The Closing Net/Part 1/Chapter 9
THE FALCON STRIKES
I glanced at the watch in front of me and saw that it was three o'clock. It would take Kharkoff a good twenty minutes to catch us up, I thought, and by that time I ought to have the job done and be away, provided I did not put my own car out of action. Ahead of me, Chu-Chu had hit the top of the grade and disappeared. I opened up the big six and she went up that hill like a thirteen-inch shell. Then, here was a cloud of dust ahead, and as I tore down the slope on the other side I saw that it was a big limousine touring-car full of people. She was chugging along like an old tugboat, rattling like a junk-cart. I swore. The place was perfect for my plan, and there was Chu-Chu going down the grade ahead like a scared rabbit.
But the confounded old hearse behind her spoiled everything, and I knew that at the gait we were travelling we would mighty soon strike Abbeville. So I decided to wait until after that place, which was just as well, the country being wilder and bleaker beyond. I slowed down so as to keep Chu-Chu's dust in sight.
Soon we went through Abbeville and out on to the big straight road beyond. That two-seater of Ivan's could certainly get over the route and Chu-Chu was a good driver. I realised that I must ditch him before Montreuil, as after that the road is more frequented, so I hit up my pace and began to draw in on his heels. Then all at once there opened out a splendid, long, soaring descent with one or two gentle rises, for the country here is in great undulations, like a big Pacific ground-swell. Better yet, there was a row of poplars on either side of the road.
"If I can only manage to chuck him into one of those," I thought, "I can see where the tide-water clam gets a new lease of life."
The time had come. I gave the big six the accelerator, then opened up the siren. "Wop—wop—Wow-ow," she went. Chu-Chu's mécanicien looked back, then said something to Chu-Chu. He swerved out, never slackening his speed, which must have been around sixty kilometres, while my gauge showed ninety-six—a mile a minute, just. We were soaring down a long three per cent. grade, and the poplar trunks flashing past like the palings of a fence. "If he gets out of this alive the joke is certainly on me," I thought, and gripped the wheel with all of the strength that was in me.
Down I rushed like an angel of death, the silencer open and the exhaust roaring like a gatling gun. Until almost up to him I kept well over to the left, then began to edge in. The mécanicien looked back over his shoulder, and as he saw me crowding them, yelled something in Chu-Chu's ear. Chu-Chu slid over, getting dangerously off the crown of the road and almost into the ditch. I followed him, working closer. I saw the mécanicien's mouth open in a yell and he flung out one arm. Ruthless as a greyhound at the side of a hare, I closed in on him, forging always ahead. My eyes never left the road, but I could feel my mudguard rubbing his. This time the yell of the mécanicien reached me. It sounded like the bleat of a sheep.
Then, evenly abreast and my foot nursing the pedal, I shot ahead, giving the wheel the slightest twist. I heard the grind of metal, then a crash as I flirted the stern of my big car into the forward end of the other. I did not dare take my eyes from the road, and so slight was the jar that I thought that I had missed. But a shriek pierced the roaring of the exhaust and the next instant I heard from far behind me, as it seemed, a terrific crash. I cut off the power and braked, gently.
The car slowed, then stopped and I looked back. There was nothing on the road behind me. There was nothing in the ditch, against the trees. I flung up my mask. Lord of Life, but what was this, out there in the standing wheat? The other car, as I hope to live. The other car, both men still aboard it, and still going. It looked like a western reaper, out there in the waving grain.
I rubbed my eyes. What had happened? How did he get out there intact?
Then suddenly I understood. Even as I closed in on him, Chu-Chu had guessed what was afoot. Perhaps he recognised me, mask and all, in one swift sidelong glance. He saw my deadly intention and his marvellous quick wit had leaped at the only possible means of escape from annihilation. The shove I gave him had aided his own design and he had leaped the cross ditch, slipped between the trees, crashed through the hedge and shot into the wheat-field.
I stared at the line of poplars. At the foot of one lay a heap of débris; mudguards and marchepied, shorn off against a tree-trunk. Then I looked across at the car. It was still in motion, crawling on first speed through the grain and heading back for the road.
