrated quietly her version of last night's misadventure, an occasional tremor of humour lightening the moving modulations of her voice. A deep and vibrant voice, contralto in quality, hinting at hidden treasures of strength in the woman whose superficial mind it expressed. A fair woman, slim but round, with brown eyes level and calm, a translucent skin of matchless texture, hair the hue of bronze laced with intimations of gold ...
Her story told, and taken down in longhand by a withered clerk, she supplied without reluctance or trace of embarrassment such intimate personal information as was necessary in order that her signature to the document might be acceptable to the State.
Her age, she said, was twenty-nine; her birthplace, the City of New York; her parents, Edmund Anstruther, once of Bath, England, but at the time of her birth a naturalised citizen of the United States, and Eve Marie Anstruther, nee Legendre, of Paris. Both were dead. In June 1914 she had married, in Paris, Victor Maurice de Montalais, who had been killed in action at La Fere-Champenoise on the ninth of September following. Her home? The Chateau de Montalais.
On the hand she stripped in order to sign her deposition Duchemin saw a blue diamond of such superb water that this amateur of precious stones caught his breath for sheer wonder at its beauty and excellence and worth. Such jewels, he knew, were few and far to seek outside the collections of princes.
Out of these simple elements imagination reconstructed a tragedy, a tragedy of life singularly close to the truth as he later came to learn it, a story not at all calculated to lessen his interest in the woman.
Such women, he knew, are the product of a cultivation seldom to be achieved by poverty. This one had been made before, and not by, her marriage. Her father, then, had commanded riches. And when one knew, as Duchemin knew, what delights New York has for young women of wealth and fashion, one perceived a radiant and many-coloured background for this drab life of a recluse, expatriate from the high world of her inheritance, which Eve de Montalais must lead, and for the six years of her premature widowhood must have led, in that lonely chateau, buried deep in the loneliest hills of all France, the sole companion and comfort of her husband's bereaved sister and grandmother, chained by sorrow to their sorrow, by an inexorable reluctance to give them pain by seeming to slight the memory of the husband, brother and grandson through turning her face toward the world of life and light and gaiety of which she was so essentially a part, isolate from which she was so inevitably a thing existing without purpose or effect.
How often, Duchemin wondered, had she in hours of solitude and restlessness felt her spirit yearning toward Paris, the nearest gateway to her world, and had cried out: How long, O Lord! how long?...
The mellow resonance of a two-toned automobile horn, disturbing the early evening hush and at the same time Duchemin's meditations, recalled him to Nant in time to see a touring car of majestic proportions and mien which, coming from the south, from the direction of the railroad and Nimes, was sweeping a fine curve round two sides of the public square. Arriving in front of the Hotel de l'Univers it executed a full stop and stood curbed yet palpitant, purring heavily: an impressive brute of a car, all shining silver plate and lustrous green paint and gold, the newest model of the costliest and best automobile manufactured in France.
Instantly, as the wheels ceased to turn, a young man in the smartest livery imaginable, green garnished with gold, leaped smartly from the driver's seat, with military precision opened the door of the tonneau and, holding it, immobilised himself into the semblance of a waxwork image with the dispassionate eye, the firm mouth, and the closely razored, square jowls of the model chauffeur. Rustics and townsfolk were already gathering, a gaping audience, when from the tonneau descended first a long and painfully emaciated gentleman, whose face was a cadaverous mask of settled melancholy and his chosen toilette for motoring (as might be seen through the open and flapping front of his ulster) a tightly tailored light grey cutaway coat and trousers, with a double-breasted white waistcoat, a black satin Ascot scarf transfixed by a single splendid pearl, and spotless white spats.
His hand, as gaunt as a skeleton's, assisted to alight a young woman whose brilliant blonde beauty, viewed for the first time in evening shadows, was like a shaft of sunlight in a darkened room. A well-made creature, becomingly and modishly gowned for motoring, spirited yet dignified in carriage, she was like a vision of, as she was palpably a visitation from, the rue de la Paix.
