Here was a pretty mess, indeed. Doubtless the sergeant would know a great deal more than would be good for Barney Custer. The young man looked toward the door through which he had just entered. His sole object in coming into the spider’s parlor had been to make it possible for him to come out again in full view of all the guards and officers and military chauffeurs, that their suspicions might not be aroused when he put his contemplated coup to the test.
He glanced toward the door. Machines were whizzing in and out of the courtyard. Officers on foot were passing and repassing. The sentry in the hallway was on the point of calling his sergeant.
“Ah!” cried Barney. “There is the general now,” and without waiting to cast even a parting glance at the guard he stepped quickly through the doorway and ran down the steps into the courtyard. Looking neither to right nor to left, and with a convincing air of self-confidence and important business, he walked directly to the big, gray machine that stood beside the little shed at the end of the courtyard.
To crank it and leap to the driver’s seat required but a moment. The big car moved smoothly forward. A turn of the steering wheel brought it around headed toward the wide gates. Barney shifted to second speed, stepped on the accelerator and the cut-out simultaneously, and with a noise like the rattle of a machine gun, shot out of the courtyard.
None who saw his departure could have guessed from the manner of it that the young man at the wheel of the gray car was stealing the machine or that his life depended upon escape without detection. It was the very boldness of his act that crowned it with success.
Once in the street Barney turned toward the south. Cars were passing up and down in both directions, usually at high speed. Their numbers protected the fugitive. Momentarily he expected to be halted; but he passed out of the village without mishap and reached a country road which, except for a lane down its center along which automobiles were moving, was blocked with troops marching southward. Through this soldier-walled lane Barney drove for half an hour.
From a great distance, toward the southeast, he could hear the boom of cannon and the bursting of shells. Presently the road forked. The troops were moving along the road on the left toward the distant battle line. Not a man or machine was turning into the right fork, the road toward the south that Barney wished to take.
Could he successfully pass through the marching soldiers at his right? Among all those officers there surely would be one who would question the purpose and destination of this private soldier who drove alone in the direction of the nearby frontier.
The moment had come when he must stake everything on his ability to gain the open road beyond the plodding mass of troops. Diminishing the speed of the car Barney turned it in toward the marching men at the same time sounding his horn loudly. An infantry captain, marching beside his company, was directly in front of the car. He looked up at the American. Barney saluted and pointed toward the right-hand fork.