At the same instant I heard the shriek of a siren ahead. Down an opposite slope came a cloud of dust. It reached the bottom of the descent and hit the slight up-grade. Up it came, and at a distance of several hundred metres the people aboard it sighted Chu-Chu, out there in the wheat. The car slowed, then stopped beside my own.
"What is that?" cried the mécanicien. "What are those people doing out there?"
"I am afraid," I answered, "that the fault is mine. I was trying this new car and, passing Monsieur at a high speed, crowded him too close. Fearing to be pushed into the ditch he ran out into the field."
There were three people in the tonneau, two women and a man. They cried out in wonder and excitement.
"He has had a close call," said the chauffeur. "See, he scraped off his mudguards on a tree." And with that they all began to talk at once, and from the trend of the conversation I saw that the popular sympathy was not with me.
Then Chu-Chu did what must have impressed them as an incomprehensible thing. He had made a detour in the wheat and was approaching the road below us, where there was an entrance in the field. Reaching this he turned on to the route, when, without so much as a backward glance, he threw in his speed and whirled off down the slope.
"But look," cried the chauffeur, "he is going on!"
The others were silent from sheer amazement. No recriminations, no abuse, no procés-verbal? It was unheard of, astounding. They looked at me for an explanation of such conduct.
"Monsieur," said I, "doubtless feels himself to be in the wrong. As a matter of fact, there was plenty of room. Perhaps he lost his head and is angry and ashamed and feels that the less said the better."
The tide of sympathy quickly turned. "That must be the case," said the chauffeur. "As a matter of fact there is room for three cars to pass abreast on this road. A man who cannot keep his head ought not to drive. It is to imperil his own life and that of others."
I agreed with him, wondering what he would say when he saw my tracks, farther up the slope. But there was nothing more to discuss, so I bowed and started ahead. I knew that they would stop to look at the twisted remains of Chu-Chu's mudguards, and I could imagine their fresh mystification at his taking the matter so indifferently when they noted the evidence of our relative tracks. I doubted that I had left him the room for a man on a bicycle.
On I went, slowly and thinking hard. Chu-Chu had escaped by a miracle, aided by his own extraordinary coolness, skill and lightning thought. I actually admired the man. But it was plain enough that the scheme was not one to be tried a second time. Chu-Chu and the mécanicien were both armed, no doubt, and I could imagine the amiable state of their emotions.
A kilometre along I stopped and got out to look at my own damage, which amounted to no more than a flattened mudguard, the heavy angle-irons having taken all the strain and bent double. This was a slight affair and could be repaired in a few minutes at any wayside forge.
Well, that trick was played, and Chu-Chu had won it. There was no sense in following him up now, so I took the next cross-road and returned at a good gait to Paris.
On the way back my mind was presented by a very nasty consideration. The war with Chu-Chu was now on, full blast, and it occurred to me that owing to our remarkable resemblance John's life was in almost as much danger as my own. Chu-Chu was not the man to risk losing a chance through fear of getting the wrong person. John must be warned immediately, and persuaded, if possible, to leave the country and remain away until the feud was settled. So on reaching the garage I jumped into a taxi and went immediately to his house.
The old maitre d'hôtel seemed rather disturbed as he let me in, and a moment later I knew why. Drunken snores were reverberating through the ante-chambre. The old servant threw out his hands with a shrug.
"Yes, it is M'sieu ," says he. "M'sieu has not been himself to-day. He has consumed an entire bottle of whisky." He said this as though speaking of potassium cyanide. "After déjeuner, M'sieu threw himself down upon the divan in the library and went to sleep. Before long he began to snore. For the sake of Madame I tried to persuade him to go up to his room, but M'sieu's temper was very disagreeable. In fact, he threatened François with violence."
"Are the ladies at home?" I asked.
"Madame is reposing in her boudoir, but she left orders that if M. Clamart were to call, he should be shown up immediately. Miss Dalghren has gone out."
He led the way to the stairs and I followed, pausing for a moment to glance into the library. There was John stretched out on his back, snoring to heaven and his face purple. He was not pretty. I wondered if he often did that sort of thing, but did not care to ask.
