Read CHAPTER XVI - THE HOUSE OF LILITH of Alias The Lone Wolf, free online book, by Louis Joseph Vance, on ReadCentral.com.

It stood four-square and massive on a corner between the avenues de Friedland et des Champs-Elysees, near their junction at the Place de l’Etoile: a solid stone pile of a town-house in the most modern mode, without architectural beauty, boasting little attempt at exterior embellishment, but smelling aloud of Money; just such a maison de ville as a decent bourgeois banker might be expected to build him when he contemplates retiring after doing the Rothschilds a wicked one in the eye.

It was like Liane’s impudence, too. Lanyard smiled at the thought as he studied the mansion from the backwards of a dark doorway in the diagonally opposed block of dwellings. Her kind was always sure to seek, once its fortunes were on firm footing, to establish itself, as here, in the very heart of an exclusive residential district; as if thinking to absorb social sanctity through the simple act of rubbing shoulders with it; or else, as was more likely to be the case with a woman of Liane Delorme’s temper, desiring more to affront a world from which she was outcast than to lay siege to its favour.

It seemed, however, truly deplorable that Liane should have proved so conventional-minded in this particular respect. It rendered one’s pet project much too difficult of execution. Earnestly as one desired to have a look at the inside of that house without the knowledge of its inmates, its aspect was forbidding and discouraging in the utmost extreme.

Heavy gates of wrought bronze guarded the front doors. The single side or service-door was similarly protected if more simply. And stout grilles of bronze barred every window on the level of the street.

Now none of these could have withstood the attack of a man of ingenuity with a little time at his disposal. But Lanyard could count on only the few remaining minutes of true night. Retarded though it might be by shrouded skies, dawn must come all too soon for his comfort. Yet he was conscious of no choice in the matter: he must and in spite of everything would know to-night what was going on behind that blank screen of stone. To-morrow night would be too late. Tonight, if there were any warrant for his suspicions, the jewels of Eve de Montalais lay in the dwelling of Liane Delorme; or if they were not there, the secret of their hiding was. But to-morrow both, and more than likely Liane as well, would be on the wing; or Lanyard had been sorely mistaken in seeing in her as badly frightened a woman as he had ever known, when she had learned of the assassination of de Lorgnes.

It was possible, he thought it extremely probable, that Liane Delorme was as powerful as Athenais Reneaux had asserted; influential, that is, with the State, with the dealers in its laws and the dispensers of its protection. But now she had not to reckon with such as these, but with enemies of her own sort, with an antagonism as reckless of law and order as she herself. And she was afraid of that, infinitely more disturbed in mind and spirit than she would have been in the face of any threat on the part of the police. The Prefecture was a known and measured force, an engine that ran as it were on mapped lines of rail; its moves might be forecast, guarded against, watched, evaded. But this other force worked in the dark, this hostile power personified in the creature who had called himself Albert Dupont; the very composition of its being was cloaked in a secrecy impenetrable and terrifying, its intentions and its workings could not be surmised or opposed until it struck and the success or failure of the stroke revealed its origin and aim.

Liane or one misjudged her would never sit still and wait for the blow to fall. She was too high-strung, too much in love with life. She must either strike first in self-defence and, in such case, strike at what? or remove beyond the range of the enemy’s malice. Lanyard was confident she would choose the latter course.

But confidence was not knowledge....

He transferred his attention from the formidable defences of the lower storey to the second. Here all the windows were of the type called french, and opened inward from shallow balconies with wrought bronze railings. Lanyard was acquainted with every form of fastening used for such windows; all were simple, none could resist his persuasions, provided he stood upon one of those balconies. Nor did he count it a difficult matter for a man of his activity and strength to scale the front of the house as far as the second storey; its walls were builded of heavy blocks of dressed stone with deep horizontal channels between each tier. These grooves would be greasy with rain; otherwise one could hardly ask for better footholds. A climb of some twelve or fifteen feet to the balcony: one should be able to make that within two minutes, granted freedom from interruption. The rub was there; the quarter seemed quite fast asleep; in the five minutes which had elapsed since Lanyard had ensconced himself in the doorway no motor car had passed, not a footfall had disturbed the stillness, never a sound of any sort had come to his attention other than one distant blare of a two-toned automobile horn from the neighbourhood of the Arc de Triomphe. But one dared not count on long continuance of such conditions. Already the sky showed a lighter shade above the profile of the roofs. And one wakeful watcher at a nearby window would spell ruin.

