Read CHAPTER XXV - THE MALCONTENT of Alias The Lone Wolf, free online book, by Louis Joseph Vance, on

Singular though the statement may seem, when one remembers the conditions that circumscribed his freedom of action on board the Sybarite, that he stood utterly alone in that company of conspirators and their creatures, alone and unarmed, with never a friend to guard his back or even to whisper him one word of counsel, warning or encouragement, with only his naked wits and hands to fortify and sustain his heart: it is still no exaggeration to say that Lanyard got an extraordinary amount of private diversion out of those last few days.

From the hour when Liane Delorme, Phinuit and Captain Monk, in conclave solemnly assembled at the instance of the one last-named, communicated their collective mind in respect of his interesting self, the man was conscious of implicit confidence in a happy outcome of the business, with a conscientiousness less rational than simply felt, a sort of bubbling exhilaration in his mood that found its most intelligible expression in the phrase, which he was wont often to iterate to himself: Ca va bien that goes well!

That the progressive involution of this insane imbroglio went very well indeed, in Lanyard’s reckoning; he could hardy wish, he could not reasonably demand that it should go better.

He knew now with what design Liane Delorme had made him a party to this sea adventure and intimate with every detail of the conspiracy; and he knew to boot why she had offered him the free gift of her love; doubt as to the one, scruples inspired by the other that reluctance which man cannot but feel to do a hurt to a heart that holds him dear, however scanty his response to its passion could no longer influence him to palter in dealing with the woman. The revelation had in effect stricken shackles from Lanyard’s wrists, now when he struck it would be with neither hesitation nor compunction.

As to that stroke alone, its hour and place and fashion, he remained without decision. He had made a hundred plans for its delivery, and one of them, that seemed the wildest, he thought of seriously, as something really feasible. But single-handed! That made it difficult. If only one could devise some way to be in two places at one time and the same! An impossibility? He wouldn’t deny that. But Lanyard had never been one to be discouraged by the grim, hard face of an impossibility. He had known too many such to dissipate utterly, vanish into empty air, when subjected to a bold and resolute assault. He wouldn’t say die.

Never that while he could lift hand or invent stratagem, never that so long as fools played their game into his hands, as this lot wished to and did. What imbecility! What an escape had been his when, in that time long since, he had made up his mind to have done with crime once and for all time! But for that moment of clear vision and high resolve he might be to-day even as these who had won such clear title to his contempt, who stultified themselves with vain imaginings and the everlasting concoction of schemes whose sheer intrinsic puerility foredoomed them to farcical failure.

Lanyard trod the decks for hours at a time, searching the stars for an answer to the question: What made the Law by whose decree man may garner only punishment and disaster where he has husbanded in iniquity? That Law implacable, inexorable in its ordained and methodic workings, through which invariably it comes to pass that failure and remorse shall canker in the heart even of success ill-gained....

But if he moralized it was with a cheerful countenance, and his sermons were for himself alone. He kept his counsel and spoke all men fairly, giving nowhere any manner of offense: for could he tell in what unlikely guise might wait the instrument he needed wherewith to work out his unfaltering purpose?

And all the while they were watching him and wondering what was in his mind. Well, he gave no sign. Let them watch and wonder to their heart’s content; they must wait until the time he had appointed for the rendering of his decision, when the Sybarite made her landfall.

Winds blew and fell, the sea rose and subsided, the Sybarite trudged on into dull weather. The sky grew overcast; and Lanyard, daily scanning the very heavens for a sign, accepted this for one, and prayed it might hold. Nothing could be more calculated to nullify his efforts than to have the landfall happen on a clear, calm night of stars.

He went to bed, the last night out, leaving a noisy gathering in the saloon, and read himself drowsy. Then turning out his light he slept. Sometime later he found himself instantaneously awake, and alert, with a clear head and every faculty on the qui vive much as a man might grope for a time in a dark strange room, then find a door and step out into broad daylight.

