Read CHAPTER IX - THE STRAW IN THE CORNER of Captain Dieppe , free online book, by Anthony Hope, on ReadCentral.com.

There was nothing odd in M. Guillaume’s presence, however little the lady or the Captain had suspected it.  The surprise he gave was a reprisal for that which he had suffered when, after the Captain’s exit, he had recovered his full faculties and heard a furtive movement within the hut.  It was the inspiration and the work of a moment to raise himself with an exaggerated effort and a purposed noise, and to take his departure with a tread heavy enough to force itself on the ears of the unknown person inside.  But he did not go far.  To what purpose should he, since it was vain to hope to overtake the Captain or Paul de Roustache?  Some one was left behind; then, successful or unsuccessful, the Captain would return ­unless Paul murdered him, a catastrophe which would be irremediable, but was exceedingly unlikely.  Guillaume mounted to the top of the eminence and flung himself down in the grass; thence he crawled round the summit, descended again with a stealthiness in striking contrast to his obtrusive ascent, and lay down in the dark shadow of the hut itself.  In about twenty minutes his patience was rewarded:  the lady came out, ­she had forgotten to mention this little excursion to the Captain, ­mounted the rise, looked round, and walked down towards the Cross.  Presumably she was looking for a sight of Dieppe.  In a few minutes she returned.  Guillaume was no longer lying by the hut, but was safe inside it under the straw.  She found Dieppe’s matches, relighted the candle, and sat down in the doorway with her back to the straw.  Thus each had kept a silent vigil until the Captain returned to the rendezvous.  Guillaume felt that he had turned a rather unpromising situation to very good account.  He was greatly and naturally angered with Paul de Roustache:  the loss of his portfolio was grievous.  But the Captain was his real quarry; the Captain’s papers would more than console him for his money; and he had a very pretty plan for dealing with the Captain.

Nothing was to be gained by sitting upright.  In a moment Dieppe realised this, and sank back on his truss of straw.  He glanced at Guillaume’s menacing weapon, and thence at Guillaume himself.  “Your play, my friend,” he seemed to say.  He knew the game too well not to recognise and accept its chances.  But Guillaume was silent.

“The hurt to your head is not serious or painful, I hope?” Dieppe inquired politely.  Still Guillaume maintained a grim and ominous silence.  The Captain tried again.  “I trust, my dear friend,” said he persuasively, “that your weapon is intended for strictly defensive purposes?” The candle had burnt almost down to the block on which it rested (the fact did not escape Dieppe), but it served to show Guillaume’s acid smile.  “What quarrel have we?” pursued the Captain, in a conciliatory tone.  “I ’ve actually been engaged on your business, and got confoundedly wet over it too.”

“You ’ve been across the river then?” asked Guillaume, breaking his silence.

“It ’s not my fault ­the river was in my way,” Dieppe answered a little impatiently.  “As for you, why do you listen to my conversation?”

“With the Countess of Fieramondi?  Ah, you soldiers!  You were a little indiscreet there, my good Captain.  But that’s not my business.”

“Your remark is very just,” agreed Dieppe.  “I ’ll give that candle just a quarter of an hour,” he was thinking.

“Except so far as I may be able to turn it to my purposes.  Come, we know one another, Captain Dieppe.”

“We have certainly met in the course of business,” the Captain conceded with a touch of hauteur, as he shifted the truss a little further under his right shoulder.

“I want something that you have,” said Guillaume, fixing his eyes on his companion.  Dieppe’s were on the candle.  “Listen to me,” commanded Guillaume, imperiously.

“I have really no alternative,” shrugged the Captain.  “But don’t make impossible propositions.  And be brief.  It ’s late; I ’m hungry, cold, and wet.”

Guillaume smiled contemptuously at this useless bravado, for such it seemed to him.  It did not occur to his mind that Dieppe had anything to gain ­or even a bare chance of gaining anything ­by protracting the conversation.  But in fact the Captain was making observations ­first of the candle, secondly of the number and position of the trusses of straw.

“Are you in a position to call any proposition impossible?” Guillaume asked.

“It’s quite true that I can’t make use of my revolver,” agreed the Captain.  “But on the other hand you don’t, I presume, intend to murder me?  Would n’t that be exceeding your instructions!”

“I don’t know as to that ­I might be forgiven.  But of course I entertain no such desire.  Captain, I ’ve an idea that you ’re in possession of my portfolio.”

“What puts that into your head?” inquired the Captain in a rather satirical tone.