Following her, a third passenger presented the well-nourished, indeed rotund, person of a Frenchman of thirty devoted to "le Sport"; as witness his aggressively English tweeds and the single glass screwed into his right eye-socket. His face was chubby, pink and white, his look was merry, he was magnificently self-conscious and debonnaire.
Like shapes from some superbly costumed pageant of High Life in the Twentieth Century this trio drifted, rather than merely walked like mortals, across the terrasse and into the Cafe de l'Univers (which seemed suddenly to shrink in proportion as if reminded of its comparative insignificance in the Scheme of Things) where an awed staff of waiters, led by the overpowered proprietaires, monsieur et madame themselves, welcomed these apparitions from Another and A Better World with bowings and scrapings and a vast bustle and movement of chairs and tables; while all Nant, all of it, that is, that was accustomed to foregather in the cafe at this the hour of the aperitif, looked on with awed and envious eyes.
It was all very theatrical and inspiring—to Monsieur Duchemin, too; who, lost in the shuffle of Nant and content to be so, murmured to himself that serviceable and comforting word of the time, "Profiteers!" and contemplated with some satisfaction his personal superiority to such as these.
But there was more and better to come.
There remained in the car a mere average man, undistinguished but by a lack of especial distinction, sober of habit, economical of gesture, dressed in a simple lounge suit such as anybody might wear, beneath a rough and ready-made motorcoat. When the car stopped he had stood up in his place beside the chauffeur as if meaning to get out, but rather remained motionless, resting a hand on the windshield and thoughtfully gazing northwards along the road that, skirting the grounds of the Chateau de Montalais, disappeared from view round the sleek shoulder of a hill.
Now as the pattern chauffeur shut the door to the tonneau with the properly arrogant slam, the man who lingered in the car nodded gravely to some private thought, unlatched the door, got down, and turned toward the cafe, but before following his companions of more brilliant plumage paused for a quiet word with the chauffeur.
"We dine here, Jules," he announced in English.
Settling into place behind the wheel Jules saluted with fine finish and deference.
"Very good, Mr. Phinuit, sir," he said meekly, in the same tongue. To this he added, coolly, without the least flicker of a glance aside, without moving one muscle other than those involved by the act of speech, and in precisely the tone of respect that became his livery: "What's the awful idea, you big stiff?"
Mr. Phinuit betrayed not the slightest sense of anything untoward in this mode of address, but looked round to the chauffeur with a slow, not unfriendly smile.
"Why," he said pleasantly—"you misbegotten garage hound—why do you ask?"
In the same manner Jules replied: "Can't you see it's going to rain?"
Mr. Phinuit cocked a calm, observant eye heavenwards. Involuntarily but unobtrusively, under cover of the little tubbed trees that hedged the terrasse apart from the square, Duchemin did likewise, and so discovered, or for the first time appreciated, the cause of the uncommonly early dusk that loured over Nant.
Between the sentinel peaks that towered above the valley black battalions of storm cloud were fraternising, joining forces, coalescing into a vast and formidable army of ominous aspect.
"So it is," Mr. Phinuit commented amiably; indeed, not without a certain hint of satisfaction. "Blessed if you don't see everything!"
"Well, then: what about it?"
"Why, I should say you'd better find a place to put the car under cover in case it comes on to storm before we're finished—and put up the top."
"You don't mean to go on in the rain?" Jules protested—yet studiously in no tone of protest.
"How do you get that way? Do you want us all to get soaked to our skins?"
"My dear Jules!" Mr. Phinuit returned with a winning smile—"I don't give a tupenny damn if we do." With that he went to join his company; while Jules, once the other's back was turned, permitted himself, for the sake of his own respect and the effect upon the assembled audience, the luxury of a shrug that outrivalled words in expression of his personal opinion of the madness that contemplated further travel on such a night as this promised to be.
Then, like the well-trained servant that he was not, he meshed gears silently and swung the car away to seek shelter, taking with him the sympathy as well as the wonder of the one witness of this bit of by-play who had been able to understand the tongue in which it was couched; and who, knowing too well what rain in those hills could mean, was beginning to regret that his invitation to the chateau had not been for another night.
