The Secret of the Silver Car
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It was Anthony Trent's way to look for opposition in his ventures and be a little uneasy if he met none. So far things had gone almost too smoothly.
He had threaded his way through the narrow streets of Fiume without other than a few laborers when he was suddenly halted by a policeman. The policeman stood before the Lion and waved his sword. It was plain he labored under stress of great excitement. Three others of his kind came running from a side alley. It seemed to the policeman that the great automobile made a vicious jump at him. He leapt aside with marvelous agility as the accelerated Lion passed him on its way to the pier.
There was just sufficient light for Trent to see the destroyer lying at her anchorage. Everything would have been comfortably done but for the cries of the pursuing police.
A groom of Count Mich?l's had ridden a fast horse into Agram and the Fiume authorities were bidden apprehend a thieving chauffeur driving a blue and silver Lion. There was so liberal a reward that the police force was almost disorganized in contemplating it. Pursuers among civilian laborers and sailors joined in the chase.
Trent's heart sank to see the little cove where the boats were tied was not empty at this early hour as he expected. There was a group of seven or eight fishermen getting their nets ready. Their quick ears caught sounds of the disturbance and saw that the man in the motor was to be caught. They seized a two inch hawser and stood across the pier barring the motor's way. Four men holding to one end and three, to another.
Trent took the situation in at a glance. Stupidly enough the fishermen supposed themselves to be able to stop the car of their own strength. Had they fastened the hawser around the cleats at their side Anthony Trent would have gone down to defeat. It was plain that he could not carry out his plan of rowing to the destroyer with these men at his heels.
There was one last desperate thing to do.
The great car responded to the accelerator and by the time it had reached the men holding the rope it was going at fifty miles an hour over the smooth stone breakwater. Two of the men were jerked clear into the water. They were all thrown down and one had an arm broken. Fascinated they watched the great car racing down the pier straight to destruction as they supposed. Then they looked, horrified, as it seemed to hurl itself from the jetty, hurtle through the air and disappear in a tomb of foam.
When police and fishermen strained their eyes and could see no trace of the chauffeur they naturally assumed he had been caught in the car.
"He has killed himself!" the sergeant cried.
"He was mad!" said another.
Anthony Trent had no difficulty in freeing himself from the sinking Lion. It was his wish to swim under water as far as possible and so elude those who watched for him in the faint light.
There was a strong current running and the destroyer lay a couple of cable lengths distant.It was a hard swim, clothes encumbered as he was, and he dare not discard the garment that held the paper. There was a despairing moment when he thought he could never make headway against the tide which would take him back into the harbor.
It was an astonished marine who saw the dripping exhausted man clamber aboard and fall to the deck.
"I must see your commander at once," Trent cried, when his breathing was easier.
Lieutenant Maitland awaked from his sleep was not inclined to see him.
"What's he like and the devil is it all about?" he demanded crossly.
"He's about knocked out," the marine answered, "and he says he won't tell his business to anyone but you."
Lieutenant Maitland put on a bath robe and interviewed the stranger. He was instantly taken by the man's face and manner. He saw, too that he was dealing with one of his own class.
"I have important despatches for Lord Rosecarrel the Foreign Secretary which I must get to him at once."
"Yes?" Maitland said interrogatively.
"I want you to take them and me," Anthony Trent said.
"I'm afraid that's impossible," said the officer. "You see that is a little out of my beat. Even if your papers were for the First Lord of the Admiralty I could not proceed to a home port without instructions. I am bound for Malta and weigh anchor in a little while."
Anthony Trent was silent for a moment. He knew that private matters concerning Lord Rosecarrel and his son had nothing to do with the government directly. He knew, too, that to commandeer a destroyer for a private errand was inadmissable. But he was determined to get back and had no appetite for Fiume. There was a trump card which he had yet to play.
"Why does a squadron of destroyers stay so long in Fiume?" he asked.
"Admiralty orders," Lieutenant Maitland said briefly.
"They are here because trouble may break out at any moment. The information I carry is necessary for the interests of your country and my own. I'm an American as I supposed you guessed. You will be thanked by the prime minister for taking me and my information back."
"Why not cable it?" Maitland suggested, "I'll wireless it for you in code."
