G. Sidney Paternoster
With a Frontispiece by Charles R. Sykes
New York * * * * * A. Wessels Company * * * * * * MCMVI
Copyright, 1904 BY L. C. PAGE & COMPANY (INCORPORATED)
* * * * *
All rights reserved
CHAPTER PAGE I. MAINLY ABOUT MYSELF 1 II. THE COMPTON CHAMBERLAIN OUTRAGE 9 III. WHEREIN I MEET THE PIRATE 21 IV. CONCERNING MY RIVAL 36 V. THE COLONEL DREAMS AND I AWAKEN 48 VI. I AM ARRESTED 59 VII. I MAKE FRIENDS WITH INSPECTOR FORREST, C.I.D 71 VIII. MURDER 81 IX. EXPLAINS A MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE 92 X. DESCRIBING A RIDE WITH THE PIRATE 104 XI. IN WHICH THE PIRATE HOLDS UP THE BRIGHTON MAIL 113 XII. HOW WE EXCHANGE SHOTS WITH THE PIRATE 123 XIII. OF THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING WOUNDED 135 XIV. A CLOUD APPEARS ON LOVE'S HORIZON 145 XV. A CLUE AT LAST 155 XVI. I COMMIT A BURGLARY 165 XVII. STORM 176 XVIII. IN WHICH THE PIRATE APPEARS IN A FROLICSOME HUMOUR 187 XIX. A HOT SCENT 196 XX. RELATES HOW THE PIRATE HOLDS UP AN AUGUST PERSONAGE 207 XXI. WE PLAN AN AMBUSH 218 XXII. GONE AWAY 228 XXIII. SAVED 240 XXIV. REVELATIONS 249
THE MOTOR PIRATE
MAINLY ABOUT MYSELF
OF course every one has heard of the Motor Pirate. No one indeed could help doing so unless he or she, as the case may be, happened to be in some part of the world where newspapers never penetrate; since for months his doings were the theme of every gossip in the country, and his exploits have filled columns of every newspaper from the moment of his first appearance until the day when the reign of terror he had inaugurated upon the roads ended as suddenly and as sensationally as it had begun. Who the owner of the pirate car was? Whence he came? Whither he went? These are questions which have exercised minds innumerable; but though there have been nearly as many theories propounded as there were brains at work propounding them, so far no informed account of the man or his methods has been made public.
Nearly twelve months have now elapsed since he was last heard of, and already a number of myths have grown up about his mysterious personality. For instance, it is not true, as I saw asserted in a sensational evening paper the other day, that the Motor Pirate was in the habit of abducting every young and attractive woman who happened to be travelling in any of the cars he held up. On only one occasion did he abduct a lady, and in that case there were special circumstances with which the public have never been made acquainted. His deeds were quite black enough without further blackening with printer's ink, and it would be a pity if the real Motor Pirate were lost sight of in mythical haze such as has gathered about the name of his great prototype, Dick Turpin.
It has occurred to me, therefore, to tell the story of his doings—it would be impossible for any mortal man to give an absolutely detailed account of his life and actions—but I know more than the majority of people about the personality of the man. Of one thing my readers may be assured: I personally can vouch for the accuracy of every fact which I chronicle. You see I am not a professional historian.
How it happened that I am in a position to give hitherto unknown particulars about the Motor Pirate will appear in the course of my narrative. Sufficient for the moment let it be for me to say that it was purely by chance that the opportunity was thrown in my way; though, as it happened, it was not entirely without my own volition that I became involved in the network of events which finally resulted in the tragedy which closed his career. By that tragedy the world lost a brilliant thinker and inventor, though unfortunately these great talents were accompanied by an abnormal condition of mind, which led the owner to utilise his invention in criminal pursuits.
It may probably seem strange that, being in possession of facts as to the identity of this mysterious person, I did not lay them before the police, who, at any time during the three months of his criminal career, would have given their ears to lay him by the heels. You may even think it is their duty to take proceedings against me as an accomplice. Well, I am quite prepared to answer any question which the police, or any one else for that matter, desires to put to me. James Sutgrove, of Sutgrove Hall, Norfolk, is not likely to change his address. When my poor old governor died he left me sufficient excuse, in the shape of real estate, for remaining in the country of my birth; though, if the necessity had arisen, I should not have hesitated about going abroad. At twenty-five, my age within a few weeks, a man has usually sufficient energy to enable him to carve out a career for himself in a new country, and I do not think I am very different to my fellows in that respect. But the fact is, I have nothing to fear from the police. My criminality was less than theirs. An ordinary citizen may be forgiven if he is blind to the meaning of things which occur under his nose, but the police are expected to be possessed of somewhat sharper vision. The utmost that can be urged against me is, that if my eyes had been keener than those of Scotland Yard, reinforced by the trained vision of some hundreds of intelligent chief constables throughout the country, I might have been able to lay my hands upon the Motor Pirate before—but I must not anticipate my story.
One word of apology, however, before I begin. In order to make my narrative fully intelligible I shall have to refer to matters which may seem of a purely personal nature. I will make these as brief as possible, but it was entirely through such that I was brought into closer touch with the Motor Pirate than, perhaps with one exception, any other person in the world. If therefore I seem to be devoting too much attention to what appears to be merely personal interest, I trust I may be excused. To begin, then, at the beginning.
* * * * *
On the evening of March 31, 19—, I had arranged to dine in town with a couple of friends, both of them neighbours of mine. I am not going to mention the name of the restaurant. It was not one of the fashionable ones, or probably neither the cuisine nor the wines would have been so good as they were, though both would unquestionably have been more expensive. I prefer, therefore, to keep the name to myself. It was in the neighbourhood of Soho, however, and the reason I had invited my friends was in order to disabuse their minds of the idea that everything in that neighbourhood was of necessity cheap and nasty. I had determined that their palates should be charmed by the dinner they were to eat, so, in addition to sending a note to the proprietor, I thought it as well to arrive at the restaurant a quarter of an hour before the appointed time, in order to make assurance doubly sure that everything was as I desired it. Had my guests been casual acquaintances, I must confess that I should never have taken this trouble. But they were not. One of them was the renowned Colonel Maitland. I never heard anything about his war service, but I do know that as a gastronomist his reputation is European. The cool way he will condemn an entree, presented to him by an obsequious waiter, merely after casting a single glance upon it, speaks volumes for his critical insight; and as for wines—well, he can tell the vineyard and the vintage of a claret by the scent alone. I verily believe that were he to be served with a corked wine, the result would be instant dissolution between his gastronomic soul and body. Naturally I had to make some preparations, in order that such delicate susceptibilities should not be offended. In addition, I had a special reason for seeking to please him. Colonel Maitland had a daughter.
I have only to mention the name of my other guest to reveal his identity to every one with any knowledge of the motoring world. It was Fred Winter, the Fred Winter, leading light of the Automobile Club, holder of more road records than I can count, in fact the most enthusiastic motorist in the country. It was in consequence of this, indeed, that he came to be my guest. There were few questions in regard to motoring upon which Winter was not competent to give an opinion, and being myself a victim to the prevailing motor-mania, I was deeply indebted to him for many valuable tips. By this time I had passed my novitiate, and was still driving a neat little 91/2-h.p. Clement in order to fit myself for a more powerful and speedy car.
I arrived then at the restaurant about a quarter to eight, and having had a brief but satisfactory interview with the proprietor, I made my way to the table I had reserved in my favourite corner of the dining-room. Finding I had ten minutes to spare, to kill time I ordered a vermouth and the evening papers. The Globe was the first upon the pile the waiter brought to me, and following the example of most sane men, I skipped the parliamentary intelligence and turned to the "By the Way" column. I remember distinctly there was only one amusing paragraph therein, and I was about to throw the paper aside, with the customary lament as to the decadence of British humour, when my attention was arrested by a paragraph at the bottom of the next column. The heading was "Strange Highway Robbery." This was the paragraph:—
"Our Plymouth correspondent reports a novel highway robbery on the road between Tavistock and Plymouth. Two gentlemen who had been for a run on their motor to Tavistock, left the latter town about eight o'clock last night. Their journey was uneventful until they reached Roborough, where they were suddenly overtaken by a motor-car occupied by a man, who presented a pistol at their heads, and ordered them to stop. Thinking that the stranger merely intended to scare them, and that the summons was only an ill-advised piece of pleasantry, they paid no attention to the demand; whereupon the driver of the strange car, with a well-directed shot, so damaged the machinery of their vehicle that they were compelled to obey. Their attacker then demanded all the money and articles of value they had in their possession under threat of completely wrecking their car, and after securing his booty the highwayman decamped. In consequence of the damage to their motor, it was not until late at night that they reached Plymouth, and were enabled to give particulars of the occurrence to the police. From their description of the stranger's vehicle, identification should not be difficult. It is a long, low, boat-shaped car of remarkable speed, and from the little noise it creates is probably driven by an electric motor. As to the personal appearance of the driver, the gentlemen who were robbed could form no opinion, for he wore the usual leather coat affected by tourists, and his head was completely enveloped in a hood."
