The Closing Net/Part 2/Chapter 8

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Ivan greeted Léontine in his usual polite and formal manner, then bowed to me. He looked very badly; with black shadows under his eyes, and the red-rimmed, swollen lids told of lack of sleep. Yet the eyes themselves were brighter than ever—too bright, I thought, as they rested on me.

The salad was being served when Ivan came in. He declined to eat anything, but took a glass of the Chablis, and directly the wine began to make itself apparent in his face, for he seldom touched anything alcoholic.

"You look badly," said Léontine, and shot a glance at me. "Did your conference with Chu-Chu go wrong?"

"Worse than that," said Ivan. "He failed to keep the rendezvous. You can guess what that means."

"Yes," she answered—"especially as he was sitting in front of the café opposite when Frank arrived. That is what has been puzzling us, because afterward he came into the house on the silly pretext of having been sent by the proprietor to look over the plumbing. Frank sounded general quarters and proceeded to 'cast loose and provide.'" (I wondered where she had picked up that man-o'-war expression.) "I told Victor to tell him he was wanted on the Rue Monceau."

"What did he say to that?" Ivan asked.

"Nothing, except that he was afraid I would regret having refused his services. He went out and we saw him drive off in the Countess Rosalie's taxi."

Ivan's head turned slowly in the high collar which he invariably wore, and he gave me an owlish look.

"Is the Countess Rosalie a friend of Frank's?" he asked; and I stiffened up a little at his free use of my name. Ivan was always markedly formal. There was something, however, in the tired, finished look of the handsome face that prevented my taking offence.

"Léontine asked me that question a while ago," I answered. "I told her that Rosalie was merely a good, disinterested friend of mine. I got acquainted with her when I was hanging about the restaurant opposite and watching the house for a glimpse of Chu-Chu. I told her I was an Alsatian predicatéur."

Ivan laughed softly. "As a matter of fact," said he, "she is a compatriot of yours, though I never would have guessed it if I hadn't heard her turn loose a torrent of American slang on some rather cheap clients in front of the Abbaye. But if she's a friend it seems to me that in your case I'd feel a bit uneasy about her."

"Why?" I asked. "Do you think that Chu-Chu suspected her of having worked with me?"

Ivan shrugged. "Who can tell?" he answered. "If he did, however, he would be very apt to pay off his score with her. He is a consistent man—not an ineffective like we three."

He reached for the Chablis and refilled his tumbler, drank it and gave a little shudder. Léontine's amber eyes flashed across to mine, carrying a double question: "What is the matter with Ivan? What is the matter with you?"

"Have you any idea of where Chu-Chu has gone?" I asked Ivan.

"I could make a good guess," he answered; "in fact, I wouldn't hesitate to trace Chu-Chu's manœuvres from the time you discovered him in the café across the street."

"Would you mind doing so?" I asked.

"Not in the least," he answered indifferently—"the more so as we three have so much in common."

"In what way? " Léontine interrupted.

Ivan's lips parted in his thin smile. "We are all three of us of the type incomplete criminal," he answered. We have been master thieves and have risen high in our profession despite our defects; but not one of us could ever attain a real success in crime because we are all of us cursed with that peculiar hampering quality which is known as heart. We have our decencies, our kindlinesses, our petty nobilities, and no successful thief can permit himself to wear such clogs as these. Léontine, for example"—he glanced at me—"has the infirmity of following only the dictates of her heart without reference to her profit. You, Monsieur Clamart, have the worm in your criminal core in your obsession for keeping your promised word. As for me, I have the weakness of abhorring physical pain, whether for myself or others. My ancestors were, perhaps, impaled by Hmelnitski, and no doubt I inherited the awful reflection of their tortures. I could not bring myself to thrust a knife into a man. I support a charity at Berck for children whose spines and hips are full of pain. I have watched these little doomed children—one was my own—and the tears have been wrung from my eyes; so you see I am really very weak. As criminals, as thieves, we are crass failures, simply because we are often kind; and, let me tell you, my fellow-failures, there is no such silly thing as a kind-hearted thief. Call it what you will—theft, brigandage, graft—whatever is dishonest is cruel and selfish and has no place with generous traits. To steal, to trick a man, to take what belongs to another person, is mean just mean, and there is no getting round it. From the mythical Robin Hood to our modern Arsene Lupin, the thief and his jackal, the swindler, have been glorified and admired; but there is no getting round the fact that they are mean. A dog that behaved in a similar way would be shot; and, though romance often surrounds the thief with a false glamour, it will be found that where he steals a thousand francs he gives about five in charity, and the giving of that five writes him as a failure."

