The Closing Net/Part 1/Chapter 3
LÉONTINE DIGS IN THE SAND
It was this same Prince Kharkoff, you remember, who got me shipped off to Cayenne. But that was three years before, and when I had been fool enough to get caught in his bear-trap grip, that day at the races, I was wearing a Vandyk beard and moustache. But now I was smooth shaven, and, considering my surroundings and resemblance to John, there was no danger of his recognising me, especially as he and the Cuttynges had frequently met at dinner and receptions. Being with Léontine he did not bow.
Léontine had not seen us, and as she swung slowly in her chair to see who her neighbors were, I turned as if to speak to John. There were a good many people looking, and I was not sure that the girl would be able to hide her feelings. You see, my play in getting myself collared to save the rest of the crowd had hit her pretty hard, especially as she knew that I would have pulled the job off all right except for her wilfulness. As she saw it she had cost me my liberty for life, so that when I tackled the agent, and held him while the others got away in the car, she was horribly broken up. You see, we were already pretty well started on one of those swift, savage affairs that sometimes happen in the Under-World, where people don't know at what moment they may find iron bars between them. Every day that I was in the Santé I had got a love message from her.
John was taking her in through his monocle.
"Gad—she is a beauty," he whispered to me, then added: "What's the matter with her?"
I glanced carelessly about. Kharkoff and the girl had seated themselves. The Prince was staring around the house, but Léontine was straight in her chair, her face pale and her eyes fixed on the stage, while her bosom was heaving like that of a runner at the end of a race. Suddenly Kharkoff turned to say something and noticed the rigid expression of her face. His bushy brows came down and he leaned over so that his beard brushed her gleaming shoulder.
"Qu'est ce que tu as … dis …?" I heard him ask in the thick voice that I remembered so well.
Léontine pulled herself together and managed a smile.
"Un vertige … ce n'est rien …" she answered, and raised her fan.
When I glanced at her again a few minutes later she was looking at the stage. Her cheeks were still pale, but there was a crimson spot in each. She felt my eyes on her and flashed me a quick look, which passed to Edith, then Miss Dalghren. I was watching her closely and saw her gaze fasten on both sets of pearls and there was an unholy gleam in her tawny eyes. She took a deep breath, then turned to the Prince and whispered a few words.
John leaned over and said, with his lips so close to my ear that I caught the strong reek of liquor:
"Ain't she a wonder! All Paris is mad to find out who she really is—and what. Somebody asked Kharkoff about her at the Automobile Club the other night,, just before they started to play. 'La femme du diable!' he growled. That's the name she goes by now."
"She looks it," I whispered, wondering what he would say if he was to know that she was the woman who had shoved the gun into my hand while she hissed into my ear to shoot him dead a couple of weeks before.
Léontine was wearing a pale green chiffon gown and her black hair was drawn down under a gold band set with emeralds. Her neck and shoulders glowed like old ivory. Edith and Miss Dalghren were stealing sidelong glances at her. Then the latter turned to me, and her blue eyes held a sort of inquiry which made me wonder if she had noticed Léontine's expression when she first looked into our box.
Presently the curtain rose and the stage took everybody's attention—that is, everybody's but mine. I was doing some mighty hard thinking, you can bet.
Just before the curtain fell Léontine and Kharkoff left the box. Edith turned to me.
"Did you ever see so wonderful a creature?" she asked.
"Did you?" said Miss Dalghren.
"She's rather too exotic for my taste," I answered.
"Do you know who she is?" asked the girl.
"They call her 'the Devil's wife'!" said John. "Let's go out and see if she's in the promenade."
So we got up and went out. As we left the box Kharkoff and Léontine passed, dressed for the street. I was talking to Miss Dalghren and Léontine's eyes avoided mine but rested for a moment intently on the girl. Miss Dalghren gave a little shiver.
"She's rather terrible, I think," said she. "Did you see the look she gave me? It was not agreeable. I wonder why?"
"Jealousy, perhaps," said John.
"Of what? " asked Miss Dalghren, quickly.
"I fancy," said John, "that for all of her dark beauty the Night is always a bit jealous of the Morning; also, your pearls are finer than hers."
Miss Dalghren shrugged her handsome shoulders, but did not seem pleased. We started to walk through the press, talking of the music and the people, and presently returned to the box.
