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   Chapter 9 IN THE MISTS

Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 20619

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Their first glimpse of the night, as Hunterleys and Lane passed out through the grudgingly opened door, was sufficiently disconcerting. A little murmur of dismay broke from the assembled crowd. Nothing was to be seen but a dense bank of white mist, through which shone the brilliant lights of the automobiles waiting at the door. Monsieur le Directeur hastened about, doing his best to reassure everybody.

"If I thought it was of the slightest use," he declared, "I would ask you all to stay, but when the clouds once stoop like this, there is not likely to be any change for twenty-four hours, and we have not, alas! sleeping accommodation. If the cars are slowly driven and kept to the inside, it is only a matter of a mile or two before you will drop below the level of the clouds."

Hunterleys and Lane made their way out to the front, and with their coat collars turned up, groped their way to the turf on the other side of the avenue. From where they stood, looking downwards, the whole world seemed wrapped in mysterious and somber silence. There was nothing to be seen but the grey, driving clouds. In less than a minute their hair and eyebrows were dripping. A slight breeze had sprung up, the cold was intense.

"Cheerful sort of place, this," Lane remarked gloomily. "Shall we make a start?"

Hunterleys hesitated.

"Not just yet. Look!"

He pointed downwards. For a moment the clouds had parted. Thousands of feet below, like little pinpricks of red fire, they saw the lights of Monte Carlo. Almost as they looked, the clouds closed up again. It was as though they had peered into another world.

"Jove, that was queer!" Lane muttered. "Look! What's that?"

A long ray of sickly yellow light shone for a moment and was then suddenly blotted out by a rolling mass of vapour. The clouds had closed in again once more. The obscurity was denser than ever.

"The lighthouse," Hunterleys replied. "Do you think it's any use waiting?"

"We'll go inside and put on our coats," Lane suggested. "My car is by the side of the avenue there. I covered it over and left it."

They found their coats in the hall, wrapped themselves up and lit cigarettes. Already many of the cars had started and vanished cautiously into obscurity. Every now and then one could hear the tooting of their horns from far away below. The chief steward was directing the departures and insisting upon an interval of three minutes between each. The two men stood on one side and watched him. He was holding open the door of a large, exceptionally handsome car. On the other side was a servant in white livery. Lane gripped his companion's arm.

"There she goes!" he exclaimed.

The girl, followed by Mr. Grex, stepped into the landaulette, which was brilliantly illuminated inside with electric light. Almost immediately the car glided noiselessly off. The two men watched it until it disappeared. Then they crossed the road.

"Now then, Sir Henry," Richard observed grimly, as he turned the handle of the car and they took their places in the little well-shaped space, "better say your prayers. I'm going to drive slowly enough but it's an awful job, this, crawling down the side of a mountain in the dark, with nothing between you and eternity but your brakes."

They crept off. As far as the first turn the lights from the club-house helped them. Immediately afterwards, however, the obscurity was enveloping. Their faces were wet and shiny with moisture. Even the fingers of Lane's gloves which gripped the wheel were sodden. He proceeded at a snail's pace, keeping always on the inside of the road and only a few inches from the wall or bank. Once he lost his way and his front wheel struck a small stump, but they were going too slowly for disaster. Another time he failed to follow the turn of the road and found himself in a rough cart track. They backed with difficulty and got right once more. At the fourth turn they came suddenly upon a huge car which had left the road as they had done and was standing amongst the pine trees, its lights flaring through the mist.

"Hullo!" Lane called out, coming to a standstill. "You've missed the turn."

"My master is going to stay here all night," the chauffeur shouted back.

A man put his head from the window and began to talk in rapid French.

"It is inconceivable," he exclaimed, "that any one should attempt the descent! We have rugs, my wife and I. We stay here till the clouds pass."

"Good night, then!" Lane cried cheerfully.

"Not sure that you're not wise," Hunterleys added, with a shiver.

Twice they stopped while Lane rubbed the moisture from his gloves and lit a fresh cigarette.

"This is a test for your nerve, young fellow," Hunterleys remarked. "Are you feeling it?"

"Not in the least," Lane replied. "I can't make out, though, why that steward made us all start at intervals of three minutes. Seems to me we should have been better going together at this pace. Save any one from getting lost, anyhow."

