The Eccentricity of Fleetwood
THE ECCENTRICITY OF FLEETWOOD
By C. N. and A. M. Williamson
[ Illustration ]
"I CAME to England to marry an earl, if not a duke," said Sybil Fleetwood, "and I hope you won't try to dissuade me." The girl looked at Lancaster over her fan, and her grey eyes lighted with fun. "All my friends—that is, my rich friends—have married Englishmen with titles, and Poppa says he supposes I had better do the same. Not that he loves your English aristocracy; he likes men who do something for themselves in the world instead of living on their ancestors; but its the thing for an American girl to annex a peer and——"
"I'd given you credit for more originality," said Lancaster.
"Oh, I've plenty of the aboriginal savage in me, I assure you," the girl laughed. "I wish sometimes that we could go back to the days of marriage by capture. I should like a man to do something to win me: something that other men couldn't do!"
The young man was looking at her piquant profile, and she, glancing up, could not fail to understand the message in his eyes. Miss Fleetwood blushed, although she was not ignorant of his feelings. She and Brooke Lancaster, the brilliant young inventor and man of science, were very good friends, and he would cheerfully have been a great deal more if the girl could but be induced to listen to him seriously. Since the American heiress and her father came to London a few months before they had moved in much the same set. Attracted at first by her beauty, amused by her American frankness, these feelings had quickly developed into others much deeper and stronger, and Lancaster was fathoms deep in love for the first time in his busy, strenuous life.
"You see," Sybil went on, with a little embarrassment, and playing with a diamond bangle, "it's one's duty to make oneself envied at home. Ah! Here's Lord Weybridge"; and with a nod and a smile she walked away with the new-comer.
There was a cloud on Brooke Lancaster's clever face as he looked after the couple, who took a few turns in the waltz that was being played by the Blue Hungarians, and then strolled off together to the conservatory. To believe that the girl was heartless would be to give up his belief in life and goodness; he was certain that she was only masking her finer qualities under an affectation of frivolity; but he recognised at the same time the real temptation that stood behind the girl's laughing words, and he knew the Earl of Weybridge too well not to grudge him a wife less sweet than Sybil. "She lets that fellow put his arm round her waist! If she only knew him as we men know him!" was his bitter thought as he moved away to the smoking-room.
He had lighted a cigarette and was watching the blue rings float upwards, when a hand was laid upon his sleeve, and turning, he saw the shrewd, wrinkled face of Mr. Fleetwood looking into his. "Not quite up to the mark to-night?" suggested the American. "Nothing wrong with that motor of yours, eh?"
"Oh, the motor's all right," answered Lancaster, with a smile; "the best motor in the world, though maybe it's not the best taste for me to say so. It's not the motor that worries me."
Brooke Lancaster's new motor, the latest child of his versatile brain, had more than once formed the subject of discussion with the American, who was himself the president of a company recently floated to introduce a new motor which, the Yankees declared, was to beat every other out of the field. "My hated rival," the elder man had jokingly dubbed the young Englishman, and they had had many good-humoured arguments as to the merits of their respective inventions.
"Look here," said the American, suddenly, after a moment's silence. "You want to marry my daughter, don't you?"
"I want her more than anything in the world," was the quiet answer.
"And you haven't much hope of her, eh?"
"Not as much as I should like to have," Lancaster gave him back with the elder man's own coolness, wondering what he was leading up to in this abrupt way.
"Well, she likes you. If you had a handle to your name she'd take you like a shot. Or, if you could pull off some big thing, and 'win her by capture,' as she'd put it. Well, you haven't the handle; but I'll give you a straight tip and a chance for the other thing. You say your motor-car is going to be the fastest thing on wheels, and if it is, why, the inventor's bound to be a big man before long, and a mighty rich one. Prove that you can do what you boast you can, and you shall have my girl. I'll guarantee that she'll go in for that test, and give herself as the prize if she's fairly won."
"What do you mean?" asked Lancaster, flushing a little.
