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Ever since the fall of evening, whose clear gloaming had seemed to promise a fair night of moonlight, the skies had been thickening slowly over Paris. While still at the Ambassadeurs Lanyard had noticed that the moon was being blotted out. By midnight its paling disk had become totally eclipsed, the clouds hung low over the city, a dense blanket imprisoning heat which was oppressive even in the open and stifling in the ill-ventilated restaurants.
Now from the shelter of the cafe canopy Lanyard and Athenais Reneaux looked out upon a pave like a river of jet ribboned with gently glowing lights and running between the low banks of sidewalks no less black: both deserted but for a few belated prowlers lurching homeward through the drizzle, and a rank of private cars waiting near the entrance.
The bedizened porter whistled fatuously at a passing taxicab, which though fareless held steadfast to its way, while the driver acknowledged the signal only with jeers and disgraceful gestures, after the manner of his kind. So that Lanyard, remembering how frequently similar experiences had befallen him in pre-War Paris, reflected sadly that the great conflict had, after all, worked little change in human hearts--charitably assuming the bosoms of French taxi-bandits to be so furnished.
Presently, however, the persistent whistle conjured from round a corner a rakish hansom that--like the creature between its shafts and the driver on its lofty box, with his face in full bloom and his bleary eyes, his double-breasted box-coat and high hat of oilcloth--had doubtless been brisk with young ambition in the golden time of the Nineteen-Naughties.
But unmistakably of the vintage of the Nineteen-Twenties was the avarice of the driver. For when he had been given the address of the Athenais' apartment, he announced with vinous truculence that his whim inclined to precisely the opposite direction, gathered up the reins, clucked in peremptory fashion to the nag (which sagely paid no attention to him whatsoever) and consented only to change his mind when promised a fabulous fare.
Even then he grumbled profanely while Lanyard helped Athenais to climb in and took the place by her side.
The rue Pigalle was as dark and still as any street in a deserted village. From its gloomy walls the halting clatter of hoofs struck empty echoes that rang in Lanyard's heart like a refrain from some old song. To that very tune had the gay world gone about its affaires in younger years, when the Lone Wolf was a living fact and not a fading memory in the minds of men...
He sighed heavily.
"Monsieur is sentimental," commented Athenais Reneaux lightly. "Beware! Sentimentalists come always to some sad end."
"One has found that true ... But you are young to know it, Athenais."
"A woman is never young--after a certain age--save when she loves, my friend."
"That, too, is true. But still you are overyoung to have learned it."
"One learns life's lessons not in any fixed and predetermined order, Paul, with no sort of sequence whatever, but as and when Life chooses to teach them."
"Quel dommage!" Lanyard murmured, and subsided into another silence.
The girl grew restive. "But tell me, my dear Don Juan," she protested: "Do all your conquests affect you in this morbid fashion?"
"You seemed to get on very well with Liane Delorme."
"Pardon. If I am sentimental, it is because old memories have been awakened to-night, memories of forfeit days when one thought well of oneself, here in Paris."
"Days in which, no doubt, Liane played a part?"
"A very minor role, Athenais ... But are you doing me the honour to be jealous?"
"Perhaps, petit Monsieur Paul..."
In the broken light of passing lamps her quiet smile was as illegible as her shadowed eyes.
After a moment Lanyard laughed a little, caught up her hand, patted it indulgently, and with gentle decision replaced it in her lap.
"It isn't fair, my dear, to be putting foolish notions into elderly heads merely because you know you can do it. Show a little respect for my grey hairs, of which there are far too many."
"They're most becoming," said Athenais Reneaux demurely. "But tell me about Liane, if it isn't a secret."
"Oh! that was so long ago and such a trifling thing, one wonders at remembering it at all.... I happened, one night, to be where I had no right to be. That was rather a habit of mine, I'm afraid. And so I discovered, in another man's apartment, a young woman, hardly more than a child, trying to commit suicide. You may believe I put a stop to that.... Later, for in those days I had some little influence in certain quarters, I got her place in the chorus at the Varietes. She made up a name for the stage: Liane Delorme. And that is all. You see, it was very simple."