As for the somewhat unusual tone of the passage to which he had just listened, his nimble wits could invent half a dozen plausible explanations. It was quite possible, indeed when one judged Mr. Phinuit by his sobriety in contrast with the gaiety of the others it seemed quite plausible, that he was equally with Jules a paid employee of those ostensible nouveaux riches: and that the two, the chauffeur and the courier (or whatever Mr. Phinuit was in his subordinate social rating) were accustomed to amuse themselves by indulging in reciprocal abuse.
But what Duchemin could by no means fathom was the reason why Phinuit should choose, and how he should rule the choice of his party, in the face of such threatening weather, to stop in Nant for an early dinner—with Millau only an hour away and the chances fair that before the storm broke the automobile would reach the latter city with its superior hotel and restaurant accommodations.
But it was after all none of the business of Andre Duchemin. He lighted another cigarette, observing the group of strangers in Nant with an open inquisitiveness wholly Gallic, therefore inconspicuous. The entire clientele of the Cafe de l'Univers was doing the same; Mr. Phinuit's party was the focal point of between twenty and thirty pair of staring eyes, and was enduring this with much equanimity.
Mr. Phinuit was conferring earnestly over the menu with madame la proprietaire. The others were ordering aperitifs of a waiter. Through the clatter of tongues that filled the cafe one caught the phrase "veeskysoda" uttered by the monsieur in tweeds. Then the tall man consulted the beautiful lady as to her preference, and Duchemin caught the words "madame la comtesse" spoken in the rasping nasal drawl of an American.
Evidently a person of rich humour, the speaker: "madame la comtesse" was abruptly convulsed with laughter; the chubby gentleman roared; Mr. Phinuit looked up from the carte with an enquiring, receptive smile; the waiter grinned broadly. But the cause of all this merriment wore only an expression of slightly pained bewilderment on his death-mask of a face.
At that moment arrived the caleche which Duchemin had commanded to drive him to the chateau; and with a ride of two miles before him and rain imminent, he had no more time to waste.
Dinner was served in a vast and sombre hall whose darkly panelled walls and high-beamed ceiling bred a multitude of shadows that danced about the table a weird, spasmodic saraband, without meaning or end, restlessly advancing and retreating as the candles flickered, failed and flared in the gusty draughts.
There was (Duchemin learned) no other means of illumination but by candle-light in the entire chateau. The time-old structure had been thoroughly renovated and modernised in most respects, it was furnished with taste and reverence (one could guess whose the taste and purse) but Madame de Sevenie remained its undisputed chatelaine, a belated spirit of the ancien regime, stubbornly set against the conveniences of this degenerate age. Electric lighting she would never countenance. The telephone she esteemed a convenience for tradespeople and vulgarians in general, beneath the dignity of leisured quality. The motor car she disapproved yet tolerated because, for all her years, she was of a brisk and active turn and liked to get about, whereas since the War good horseflesh was difficult to find in France and men to care for it more scarce still.
So much, and more besides, she communicated to Duchemin at intervals during the meal, comporting herself toward him with graciousness not altogether innocent of a certain faded coquetry. Having spoken of herself as one born too late for her time, she paused and eyed him keenly, a gleam of light malice in her bright old eyes.
"And you, too, monsieur," she added suddenly. "But you, I think, belong to an even earlier day..."
"I, madame? And why do you say that?"
"I should have been guillotined under the Terror; but you, monsieur, you should have been hanged long before that—hanged for a buccaneer on the Spanish Main."
"Madame may be right," said Duchemin, amused. "And quite possibly I was, you know."
Then he wondered a little, and began to cultivate some respect for the shrewdness of her intuitions.
He sat on her left, the place of honour going by custom immemorial to monsieur le cure of Nant. For all that, Duchemin declined to feel slighted. Was he not on the right of Eve de Montalais?
