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Under a sky whose misty silver pulsed with waves of violet light and dim glimmerings of gold, Lanyard, grey with the dust and weariness of twenty leagues of heavy walking, trudged into the sleeping streets of the town of Tournemire.
In the railway station--whose buvette served him such listless refreshment as one may find at railway lunch-counters and nowhere else the world over--a train was waiting with an apathetic crew and a sprinkling of sleepy passengers, for the most part farm and village folk of the department. There was nowhere in evidence any figure resembling that of an agent de police.
Lanyard made enquiry, found that the train was destined for Le Vigan, on the eastern slope of the Cevennes, and purchased a ticket for that point.
Making himself as comfortable as might be in a depressingly third-rate second-class compartment (there was no first class, and the third was far too richly flavoured for his stomach) he cultivated a doze as the train pulled out. But, driven as provincial trains habitually are, in a high spirit of devil-may-care, its first stop woke him up with a series of savage, back-breaking jolts which were translated into jerks when it started on again and fiendishly reiterated at every suspicion of a way-station on the course. So that he presently abandoned all hope of sleep and sought solace in tobacco and the shifting views afforded by the windows. Penetrating the upper valley of the Cernon, the railroad skirted the southern boundary of the Causse Larzac, then laboriously climbed up to the plateau itself; and Lanyard roused to the fact that he was approaching familiar ground from a new angle: the next stop would be Combe-Redonde.
The day was still in its infancy when that halt was made. Aside from the station agent, not a soul waited upon the platform. But one or two passengers were set down and, as the engine began to snort anew, a man darted from behind the tiny structure that housed ticket-office and waiting-room, galloped heavily across the platform, and with nothing to spare threw himself into the compartment immediately behind that wherein Lanyard sat alone.
This manoeuvre was performed so briskly and unexpectedly that Lanyard caught barely a glimpse of the fellow; but one glimpse was enough to convince him he had been wrong in assuming that Monsieur Albert Dupont had sneaked back to Paris to hide from the authorities after failing to assassinate Andre Duchemin more than three weeks ago.
But why--assuming one were not misled by a chance likeness to that heavy but athletic figure so well-remembered--why had Dupont lingered so long in the neighbourhood, in hourly peril of arrest? And why this sudden departure in the chill break of dawn, a move so timed and executed that it wore every sign of haste and fear?
No reasonable explanation offered in solution of either of these riddles; unless, indeed, it were reasonable to believe that lust for vengeance was the ruling passion in the Dupont nature, that the creature had hung about the chateau in hope of getting another chance at Duchemin, and had decided to give it up only on discovering --inexplicably, at this hour--that the latter had stolen away under cover of night. But Lanyard didn't believe that. Neither did he believe that Dupont had had any hand in the robbery of night before last, and was now in tardy flight. In truth, he didn't know what to think, and the wildest flights of an imagination provoked by this mystery were tame and timid in contrast with the truth as he was later to learn it.
To an amateur in sensations there was true piquancy in the thought that one was travelling in company with a thug who had already had two tries for one's life and would not hesitate to essay a third; in the same coach, separated only by the thin partition between the compartments, safe only in the thug's unconsciousness of one's proximity! And this without the privilege of denouncing the man to the police; for to do so now would be to enmesh in the toils of the law not only Albert Dupont, would-be assassin, but Andre Duchemin, charged with stealing the Montalais jewels.
Lanyard would have given something for a peep-hole in the partition, to be able to study the countenance of Dupont unaware that he was under scrutiny. But he had to content himself with keeping vigil at the windows, making sure that Dupont did not drop off at some one of those many way-stations which the train was so scrupulous never to slight.
Monsieur Dupont, however, did not budge a foot out of his compartment before the end of the run; and then Lanyard, purposely delaying, saw Dupont get down from the compartment astern and make for the booking-office at Le Vigan without a glance to right or left--evidencing not the remotest interest in his late company on the train, but rather a complete indifference, an absolute assurance that he had nothing now to fear, and with this a preoccupation of mind so thoroughgoing that Lanyard was able to edge up behind him, when he paused at the guichet, and eavesdrop on his consultation with the clerk of the ticket bureau.
Dupont desired ardently to proceed to Lyons with the least avoidable delay. Under such conditions, according to the Indicateur des Chemins de Fer, his best available route was via Nimes, where the next express from Le Vigan made close connection with a northbound train rapide, due to arrive in Lyons late in the afternoon.
