The Phantom Car - Fred M. White - ebook

The Phantom Car ebook

Fred M White

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Sebastian Wilde really was a great man. He seemed to be paralysed from his hips downwards, which, indeed, was the case, though his arms were vigorous enough and his affliction had not robbed him of the brightness of his eyes or blunted the edge of his amazing intellect. He had no friends and visitors; he was pleased, in his words, to work quietly on the task of his life and, perhaps, when this is completed, he can go out of his obscurity and again take his place in the great world. However, what could such a noble person hide?

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Liczba stron: 383

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Contents

Chapter I. Morning

Chapter II. Noon

Chapter III. A Scientist At Home

Chapter IV. Night

Chapter V. An Admiralty Announcement

Chapter VI. Friends In Council

Chapter VII. Ebbsmith Points The Way

Chapter VIII. The Broken Valve

Chapter IX. In Marchwick

Chapter X. Joe Biddle

Chapter XI. The Unwelcome Stranger

Chapter XII. The Helping Hand

Chapter XIII. The Horn Again

Chapter XIV. At Monkshole

Chapter XV. Down The Shaft

Chapter XVI. Another Vigil

Chapter XVII. The Six O'Clock Edition

Chapter XVIII. A Shot In The Dark

Chapter XIX. Inquest

Chapter XX. In London

Chapter XXI. The Amateur At Work

Chapter XXII. The India-Rubber Man

Chapter XXIII. The Plaster Casts

Chapter XXIV. No. 6, Cannon Place, Bloomsbury

Chapter XXV. Enter The Ape

Chapter XXVI. Vincent Gets Busy

Chapter XXVII. In The Toils

Chapter XXVIII. An Evening's Entertainment

Chapter XXIX. A Few Stray Hairs

Chapter XXX. The Crack Of Doom

Chapter XXXI. The Library Again

Chapter XXXII. A Meeting

Chapter XXXIII. Callers For Ebbsmith

Chapter XXXIV. An Unexpected Guest

Chapter XXXV. Unmasked

Chapter XXXVI. The Light Of Day

I. MORNING

Margaret Ferris came down the broad stone steps leading from the house into the garden and from thence into the serenity of that perfect May morning. It was early yet with the dew on the grass, and in the lofty elms around the house which, so to speak, christened it, the birds were singing to the glory of the day. And in all that lovely garden there was no fairer flower than Peggy Ferris herself.

She was tall and slim, a poem in white and gold, like her own Madonna lilies which were blooming in the borders–in short, all that a beautiful English girl might be. There was a filmy introspection in those deep, violet eyes of hers and a faint suggestion of mysticism which might have been inherited from some far off Eastern ancestors, a dreaminess that was not one of the least of her charms.

She glanced round that fair domain of hers with a sense of pleasure and happiness that is born of perfect health and youth at its best and brightest. Because Peggy was young with all the world before her and not even the shadow of a trouble in sight. Because Long Elms was absolutely her own property and the princely income that went with it was entirely in her own discretion. A lovely old house in its green setting which was a part of Peggy’s very being. Small wonder, then, that she glanced about her with a certain innocent pride in the knowledge that all this, and more, was hers.

It was early yet and Peggy had not breakfasted. She walked down between the wide herbaceous borders, across the tennis lawn and thence to a rose garden, beyond which stood a pair of hammered iron gates, leading to the road. So far, there was nobody in sight, so that she had the whole of the fair prospect to herself. Then, from somewhere outside the great gates came the sound of wheels, and, a few moments later, an invalid chair pulled up on the other side of the bars.

“You are early this morning, Mr. Wilde,” Peggy cried.

The man in the chair looked up with a slow benevolent smile. He was without a hat and his venerable grey hair that reached to his shoulders and his flowing beard were slightly ruffled by the morning breeze. He presented a fine picturesque figure as he leaned back in his invalid chair and the long arms with which he had been propelling himself by means of a pair of levers resting by his side. He might have been some great statesman or ambassador, so striking was his personality, and a natural dignity seemed to cling to his shoulders like a garment. For, according to all accounts, Sebastian Wilde was a great man indeed. Even the most critical would have been prepared to admit that, without knowing more of Wilde than might have been gleaned from his personal appearance. He seemed to be paralysed from his hips downwards, which, indeed, was the case, though his arms were vigorous enough and his affliction had not robbed him of the brightness of his eyes or blunted the edge of his amazing intellect. He looked up now with a slow smile dawning upon those striking features of his.

“Ah, Miss Peggy,” he said, in a deep musical voice. “It does an old man like me good to see youth and beauty greeting this perfect morn. May I come inside?”

“Why, of course,” Peggy cried. “But, tell me, Mr. Wilde, how do you come to be about so early?”

