The Closing Net/Part 2/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI
TEMPTATION

It was good to be out again, and I couldn't remember when I had felt so fit. The night was soft, very dark, and the air heavy and oppressive, with a sort of tension to it that made me think there would be a thunderstorm before morning. Everybody seemed to be out, and the sidewalks in front of the cafés were crowded.

It was different, however, when I got over in the neighbourhood of the Parc Monceau, for this was a rich quarter, and the residents were off touring or at the springs and beaches. Most of the houses were tightly shuttered and there was scarcely a cat on the streets. I began to be afraid that Ivan might be out of town himself, though it was not often he left headquarters.

When I got to his house, sure enough, it was closed up as tight as a box, with never a sign of life. It was a pretty little Renaissance building, with a small garden in front and a larger one behind it, this running down to a high wall which was on a small street that cut at an angle the street on which the house faced. Another house, with a garden of its own, occupied the sharp corner plot. There was a small door in the back wall of Ivan's garden, so that the house could be left or entered from front or rear. The arrangement was the same in Léontine's house—and is, in fact, a very popular one in Paris.

I approached the house from the front and, after a quick glance up and down the street, stopped in front of the grilled iron gate and looked in. The little path seemed to be littered with leaves and twigs, and looked as if it had not been cleaned for some time. This fact struck me as suspicious, for it looked as if Ivan were trying to give the impression that the house was closed. I did not believe that he would leave it empty, even if he went away. Still, it was possible; and feeling rather disappointed, I slipped round the corner to see if I could discover any evidence that the back entrance was being used.

The street was dark and silent. I walked noiselessly to the little door and, after a quick look round, dropped on my knees and examined the sill. Sure enough, somebody had crossed it, and that recently, for there were light dustmarks on the darker stone.

For a moment I hesitated, not knowing exactly what to do. It was mighty important that I should see Ivan, as I had promised Sœur Anne Marie to let up on Chu-Chu until I had made the effort to fix up a peace treaty. Chu-Chu hadn't promised anybody to let up on me, however; so, for the time being, the odds were all with him, and that's bad business when you're out to do a man up.

Well, there was only one way to find out if Ivan was in the house, and that was to go in and see. Naturally enough, he wouldn't want me hammering at the door when he was trying to give out the idea that the shop was closed; so I reached up and fumbled round in the ivy until my fingers got a grip on the edge of the wall, then hove myself up and lay for a moment stretched out at full length on the top, well hidden by the heavy growth of ivy, listening and watching.

My friend, if you want to find out something, let me tell you there is nothing like quiet watching. No matter where you watch, you always see something. Animals understand this principle better than humans, and the wilder an animal is, the more patient he is about this watching game. I'd learned the lesson already; so now I just lay there with every sense alert, waiting for something to turn up—and pretty soon it did.

The garden was perhaps about thirty metres long by twenty wide, and was a sort of little terrace, completely shaded by closely trimmed marronniers. I had been perhaps ten minutes on the top of the wall when I heard a door open softly and the sound of light footfalls on the gravel. The trees were trimmed a little higher than the wall, and, looking under their low branches, I saw two figures coming toward the door. As they drew near I was able to make them out, even in the gloom, as Ivan and Chu-Chu.

Straight up to where I lay they marched and halted directly underneath. I could have reached down and touched Chu-Chu's straw hat. He was in the costume of an artisan—a plumber or painter—and wore a long cotton blouse buttoned round his wrists, and a black straw hat.

Apparently he and the Chief had disagreed about something, for Ivan said sharply, though in a very soft voice:

"Then you will not undertake it? That is final?"

"It is not worth my while," growled Chu-Chu. After all, I am the one to risk my liberty—not you."

"You risk nothing if you carry out my directions to the very foot of the letter," snapped Ivan.

Chu-Chu shrugged. "Perhaps," said he, "but you must remember that I am the only man who could do the job."