"Syb and I are going to Paris to-morrow," said old Fleetwood, "and Lord Weybridge is going with us. I shouldn't wonder if he meant to propose for the seventh time—and that's supposed to be lucky, eh? We travel by Newhaven and Dieppe, as Syb hates the dull journey from Calais. See us off at Victoria, go to Newhaven on your motor, get across the Channel with it as you can, and be on the station to welcome us in Paris. It's a race between the railways and your motor. If you come out on top I'll believe in you, and I'll believe in your motor. What's more, if Syb don't love you already, she's the sort of girl to adore a man who makes such a dash to get her, and succeeds."
"Thank you," said Lancaster, shortly. "Yes, I'll try it. But that means I must be off now."
They shook hands, and Brooke walked away. He scarcely saw the crowd of dancers in the ball-room, but he lingered a moment looking wistfully towards the conservatory, then turned and sought his hostess. He wanted to be alone to think. He murmured "Delightful evening," added something about "Going on somewhere," and passed from the brilliantly lighted house to the quiet of Grosvenor Square. He walked a very few yards slowly, then quickened his steps and went in the direction of Piccadilly, where he stopped at the door of an exclusive club and sent in his name to his rich friend, Lionel Dacre. By good luck Dacre was in, and a few moments later the two were in a snug corner of the smoking-room, where Lancaster poured out his remarkable story of old Fleetwood's eccentric offer.
Dacre gave a low whistle. "Can you do it?" he asked.
"I've said I will, but I don't know. You see, I finished the motor only a week ago and I can't tell what it will do, because I've not yet been able to put it to a thorough test. The stupid restrictions on speed in this country have prevented me getting the best out of her. I meant to go to France this week and test the car on the good roads there; now I shall have an opportunity. But to beat express trains on a long run when they are on level rails and have no trouble about steering, while I have to contend with gradients and traffic, and with such a prize as the reward—it's enough to break a man's nerve. I'll have a good try though, for I believe it would catch Sybil's fancy; and she does like me. In one thing, Dacre, you can help me; in fact, without you I'm done. I want the loan of your turbine yacht. You know they won't carry a motor-car across the Channel on the ordinary day passenger-boats; you have to send them by cargo-boat, and that puts me out of the running at once. But if you can take me over in your yacht——"
"My dear fellow, I'm only too happy. Don't call it my yacht."
"You've bought it; but for your encouragement I should never have got through the worry of designing and building it."
"What was my money against your brains? I believe that in the Whim you're struck as original an idea as you have in your new motor. You know the yacht's engines have not been fully tested either since you built them for me. But to-morrow we'll put to the test your two latest inventions—the turbine and the motor. Lucky the yacht's at Newhaven. I'll go to Charing Cross to-night and wire to them to have steam up to-morrow; and I'll run down by an early train myself to have her alongside and ready when you come."
"Dacre, you're a brick!" Lancaster grasped his friend's hand. "Now I must go, for I want to be up with the sun to over haul the car and get everything ready. Au revoir, then, till Newhaven quay, with the steam up, ready to slip oil' the moment I arrive—say about 11.30.'
"Count on me," was Dacre's answer. Lancaster walked sharply towards his lodgings in South Audley Street. In crossing the road a brougham, rapidly driven, nearly ran over him. He leaped aside; and the glare of a street lamp, shining into the carriage, showed him the sulky eyes and the heavy chin of Lord Weybridge.
"Now, why on earth has he left the dance so early?" pondered Lancaster. "Half an hour ago he was with her in the conservatory; there are at least ten _more dances; yet here he is, tearing home at halt-past one in the morning. Can she have refused him?" His heart beat fast at the thought; and when the earliest rays of the sun waked him soon after five he was dreaming confusedly of a party in mid-Channel, with a turbine grinding out music while Sybil and Lord Weybridge danced on the waves.
