BY GEORGE BARR MCCUTCHEON
Author of "Graustark" "Beverly of Graustark" etc.
I. THE FARAWAY CLUB II. THE FLYERS CATCH THE FLYER III. THE MORNING AFTER IV. MRS. VAN TRUDER INTRUDES V. AS NIGHT APPROACHES VI. THE ROAD TO PARADISE
Anne Courtenay ..... Frontispiece
Eleanor was still sitting. . . stiff and silent
Seated side by side. . . two miserable partners in the fiasco
"Hush, Joe, I LOVE it," she cried
THE FARAWAY CLUB
A cold, thick drizzle, blown by a biting wind that sent chills to the marrow, marred the early spring night, and kept indoors the few hardy members who had haunted the clubhouse since the season's opening a week before. Not more than a dozen loyal devotees to the sports of the open air lounged about the big clubhouse. Three or four rangy young women in sweaters and jackets strove bravely to dispel the gloom of the night as it settled down upon the growling masculine majority. The club steward hovered near, anxiously directing the movements of a silent and as yet undrilled corps of servants who flitted from group to group with decanters and checks, taking and mistaking orders with the usual abandon. A huge fireplace threw out heat sufficient to make the big lounging room comfortable. Now and then a spiteful gust of wind swept the rain against the western window-panes with a menace that set the teeth on edge.
"Rotten night," reflected the big man who monopolised the roomiest chair and the best position in front of the blazing logs. "Going to town to-night?" The question was general: there were half a dozen answers. Every one was going in by the last express. All of them had dined well: they had been hungry and the club was a wealthy one; even the most exclusive of appetites could be entertained at the Faraway Country Club. The last 'bus was to leave the clubhouse at ten minutes past ten, and it was then half-past eight. Ten minutes' drive from the clubhouse on the edge of the little town to the railway station—then thirty minutes to the heart of the big city in which the members lived and died at great risk to themselves.
Each succeeding spring saw the formal opening of the Faraway Country Club. The boards were pulled down from the windows and the door hinges were oiled properly after a winter of discontent. May saw the reopening, but it was not until June that crowds began to fill the house and grounds. Only the more restless and hardy had the temerity to test the pleasures of the raw spring days and nights. The M.F.H. was a loyal, eager chap; he knew what was required of him in his official capacity. With the first symptoms of softening soil he led his followers through field and wood, promising the "real hunt" inside of a month. Following a pack of overfed hounds was what every one at Faraway Club called a "real hunt."
The night so meagrely described at the beginning of this tale followed hard upon a grey, chill day. A few golfers had spent the afternoon upon the course, inanely cursing the temporary tees and greens. A couple of polo enthusiasts tried out their ponies, and several men and women took their hunters over the course, that fairly bristled with spectres of last year's anise-seed. Now they were comfortably ensconced in the clubhouse, berating the unfortunate elements, and waiting for the last express with a persistency which allowed three or four earlier trains to come and go unnoticed. The cheerful highball was coming into its own. A stern winter of bridge had not killed the ardour of certain worshippers; continuous criticism of play arose from the table in the corner where two men and two women were engaged with the cards.
The perennial bore, who noses into everything in order to sniff his own wit, sauntered amiably from group to group, pouring out jests as murky as the night itself. He saw none of the scowls nor heard the toe-taps; he went blithely along his bridgeless way.
"I say, Brown, I saw your wife on the street yesterday, but she didn't see me," he observed to the blase-looking man in corduroys.
"Ya-as," returned the other, calmly staring past him; "so she told me last night." The bore and his blissful smile passed on to the next group. There, two or three women were chatting with as many men, yawning and puffing at their cigarettes, bored by the risque stories the men were telling, but smiling as though they had not already heard them from other men. Occasional remarks, dropped softly into the ears of the women, may have brought faint blushes to their cheeks, but the firelight was a fickle consort to such changes. The sly turn of a sentence gave many a double meaning; the subtle glance of the eye intended no harm. Dobson's new toast to "fair women" earned a roar of laughter, but afterwards Dobson was called to account by a husband who realised. A man over in the corner was thumping aimlessly on the piano; a golf fanatic was vigorously contending that he had driven 243 yards against the wind; a tennis enthusiast was lamenting the fact that the courts were too soft to be used; there was a certain odour of rain-soaked clothes in the huge room, ascendant even above the smell of cigarettes. Altogether, it was a night that owed much to the weather.