"It is very plain," said Ivan, in about as nasty a tone as a man could use, "that you are suffering from the malady of egoism, Monsieur Maxeville—though why, I cannot imagine. One would have thought that your recent misfortunes might have taught you a little modesty. I could name a man who could do this piece of work in a way to make you look like a tyro!"

"And who is that?" growled Chu-Chu. And I wondered at Ivan's daring. I had sized him up as the least bit afraid of his operator; but either he was very angry, or else had more nerve than I had given him credit for.

"That, my friend," Ivan answered, in a catty voice, "is our American friend, Monsieur Clamart, alias the 'Tidewater Clam,' alias 'The Swell,' alias 'Sir Frank.' Did you ever hear of him, you Basque apprentice?" There was a snarl of rage in his voice, and I began to think that Ivan was a more dangerous man than I had thought. "He stood you in a corner of my study while he took away from you the Baron Rosenthal's gems; he ditched you on the road to Calais and would have made you pay your dominoes then and there if your sponsor the devil had not taken care of you; he cut you up the other day and spoiled a job worth a good sixty thousand francs—and, for all you know, he might land on your fat neck this moment. And yet you have the toupet to tell me that you are the only man in Europe who can do this job which I have more than three-quarters done already!"

Chu-Chu seemed actually a little cowed. As for me, I could feel myself beginning to puff up until I was afraid the bushy ivy might fail to hide me. You can say what you like, a sincere worker is bound to take a certain pride in the thing he's been trained to—honest or dishonest. I'd chucked "graft" and asked nothing better than to live and work on the level; but somehow those words of Ivan's cheered me up inside and gave me a sort of homesick feeling. It was plain enough that he had a deal on, and Chu-Chu was standing out for the first squeeze of the press.

From the tone of Ivan's voice I could almost have hoped that he was trying to pick a quarrel, and that, with a little luck, my work might be done for me, as I doubted that Ivan would have dared to take that tone unless he had his mines of defence all laid. No doubt his hand cuddled a pistol as he spoke, and perhaps Chu-Chu may have known it. At any rate, he probably thought that one feud on his hands at a time was enough; nor do I believe that he wanted to quarrel with the Chief, for he said, in a surly sort of way:

"You need to remember that you were making a stork-leg at the same time, my dear Count; also that both of the times this cursed American attacked me I was at work on one of your jobs and giving my whole attention to that. If I've got to attend to our joint business it seems to me that you might at least give orders that this rôdeur be put out of business. If you will do that I will agree to take up this job on your own terms."

Ivan shook his head. "No," says he, "that is strictly your own affair. I don't want anything to do with it."

Chu-Chu hesitated a minute, then he said: "Chief, I will tell you what I'll do. If you will rid me of the American I will consider that as my share of the transaction and do the job gratuitously. I can't do my work when I don't know what minute I may get a knife under the shoulder-blade."

Here was high praise, let me tell you; Chu-Chu asking for help. That was more than I had hoped for; and, if it hadn't been for my promise to Sœur Anne Marie, let me tell you that his cry for help would have come too late. Did you ever see a bull-terrier crouching in front of a badger's cage watching, as silent and as still as a tombstone, barring only the fine shiver rippling through him every few minutes? That's the way I was watching Chu-Chu. Maybe I was more like a cat, for there was no shiver going through me—only a sort of quiet, deadly patience, for I knew that he was not for me just yet. Perhaps the very fact of my not intending to kill him was what kept him from sensing me up there on the wall, though I was screened by the heavy foliage of the marronniers, to say nothing of the ivy, while a street lamp at some distance lighted the leaves overhead and put me in the shadow. Just the same, nothing could persuade me that Chu-Chu would have stayed long within my reach if I had been meaning to kill him. That extra sense would have made him restless.

If Ivan was tempted by this offer he failed to show it. Perhaps, like myself, he was a man of his word; or maybe he considered it beneath his dignity as Chief to bargain. At any rate, he answered:

"As I told you before, I want nothing to do with that affair. Never mind my motive—that is my own business. If you had dealt fairly with me in the matter of the Rosenthal stones you would never have got yourself in such an embarrassing position."

