Read CHAPTER XXII - OUT OF SOUNDINGS of Alias The Lone Wolf, free online book, by Louis Joseph Vance, on ReadCentral.com.

When finally Lanyard did consent to seek his stateroom with the pilot dropped and the Sybarite footing it featly over Channel waters to airs piped by a freshening breeze it was to sleep once round the clock and something more; for it was nearly six in the afternoon when he came on deck again.

The quarterdeck, a place of Epicurean ease for idle passengers, was deserted but for a couple of deckhands engaged in furling the awning. Lanyard lounged on the rail, revelling in a sense of perfect physical refreshment intensified by the gracious motion of the vessel, the friendly, rhythmic chant of her engines, the sweeping ocean air and the song it sang in the rigging, the vision of blue seas snow-plumed and mirroring in a myriad facets the red gold of the westering sun, and the lift and dip of a far horizon whose banks of violet mist were the fading shores of France.

In these circumstances of the sea he loved so well there was certain anodyne for those twinges of chagrin which he must suffer when reminded of the sorry figure he had cut overnight.

Still there were compensations of a more material nature, too, than this delight which he had of being once again at sea. To have cheapened himself in the estimation of Liane Delorme and Phinuit and Monk was really to his advantage; for to persuade an adversary to under-estimate one is to make him almost an ally. Also, Lanyard now had no more need to question the fate of the Montalais jewels, no more blank spaces remained to be filled in his hypothetical explanation of the intrigues which had enmeshed the Chateau de Montalais, its lady and his honour.

He knew now all he needed to know, he could put his hand on the jewels when he would; and he had a fair fortnight (the probable duration of their voyage, according to Monk) in which to revolve plans for making away with them at minimum cost to himself in exertion and exposure to reprisals.

Plans? He had none as yet, he would begin to formulate and ponder them only when he had better acquaintance with the ship and her company and had learned more about that ambiguous landfall which she was to make (as Phinuit had put it) “in the dark of the moon.”

Not that he made the mistake of despising those two social malcontents, Phinuit and Jules, that rogue adventurer Monk, that grasping courtesan Liane Delorme.

Individually and collectively Lanyard accounted that quartet uncommonly clever, resourceful, audacious, unscrupulous, and potentially ruthless, utterly callous to compunctions when their interests were jeopardised. But it was inconceivable that he should fail to outwit and frustrate them, who had the love and faith of Eve de Montalais to honour, cherish, and requite.

Growing insight into the idiosyncrasies of the men left him undismayed. He perceived the steel of inflexible purpose beneath the windy egotism of Phinuit. The pompous histrionism of Monk, he knew, was merely a shell for the cold, calculating, undeviating selfishness that too frequently comes with advancing years. Nevertheless these two were factors whose functionings might be predicted.

It was Liane Delorme who provided the erratic equation. Her woman’s mind was not only the directing intelligence, it was as eccentric as quicksilver, infinitely supple and corrupt, Oriental in its trickishness and impenetrability. Already it had conceived some project involving him which he could by no means divine or even guess at without a sense of wasting time.

Trying to put himself in her place, Lanyard believed that he would never have neglected the opportunity that, so far as she knew, had been hers, to steal away from Paris while he slept and leave an enemy in his way quite as dangerous as “Dupont” to gnaw his nails in the mortification of defeat. Why she had not done so, why she had permitted Monk and Phinuit to play their comedy of offering him the jewels, passed understanding.

But of one thing Lanyard felt reasonably assured: now that she had him to all intents and purposes her foiled and harmless captive aboard the Sybarite, Liane would not keep him waiting long for enlightenment as to her intentions.

He had to wait, however, that night and the next three before the woman showed herself. She was reported ill with mal-de-mer. Lanyard thought it quite likely that she was; before she was out of the Channel the Sybarite was contesting a moderate gale from the Southwest. On the other hand, he imagined that Liane might sensibly be making seasickness an excuse to get thoroughly rested and settled in her mind as to her course with him.

So he schooled himself to be patient, and put in his time to good profit taking the measures of his shipmates and learning his way about ship.

