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2a: The Way to Wagensburg (a)

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Author Topic: 2a: The Way to Wagensburg (a)  (Read 15 times)
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« on: March 01, 2023, 06:03:47 am »

It was the next morning, when I was walking down St. James’s Street on my way to the Bank, that I stopped to glance at the maps which were spread in a shop-window. I had done so many times before, for I often went by that way and, though I am no geographer, a map or a plan has for me some attraction to which I invariably yield. I had taken my look and was just about to pass on when I suddenly observed before me a map of Southern Austria, drawn to a large scale.

I was naturally most interested and at once began to look for Wagensburg, for so large was the scale that the property might well have been marked: but, though I soon saw Villach, most of the names were not at all easy to read, for the country was plainly very mountainous and the lettering was often lost against the heavy shading of the heights. For all that, if I could have gone closer I think I might soon have found the name I was seeking, but the map was some way from the glass, and I could not even stand fairly in front of it, because of another idler, who was standing before the window, regarding its wares. I waited a moment or two, expecting that he would pass on, but he did not, so I approached my face as close to the pane as I could without flattening my nose, in one last endeavour to locate the castle before I gave up the attempt. At this, the other seemed to notice my presence and turned to look at me, and, when instinctively I glanced at him, I saw that it was Ellis himself.

I do not know which of us was the more taken aback, but Ellis was the first to recover and turn away. For myself, I stood gaping and staring after him, as he walked rather jerkily away towards Piccadilly.

My first impulse was to follow him, though what good that would have done I do not know: and indeed I started uncertainly to hasten up the street in his wake; but what design I had was soon frustrated, for he entered a cab which was crawling close to the kerb and was instantly driven away.

I have often wondered what would have been his feelings if he had known of the statement which lay in my breast-pocket, while we were shoulder to shoulder before the window, and whether he would not have made some desperate attempt to possess himself of the document there and then: and, all things considered, I verily believe he would have tried, for, because of that paper, he had already put his neck in a noose, and, as the saying is, a man may ‘as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.’

The disappearance of Ellis must have restored my wits, for I realized in a flash that the first thing which I must do was to inform Mansel. I, therefore, ran down the street to Cleveland Row and happily found him in the act of leaving his flat.

Directly he saw me, he turned, and I followed him through his hall and into the dining-room.

“Yes?” he said shortly.

I told my tale, and he frowned.

“I don’t know whether this is good luck or bad luck,” he said. “But I think it’s bad luck. Any way we must take no chances.” He thought for a moment there. Then he went on: “Ellis now knows for certain that Wagensburg interests you. If your excitement was apparent, he may even suspect that you hold the secret itself. That you made no attempt to detain him wouldn’t weigh much with me, because a good many people would hesitate to seize a man in the West End for a murder which nobody knows has been committed in France; but he would probably ascribe your failure to reluctance to court inquiry. So I’m glad you followed him.”

“He didn’t see me,” I said.

“I expect the cab had a back window,” said Mansel. “Any way, Ellis will act. He may even try to watch.” He took out his case and lighted a cigarette. “I’d like you and Hanbury to take the boat-train to-morrow. And I’ll go over to-night.”

Then he gave me careful directions, told me on no account to return to Cleveland Row and not to walk alone after dark.

“You see,” he said, “you’ve lost Ellis, but you mustn’t make sure that Ellis has lost you. I rather expect he’s thinking of other things, but you never can tell. And those cabs can turn on sixpence.”

As I walked down Pall Mall, I felt as though every step I took was marked by a hundred eyes.

I lodged the envelope at the Bank, and then drove off to find Hanbury and tell him of the change in our plans. Then we went out together and bought two tickets to Paris for the following day.

I do not suppose two men ever used their eyes as we did from then until we saw Mansel again; and that, I imagine, was just what Mansel wanted, for, although I do not think he thought it likely that I should be followed, he would have been very glad to know what Ellis was doing and whether the man was alone or going to work with a gang. But Hanbury and I proved broken reeds, and, when we rejoined him, we had nothing at all to report: and this shows of how much use we were, for it afterwards appeared that Ellis had turned at the top of St. James’s Street and had driven back to see me turn into Cleveland Row, that I had been followed to the Bank, to Hanbury’s father’s house and to Cook’s office, and that it was only at Boulogne that touch with me had been lost. And for that relief we had Mansel’s prevision to thank.

