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THROUGH THE SUAVE, WARM radiance of that afternoon of Spring in England a gentleman of modest and commonly amiable deportment bore a rueful countenance down Piccadilly and into Halfmoon street, where presently he introduced it to one whom he found awaiting him in his lodgings, much at ease in his easiest chair, making free with his whiskey and tobacco, and reading a slender brown volume selected from his shelves.
This dégagé person was patently an Englishman, though there were traces of Oriental ancestry in his cast. The other, he of the doleful habit, was as unmistakably of Gallic pattern, though he dressed and carried himself in a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon fashion, and even seemed a trace intrigued when greeted by a name distinctively French.
For the Englishman, rousing from his appropriated ease, dropped his book to the floor beside the chair, uprose and extended a cordial hand, exclaiming: "H'are ye, Monsieur Duchemin?"
To this the other responded, after a slight pause, obscurely enough: "Oh! ancient history, eh? Well, for the matter of that: How are you, Mister Wertheimer?"
Their hands fell apart, and Monsieur Duchemin proceeded to do away his hat and stick and chamois gloves; while his friend, straddling in front of a cold grate and extending his hands to an imaginary blaze, covered with a mild complaint the curiosity excited by a brief study of that face of melancholy.
"Pretty way you've got of making your friends wait on your pleasure. Here I've wasted upwards of two hours of His Majesty's time ..."
"How was I to know you'd have the cheek to force your way in here in my absence and help yourself to my few poor consolations?" Duchemin retorted, helping himself to them in turn. "But then one never does know what fresh indignity Fate has in store ..."
"After you with that whiskey, by your leave. I say: I'd give something to know where you ignorant furriners come by this precious pre-War stuff." But without waiting to be denied this information, Mr. Wertheimer continued: "Going on the evidence of your looks and temper, you've been down to Tilbury Docks this afternoon to see Karslake and Sonia off."
"A few such flashes of intelligence applied professionally, my friend, should carry you far."
"And the experience has left you feeling a bit down, what?"
"I imagine even you do not esteem parting with those whom one loves an exhilarating pastime."
"But when it's so obviously for their own good ..."
"Oh, I know!" Duchemin agreed without enthusiasm. "If anything should happen to Karslake now, it would break Sonia's heart, but ..."
"And after the part he played in that Vassilyevski show his lease of life wouldn't be apt to be prolonged by staying on in England."
"I agree; but still—!" sighed Duchemin, throwing himself heavily into a chair.
"Which," Wertheimer continued, standing, "is why we arranged to give him that billet with the British Legation in Peking."
"Didn't know you had a hand in that," observed Duchemin, after favouring the other with a morose stare.
"Oh, you can't trust me! When you get to know me better you'll find I'm always like that—forever flitting hither and yon, bestowing benefits and boons on the ungrateful, like any other giddy Providence."
"But one is not ungrateful," Duchemin insisted. "God knows I would gladly have sped Karslake's emigration with Sonia to Van Dieman's Land or Patagonia or where you will, if it promised to keep him out of the way long enough for the Smolny Institute to forget him."
"Since the said Smolny inconsiderately persists in failing to collapse, as per the daily predictions of the hopeful."
"But aren't you forgetting you yourself have given that Smolny lot the same and quite as much reason for holding your name anathema?"
"Ah!" Duchemin growled—"as for me, I can take care of myself, thank you. My trouble is, I want somebody else to take care of. I had a daughter once, for a few weeks, long enough to make me strangely fond of the responsibilities of a father; and then Karslake took her away, leaving me nothing to do with my life but twiddle futile thumbs and contemplate the approach of middle age." "Middle age? Why flatter yourself? With a daughter married, too!"
"Sonia's only eighteen ..."
"She was born when you were twenty. That makes you nearly forty, and that's next door to second childhood, Man!" the Englishman declared solemnly—"you're superannuated."
"I know; and so long as I feel my years, even you can abuse me with impunity."
But Wertheimer would not hear him. "Odd," he mused, "I never thought of it before, that you were growing old. And I've been wondering, too, what it was that has been making you so precious slow and cautious and cranky of late. You're just doddering—and I thought you were simply tired out and needed a holiday."
"Perhaps I am and do," said Duchemin patiently. "One feels one has earned a holiday, if ever anybody did in your blessed S. S."
"Ah! You think so?"
"You'd think so if you'd been mucking round the East End all Winter with your life in your hands."
"Still—at your age—I'd be thinking about retiring instead of asking for a rest."
Although Duchemin knew very well that he was merely being ragged in that way of deadly seriousness which so often amuses the English, he chose to suggest sourly: "My resignation is at your disposal any time you wish it."