Mrs. Scudaway, dashing horsewoman and exponent of the free rein, was repeating the latest story concerning an intimate friend of every one present—and, consequently, absent.
"She's just sailed for Europe, and that good-looking actor friend of the family happened to go on the same steamer," she was saying with a joyous smile.
"Accidents will happen," remarked some one, benevolently.
"Where's her husband? I haven't seen him with her in months," came from one of the men.
"Oh, they have two children, you know," explained Mrs. Scudaway.
"Delicate, I hear," said Miss Ratliff.
"Naturally; he nurses them," said Mrs. Scudaway, blowing smoke half- way across the room through her delicate nostrils.
"I say, Mrs. Scudaway," cried the rapt bore, "don't you ever do anything but inhale?"
"Yes, I exhale occasionally. No, thanks," as he held forth an ash tray. Then she flecked the ashes into the fireplace, ten feet away.
"Good Lord, it's a rotten night!" repeated the big man, returning dismally from a visit to the window. "There's a beastly fog mixed in with the rain."
"Better blow the fog horn for Henderson," said Ratliff, with a jerk of his thumb. "He's half seas over already and shipping a lot of water." Henderson, the convivial member, was on his third siphon.
"I don't care a whoop what McAlpine says," roared an irascible gentleman on the opposite side of the fireplace; "a man ought to use a midiron when he gets that kind of a lie. Nobody but an ass would take a brassie. He's—-"
"Just listen to that blethering idiot," said young Rolfe to the lady beside him. "He ought to be choked."
"I like the way you speak of my husband," she responded gaily.
"Oh, I forgot. He is your husband, isn't he?" Then, after a moment's easy contemplation of the pretty young woman and a scornful glance at the golfer: "Lucky, but a very poor watchdog."
"He barks beautifully," resented the young wife, with a loyal grimace.
"That's why you're not afraid of him," he said quickly.
"Don't you think he'd bite?"
"They never do."
"Well, you just try him, that's all," remarked the young wife coldly, rising and moving away, a touch of red in her cheeks.
"I will," he sang out genially, as he crossed his legs and stretched his feet out to the fire. She looked back with a mirthless smile on her lips.
The man at the piano struck up the insidious "La Mattchiche," suggestive of the Bal Tabarin and other Fourteenth of July devotions.
"Don't play that, Barkley," complained the big man, as every one began beating time to the fascinating air. "I'm trying to forget Paris."
"Can you ever forget that night in Maxim's—-" began Mrs. Scudaway.
"I recall the next day more vividly," he interrupted.
"Changing the subject," inserted the amiable bore, his moon-face beaming, "I see that the Thursdales have opened their place across the ravine. Isn't it rather early for them to leave town for the summer?"
"They come out every year about this time."
"Lot of people will be opening their places next week. I saw Mrs. Gorgus to-day. She says they're putting her house in shape—-"
"Impossible!" cried Mrs. Tanner. "It hasn't any shape."
"The only thing that could put the Gorgus house in shape is an earthquake. Who was the architect of that abortion?" demanded Rolfe.
"Denison. He's an impressionist."
"The Thursdales have a new French car. Have you seen it? Eleanor ran over here in it this afternoon with her Englishman. Showing off both of her novelties at once, d'ye see?" said Carter, the tennis player.
"I understand the thing's a go—sure go," said the big man. "In the fall some time. He's a rather decent chap, too."
"And, what's better, if his brother and his cousin should happen to die, he'll be a duke."
"If they're as healthy as he seems to be, there'll be nothing doing for him."
A good-looking young fellow, who had been staring at the fire all evening, moved uneasily in his lounging chair. Several quick glances were sent to where he sat moodily apart from the others, and then surreptitious winks and nudges were exchanged.
"Joe is as crazy in love with her as ever, poor devil," whispered Rolfe. Gradually the group of gossips came closer together over the table top; the conversation was continued in more subdued tones.
"They're discussing me, damn 'em," said the moody young man to himself. "I suppose they're pitying me. Damn cats! But I'll show 'em a thing or two they're not looking for before long." He looked at his watch for the twentieth time in an hour and scowled at the drenched window-panes across the way. For some reason this exceedingly nice- looking young man was in a state of extreme nervousness, a condition which, luckily for him, he was able to keep within himself.
