The Closing Net/Part 1/Chapter 11
AN HEROIC LIE
It was by this time almost three o'clock, so I went immediately down to John's house. As I was waiting in the ante-chambre for the maître d'hôtel to announce me, Miss Dalghren came out of the library. I bowed and she gave me a cold nod.
"You will be glad to learn, Miss Dalghren," said I, "that I have recovered Mrs. Cuttynge's pearls. They are in my pocket."
The colour flamed in her face.
"I thought that you would," she answered.
"Permit me to suggest," said I, "that hereafter both of you ladies keep your jewels in a safe place—where they will not be a temptation to weak vessels like myself."
Her face hardened. "Mine are now in the safe deposit," says she, "and there is no doubt that John will do the same with Edith's," and without so much as a nod she passed on through the dining-room portières.
The maître d'hôtel returned at this moment to ask me to go right up. I found John in bed. He looked very badly.
"Shut the door and lock it, Frank," said he, in a querulous voice. "Pull up a chair by the bed. I want to talk to you."
I did as he directed. As soon as I was seated John turned to me, raising himself on one elbow. His face was ghastly and his lips trembled before he spoke.
"Frank," says he, "it was I who stole Edith's pearls."
"I know it," I answered.
His eyes got wild. "What?" he cried. "How—how—does anybody else know it? How did you find out?"
"Lie down," said I, "and keep quiet. I'll give you the whole yarn."
John sank back against his pillows with a groan. I started in with the story, telling him everything except the names of Léontine and Ivan. Before I had finished, John's face changed for the better. The dull look had gone out of his eyes and they had grown hard and bright. There was a tinge of colour in his cheeks and his jaw was set. When I had finished he reached out one hand and gave me a grip that hurt.
"My word!" he muttered, "what a man you are," and added a lot of truck unnecessary to repeat. For several minutes he lay there, soaking in what I had told him. Then says he:
"You must get out of the country right off, Frank. Your life is in danger every minute here."
"I'm leaving this evening," said I, for I had decided not to tell him about my plan for stalking Chu-Chu. If anything were to go wrong he would always look upon himself as my murderer. "You must clear out for awhile yourself, John. We look too much alike for your safety."
"No," says he, "I'll stop here"; and his jaw stiffened again.
I did my best to persuade him to go, if only for the sake of Edith, but he was set as solid as the pyramid of Cheops.
"I've brought all of this mess on both of us," says he. "I'll take the consequences. Besides, this thug knows about me and won't run any unnecessary bother and risk. I'm in no great danger."
Well, sir, there was no budging him, and that made me all the more impatient to get on the warpath after Chu-Chu. It was now not only a measure of self-preservation, but an imperative duty.
Finally, says John, in a dull voice:
"Edith must know the truth."
"Edith must know nothing of the sort," I cried fiercely. "Man, it would kill her—and you know it."
A shiver went through John. "I owe it to you—" he began.
"You owe nothing to me," said I. "You saved me a life sentence. We are quits with each other—but we both owe everything to Edith. Besides, what's the use? She doesn't suspect me."
"She does now," said John, in a hollow voice.
"What?" I cried. "She does? Since when?"
"Since this morning. Mary Dalghren saw me slipping out of the house just after I stole the pearls. She came over from the studio to get something in the house. She took me for you. When I came in at three of the morning she was waiting up. She told me what she had seen and I begged her to say nothing about it to Edith. But this morning she told her. I couldn't stand that. I thought that they would lay the robbery to your old gang, not to you."
I got up and walked to the window. Chu-Chu, John, the danger to my life—all of this was nothing. Edith thought that I had broken my word to her. Edith thought that I had stolen her pearls.
My friend, have you ever been tempted? Not tempted by gold, or a woman or the lust for revenge—but by something that is far deeper than life or death, or the hope of heaven? Have you ever been tempted until your very soul is wrung and tortured and screaming in pain? Mere death is a joke to this; the love of life is the longing of a child for a stick of candy in comparison. Edith to lose faith in me? The idea wrenched a groan from the very core of my whole conscious being. It was too much. Had I not done my part? Played the game honestly and fair?
