The Secret of the Silver Car
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A quick backward glance a few minutes later on showed the new driver that the count had resumed his broken slumbers. So well indeed did the lord of Castle Radna sleep that he did not know the Panhard had left the main road or that any danger threatened him until he was suddenly hauled from his springy seat to look into the clear, hard eyes of Alfred Anthony.
Then he realized that his revolver was in the cockney's hand and the precious wallet gone from his pocket. Count Mich?l was no coward and he thought quickly with that intriguing, plotting brain of his. A great diamond still sparkled upon his finger and the money in another pocket was untouched.
"I should have been wiser," he commented. "I thought my lord Rosecarrel had become suddenly mad. Now I see that he was saner than I. First Captain the Honourable Oswald Hardcastle, then Sir Piers Edgcomb and now you. May I ask your name and rank? You have been my servant and succeeded so far where they failed?"
Anthony Trent was not expecting this attitude. He had been so used to seeing the count fly into stupendous rages that this calm, collected manner was disturbing. It might be the man's natural attitude in moments of real peril or it might merely mean he knew he was ultimately to be the victor.
It was a curious scene. The Panhard had come to rest in a clearing of the woods and a brilliant moon gave the place almost the clarity of day.
Count Mich?l sat down on a log and lighted a cigarette. Almost he was usurping Trent's r?le under such circumstances.
"This interests me," said Count Mich?l, "let us discuss it."
"I've no time," Trent said smiling. "I am due at Fiume or Trieste or Zara as the case may be at a certain hour and as I haven't the Lion here I must push on."
"Have you thought that I shall certainly pursue you and assuredly capture you?"
"You may pursue later when you are found but by that time I shall be gone."
"You can never escape me," the count said. "I have a long arm and I do not forget. And my vengeance is a bad thing for those against whom it is directed."
"It's not altogether healthy to have me for an enemy," Trent reminded him. "I have my own likes and dislikes."
The count sneered.
"You," he cried, "Who are you? What have you done that men should fear you? For a moment you have a little luck, the little luck that will bring you blindly to greater danger."
"I'm strictly incognito," Trent answered. "Once I was unwise enough to answer such a challenge, but you may believe me that I, too, have a name. Now count, it won't help you a bit to put up a fight. It will save you trouble if you'll back up against that tree and let me tie you up."
"You would put this outrage on me?" the other cried, his calm leaving him, the veins standing out on an empurpled forehead like raised livid ridges.
"Get up!" Anthony Trent snapped.
"It is because you have a pistol," the count said."Put that down if you are a man and then see what you can make me do."
"You may believe it or not," Trent retorted, "but it hurts me to have to decline the offer. If I dared take time I would return several little tendernesses of yours. As it is I can't, having a weapon, strike a man who hasn't one. You are luckier than you know. Back up there and do it damned quick."
Trent was certain that Count Temesvar could never unfasten his bonds. And as he was gagged he could not cry for help. Some swineherd or peasant would discover him later. Meanwhile the discipline would be good.
"Good-by," said Trent genially, "Give my love to your guest the prince and all his high born companions."
If Count Mich?l had looked angry before his face now was doubly hideous with rage. His hold over Lord Rosecarrel was gone and he could not doubt but this stranger who had posed as a chauffeur had learned somehow of the presence of the prince. If it were known in the chancelleries of Europe all his carefully matured plans would go for naught. Unless Alfred Anthony were captured Mich?l, Count Temesvar could never again make his pleasant little trips to the great houses of England, France and Italy. There he was known as one who had abandoned all political ambitions to become merely the country magnate interested in cattle and crops. Never again could he gather useful information over friendly dinner tables or hobnob with prime ministers over golf or auction bridge if it were known he was giving sanctuary to one who threatened the world peace.
When Anthony Trent had satisfied himself that the document he had taken was the one Arthur stole from his father, he knew, in order to be absolutely safe, it should be destroyed. Its destruction would give the earl immunity. But Trent hesitated. Once already Lord Rosecarrel had believed it was demolished and had suffered terribly for his trust. Inevitably there would be a seed of suspicion if a comparative stranger, confessedly one who had profited by unlawful operations, should ask him to take as true that the treaty had again been destroyed.
