The Closing Net/Part 2/Chapter 7
BACK INTO THE WORLD
The night seemed darker than ever when I went into the street; but, let me tell you, it wasn't any blacker than my own feelings. There seemed mighty little left but to skip the country and to go somewhere else and make a fresh start, this time on the level; but the very thought of that was hateful. To begin with, I couldn't stomach the idea of being chased out by Chu-Chu with a gang of Ivan's apaches at his heels. Then, there was the business that I'd got so well started. And then there was the biggest thing of all—the wish to win back what I'd lost in Edith's eyes! Don't make the mistake of thinking for a second that I was in love with Edith—my feeling toward her was the sort a child might have for an angel. The distance between us was too great to admit of anything else.
There were other reasons, too. I had an awful warm spot inside me for Rosalie, and I wanted to see her often and be free to be with her. The remembrance of her bare arms round my neck and her tear-stained face against mine set me all aglow. I realised that I was on the verge of falling in love with Rosalie. And there was my life in town, and the clubs and theatres and cafés and spins over the road—no, sir; to tell the truth, I almost regretted for an instant that I hadn't taken Ivan up on his offer. I knew, however, that things would never have been quite the same for me afterwards if I had. It would have cost me my self-respect even more than getting out of the country would; and when a man of my stamp loses his self-respect there ain't much left of him but his clothes.
So here I was, forbidden to hunt Chu-Chu under pain of being exterminated by Ivan's rat-terriers, and Chu-Chu free to slip a knife into me the first chance he got! It was a pretty exasperating state of affairs, and the more I thought it over the less good I was able to see in it—until suddenly I had an inspiration.
In the very beginning of my feud with Chu-Chu I had asked Ivan if he had any objection to my killing him, and Ivan had answered "No." He had told me that, so long as I did not furnish any information which might be dangerous to the mob, I could go ahead; and he had even given me a tip as to Chu-Chu's familiar. At that time Ivan had decided to break off all relations with Chu-Chu. Since then, however, he had come to need him again, and, as a result, he had now forbidden me to interfere.
When I had given Ivan my promise not to furnish information to the police it had been with the understanding that he was not to interfere with my feud with Chu-Chu. And now he had done it—and his doing so let me out. Mind you, the last thing in my mind was to turn State's evidence and actually lay information against the mob. That's a thing I've always despised; and besides, there were too many old, extraditable accounts against me to make such a move healthy. As the girl said when her young man wanted to kiss her: "I'm not that kind of a girl—and besides, mamma would hear!"
At any rate, I could make the bluff and put Ivan in a position of my guardian angel. And the minute that idea struck me I laid a course for an all-night café on the Avenue Wagram, where I called for writing material and scratched off a letter something like this:
I would, therefore, advise that our mutual acquaintance be issued instructions similar to my own.
In acting as I have, I am actuated solely by a sense of fair play. As to my good faith, you may remember that when I passed my word to make no revelations which might incriminate your associates or yourself it was done on your assurance that I should not be interfered with in the carrying out of my personal affairs.
To-morrow morning I shall return to my place of business and resume the administration of my affairs as formerly, trusting to your discretion to prevent aught of an unpleasant character.
Please accept, monsieur, my most distinguished consideration.
This note finished, I sealed and addressed it and took it straight to Ivan's house. There I yanked at the bell until finally Pierre came to answer it. I handed him the note.
"Take this to your master," said I, "and tell him it was brought by Monsieur Clamart himself."
Then I turned on my heel and went back to my little hotel in Passy, with the feeling of a man who has come to the surface after a deep dive.
It doesn't take long to step from the underworld into the upper when you happen to be at home in both. I paid my little hotel bill, walked out into the Bois with my old black valise, found a thicket over by the bicycle path and did a lightning-change act from a goggled predicatéur into a young man of fashion, then walked over to the Pré Catelan, picked up a taxi and went to my garconnière over by the Ternes.
The concierge seemed glad to see me. I told him I had been working up the car in England and had run over for a few days to see if there was anything new. Naturally I'd left the black valise in the Bois, and my being without luggage meant nothing, as he might have thought that I had left it at the Cuttynges or the Automobile or Travellers clubs. Your Paris concierge is a past-master in the art of never being surprised at anything; and if you happen to be a foreigner the only thing that could possibly surprise him would be the lack of things to be surprised about.
I read a few letters and then walked over to the office on the Avenue de la Grande Armée; and, let me tell you, the luxury of that walk in the open was greater than any I'd ever enjoyed. Chu-Chu might have walked up and shoved a knife into my solar plexus and I'd scarcely have tried to stop him. I was enjoying my respectability just as a respectable person might enjoy a little dip into vice—not because it was vice, but because he was a bit fed up on the other.