Nevertheless he must adventure the consequences....

Poised to leave his shelter and dart across the street, with his point of attack already selected, his thoughts already busy with consideration of steps to follow he checked and fell still farther back into the shadow. Something was happening in the house across the way.

A man had opened the service-door and paused behind the bronze gate. There was no light behind him, and the gloom and intervening strips of metal rendered his figure indistinct. Lanyard’s high-keyed perceptions had none the less been instant to remark that slight movement and the accompanying change in the texture of the darkness barred by the gate.

Following a little wait, it swung slowly out, perhaps eighteen inches, the man advancing with it and again halting to peer up and down the street. Then quickly, as if alarmed, he withdrew, shut the gate, and disappeared, closing the service-door behind him.

Listening intently, Lanyard heard no click of latch, such as should have been audible in that dead hour of hush. Evidently the fellow had neglected to make fast the gate. Possibly he had been similarly remiss about fastening the door. But what was he up to? Why this furtive appearance, why the retreat so abruptly executed?

By way of answer came the soft drone of a high-powered motor; then the car itself rolled into view, a stately limousine coming from the direction of the avenue de Friedland. Before the corner house it stopped. A lackey alighted with an umbrella and ran to hold the door; but Liane Delorme would not wait for him. The car had not stopped when she threw the door open; on the instant when its wheels ceased to turn she jumped down and ran toward the house, heedless of the rain.

At the same time one side of the great front doors swung inward, and a footman ran out to open the gates. The lackey with the umbrella, though he moved briskly, failed to catch up with Liane before she sped up the steps. So he closed the umbrella and trotted back to his place beside the chauffeur. The footman shut gates and door as the limousine moved away: it had not been sixty seconds at rest. In fifteen more street and house were both as they had been, save that a light now shone through the plate glass of the latter’s great doors. And that was soon extinguished.

Conceiving that the man who had appeared at the service entrance was the same who had admitted Liane, Lanyard told himself he understood: impatient for his bed, the fellow had gone to the service gate to spy out for signs of madame’s return. Now if only it were true that he had failed to close it securely !

It proved so. The gate gave readily to Lanyard’s pull. The knob of the small door turned silently. He stepped across the threshold, and shut himself into an unlighted hall, thoughtfully apeing the negligence of the servant and leaving the door barely on the latch by way of provision against a forced retreat.

So far, good. He felt for his pocket torch, then sharply fell back into the nearest corner and made himself as inconspicuous as might be. Footsteps were sounding on the other side of an unseen wall. He waited, breathless, stirless.

A latch rattled, and at about three yards’ distance a narrow door opened, marked by a widening glow of light. A liveried footman beyond a doubt he who admitted the mistress of the house entered, carrying an electric candle, yawned with a superstitious hand before his mouth and, looking to neither right nor left, turned away from Lanyard and trudged wearily back to the household offices. At the far end of the long hallway a door closed behind him and Lanyard moved swiftly.

The door which had let the footman into the hall admitted to a spacious foyer which set apart the entrance and as the play of the electric torch disclosed a deep and richly furnished dining-room. To one side a broad flight of stairs ascended: Lanyard went up with the activity of a cat, making no more noise.

The second floor proved to be devoted mainly to a drawing-room, a lounge, and a library, all furnished in a weird, inchoate sort of magnificence, with money rather than with taste, if one might judge fairly by the fitful and guarded beam of the torch. The taste may have been less questionable than Lanyard thought; but the evidences of luxurious tendencies and wealth recklessly wasted in their gratification were irrefutable.