And this was what Mrs. Scudaway was saying in an urgent undertone to the half dozen who leaned across the big table: "Joe is a mighty good sort, and I'm sorry for him. He's been good enough for Eleanor Thursdale ever since she came out two years ago, and I don't see why he should cease being good enough for her now. This Englishman hasn't any more money and he isn't half as good looking. He's English, that's all. Her mother's crazy to have a look in at some of those London functions she's read so much about. She's an awful ass, don't you think, Tommy?"
"Ya-as," said the blase man; "such as she is."
"Mighty hard lines, this thing of being an ordinary American," lamented the placid bore.
"One might just as well be called Abraham or Isaac," reflected Carter.
"No romantic young lover would live through the first chapter with either of those names," said pretty Miss Ratliff, who read every novel that came out.
"Dauntless has been terribly out of humour for the past week or two," said Carter. "He's horribly cut up over the affair,—grouchy as blazes, and flocks by himself all the time. That's not like him, either."
"He's the sweetest boy I know," commented little Mrs. Tanner, whose husband had barked about the midiron.
"I've heard he's the only man you ever really loved," murmured Rolfe, close to her ear.
"Nonsense! I've known him all my life," she replied, with quick and suspicious resentment.
"Trite phrase," scoffed he. "I'll wager my head that every woman living has uttered that same worn expression a hundred times. 'Known him all my life!' Ha, ha! It's a stock apology, my dear. Women, good and bad, trade under that flag. Please, to oblige me, get a fresh excuse."
"The most ignorant duffer in the world could lay you a stymie if—-" the loud-voiced golfer was complaining just at that instant. The man he was addressing was nodding his head politely and at the same time trying to hear what was being said at the round table.
"Joe Dauntless is good enough for anybody's daughter," vouchsafed the blase man in corduroys.
"He's a ripping good fellow," again said Mrs. Scudaway.
"Mrs. Thursdale's got an English governess for her kids, an English butler, an English bull terrier, and a new Cobden-Sanderson binding on that antique History of England she talks so much about," observed Carter.
"And she's beginning to wear her evening gowns on the street in the morning. Besides, her shoes lob over at the heels," remarked the rangy Mrs. Carter.
"Yes, she's getting to be thoroughly English. I've noticed a tendency to chirp like a bird when she talks, too."
"That governess is a mighty stunning girl, by the way," said Rolfe.
"She's been over here a year, you know," said Mrs. Scudaway, with no apparent relevancy.
"Have you heard when Eleanor's engagement is to be announced?" asked Miss Ratliff.
"I'm not supposed to tell, but I have it on the best authority that it will be announced next week, and the wedding will take place in November. I suppose they'll ask Joe Dauntless to be an usher," said Mrs. Carter.
"Hello! Joe's gone outside. He must have heard something we said," said Rolfe, setting his highball glass down with a thump.
"Oh, if he had only been educated at Cambridge instead of in Cambridge," mourned Mrs. Carter.
It was true that the tall, good-looking Mr. Dauntless had left the room, but not because he had heard the comments of his friends. He was standing on the wind-swept verandah, peering through the mist toward a distant splash of light across the ravine to the right of the club grounds. The fog and mist combined to run the many lights of the Thursdale windows into a single smear of colour a few shades brighter than the darkness from which it protruded. Dauntless's heart was inside that vague, impressionistic circle of colour, but his brain was very much in evidence on the distant outside. What were the workings of that eager brain will soon be revealed—to the reader, at least, if not to the occupants of the rain-bound clubhouse.
A word concerning Dauntless. He was the good-looking son of old banker Dauntless, who died immediately after his cashier brought ruin to the concern of which he was president. This blow fell when his son was in his senior year at Harvard. He took his degree, and then, instead of the promised trip around the world, he came home and went to work in the offices of a big brokerage firm. Everybody knew and liked him. He was a steady, earnest worker, and likewise a sportsman of the right temperament. Big, fashionable Faraway looked upon him as its most gallant member; no one cared to remember that he might have been very rich; every one loved him because he had been rich and was worthy in spite of that. It was common knowledge that he was desperately in love with pretty Eleanor Thursdale, daughter of the eminently fashionable and snobbishly aristocratic widow Thursdale, mistress of many millions and leader of select hundreds. Moreover, it was now pretty well known that Mrs. Thursdale had utterly lost sight of Dauntless in surveying the field of desirable husbands for Eleanor. She could see nothing but Englishmen, behind whom lurked the historic London drawing-rooms and British estates. That is how and why young Windomshire, a most delightful Londoner, with prospects and a peerage behind him, came to be a guest in her city house, following close upon a long sojourn in the Bermudas. HE had been chosen; the battle was over, so far as Eleanor's hand was concerned. What matter if Dauntless had her heart?