Gustave, our little mécanicien, was the only person at the office. He seemed very glad to see me back, and said there had been practically no business at all since I had been away. He had taken several people out to show the car, but did not know that anything had come of it. He believed there had been two sales from the Basle office and one from the Geneva.
I next called up the Cuttynges and learned from the butler that monsieur and madame were expected home the following night, but only to stop over twenty-four hours en route for Baden, as monsieur had been suffering from his stomach. Gustave told me that he had been forwarding all letters to Monsieur Cuttynge.
There was really nothing for me to do, and I was about to lock up my desk and stroll down to the Automobile Club, when Gustave brought in a note that he said had just been left by a man who looked like a valet de chambre. One glance at the envelope showed me that it was from Léontine. It read:
"Let me warn you to get under cover at once. Ivan is practically powerless, and you are doing him a great injustice in the action you are taking. He has now gone to keep a rendezvous with our friend. There are many urgent things I wish to say to you, and I want you to lunch with me to-day at noon, chez moi. It will be quite safe.
This note caused me no surprise. I had expected something of the sort—but from Ivan. However, as Léontine might expect to be entangled in the net of any general revelations and had no idea how much I might have told in my statement, she was naturally uneasy, and no doubt wanted the chance to convince me that I was behaving foolishly and meanly.
There seemed no special reason for not complying with her request, as, now that I had broken cover, I was in no more danger in one place than another. If Ivan dared he could have me assassinated—when he liked and so might Chu-Chu. Mind you, I wasn't feeling so dead safe, by any means; what I was doing was simply the best of several poor choices—leaving the country, killing Chu-Chu, and then taking a chance on Ivan's carrying out his threat, or skulking around in disguise and waiting for something to turn up. I don't count the possibility of going back to graft as a choice, because I never for a second considered it.
A little after eleven a man whom I knew came in, and the clocks were striking twelve when I jumped into a taxi and started up to Léontine's. It seemed nice to be going about the city openly and well groomed again. After all, I thought, maybe it's better to take a chance of being scragged like a gentleman than to go slinking about like a street cat. I'll keep my eyes open, and if he can get me let him go ahead and do it. As for Ivan and his mob, they can go to the devil too.
It was in this frame of mind that I arrived at Léontine's; and then, as I got out and turned to pay the driver, I got a jolt that knocked all the newborn impudence out of me—for there on the terrace, sitting at a table on the edge of the cleared space leading up to the door, was Rosalie, watching me intently; and at a table just abreast of her on the other side of the opening was a man in an artisan's blouse and a black straw hat, with one of the little round carpetbags in which plumbers, locksmiths and others carry their tools, on the pavement at his feet.
Bearded though he was, I knew him at a glance for Chu-Chu. Even if I had not seen him vaguely in the dark the night before, I think I would have known him. Some instinct seemed to label him with his true self, and the same instinct warned me to let my eyes move absently past and to turn slowly on my heel and reach for the bell of Léontine's little door.
"Was it a trap?" I thought like a flash. Did they mean to put me quickly and silently away and take a chance on such revelations as might or might not be produced? Was I a fool to go into the spider's web like an innocent little fly? The butler's steps were coming down the path. Had I better leave a verbal message and go away? I could say that I had just got back to the office and found the note and was sorry that I was engaged to lunch in the Bois, and had stopped on my way to make my excuses. All this went through my head like a single thought. Then the door opened and I entered in the most natural way in the world and followed the maître d'hôtel up the path into the house.
Why did I do so? Was I fascinated by the danger? Hypnotised? Hardly that. I'd got too used to danger to act like a silly song-sparrow confronted by a blacksnake. My reason was one which any American can understand in a second, but which would be absolutely incomprehensible to many older and more subtle nations. I was out of patience. I wanted action, even in the smoke. I was sick of dodging about and pined for a showdown. My morning as a free and independent member of the upper class had soured me on stealth, and the middle of the Champs-Elysées had spoiled me for a niche in the wall of a back alley. I slipped my hand into the side pocket of my coat, cuddled the butt of my little automatic heavenly ticket-punch, and walked into that house a sort of living murder-machine. Thought I: "They'll think they've got mixed on their natural history and caught a hot-ended hornet instead of a harmless fly in their blooming net." Chu-Chu would come slipping over directly—to mend a lock or wipe the joint of a waterpipe—and there'd be some quick curtain work. Catch 'im alive-oh! would be the password, as fireworks were the last things on the programme; then deflate him without noise and put him away.
I followed the sleek rascal ahead, with the sparks fairly sizzling out of me; and when he stepped aside to usher me into the darkened little boudoir, which overlooked the garden in the rear, my eyes were boring through the portières, shining into shaded corners, and the tail of one of them watching to see that the servant kept both his hands in sight. The room was empty, however, and the man bowed himself out, saying that mademoiselle would be down immediately.