Ivan sipped his Chablis. "We are failures, the three of us," said he. "There is no good in us. We are not even good thieves. Chu-Chu has us beaten. He is a consistent criminal—ruthless, selfish, cruel. If he could murder all the world and be left alone to enjoy their goods and lick his lips in fat plenty, his success would be complete. He is a tearer-down, a destroyer of the established social balance. A man like myself, on the contrary, who vainly attempts to combine theft with a vague, misshapen sense of honour, is a fool. I am a fool and a failure. Léontine is a failure because she thinks to combine the wanton and the mother. Clamart is a fool whom chance may see fit to save." He looked at me with a bitter smile.

Léontine's maid came in with the ice: a luscious, melting creation of peaches and cream, its spicy odour permeating the room.

"Where is Victor?" asked Léontine sharply.

"He has not returned, mam'selle," replied the pretty maid, and her eyes drifted to Ivan, then to me.

"That ice looks delicious," said Ivan. "I shall change my mind and ask for some. My throat is parched to-day."

Léontine smiled, helped herself and the dish was passed to me; but I declined, disliking sweets. Ivan helped himself abundantly. A yellow-striped wasp, lured by the sweet, entangled himself in Léontine's ice, and she watched its gluttonous struggles in a curious, fascinated way, then rang for the maid to serve her afresh. Ivan offered her his plate and, when she smilingly declined, waited until she should be served. Léontine rang again and when the maid did not appear her face clouded with irritation.

"What is the matter with my servants to-day?" she demanded fiercely. "I have never been attended in this haphazard way before."

"There is no hurry," said Ivan dreamily. "Eternity is before us."

"What is the matter with you, Count?" I asked. You talk like a man who has reached the end of his string."

"I have," he answered sombrely.

Léontine looked up quickly. "In what way, Ivan?" she asked. "If it is money don't forget that you have rich and influential friends."

He smiled and let his beautifully shaped hand rest for a moment on hers while he toyed with his spoon.

"Thank you, my dear. It is not altogether money. I have still a bone or two buried under the lilac-bush. But I have failed in my purpose, which was to live ruthlessly and consistently at the expense of a society which I despise. I have failed. I can no longer hold my organisation—the association which I myself created. Chu-Chu has ousted me. He has been working with the patient cunning of a fox or wolf, and he has made himself the leader of the pack." Ivan looked at me with a sardonic smile; and, impatient as I was to learn more of Chu-Chu's present movements, something in the man's face held me an attentive and fascinated listener. His voice, too, had a queer lifelessness, the weary indifference of a man on his death-bed, and his words contained the accent of a valedictory. Léontine was watching him closely, puzzled and disturbed.

"Chu-Chu has made himself the leader of the pack," he answered. "My own life at this moment is no more safe than Frank's; and as for my liberty, that is less so." He looked at me and laughed. "That letter of yours making me the custodian of your safety is a joke, my dear boy. I am about as able to protect you at this moment as you are to protect your little friend, the Countess Rosalie."

I leaned forward, startled. "What's that?" I asked sharply. "What makes you say that? What do you know anyway?"

Leontine interrupted. "Eat your ice, Ivan," said she impatiently—"it is melting," And she pushed her bell viciously.