The object of this indifference and scorn gazed long and hard at the blob of light across the ravine. His heart was beating fast, and his body tingled with a strange excitement, which made itself manifest in a mixture of impatient frowns and prophetic smiles.
"If it wasn't such a beastly night," he was muttering in one breath, and, "Still, it's just the sort of a night we want," in the next. He was looking at his watch in the light from the window when an automobile whizzed up the wet gravel drive and came to a stop in front of the club steps. As Dauntless re-entered the house from the verandah, a tall young man in a motor coat and goggles came in through the opposite door. They paused and looked steadily at each other, then nodded briefly. The crowd of loungers glanced at the two men with instant curiosity and then breathed easily. The man who was going to marry Miss Thursdale and the man who wanted to marry her were advancing to shake hands—a trifle awkwardly, perhaps, but more or less frankly.
"Rough weather for motoring," remarked Dauntless, nervously. Windomshire removed his cap and goggles.
"Beastly. I just ran over for something to warm the inside man. Won't you join me?" His voice was pleasant to the ear, his manner easy and appealing. He was not so good looking as Dauntless, true, but he had the air of a thoroughbred in his make-up—from head to foot.
"Sit down here," called Mrs. Scudaway readily, creating a general shift of chairs. The two men hesitated a moment, nervousness apparent in both, and then sat down quickly. The Englishman was next Mrs. Scudaway. "What were you doing out in the rain?" she asked after the order for drinks had been taken.
"Hurrying to get out of it," he said with evasive good humour, "and thinking how much nicer your fogs are than ours," he added quickly.
"Anybody come over with you?" asked the bore, agreeably.
"No, they're playing bridge over at Mrs. Thursdale's and that lets me out. Beastly headache, too. Got out for a breath of air." The silence that followed this observation seemed to call for further explanations. "Miss Thursdale retired soon after dinner, wretchedly under the weather. That rather left me adrift, don't you know. I'm not playing bridge this year."
"You're not? Why not, pray?"
"Chiefly because of last year. My Mercedes came on from New York yesterday and I got her out for a spin. Couldn't resist, don't you know. She's working beautifully."
"There's one thing about a Mercedes that I don't like—and you don't find it in a Panhard. I've got a Panhard and—" Dobson was saying with all the arrogance of a motor fiend, when Mrs. Scudaway ruthlessly and properly cut him off.
"We know all about your Panhard, Dobby. Don't bother. Is Eleanor really ill, Mr. Windomshire?"
"I had it from her own lips, Mrs. Scudaway."
"Oh, you know what I mean. Is it likely to be serious?"
"Really, I can't say. I offered to go and fetch the doctor in my car, but she assured me she'd be all right in the morning. What say, Mr. Dauntless?"
"I didn't speak, Mr. Windomshire."
"I thought you did." More than one at the table had heard Joe's involuntary chuckle.
"I say, Windomshire, what's the name of that pretty governess over at Thursdale's?" asked the busy bore. "Saw her this morning."
The Englishman looked down and flecked the ashes from his cigarette before answering.
"Miss Courtenay," he responded.
"She's a corking pretty girl." Windomshire went through the unnecessary act of flecking ashes again, but said nothing in reply. "Are there any more at home like her?" with a fine chuckle in behalf of his wit.
"She's of a very good family, I believe," said Windomshire, looking about helplessly. Mrs. Scudaway caught the look in his eyes and remembered that English gentlemen are not supposed to discuss women outside of their own set.
"It must be time for the 'bus," she said. "We're all going in by the 10.10, Mr. Windomshire."
"Can't I take some of you over to the station in my car?"
"The 'bus is dryer, I think, thank you." She led the way, and the other women followed her upstairs. "We'll be down in time," she called.
"I'll take some of you men over in Hardy's machine," volunteered Dauntless. "I've got it out here this week, while he's east."