Only there was no light other than in the luminous clarity of his mind. Even the illumination in the saloon had been dimmed down for the night, as he could tell by the tarnished gleam beneath his stateroom door.

Still, not everyone had gone to bed. The very manner of his waking informed him that he was not alone; for the life Lanyard had led had taught him to need no better alarm than the entrance of another person into the place where he lay sleeping. All animals are like that, whose lives hang on their vigilance.

Able to see nothing, he still felt a presence, and knew that it waited, stirless, within arm’s-length of his head. Without much concern, he thought of Popinot, that “phantom Popinot” of Monk’s derisive naming.

Well, if the vision Liane had seen on deck had taken material form here in his stateroom, Lanyard presumed it meant another fight, and the last, to a finish, that is to say, to a death.

Without making a sound, he gathered himself together, ready for a trap, and as noiselessly lifted a hand toward the switch for the electric light, set in the wall near the head of the bed. But in the same breath he heard a whisper, or rather a mutter, a voice he could not place in its present pitch.

“Awake, Monsieur Delorme?” it said. “Hush! Don’t make a row, and never mind the light.”

His astonishment was so overpowering that instinctively his tensed muscles relaxed and his hand fell back upon the bedding.

“Who the deuce ?”

“Not so loud. It’s me Mussey.”

Lanyard echoed witlessly: “Mussey?”

“Yes. I don’t wonder you’re surprised, but if you’ll be easy you’ll understand pretty soon why I had to have a bit of a talk with you without anybody’s catching on.”

“Well,” Lanyard said, “I’m damned!”

“I say!” The subdued mutter took on a note of anxiety. “It’s all right, isn’t it? I mean, you aren’t going to kick up a rumpus and spill the beans? I guess you must think I’ve got a hell of a gall, coming in on you like this, and I don’t know as I blame you, but... Well, time’s getting short, only two more days at sea, and I couldn’t wait any longer for a chance to have a few minutes’ chin with you.”

The mutter ceased and held an expectant pause. Lanyard said nothing. But he was conscious that the speaker occupied a chair by the bed, and knew that he was bending near to catch his answer; for the air was tainted with vinous breath. Yes: one required no stronger identification, it was beyond any doubt the chief engineer of the Sybarite.

“Say it’s all right, won’t you?” the mutter pleaded.

“I am listening,” Lanyard replied “as you perceive.”

“I’ll say it’s decent of you damned decent. Blowed if I’d take it as calm as you, if I waked up to find somebody in my room.”

“I believe,” said Lanyard pointedly, “you stipulated for a few minutes’ chin with me. Time passes, Mr. Mussey. Get to your business, or let me go to sleep again.”

“Sharp, you are,” commented the mutter. “I’ve noticed it in you. You’d be surprised if you knew how much notice I’ve been taking of you.”

“And flattered, I’m sure.”

“Look here...” The mutter stumbled. “I want to ask a personal question. Daresay you’ll think it impertinent.”

“If I do, be sure I shan’t answer it.”

“Well... it’s this: Is or isn’t your right name Lanyard, Michael Lanyard?”

This time it was Lanyard who, thinking rapidly, held the pause so long that his querist’s uneasiness could not contain itself.

“Is that my answer? I mean, does your silence ?”

“That’s an unusual name, Michael Lanyard,” cautiously replied its proprietor. “How did you get hold of it?”

“They say it’s the right name of the Lone Wolf. Guess I don’t have to tell you who the Lone Wolf is.”

“‘They say’? Who, please, are ’they’?”

“Oh, there’s a lot of talk going around the ship. You know how it is, a crew will gossip. And God knows they’ve got enough excuse this cruise.”

This was constructively evasive. Lanyard wondered who had betrayed him. Phinuit? The tongue of that plain-spoken man was hinged in the middle; but one couldn’t feel certain. Liane Delorme had made much of the chief engineer; though she seemed less likely to talk too much than anyone of the ship’s company but Lanyard himself. But then (one remembered of a sudden) Monk and Mussey were by reputation old cronies; it wasn’t inconceivable that Monk might have let something slip...

