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Duchemin took back with him to Nant, that night, not only monsieur le cure in the hired caleche, but food in plenty for thought, together with a nebulous notion, which by the time he woke up next morning had taken shape as a fixed conviction, that he had better resign himself to stop on indefinitely at the Grand Hotel de l'Univers and ... see what he should see.
That fatality on which he had so bitterly reflected when; acting as emergency coachman en route from Montpellier-le-Vieux to La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite, had him now fairly by the heels, as it were his very shadow, something as tenacious, as inescapable. Or he had been given every excuse for believing that such was the case. Impossible--and the more so the longer he pondered it--to credit to mere coincidence the innuendoes uttered at the chateau by Mr. Monk and his party.
No: there had been malice in that, Duchemin was satisfied, if not some darker purpose which perplexed the most patient scrutiny.
Now malice without incentive is unthinkable. But Duchemin searched his memory in vain for anything he could have said or done to make anybody desire to discredit him in the sight of the ladies of the Chateau de Montalais. Still the attempt so to do had been unmistakable: the Lone Wolf had been lugged into the conversation literally by his legendary ears.
Surely, one would think, that nocturnal prowler of pre-War Paris had been so long dead and buried even the most ghoulish gossip should respect his poor remains and not disinter them merely to demonstrate that the Past can never wholly die!
Had he, then, some enemy of old hidden under one of those sleek surfaces?
An excellent visual memory reviewed successively the physical characteristics of Messieurs Monk, Phinuit and de Lorgnes, and their chauffeur Jules; with the upshot that Duchemin could have sworn that he had never before known any of these.
And Madame la Comtesse? In respect of that one memory again drew a blank, but remained unsatisfied. When one thought of her some remote, faint chord of reminiscence thrilled and hummed, but never recognisably. Not that there was anything remarkable in this: if one cared to look for them, the world was thronged with women such as she, handsome, spirited, well-groomed animals endued with some little distinction of manner, native or acquired, with every appeal to the senses and more or less, generally spurious, to the intelligence. They made the theatre possible in France, leavened the social life of the half-world, fluttered conspicuously and often disastrously through circles of more sedate society, had their portraits in every Salon, their photographs in every issue of the fashionable journals. Some made history, others fiction: either would be insufferably dull lacking their influence. But they were as much alike as so many peas, out of their several shells, and the man who saw one inevitably remembered all.
Setting aside then the theory of positive personal animus, what other reason could there be for the effort to fasten upon Duchemin suspicion of identity with the late Lone Wolf?
A sinister consideration, if any, and one, Duchemin suspected, not unconnected with the much-talked-about jewels of Madame de Montalais...
But it was absurd to believe that persons fostering a design of such nature would so deliberately and obviously advertise their purpose!
Cheerfully admitting that he was an imbecile to think of such a thing, Duchemin set his mental alarm for six the following morning, rose at that hour, and by eight had tramped the five miles between Nant and the nearest railway station, Combe-Redonde; where he despatched a code telegram to London, requesting any information it might have or be able to obtain concerning Mr. Whitaker Monk of New York and the several members of his party; the said information to be forwarded in code to await the arrival of Andre Duchemin at the Hotel du Commerce, Millau.
And then, partly to kill time, partly to get himself in trim for to-morrow's trip, which he meant to make strictly in character as the pedestrian tourist, he walked round three sides of a square in returning to Nant--by way, that is, of Sauclieres and the upper valley of the Dourbie.
In the rich sunshine that fell from a cloudless sky--even the twin peaks that stood sentinel over Nant had shamelessly put off their yashmaks for the day--the rain-fresh world was sweet to see; and Duchemin found himself consuming leagues with heels strangely light; or he thought their lightness strange until he discovered the buoyance of his heart, which wasn't strange at all. He knew too well the cause of that; and had given over fretting about the inevitable. The sum of his philosophy was now: What must be, must .It would have been difficult to be unhappy in the knowledge that one retained still the capacity to love generously, honourably, expecting nothing, exacting nothing, regretting nothing, not even in anticipation of the ultimate, inevitable heartache.
Toward mid-afternoon a solitary mischance threw a passing shadow upon his content. As he trudged along the river road, on the last lap of his journey--Nant almost in sight--he heard a curious, intermittent rumble on a steep hillside whose foot was skirted by the road, and sought its cause barely in time to leap for life out of the path of a great boulder that, dislodged from its bed, possibly by last night's deluge, was hurtling downhill with such momentum that it must have crushed Duchemin to a pulp had he been less alert.
Striking the road with an impact that left a deep, saucer-shaped dent, with one final bound the huge stone, amid vast splashings, found its last resting place in the river.
Duchemin moved out of the way of the miniature avalanche that followed, and for some minutes stood reviewing with a truculent eye the face of the hillside. But nothing moved thereon, it was quite bare of good cover, little more than a slant of naked earth and shale, dotted manywhere with boulders, cousins to that which sought his life--none, however, so large. If human agency had moved it, the stone had come from the high skyline of the hill; and by the time one could climb to this last, Duchemin was sure, there would be nobody there to find.