When the show was over and we went out into the crush a woman attendant brushed past me and slipped a piece of paper into my hand. I guessed what it was and shoved it into my pocket, fiercely angry for the second that Léontine should have taken a chance like that. But the attendant had glanced at the lapel of my coat, and I saw that Léontine had probably noticed John's decoration and told the woman to give the note to the one of us who did not wear the red ribbon. John had been decorated for some silly thing or other; assisting at the unveiling of a statue, I believe.
We went for supper, then home. As soon as I was alone in the pretty chintz bedroom where Edith had put me I took the note from my pocket and read:
"How does it happen? How, how, how? Oh, my dear, are you your own man? Meet me in the rose garden at Bagatelle to-morrow morning at 11. Don't dare to fail me.L."
Let me tell you, my friend, that I was not pleased with this note. Léontine was not for me. She belonged to the Under-World—or at best the Half-World—and I had put all thought of her away from me with the criminal life which I had passed my word to give up. Whether she was an anarchiste, a spy, or one of Ivan's organised mob, I did not know, and had no wish to find out.
At first I thought that I would send her a line to say that my past and everything included in it was blotted out. Mind you, I had known Léontine for only about five hours, and then, except for the few minutes when we were in John's house, in the company of a gay crowd of high-rolling thieves. So it seemed a little thick that she should bother me now when I had escaped a life sentence by a miracle—or as Edith said, "the grace of God." I owed her nothing, but she owed me a lot and I thought that the best way would be to write and claim that she pay me the debt by leaving me alone.
Thinking it over, however, I decided that this very payment was probably the only one that a woman like Léontine would refuse to meet, unless absolutely convinced that it was the only one which I would ever accept. Besides, I had a feeling that down underneath there was a lot of heart to Léontine and a little good sense. So I decided to meet her and make things plain, when I thought that I could count on her to do her part and make no trouble.
When I came down the next morning I found John on the terrace reading the papers over his coffee. He looked up with a nod and a smile.
We talked for a few minutes, then said John:
"Frank, do you know anything about motors?"
Yes," I answered. "I've fooled around cars a good deal." I didn't add that I had once made a tour of New England in a motor-car, working the different places we struck en route.
"Good," says he, then went on to tell me how for some time past he had been considering a new motor-car proposition. A few days before he came to see me in the Santé he had decided to take it up, backing it with quite a lot of capital. The concern had rented a place on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, but was at a standstill for lack of funds.
"You speak perfect French," says he, "and understand business methods over here. How would you like to take the managership of the Paris office?"
"That would suit me to the ground," I answered.
"Well, then," says he, "we'll go up there this afternoon and look things over. Have you anything to do before luncheon?"
"Yes," said I. "There's one of my former pals I must see and give it out straight that I'm retiring from the graft business."
John looked thoughtful. "Perhaps you're right," says he. "You don't anticipate any trouble, do you?"
"No," I answered, "there's nothing to fear. Thieves often do just what I'm doing; get out of it in time. Fact is, most thieves chuck the game soon after middle age, if they're out of jail. I'll hand it out cold that I've quit, and make it plain that so far as the old gang is concerned I never knew it."
This may sound queer, but as a matter of fact it's nearly as frequent for a crook to turn honest as it is for an honest person to turn crook.
So out I went and hailed a motor-taxi and spun through the Bois to Bagatelle. I told my driver to let me out at the main gate on the side of the Bois, when I walked across to the rose garden. There was nobody in sight, so I strolled up to the little summer-house, looking over the gardens, and waited, for I was a bit ahead of time. The day was perfect; cloudless and the air soft and fragrant. Nobody was in the gardens, so far as I could see, and pretty soon I got tired of waiting and started to stroll down one of the narrow paths, banked on either side with perfumed laurel.
It was at the first abrupt bend of the little path that I came face to face with Léontine. She was in a dark blue riding-habit with a little tricorne hat of Loden felt cocked a bit on her wavy black hair. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were sparkling, and as we came together she flung back her head and threw out both arms.
"Frank!" she cried, as if I had been a long-lost lover, instead of a burglarising acquaintance of from nine until two. The next instant she was in my arms, or to put it more exactly, I was in hers, and her fresh face, with its faint odour of Houbigant, was crushed against mine.
