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as certainly far from possessing anything like grandeur. It had been in
its day a respectable, unpretentious square structure of three stories,
entirely without architectural beauty, but also entirely without the
ornate hideousness of the modern villas along the route de Clamart. Now,
however, the stucco was gone in great patches from its stone walls,
giving them an unpleasantly diseased look, and long neglect of all
decent cares had lent the place the air almost of desertion. Anciently
the grounds before the house had been laid out in the formal fashion
with a terrace and geometrical lawns and a pool and a fountain and a
rather fine, long vista between clipped larches, but the same neglect
which had made shabby the stuccoed house had allowed grass and weeds to
grow over the gravel paths, underbrush to spring up and to encroach upon
the geometrical turf-plots, the long double row of clipped larches to
flourish at will or to die or to fall prostrate and lie where they had
fallen.

So all the broad enclosure was a scene of heedless neglect, a riot of
unrestrained and wanton growth, where should have been decorous and
orderly beauty. It was a sight to bring tears to a gardener's eyes, but
it had a certain untamed charm of its own, for all that. The very riot
of it, the wanton prodigality of untouched natural growth, produced an
effect that was by no means all disagreeable.

An odd and whimsical thought came into Ste. Marie's mind that thus must
have looked the garden and park round the castle of the sleeping beauty
when the prince came to wake her.

But sleeping beauties and unkempt grounds went from him in a flash when
he became aware of a sound which was like the sound of voices.
Instinctively he drew farther back into the shelter of his aromatic
screen. His eyes swept the space below him from right to left, and could
see no one. So he sat very still, save for the thunderous beat of a
heart which seemed to him like drum-beats when soldiers are marching,
and he listened - "all ears," as the phrase goes.

The sound was in truth a sound of voices. He was presently assured of
that, but for some time he could not make out from which direction it
came. And so he was the more startled when quite suddenly there appeared
from behind a row of tall shrubs two young people moving slowly together
up the untrimmed turf in the direction of the house.

The two young people were Mlle. Coira O'Hara and Arthur Benham, and upon
the brow of this latter youth there was no sign of dungeon pallor, upon
his free-moving limbs no ball and chain. There was no apparent reason
why he should not hasten back to the eager arms in the rue de
l'Université if he chose to - unless, indeed, his undissembling attitude
toward Mlle. Coira O'Hara might serve as a reason. The young man
followed at her heel with much the manner and somewhat the appearance of
a small dog humbly conscious of unworthiness, but hopeful nevertheless
of an occasional kind word or pat on the head.

The world wheeled multi-colored and kaleidoscopic before Ste. Marie's
eyes, and in his ears there was a rushing of great winds, but he set his
teeth and clung with all the strength he had to the tree which sheltered
him. His first feeling, after that initial giddiness, was anger, sheer
anger, a bewildered and astonished fury. He had thought to find this
poor youth in captivity, pining through prison bars for the home and the
loved ones and the familiar life from which he had been ruthlessly torn.
Yet here he was strolling in a suburban garden with a lady - free, free
as air, or so he seemed. Ste. Marie thought of the grim and sorrowful
old man in Paris who was sinking untimely into his grave because his
grandson did not return to him; he thought of that timid soul - more
shadow than woman - the boy's mother; he thought of Helen Benham's tragic
eyes, and he could have beaten young Arthur half to death in that moment
in the righteous rage that stormed within him.

But he turned his eyes from this wretched youth to the girl who walked
beside, a little in advance, and the rage died in him swiftly.

After all, was she not one to make any boy - or any man - forget duty,
home, friends, everything?

Rather oddly his mind flashed back to the morning and to the words of
the little photographer, Bernstein. Perhaps the Jew had put it as well
as any man could:

"She was a goddess, that lady, a queen of goddesses ... the young Juno
before marriage...."

Ste. Marie nodded his head. Yes, she was just that. The little Jew had
spoken well. It could not be more fairly put - though without doubt it
could have been expressed at much greater length and with a great deal
more eloquence. The photographer's other words came also to his mind,
the more detailed description, and again he nodded his head, for this,
too, was true.

"She was all color - brown skin with a dull-red stain under the cheeks,
and a great mass of hair that was not black but very nearly
black - except in the sun, and then there were red lights in it."