At four that afternoon the commissionaire attached to my Club brought me my passport and took away all my luggage, both light and heavy; and, when I left Town the next morning, the suit-case I took with me held nothing but worn-out clothes, for which I had no use. Of Hanbury the same can be said. We left by the morning train, and came to Boulogne about noon of a beautiful day. We were soon off the boat and, since we had reserved no seats in the Paris train, we made a fuss of securing the ones we wanted as well as a table for the first luncheon to be served. When our luggage was up on the rack and the porters had been dismissed, we strolled up and down the platform, like everyone else, but, after a little, we wandered on to the quay and presently out of sight.

We made our way to a tavern in the heart of the town, and there found Mansel’s Rolls-Royce, and, within, Mansel himself, smoking and drinking beer, and arguing with the host about the Battle of the Somme. He had come that day from Dieppe.

He seemed very pleased to see us, and ordered luncheon at once, “for,” said he, “I want to be in Strasbourg by dawn, and lie up there for the day. I was watched out of London last night, and, though they’ve lost me now, they’ll probably make a fresh cast.”

“But what could they do,” said Hanbury, “if they did pick you up on the road?”

“Why, what they have done,” said Mansel, “not very far from Chartres. Don’t forget,” he added, “that we three hold the secret which that man held. And I think Ellis thinks we do.”

And there, I think, for the first time, it came to me how great was the power of those two leather bags which lay in the chamber of the great well, and I seemed to see them as impassive, relentless twin gods, bringing this man to death and holding that man for the gallows and sending another four or five pelting across a continent, like so many thieves in the night, to God knows what fortune, while, as for the hatred and malice and uncharitableness which they were inspiring, even the compilers of the Litany cannot have contemplated so poisonous a flow of soul. But, though it seemed very shocking, I felt very cheerful to think I was one of the ‘thieves,’ and the thought of stealing a march upon men so bold and determined as Ellis and his friends, was like a glass of champagne.

Whilst we were lunching, a basket was stocked with provisions against our journey and then tied up in two cloths because of the dust. Indeed, great attention was paid us by the people of the inn, who manifestly knew Mansel and thought the world of him.

We all ate very well, while Mansel spoke of the car. Of this he was plainly proud, and I was surprised that he thought it wise to leave her alone in the street. I said so presently, when he laughed and asked me to fetch him a map which he had left on its seat. I went to do so and found the car guarded better than I had dreamed. As I leaned over the side, a small, white dog rose from the driver’s place, and, had I been the devil himself, I could not have been accorded a more hostile reception. The whole street rang with a storm of barking, and, if I had taken the map, I should certainly have paid in blood for my capture. At this, Mansel appeared and, after making much of the terrier, a pure-bred Sealyham, picked him up out of the car and put him into my arms. I stroked and spoke to him, and presently he licked my face.

“And now,” said Mansel, “he knows that you are my friend and will let you come and go and do as you please.”

Then he called Hanbury and made him free of the dog’s confidence in the same way. After that, he asked me, if I had done eating, to stay with the car, because he wanted to give the Sealyham his lunch; for he set great store by the terrier, as was very proper, for I never saw a more attractive or intelligent dog. His name was Tester, and I believe, so fine was his instinct, that he understood every word that was said to him and many that were not: and I know that from that time on I was his most obedient servant, and he my very good friend: but more than that he never was, for Mansel was his master, and he knew no other.

The car was a new model, and the coachwork had been carefully done. It was, as Mansel said, a true ‘touring’ body, for, though it was slim to look at, it had a great capacity and was so constructed that two could sleep in it with ease and comfort, and, when it appeared to be empty, its hidden lockers concealed all manner of stuff not usually carried in cars, but invaluable to a pioneer. There were brandy and ‘first field-dressings,’ a medicine-chest and bandages, lint and splints: but most important in my eyes was a little armoury of weapons and ammunition and handcuffs, “of which,” said Mansel, “I hope we shall have no need; but I like to think that they’re there.” Then he showed us that in the driver’s pocket he carried a heavy pistol, ready for use; and that, I think, completed my conviction that Ellis was trying to play a losing game and would very soon curse Wagensburg and the day he first heard its name.

It was half past two when we left Boulogne for Strasbourg, and a wonderful journey it was. I sat with Mansel and Tester, and Hanbury sat behind. It had been raining a little, but was now very fine; the country through which we passed was agreeably fresh and blowing; and the car had the way of a swallow in the air. Mansel drove very fast, without seeming to do so, and maintained an average of forty-five miles to the hour with an astonishing precision. He neither hurried through towns nor showed any inconsideration to men or beasts upon the road, but such time as he lost on this account he won when the road was open, without any fuss, for the car was willing, and he was a remarkable judge of pace and distance, and, while he was yet a great way from some predicament, could tell to a hair what was within his power: and that is more than most men can do.