The girl Louise was placed between the cure and her sister-in-law. Duchemia could not have been guilty of the offence of ignoring her; but the truth is that, save when courtesy demanded that he pay her some attention, he hardly saw her. She was pretty enough, but very quiet and self-absorbed, a slender, nervous creature with that pathetically eager look peculiar to her age and caste in France, starving for the life she might not live till marriage should set her free. A pale and ineffective wraith beside Eve, whose beauty, relieved in candleglow against the background of melting darkness, burned like some rare exotic flower set before a screen of lustreless black velvet. And like a flower to the sun she responded to the homage of his admiration —which he was none the less studious to preserve from the sin of obviousness. For he was well aware that her response was impersonal; it was not his but any admiration that she craved as a parched land wants rain.
Less than three months a wife, more than five years a widow, still young and ardent, nearing the noontide of her womanhood, and immolated in this house of perennial mourning, making vain oblation of her youth, her beauty, the rich wine of life that coursed so lustily through her being, upon the altar of a memory whose high priestess was only an old, old woman....
He perceived that it would be quite possible for him, did he yield to the bent of his sympathies, to dislike Madame de Sevenie most intensely.
Not that he was apt to have much opportunity to encourage such a gratuitous aversion: to-morrow would see him on the road again, his back forever turned to the Chateau de Montalais....
Or, if not to-morrow, then as soon as the storm abated.
It was raging now as if it would never weaken and had the will to raze the chateau though it were the task of a thousand years. From time to time the shock of some great blast of air would seem to rock upon its foundations even that ancient pile, those heavy walls of hewn stone builded in times of honest workmanship by forgotten Sieurs de Montalais who had meant their home to outlast the ages.
Rain in sheets sluiced the windows without rest. Round turrets and gables the wind raved and moaned like a famished wild thing denied its kill. Occasionally a venturesome gust with the spirit of a minor demon would find its way down the chimney to the drawing-room fire and send sparks in volleys against the screen, with thin puffs of wood smoke that lingered in the air like acrid ghosts.
At such times the cure, sitting at piquet with Madame de Sevenie, after dinner, would cough distressingly and, reminded that he had a bed to reach somehow through all this welter, anathematise the elements, help himself to a pinch of snuff, and proceed with his play.
Duchemin sat at a little distance, talking with Madame de Montalais over their cigarettes. To smoking, curiously enough, Madame de Sevenie offered no objection. Women had not smoked in her day, and she for her part would never. But Eve might: it was "done"; even in those circles of hidebound conservatism, the society of the Faubourg St. Germain, ladies of this day smoked unrebuked.
Louise had excused herself—to sit, Duchemin had no doubt, by the bedside of d'Aubrac, under the duenna-like eye of an old nurse of the family.
Being duly encouraged, Duchemin talked about himself, of his wanderings and adventures, all with discretion, with the neatest expurgations, and with an object, leading cunningly round to the subject of New York.
At mention of it he saw a new light kindle in Eve's eyes. Her breath came more quickly, gentle emotion agitated her bosom.
Monsieur knew New York?
But well: he had been there as a boy, again as a young man; and then later, in the year when America entered the Great War; not since ...
"It is my home," said Eve de Montalais softly, looking away.
(One noted that she said "is"—not "was.")
So Duchemin had understood. Madame had not visited her home recently?
Not in many years; not in fact since nineteen-thirteen. She assumed the city must have changed greatly.
Duchemin thought it was never the same, but forever changing itself overnight, so to speak; and yet always itself, always like no other city in the world, fascinating....
"Fascinating? But irresistible! How I long for it!" She was distrait for an instant. "My New York! Monsieur—would you believe?—I dream of it!"
He had found a key to one chamber in the mansion of her confidence. As much to herself as to him, unconsciously dropping into English, she began to talk of her life "at home"....
Her father had been a partner in a great jewellery house, Cottier's, of Paris, London, and New York. (So that explained it! She was wearing the blue diamond again tonight, with other jewels worth, in the judgment of a keen connoisseur, a king's ransom.) Schooled at an exclusive establishment for the daughters of people of fashion, Eve at an early age had made her debut; but within the year her father died, and her mother, whose heart had always been in the city of her nativity, closed the house on East Fifty-seventh street and removed with her daughter to Paris. There Eve had met her future husband. Shortly after, her mother died. Eve returned to New York to attend to some business in connection with her estate, remaining only a few weeks, leaving almost reluctantly; but the new love was very sweet, she had looked forward joyfully to the final transplanting of her affections.