On reading this paragraph, my first impulse was to lay aside the paper and indulge in a hearty laugh. My impression was that some wag had been hoaxing either the Plymouth correspondent or the London editor of the Globe. However, my curiosity was sufficiently aroused to lead me to take up another paper, to see if the Globe was the only paper which reported the occurrence.
The next paper on my pile was the Star, and the moment I unfolded the pink sheet, I perceived that this liveliest of evening journals was not going to be left behind by the Globe in providing the public with particulars of the latest sensation. Under the heading of "A Motor Pirate," with descriptive headlines extending across a couple of columns, and as attractively alliterative as the cunning pen of a smart sub-editor could make them, was the account of a similar incident. At first I thought it must be the same occurrence, but a brief perusal showed me that this impression was a wrong one. But I will give the Star account in full, and I do so the more readily, not only because it contains the first detailed account of the man whose extraordinary audacity was shortly to raise the interest of the public to fever pitch, but also because it tells the story with a force and colour of which my unpractised pen is incapable. Apologising therefore to the editor for the liberty I have taken, I reprint the Star account verbatim. I think, however, the story deserves a new chapter.
THE COMPTON CHAMBERLAIN OUTRAGE
"A MOTOR PIRATE "TAKES TOLL OF TRAVELLERS IN THE WEST.
"A VEILED STRANGER ON A MYSTERIOUS MOTOR FLIES "THE BLACK FLAG NEAR SALISBURY.
"ON receipt of the following extraordinary story from the Central News Agency this morning, the Star at once sent a representative to make inquiries on the spot. His inquiries reveal the existence of a new terror to all who travel by road. Following are the facts communicated to us by the agency:—
"'A daring highway robbery was committed near Salisbury late last night. The victims were two gentlemen who had been touring in the west country by motor. They had intended to reach Salisbury early yesterday evening, but were delayed by a puncture. When about eight miles from Salisbury they were attacked by the occupant of another car, who wrecked their vehicle, and, after robbing them of all their valuables, decamped, leaving them badly injured by the wayside. There they were discovered some time afterwards and removed to the nearest inn at Compton Chamberlain, where they remain under medical attendance.—Central News.'
"The Star special correspondent wires:—
"Compton Chamberlain, 12.30.
"There is no doubt but that the Motor Pirate has a real existence. On arriving at Salisbury I at once proceeded to make inquiries as to what was known of the outrage, but Salisbury generally was sceptical on the subject. I found, however, that the affair had been reported at the county police office; and I at once drove on here, and am now in a position to assert that this quiet Wiltshire village has been the scene of the most astounding robbery of modern times. It is safe to prophecy that in a few more months Dick Turpin will be forgotten. He has a rival in the field whose exploits will soon relegate him into comparative obscurity.
"The first visible evidence of the outrage was afforded me about a quarter of a mile from Compton. The road dips here slightly, and at the end of the incline a motor-car was drawn to the side of the road, or rather the remains of what had once been a smart Daimler of some 7 or 8 h.p. A stonebreaker was at work on an adjacent pile of flints, and when I alighted to examine the wreck, he nailed me with, 'Hoy, mister! Ye'd better leave thick thur car alone. The p'lice be comin' to tek un up zhortly.'
"I gathered from him that he had been told to keep an eye upon the car, but beyond having heard that the owners had met with an accident, he knew nothing. There was no doubt about the accident. The car was so broken up that it looked as if it had been in collision with an armoured train.
"Compton Chamberlain, 2.45 p.m.
"I have just succeeded in interviewing the owner of the motor-car, a Mr. James Bradshaw, of 379, Maida Vale. His companion was Mr. Gainsborough Roberts, of 200, Clapham Common. Mr. Roberts is suffering from severe concussion, and has not regained consciousness; but fortunately Mr. Bradshaw's injuries, though painful, are not dangerous, and he has been good enough to give me a full account of his unique adventure. It seems the two gentlemen had been touring in the west country for ten days, and were on their way home. They stopped the previous night at Exeter, leaving about ten in the morning with the intention of reaching Salisbury about five or six yesterday evening. They lunched at Ilminster, and afterwards had traversed another twenty-five miles of their journey when one of their tyres unfortunately punctured. This was shortly after they had passed through Wincanton. When the tyre was mended, something went wrong with the electric ignition, and altogether the repairs proved such a tedious job that they could not make a fresh start until close upon lighting-up time.
"The delay had not troubled them, for the weather was beautifully fine. As, however, they were very hungry, they determined to stop at Shaftesbury for dinner before finishing the day's run they had mapped out. There is a particularly long hill into Shaftesbury, and they did not reach that town until 8.30. At the hotel they met another party of motorists, and, agreeing to dine together, it was not until after ten that they found themselves once more on their way, with twenty miles of a hilly road to cover. The lateness of the hour did not trouble them much. They had wired to Salisbury for rooms; the night was fine and clear; a bright moon was shining; the roads were clear of traffic, and their motor was guaranteed to do its thirty-five miles an hour. They thought that it would be a good opportunity to find out what Mr. Bradshaw's car was really capable of doing on a hilly track.
"Mr. Bradshaw declares that he had never enjoyed a run more than he did on this occasion. A brisk wind was blowing behind them, they found there was more downhill than up, the road was absolutely clear, and they were able to take the declines at a pace which took the sting out of the ascents."
"So for twenty minutes they ran at full speed, and after slowing to pass through a village, they had just put on full speed again when Mr. Bradshaw's attention was arrested by a curious humming sound which appeared to arise from something behind. He was, of course, unable to glance back, as all his faculties were engaged in driving the car; but Mr. Roberts, whose attention was attracted at the same moment, informed him that another motor-car was coming up behind. Then, to quote Mr. Bradshaw's own words, 'Thinking the other chap was on for a race, I did everything I knew to get every ounce out of my motor. But,' he continued, 'though I'll swear we were running nearer forty than thirty-five, the other fellow swooped up and passed us as if we were standing still.'
"For the moment he thought that the stranger was one of those American speed motors specially built for racing on the track, but only for a moment. The strange car slackening speed, allowed them to come alongside. What followed may be best described in Mr. Bradshaw's own words.
"'There was only one occupant of the strange car, and, seeing him slacken speed, I naturally thought he wished to speak to us. So, as he came level, I shouted to him, my exact words being, if I remember aright, "Hallo, sir! You've got a flyer there." I fancied I heard a chuckle from beneath his mask (he wore a hood covering the head fitted with a mica plate in front) and he replied, "Yes; I fancy my car is fast enough to overtake anything that is to be found on the road." There was something in his tone that struck me as peculiar, but I merely attributed it to the motorist's pride in his car. As however he said nothing further, but continued to keep alongside, in a manner that looked as if he were inclined to gloat over the owner of a less speedy machine, I asked with some little irritation, "Is there anything I can do for you, because if not——" He did not allow me to finish my query. "Yes, sir," he replied promptly, "there is something I am going to ask you to do for me," and he gave another of his infernal chuckles.
"'"Well, what is it?" I demanded, with a little warmth.
"'"I must request you to hand over all your money and valuables to me," he replied.
"'I could not believe my ears. I was so astonished that I gave the wheel a turn that nearly landed us in the ditch. Will you believe it? Even in that swerve the strange car followed mine, and when I had got her straight in the road, I heard him chuckle again. His manner angered me beyond bearing.
"'"What the deuce do you mean?" I shouted.
"'"There's no need for you to lose your temper," he answered coolly. "I must, however, trouble you to stop that car at once."
"'As he spoke he raised his hand, and I saw the barrel of a revolver glisten in the moonlight. There seemed to be only one way out of the predicament, for I thought I had to deal with a madman, and I took it. I pretended to be so alarmed that I fell over the steering wheel, and made my car swerve again. But this time we swerved towards, instead of away from, the stranger. I doubt whether there was light enough for him to have read my intention in my face, but it was obvious that he anticipated my move, for his car shot forward with such wonderful speed that the fate I intended to force upon him befell myself. I saw his car disappearing ahead, and the next moment I was just conscious of a shock that sent me flying into oblivion.