"And she was grateful?"
"Not oppressively. She was quite normal about it all."
"Still, she has not forgotten."
"But remind yourself that the chemistry of years is such that inevitably a sense of obligation in due course turns into a grudge. It is true, Liane has not forgotten, but I am by no means sure she has forgiven me for saving her to life."
"There may be something in that, seeing what she has made of her life."
"Now there is where you can instruct me. I have been long in exile."
"But you know how Liane graduated from the chorus of the Varietes, became first a principal there, then the rage of all the music halls with her way of singing rhymed indecencies."
"One has heard something of that."
"On the peak of her success she retired, saying she had worked long enough, made enough money. That, too, knows itself. But Liane retired only from the stage... You understand?"
"She continued to make many dear friends, some of them among the greatest personages of Europe. So that gradually she became what she is to-day," Athenais Reneaux pronounced soberly: "as I think, the most dangerous woman on the Continent."
"Covetous, grasping, utterly unscrupulous and corrupt, and weirdly powerful. She has a strange influence in the highest places."
"God knows! It was, at all events, strong enough to save her from being shot during the war. I was assigned to watch her then. There was a suspicion in England that she was in communication with the enemy. I found it to be quite true. She knew Bolo Pasha intimately, Caillaux, too. Other women, many of them, fled the country, or went to St. Lazare for the duration of the war, or faced firing squads at dawn for doing infinitely less than she did to betray France and her Allies; but Liane Delorme got off scot-free. I happen to know that England made the strongest representations to the French government about her. I know personally of two young French officers who had been on friendly terms with Liane, and who shot themselves, one dramatically on her very doorstep. And why did they do that, if not in remorse for betraying to her secrets which afterwards somehow found their way to the enemy?... But nothing was ever done about it, she was never in the least molested, and nightly you might see her at Maxim's or L'Abbaye, making love to officers, while at the Front men were being slaughtered by the hundreds, thanks to her treachery.... Ah, monsieur, I tell you I know that woman too well!"
The girl's voice quavered with indignation.
"So that was how you came to know her," Lanyard commented as if he had found nothing else of interest. "I wondered..."
"Yes: we were bosom friends--almost--for a time. It wasn't nice, but the job had to be done. Then Liane grew suspicious, and our friendship cooled. One night I had a narrow escape from some Apaches. I recognised Liane's hand in that. She was afraid I knew something. So I did. But she didn't dream how much I knew. If she had there would have been a second attempt of that sort minus the escape. Then the armistice came to cool our passions, and Liane found other things to think about ... God knows what other mischief to do in time of peace!"
"I think," Lanyard suggested, recalling that conversation in the grand salon of the Chateau de Montalais, "you had better look to yourself, Athenais, as far as Liane is concerned, after to-night. She only needed to see you with me to have confirmed any suspicions she may previously have had concerning your relations with the B. S. S."
"I will remember that," the girl said calmly. "Many thanks, dear friend.... But what is it you are doing all the time? What is it you see?"
As the hansom swung round the dark pile of the Trinite, Lanyard had for the third time twisted round in his seat, to peep back up the rue Pigalle through the little window in the rear.
"As I thought!" He let the leather flap fall over the peep-hole and sat back. "Liane doesn't trust me," he sighed, disconsolate.
"We are followed?"
"By a motor-car of some sort, creeping along without lights, probably one of the private cars that were waiting when we came out."
"I have a pistol, if you need one," Athenais offered, matter-of-fact.
"Then you were more sensible than I."
Lanyard held a thoughtful silence for some minutes, while the cab jogged sedately down the rue St. Lazare, then had another look back through the little window.
"No mistake about that," he reported; and bending forward began to peer intently right and left into the dark throats of several minor streets they passed after leaving the Hotel Terminus behind and heading down the rue de la Pepiniere. "The deuce of it is," he complained, "this inhuman loneliness! If there were only something like a crowd in the streets as there must have been earlier in the evening..."
