The Secret of the Silver Car
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"Then, thinking I was safely here he rushed to the little outbuilding where my great black horse was saddled. He sprang to its back quickly. And as he did so we lit a torch so that he might see how we laughed last. It was a black horse indeed, but a work horse, a slow placid beast which we had substituted. I have never seen real despair seize on a brave man as it did when he saw he had failed. I enjoyed it very much Arlfrit.
"The stable hands who had always resented his iron discipline, the discipline of the soldier, took their vengeance of him in my absence. They are rough, these brave fellows of mine, and do not know their strength."
"You mean," Trent snapped, "you let them murder a man who was probably tied as I am tied now?"
Count Mich?l shrugged his shoulders.
"A man who puts his head in the lion's den must not complain if the lion be hungry. This is my house and I do not welcome thieves. Then there was Sir Piers Edgcomb. I was never sure of him. A big man, slow of movement and who spoke German so well I believed him to be of Bavaria. He was my butler. These country bred servants of mine do well enough in most things but the niceties of table service as I see in your own country are beyond them.
"A butler who has to take charge of much valuable plate and old, precious glass should at least be able to clean them. This man – he called himself Peters knew nothing of these things. So I set traps for him. He had a wolf's cunning. But a wise hunter can snare a wolf and I snared him. I did not bring you here to tell you of them so that you might be entertained. I brought you here to tell you that they who plotted, failed and died for their cause. You, who have succeeded and have injured me are my captive just as they were."
"Well?" Anthony Trent said, "What of it?"
"Simply this. You say you have burned the document. That might be true or untrue. It is possible you have concealed it in some place where I could recover it only after long search. I shall give you a day to make up your mind to speak the whole truth."
"And after that?"
"You will be glad to tell what you know," Count Mich?l said grimly. "Your death will be but a poor triumph to me; that I am willing to admit, but it is the greatest loss that can befall you."
"You are trying to make a bargain with me?"
"Perhaps. I will say at least that if the document is procured Alfred Anthony would be free to return to London on one condition."
"That he gave me his word of honor to forget every face and name he had seen or heard in Castle Radna. Under the circumstances I could allow myself to be so generous but I should require the most solemn of oaths." The count leaned forward a little and spoke impressively. "Remember again, that your death will be but poor consolation for me yet it is the most terrible thing that can happen to you."
"I'm not so sure," Anthony Trent muttered.
In that moment there was stripped from him the cunning and audacity that success in crime had brought.Often he had seen himself in a melodramatic almost heroic light, laughing at the nice distinctions of wrong and right, stretching out his hand to take what he wanted and caring nothing for the judgments of men. With the egocentricity of the successful criminal he had felt himself superior to all his opponents and had seen himself in future performing such exploits as none had dared to do.
His months at Castle Radna had been very dull. The plentiful food was coarse; his companions boors; of music he had heard not a note. He was anxious to be back again among people he liked. Such a chance was offered him now. He believed if he gave his solemn word that the count – in order to retain his hold on Lord Rosecarrel – would give him safe conduct to Fiume.
Yet he was amazed to find that he would not accept Count Mich?l's offer. Rather than tell him the truth about the document and so bring disaster again on the family of the woman he loved he was content to give up his life. Perhaps there was another reason which brought him to this way of thinking also. Daphne was not for him. That, long ago, he had realized. Life without Daphne! Dreary days that would hold no joy lengthening into months and years of heart hunger and at last into dissatisfied old age. He was brought back from his thoughts by the count's voice.
"Of what are you not sure? That I shall not keep my word?"
"I'm not sure that I shall give mine," Trent answered.
"You will have a day and a night to think it over. I shall find you in a more reasonable mood when I see you again. But remember this. After tomorrow there will be no other opportunity. I am not a patient man and I am holding back my anger with difficulty. I do not relish being sick of chagrin."
Anthony Trent held up his manacled hands.
"This is a sporting way of doing things, isn't it?" he exclaimed.
"Until tomorrow," Count Mich?l smiled.
It was dark when the prisoner reached his cell. An oil lamp lit the bare room. It was hung on a nail in the little cage out of reach of any occupant of the stone chamber.
Peter Sissek and old Ferencz had brought him to his prison. They offered him no violence. Evidently they were acting under orders. The count had made no comment on the bruises that still discoloured the American's face.