"'Exactly how long I remained unconscious I do not know, but when I came to my senses I found myself lying on the grass at the roadside, having fortunately been thrown on the soft turf. Roberts was lying unconscious on the road; the car was smashed to bits; our pockets had been turned inside out, and our money, watches, and every article of value we had about us, taken. Needless to say, the stranger had disappeared.'
"Mr. Bradshaw was not in a state to be of much assistance to his more badly injured friend, and he was at a complete loss as to what course to pursue, when a trap coming from Salisbury fortunately made its appearance on the scene. Assistance was procured, and the two injured gentlemen were conveyed to Compton, and medical attention quickly provided. Though much shaken, and badly bruised, Mr. Bradshaw has sustained comparatively little injury. Mr. Roberts, however, is dangerously ill, and his relatives have been telegraphed for.
"As regards the appearance of his assailant, Mr. Bradshaw can give few particulars, save that he was clad in a large leather motoring coat, and his face completely hidden by a mask. The car can, on the contrary, be easily identified. It is boat-shaped, running to a sharp, cutting edge both in front and behind. The body is not raised more than eighteen inches from the ground. The wheels are either within the body, or so sheathed that they are completely hidden. It has apparently seating accommodation for two persons, the seat being placed immediately in the centre of the car. Mr. Bradshaw is quite convinced that petrol is not the motive force used for its propulsion, and as he cannot imagine that an electric motor of any kind was employed; the rapidity of motion, the perfection of the steering, the absence of noise and vibration, are so remarkable that he is utterly at a loss as to what build of car was driven by the stranger."
I had just finished reading this extraordinary story when I felt a tap on the shoulder, and, looking up, saw Colonel Maitland standing before me.
"'Pon my word, Sutgrove," he remarked, "I have never before seen any one so completely enthralled in a newspaper in my life. I've been standing watching you for nearly a minute."
I sprang to my feet, and held out my hand.
"What's the latest from Mr. Justice Jeune's division? When you come to my years of discretion you will be more interested in the menu."
I laughed. "It was not the inanities of the divorce court, Colonel," I remarked; "but the most astonishing——"
He checked me with uplifted hand. "Being a rational being," he said, "I prefer my stories with my cigar. One should come to dinner with a calm mind."
At this moment Winter entered the room, and, giving a signal to the waiter, the hors d'oeuvre were placed before us as he seated himself at the table.
When he had greeted me I had observed that Colonel Maitland's face had worn a slightly resigned expression that reminded me of a picture I had seen somewhere of Christian martyrs being led to the stake. He took a mouthful of caviar and the cloud lifted. After the soup the dominant note of self-sacrifice had vanished entirely. With the fish his features attained repose. When we reached the entree his face had the radiance of a translated saint's. Then, with my mind at rest as to the effect of my little dinner upon my chief guest, I found time to devote a little attention to Winter. Yet, bearing in mind the Colonel's objection to anything but light generalities during the serious business of dinner, I forbore to introduce the topic I was burning to discuss with him. Not until the coffee was upon the table, and Colonel Maitland had expressed his contentment with the dinner, did I venture to refer to it. Then, while our senior was dallying with an early strawberry, Winter gave me a lead.
"By the way, Sutgrove," he said, "what's this I saw on the evening paper bills about a motor pirate?"
I told him. His interest was awakened to such an extent that he forgot to taste the glass of port which stood before him, and which I had ordered out of compliment to the Colonel's ideas of what was desirable.
When my story was concluded Winter was silent. Colonel Maitland, however, hazarded the remark that the whole narrative was "a concoction of some of those newspaper fellows. I have been at the War Office," he said, "so I ought to know of what they are capable."
"I can scarcely imagine that any newspaper would dare hoax its readers to such an extent," remarked Winter.
"They are capable of anything—anything," replied the Colonel, vigorously. "I have known them on more than one occasion to attack even my department."
"That of course is scandalous," I replied warmly; "but here the conditions are different. They are referring to people who are able to reply if the facts are not as stated. In your case your mouth, of course, was closed."
"Umph!" growled the Colonel.
"At the same time," said Winter, "it may very well have happened that consciously or unconsciously the papers have been made the victims of a practical joke. To-morrow is the first of April, remember. Or even apart from the joke theory, the event happened after dinner, and Mr. Bradshaw may have found it necessary to be prepared with an explanation of his accident."
"But the robbery?" I objected.
"A passing tramp may have thought the opportunity too good to be neglected."
"At all events," I persisted, "it is curious that two similar accidents should have occurred the same night in the same part of the country."
"Certainly the coincidence is remarkable," answered Winter. "But do not forget that the two occurrences took place at least a hundred and thirty miles apart within less than three hours of one another. I will swear that no motor yet built would cover those roads inside three hours. I know them. No, Sutgrove. The moral seems to me to be that it is unwise for a motorman to look upon the wine when it is red, if he wants to get anywhere afterwards."
The Colonel stretched his hand across the table and removed the glass which stood on the table before Winter.
"My young friend," he observed, "you have, I believe, undertaken to bring me safely home to-night?"
"You need not fear," replied Winter, laughing, "it's only the liquors supplied at country inns which drive motor-cars into ditches."
The Colonel replaced the glass with a smile and refilled his own from the cradled bottle at his elbow.
"I am merely a passenger, but you drive," he remarked. "I think, Sutgrove, under the circumstances, I will be responsible for the remainder of this bottle. It is endowed with certain qualities which particularly recommend themselves to me. It would be a sad thing if an accident were to befall us on our journey. In times of stress such as these one never knows when the War Office may not require the services of a capable man."
Though the Colonel spoke in jest, in the event his words indicated with a fair amount of accuracy the destination of the port, for while we continued to discuss every point in the story, he sipped and sipped and nodded his head beatifically. I did not replenish my glass, but when we rose the bottle was empty.
"Well, Colonel, what do you say to a music hall?" I asked.
"My boy," he replied, as he patted me on the back, "I sleep far more comfortably in my bed."
I realized where the contents of the bottle had gone by the sententiousness of my friend's phrasing, the slight turgidity, so to speak, of his articulation.
"My dear boy," he continued, "I have never known you until this moment. You are greater than Columbus. Any one might discover a new continent, but in these days it needs exceptional qualities of enterprise and endurance to discover a fresh restaurant. I am content. Let us go home."
We donned our overcoats and came into the open air. Winter's motor was waiting at the door in charge of a man from the garage where he had left it. We stepped in.
WHEREIN I MEET THE PIRATE
WE were soon out of the narrow Soho street, and I observed that the time was just half-past ten as Winter steered us carefully through Piccadilly Circus. Colonel Maitland occupied a seat behind while I sat beside Winter.
The car my friend drove was a magnificent 22-horse Daimler, built to his own specification and capable of doing considerably more than any car I had hitherto been privileged to ride upon. Of course while passing through the streets there was little chance of exhibiting its capabilities. Yet even there, the way the car glided in and out of the traffic, delicately responsive to the slightest touch of the steering wheel, was sufficient evidence of its quality to set the most nervous passenger at ease. As it was as yet too early for the after theatre traffic to fill the streets and compel us to stop every few minutes, we followed the main road up Oxford Street as far as the Marble Arch. There we turned to the right. Once clear of the narrow part of the Edgeware Road, Winter put on his second speed and a very few minutes seemed to have passed before we were bumping over a rough bit of roadway by Cricklewood.
"There's not much of this," said Winter, cheerily over his shoulder to the Colonel.
Our gastronomic friend merely grunted for reply, and I should have thought him to be asleep had not the red glow of his cigar assured me that he was still awake.
Winter jammed on his third speed and the hedges began to fly past us. We were in the country now and were able to appreciate the fineness of the night. Indeed it was a perfect night. The air was sharp but without sting. The moon shone with a clear brilliance which betokened rain in the near future. The road was clean and dry, and there was no dust in the air except the thin cloud which floated behind us. We passed the Welsh Harp without a check, and not until we reached Edgeware did Winter revert to his second speed. We ran through the little town with only momentary slackening of pace, and so we sped onwards until we opened the stretch of road leading to Brockley Hill. Here Winter, seeing the road clear ahead, jammed on his highest speed and the wheels droned like a hive of bees as we darted towards the incline. We were half way up the hill before Winter found it necessary to transform his speed into power, and we finished the ascent with ease. Then once more the order was third speed, and we whirled away through Elstree and passed through Radlett a bare half hour from the time we started.