"But how many times have I got to say that I was waiting only for the opportunity to tell you of that job?" Chu-Chu snarled.

"It seems to me there was plenty of time," snapped Ivan. "At any rate, you must admit that you got us both made fools of. However, all this is not what interests us now. About this other affair? Do you want to undertake it or not? You may have until to-morrow forenoon to decide. Come and tell me your decision at eleven. I am going to lunch with Léontine at twelve-thirty. And now I must wish you good-night, as it is indiscreet for us to stand here talking."

Chu-Chu muttered something under his breath. Ivan opened the door. Chu-Chu slipped and I watched him hungrily; but there was my promise to Sœur Anne Marie!

Ivan closed the door softly and stood for a moment as if in thought. Once he laid his hand on the bolt, and I thought he was going to open the door and call Chu-Chu back; but apparently he thought better of it, for his hand dropped to his side again while he twisted his black, wiry moustache with the other. I guessed that he was hard put to it, that he had a big job going and that Chu-Chu was the only person he dared trust with it. If Chu-Chu failed to come to terms the whole thing was going begging.

Chu-Chu's heavy footsteps died away in the distance, and still Ivan stood there twisting his moustache and thinking. Suddenly he swung on his heel and started for the house, and as he did so I moved my arm, rustling the ivy.

"Who is there?" asked Ivan in a low voice, and I saw his hand slip into the side-pocket of his coat.

"It is I—Clamart," I answered softly.

Ivan stepped to the little door, opened it softly and took a quick look up and down the street, then closed the door again.

"Will you come down?" said he in a low voice.

I reached for the branch of a tree, swung silently clear of the wall and dropped to the ground. Even through the murk I could see the gleam of Ivan's white teeth as he looked at me with his thin-lipped smile.

"Let us go inside," said he. "I would like to talk with you."

I followed him up the path and into the house, and as we entered I heard a rustle from an adjoining room.

"It is all right, Pierre," said Ivan.

"Merci, m'sieu."

Ivan touched a button and the light streamed out.

"Let us go up to my bureau," said he. We can be more comfortable there, and I have quite a good deal to say to you."

So up we went to the handsome room, with its stately Empire furniture, Oriental rugs and valuable paintings, for Ivan was a connoisseur and collector. He seated himself behind his desk and motioned me to a big fauteuil opposite.

"Let me compliment you upon your quick recovery of health," said Ivan, eying me keenly. "Chu-Chu told me he shot you through the body and ripped a hole through your arm with his knife. He was unable to understand how you made your escape, and has been cursing modern high-velocity pistols with small-calibre, steel-jacketed bullets ever since. He is also inclined to suspect Léontine."

"He drilled me through the shoulder," I answered, "and the knife wound was nothing much. For my part, I've been cursing my own clumsiness."

Ivan gave that peculiar smile which might have stood for amusement or malice.

"I wonder you didn't drop on his back just now," said he.

There was no use in telling him of my promise to Sœur Anne Marie, so I answered:

"I might have done so if it had been anywhere else. Naturally I would not make a row on your premises. Besides, I gathered from your talk that you had need of him, and I did not want to run against your interests."

His eyes bored into me like gimlets. "You are getting very considerate of my interests all at once, Monsieur Clamart. You were less thoughtful the other day at Baron von Hertzfeld's. That little interference of yours cost me a good many thousand francs; a sum of which I stand in considerable need just at this moment."

"I am very sorry, Count," I answered; "but how was I to know? When we last met you told me that you were finished with Chu-Chu, and that I might do what I liked to him for all you cared. I supposed, of course, he was working on his own hook."

Ivan leaned back in his chair twisting the waxed end of his thin, black moustache, his pale, handsome face clouded. For several moments he did not speak, but his luminous eyes shot up at me from time to time from under the long, black lashes.

