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2b: The Way to Wagensburg (b)

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Author Topic: 2b: The Way to Wagensburg (b)  (Read 18 times)
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« on: March 01, 2023, 06:05:20 am »

I stepped to the radiator of the Rolls, unscrewed the cap and peered within. Then I frowned and, spanner plainly in hand, stooped as though to tighten the plug. After appearing and disappearing once or twice, I replaced the cap, still frowning, and disappeared again. A moment later I was beneath the car. It was a tight fit, but the pulse of the closed car’s engine covered the noise I made. I worked along on my back as best I could, until my head was level with the Rolls’ hind wheels. To pass from beneath the Rolls to beneath the closed car meant crossing about six feet of open road, but there was not more than a yard between the two cars’ wings, and, though, from where I lay, I could see the hat of the man beside the driver, I judged that, unless he moved, the strip of road I must pass was just out of his sight. So, since to see where I was going was now essential, I turned very gently upon my face and took a deep breath. Inch by inch I covered those six feet of open road, and I must admit that I did it with my heart in my mouth, for I could by no means be sure that I was not in some view, and, though I hoped for the best, once one of the enemy knew that I was beneath their car, pistol or no, it was most unlikely that they would make no attempt to learn my business.

At last, however, it was over, and I was well out of sight and under the closed car.

I turned again upon my back, and there I lay for a moment to get my breath, for the strain of moving so flat upon my face had been exhausting, and the heat and noise of the engine at such close quarters had been unpleasant. I was, too, half choked and blinded with the dust, which hereabouts lay very thick.

As I was taking my rest, I became suddenly aware of a great noise, which was not that of the engine, but seemed to be coming upon me at a terrible speed. For an instant I lay paralysed, unable to think what it was. Then, in a flash, I knew it was the sound of the train for which we had waited so long.

What would happen when it had gone by and the barriers rose, I did not stay to think. Indeed, I do not remember how I got to the tank, but I know that I was fumbling with the spanner and that the dust was falling thick into my mouth and eyes as the train roared on its way.

The bottom of the tank was all encrusted with dirt, but I had this off in a twinkling and fitted the spanner to the plug. Twice I tried to move it, and twice it refused to budge, for I do not think it had ever been undone since the car was built, but had been painted over, so that its shape was half gone and it might not have been a plug at all, but only a knob.

I had just reset the spanner, licked my hands and taken another hold, when a sudden, unmistakable clatter announced that the barriers were up.

At once I heard Mansel’s voice.

“Stand by, William,” he said, using my Christian name. And then: “I’m going now,” he continued, “to prefer my charge. From what you say I gather you’re going to follow, so we shall meet again.”

He said more, but that was as much as I heard, for his words showed me something I had not dreamed of, namely, that he did not know that I was not still in the Rolls, but thought he was free to proceed, and---what was perhaps more serious---that upon this important point the four in the closed car were better informed than he.

With these thoughts in my mind, I put forth all my strength, and I think any screw must have yielded to the frantic effort I made. The drain-plug gave way with a crack, and, after one or two turns, I felt the petrol running over my hands. I continued to work desperately, and, a moment later the plug fell out of its hole, and, with a soft gush, the spirit began to pour out into the dust.

I thrust the drain-plug into my pocket, because, without that, a hogshead of petrol would not avail the closed car, but she would have to be towed until she came to some place which boasted a lathe and a man sufficiently skilled to fashion a substitute. Then, regardless of the downpour of petrol, I scrambled clear of the car. As I did so, I heard Mansel raise his voice.

“William,” he cried, “don’t look for it any more: we must have dropped it farther back.”

I knew at once that Hanbury must have told him my errand, and that now he was giving me my cue: so, wondering how the inmates of the closed car would take my entrance, I stepped to the middle of the road, and then, waving the spanner, jogged cheerfully into view.

As I came alongside:

“Let her go,” said Mansel.

Hanbury had set the door open, and the car was moving when I flung myself in. As the Rolls swept over the metals, I heard a shout of surprise, and this was immediately followed by a veritable bellow of rage, which I like to think showed that the occupants of the closed car accredited me with some malicious attempt upon its efficiency. And I think that in that I am right, for, instead of pursuing, they all flung out of the car, and, when we sailed round a bend, they were behind their vehicle, which was standing apparently deserted, with all four doors open, to the side of the dusty road.

Then Mansel took over the wheel, and I showed him and Hanbury the drain-plug and told my tale. Presently we ran through a village, where there was not so much as a forge, and a few miles further on we came to a smooth-flowing stream. Here Mansel gave me five minutes to strip and bathe, and, while I did so, Hanbury unpacked clean clothes for me to put on. When I came back to the car, they had opened three bottles of beer and drank my health in the most handsome fashion. But I think it is clear that, though anyone, who was not too fat, could have crawled underneath the two cars, only a great personality could have held four such villains at bay for nearly ten minutes and so brought us safe and sound out of so perilous a pass.

We came to Salzburg that night, to find the three servants arrived and our rooms waiting: and here Mansel slept in a bed for the first time since he had left London, while Carson, his servant, lay in the car in his stead.