I followed the old man up the stairs. He announced me at Edith's door, and I heard a sweet, low-pitched voice reply: "Que Monsieur entre."
I went in and closed the door gently behind me. John's drunken snores were filling the whole house. Edith was lying on a chaise-longue by the open window. A thrush was singing in the garden and there was the odour of lilacs. Edith did not rise, but looked up at me with her sweet smile. She was pale, and there were dark shadows under her eyes, but her face was tranquil and the eyes themselves clear and steady as always.
"Good afternoon, Frank," she said. "My warmest congratulations on your success."
"My success?" I repeated.
"Yes, in getting Mary's pearls. I told them that, you would."
"Oh," I answered, "I'd almost forgotten that. Truth is, Edith, I hoped to have yours this evening, but things have gone a bit wrong."
"Can you tell me about it?" she asked.
"Only this. Miss Dalghren's necklace was stolen to put me in a bad light."
"I know that," she interrupted.
"How?" I asked.
"John found the prints of your tennis shoes in the flower-bed under the window. It is an unusual pattern, and you wore those shoes one afternoon, you remember, when you went with John to Chartres. Then, Mary discovered one of your handkerchiefs in her room. It was all plain enough."
I felt my face getting hot. "John might have told me this," I growled.
Edith reached over and patted the back of my hand.
"Don't worry, Frank. We knew that it was all a put-up job. That woman?" She raised her delicate eyebrows.
"She wanted to get you back," said Edith. "I guessed that much."
"How about John and Miss Dalghren?" I asked.
"Did you see John when you came in?" she asked.
"No. He was asleep."
Edith glanced out of the window. "John has been drinking too much for a long time, and thinks that I have not noticed it," said she, quietly. "I hate the idea of nagging, Frank, so I have waited for a culmination which would make my protest unavoidable. Now it has come. John is dead drunk in his own drawing-room, for the first time in his life. He cannot be awakened. He is a kind husband and a very proud man, and I have no fear but that the remorse which follows this will effect the result I want. John will pass me his word and like yourself, Frank, he keeps his word. A family trait." She smiled.
Now what do you think of that? Here were the two string of pearls stolen and my tracks and handkerchief found. Yet this woman's faith in me was as firm and unwavering as ever. And her own pearls were still missing. For the moment I could hardly speak.
"This has been hard on us all, Frank," Edith went on. "It has been hard on John, because he is a practical sort of person and inclined to look at matters from their results. To be frank, I think that it is the worry of these thefts which is accountable for his condition."
"Does he suspect me?" I asked.
"No. He is very worried, though, over the whole affair."
"And Miss Dalghren?" I asked.
"She is less charitable. She refuses to believe that you are not in some way interested. When I pointed out that nobody as adroit as yourself would go tramping about a flower-bed with shoes having a design stamped on the sole, or would have dropped a handkerchief in her room, she said: I don't believe that he stole my necklace. She agreed with me that that theft was a put-up job on the part of your former confrères who used you as a scapegoat. But she argued that inasmuch as this had occurred you felt that there was no sense in having the name without the game, and that you had come down the next night and stolen mine."
"Miss Dalghren must have a beautiful idea of my sense of gratitude," said I.
"She has had some bitter experiences where gratitude was concerned, Frank," Edith answered. "Besides, while a sweet and sympathetic girl, she is not over bright. You see, Frank, I am not holding back a single thing from you. It is better that you should know exactly how you stand with us."
"And you, Edith?" I asked.
A warm flush came into her lovely face. "I know that you are innocent of any wrong, Frank," said she.
My friend, for a moment I could scarcely speak. Something rose in my throat and choked me, and there was a mist in my eyes. I reached for Edith's hand and raised it to my lips.
"Thank you, Edith," was all I could manage to say.
For a moment or two neither of us spoke. Edith was looking at me questioningly.
"Is there anything that you can tell me?" she asked. "I have no doubts, Frank, but I am curious." She smiled.
For the instant I was tempted to tell her the whole story. I felt that her quiet faith in me entitled her to know. I wanted her to see what I had been through—what I was risking to clear myself and restore her jewels.