It occurred to Ste. Marie, whimsically, that the two young people might
have stepped out of the door of Bernstein's studio straight into this
garden, judging from their bearing each to the other.

"Ah, a thing to touch the heart! Such devotion as that! Alas, that the
lady should seem so cold to it! ... Still, a goddess! What would you? A
queen among goddesses! ... One would not have them laugh and make little
jokes.... Make eyes at love-sick boys. No, indeed!"

Certainly Mlle. Coira O'Hara was not making eyes at the love-sick boy
who followed at her heel this afternoon. Perhaps it would be going too
far to say that she was cold to him, but it was very plain to see that
she was bored and weary, and that she wished she might be almost
anywhere else than where she was. She turned her beautiful face a little
toward the wall where Ste. Marie lay perdu, and he could see that her
eyes had the same dark fire, the same tragic look of appeal that he had
seen in them before - once in the Champs-Elysées and again in his dreams.

Abruptly he became aware that while he gazed, like a man in a trance,
the two young people walked on their way and were on the point of
passing beyond reach of eye or ear. He made a sudden involuntary
movement as if he would call them back, and for the first time his
faithful hiding-place, strained beyond silent endurance, betrayed him
with a loud rustle of shaken branches. Ste. Marie shrank back, his heart
in his throat. It was too late to retreat now down the tree. The damage
was already done. He saw the two young people halt and turn to look, and
after a moment he saw the boy come slowly forward, staring. He heard him
say:

"What's up in that tree? There's something in the tree." And he heard
the girl answer: "It's only birds fighting. Don't bother!" But young
Arthur Benham came on, staring up curiously until he was almost under
the high wall.

Then Ste. Marie's strange madness, or the hand of Fate, or whatever
power it was which governed him on that day, thrust him on to the
ultimate pitch of recklessness. He bent forward from his insecure perch
over the wall until his head and shoulders were in plain sight, and he
called down to the lad below in a loud whisper:

"Benham! Benham!"

The boy gave a sharp cry of alarm and began to back away. And after a
moment Ste. Marie heard the cry echoed from Coira O'Hara. He heard her
say:

"Be careful! Be careful, Arthur! Come away! Oh, come away quickly!"

Ste. Marie raised his own voice to a sort of cry. He said:

"Wait! I tell you to wait, Benham! I must have a word with you. I come
from your family - from Helen!"

To his amazement the lad turned about and began to run toward where the
girl stood waiting; and so, without a moment's hesitation, Ste. Marie
threw himself across the top of the wall, hung for an instant by his
hands, and dropped upon the soft turf. Scarcely waiting to recover his
balance, he stumbled forward, shouting:

"Wait! I tell you, wait! Are you mad? Wait, I say! Listen to me!"

Vaguely, in the midst of his great excitement, he had heard a whistle
sound as he dropped inside the wall. He did not know then whence the
shrill call had come, but afterward he knew that Coira O' Hara had blown
it. And now, as he ran forward toward the two who stood at a distance
staring at him, he heard other steps and he slackened his pace to look.

A man came running down among the black-boled trees, a strange, squat,
gnomelike man whose gait was as uncouth as his dwarfish figure. He held
something in his two hands as he ran, and when he came near he threw
this thing with a swift movement up before him, but he did not pause in
his odd, scrambling run.

Ste. Marie felt a violent blow upon his left leg between hip and knee.
He thought that somebody had crept up behind him and struck him; but as
he whirled about he saw that there was no one there, and then he heard a
noise and knew that the gnomelike running man had shot him. He faced
about once more toward the two young people. He was very angry and he
wished to say so, and very much he wished to explain why he had
trespassed there, and why they had no right to shoot him as if he were
some wretched thief. But he found that in some quite absurd fashion he
was as if fixed to the ground. It was as if he had suddenly become of
the most ponderous and incredible weight, like lead - or that other
metal, not gold, which is the heaviest of all. Only the metal,
seemingly, was not only heavy but fiery hot, and his strength was
incapable of holding it up any longer. His eyes fixed themselves in a
bewildered stare upon the figure of Mlle. Coira O'Hara; he had time to
observe that she had put up her two hands over her face, then he fell
down forward, his head struck something very hard, and he knew no more.

