Read CHAPTER XIII - ATHENAIS of Alias The Lone Wolf, free online book, by Louis Joseph Vance, on ReadCentral.com.

In London, about noon of that day, a gentleman whom Lanyard most often thought of by the name of Wertheimer deciphered a code message whose contempt for customary telegraphic brevity was quite characteristic of the sender, indeed a better voucher for his bona fides than the initials appended in place of a signature. With some editing in the way of punctuation, it follows:

“Dear old bean: Please advise Prefecture de Police without revealing your source of information, unidentified man found murdered on rapide arriving Gare de Lyon eight-thirty this morning stopped yesterday Hotel Terminus, Lyons, under name of Comte de Lorgnes. During entire evening before entraining he was shadowed by two Apaches, one of whom, passing as Albert Dupont probably recent and temporary alias booked through to Paris occupying berth in same carriage with Lorgnes, but detrained Laroche six-fifteen, murder remaining undiscovered till arrival in Paris. [An admirably succinct sketch of the physical Dupont is here deleted.] ’In return for gift of this opportunity to place Prefecture under obligations, please do me a service. As stranger in Paris I crave passionately to review Night Life of Great City but am naturally timid about going about alone after dark. Only society of beautiful, accomplished, well-informed and agreeable lady of proved discretion can put me thoroughly at ease. If you can recommend one such to me by telegraph, stipulating her amiability must begin to function this evening, you may depend on my not hesitating to ask further favours as occasion may arise. Presume you have heard your old friend Duchemin, now missing, is suspected of looting jewels of Madame de Montalais, Chateau de Montalais, near Millau. He counts on your discretion to preserve secret of his innocence pending further advices. Paul Martin here stopping Hotel Chatham. Toodle-oo.

“M. L.”

A telegram from London addressed to M. Paul Martin, Hotel Chatham, Paris, was delivered late in the afternoon:

“Prefecture tipped off. Many thanks. Heartfelt regrets poor Duchemin’s success keeping out of gaol. Uneasy about him as long as he remains at large. Fully appreciate you cannot trust yourself alone in the dark. Therefore cheerfully delegating preservation your virtue while in Paris to Mlle. Athenais Reneaux, maiden lady mature charms whom I beg you will respect as you would my sister. Wishing you enjoyable intellectual evening

“W.”

It needed receipt of a petit-bleu, while he was dressing for dinner, to cure Lanyard of an attack of premonitory shivers brought on by recollection of the awful truth that one is never really safe in trifling with an Englishman’s sense of humour. “Dear monsieur Martin: It is too sweet of you to remember your promise to ask me to dine the first time you came to Paris. Since you leave it to me, shall we say the Ritz, at half past seven? In case your memory for faces is poor it has been a long time since we met, hasn’t it? I shall be wearing the conventional fast black with my very best ingenue expression; and my feather fan will be flame-coloured.

“Always to you

“Athenais Reneaux.”

Now that sounded more like ...

Only it was a bit debilitating to contemplate, as the mirror insisted one must, the shortcomings of machine-made evening clothes, whose obviously exorbitant cost as a post-War luxury did nothing to make amends for their utter want of personal feeling. For one needs sympathy in a dress-coat quite as much as cloth.

Still, it was a tolerably personable figure that suffered Lanyard’s critical inspection. And an emergency is an emergency. Those readily serviceable clothes were of more value than the most superbly tailored garments that could possibly have been made up for him in any reasonable length of time. For to-morrow night it might, and as Lanyard held surely would, be too late to accomplish what he hoped to accomplish to-night, and for whose accomplishment evening dress was indispensable. Since Wertheimer had passed the word on, the name of the Comte de Lorgnes would be published to the world in the morning papers, and by evening the birds, if they were wise, would be in full flight. Whereas to-night, while still that poor mutilated body lay nameless in the Morgue...

