The White Moll/Chapter 17
— XVII —
THE SILVER SPHINX
A BEDLAM of noise smote Rhoda Gray's ears as she entered the Silver Sphinx. A jazz band was in full swing; on the polished section of the floor in the center, a packed mass of humanity swirled and gyrated and wriggled in the contortions of the "latest" dance, and laughed and howled immoderately; and around the sides of the room, the waiters rushed this way and that amongst the crowded tables, mopping at their faces with their aprons. It seemed as though confusion itself held sway!
Rhoda Gray scanned the occupants of the tables. The Silver Sphinx was particularly riotous to-night, wasn't it? Yes, she understood! A great many of the men were wearing little badges. Some society or other was celebrating—and was doing it with abandon! Most of the men were half drunk. It was certainly a free-and-easy night! Everything went!
Danglar! Yes, there he was—quite close to her, only a few tables away—and beside him sat a heavy-built, clean-shaven man of middle age. That would be Cloran, of course—the man who was to have been lured to his death. And Danglar was nervous and uneasy, she could see. His fingers were drumming a tattoo on the table; his eyes were roving furtively about the room; and he did not seem to be paying any but the most distrait attention to his companion, who was talking to him.
Rhoda Gray sank quickly into a vacant chair. Three men, linked arm in arm, and decidedly more than a little drunk, were approaching her. She turned her head away to avoid attracting their attention. It was too free and easy here to-night, and she began to regret her temerity at having ventured inside; she would better, perhaps, have waited until Danglar came out—only there were two exits, and she might have missed him—and——
A cold fear upon her, she shrank back in her chair. The three men had halted at the table, and were clustered around her. They began a jocular quarrel amongst themselves as to who should dance with her. Her heart was pounding. She stood up, and pushed them away.
"Oh, no, you don't!" hiccoughed one of the three. "Gotta see your—hic!—pretty face, anyhow!"
She put up her hands frantically and clutched at her veil—but just an instant too late to save it from being wrenched aside. Wildly her eyes flew to Danglar. His attention had been attracted by the scene. She saw him rise from his seat; she saw his eyes widen—and then, stumbling over his chair in his haste, he made toward her. Danglar had recognized the White Moll!
She turned and ran. Fear, horror, desperation, lent her strength. It was not like this that she had counted on her reckoning with Danglar! She brushed the roisterers aside, and darted for the door. Over her shoulder she glimpsed Danglar following her. She reached the door, burst through a knot of people there, and, her torn veil clutched in her hand, dashed down the steps. She could only run—run, and pray that in some way she might escape.
And then a mad exultation came upon her. She saw the man in the chauffeur's seat of the first car in the line lean out and swing the door open. And in a flash she grasped the situation. The man was waiting for just this—for a woman to come running for her life down the steps of the Silver Sphinx. She put her hand up to her face, hiding it with the torn veil, raced for the car, and flung herself into the tonneau.
The door slammed. The car leaped from the curb. Danglar was coming down the steps. She heard him shout. The chauffeur, in a startled way, leaned out, as he evidently recognized Danglar's voice—but Rhoda Gray was mistress of herself now. The tonneau of the car was not separated from the driver's seat, and bending forward, she wrenched her revolver from her pocket, and pressed the muzzle of her weapon to the back of the man's neck.
"Don't stop!" she gasped, struggling for her breath. "Go on! Quick!"
The man, with a frightened oath, obeyed. The car gained speed. A glance through the window behind showed Danglar climbing into the other car.
And then for a moment Rhoda Gray sat there fighting for her self-control, with the certain knowledge in her soul that upon her wits, and her wits alone, her life depended now. She studied the car's mechanism over the chauffeur's shoulder, even as she continued to hold her revolver pressed steadily against the back of the man's neck. She could drive a car—she could drive this one. The presence of this chauffeur, one of the gang, was an added menace; there were too many tricks he might play before she could forestall them, any one of which would deliver her into the hands of Danglar behind there—an apparently inadvertent stoppage due to traffic, for instance, that would bring the pursuing car alongside—that, or a dozen other things which would achieve the same end.
