Read CHAPTER II - IT OPENS NORA’S EYES of The Gray Mask, free online book, by Wadsworth Camp, on ReadCentral.com.

Garth waited at the end of the bridge above Garrison. At eight o’clock it was dark, but the river, glass-like between the rugged hills, retained a pallid light. At a short distance two men smoked and chatted. They had withdrawn themselves in response to Garth’s moodiness. He fancied they discussed him as one already dead.

A whistle shrieked. The hills rumbled. Flinging their cigars in the water, the men rejoined Garth. He slipped the mask from his pocket, and secreted his features behind its gray protection.

The train dashed across the bridge, sparks grinding from its wheels. When it stopped, panting sullenly, the two men sprang aboard.

Garth flattened himself against the side of the car and watched them reappear, leading a third who wore a grey mask above a plain brown suit. He heard a croaking, unnatural voice issue from behind the mask.

“Didn’t look for you so soon, friends.”

Excitement drove the melancholy from Garth’s brain. The undertaking had begun reassuringly. Simmons had no suspicion that he was in the hands of the police. Garth noticed also as he entered the car that the passengers were not aware of the substitution. He resented the repugnance in the glances they turned on the mask. Simmons’ attitude toward life became comprehensible. But, as the journey extended itself interminably, Garth grew restless. He realized he was in the position of a man entering a cavern without a light. He must feel his way step by step. He must walk blindly toward innumerable and fatal pitfalls.

At last the train paused for the change from locomotive to electric motor. Although he knew that normally no passengers would board it at this place, he gazed anxiously from the window. A man stood close to the track with the evident intention of entering the train. Garth saw him elude a brakeman, saw him grasp the railing and swing himself out of sight. A moment later the man walked into the car, stopped dead, and turned sharp, inquisitive eyes on the gray mask.

About the figure was a somber air, accentuated by a black felt hat, drawn low over the eyes. It let Garth see, however, a sharp and colorless face which conveyed an impression of uncommon forcefulness.

After a moment the slender man leaned over and spoke with a leer.

“You must be a star gambler, judging from your face.”

He continued to stare as though expectant of an answer. Perhaps some countersign was demanded. If that was so the whole enterprise swayed in the balance. Garth concentrated his thoughts with difficulty. One word had strayed circuitously from the gang to him. He used it at random, trying to approximate the voice he had heard at the bridge.

“That depends on whether I hold the ace.”

The slender man continued to stare. Garth’s heart sank, but at last the other straightened with a nod.

“Suppose you take a little stroll with me.”

Garth arose and followed him down the aisle. He didn’t know whether to interpret that quick command as acceptance or condemnation. He might be going to the work for which he had been chosen, or-and he realized how likely that was-to an execution. Yet he had no alternative. He must follow the slender, sinister figure into dark places not knowing.

They paused on the platform. Garth thought it likely that one of the inspector’s men was in the car, but of course the fellow would not confess himself by stepping to the vestibule at their heels. It would be enough for him to know that they were on board and that the train was not scheduled to stop before reaching the Grand Central Station.

Garth knew that, too. Therefore he could not understand why his conductor stooped and with an air of confidence opened the vestibule door and raised the trap. Garth started, for, as if the engineer were an accomplice and had received some subtle signal, the brakes commenced to grind while the train lost its speed rapidly.

The slender man grasped Garth’s arm, and, as the train stopped, leapt with him to the right of way and hurried him into the shadows at the foot of the embankment. Any men the inspector might have had on the train had been outwitted.

He saw ahead the red and green lights of an open draw-bridge. He understood now, and marvelled at the simplicity of the trick. Certainly it would not have occurred to the inspector to post his men at the Harlem River where express trains were seldom detained at night. Yet it had been only necessary to send some small boat to loiter in the draw at the proper moment to assure the security of the conspirators.

Immediately Garth lost all sense of direction. The other led a stealthy, circular course through a lumber yard, across a fence, around darkened buildings, and finally onto a small wharf. A craft was moored there-a barge, Garth thought at first. It lay in darkness except for its navigating lights, and, as Garth looked, even these were extinguished.

The slender man glided across the wharf, and, Garth at his heels, stepped to the deck. There he reached over the railing, dropping something from his hand. Garth heard three splashes at regular intervals. A blade of light flashed sharply athwart the darkness and became an open doorway, framing a troubled face.