There was, however, this drawback; or so the clerk declared after a dubious summing up of the disreputable Dupont ensemble: whereas one might travel any class as far as Nimes, the rapide for Lyons carried only passengers of the first class.
But, said Dupont, with other blasphemy, all the world knew that the sacred rapides had no sacred accommodations for sacred passengers of the second and third class. Was he not the peer of any sacred first-class pig that ever travelled by train in France? If not, he proved the contrary to his own satisfaction by paying for his ticket from an imposing accumulation of French bank-notes.
Then, with half an hour to wait, he lumbered into the buvette and gorged, while Lanyard--having secured his own transportation for Lyons by the some route--skulked in the offing and kept a close eye on the gourmand.
Having eaten ferociously, Dupont came out, slouched into a seat on a bench and, his thick limbs a-sprawl, consumed cigarette after cigarette in most absolute abstraction of mind.
Observed thus, off his guard and at tolerably close range, with his face clean of soot, he projected a personality so forbidding that Lanyard marvelled at the guilelessness which must have influenced the ladies of Chateau de Montalais to accept the man at his own valuation and give him a place in their household.
The face of fat features was of porcine cast; the forehead low and slanted sharply back into bristles of black hair, the snout long and blunt, the lips flabby, the chin retreating, the jowls pendulous; the eyes a pig's, little, cunning, and predaceous; the complexion sallow and pimply from unholy living, with an incongruous over-layer of sunburn. A type to inspire distrust, one would think, at sight; a nature as repellant as a snake's, and ten times as deadly; in every line and lineament, in every move and gesture, an Apache of the Apaches...
As for the baleful reflections with which Dupont was patently concerned to the exclusion of all considerations of either surveillance or environment, Lanyard found himself so inquisitive that he had never a thought but to follow and study the fellow till he surprised his secret, if possible--at least so long as it might seem safe to do so.
Moreover, nothing could have suited his own purpose better than to proceed to Paris by way of Lyons.
Nothing hindered the carrying out of his design. Still lost in thought and inattentive, Dupont entrained for Nimes and at that station changed to the rapide for Lyons, where duly at four o'clock--with Lanyard still a discreet shadow--he alighted in the Gare de Perrache.
Here again fortune favoured the voluntary sleuth. The station was well thronged, a circumstance which enabled him to keep inconspicuously close to his victim. Furthermore, Dupont was obviously looking for somebody, and so distracted. Presently a shabby, furtive little rat of a man nudged his elbow, and Dupont followed him to a corner, where they confabulated in undertones for many minutes; while Lanyard loitered just outside their normal range of vision. An unnecessary precaution: they were unafraid of observation, interested only in their private concerns. The little man did most of the talking; Dupont seeming content with a listening role, and gratified by what he heard. He nodded frequently, and once or twice a grim smile enhanced the ugliness of his mouth, a smile terrible in its contained savagery, fit to make one's blood run cold, that cruelly relished in anticipation the success of some evil scheme.
Not to be able to hear a word was exasperating to a degree....
The smaller villain produced something--a slip of paper--from a waistcoat pocket, and handed it to Dupont, who examined it with disfavour, shaking his head repeatedly to the other's recommendations. Of a sudden he ended the argument by thrusting the slip back into the hands of the jackal, growled a few words of imperative instruction, jerked his thumb toward the ticket bureau, and without more ado turned and strode from the terminus.
Alone, the little man rolled appealing eyes heavenward. Then he shrugged in resignation, and trotted over to the guichet. Lanyard, now with no fear of being recognised, ranged alongside and listened openly.
It seemed that, booked for Paris on the rapide to leave at one-twelve in the morning, this lesser rascal had been assigned a certain sleeping-car berth. Business of displaying the ticket: identified by Lanyard as the object over which the conference had split. Now, however, it appeared that a friend was to journey to Paris by the same train, but in another sleeping-car. It was greatly desired by both that they be separated no farther than necessity might dictate, that this reservation might be exchanged for another in the same carriage with the friend.
Thus far without interruption from the clerk of the ticket bureau. But here ensued inevitably the violent French altercation between the two human beings on either side of the guichet. Then, as suddenly as it had arisen, the squall blew over, an amicable settlement was arrived at, the exchange of reservation was effected, the small scoundrel, with ten thousand thanks and profuse assurances of deathless esteem, departed grinning.