The famous young inventor was above all a practical man, and to that he owed much of his success. Jumping briskly out of bed he tubbed and walked to his workshop in a neighbouring street. He was in a state of high excitement as he thought of all that this day might hold; but the tension of his nerves only made him more energetic and resolute. He let himself into the silent work-shop, where the duties of the day did not begin until nine o'clock. He went to the partitioned space where stood the car propelled by his new rotary motor, and patted the pneumatic tyres of the wooden wheels. He felt for the motor-car that was to carry him in the race for his love much as the rider feels for his horse; and he whispered to it, urging it to do its best for him; then, reddening at his own sentimentality, he flung off his coat, got into his overalls, and began a systematic examination of the car.
It was hut a rough wooden box on wheels, splashed with the mud of the last trip, with common leather cushions and no attempts at decoration or upholstery. The carriage did not matter; it was the motor which was important. It revolutionized all ideas of motor construction. By a flash of genius the inventor had overcome one of the greatest difficulties in the building of internal explosion motors—the water-cooling. His design was on a totally new plan—a motor that turned as it propelled the car, and in turning kept itself cool. No more water-tanks; no more leaking pipes, cumbersome radiators, and pumps that failed to act just when they were most wanted. The idea was audacious; he had worked at it for two years; now it was perfect, and the great test was to be made to-day.
[ Illustration: "WHEELING SHARPLY, HE FACED BLAIR." ]
He lifted out the bottom boards of the car, exposing to view the engine. Then he went over every part; unscrewing pieces, cleaning them with petrol, oiling them with specially selected oil. He lay on the top of the car, he crawled under it; he felt the bearings, examined the gear-wheels, tested the voltage of the electric accumulators, and adjusted the trembler of the magnetic coil. He took out and cleaned each one of the four sparking-plugs, and noted the length and "fatness" of the spark. Finally, he filled the petrol reservoir from an iron tank, straining the volatile liquid through a fine wire sieve, that no grit might get in to clog the carburettor; filled the self-acting oil-cups with the finest lubricating oil, and wiped every part of the mechanism with a piece of dry cotton waste. Then he took the starting-handle, gave a turn or two, and the motor leaped into active, impetuous life, buzzing with a rhythmical hum like the purring of a great dynamo. Lancaster hung over his invention with somewhat the pride of a mother who hangs over the cradle of her first-born. He listened to the beat of the pistons, watched the lifting and falling of the valves, noted the gentle "puff, puff" of the exhaust. All was well and he stopped the engine. Then, as he fell back to take a more comprehensive glance at the car, he cannoned against someone who had just turned the corner of the partition. Wheeling sharply, he faced Blair, his favourite mechanic, the man who knew more about the new rotary motor than anyone except its inventor.
Blair had been coming in like a cat. He went white and red as his master looked at him. "You're early this morning," remarked Lancaster.
"Yes, sir," said Blair. "Fact is, sir, I had a bad dream, and thought I'd come to the workshop and have a look round. Never thought I should find you here, sir."
"I daresay not. I didn't sleep well, either." Then quickly he told Blair of the expedition that was planned for the day, said that his services would be required on the trip, and, bidding him get his breakfast and return in an hour, Lancaster locked the work-shop door and went back to his rooms.
The boat-train for Newhaven leaves Victoria Station at ten in the morning. Ten minutes before that hour Lancaster guided his car into the station-yard and drew up by the departure platform, leaving his mechanic in the car. At the door of a first-class compartment he found Mr. Fleetwood and his daughter.
"So good of you to turn up to see us off," said Sybil. "We meet at St. Lazare again to-night, don't we?" There was no hint in her voice that the occasion was an exceptional one; no suggestion that the appointment for that evening in Paris was not as sure as if he were travelling by the same train. Lancaster looked in her baffling eyes and smiled. "I hope to be there in time to see your train arrive," said he, calmly. At this instant Lord Weybridge hustled up with an armful of papers, acknowledging, with a chilly nod, the presence of his rival. The guard blew his whistle, the engine screamed, old Fleetwood gave his whimsical challenging look, Miss Fleetwood smiled, with brilliant eyes and flushed cheeks, and the train was slipping out of the station.