"I dare not trust it," Trent said emphatically, "and they wouldn't believe it anyhow. Mine is a preposterous story but it's one that your government needs to know. Can't Malta get on without you a little? It won't take long. You fellows travel at forty miles an hour."
"Who is to judge of the importance of the information?" Maitland demanded, "I have to think of that. If you are spoofing me I run the certainty of court martial. Really I think I must beg you to be decently careful in asking this of me."
"That's only fair," Trent agreed. "Does the name of William, Prince of Misselbach, mean anything to you?"
"Only that I went to his funeral when he escaped from that island prison of his and was drowned. I was on the port guard ship at the time. I understand the allied powers breathed a sigh of relief that he had chosen to drown himself."
Anthony Trent pointed to a group of boats at the end of the pier from which he had taken his leap. They were growing distinct in the light.
"Those fellows," said Anthony Trent, accepting one of the officer's cigarettes, "are grappling for my body. They believe I'm dead. Drowned as deep as ever Prince William of Misselbach ever was. You have just as much right to think the prince dead. I've seen him. I know where he's been staying since his escape and I know who is behind the plot to put him on the throne of Hungary. Now, Lieutenant, do we steam back to England or shall I cable it?"
"I'll take a chance and slip back to Portsmouth. What you need is a hot bath and some hotter coffee. By the time you've fed and got into some of my togs we shall be on our way back to fame or court martial."
The lieutenant grinned cheerfully. He was still a boy for all the stern years he had witnessed disaster by sea and land. Also he liked Trent. It was rather a lark, he thought.
"By the way," said Trent suddenly, "if they wig-wagged you from shore that you were harbouring a man supposed to have stolen a Lion automobile from Count Mich?l Temesvar the man who is at the bottom of the plot would you feel bound to deliver him up to justice? I ask because I think some sort of police are on the way here now."
"My dear man," said Lieutenant Maitland, "you have the good fortune to be aboard the fastest destroyer on God's wide waters. Also steam is up and we shall have started before the harbour authorities can get aboard. If they can overhaul my old dear you may ask me that question again."
When it was certain that Trent had made good his escape the black rage that took hold of Count Mich?l plunged his household into a distress that showed itself on every troubled face except that of Pauline.
She was not easily able to conceal her joy in Anthony Trent's good fortune. The prophecy of the gipsy that he would escape was fulfilled.
She knew that rage must be eating at the count's heart, a rage compared with which all his other frenzied outbursts were as nothing. As a rule he made Pauline his confidante, desiring only that she approve of his behaviour. Twice she had tried to get Hentzi aside and learn what news, if any, had come of the masquerader. Hentzi sullenly turned away from her. She supposed he had been so upset over his master's temper that he was nursing a grievance himself.
She was in her room that night, about to take a gorgeous necklace from her firm white throat, when there was a knock upon the door.
"It is Mr. Hentzi," said her maid.
"Tell him I will not see him," Pauline yawned.
"He has an important message from Count Mich?l," said the girl.
"Which will wait until tomorrow," Pauline said lazily.
Hentzi's voice made itself heard through the partly opened door.
"I must beg you madame, to come at once. It is imperative. The count must have your advice on matters of importance."
Pauline decided to go. After the silence of the day the count would tell her everything, and she was anxious to be reassured of Anthony Trent's safety.
"Where are you taking me?" she demanded as Hentzi guided her past the big room where Trent had been arraigned, the room from which he had made his escape.
"His Excellency cannot remain in a room with an entire window torn out. It would but be to invite a flock of bats to enter."
Pauline climbed two little flights of steps which led to the topmost floor of the castle.
"I have never been here before," she commented.
"Few strangers have," he said, locking it behind her.
"Strangers!" she repeated, "since when have I been a stranger?"
She found nothing strange in his silence. Hentzi was constantly a prey to the fear he might by some over zealous action provoke the wrath of the man he served. Probably he had not heard her question.
She found Count Mich?l in a big bare room, octagonal in shape and knew it must be the tower which stood out boldly on the western corner of the castle.
"Why bring me here?" she said petulantly.