Lanyard secured the rejected berth and went about his business profoundly mystified, but not downhearted. Beyond shadow of fair doubt Dupont was up to some new devilment, but Lanyard would be surprised if its nature failed to develop on the train or at latest upon its arrival in Paris the next morning. For the present he was weary of the sight of the fat Apache, glad to believe he had seen the last of him for some hours; he had much to do on his own part, nothing less in fact than utterly to obliterate from human ken the personality of Andre Duchemin.
This affair involved several purchases; for he was travelling light indeed, having left even his rucksack at the Chateau de Montalais. Nevertheless it was no later than seven in the evening when he left a room which he had engaged in a hotel so pretentious and heavily patronised that he was lost in its ebb and flow of life, an inconsiderable and unconsidered bit of flotsam--and left it a changed man.
The pointed beard of Monsieur Duchemin was no more; and a little stain, artfully applied, had toned the newly exposed flesh to match the tan of the rest. The rough tweed walking-suit had been replaced by a modest and commonplace blue serge, the cap and heavy brown boots by a straw boater and plain black shoes, the loose-throated flannel shirt by one of plain linen with stiff cuffs and a fold collar and neat foulard tie. So easily was Madame de Sevenie's buccaneer metamorphosed into the semblance of a Government clerk!
But this was by no means all. The papers of Andre Duchemin were crisp black ashes in the fireplace of the room which Lanyard had just quitted, all but the letter of credit; and this last was enclosed in an envelope, to be sent to London by registered post with a covering note to request that the unpaid balance be forwarded in French bank-notes to Monsieur Paul Martin, poste restante, Paris; Paul Martin being the name which appeared on an entirely new set of papers of identification which Lanyard had thoughtfully secreted in the lining of the tweed coat before leaving London.
If Lanyard wanted better testimony than that supplied by his bedroom mirror to the thoroughness of the transformation in his looks, he had it unsought, and that twice within an hour.
The first time was when, leaving the hotel to seek the post office and despatch his letter to London, he found himself suddenly face to face with Dupont, who was seated at a cafe table near the hotel entrance and narrowly scrutinising all who passed in and out; covering this occupation with affected interest in the gossip of his companion, the little rat man of the Gare de Perrache.
At this rencontre Lanyard knew a momentary shock of doubt; perhaps he hadn't been so clever as he had thought himself in trailing Dupont all the way from Combe-Re-donde to Lyons. But the beady little eyes of a pig comprehended him in a glance, and rejected him as of positively no interest to Albert Dupont, a complete stranger and a cheap one at that. So he fared serenely on his way, and Dupont gave him never another thought.
Returning, Lanyard was favoured with even less attention; an error in judgment which enabled him to remark that Dupont was in an ugly temper, sullen and snappy, it might be because of a disappointment of some sort, possibly in consequence of the liberal potations indicated by the tall stack of little saucers at his elbow. As for the lesser villain, he was already silly with drink.
One would have been glad of a chance to eavesdrop again upon those two; but there was no vacant place within earshot of their table. Besides Lanyard wanted his dinner. So he re-entered the hotel and sought its restaurant, where the untiring Long Arm of Coincidence took him by the hand and led him to a table immediately adjoining one occupied exclusively by Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes.
And this one in turn looked Lanyard up and down but, detecting in him not the remotest flavour of reminiscence, returned divided attention to a soup and the door of the restaurant, which he was watching just as closely and impatiently as Dupont, outside, was watching the main entrance, and apparently with as little reward for his pains.
But now, Lanyard told himself, one knew what had dragged Dupont in such hot haste to Lyons. Somehow word had reached him, probably by telegraph, that monsieur le comte was waiting there to keep a rendezvous. And if you asked him, Lanyard would confess his firm conviction that the other party to the rendezvous would prove to be the person (or persons) who had effected the burglary at Chateau de Montalais.
So he settled to keep an eye on monsieur le comte, and promised himself an interesting evening.