The Sybarite seemed unnecessarily large for a pleasure boat. Captain Monk had designated her a ship of nine hundred tons. Certainly she had room and to spare on deck as well as below for the accommodation of many guests in addition to the crew of thirty required for her navigation and their comfort. A good all-weather boat, very steady in a seaway, her lines were nevertheless fine, nothing in her appearance in the least suggested a vessel of commercial character “all yacht” was what Monk called her.

The first mate, a Mr. Swain, was a sturdy Britisher with a very red face and cool blue eyes, not easily impressed; if Lanyard were not in error, Mr. Swain entertained a private opinion of the lot of them, Captain Monk included, decidedly uncomplimentary. But he was a civil sort, though deficient in sense of humour and inclined to be a bit abrupt in a preoccupied fashion.

Mr. Collison, the second mate, was another kind entirely, an American with the drawl of the South in his voice, a dark, slender man with eyes quick and shrewd. His manners were excellent, his reserve notable, though he seemed to derive considerable amusement from what he saw of the passengers, going on his habit of indulging quiet smiles as he listened to their communications. He talked very little and played an excellent game of poker.

The chief engineer was a Mr. Mussey, stout, affable, and cynic, a heavy drinker, untidy about his person and exacting about his engine-room, a veteran of his trade and it was said an ancient croney of Monk’s. There was, at all events, a complete understanding evident between these two, though now and again, especially at table, when Monk was putting on something more than his customary amount of side, Lanyard would observe Mussey’s eyes fixed in contemplation upon his superior officer, with a look in them that wanted reading. He was nobody’s fool, certainly not Monk’s, and at such times Lanyard would have given more than a penny for Mussey’s thoughts.

Existing in daily contact, more or less close, with these gentlemen, observing them as they went to and fro upon their lawful occasions, Lanyard often speculated as to their attitude toward this lawless errand of the Sybarite’s, of which they could hardly be unsuspicious even if they were not intimate with its true nature. And remembering what penalties attach to apprehension in the act of smuggling, even though it be only a few cases of champagne, he thought it a wild risk for them to run for the sake of their daily wage.

Something to this effect he intimated to Phinuit.

“Don’t worry about this lot,” that one replied. “They’re wise birds, tough as they make ’em, ready for anything; hand-picked down to the last coal-passer. The skipper isn’t a man to take fool chances, and when he recruited this crew, he took nobody he couldn’t answer for. They’re more than well paid, and they’ll do as they’re told and keep their traps as tight as clams’.”

“But, I take it, they were signed on before this present voyage was thought of; while you seem to imply that Captain Monk anticipated having to depend upon these good fellows in unlawful enterprises.”

“Maybe he did, at that,” Phinuit promptly surmised, with a bland eye. “I wouldn’t put it past him. The skipper’s deep, and I’ll never tell you what he had in the back of his mind when he let Friend Boss persuade him to take command of a pleasure yacht. Because I don’t know. If it comes to that, the owner himself never confided in me just what the large idea was in buying this ark for a plaything. Yachting for fun is one thing; running a young floating hotel is something else again.”

“Then you don’t believe the grandiose illusions due to sudden wealth were alone responsible?”

“I don’t know. That little man has a mind of his own, and even if I do figure on his payroll as confidential secretary, he doesn’t tell me everything he knows.”

“Still,” said Lanyard drily, “one cannot think you can complain that he has hesitated to repose his trust in you.”

To this Phinuit made no reply other than a non-committal grunt; and presently Lanyard added:

“It is hardly possible eh? that the officers and crew know nothing of what is intended with all the champagne you have recently taken aboard.”

“They’re no fools. They know there’s enough of the stuff on board to do a Cunarder for the next ten years, and they know, too, there’s no lawful way of getting it into the States.”

“So, then! They know that. How much more may they not know?”

Phinuit turned a startled face to him. “What’s that?” he demanded sharply.

“May they not have exercised their wits as well on the subject of your secret project, my friend?”

“What are you getting at?”

“One is wondering what these ‘wise birds, as tough as they make them’ would do if they thought you were as you say getting away with something at their expense as well as the owner’s.”

“What have you seen or heard?”

“Positively nothing. This is merely idle speculation.”

“Well!” Phinuit sighed sibilantly and relaxed. “Let’s hope they never find out.”