He had been sitting an hour on the edge of his cot when the outer door opened. Trent did not even look up. It was at this hour unappetizing food was brought and thrust under the cage, food he could pick at clumsily with his hands in iron bracelets.
Hearing no grating sound of heavy plate being pushed over the uneven floor he looked up. Pauline stood in the cage with Hentzi. The latter was obviously nervous and alarmed. He looked about him in dread and listened unhappily for sounds that might indicate the coming of others along the flagged passage.
"Open the gate," Pauline commanded, pointing to the steel barrier.
"If the count should hear of it!" he wailed.
"I will bear the blame," she said. "Be quick."
"You must be but five minutes," he insisted.
"I shall take ten," she retorted.
Wringing his hands Hentzi, the prey of many apprehensions, left her alone with the prisoner. It chanced that Pauline was aware of some petty thefts on the secretary's part, defalcations which would destroy Count Mich?l's faith in his probity. It was a threat of exposure which forced him to bring her here.
Trent rose when she came in and offered his visitor the single rush bottomed chair the cell contained.
He looked at her warily as one antagonist gazes at another before a struggle. Always she had called up in him this need for caution. Her violent and passionate nature were graven on the face which had brought so many men to folly and disgrace. Hentzi had told him many stories of the life she had lived in great cities and the tragedies which had come to those who had loved her.
She was dressed tonight very splendidly. Jewels that should have belonged to the poor countess who was passing her days in retreat were about her neck. An emerald necklace which in other days would have set Anthony Trent's eyes glittering matched her strange almond eyes. There was a certain tiger grace about the woman which would have attracted men's notice and women's from wherever she might have gone. Did she, he wondered, come in peace or in war? He was on his guard.
"You are surprised to see me?" she began.
"I cannot choose my visitors," he reminded her.
"You have never liked me," she returned, "Why?"
"You were a danger to my enterprise," he answered.
"A danger now removed," she said quickly. "What are those marks on your face?" she cried as he turned his head from the shadow to where the dim lamp light showed him more dearly. "Who has dared to strike you?"
"That is nothing," he cried impatiently. "Certainly the least of my troubles. I am very weary; there may be very unpleasant hours before me and I need sleep. It cannot be such a great triumph to see me in this cell?"
"Why do you stay here?" she demanded. "I know what Count Mich?l has told you. I know you have only to give him that piece of paper and your word of honor as a gentleman and you are free to go. It is very fortunate for you. Those two friends who also came are dead."
"Did he send you here?" Trent asked.
"He would be furious if he knew," she said quickly. "Certainly it would do you no good if he learned of it. You know," and Pauline looked at him through lowered lashes, "he has always been jealous of you."
"He has had no reason to be," Trent reminded her coldly.
"I know," she said, bitterness in her tone, "but he will not believe that. And now he knows you are noble and were masquerading as a chauffeur he will be all the more jealous."
"I'm not a nobleman," he said almost angrily. He resented her presence.
"You cannot deceive me," she said tenderly.
"If you did not come here to speak for Count Mich?l, may I ask then for what purpose?"
"I want to warn you not to keep that paper from him."
"It was burned long ago," he answered. "If he can collect the ashes he is welcome to them."
"At present he is trying to collect your coat," she told him and noted with a smile his start of alarm. "When they took you you were coatless. He thinks somewhere in the forest they will find it and when they find it the paper will be there and perhaps other things of your own which will be interesting."
"I fear he will be disappointed," Trent said calmly, "but if he will return a favorite pipe in one of the pockets I shall be obliged."
She looked at him steadily. Hers was not always an easy face to read.
"I pray that they will find the coat," she said.
"Thank you," he exclaimed. "At least you make no pretence of wanting me to win."
"You don't understand," she cried, "it is because they will force you to tell if they cannot find it. I am speaking no more than the truth. Cannot you see that you have mixed yourself in high matters and are a menace to Count Mich?l? He must know and he will know."
She saw his mouth tighten.
"Men just as strong and brave as you have broken down and told all."
"That may be," he answered, "but I am not going to alter my story about burning the paper and I am not going to weaken under any punishment they think of trying on me."
He was not going to tell her that in a few days he would be able to make his way out of this very cell if they kept handcuffs from him a little longer. Kicked out of sight among the dust on the floor was one of his most useful tools. It was a strip of highly tempered steel spring with a saw edge – forty teeth to the inch – and could bite its way through the barred window. When first he entered his prison he thought the opening too small for exit but he had revised his calculations and was now certain he could wriggle through it.
