Read CHAPTER X - BUT AS A MUSTARD SEED of Alias The Lone Wolf, free online book, by Louis Joseph Vance, on ReadCentral.com.

Duchemin woke up in his bed, glare of sunlight in his eyes.

From the latter circumstance he reckoned, rather groggily, it must be about the middle of the forenoon; for not till about that time did the sun work round to the windows.

Still heavy with lees of slumber, his wits occupied themselves sluggishly with questions concerning the enervation that oppressed him, the reason for his oversleeping, why he had not been called. Then, reminded that noon was the hour set for Eve’s departure, fear lest she get away without his bon voyage brought him sharply up in a sitting position.

He groaned aloud and with both hands clutched temples that promised to split with pain that crashed between them, stroke upon stroke, like blows of a mighty hammer.

A neatly fastened bandage held in place, above one ear, a wad of cotton once saturated with arnica, now dry. Duchemin removed these and with gingerly fingers explored, discovering a noble swelling on the side of his head, where the cotton had been placed.

Also, his jaw was stiff, and developed a protesting ache whenever he opened his mouth.

Then Duchemin remembered ... That is to say, he recalled clearly all that had led up to that vicious blow from out of the darkness which had found his jaw with such surprising accuracy; and he was visited by one or two rather indefinite memories of subsequent events.

He remembered labouring up the stairs, half walking, half supported by the strong arms of the footman, Jean, who was in shirt, trousers and slippers only, while in front of them moved the shape of Madame de Montalais en negligee, carrying a lighted candle and constantly looking back.

Then he had an impression of being lifted into his bed by Jean, and of having his head and shoulders raised by the same arms some time later, so that he might drink a draught of some concoction with a pleasant aromatic taste and odour, in a glass held to his lips by Eve de Montalais.

And then (Duchemin had a faint smile of appreciation for a mental parallel to the technique of the cinema) a singularly vivid and disturbing memory of her face of loveliness, exquisitely tender and compassionate, bended so near to his, faded away into a dense blank of sleep ...

Somewhat to his surprise he found the watch on his wrist ticking away as callously as though its owner had not experienced a prolonged lapse of consciousness. It told him that Eve would leave the chateau within another hour.

He got up hastily, grunting a bit though his headache was no longer so acute; or else he was growing accustomed to it and ringing for the valet-de-chambre ordered his petit dejeuner. Before this was served he spent several thrilling minutes under an icy shower and emerged feeling more on terms with himself and the world.

The valet-de-chambre brought with his tray the announcement that Madame de Montalais presented her compliments and would be glad to see monsieur at his convenience in the grand salon. So Duchemin made short work of his dressing, his cafe-au-lait and half a roll, and hurried down to the drawing-room.

Seated in an easy chair, in the tempered light of an awninged window which stood open on the terrasse, nothing in her pose she was waiting quietly, hands folded in her lap and nothing in her countenance, in the un-lined brow, the grave, serene eyes, lent any colour to his apprehensions. And yet in his heart he had known that he would find her thus, and alone, no matter what had happened....

Her profound reverie disturbed by his approach, she rose quickly, advancing to meet Duchemin with both hands offered in sympathy.

“My dear friend! You are suffering ?”

He met this with a smiling denial. “Not now; at first, yes; but since my bath and coffee, I’m as right as a trivet. And you, madame?”

“A little weary, monsieur, otherwise quite well.”

She resumed her chair, signing to Duchemin to take one nearby. He drew it closer before sitting down.

“But madame is not dressed for her journey!”

“No, monsieur. I have postponed it ” a slight pause prefaced one more word “indefinitely.”

At this confirmation of the fears which had been haunting him, Duchemin nodded slightly.

“But the men sent here by your bankers ?”

“They have not yet arrived; we may expect them at any moment now.”

“I see,” said Duchemin thoughtfully; and then “May I suggest that we continue our conversation in English. One never knows who may overhear...”

Her eyebrows lifted a little, but she adopted the suggestion without other demur.

“The servants?”

He nodded: “Or anybody.”

“Then you have guessed ?”

“Broadly speaking, everything, I fancy. Not in any detail, naturally. But one puts two and two together ... I may as well tell you to begin with: I was wakeful last night, and finding no cigarettes in my room, came down here to get some. I left my candle on the table there. As soon as my back was turned, somebody took it away and put it out. A few minutes later, while I was trying to steal out of the room, I ran into a fist...”