By dawn of the fourth day the gale had spent its greatest strength; what was left of it subsided steadily till, as the seafaring phrase has it, the wind went down with the sun. Calm ensued. Lanyard woke up the next morning to view from his stateroom deadlights vistas illimitable of flat blue flawed by hardly a wrinkle; only by watching the horizon was one aware of the slow swell of the sea, its sole perceptible motion. And all day long the Sybarite trudged on an even keel with only the wind of her way to flutter the gay awnings of the quarterdeck, while the waters sheared by her stem ran down her sides hissing resentment of this violation of their absolute tranquillity.

Also, the sun made itself felt, electric fans buzzed everywhere, and perspiring in utter indolence beneath the awnings, one thought in sympathy of those damned souls below, in the hell of the stoke-hole.

At luncheon Liane Delorme appeared in a summery toilette that would have made its mark on the beach of Deauville.

Voluntary or enforced, her period of retreat had done her good. Making every allowance for the aid of art, the woman looked years younger than when Lanyard had last seen her. Nobody would ever have believed her a day older than twenty-five, no one, that is to say, who had not watched youth ebb from her face and leave it grey and waste with premature winter, as Lanyard had that morning when he told her of the death of de Lorgnes in the restaurant of the Buttes Montmartre.

Liane herself had long since put quite out of mind that mauvais quart d’heure. Her present serenity was as flawless as the sea’s, though, unlike the sea, she sparkled. She was as gay as any school-girl though any school-girl guilty, or even capable, of a scintilla of the amusing impropriety of her badinage would have merited and won instant expulsion.

She inaugurated without any delay a campaign of conquest extremely diverting to observe. To Lanyard it seemed that her methods were crude and obvious enough; but it did something toward mitigating the long-drawn boredom of the cruise to watch them work out, as they seemed to invariably, with entire success; and then remark the insouciance with which, another raw scalp dangling from her belt, Liane would address herself to the next victim.

Mr. Swain was the first to fall, mainly because he happened to be present at luncheon, it being Mr. Collison’s watch on the bridge. Under the warmth of violet eyes which sought his constantly, drawn by what one was left to infer was an irresistible attraction, his reserve melted rapidly, his remote blue stare grew infinitely less distant; and though he blushed furiously at some of the more audacious of Liane’s sallies, he was quick to take his cue when she expressed curiosity concerning the duties of the officer of the watch. And coming up at about two bells for a turn round the deck and a few breaths of fresh air before dressing for dinner, Lanyard saw them on the bridge, their heads together over the binnacle to the open disgust of the man at the wheel.

Liane hailed him, with vivacious gestures commanded his attendance. As a brother in good standing, one could hardly do less than humour her gracefully; so Lanyard trotted up to the companion ladder, and Liane, resting a hand of sisterly affection upon his arm, besought him to make clear to her feminine stupidity Swain’s hopelessly technical explanation of the compass and binnacle.

Obligingly Mr. Swain repeated his lecture, and Lanyard, learning for himself with considerable surprise what a highly complicated instrument of precision is the modern compass, and that the binnacle has essential functions entirely aside from supporting the compass and housing it from the weather, could hardly blame his sister for being confused.

Indeed, he grew so interested in Swain’s exposition of deviation and variation and magnetic attraction and the various devices employed to counteract these influences, the Flinders bars, the soft-iron spheres, and the system of adjustable magnets located in the pedestal of the binnacle, that he had to be reminded by a mild exhibition of sisterly temper that she hadn’t summoned him to the bridge for his private edification.

“So then!” he said after due show of contrition “it is like this: the magnetic needle is susceptible to many attractions aside from that of the pole; it is influenced by juxtaposition to other pieces or masses of magnetized metal. The iron ship itself, for example, is one great magnet. Then there are dissociated masses of iron within the ship, each possessing an individual power of magnetism sufficient to drag the needle far from its normal fidelity to the pole. So the scientific mariner, when he installs a compass on board his ship, measures these several forces, their influence upon the needle, and installs others to correct them on the principle of like cures like.

“Let us put it in a figure: The compass is the husband, the pole the wife. Now it is well known that husbands are for all that human beings, able to perceive attractions in persons other than those to whom they are married. The wise wife, then, studies the charms of mind or person which in others appeal to her husband, and makes them her own; or if that is impossible cultivates other qualities quite as potent to distract him. It results from this, that the wise wife becomes, as they say ‘all women to one man.’ Now here the binnacle represents the arts by which that wise wife, the pole, keeps her husband true by surrounding him with charms and qualities these magnets sufficiently powerful to counteract the attractions of others. Do I make myself clear?”