Lights were burning on the floor above, and a rumour of feminine voices drifted down, interrupted by an occasional sibilant rustle of silk, or a brief patter of high-heeled feet: noises which bore out the conjecture that madame’s maid was undressing and putting her to bed; a ceremony apt to consume a considerable time with a woman of Liane’s age and disposition, passionately bent on preserving to the grave a semblance of freshness in her charms. Lanyard reckoned on anything from fifteen minutes to an hour before her couching would be accomplished and the maid out of the way. Ten minutes more, and Liane ought to be asleep. If it turned out otherwise well, one would have to deal with her awake. No need to be gravely concerned about that: to envisage the contingency was to be prepared against it.

Believing he must possess his soul in patience for an indeterminable wait, he was casting about for a place to secrete himself, when a change in the tenor of the talk between mistress and maid was conveyed by a sudden lift of half an octave in the latter’s voice, sounding a sharp note of protest, to be answered by Liane in accent of overbearing anger.

One simply could not rest without knowing what that meant: Lanyard mounted the second flight of stairs as swiftly, surely, and soundlessly as he had the first. But just below a landing, where the staircase had an angle, he paused, crouching low, flat to the steps, his head lifted just enough to permit him to see, above the edge of the topmost, a section of glowing, rose-pink wall it would be rose-pink!

He could see nothing more; and Liane had already silenced the maid, or rather reduced her to responses feebly submissive, and, consonant with the nature of her kind, was rubbing it in.

“And why should you not go with me to that America if I wish it?” Lanyard heard her say. “Is it likely I would leave you behind to spread scandal concerning me with that gabbling tongue in your head of an overgrown cabbage? It is some lover, then, who has inspired this folly in you? Tell him from me, if you please, the day you leave my service without my consent, it will be a sorry sweetheart that comes to him.”

“It is well, madame. I say no more. I will go.”

“I believe it well you will go! You were mad ever to dream otherwise. Fetch my jewel-case the large one, of steel, with the American lock.”

“Madame takes all her jewels, then?” the maid enquired, moving about the room.

“But naturally. What do you think? That I leave them here for the scullery-maids to give their maquereaux? I shall pack them tonight, before I sleep.”

("Damnation!” from Lanyard, beneath his breath. More delay!)

“And we leave to-morrow, madame, at what time?”

“It matters not, so we are in Cherbourg by midnight. I may decide to make the trip by automobile.”

“And madame’s packing?”

“You know well what to pack, better than I. Get my boxes up the first thing in the morning and use your own judgment. If there are questions to be asked, save them until I wake up. I shall sleep till noon.”

“That is all, madame?”

“That is all. You may go.”

“Good-night, madame.”

“Good-night, Marthe.”

The stairway was no place to stop. Lanyard slipped like a shadow to the floor below, and took shelter behind a jog in the wall of the grand salon where, standing in deep darkness, he commanded a view of the hall.

The maid came down, carrying an electric candle like the footman’s. Its rays illumined from below one of those faces of crude comeliness common to her class, the face of an animal not unintelligent but first and last an animal. With a hand on the lower newel-post she hesitated, looking up toward the room of her mistress, as if lost in thought. Poised thus, her lifted face partly turned away from Lanyard, its half-seen expression was hopelessly ambiguous. But some secret thought amused the woman, a shadow deepened in the visible corner of her full-lipped mouth. One fancied something sardonic in that covert smile.

She went on down. A latch on the ground floor clicked as the door to the service hallway was gently closed. Lanyard came out of hiding with a fresh enterprise abrew.

One must kill time somehow, Liane would be at least another half an hour busy with her jewellery, and the thought presented itself that the library, immediately beneath her room, should be worthy an investigation. In such establishments it is a tradition that the household safe shall be located somewhere in the library; and such strong-boxes are apt to be naïve contrivances. Lanyard did not hope to find the Montalais jewels stored away in such a place, Liane would surely take better care of them than that; assuming they were in her possession they would be under her hand, if not confused with her own treasures; still it could do no harm to make sure.