"It is for a woman you do this," Pauline said. "It is because of a woman you are cold and ask no help of me."
"I can't prevent your wild guesses," he answered. There was no mistaking his distaste of her meddling.
"I do not give up easily," he told her. "I used to think that in a duel between love and duty love should always win. It doesn't seem to work out that way always. And I used to think that a man who had not been worthy of a woman should be given a chance to rebuild his life if he really loved her." He shook his head. "It isn't the right idea. Sentimental nonsense the world calls it. The wedding gift a man offers his bride is his past." He shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't qualify."
Anthony Trent looked at the rough wall and saw only those dancing days of happiness and love in another castle. And instead of Pauline with her world weary face, her knowledge of every art to hold men, he saw his slim and lovely Daphne. He knew that both of them loved him. Vaguely he understood that Pauline had come to offer to save him but he had kept her from telling him so yet. There might conceivably be a future with her in which he would find eventually his old ambitions stirring and his pride in his hazardous work revive. There might even be years that were almost happy; reckless, passionate, quarrelling years. But the thought of it was nauseating. He swept it aside. He remembered the phrase of Private Smith in the dug-out that he was dying in better company than he knew. Well, Anthony Trent if the worst came would die better than he had lived.
To Pauline, who loved him, the idea of a violent ending to one of his ability and address was tragic.
An Austrian by birth, Pauline had been taken to Berlin then blossoming into extravagant and vulgar night life by a mother who was a dancer. Vain, ambitious and jealous of the success of others, Pauline offered no objection to anything whereby she might become widely known. Later, when she had attained international fame as a skater she grew more selective in her affairs. She was the rage for several years and but for the suicide of a Serene Highness would never have been banished from Berlin.
Count Mich?l Temesvar was an old admirer. The war swept away Pauline's possessions and there was no manager to engage her at a living wage.
At twenty-eight she had known many capitals, enjoyed great success and never been really in love. Then she saw Anthony Trent on the golf links and never passed a moment but was filled with thoughts of him. His consistent repulsing of her threw her into moods of anger which she visited mainly on her protector. And when she summoned scorn and anger to her aid in dealing with this Alfred Anthony, she found them only ministers to her infatuation.
She looked around as Hentzi came into the cell.
"It is ten minutes," he whispered.
"Another five," she said. "I shall come with you then."
Hentzi withdrew nervous and expostulating. Trent noticed that her manner was different when she spoke. There was a certain timidity about her, an air of unhappiness almost of hopelessness.
"Have you thought what difference it will make to me?" she asked.
Gone from her face were those meretricious smiles, those little ways cultivated through intimate association with her world of warring sex. The Pauline who looked at him now was a woman stripped of artifice, a woman who suffered and loved.
There was an uncomfortable silence, the awkwardness of the man in the avowed affection of the undesired woman.
"Let there be no deception between us," she said quietly. "I see that it is someone else who claims your heart. I did not think there were men like you who would be steadfast and loyal in a moment such as this. I know only that we – you and I – are alike in one thing. We both love where there is no hope. I came here to offer you freedom at a price most men would be glad to pay. I will not insult you by saying what it was. I have known few good men and I know you are good."
"No, no," he cried, embarrassed by her manner, "Indeed if you only knew."
She would not listen.
"Love can redeem all," she said. "I pray the good God whom I have neglected," she smiled a little ruefully, "to redeem me. I feel that my life is over. I have had everything I wanted and am wearied of the taste. Everything I wanted until now. There comes a time when one is no longer so eager to live. It is so with me." She looked at him wistfully. "Can you believe me when I tell you I want to help you?"
"I do believe it," he said gratefully. "I am glad enough to have a friend in this dismal place."
"Then let me help you," she said eagerly. "Something tells me you have hidden that paper. I warn you if it is still in existence, it will be found. Can I get it for you?"
Anthony Trent did not answer for a moment. The thought that there yet might be a way of getting the treaty draft to Lord Rosecarrel almost made speech an effort. If that were done with what energy and hope might he not bend his skill to means of escape!
"I should be putting my honor in your keeping," he said slowly.
Her face fell.
"And you dare not trust me?"