My friend, a man can't stand being fondled by as lovely a woman as Léontine and never lift a hand. This man couldn't, at that time, so I caught her in my arms and gave her a squeeze that made her gasp, big strong woman that she was. But she must have felt the lack of fire in it and as I loosed my grip she laid one of her gauntleted hands on my chest and pushed herself away, while her clear, curious eyes looked searchingly into mine.
"Frank," she said in her rich voice, "are you really free? Your own man—and mine?"
"I'm free all right," I answered, "but neither yours nor mine, my dear girl."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Come over here in the summer-house and I will tell you all about it," I answered.
When we were in the little pagoda I told her the whole story. Léontine listened in silence.
". … So you see," I finished, "my word is passed and I'm going to make good. I've done with everything belonging to the old life."
Léontine began to trace figures in the dust with the loop of her riding crop. Presently she said:
"And are you content to give up your freedom as tamely as this?"
"I gave it up," said I, "when I tackled that agent to keep the rest of you from getting pinched."
She looked at me quickly and her eyes darkened.
"Ah, that was splendid," says she, "—that was glorious. Oh, Frank, nobody will ever know what I suffered that night. If Ivan and Chu-Chu had not held me fast I would have leaped out of the car and shot that policeman. When they got me home I was like a mad woman. They locked me in my room and the girls never left me for two days. Because I knew that it was all my fault. I spoiled everything. But," she gave me a burning look, "I never imagined that it could be as bad as this."
"You've never done time in a French penal colony," said I. "This is good enough for me."
Léontine stamped her booted foot.
"Then it's not good enough for me," she cried, in a hot voice. "If you think that I am going to give you up like this, you are mistaken, Frank."
I did not answer. She looked at me and her eyes filled.
"You told me that night that you loved me," she whispered, "and my heart leaped to meet yours. I have never loved a man before, Frank. The minute that our hands touched and I looked into your cold, grey eyes I knew that I had found my mate and my master. You belong to me, Frank, and to my world. Society is our enemy. Why should you go hat in hand and ask to be taken back? Listen, Frank. Find out how much your half-brother paid to get you clear. Then we will pay it back. I am rich, just now. Afterwards, if you like, we will go away——"
I raised my hand. "Thank you, my dear," I said gently; "but it can't be done. My word is passed. The money is only a part of the debt. The good faith, the warmth of heart and voluntary good will are things that I can only repay by being worth them—and, so help me, I intend to."
A dark flush came into Léontine's face. She looked at me fixedly for a moment, then began again to trace patterns in the dust. Finally she said:
"Suppose that you had not been caught—that I had not been such a fool as to insist on going upstairs after the pearls—what would you have done? Did you really care for me, or was it just the madness of the moment? Did you really intend to win me?" She fastened me with those wonderful eyes of hers.
"I meant to win you," I answered. "Nothing would have kept me from it. I was mad about your beauty, it's true; but there was something else besides——" I stopped.
"What, Frank?" she asked, softly, and laid her hand on my shoulder, leaning toward me until her flushed face was almost against mine.
I gave a short laugh. "It sounds like a foolish thing for a professional thief to say, Léontine," I answered, "but it was because I felt the good in you."
Léontine's eyes opened wide.
"You are the first man to feel that," she answered.
"It is there," I answered; "tons of it. You have plenty of heart, my dear, and a great big generous soul. I don't know anything about you, but I know that you are not bad. Not by a long shot."
"I am a thief," she flashed back. "A thief on a bigger scale than you ever dreamed of, mon ami."
"And I am a thief no longer," I answered.
"But if you were——?"
"If I were——" I hesitated. The fascination of her was beginning to turn my head, as it had that night. "If I were—then all hell could never keep you from me," I cried, and reached for her with both arms.
For a few mad seconds everything was blurred. Then I pushed her away. Her arms still clung, but I was the stronger. She reeled back against the rustic rail and pressed her hands against her temples.
"But I'm not," I muttered, and stepped away. "As long as my half-brother and his angel of a wife continue to believe in me I shall never break faith—and this is good-by, Léontine."
She looked at me with a curious expression in her tawny eyes.
"And if they should lose their faith in you?" she asked.
I shrugged. "It's my business to see that they never do," I answered.
Léontine gave me a curious smile. "We'll see, Frank," said she, softly. "Once a thief, always a thief. It's in the blood."