A man in Trent's position was doubly sensitive in a matter of this sort. He had no long and honorable record to back his assertions; and although in the present instance he was actuated by no motives of self-aggrandizement he was not sure others – Daphne alone excepted – would believe him. He thanked God that with her it was different.
So he put the paper in an envelope already stamped and addressed and placed it in his pocket. Then he started for a port of safety.
It seemed impossible that he should miss the way in the bright moonlight but he realized a few minutes later that he was only circling around the clearing where the count was tied to a tree. His headlights showed him innumerable roads like those by which he had come but there was no distinctive sign to guide him to the road to the coast. A group of peasants going incredibly early to their work could not understand him. He repeated the word Fiume but even that did not help. Their little life was bounded by the confines of a few square miles; and the troop trains which had taken them to the battle lines of a year or so back had only confused them as to topography.
Among the big oaks and beeches Trent could not easily find one tall enough to bear his weight on branches that would let him see over the tops of the others. When dawn came he was in no better plight.
The position in which Anthony Trent found himself was by far the most serious of his career. Hitherto he had faced imprisonment at most. Now capture meant without doubt – death. He had, without thinking of the folly of his utterance, told Count Mich?l that he knew of the presence of the guests unsuspected by the great powers.
Count Mich?l had probably staged the supposed escape of the prince and supplied a convenient corpse for his interment. Unrest was in every portion of what had once been the dual monarchy. Beggars on horseback were riding to a fall and the Balkan volcano was near eruption. And Anthony Trent, alone of those opposed to Count Mich?l's party, knew where was hidden the man whom the count was coaching for his big r?le. His escape would mean disaster. By this time no doubt passing countrymen had recognized their overlord and released him. But for lack of a compass Anthony Trent should even now have been at a port where he could escape to a friendly vessel.
He remembered what Lord Rosecarrel had told him of Count Mich?l's character and autocratic power. Although theoretically shorn of his former absolutism it was unlikely that peasants who worked on his lands and still felt their dependence upon him should question Count Mich?l's actions. World news which spreads rapidly among the herded workers in factories crept slowly among these land tillers. They had enough to eat and drink and were grateful for that after their years of fighting.
Now that capture was imminent Trent knew that the document must be destroyed. But even in this he delayed hoping his usual luck might cling to him and make the sacrifice unnecessary.
He abandoned the automobile. Its wheels were embedded in black viscid mud and to extricate them the engine would have to run on low speed and announce the car's position to such as might already be seeking him. If he could pass the day uncaptured he might at night be able to free the car of its imprisoning mud and make his escape. He had woodcraft enough to be able to mark down the spot where the Panhard was hidden.
It was high noon when Anthony Trent came in sight of a farm. A big dog came toward him with sharp, staccato inquiring barks. He had a way of making dogs his friends and soon the animal was wagging a welcoming tail. Trent satisfied his hunger and thirst with a meal of early plums and lighted his last Woodbine. The Croatian farmers of the district in which he found himself were horsebreeders to a man. It was an industry which the government had always approved and encouraged. Without a doubt in the distant barns there was some favorite animal which might bear Trent to safety if his car had been discovered. The watch dog, now satisfied that the stranger was one to be adored, would prove no obstacle.
Trent nestled back in some drying hay, well out of sight, he supposed, of observers and dropped into a profound sleep. It was the unusual spectacle of the watch dog sitting by the mound of hay that attracted the notice of the farmer. He supposed that the animal – part hound and part draft dog – had run some animal to earth. When the farmer saw that the stranger slept there for whom he had, under Count Mich?l's direction, scoured the forest since dawn, he wisely brought assistance. Thus it was that Anthony Trent, rudely brought back to an unsympathetic earth, found himself seized, bruised and bound before he had time to recover his senses or put up a fight.