"Ain't you going in, Joe?" demanded Rolfe.
"Not to-night. I'm staying overnight with my uncle in Cobberly Road."
"The 'bus is good enough for me. I haven't forgotten how you ran off the Peters Bridge last fall," said Carter.
"Hang it, man, he wasn't thinking about bridges that time," said the cheerful bore. "There was a girl with him. Elea—Ahem! I say, old man, what the devil time is it? Time for the confounded 'bus? Don't want to miss the train." He had caught the scowl of warning from Carter and, for a wonder, understood.
"By the way," said Windomshire, irrelevantly, "what was the disturbance over in O'Brien's Lane this morning? Anybody hurt? I was driving the car up Andrews' Hill when I saw the excitement. Couldn't make it out. Were all of the horses running away?"
"Running away!" roared the blase man, forgetting his pose for the first time. "Running away!" and he broke into a roar of laughter. "Why, that was the advance guard of the Faraway Country Club. Good Lord, did you see them coming in?"
"My word, they were coming in. But what was the rush? I came over to- night to see if any of the women had been hurt. I could have sworn the horses were absolutely unmanageable. They were tearing through bushes and taking fences they'd never seen before. Egad, I give you my word, one of the women took the fence at the south end of the golf course, and she didn't turn out for the bunker at No. 7, either. She took it like a bird, and straight across the course she flew on a dead line for the home green. What the deuce—-"
"Sh! Windomshire, it will cost you your life if she hears you. That was Mrs. Scudaway. You don't know what happened, so I'll tell you. Half a dozen of the women went out with us for a run over the usual course. They are among our best and oldest hunters, too. Well, they were keeping right up with the men and having a splendid hunt, when all of a sudden a real, live fox dashed into view. By gad, sir, he started a panic. They'd never seen one in their lives, and they set up a howl that went clear to heaven. And they started for home—well, you saw 'em on the stretch. It was great! There never has been such riding in America. Mrs. Hooper lost her hat in the woods, and Mrs. Graves lost part of her habit coming through that break in the hedge over there. That skinny Miss Elperson, who never before has had nerve enough to jump her horse over the lawn hose, cleared the wall that runs along O'Brien's mill,—nobody's ever done it before,—and she came in hanging to the horse's mane and yelling like a wild-cat. Gad, it was two hours before we got 'em quiet and sent'em to town. They thought it was a tiger, I understand, although some of them held out for the lion and the hyena. Mrs. Scudaway was game enough to stay and enjoy the laugh."
"What became of the fox?" demanded the Englishman, his eyes glistening. At that moment the women came trooping down stairs; the 'bus bell was clanging sleepily.
"The fox? Oh—er—hanged if I know. I—er—-"
"Were you riding?"
"Well—er—just a practice run, you know, old man. Er—I say, ladies, the 'bus waits!"
Two minutes later the 'bus rolled away in the fog and drizzle, leaving Dauntless and Windomshire alone on the steps.
"Good-night," said the Englishman, after an awkward silence.
"Good-night," was the response. Then, following a brief pause, both started toward their cars. The next minute they were chugging away, in the night and the lights in the clubhouse began to go out.
Two hours later a stealthy figure crept across the Thursdale lawn, lurking behind the rose beds and lilac bushes, finally worming its way to a dripping but secluded spot under the weather side of the house. It was past twelve o'clock, but there were still lights in the front part of the big summer-house. Quiet reigned there, however; the noise of merry-making came from the servants' quarters overlooking the ravine. A handful of gravel left an impatient hand and rattled against the second-story window above. Almost instantaneously the window was raised and a head came forth.
"Joe?" came a shrill whisper from above.
"What's the matter?" whispered the man below. "I've been waiting out there for two hours—well, half an hour, at least. Aren't you coming, dear?"
"I can't get out," came in a whispered wail. "I've had my hat on for hours, but—-"
"Why can't you get out? Good Lord, you just must!"
"They're playing bridge in the front part of the house and the servants are having a reunion in the back. Oh, I've been nearly crazy. What are we to do? Shall I jump?"
"Don't! Is there no way to sneak out?"
"I'm afraid of being seen. It would give everything away if any one saw me in this automobile rigging at this time of night—and in a rain like this, too. Oh, dear, dear, I know I shall go mad! You poor darling, aren't you wet to the skin? I really couldn't help it. I just couldn't be there at 11.30."