The next day we breakfasted together in Hanbury’s room, and there, after we had eaten, a council was held.

It was most probable that, if Wagensburg was in the market, some one of the agents in Salzburg had the castle upon his books: and, since Ellis had taken the field, at once to set about the purchase seemed plainly the best thing to do. Yet, to seek to buy a property of such consequence without having so much as seen it, was out of the question, for not only should we be unable to judge the price we were asked, but such an astonishing action would be certain to arouse comment: and that was the last thing we desired.

We, therefore, determined to devote the next day to a reconnaissance, in the course of which we should explore the country round Wagensburg, and, if it was vacant, the property itself. We should then, at least, be qualified to play the part of people so much attracted by a domain as to desire to own it, and, though an agent might think that we had more money than brains, it was unlikely that he would look for any deeper explanation of our eagerness.

Another thing we decided was to purchase a second car. Sooner or later we must have one, for the Rolls would not hold six as well as baggage, and it might well prove worse than inconvenient to break our party in two. And, since to carry out the reconnaissance in some car less distinctive than the Rolls might be to our advantage, we determined to make our purchase before we did anything else.

Then Mansel requested Hanbury to stay in Salzburg, while he and I and Carson went out alone. It was a big thing to ask, but Hanbury immediately agreed in the most handsome way, insisting that he would be better employed in caring for the Rolls after her long run than in making a fourth in what was “a three-men job.” But Mansel made him promise not to go out alone, but always to take with him one of the other servants, when he left the hotel.

By mid-day we had a car. It was not new, but had been carefully used, and had only come to be sold the day before. It bore a well-known name, was swift and very well found, and, after putting it to several tests, Mansel drove to a Bank and paid the price we were asked without more ado.

Then we ate a short luncheon, bade Hanbury good-bye, and, taking Carson and Tester, left for Carinthia soon after one o’clock.

It was a notable run. The country was mountainous, and the scenery superb: the further South we went the more picturesque became the way, and the villages grew less frequent and more and more unspoiled.

Everywhere there were woods and forests, high and low, and, among them, streams and pastures and an occasional farm, with a saucer on every ridge-pole to keep the witches away.

About sundown we came to a village that Mansel knew.

There was but one inn, and that did not look as if it had much to offer, although, to judge by its size and style, it must once have been a house of some importance and have served people of quality. But, as it turned out, I was never better lodged in my life; for I slept in a great four-poster amid furniture which must have been of great value; my huge room was spotless: the linen was unusually fine and smelt very sweet of some herbs, with which it had been laid away; and the attendance was such as, I imagine, travellers used to hope for a hundred years ago. The fare, too, was excellent---trout, and an omelet and most delicious bread, with plenty of fresh fruit and cream: and, since there was no garage or coach-house, they opened the great doors that belonged to the house itself, and Mansel drove the car into a vast, flagged hall, to the great entertainment of the regular customers of the inn, who were there gathered drinking, before they went to their beds.

We were on the road the next morning by six o’clock, and before it was seven we had sighted Wagensburg.

We had stopped for a moment by the way to study the map, and I was trying to determine exactly which road we were using, when Mansel gave a light laugh and touched me upon the arm.

I followed his gaze.

He was looking up over his shoulder at a range of high woods which fell sharply to a river. At one point a bend of the river bit into the line of the woods, and above the bend rose a cliff, some hundred and fifty feet high. And on the edge of the cliff stood a castle wall.

Neither of us said anything; but, after a little, Mansel started the engine and I put away the map.

Three miles farther on we came to the village of Lerai, where was a bridge. We stopped at the inn there and ordered breakfast, and, while this was being prepared, Mansel talked with the host.

All that we wanted to know, the latter told him. Wagensburg was to be sold: the village postmaster held the keys of the house: no one had viewed the property since it had been for sale. And, when Mansel said he should like to see the castle, the innkeeper called for his hat and set out to find the postmaster and ask for the keys.

When Mansel told me all this---for I cannot speak German, and had understood next to nothing of what had been said---I could have thrown up my hat; and even he was very plainly elated to think that, except for Ellis, our way was so easy and clear. The breakfast was served, but I could hardly swallow for sheer excitement, so that Mansel advised me to think upon fishing and trout-streams, “because,” said he, gravely, “such contemplation is not only very restful, but very much in point, for, remember, it is trout that has brought us to these parts, and, if we like Wagensburg, we do so because it will make an agreeable fishing-lodge.”

Since Mansel never spoke without reason, I strove to do as he said, but I fear my reflections upon angling were incoherent and of no value, for fish are not found in wells, nor do ropes and lanterns form part of an angler’s kit. Before, however, the landlord was back with the keys, Mansel had me in hand, and when the former reappeared, I was listening to such a discourse upon flies as must, I think, have interested the most unlikely fisherman that ever was born. To round the picture, the host was brought into the session and made free of Mansel’s words, to which, since he was something of an angler, he responded so warmly that I began to think that we should never start, or that, at any rate, Ellis or one of his confederates would first appear.

