Read CHAPTER XIII of Jason, free online book, by Justus Miles Forman, on ReadCentral.com.

THE VOYAGE TO COLCHIS

Ste. Marie turned away from the window and crossed to the door. The man with the pointed beard removed his soft hat, bowed very politely, and asked if he had the honor to address M. Ste. Marie.

“That is my name,” said Ste. Marie. “Entrez, Monsieur!” He waved his visitor to a chair and stood waiting.

The man with the beard bowed once more. He said:

“I have not the great honor of Monsieur’s acquaintance, but circumstances, which I will explain later, have put it in my power have made it a sacred duty, if I may be permitted to say the word to place in Monsieur’s hands a piece of information.”

Ste. Marie smiled slightly and sat down. He said:

“I listen with pleasure and anticipation. Pray go on!”

“I have information,” said the visitor, “of the whereabouts of M. Arthur Benham.”

Ste. Marie waved his hand.

“I feared as much,” said he. “I mean to say, I hoped so. Proceed, Monsieur!”

“And learning,” continued the other, “that M. Ste. Marie was conducting a search for that young gentleman, I hastened at once to place this information in his hands.”

“At a price,” suggested his host. “At a price, to be sure.”

The man with the beard spread out his hands in a beautiful and eloquent gesture which well accompanied his Marseillais accent.

“Ah, as to that!” he protested. “My circumstances I am poor, Monsieur. One must gain the livelihood. What would you? A trifle. The merest trifle.”

“Where is Arthur Benham?” asked Ste. Marie.

“In Marseilles, Monsieur. I saw him a week ago six days. And, so far as I could learn, he had no intention of leaving there immediately though it is, to be sure, hot.”

Ste. Marie laughed a laugh of genuine amusement, and the man with the pointed beard stared at him with some wonder. Ste. Marie rose and crossed the room to a writing-desk which stood against the opposite wall. He fumbled in a drawer of this, and returned holding in his hand a pink-and-blue note of the Banque de France. He said:

“Monsieur pardon! I have forgotten to ask the name you have remarked quite truly that one must gain a livelihood. Therefore, I do not presume to criticise the way in which you gain yours. Sometimes one cannot choose. However, I should like to make a little bargain with you, Monsieur. I know, of course, being not altogether imbecile, who sent you here with this story and why you were sent why, also, your friend who sits upon the bench in the garden across the street follows me about and spies upon me. I know all this, and I laugh at it a little. But, Monsieur, to amuse myself further, I have a desire to hear from your own lips the name of the gentleman who is your employer. Amusement is almost always expensive, and so I am prepared to pay for this. I have here a note of one hundred francs. It is yours in return for the name the right name. Remember, I know it already.”

The man with the pointed beard sprang to his feet quivering with righteous indignation. All Southern Frenchmen, like all other Latins, are magnificent actors. He shook one clinched hand in the air, his face was pale, and his fine eyes glittered. Richard Hartley would have put himself promptly in an attitude of defence, but Ste. Marie nodded a smiling head in appreciation. He was half a Southern Frenchman himself.

“Monsieur!” cried his visitor, in a choked voice, “Monsieur, have a care! You insult me! Have a care, Monsieur! I am dangerous! My anger, when roused, is terrible!”

“I am cowed,” observed Ste. Marie, lighting a cigarette. “I quail.”

“Never,” declaimed the gentleman from Marseilles, “have I received an insult without returning blow for blow! My blood boils!”

“The hundred francs, Monsieur,” said Ste. Marie, “will doubtless cool it. Besides, we stray from our sheep. Reflect, my friend! I have not insulted you. I have asked you a simple question. To be sure, I have said that I knew your errand here was not not altogether sincere, but I protest, Monsieur, that no blame attaches to yourself. The blame is your employer’s. You have performed your mission with the greatest of honesty the most delicate and faithful sense of honor. That is understood.”

The gentleman with the beard strode across to one of the windows and leaned his head upon his hand. His shoulders still heaved with emotion, but he no longer trembled. The terrible crisis bade fair to pass. Then, abruptly, in the frank and open Latin way, he burst into tears, and wept with copious profusion, while Ste. Marie smoked his cigarette and waited.

When at length the Marseillais turned back into the room he was calm once more, but there remained traces of storm and flood. He made a gesture of indescribable and pathetic resignation.

“Monsieur,” he exclaimed, “you have a heart of gold of gold, Monsieur! You understand. Behold us, two men of honor! Monsieur,” he said, “I had no choice. I was poor. I saw myself face to face with the misère. What would you? I fell. We are all weak flesh. I accepted the commission of the pig who sent me here to you.”

