Read CHAPTER XIX - SIX BOTTLES OF CHAMPAGNE of Alias The Lone Wolf, free online book, by Louis Joseph Vance, on ReadCentral.com.

Once decided upon a course of action, Liane Delorme demonstrated that she could move with energy and decision uncommon in her kind. Under her masterly supervision, preparations accomplished themselves, as it were, by magic.

It was, for example, nearer three than four o’clock when the expedition for Cherbourg left the door of her town-house and Paris by way of the Porte de Neuilly; the limousine leading with that polished pattern of a chauffeur, Jules, at its wheel, as spick and span, firm of jaw and imperturbable of eye as when Lanyard had first noticed him in Nant; the touring car trailing, with the footman Leon as driver, and not at all happy to find himself drafted in that capacity, if one might judge by a sullen sort of uneasiness in his look.

Nothing was to be expected in the streets or suburbs, neither speed nor any indication of the intentions (if any) of Dupont. Lanyard spared himself the thankless trouble of watching to see if they were followed having little doubt they were and took his ease by the side of Liane Delorme.

Chatting of old times, or sitting in grateful silence when Liane relapsed into abstraction something which she did with a frequency which testified to the heavy pressure of her thoughts he kept an appreciative eye on Jules, conceding at length that Liane’s adjective, superb, had been fitly applied to his driving. So long as he remained at the wheel, they were not only in safe hands but might be sure of losing nothing on the road.

It was in St. Germain-en-Laye that Lanyard first noticed the grey touring car. But for mental selection of St. Germain as the likeliest spot for Dupont to lay in waiting, and thanks also to an error of judgment on the part of that one, he must have missed it; for there was nothing strikingly sinister in the aspect of that long-bodied grey car with the capacious hood betokening a motor of great power. But it stood incongruously round the corner, in a mean side street, as if anxious to escape observation; its juxtaposition to the door of a wine shop of the lowest class was noticeable in a car of such high caste; and, what was finally damning, the rat-faced man of Lyons was lounging in the door of the wine shop, sucking at a cigarette and watching the traffic with an all too listless eye shaded by the visor of a shabby cap.

Lanyard said nothing at the time, but later, when a long stretch of straight road gave him the chance, verified his suspicions by looking back to see the grey car lurking not less than a mile and a half astern; the Delorme touring car driven by Leon keeping a quarter of a mile in the rear of the limousine.

These relative positions remained approximately unchanged during most of the light hours of that long evening, despite the terrific pace which Jules set in the open country. Lanyard, keeping an eye on the indicator, saw its hand register the equivalent of sixty English miles an hour more frequently than not. It seldom dropped below fifty except when passing through towns or villages. And more often than he liked Lanyard watched it creep up to and past the mark seventy.

With such driving he was quite willing to believe that they would see Cherbourg or Heaven by midnight if not before; always, of course, providing...

For the first three hours Leon stood the pace well. Then nerves or physical endurance began to fail, he dropped back, and the Delorme touring car was thereafter seldom visible.

No more, for that matter, was the grey shadow. Lanyard’s forecast seemed to be borne out by its conduct: Dupont was biding his time and would undoubtedly attempt nothing before nightfall. In the meantime he was making no effort to do more than keep step with the limousine, but at a decent distance. Only occasionally when, for this reason or that, Jules was obliged to run at reduced speed for several minutes on end, the grey car would draw into sight, always, however, about a mile behind the Delorme touring car.

At about seven they dined on the wing, from the hamper which, with Liane’s jewel case in its leather disguise of a simple travelling bag, constituted all the limousine’s load of luggage. Lanyard passed sandwiches through the front window to Jules, who munched them while driving like a speed maniac, and with the same appalling nonchalance washed them down with a tumbler of champagne. Then he discovered some manner of sorcerous power over matches in the wind, lighted a cigarette, and signalised his sense of refreshment by smoothly edging the indicator needle up toward the eighty notch, where he held it stationary until Lanyard and Liane with one accord begged him to consider their appetites.

At eight o’clock they were passing through Lisieux, one hundred and eighteen miles from Paris.

Lanyard made mental calculations.

“The light will hold till after nine,” he informed Liane. “By that time we shall have left Caen behind.”

“I understand,” she said coolly; “it will be, then, after Caen.”

“Presumably.”

“Another hour of peace of mind!” She yawned delicately. “I think I am bored by this speed I think I shall have a nap.”

Composedly she arranged pillows, put her pretty feet upon the jewel case and, turning her face from Lanyard, dozed.

“I think,” he reflected, “that the world is more rich in remarkable women than in remarkable men!”