But hot on the heels of this rank selfishness came the thought of Edith. It was of Edith that I must think. It was for Edith that I must suffer—and the knowledge that I might bear her burden of sorrow and shame took away all of the sting. Edith loved John. In John lay her whole life's happiness. Edith could not live in the knowledge that her husband had been tempted to theft and had succumbed. As for myself, her faith in me and in the goodness of mankind would suffer to the point of causing her infinite pain, but this pain would be an abstract quality. It would be a wound from which she would recover. But to feel that her loved husband had stolen, had committed the meanest of thefts rather than to come to her in his trouble, would be a stiletto through her pure heart.
I drew a deep breath, then turned and went back to John's bedside. He was lying face downward, his head in his strong arms. Sitting at his side I told him, very gently, the thing as I saw it.
"We must think of Edith, old chap," said I. "It is hard for us both—but we are men."
"You are," he moaned.
"And so must you be," I answered.
He writhed as he lay. "My God, my God!" he moaned. "What a fool! what a fool! It was my only way out, Frank. I was cornered, trapped, half mad and half drunk. I was carrying a lot of stock and was knocked galleywest in this flurry. Another day and I would have been all right. My brokers were howling like wolves for margin. I tried to get it over the baccarat table—and lost. To have got sold out would have meant ruin. And it was Edith's money. The sale of the pearls was barely enough to tide me over. I sold them outright to get more money and because I did not see how I could restore them—what story I could tell. I have just had a telegram; the market is up again."
"So much the better," said I, briskly. "Now settle up, John. Sell out, then settle with Rosenthal. Don't bother about my part of it. Think of the debt I owe to Edith. I ought to welcome the chance of squaring it. It will hurt her to think that I broke my word—but I can say something to cheer her. I will let her think that I am morally lacking—constitutionally wrong. Brace up, old man."
I talked to him for half an hour. Finally, I said:
"See here, John, I'm not going to let you off scot-free. I want a promise from you. If you will give it, I'll be actually glad of the whole business."
John raised his head. "Well?" he asked.
I leaned over and laid my hands on his shoulder. "You are to promise me to chuck drinking and gambling, John. No more spirits—not a drop. And nothing bigger than a game of bridge—or schoolboy poker. Is it a go?"
He choked back a sob. "I'll pledge my word, Frank," he said.
"Shake," said I. He shoved out his hand.
"Now," said I, "let me say a few words to Edith and then I'm off."
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"To get under cover somewhere. I haven't decided."
"How are you off for money?"
"I've got enough. If I need more I may write to you."
John raised up in his bed. His eyes were shining through his tears. He said a good many things that have nothing to do with the yarn. Finally he said:
"Look here, Frank, why not hand over all of this to the police?"
"I've thought of that," I answered. "It wouldn't do. I'd get the enmity of a powerful criminal organisation and wouldn't live twenty-four hours. But there are other ways. I know the Under-World and its antidotes. There are unofficial means of checkmating this desperado—a secret service. There is no time to explain, as I've got a lot to do. But I hope to have this Chu-Chu person checkmated before many days. You leave it to me. But remember one thing; if Edith ever gets a suspicion of the true facts, all of my work and danger go for nothing. You understand."
"I understand," he said, and the tears gushed out of his eyes.
I gave his hand a grip and went out.
I walked to Edith's door and rapped. There was no time to fuss with being announced. I meant to see her, whether she wished it or not.
"It is Frank Clamart," I said, for I heard a rustle within.
"Come in, Frank," said a low, sweet voice. I entered. Edith was lying as I had seen her last, on the chaise longue by the open window. She was very pale and her eyes were like great jewels.
"I have brought back your pearls," I said, and laid them on the table.
"Thank you, Frank."