"What are you thinking of, monsieur?"
"But naturally of ridding you of an embarrassing and perhaps dangerous companion."
"If you mean you're planning to jump down and run for it," Athenais replied, "you're a fool. You'll not get far with a motor car pursuing you and sergents de ville abnormally on the qui vive because the crime wave that followed demobilisation as yet shows no signs of subsiding."
"But, mademoiselle, it makes me so unhappy to have any shadow but my own."
"Then rest tranquil here with me. It isn't much farther to my apartment."
"Possibly it would be better to drop you there first--"
"Nothing of the sort; but positively the contrary."
"My dear child! if I were to do as you wish they would think--"
"My dear Paul, I don't give a damn what they think. Remember I am specially charged with the preservation of your life while in Paris. Besides, my apartment is the most discreet little rez-de-chaussee one could wish. There is more than one way in and out. And once they think you are placed for the night, it's more than likely they won't even set a watch, but will trot off to report. Then you can slip away when you will...." He stared, knowing a moment of doubt to which a hard little laugh put a period.
"Oh, you needn't be so thoughtful of my reputation! If this were the worst that could be said of me--"
Lanyard laughed in turn, quietly tolerant, and squeezed her hand again.
"You are a dear," he said, "but you need to be a far better actress to deceive me about such matters."
"Don't be stupid!" her sulky voice retorted.
He bent forward again, folding his arms on the ledge of the apron, studying the streets and consulting an astonishingly accurate mental map of Paris which more than once had stood him in good stead in other times.
After a little the girl's hand crept along his arm, took possession of his hand and used it as a lever to swing him back to face her.
In the stronger lighting of the Boulevard Haussmann her face seemed oddly childlike, oddly luminous with appeal.
"Please, petit Monsieur Paul! I ask it of you, I wish it.... To please me?"
"O Lord!" Lanyard sighed--"how is one to resist when you plead so prettily to be compromised?"
"Since that's settled"--of a sudden the imploring child was replaced by self-possessed Mademoiselle Athenais Reneaux--"you may have your hand back again. I assure you I have no more use for it."
The hansom turned off the boulevard, affording Lanyard an opportunity to look back through the side window.
"Still on the trail," he announced. "But they've got the lights on now."
With a profound sigh from the heart the horse stopped in front of a corner apartment building and later, with a groan almost human, responded to the whip and jingled the hansom away, leaving Lanyard the poorer by the exorbitant fare he had promised and something more.
Athenais was already at the main entrance, ringing for the concierge. Lanyard hastened to join her, but before he could cross the sidewalk a motor-car poked its nose round the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann, a short block away, and bore swiftly their way, seeming to search the street suspiciously with its blank, lidless eyes of glare.
"Peste!" breathed the girl. "I have a private entrance and my own key. We could have used that had I imagined this sacred pig of a concierge--!"
The latch clicked. She thrust the door open and slipped into dense darkness. Lanyard lingered another instant. The car was slowing down, and the street lamp on the corner revealed plainly a masculine arm resting on its window-sill; but the spying face above the arm was only a blur.
Lanyard stepped in and shut the door. A hand with which he was beginning to feel fairly well acquainted found his and led him through the dead obscurity to another pause. A key grated in a lock, the hand drew him on again, a second door closed behind him.
"We are chez moi," said a voice in the dark.
"One could do with a light."
"Wait. This way."
The hand guided him across a room of moderate size, avoiding its furniture with almost uncanny ease, then again brought him to a halt. Brass rings clashed softly on a pole, a gap opened in heavy draperies curtaining a window, a shaft of street light threw the girl's profile into soft relief. She drew him to her till their shoulders touched.
He bent his head close to hers, conscious of a caressing tendril of hair that touched his cheek, and the sweet warmth and fragrance of her; and peering through the draperies saw their pursuing motor car at pause, not at the curb, but in the middle of the street before the house. The man's arm still rested on the sill of the window; the pale oval of the face above it was still vague. Abruptly both disappeared, a door slammed on the far side of the car, and the car itself, after a moment's wait, gathered way with whining gears and vanished, leaving nothing human visible in the quiet street.
