Wyndham Martyn.

The Secret of the Silver Car



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"Was," Trent repeated, "What is it now?"

"A tomb," the stranger told him puffing at his cigarette. "I found you bleeding to death and I bandaged your arm. I was knocked out myself and your men and mine had gone on and there was never a Red Cross man or anyone else in sight so I carried you into this dug-out. All of a sudden some damned H. E. blocked up the opening. When the dust settled I explored with my few matches. Our tomb is sealed up – absolutely. I've often heard of it happening before. It looks as if a house had been lifted up and planted right on this dug-out."

"So that's why you said it didn't matter much if I could see or not?"

"Does it?" the man asked shortly.

"Have you another match?" Trent asked presently. "I'd like to explore."

"No good," the other retorted. "I've been all round the damned place and there isn't a chance, except that the thing may collapse and bury us."

"Then we are to starve to death without an effort?"

"We shall asphyxiate, we shan't starve. Don't you notice how heavy the air is? Presently we shall get drowsy. Already I feel light headed and inclined to talk."

"Then talk," Trent said, "Anything is better than sitting here and waiting. The air is heavy; I notice it now. I suppose I'm going to be delirious. Talk, damn you, talk. Why not tell me your name? What difference can it make to you now? Are you afraid? Have you done things you're ashamed of? Why let that worry you since it only proves you're human."

"I'm not ashamed of what I've done," the other drawled, "it's my family which persists in saying I've disgraced it."

Anthony Trent was in a strange mood. Ordinarily secretive to a degree and fearful always of dropping a hint that might draw suspicion to his ways of life, he found himself laughing in a good humored way that this English soldier should imagine he must conceal his name for fear of disgrace. Why the man was a child, a pigmy compared with Anthony Trent. He had perhaps disobeyed an autocrat father or possibly married a chorus girl instead of a blue blooded maiden.

"You've probably done nothing," said Trent. "It may be you were expelled from school or university and that makes you think you are a desperate character."

There was silence for a moment or so.

"As it happens," the unknown said, "I was expelled from Harrow and kicked out of Trinity but it isn't for that. I'm known in the army as Private William Smith of the 78th Battalion, City of London Regiment."

"I thought you were an officer," Trent said. Private Smith had the kind of voice which Trent associated with the aristocracy.

"I'm just a plain private like you," Smith said, "although the lowly rank is mine for probably far different reasons."

"I'm not so sure of that," Trent said, a trifle nettled. "I could have had a commission if I wanted it."

"I did have one," Smith returned, "but I didn't mean what I said offensively.

I meant only that I dare not accept a commission."

Anthony Trent waited a moment before he answered.

"I'm not so sure of that," he said again.

The reasons for which Trent declined his commission and thereby endured certain hardships not unconnected with sleeping quarters and noisy companionship were entirely to his credit. Always with the fear of exposure before his eyes he did not want to place odium on the status of the American officer as he would have done had screaming headlines in the papers spoken of the capture by police authorities of Lieutenant Anthony Trent the cleverest of modern crooks. But he could not bring himself to speak of this even in his present unusual mood.

"It doesn't matter now very much," Smith said laughing a little, "we shall both be called missing and the prison camps will be searched for us. In the end my family may revere my memory and yours call you its chief glory."

"I haven't a family," Trent said. "I used to be sorry for it. I'm glad now." He stopped suddenly. "Do you know," he said later, "you were laughing just now. You're either crazy or else you must have your nerve with you still."

"I may be crazy," returned Private Smith, "but I usually make my living by having my nerve with me as you call it. It has been my downfall. If I had been a good, moral child, amenable to discipline I might have commanded a regiment instead of being a 'tommy' and I might be repenting now. By the way you don't seem as depressed as one might expect. Why?"

"After a year of this war one doesn't easily lose the habit of laughing at death."

"I've had four years of it," Smith said. "I was a ranker when it broke out and saw the whole show from August 1914. On the whole what is coming will be a rest. I don't know how they manage these things in your country but in England when a man has been, well call it unwise, there is always a chance of feeling a heavy hand on one's shoulder and hearing a voice saying in one's ear, 'I arrest you in the King's name!' Very dramatic and impressive and all that sort of thing, but wearing on the nerves – very." Private Smith laughed gently, "I'm afraid you are dying in rather bad company."