* * * * *




XV

A CONVERSATION AT LA LIERRE


Captain Stewart walked nervously up and down the small inner
drawing-room at La Lierre, his restless hands fumbling together behind
him, and his eyes turning every half-minute with a sharp eagerness to
the closed door. But at last, as if he were very tired, he threw himself
down in a chair which stood near one of the windows, and all his tense
body seemed to relax in utter exhaustion. It was not a very comfortable
chair that he had sat down in, but there were no comfortable chairs in
the room - nor, for that matter, in all the house. When he had taken the
place, about two months before this time, he had taken it furnished, but
that does not mean very much in France. No French country-houses - or
town-houses, either - are in the least comfortable, by Anglo-Saxon
standards, and that is at least one excellent reason why Frenchmen spend
just as little time in them as they possibly can. Half the cafés in
Paris would promptly put up their shutters if Parisian homes could all
at once turn themselves into something like English or American ones. As
for La Lierre, it was even more dreary and bare and tomblike than other
country-houses, because it was, after all, a sort of ruin, and had not
been lived in for fifteen years, save by an ancient caretaker and his
nearly as ancient wife. And that was, perhaps, why it could be taken on
a short lease at such a very low price.

The room in which Captain Stewart sat was behind the large drawing-room,
which was always kept closed now, and it looked out by one window to the
west, and by two windows to the north, over a corner of the kitchen
garden and a vista of trees beyond. It was a high-ceiled room with walls
bare except for two large mirrors in the Empire fashion, which stared at
each other across the way with dull and flaking eyes. Under each of
these stood a heavy gilt and ebony console with a top of
chocolate-colored marble, and in the centre of the room there was a
table of a like fashion to the consoles. Further than this there was
nothing save three chairs, upon one of which lay Captain Stewart's
dust-coat and motoring cap and goggles.

A shaft of golden light from the low sun slanted into the place through
the western window from which the Venetians had been pulled back, and
fell across the face of the man who lay still and lax in his chair, eyes
closed and chin dropped a little so that his mouth hung weakly open. He
looked very ill, as, indeed, any one might look after such an attack as
he had suffered on the night previous. That one long moment of deathly
fear before he had fallen down in a fit had nearly killed him. All
through this following day it had continued to recur until he thought he
should go mad. And there was worse still. How much did Olga Nilssen
know? And how much had she told? She had astonished and frightened him
when she had said that she knew about the house on the road to Clamart,
for he thought he had hidden his visits to La Lierre well. He wondered
rather drearily how she had discovered them, and he wondered how much
she knew more than she had admitted. He had a half-suspicion of
something like the truth, that Mlle. Nilssen knew only of Coira O'Hara's
presence here, and drew a rather natural inference. If that was all,
there was no danger from her - no more, that is, than had already borne
its fruit, for Stewart knew well enough that Ste. Marie must have
learned of the place from her. In any case Olga Nilssen had left
Paris - he had discovered that fact during the day - and so for the
present she might be eliminated as a source of peril.

The man in the chair gave a little groan and rolled his head wearily to
and fro against the uncomfortable chair-back, for now he came to the
real and immediate danger, and he was so very tired and ill, and his
head ached so sickeningly that it was almost beyond him to bring himself
face to face with it.

There was the man who lay helpless upon a bed up-stairs! And there were
the man's friends, who were not at all helpless or bedridden or in
captivity!

A wave of almost intolerable pain swept through Stewart's aching head,
and he gave another groan which was almost like a child's sob. But at
just that moment the door which led into the central hall opened, and
the Irishman O'Hara came into the room. Captain Stewart sprang to his
feet to meet him, and he caught the other man by the arm in his
eagerness.

"How is he?" he cried out. "How is he? How badly was he hurt?"

"The patient?" said O'Hara. "Let go my arm! Hang it, man, you're
pinching me! Oh, he'll do well enough. He'll be fit to hobble about in a
week or ten days. The bullet went clean through his leg and out again
without cutting an artery. It was a sort of miracle - and a damned lucky
miracle for all hands, too! If we'd had a splintered bone or a severed
artery to deal with I should have had to call in a doctor. Then the
fellow would have talked, and there'd have been the devil to pay. As it
is, I shall be able to manage well enough with my own small skill. I've
dressed worse wounds than that in my time. By Jove, it was a miracle,
though!" A sudden little gust of rage swept him. He cried out: "That
confounded fool of a gardener, that one-eyed Michel, ought to be beaten
to death. Why couldn't he have slipped up behind this fellow and knocked
him on the head, instead of shooting him from ten paces away? The
benighted idiot! He came near upsetting the whole boat!"