The remainder of the afternoon was wasted utterly on the terrasse of the Cafe de l'Univers, with the chateau ever in view, wishing it were convenable to make one's duty call without more delay. But it wasn't; not to wait a decent interval would be self-betraying, since Duchemin had no longer any immediate intention of moving on from Nant; finally, he rather hoped to get news at Millau that would strengthen a prayer to Eve de Montalais to be sensible and remove her jewels to a place of safe-keeping before it was too late.
Millau, however, disappointed. At the end of a twenty-mile walk on a day of suffocating heat, Duchemin plodded wearily into the Hotel du Commerce, engaged a room for the night, and was given a telegram from London which rewarded decoding to some such effect as this:
"MONK AMERICAN INDEPENDENT MEANS GOOD REPUTE NO INFORMATION AS TO OTHERS HAVE ASKED SURETE CONCERNING LORGNES WOULD GIVE SOMETHING TO KNOW WHAT MISCHIEF YOU ARE MEDDLING WITH THIS TRIP AND WHY THE DEUCE YOU MUST."
Few things are better calculated to curdle the milk of human kindness than to find that one's fellow-man has meanly contrived to keep his reputation fair when one is satisfied it should be otherwise. Duchemin used bitter language in strict confidence with himself, disliked his dinner and, after conscientiously loathing the sights of Millau for an hour or two, sought his bed in the devil's own humour.
Though he waited till eleven of the following forenoon, there was no supplementary telegram: London evidently meant him to understand that the Surete in Paris had communicated nothing to the discredit of Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes and his consort.
Enquiry of the administration of the Hotel de Commerce elicited the information that the Monk party had stopped there on the night of the storm, doubled back in the morning to visit Montpellier-le-Vieux, returning for midday dejeuner, and had then proceeded for Paris, just like any other well-behaved company of tourists.
There was nothing more to be done but go back to Nant and--what made it even more disgusting--nothing to be done there except ... wait...
Thoroughly disgruntled, more than half persuaded he had staked a claim for a mare's-nest, he took the road in the heat of a day even more oppressive than its yesterday. In the valley of the Dourbie the air was stagnant, lifeless. After eight miles of it Duchemin was guilty of two mistakes of desperation.
In the first instance he paused in La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite and, tormented by thirst, refreshed himself at the auberge where the barouche and guide had been hired to convey the party from Montalais on to Montpellier. The landlord remembered Duchemin and made believe he didn't, serving the wayfarer with a surly grace the only drink he would admit he had to sell, an atrociously acid cider fit to render the last stage of thirst worse than the first.
Duchemin, however, thought it safer than the water of the place, when he had spied out the associations of the well.
He drank sitting on a bench outside the door of the auberge. He could hear the voice of the landlord inside, grumbling and growling, to what purport he couldn't determine. But it wasn't difficult to guess; and before Duchemin was finished he had testimony to the rightness of his surmise, finding himself the cynosure of more than a few pair of eyes set in the ill-favoured faces of natives of La Roque.
One gathered that the dead guide had enjoyed a fair amount of local popularity.
While Duchemin drank and smoked and pored over a pocket-map of the department, a lout of a lad shambled out of the auberge wearing a fixed scowl in no degree mitigated by the sight of the customer. In the dooryard, which was also the stableyard, the boy caught and saddled a dreary animal, apparently a horse designed by a Gothic architect, mounted, and rode off in the direction of Nant.
Then Duchemin committed his second error of judgment, which consisted in thinking to find better and cooler air on the heights of the Causse Larzac, across the river, together with a shorter way to Nant--indicated on the pocket-map as a by-road running in a tolerably direct line across the plateau--than that which followed the windings of the stream.
Accordingly he crossed the Dourbie, toiled up a zig-zag path cut in the face of the frowning cliff, reached the top in a bath of sweat, and sat down to cool and breathe himself.
The view was splendid, almost worth the climb. Duchemin could see for miles up and down the valley, a panorama wildly picturesque and limned like a rainbow. Across the way La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite stood out prominently and with such definition in that clear air that Duchemin identified the figure of the landlord, standing in the door of the auberge with arms raised and elbows thrust out on a level with his eyes: the pose of a man using field-glasses.
Duchemin wondered if he ought to feel complimented. Then he looked up the valley and saw, far off, a tiny cloud of dust kicked up by the heels of the horse ridden by the boy from the auberge, making good time on the highway to Nant. And again Duchemin wondered...
Having rested, he picked himself up, found his road, a mere trail of wagon tracks, and mindful of the cooling drinks to be had in the Cafe de l'Univers, put his best foot foremost.