"We have something in common perhaps," Trent said. He grinned to himself in the covering blackness as he said it. "Tell me, did you ever hear of Anthony Trent?"

"Never," Private Smith returned quickly. "Sorry! I suppose I ought to know all about him. What has he done?"

"He wrote stories of super-crookdom for one thing."

"That explains it," Smith asserted, "You see those stories rather bore me. I read them when I was young and innocent but now I know how extremely fictional they are; written for the greater part, I'm informed, by blameless women in boarding houses. I like reading the real thing."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Reports of actual crimes as set forth in the newspapers. Cross-examinations of witnesses and all that, summing up of the judges and coroners' inquests. Was this Trent person really good?"

"You shall judge," said the American. "He wrote of crimes and criminals from what such actual practitioners had told him. He was for a time a police reporter on a big New York paper and had to hang around Mulberry Street. After that he tried the magazines but as editors are so remote as a rule from actual knowledge of the world's play and work, he didn't make much money at it. Finally his pet editor – a man with some human attributes – said in effect, 'I can't raise your rates; the publisher won't stand for it. If I paid decent prices he couldn't buy champagne and entertain his favorites.' This was in the era before prohibition. The human editor went on giving advice and wound up by saying, 'Why don't you do what your super-crook character does and relieve the dishonest rich of their stolen bonds? Conway Parker gets away with it, why shouldn't you?'"

"Of course he was rotting?" Private Smith asked.

"Yes," the American said, "He didn't really mean it but the thought germs fell into the right sort of broth. Anthony Trent wasn't naturally a crook but he hated having to live in a cheap boarding house and eat badly cooked meals and play on a hard-mouthed, hired, upright piano. Some ancestor had dowered him with a love of beautiful things, rugs, pictures, pottery, bronzes, music and a rather secluded life. Also he had dreams about being a great composer. He was a queer mixture. On the whole rather unbalanced I suppose. His father died and left him almost nothing. All he could do was newspaper work at first."

"You mean he actually followed the editor's advice?"

"Yes. He had certain natural gifts to aid him. He was a first rate mimic. It's a sort of gift I suppose. He had gone in for amateur theatricals at his college and done rather well. He pulled off his first job successfully but the butler saw him and did not forget. That was the trouble the butler remembered. It wasn't a big affair. It didn't make any such stir as for example as when he took the Mount Aubyn Ruby."

"I read of that," Smith returned eagerly. "He knocked out a millionaire surrounded with detectives and got away in an airplane."

"He got away but not in an airplane," replied Anthony Trent. "On the whole the unknown aviator was rather useful to him but was absolutely blameless. Then there was the case of the Apthorpe emerald. Did you hear of that?"

"Haven't I told you," Smith returned impatiently, "that I read all about things of that sort? How could I have missed that even though I was in the trenches when it happened. It was the delight of my hospital life to read about it in Reynolds Journal. It was said a woman murdered old Apthorpe for it."

"She did," Trent admitted, "and she took the emerald but Anthony Trent got it from her and fooled them all. His last big job before the United States got into the war was getting the blue-white diamond that was known as the Nizam's Diamond."

"A hundred carat stone," Smith said reverently. "By Jove, what a master! As I never heard of him of course he was never caught. They are all caught in the end, though. His day will come."

For a moment the thought that Anthony Trent's life was coming to an end before many hours had passed took the narrator from his mood of triumph into a state of depression. To have to give up everything and die in the darkness. Exit Anthony Trent for all time! And as he thought of his enemies the police toiling for the rich rewards that they would never get for apprehending him his black mood passed and Smith heard him chuckle.

"They all get caught in the end," Smith repeated, "the best of them. The doctrine of averages is against them. Your Anthony Trent is one lone man fighting against so many. He may have the luck with him so far but there's only one end to it. They got Captain Despard and he was a top-hole marauder. They got our estimable Charles Peace and they electrocuted Regan in your own country only last month and he was clever, God knows. I think I'd back your Trent man against any single opponent, but the odds are too great. The pack will pull him down and break him up some day."

Again Private Smith of the City of London regiment heard the man he had rescued from danger to present him with death, laugh a curious triumphant laugh. He had seen so much of war's terror that he supposed the man was going mad. It would perhaps be a more merciful end.

"No," said the American. "Anthony Trent will never be discovered. He will be the one great criminal who will escape to the confusion of the detectives of New York and London. I am Anthony Trent."