Mademoiselle Athenais Reneaux lived up in most gratifying fashion to the tone of her note. In the very beginning she demonstrated excellent discretion by failing to be on hand and eager when Lanyard strolled into the Ritz on the minute of their appointment. To the contrary she was all of twenty-five minutes late; a circumstance so consistently feminine as to rob their meeting of any taint of the extraordinary; they might have been simple sweethearts meeting to dine remote from jealous or censorious eyes, rather than one of the most useful Parisian agents of the British Secret Service under orders to put her talents at the disposition of a man who was to her nothing more than an everyday name.

She swept spiritedly into the lounge of the Ritz, a tall, fair girl, very good-looking indeed and brilliantly costumed, and placed Monsieur Paul Martin in one glance, on the instant of his calculated start of recognition. At once her face lighted up with a charming smile few women could boast teeth as white and fine and almost before Lanyard could extricate himself from his chair she was at pause before him, holding his hand.

“Paul!” she cried in lilting accents. “I’m so glad! It’s been simply ages.... And looking so well! I don’t believe you’ve changed a bit.”

The nicely judged pitch of her voice, neither so high nor so low as to attract more than passing attention, won approval which Lanyard put into the pressure of his lips upon her hand and the bow, at once punctilious and intimate, that accompanied it.

“And you, Athenais, always exquisite, but to-day...Truly one has never seen you looking better.”

“Flattery,” she commented. “But I love it!”

Meanwhile her gaze, that seemed so constant to his eyes, reviewed other people in the lounge in one swift, searching glance, and returned to Lanyard with a droop of the lashes, imperceptible to all but him, that signified there was no one present likely in her esteem to prove dangerous to their peace of mind.

“Flattery? To you? But impossible!”

He delighted her, and she showed it openly. But her lips said only: “Have I kept you waiting a frightfully long time, poor boy?”

“Let your appetite accuse you, Athenais.”

“But I am starving!”

“Then, as I take it, nothing on earth can prevent our going in to dinner.”

Lanyard had already consulted with the maitre d’hotel over the menu and the reservation. As the two settled down at a table on the side of the room, not conspicuously far from any other in use, and at the same time comfortably detached, their iced melon was waiting to be served.

“Always the most thoughtful of men,” Mademoiselle Reneaux declared. “No fussing with the carte, no thrusting it into one’s hand and saying: ’See anything you’d like, my dear? I rather fancy the boeuf-a-la-mode for myself!’ That’s why I’d adore dining with you, Paul, even if I didn’t adore you for yourself.”

“One is well repaid when one’s modest efforts are so well appreciated.”

“Blague, my friend, sheer blague. You know you relish a good dinner of your own ordering far more than anybody’s appreciation, even mine.”

The waiters had retired, leaving them alone in a momentary oasis of public isolation.

“Mademoiselle,” said Lanyard in more formal vein, “I am sure, underestimates my capacity for appreciation. May one venture to compliment mademoiselle, who is marvellous in so many bewitching ways?”

“Why not, monsieur? Was ever music sweeter?” The girl laughed; then her eyes sobered while her features retained their appearance of complete amusement. “Monsieur received a telegram this afternoon?”

“Yes, mademoiselle. And you?”

“It is here since I am. May I see yours?”

With a gay gesture she handed over her telegram from London and took his in exchange.

The ordinary cipher of the B. S. S. was as readily intelligible to both as if the messages had been couched in open French or English.

Lanyard read:

“Kindly place yourself beginning with dinner to-night and for duration his stay in Paris at the commands of Paul Martin, Hotel Chatham, lunatic but harmless and of great value to us. He seems to be at present concerned with some affair outside our knowledge, but presumably desperate, else he would not be interested. Please exert best endeavours to get him out of France alive as soon as possible.”

The girl was laughing as she returned Lanyard’s telegram and received her own.

“’Mature charms’!” she pouted. “‘Enjoyable intellectual evening’! Oh, how depressing! Poor Paul! but you must have felt discouraged.”

“I did at first.”

“And afterwards ?”

“Disappointed.”

“And are you going to obey that injunction to treat me as somebody’s sister?”

“Never in my life!”

“How then?”

“As anybody’s wife.” Perplexity knitted a little pucker in her delicately lined brows.

“Paul! you couldn’t speak French so well and be an Englishman!”

“I assure you, Athenais, I am mentally a native of France.”