“But perfectly!” Liane nodded emphatically. “What a mind to have in the family!” she appealed to Mr. Swain. “Do you know, monsieur, it happens often to me to wonder how I should have so clever a brother?”

“It is like that with me, too,” Lanyard insisted warmly.

He made an early excuse to get away, having something new to think about.

Mr. Mussey put up a stiffer fight than Mr. Swain, since an avowed cynic is necessarily a Man Who Knows About Women. He gave Liane flatly to understand that he saw through her and couldn’t be taken in by all her blandishments. At the end of twenty-four hours, however, the conviction seemed somehow to have insidiously penetrated that only a man of his ripe wisdom and disillusionment could possibly have any appeal to a woman like Liane Delorme. It wasn’t long after that the engine room was illuminated by Liane’s pretty ankles and Mr. Mussey was beginning to comprehend that there was in this world one woman at least who could take an intelligent interest in machinery.

Mr. Collison succumbed without a struggle. True to the tradition of Southern chivalry, he ambled up to the block, laid his head upon it, and asked for the axe. Nor was he kept long waiting...

On the seventh day the course pricked on the chart placed the Sybarite’s position at noon as approximately in mid-Atlantic. Contemplating a prospect of seven days more of such emptiness, Lanyard’s very soul yawned.

And nothing could induce Captain Monk to hasten the passage. Mr. Mussey asserted that his engines could at a pinch deliver twenty knots an hour; yet day in and day out the Sybarite poked along at little better than half that speed. It was no secret that Liane Delorme’s panic flight from Popinot had hurried the yacht out of Cherbourg harbour four days earlier than her proposed sailing date, whereas the Sybarite had a rendezvous to keep with her owner at a certain hour of a certain night, an appointment carefully calculated with consideration for the phase of the moon and the height of the tide, therefore not readily to be altered.

After dinner on that seventh day, a meal much too long drawn out for Lanyard’s liking, and marked to boot by the consumption of much too much champagne, he left the main saloon the arena of an impromptu poker party, repaired to the quarterdeck, and finding a wicker lounge chair by the taffrail subsided into it with a sigh of gratitude for this fragrant solitude of night, so soothing and serene.

The Sybarite, making easy way through a slight sea, with what wind there was not much on the port bow, rolled but slightly, and her deliberate and graceful fore-and-aft motion, as she swung from crest to crest of the endless head-on swells, caused the stars to stream above her mast-heads, a boundless river of broken light. The pulsing of the engines, unhasting, unresting, ran through her fabric in ceaseless succession of gentle tremors, while the rumble of their revolutions resembled the refrain of an old, quiet song. The mechanism of the patent log hummed and clicked more obtrusively. Directly underfoot the screw churned a softly clashing wake. From the saloon companionway drifted intermittently a confusion of voices, Liane’s light laughter, muted clatter of chips, now and then the sound of a popping cork. Forward the ship’s bell sounded two double strokes, then a single, followed by a wail in minor key: “Five bells and all’s well!” ... And of a sudden Lanyard suffered the melancholy oppression of knowing his littleness of body and soul, the relative insignificance even of the ship, that impertinent atom of human organization which traversed with unabashed effrontery the waters of the ages, beneath the shining constellations of eternity. In profound psychical enervation he perceived with bitterness and despair the enormous futility of all things mortal, the hopelessness of effort, the certain black defeat that waits upon even what men term success.

He felt crushed, spiritually invertebrate, destitute of object in existence, bereft of all hope. What mattered it whether he won or lost in this stupid contest whose prize was possession of a few trinkets set with bits of glittering stone? If he won, of what avail? What could it profit his soul to make good a vain boast to Eve de Montalais? Would it matter to her what success or failure meant to him? Lanyard doubted it, he doubted her, himself, all things within the compass of his understanding, and knew appalling glimpses of that everlasting truth, too passionless to be cynical, that the hopes of man and his fears, his loves and hates, his strivings and passivity, are all one in the measured and immutable processes of Time....

