Read CHAPTER XXI - THE ANTICS OF A TRAIN of The Gray Mask, free online book, by Wadsworth Camp, on ReadCentral.com.

At a gesture from Slim, George cut the cords that bound Garth’s ankles. The detective rose. With a nod Slim motioned George towards the oak door which opened on Marlowe’s cellar.

“Get to the ’phone,” he whispered. “Pass the fair word, and bring the wheels here on the minute.”

He swung on the detective.

“If you see anybody upstairs, just keep your back turned so they won’t notice your pretty bracelets.”

Garth shivered, aware that a new and disquieting element had entered the situation.

Slim indicated the revolver, held ready in his coat pocket.

“After George, and in front of me. Always like that from now on.”

He touched the bottle of acid which he had taken from George.

“Remember this will be behind you like my gun, but I don’t want to shoot to kill with either. Just a little in the face is better if you try to cut up.”

“You heard my promise,” Garth said.

He followed George through the doorway, resisting continually the impulse to turn around, to assure himself of what he already knew, that Slim was actually alert each moment to discipline his slightest effort at escape.

They crossed the damp spaces of the cellar and climbed the stairs, pausing at the head until they could be certain Marlowe’s evil figure still faced a bar-room, significantly empty.

George hurried to the telephone booth, fastening the door behind him so that Garth could hear nothing. Marlowe wiped his hands on his apron. A sly smile twitched at the corners of his colorless lips.

“Well! Well! Who’s rented the warehouse? Who are your pals, Mr. Garth?”

Garth kept his back turned. The glasses tinkled musically under Marlowe’s nervous fingers.

“Maybe you’ll name your pleasure, gentlemen.”

“Nothing but a little quiet,” Slim grunted.

Marlowe flung up his hands, indicating a profound disapproval.

“Then what you mean coming through my cellar? That might get me in bad with the cops. Or maybe you’re detectives like Mr. Garth?”

Slim responded to the strain of this waiting. He turned angrily on the man.

“How often have I told you, Papa Marlowe, to keep your fat mouth shut?”

For Garth that outburst pitilessly defined the new element. Slim’s anger had let slip real evidence of the proprietor’s lawless connection with the gang; and Slim, Garth knew, was unlikely to make blunders he couldn’t retrieve. This one dovetailed into the fact that the detective could still identify the four confederates he had seen down stairs-that is, if he kept his eyes. Slim, then, had no intention of holding to his bargain with Nora. He would use Garth as far as the border, then he would protect his own through the unspeakable punishment his twisted soul craved. Nor could Garth see any way to save himself. Moreover, he knew Nora too well to cast lightly aside the promise she had drawn from him on a note of command.

George emerged from the booth. The four men stared at each other without words. Once or twice Marlowe started to speak, but at a frown from Slim he smothered the impulse in a busy attention to his bar cloth.

Faintly the whirring of a motor reached them. George sprang for the door. Slim motioned Garth ahead and followed him to the sidewalk where an automobile had drawn up. It exposed, in the vague light, an air of smug respectability in itself protective.

The driver wore a fur coat with a voluminous cape, of a common chauffeur pattern. Its collar was turned up so that it completely hid the lower part of the wearer’s face. Garth didn’t understand at first when Slim took a smaller coat from the car, stooped, and whispered in the driver’s ear. The other stepped obediently to the sidewalk, removed his great coat, handed it to Slim, and slipped on the smaller one. Slim motioned George and Garth into the car, followed them, and, while he jerked out his instructions, drew down the side curtains. Garth was to sit on the back seat with George, who would keep one hand conveniently on his automatic. Slim would be opposite, his gun handy, and the bottle of acid ready at his side.

“And that isn’t all,” he leered. “You’re too precious to take chances with. Here! Lean forward.”

He flung the chauffeur’s great coat across Garth’s shoulders, and, over his chained wrists, buttoned it tight about him. He chuckled as the car started.

“The cape, George, makes it look as if our friend kept his hands out of sight for warmth. Let’s hope the train’ll be a little chilly, too. Your arms are going to sleep and get a nice rest, Garth.”

He chuckled again. He took his own handkerchief and borrowed George’s. With the two he improvised a gag which he fastened skillfully in the prisoner’s mouth. Then he turned the great collar up so that the gag was hidden.

“You’ve a swell chance to make trouble now, Garth. That’s how I check up on a bull’s promises. If anybody tries to stop us or to snitch you free you’ll get the acid in those shining peepers without being able to move. You’d better pray everybody keeps straight.”

Enough light entered from the front to draw an ashen glow from the acid which he held at his side perpetually ready.