"What did that mean? Did they pick somebody up?"
"But quite otherwise, mademoiselle."
"Then what has become of him?"
"In the shadow of the door across the way: don't you see the deeper shadow of his figure in the corner, to this side. And there ... Ah, dolt!"
The man in the doorway had moved, cautiously thrusting one hand out of the shadow far enough for the street lights to shine upon the dial of his wrist-watch. Instantly it was withdrawn; but his betrayal was accomplished.
"That's enough," said Lanyard, drawing the draperies close again. "No trouble to make a fool of that one, God has so nobly prepared the soil." The girl said nothing. They no longer touched, and she was for the time so still that he might almost have fancied himself alone. But in that quiet room he could hear her breathing close beside him, not heavily but with a rapid accent hinting at an agitation which her voice bore out when she answered his wondering: "Mademoiselle?" "J'y suis, petit Monsieur Paul."
"Is anything the matter?"
"No ... no: there is nothing the matter."
"I'm afraid I have tired you out to-night."
"I do not deny I am a little weary."
"There is nothing to forgive, not yet, petit Monsieur Paul." A trace of hard humour crept into her tone: "It is all in the night's work, as the saying should be in Paris."
"Three favours more; then I will do you one in return."
"Be so kind as to make a light and find me a pocket flash-lamp if you have one."
"I can do the latter without the former. It is better that we show no light; one stray gleam through the curtains would tell too much. Wait."
A noise of light footsteps muffled by a rug, high heels tapping on uncovered floor, the scrape of a drawer pulled out: and she returned to give him a little nickelled electric torch.
"Liane's address, if you know it."
The girl named a number on an avenue not far distant. Lanyard remarked this.
"Yes; you can walk there in less than five minutes. And finally?"
"Show me the way out." Again she made no response. He pursued in some constraint: "Thus you will enable me to make you my only inadequate return--leave you to your rest."
Yet another space of silence; then a gusty little laugh. "That is a great favour, truly, petit Monsieur Paul! So give me your hand once more." But she no longer clung to it as before; the clasp of her fingers was light, cool, impersonal to the point of indifference. Vexed, resentful of her resentment, Lanyard suffered her guidance through the darkness of another room, a short corridor, and then a third room, where she left him for a moment.
He heard again the clash of curtain rings. The dim violet rectangle of a window appeared in the darkness, the figure of the woman in vague silhouette against it. A sash was lifted noiselessly, rain-sweet air breathed into the apartment. Athenais returned to his side, pressed into his palm a key.
"That window opens on a court. The drop from the sill is no more than four feet. In the wall immediately opposite you will find a door. This key opens it. Lock the door behind you, and at your first opportunity throw away the key: I have several copies. You will find yourself in a corridor leading to the entrance of the apartment house in the rear of this, facing on the next street. Demand the cordon of the concierge as if you were a late guest leaving one of the apartments. He will make no difficulty about opening.... I think that is all."
"Not quite. There remains for me to attempt the impossible, to prove my gratitude, Athenais, in mere, unmeaning words."
"Don't try, Paul." The voice was softened once more, its accents broken. "Words cannot serve us, you and me! There is one way only, and that, I know, is ... rue Barre!" Her sad laugh fluttered, she crept into his arms. "But still, petit Monsieur Paul, she will not care if ... only once!"
She clung to him for a long, long moment, then released his lips.
"Men have kissed me, yes, not a few," she whispered, resting her face on his bosom, "but you alone have known my kiss. Go now, my dear, while I have strength to let you go, and ... make me one little promise..."
"Whatever you ask, Athenais...."
"Never come back, unless you need me; for I shall not have so much strength another time."
Alone, she rested a burning forehead against the lifted window-sash, straining her vision to follow his shadow as it moved through the murk of the court below and lost itself in the deeper gloom of the opposing wall.
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