Alias the Lone Wolf - Louis Joseph Vance - ebook
Kategoria: Sensacja, thriller, horror Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1921

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Louis Joseph Vance

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Opis ebooka Alias the Lone Wolf - Louis Joseph Vance

The super crook in "The Lone Wolf," the object of fiendish vengeance in "The False Faces," and the clever secret service man in "The Red Masquerade" now has his most thrilling adventure as a gentleman adventurer who pits his wits against a ruthless schemer to save an innocent man framed for burglary.

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Fragment ebooka Alias the Lone Wolf - Louis Joseph Vance

About

Chapter 1 - WALKING PAPERS
Chapter 2 - ONE WALKS
Chapter 3 - MEETING BY MOONLIGHT
Chapter 4 - EVE

About Vance:

Louis Joseph Vance (September 19, 1879–December 16, 1933) was an American novelist, born in Washington, D. C., and educated in the preparatory department of the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. He wrote short stories and verse after 1901, then composed many popular novels. His character "Michael Lanyard", also known as "The Lone Wolf", was featured in eight books and 24 films between 1917 and 1949, and also appeared in radio and television series. Vance was separated from his wife (whom he married in 1898 and by whom he had a son the next year) when he was found dead in a burnt armchair inside his New York apartment; a cigarette had ignited some benzene (used for cleaning his clothes or for his broken jaw) that he had on his body and he was intoxicated at the time. He had recently returned from the West Indies, where he gathered material for a new book. The death was ruled accidental.

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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. 


Chapter 1 WALKING PAPERS

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 dégagé 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."

"Just so."

"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 André 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 Cévennes, those little-known hills in the south of France, well inland from the sea.


Chapter 2 ONE WALKS

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 châteaux, 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 Butézon, 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 château 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 Doré'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.


Chapter 3 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 mélange 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.

"Madame … "

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 Sévénié, monsieur."

"With madame's permission: I am André 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."


Chapter 4 EVE

When she had graciously permitted Duchemin to assist her to a place in the carriage, Madame Sévénié 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?"

"Twelve miles."

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 Château 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.

"Pardon, monsieur?"

"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 Sévénié, 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 château 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 André 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 Sévénié 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 André 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 Sévénié 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 Sévénié 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, soignée 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 … .