XXI. Soundings




With characteristic abruptness Liane Delorme announced that she was sleepy, it had been for her a most fatiguing day. Captain Monk rang for the stewardess and gallantly escorted the lady to her door. Lanyard got up with Phinuit to bow her out, but instead of following her suit helped himself to a long whiskey and soda, with loving deliberation selected, trimmed and lighted a cigar, and settled down into his chair as one prepared to make a night of it.

"You never sleep, no?" Phinuit enquired in a spirit of civil solicitude.

"Desolated if I discommode you, monsieur," Lanyard replied with entire amiability--"but not to-night, not at least until I know those jewels have no more chance to go ashore without me."

He tasted his drink with open relish. "Prime Scotch," he judged. "One grows momentarily more reconciled to the prospect of a long voyage."

"Make the most of it," Phinuit counselled. "Remember our next port of call is the Great American Desert. After all, the despised camel seems to have had the right idea all along."

He gaped enormously behind a superstitious hand. Monk, returning, published an elaborate if silent superciliary comment on the tableau.

"He has no faith at all in our good intentions," Phinuit explained, eyeing Lanyard with mild reproach. "It's most discouraging."

"Monsieur suffers from insomnia?" Monk asked in his turn.

"Under certain circumstances."

"Ever take anything for it?"

"To-night it would require nothing less than possession of the Montalais jewels to put me to sleep."

"Well, if you manage to lay hands on them without our consent," Phinuit promised genially, "you'll be put to sleep all right."

"But don't let me keep you up, messieurs."

Captain Monk consulted the chronometer. "It's not worth while turning in," he said: "we sail soon after day-break."

"Far be it from me to play the giddy crab, then." Phinuit busied himself with the decanter, glasses and siphon. "Let's make it a regular party; we'll have all to-morrow to sleep it off in. If I try to hop on your shoulder and sing, call a steward and have him lead me to my innocent white cot; but take a fool's advice, Lanyard, and don't try to drink the skipper under the table. On the word of one who's tried and repented, it can not be done."

"But it is I who would go under the table," Lanyard said. "I have a poor head for whiskey."

"Thanks for the tip."

"Pardon?"

"I mean to say," Phinuit explained, "I'm glad to have another weakness of yours to bear in mind."

"You are interested in the weaknesses of others, monsieur?"

"They're my hobby."

"Knowledge," Monk quoted, sententious, "is power."

"May I ask what other entries you have made in my dossier, Mr. Phinuit?"

"You won't get shirty?"

"But surely not."

"Well ... can't be positive till I know you better.... I'm afraid you've got a tendency to overestimate the gullibility of people in general. It's either that, or.... No: I don't believe you're intentionally hypocritical, or self-deceived, either."

"But I don't understand...."

"Remember your promise.... But you seem to think it easy to put it over on us, mademoiselle, the skipper and me."

"But I assure you I have never had any such thought."

"Then why this funny story of yours--told with a straight face, too!--about wanting to get hold of the Montalais loot simply to slip it back to its owner?"

Lanyard felt with a spasm of anger constrict his throat; and knew that the restraint he imposed upon his temper was betrayed in a reddened face. Nevertheless his courteous smile persisted, his polite conversational tone was unchanged.

"Now you remind me of something. I presume, Captain Monk, it's not too late to send a note ashore to be posted?"

"Oh!" Monk's eyebrows protested violently--"a note!"

"On plain paper, in a plain envelope--and I don't in the least mind your reading it."

The eyebrows appealed to Phinuit, and that worthy ruled: "Under those conditions, I don't see we can possibly object."

Monk shrugged his brows back into place, found paper of the sort desired, even went so far as to dip the pen for Lanyard.

"You will sit at my desk, monsieur?"

"Many thanks."

Under no more heading than the date, Lanyard wrote:

"Dear Madame de Montalais:"

"I have not forgotten my promise, but my days have been full since I left the chateau. And even now I must be brief: within an hour I sail for America, within a fortnight you may look for telegraphic advices from me, stating that your jewels are in my possession, and when I hope to be able to restore them to you."

"Believe me, dear madame,"

"Devotedly your servant,

"Michael Lanyard."

Monk read and in silence passed this communication over to Phinuit, while Lanyard addressed the envelope.

"Quite in order," was Phinuit's verdict, accompanied by a yawn.