The pressure of a hand upon his own roused him to discover the Liane Delorme had seated herself beside him, in a chair that looked the other way, so that her face was not far from his; and he could scarcely be unaware of its hinted beauty, now wan and glimmering in starlight, enigmatic with soft, close shadows.

“I must have been dreaming,” he said, apologetic. “You startled me.”

“One could see that, my friend.”

The woman spoke in quiet accents and let her hand linger upon his with its insistent reminder of the warm, living presence whose rich colouring was disguised by the gloom that encompassed both.

Four strokes in duplicate on the ship’s bell, then the call: “Eight bells and a-a-all’s well!”

Lanyard muttered: “No idea it was so late.”

A slender white shape, Mr. Collison emerged from his quarters in the deck-house beneath the bridge and ran up the ladder to relieve Mr. Swain. At the same time a seaman came from forward and ascended by the other ladder. Later Mr. Swain and the man whose trick at the wheel was ended left the bridge, the latter to go forward to his rest, Mr. Swain to turn into his room in the deck-house.

The hot glow of the saloon skylights became a dim refulgence, aside from which, and its glimmer in the mouth of the companionway, no lights were visible in the whole length of the ship except the shuttered window of Mr. Swain’s room, which presently was darkened, and odd glimpses of the binnacle light to be had when the helmsman shifted his stand.

A profound hush closed down upon the ship, whose progress across the face of the waters seemed to acquire a new significance of stealth, so that the two seated by the taffrail, above the throbbing screws and rushing torrent of the wake, talked in lowered accents without thinking why.

“It is that one grows bored, eh, cher ami?”

“Perhaps, Liane.”

“Or perhaps that one’s thought are constantly with one’s heart, elsewhere?”

“You think so?”

“At the Chateau de Montalais, conceivably.”

“It amuses you, then, to shoot arrows into the air?”

“But naturally, I seek the reason, when I see you distrait and am conscious of your neglect.”

“I think it is for me to complain of that!”

“How can you say such things?”

“One has seen what one has seen, these last few days. I think you are what that original Phinuit would call ‘a fast worker,’ Liane.”

“What stupidity! If I seek to make myself liked, you know well it is with a purpose.”

“One hardly questions that.”

“You judge harshly ... Michael.”

Lanyard spent a look of astonishment on the darkness. He could not remember that Liane had ever before called him by that name.

“Do I? Sorry....” His tone was listless. “But does it matter?”

“You know that to me nothing else matters.”

Lanyard checked off on his fingers: “Swain, Collison, Mussey. Who next? Why not I, as well as another?”

“Do you imagine for an instant that I class you with such riffraff?”

“Why, if you really want to know what I think, Liane: it seems to me that all men in your sight are much the same, good for one thing only, to be used to serve your ends. And who am I that you should hold me in higher rating than any other man?”

“You should know I do,” the woman breathed, so low he barely caught the words and uttered an involuntary “Pardon?” before he knew he had understood. So that she iterated in a clearer tone of protest: “You should know I do that I do esteem you as something more than other men. Think what I owe to you, Michael; and then consider this, that of all men whom I have known you alone have never asked for love.”

He gave a quiet laugh. “There is too much humility in my heart.”

“No,” she said in a dull voice “but you despise me. Do not deny it!” She shifted impatiently in her chair. “I know what I know. I am no fool, whatever you think of me.... No,” she went on with emotion under restraint: “I am a creature of fatality, me I cannot hope to escape my fate!”

He was silent a little in perplexed consideration of this. What did she wish him to believe?

“But one imagines nobody can escape his fate.”

“Men can, some of them; men such as you, rare as you are, know how to cheat destiny; but women never. It is the fate of all women that each shall some time love some man to desperation, and be despised. It is my fate to have learned too late to love you, Michael ”

“Ah, Liane, Liane!”

“But you hold me in too much contempt to be willing to recognise the truth.”

“On the contrary, I admire you extremely, I think you are an incomparable actress.”

“You see!” She offered a despairing gesture to the stars. “It is not true what I say? I lay bare my heart to him, and he tells me that I act!”

“But my dear girl! surely you do not expect me to think otherwise?”

