Chapter XX. What Happened to Harley--Concluded

He regained the curve of the drive without meeting any opposition. There, slipping the pistol into his pocket, he climbed rapidly up the tree from which he had watched the arrival of the three cars, climbed over the wall, and dropped into the weed jungle beyond. He crept stealthily forward to the gap where he had concealed the racer, drawing nearer and nearer to the bushes lining the lane. Only by a patch of greater darkness before him did he realize that he had reached it. But when the realization came one word only he uttered: "Gone!"

His car had disappeared!

Despair was alien to his character: A true Englishman, he never knew when he was beaten. Beyond doubt, now, he must accept the presence of hidden enemies surrounding him, of enemies whose presence even his trained powers of perception had been unable to detect. The intensity of the note of danger which he had recognized now was fully explained. He grew icily cool, master of his every faculty. "We shall see!" he muttered, grimly.

Feeling his way into the lane, he set out running for the highroad, his footsteps ringing out sharply upon the dusty way. The highroad gained, he turned, not to the left, but to the right, ran up the bank and threw himself flatly down upon it, lying close to the hedge and watching the entrance to the lane. Nothing appeared; nothing stirred. He knew the silence to be illusive; he blamed himself for having ventured upon such a quest without acquainting himself with the geography of the neighbourhood.

Great issues often rest upon a needle point. He had no idea of the direction or extent of the park land adjoining the highroad. Nevertheless, further inaction being out of the question, creeping along the grassy bank, he began to retreat from the entrance to the lane. Some ten yards he had progressed in this fashion when his hidden watchers made their first mistake.

A faint sound, so faint that only a man in deadly peril could have detected it, brought him up sharply. He crouched back against the hedge, looking behind him. For a long time he failed to observe anything. Then, against the comparatively high tone of the dusty road, he saw a silhouette--the head and shoulders of someone who peered out cautiously.

Still as the trees above him he crouched, watching, and presently, bent forward, questing to right and left, questing in a horribly suggestive animal fashion, the entire figure of the man appeared in the roadway.

As Paul Harley had prayed would be the case, his pursuers evidently believed that he had turned in the direction of Lower Claybury. A vague, phantom figure, Harley saw the man wave his arm, whereupon a second man joined him--a third--and, finally, a fourth.

Harley clenched his teeth grimly, and as the ominous quartet began to move toward the left, he resumed his slow retreat to the right--going ever farther away, of necessity, from the only centre with which he was acquainted and from which he could hope to summon assistance. Finally he reached a milestone resting almost against the railings of the Manor Park.

Drawing a deep breath, he sprang upon the milestone, succeeded in grasping the top of the high iron railings, and hauled himself up bodily.

Praying that the turf might be soft, he jumped. Fit though he was, and hardened by physical exercise, the impact almost stunned him. He came down like an acrobat--left foot, right foot, and then upon his hands, but nevertheless he lay there for a moment breathless and temporarily numbed by the shock.

In less than a minute he was on his feet again and looking alertly about him. Striking into the park land, turning to the left, and paralleling the highroad, he presently came out upon the roadway, along which under shelter of a straggling hedge, he began to double back. In sight of the road dipping down to Lower Claybury he crossed, forcing his way through a second hedge thickly sown with thorns.

Badly torn, but careless of such minor injuries, he plunged heavily through a turnip field, and, bearing always to the left, came out finally upon the road leading to the station, and only some fifty yards from the bottom of the declivity.

A moment he paused, questioning the silence. He was unwilling to believe that he had outwitted his pursuers. His nerves were strung to highest tension, and his strange gift of semi- prescience told him that danger was at least as imminent as ever, even though he could neither see nor hear his enemies. Therefore, pistol in hand again, he descended to the foot of the hill.

He remembered having noticed, when he had applied to the porter for information respecting the residence of Ormuz Khan, that upon a window adjoining the entrance had appeared the words "Station Master." The station master's office, therefore, was upon the distant side of the line.

Now came the hardest blow of all. The station was closed for the night. Nor was there any light in the signal box. Evidently no other train was due upon that branch line until some time in the early morning. The level crossing gate was open, but before breaking cover he paused a while to consider what he should do. Lower Claybury was one of those stations which have no intimate connection with any township. The nearest house, so far as Harley could recall, was fully twenty yards from the spot at which he stood. Furthermore, the urgency of the case had fired the soul of the professional investigator.

He made up his mind, and, darting out into the road, he ran across the line, turned sharply, and did not pause until he stood before the station master's window. Then his quick wits were put to their ultimate test.

Right, left, it seemed from all about him, came swiftly pattering footsteps! Instantly he divined the truth. Losing his tracks upon the highroad above, a section of his pursuers had surrounded the station, believing that he would head for it in retreat.

Paul Harley whipped off his coat in a flash, and using it as a ram, smashed the window. He reached up, found the catch, and opened the sash. In ten seconds he was in the room, and a great clatter told him that he had overturned some piece of furniture.

Disentangling his coat, he sought and found the electric torch. He pressed the button. No light came. It was broken! He drew a hissing breath, and began to grope about the little room. At last his hand touched the telephone, and, taking it up:

"Hello!" he said. "Hello!"

"Yes," came the voice of the operator--"what number?"

"City 8951. Police business! Urgent!"

One, two, three seconds elapsed, four, five, six.

"Hello!" came the voice of Innes.

"That you, Innes?" said Harley. And, interrupting the other's reply: "I am by no means safe, Innes! I am in one of the tightest corners of my life. Listen: Get Wessex! If he's off duty, get Burton. Tell him to bring--"

Someone leaped in at the broken window behind the speaker. Resting the telephone upon the table, where he had found it, Harley reached into his hip pocket and snapped out his automatic.

Dimly he could hear Innes speaking. He half-turned, raised the pistol, and knew a sudden intense pain at the back of his skull. A thousand lights seemed suddenly to split the darkness. He felt himself sinking into an apparently bottomless pit.