She had no fear of the man who ruled his people as an autocrat. It is not in the nature of such women as Pauline to eliminate a certain feeling of contempt for the power of men whom they can sway by whim and artifice. Mich?l, Count Temesvar, was terrible to such as he hated, and a political force of sinister strength, but to the green eyed woman who looked at him mockingly he was one of the weak and pliable pawns on life's board.
"Sit down," he said suavely. There was no sudden look of affection as he gazed at her. He spoke, she reflected, very much as he had done to Anthony Trent. But the ex-chauffeur had been a prisoner. She looked about her and saw that this was almost a prison.
"About this Alfred Anthony," he began. "I am told, although I do not believe it, that you were much concerned for his safety."
"Who told you that?" she demanded.
"What matters that? It is untrue?"
"Naturally," she answered, trying to fathom what lay behind his smiling face.
"Tell me this Pauline," he said leaning forward, "when the Sissek woman informed us that he had escaped I thought I heard you say 'Thank God.' Why did you thank God when my enemy escaped?"
Pauline was not so easily to be trapped. She remembered breathing her prayer almost at his ear but she hoped in the excitement he had not heard.
"You are dreaming Mich?l," she exclaimed. "Why should I say that?"
"Another thing," the count went on. "This man would hardly have escaped if the electric lights had not gone out." Abruptly the count turned to Hentzi. "Tell me, did you see the engineer about this?"
"Yes, Excellency," Hentzi assured him, "He tells me in technical terms which I do not comprehend that sometimes the light goes off for a few moments. It was the thunder storm or some atmospherical condition. I do not remember."
"Heaven seems to fight for him," Count Mich?l commented. "First the lights extinguished and then someone in this house of mine who gives him keys and aids his escape. The garage door opens itself to him and lo, he disappears."
"He has an accomplice you think, Excellency?" Hentzi stammered. He was fearful that his master had learned of his carrying the book to the prisoner. Out of this slender fact the wrathful count might be weaving plot enough to engulf his faithful secretary. "I assure your Excellency," Hentzi cried, "that I am entirely loyal."
Pauline was still not to be frightened by this changed mood of the count and the agitation expressed on his secretary's face. She had been victor over him in a hundred violent scenes and Pauline loved violence and the raising of voices.
"A curious thing," said the count meditatively, "is that the lights went out only in my room. A well trained thunder storm Hentzi, eh?"
"Your excellence means that someone turned them off. I was on guard at the window as you remember."
"I know that you were. Ferencz was at the north door, Peter at the other. The thief could not be suspected and I was a dozen feet distant sitting in my chair. And yet, Hentzi, when I pressed the button light again flooded the room."
"I suppose you are hinting that I did it?" Pauline said calmly.
When the count smiled, it was another man looking at her, a man to whom she was a stranger. For the first time a thrill of uneasiness took hold of her.
"Is hinting the right word?" Count Mich?l retorted.
"I might have done it," Pauline admitted, "I remember when I heard the crash of the broken glass jumping up. I probably put my hand out to steady myself and touched the knob without noticing it. How unfortunate!"
"Again," said the count, "I must question your right use of words. You said 'unfortunate,' did you not?"
"There is one other thing which has puzzled me," Count Mich?l went on. "Peter Sissek's wife thinks she saw you come back to the garage two mornings back soon after sunrise. She was wrong?"
"She was right," Pauline replied, "I could not sleep so I went out to try and find the missing coat."
"What loyal helpers surround me," the count murmured. "Before you retire to your well earned night's rest one other question."
"As many as you please," said Pauline, some of her burden of anxiety lifted. "What is it?"
"This thief knew of the presence here of certain exalted personages. He had never been anywhere but in the kitchen quarters and his own room. No servant of mine would have told him anything. There were many hours when I was busy and you played golf that you could have told him. I want your word that the information did not come from you."
"You have it," she said lightly. "Now as that is all I shall go to my room. This hideous place chills me."
"Pauline," Count Mich?l said sternly, "I have given you every chance to tell the truth. You have lied. It is in your nature to lie but I thought that one of your training would know when the time came to speak the truth. Such an hour is at hand. The man was your lover. You helped him to escape. That I am certain of. You have betrayed me and my cause – and your cause too – because you are a light of love, a thing who will accept a purchase price and then play false."