Confident of being warned at need by his hearing, which was normally supersensitive and, when he was engaged as now, keyed to preterhuman acuteness, he went coolly about the business, and at his first step found a portable reading-lamp on a long cord and coolly switched on its hooded light.

The library was furnished with bulky old Italian pieces of carved oak, not especially well selected, but suitable enough with one exception, a ponderous buffet, an exquisite bit of workmanship both in design and in detail but completely out of place in a room of that character. At least nine feet in length, it stood out four from the wall. Three heavy doors guarded by modern locks gave access to the body beneath its tier of drawers. But this drew a frowning stare there was a key in the lock of the middle door.

“There’s such a thing as too much luck,” Lanyard communed. “First the service gate and door, and now this, ready to my hand !”

He swung sharply round and searched every shadow in the room with the glare of the portable lamp; but that was work of supererogation: he had already made sure he was alone on that floor.

Placing the lamp on the floor and adjusting its hood so that it focussed squarely upon the middle section of the buffet, he turned the key and discovered, behind the door, a small safe.

The run of luck did not hold in respect to this; there was no key; and the combination dial was smug with ill-grounded confidence in its own inviolable integrity. Still (Lanyard told it) it could hardly be expected to know, it had yet to be dealt with by the shade of the Lone Wolf.

Amused by the conceit, Lanyard laid hold of the knob with steady, delicate fingertips that had not yet, in spite of years of honourable idleness, forgotten their cunning. Then he flattened an ear to the cold face of the safe. To his informed manipulation the dial whirled, paused, reversed, turned all but imperceptibly, while the hidden mechanism clicked, ground and thudded softly, speaking a living language to his hearing. In three minutes he sat back on his heels, grasped the T-handle, turned it, had the satisfaction of hearing the bolts slide back into their sockets, and opened the door wide.

But the racked pigeonholes held nothing to interest him whose one aim was the recovery of the Montalais jewels. The safe was, in fact, dedicated simply to the storage of documents.

“Love letters!” Lanyard mused with a grimace of weariness. “And each believed, no doubt, she cared too much for him to hold her power to compromise him. Good Lord! what vanity is man’s!”

Then the consideration offered that property of real value might be hidden behind those sheaves of papers. He selected a pigeonhole at hazard, and emptied it of several bundles of letters, all neatly bound with tape or faded ribbon and clearly docketed. It held nothing else whatever. But his eye was caught by a great name endorsed on the face of one of the packages; and reading what else was written there his brows rose high while his lips shaped a soundless whistle. If an inference were fair, Liane had kept not only such documents as gave her power over others. Lanyard wondered if it were possible he held in his hand an instrument to bend the woman to his will....

Suddenly he put out a hand and switched off the light, a gesture quite involuntary, simple reaction to the muffled thump of a chair overturned on the floor above.

Sounds of scuffling followed, as if Liane were dancing to no music with a heavy-footed partner. Then a groan....

His hands moved so rapidly and deftly that, although he seemed to rise without a second’s delay, the safe was closed and the combination locked when he did so, the buffet door was shut and its key in his pocket.

This time Lanyard ascended the stairs without heeding what noise he made. Nevertheless his actions were never awkward or ill-timed; his approach was not heard, his arrival on the upper landing was unnoticed.

In an instantaneous pause he looked into the rose-pink room and saw Liane Delorme, in a negligee like a cobweb over a nightdress even more sheer, kneeling and clawing at her throat, round which a heavy silk handkerchief was slowly tightening; her face already purple with strangulation, her eyes bulging from their sockets, her tongue protruding between swollen lips.

A thick knee was planted between her shoulder-blades. The ends of the handkerchief were in the sinewy hands of Albert Dupont.