Lanyard folded the note, sealed it in the envelope, and affixed a stamp supplied by Monk, who meanwhile rang for a steward.

"Take this ashore and post it at once," he told the man who answered his summons.

"But seriously, Lanyard!" Phinuit protested with a pained expression.... "No: I don't get you at all. What's the use?"

"I have not deceived you, then?"

"Not so's you'd notice it."

"Alas!"--Lanyard affected a sigh--"for misspent effort!"

"Oh, all's fair outside the law. We don't blame you for trying it on. Only we value your respect too much to let you go on thinking we have fallen for that hokum."

"You see," Monk expounded--solemn ass that he was beneath his thin veneer of pretentiousness--"when we know how the British Government kicked you out of its Secret Service as soon as it had no further use for you, we can understand and sympathise with your natural reaction to such treatment at the hands of Society."

"But one didn't know you knew so much, monsieur le capitaine."

"And then," said Phinuit, "when we know you steered a direct course from London for the Chateau de Montalais, and made yourself persona grata there--Oh, persona very much grata, if I'm any judge!--you can hardly ask us to believe you didn't mean to do it, it all just happened so."

"Monsieur sees too clearly...."

"Why, if it comes to that--what were you up to that night, pussyfooting about the chateau at two in the morning?"

"But this is positively uncanny! Monsieur knows everything."

"Why shouldn't I know about that?" Vanity rang in Phinuit's self-conscious chuckle. "Who'd you think laid you out that night?"

"Monsieur is not telling me----!"

"I guess I owe you an apology," Phinuit admitted. "But you'll admit that in our situation there was nothing else for it. I'd have given anything if we'd been able to get by any other way; but you're such an unexpected customer.... Well! when I felt you catch hold of my shirt sleeve, that night, I thought we were done for and struck out blindly. It was a lucky blow, no credit to me. Hope I didn't jar you too much."

"No," said Lanyard, reflective--"no, I was quite all right in the morning. But I think I owe you one."

"Afraid you do; and it's going to be my duty and pleasure to cheat you out of your revenge if fast footwork will do it."

"But where was Captain Monk all the while?"

"Right here," Monk answered for himself; "sitting tight and saying nothing, and duly grateful that the blue prints and specifications of the Great Architect didn't design me for second-storey work."

"Then it was Jules----?"

"No; Jules doesn't know enough. It was de Lorgnes, of course. I thought you'd guess that."

"How should I?"

"Didn't you know he was the premier cracksman of France? That is, going on Mademoiselle Delorme's account of him; she says there was never anybody like that poor devil for putting the comether on a safe--barring yourself, Monsieur le Loup Seul, in your palmy days. And she ought to know; those two have been working together since the Lord knows when. A sound, conservative bird, de Lorgnes; very discreet, tight-mouthed even when drunk--which was too often."

"But--this is most interesting--how did you get separated, you and de Lorgnes?"

"Bad luck, a black night, and--I guess there's no more question about this--your friend, Popinot-Dupont. I'll say this for that blighter: as a self-made spoil-sport, he sure did give service!"

Phinuit gave his whiskey and soda a reminiscent grin.

"And we thought we were being bright, at that! We'd figured every move to the third decimal point. The only uncertain factor in our calculations, as we thought, was you. But with you disposed of, dead to the world, and Madame de Montalais off in another part of the chateau calling the servants to help, leaving her rooms wide open to us--the job didn't take five minutes. The way de Lorgnes made that safe give up all its secrets, you'd have thought he had raised it by hand! We stuffed the loot into a grip I'd brought for the purpose, and beat it--slipped out through the drawing-room window one second before Madame de Montalais came back with that doddering footman of hers. But they never even looked our way. I bet they never knew there'd been a robbery till the next morning. Do I lose?"

"No, monsieur; you are quite right."

"Well, then: We had left our machine--we had driven over from Millau--just over the brow of the hill, standing on the down-grade, headed for Nant, with the gears meshed in third, so she would start without a sound as soon as we released the emergency brake. But when we got there, it wasn't. The frantic way we looked for it made me think of you pawing that table for your candle, after de Lorgnes had lifted it behind your back. And then of a sudden they jumped us, Popinot and his crew; though we didn't know who in hell; it might have been the chateau people. In fact, at first I thought it was....