Beyond the driver’s back Garth could follow their route among tortuous downtown thoroughfares into lower Broadway. They went then at a discreet pace straight through the heart of the city. He watched the lights flash by, the impatient traffic, the crowds, hurrying and voluble. Such things, taken with the grim man opposite and his unique threat, became like one of those dreams which project against a familiar background incredible and grotesque details.

The car at last drew a hollow response from the pavement of the Broadway bridge. Slim moved restlessly.

“The first toll-gate, Garth! Who pays the bill?”

And Garth struggled, and could not move his hands, for George cried out, and Slim started to raise the bottle as the horse of a mounted policeman halted across their path. The car stopped.

Swiftly the policeman bent down, shaking his fist at the driver.

“If you want to run me down,” he shouted, “why not give me a chance to make my will? You might be a good chauffeur for a baby carriage. Go ahead now, and keep to the right. I ought to run you in.”

Slim grinned and lowered the bottle. George sank back. The dryness of Garth’s gagged mouth choked him. How could he continue to face such moments?

During the remainder of that swift ride he sat voiceless and helplessly trussed. He smiled grimly, recalling the promise Nora had drawn from him not to resist. He was as little able to resist as he had been when bound on the floor of the warehouse cellar. Nora, he tried to tell himself, would not condemn him to the torture of that bottle opposite; nor would she, he was willing to swear, throw her father’s career and reputation to the winds. She would try some trick, not realizing how many precautions Slim had taken.

He struggled again futilely to free his hands, to loosen a little the coat, buttoned tight about his own overcoat, across his body and his legs. Nora, his logic told him, could have hit upon no plan dexterous enough to control these men before they could carry out their monstrous threat. Yet what difference did it make? If she didn’t intervene, Slim would let him have it at the border anyway.

The night was disturbed only by the sound of their passing, nor at the station was there any indication that an effort would be made to halt them. So tightly was Garth bound Slim had to help him from the automobile. He stood beside him while they watched through the station window George as he purchased three tickets from a sleepy-eyed agent. The gag was as tight as at first. Even if it had not been for the acid Garth was helpless.

A dull rumbling made itself audible far to the south, and increased until the rails commenced to hum. The headlight gleamed-hastened closer. The locomotive grumbled by, drawing an interminable string of mail and express cars and Pullmans, shrouded for the night.

At the very end, far from the station lamps, were two lighted day coaches. Slim and George led Garth there, and helped him to the platform between. The rear car was a smoker, comfortably filled with sleepy men. Slim turned his back on it, urging Garth into the car ahead which housed scarcely more than a dozen passengers-men and women in various attitudes of somnolence. He nodded his satisfaction. It became clear that for him the gravest strain was at an end. And the car was chilly. The dozing passengers wore wraps and hats. The fact that Garth retained his great coat would pass unnoticed.

When they were settled as before with Slim opposite Garth and George, and the acid held ready in the corner of the seat, the detective ventured with one last hope to appraise his neighbors. A man opposite lounged on his cushion, his paper fallen to the floor, his eyes closed, his head swaying drunkenly in unison with the motion of the train. Farther back two women in deep mourning wept quietly from time to time, and a man and a woman across the aisle stared restlessly at them, speaking in low tones whose accents of pity alone reached Garth. The rest slept. The face of none was recognizable, nor did any suggest the slightest interest in the new arrivals. Garth resented their innocuous companionship. It was not to be believed that their ignorance should permit this flight, which, at its termination, threatened him with an unbearable punishment.

The drowsiness of the car increased. Only his captors and himself seemed immune to the contagion of sleep. The muttering of the pair behind had ceased. The women in mourning had controlled their grief. One of them had left her seat, and, carrying a tin cup, moved along the aisle towards the water tank. Garth saw Slim glance at his watch. He took in George’s contented smile, evidently appreciative of the smoothness of their escape.

Without warning a dark and chaotic confusion descended upon and destroyed the smooth orderliness of their journey. With a sudden jar the brakes locked. The jolting of the wheels, as if they had left the rails, flung the passengers from their sluggish indifference. The lights expired, leaving a darkness almost palpable, through which one momentarily flinched from the splintering, destructive violence of a collision.

During that first instant Garth was lashed by misgivings for the time, as compelling as those which had been constantly inspired by the threat opposite; and in the last flash of light he had seen that the steady courage of his captors had furnished no antidote for this uncharted peril. As women screamed and men fought along the aisle towards the door he endeavored frantically and without success to free himself. The turmoil might involve Slim and George, might smash that atrocious weapon, but he could do nothing.