Chapter Three
THE BEGINNING OF THE SEARCH

"You?" cried Private Smith. "Ye Gods! And I haven't even a match left so I can see you before we go. I die in better company than I know." Trent could hear that he raised himself slowly and painfully to his feet. Then he heard the soldier's heels click smartly together. "Ave C?sar – " he began. But the immortal speech of those gladiators being about to die was not finished.

There broke on Trent's astonished gaze a flash of sunlight that made him blink painfully. And the terrifying noise of high explosive hurt his ears and that swift dreadful sucking of the air that followed such explosions was about him again in its intensity. He had been dug out of his tomb for what?

The doctors thought him a very bad case. Of course he was delirious. He stuck to a ridiculous story that he was imprisoned in a tomb with one William Smith, a private in the 78th Battalion of the City of London Regiment and that H. E. had mysteriously disinterred him. H. E. did perform marvels that were seemingly against known natural laws but Private Trent was obviously suffering from shell shock.

When he was better and had been removed to a hospital far from the area of fighting he still kept to his story. One of the doctors who liked him explained that the delusion must be banished. He spoke very convincingly. He explained by latest methods that the unreal becomes real unless the patient gets a grip on himself. He said that Trent was likely to go through life trying to find a non-existent friend and ruining his prospects in the doing of it. "I'll admit," he said at the end of his harangue, "that you choose your friend's name well."

"Why do you say that?" Trent asked.

"Because the muster roll of the 78th shows no fewer than twenty-seven William Smiths and they're all of 'em dead. That battalion got into the thick of every scrap that started."

Trent said no more but made investigations on his own behalf. Unfortunately there was none to help him. The ambulance that picked him up was shelled and he had been taken from its bloody interior the only living soul of the crew and passengers. None lived who could tell him what became of his companion, the man to whom he had revealed his identity, the man who possessed his secret to the full.

When he was discharged from the service and was convalescing in Bournemouth he satisfied himself that the unknown Smith had died. Again luck was with Anthony Trent. The one man – with the exception of Sutton whose lips he was sure were sealed – who could make a clear hundred thousand dollars reward for his capture was removed from the chance of doing it even as the knowledge was offered him. The words that he would have spoken, "Hail C?sar, I, being about to die, salute thee!" had come true in that blinding flash that had brought Anthony Trent back to the world.

But even with this last narrow escape to sober him Trent was not certain whether the old excitement would call and send him out to pit himself against society. He had no grievance against wealthy men as such. What he had wanted of theirs he had taken. He was now well enough off to indulge in the life, as a writer, he had wanted. He had taken his part in the great war as a patriot should and was returning to his native land decorated by two governments. Again and again as he sat at the balcony of his room at the Royal Bath Hotel and looked over the bay to the cliffs of Swanage he asked himself this question – was he through with the old life or not? He could not answer. But he noticed that when he boarded the giant Cunarder he looked about him with the old keenness, the professional scrutiny, the eagerness of other days.

He tipped the head steward heavily and then consulted the passenger list and elected to sit next to a Mrs. Colliver wife of a Troy millionaire. She was a dull lady and one who lived to eat, but he had heard her boasting to a friend on the boat train that her husband had purchased a diamond tiara in Bond Street which would eclipse anything Troy had to offer. Mrs. Colliver dreaded to think of the duty that would have to be paid especially as during the war less collars were used than in normal times.

It was with a feeling of content that Anthony Trent paced the deck as the liner began her voyage home. Two years was a long time to be away and he felt that a long lazy month in his Maine camp would be the nearest thing to the perfect state that he could dream of when he heard, distinctly, without a chance of being mistaken, the voice of Private William Smith shouting a goodbye from the pier.

Trent had a curiously sensitive ear. He had never, for example, failed to recognize a voice even distorted over telephone wires. William Smith had one of those distinctive voices of the same timbre and inflection of those of his caste but with a certain quality, that Trent could not now stop to analyze, which stamped it as different.

All Trent's old caution returned to him. It was possible that the man whom he had supposed dead had come to see the Cunarder off without knowing Anthony Trent was aboard. But the passenger lists could be inspected and even now the law might have been set in motion that would take him handcuffed from the vessel at quarantine to be locked up in a prison. He was worth a hundred thousand dollars to any informant and he could not doubt that the so-called Smith had gone wrong because of the lust for money to pay his extravagances. It was inevitably the reason in men of the class of Smith and Despard.