Lancaster turned and walked out to the motor-car. His lips were set in a straight line, his chin advanced a little, which was a trick of his when there was important business afoot. He took his place at the steering-wheel, and started the car on the lowest speed—five miles an hour. A crowd had gathered round the odd-looking carriage, with its unfinished body; and as it glided into the street some chaffing cries went after it. But Lancaster did not hear; his eyes were on the road. To put the car at high speed through the traffic of London was impossible. He had to wind in and out among cabs, waggons, bicycles; he had to be on the look-out for officious policemen ready to swear he was going eighteen miles an hour when he was going eight. But in Vauxhall Bridge Road he slipped in the second speed, and the car darted forward at fifteen miles an hour. Already he was crossing the Thames, with a long run through the suburbs of Brixton and Streatham before anything like a free road was to be had. Sixty miles lay before him, accomplished by the train in an hour and a half. With a clear road he would have backed himself against the train; but while he dodged in and out among the traffic, shaving tram-cars, slipping in front of vehicles when he could, falling behind when a collision would be the result of pushing on, he realized with bitterness that he must surely be beaten in this the first stage of the race. Could he pick up on the second? He dared not think of that now; but with a firm hand on the steering-wheel, and a ready foot controlling the friction clutch and brake, he rushed on through Brixton, and once past it, and in the clearer road by Streatham, he slipped in the third speed. Like a grey-hound the car leaped forward, increasing in a few yards from fifteen to thirty miles an hour. It was risky. People stopped to stare after him, and some shouted. On reaching Croydon he had to slow down to the "legal limit," a sedate twelve miles an hour, but beyond he quickened the pace again. By Purley he swung to the left, quitting the main Brighton road, and running for the steep ascent to Caterham. At last he was leaving London behind and the open country lay beyond.
[ Illustration: "PEOPLE STOPPED TO STARE AFTER HIM." ]
The car took the Caterham Hill on the third speed, and on the more level ground he applied the fourth. Like a horse answering to the spur the car quickened with a rush to its full normal speed of forty-five miles an hour; but, as the cunning jockey keeps a little in reserve, so Lancaster could call on his engine for a still greater effort by advancing the "sparking" of the motor. He and Blair crammed their caps close down on their heads, as the air swept by their ears like a cataract. Lancaster was reckless now. He meant to make up for the time lost in the streets of London. No one could check him. If a constable saw him flying lightning-like through the country and telegraphed on to have him stopped at a farther point, who was going to carry out the order? So he pushed over a little lever on the steering-post and the four pistons throbbed a yet quicker beat. It was nearly sixty miles an hour, faster than the boat-train ran at any part of its journey. A pillar of dust swirled behind him; farms and fields shot by like pictures in a cinematograph. Down the long slope to East Grinstead the pace was nearer seventy than sixty miles an hour, but he had to slow down to go through the streets of the town. Then on again, over open, undulating country, through Maresfield and Uckfield to sleepy Lewes, where caution was necessary, and he had to slow down to twelve miles, after the wild rush from Caterham. Quitting Lewes, there was a winding road, with rough, uneven surface to Newhaven Harbour, and here it was not safe to travel at anything higher than thirty miles an hour.
As Lancaster brought the car to a stop alongside the quay at Newhaven he looked at his watch. He had been exactly two hours from Victoria Station, and the boat had left for Dieppe half an hour ago! He had come at an average speed of thirty miles an hour. It was a feat, considering that for mile after mile, through London and its long suburbs, through towns and villages, he had had to slow down to the legal limit. He saw Dacre's yacht lying alongside the quay, and next moment the owner himself was coming to meet him.
"Grand!" ejaculated Dacre, seizing his hand; "the boat left just on time; she's been gone only half an hour. We can overtake her yet, and he in Dieppe before her. I've had a sling arranged to lift the car on board, and steam's up."