“From what you said to the Countess I ­”

“Ah, I find it so hard to realise that you actually committed that breach of etiquette,” murmured Dieppe, reproachfully.

“And that perhaps ­I say only perhaps ­you have made free with the contents.  For it seems you ’ve got rid of Paul de Roustache.  Well, I will not complain ­”

“Ah?” said the Captain with a movement of interest.

“But if I lose my money, I must have my money’s worth.”

“That ’s certainly what one prefers when it’s possible,” smiled the Captain, indulgently.

“To put it briefly ­”

“As briefly as you can, pray,” cried Dieppe; but the candle burnt steadily still, and brevity was the last thing that he desired.

“Give me your papers and you may keep the portfolio.”

The Captain’s indignation at this proposal was extreme; indeed, it led him to sit upright again, to fix his eyes on the candle, and to talk right on end for hard on five minutes ­in fact as long as he could find words ­on the subject of his honour as a gentleman, as a soldier, as a Frenchman, as a friend, as a confidential agent, and as a loyal servant.  Guillaume did not interrupt him, but listened with a smile of genuine amusement.

“Excellent!” he observed, as the Captain sank back exhausted.  “A most excellent preamble for your explanation of the loss, my dear Captain.  And you will add at the end that, seeing all this, it cannot be doubted that you surrendered these papers only under absolute compulsion, and not the least in the world for reasons connected with my portfolio.”

“My words were meant to appeal to your own better feelings,” sighed the Captain in a tone of despairing reproach.

“You betray the Count of Fieramondi, your friend; why not betray your employers also?”

For a moment there was a look in the Captain’s eye which seemed to indicate annoyance, but the next instant he smiled.

“As if there were any parallel!” said he.  “Matters of love are absolutely different, my good friend.”  Then he went on very carelessly, “The candle ’s low.  Why don’t you light your lantern?”

“That rascal Paul threw it away, and I had n’t time to get it.”  No expression, save a mild concern, appeared on Captain Dieppe’s face, although he had discovered a fact of peculiar interest to him.  “The candle will last as long as we shall want it,” pursued Guillaume.

“Very probably,” agreed the Captain, with a languid yawn; again he shifted his straw till the bulk of it was under his right shoulder, and he lay on an incline that sloped down to the left.  “And you ’ll kill me and take my papers, eh?” he inquired, turning and looking up at Guillaume.  He could barely see his enemy’s face now, for the candle guttered and sputtered, while the moon, high in heaven, threw light on the dip of the hill outside, but did little or nothing to relieve the darkness within the hut.

“No, I shall not murder you.  You ’ll give them to me, I ’m sure.”

“And if I refuse, dear M. Guillaume?”

“I shall invite you to accompany me to the village ­or, more strictly, to precede me.”

“What should we do together in the village?” cried Dieppe.

“I shall beg of you to walk a few paces in front of me, ­just a few, ­to go at just the pace I go, and to remember that I carry a revolver in my hand.”

“My memory would be excellent on such a point,” the Captain assured him.  “But, again, why to the village?”

“We should go together to the office of the police.  I am on good terms with the police.”

“Doubtless.  But what have they to do with me?  Come, come, my matter is purely political, they would n’t mix themselves up in it.”

“I should charge you with the unlawful possession of my portfolio.  You would admit it, or you would deny it.  In either case your person would be searched, the papers would be found, and I, who am on such friendly terms with the police, should certainly enjoy an excellent opportunity of inspecting them.  You perceive, my dear Captain, that I have thought it out.”

“It’s neat, certainly,” agreed the Captain, who was not a little dismayed at this plan of Guillaume’s.  “But I should not submit to the search.”

“Ah!  Now how would you prevent it?”

“I should send for my friend the Count.  He has influence; he would answer for me.”

“What, when he hears my account of your interview with his wife?” Old Guillaume played this card with a smile of triumph.  “I told you that the little affair might perhaps be turned to my purposes,” he reminded Dieppe, maliciously.

The Captain reflected, taking as long as he decently could over the task.  Indeed he was in trouble.  Guillaume’s scheme was sagacious, Guillaume’s position very strong.  And at last Guillaume grew impatient.  But still the persistent candle burnt.

“I give you one minute to make up your mind,” said Guillaume, dropping his tone of sarcastic pleasantry, and speaking in a hard, sharp voice.  “After that, either you give me the papers, or you get up and march before me to the village.”

“If I refuse to do either?”