She sighed luxuriously. “What an amusing prospect! And this is the sort of man at whose commands I am required to place myself.”

“Not required, Athenais, requested begged, besought!”

“I like that better. And,” she enquired demurely, “may one ask what are monsieur’s commands?”

“First: you will continue to flirt with me as at present outrageously.”

“Even when you make it so difficult?”

“And then, to waste an evening in my society.”

“Must it be wasted?”

“That will be as it falls out.”

“And what do we do with this evening of such questionable value?”

“We finish dinner here at our leisure; we smoke and chat a while in the lounge, if you like, or if nothing better offers we go to a play; and then you will take me by the hand, if you please, mademoiselle...”

“In the maternal manner appropriate to mature charms, I presume?”

“Precisely.”

“What then?”

“You will always remembering that my interest in such things is merely academic you will then lead me hither and yon, as your whim lists, and show me how Paris amuses itself in these days of its nocturnal decadence. You will dutifully pretend to drink much more champagne than is good for you and to be enjoying yourself as you seldom have before. If I discover an interest in people I may chance to see, you will be good enough to tell me who they are and other details concerning their ways of life.”

“If I know.”

“But I am sure you know everyone worth knowing in Paris, Athenais.”

“Then if I am right in assuming you are looking for some person in particular ”

“You have reason, mademoiselle.”

“I run the risk of losing an entertaining evening.”

“Not necessarily. Besides, there are many evenings. Are you not at my commands for the duration of my stay in Paris?”

“True. So I will have to chance my perilous question.... I presume one can’t help being true to the traditions of one’s sex.”

“Inquisitive, you mean? But what else is every thinking creature, male or female? What are men of science? What ?”

“But it was Eve who first ”

“Ah! raking up old scandal, eh? But I’ll wager something it was really Adam who taking a purely scientific interest in the business egged Eve on to try a bite of apple, asserting that the domestic menu lacked variety, telling himself if she died of it, it would only cost him another rib to replace her, and cheap at the price.”

“Paul: you are too gallant. Wait till I try to find out something about you, directly or indirectly, and see what you will then have to say about the curiosity of women.”

“But I shouldn’t mind, it would be too flattering. So dig away.”

“I will. Who is it you’re looking for in Paris after midnight?”

“Anyone of several people.” “Perhaps I know them. It might save time if you would give me their names.”

“Now it is you who ask me to risk losing an enjoyable evening. But so be it. Le Comte de Lorgnes?”

Mademoiselle Reneaux looked blank.

“Madame la Comtesse de Lorgnes?”

The young woman shook her head.

“Both of a class sure to be conspicuous in such places as Maxim’s,” Lanyard explained. “The names, then, are probably fictitious.”

“If you could describe them, perhaps ?”

“Useless, I am afraid; neither is an uncommon type. Any word picture of either would probably fit anyone of a score of people of the same life. Are you then acquainted with a man named Phinuit given name unknown an American?”

“No.”

“Mr. Whitaker Monk, of New York?”

“The millionaire?”

“That is quite possible.”

“He made his money in munitions, I believe,” the girl reflected “or perhaps it was oil.”

“Then you do know him?”

“I met him one night, or rather one morning several weeks ago, with a gay party that joined ours at breakfast at Pre-Catelan.”

“And do we still drive out to Pre-Catelan to milk the cows after an adventurous night, mademoiselle?” She nodded; and Lanyard sighed: “It is true, then: man ages, his follies never.”

“A quaint little stupid,” the girl mused.

“Pardon, mademoiselle?”

“I was thinking of Whitaker Monk.”

“Quaint, I grant you. But hardly little, or stupid. A tall man, as thin as a diet, with a face like a comic mask of tragedy...”

“Paul dear,” said Athenais Reneaux more in sorrow than in anger: “somebody has been taking advantage of your trusting nature. Whitaker Monk is short, hopelessly stout, and the most commonplace person imaginable.”

“Then it would appear,” Lanyard commented ruefully, “one did wisely to telegraph London for a keeper. Let us get hence, if you don’t mind, and endeavour to forget my shame in strong drink and the indecorous dances of an unregenerate generation.”