"Don't trouble about the sling," replied Lancaster; "there's no time for that. I'll drive the car on board."
"But, my dear fellow, the tide's low, and the descent's so steep that it will not he safe."
"That's all right, old fellow. I have brakes that will hold the car on any incline. Tell them to lay some planks on board, will you?"
Hastily Dacre gave directions to the men who were waiting to work the derrick. Broad planks were laid down sloping to the deck of the yacht below. Lancaster mounted into the car and drove her to the edge of the quay, Blair following. The descent looked perilously steep, and the spectators held their breath as the dusty car began to go slowly downwards. It seemed impossible that the brakes could hold her on that fearful gradient, but she crept down like a living thing, and when she came to rest on the deck a cheer went up in recognition of the pluck of the performance. Five minutes later the yacht had cast off and was steaming for the harbour mouth.
The Whim was the only pleasure craft in the world fitted with Lancaster's new turbine engines. It had been Dacre's pride to further his friend's ambitions, and when the Admiralty, with their usual caution, had declined to adopt the young inventor's design, Dacre had begged him to fit the engines into a new yacht of his own, declaring that they would astonish the world. When the motor-car had been secured on deck the two went below to look at the turbines. One of Lancaster's men, trained by him, was in charge, and grinned appreciatively as he pointed to the dial marking the number of revolutions. "Fastest craft afloat, sir," he called into the inventor's ear. She cut the water with the swiftness of a torpedo-catcher, throwing up behind her a great curving wave. In front of them, when the friends went on deck again, they could see the Arundel, the fast boat of the Brighton line, steaming full speed to France; but her pace was sluggish compared with that of her pursuer. The engineers had orders to get all they could out of the motors, and it was clear that the Channel greyhound was being rapidly overhauled.
With their glasses Dacre and Lancaster, standing on the bridge of the Whim, could see that everyone on the Arundel had turned to look at the strange craft that came flying after them. With every revolution of her propellers the Whim gained many yards, and within the hour of starting from Newhaven they were within hailing distance. All the passengers were crowding to the gunwale to examine the craft that could so easily out-steam one of the swiftest of the Channel boats. Now the two ships were abreast, scarce fifty yards of green water separating them; and, standing out from the crowd of faces, the only one that Lancaster saw was the fair face of Sybil Fleetwood.
"Do you see them?" asked Dacre. "She's there, with old Fleetwood on one side of her and Weybridge on the other. They seem to be looking at us. Yes, by Jove; she's waving a handkerchief. I almost think I can see her blushing, and I'm certain that Weybridge is green."
But the lover had seen the girl before his friend had, and kept his eyes fixed on hers until they faded with the rapidly-increasing distance. The time he had lost on the run from London to Newhaven was being gloriously made up now, and his heart beat with hope that he might yet win the race. The Whim was steaming at least half as fast again as the Arundel, and it was little more than a momentary glimpse that Lancaster had of the face that was all the world to him; but that one look, the sight of the girl's excitement, was like wine in his veins. At luncheon he could hardly eat, though his friend pressed him to keep up his strength for the ordeal before him; and he was restless until he could get on deck again and look for the chalk cliffs of Dieppe. All that was to be seen of the Arundel was a long flag of smoke lying along the horizon.
Dieppe Harbour was made by the Whim in two and a half hours from Newhaven; they had therefore gained a full hour and a half upon the other ship. The tide was low, and when the yacht was berthed alongside the quay Lancaster called again for planks to be put in position that he might drive the car up the improvised gangway and on to French soil. He strode over to the car to superintend the unlashing of it, and his quick eye saw a thing that turned him pale. He stooped, snatched a pair of pliers from the tool-box, and seized something that projected from the smooth surface of the huge tyre on one of the driving-wheels. With a wrench he drew out a long nail; a whistle of air followed, and the huge tyre slowly deflated.
