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   Chapter 33 THE CHECKMATING OF MONSIEUR LOUIS

A Maker of History By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 10335

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


At three o'clock in the morning Groves, in a discarded dressing-gown of his master's, opened the front door and peered cautiously out into the darkness. Monsieur Louis, who was standing upon the door-step, pushed past him into the hall.

"Your master has sent me back to fetch some papers," he announced, displaying a bunch of keys. "I am sorry to disturb you like this, but the matter is important. Please bring me a cup of coffee into the library in half an hour."

Groves, who was sorely perplexed, stood with his back to the door which Monsieur Louis had approached.

"Really, sir," he answered, "I scarcely know what to say. I am afraid that I cannot allow you to interfere with any of my master's property in his absence."

Monsieur Louis held out the keys.

"Quite right!" he said. "It is an awkward situation, of course. Your master did not tell you the reason of his sudden departure, I suppose?"

"Not a word, sir."

"There can be no harm in telling you this much, at any rate," Monsieur Louis continued smoothly. "Your master, through no fault of his own, got mixed up in a very unpleasant affair in Paris, and he will have to appear in the courts there. I am his friend, and wish to do all that I can to help him. We have been talking the matter over, and I have strongly advised him to produce some papers which I think will help him materially. The police officer in whose charge he is would not allow him to return, so he handed me his keys and asked me to fetch them. I can assure you that I am your master's friend, and wish to do all that I can to help him. If he had not trusted me he would not have given me his keys, which no doubt you recognize."

Groves reluctantly stood on one side.

"I suppose I must let you in, sir," he said, "but I wish that the master had sent me a line."

"We had neither pencil nor paper," Monsieur Louis said, "and the affair was urgent. I must be back in Norwich by eight o'clock."

"I will prepare the coffee, sir," Groves said, turning away. "If you require more light the switches are behind the door."

"Very good," Monsieur Louis said. "You need not have the slightest anxiety. I am here on your master's behalf."

Groves hesitated, and looked for a moment curiously around the room. He seemed as though he had something else to say, but checked himself at the last moment and withdrew. Monsieur Louis drew a little breath of relief.

He did not immediately proceed to work. He threw off his overcoat and lit a cigarette. His fingers were steady enough, but he was conscious of an unwonted sense of excitement. He was face to face with destiny. He had played before for great stakes, but never such as these. A single false step, an evil turn in the wheel of fortune, spelt death-and he was afraid to die. He moved to the sideboard. Everything there was as they had left it. He poured out some brandy and drank it off.

With fresh courage he moved to the safe, which stood in the corner of the room. It must be there, if anywhere, that this precious document lay. He tried his keys one by one. At last he found the right one. The great door swung slowly open.

He was spared all anxiety. There, on the top of a pile of legal-looking documents, leases, title-deeds, and the like, was a long envelope, and across it in Duncombe's sprawling writing these few words:-

"Entrusted to me by Miss Poynton.-Sept. 4th."

He grasped it in his fingers and tore open the envelope. As he read the single page of closely written writing his eyes seemed almost to protrude. He gave a little gasp. No wonder there were those who reckoned this single page of manuscript worth a great fortune. Every sentence, every word told its own story. It was a page of the world's history.

Then a strange thing happened. Some part of him rebelled against the instinct which prompted him carefully to fold and place in his breast-pocket this wonderful find of his. His nerves seemed suddenly frozen in his body. There was a curious numb sensation at the back of his neck which forbade him to turn round. His hands shook, his teeth chattered. The sweat of death was upon his forehead and despair in his heart. He had heard nothing, seen nothing; yet he knew that he was no longer alone.

When at last he turned round he turned his whole body. The muscles of his neck were numbed still his knees shook, and his face was ghastly. Monsieur Louis of the Café Montmartre, brave of tongue and gallant of bearing, had suddenly collapsed. Monsieur Louis, the drug-sodden degenerate of a family whose nobles had made gay the scaffolds of the Place de la République, cowered in his place.

It was the worst upon which he looked with chattering teeth, but without surprise. The door of the inner room was open, and upon the threshold stood Toquet, small, dark, and saturnine-Toquet, with something which glittered in his hand, so that Monsieur Louis, already the prey of a diseased and ghastly imagination, felt the pain of the bullet in his heart. On an easy-chair by the fireside Henri de Bergillac was lounging, with a queer smile upon his lips.