“Yes,” she said thoughtfully; and with some hesitation added: “I, too, found it not easy to sleep. But I heard nothing till that chair crashed. Then I got up to investigate ... and found you lying there, senseless. In falling your head must have struck the leg of the table.”

“You came down here alone?”

“I listened first, heard no sound, saw no light; but I had to know what the noise meant...”

“Still, you came downstairs alone!”

“But naturally, monsieur.”

“I don’t believe,” said Duchemin sincerely, “the world holds a woman your peer for courage.”

“Or curiosity?” she laughed. “At all events, I found you, but could do nothing to rouse you. So I called Jean, and he helped me get you upstairs again.”

“Where does Jean sleep?”

“In the servants’ quarters, on the third floor, in the rear of the house.”

“It must have taken you some time...”

“Several minutes, I fancy. Jean sleeps soundly.”

“When you came back with him or at any time did you see or hear ?”

“Nothing out of the normal nobody. Indeed, I at first believed you had somehow managed to overexert yourself and had fainted or had tripped on something and, falling, hurt your head.”

“Later, then, you found reason to revise that theory?”

“Not till early this morning.”

“Please tell me...”

“Well, you see ... It all seemed so strange, I couldn’t sleep when I went back to bed, I lay awake, puzzled, uneasy. It was broad daylight before I noticed that the screen which stands in front of my safe was out of place. The safe is built into the solid wall, you know. I got up then, and found the safe door an inch or so ajar. Whoever opened it last night, closed it hastily and neglected to shoot the bolts.”

“And your jewels, of course ?”

She pronounced with unbroken composure: “They have left me nothing, monsieur.”

Duchemin groaned and hung his head. “I knew it!” he declared. “No credit to me, however. Naturally, whoever stole my candle and knocked me out didn’t break into the house for the fun of it ... I imagine that, what with finding me insensible, waking Jean up, and getting me back in my room, you must have been away from yours fully half an hour.”

“Quite that long.”

“It couldn’t have been better arranged for the thieves,” he declared. “If only I had stayed in my room !”

“If you had, it might possibly have been worse mightn’t it? The burglar or burglars knew precisely the location of the safe. They were coming to my room, and if they had found me awake ... I think it quite possible, my friend, that your appetite for cigarettes may have saved my life.”

“There’s consolation in that,” he confessed “if it’s any to you, who have lost so much.”

“But perhaps I shall get my jewellery back.”

“What makes you think that?”

“There’s always the chance, isn’t there? And I believe I have a clue, as they call it, an indefinite one but something to work from, perhaps.”

“What is that?”

“It seems to me it must have been what the police at home call ’an inside job’; because whoever it was apparently knew the combination of the safe.”

“You mean it wasn’t broken open. That signifies nothing. I’ve never seen yours, but I know something about safes, and I’ll undertake to open it without the combination within ten minutes.”

“You, Monsieur Duchemin?”

He nodded gloomily. “It’s no great trick, once one knows it; with an ordinary safe, that is, such as you’re apt to find in a private home. Have you looked for finger-prints?”

“Not yet.”

“Have you any idea how the thieves broke in?”

“Through this very window, I imagine. You see, I was up early and, in my agitation, dressed hurriedly and came downstairs hours before I usually do. The servants were already up, but hadn’t opened the living rooms for the day. I myself found this window unlatched. The fastening is insecure, you see; it has been out of order for some time.”

Duchemin was on his feet, examining the latch. “True,” he said; “but might not the wind ?”

“There was no wind to speak of last night, monsieur, and what there was didn’t blow from that quarter.” She added as Duchemin stepped out through the window: “Where are you going?”

“To look for footprints on the tiling. It was misting when I went to bed, and with the mud ”

“But there was a heavy shower just before daybreak. If the thieves had left any tracks on the terrasse, the rain must have washed them clean away. I have already looked.”

With a baffled gesture, Duchemin turned back to her side.

“You have communicated with the police, of course.”

She interrupted with an accent almost of impatience: “I have told nobody but you, monsieur, not even my mother and Louise.”

“But why?”

“I wanted to consult you first, and...” She broke off sharply to ask: “Yes, Jean: what is it?”