The moment the yacht had touched the quay Blair had been sent on shore to buy a good supply of "benzo-moteur," a special French preparation of petrol, of an extremely volatile character. With this Lancaster intended to refill his petrol-tank for the journey to Paris; and as he stood frowning at the nail which he had just pulled out Blair appeared on the edge of the quay above. His face went grey, and he hastened on board with a tin of "essence" under each arm. "Good gracious, sir," he cried when he saw the nail, "it must have been lying on the ground at Newhaven. What a mercy it didn't happen on the road, when we was going sixty miles an hour, and how fortunate that you found it now, sir, before we started!"
Lancaster called for the lifting-jack, had the car raised, the tyre taken off; and a spare one that he carried for such an emergency put into its place, and blown up with the foot-pump. It was a delay of a quarter of an hour; but every instant was precious now, with a run of a hundred miles to Paris.
"Shall I fill up with the new stuff, sir?" asked Blair, beginning to unscrew the tap of the petrol-tank; but his master told hint to nit until they got on land, saying he could do that while the Customs formalities were being settled; and then, to the amazement of the douaniers and loafers on the quay, he drove the car' ashore up the steep incline, as he had driven it down at Newhaven.
[ Illustration: "HE DROVE THE CAR ASHORE UP THE STEEP INCLINE." ]
Lancaster was ready for the Custom-house. He supplied in an instant the weight of the car, with its distinguishing marks, and had ready in his pocket-book the precise sum that was payable as duty for bringing the car into France. He whispered to the clerk of the douane that he wished to start at the earliest possible moment for Paris, and pressed a louis into his hand. This expedited matters; in less than ten minutes the papers were drawn out and handed to him. All was ready. Dacre grasped his friend's hand and wished him luck; Lancaster was in his place in the car, and Blair was wielding the starting-handle. But the motor would not start. Again and again Blair gave the necessary initial impetus; but there was no explosion in the cylinders; the motor remained inert. Lancaster jumped down and examined the taps and valves. Five minutes had been wasted, and he could find nothing wrong. This time he took the starting-handle himself, hut with no better result. What could be the cause of this unexpected contremps? Carefully he followed every inch of the electric wire, in case the insulating material might he worn away by friction and "short-circuiting" be taking place. But all was in perfect order. Perhaps the valves, or one of them, was foul. Yet that could hardly be, as they had been right that morning in London, and the run since had been comparatively short. A quarter of an hour was gone. At this rate he should lose the advantage he had gained over the Arundel, and should have to start on equal terms with the express train to Paris. He began to feel a sinking of the heart. Blair made all kinds of suggestions, and recommended that each valve should he examined. He had already begun to unscrew one of the inlet valves, when Lancaster told him to stop. He could not believe that anything was wrong with the motor which had himself put in order that morning. Therefore, the non-starting must be due to something that had happened later. Perhaps the "essence." No sooner did the thought frame itself than he opened the tap and smelt at the spirit. Then he seized a small measure which he carried with him, let some of the spirit fall into it, and held it up to the light. It gave off scarcely any appreciable vapour.
"Is this the stuff I told you to get?" he demanded of Blair.
"The same, sir."
"Then it's been adulterated." Lancaster took the densimeter from its case and let it float in the spirit. Dacre and the douaniers had gathered round. Everyone felt that some game was being played to which they had no clue; so fierce did the Englishman look, so shame-faced the mechanic. The instrument showed that the spirit was largely mixed with water; for driving a motor-car it was worthless. But for the course of reasoning that led Lancaster to think of the "essence," but for his complete confidence in his own work of the morning, he might have wasted an hour and more in taking to pieces the eight valves of the four cylinders. Now he had fathomed the mischief. He called for a bucket, opened the tap, and let all the stuff run out of the petrol-tank. Then he examined the spare tins of the "benze-moteur" that he was going to carry with him; saw that the orifices were properly sealed; tested the contents of each tin, nevertheless, with his densimeter, and not till then filled up the tank again with his own hands. With one turn of the starting-handle the motor now leaped into activity. Dacre breathed a great sigh of relief. He was very fond of Lancaster, and could not bear to see him fail. With a wave of the hand Lancaster steered for the gates that led from the quay into the town of Dieppe, Blair leaped to his place beside him, and the third part of the race was begun. But nearly three-quarters of an hour had been lost of the advantage the Whim had gained.