A luminous lilac twilight vied with the street lamps of Caen when the limousine rolled through the city at moderate speed. Lanyard utilized this occasion to confer with Jules through the window.

“Beyond the town,” he said, “you will stop just round the first suitable turning, so that we can’t be seen before the corner is turned. Draw off to the side of the road and I think it would be advisable to have a little engine trouble.”

“Very good, sir,” said Jules without looking round. Then he added in a voice of complete respect: “Pardon, sir, but madame’s orders?”

“If they are not” Lanyard was nettled “she will countermand them.”

“Quite so, sir. And if you don’t mind my asking what’s the idea?”

“I presume you set some value on your skin?”

“Plumb crazy about it.”

“Mademoiselle Delorme and I are afflicted with the same idiosyncrasy. We want to save our lives, and we don’t mind saving yours at the same time.”

“That’s more than fair with me. But is that all I’m to know?”

“If the information is any comfort to you: in a grey car which has been following us ever since we left St. Germain, is the man who I believe murdered Monsieur lé Comte de Lorgnes on the Lyons rapide, and who I know tried last night to murder Mademoiselle Delorme.”

“And I suppose that, in his big-hearted, wholesaler’s way, he wouldn’t mind making a bag of the lot of us tonight.”

“I’m afraid you have reason...”

“If you’re planning to put a crimp in his ambitions, sir, I’ve got a pistol I know how to use.”

“Better have it handy, though I don’t think we’ll need it yet. Our present plan is merely to change cars with Leon and Marthe; the grey car will pass and go on ahead before we make the shift; then you, mademoiselle and I follow in the touring car, the others in the limousine. If there’s a trap, as we have every reason to anticipate there will, the touring car will get through or we’ll hope so.”

“Ah-h!” Jules used the tone of one who perceives enlightenment as a blinding flash. “Marthe and Leon are in on the dirty work too, eh?”

“What makes you think that?”

“Putting two and two together what you’ve just told me with what I’ve been noticing and wondering about.”

“Then you think those two ”

“Marthe and Leon,” Jules pronounced with deliberation, “are two very bad eggs, if you ask me. I shan’t shed a solitary tear if something sad happens to them in this ’bus to-night.”

There was no time then to delve into his reasons for this statement of feeling. The outskirts of Caen were dropping behind. Providentially, the first bend in the road to Bayeux afforded good cover on the side toward the town. Jules shut off the power as he made the turn, and braked to a dead stop in lee of a row of outhouses. Lanyard was on the ground as soon as the wheels ceased to turn, Jules almost as quickly.

“Now for your engine trouble,” Lanyard instructed. “Nothing serious, you understand simply an adjustment to excuse a few minutes’ delay and lend colour to our impatience.”

“Got you the first time,” Jules replied, unlatching and raising one wing of the hood.

Lanyard moved toward the middle of the road and flagged the Delorme touring car as it rounded the turn, a few seconds later, at such speed that Leon was put to it to stop the car fifty yards beyond the limousine. The man jumped down and, followed by the maid, ran back, but before he reached the limousine was obliged to jump aside to escape the grey car which, tooled by a crack racing hand, took the corner on two wheels, then straightened out and tore past in a smother of dust, with its muffler cut out and the exhaust bellowing like a machine-gun.

Lanyard counted four figures, two on the front seat, two in the tonneau. More than this, the headlong speed and the failing light rendered it impossible to see though had the one been less and the other stronger, he could have gained little more information from inspection of those four shapes shrouded in dust coats and masked with goggles.

Watching its rear light dwindle, he fancied that the grey shadow was slowing down; but one could not be sure about that.

“There is something wrong, monsieur?”

The man Leon was at his elbow. Lanyard replied with the curt nod of a disgruntled motorist.

“Something Jules can tell you,” he said shortly.

“Meanwhile, Mademoiselle Delorme and I have decided not to wait. We’ve got no time to spare. We will take your car and go on.”

“But, monsieur, I ” Leon began to expostulate.

The icy accents of Liane Delorme cut it: “Well, Leon: what is your objection?”

“Objection, madame?” the fellow faltered. “Pardon but it is not for me to object. I I was merely startled.”

“Then get over that at once,” he was advised; “and bring my jewelcase Marthe will point it out to you to the touring-car.”

“Yes, madame, immediately.”

“Also the lunch-hamper, if you please.”

“Assuredly, monsieur.”

Leon departed hastily for the limousine, where Marthe joined him, while Lanyard and Liane Delorme proceeded to the touring car.

“But what on earth do you want with that hamper, monsieur?”

“Hush, little sister, not so loud! Brother thinks he has another idea.”