“Because I came to see you,” the great man smiled. “I came to bring you those books I promised. I want you, one of these evenings, to come over to my house and discuss the matter about which we have spoken more than once. Not that there is any hurry. I am rather busy myself with a treatise I am writing on occult influences. I have been working on that ever since I came here two years ago.”

“Then you have finished it?” Peggy asked.

“Well, not quite,” Wilde said. “You see, there has been so much to do. And when everything seemed to be going so smoothly, this unfortunate trouble came upon me. That is why I had to abandon my scientific investigations in South Africa and hasten back home. It is a great blow to me, but I am getting resigned to it now. After all, I have a lot to be thankful for. I can still work as well as ever.”

There was a world of sympathy and pity in Peggy’s eyes as she glanced down at the stricken giant in the bath chair. Two years ago, Sebastian Wilde had come into that neighbourhood looking for peace and quietness and the placid atmosphere which was necessary to his recovery and, since then, Peggy and her old aunt, who more or less acted as her chaperone, had seen a great deal of the Anglo-American who had settled down in what had once been an old priory, half a mile further along the road. There he seemed to spend most of his time in strict seclusion, together with his secretary, James Ebbsmith, and an elderly couple called Brettle, who presided over his modest wants and took care of his household.

Naturally enough, the neighbours had been rather curious when the elderly man with the leonine face and noble head first came into the locality and speculation had been aroused. But as time went on, all that had been forgotten and now Sebastian Wilde was accepted as part and parcel of the place. He had no friends and no visitors; he was content, he said, to work quietly at the task of his lifetime and perhaps, when that was finished, he might emerge from his obscurity and take his proper place in the great world once more. Meanwhile, he was content with his labours and an occasional visit to Long Elms, where he could bask in the society of Peggy and that pleasant old aunt of hers who was supposed to keep watch and ward over her.

Very dexterously, Wilde steered his chair through the gate and up the drive till the house was reached. There he paused to make a few scholarly and learned remarks on the subject of some late bulbs which were flowering under the dining-room window. He was still discussing these when the iron gates were flung open and a young man came up the path.

“Cheerio, Peggy,” he cried. “Am I too late or too early? What I mean is, have you breakfasted?”

“No, I haven’t, Trevor,” Peggy smiled. “And I should be surprised to hear that you have either. I was tempted outside by the loveliness of the morning and wandered as far as the gate, when I found Mr. Wilde making an early call.”

“Ah, good morning, sir,” Trevor Capner cried heartily. “What an example to set us young people. Do you often get out in your chair as early as this?”

“Very seldom,” Wilde admitted. “But it was so perfect that I couldn’t sleep. You see, I can manage to dress myself and get about the ground floor on two sticks. So I tumbled out of bed and–well–here I am. This is one of the advantages of having a bedroom on the ground floor. Even my man Ebbsmith has not the remotest notion that I have ventured out this morning. But don’t let me detain you, Miss Peggy.”

“Oh, there is no hurry,” Peggy said. “Now you are here, why not come in and have breakfast with us?”

“Does that include me?” Capner asked smilingly.

“Oh, well, you are a law unto yourself,” Peggy retorted. “I was thinking more about Mr. Wilde than you.”

“Alas, that I have to decline,” Wilde said resignedly. “You see, dear young lady, breakfast is a meal I never touch. I find it interferes with my work and there is no time like the morning for clear thinking. Just give me a hand and I will let you have those books I spoke about.”

“What books are those?” Trevor asked.

“Two scientific treatises,” Wilde explained. “They are by a German professor who is the greatest authority living to-day on which I might call psychic reactions. Not exactly spiritualism, if you understand what I mean, but scientific measurement of phenomena. Ah, you may shake your head, young fellow, but there is more in that business than you imagine.”

Trevor Capner scowled slightly. There was a dogged expression on his face and a gleam in his eye.

“I dare say there is, sir,” he said coldly. “But it is not the sort of stuff for outsiders to play with. I take the same view of spiritualism as the churches do. It is dangerous and morbid and calculated to undermine faith in the hereafter. I know of a very sad case of a young and impressionable girl, not unlike Peggy, who got bitten with that sort of thing and eventually committed suicide. If you take my advice, my dear girl, you will thank Mr. Wilde for his offer and tell him politely to take his books back again.”

It was a challenge in a way and a claim to interference which Peggy was inclined to resent. Just for a moment, her eyes flashed and a flush mounted to her cheeks. It seemed to her that Trevor was taking just a little too much upon himself. She was exceedingly fond of him and knew that he literally worshipped the ground she trod on, knew–too, that if nothing happened, they would marry, ere long–but this was a case where Trevor’s air of possession had been carried a step too far.