Just at this time I looked back to see how Colonel Maitland fared. His cigar no longer glowed, though it was still tightly held between his teeth. His head was bent forward, and the regular and gentle murmur which came from his nose proclaimed that he slept. I had just mentioned the fact to Winter, and had turned again to assure myself that he was comfortably wrapped in his rug, when I thought I saw on the road behind me another car.
"Hullo!" I said to Winter. "There's another chap coming on behind us. Without lights, too!"
A slight bend in the road shut out the view, however, and made me doubt whether or no my eyes had been deceiving me.
"Pooh!" replied Winter. "We've passed nothing on the road, and at the pace we've been travelling there's not another car owned in this district we should not have left miles behind us, even if it had started at the same time as ourselves. You must have mistaken some of the shadows from the trees. How much of that port did you drink?"
I laughed, but as we had now reached a straight stretch of road I looked back again.
"I'm right," I said. "There is another car, and by jove! It's coming up hand over fist."
"What?" shouted Winter. "What?"
He clearly did not appreciate the idea of being overtaken by any one, for he whipped on his highest speed and jammed down the accelerator. The change was enormous. Our powerful car, relieved from all restraint, simply leaped through the air. Winter gave a pleased laugh as he steadied her with the wheel.
"If the stranger can catch us now I shall believe it's the Motor Pirate himself," he remarked in a pleased tone, that showed how proud he was of his own car.
Our progress was so exhilarating that I wanted to shout defiance to the stranger; yet I was so fascinated with the pace we were travelling, that I could not take my eyes from the road which uncoiled before us.
Suddenly a humming sound forced itself upon my ear. For a moment I thought it was due to the whirr of our own wheels. Then it struck me that the note was a higher one. I half turned. The other car was within a yard or two of us. In another second it was level and, running without any visible vibration, indeed, without any noise save the snore of the wheels as they raced round, the stranger slackened speed and ran by our side.
Winter cast a hasty glance at the strange car, and I saw him bite his lip with annoyance at finding his Daimler so outpaced.
One glance at the stranger was enough to tell me with whom we had to deal. In the brilliant moonlight, the boat-shaped car with its sharp prow, the almost invisible wheels, the masked occupant, assured me that the evening papers had not been the victims of a hoax.
"It's the Motor Pirate himself," I said to Winter, and my voice was hoarse with excitement.
"Motor Pirate be d——d!" replied Winter. What more he would have said I do not know, for at this moment the stranger turning his mask towards us called out in the most urbane manner—
"I must trouble you gentlemen to stop that car."
Winter at the best of times is of rather a peppery disposition, and whenever any one requires him to pull up, his temper invariably gets the better of his manners. His reply was an unnecessarily verbose, and needlessly forcible negative.
I heard the stranger chuckle. "I really must trouble you to obey my wishes," he replied, with ironic courtesy. "Otherwise I shall be compelled to do some damage to that car of yours, a proceeding I always try to avoid if possible."
"Do what you please," was in effect Winter's luridly adjectived answer.
"If you do not pull up within thirty seconds your fate will be upon your own heads," said the stranger, shortly, as he laid his hand upon a lever.
His car leapt away from ours, and though we were running nearly sixty miles an hour, we might have been standing still, he dropped us so rapidly. In fifteen seconds he had vanished in a cloud of dust ahead.
"I'm going to stop," said Winter, abruptly. He suited the action to the word, and none too soon.
Again we heard the curious drone of the strange car as it swooped down upon us, coming to a sudden halt a yard distant, with really beautiful precision.
"What do you want?" shouted Winter, in his gruffest tones.
"I'm glad to find you have had the wisdom to do as I desired you," said the Motor Pirate; for it was indeed he with whom we were now face to face. "It would have deeply grieved me to wreck so good a car as that you have there. A Daimler, I believe?"
"Oh, d——n your compliments! What is it you want?" growled Winter.
"Merely any articles of jewellery and any money you may happen to have about you," remarked the stranger, pleasantly.
I saw the moonlight glitter on the barrel of a revolver as he spoke, and he now lifted the weapon and pointed it towards us.
"I do not wish to proceed to extremities, and, as I gather from your speech that I am dealing with gentlemen"—really Winter's language had fully warranted the sarcasm—"if you will give me your word of honour that you will hand over to me all articles of value in your possession, I will leave your car untouched. If, on the contrary, you decline to oblige me, I shall be under the disagreeable necessity of ruining that very handsome car you are driving. I do not like to hurry you, but I am afraid I must ask you to come to a speedy decision on the matter, for these roads in the vicinity of London are not quite so secluded as one of my profession could wish."
He delivered this speech with an air of mock politeness, which made Winter writhe. He did not, however, reply. I think he was too angry.
"Come, gentlemen! Make up your minds. Your money or your—car!"
He made a slight pause before he said the word "car," and his fingers played with the revolver in a manner that sent a cold shiver down my spine.
"It's his turn now," I whispered to Winter. "It may be ours presently."
"Come, come, gentlemen!" said the stranger again; "do you give me your words?"
"D——n you! I suppose we must," jerked out Winter, almost inarticulate with rage.
"Each of you will dismount in turn and lay the contents of your pockets before me here." He indicated a level shelf, which formed apparently part of the casing of one of the wheels. "I must insist upon seeing the linings of your pockets; and I need hardly warn you that it will be extremely undesirable for you to make any movement liable to misconstruction. This toy"—he lifted his pistol—"has a very delicate touch. Now, gentlemen. One at a time, please, and do not wait to discuss the question of precedence. I am quite willing to overlook any little informality."
I listened closely to his speech, but the voice was so muffled by the mask he wore, that I felt I should be unable to recognize it again. Only one point I was assured upon—that the Pirate was an educated man.
Meanwhile what were we to do? All sorts of wild plans were darting through my brain, and I knew that Winter's mind must be equally active. But out of the medley no coherent scheme took shape. Winter dismounted, and, throwing off his overcoat, advanced into the brilliant circle of light cast by our lamps, and proceeded to empty his pockets. He laid his note-case, his watch and chain, and sovereign-purse upon the car in front of the highwayman, and, in obedience to a further command, added the diamond which shone upon his little finger, and another which adorned his shirt-front, to the pile. Then he resumed his place in the car, and I passed through a similar humiliating ordeal. All the while the stranger kept up a flow of apologies for the inconvenience which his necessities compelled him to occasion us. I kept silence, though I must confess the effort was a considerable strain upon my temper. Still, a pistol with a business man at the butt end of it, is of considerable assistance in preventing the exhibition of annoyance.
"If the other gentleman will make haste, I shall be the sooner able to relieve you of my unwelcome society," the Pirate remarked, as I returned to our car after handing over all the valuables in my possession.
In the excitement, I had, until this moment, entirely forgotten the presence of Colonel Maitland; and now, looking closely at him, I discovered that he was still in happy ignorance of the contretemps which had befallen us. Swathed in rugs, he was propped up on the seat behind us slumbering peacefully. A smile was upon his rosy face, and ever and again he smacked his lips. He must have been dreaming of a finer vintage than ever terrestrial vineyard produced.
"What the deuce can we do?" I asked Winter.
"Hullo, Colonel!" shouted my friend.
"What's the matter?" inquired the Pirate. "Does your friend refuse to acknowledge the compact?"
"I'm afraid he can hardly be said to be a party to it," I replied. "He has dined, and now he sleeps."
"Well, you will awaken him less roughly than I shall," was the retort.
"Any one who knows Colonel Maitland is aware that he is exceedingly annoyed if awakened from his after-dinner nap," I urged.
"Colonel Maitland? Colonel Maitland the gourmet?"
"You know him?" said Winter.
The Pirate laughed pleasantly. "I have met him on one occasion, and, as some slight return for a very excellent dinner which he ordered, and for which—doubtless by an oversight—he left me to pay, I will not trouble you to awaken him on this occasion. I wish you good evening, gentlemen."
As he finished speaking he backed his car for a few yards. His hand moved to a lever. The car turned. He waved the hand which was disengaged, and in a moment he was gone, attaining at once a speed, which, until then I had thought it impossible for a motor-car ever to achieve.
Both Winter and I sat stock still, gazing after the fast disappearing car. We could not watch it for long; as in fifteen seconds it was out of sight, and even the dust-cloud it had raised in its progress had cleared.
Then Winter turned to me and muttered a few expletives gently in my ear. I followed his example and we both felt better, at least I think so; for, without rhyme or reason, Winter burst into a fit of laughter, and I followed his example, though I cannot explain now, any more than I could have done then, why I laughed.