The picture of Rosalie s face was the next thing that flashed through my mind—the shock, astonishment, then the deep, burning flush that overspread it as she realised that I was going into the house of Léontine! Poor girl, she little guessed the fond, loverlike emotions which I did not have as I stood there with my hackles on end, my teeth bared, lips twitching ready to hand out wholesale slaughter with gun and knife. I wondered if Rosalie had recognised Chu-Chu, and decided that she could not have done so. His disguise was too cleverly done. Only a blood enemy could have pierced it—and perhaps not even he unless forewarned.
I was pining to get to the front of the house to have a look at the Bon Cocher, but there was no time. There was the peculiar swish which seemed so characteristic of Léontine when she moved, for she had a way of switching her skirt as she walked; and she stood in the doorway, ravishingly lovely in a summer costume of old embroidered linen and lace, pale cream in tint, over satin of a deeper and luscious yellow. The colour was in perfect harmony with her rich ivory skin and clear, dark amber eyes. Her short, heavy curls were held as usual by the golden fillet, with its great emerald.
It did not look like a costume that a woman would be apt to put on to assist at the murder of a man; nor did anything in her expression or the warmth of her greeting suggest this idea. Her eyes fastened on me with the avid look that I had seen there before and her breath came quickly as she spoke.
"Oh, Frank! Frank!" she murmured, as I bent over her hand. "What a lot of trouble you do make us!"
"I'm not altogether free from it myself," I answered. "But you must remember that you began it all."
"And we are apt to end it unless you show a little sense," she retorted, smiling.
There was a sound in the corridor, and I felt myself harden up. Léontine noticed it and laughed.
"For shame, Frank! It's only Victor to announce déjeuner. Surely you don't think I'd set traps for you in my own house?"
"The idea never entered my head," I answered, "until I saw Chu-Chu sitting in front of the café opposite. Considering that you had told me——"
"Chu-Chu!" she whispered; then was silent. Victor announced that she was served and I followed her into the charming little dining-room. There were places for three.
"Ivan said he would try to get in for an ice and coffee," said Léontine.
Victor served us, then went out.
"Help yourself to wine, Frank," said Léontine. "That is Chablis by you and Chambertin in the other decanter. Now tell me what you mean by saying that Chu-Chu was in the café opposite. He had a rendezvous with Ivan at this hour."
"Then he failed to keep it," I answered.
"How was he dressed?"
"Workman's blouse, black straw hat, grizzled beard."
Léontine knit her brows. I grew suspicious.
"May I help you to wine?" I asked.
"No, thanks. I never take it with déjeuner. But help yourself, please."
Thanks. I also am abstemious," I answered.
Léontine shot me a swift look, then leaned over and laid her hand on my sleeve. Her eyes were positively melting and it seemed to me there was the slightest quiver in her voice.
"Frank," she whispered, "is it possible that you do not trust me?" The swift colour rose and spread over her high, Slavic cheekbones, which were soft and rounded, yet high and of a Cossack prominence that lent character and intensity to her passionate face, though in no way diminishing its sensuous beauty. "Don't you think me loyal, Frank?" she pleaded.
"It's your loyalty that keeps my hand in my pocket," I answered, with a sort of dry grin. "I don't mind giving it to you straight, my girl, that when I spotted Chu-Chu in front of Le Bon Cocher I made up my mind that you and Ivan and a few others had set a little trap for me over here."
Léontine's fresh caviar stopped halfway to her expectant mouth and she looked at me with her amber eyes wide open. Usually you got only an impression of them between a double fringe of long, curved lashes black as ink."Then what made you come in here," she cried, "if you thought me capable of treachery of that sort to the man I—I love?" she whispered hotly,
and leaned toward me, so that her bosom was crushed against the polished table.
"I came in to bust up the trap," I answered, and took a big bite of caviar and toast. Now that the ice was broken, I was beginning to have a good time; and I must say that, after living round in punky little restaurants, that fresh Orsova caviar, with eggs a pearly grey and as big as buckshot, wasn't the least of it. "Yes, my dear," said I, "when I walked in here I was like a Fourth of July pinwheel, just waiting for the match. And, though I'm having a splendid lunch, and admiring you more than ever, I'm none the less all organised for war. Only, if there's to be rough-house, I wish you'd hold it off until I finish this caviar. Remember, Léontine dear, I've been acting and living up to the rôle of a wandering preacher—and I'm hungry."
Léontine's eyes sparkled. "Do you know what I really wish?" she cried.
"What?" I asked.
"I wish that I actually had about half a dozen bravos hidden round the house—just to see the fun."
She shook her head with a little shudder. "No," she answered—"not Chu-Chu. I am too fond of you, Frank!" And she laid her cheek on my sleeve. A queer girl, Léontine.
Presently she looked up with a sad sort of smile.