“And what, Mr. Mussey, if I should admit I am Michael Lanyard?”

“Then I’ll have something to say to you, something I think’ll interest you.”

“Why not run the risk of interesting me, whoever I may be?”

Mussey breathed heavily in the stillness: the breathing of a cautious man loath to commit himself.

“No,” he said at length, in the clearest enunciation he had thus far used. “No. If you’re not Lanyard, I’d rather say nothing more I’ll just ask you to pardon me for intruding and clear out.”

“But you say there is some gossip. And where there is smoke, there must be fire. It would seem safe to assume I am the man gossip says I am.”

“Michael Lanyard?” the mutter persisted “the Lone Wolf?”

“Yes, yes! What then?”

“I suppose the best way’s to put it to you straight...”

“I warn you, you’ll gain nothing if you don’t.”

“Then... to begin at the beginning... I’ve known Whit Monk a good long time. Years I’ve known him. We’ve sailed together off and on ever since we took to the sea; we’ve gone through some nasty scrapes together, and done things that don’t bear telling, and always shared the thick and the thin of everything. Before this, if anybody had ever told me Whit Monk would do a pal dirt, I’d’ve punched his head and thought no more about it. But now...”

The mutter faltered. Lanyard preserved a sympathetic silence a silence, at least, which he hoped would pass as sympathetic. In reality, he was struggling to suppress any betrayal of the exultation that was beginning to take hold of him. Premature this might prove to be, but it seemed impossible to misunderstand the emotion under which the chief engineer was labouring or to underestimate its potential value to Lanyard. Surely it would seem that his faith in his star had been well-placed: was it not now or all signs failed delivering into his hand the forged tool he had so desperately needed, for which he had so earnestly prayed?

A heavy sigh issued upon the stillness, freighted with a deep and desolating melancholy. For, it appeared, like all cynics, Mr. Mussey was a sentimentalist at heart. And in the darkness that disembodied voice took up its tale anew.

“I don’t have to tell you what’s going on between Whit and that lot he’s so thick with nowadays. You know, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“Isn’t that conclusion what you Americans would call a little previous?”

“Previous?” The mutter took a moment to con the full significance of that adjective. “No: I wouldn’t call it that. You see, on a voyage like this well, talk goes on, things get about, things are said aloud that shouldn’t be and get overheard and passed along; and the man who sits back and listens and sifts what he hears is pretty likely to get a tolerably good line on what’s what. Of course there’s never been any secret about what the owner means to do with all this wine he’s shipped. We all know we’re playing a risky game, but we’re for the owner he isn’t a bad sort, when you get to know him and we’ll go through with it and take what’s coming to us win or lose. Partly, of course, because it’ll mean something handsome for every man if we make it without getting caught. But if you want to know what I think... I’ll tell you something...”

“But truly I am all attention.”

“I think Whit Monk and Phinuit and mam’selle have framed the owner between them.”

“Can’t say I quite follow...”

“I think they cooked up this smuggling business and kidded him into it just to get the use of his yacht for their own purposes and at the same time get him where he can’t put up a howl if he finds out the truth. Suppose he does...” The mutter became momentarily a deep-throated chuckle of malice. “He’s in so deep on the booze smuggling side he dassent say a word, and that puts him in worse yet, makes him accessory before the fact of criminal practices that’d made his hair stand on end. Then, suppose they want to go on with the game, looting in Europe and sneaking the goods into America with the use of his yacht: what’s he going to say, how’s he going to stop them?”

Accepting these questions as purely rhetorical, Lanyard offered no comment. After a moment the mutter resumed:

“Well, what do you think? Am I right or am I wrong?”

“Who knows, Mr. Mussey? One can only say, you seem to know something.”