"I lost de Lorgnes in the shuffle immediately, never did know what had become of him till we got Liane's wire this morning. I was having all I could do to take care of myself, thank you. I happened to be carrying the grip, and that helped a bit. Somebody's head got in the way of its swings, and I guess the guy hasn't forgotten it yet. Then I slipped through their fingers--I'll never tell you how; it was black as pitch, that night--and beat it blind. I'd lost my flashlamp and had no more idea where I was heading than an owl at noon of a sunny day. But they--the Popinot outfit--seemed to be able to see in the dark all right; or else I was looney with fright. Every once in a while somebody or something would make a pass at me in the night, and I'd duck and double and run another way.

"After a while I found myself climbing a steep, rocky slope, and guessed it must be the cliff behind the chateau. It was a sort of zig-zag path, which I couldn't see, only guess at. I was scared stiff; but they were still after me, or I thought they were, so I floundered on. The path, if it was a path, was slimy with mud, and about every third step I'd slip and go sprawling. I can't tell you how many times I felt my legs shoot out into nothing, and dug my fingers into the muck, or broke my nails on rocks and caught clumps of grass with my teeth, to keep from going over ... and all the while that all-gone feeling in the pit of my stomach....

"However, I got to the top in the end, and crawled into a hollow and lay down behind some bushes, and panted as if my heart would break, and hoped I'd die and get over with it. But nobody came to bother me, so I got up when the first streak of light showed in the sky--there'd been a young cloud-burst just before that, and I was soaked to my skin--and struck off across the cause for God-knew-where. De Lorgnes and I had fixed that, if anything did happen to separate us, we'd each strike for Lyons and the one who got there first would wait for the other at the Hotel Terminus. But before I could do that, I had to find a railroad, and I didn't dare go Millau-way, I thought, because the chances were the gendarmes would be waiting there to nab the first bird that blew in all covered with mud and carrying a bag full of diamonds.

"I'd managed to hold onto the grip through it all, you see; but before that day was done I wished I'd lost it. The damned thing got heavier and heavier till it must have weighed a gross ton. It galled my hands and rubbed my legs till they were sore.... I was sore all over, anyway, inside and out....

"Sometime during the morning I climbed one of those bum mounds they call couronnes to see if I could sight any place to get food and drink, preferably drink. The sun had dried my clothes on my back and then gone on to make it a good job by soaking up all the moisture in my system. I figured I was losing eleven pounds an hour by evaporation alone, and expected to arrive wherever I did arrive, if I ever arrived anywhere looking like an Early Egyptian prune....

"The view from the couronne didn't show me anything I wanted to see, only a number of men in the distance, spread out over the face of the causse and quartering it like beagles. I reckoned I knew what sort of game they were hunting, and slid down from that couronne and travelled. But they'd seen me, and somebody sounded the view-halloo. It was grand exercise for me and great sport for them. When I couldn't totter another yard I fell into a hole into the ground--one of those avens--and crawled into a sort of little cave, and lay there listening, to the suck and gurgle of millions of gallons of nice cool water running to waste under my feet, and me dying the death of a dog with thirst.

"After a while I couldn't stand it any longer. I crawled out, prepared to surrender, give up the plunder, and lick the boots of any man who'd slip me a cup of water. But for some reason they'd given up the chase. I saw no more of them, whoever they were. And a little later I found a peasant's hut, and watered myself till I swelled up like a poisoned pup. They gave me a brush-down, there, and something to eat besides, and put me on my way to Millau. It seemed that I was a hundred miles from anywhere else, so it was Millau for mine if it meant a life sentence in a French prison.

"I sneaked into the town after dark, and took the first train north. Nobody took any notice of me. I couldn't see the use of going all round Robin Hood's barn, as I'd have had to in order to make Lyons. By the time I'd got there, de Lorgnes would have given up and gone on to Paris."

Phinuit finished his drink. "I'll say it was a gay young party. The next time I feel the call to crime, believe me! I'm going out and snatch nursing bottles from kids asleep in their prams.... But they must be asleep."

Monk lifted himself by sections from his chair.

"It was a good yarn first time I heard it," he mused aloud. "But now, I notice, even the Sybarite is getting restless."