Garth, shoved from behind, stumbled over the sill into the presence of five men who circled about him, like cats, wary and suspicious. He would know now. One word from his conductor would deliver him to the inevitable judgment of that circle.

But the slender man slipped in after him, closing the door.

“The cops are drunk with sleep,” he said.

Garth breathed again. But into that moment’s respite crept the thought of Nora, suddenly become unobtainable. Resolutely he fought his depression back. At a gesture from the slender man he sat on a bench against the wall.

He saw now that the apparent barge was a rough houseboat, unpainted, unfinished, with windows closed and heavily barred. The only furniture was this bench and another opposite with a deal table between. Fumes of gasoline and cylinder oil came through an open doorway forward and mixed repellently with an atmosphere already poisoned by tobacco. For all five smoked, not with enjoyment, Garth noticed-rather in an abandonment to nerves. It impressed him that these men, who unquestionably were the cleverest and most indomitable of the Hennion group, should expose this restlessness, this apparent fear, on the threshold of the night’s work. His conductor, indeed, was the only one immune to the contagion of suspense.

Garth glanced at these others with a sharp personal curiosity. They varied amazingly from his anticipation. One, a sallow youth with untidy yellow hair and large-rimmed eye-glasses, might have been a student of the most devoted species. Another cunningly resembled a well-to-do business man, while a third had the clothing and the air of a tramp. The fourth, with his dapper tailoring and ferret-like face, was more familiar to the expert in crime.

These, however, Garth passed over quickly for the fifth, perhaps because, with the detective’s extra sense, he foresaw there a special and unintelligible menace.

This man brought his huge, handsome figure forward and leaned heavily on the table. His close-cropped hair, dampened by the heat, curled about a bronzed forehead from beneath which inquisitorial and threatening eyes challenged.

The slender man, who clearly was the leader, crossed the room.

“Seeing ghosts, George?” he asked. “Or maybe you’re anxious for a glimpse of what Simmons hasn’t got any more. Why not show him the big event, Simmons?”

His laugh, scarcely audible, was like the wrath of a gigantic sneer.

Garth’s hand crept to his pocket and closed over his revolver. George drew back.

“Look yourself, Slim, and it ought to be done.”

The other swung on him angrily.

“Do you think I’m bringing him here without checking him up. He doesn’t have to take his mask off to show you a scar. The lot of you look like sudden wealth for a nerve specialist. Sit down. We’ll get to business.”

He swung on Simmons.

“I know how you feel about that. Now, listen. All you know is that we wanted a scientific fellow who doesn’t use his profession exclusively for the benefit of humanity. Also one without any nerves. I’ve always heard that of you.”

Garth nodded, smiling a little to himself. Lack of nerves had been the inspector’s chief requisite. Now the criminals demanded the same quality. He stood, as it were, between two deadly fires. He wondered if murder was on the boards. He recalled the slip of white paper in his pocket, questioning if he would be able to finger it, to scratch upon it those vital invisible directions before these sharp and overcurious eyes.

The slender man hurried on, glancing at his watch.

“We’re waiting for one more. At first all you have to do is to keep close to George. We’re going to crack a safe.”

His voice colored apologetically.

“No jewelry or bags of gold. George falls for that cheap stuff now and then, but you needn’t be ashamed of this job, Simmons. By the way, I don’t have to ask you if you duck your lid every time the band blats ‘Oh, say, can you see!’”

Garth shook his head.

“Say, Simmons,” George broke in, “you talk yourself to death. That explosion must have hurt your voice something fierce.”

Again Garth tried to approximate the croaking tone he had heard at the bridge.

“Talk’s as cheap and easy as cracking safes.”

He risked it for its effect on the others. Moreover it was an antidote for his nervous strain to give that much rein to the antagonism he already experienced for the huge, dark fellow.

Secretive laughter greeted his daring. A gesture from the leader halted George’s movement, almost instinctive, to resent the affront physically. Then three faint and regular splashes came from the water.

They all held their poses of the moment statuesquely until, at a nod from the leader, the intellectual-looking youth arose and moved towards the door.

During that moment of waiting Garth tried to fashion what he knew into a recognizable pattern, but the pieces were incomplete. He could only wonder why they had sent to Chicago for an anarchistic chemist to connive with this expert at a task as simple as cracking a safe.