“You can’t refuse,” said Guillaume.

“You mean ?”

“I should order you to hold your hands behind your back while I took the papers.  If you moved ­”

“Thank you.  I see,” said the Captain, with a nod of understanding.  “Awkward for you, though, if it came to that.”

“Oh, I think not very, in view of your dealings with my portfolio.”

“I ’m in a devil of a hole,” admitted the Captain, candidly.

“Time’s up,” announced M. Guillaume, slowly raising the barrel of his revolver, and taking aim at the Captain.  For the candle still burnt, although dimly and fitfully, and still there was light to guide the bullet on its way.

“It’s all up!” said the Captain.  “But, deuce take it, it’s hardly the way to treat a gentleman!” Even as he spoke the light of the candle towered for a second in a last shoot of flame, and then went out.

At the same moment the Captain rolled down the incline of straw on which he had been resting, rose on his knees an instant, seized the truss and flung it at Guillaume, rolled under the next truss, seized that in like manner and propelled it against the enemy, and darted again to shelter.  “Stop, or I fire,” cried Guillaume; he was as good as his word the next minute, but the third truss caught him just as he aimed, and his bullet flew against and was buried in the planking of the roof.  By now, the Captain was escaping from under the fourth truss, and making for the fifth.  Guillaume, dimly seeing the fourth truss not thrown, but left in its place, discharged another shot at it.  The fifth truss caught him in the side and drove him against the wooden block.  He turned swiftly in the direction whence the missile came, and fired again.  He was half dazed, his eyes and ears seemed full of the dust of the straw.  He fired once again at random, swearing savagely; and before he could recover aim his arm was seized from behind, his neck was caught in a vigorous garotte, and he fell on the floor of the hut with Captain Dieppe on the top of him ­Dieppe, dusty, dirty, panting, bleeding freely from a bullet graze on the top of the left ear, and with one leg of his trousers slit from ankle to knee by a rusty nail, that had also ploughed a nasty furrow up his leg.  But now he seized Guillaume’s revolver, and dragged the old fellow out of the hut.  Then he sat down on his chest, pinning his arms together on the ground above his head.

“You enjoyed playing your mouse just a trifle too long, old cat,” said he.

Guillaume lay very still, exhausted, beaten, and defenceless.  Dieppe released his hands, and, rising, stood looking down at him.  A smile came on his face.

“We are now in a better position to adjust our accounts fairly,” he observed, as he took from his pocket M. Guillaume’s portfolio.  “Listen,” he commanded; and Guillaume turned weary but spiteful eyes to him.  “Here is your portfolio.  Take it.  Look at it.”

Guillaume sat up and obeyed the command.

“Well?” asked Dieppe, when the examination was ended.

“You have robbed me of twenty-five thousand francs.”

The Captain looked at him for a moment with a frown.  But the next instant he smiled.

“I must make allowances for the state of your temper,” he remarked.  “But I wish you would carry all your money in notes.  That draft, now, is no use to me.  Hence” ­he shrugged his shoulders regretfully ­“I am obliged to leave your Government still no less than twenty-five thousand francs in debt to me.”

“What!” cried Guillaume, with a savage stare.

“Oh, yes, you know that well.  They have fifty thousand which certainly don’t belong to them, and certainly do to me.”

“That money ’s forfeited,” growled Guillaume.

“If you like, then, I forfeit twenty-five thousand of theirs.  But I allow it in account with them.  The debt now stands reduced by half.”

“I ’ll get it back from you somehow,” threatened Guillaume, who was helpless, but not cowed.

“That will be difficult.  I gave it to Paul de Roustache to discharge a claim he had on me.”

“To Paul de Roustache?”

“Yes.  It ’s true he lent me five thousand again; but that ’s purely between him and me.  And I shall have spent it long before you can even begin to take steps to recover it.”  He paused a moment and then added, “If you still hanker after your notes, I should recommend you to find your friend and accomplice, M. Paul.”

“Where is he?”

“Who can tell?  I saw him last on the road across the river ­it leads to Sasellano, I believe.”  Dieppe kept his eye on his vanquished opponent, but Guillaume threatened no movement.  The Captain dropped the revolver into his pocket, stooped to pull up a tuft of grass with moist earth adhering to it, and, with the help of his handkerchief, made a primitive plaster to stanch the bleeding of his ear.  As he was so engaged, the sound of wheels slowly climbing the hill became audible from the direction of the village.