They crawled on for another twenty minutes. The routine was always the same-a hundred yards or perhaps two, an abrupt turn and then a similar distance the other way. They had one or two slight misadventures but they made progress. Once, through a rift, they caught a momentary vision of a carpet of lights at a giddy distance below.

"We'll make it all right," Lane declared, crawling around another corner. "Gee! but this is the toughest thing in driving I've ever known! I can do ninety with this car easier than I can do this three. Hullo, some one else in trouble!"

Before them, in the middle of the road, a light was being slowly swung backwards and forwards. Lane brought the car to a standstill. He had scarcely done so when they were conscious of the sound of footsteps all around them. The arms of both men were seized from behind. They were addressed in guttural French.

"Messieurs will be pleased to descend."

"What the-what's wrong?" Lane demanded.

"Descend at once," was the prompt order.

By the light of the lantern which the speaker was holding, they caught a glimpse of a dozen white faces and the dull gleam of metal from the firearms which his companions were carrying. Hunterleys stepped out. An escort of two men was at once formed on either side of him.

"Tell us what it's all about, anyhow?" he asked coolly.

"Nothing serious," the same guttural voice answered,-"a little affair which will be settled in a few minutes. As for you, monsieur," the man continued, turning to Lane, "you will drive your car slowly to the next turn, and leave it there. Afterwards you will return with me."

Richard set his teeth and leaned over his wheel. Then it suddenly flashed into his mind that Mr. Grex and his daughter were already amongst the captured. He quickly abandoned his first instinct.

"With pleasure, monsieur," he assented. "Tell me when to stop."

He drove the car a few yards round the corner, past a line of others. Their lights were all extinguished and the chauffeurs absent.

"This is a pleasant sort of picnic!" he grumbled, as he brought his car to a standstill. "Now what do I do, monsieur?"

"You return with me, if you please," was the reply.

Richard stood, for a moment, irresolute. The idea of giving in without a struggle was most distasteful to this self-reliant young American. Then he realised that not only was his captor armed but that there were men behind him and one on either side.

"Lead the way," he decided tersely.

They marched him up the hill, a little way across some short turf and round the back of a rock to a long building which he remembered to have noticed on his way up. His guide threw open the door and Richard looked in upon a curious scene. Ranged up against the further wall were about a dozen of the guests who had preceded him in his departure from the Club-house. One man only had his hands tied behind him. The others, apparently, were considered harmless. Mr. Grex was the one man, and there was a little blood dripping from his right hand. The girl stood by his side. She was no paler than usual-she showed, indeed, no signs of terror at all-but her eyes were bright with indignation. One man was busy stripping the jewels from the women and throwing them into a bag. In the far corner the little group of chauffeurs was being watched by two more men, also carrying firearms. Lane looked down the line of faces. Lady Hunterleys was there, and by her side Draconmeyer. Hunterleys was a little apart from the others. Freddy Montressor, who was leaning against the wall, chuckled as Lane came in.

"So they've got you, too, Dicky, have they?" he remarked. "It's a hold-up-a bully one, too. Makes one feel quite homesick, eh? How much have you got on you?"

"Precious little, thank heavens!" Richard muttered.

His eyes were fixed upon the brigand who was collecting the jewels, and who was now approaching Miss Grex. He felt something tingling in his blood. One of the guests began to talk excitedly. The man who was apparently the leader, and who was standing at the door with an electric torch in one hand and a revolver in the other, stepped a little forward.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "once more I beg you not to be alarmed. So long as you part with your valuables peaceably, you will be at liberty to depart as soon as every one has been dealt with. If there is no resistance, there will be no trouble. We do not wish to hurt any one."

The collector of jewels had arrived in front of the girl. She unfastened her necklace and handed it to him.

"The little pendant around my neck," she remarked calmly, "is valueless. I desire to keep it."

"Impossible!" the man replied. "Off with it."

"But I insist!" she exclaimed. "It is an heirloom."

The man laughed brutally. His filthy hand was raised to her neck. Even as he touched her, Lane, with a roar of anger, sent one of his guards flying on to the floor of the barn, and, snatching the gun from his hand, sprang forward.

"Come on, you fellows!" he shouted, bringing it down suddenly upon the hand of the robber. "These things aren't loaded. There's only one of these blackguards with a revolver."

* * *

"Come on, you fellows!" he shouted.

* * *

"And I've got him!" Hunterleys, who had been watching Lane

closely, cried, suddenly swinging his arm around the man's neck and knocking his revolver up.