After a time something, call it instinct, impelled him to look back the way he had come. Half a mile distant he saw the figure of a peasant following the same road. Duchemin stopped and waited for the other to come up, thinking to get a better look at him, perhaps some definite information about the road and in particular as to his chances of finding drinkable water. But when he stopped the man stopped, sat him down upon a rock, filled a pipe, and conspicuously rested.
Duchemin gave an impatient gesture and moved on. After another mile he glanced overshoulder again. The same peasant occupied the same relative distance from him.
But if the fellow were following him with a purpose, he could readily lose himself in that wild land before Duchemin could run him down; and if, on the contrary, he proved to be only a peaceable wayfarer, he was bound to be a dull companion on the road, and an unsavory one to boot. So Duchemin did nothing to discourage his voluntary shadow; but looking back from time to time, never failed to see that squat, round-shouldered figure in the middle distance of the landscape, following him with the doggedness of Fate. Toward evening, however, of a sudden--between two glances--the fellow disappeared as completely and mysteriously as if he had fallen or dived into an aven.
Thus definite mental irritation was added to the physical discomforts he suffered. For if anything it was hotter on the high causse than it had been in the valley. An intermittent breeze imitated to vicious perfection draughts from a furnace. And if this were a short cut to Nant, Duchemin's judgment was gravely at fault.
Otherwise the journey was not unlike an exaggerated version of his walk from Meyrueis to Montpellier-le-Vieux, except that the road was clearly marked and he found less climbing to do. He saw neither hamlets nor farmsteads, and found no water. By the middle of the afternoon his thirst had become sheer torture.
In dusk of evening he stumbled down into the valley again and struck the river road about midway between the Chateau de Montalais and Nant. At this junction several dwellings clustered, in that fading light dark masses on either side of the road. Duchemin noticed a few shadowy shapes loitering about, but was too far gone in fatigue and thirst to pay them any heed. He had no thought but to stop at the first house and beg a cup of water. As he lifted a hand to knuckle the door he was attacked.
With no more warning than a cry, the signal for the onslaught, and the sudden scuffling noise of several pair of feet, he wheeled, found himself already closely pressed by a number of men, and struck out at random. His stick landed on somebody's head with a resounding thump followed by a yell of pain. Then three men were grappling with him, two more seeking to aid them, and another lay in the roadway clutching a fractured skull and spitting oaths and groans.
His stick was seized and wrenched away, he was over-whelmed by numbers. The knot of struggling figures toppled and went to the dust, Duchemin underneath, so weighed down that he could not for the moment move a hand toward his pistol.
Half-stifled by the reek of unwashed flesh, he heard broken phrases growled in voices hoarse with effort and excitement:
"The knife!" ... "Hold him!" ... "Stand clear and let me--!" ... "The knife!"
Struggling madly, he worked a leg free and kicked with all his might. One of his assailants howled aloud and fell back to nurse a broken shin. Two others scrambled out of the way, leaving one to pin him down with knees upon his chest, another to wield the knife.
Staring eyes caught a warning gleam on descending steel. Duchemin squirmed frantically to one side, and felt cold metal kiss the skin over his ribs as the blade penetrated his clothing, close under the armpit.
Before the man with the knife could strike again, Duchemin, roused to a mightier effort, threw off the ruffian on his chest, got on his knees and, raining blows right and left as the others closed in again, somehow managed to scramble to his feet.
Fist-work told. For an instant he stood quite free, the centre of a circle of uncertain assassins whose cowardice gave him time to whip out his pistol. But before he could level it a man was on his back, his wrist was seized and the weapon twisted from his grasp.
A cry of triumph was echoed by exclamations of alarm as, disarmed, Duchemin was again left free, the thugs standing back to let the pistol do its work. In that instant a broad sword of light swung round a nearby corner and smote the group: the twin, glaring eyes of a motor car flooded with blue-white radiance that tableau of one man at bay in the middle of the road, in a ring of merciless enemies.
Duchemin's cry for help was uttered only an instant before his pistol exploded in alien hands. The headlights showed him distinctly the face of the man who fired, the same face of fat features black with soot that he had seen by moonlight at Montpellier-le-Vieux.
But the bullet went wild, and the automobile did not stop, but drove directly at the group and so swiftly that the flash of the shot was still vivid in Duchemin's vision when the car swept between him and those others, scattering them like chickens.
Simultaneously the brakes were set, the dark bulk began to slide with locked wheels to a stop, and a voice cried: "Quickly, monsieur, quickly!"--the voice of Eve de Montalais.
In two bounds Duchemin overtook the car and before it had come to a standstill leaped upon the running-board and grasped the side. He had one glimpse of the set white face of Eve, en profile, as she bent forward, manipulating the gear-shift. Then the pistol spat again, its bullet struck him a blow of sickening agony in the side.
Aware that he was dangerously wounded, he put all that he had left of strength and will into one final effort, throwing his body across the door. As he fell sprawling into the tonneau consciousness departed like a light withdrawn.
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