When evening came and we began to see cows being driven home, we turned down a lane and stopped. Then Mansel and Hanbury alighted and took Tester for a stroll, whilst I stayed with the car and prepared our supper. This we ate easily, for we were to stay there an hour. Except to take in petrol, we did not stop again till we came to Strasbourg: and that was at one o’clock. There was a fine moon, and I remember looking up sleepily to see how the old cathedral was lacking one of its spires. We chose a small hotel in an unimportant street, and only two rooms were taken, for Mansel slept in the car in a garden at the back of the inn.

We had reached Strasbourg sooner than Mansel had expected, and, though he had intended to stay in that city till dusk, the thought of wasting the whole of a valuable day was more than he could endure, and by nine o’clock of that morning we were again upon the road.

Our way now lay through The Black Forest and was at times most solitary. Mansel drove with his ears pricked, and if ever I spoke, begged me to hold my tongue; but I could not share his vigilance and, when we stopped for a moment by the side of the way, asked him how Ellis could have had time to contrive our pursuit or attack.

His reply was unanswerable.

“I could have done it,” he said, “with luck and money and friends, and, though the first can’t be bought, the other two can. Ellis had a secret to sell. Be sure he’s sold it, for he couldn’t fight us alone. Therefore, he has money and friends. And, since the Castle of Wagensburg is plainly everyone’s way, not to look out for us would be the act of a fool. They know that we’re going direct, because we’ve no time to spare. That suggests Strasbourg. So somebody flies to Paris and gets to Strasbourg some hours ahead of us. They can’t watch a city, but they can watch the frontier posts. And, don’t forget, buried treasure is the very deuce of a goad.”

As he spoke, a very faint sound came to our ears.

It was the high-pitched note of a powerful electric horn, as yet some distance away and between us and Strasbourg.

Mansel had the Rolls moving before I was well in my seat, and we were very soon doing some sixty odd miles to the hour, but the next time I heard the horn it sounded much closer, and, after a moment, Mansel slackened his speed and let a closed car go by. He was very careful, however, to keep this in sight, and when, two or three miles on, we saw it slow down and stop in the midst of the road, he asked me to fasten Tester to a short chain which was attached to the coachwork close to my feet.

As we approached, a man who had alighted from the car spread out his arms as a signal to us to stop, not in a peremptory manner, but rather as does a man who is in need of assistance. Mansel waved in reply and applied his brakes, but he overran the closed car by nearly a hundred yards, before bringing the Rolls to rest on the crown of the road.

Then we turned round in our seats and waited for the stranger to move.

For a while he seemed to be expecting that we should come back, but, when it was quite evident that we were not going to move, he spoke for a moment with someone within the car and then began to walk in our direction.

“Hanbury,” said Mansel quietly, “watch that car. The moment it moves, ask Chandos to give you a match.”

The stranger was wearing dark glasses, which he did not remove; his hair was fair and his complexion ruddy. He was not very tall, and his hands were coarse and rough. He walked jauntily and wore his hat on one side.

As he came up, he gave us “Good day” in French, and then very haltingly inquired if any one of us could speak English.

“We are English,” said Mansel.

“Why, that’s fine,” said the other. Then very calmly he asked us to come back and look at his car, “for,” said he, “she seems to be nearly red-hot, and none of us knows enough to change a wheel.”

“If she’s so hot,” said Mansel, “no one can help you at all for half an hour. I should open both sides of the bonnet and push her into the shade. I’ll send you help from the very next garage I pass.”

“Now be a sport,” said the stranger, laying a hand on the Rolls and casually lifting his hat. “Come an’ ’ave a look at the swine.”

“Bill,” said Hanbury to me, “give me a match.”

“Shall I send you help?” said Mansel, as the Rolls began to move.

The stranger’s answer was to try to apply the hand-brake, but, as he was feeling for the lever, I hit him under the jaw, and he fell back into the road.

Then the Rolls shot forward, and, as I was unready, I fell myself upon Mansel, who was laughing like a child at a circus, while Tester was barking uproariously and trying to burst his chain, and Hanbury was kneeling on the back seat, shouting “Gone away” and making derisive gestures with both hands.

Before I had got my balance, the closed car was out of sight, but Hanbury told us, with tears, that its occupants’ haste to alight, before it had stopped, had done as much damage as I, for that, as a man was descending from the front of the car, someone behind him flung open the second door and that this hit the one in the back and knocked him down and then returned upon the other, who was himself half way out. So it seemed that we had had very much the best of the brush and that Ellis and his friends had gained nothing but a couple of heavy falls: but Mansel, when he had done laughing, began to frown, “because,” said he, “though I’d sooner be before than behind them, I’d very much sooner not be on their road at all. Too many ‘circumstances over which one has no control’ on the road to-day.”