"My poor Mich?l," she said commiseratingly, "you drink too much of your own plum brandy. Tonight you are crazy. Tomorrow I shall have you begging for a smile from me. As it is I find you tedious. Hentzi, open the door."
The secretary made no move to obey her.
She shrugged her shoulders. Neither of the men judged from her manner the fear that began to enwrap her.
"Yours will be a cold smile tomorrow," Count Mich?l said, "and I, for one, shall not envy it. You have betrayed me but in the end I have triumphed. They have caught him Pauline. They are bringing him back to you. Do you think you will be there to aid him when he is my prisoner again?"
If Count Mich?l wished for tribute to his victory it was his now.
The confidence left her face. She was white and smileless. The courage and bold carriage of her splendid body seemed taken from her. She leaned heavily on the bare table. Hentzi, a prey always to emotion, could have wept for her forgetting she was his master's enemy.
To Count Mich?l her attitude had the effect of whipping into white heat his repressed and savage rage. He had tried to believe that he still stood first in her affection. It was the vanity of the successful man whose desire has outlived his fascination.
No woman could be stricken to the earth by news of the capture of a man unless he were unutterably dear to her. It was clear confession of the victory of Lord Rosecarrel's agent. What desire for mercy had been in the count's heart died down. There came in its place the craving for instant and brutal revenge.
"So you did help him?" he said in a low harsh voice.
"Yes," she answered. "I thought I had helped him to succeed."
"And you admit you told him of the presence here of the prince?"
"If you like," she said wearily, "If I denied it you would not believe me."
"Take note of that, Hentzi," the count commanded him. "It is important, this admission of guilt."
Pauline hardly heard him. The shock of learning that the man she adored had been recaptured overwhelmed her. She tried to shut out the thought of what punishment would be meted to him now.
"I will talk more tomorrow," she said brokenly.
"Do you not understand that for you there will be no tomorrow?" She could see now that the count hated her. Jealousy had swept from him all memory of past affection. He could only think of himself as one betrayed by the man he hated. In vain she might look for mercy here.
"I am to be murdered?" she said looking from one to the other of the two.
"You are to be executed," he said. "You took your oath to support this movement and you have betrayed it. I have given you your chance to confess and instead you perjured yourself." He raised a service revolver from his table.
It was Hentzi who in this last black scene rose above his fears to plead for her. The count waved his protests aside. The woman did not move.
"Madame," Hentzi cried almost hysterically. "You must not believe what his excellency tells you."
"Silence," the count cried angrily.
But Hentzi would not be stayed. At heart he was generous and in a dumb, hopeless fashion he had long cherished an affection for Pauline.
"He escaped," Hentzi continued, "We have just learned that they did not capture him. Already he is on a fast war ship of his country far from fear of pursuit."
It was as though a miracle had happened.
The color came again into Pauline's cheeks and the drooping, broken figure grew tall, erect and commanding.
"So you lied to me, Mich?l," she said slowly. "You were ashamed to admit that he had beaten you. But I should not have lost my faith in him so easily." She turned to Hentzi. "Thank you my friend. You have made me happy."
"Silence," the count cried. "Prepare yourself."
"You cannot hurt me now, Mich?l," she laughed. Hentzi thought she looked like a young girl, splendid and triumphant with the wine of youth. "At most you can take my life. As I can never have him whom I love I do not mind. Perhaps I am a little grateful to you. Why does your hand tremble, Mich?l?"
She held herself at this last moment with a brave insolence. Her head was carried high and the count knew she was laughing at him for having failed. He knew that her words were not idly spoken when she said she would die happy because her lover had escaped.
She stood there flouting him, jeering at him, this woman through whose actions his own safety was imperilled, the woman whose fascination had so long enthralled him. And he realized that although it would be his hands which would strike her to the dust yet she would be the victor.
Untrembling she looked into the black mouth of the revolver.
"Why do your hands shake?" she repeated. "Are you afraid he will come back and rescue me?"
Hentzi covered his eyes as the spurt of flame jumped at her. It was his shriek which rang out. Pauline met her death, triumphant, smiling, unafraid.