Suddenly she turned and walked down the path and disappeared behind the heavy foliage.
That afternoon John took me up to see the new car that he was promoting. The company planned to make only big fellows. One of their six-cylinders was in the garage and we took her out for a spin over the road. We made the run to Chartres in about fifty minutes, John driving. The chief mécanicien was with us and his son, a bright youngster of eighteen, named Gustave.
On the way home we stopped at the Automobile Club for a business talk with three members of the company with whom John had made a rendezvous: a Swiss engineer, the General Director and the General Superintendent. It was arranged that I should take charge of the Paris office, my principal duty being to show the car to clients. After the others had gone John and I remained to talk, and I noticed that in the course of our conversation he took several drinks of whisky and soda. He was in that state of buoyancy about the new venture that you find so often in the rich amateur whose only knowledge of business comes from buying things instead of trying to sell them. He told me that he had always been very sore at his dependence on his wife for every cent he spent and that he soon hoped to be a rich man on his own account. He hinted to me that he had several things in hand from which he expected big results, and that if all went as it should he would be able to back his automobile venture with a couple of million francs. But he didn't tell me what there was to warrant these expectations, and I rather suspected that he was playing the stock market. I noticed that with every drink he got a little more sanguine, and as his spirit went up my own went down. To tell the truth, I began to fear that a good many of John's big ideas came out of the whisky bottle.
That night at dinner John was very jolly and talkative at first, but toward the end his good-nature passed off, and I could see that the reaction was setting in. John did not impress me as a drinking man. His methods were more those of a person who is bothered about something and hits the bottle to drown care.
After dinner Edith and Miss Dalghren went out to the studio, as Edith wanted to study the effects of artificial light on the portrait. John and I went into the smoking-room, and I noticed that he took three cups of strong black coffee.
I said good-night early, for the ride had made me sleepy. While I was undressing there came a rap at the door, and the maître d'hôtel handed me a tray with a letter addressed in Léontine's hand, which was of the round, English sort.
"Confound the girl," I said to myself, "here's more trouble." I sat down at a little writing desk and opened the letter. There were fathoms and fathoms of it; a regular essay.
She began by telling me that since our meeting at Bagatelle she had been thinking constantly of the step which I had taken, and had decided to write and tell me the result of her reflections. She had also, she said, been analysing the state of her sentiments toward me (I could imagine her doing that as much as I could imagine a small boy analysing the effect of a match held to a heap of loose powder), and she had found that she loved me enough to give me up and to help me in my new resolutions, provided she could manage to persuade herself, or be persuaded, that such an act on my part was rational. So far, however, my reform under the existing conditions impressed her as fore-doomed to failure, and could result only in unhappiness to me and social injury to those who had befriended me. At present, said she, they were enthusiastic over my redemption, while I, for my part, was full of gratitude and good resolutions. But, said Léontine, the leopard cannot change his spots. Once a thief, always a thief. Sooner or later the old instincts are bound to awaken. "As long as all goes smoothly with you," said she, "all right and good. But if ever you should be pressed; if you were to get in any sort of financial difficulty, as happens to all business people at times, you would find the temptation to take the easy way out irresistible. No, Frank," she wrote, "once a thief, always a thief."
Then she went on to say how, in time, my past was bound to become known, and that there would always surround me an atmosphere of spectacular notoriety, which was bound to hurt my friends and make me, myself, uncomfortable. If I married into the class of society where I now found myself the stain would always stick to wife and children, said Léontine. A reformed burglar, said she, might do for a very quiet or else a Bohemian Society, but was bound to be utterly out of his element in the aristocratic circles of my half-brother and his wife. My duty to them, said Léontine, was to tell them that I could never be of their world and to go away. "Do that before they begin to be conscious of their mistake," she wrote.