When we had done laughing, Winter turned to me and said—
"Sutgrove, old fellow, would you mind punching me? I'm not quite sure whether it is the Colonel who is asleep or myself. I feel as if I have just awakened from dreaming of the story those newspapers printed."
"It's not much of a dream," I remarked. "I little thought that we were to have the good fortune of so early an introduction to the Motor Pirate, however. The Colonel will be quite cross to think that his bottle of port prevented the renewal of an old acquaintance."
Then Winter laughed again. I think he saw the amusing side of our adventure more clearly than I did, for I said sharply—
"Hadn't we better be getting on to St. Albans, and giving information to the police?"
"H—m—m!" he answered meditatively. "I think perhaps we had better not."
"Not?" I replied in surprise.
"In the first place it is after dinner," he said.
"What of that? We dined wisely."
"One of us knows nothing about it." Winter jerked his thumb in the direction of the slumbering warrior. "We could hardly explain the reason why the Colonel slept so soundly through the adventure. The explanation could hardly please him, would it?"
I muttered an assent.
"Besides," continued Winter, "for three of us to admit that we tamely allowed ourselves to be held up by one man, and forced to hand over to him all our valuables, well it—er—it hardly seems heroic, does it? That wouldn't create a very favourable impression upon Miss Maitland either."
I was compelled to agree with him.
"I think perhaps we had best keep the matter to ourselves. I have no desire to provide another sensation for the evening papers to-morrow."
"At any rate I'm not going to sit down quietly under my loss if you are," I responded irritably.
"That's another matter altogether," replied Winter, as he set our car in motion once more. "I did not say that I was going to grin and bear it either."
"What do you propose?" I cried eagerly.
"That is a question we will discuss over a whisky and soda, when we have deposited the Colonel safely at home;" and he refused to say anything further.
Our car was once more put at full speed, and in five minutes we reached the cross-roads on the outskirts of St. Albans, where the road to Watford makes a junction with that on which we had come from town. Here Winter pulled up, and, much to my surprise, dismounted and made a careful examination of the road by the light of our lamps.
"I just want to see in which direction the fellow went," he answered, in reply to my inquiry as to the meaning of his action.
He was still engaged on the task when we heard in the distance the regular beat of a petrol motor approaching us on the Watford road.
"If it's another pirate, he won't get much plunder," I remarked.
"That's no pirate," replied Winter, as a couple of lights came into view. "Cannot you recognize the rattle of Mannering's old car? I should know it anywhere. He will be able to tell us if any one has passed him on the road."
As soon as the new-comer came within range of his voice, Winter hailed him.
"That you, Mannering?"
"Hullo, Winter! Got a puncture? Can I be of any assistance?"
Was it indeed Mannering's voice, or were my ears deceiving me? The intonation was remarkably like that of the stranger, who so short a time previously had bade us stand and deliver, that I sprang to my feet with an exclamation of astonishment. My eyes at once convinced me that my ears had played me false. There was no mistaking Mannering's lumbering old car for the graceful shape of the Motor Pirate's vehicle. I resumed my seat, taking my nerves seriously to task for generating the suspicion, if suspicion it could be called, which had flashed across my mind. If anything further had been needed to dispel it, the reply vouchsafed to Winter's query as to whether he had met any one on the road would have done so.
"Met any one?" said Mannering; "I should think I have. Met the most wonderful motor I've ever seen, about a couple of miles back. 'Pon my soul, I'm not sure even now whether it was not a big night bird, for it just swooped by me with about as much noise as a humming-top might make. It must have been travelling eighty miles an hour at least. Reckless sort of devil the driver must be too. He hadn't a single light. I suppose his lamps must have been put out by the rapidity with which he was travelling. Never had such a scare in my life. I'd like to meet the Johnny. I'd welcome an opportunity of telling him what I thought of his conduct."
"So should I," replied Winter, grimly; "and I fancy Sutgrove would not be averse to a meeting with him."
"Why, what has he been doing?" asked Mannering.
"It's too long a story to tell you now," said Winter, as he climbed back into his seat; "but if you will come up to my place as soon as you have put your car to bed, I'll tell you all about it."
"Right!" sang out Mannering, as we once more set out upon our homeward way. We had not much further to go. In two minutes we had pulled up at Colonel Maitland's door.
I leaned back and shouted, "Here we are, Colonel," in the slumbering warrior's ear.
"Eh! What—what?" he replied, as he awakened with a start. "When are we going to start?"
"Start? Why we've brought you safely home to your own threshold," said Winter.
"'Pon my soul! I remember now," he answered. "I just shut my eyes to keep the dust out of 'em, and—— You will come in for a peg, of course," he continued, as he emerged from the rugs in which he had been enveloped.
I glanced at the windows. There was only a light in the Colonel's study. If there had been another in the drawing-room, I should have accepted forthwith. As it was, I merely said that I could not think of disturbing Miss Maitland.
"Pooh!" said the Colonel, with the usual callous disregard of the mere father for his children's beauty sleep.
But he did not press the invitation. Indeed it was with difficulty he succeeded in repressing a yawn.
"I'll call to-morrow, and get a considered opinion upon my Soho house of entertainment," I remarked, as the Colonel opened his door, and paused at the entrance to bid us a final good night.
"Glad to see you," he replied, as he grasped my hand and shook it warmly. "But of one thing you may rest assured. So long as that bin of port holds out, your house of entertainment may count upon me as a regular customer whenever I dine in town."
"Opium isn't in it," commented Winter in a low voice, as he set the car in motion and wheeled out of the drive. "How he could have slept so soundly through it all absolutely beats me."
I did not reply. My attention was concentrated upon one of the upper windows, at which I thought I had seen a form I knew very well make a brief appearance. But we left the window and house behind us. Winter's place was only about a hundred yards further up the road.
CONCERNING MY RIVAL
"NOW, Jim, dip your beak into that, and let me see if it will not restore to your classic features their customary repose."
So saying, Winter handed me a stately tumbler, and the mixture was so much to my liking that I felt an involuntary relaxation of my facial muscles immediately I obeyed the command. I stretched myself at length in the easy chair which I had drawn up before the fire, and felt able to forgive even the Motor Pirate. We were alone in the apartment which Winter called his study, but since the only books he read therein were motor-catalogues, and the lounges with which the snuggery was furnished were much more conducive to repose than to mental exertion, I refused to acknowledge its claim to the title. That, by the way. The fire was burning brightly. Winter's red, rugged, honest face was beaming with almost equal radiance. Who could help feeling happy?
Then Mannering was announced, and Mannering was a man I had learned to passively dislike. Why, I scarcely knew. I was aware of nothing against him. Indeed, when six months previously, on my first coming to St. Albans, I had been introduced to him, I had been rather favourably impressed. He was a tall dark man of thirty-five, with more than the average endowment of good looks. He could tell a good story, had shot big game in most parts of the world, was well-read, intelligent, possessed unexceptionable manners, and yet—— Well, Winter had none of his various qualifications, but I would at any time far rather have had one friend like Winter than a hundred like the other man.
I had first made his acquaintance at Colonel Maitland's house, where I had found him on an apparently intimate footing. Perhaps it was this very intimacy which formed the basis for my dislike, for—there is no need to mince matters—at this time I was jealous, horribly and unreasonably jealous, of every male person who entered the Colonel's house. And here, perhaps, it will be better for me to explain how it happened that I came to be living in a cottage on the outskirts of St. Albans in preference to my own house in Norfolk.
The change in my residence had been entirely due to a tennis party at Cromer. There I met Evie Maitland. She was—— No, every one can fill in the blank from their own experience for themselves; and if they cannot, I pity them.
Fortunately I had an aunt present. She was the most amiable of aunts, and quite devoted towards her most dutiful nephew. With her assistance, I managed not only to improve my acquaintance with Miss Maitland, but also to effect an introduction to her father. I had only known them a week, however, before the Colonel took his daughter back to St. Albans. I allowed an interval of a fortnight to elapse, and then I followed. Of course I had to be prepared with some excuse, and here luck favoured me. Looking through the directory I discovered that Winter, whom I knew slightly as having been up at Camford about the same time as myself, was also a resident in the delightful St. Alban's suburb of St. Stephens where the Maitlands resided. I sought out Winter. I confided my story to him. The upshot of it all was that I took a cottage close to his house, and not far from the Colonel's, ostensibly that under Winter's tuition I might develop into a first-class motorist.