"Drink your wine if you like it, my dear," says she. "I will take some with you if it will make you feel any easier."
The blood poured into my face and without waiting to serve her I dashed my glass half full of Chablis and drank to her happiness. Her colour deepened and she was about to say something, when Victor came into the room.
"There is a workman downstairs, m'amselle," said he. "I asked him what he wanted and he tells me he has been sent by the proprietor of the house to look over the plumbing."
Leontine threw me a swift look. "What sort of a man is he in appearance?" she asked.
"He is a respectable-looking person, m'amselle—middle-aged, with an intelligent face and a beard streaked with grey."
"And his costume?" Leontine interrupted.
"He wears a blouse and a black straw hat."
"I know that man," she interrupted fiercely. "He is an impostor. You may go down and tell him that mademoiselle knows all about him, and that he has come to the wrong house and at the wrong time. Tell him that I say he had better go to the Parc Monceau, where he belongs. See that he leaves the premises, Victor."
"Very good, mam'selle." And the man slipped out.
Leontine looked at me. I had dropped my hand into my side pocket and was watching the door.
"Frank," said she, "I swear to you that I knew nothing of this. It only goes to show that Ivan and I were right. Chu-Chu is not to be controlled. No doubt he has been watching this house ever since he left the maison de santé, which was five days ago."
I was on my feet, slipping toward the door, for I had heard a step on the stair and had no intention of being potted from behind the door-jamb. It proved to be Victor, however, and he looked surprised and rather startled, I thought, to find me confronting him.
"Has that man gone?" I asked sharply.
"What did he say?"
"Nothing, m'sieu, except that he thought it probable that mam'selle would regret not having allowed him to do his work."
Léontine had risen from her chair and gone to the window. I followed her and saw something which puzzled and disturbed me. Directly opposite stood Rosalie's taxicab and inside it was Chu-Chu. Rosalie herself was in the act of cranking the motor, and as we looked it started off and she stepped up to take her seat.
The car started ahead and Rosalie made a turn which brought her for a moment head on to the house. Léontine had drawn aside the curtains and we were standing side by side, looking out over the top of the ivy-covered iron fence, for the dining-room was in the. As she turned, Rosalie looked up and saw us standing there in the open window; and, whether because she suspected something and acted out of malice or whether from a sort of bravado before Chu-Chu I don't know, but Léontine flung her arm carelessly round my shoulder—almost round my neck.
I saw Rosalie's teeth come together and she threw out her chin with a sort of contemptuous air; but Chu-Chu smiled wickedly and looked the other way.
Léontine and I went back to the table, both of us rather pensive. Presently she said:
"That was the Countess Rosalie, who took you out to Hertzfeld's the other day, then waited to bring you back—afterward."
"Quite so," I answered.
Léontine raised her eyebrows. "A conquest?" she asked.
"Rather more than that—a good, disinterested friend."
"Really?" Léontine toyed with her poulet-au-riz. Her colour faded slightly. "Comparisons are not polite, mon ami," she said.
"I wasn't making them. I never considered you in the light of a conquest."
"Oh, merely a woman of uncommon beauty and attainments, balked of a passing whim for the first time in her life."
She laughed and seemed pleased. The cleverest of women—Léontine was scarcely that, being more a creature of instinct than intellectuality—are seldom immune from flattery.
"Does Chu-Chu know that she was driving me that day?" I asked.
"Of course not." Léontine poured out a little red wine and tasted it critically "Ugh!"—she gave a little shudder—"the stuff has a blood flavour!"
"Léontine!" My voice was sharp, I think, because she looked up in surprise and the high cheeks began to grow dusky.
"Does Chu-Chu know that Countess Rosalie is a friend of mine?"
She dropped her eyes. "How should I know?" she asked suddenly, and looked as sulky as a lioness that refuses to perform.
I could feel that ugly, venomous, wild-beast anger that I have been told is peculiar to the criminal starting to ferment inside me. There was something going on here that I couldn't get the feel of, and the strangeness and danger of it made me bristle like a dog that smells the scent of a timber wolf for the first time. What was up, anyway? Why should Chu-Chu have come into the basement on a faked errand, then go out, get into Rosalie's taxi and drive off? Why should Victor have announced him and Léontine have sent him about his business? What the deuce was behind it all?—and was Rosalie in danger? That was the main thing. I chucked all thought of my own position at the bare idea. Chu-Chu, Ivan, Léontine—blight 'em all, so far as I was concerned; but where had Chu-Chu gone with Rosalie?
The devils began to dance and I looked across at Léontine through lids that were half shut and things showing red between. She saw what was going on and her eyes began to blaze. We were a nice young pair of savages; and the Lord knows what might have come of it if at that moment the bell had not rung.
"Ivan," said Léontine quietly; and a moment later Victor showed him in.