About here I stopped and did some solid thinking. There was no doubt but that the girl was dead right; absolutely right. I had felt it myself in a vague sort of way. It struck me suddenly, and I tell you the thought was a mighty bitter one, that all of this must, of course, have occurred to Edith, but because she was such an angel of a woman, she had decided on her line of duty and meant to follow it at any cost. I wondered if John had seen it in the same way, and decided that, for his part, he was probably so pleased with himself for the fine thing that he was doing as not to reckon in the cost. You see, I was losing my respect for my half-brother, as a man, just as I was gaining it for his wife, as a woman. You didn't need an X-ray machine to see smack through John. He was a good, kind, easy-going sort of chap, with artistic tastes, athletic, physically brave, but morally weak. No doubt if he had ever had to work for his living it might have stiffened his back. But he had been an idler from childhood, with all of his wants provided for, and had always been too lazy to use his opportunities to employ what energy he had. He was the typical dilettante, dabbling at art and sports and science, and never making himself the master of anything, least of all himself. No man with any real stuff in him who was care-free, in robust health, with a fine position, and, most of all—and here something blazed up inside me—such a woman as Edith for his wife, would be sitting, as no doubt he was that moment, guzzling whisky in his smoking-room, to go reeling up a little later to snore drunkenly at his wife's side for the rest of the night. Augh!
It may seem beastly ungrateful of me, my friend, but the idea gave me a sort of hot rage. I felt like going down the stairs and smashing the decanter over his head.
I took up Léontine's letter again. "As far as your half-brother is concerned," she went on, "it does not so much matter. After all, there is a blood tie between you, and blood is thicker than water. Besides, Frank, I have learned a good deal about him from Kharkoff and another man. He is not a very wonderful person. But, for his wife's sake, do you yourself think that you ought to remain one of the household? From what you have told me, I can see that your ransom was all her doing—and why should she have done it?"
"Yes," I said to myself. "Why should she have done it?"
From this point the letter jumped into another key. "Frank," wrote Léontine, "don't think that I am urging you to remain in the Under-World. I love your firmness and I adore your strength of purpose. You are too good for a thief; too strong and fine. Oh, my dear, do you think that I have never felt as you do? Do you think that I have never wished to get out of this slough? To look the whole world in the face without fear and without reproach? I am sick of this atmosphere of doubt and defiance. Let us go away together and begin our lives afresh. We are both young and strong and talented. Let us go far away to some new country and begin our lives anew, and on a clean and wholesome footing. Let us pay your money debt, Frank—for all that I have is yours. You told me to-day that Society's debt to you had been paid in full. My dear, Society owes me a debt also; a debt far greater than yours. But if Society will give me you, I will consider the obligation as cancelled"; and then there was a whole lot which would make me feel even more a fool to repeat.
I dropped the letter on the desk and ran my hands through my hair. The room felt hot, the night was hot, my head was hot. Up I jumped and opened the window on the other side, and a fresh breeze swept in. For several minutes I stood in the window, facing it, my head in a whirl. Léontine was right, I thought. Such a past as mine could never be kept a secret. It was bound to become known, and then what would be said of Edith for harbouring a criminal—a low grade of criminal: burglar, sneak-thief, pickpocket? No doubt the story would reach Kharkoff. Léontine herself might tell him, and he would remember how I had tried to relieve him of his winnings that day at the races, when he had caught me and got me deported to Cayenne. I was a marked man. My picture was in the French Rogue's Gallery and my head measurements in the Bertillon records.
To think that Edith should fall heiress to all this! Edith, that angel of a woman. The very thought of her sent a glow through me. Angel she might be, and as such far above all earthly shame and suffering. But she was a woman, too—and such a woman. My heart was full of her, and my mind too; and as I stood there in the long window, staring into the dark shadows of the trees, I saw the sweet, thoughtful face with the clear, steady eyes and sensitive mouth. Such a woman was meant for love and happiness and peace of soul in which to accomplish the work of her rich gifts; not to suffer the sneers and evil criticisms of an evil world.
Suddenly I knew why Léontine's feverish kisses had left me cold. I knew why my gratitude to John was turning slowly to a cold disgust. It had not taken long, I thought, with a sort of joyful pain.
In a rage I turned back to the table to torture myself afresh with Léontine's letter. The girl was right. So be it, she should have her way. I would go with her to the ends of the world.
Such a woman as Edith was not for me. Léontine and I were well mated; creatures of the same clay. We were of the earth, earthy. Heaven was not for my kind, and it seemed to me that if I were to go clawing after it worse things might happen, not only to me but to this sweet woman who was ready to sacrifice her own position, if need be, to help me. The Polish girl and I were of, and belonged to, the Under-World. We were destroyers; tearers down of the established order of affairs.
So I turned and read the letter through again, and then, with a curse, I held a lighted match to one corner, and it seemed to me that with it burned all of my new-found future.