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

Conceivably even a journeyman strangler may know the thrill of professional pride in a good job well done: Dupont was grinning at his work, and so intent upon it that his first intimation of any interference came when Lanyard took him from behind, broke his hold upon the woman (and lamentably failed to break his back at the same time) whirled him round with a jerk that all but unsocketed an arm and, before the thug could regain his balance, placed surely on the heel of his jaw, just below the ear, a blow that, coming straight from the shoulder and carrying all Lanyard had of weight and force and will to punish, in spite of Dupont’s heaviness fairly lifted him from his feet and dropped him backwards across a chaise-longue, from which he slipped senseless to the floor.

It was just like that, a crowded, breathless business....

With bruised and aching knuckles to prove that the blow had been one to stun an ox, Lanyard believed it safe to count Dupont hors de combat, for a time at least. In any event, the risk had to be chanced: Liane Delorme was in a plight demanding immediate relief.

In all likelihood she had lost consciousness some moments before Lanyard’s intervention. Released, she had fallen positively inert, and lay semi-prostrate on a shoulder, with limbs grotesquely slack and awry, as if in unpleasant mimicry of a broken doll. Only the whites of bloodshot eyes showed in her livid and distorted countenance. Arms and legs twitched spasmodically, the ample torso was violently shaken by labouring lungs.

The twisted handkerchief round her throat had loosened, but not enough to give relief. Lanyard removed it, turned her over so that she lay supine, wedged silken pillows from the chaise-longue beneath her head and shoulders, then reached across her body, took from her dressing table a toilet-water flask of lovely Italian glass, and drenched her face and bosom with its pungent contents.

She gasped, started convulsively, and began to breathe with less effort. That dreadful rattling in her throat was stilled. Heavy lids curtained her eyes.

Lanyard continued to apply the scented water with a lavish hand. In time the woman shuddered, sighed profoundly, and looked up with a witless stare.

Man is measurably a creature of gestures stereotyped when the world was young: Lanyard patted the woman’s hand as one might comfort an abused child. “It is all right now, Liane,” he said in a reassuring voice. “Rest tranquilly. You will soon be yourself again. But wait: I will find you a drink.”

She said nothing, her look continued cloudy; but the dazed eyes followed him as he got up and cast about for a glass of water.

But then he remembered Dupont, and decided that Liane could wait another minute while he made it impossible for the Apache to do more mischief.

He moved round the chaise-longue and paused, looking down thoughtfully. Since his fall Dupont had made neither moan nor stir. No crescent irides showed beneath the half-shut lids. He was so motionless, he seemed scarcely to breathe. Lanyard dug the toe of a boot into his ribs none too gently, but without satisfaction of any doubts. The fellow gave no sign of sensibility, but lay utterly relaxed, with the look of one dead.

Lanyard frowned uneasily. He had seen men drop dead from blows less powerful than his, and though this one had well earned a death swift and merciless, Lanyard experienced a twinge of horror at the thought. Often enough it had been his lot in times of peace and war to be forced to fight for life, and more than once to kill in defence of it; but that had never happened, never could happen, without his suffering the bitterest regret. Even now, in the case of this bloody-handed butcher, this ruthless garroter....

Dropping to his knees, Lanyard bent over the body to search for symptoms of animation. He perceived them instantly. With inconceivable suddenness Dupont demonstrated that he was very much alive. An arm like the flexible limb of a tree wound itself affectionately round Lanyard’s neck, clipped his head to Dupont’s yearning bosom, ground his face into the flannel folds of a foul-scented shirt. Simultaneously the huge body heaved prodigiously, and after a brief interval of fantastic floppings, like a young mountain fell on top of Lanyard.

But that was the full measure of Dupont’s success in this stratagem. If hopelessly victimized and taken by surprise, Lanyard should have been better remembered by the man who had fought him at Montpellier-lé-Vieux and again, with others assisting, on the road to Nant; though it is quite possible, of course, that Dupont failed to recognise his ancient enemy in clean-shaven Monsieur Paul Martin of the damp and bedraggled evening clothes.

However that may have been, in the question of brute courage Dupont had yet to prove lacking. His every instinct was an Apache’s: left to himself he would strike always from behind, and run like a cur to cover. But cornered, or exasperated by opposition to his vast powers something which he seemed quite unable to understand he could fight like a maniac. He was hardly better now, when he found himself thrown off and attacked in turn at a time when he believed his antagonist to be pinned down, helpless, at the mercy of the weapon for which he was fumbling. And the murderous fury which animated him then more than made up for want of science, cool-headedness and imagination.