Lancaster knew well the shortest road to Paris, knew what turns to take to avoid the terrible pavé which is heart-breaking to the automobilist. With a wind whistling about his ears he drove the car smartly through the streets of Dieppe away to the country beyond. The roads were broad and gently undulating; and once clear of the town he increased the speed to its full extent. The car flew over the smooth surfaces of the French roads. He met few vehicles, and was able to keep to his break-neck pace for one kilometre after another. He sped through endless apple-orchards, shot out suddenly on to the edge of a plateau with a great view below him, and found himself rushing down a long, winding hill to the embowered town of Neufchâtel. Then up a hill and on with the speed of an express, slacking only to pass through villages lying far apart, to Forges les Eaux. Again the lover's hopes were high.
To Gournay he made splendid time and rattled on to Gisors, where came his first mistake. Instead of turning to the left before the railway crossing he kept straight on, only realizing his error when he saw stretch before him in a long, undulating line that disappeared at the horizon a terrible extent of pavé. To attempt to traverse it meant delay, if not accident; to lose time by retracing his steps to Gisors, and there get on the right road, was maddening. Perhaps there might be some by-road on which, by a détour, he might avoid the pavé. He saw a man working in a field—the only living figure in the whole wide landscape. Stopping the car and jumping down he ran to talk to the peasant. No; there was nothing for it, he was told, but to return to Gisors. He was striding back to the car when he heard an exclamation from Blair, who, leaning out, stared down at the near wheels. The man turned a frightened face on his master, and to his dismay the inventor saw a great rent in the tyre of one of the steering-wheels.
"It was that sharp stone there, sir, that cut it," said the man. Lancaster looked gloomily at the tyre, noted the clean cut of the gash, picked up the stone that Blair had pointed out, and felt its edge. Then a terrible suspicion flashed into his mind. He fixed his eyes on the face of the mechanic, and read guilt there.
[ Illustration: "THERE WAS NOTHING FOR IT, HE WAS TOLD, BUT TO RETURN TO GISORS." ]
"Get down," commanded the master, grimly. The man obeyed, standing before him in the road. "Farther away; clear of the car," he ordered again; then the inventor set desperately to work alone, lifted the automobile, took off the tyre, and put on the only remaining spare one. Now, if there were to be another puncture, it would be more serious—a case of repairing, not replacing. When he had finished he started the motor and turned the car. He had not looked at Blair, but the mechanic came running forward.
"Oh, sir, forgive me!" he cried. "I was tempted! I'm sorry now. You have always been good to me."
Lancaster's heart was hot within him; yet he looked coldly at his favourite workman. The very meanness of the fellow forbade that he should explode in anger.
"How much were you to get?" he asked, quietly.
"A hundred pounds," was the low answer.
Lancaster started the car, and Blair came running after, calling out to him to stop, saying that he would tell everything, begging not to be left behind. His master did not listen. He put on the second speed, then the third and fourth, and was racing back to Gisors. As he flashed through the landscape more than one mystery grew clear: Blair's early visit to the workshop, the nail in the tyre, the watered essence. The traitor had been bribed to prevent the winning of the race, it was not difficult to guess by whom.
At Gisors there was a delay of five minutes because the railway-gate was shut; then there was a long sweep to the right to Meru, necessary to avoid the pavé. For the first time since he left Dieppe Lancaster looked at his watch and made a calculation. Fate favouring him, he might yet be in Paris in time; but a storm was blowing up, with black clouds that meant rain and greasy roads, and side-slip—greatest peril of all to a quick-travelling automobile. He drove with one glance on the road, the next at the sky.