"I stole them," said I, looking at the floor.
"Why did you do that, Frank?" she asked, and her rich voice quivered the faintest trifle.
"You wouldn't understand," I muttered. "It's in the blood, I guess. They haunted me."
"But you have brought them back," said Edith, in a tremulous voice. I felt her eyes burning into me and did not dare look up.
"Yes," I said, and tried to put bitterness in my tone. "I brought them back—when I learned that I had been detected."
Edith caught her breath. "Look at me, Frank," she cried.
I raised guilty eyes—just for a second, then let them fall again. Edith burst into a storm of weeping.
"Frank, Frank," she cried. "Try again—try again."
I couldn't stand it. "Good-bye." I choked, and turned to the door. On the stairs I met Miss Dalghren. She drew her skirts aside as I passed.
Out of the house I rushed and hurried up to the office. I seemed to see Chu-Chu in every face I passed, and I hungered for him. Arrived at the office I wrote a note to Ivan, asking him to come at once to my address on a matter of the most vital importance. This I sent around to his house by a taxi, telling the driver to bring back an answer.
Half an hour later Ivan arrived. He smiled when he saw me and followed me into the private room without the slightest hesitation. When we were seated, I said:
"Count, before I go on permit me to apologise for two things. The first is for having made a scene the other day in your bureau."
Ivan smiled again.
"I have already forgiven you that offence," says he, "because you furnished me with some very valuable information."
"I am glad of that," I answered. "The second thing for which I wish to apologise is for having caused a certain amount of damage to your motor car."
Ivan laughed outright.
"Pray don't mention it," he cried, still laughing, and added, more seriously; "you are a very daring man, Mr. Clamart."
"Needs must when Chu-Chu drives," I said.
"I should have much regretted the loss of my mécanicien," says Ivan. "He is a useful man. Also, you came very near spoiling a good piece of work for me, although I could wish that you had if that unfortunate woman dies." A scowl crossed his handsome face. That Chu-Chu is the very devil, Mr. Clamart. There was absolutely no need for him to poison his victim. I know what he gave her. She would have been dead when the boat reached Calais if it had not been for her mal-de-mer. After your revelations in my office I would have broken with Chu-Chu had it not been that there was no one immediately available to put on the job. I am not a murderer, Mr. Clamart. To tell the truth, I am a bit of an artist, and promiscuous killing disgusts me. I have had enough of Chu-Chu. The pig never mentioned those gems that you took from him—or that I did," he smiled.
"The gems belonged to Baron Rosenthal," said I.
"To Rosenthal?" Ivan sprang up in his chair. "So much the worse."
"It is all right now," said I, "he has got them back."
"What?" cried Ivan, startled out of his self-control.
"I gave them back to him," said I. "You see, my dear Count, I do not boast when I say that I am a man of my word. Meeting Rosenthal in the Automobile Club he told me of his loss. He is an old friend of mine, and once saved me from a South American prison. They are not pleasant places. I told him that I had been for many years a professional thief and that in a quarrel with a confrère on a personal matter I had come into possession of the gems. Learning that they were his, I wished to restore them. The Baron asked no questions."
Ivan shook his fine head. "Either you are a madman, Mr. Clamart," says he, "or else you are something much more rare; an honest one."
"I am neither," I answered. "I am merely a man of my word."
Ivan shot me a curious look. "You are apt very soon to be a dead man," said he.
"That," said I, "brings me to the main point. Do you, my dear Count, wish that I were a dead man? Because if you do, I feel that I might just as well save you the trouble and blow my brains out. This would also save my nervous system a lot of wear and tear."
Ivan twisted the waxed tip of his moustache. He glanced at me once or twice, then slowly shook his head.