The youth turned the lock and opened the door a little. It was pushed boisterously against him, and, beyond his amazed back, Garth had a glimpse of a gaudily colored skirt. The others had risen. The leader, grasping the youth’s elbow, shoved him to one side, and Garth, his view unobstructed now, gazed incredulously at Nora’s blazing, painted face.

His first impulse was to cry out and warn the girl back from this ambush into which she had unaccountably strayed. He gripped the edge of the table. He half arose. For a moment the room went black. All at once he realized that her presence at this unique rendezvous must be without the slightest ambiguity. Perhaps it was an ill-advised attempt to rescue him from the net. He waited tensely for some word. His heart sank. She couldn’t recognize him behind the mask.

He wouldn’t lie to himself any longer. Nora, whom he had always seen in black, wore a flashy dress. She had given the conspirators their own signal. She received from them a welcome of anxiety.

The room darkened again. He sat in a frozen silence. He saw and heard as from a vast distance.

“Whole force at your heels, Nora?” the leader asked gently.

Closing the door, she faced them breathlessly. Her eyes flashed, but fear lurked there, too.

“No,” she said, “but it might be tramping on the dock without your guessing it. Listen, Slim.”

She raised her clenched fists.

“There’s a bull here. There’s a cop with his hand at your throat.”

“Nora! You’re having a nightmare.”

“Hold on,” George said. “Nora ought to know.”

“Yes,” she gasped, “and it’s straight.”

Slim relaxed.

“From your father?”

She nodded.

“How in-”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but he was sure he’d have a stool with you to-night. He’s tried so long I know he wasn’t bragging. Slim! We can’t trip up now. I’ve worked too hard. You’ve told me what a mess you made last time, when that cop, Kridel, was croaked. Where will we be if anything like that’s pulled again?”

“Easy, Nora,” Slim said. “Maybe we wouldn’t be any worse off than we were then. Has anybody burned in the chair for that? Does anybody know who croaked Kridel? Well-the man who did it. Don’t lose your nerve. The cops would have a fine time getting a witness in a murder case out of this crowd. And, if what you say is so, maybe the same thing will happen to-night, only in a more convenient spot.”

“What are you going to do, Slim?” she asked. “Tie him up, but no more murder. I quit at that.”

“Leave it to me,” he muttered. “Show me the bull.”

Garth received the words as a condemned man probably hears the voice of a judge who wears the black cap.

The girl glanced rapidly around. Then, advancing steadily to the table, she raised her hand and pointed at Garth.

He stared fascinated at the finger which, a few hours ago, he had held violently in the rush of his passion. He was aware of the flashing eyes which that afternoon had been wet with tears. But his brain was dull. He waited patiently for the exposure which now appeared unavoidable because of the woman he loved.

She spoke evenly.

“Who could it be but this man that hides his face? There’s no doubt about the rest of you. You only have to see, Slim, whether this fellow, Simmons, has got a face.”

“He had the word,” the leader answered, “and look at that scar. But you’re right, Nora. If there’s a bull here he’s behind that mask.”

“Then make him take it off,” she said.

Garth raised his hands. His croaking voice was torn with dismay.

“No. I warn you. Spare me and yourselves that. It’s not pretty, what you’d see.”

“Take it off,” the girl repeated.

“I hide it,” Garth cried. “For years-Listen, you. If you don’t let me keep a little pride you can do your dirty work without me.”

The leader put his hand on Garth’s shoulder.

“Now, now,” he said soothingly. “Depend on it, Simmons, if you’re all right we don’t want to hurt your feelings.”

“All right!” Nora mocked. “And I tell you there’s a cop here. And you know as well as I he’s the only one. You’re crazy, Slim.”

“Good thing one of us is then,” the leader sneered. “If this isn’t Simmons we’re out of the running for to-night anyway. If it is, what do we gain by making a show of him? That’s what I was going to propose. Only one of us need look.”

“That’ll do,” Nora agreed. “Well! Who?”

“George here was anxious.”

“Look yourself,” George answered. “I’m no dime museum fiend.”

Suddenly Garth arose.

“Maybe the lady-” he croaked. “She’s so set on it. A pleasant sight for ladies.”

Nora flushed angrily.

“I’ll call that bluff.”

She waved the others back towards the end of the room.

“And be quick about it,” she said to Garth.