"Why have you come to see me to-night?" he asked suddenly.

"Because," I answered, "it occurred to me that perhaps I might be running counter to your interests, after all, in hunting Chu-Chu, and I wanted to make sure that it was all right. A man may carry on a feud with another man, but there's no use trying to fight a whole organisation."

"But what made you think that I might be employing Chu-Chu when, as you just said, you believed that I had done with him? Whom have you been talking to? Léontine?"

His eyes were snapping now, and his delicate features as hard as steel.

"No," I answered. "Léontine has told me nothing. Nobody has told me anything. It was merely a surmise on my part—and it appears that I was right."

Ivan stared a second, then nodded. "Yes," said he, "you were right—confound it! I did not expect to use Chu-Chu again, nor did I intend to, but I was driven to it. I have recently lost two of my best men, and there was nobody else to do the work. There were two or three big jobs I wanted to finish up, then leave France for a while. I do not quite like the way things are going. To tell the truth, I have a vague instinct that I am under observation"—he gave me another of those ocular dagger thrusts—"and that the Prefecture is beginning to smell a rat. That is the reason why I closed up the house and went to Trouville for a fortnight. I wanted the secret-service men to make a search in my absence, and I find they have done so. I left everything prepared for them—a few letters to indicate that I am somewhat involved in a Balkan conspiracy, and so on. Balkan conspiracies don't interest them much, but they had to find something. I just returned to-night, having got hold of a good proposition, and wishing to see Chu-Chu. There is no one else. You heard the conclusion of my conversation?"

"Yes," I answered; "and it made me feel ashamed of myself for the trouble I've made you. I'd never counted on your squareness to me resulting in your own loss."

Ivan gave his thin smile. "It has, though," he answered. "First it was Miss Dalghren's rope of pearls, which I gave back to you; then you came within an ace of doing me out of that big Calais boat haul; then you broke up the Hertzfeld job, and now it looks as if you might spoil the best thing yet. I won't say anything about the Rosenthal stones that you took away from Chu-Chu, though he swears that he would have turned them over and was waiting only until the other business should have been disposed of. Now, Monsieur Clamart, I am, like yourself, a man of my word; but, after all, there are limits to one's patience." He smiled again.

Was he starting to threaten me? I could feel the muscles of my jaw harden. It was one thing to try to keep Ivan's good will and another to be cowed. The blood started up my neck, and I think that Ivan saw that he'd taken the wrong tack, for he went on smoothly:

"Don't misunderstand me. What I mean is that keeping my word to you is proving more expensive than I can afford, and it seems to me there exists some little obligation on your part. Don't you agree with me?"

"I certainly do," I muttered.

"I have stretched some points for you," Ivan went on; "and I don't mind telling you that, all money loss aside, it has hurt my authority with the association of which I am the head. Chu-Chu has been intriguing." His face darkened and grew sinister. "He is accusing me of favouring a renegade and traitor who has great influence at the Prefecture. The mob knows your story; it knows that you got caught while working the Cuttynge house, and that for some miraculous reason you got off scot free. It's been hinted that you belong to the police, and it's also been hinted that I am too well disposed to you. Do you understand? Now one good job on your part would remove that impression and restore confidence in myself and enable me to put Chu-Chu where he belongs."

"But, my dear Count—" I began, almost stammering; for now I saw what Ivan was after. He interrupted me.

"Listen, Monsieur Clamart: It is true that you passed your word to Mrs. Cuttynge never to steal again; but I understand that she believes you to have broken your faith, and that the circumstances are such that she can never be undeceived. What you wish most of all is that she should continue to believe you guilty and her husband, the real thief, innocent? Is that not so?"