"Yes," said Captain Stewart, with a sharp, hard breath, "he should have
shot straighter or not at all."

The Irishman stared at him with his bright blue eyes, and after a moment
he gave a short laugh.

"Jove, you're a bloodthirsty beggar, Stewart!" said he. "That would have
been a rum go, if you like! Killing the fellow! All his friends down on
us like hawks, and the police and all that! You can't go about killing
people in the outskirts of Paris, you know - at least not people with
friends. And this chap looks like a gentleman, more or less, so I take
it he has friends. As a matter of fact, his face is rather familiar. I
think I've seen him before, somewhere. You looked at him just now
through the crack of the door; do you know who he is? Coira tells me he
called out to Arthur by name, but Arthur says he never saw him before
and doesn't know him at all."

Captain Stewart shivered. It had not been a pleasant moment for him,
that moment when he had looked through the crack of the door and
recognized Ste. Marie.

"Yes," he said, half under his breath - "yes, I know who he is. A friend
of the family."

The Irishman's lips puckered to a low whistle. He said:

"Spying, then, as I thought. He has run us to earth."

And the other nodded. O'Hara took a turn across the room and back.

"In that case," he said, presently - "in that case, then, we must keep
him prisoner here so long as we remain. That's certain." He spun round
sharply with an exclamation. "Look here!" he cried, in a lower tone,
"how about this fellow's friends? It isn't likely he's doing his dirty
work alone. How about his friends, when he doesn't turn up to-night? If
they know he was coming here to spy on us; if they know where the place
is; if they know, in short, what he seems to have known, we're done for.
We'll have to run, get out, disappear. Hang it, man, d'you understand?
We're not safe here for an hour."

Captain Stewart's hands shook a little as he gripped them together
behind him, and a dew of perspiration stood out suddenly upon his
forehead and cheek-bones, but his voice, when he spoke, was well under
control.

"It's an odd thing," said he - "another miracle, if you like - but I
believe we are safe - reasonably safe. I - have reason to think that this
fellow learned about La Lierre only last evening from some one who left
Paris to-day to be gone a long time. And I also have reason to believe
that the fellow has not seen the one friend who is in his confidence,
since he obtained his information. By chance I met the friend, the other
man, in the street this afternoon. I asked after this fellow whom we
have here, and the friend said he hadn't seen him for twenty-four
hours - was going to see him to-night."

"By the Lord!" cried the Irishman, with a great laugh of relief. "What
luck! What monumental luck! If all that's true, we're safe. Why, man,
we're as safe as a fox in his hole. The lad's friends won't have the
ghost of an idea of where he's gone to.... Wait, though! Stop a bit! He
won't have left written word behind him, eh? He won't have done
that - for safety?"

"I think not," said Captain Stewart, but he breathed hard, for he knew
well enough that there lay the gravest danger. "I think not," he said
again.

He made a rather surprisingly accurate guess at the truth - that Ste.
Marie had started out upon impulse, without intending more than a
general reconnaissance, and therefore without leaving any word behind
him. Still, the shadow of danger uplifted itself before the man and he
was afraid. A sudden gust of weak anger shook him like a wind.

"In Heaven's name," he cried, shrilly, "why didn't that one-eyed fool
kill the fellow while he was about it? There's danger for us every
moment while he is alive here. Why didn't that shambling idiot kill
him?"

Captain Stewart's outflung hand jumped and trembled and his face was
twisted into a sort of grinning snarl. He looked like an angry and
wicked cat, the other man thought.

"If I weren't an over-civilized fool," he said, viciously, "I'd go
up-stairs and kill him now with my hands while he can't help himself.
We're all too scrupulous by half."

The Irishman stared at him and presently broke into amazed laughter.

"Scrupulous!" said he. "Well, yes, I'm too scrupulous to murder a man in
his bed, if you like. I'm not squeamish, but - Good Lord!"

"Do you realize," demanded Captain Stewart, "what risks we run while
that fellow is alive - knowing what he knows?"