There was a yell of pain from the man with the jewels, whose wrist Lane had broken, a howl of dismay from the others-pandemonium.

"At 'em, Freddy!" Lane shouted, seizing the nearest of his assailants by the neck and throwing him out into the darkness. "To hell with you!" he added, just escaping a murderous blow and driving his fist into the face of the man who had aimed it. "Good for you, Hunterleys! There isn't one of those old guns of theirs that'll go off. They aren't even loaded."

The barn seemed suddenly to become half empty. Into the darkness the little band of brigands crept away like rats. In less than half a minute they had all fled, excepting the one who lay on the ground unconscious from the effects of Richard's blow, and the leader of the gang, whom Hunterleys still held by the throat. Richard, with a clasp-knife which he had drawn from his pocket, cut the cord which they had tied around Mr. Grex's wrists. His action, however, was altogether mechanical. He scarcely glanced at what he was doing. Somehow or other, he found the girl's hands in his.

"That brute-didn't touch you, did he?" he asked.

She looked at him. Whether the clouds were still outside or not, Lane felt that he had passed into Heaven.

"He did not, thanks to you," she murmured. "But do you mean really that those guns all the time weren't loaded?"

"I don't believe they were," Richard declared stoutly. "That chap kept on playing about with the lock of his old musket and I felt sure that it was of no use, loaded or not. Anyway, when I saw that brute try to handle you-well-"

He stopped, with an awkward little laugh. Mr. Grex tapped a cigarette upon his case and lit it.

"I am sure, my young friend, we are all very much indebted to you. The methods which sometimes are scarcely politic in the ordinary affairs of life," he continued drily, "are admirable enough in a case like this. We will just help Hunterleys tie up the leader of the gang. A very plucky stroke, that of his."

He crossed the barn. One of the women had fainted, others were busy collecting their jewelry. The chauffeurs had hurried off to relight the lamps of the cars.

"I must tell you this," Richard said, drawing a a little nearer to the girl. "Please don't be angry with me. I went to your father this afternoon. I made an idiot of myself-I couldn't help it. I was staring at you and he noticed it. I didn't want him to think that I was such an ill-mannered brute as I seemed. I tried to make him understand but he wouldn't listen to me. I'd like to tell you now-now that I have the opportunity-that I think you're just-"

She smiled very faintly.

"What is it that you wish to tell me?" she asked patiently.

"That I love you," he wound up abruptly.

There was a moment's silence, a silence with a background of strange noises. People were talking, almost shouting to one another with excitement. Newcomers were being told the news. The man whom Hunterleys had captured was shrieking and cursing. From beyond came the tooting of motor-horns as the cars returned. Lane heard nothing. He saw nothing but the white face of the girl as she stood in the shadows of the barn, with its walls of roughly threaded pine trunks.

"But I have scarcely ever spoken to you in my life!" she protested, looking at him in astonishment.

"It doesn't make any difference," he replied. "You know I am speaking the truth. I think, in your heart, that you, too, know that these things don't matter, now and then. Of course, you don't-you couldn't feel anything of what I feel, but with me it's there now and for always, and I want to have a chance, just a chance to make you understand. I'm not really mad. I'm just-in love with you."

She smiled at him, still in a friendly manner, but her face had clouded. There was a look in her eyes almost of trouble, perhaps of regret.

"I am so sorry," she murmured. "It is only a sudden feeling on your part, isn't it? You have been so splendid to-night that I can do no more than thank you very, very much. And as for what you have told me, I think it is an honour, but I wish you to forget it. It is not wise for you to think of me in that way. I fear that I cannot even offer you my friendship."

Again there was a brief silence. The clamour of exclamations from the little groups of people still filled the air outside. They could hear cars coming and going. The man whom Hunterleys and Mr. Grex were tying up was still groaning and cursing.

"Are you married?" Richard asked abruptly.

She shook her head.

"Engaged?"

"No!"

"Do you care very much for any one else?"

"No!" she told him softly.

He drew her away.

"Come outside for one moment," he begged. "I hate to see you in the place where that beast tried to lay hands upon you. Here is your necklace."

He picked it up from her feet and she followed him obediently outside. People were standing about, shadowy figures in little groups. Some of the cars had already left, others were being prepared for a start. Below, once more the clouds had parted and the lights twinkled like fireflies through the trees. This time they could even see the lights from the village of La Turbie, less brilliant but almost at their feet. Richard glanced upwards. There was a star clearly visible.