But second thoughts prevented this. I knew that the tale would prove too much for her. I was unwilling to expose her to the shock. More than that, if Edith had known that I was holding stolen gems as security for the return of her jewels she would never have permitted it. So I said:
"I can't tell you anything just yet, Edith. All I can say is that Miss Dalghren's pearls were stolen, as you supposed, to drive me back to the old life. The theft of yours was different. The same person who had been detailed to do the first job for somebody else, came back and did the second on his own account. But the hand is not yet played out. Give me a little more time."
Soon after that I left her and went out of the house. Half-way across the garden I saw the gate open and Miss Dalghren came in. Her colour changed on seeing me and for the moment she seemed uncertain as to how she should act. Then she came forward quickly.
"Mr. Clamart," said she, "may I speak a few words to you?"
"Certainly, Miss Dalghren," I answered.
"Then come over here," said she, and led the way to the summer-house. Inside the vine-covered bower she motioned me to sit opposite.
"Mr. Clamart," said she, fastening her vivid, blue eyes on mine. "First of all I want to thank you for the recovery of my pearls."
"Have you succeeded in learning anything about Edith's?" she asked.
"Not yet," I answered.
A shadow crossed her face. Her colour deepened.
"You have seen Edith?"
"I have just left her," said I. "She told me of your suspicions. They are not the truth, but I don't blame you for having them."
She made an impatient gesture with her hand.
"I should hardly describe them as suspicions, Mr. Clamart," said she, and gave me a straight look. "They are rather more than that."
"Indeed?" I answered. It struck me all of a sudden that Chu-Chu must have left some more convincing evidence the second time than he did the first. But I was rather beyond caring much about that now. Edith believed in me and that was enough.
Miss Dalghren's intent blue eyes never left mine. I began to feel my patience squirming around a bit. Thought I, this fool of a girl thinks that she knows something and is trying to make me 'fess up. Even if she were right, I wonder if she thinks her will is stronger than mine? Does she take me for a Sunday-school scholar? Or a pilfering valet-de-chambre? I began to get angry. Miss Dalghren was one of those noble, upright women who are so straight that they bend over backward. For that kind, all humanity is divided into two big classes; good and bad. There is nothing between. Such people have an unbounded faith in the militant strength of virtue. Secure in their own they are convinced that no sinful person can meet the power of their blameless eye, and they keep on thinking so until some joker with an equally strong but more supple will bamboozles them out of whatever it is that they value most. I have always hated that breed of unconscious "oh, come, sinning brother, and sin no more" pharisee. They do a lot of harm; much more, in fact, than others with a lot less virtue and a little more tolerance. This girl was convinced that I had stolen Edith's pearls, and nothing was going to unconvince her. I wasn't. She made me tired.
Miss Dalghren may have seen my face harden up, for her eyes began to blaze. At least, there was plenty of fight in her, and no fear at all.
"Mr. Clamart," says she, "have you no sense of gratitude? No scruple nor respect for your given word? Just think what these people did for you. Think of the penal servitude from which they rescued you and the opportunity which they have offered you for reconstructing your life. And see the suffering that you have brought into their home. There is John——"
"He's not suffering much at the present moment," I interrupted.
Her teeth came together with a click and she clenched her fists.
"How can you sneer like that?" she cried. "John is lying there in the library, dead drunk. And why? Because of the shame and remorse that has resulted from your cruelty. John suspects you. So far, he merely suspects; he has not the absolute knowledge that I have."
"Absolute knowledge of what?" I asked.
"That you stole Edith's pearls," says she, pushing out her square little chin.
"So much the better for John," I remarked.
A spasm of anger went across her face.
"Yes," she answered, "so much the better for John, perhaps. But it is not so much the better for you, Mr. Clamart. Now listen to me. I don't like to make threats, but I will not stand quietly by and see the happiness of my friends wrecked by such a man as you. I felt from the first that this experiment was foolish and dangerous, but I did think that you would at least spare your benefactors. But since you appear to be dead to all sense of finer feeling, I mean to act. If those pearls are not restored within forty-eight hours, I will tell what I know."
"And what is that?" I asked.
She gave her handsome head a toss. "It is quite enough," she answered; and turning on her heel, walked out of the summer-house and took the path to the house.