The words were hardly out of his mouth, when we rounded a bend to see a level-crossing ahead. And the barriers were down.

When we were very near, Mansel stopped and Hanbury and I leaped out. At once, as there was no keeper, we endeavoured to raise the poles, but these had been lowered by machinery, controlled, I suppose, by some distant signalman, and were fast locked into place.

“Never mind,” said Mansel quietly, stepping out of the driver’s seat. “Chandos, you take my place, and, Hanbury, sit by his side.”

With that, he climbed into the back and lighted a cigarette.

We did as he said, and, the engine running, I sat with my hand on the lever and my foot on the clutch wondering what was to happen and reflecting rather dismally that we had laughed too soon.

It was a quiet place, and the sunshine was very hot. Except for the murmur of the engine, there was no sound at all.

So we sat, waiting for the train or the closed car.

Two minutes must have gone by before the latter appeared, rounding the bend like fury and raising a storm of dust.

“Don’t start till I say so,” said Mansel, and slewed himself round on the seat.

The road was none too wide, and we were full on the crown.

With my eyes on the driving mirror, I saw the car approach.

It was in the driver’s mind to thrust alongside, but, if he had done so, he could not have crossed the metals, for the gate was less wide than the road; so he brought his car to rest behind us and a little to the right.

“If anyone moves,” said Mansel, “I’m going to fire.” The windows of the car were open, so they heard what he said. “You’ve tried to stop me by force and you’ve pursued me; and at the first town I come to I’m going to prefer a charge. My papers are all in order; I’ve a licence to carry a pistol; and my luggage is in the car. Perhaps you can say the same. If you can’t, you’ll be detained---pending inquiries.”

“Bluff,” said someone.

“Then call it,” said Mansel.

“You’ve assaulted us,” said another. “I asked you a civil question, an’ you slogged me under the jaw. An’ you talk about the police.”

“Yes,” said Mansel, “I do. Because my record’s clean. Then again, I speak German quite well; and that’s a great help.”

“Bluff,” said the first speaker. “You know as well as I do that you won’t go to the police. You can’t afford to.”

“If you mean,” said Mansel, “that I don’t want to waste my time, that’s perfectly true.”

“I don’t,” said the other. “I mean that, much as you like ’em, the last thing you want just now is to catch the eye of the police.”

Mansel raised his eyebrows.

“I’m not going to argue,” he said, “but I can’t help thinking that you’re mistaking me for somebody else. Excuse me,” and, with that, he fired.

The silence which succeeded the explosion was that of the grave. I had, of course, jumped violently and now sat still in my seat, as if under a spell, though my heart was pounding like a labouring pump and I was expecting every instant the shock of battle. But this did not come. So far as I could see by the mirror, those in the closed car were sitting as still as I, and, after a moment or two, Mansel spoke again.

“The next time anyone moves, I shall try to hit him,” he said. “And I think perhaps it would be better if you all four folded your arms. Thank you.”

“To-day to you,” said the man who had spoken last.

“Indubitably,” said Mansel.

Then we were left to our thoughts, and to wonder if ever the train was coming by.

I was disquieted.

Mansel had spoken boldly, but you cannot make bricks without straw, and the man who had taken him up was not even shaken, very much less deceived. For the moment we had them in check, but the changes and chances of the road were manifold, and, unless we could run right away, as like as not we should be cornered again. And the next time they would be more careful.

It was while I was thinking of these things that I happened to lower my eyes to the mat at my feet, and there, beneath me, I saw an adjustable spanner. Mansel had used it that morning to tighten a bolt, and, in his haste, had omitted to put it away.

Shakespeare has said somewhere that ‘the sight of means to do ill deeds, Makes deeds ill done.’ So it was with the spanner. For directly I saw it, I thought that here was the means to spoil the petrol-tank of the closed car and so put the enemy out of action.

I picked up the spanner, slid this into my pocket and turned to Hanbury.

“Take my place,” I said quietly. “I’m going to disable their car.”

Hanbury blinked once or twice and gulped as though he would protest, so soon as he found his tongue; but I opened my door and stepped out without more ado.

I sauntered up to the barrier and glanced up and down the rails. Then I turned round and looked at the two cars.

Hanbury was in my place and Mansel did not seem to have moved. He was sitting easily sideways, covering the car with his pistol and supporting his right wrist with his left arm. The four men, of whom Ellis was not one, were wearing blue glasses and sitting like images, with folded arms.
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