However, at last we left, with the landlord sitting with Carson in the back of the car.

We crossed the bridge, and, almost immediately leaving the main road, turned to the right up a narrower, rougher way, which, it presently appeared, led only to Wagensburg. For a while the road ran by the river: then it climbed up gradually into the woods and finally lay like a shelf cut out of the side of the forest above the water and tilted up like a ramp to the castle itself. To this there was no gateway, but the road ran right on to the terrace, the wall of which we had seen from the other side. The house was long and low, and stood upon two sides of a pleasant courtyard, to which, upon its third side, the terrace made an apron, with a row of sweet-smelling limes standing between the two. Upon the fourth side stood the stables and the chapel, with a mighty gateway between: through this gateway the road we had used went on, leading, so far as I could see, to woods and hanging pastures, and made, undoubtedly, to serve the estate. There were trees in the courtyard, and, a little to one side, by the house, an old parapeted well.

The sun was shining full on the terrace, and Mansel drove into the courtyard and stopped in the shade.

Then we alighted, and the landlord took us over the house.

This was agreeable, and full of fine, big rooms; but there was no running water, and a lot would have had to be done to turn the mansion into a comfortable home.

Mansel, however, seemed well pleased with all that he saw and took good stock of everything, counting up the bedrooms, stepping the salons, and snuffing the air for damp, as though he seriously contemplated taking up residence there for good and all.

At last he turned to the landlord.

“And now about water,” he said. “That’s so often the stumbling-block with these castles up in the hills.”

At once the landlord insisted that the supply was superb. No castle in all Carinthia, he declared, was better furnished with water.

“Good,” said Mansel, “I’m glad to hear it, because, as a rule, with a well so close to a cliff----”

Here the host interrupted to say that the well in the courtyard was little worth. That, he explained, was the original well: but, as Mansel had surmised, it was dug too close to the cliff, and its gift was meagre and uncertain. Years ago another well had been dug in the meadows beyond the gateway, a well of great size and depth, the springs of which had never been known to fail, which was so much of a wonder that it was more famous than the castle itself, and was still known thereabouts as The Great Well of Wagensburg.

“Well, that’s all right,” said Mansel. “I suppose the water’s good.”

“The water is excellent, sir, and clear as crystal.”

“When was it last cleaned out?”

The landlord threw up his hands.

“Clean out The Great Well of Wagensburg! Why, sir, it is bottomless. I do not suppose it could be done. But the water is perfect: that I will guarantee.”

Mansel frowned and put his head on one side.

“All wells should be cleaned from time to time. Never mind. Where does it lie?”

We followed the landlord out of the courtyard, past the chapel and stables and into a wood. Two minutes later we turned into a fair meadow that sloped gently to another wood upon the opposite side. And in the midst of the meadow lay the great well.

When we came near, it was clear that it merited its name.

Twelve feet across it was, with a broad stone parapet about it and a turret-shaped roof above.

Four pillars were supporting the roof, and two of these held the windlass, which was a massive business, laden with a quantity of chain. Bucket there was none, but an empty hook was dangling over the depths.

When he saw there was no bucket, the landlord’s face fell; but, after a moment, he said that no doubt it had been put in the stables against being carried off, and, begging us to await his return, started back the way we had come.

While he was gone we walked to the farther wood and gradually round the meadow, which we found was something of a plateau, for the ground fell away on three sides and only rose on one, that is to say on the side of the farther wood: here it soon rose very sharply into a peak, which commanded a view of the castle and some of the path we had come, as well as for some distance the two approaches to the meadow on which there was no wood.

Whilst we were looking about us, we perceived the landlord returning, bucket in hand, and, when we got back to the well, he and Carson were lowering it into the depths.

The water came up clear and clean and cold, to the great glee of the landlord, who seemed by that circumstance to consider his protests proved, although there was nothing to show how much there was in the well, or whether the water itself was fit to drink. Mansel, however, appeared satisfied, and, after some further discussion, we made our way back to the castle by the path through the wood.

Thence we drove back to Lerai; and presently, having rewarded the innkeeper and declared that, if we bought Wagensburg, he should be our agent for obtaining supplies, left, as was only to be expected, amid a perfect flurry of ‘nods and becks and wreathed smiles.’

As we drove out of the village:

“The art of life,” said Mansel, “is to make valuable friends.”

For the next three hours we proved the country round about, identifying castles and villages and, thanks to the power of the car, covering a great deal of ground. Then at last we turned North and ran into Salzburg that night at eleven o’clock.

Hanbury was glad to see us, and was naturally agog to hear our tale, but he had no news beyond that he had found the offices of the principal house-agents and thought he had seen Ellis at the door of our hotel.

Herein he was right.

When Mansel visited a house-agent on the following day and, after inquiries, announced that he was disposed to purchase Wagensburg, the agent opened his eyes.

“Sir,” he said, “you are a few hours too late. Wagensburg is not sold, but it is not for sale. By a curious coincidence I granted an option to purchase this very property yesterday afternoon.”

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