"No," said he, slowly. "Personally I wish you no ill. I like and admire you, Mr. Clamart. As you remarked yesterday, a man may be a criminal and yet have a certain code of ethics. I, myself, am not what Society would call a purely bad man. I steal from the rich, and sometimes, indirectly, as in the case of a bank, from the poor. Many respect able financiers do as much. But I give liberally to certain charities. It might surprise you to know that I am the sole supporter of an institution for tuberculous children. A child of my own once died of tuberculosis and my own early boyhood was menaced by the same disease."
"Your charity does not surprise me in the least," said I. "In fact, it shows me that I was correct in my estimate of your character. If I had not felt this quality in you I would never have given myself the trouble to go to you and ask for Miss Dalghren's pearls. We have much in common, Count. We are both gentlemen born and to some extent the victims of circumstance. My own career as a criminal was cut short because it conflicted with my personal honour. Now, my career as an honest man is apt to be cut short because it conflicts with my former career as a criminal. Chu-Chu will certainly kill me unless I am so fortunate as to kill Chu-Chu first. What are your own sympathies in this feud?"
Ivan gave me a straight look.
"They depend," said he, "on my own interests. Will you give me your word of honour that whatever happens you will never lay information that may injure me?"
I leaned forward and looked him in the eyes.
"Count," I said, "after our painful interview of yesterday morning, I determined to write a full statement which would incriminate you and your gang, and place it in the hands of some person with directions to put it in the hands of the police if I should suddenly be found murdered—or mysteriously disappear. Then I thought that I would write to you and tell you what I had done, thus making you, in a way, my guardian angel. But I did not do this. I had met with straight dealing and good faith at your hands—and I knew that as much as you might wish to do so, nothing on your part would ever prevent Chu-Chu from trying to settle his account with me. The man is a blood-maniac. This afternoon Cuttynge confessed to me that he had stolen his wife's pearls."
Ivan, whose lustrous eyes had never left mine, made an involuntary gesture, then controlled himself.
"Yes," said I, "Cuttynge was pressed by certain obligations and stole the pearls. He sold them outright, knowing that he could never explain their return. His confession proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that your dealings with me had been fair and generous. Now, my dear Count, you could have me assassinated at any time that suited your convenience, and no one would be the wiser. I have always detested the idea of a man's turning honest and then betraying his old pals to save his pelt. I won't do it. I wouldn't do it living, nor would I do it dead. As for your asking me for my word that I will never place any information injurious to you, it is not necessary. But since you ask for it, I give it. As long as you do not interfere in my feud with Chu-Chu I will never betray you."
"That's quite enough, Mr. Clamart," said he. "You have nothing to fear from me. Fight it out with Chu-Chu. I hope you kill him." He scowled again, and his handsome face underwent a lightning change from that of the polite man of the world to that of the criminal, which lies so near the surface in every professional thief.
"I have had enough of Chu-Chu," he snarled.
"Then why not back my own play?" I asked quickly.
"No. That could not be done. It would be bad for the organisation. You are, after all, an outsider, and Chu-Chu is one of us. He has no friends, but a great many admirers. Few men will work with him after having had the opportunity to observe his methods. Not long ago, when on a bank job in the south, he strangled the watchman whom he had previously corrupted and offered a share for holding his tongue. One of my younger men who assisted him protested. 'What does it matter?' asked Chu-Chu. 'It is cheaper than paying him, and the fellow is not one of our crowd. He is only an amateur. Myself, I respect only the professionals.' That is Chu-Chu. He would rather kill than not. Some day he will spoil everything. I have had enough of him. I hope that you manage to kill him, Mr. Clamart. He is no longer to be trusted, and it is even possible that if caught he might turn State's Evidence. He is an egoist a rank egoist."
"Then you will stand neutral yourself?" I asked.
"Absolutely. I will do more than that. If opportunity offers I might even give you a little unofficial help. Now I must go. I wish you good luck. You will need it. And a word in your ear; look out for an Oriental-looking person with one nostril much larger than the other. He is Chu-Chu's servant. Some say he is Chu-Chu's brain. Now I must go. Au revoir and the best of luck."
And out he went and jumped into his taxi and whirled off.