But as time passed it became evident that there had been a hitch somewhere; de Lorgnes was only human, he couldn't rendezvous all by himself alone, and nobody turned up to help him out. He was fretting when Lanyard first saw him; before his dinner was half served his nerve was giving way. Continually his distracted gaze sought the door only to turn back in disappointment to his plate. Everlastingly he consulted his watch. His appetite failed, the hand that too often carried a glass to his lips shook so that drops of wine spattered the cloth like blood; he could not even keep a cigarette alive, but burned more matches than tobacco. A heavy sweat bedewed his forehead; the ruddy colour of that plump countenance grew sadly faded, the good-natured features drawn and pinched with worry. By nine o'clock the man was hag-ridden by fear of the unknown, by terror of learning what fault had developed in the calculations of his confreres.
Efforts to fix his mind on an evening newspaper failed miserably. And this was not for lack of interest in the news it published to the citizens of Lyons. For Lanyard had a copy of the same sheet, and knew that Eve had loyally kept her promise; a brief despatch from Millau told of the simultaneous disappearance of one Andre Duchemin and the jewels of Madame de Montalais, and added that the police were already active in the case.
At length, unable longer to endure the growing tension of anxiety and keep up a pretence of eating, de Lorgnes called for his addition and fled the restaurant. Lanyard finished his own meal in haste, and arrived in the foyer of the hotel in time to see de Lorgnes settle his account at the bureau and hear him instruct a porter to have his luggage ready for the one-twelve rapide for Paris. In the meantime, anybody who might enquire for Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes should be directed to seek him in the cafe.
Thither Lanyard dutifully repaired; and wasted the rest of that evening, which he had thought would prove so amusing, watching Dupont and company watch de Lorgnes, to whom Dupont's barely dissembled interest plainly meant nothing at all, but whose mental anguish grew to be all but unbearable. Nor did the quantities of veeskysoda consumed by the unhappy nobleman help him bear it, though undoubtedly he assured himself it did. By midnight he was more than half-fuddled and wholly in despair. Half an hour later he finished his eighth veeskysoda and wove an unsteady but most dignified way back to the foyer of the hotel.
Immediately Dupont and his fellow, both markedly the worse for wear, paid and left the cafe.
Lanyard returned to his room to get a new-bought travelling bag, and started for the train afoot, a neat brown paper parcel under one arm. On the way he made occasion to cross the Saone by one of its dozen bridges, and paused in the middle of the span to meditate upon the witchery of the night. When he moved on the brown paper parcel was bearing merrily downstream the mortal remains of Andre Duchemin, that is to say his discarded clothing.
In the Gare de Perrache Lanyard witnessed an affecting farewell scene between the little man and Dupont. Not much to his surprise he discovered that the former was not travelling to Paris that night, after all; it was on Dupont's account alone that he had taken so much trouble to secure the change of reservation.
And when Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes had wavered through the gateway in tow of a luggage-laden porter; and Dupont had torn himself away from his fond familiar and lurched after the count; and Lanyard, after a little wait, had followed in turn: he was able to see for himself that Dupont had contrived to be berthed in the same carriage with de Lorgnes; proving that he did not mean to let the count out of sight, day or night.
Well weary, Lanyard proceeded to his own compartment, in the car ahead, and turned in. A busy day, and not altogether unprofitable; whatever expectations had been thwarted in this mild outcome, one had learned much; and to-morrow one would resume the chase anew and, one rather fancied, learn a deal more.
But he was not of those who sleep well on trains. In spite of his extreme fatigue he woke up every time the rapide stopped. He was awake at Dijon, at four in the morning, and again at Laroche, about a quarter after six. There, peering out of the window to identify the station, he was startled to see the broad, round-shouldered back of Albert Dupont making away across the rails--leaving the train!
It was not feasible to dress and pursue, even had it been wise. And Lanyard was vexed. Dupont, he felt, was hardly playing fair, after giving one every reason to believe he meant to go through to Paris. And what under heaven did the brute think to accomplish in Laroche? Was he still after the Comte de Lorgnes? Then the latter must likewise have fled the train! Or else ...
Something sinister in the slant of the Dupont shoulders, as he vanished, something indescribably evil in his furtive yet heavy tread of a beast of prey, struck a thrill of horror into the mind of Lanyard. He shuddered, and warned himself he must learn to hold his imagination in better check.
The newspapers of Paris, that day, had a sensation that crushed into insignificance the news from Chateau de Montalais: in a compartment which he had occupied alone on the night rapide from Lyons, a man had been found with his throat cut, his clothing ripped to rags, even his luggage slashed to ribbons.
Whether through chance or intention, every possible clue to the victim's identity was missing.
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