Presently the storm broke, with lashing rain that nearly blinded him. The dust was turned to mud. Lancaster had not abated speed; and shortly, without an instant's warning, the car skidded, sliding bodily, broadside on, across the road. With a jerk of the steering-wheel the driver managed to right it before it ran into a ditch; but it was a warning that he dared not disobey, and he dropped to a lower speed.
Unless he could keep up his pace the contest was over. With tense muscles and eyes searching the roadway he sped on south towards Pontoise and the Seine. In a village a policeman leaped into the road and him to stop; but Lancaster was blind and deaf.
At last, the suburbs of Paris; and the road lay through Maisons Lafitte to the barrier at Porte Maillot. If the policeman and telegraphed on to have him stopped he might be robbed of victory just as it was in his grasp. So, as he approached the great iron gates which mark the limits of Paris he slowed down almost to walking pace. A long line of country carts and other vehicles was moving through, stopping to submit to the examination of the octroi officers. But another gate was half open, and Lancaster took the desperate resolve to dash through it. A delay here would mean defeat, and, even if the police were not on the look-out, the measuring of the "essence" he carried in his tank, the formality of paying duty and getting a receipt, would cost him the quarter-hour which meant the difference between success and failure. Suddenly he turned out of the line of vehicles, put on speed, and steered for the gate. A policeman saw and made a rush, but the car shot through as the gate clanged. There was a flutter among the clustering officials; somebody shouted an order; then a glance over his shoulder told Lancaster that a policeman had mounted a bicycle and started in pursuit.
To the Englishman Paris was as familiar as London, and he steered straight for St. Lazare Station, his face grim and set. The traffic was thick, the roads greasy, and more than once the car went waltzing out of its course in a way that threatened collision or upset. Policemen held up their white batons in signal to stop; people cried after him; while one courageous gendarme made as though he would leap into the car and effect an arrest; but his heart must have failed at the last moment, for he sprang aside as the car swept by. No time now to look at clock or watch. It was a question of moments. As to what might happen afterwards Lancaster did not care, so that he won the prize. Followed by a shouting crowd the Englishman steered his car into the courtyard of the station, leaped from it, and darted upstairs, his heart pounding in his ears, a mist before his eyes.
[ Illustration: "IT WAS A QUESTION OF MOMENTS." ]
A train was just pulling up. What train? That was the question. Had the boat-train come and gone? or—— As he pushed on the ticket-collector would have stopped him at the barrier. Mechanically Lancaster felt for a coin and thrust it into the man's hand. it was a sovereign. He was allowed to push his way through. The train was slowing down now, the passengers beginning to descend. Lancaster's eyes were strained in their eager search.
All this instant the door of a first-class compartment almost in front of him was thrown open, though the train was not yet stationary. Lord Weybridge, more active than ever before in his forty-five years, sprang out hopefully, surveying the platform. "Not here!" Lancaster heard him exclaim.
But Sybil Fleetwood was standing in the open door, her father looking out over her shoulder; and her eyes were not for Weybridge. With an exclamation that sounded like joy she pointed to a tall figure in a leather coat, grey with rain-streaked dust. The train had stopped and Lancaster hurried forward, his peaked cap in his hand.
There was a sensation of choking in his throat, yet he managed to speak as quietly as if they were in a ball-room and he was asking for a dance.
"How do you do?" he asked, unconsciously elbowing Weybridge aside, as if the earl had been a porter. "So glad to see you; so glad to be able to welcome you."
Sybil gave him her hand and let him help her to descend. "And I'm glad to see you," she said, with emphasis meant for him to understand. He pressed the gloved fingers, and they answered the pressure. Eyes spoke what lips could not say; and then a gendarme laid a heavy hand on Lancaster's shoulder.
"I arrest you for evading the octroi and for furious driving," he announced in French.
The Englishman turned upon him. "That's all right, my dear fellow," said he, with a beaming smile.