“You see,” he went on, “you can’t return to the village ­you are on too good terms with the police.  Let me advise you to go to Sasellano; the flood will be falling by now, and I should n’t wonder if we could find you a means of conveyance.”  He jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the road behind him.

“I can’t go back to the village?” demanded Guillaume, sullenly.

“In my turn I must beg you to remember that I now carry a revolver.  Come, M. Guillaume, we ’ve played a close hand, but the odd trick ’s mine.  Go back and tell your employers not to waste their time on me.  No, nor their money.  They have won the big stake; let them be content.  And again let me remind you that Paul de Roustache has your twenty thousand francs.  I don’t think you ’ll get them from him, but you might.  From me you ’ll get nothing; and if you try the law ­oh, think, my friend, how very silly you and your Government will look!”

As he spoke he went up to Guillaume and took him by the arm, exerting a friendly and persuasive pressure, under which Guillaume presently found himself mounting the eminence.  The wheels sounded nearer now, and Dieppe’s ears were awake to their movements.  The pair began to walk down the other side of the slope towards the Cross, and the carriage came into their view.  It was easy of identification:  its broken-down, lopsided top marked it beyond mistake.

An instant later Dieppe recognised the burly figure of the driver, who was walking by his horses’ heads.

“Wonderfully convenient!” he exclaimed.  “This fellow will carry you to Sasellano without delay.”

Guillaume did not ­indeed could not ­refuse to obey the prompting of the Captain’s arm, but he grumbled as he went.

“I made sure of getting your papers,” he said.

“Unlooked-for difficulties will arise, my dear M. Guillaume.”

“I thought the reward was as good as in my pocket.”

“The reward?” The Captain stopped and looked in his companion’s face with some amusement and a decided air of gratification.  “There was a reward?  Oh, I am important, it seems!”

“Five thousand francs,” said Guillaume, sullenly.

“They rate me rather cheap,” exclaimed the Captain, his face falling.  “I should have hoped for five-and-twenty.”

“Would you?  If it had been that, I should have brought three men with me.”

“Hum!” said the Captain.  “And you gave me a stiff job by yourself, eh?” He turned and signalled to the driver, who had now reached the Cross: 

“Wait a moment there, my friend.”  Then he turned back again to Guillaume.  “Get into the carriage ­go to Sasellano; catch Paul if you can, but leave me in peace,” he said, and, diving into his pocket, he produced the five notes of a thousand francs which Paul de Roustache, in some strange impulse of repentance, or gratitude, had handed to him.  “What you tell your employers,” he added, “I don’t care.  This is a gift from me to you.  The deuce, I reward effort as well as success ­I am more liberal than your Government.”  The gesture with which he held out the notes was magnificent.

Guillaume stared at him in amazement, but his hand went out towards the notes.

“I am free to do what I can at Sasellano?”

“Yes, free to do anything except bother me.  But I think your bird will have flown.”

Guillaume took the notes and hid them in his pocket; then he walked straight up to the driver, crying, “How much to take me with you to Sasellano?”

The driver looked at him, at Dieppe, and then down towards the river.

“Come, the flood will be less by now; the river will be falling,” said Dieppe.

“Fifty francs,” said the driver, and Guillaume got in.

“Good!” said the Captain to himself.  “A pretty device!  And that scoundrel’s money did n’t lie comfortably in the pocket of a gentleman.”  He waved his hand to Guillaume and was about to turn away, when the driver came up to him and spoke in a cautious whisper, first looking over his shoulder to see whether his new fare were listening; but Guillaume was sucking at a flask.

“I have a message for you,” he said.

“From the lady you carried ?”

“To the Count of Fieramondi’s.”

“Ah, you took her there?” The Captain frowned heavily.

“Yes, and left her there.  But it’s not from her; it’s from another lady whom I had n’t seen before.  She met me just as I was returning from the Count’s, and bade me look out for you by the Cross ­”

“Yes, yes?” cried Dieppe, eagerly.  “Give me the message.”  For his thoughts flew back to the Countess at the first summons.

The driver produced a scrap of paper, carelessly folded, and gave it to him.

Dieppe ran to the carriage and read the message by the light of its dim and smoky lamp: 

“I think I am in time.  Come; I wait for you.  Whatever you see, keep Andrea in the dark.  If you are discreet, all will be well, and I ­I shall be very grateful.”

The driver mounted the box, the carriage rolled off down the hill, Dieppe was left by the Cross, with the message in his hand.  He did not understand the situation.