Then he felt George’s arms about him. He heard Slim’s oath. The jolting of the wheels was less difficult. The train resumed its smooth haste. The lights came on, and Garth stared at the inspector and other men he knew, holding leveled revolvers. Somebody cried out:

“Take care!”

Garth turned in time to see Slim whirling the bottle from which the cork had been drawn, and from whose neck the liquid was already spouting towards his face.

“Then shoot!” Slim shouted.

He heard Nora’s voice, screaming:

“You won’t, Slim!”

He moved his head. He saw the woman in mourning who had thrown back her veil, exposing Nora’s face and Nora’s eyes which reflected the unbelief and the horror of her voice. The future seemed to crush upon him, a sable weight, lowered by her as the result of a deliberate choice.

The liquid struck his forehead, filled his eyes. He wondered why the pain wasn’t greater. He could not grasp the fact that he still read through a blur the tense unbelief of Nora’s face, and saw vaguely the two condemned men struggling in the grasp of the detectives who fastened upon their unwilling wrists gleaming handcuffs. Then he understood, and laughing a little hysterically, shook the water from his eyes.

Shame of his doubt joined the relief that swept him with the urgency of a material suffering. He glanced at Nora. She had stooped and was raising from the floor behind Slim’s seat a bottle precisely similar to that from which the water had poured. She had not conquered her emotion.

“He ought to have it,” she whispered. “I didn’t believe he’d do that when he saw the game was up and there was no use. The chair is too kind.”

She opened the window and emptied the bottle. She flung it far to the right of way. The inspector freed Garth from the coat and the handcuffs. He grasped Garth’s hand.

“I know it hurt you, Garth, to promise to go along with these crooks quietly, but Nora made me ask it. She passed me the wink at the top of the cellar steps.”

“You mean,” Garth asked, “that Nora had all this planned from the very beginning?”

“Not then,” the inspector answered, “but she promised to get us both out, and I’ve had enough experience with that daughter of mine to believe her when she talks like that. She chased to the Grand Central while we watched Marlowe’s and saw you leave. Got the number of your car, of course, and had reports on you all the way to Tarrytown. A mounted cop on the bridge made sure you were all three inside, and the operator at Tarrytown was a local detective. Nora smiled at them in the railroad offices and fixed the rest.”

Garth beckoned Nora. She sat by a window. Her expression was nearly tranquil again. The only concession she made to the reaction was a quick tapping of her fingers on the window ledge.

“Better sit down, too, Garth,” the inspector advised. “Your legs ought to be shaky.”

Garth obeyed, laughing nervously.

“I’ve been trying to hide it.”

He turned to Nora.

“I’d like to know how you changed the bottles.”

“I only arranged the most likely opportunity,” she answered. “I knew something must happen to make Slim forget that acid for a moment. It had to be bigger, more immediate than the fear of capture. Everybody has a dread of railroad accidents. Own up, Jim. You were scared yourself when the brakes set.”

He nodded.

“You sized us up right. For that minute I was about as afraid of the wreck as I was of the acid, and I was trussed like a fowl.”

“So,” she went on, “I persuaded them in New York to furnish an illusion of the beginnings of a wreck. It was simple. Slim would almost certainly take his hands from the bottle then. He wouldn’t risk having it broken over him in the smash. But if it hadn’t worked out right, Jim, you know I’d never have let the others come in. You see they were with father in the dark sleeping car ahead. Father watched from the vestibule. When I chose my moment-you remember, I was going along the aisle close to you-he gave the engineer and the brakeman the signals we had arranged in New York.”

The inspector’s wink was brazen.

“That’s a bright girl by you, Garth,” he grunted. “Guess it’s time I enjoyed a cigar again. So long, children.”

He drifted down the aisle.

Garth wanted to tell Nora of his gratitude, realizing how far beyond expression that lay. With a smile she stopped his awkward attempts.

“I think I know what you would say, Jim. It was nothing-only what I had to do.”

All at once he looked away. He had caught in her smile a new, untrammeled quality.

“Why do you look away, Jim?” she asked softly.

He turned back. He tried to meet her eyes.

“Things can’t be the same,” he said hoarsely. “I know I’m a beast to speak of it. I know you expect me to take what you did in the cellar as acting. But, Nora, lying there as I was, it made me happier than I ever have been in my life.”

He looked straight at her.

“Tell me how you managed such acting.”

Her lips trembled.

“I-I think nobody could act like that.”

He saw the tears in her eyes. She closed them.

“While I was doing it,” she went on, “it came to me that it wasn’t acting at all.”

There was no one to see the quick surrender of her hands.