“I’ll say I know something! A sight more than Whit Monk dreams I know as he’ll find out to his sorrow before he’s finished with Tom Mussey.”

“But” obliquely Lanyard struck again at the heart of the mystery which he found so baffling “you seem so well satisfied with the bona fides of your informant?”

There was a sound of stertorous breathing as the intelligence behind the mutter grappled with this utterance. Then, as if the hint had proved too fine “I’m playing my hand face up with you, Mr. Lanyard. I guess you can tell I know what I’m talking about.”

“But what I cannot see is why you should talk about it to me, monsieur.”

“Why, because I and you are both in the same boat, in a manner of speaking. We’re both on the outside shut out looking in.”

In a sort of mental aside, Lanyard reflected that mixed bathing for metaphors was apparently countenanced under the code of cynics.

“Does one gather that you feel aggrieved with Captain Monk for not making you a partner in his new associations?”

“For trying to put one over on me, an old pal... stood by him through thick and thin... would’ve gone through fire for Whit Monk, and in my way I have, many’s the time. And now he hooks up with Phinuit and this Delorme woman, and leaves me to shuffle my feet on the doormat... and thinks I’ll let him get away with it.”

The voice in the dark gave a grunt of infinite contempt: “Like hell...”

“I understand your feelings, monsieur; and I ask you to believe in my sympathy. But you said if I remember that we were in the same boat, you and I; whereas I assure you Captain Monk has not abused my friendship, since he has never had it.”

“I know that well enough,” said the mutter. “I don’t mean you’ve got my reasons for feeling sore; but I do mean you’ve got reason enough of your own ”

“On what grounds do you say that?”

Another deliberate pause prefaced the reply: “You said a while ago I knew something. Well you said it. I and you’ve both been frozen out of this deal and we’re both meaning to take a hand whether they like it or not. If that don’t put us in the same boat I don’t know...”

Perceiving he would get no more satisfaction, Lanyard schooled himself to be politic for the time being.

“Say it is so, then... But I think you have something to propose.”

“It’s simple enough: When two people find themselves in the same boat they’ve got to pull together if they want to get anywhere.”

“You propose, then, an alliance?”

“That’s the answer. Without you I can’t do anything but kick over the applecart for Whit Monk; and that sort of revenge is mighty unsatisfactory. Without me well: what can you do? I know you can get that tin safe of Whit’s open, when you feel like it, get the jewels and all; but what show do you stand to get away with them? That is, unless you’ve got somebody working in with you on board the ship. See here...”

The mutter sank into a husky whisper, and in order to be heard the speaker bent so low over Lanyard that fumes of whiskey almost suffocated the poor man in his bed.

“You’ve got a head, you’ve had experience, you know how... Well, go to it: make your plans, consult with me, get everything fixed, lift the loot; I’ll stand by, fix up everything so’s your work will go through slick, see that you don’t get hurt, stow the jewels where they won’t be found; and when it’s all over, we’ll split fifty-fifty. What d’you say?”

“Extremely ingenious, monsieur, but unfortunately impracticable.”

“That’s the last thing,” stated the disappointed whisper, “I ever thought a man like you would say.”

“But it is obvious. We do not know each other.”

“You mean, you can’t trust me?”

“For that matter: how can you be sure you can trust me?”

“Oh, I guess I can size up a square guy when I see him.”

“Many thanks. But why should I trust you, when you will not even be quite frank with me?”

“How’s that? Haven’t I ”

“One moment: you refuse to name the source of your astonishingly detailed information concerning this affair myself included. You wish me to believe you simply assume I am at odds with Captain Monk and his friends. I admit it is true. But how should you know it? Ah, no, my friend! either you will tell me how you learned this secret, or I must beg you to let me get my sleep.”

“That’s easy. I heard Whit and Phinuit talking about you the other night, on deck, when they didn’t think anybody was listening.”

Lanyard smiled into the darkness: no need to fret about fair play toward this one! The truth was not in him, and by the same token the traditional honour that obtains among thieves could not be.