And then the War, the short month of long, long days in the apartment on the avenue des Champs-Elysees, waiting, waiting, while the earth trembled to the tramp of armed men and the tireless rumbling of caissons and camions, and the air was vibrant with the savage dialogue of cannon, ever louder, daily more near....
She fell silent, sitting with bowed head and gaze remote.
From the splendid jewels that adorned the fingers twisting together in her lap, the firelight struck coruscant gleams.
"Now I hate Paris, I wish never to see it again."
Duchemin uttered a sympathetic murmur.
"But New York—?"
"Ah, but sometimes I think I would give anything to be there once more!"
The animation with which this confession was delivered proved transient.
"Then I remind myself I have no one there—a few friends, yes, acquaintances; but no family ties, no one dear to me."
"But—pardon—you stay here?"
"It is beautiful here, monsieur."
"But such solitude, such isolation—for you, madame!"
"I know. Still, I am fond of the life here; it was here I found myself again, after my grief. And I am fond of my adopted mother and Louise, too, and they of me. Indeed, I am all they have left. Louise, of course, will marry before long, Georges"—she used d'Aubrac's given name—"will take her away, then Madame de Sevenie will have nobody but me. And at her age, it would be too sad..."
Across the drawing-room that lady looked up from her cards and sharply interrogated a manservant who had silently presented himself to her attention.
"What is it you want, Jean?"
The servant mumbled his justification: An automobile had broken down on the highroad near the chateau, the chauffeur was unable to move the car or make any repairs in the storm, a gentleman had come to the door to ask....
He moved aside, indicating the doorway to the entrance hall, beyond which Mr. Phinuit was to be seen, standing with cap in hand, tiny rivulets running from the folds of his motor-coat and forming pools on the polished flooring. As in concerted movement Madame de Sevenie, Eve de Montalais, the cure and Duchemin approached, his cool, intelligent, good-humoured glance surveyed them swiftly, each in turn, and with unerring instinct settled on the first as the one to whom he must address himself.
But the bow with which he also acknowledged the presence of Eve was hardly less profound; Duchemin himself, at his best, could hardly have bettered it. His manner, in fact, left nothing to be desired; and the French in which immediately he begged a thousand pardons for the intrusion was so admirable that it seemed hard to believe he was the same man who had, only a few hours earlier, composedly traded the slang of the States with a chauffeur in front of the Cafe de l'Univers.
Mr. Phinuit was desolated to think he might be imposing on madame's good nature, but the accident was positive, the night truly inclement, madame la comtesse was already suffering from the cold, and if one might beg shelter for her and the gentlemen of the party while one telephoned or sent to Nant for another automobile....
But monsieur might feel very sure Madame de Sevenie would never forgive herself if the hospitality of the Chateau de Montalais failed at such a time. She would send servants to the car at once with lights, wraps, umbrellas....
There was no necessity for that. The remainder of the party had, it seemed, presumed upon her courtesy in anticipation, and was not far from the heels of its ambassador. Even while madame was speaking, Jean was opening the great front doors to those who proved—formal introductions being duly effect by Mr. Phinuit—to be Madame la Comtesse de Lorgnes, monsieur le comte, her husband (this was the well-fed body in tweeds) and Mr. Whitaker Monk, of New York.
These personages were really not at all in a bad way. Their wraps were well peppered with rain, they were chilly, the footgear of madame la comtesse was wet and needed changing. But that was the worst of their plight. And when Mr. Phinuit, learning that there was no telephone, had accepted an offer of the Montalais motor car to tow the other under cover and so enable Jules to make repairs, and Eve de Montalais had carried madame la comtesse off to her own apartment to change her shoes and stockings, the gentlemen trooped to the drawing-room fire, at the instance of Madame de Sevenie, and grew quite cheerful under the combined influence of warmth and wine and biscuits; Duchemin standing by with a half-rejected doubt to preoccupy him, vaguely disturbed by the oddness of this rencontre considered in relation to that injudicious stop for dinner at Nant in the face of the impending storm, and with Mr. Phinuit's declaration that he didn't give a tupenny damn if they did all get soaked to their skins.