Somehow I found that I made a great deal more progress with my motoring than with my love-making. Surely a more bewitching, tantalizing, provoking little beauty than Evie Maitland never tore a man's heart to fragments. If she was kind to me one day, she would be still kinder to Mannering the next. But that is neither here nor there. Anyhow, I heartily wished him out of the way, for there was no doubt whatever that Randolph Mannering was a much more attractive person than my insignificant self. His mere advantage in age counted for something; but I could have forgiven him that, had he not made use of the years to see so much and do so much, that he could not help appearing in the light of a hero to a girl who was just at the worshipping age. And he knew so well how to get the fullest value out of his experiences. He never paraded them, I must admit that much in his favour. He was far too clever. An anecdote here and there to illustrate some point in the conversation, a modest account of some thrilling adventure, in which he hardly ever mentioned the part he had personally played, produced a much greater effect than if he had gone about trumpeting the deeds he had done and the dangers he had survived.
He had, too, the advantage of a much longer acquaintance with the Maitlands than myself. I learned from the Colonel that Mannering had been living in a house whose garden adjoined his own for a year before my arrival on the scene. His life, until the Colonel had recognized him as an acquaintance he had made at the house of a friend some years before, had been that of a recluse, the object of his retirement being to perfect some mechanical invention upon which he was engaged. He had soon developed into a friend of the family, and I had found him firmly installed as such when I made my appearance at St. Albans.
Naturally then I was none too pleased that Winter had proposed to take him into our confidence, but I made no absolute objection.
I sat smoking quietly while Winter told the story of our adventure. He listened most attentively.
"It's a most extraordinary story," he remarked, when the narrative was concluded. "You are quite sure neither of you touched any of that port?"
Winter turned one of his pockets inside out with an expressive gesture.
"Wine may rob a man of his wits," he replied, "but it does not relieve him of fifty pounds in notes, six in gold, a watch and chain worth fifty, and a diamond which has been valued at a hundred."
"The numbers of the notes should enable you to trace the thief," said Mannering, thoughtfully.
Winter laughed. "The fact is, I am such a careless beggar. I always carry notes about with me, replenishing my case when necessary; and really I have nothing to tell me whether those notes I had in my possession were the last batch I had from the bank, or odd ones left over from previous consignments. They may have been in my case for months."
"Both Winter and I could identify our watches," I hazarded.
"Of course," replied Mannering, "if your Motor Pirate is fool enough to attempt to pawn them you may get the chance; but if he sells them to a receiver, they'll go straight into the melting pot."
Winter lit a cigarette and Mannering turned to me. "What was the extent of your loss?"
"Ten in gold, thirty in notes, and say thirty for my watch. My loss is comparatively light."
"You know the numbers of your notes, I suppose?" he inquired, as he lit a cigarette in turn.
"Yes," I replied, "I'm not quite so casual as Winter."
"There's some clue for the police to work upon, then."
"It might prove to be so, only Winter thinks we show up so badly in the whole affair that he won't hear of my giving information."
"The fact is," said Winter, "Maitland slept soundly through the whole affair, and it wouldn't be sporting to give him away."
"I see——" began Mannering.
Winter deftly changed the subject. "What puzzles me," he said, "is the kind of motor the fellow employed to propel his car. I know of nothing at present on the market anything like so effective. I've seen 'em all."
"Your loss doesn't seem to trouble you much, anyhow," commented Mannering.
"I would willingly give a hundred times as much for a duplicate of that motor. I should be pretty sure to get my money back once I put it on the market."
"If there's all that value in it, why should the owner go in for highway robbery?" I asked.
"That's just what I fail to understand," said Winter. "From what I could see of it, our friend the Motor Pirate is possessed of an ideal car, graceful in shape, making no noise, running with a minimum of vibration and a maximum of speed. Why, there's a fortune in it."
"Of course it is quite impossible that the motive power can be electricity?" remarked Mannering, gazing into the fire as if he could see a solution of the mystery therein.
"Quite out of the question. Any one who has the slightest knowledge of motoring would know it to be impossible, even if the Pirate had devised a storage battery which would knock Edison's latest invention into a cocked hat. But supposing he had achieved the feat, remember that, according to the newspaper reports, he was at Plymouth yesterday at dusk, near Salisbury at eleven the same evening, and holding us up on the confines of St. Albans to night. He would be bound to get his batteries recharged somewhere and, with a car of such remarkable shape, how is he to do so without exciting remark? No; electricity is quite out or the question. I should be glad to think that the car was an electric one. His capture would only be a matter of a few hours."
An indefinable expression, which might have been a smile, flitted across Mannering's face.
"I hope, for all our sakes, his motor is an electric one," he said. "At all events it should not be difficult to track a car of so singular a shape. If it were built on the same lines as yours or mine, for instance, the owner might go anywhere without attracting attention."
"Anyhow," I broke in, "until he is captured I'm going for a run every night with something that will shoot within easy reach. The next time I have the fortune to meet with him I hope I shall be in a position to get a bit of my own back."
Again a smile appeared on Mannering's face as he exclaimed, "I almost feel inclined to follow your example. I have nearly forgotten how to use a pistol since I have resided in this law-ridden land."
"Surely you won't expose your experimental car to the chance of being rammed by the Motor Pirate," remarked Winter, chaffingly.
Mannering's car was a stock joke with us. It was a particularly cumbersome vehicle, with heaven only knows what type of body. It might have been capable of twenty miles an hour on the flat, but that would be the extreme limit of its powers. "You fellows," he had explained to us one day, "have taken to motoring for the fun of flying along the high-roads at an illegal speed. I have taken to it for a more utilitarian purpose. I have my own ideas about the motor of the future, and I am working them out down here. My old caravan is heavy, perhaps, but I want a heavy car. It's most useful for testing tyres, and that is one of the special points engaging my attention. Besides, in this car I am not tempted to get into trouble with the police. Twelve miles an hour is quite fast enough for all my purposes."
Both Winter and myself had frequently asked him how he was progressing with his work, but as he had never returned us any but the vaguest of answers, nor ever invited us into the workshop which had once formed the stables of the house where he resided, we had thought that his story of being engaged in mechanical invention merely an excuse for getting rid of unpleasant visitors. I think we were both surprised when he answered Winter's chaff quite warmly.
"I should not at all mind exposing my car to any risk if I could get the opportunity to examine the Motor Pirate's car. If the truth must be told, from what I have seen of his car, and what you have told me, I am rather inclined to think that whoever designed it has forestalled me in an idea which I had thought quite my own. I have long been working to produce a car which would run at least a hundred miles an hour without noise or perceptible vibration."
"Couldn't you get it completed in a week?" interrupted Winter. "We might have a most exciting chase after our friend."
Mannering shook his head. "I've been absolutely floored on one detail, and if that fellow has solved the problem——" Shrugging his shoulders, he rose and held out his hand to Winter. I followed his example.
"I had no idea that you had anything so important on the stocks," remarked Winter, as he accompanied us to the door.
"Nor would you have done so until you saw the perfect machine on the road, if it had not been for my chagrin at seeing that car to-night. Of course I can count upon you both to say nothing of the matter."
"On condition that you do not refer to our adventure again," said I, laughing.
"Agreed," responded Mannering, as he smiled again.
We both said good night to Winter, and in spite of our host's efforts to persuade us to stay for another peg, I followed Mannering out, declaring that I should never be able to face Mrs. Winter again if I kept him up any longer.
I found Mannering standing at the gate, and I paused beside him to glance at the sky, across which one or two fleecy clouds were hurrying from the west. The moon, brilliant as earlier in the evening, now hung low down over the horizon. The breeze had freshened, and we could hear it whispering amongst the trees.
"We shall not be long without rain. If the Pirate is still abroad he will leave tracks," said Mannering.
The beauty of the night held so much of appeal to me that I felt annoyed at the current of my thoughts being turned back to the topic.
I answered shortly. My companion took no notice of my petulance.
"You have always thought I cared nothing for speed," he remarked, "but you were mistaken. I thought I would keep my desires in the background until I had succeeded in perfecting a car which I knew it would be impossible to outpace. I could not enter into competition with longer purses than my own, and if I had bought the fastest car in the market somebody else would have bought one faster. But to-night—— By Jove! How I envy that Motor Pirate. Imagine what the possession of that car means on a night like this, with the roads clear from John-o'-Groat's to Land's End. Fancy flying onwards at a speed none have ever attempted. Can you not see the road unwinding before you like a reel of white ribbon, hear the sweet musical drone of the wheels in your ears——" He stopped abruptly.