He said, as if content, in the manner of a practical man dismissing all immaterial considerations:

“As you say, the time is brief...”

“It’ll have to be pulled off to-morrow night or not at all,” the mutter urged with an eager accent.

“My thought, precisely. For then we come to land, do we not?”

“Yes, and it’ll have to be not long after dark. We ought to drop the hook at midnight. Then” the mutter was broken with hopeful anxiety “then you’ve decided you’ll stand in with me, Mr. Lanyard?”

“But of course! What else can one do? As you have so fairly pointed out: what is either of us without the other?”

“And it’s understood: you’re to lift the stuff, I’m to take care of it till we can slip ashore, we’re to make our getaway together and the split’s to be fifty-fifty, fair and square?”

“I ask nothing better.”

“Where’s your hand?”

Two hands found each other blindly and exchanged a firm and inspiring clasp while Lanyard gave thanks for the night that saved his face from betraying his mind.

Another deep sigh sounded a note of apprehensions at an end. A gruff chuckle followed.

“Whit Monk! He’ll learn something about the way to treat old friends.” And all at once the mutter merged into a vindictive hiss: “Him with his airs and graces, his fine clothes and greasy manners, putting on the lah-de-dah over them that’s stood by him when he hadn’t a red and was glad to cadge drinks off spiggoties in hells like the Colonel’s at Colon him!”

But Lanyard had been listening only with his ears; he hadn’t the slightest interest in Mr. Mussey’s resentment of the affectations of Captain Monk. For now his mad scheme had suddenly assumed a complexion of comparative simplicity; given the co-operation of the chief engineer, all Lanyard would need to contribute would be a little headwork, a little physical exertion, a little daring and complete indifference, which was both well warranted and already his, to abusing the confidence of Mr. Mussey.

“But about this affair to-morrow night,” he interrupted impatiently: “attend to me a little, if you please, my friend. Can you give me any idea where we are, or will, approximately, at midnight to-night?”

“What’s that go to do ?”

“Perhaps I ask only for my own information. But it may be that I have a plan. If we are to work together harmoniously, Mr. Mussey, you must learn to have a little confidence in me.”

“Beg your pardon,” said an humble mutter. “We ought to be somewhere off Nantucket Shoals Lightship.”

“And the weather: have you sufficient acquaintance with these latitudes to foretell it, even roughly?”

“Born and brought up in Edgartown, made my first voyage on a tramp out of New Bedford: guess I know something about the weather in these latitudes! The wind’s been hauling round from sou’west to south all day. If it goes on to sou’east, it’ll likely be thick to-morrow, with little wind, no sea to speak of, and either rain or fog.”

“So! Now to do what I will have to do, I must have ten minutes of absolute darkness. Can that be arranged?”

“Absolute darkness?” The mutter had a rising inflexion of dubiety. “How d’you mean?”

“Complete extinguishing of every light on the ship.”

“My God!” the mutter protested. “Do you know what that means? No lights at night, under way, in main-travelled waters! Why, by nightfall we ought to be off Block Island, in traffic as heavy as on Fifth Avenue! No: that’s too much.”

“Too bad,” Lanyard uttered, philosophic. “And the thing could have been done.”

“Isn’t there some other way?”

“Not with lights to hamper my operations. But if some temporary accident were to put the dynamoes out of commission figure to yourself what would happen.”

“There’d be hell to pay.”

“Ah! but what else?”

“The engines would have to be slowed down so as to give no more than steerage-way until oil lamps could be substituted for the binnacle, masthead, and side-lights, also for the engine room.”

“And there would be excitement and confusion, eh? Everybody would make for the deck, even the captain would leave his cabin unguarded long enough...”

“I get you” with a sigh. “It’s wrong, all wrong, but well, I suppose it’s got to be done.”

Lanyard treated himself to a smile of triumph, there in the darkness.