It seemed far-fetched and ridiculous to imagine that people of their intelligence—and they were most of them unusually intelligent and alert, if demeanour and utterances might be taken as criterion—should adopt any such elaborate machinery of mystification and duplicity in order to gain an introduction to the Chateau de Montalais. With what possible motive...?
But there was the devil of having a mind like Duchemin's: once it conceived a notion like that, it was all but impossible for him to dislodge it unless or until something happened to persuade him of his stupidity.
Now to make his suspicions seem at all reasonable, a motive was lacking. And that worried the man hugely. He desired most earnestly to justify his captiousness; and to this end exercised a power of conscientious observation on his new acquaintances.
Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes he was disposed to pass at face value, as an innocuous being, good natured enough but none too brilliant, with much of the disposition of an overgrown boy and a rather boyish tendency to admire and imitate in others qualities which he did not himself possess.
Mr. Phinuit had not returned, so there was no present opportunity to take further note of him; though Duchemin first inferred from Mr. Monk's manner, and later learned through a chance remark of his, that Phinuit was his secretary.
Upon this Mr. Monk Duchemin concentrated close attention, satisfied that he had here to do with an extraordinary personality, if not one unique.
Mr. Whitaker Monk might have been any age between thirty-five and fifty-five, so non-committal was that lantern-jawed countenance of a droll, with its heavy, black, eloquent eyebrows, its high and narrow forehead merging into an extensive bald spot fringed with greyish hair, its rather small, blue, illegible eyes, its high-bridged nose and prominent nostrils, its wide and thin-lipped mouth, its rather startling pallor. Taller by a head than anybody in the room except Duchemin, his figure was remarkably thin, yet not ill-proportioned. Neither was Mr. Monk ill at ease or ungraceful in his actions. Clothed in that extravagantly correct costume—correct, at least, for a drawing-room, if never for motoring—he had all the appearance of a comedian fresh from the hands of his dresser. One naturally expected of him mere grotesqueries—and found simply the courteous demeanour of a gentleman of the world. So much for externals. But what more? Nature herself had cast Mr. Monk in the very mould of a masquerader. What manner of man was hidden behind the mask? His words and deeds alone would tell; Duchemin could only weigh the one and await the other.
In the meantime Mr. Monk was sketching rapidly for the benefit of Madame de Sevenie the excuse for his present plight.
A chance meeting at Monte Carlo, he said, with his old friends, the Comte et Comtesse de Lorgnes, had resulted in their yielding to his insistence that they tour with him back to Paris by this roundabout way.
"A whim of my age, madame." Somehow the nasal intonation of the American suited singularly well his fluent French; he seemed to have less trouble with his R's than most Anglo-Saxons. "As a young man—a younger man—ah, well, in Ninety-four, then—I explored this country on a walking tour, inspired by Stevenson. You know, perhaps, his diverting Travels with a Donkey? But I daresay its spirit would hardly have survived translation.... At all events, I had the whim to revisit some of those well-remembered scenes. I say some, for naturally it would be impossible, even with the vastly improved roads of to-day, for my automobile to penetrate everywhere I wandered afoot. Nor would I wish it to; a few disappointments, a few failures to recapture something of that first fine careless rapture, would instill a lyric melancholy; but too many would make one morbid.... Well, then: at Nant, in those old days, I once had a famous dinner; and naturally, returning, I must try to duplicate it, even though it meant going on to Millau in the rain. But alas! the Cafe de l'Univers is no more what it was—or I am grown over critical."
What now of Duchemin's doubts? To tell the sad truth, they were just as strong as ever. The man was somehow prejudiced: he found Monk's story entirely too glib, and knew a mean sense of gratification when the cure interposed a gentle correction.
"But in Ninety-four, monsieur, there was no Cafe de l'Univers in Nant."
Astonished eyebrows climbed the forehead of Mr. Monk.
"No, monsieur le cure? Truly not? Then it must have been another. How one's memory will play one false!"