“I was a fool to expect anything from you,” she returned bitterly “you know too much about me. I cannot find it in my heart to blame you, since I am what I am, what the life you saved me to so long ago has made me. Why should you believe in me? Why should you credit the sincerity of this confession, which costs me so much humiliation? That would be too good for me, too much to ask of life!”

“I think you cannot fairly complain of life, Liane. What have you asked of it that you have failed to get? Success, money, power, adulation ”

“Never love.”

“The world would find it difficult to believe that.”

“Ah, love of a sort, yes: the love that is the desire to possess and that possession satisfies.”

“Have you asked for any other sort?”

“I ask it now. I know what the love is that longs to give, to give and give again, asking no return but kindness, understanding, even toleration merely. It is such love as this I bear you, Michael. But you do not believe....”

Divided between annoyance and distaste, he was silent. And all at once she threw herself half across the joined arms of their chairs, catching his shoulders with her hands, so that her half-clothed body rested on his bosom, and its scented warmth assailed his senses with the seduction whose power she knew so well.

“Ah, Michael, my Michael!” she cried “if you but knew, if only you could believe! It is so real to me, so true, so overwhelming, the greatest thing of all! How can it be otherwise to you?... No: do not think I complain, do not think I blame you or have room in my heart for any resentment. But, oh my dear! were I only able to make you understand, think what life could be to us, to you and me. What could it withhold that we desired? You with your wit, your strength, your skill, your poise I with my great love to inspire and sustain you what a pair we should make! what happiness would be ours! Think, Michael think!”

“I have thought, Liane,” he returned in accents as kind as the hands that held her. “I have thought well...”

“Yes?” She lifted her face so near that their breaths mingled, and he was conscious of the allure of tremulous and parted lips. “You have thought and.... Tell me your thought, my Michael.”

“Why, I think two things,” said Lanyard: “First, that you deserve to be soundly kissed.” He kissed her, but with discretion, and firmly put her from him. “Then” his tone took on a note of earnestness “that if what you have said is true, it is a pity, and I am sorry, Liane, very sorry. And, if it is not true, that the comedy was well played. Shall we let it rest at that, my dear?”

Half lifting her, he helped her back into her chair, and as she turned her face away, struggling for mastery of her emotion, true or feigned, he sat back, found his cigarette case, and clipping a cigarette between his lips, cast about for a match.

He had none in his pockets, but knew that there was a stand on one of the wicker tables nearby. Rising, he found it, and as he struck the light heard a sudden, soft swish of draperies as the woman rose.

Moving toward the saloon companionway, she passed him swiftly, without a word, her head bended, a hand pressing a handkerchief to her lips. Forgetful, he followed her swaying figure with puzzled gaze till admonished by the flame that crept toward his fingertips. Then dropping the match he struck another and put it to his cigarette. At the second puff he heard a choking gasp, and looked up again.

The woman stood alone, en silhouette against the glow of the companionway, her arms thrust out as if to ward off some threatened danger. A second cry broke from her lips, shrill with terror, she tottered and fell as, dropping his cigarette, Lanyard ran to her.

His vision dazzled by the flame of the match, he sought in vain for any cause for her apparent fright. For all he could see, the deck was as empty as he had presumed it to be all through their conversation.

He found her in a faint unmistakably unaffected. Footfalls sounded on the deck as he knelt, making superficial examination. Collison had heard her cries and witnessed her fall from the bridge and was coming to investigate.

“What in blazes !”

Lanyard replied with a gesture of bewilderment: “She was just going below. I’d stopped to light a cigarette, saw nothing to account for this. Wait: I’ll fetch water.”

He darted down the companionway, filled a glass from a silver thermos carafe, and hurried back. As he arrived at the top of steps, Collison announced: “It’s all right. She’s coming to.”

Supported in the arms of the second mate, Liane was beginning to breathe deeply and looking round with dazed eyes. Lanyard dropped on a knee and set the glass to her lips. She gulped twice, mechanically, her gaze fixed to his face. Then suddenly memory cleared, and she uttered a bubbling gasp of returning dread.

“Popinot!” she cried, as Lanyard hastily took the glass away. “Popinot he was there I saw him standing there!”

A trembling arm indicated the starboard deck just forward of the companion housing. But of course, when Lanyard looked, there was no one there ... if there had ever been....