He must have observed my natural amazement at the intensity of feeling which his speech displayed, for he observed in a lighter tone—
"Not being Motor Pirates, however, the next best thing is, I suppose, to go to bed and dream that we are." He turned on his heel and strode away in one direction, while I went in the direction of my own home. But I was in no hurry to get there. The night was too delightful.
In the few hours which had elapsed since we had sat down to dine, a change had come over the face of the land. I could feel the presence of Spring in the air, and all the youth in me awoke. The creatures of the earth felt it too. In the silence of the night I could hear the crackle of the buds as they cast off their winter coverings, hear the whisper of the grass, which the countryman declares is the sound of growing blades, hear the murmur of all animate things as they rose to welcome the Springtide. My own heart leapt up with a renewal of hope. I stood awhile outside Colonel Maitland's door, and breathed a prayer that it might be my fortune to protect the fair inmate of the house from all harm through life. I strolled slowly to my own door, but I did not enter. Moonbeams beget love-dreams when one is still in the twenties.
Back again to the Colonel's house, back once more to my own. In all probability I should have continued my solitary sentry-go and my reverie until daybreak, had not my thoughts been sharply recalled to earth. On reaching my own doorway for the fifth or sixth time I had just turned, when I saw a black shadow on the road opposite the Maitlands' house. One glance was enough; it was the Motor Pirate again, and I began to count. "One—two—," the car passed me, "three—four;" it had vanished round a turning of the road in the direction of St. Albans.
Even what I had already experienced of the Pirate had not prepared me for such an exhibition as this. What Mannering had said about the delight of flying along an open road at a hundred miles an hour recurred to me. I had not deemed it possible. But I paced the distance between the Colonel's house and the bend where the strange car had passed out of sight. The distance was just about two hundred yards, and it had been covered as near as possible in four seconds. The car must have been travelling just about a hundred miles an hour.
I went straight indoors to bed. I am not ashamed to confess that I was not able to continue my dreams in comfort, while pacing the road, by the consideration of what would have happened to me had the Motor Pirate come along just two seconds before I happened to turn and see him.
THE COLONEL DREAMS, AND I AWAKEN
I SLEPT until late the next morning. I have always been accustomed to a clear eight hours' sleep, and, as I did not get between the sheets until about four in the morning, I naturally did not awaken until mid-day. So what with my tub and the necessity for shaving, my early morning call upon the Colonel did not come off. I suppose, as a matter of fact, I sat down to breakfast just about the time when the gastronomic warrior was thinking of luncheon. However, when I saw how amply my expectation of a change in the weather had been fulfilled, I did not regret my lengthy sleep. From a sodden grey sky sheets of water were steadily pouring. There was not the slightest chance of any break in the clouds. Consequently I felt assured of finding Miss Maitland at home if I made my call in the afternoon, and since her father oftentimes thought it expedient to take a little repose after luncheon in order to prepare himself for the fatigue of dining, it was possible that I might even be fortunate enough to secure a tete-a-tete with her.
I came to my breakfast, therefore, with as good a spirit as appetite, neither being in the slightest degree affected by the memory of the easy way in which I had been plundered by the Motor Pirate. Of course I felt a certain chagrin. Still, I could contemplate the adventure with a considerable deal more equanimity than I had managed to display the night before, though I found that my curiosity concerning him had, if anything, increased. I turned with eagerness to the morning papers to see whether they could add to my knowledge concerning him.
As every one is aware, all the papers on the morning of the first of April that year devoted columns to his exploits. If I remember aright, the country was at that time engaged upon two of our usual minor wars, Parliament was in the midst of an important debate upon the second reading of a measure to secure an extension of the franchise, and a divorce case of more than common interest was engaging the attention of the leading legal lights of the law courts. But all these things received but the scantiest notice. The war news was relegated to the inside pages, the Parliamentary intelligence cut down to the barest summary, the cause celebre dismissed with such a paragraph as ordinarily serves to chronicle an unimportant police court case. The Motor Pirate had nearly a monopoly of the space at the editorial disposal. There was column after column about him. The Plymouth robbery was reported in as great detail as the Compton Chamberlain affair, while there were particulars of two similar outrages committed at points between these two places.
On running my eye over the reports I saw that they added nothing to what I already knew, and I wasted no time in reading the leaders on the subject. I was, however, extremely interested to find from one paper that Winter and I had not been the only victims of the scoundrel's rapacity on the previous evening, for a brief telegram reported a similar occurrence a few miles from Oxford on the London road. I at once sent my man to purchase any of the early editions of the evening papers which might have reached St. Albans, in the hope that they might contain further particulars of these operations.
I had finished my breakfast, and was enjoying a cigarette in my library, when he returned. I took the papers from him, and the first glance at one of them made me gasp with amazement. The news which startled me was all in one line—"Five more cars held up by the Motor Pirate."
I am not going into details concerning these. If you have a desire to refresh your memory all you have to do is to turn to any newspaper of the date I have named and you will be able to get them ad nauseam. But I will venture to give a list of the places where and the times at which the outrages took place, for I made a list of them in the hope that, by carefully studying it with the map, I might get some idea as to where he might next be expected to make his appearance.
I found that at five minutes past nine he stopped a car some four miles from Oxford. Twenty minutes later he was robbing a lonely motorist midway between Thame and Aylesbury. Then for forty minutes he appeared to have been idle, his next two exploits taking place within five minutes of each other, just after ten, in the neighbourhood of Amersham. King's Langley was the scene of his next adventure, the time given being about a quarter of an hour before he had overtaken us. In addition to the particulars of these robberies there were a host of reports from people who had seen the Pirate car pass them on the road. But there was one notable omission from the latter list. Not from a single town was there any record of the Pirate having been seen passing through it.
I got a map of the district, and, after studying the country carefully, I was fain to confess that one of two things was certain: either the Motor Pirate had the power to make his car invisible at will, or else he had a truly phenomenal knowledge of the bye-roads. How he had even managed to get to Oxford, after his exploits in the West of England, without arrest, puzzled me. The car was so unique in shape that it seemed bound to excite observation. It could not have been put up at any hotel, any more than it could have been run through the country by daylight, without exciting remark and its presence being chronicled. What, then, had he done with it? The more I pondered the question the more puzzled I became, and at the same time the more determined to seek a solution of the mystery. But how? I made a dozen plans, all of which, upon consideration, appeared so futile, that I gave up the game in despair, and decided to see if my brain would not become clearer after I had paid my promised visit to Colonel Maitland.
I did not find Miss Maitland alone, as I expected, or I might probably have been tempted to confide my experience to her, and to have asked the assistance of her woman's wit in putting me on the track of a solution to the mystery. Mannering was with her. When I made my appearance in the drawing-room, and found him enjoying a tete-a-tete, I cursed myself for delaying my call and thus giving him such an opportunity. My temper was not improved either by the discovery that they were sufficiently engrossed in conversation to have been able very well to dispense with my presence. I did not feel called upon to leave Mannering a clear field, however, so I joined in the discussion, and tried my hardest to be pleasant.
Of course, there was only one possible topic of conversation, the theme which was uttermost in every one's mind throughout the length and breadth of the land. It was a difficult subject for me to discuss, and in a measure it was a difficult subject for Mannering, inasmuch as it was hard to refrain from reference to the personal experience we had had with the Motor Pirate. It became increasingly difficult, when a few minutes after my arrival Colonel Maitland joined us.
"It was lucky for him he did not meet us, hey, Sutgrove?" said the Colonel. "You, Winter, and myself, would soon settle a Motor Pirate, wouldn't we?"
I muttered something which would pass for an assent, while Mannering shot an amused smile in my direction.
"I wonder though we saw nothing of him," continued Maitland; "he must have been very near us last night."
"He seems to have been everywhere," I answered.
"He has the ubiquity of a De Wet," said Mannering.
"I hope I shall have a chance of meeting him sometime," I continued grimly.
Colonel Maitland chuckled. "Heavens! What a fire-eater you are, Sutgrove. One might almost take you for a sub in a cavalry regiment."
I made no answer, and Miss Maitland remarked—"I think that is very unkind of you. You spoke of the Motor Pirate as if you owed him a grudge. I think we all ought to be supremely thankful to him for having made the wettest day we have had this year pass quite pleasantly."
Bear him a grudge? I should think I did, but at the same time, I had no intention of confessing the reason, so I said—
"Then we'll drink long life and prosperity to him the next time we have a bottle of that same port your father approved so highly last night." Then I turned to the Colonel, and made a clumsy attempt to turn the subject of conversation. "Is your verdict upon my restaurant equally favourable to-day, sir?"