Ste. Marie smoothed the pink-and-blue bank-note in his hands, and the other man’s eye clung to it as though he were starving and the bank-note was food.

“The name?” prompted Ste. Marie.

The gentleman from Marseilles tossed up his hands.

“Monsieur already knows it. Why should I hesitate? The name is Ducrot.”

“What!” cried Ste. Marie, sharply. “What is that? Ducrot?”

“But naturally!” said the other man, with some wonder. “Monsieur said he knew. Certainly, Ducrot. A little, withered man, bald on the top of the head, creases down the cheeks, a mustache like this” he made a descriptive gesture “a little chin. A man like an elderly cat. M. Ducrot.”

Ste. Marie gave a sigh of relief.

“Yes, yes,” said he. “Ducrot is as good a name as another. The gentleman has more than one, it appears. Monsieur, the hundred-franc note is yours.”

The gentleman from Marseilles took it with a slightly trembling hand, and began to bow himself toward the door as if he feared that his host would experience a change of heart; but Ste. Marie checked him, saying:

“One moment. I was thinking,” said he, “that you would perhaps not care to present yourself to your employer, M. Ducrot, immediately not for a few days, at least, in view of the fact that certain actions of mine will show him your mission has well, miscarried. It would, perhaps, be well for you not to communicate with M. Ducrot. He might be displeased with you.”

“Monsieur,” said the gentleman with the beard, “you speak with acumen and wisdom. I shall neglect to report myself to M. Ducrot, who, I repeat, is a pig.”

“And,” pursued Ste. Marie, “the individual on the bench across the street?”

“It is not necessary that I meet that individual, either!” said the Marseillais, hastily. “Monsieur, I bid you adieu!” He bowed again, a profound, a scraping bow, and disappeared through the door.

Ste. Marie crossed to the window and looked down upon the pavement below. He saw his late visitor emerge from the house and slip rapidly down the street toward the rue Vavin. He glanced across into the gardens and the spy still sat there on his bench, but his head lay back and he slept the sleep of the unjust. One imagined that he must be snoring, for an incredibly small urchin in a blue apron stood on the path before him and watched with the open mouth of astonishment.

Ste. Marie turned back into the room, and began to tramp up and down as was his way in a perplexity or in any time of serious thought. He wished very much that Richard Hartley were there to consult with. He considered Hartley to have a judicial mind a mind to establish, out of confusion, something like logical order, and he was very well aware that he himself had not that sort of mind at all. In action he was sufficiently confident of himself, but to construct a course of action he was afraid, and he knew that a misstep now, at this critical point, might be fatal turn success into disaster.

He fell to thinking of Captain Stewart (alias M. Ducrot) and he longed most passionately to leap into a fiacre at the corner below, to drive at a gallop across the city to the rue du Faubourg St. Honore, to fall upon that smiling hypocrite in his beautiful treasure-house, to seize him by the withered throat and say:

“Tell me what you have done with Arthur Benham before I tear your head from your miserable body!”

Indeed, he was far from sure that this was not what it would come to, in the end, for he reflected that he had not only a tremendous accumulation of evidence with which to face Captain Stewart, but also a very terrible weapon to hold over his head the threat of exposure to the old man who lay slowly dying in the rue de l’Universite! A few words in old David’s ear, a few proofs of their truth, and the great fortune for which the son had sold his soul if he had any left to sell must pass forever out of his reach, like gold seen in a dream.

This is what it might well come to, he said to himself. Indeed, it seemed to him at that moment far the most feasible plan, for to such accusations, such demands as that, Captain Stewart could offer no defence. To save himself from a more complete ruin he would have to give up the boy or tell what he knew of him. But Ste. Marie was unwilling to risk everything on this throw without seeing Richard Hartley first, and Hartley was not to be had until evening.

He told himself that, after all, there was no immediate hurry, for he was quite sure the man would be compelled to keep to his bed for a day or two. He did not know much about epilepsy, but he knew that its paroxysms were followed by great exhaustion, and he felt sure that Stewart was far too weak in body to recuperate quickly from any severe call upon his strength. He remembered how light that burden had been in his arms the night before, and then an uncontrollable shiver of disgust went over him as he remembered the sight of the horribly twisted and contorted face, felt again the shaking, thumping head as it beat against his shoulder. He wondered how much Stewart knew, how much he would be able to remember of the events of the evening before, and he was at a loss there because of his unfamiliarity with epileptic seizures. Of one thing, however, he was almost certain, and that was that the man could scarcely have been conscious of who were beside him when the fit was over. If he had come at all to his proper senses before the ensuing slumber of exhaustion, it must have been after Mlle. Nilssen and himself had gone away.