"Yes," I stuttered; "but——"

"Let me finish." Ivan leaned toward me across the desk and projected the whole weight of his powerful magnetism. "Mrs. Cuttynge, I take it, is the only person whose faith in you you value, and hers is irrevocably lost. She believes you have dropped back into the underworld—back to your old trade; but if you were to re-emerge you could resume your former position in your half-brother's motor business, and his wife would gradually regain her faith in you, and at the end of a certain time it would be absolutely restored. Now what keeps you from going back? Chu-Chu le Tondeur? I do not wish to tempt you, Monsieur Clamart, nor shall I offer you a cent of money as inducement; but I am going to appeal to your sense of obligation to me and offer you the means of extricating yourself from your difficult position. I have a job on hand which would be practically impossible to a bungler, but presents no difficulties to the expert. Moreover, the loss will fall upon a rich and dishonest organisation. If you will undertake this one bit of work and are able to carry it off successfully, I will promise never to call upon you again, and I will give you my assurance"—his face grew hard as flint—"that you need have no further cause to be on your guard against Chu-Chu le Tondeur. And that part of my compact would be a real pleasure to carry out."

The cold, deadly hate streamed out of Ivan's burning eyes as he said these last words; and, let me tell you, my friend, I had no fear of his not "making good" on that part of the contract. For the first time I realised how Ivan loathed and hated the Shearer; but it showed me, also, how badly the chief must be crowded, hating Chu-Chu as he did, to put up with him.

Well, here was the proposition, as cold and square as a flagstone in a prison yard. I could take it or I could leave it. If I took it I broke my word to Edith—and what did that matter, when she would live and die thinking that I had broken it anyway? If I left it there was Chu-Chu—and the thought of him didn't bother me any, because, after all, he wasn't much more than a bloodthirsty animal, with an animal's cunning—and Ivan.

And let me tell you, my friend, that Ivan was a very different sort of type to tackle. It was within the range of human possibility that I could be afraid of Ivan. He was a man of cool thought, acted on impulsively. Ivan, I felt, could be swift and cruel and terrible; and his acts would not be governed by any principle, but purely by the emotion of the moment. Personally he could never have frightened me; but a braver man than I might easily dread that swift, cruel intelligence, directing such ferrets as you catch sight of slipping in and out of the shadows about the barrières. Ivan had a pack of these slinking, stealthy apaches at his disposal; and, though he had probably never so much as laid eyes on one of them to recognise him, they were nevertheless ready and waiting to do his will as transmitted through one of his sub-lieutenants. Once this cheerful horde was loosed on a victim, he might as well try to fight a swarm of mosquitoes, of which the sting of any might easily prove fatal. They represented a disease rather than an enemy.

So here, on one side, was the promise of freedom from the underworld and life in the open again, all for a few hours exercise of the skill that had taken me years and years to perfect. Just one theft added to the many which I had done and gloried in the doing of! It may seem strange to you that the odd chance of making a fluke of it and getting nabbed never entered into my head, except in a vague sort of way, just as the thought of being taken with cramp might occur to the strong, long-distance swimmer.

No, I had no fear of getting caught; in fact, I had and have still a supreme contempt for the Continental police, and you can take it as a great truth that the reason there are no more big robberies in Europe is because people take better care of their dust. When a Frenchman gets a bone he buries it; he doesn't give it to some big dog to guard for him, the way we do at home. And as for jewels—well, if folks knew how few of the sparklers they see are the real thing they d stare at the moon in stead. There's plenty of petty graft in Europe, because the people are naturally suspicious and therefore suckers, but there's never such an awful lot of money in any one place; and when there is you're apt to find a couple of dozen people guarding it.

I took so long to answer that Ivan must have thought it was all fixed, for presently he said:

"I am glad to see that, though you are a straight man in your dealings—just as I am when personal questions are involved—you are not, nevertheless, pigheaded. You kept your word at great sacrifice; and now, when this sacrifice has proved futile, you are quite at liberty to——"

"To break my word?" I asked quietly.

Ivan gave me a startled look, then his eyes narrowed.

"So far as that goes," said he, "the person to whom you gave it considers that you have already broken it. To all practical purposes, Monsieur Clamart, you have broken your word to Mrs. Cuttynge."