Colonel Maitland's eyes twinkled. "I have nothing to regret. As for the port with which we finished, it seems to me the sort of stuff dreams are made of. Do you know that the glass I drank—was it one glass or two?—gave me the most vivid dream I have enjoyed since my childhood?"
"Indeed! Let's hear it, Colonel," I replied.
"Do tell us," said his daughter, as she rose from her seat, and put her arms coaxingly round her father's neck. "Do tell us like a real, good, kind, old-fashioned parent."
The Colonel passed his hand lovingly over his daughter's sunny hair.
"Sutgrove and Mannering don't want to hear about an old fellow's silly dreams," he said. "Besides, it was all about the Motor Pirate, and I can see that Sutgrove for one is quite sick of the subject."
I was, and I wasn't, but I speedily declared that I was not when I saw that his daughter was bent upon hearing the story. So he started upon a prosy description as to how the fresh air had sent him to sleep, not saying a word about the port, and I ceased to listen to him, preferring to devote the whole of my attention to his daughter, who had seated herself upon a footstool at his feet, and was looking up into his face with a pretty affectionate glance in her deep blue eyes, enough to set any one longing to be the recipient of similar regard. Her form, attitude, expression, all made so deep an impression upon me, that I have only to close my eyes at any time to see her just as she was then—the little witch! She knew full well how to make the most of her attractions, and though she has often declared since to me that the pose was quite unpremeditated, I could never quite believe her.
However that may be, I was so fascinated in watching her—there was one stray curl which lay like a strand of woven gold upon her brow. Confound it! It's all very well for the fellow who writes fiction for a living to write about people's emotions. He is cold himself. If he were like me, and wished to describe his own feelings, he might find himself in the same difficulty as myself, and give up the attempt.
The Colonel's voice droned on. Suddenly I awoke to the consciousness that he was speaking of me. I think it was the fact of his daughter looking at me which recalled me to attention.
"Sutgrove had just looked back to see if I was comfortable, when he saw another car on the road behind us. We had not long passed through Radlett. You know the straight stretch of road just past the new Dutch barn on the left——"
My attention did not wander any more, and you may imagine my astonishment at hearing the Colonel describe in minute detail everything which had befallen us upon the previous evening. He could tell a story when he liked, and on this occasion his description of the shamefaced manner in which Winter had scrambled out of his car, and had handed over his valuables to the Motor Pirate, was so ludicrous that I was compelled to laugh at the description. When my turn came to be described, Miss Maitland and Mannering were just as much amused, but I am afraid that my attempt to participate in their mirth was rather forced.
When the story was done, Miss Maitland rose from her seat at her father's feet, and, putting a hand on each of his shoulders—
"You dear, delightful old fibber!" she remarked. "I don't believe you dreamed that at all. You couldn't." Then she wheeled round on me. "Now tell me, Mr. Sutgrove, didn't that dream of father's really happen to you last night?"
What course was open to me but confession? I admitted the truth of the story, and the Colonel was so choked with merriment, that I feared lest he should be stricken with apoplexy.
"The cream of the joke," he explained, when he recovered his powers of speech, "was that neither Winter nor Sutgrove had the slightest idea that I was foxing. I intended to inform them directly we were clear of the Pirate; but when I heard them discussing the matter, and determining to keep silence out of tenderness for my reputation, I could not resist keeping up the joke."
"I should think it was their own reputations they were thinking about," said his daughter. "To submit so tamely to one man is not a very heroic proceeding."
I heard Mannering chuckle, and I felt mad. But I fancy it was not Mannering's amusement, but my own consciousness of the truth of the criticism that galled.
Colonel Maitland came to my rescue. "I thought they were very sensible," he said. "Even a cripple with a gun is better than six sound Tommies unarmed."
"Sensible—yes," she replied scornfully. "But there are times when one prefers a little less sense, and a little more—shall we say action. I am sure you would not have obeyed so tamely?" she continued, turning to Mannering.
He smiled, and I felt as if it would give me exquisite pleasure to catch him by the throat, and twist the smile out of his dark, handsome face.
"Really, Miss Maitland," he replied, "you flatter me. You should not be too hard on Sutgrove. I am sure that it was only the full comprehension of his own helplessness which prevented him making a fight of it. What could he have done?"
"Oh, a man should always know what to do!" she answered petulantly. "Has any one ever tried to hold you up?"
"Well, yes," he answered. "Once when I was out in the west of the States, some of the regulation bands tried the game on a train in which I was travelling. But then, you see, the conductor in the railway-car in which I happened to be seated had a six-shooter. So had I. The other passengers got as near the floor as they possibly could when the shooting began. I was in pretty good practice in those days, don't you know, so the other chaps didn't get much of a look in. We took the four they left behind them when they bolted on to the next station with us. Three of them were buried there, if I remember aright."
"There," said Miss Maitland, with an unmistakable look of admiration in her eyes; "I knew you were different."
"But then I was armed. If I had not been, I should have been on the floor with the other passengers."
In reply she merely gave him one glance. Mannering returned it with one equally eloquent. I rose, and stalked to the window. To me Mannering's championship was an aggravation which I could not bear. Harder still was it for me to observe the understanding which obviously existed between him and Miss Maitland. Hitherto I had imagined that I had as good a chance of winning her love as he had. But at this moment I felt that my hopes had been shattered.
I think if I had remained a moment longer in the room, I should have been unable to restrain an impulse to knock some of the self-sufficiency out of my rival. I left.
Colonel Maitland followed me out, and I heard him ask me to dine with him on the following day to wipe off the score he owed me.
Without thinking, I accepted. Then I went out into the rain.
I AM ARRESTED
AS I went away from the Maitlands' house I looked neither to the right hand nor to the left. Where I went, whether I trudged along the high road or tramped across country, I have not to-day the slightest idea. I was so enveloped in my own misery, that I was absolutely blind to all external objects. I could think of nothing but my dead hopes. So onward I went, stumbling and splashing through the mud, cursing Mannering, cursing the Motor Pirate, above all cursing myself for my own pusillanimity. Why had I listened to Winter? Why should I have allowed myself to be persuaded to play the part of coward, merely that Winter's car should have been saved from injury?
For a long while my thoughts were as aimless as my progress, but gradually out of the incoherence one idea crystallized. It was not an idea to be proud of. My bitterness of heart produced the natural result, that was all—a burning desire to be revenged upon somebody. I contemplated revenging myself upon everybody who had anything to do with my discomfiture, upon Mannering, upon Colonel Maitland, upon the Motor Pirate. Finally my choice settled upon the person of the Pirate as the most suitable object; for, next to myself, he was primarily responsible for my having made so contemptible a figure.
Of course the decision was absurd. Decisions that are the outcome of any strong emotion usually are. But it fulfilled a useful purpose. It gave my mind something else to feed upon than contemplation of my own unhappiness. It brought me to myself.
To-day I can laugh when I recall the childishness of my actions, the outcome of the unreasoned promptings of my puerile jealousy. For when I came to the conclusion to avenge my sufferings upon the Motor Pirate, I suddenly became aware that it was pitch dark; that I was in the middle of a field; that I was soaked to the skin; that the rain was still falling heavily; and that I had not the slightest idea where I was. However, I added one more to the acts of folly I committed that day: I solemnly held up my hands to the dripping heavens and registered my vow of revenge. Then I pushed on again, but with my physical faculties on the alert to discover where I was.
I began, too, to feel the discomfort of my position, and became sensible of a sneaking wish to be before a comfortable fire. I crossed two or three fields, and eventually coming to a road I followed it, and, after paddling through the mud half a mile further, I struck a village, and in the village an inn.
When I opened the door and walked into the cheerful lamplight of the bar-parlour, the half-dozen occupants of the cosy little room stared at me with astonishment. Well they might. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the glass behind the bottles—if you have ever seen a corpse fished up by the drags from a river bed, you will be able to form some idea of the appearance I presented—so that I did not resent their stare. In fact, I was not in a condition to be able to pay much attention to the curious glances of the villagers. The warmth of the room together with the sudden cessation of exertion were for the moment too much for me, and it was as much as I could do to stagger to the nearest chair.
Fortunately the landlord was a man with some modicum of common sense. I am quite sure that I should have been unceremoniously ejected from nine public houses out of ten. But mine host of the White Horse—I learned afterwards that he had been whip to a well-known hunt in the West country—was able to distinguish between fatigue and drunkenness, and he came at once to my assistance. I heard him speak to me, but I was totally unable to respond. For a while indeed I must have verged upon unconsciousness, for the next thing of which I became aware was of a glass at my lips containing something sweet and strong.