It was caution which had saved Anthony Trent a hundred times before and he hesitated just a moment now. Then he looked at Pauline again and was convinced of her sincerity. And, after all, no better way presented itself.
"I will trust you," he said, "but can you find out the place where they captured me?"
"I know it already," she said, "it is the farm of Zencsi and lies no more than thirty miles away."
"Thirty!" he cried, "I thought it was twice that distance."
"You went miles out of your reckoning."
"Have you a pencil?" he cried. "I want to draw a plan of it."
"Alas, no," she exclaimed, "but Hentzi will be here and he shall get one."
The five minutes were up and the count's secretary entered entreating Pauline by fear of discovery to come with him.
"A pencil," she snapped, "and paper. A leaf from that little red memorandum book where you keep account of what money you have saved by cheating your master."
She waved him away.
"Three more minutes," she commanded.
"I hid in a mound of hay quite close to the farm house. It was the one nearest a tree recently struck by lightning. It was a plum and the fruit was still red and unwrinkled. I hid my coat there primarily with the idea of it being a pillow. When they dragged me out I kicked it down and out of sight. Three things may have happened. One, that owing to the rain they have not canted the hay. Second, that a farm hand found the coat and took the money in it and destroyed everything else. The third contingency is that the document may have been undisturbed. In this case it will be returned when the count inquires broadcast for stray garments."
"Yes, yes," Pauline said, excitement in her voice, "but tell me exactly what to do."
"Can you motor to this Zencsi farm without being found out?"
"It will not be easy but it shall be done."
Her air of assurance heartened him.
"You can only find the blasted tree by day light," he said thoughtfully, "and in day light you may be seen. Can you be there at dawn before the farmer himself is up."
"But that is easiest of all," she cried, "Listen to me. I shall wait until everyone here is asleep. Then I shall take the Fiat and get to Zencsi in a little more than an hour. I can hide the car in the forest and make my search. If I find it I can be back here before any man or maid is stirring." Her face fell. "But what am I to do with it? I dare not give it to you who may be searched."
"It ought to be destroyed," he answered, "but I've sworn to give it to the man who sent me here. I've got it. Put it in the tool box of the Lion, among the cotton waste. Can you get into the garage?"
"Hentzi has all keys, as you should remember," she said. "What keys he has are mine. And then?"
"You will find at the bottom of the big tool box a couple of keys. They are punched out of two thin steel bars. Really there are four keys. It is most important that you bring them to me. You will not forget?"
"When your life hangs on it? What else? We must be quick. I do not fear Hentzi but his master must not find me here."
"If the coat has been removed you must go to the farm house. There is a watch dog who barks but he pines for affection and you can win him easily. Find out who has the coat. If it isn't in the hay someone on the farm has it. If the document is handed to you look at it eagerly to make sure it is what I want and if it is, tell them the thing is worthless and not what the count wants. And if you find the paper in the breast pocket do the same thing."
"Why?" she demanded.
"If you show them it is what you came for the count who will certainly hear of it will want to get it. What would happen if he knew you had given it to me?"
"Why think of that now?" she returned. But he noticed that a shade of fear passed over her face at the thought of it.
"If you get it and put it in the tool box he will only think how well you have served his interests in coat hunting while his lazy varlets were abed. Of course if they don't hand it to you at the farm and it isn't in the coat it may be destroyed. I'm afraid you'll have to do some bullying and threatening to get at the truth but the truth I must have."
She rose from the rush bottomed chair with a sigh.
"You believe that there are those who can read fate?"
Anthony Trent hesitated. Men of his profession were usually superstitious attaching unwarranted importance to fortuitous things, watching for signs and portents and abandoning planned enterprises at times because of some sign of misfortune which had met them.
"I don't believe it," he admitted, "but that sort of thing influences me. Why?"
"There is a woman nearby who can tell," Pauline replied, "Yesterday I gave her money. She said – can you think of it – that I should die happy."
"I hope you do," he said.
"But it is impossible," she cried. "None clings to life as I do. I am tired of this life. I love the life of cities, the restaurants, the crowds. I am city bred. In a year when conditions are better I shall go back. I shall appear in Berlin again, Petrograd, perhaps and of course in London and they want me in New York. I shall hate to die. But I did not mean to speak of myself. She told me that the man I loved would be successful. Fate makes no mistake. Keep up your courage for you will win and I shall die happy. What more could we want?"
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