“Then Heaven forbid that I should interfere!”

Staggering under its weight, Leon shouldered the jewelcase and carried it to the touring car, where Liane superintended its disposal in the luggage-jammed tonneau. A second trip, less laborious, brought them the hamper. Liane uttered perfunctory thanks and called to Jules, who was still tinkering at the limousine engine with the aid of an electric torch.

“Come, Jules! Leave Leon to attend to what is required there.”

“Very good, madame.”

Jules strolled over to the touring car and settled down at the wheel. Liane Delorme had the seat beside him.

Lanyard had established himself in a debatable space in the tonneau to which his right was disputed by bags and boxes of every shape, size and description.

“How long, Jules, will Leon need ?”

“Five minutes, madame, if he takes his time about it.”

“Then let us hasten.”

They drew away from the limousine so quickly that in thirty seconds its headlights were all that marked its stand.

Lanyard studied the phosphorescent dial of his wristwatch. From first to last the transaction had consumed little more than three minutes.

Liane slewed round to talk over the back of the seat.

“What time is it, monsieur?”

“Ten after nine. In an hour precisely the moon will rise.”

“It will be in this hour of darkness, then...”

A bend in the road blotted out the stationary lights of the limousine. There was no tail-light visible on the road before them. Lanyard touched Jules on the shoulder.

“Switch off your lights,” he said “all of them. Then find a place where we can turn off and wait till Leon and Marthe pass us.”

In sudden blindness the car moved on slowly, groping its way for a few hundred yards. Then Jules picked out the mouth of a narrow lane, overshadowed by dense foliage, ran past, stopped, and backed into it.

In four minutes by Lanyard’s watch the pulse of the limousine began to beat upon the stillness of that sleepy countryside. A blue-white glare like naked and hungry steel leapt quivering past the bend, swept in a wide arc as the lamps themselves became visible, and lay horizontal with the road as the car bored past.

“Evidently Leon feels quite lost without us,” Lanyard commented. “Shoot, Jules follow his rear lamp, and don’t cut out your muffler. Can you manage without headlights for a while?”

“I drove an ambulance for four years, sir.”

The car swung out into the main highway. Far ahead the red sardonic eye in the rear of the limousine leered as if mocking their hopes of keeping it in sight. Jules, however, proved unresentful; and he was marvellously competent.

“To anybody who’s ever piloted a load of casualties through eighteen inches of mud, dodging shell holes and shells on their way to make new holes, in a black rainstorm at midnight this sort of thing,” Jules announced “a hard, smooth road under a clear sky is simple pie.”

So it may have seemed to him. But to Lanyard and Liane Delorme, hurled along a road they could not see at anywhere from forty to sixty miles an hour, with no manner of guidance other than an elusive tail-lamp which was forever whisking round corners and remaining invisible till Jules found his way round in turn, by instinct or second sight or intuition whatever it was, it proved unfailing it was a nervous time.

And there was half an hour of it...

They were swooping down a long grade with a sharp turn at the bottom, as they knew from the fact that the red eye had just winked out, somewhere on ahead, there sounded a grinding crash, the noise of a stout fabric rent and crushed with the clash and clatter of shivered glass.

“Easy,” Lanyard cautioned “and ready with the lights!”

Both warnings were superfluous. Jules had already disengaged the gears. Gravity carried the car round the curve, slowly, smoothly, silently; under constraint of its brakes it slid to a pause on a steep though brief descent, and hung there like an animal poised to spring, purring softly.

Below, at the foot of the hill, the headlights of another car, standing at some distance and to the right of the road, furnished lurid illumination to the theatre of disaster.

Something, its nature just then mysterious, had apparently caused Leon to lose control of the heavy car, so that it had skidded into a ditch and capsized. Four men, crude shapes of nightmare in enveloping dust-coats and disfiguring goggles, were swarming round the wreck. Two were helping the driver out, two others having their gallantry in performing like service for the maid rewarded by a torrent of vituperative denunciation, half hysterical and wholly infuriated.

By the freedom of her gestures, which was rivalled only by that of her language, the dishevelled, storming figure of Marthe was manifestly uninjured. And in another moment it was seen, as Leon found his feet and limped toward the others, that he had suffered only slight damage at the worst.

Lanyard drew attention to a dark serpentine line that lay like a dead snake upon the lighted surface of the road. Jules grunted in token of comprehension. Liane Delorme breathlessly demanded: “What is it?”

“An old trick,” Lanyard explained: “A wire cable stretched between trees diagonally across the road, about as high as the middle of the windshield. The impetus of the limousine broke it, but not before it had slewed the car off toward the ditch, wrenching the wheel out of the driver’s hands.”