He was obsessed with the determination to find out. He would track the man he had known as Smith and find out without letting him be any the wiser. A hundred ideas of disguise flashed across the quick-working brain. He tried to tell himself that it was likely that the voice might have proceeded from an utter stranger. But this was false comfort he knew. It was Smith of the 78th City of London regiment who was on the pier already growing inch by inch farther away.

The second officer tried to stop him and a passenger grasped him by the arm as he climbed the rails but they tried vainly. He dropped as lightly as he could and picked himself up a little dazed and looked around. He could see a hundred faces peering down at him from the moving decks overhead. He could see a crowd of people streaming down the pier to the city. And among them was the man he sought.

"One moment, sir," said a policeman restraining him, "what's the meaning of this?"

"Just come ashore," Trent smiled. The policeman loomed over him huge, stolid, ominous. The man looked from Trent in evening dress and without hat or overcoat, to the shadowy ship now on her thousand league voyage and he shook his head. It was an irregular procedure, he told himself and as such open to grave suspicion. But he was courteous. Trent was a gentleman and no look of fear came to his face when the officer spoke. The man remained close to Trent when he approached the few groups of people still on the pier. To every man in the groups the stranger contrived to ask a question. Of one he asked the time, of another the best hotel in Liverpool.

"It may seem very strange," said Trent pleasantly to the perplexed policeman, "but I did an unaccountable thing. I thought I saw a man who was in the trenches with me in France during the war and saved my life and I sprang over the side to find him and now he's gone."

The policeman waved a white gloved hand to the people who had already left the landing stage.

"Your friend may be there, sir," he said.

"You don't want to detain me, then?" Trent cried.

"It's dark, sir," said the policeman, "and I could hardly be expected to remember which way you went."

At the end of the short pier was a taxicab stand and a space where private machines might park. Anthony Trent arrived in time to see a huge limousine driven by a liveried chauffeur with a footman by his side begin to climb the step grade to the street. As it passed him he could swear he heard Smith's voice from within, saying, "It's the most rotten luck that I should be a younger son and not get the chances Geoffrey does."

Trent could not see the number plate of the big machine. He could note only a coat of arms on the door surmounted by a coronet. He had no time to ask if any of the dock laborers knew the occupants. He sprang into the sole taxi that occupied the stand and commanded the driver to overtake the larger car. So eager was the man to earn the double fare that he was halted by a policeman outside the Atlantic Riverside Station. The time taken up by explanations permitted the coronetted limousine to escape.

In so big a city as Liverpool a car could be lost easily but the sanguine taxi driver, certain at least of getting his fare, persisted in driving all over the city and its suburbs until he landed his passenger tired and disappointed at the Midland Hotel.

On the whole Anthony Trent had rarely spent such unprofitable hours. He had paid a premium for his state room on a fast boat and was now stranded in a strange city without baggage. And of course he was worried. He had believed himself alone to have been rescued when the high explosive had taken the roof from his tomb. Now it seemed probable that the British soldier, Smith, had also made his escape.

Although it was quite possible Trent was following a stranger whose voice was like that of Private Smith, he had yet to find that stranger and make sure of it. Trent was not one to run away from danger.

As he sat in the easy chair before the window he told himself again and again that it was probable the voice he identified with the unknown Smith was like that of a thousand other men of his class. He had acted stupidly in jumping from a ship's rails and risking his limbs. And how much more unwisely had he acted in that black silence when he was led to cast aside his habitual silence and talk freely to a stranger. In effect he had put himself in the keeping of another man without receiving any confidence in return. He blamed the wound, the shock and a thousand physical causes for it but the fact was not to be banished by that. Smith knew Anthony Trent as a master criminal while Anthony Trent only knew that Smith has enlisted under another name because he had disgraced his own. It might easily be that this unknown Smith was like a hundred other "gentlemen rankers" who could only be accused of idleness and instability. But Anthony Trent stirred uneasily when he recalled the eagerness with which Smith spoke of some of those crimes Anthony Trent had committed. Smith knew about them, admired the man who planned them. Trent on thinking it over for the hundredth time believed Smith was indeed a crook and as such dangerous to him.



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