I glanced at her and was puzzled at the sudden hardening of her face—or, I might better say, at the ferocity of her face; for there was never the least suggestion of either hardness or coarseness about the Polish girl. She could be soft and melting, or hot and fierce and passionate—dangerous as a leopardess, but she hadn't a trace of that female brutality sometimes to be found in the Anglo-Saxon.

It came into my head that they were playing with me, that Ivan's pose was a clever and consummately skilful bit of acting, that he knew nothing of Rosalie and had lied about Chu-Chu, and that the table conversation might wind up in one of two ways—a swift and silent attack, or possibly a request that for the sake of others I should withdraw my statement, since he, Ivan, was a beaten man and powerless to protect me.

What Ivan said next put me off my reckoning again.

"At this moment," said Ivan, "Chu-Chu is probably at a little country house of his, near Meudon. He has called a meeting of my malcontents and they are planning to reorganise, with Chu-Chu as chief. Things are to be run on a more consistent scheme and operators are not to be forbidden to take life as the occasion may arise. If the Countess Rosalie has taken Chu-Chu all the way out there, I would say that she is exposed to some personal danger. It is a lonely place—the house surrounded by a park, hidden from the road; and the whole property is surrounded by a high wall. You may have noticed it in passing; the gates are copied from those of Malmaison. It is the first big place on the road which leads over the hill to enter the forest. Chu-Chu has had it for some years under his name of Monsieur de Maxeville. I have been out there several times. The house is small, but handsomely furnished and full of his hunting trophies—lions from the Masai country and some handsome specimens from the French Congo. When he doesn't hunt men he recreates himself by torturing animals. Just at this moment you would probably find in the house about as select an assortment of human wild beasts as could be gathered together in the whole of Europe." He changed his tone. "How hot it is! I am going to follow your directions, Léontine, and eat my ice. It is delicious." He took a spoonful. Your chef has been liberal with his peach-pits—still, the bitter flavour is rather tonic and refreshing." He took another spoonful of the pink, half-melted cream. "Look, Léontine," said he, "that yellow-striped wasp has made such a glutton of himself that he is dead."

Léontine did not appear to be listening, however. Her bare elbow was on the rim of the table, her chin resting on the knuckles of her half-closed hand, and her amber eyes were brooding and thoughtful.

"What do you think was Chu-Chu's object in coming here? " she asked.

Ivan paused, with his spoon halfway to his lips.

"It is plain enough," said he. "Chu-Chu hoped to get within striking distance of Frank. When he saw that he had been recognised he gave it up in disgust. Chu-Chu has been haunting the café opposite since he recovered from his wound. Do take some of this ice. It is delicious—especially to-day, when the atmosphere is so hot and heavy. One can hardly get one's breath."

I was looking at Léontine and I saw her eyes open wider and the colour fade in her cheeks.

"Ivan! " she cried. "Are you ill?"

"I—I do feel—a little—odd," he answered in a stifled voice. I turned sharply to look at him, and saw that his lips were blue and a curious mottled look was spreading over his face. He glanced from one to the other of us, then stared at his plate. His breath was coming in gasps and his face was tense and wore a startled, frightened expression, but even as I watched him this passed and he smiled.

"Ah!" he said quickly. "I begin to understand. So—that—was—Chu-Chu's—errand here! And Victor?" His head fell forward, but he jerked it back.

Léontine sprang to her feet. Ivan's face was blue and his eyes protruded.

"It's—that ice! Don't—touch it, my—friends! That strong flavour of the peach-pits—I— I—ought to—have known!"

Suddenly he pitched forward across the table. I sprang to my feet and, lifting him in my arms, carried him to the divan, laid him down and tore open his collar. His face was cyanosed, as the face of a person under gas.

"That—dead wasp!" he gasped. "I might have guessed!"

His arm slipped off his chest and fell limply. There were strangling noises in his throat. Then the blue colour faded, leaving the beautifully chiselled features of a marble pallor. I turned and looked at Léontine, who was standing, half crouched, both hands pressed against her temples.

"He is dead!" I told her gently.