He fondled the pistol which Jules had handed him, slipped the safety catch, and said: “Now before they wake up, Jules give her all she’s got!”

Jules released the brakes and, as the car gathered way, noiselessly slipped the gear shift into the fourth speed and bore heavily on the accelerator. They were making forty miles an hour when they struck the level and thundered past the group.

A glimpse of startled faces, the scream of a man who had strayed incautiously into the roadway and stopped there, apparently petrified by the peril that bore down upon him without lights or any other warning, until one of the forward fenders struck and hurled him aside like a straw and only the night of the open road lay before them. Jules touched the headlight switch and opened the exhaust. Above the roaring of the latter Lanyard fancied he could hear a faint rattling sound. He looked back and smiled grimly. Sharp, short flames of orange and scarlet were stabbing the darkness. Somebody had opened fire with an automatic pistol.... Sheer waste of ammunition!

The pace waxed terrific on a road, like so many roads of France, apparently interminable and straight. On either hand endless ranks of poplars rattled like loose palings of some tremendous picket fence. And yet, long before the road turned, Lanyard, staring astern as he knelt on the rear seat with arms crossed on the folded top, saw the two white eyes of the grey car swing into view and start in pursuit. Quick work, he called it.

He crawled forward and communicated his news, shouting to make himself heard.

“Don’t ease up unless you have to,” he counselled; “don’t think we dare give them an inch.”

Back at his post of observation, he watched, hoping against hope, while the car lunged and tore like a mad thing through the night, snoring up grades, screaming down them, drumming across the levels, clattering wildly through villages and hamlets; while the moon rose and gathered strength and made the road a streaming river of milk and ink; while his heart sank as minute succeeded minute, mile followed mile, and ever the lights of the pursuing car, lost to sight from time to time, reappeared with a brighter, fiercer glow, and conviction forced itself home that they were being gradually but surely overhauled.

He took this intelligence to the ear of Jules. The chauffeur answered only with a worried shake of his head that said too plainly he was doing his best, extracting every ounce of power from the engine.

Ill luck ambushed them in the streets of a sizable town, its name unknown to Lanyard, where another car, driven inexpertly, rolled out of a side street and stalled in their path. The emergency brake saved them a collision; but there were not six inches between the two when the touring car stopped dead; and minutes were lost before the other got under way and they were able to proceed.

Less than three hundred yards separated pursued and pursuer as they raced out through open fields once more. And foot by foot this lead was being inexorably cut down.

In the seat beside the driver of the grey car a man rose and, steadying himself by holding onto the windshield, poured out the contents of an automatic, presumably hoping to puncture the tires of the quarry. A bullet bored a neat hole through the windshield between the heads of Liane Delorme and Jules. The woman slipped down upon the floor and Jules crouched over the wheel. Lanyard fingered his automatic but held its fire against a moment when he could be more sure of his arm.

Instead, he turned to the lunch hamper and opened it. Liane’s provisioning had been ample for a party thrice their number. In the bottom of the basket lay six pint bottles of champagne, four of them unopened. Lanyard took them to the rear seat and found the grey car had drawn up to within fifty yards of its prey. Making a pace better than seventy miles per hour, it would not dare swerve.

The first empty bottle broke to one side, the second squarely between the front wheels. He grasped the first full bottle by the neck and felt that its weight promised more accuracy, but ducked before attempting to throw it as a volley of shots sought to discourage him. At the first lull he rose and cast the bottle with the overhand action employed in grenade throwing. It crashed fairly beneath the nearer forward wheel of the grey car, but without effect, other than to draw another volley in retaliation. This he risked; the emergency had grown too desperate for more paltering; the lead had been abridged to thirty yards; in two minutes more it would be nothing.

The fourth bottle went wild, but the fifth exploded six inches in front of the offside wheel and its jagged fragments ripped out the heart of the tire. On the instant of the accompanying blow-out the grey car shied like a frightened horse and swerved off the road, hurtling headlong into a clump of trees. The subsequent crash was like the detonation of a great bomb. Deep shadows masked that tragedy beneath the trees. Lanyard saw the beam of the headlights lift and drill perpendicularly into the zenith before it was blacked out.

He turned and yelled in the ear of Jules: “Slow down! Take your time! They’ve quit!”

Liane Delorme rose from her cramped position on the floor, and stared incredulously back along the empty, moonlit road.

“What has become of them?”

Lanyard offered a vague gesture."... tried to climb a tree,” he replied wearily, and dropping back on the rear seat began to worry the cork out of the last pint bottle of champagne.

He reckoned he had earned a drink if anybody ever had.