"Accepted," said Wertheimer airily, "to take effect at once."
To this Duchemin merely grunted, as who should say he didn't consider this turn of conversation desperately amusing. And Wertheimer resuming his chair, the two remained for some moments in silence, a silence so doggedly maintained on both sides that Duchemin was presently aware of dull gnawings of curiosity. It occurred to him that his caller should have found plenty to do in his bureau in the War Office....
"And to what," he enquired with the tedious irony of ennui, "is one indebted for this unexpected honour on the part of the First Under-Secretary of the British Secret Service? Or whatever your high-sounding official title is ..."
"Oh!" Wertheimer replied lazily—and knocked out his pipe—"I merely dropped in to say good-bye."
Duchemin discovered symptoms of more animation.
"Hello! Where are you off to?"
"Nowhere—worse luck! I mean I'm here to bid you farewell and Godspeed and what not on the eve of your departure from the British Isles."
"And where, pray, am I going?"
"That's for you to say."
Monsieur Duchemin meditated briefly. "I see," he announced: "I'm to have a roving commission."
"Worse than that: none at all."
Duchemin opened his eyes wide.
"'The wind bloweth where it listeth,'" Wertheimer affirmed. "How do I know whither you'll blow, now you're a free agent again, entirely on your own? I've got no control over your movements."
"The S. S. has."
"Never no more. Didn't you tender me your resignation a moment ago? Wasn't it promptly accepted?"
"Look here: What the devil—!"
"Well, if you must know," the Englishman interrupted hastily, "my instructions were to give you your walking papers if you refused to resign. So your connection with the S. S. is from this hour severed. And if you ain't out of England within twenty-four hours, we'll jolly well deport you. And that's that."
"One perceives one has served England not wisely but too well."
"Shrewd lad!" Wertheimer laughed. "You see, old soul, we admire you no end, and we're determined to save your life. Word has leaked through from Petrograd that your name has been triple-starred on the Smolny's Index Expurgatorius. Karslake's too. An honour legitimately earned by your pernicious collaboration in the Vassilyevski bust. Karslake's already taken care of, but you're still in the limelight, and that makes you a public nuisance. If you linger here much longer the verdict will undoubtedly be: Violent death at the hands of some person or persons unknown. So here are passports and a goodish bit of money. If you run through all of it before this blows over, we'll find a way, of course, to get more to you. You understand: No price too high that buys good riddance of you. And there will be a destroyer waiting at Portsmouth to-night with instructions to put ashore secretly anywhere you like across the Channel. After that—as far as the British Empire is concerned—your blood be on your own head."
The other nodded, investigating the envelope which his late chief had handed him, then from his letter of credit and passports looked up with a reminiscent smile.
"It isn't the first time you've vouched for me by this style. Remember?"
"Well, you've earned as fair title to the name of Duchemin as I ever did to that of Wertheimer."
But the smile was fading from the eyes of the man whom England preferred to recognize as André Duchemin.
"But where on earth is one to go?"
"Don't ask me," the Englishman protested. "And above all, don't tell me. I don't want to know. Since I've been on this job, I've learned to believe in telepathy and mind reading and witchcraft and all manner of unholy rot. And I don't want you to come to a sudden end through somebody's establishing illicit intercourse with my subconscious mind."
He took his leave shortly after that; and Monsieur Duchemin settled down in the chair which his guest had quitted to grapple with his problem: where under Heaven to go?
After a wasted while, he picked up in abstraction the book which Wertheimer had been reading—and wondered if, by any chance, he had left it there on purpose, so strong seemed the hint. It was Stevenson's 'Travels with a Donkey.' Duchemin was familiar enough with the work, and had no need to dip anew into its pages to know it offered one fair solution to his quandary.
If—he assured himself—there were any place in Europe where one might count on being reasonably secure from the solicitous attentions of the grudge-bearing Bolsheviki, it was the Cévennes, those little-known hills in the south of France, well inland from the sea.CHAPTER 2
A LITTLE PLACE CALLED Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy ... notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension was Mr. Stevenson's point of departure on his Travels with a Donkey. Monsieur Duchemin made it his as well; and on the fourth morning of his hegira from England set out from Le Monastier afoot, a volume of Montaigne in his pocket, a stout stick in his fist—the fat rucksack strapped to his shoulders enabling this latter-day traveller to dispense with the society of another donkey.
The weather was fine, his heart high, he was happy to be out of harness and again his own man. More than once he laughed a little to think of the vain question of his whereabouts which was being mooted in the underworld of Europe, where (as well he knew) men and women spat when they named him. For his route from the Channel coast to Le Monastier had been sufficiently discreet and devious to persuade him that his escape had been as cleanly executed as it was timely instigated.