Peter Sissek it was who carried him to the recovered Panhard and threw him violently to the floor. And for every blow that Trent had struck Sissek in fair fight the Croatian returned with interest now that his conqueror was bound and hopeless. One of Peter's assistants sat on the seat brandishing the revolver which had been the count's. He talked incessantly, threatening no doubt and insulting the captive, and punctuating his invective with kicks that bruised the American's ribs sorely.
He was carried past a mob of jeering servants when the castle was reached and put in a room which had been used as a dungeon for five hundred years. As he looked about the stone walled cell with its narrow windows through which his body could scarcely pass even though the heavy bars were sawn through, he knew his professional skill would avail him nothing.
There was one safeguard for gaolers which he sighed to see. Inside the door was a cage of iron where a keeper might stand and be protected from the sudden onslaught of a waiting prisoner. Thus the most usual form of escape was taken from him.
Hentzi was his first visitor, poor rotund, posing Hentzi who had liked Alfred Anthony largely because he supposed it was a semi-educated London cockney who listened to his worldly wisdom. When he had learned from his master that this pretended chauffeur was the third of the Rosecarrel adherents who had made desperate attempts he supposed him to be of high degree. With amusement Anthony Trent saw the change in his manner. Although disgraced and in prison Hentzi paid the respect that he invariably accorded to birth. He told himself that it was because he noted the instincts of blue blood that he had found pleasure in talking with Alfred Anthony. Trent's careless manner which had sometimes seemed overbold in a chauffeur was now explained.
"I grieve very much to see the marks of violence inflicted upon you by a clod like Peter Sissek," he began.
"I knocked the same clod out when he wasn't looking," Trent returned, "so he had a kick coming. You didn't come to be merely polite Hentzi, what is it? Torture? Boiling oil?"
"It will not be boiling oil," Hentzi answered seriously.
Anthony Trent looked at him searchingly. Of course Hentzi had his purpose in coming here; and that he did not deny the possibility of a Croatian third degree convinced the American that the danger he anticipated was real and near. So far as Count Mich?l's power went in his own castle of Radna his prisoner might be in medieval times. Trent was a danger to be nullified and a single life was hardly worthy of consideration in the game the count was playing.
To lose his life was bitter enough; but to lose it after failing and so be denied another chance to make good was agonizing. Hentzi gathered nothing from his scrutiny of the other man's battered face. He saw that the forced and rather vacuous grin which Anthony Trent had worn when he lived another part was gone. Only the powerful, brooding, hawklike look which he had occasionally seen for a flash now remained. He did not doubt but that this was the true character of the man a great English noble had chosen for a dangerous mission.
"You will remain here until the count returns," Hentzi announced.
"How long?" Trent snapped.
"A week certainly; more likely two."
"What will happen then?"
Hentzi sighed. His master's violence often frightened him. He came of a peaceloving family.
"That I cannot say."
"I can't go without a daily shave," Trent said yawning. "And I need cigarettes and the London papers. You can get them for me?"
"The razor I dare not," Hentzi said. "The rest you shall have."
"Afraid I shall commit suicide? You ought to be glad if I did. It would save Count Mich?l a lot of trouble. That cage there prevents my slitting the throat of a keeper. A child with a gun could poke the barrel through the bars and put me out of business. Come Hentzi, be human. I will not live with whiskers. I swear to do myself no damage or anyone else either."
"You give me the word of a man of noble birth?" Hentzi inquired anxiously. "You cannot conceal your origin from me. You may not wish it known but I know."
Anthony Trent kept a straight face. Hentzi had always amused him.
"Hentzi," he said seriously, "I must preserve my incognito at all costs. That you appreciate, but if it will make you more comfortable I will tell you that in my own country there is not a man who has the right to call himself my superior or go in to dinner before me."
Hentzi's bow was most profound. He had known it all along. This was assuredly the venturesome holder of an ancient title, a man of high birth and born to great honor. Hentzi's own Sheffield blades were at his disposal.