Upon that he fell to wondering about the spy and the gentleman from Marseilles he was a little sorry that Hartley could not have seen the gentleman from Marseilles but he reflected that the two were, without doubt, acting upon old orders, and that the latter had probably been stalking him for some days before he found him at home.

He looked at his watch and it was half-past twelve. There was nothing to be done, he considered, but wait get through the day somehow; and so, presently, he went out to lunch. He went up the rue Vavin to the Boulevard Montparnasse and down that broad thoroughfare to Lavenue’s, on the busy Place de Rennes, where the cooking is the best in all this quarter, and can, indeed, hold up its head without shame in the face of those other more widely famous restaurants across the river, frequented by the smart world and by the travelling gourmet.

He went through to the inner room, which is built like a raised loggia round two sides of a little garden, and which is always cool and fresh in summer. He ordered a rather elaborate lunch, and thought that he sat a very long time at it, but when he looked again at his watch only an hour and a half had gone by. It was a quarter-past two. Ste. Marie was depressed. There remained almost all of the afternoon to be got through, and Heaven alone could say how much of the evening, before he could have his consultation with Richard Hartley. He tried to think of some way of passing the time, but although he was not usually at a loss he found his mind empty of ideas. None of his common occupations recommended themselves to him. He knew that whatever he tried to do he would interrupt it with pulling out his watch every half-hour or so and cursing the time because it lagged so slowly. He went out to the terrace for coffee, very low in his mind.

But half an hour later, as he sat behind his little marble-topped table, smoking and sipping a liqueur, his eyes fell upon something across the square which brought him to his feet with a sudden exclamation. One of the big electric trams that ply between the Place St. Germain des Près and Clamart, by way of the Porte de Versailles and Vanves, was dragging its unwieldy bulk round the turn from the rue de Rennes into the boulevard. He could see the sign-board along the impériale “Clamart-St. Germain des Près,” with “Issy” and “Vanves” in brackets between.

Ste. Marie clinked a franc upon the table and made off across the Place at a run. Omnibuses from Batignolles and Menilmontant got in his way, fiacres tried to run him down, and a motor-car in a hurry pulled up just in time to save his life, but Ste. Marie ran on and caught the tram before it had completed the negotiation of the long curve and gathered speed for its dash down the boulevard. He sprang upon the step, and the conductor reluctantly unfastened the chain to admit him. So he climbed up to the top and seated himself, panting. The dial high on the façade of the Gare Montparnasse said ten minutes to three.

He had no definite plan of action. He had started off in this headlong fashion upon the spur of a moment’s impulse, and because he knew where the tram was going. Now, embarked, he began to wonder if he was not a fool. He knew every foot of the way to Clamart, for it was a favorite half-day’s excursion with him to ride there in this fashion, walk thence through the beautiful Meudon wood across to the river, and from Bellevue or Bas-Meudon take a Suresnes boat back into the city. He knew, or thought he knew, just where lay the house, surrounded by garden and half-wild park, of which Olga Nilssen had told him; he had often wondered whose place it was as the tram rolled along the length of its high wall. But he knew, also, that he could do nothing there, single-handed and without excuse or preparation. He could not boldly ring the bell, demand speech with Mile. Coira O’Hara, and ask her if she knew anything of the whereabouts of young Arthur Benham, whom a photographer had suspected of being in love with her. He certainly could not do that. And there seemed to be nothing else that Ste. Marie broke off this somewhat despondent course of reasoning with a sudden little voiceless cry. For the first time it occurred to him to connect the house on the Clamart road and Mlle. Coira O’Hara and young Arthur Benham (it will be remembered that the man had not yet had time to arrange his suddenly acquired mass of evidence in logical order and to make deductions from it), for the first time he began to put two and two together. Stewart had hidden away his nephew; this nephew was known to have been much enamoured of the girl Coira O’Hara; Coira O’Hara was said to be living with her father, probably in the house on the outskirts of Paris, where she was visited by Captain Stewart. Was not the inference plain enough sufficiently reasonable? It left, without doubt, many puzzling things to be explained perhaps too many; but Ste. Marie sat forward in his seat, his eyes gleaming, his face tense with excitement.

“Is young Arthur Benham in the house on the Clamart road?”

He said the words almost aloud, and he became aware that the fat woman with a live fowl at her feet and the butcher’s boy on his other side were looking at him curiously. He realized that he was behaving in an excited manner, and so sat back and lowered his eyes. But over and over within him the words said themselves over and over, until they made a sort of mad, foolish refrain.