"My friend," he said quietly, though the scorn which underl

ay his words seemed to bite the air, "you have solved for us a double problem: first, how to account for the absence of our host; and secondly, how to open that very formidable-looking safe. You will be so good as to place upon the table that document which you hold in your hands."

For a single second Monsieur Louis hesitated. Some lingering vestige of a courage, purely hereditary, showed him in one lightning-like flash how at least he might carry with him to a swift grave some vestige of his ruined self-respect. A traitor to his old friends, he might keep faith with the new. He had time to destroy. Even the agonies of death might last long enough to complete the task. But the impulse was only momentary. He shuddered afresh at the thought that he might have yielded to it. He threw it upon the table.

The Vicomte rose to his feet, glanced through the closely written page with something of the same excitement which had inspired its recent possessor, and carefully buttoned it up in his breast-pocket. Then he turned once more to the man who stood before them broken and trembling.

"Louis," he said, "you are the first traitor whom our society has hatched. I look upon you with curiosity as a thing I once called my friend. What imbecility prompted you to this?"

Monsieur Louis found nerve to shrug his shoulders.

"A million francs!" he answered.

"Heavens, but what folly!" the Vicomte murmured. "Did we not all know that a German was in Paris who offered a million, or two million francs for the missing page of that treaty? Do you think that he was not watched day and night? Bah! I have no patience to talk of this. What have you done with our host?"

"Arrested him for-Flossie! He is in a ditch half-way to Norwich."

"Hurt?"

"No! Chloroformed."

"How did you get here?"

"In an automobile from Lynn!"

"Good! It waits for you?"

"Yes."

"We will take it. My good friend here, Toquet, is familiar with the neighborhood. As Mr. Fielding, the American millionaire, you learned the excellence of these roads for quick travelling, did you not, mon ami? So!"

"You leave me here?" Monsieur Louis faltered.

"Ay, to rot if you will!" the Vicomte answered with sudden harshness.

"I will atone," Monsieur Louis faltered. "It was a single false step."

De Bergillac looked down upon him with unspeakable contempt.

"Atone! Listen, Louis! In this country you are safe. Crawl away into some hiding-place and make what you will of the rest of your days, but I will promise you this. If ever you set your feet upon one inch of France you shall meet with your deserts. There are many things which those who play the great game must pardon, but there is one crime for which no atonement is possible, and you have committed it. You are a traitor!"

De Bergillac turned away. The effeminacy of his manner seemed to have disappeared under the strain of his extreme anger. It was his race, after all, which had asserted itself. And then the door was thrown suddenly open and a wild-looking figure confronted them.

It was Duncombe, muddy from head to foot, pale and with a slight wound upon the temple, from which the blood had trickled down his face. He saw the open safe, and Monsieur Louis a pitiful figure, and he did not hesitate. He scarcely glanced at the others. He strode forward and seized the Baron by the collar.

"Give me back what you have stolen, you blackguard!" he exclaimed.

Monsieur Louis was breathless. It was the young Vicomte who interposed.

"Our friend," he remarked suavely, "has not been successful in his little effort. The document he came to purloin is in my pocket, and here, Sir George, is my warrant for retaining possession of it."

He held out a note which Duncombe took and read with a little sigh of relief.

"Good!" he exclaimed. "You have the document?"

De Bergillac tapped his breast-pocket.

"It is here," he said.

Duncombe turned to Monsieur Louis.

"My arrest, then," he remarked, "was part of the game?"

"Exactly!" De Bergillac answered. "This little document entrusted to your care by the young English lady was worth one million francs to the man who suborned our friend here. It was worth while-this little enterprise. The pity of it is that it has failed. Sir George, I go to Paris to-night. I offer you a safe conduct if you care to accompany me. L'affaire Poynton does not exist any more."

"Can you give me ten minutes to change my clothes?" Duncombe asked eagerly.

"No more," De Bergillac answered. "I will get rid of our friend here."

There was a knock at the door. Groves entered with coffee. At the sight of his master he nearly dropped the tray.

"It's all right," Duncombe said, smiling. "We had a little spill, and I've lost my bag. Pack me some more things quickly."

"Very good, sir," Groves answered, and withdrew precipitately.

De Bergillac laid his hand upon Duncombe's arm.

"There is only one thing, my friend," he said. "I trust that it is Mr. Guy Poynton who is your friend, and not his beautiful sister? Eh? I am answered! The misfortune! Never mind! I will drink my coffee to les beaux yeux des autres!"

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