Thus for upwards of a fortnight he fared southward in the footsteps of Mr. Stevenson; and much good profit had he of the adventure. For it was his common practice to go to bed with the birds and rise with the sun; and more often than not he lodged in the inn of the silver moon, with moss for a couch, leafy boughs for a canopy and the stars for nightlights—accommodations infinitely more agreeable than those afforded by the grubby and malodorous auberge of the wayside average. And between sun and sun he punished his boots famously.
Constant exercise tuned up muscles gone slack and soft with easy living, upland winds cleansed the man of the reek of cities and made his appetite a thing appalling. A keen sun darkened his face and hands, brushed up in his cheeks a warmer glow than they had shown in many a year, and faded out the heavier lines with which Time had marked his countenance. Moreover, because this was France, where one may affect a whisker without losing face, he neglected his razors; and though this was not his first thought, a fair disguise it proved. For when, toward the end of the second week, he submitted that wanton luxuriance to be tamed by a barber of Florac, he hardly knew the trimly bearded mask of bronze that looked back at him from a mirror.
Not that it mattered to Monsieur Duchemin. From the first he met few of any sort and none at all whom a lively and exacting distrust reckoned a likely factor in his affairs. It was a wild, bold land he traversed, and thinly peopled; at pains to avoid the larger towns, he sought by choice the loneliest paths that looped its quiet hills; such as passed the time of day with him were few and for the most part peasants, a dull, dour lot, taciturn to a degree that pleased him well. So that he soon forgot to be forever alert for the crack of an ambushed pistol or the pattering footfalls of an assassin with a knife.
It was at Florac, on the Tarnon, that he parted company with the trail of Stevenson. Here that one had turned east to Alais, whereas Duchemin had been lost to the world not nearly long enough, he was minded to wander on till weary. The weather held, there was sunshine in golden floods, and by night moonlight like molten silver. Between beetling ramparts of stone, terraced, crenellated and battlemented in motley strata of pink and brown and yellow and black, the river Tarn had gouged out for itself a canyon through which its waters swept and tumbled, as green as translucent jade in sunlight, profound emerald in shadow, cream white in churning rapids. The lofty profiles of its cliffs were fringed with stunted growths of pine and ash, a ragged stubble, while here and there châteaux, forsaken as a rule, and crumbling, reared ruined silhouettes against the blue. Eighteen hundred feet below, it might be more, the Tarn threaded lush bottom-lands, tilled fields, goodly orchards, plantations of walnut and Spanish chestnut, and infrequent, tiny villages that clung to precarious footholds between cliffs and water.
On high again, beyond the cliffs, stretched the Causses, vast, arid and barren plateaux, flat and featureless save for an occasional low, rounded mound, a menhir or a dolmen, and (if such may be termed features) great pits that opened in the earth like cold craters, which the countryfolk termed avens. A strange, bleak land, inhospitable, wind-harried, haunted, the home of seven howling devils of desolation....
Rain at length interned the traveller for three days in a little place called Meyrueis, which lies sweetly in the valley of the Jonte, at its confluence with the Butézon, long leagues remote from railroads and the world they stitch together—that world of unrest, uncertainty and intrigue which in those days seemed no better than a madhouse.
The break in the monotony of daily footfaring proved agreeable. It suited one well to camp for a space in that quaint town, isolate in the heart of an enchanted land, with which one was in turn enchanted, and contemplate soberly the grave issues of Life and Death.
Here (said Duchemin) nothing can disturb me; and it is high time for me to be considering what I am to make of the remainder of my days. Too many of them have been wasted, too great a portion of my span has been sacrificed to vanities. One must not forget one is in a fair way to become a grandfather; it is plainly an urgent duty to reconcile oneself to that estate and cultivate its proper gravity and decorum. Yet a little while and one must bid adieu to that Youth which one has so heedlessly squandered, a last adieu to Youth with its days of high adventure, its carefree heart, its susceptibility to the infinite seductions of Romance.
Quite seriously the adventurer entertained a premonition of his to-morrow, a vision of himself in skull-cap and seedy clothing (the trousers well-bagged at the knees) with rather more than a mere hint of an equator emphasized by grease-spots on his waistcoat, presiding over the fortunes of one of those dingy little Parisian shops wherein debatable antiques accumulate dust till they fetch the ducats of the credulous; and of a Sunday walking out, in a shiny frock-coat with his ribbon of the Legion in the buttonhole, a ratty topper crowning his placid brows, a humid grandchild adhering to his hand: a thrifty and respectable bourgeois, the final avatar of a rolling stone!
Excerpted from Alias the Lone Wolf by Louis Joseph Vance. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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