They fought for their most deeply-rooted passions, he to kill, Lanyard to live, Dupont to batter Lanyard into conceding a moment of respite in which a weapon might be used, Lanyard to prevent that very thing from happening. Even as animals in a pit they fought, now on their knees straining each to break the other’s hold, now wallowing together on the floor, now on their feet, slogging like bruisers of the old school.

Dupont took punishment in heroic doses, and asked for more. Shedding frightful blows with only an angry shake of his head, he would lower it and charge as a wild boar charges, while his huge arms flew like lunatic connecting-rods. The cleverest footwork could not always elude his tremendous rushes, the coolest ducking and dodging could not wholly escape that frantic shower of fists.

Time and again Lanyard suffered blows that jarred him to his heels, time and again was fain to give ground to an onslaught that drove him back till his shoulders touched a wall. And more than once toward the end he felt his knees buckle beneath him and saw his shrewdest efforts fail for want of force. The sweat of his brows stung and dimmed his eyes, his dry tongue tasted its salt. He staggered in the drunkenness of fatigue, and suffered agonies of pain; for his exertions had strained the newly knitted tissues of the wound in his side, and the hurt of this was wholly hellish.

But always he contrived somehow, strangely to him, to escape annihilation and find enough in reserve to fly back at Dupont’s throat upon the first indication of desire on the part of the latter to yield the offensive. To do less were to permit him to find and use his weapon, whatever it might be whether knife or pistol was besides the issue.

Chairs, the chaise-longue, tables were overturned and kicked about. Priceless bits of porcelain and glass, lamps, vases, the fittings of the dressing-table were cast down in fragments to the floor.

Constrained to look to herself or be trampled underfoot, and galvanized with terror, the woman struggled up and tottered hither and yon like a bewildered child, in the beginning too bemused to be able to keep out of the way of the combatants. If she crouched against a wall, battling bodies brushed her away from it. Did she take refuge in a corner she must abandon it else be crushed. Once she stumbled between the two, and before Lanyard could thrust her aside Dupont had fallen back half a dozen feet and worried a pistol out of his clothing.

He fired first from the hip, and the shot shattered the mirror of the dressing-table. Trying for better aim, he lifted and levelled the weapon with a trembling arm which he sought to steady by cupping the elbow in his left hand. But the second bullet ploughed into the ceiling as Lanyard in desperation executed a coup de pied in la savate, and narrowly succeeded in kicking the pistol from Dupont’s grasp.

Bereft thus of his last hope they were too evenly matched, and both too far spent for either to force a victory with his naked hands the Apache swung round and ran, at the same time throwing a heavy chair over on its back in the path of pursuit. Unable to avoid it, Lanyard tried to hurdle it, caught a foot on one of its legs and, as Dupont threw himself headlong down the stairs, crashed to the floor with an impact that shook its beams.

Main will-power lifted him to his knees before he collapsed, his last ounce of endurance wasted. Then the woman, with flying draperies, a figure like a fury, sped to the banister rail and leaning over emptied the several shots remaining in Dupont’s automatic down the well of the staircase. It is doubtful if she saw anything to aim at or accomplished more than to wing the Apache’s flight. Dupont had gained the second storey while Lanyard was still fighting up from his fall. The last report and the crash of the front door slammed behind Dupont were as one heartbeat to the next.

Lanyard pillowed his head on a forearm and lay sobbing for breath. Liane Delorme turned and ran to the front of the house.

Presently she came back drooping, sank into a chair and with lacklustre eyes regarded the man at her feet.

“He got away,” she said superfluously, in a faint voice. “I saw him in the street ... staggering like a sot...”

At that moment Lanyard could not have mustered a show of interest had he been told Dupont was returning at the head of a horde. He closed his tired eyes and envied the lucky dead whose rest was independent of bruised flesh and aching bones. Neither, he supposed, were dreams poisoned by chagrin when what was mortal no longer mattered.... Three times had he come to grips with Dupont and, though he had been outnumbered on the road to Nant, in Lanyard’s sight the honours were far from easy. Neither would they be while yet the other lived or was at large...

The bitterness of failure and defeat had so rank a flavour in his thoughts that nothing else in life concerned him now. He had forgotten Liane Delorme for minutes when her arm passed beneath his shoulders and tried to lift them from the floor. He looked up then with listless eyes, and saw her on one knee by his side, giving him in his turn that confident and reassuring smile with which he had greeted her reviving senses ... a long, long time ago, it seemed.

“Come!” she said “sit up, monsieur, and take this drink. It will lend you strength. You need it.”

God knew he did! His throat was like a furnace flue, his mouth held the taste of leather. But for that thirst, indeed, he could hardly have found the energy to aid her efforts and lurch upon an elbow. A white-hot lancet pierced his wound, and though he locked his teeth against it a groan forced out between them. The woman cried out at the rapid ebb of colour from his face.