The footman had entered to bring her cards over which Eve de Montalais arched her brows.

“Show the gentlemen in, please.”

The servant retired.

“The men from Paris, madame?”

“Yes. You will excuse me ?”

Duchemin bowed. “But one word: You can hardly do better than put the case in the hands of these gentlemen. They are apt to be of a good order of intelligence when selected to serve bankers, you know.”

“I understand,” she replied in her cool, sweet voice.

She went to meet the men in the middle of the room. Duchemin turned back to the window, where, standing in the recess, with the light behind him, he could watch and reflect without his interest or emotions, becoming too apparent. And he was grateful for that moment of respite in which to compose and prepare himself. Within an hour, he knew, within a day or so at most, he must be under arrest, charged with the theft of the Montalais jewels, damned by his yesterday as much as by every turn of circumstantial evidence....

The men whom Jean ushered in proved to be, outwardly, what Duchemin had expected: of a class only too well-known to him, plain men of the people, unassuming, well-trained and informed, sceptical; not improbably shrewd hands in the game of thief-taking.

Saluting Madame de Montalais with calculated ceremony, one acting as spokesman offered to present their credentials. Duchemin had a start of surprise to dissemble when he saw the woman wave these aside.

“It is not necessary, messieurs,” she said. “I regret very much to have inconvenienced you, although of course it will make no difference in your bill; but I have brought you here to no purpose. The necessity for my contemplated journey no longer exists.”

There were expressions of surprise to which she put an end with the words, accompanied by a charming smile: “Frankly, messieurs, I am afraid you will have to make allowances for the traditional inconsistency of my sex: I have simply changed my mind.”

There was nothing more to be said. Openly more than a little mystified, the men withdrew.

The smile with which she dismissed them lingered, delightful and enigmatic, as Eve recognised the stupefaction with which Duchemin moved to remonstrate with her.

“Madame!” he cried in a low voice of wonder and protest “why did you do that? Why let them go without telling them ?”

“I must have had a reason, don’t you think, Monsieur Duchemin?”

“I don’t understand you, madame. You treat the loss of jewels as if it must be a secret private to ourselves, to you and to me!”

“Possibly that is my wish, monsieur.” He gave a gesture of bewilderment. “Perhaps,” she continued, meeting his blank stare with eyes in which amusement gave place to a look almost apologetic yet utterly kind “perhaps I have more faith in you...”

Duchemin bowed his head over hands so tightly knitted that the knuckles were white with strain.

“You would not have faith,” he said in a low voice, “if you knew ”

She interrupted in a gentle voice: “Are you sure?”

“ What I must tell you!”

“My friend,” she said: “tell me nothing that would distress you.”

He did not immediately reply; the struggle going on within him was only too plainly betrayed by engorged veins upon his forehead and exceeding pallor of countenance.

“If you had told those detectives,” he said at length, without looking up, “you must have known very soon. They must have found me out without too much delay. And who in the world would ever believe anybody else guilty when they learned that Andre Duchemin, your guest for three weeks, was only an alias for Michael Lanyard, otherwise the Lone Wolf?”

“But you are wrong, monsieur,” she replied, without the long pause of surprise he had anticipated. “I should not have believed you guilty.”

Dumb with wonder, he showed her a haggard face. And she had for him, in the agony and the abasement of his soul, still quivering from the rack of emotion that alone could have extorted his confession she had for him the half-smile, tender and compassionate, that it is given to most men to see but once in a lifetime on the lips and in the eyes of the woman beloved. “Then you knew !”

“I suspected.”

“How long ?”

“Since the night those strange people were here and tried to make you unhappy with their stupid talk of the Lone Wolf. I suspected, then; and when I came to know you better, I felt quite sure...”

“And now you know yet hesitate to turn me over to the police!”

“No such thought has ever entered my head. You see I’m afraid you don’t quite understand me I have faith in you.”

“But why?”

She shook her head. “You mustn’t ask me that.”

At the end of a long moment he said in a broken voice: “Very well: I won’t ... Not yet awhile ... But this great gift of faith in me I can’t accept that without trying to repay it.”

“If you accept, my friend, you repay.”

“No,” said Michael Lanyard “that’s not enough. Your jewels must come back to you, if I go to the ends of the earth to find them. And” man’s undying vanity would out “if there’s anyone living who can find them for you, it is I.”