"Open the door on your side!" she commanded abruptly. "And get out—without slowing the car! Do you understand?"
He turned his head for a half incredulous, half frightened look at her. She met his eyes steadily—the torn veil, quite discarded now, was in her pocket. She did not know the man; but it was quite evident from the almost ludicrous dismay which spread over his face that he knew her.
"The—the White Moll!" he stammered. "It's the White Moll!"
"Jump!" she ordered imperatively and her revolver pressed still more significantly against the man's flesh.
He seemed in even frantic haste to obey her. He whipped the door open, and, before she could reach to the wheel, he had leaped to the street. The car swerved sharply. She flung herself over into the vacated seat, and snatched at the wheel barely in time to prevent the machine from mounting the curb.
She looked around again through the window of the hood. The man had swung aboard Danglar's car, which was only a few yards behind.
Rhoda Gray drove steadily. Here in the city streets her one aim must be never to let the other car come abreast of her; but she could prevent that easily enough by watching Danglar's movements, and cutting across in front of him if he attempted anything of the sort. But ultimately what was she to do? How was she to escape? Her hands gripped and clenched in a sudden, almost panic-like desperation at the wheel. Turn suddenly around a corner, and jump from the car herself? It was useless to attempt it; they would keep too close behind to give her a chance to get out of sight. Well, then, suppose she jumped from the car, and trusted herself to the protection of the people on the street? She shook her head grimly. Danglar, she knew only too well, would risk anything, go to any length, to put an end to the White Moll. He would not hesitate an instant to shoot her down as she jumped—and he would be fairly safe himself in doing it. A few revolver shots from a car that speeded away in the darkness offered an even chance of escape. And yet, unless she forced an issue such as that, she knew that Danglar would not resort to firing at her here in the city. He would want to be sure that was the only chance he had of getting her, before he accepted the risk that he would run of being caught for it by the police.
She found herself becoming strangely, almost unnaturally, cool and collected now. The one danger, greater than all others, that menaced her was a traffic block that would cause her to stop, and allow those in the other car behind to rush in upon her as she sat here at the wheel. And sooner or later, if she stayed in the city, a block such as that was inevitable. She must get out of the city, then. It was only to invite another risk, the risk that Danglar was in the faster car of the two—but there was no other way.
She drove more quickly, made her way to the Bridge, and crossed it. The car behind followed with immutable persistence. It made no effort to close the short gap between them; but, neither, on the other hand, did it permit that gap to widen.
They passed through Brooklyn; and then, reaching the outskirts, Rhoda Gray, with headlights streaming into the black, with an open Long Island road before her, flung her throttle wide, and the car leaped like a thing of life into the night. It was a sudden start, it gained her a hundred yards—but that was all.
The wind tore at her and whipped her face; the car rocked and reeled as in some mad frenzy. There was not much traffic, but such as there was it cleared away from before her as if by magic, as, seeking shelter from the wild meteoric thing running amuck, the few vehicles, motor or horse, that she encountered hugged the edge of the road, and the wind whisked to her ears fragments of shouts and execrations. Again and again she looked back—two fiery balls of light blazed behind her—always those same two fiery balls.
She neither gained nor lost. Rigid, like steel, her little figure was crouched over the wheel. She did not know the road. She knew nothing save that she was racing for her life. She did not know the end; she could not see the end. Perhaps there would be some merciful piece of luck for her that would win her through—a break-down to that roaring thing, with its eyes that were balls of fire, behind.
She passed through a town with lighted streets and lighted windows—or was it only imagination? It was gone again, anyhow, and there was just black road ahead. Over the roar of the car and the sweep of the wind, then, she caught, or fancied she caught, a series of faint reports. She looked behind her. Yes, they were firing now. Little flashes leaped out above and at the sides of those blazing headlights.
How long was it since she had left the Silver Sphinx? Minutes or hours would not measure it, would they? But it could not last much longer! She was growing very tired; the strain upon her arms, yes, and upon her eyes, was becoming unbearable. She swayed a little in her seat, and the car swerved, and she jerked it back again into the straight. She began to laugh a little hysterically—and then, suddenly, she straightened up, tense and alert once more.