"The clouds are lifting," he said. "Listen. If there is no one else, tell me, why there shouldn't be the slightest chance for me? I am not clever, I am nobody of any account, but I care for you so wonderfully. I love you, I always shall love you, more than any one else could. I never understood before, but I understand now. Just this caring means so much."

She stood close to his side. Her manner at the same time seemed to depress him and yet to fill him with hope.

"What is your name?" she enquired.

"Richard Lane," he told her. "I am an American."

"Then, Mr. Richard Lane," she continued softly, "I shall always think of you and think of to-night and think of what you have said, and perhaps I shall be a little sorry that what you have asked me cannot be."

"Cannot?" he muttered.

She shook her head almost sadly.

"Some day," she went on, "as soon as our stay in Monte Carlo is finished, if you like, I will write and tell you the real reason, in case you do not find it out before."

He was silent, looking downwards to where the gathering wind was driving the clouds before it, to where the lights grew clearer and clearer at every moment.

"Does it matter," he asked abruptly, "that I am rich-very rich?"

"It does not matter at all," she answered.

"Doesn't it matter," he demanded, turning suddenly upon her and speaking with a new passion, almost a passion of resentment, "doesn't it matter that without you life doesn't exist for me any longer? Doesn't it matter that a man has given you his whole heart, however slight a thing it may seem to you? What am I to do if you send me away? There isn't anything left in life."

"There is what you have always found in it," she reminded him.

"There isn't," he replied fiercely. "That's just what there isn't. I should go back to a world that was like a dead city."

He suddenly felt her hand upon his.

"Dear Mr. Lane," she begged, "wait for a little time before you nurse these sad thoughts, and when you know how impossible what you ask is, it will seem easier. But if you really care to hear something, if it would really please you sometimes to think of it when you are alone and you remember this little foolishness of yours, let me tell you, if I may, that I am sorry-I am very sorry."

His hand was suddenly pressed, and then, before he could stop her, she had glided away. He moved a step to follow her and almost at once he was surrounded. Lady Hunterleys patted him on the shoulder.

"Really," she exclaimed, "you and Henry were our salvation. I haven't felt so thrilled for ages. I only wish," she added, dropping her voice a little, "that it might bring you the luck you deserve."

He answered vaguely. She turned back to Hunterleys. She was busy tearing up her handkerchief.

"I am going to tie up your head," she said. "Please stoop down."

He obeyed at once. The side of his forehead was bleeding where a bullet from the revolver of the man he had captured had grazed his temple.

"Too bad to trouble you," he muttered.

"It's the least we can do," she declared, laughing nervously. "Forgive me if my fingers tremble. It is the excitement of the last few minutes."

Hunterleys stood quite still. Words seemed difficult to him just then.

"You were very brave, Henry," she said quietly. "Whom-whom are you going down with?"

"I am with Richard Lane," he answered, "in his two-seated racer."

She bit her lip.

"I did not mean to come alone with Mr. Draconmeyer, really," she explained. "He thought, up to the last moment, that his wife would be well enough to come."

"Did he really believe so, do you think?" Hunterleys asked.

A voice intervened. Mr. Draconmeyer was standing by their side.

"Well," he said, "we might as well resume our journey. We all look and feel, I think, as though we had been taking part in a scene from some opéra bouffe."

Lady Hunterleys shivered. She had drawn a little closer to her husband. Her coat was unfastened. Hunterleys leaned towards her and buttoned it with strong fingers up to her throat.

"Thank you," she whispered. "You wouldn't-you couldn't drive down with us, could you?"

"Have you plenty of room?" he enquired.

"Plenty," she declared eagerly. "Mr. Draconmeyer and I are alone."

For a moment Hunterleys hesitated. Then he caught the smile upon the face of the man he detested.

"Thank you," he said, "I don't think I can desert Lane."

She stiffened at once. Her good night was almost formal. Hunterleys stepped into the car which Richard had brought up. There was just a slight mist around them, but the whole country below, though chaotic, was visible, and the lights on the hill-side, from La Turbie down to the sea-board, were in plain sight.

"Our troubles," Hunterleys remarked, as they glided off, "seem to be over."

"Maybe," Lane replied grimly. "Mine seem to be only just beginning!"

* * *

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