In the course of Phinuit's narrative the black disks of night framed by the polished brass circles of the stern ports had faded out into dusky violet, then into a lighter lilac, finally into a warm yet tender blue. Now the main deck overhead was a sounding-board for thumps and rustle of many hurried feet.

"Pilot come aboard, you think?" Phinuit enquired; and added, as Monk nodded and cast about for the visored white cap of his office: "Didn't know pilots were such early birds."

"They're not, as a rule. But if you treat 'em right, they'll listen to reason."

The captain graphically rubbed a thumb over two fingers, donned his cap, buttoned up his tunic, and strode forth with an impressive gait.

"Still wakeful?" Phinuit hinted hopefully.

"And shall be till we drop the pilot, thanks."

"If I hadn't seen de Lorgnes make that safe sit up and speak, and didn't know you were his master, I'd be tempted to bat an eye or two. However...." Phinuit sighed despondently. "What can I do now to entertain you, dear sir?"

"You might have pity on my benighted curiosity...."

"Meaning this outfit?" Lanyard assented, and Phinuit deliberated over the question. "I don't know as I ought in the absence of my esteemed associates.... But what's bothering you most?"

"I have seen something of the world, monsieur, and as you are aware not a little of the underside of it; but never have I met with a combination of such peculiar elements as this possesses. Regard it, if you will, from my view-point, that of an outsider, for one moment."

Phinuit grinned. "It must give you furiously to think--as you'd say."

"But assuredly! Take, for example, yourself, a man of unusual intelligence, such as one is not accustomed to find lending himself to the schemes of ordinary criminals."

"But you have just admitted that we're anything but ordinary."

"Then Mademoiselle Delorme. One knows what the world knows of her, that she has for many years meddled with high affairs, that she had been for many years more a sort of queen of the demi-monde of Paris; but now you tell me she has stopped to profit by association with a professional burglar."

"Profit? I'll say she did. According to my information, it was she who mapped out the campaigns for de Lorgnes; she was G.H.Q. and he merely the high private in the front line trenches; with this difference, that in this instance G.H.Q. was perfectly willing to let the man at the front cop all the glory.... She took the cash and let the credit go, nor heeded rumblings of the distant drum!"

"Then your picturesque confrere, Captain Monk; and the singular circumstance that he owns a wealthy cousin of the same name; and this beautiful little yacht which you seem so free to utilize for the furtherance of your purposes. Is it strange, then, that one's curiosity is provoked, one's imagination alternately stimulated and baffled?"

"No; I suppose not," Phinuit conceded thoughtfully. "Still, it's far simpler than you'd think."

"One has found that true of most mysteries, monsieur."

"I don't mind telling you all I feel at liberty to.... You seem to have a pretty good line on mademoiselle, and I've told you what I know about de Lorgnes. As for the skipper, he's the black sheep of a good old New England family. Ran away to sea as a boy, and was disowned, and grew up in a rough school. It would take all night to name half the jobs he's had a hand in, mostly of a shady nature, in every quarter of the seven seas: gun running, pearl poaching, what not--even a little slaving, I suspect, in his early days. He's a pompous old bluff in repose, but nobody's fool, and a bad actor when his mad is up. He tells me he fell in with the Delorme a long time ago, while acting as personal escort for a fugitive South American potentate who crossed the borders of his native land with the national treasury in one hand and his other in Monk's, and of course--they all do--made a bee line for Paris. That's how we came to make her acquaintance, my revered employer, Mister Monk, and I--through the skipper, I mean."

Phinuit paused to consider, and ended with a whimsical grimace.

"I'm talking too much; but it doesn't matter, seein's it's you. Strictly between ourselves, the said revered employer is an annointed fraud. Publicly he's the pillar of the respectable house of Monk. Privately, he's not above profiteering, foreclosing the mortgage on the old homestead, and swearing to an odoriferous income-tax return. And when he thinks he's far enough away from home--my land, how that little man do carry on!

"The War made him more money than he ever thought there was; so he bought this yacht ready-made and started on the grand tour, but never got any farther than Paris--naturally his first stop. News from home to the effect that somebody was threatening to do him out of a few nickels sent him hightailing back to put a stop to it. But before that happened, he wanted to see life with a large L; and Cousin Whitaker gave him a good start by introducing him to little ingenue Liane. And then she put the smuggling bee in his bonnet."

"Smuggling!"