“Is Arthur Benham in the house on the Clamart road? Is Arthur Benham in the house on the Clamart road?” He was afraid that he would say it aloud once more, and, he tried to keep a firm hold upon himself.

The tram swung into the rue de Sevres, and rolled smoothly out the long, uninteresting stretch of the rue Lecourbe, far out to where the houses, became scattered, where mounds and pyramids of red tiles stood alongside the factory where they had been made, where an acre of little glass hemispheres in long, straight rows winked and glistened in the afternoon sun the forcing-beds of some market gardener; out to the Porte de Versailles at the city wall, where a group of customs officers sprawled at ease before their little sentry-box or loafed over to inspect an incoming tram.

A bugle sounded and a drum beat from the great fosse under the wall, and a company of piou-pious, red-capped, red-trousered, shambled through their evolutions in a manner to break the heart of a British or a German drill-sergeant. Then out past level fields to little Vanves, with its steep streets and its old gray church, and past the splendid grounds of the Lycee beyond. The fat woman got down, her live fowl shrieking protest to the movement, and the butcher’s boy got down, too, so that Ste. Marie was left alone upon the impériale save for a snuffy old gentleman in a pot-hat who sat in a corner buried behind the day’s Droits de l’Homme.

Ste. Marie moved forward once more and laid his arms upon the iron rail before him. They were coming near. They ran past plum and apple orchards and past humble little detached villas, each with a bit of garden in front and an acacia or two at the gate-posts. But presently, on the right, the way began to be bordered by a high stone wall, very long, behind which showed the trees of a park, and among them, far back from the wall beyond a little rise of ground, the gables and chimneys of a house could be made out. The wall went on for perhaps a quarter of a mile in a straight sweep, but half-way the road swung apart from it to the left, dipped under a stone railway bridge, and so presently ended at the village of Clamart.

As the tram approached the beginning of that long stone wall it began to slacken speed, there was a grating noise from underneath, and presently it came to an abrupt halt. Ste. Marie looked over the guard-rail and saw that the driver had left his place and was kneeling in the dust beside the car peering at its underworks. The conductor strolled round to him after a moment and stood indifferently by, remarking upon the strange vicissitudes to which electrical propulsion is subject. The driver, without looking up, called his colleague a number of the most surprising and, it is to be hoped, unwarranted names, and suddenly began to burrow under the tram, wriggling his way after the manner of a serpent until nothing could be seen of him but two unrestful feet. His voice, though muffled, was still tolerably distinct. It cursed, in an unceasing staccato and with admirable ingenuity, the tram, the conductor, the sacred dog of an impediment which had got itself wedged into one of the trucks, and the world in general.

Ste. Marie, sitting aloft, laughed for a moment, and then turned his eager eyes upon what lay across the road. The halt had taken place almost exactly at the beginning of that long stretch of park wall which ran beside the road and the tramway. From where he sat he could see the other wing which led inward from the road at something like a right angle, but was presently lost to sight because of a sparse and unkempt patch of young trees and shrubs, well-nigh choked with undergrowth, which extended for some distance from the park wall backward along the road-side toward Vanves. Whoever owned that stretch of land had seemingly not thought it worth while to cultivate it or to build upon it or even to clear it off.

Ste. Marie’s first thought, as his eye scanned the two long stretches of wall and looked over their tops to the trees of the park and the far-off gables and chimneys of the house, was to wonder where the entrance to the place could be, and he decided that it must be on the side opposite to the Clamart tram-line. He did not know the smaller roads hereabouts, but he guessed that there must be one somewhere beyond, between the route de Clamart and Fort d’Issy, and he was right. There is a little road between the two; it sweeps round in a long curve and ends near the tiny public garden in Issy, and it is called the rue Barbes.

His second thought was that this unkempt patch of tree and brush offered excellent cover for any one who might wish to pass an observant hour alongside that high stone wall; for any one who might desire to cast a glance over the lie of the land, to see at closer range that house of which so little could be seen from the route de Clamart, to look over the wall’s coping into park and garden.

The thought brought him to his feet with a leaping heart, and before he realized that he had moved he found himself in the road beside the halted tram. The conductor brushed past him, mounting to his place, and from the platform beckoned, crying out:

En voiture, Monsieur! En voiture!”

Again something within Ste. Marie that was not his conscious direction acted for him, and he shook his head. The conductor gave two little blasts upon his horn, the tram wheezed and moved forward. In a moment it was on its way, swinging along at full speed toward the curve in the line that bore to the left and dipped under the railway bridge. Ste. Marie stood in the middle of that empty road, staring after it until it had disappeared from view.