“But you are suffering!”

He forced a grey smile. “It is nothing,” he whispered hoarsely “it will pass. If you please that drink ”

She put a knee behind his shoulders for support, and he rested his head back upon it and drank deep from the glass which she held to his lips. Nectar of Olympus was never more divine than that deep draught of brandy and soda. He thought he quaffed Life itself in its distilled quintessence, its pure elixir. His look of gratitude had almost the spirit and the vigour of himself renewed.

“My thanks, mademoiselle...”

“Your thanks!” she laughed with indulgent scorn “your thanks to me!”

He offered to rise, but was restrained by kindly hands.

“No: rest there a little longer, give yourself a little time before you try to get up.”

“But I shall tire you...”

“No. And if you did, what of that? It seems to me, my friend, I owe to you my life.”

“To me it seems you do,” he agreed. “But such a debt is always the first to be forgotten, is it not?”

“You reproach me?”

“No, mademoiselle; not you, but the hearts of men... We are all very much alike, I think.”

“No,” the woman insisted: “you do reproach me. In your heart you have said: ’She has forgotten that, but for me, she would have been dead long years ago. This service, too, she will presently forget.’ But you are wrong, my friend. It is true, the years between had made that other time a little vague with old remoteness in my memory; but to-night has brought it all back and a renewed memory never fades.”

“So one is told. But trust self-interest at need to black it out.”

“You have no faith in me!” she said bitterly.

Lanyard gave her a weary smile. “Why should I not? And as for that: Why should I have faith in you, Liane? Our ways run leagues apart.”

“They can be one.”

She met his perplexed stare with an emphatic nod, with eyes that he could have sworn were abrim with tenderness. He shook his head as if to shake off a ridiculous plaguing notion, and grinned broadly. “That was a drink!” he declared. “I assure you, it was too much for my elderly head. Let me up.”

The cruel agony stabbed his side again and again as he not unaided got upon his feet; and though he managed to gulp down his groans, no grinding of his teeth could mitigate his recurrent pallor or the pained contractions of his eyes. Furthermore, he wavered when he tried to walk, and was glad to subside into a chair to which the woman guided him. Then she fetched him another brandy and soda, put a lighted cigarette between his lips, picked up a chair for herself, and sat down, so close to him that their elbows almost touched.

“It is better, that pain, monsieur?”

He replied with an uncertain nod, pressing a careful hand to his side. “... wound that animal gave me a month ago.”

“Which animal?”

“Monsieur of the garotte, Liane; recently the assassin of de Lorgnes; before that the ex-chauffeur of the Chateau de Montalais.”

“Albert Dupont?”

“As you say, it is not a name.”

“The same?” Her old terror revived. “My God! what have I ever done to that one that he should seek my life?”

“What had de Lorgnes?”

Her eyes turned away, she sat for a moment in silent thought, started suddenly to speak but checked the words before one passed her lips, and as Lanyard saw quite plainly hastened to substitute others.

“No: I do not understand at all! What do you think?”

Lanyard indicated a shrug with sufficient clearness, meaning to say, she probably knew as much as if not more than he.

“But how did he get in? I had not one suspicion I was not alone until that handkerchief ”

“Naturally.”

“And you, my friend?”

“I saw him enter, and followed.”

This was strictly within the truth: Lanyard had now no doubt Dupont and the man who had reconnoitered from the service-door were one. But it was no part of his mind to tell the whole truth to Liane. She might be as grateful as she ought to be, but she was still ... Liane Delorme ... a woman to be tested rather than trusted.

“I must tell you. But perhaps you knew there were agents de police in the restaurant to-night?”

Liane’s head described a negative; her violet eyes were limpid pools of candour.

“I am so much a stranger in Paris,” Lanyard pursued, “I would not know them. But I thought you, perhaps ”

“No, no, my friend, I have nothing to do with the police, I know little about them. Not only that, but I was so interested in our talk, and then inexpressibly shocked, I paid attention to nothing else.”

“I understand. Otherwise you must have noticed who followed me.”

“You were followed?”

And she had found the effrontery to chide him for lack of faith in her! He was in pain: for all that, the moment seemed amusing.

“We are followed, I assure you,” Lanyard replied gravely. “One man or two I don’t know how many in a town-car.”

“But you are sure?”

“All we could get was a hansom drawn by a snail. The automobile, running without lights, went no faster, kept a certain distance behind us all the way from the Place Pigalle to the apartment of Mademoiselle Reneaux. What have you to say to that? Furthermore, when Mademoiselle Reneaux had persuaded me to take refuge in her apartment who knew what they designed? one man left the automobile as it passed her door and stood on watch across the way. Could one require proof that one was followed?”

“Then you think somebody of the Prefecture recognized Duchemin in you?”