"Oh yes, I realize that," said O'Hara. "But I don't see why _you_ should
have heart failure over it."

Captain Stewart's pale lips drew back again in their catlike fashion.

"Never mind about me," he said. "But I can't help thinking you're
peculiarly indifferent in the face of danger."

"No, I'm not!" said the Irishman, quickly. "No, I'm not. Don't you run
away with that idea! I merely said," he went oh - "I merely said that I'd
stop short of murder. I don't set any foolish value on life - my own or
any other. I've had to take life more than once, but it was in fair
fight or in self-defence, and I don't regret it. It was your coldblooded
joke about going up-stairs and killing this chap in his bed that put me
on edge. Naturally I know you didn't mean it. Don't you go thinking that
I'm lukewarm or that I'm indifferent to danger. I know there's danger
from this lad up-stairs, and I mean to be on guard against it. He stays
here under strict guard until - what we're after is accomplished - until
young Arthur comes of age. If there's danger," said he, "why, we know
where it lies, and we can guard against it. That kind of danger is not
very formidable. The dangerous dangers are the ones that you don't know
about - the hidden ones."

He came forward a little, and his lean face was as hard and as impassive
as ever, and the bright blue eyes shone from it steady and unwinking.
Stewart looked up to him with a sort of peevish resentment at the man's
confidence and cool poise. It was an odd reversal of their ordinary
relations. For the hour the duller villain, the man who was wont to take
orders and to refrain from overmuch thought or question, seemed to have
become master. Sheer physical exhaustion and the constant maddening pain
had had their will of Captain Stewart. A sudden shiver wrung him so that
his dry fingers rattled against the wood of the chair-arms.

"All the same," he cried, "I'm afraid. I've been confident enough until
now. Now I'm afraid. I wish the fellow had been killed."

"Kill him, then!" laughed the Irishman. "I won't give you up to the
police."

He crossed the room to the door, but halted short of it and turned about
again, and he looked back very curiously at the man who sat crouched in
his chair by the window. It had occurred to him several times that
Stewart was very unlike himself. The man was quite evidently tired and
ill, and that might account for some of the nervousness, but this fierce
malignity was something a little beyond O'Hara's comprehension. It
seemed to him that the elder man had the air of one frightened beyond
the point the circumstances warranted.

"Are you going back to town," he asked, "or do you mean to stay the
night?"

"I shall stay the night," Stewart said. "I'm too tired to bear the
ride." He glanced up and caught the other's eyes fixed upon him. "Well!"
he cried, angrily. "What is it? What are you looking at me like that
for? What do you want?"

"I want nothing," said the Irishman, a little sharply. "And I wasn't
aware that I'd been looking at you in any unusual way. You're precious
jumpy to-day, if you want to know.... Look here!" He came back a step,
frowning. "Look here!" he repeated. "I don't quite make you out. Are you
keeping back anything? Because if you are, for Heaven's sake have it out
here and now! We're all in this game together, and we can't afford to be
anything but frank with one another. We can't afford to make
reservations. It's altogether too dangerous for everybody. You're too
much frightened. There's no apparent reason for being so frightened as
that."

Captain Stewart drew a long breath between closed teeth, and afterward
he looked up at the younger man coldly.

"We need not discuss my personal feelings, I think," said he. "They have
no - no bearing on the point at issue. As you say, we are all in this
thing together, and you need not fear that I shall fail to do my part,
as I have done it in the past.... That's all, I believe."

"Oh, _as_ you like! As you like!" said the Irishman, in the tone of one
rebuffed. He turned again and left the room, closing the door behind
him. Outside on the stairs it occurred to him that he had forgotten to
ask the other man what this fellow's name was - the fellow who lay
wounded up-stairs. No, he had asked once, but in the interest of the
conversation the question had been lost. He determined to inquire again
that evening at dinner.

But Captain Stewart, left thus alone, sank deeper in the uncomfortable
chair, and his head once more stirred and sought vainly for ease against
the chair's high back. The pain swept him in regular throbbing waves
that were like the waves of the sea - waves which surge and crash and
tear upon a beach. But between the throbs of physical pain there was
something else that was always present while the waves came and went.


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Online LibraryJustus Miles FormanJason → online text (page 12 of 23)