"Perhaps," I answered; "but I have not yet broken my word to myself."

Ivan smiled. "Perhaps when you come to try yourself before the tribunal of your own conscience," said he, "the court might find extenuating circumstances——"

I interrupted him impatiently.

"Count," said I, leaning forward, "there is no use in our saying any more. Nothing would please me more than to be able to pay my obligation to you, while my own position is not one that I am in any way keen about. If I could do what you suggest I would in a second; but I can't. I don't pretend to be a reformed character or anything of the sort. It's simply that I've passed my word and can't go back on it without losing all my self-respect and going all to pot generally. If I were to do this one job do you suppose I'd stop there. Not for a second. I'd pitch in again and make Chu-Chu think he was the apprentice that you called him a little while ago. It's not as though I'd given my word in a fit of uplifted ideas, or to please a woman, or because I happened to feel noble for the moment and wasn't in any particular want. I did it to square a debt—and, by God, I'm going to stick to it!"

Ivan started at me gloomily. I'd rather expected he would threaten or sneer—or possibly, because there were some fine streaks in his complex nature, approve my stand. Instead, he sat and tugged at his moustache and stared at me from time to time in a sort of bored, despondent way, just as a man might at being turned down in some business proposition.

"Eh? Well," said he, suddenly arousing himself, "I was afraid I might hear something of that sort. I know your sort, and I won't say you're not right. Only it's apt to be a bit unfortunate for both of us."

"You mean that I can no longer count on your friendship?" I asked.

"No more than I can count on your help!" he snapped. "Mind you, I'm not going to order your assassination or anything of that sort; but, if you decline to take up the work and Chu-Chu decides to come to terms, I can't have him interfered with. Naturally I've got to protect my own man."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Just this, Monsieur Clamart," said Ivan, looking me squarely in the eyes. "If you want to prolong your life you will have to leave the country. So long as you leave Chu-Chu alone all right and good. I need him for my business."

"Then order Chu-Chu to leave me alone," I answered.

"He wouldn't obey. Chu-Chu means to kill you or have you killed; but, as for your killing him"—he lowered his head and looked at me fixedly—"take my advice, Monsieur Clamart," says he, wagging his slender index finger at me, "and leave Chu-Chu alone. That is all."

Well, it was enough. At least, he'd put the case plainly. So long as Chu-Chu was working for Ivan I could hunt his scalp only at the risk of my own, though Chu-Chu was perfectly free to murder me. On the other hand, I had nothing to fear from Ivan so long as I left Chu-Chu alone. It was all logical enough. If I didn't like the situation I could always get out of the country; but there was my business and the desire to make good, and—oh, there were many reasons why I did not want to clear out!

Ivan reached over rather wearily and touched a bell. His servant, Pierre, who looked rather like a mink, came to the door.

"Get a bottle of champagne and some sandwiches," said Ivan; then looked at me, and his thin smile parted his lips again. "You'll join me in some refreshment, won't you?"

So we drank a bottle of champagne between us and ate some sandwiches, and talked about different things. Ivan asked me no questions about my stalk of Chu-Chu. The business seemed to bore him. It was plain enough he was bothered by troubles of his own; and once or twice, when there came a step outside on the pavement, he stiffened like a bird-dog that scents game. It was after two when I got up to go, and Ivan went down with me through the garden and let me out through the little door in the wall.

"Some day, when we've both retired and are living in the world where we belong, we may be good friends, Monsieur Clamart," says he in a tired voice. "But, meantime, business is business. Take my advice and clear out for a while. If you don't, Chu-Chu will surely get you, because, as I said before, I need the man and can't have him interfered with. I've offered you your chance, and if you haven't chosen to profit by it you have only yourself to blame if anything unpleasant happens."

"Is that a polite way of saying that if I scrag Chu-Chu I'll have the association down on my back?" I asked.

"I'm afraid that's about what it amounts to," said Ivan; and he wished me good-night.