“Who knows? I know I was followed, watched. If you ask me, I think Paris is not a healthy place for me.”

“But all that,” Liane objected, “does not bring you here!”

“Patience: I am well on my way.”

Lanyard paused to sip his brandy and soda, and, under cover of that, summon ingenuity to the fore; here a little hand-made fabrication was indicated.

“We waited till about half an hour ago. So did the spy. Mademoiselle Reneaux then let me out by a private way. I started to walk to my hotel, the Chatham. There wasn’t a taxi to be had, you understand. Presently I looked back and saw I was being followed again. To make sure, I ran and the spy ran after me. I twisted and doubled all through this quarter, and at last succeeded in shaking him off. Then I turned down this street, hoping to pick up a cab in the Champ-Elysees. Of a sudden I see Dupont. He is crossing the street toward this house. He does not know me, but quickens his pace, and hastily lets himself in at the service entrance.... Incidentally, if I were you, Liane, I would give my staff of servants a bad quarter of an hour in the morning. The door and gate were not locked; I am sure Dupont used no key. Some person of this establishment was careless or worse.”

“Trust me to look into that.”

“Enfin! in his haste, Dupont leaves the door as he found it. I take a moment’s thought; it is plain he is here for no good purpose. I follow him in... The state of this room tells the rest.”

“It is no matter.” The woman reviewed the ruins of her boudoir with an apathetic glance which was, however, anything but apathetic when she turned it back to Lanyard’s face. Bending forward, she closed a hand upon his arm. Emotion troubled her accents. “My friend, my dear friend: tell me what I can do to repay you?”

“Help me,” said Lanyard simply, holding her eyes.

“How is that help you?”

“To make my honour clear.” Speaking rapidly and with unfeigned feeling, he threw himself upon her generosity: “You know I am no more what I was once, in this Paris when you first knew me. You know I have given up all that. For years I have fought an uphill fight to live down that evil fame in which I once rejoiced. Now I stand accused of two crimes.”

“Two!”

“Two in one, I hardly know which is the greater: that of stealing, or that of violating the hospitality and confidence of those good ladies of the Chateau de Montalais. I cannot rest while they think me guilty... and not they alone, but all my friends, and I have made good friends, in France and England. So, if you think you owe me anything, Liane, help me to find and restore the Montalais jewels.”

Liane Delorme sat back, her hand lifted from his arm and fell with a helpless gesture. Her eyes mirrored no more guile than a child’s. Yet her accent was that of one who remonstrates, but with forbearance, against unreasonable demands.

“How can I do that?”

And she had protested her gratitude to him! He knew that she was lying. Anger welled in Lanyard’s heart, but he was able to hold it in leash and let no sign of it show in manner or expression.

“You have much influence,” he suggested, “here in Paris, with people of many classes. A word from you here, a question there, pressure exerted in certain quarters, will help me more than all the powers of Prefecture and Sûreté combined. You know that.”

“Let me think.” She was staring at the floor. “You must give me time. I will do what I can, I promise you that. Perhaps” she met his gaze again, but he saw something crafty in her smile “I have a scheme already in mind. We will discuss that in the morning, when I have slept on it.”

“You give me new hope.” Lanyard finished his drink and made as if to rise, but relapsed, a spasm of pain knotting his face. “Afraid I must have a cab,” he said in a low voice. “And if you could lend me a coat of some sort to cover these rags....”

And indeed his ready-made evening clothes had fared badly in their first social adventure.

“But if you think I dream of letting you leave this house in pain and perhaps to run into the arms of the police you little know me, Monsieur Michael Lanyard!”

“Paul Martin, if you don’t mind.”

“The guest rooms are there.” She waved a hand to indicate the front part of the house on that floor. “You will find everything you need to make you comfortable for to-night, and in the morning I will send to the Chatham for your things.... Or perhaps it would be wiser to wait till we are sure the police are not watching there for your return. But if they are, it will be a simple matter to find suitable clothing for you. Meanwhile we will have arrived at an understanding.... You comprehend, monsieur, I am resolved, this affair is now arranged?”

“I am well content, Liane.”

And that was true enough; whatever she had in mind for him, she was only playing into his hands when she proposed to keep him near her. He managed to get out of the chair, and accepted the offer of her arm, but held back for a moment.

“But your servants...”

“Well, monsieur, what of them?”

“For one thing, they sleep sincerely.”

“There are sound-proof walls between their part of the house and this. More than that, they are forbidden to intrude, no matter what may happen, unless I summon them.”

“But in the morning, Liane, when they regard this wreckage... I am afraid they will think me a tempestuous lover!”

“They will find me a tempestuous mistress,” promised Liane Delorme, “when I question them about that open door.”