Garth caught the expressions of the others. He noticed their ready hands. While his fingers rose to the fastenings of the gray mask he turned slowly and faced Nora.

For a moment he hesitated. Even after all he had seen he shrank from forcing on the girl the responsibility of tossing him to those waiting hands. He was tempted to spare her that, to confess himself to the others. But the stamping of her foot, the tone of her voice, impatient, commanding, decided him.

“Hurry, I say! There’s no way out.”

So, holding her with his eyes, he slipped the gray mask aside.

He saw her stare while the angry color left her cheeks. But at first her expression did not alter. It seemed to him a long time before terror twisted her face, before she screamed. He watched her cower back, crossing her arms over her eyes; watched her fall against the wall, where she bent, trembling.

Garth replaced the mask, shrugging his shoulders, and turned to the others. The leader laughed lightly, with satisfaction.

“Never dreamed it was as bad as that, Simmons. You’re right. Don’t blame you, but you must see we had to be sure.”

Garth nodded. He sat down. Let the girl speak. Until then he would play his part.

“Looks as if the stool lost a leg somewhere,” he said.

He studied Nora. Her face hidden, she remained shrinking against the wall. Still she did not speak.

George stepped to her side and put his arm around her.

“Forget it, little girl. Wish I’d looked for you.”

She shook his arm off and pushed him away.

“Forget it yourself, George,” the leader warned. “You ought to have learned that won’t go with Nora.”

“She knows I’m no butterfly,” George answered sullenly.

His touch had aroused her. She straightened and turned wild eyes on the gray mask. Garth waited then for her to betray him, but she only stammered a little.

“He’s right. A pleasant sight for ladies! Boat-must have thrown them off the track.”

She laughed hysterically. She sank on the end of the bench.

Garth was surprised, now that the strain was broken, not to experience any exceptional relief. In spite of the game’s vital stakes it had interested him chiefly because of the various effects it might have had on Nora. Yet it had yielded him no key to her presence here, to her disgraceful marketing of her father’s confidence, to her assumption at home of black robes and grief, or, finally, to her apparent decision to let the night’s work continue in spite of his presence. Probably she hoped he could not get help until the job had been done. Or-and the thought struck him with the shameful tingling of a slap-perhaps she thought he would let the others go rather than capture and convict the woman he had craved in marriage.

He pressed his lips together. He beckoned to Slim. He took the whip in his own hands.

“Is the safe here? Are we going to spend the rest of the night on this boat? If the cops are awake it isn’t wise.”

“All right,” the leader said. “George, you and Nora and Simmons wait here. The rest of you start out.”

The studious-appearing youth, the tramp, the dandy, and the elderly man filed through the door and silently closed it. The leader spoke to Garth quickly.

“George will unlock the safe without any trouble. He’s the best in the business. Your job’s to open it and handle what you find without blowing the lot of us to everlasting dirt.”

Garth stirred uneasily.

“Explosives!” he said. “I see why you wanted me.”

“The pay’s high,” Slim answered. “The fellows that are after this stuff don’t trust diplomatic talk. Everybody wants it if only to be sure that nobody else gets it, for they claim that the nation that has it, could make a league of all the rest look like Tod Sloan fighting Dempsey. The inventor thinks Uncle Sam ought to have it, if anybody, but he’s been holding off. It’s new, and he’s either afraid of it himself, or he thinks he can perfect it.”

“He’s afraid of it,” Nora breathed. “He told me it was a sin to invent it.”

“The point is, Simmons,” the leader said, “can you handle the stuff with a degree of safety after you have read the formula? A man of your experience-”

“I am not afraid to tackle it if I can see the formula,” Garth answered quietly.

“Say, Simmons,” George put in with a wry face, “if there’s anything phony about your education, drop off here.”

Garth fingered a frayed sheet of white paper.

“I am not afraid if I can see the formula,” he repeated.

The leader turned to Nora.

“You’re sure there’s some of the stuff in the safe with the formula? The foreigner wouldn’t dicker without a sample to analyze.”

“I saw the formula and the sacks put in the safe to-night,” she answered.

George shook his head.

“Nora, you’re a wonder.”

“No wonder,” she said contemptuously. “Nothing but hard work. An imbecile could have made friends with the housekeeper, but it took drudgery to get at the old man. I won’t waste that. If there’s any slip-”

The leader glanced at the gray mask.

“That’s up to Simmons now,” he said.