“What nonsense,” she said, almost angrily. “My dear boy, you don’t suppose there is anything morbid about me, do you? Why shouldn’t I take an interest in this psychic business?”

“Because it is not good for you,” Capner said almost curtly. “It isn’t good for any woman, unless she happens to be one of the modern, scientific school. I hate the whole thing. I would just as soon see you take up surgery.”

“Again why not?” Peggy asked. “There are several celebrated lady surgeons to-day. My dear boy, because you happen to be a famous airman, which means that you haven’t any nerves, you seem to imagine that women are not endowed with the same strength of mind. Now, Mr. Wilde, if you will let me have those books, we will talk about something else.”

With a deeper frown between his brows, Capner turned on one side, whilst Peggy helped Wilde to retrieve the books from the depths of his chair. All this time Wilde had said nothing, though, under those penthouse brows of his, he had been watching the little scene with a sort of benevolent malice.

“There you are, my dear young lady,” he said. “Take the books and keep them as long as you like. But don’t try to understand too much. If you get into a tangle, let me know and I will do my best to put it right for you. Now, if you don’t mind, I will go. Far be it for a selfish old bachelor like me to keep youth and beauty from its breakfast.”

“I will come with you a little way, if you don’t mind,” Capner said. “There is something I have to say. You go in to breakfast, Peggy, and I will come along later on and discuss that tennis tournament with you. I may not be able to play myself, but I can’t say definitely till after the middle-day post comes in. Now, sir, let me give you a shove along the road.”

“As you like,” Peggy said coldly, as she turned towards the house. “I am not going out this morning.”

Capner turned away without another word.

II. NOON

As the morning stole away and the pearly mists melted before the caressing touch of the sun, Peggy felt her own ill temper vanishing into nothingness. Perhaps she had been disposed to resent Trevor’s air of complete proprietorship, perhaps she had been too quick in reading a wrong interpretation of what he had said. She was conscious, moreover, that she was more deeply interested in this psychic business than she had pretended. There was a romantic, dreamy side to her nature which she shyly hid, almost from herself, but it was there, all the same, and she was always conscious of it.

And there was another matter, a sacred thing of which she spoke but seldom and then with dimmed eyes and bated breath. Because there had been a time when Long Elms and its estate and all the revenues thereto had not belonged to Peggy, but to her only brother, who had been killed in the Great War. He like Trevor Capner, had had a brilliant career in the Air Force, where he had won the Victoria Cross in a never-to-be-forgotten exploit, only to be brought down during the very last week of the war in flames. And though Peggy was but a child at the time and many years had elapsed since, she had never forgotten her brother Victor, to whom she had been devoted and who had represented to her all that was worth while in the world. Even now, there were times when she woke in the night and thought of her dead brother, and there were times when he seemed to be very near to her, so near, indeed, that she could almost touch him. As if he were somewhere behind a veil striving in vain to get in contact with her.

It was not until after Sebastian Wilde had come into the neighbourhood and she had fallen somewhat under his influence that she began, tentatively, to discuss these mysteries with that eminent man of science. And he had not laughed at her, as she had half expected. On the contrary, he had been most understanding and sympathetic.

“Of course,” he had said. “There are such things as mediums. Second sight and intermediaries and all that sort of thing. They are gifts you can cultivate–in fact, I have cultivated them myself. It is rather out of my line, but more than once I have succeeded in conjuring up pictures that almost frighten me. There is a scientific basis for them all, if we only knew what it was, but I hesitate to carry you along that path with me. Your temperament is too highly strung and romantic. If anything happened to you, I should never cease to blame myself. I mean, if anything happened to you mentally. Mind you, I am not saying that you could not rise to heights, but one never can tell, especially when dealing with one of your sex. And I am not going to say it is impossible for you to communicate with your brother on the other side. I myself have had some startling experiences.”

At that point, Wilde had broken off and declined to say any more. From time to time he allowed Peggy to flirt round the subject, but he never encouraged her beyond the field of ordinary speculation. From time to time he lent her certain books, written, for the most part, by abstruse authors on a highly scientific plane, and with this Peggy was fain to be content. But the subject was never very far from her mind, a mind that was not naturally inclined to the morbid.

However, she put all this out of her head and busied herself for an hour or two in the garden until towards lunch-time, when Trevor Capner reappeared. There was a flush on his face and a sparkle in his eyes that aroused a vague alarm in Peggy’s breast. She could not have said why, but that was what was uppermost in her head as Trevor came towards her.

“Look here, old thing,” he said. “I am very sorry if I upset you this morning. Of course, I was a fool to talk like I did before Wilde and I shouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t annoyed me. And he did annoy me.”

“Did he?” Peggy asked. “In what way?”

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