"How strange, then, is coincidence," Madame de Sevenie suggested. "You who made a walking tour of this country so long ago, monsieur, regard there that good Monsieur Duchemin, himself engaged upon just such an undertaking."
Duchemin acknowledged with a humorous little nod Mr. Monk's look of moderate amazement at this so strange coincidence.
"A whim of my age, monsieur," he said—"a project I have entertained since youth but always, till of late, lacked leisure to put into execution."
"But is there anything more wonderful than the workings of the good God?" madame pursued. "Observe that, if Monsieur Duchemin had been suffered to indulge his inclination in youth, we should all, I, my daughter, my grand-daughter, even poor Georges d'Aubrac, would quite probably be lying dead at the bottom of a cirque at Montpellier-le-Vieux."
Naturally the strangers required to know about that, and Madame de Sevenie would talk, in fact doted on telling the tale of that great adventure. Duchemin made a face of resignation, and heard himself extolled as a paladin for strength, address and valour; the truth being that he was not at all resigned and would infinitely liefer have been left out of the limelight. The more he was represented as a person of consequence, the less fair his chance to study these others at his leisure, in the comfortable obscurity of their indifference.
Now the enigmatic eyes of Monk were boring into him, seeking to search his soul, with a question in their stare which he could not read and, quite likely, would have declined to answer if he could. Also the eyes of Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes were very round and constant to him. And before Madame de Sevenie was finished, Phinuit strolled in and heard enough to make him subject Duchemin to a not unfriendly, steady and open inspection.
And when the trumpets had been flourished finally for Duchemin, and he had dutifully assured madame that she was too generous and had acknowledged congratulations on his exploit, Phinuit strolled over and offered a hand.
"Good work," he said in English. "Seen you before, haven't I, somewhere, Mr. Duchemin?"
Under other circumstances Duchemin, not at all hoodwinked by this too obvious stratagem, would have taken mean pleasure in looking blank and begging monsieur to interpret himself in French. But, with or without cunning, Phinuit's question was well-timed: Eve de Montalais was at that moment entering the drawing-room with Madame la Comtesse de Lorgnes, and she knew very well that Duchemin's English was quite as good as his French.
"At the Cafe de l'Univers, this afternoon," he replied frankly.
"I remember. You drove away, just before the storm broke, in a ramshackle rig that must have come out of the Ark."
"To come here, Mr. Phinuit."
"Funny," said Phinuit, with hesitation, "your being there, and then our turning up here."
Duchemin thought he knew what was on the other's mind. "I was immensely entertained—do you mind my saying so?—to hear the way your chauffeur talked to you, monsieur. Tell me: Is it the custom in your country—?"
"Oh, Jules!" said Phinuit, and laughed. "Jules is my younger brother. When he was demobilised his job was gone, back home, and I wished him on Mr. Monk as a chauffeur. We're always kidding each other like that."
Now what could be more reasonable? Duchemin wondered, and concluded that, if anything, it would be the truth. But he did not pretend to himself that he wasn't, quite illogically and with no provocation whatsoever, most vilely prejudiced against the lot of them.
"But you must know America, to speak the language as well as you do."
Duchemin nodded: "But very slightly, monsieur."
"I was wondering ... Somehow I can't get it out of my head I've seen you somewhere before to-day."
"It is quite possible: when one moves about the world, one is visible—n'est-ce pas, monsieur? But my home," Duchemin added, "is Paris."
"I guess," said Phinuit in a tone of singular disappointment, "it must have been there I saw you."
Duchemin's bow signified that he was content to let it go at that. Moreover, Monk was signalling to Phinuit with his expressive eyebrows.
"What about the car, Phin?"
Examining his wrist watch, Phinuit drew near his employer. "Jules should not need more than half an hour now, monsieur."
Was there, in this employment of French to respond to a question couched in English, the suggestion of a subtle correction? From employe to employer? If not, why must Duchemin have thought so? If so, why did Monk, without betraying a sign of feeling the reproof, continue in French?
"Did Jules say half an hour?"
"My God!" Monk addressed the company: "If I were pressed for time, I would rather have one of Jules' half-hours than anybody else's hour and a half."