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

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 cafes 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. Pain and exhaustion, if they are sufficiently extreme, can well nigh paralyze mind as well as body, and for some time Captain Stewart wondered what this thing might be which lurked at the bottom of him still under the surges of agony. Then at last he had the strength to look at it, and it was fear, cold and still and silent. He was afraid to the very depths of his soul.

True, as O’Hara had said, there did not seem to be any very desperate peril to face, but Stewart was afraid with the gambler’s unreasoning, half-superstitious fear, and that is the worst fear of all. He realized that he had been afraid of Ste. Marie from the beginning, and that, of course, was why he had tried to draw him into partnership with himself in his own official and wholly mythical search for Arthur Benham. He could have had the other man under his eye then. He could have kept him busy for months running down false scents. As it was, Ste. Marie’s uncanny instinct about the Irishman O’Hara had led him true that and what he doubtless learned from Olga Nilssen.

If Stewart had been in a condition and mood to philosophize, he would doubtless have reflected that seven-tenths of the desperate causes, both good and bad, which fail in this world, fail because they are wrecked by some woman’s love or jealousy or both. But it is unlikely that he was able just at this time to make such a reflection, though certainly he wondered how much Olga Nilssen had known, and how much Ste. Marie had had to put together out of her knowledge and any previous suspicions which he may have had.

The man would have been amazed if he could have known what a mountain of information and evidence had piled itself up over his head all in twelve hours. He would have been amazed and, if possible, even more frightened than he was, but he was without question sufficiently frightened, for here was Ste. Marie in the very house, he had seen Arthur Benham, and quite obviously he knew all there was to know, or at least enough to ruin Arthur Benham’s uncle beyond all recovery or hope of recovery irretrievably.

Captain Stewart tried to think what it would mean to him failure in this desperate scheme but he had not the strength or the courage. He shrank from the picture as one shrinks from something horrible in a bad dream. There could be no question of failure. He had to succeed at any cost, however desperate or fantastic. Once more the spasm of childish, futile rage swept over him and shook him like a wind.

“Why couldn’t the fellow have been killed by that one-eyed fool?” he cried, sobbing. “Why couldn’t he have been killed? He’s the only one who knows the only thing in the way. Why couldn’t he have keen killed?”

Quite suddenly Captain Stewart ceased to sob and shiver, and sat still in his chair, gripping the arms with white and tense fingers. His eyes began to widen, and they became fixed in a long, strange stare. He drew a deep breath.

“I wonder!” he said, aloud. “I wonder, now.”