Lanyard began to experience glimpses....

"Champagne. If ever all the truth comes out, I fancy it will transpire that Liane's getting a rake-off from some vintner. You see, Friend Employer was displaying a cultivated taste in vintage champagnes, but he'd been culpably negligent in not laying down a large stock for private consumption before the Great Drought set in. The Delorme found that out, then that his ancestral acres bordered on Long Island Sound, and finally that the Sybarite was loafing its head off. What could be more simple, she suggested, than that monsieur should ballast his private yacht with champagne on the homeward voyage, make his landfall some night in the dark of the moon, and put the stuff ashore on his own property before morning. Did he fall for it? Well, I just guess he did!"

"This is all most interesting, monsieur, but...." "Where do Monk and I come in? Oh, like master, like men. Liane was too wise to crab her act by proposing anything really wicked to the Owner, and wise enough to know nothing could shock the skipper. And I was wise enough not to let him get away with anything unless I sat in on the deal.

"Mademoiselle played all her cards face upwards with us. She and de Lorgnes, she said, were losing money by disposing of their loot this side, especially with European currency at its present stage of depreciation. And so long as the owner was doing a little dirty work, why shouldn't we get together and do something for ourselves on the side? If champagne could be so easily smuggled into the States, why not diamonds? We formed a joint-stock company on the spot."

"And made your first coup at the Chateau de Montalais!"

"Not the first, but the biggest. De Lorgnes' mouth had been watering for the Montalais stuff for a long time, it seems. My boss had private business of a nature we won't enter into, in London, and gave me a week off and the use of his car. We made up the party, toured down the Rhone valley, and then back by way of the Cevennes, just to get the lay of the land. I don't think there can be much more you need to know."

"Monsieur is too modest."

"Oh, about me? Why, I guess I'm not an uncommon phenomenon of the times. I was a good citizen before the War, law-abiding and everything. If you'd told me then I'd be in this galley to-day, I'd probably have knocked you for a goal. I had a flourishing young business of my own and was engaged to be married... When I got back from hell over here, I found my girl married to another man, my business wrecked, what was left of it crippled by extortionate taxation to support a government that was wasting money like a drunken sailor and too cynical to keep its solemn promises to the men who had fought for it. I had to take a job as secretary to a man I couldn't respect, and now... Well, if I can get a bit of my own back by defrauding the government or classing myself with the unorganised leeches on Society, nothing I know is going to stop my doing it!"

Phinuit knocked the ashes out of a cold pipe at which he had been sucking for some time, rose, and stretched.

"The worst of it is," he said in a serious turn--"I mean, looking at the thing from my bourgeois viewpoint of 1914--the War, but more particularly the antics of the various governments after the War, turned out several million of men in my frame of mind the world over. We went into the thing deluded by patriotic bunk and the promise that it was a war to end war; we came out to find the old men more firmly entrenched in the seats of the mighty than ever and stubbornly bent on perpetuating precisely the same rotten conditions that make wars inevitable. What Germany did to the treaty that guaranteed Belgium's neutrality was child's-play compared to what the governments of the warring nations have done to their covenants with their own people. And if anybody should ask you, you can safely promise them that several million soreheads like myself are what the politicians call 'a menace to the established social order'."

Clear daylight filled the ports. The traffic on deck nearly deserved the name of din. Commands and calls were being bawled in English, French, and polyglot profanity. A donkey-engine was rumbling, a winch clattering, a capstan-pawl clanking. Alongside a tug was panting hoarsely. The engine room telegraph jangled furiously, the fabric of the Sybarite shuddered and gathered way.

"We're off," yawned Phinuit. "Now will you be reasonable and go to bed?"

"You may, monsieur," said Lanyard, getting up. "For my part, I shall go on deck, if you don't mind, and stop there till the pilot leaves us."

"Fair enough!"

"But one moment more. You have been extraordinarily frank, but you have forgotten one element, to me of some importance: you have not told me what my part is in this insane adventure."

"That's not my business to tell you," Phinuit replied promptly. "When anything as important as that comes out, it won't be through my babbling. Anyhow, Liane may have changed her mind since last reports. And so, as far as I'm concerned, your present status is simply that of her pet protege. What it is to be hereafter you'll learn from her, I suppose, soon enough.... Le's go!"



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