That swerve was the germ of an inspiration! It took root swiftly now. It was desperate—but she was desperate. She could not drive much more, or much longer like this. Mind and body were almost undone. And, besides, she was not outdistancing that car behind there by a foot; and sooner or later they would hit her with one of their shots, or, perhaps what they were really trying to do, puncture one of her tires.
Again she glanced over her shoulder. Yes, Danglar was just far enough behind to make the plan possible. She began to allow the car to swerve noticeably at intervals, as though she were weakening and the car was getting beyond her control—which was, indeed, almost too literally the case. And now it seemed to her that each time she swerved there came an exultant shout from the car behind. Well, she asked for nothing better; that was what she was trying to do, wasn't it?—inspire them with the belief that she was breaking under the strain.
Her eyes searched anxiously down the luminous pathway made by her high-powered headlights. If only she could reach a piece of road that combined two things—an embankment of some sort, and a curve just sharp enough to throw those headlights behind off at a tangent for an instant as they rounded it, too, in following her.
A minute, two, another passed. And then Rhoda Gray, tight-lipped, her face drawn hard, as her own headlights suddenly edged away from the road and opened what looked like a deep ravine on her left, while the road curved to the right, flung a frenzied glance back of her. It was her chance her one chance. Danglar was perhaps a little more than a hundred yards in the rear. Yes—now! His headlights were streaming out on her left as he, too, touched the curve. The right-hand side of her car, the right-hand side of the road were in blackness. She checked violently, almost to a stop, then instantly opened the throttle wide once more, wrenching the wheel over to head the machine for the ravine; and before the car picked up its momentum again, she dropped from the right-hand side, darted to the far edge of the road, and flung herself flat down upon the ground.
The great, black body of her car seemed to sail out into nothingness like some weird aerial monster, the headlights streaming uncannily through space—then blackness—and a terrific crash.
And now the other car had come to a stop almost opposite where she lay. Danglar and the two chauffeurs, shouting at each other in wild excitement, leaped out and rushed to the edge of the embankment. And then suddenly the sky grew red as a great tongue-flame shot up from below. It outlined the forms of the three men as they stood there, until, abruptly, as though with one accord, they rushed pell-mell down the embankment toward the burning wreckage. And as they disappeared from sight Rhoda Gray jumped to her feet, sprang for Danglar's car, flung herself into the driver's seat, and the car shot forward again along the road.
A shout, a wild chorus of yells, the reports of a fusillade of shots reached her; she caught a glimpse of forms running insanely after her along the edge of the embankment—then silence save for the roar of the speeding car.
She drove on and on. Somewhere, nearing a town, she saw a train in the distance coming in her direction. She reached the station first, and left the car standing there, and, with the torn veil over her face again, took the train.
She was weak, undone, exhausted. Even her mind refused its functions further. It was only in a subconscious way she realized that, where she had thought never to go to the garret again, the garret and the rôle of Gypsy Nan were, more than ever now, her sole refuge. The plot against Cloran had failed, but they could not blame that on "Bertha's" non-appearance; and since it had failed she would not now be expected to assume the dead woman's personality. True, she had not, as had been arranged, reached the Silver Sphinx at eleven, but there were a hundred excuses she could give to account for her being late in keeping the appointment so that she had arrived just in time, say, to see Danglar dash wildly in pursuit of a woman who had jumped into the car that she was supposed to take!
The garret! The garret again—and Gypsy Nan! Her surroundings seemed to become a blank to her; her actions to be prompted by some purely mechanical sense. She was conscious only that finally, after an interminable time, she was in New York again; and after that, long, long after that, dressed as Gypsy Nan, she was stumbling up the dark, ladder-like steps to the attic.
How her footsteps dragged! She opened the door, staggered inside, locked the door again, and staggered toward the cot, and dropped upon it; and the gray dawn came in with niggardly light through the grimy little window panes, as though timorously inquisitive of this shawled and dissolute figure prone and motionless, this figure who in other dawns had found neither sleep nor rest—this figure who lay there now as one dead.