"We'll never make that train—never in the world," groaned Dauntless. "It's ten miles, and the road's horrible all the way. By Jove, Nell, you must get out some way. It's now or never. I've got everything fixed."
"Oh, Joe—listen! Do you think you can get a ladder out from under the verandah? The painters left them there this morning. Look out for paint, dear. Don't make a noise—not a sound. Mr. Windomshire's room is just over the porte cochere. For Heaven's sake, don't arouse him."
"Drop your bag down first, dear,—here! I'll catch it."
"I've got to put some things in it first. It isn't quite ready," she gasped, darting away from the window.
"'T was ever thus," he muttered in despair. Cautiously he made his way to the end of the verandah. A close listener might have heard him snarl "damn" more than once as he tugged away at the painters' ladders, which had been left there when the rain began. He was a good- natured chap, but barking his knuckles, bumping his head, and banging his shins, added to the misfortunes that had gone before, were enough to demoralise a saint.
He imagined that he was making enough noise to rouse the neighbours for blocks around. No time was to be lost in self-commiseration, however. He hurriedly dragged out a ladder, which he managed to place against the window-sill without accident.
"Here it is," she whispered excitedly. The next instant a heavy object dropped at his feet with a crash. "Oh!" she exclaimed with horror, "my perfume bottles!"
"Good Lord!" he gasped.
"I thought you were going to catch it. Oh, here's the ladder. Do you think I'll fall? Oh, oh!"
"Don't be afraid. Climb out, dear—and hurry!"
She was brave enough in the crisis. While he held the bottom of the ladder she scrambled through the window and hurried downward. Before she reached the bottom he lifted her from the ladder in his strong arms and held her close for a moment.
"Take the ladder down, dearest," she whispered between kisses. "I don't want mother to know I left that way—not just yet,—nor Mr. Windomshire, either."
"Come this way," he whispered, after replacing the ladder. "I left the car just around the corner. Come on, darling, and we'll soon be safe. Don't make a noise!"
"Goodness, isn't it dark! What a horrid night! Oh, what's that?"
"Gad, I thought I heard something over there in the croquet ground. Sounded like some one mixing it up with a wicket. Quick! Out this way!" He had her hand in his, and was rushing ruthlessly through flower-beds toward the big gate, her travelling bag banging against his knee with the insistence of a hundredweight.
Panting and gasping for breath, they finally floundered into the roadway, and dashed off through the muddy surface toward the unseen automobile.
She was half fainting with the panic of excitement as he started to lift her into the tonneau of the car. "No, no! Please let me sit with you in the front seat," she implored. She had her way, and a moment later he was up beside her, both wrapped in the oil-cloths, the drizzle blowing in their hot faces.
"We're off, thank God!" he whispered joyously, as the car leaped forward under his hand.
"I wonder—oh, dear, how I wonder what mamma will say," she was crying in his ear.
Dauntless grinned happily as the car shot onward through the blackness of the night. Its lanterns were dark and cold, but he knew the road.
THE FLYERS CATCH THE FLYER
No one would have recognised either of them had it been possible to see them,—so carefully were their heads swathed in their coverings. She was veiled and he was goggled, and both of them scrooged down in the seat apprehensively. Hardy's car, borrowed in reality for the occasion, was performing nobly. It careened through the muddy streets of the village with a sturdiness that augured well for the enterprise. Out into the country road, scudding northward, it sped. Dauntless increased the speed, not to the limit, on account of the fog and uncertainty of the road, but enough to add new thrills to the girl who crouched beside him. Neither spoke until they were far from the town line; the strain was too intense.
"What will everybody say?" she finally cried in his ear—the most natural question in the world. "And the newspapers? Oh, dear!"
"You're not weakening, are you?" he cried. "Shall I turn back?"
She was silent for half a mile.
"No," she replied at last, "I couldn't climb UP that ladder. And besides—" with a gasp as the car shot over the railroad tracks,—"we never could get as good a start as this again."
"Bully for you!" he shouted.
"How far is it to Fenlock, Joe?" she asked, a quaver in her high- pitched voice.
"About seven miles. We'll take the short cut through O'Brien's Lane and strike Cobberly Road again at the crossroads. Then it will be easy going. We'll catch the flyer all right, Nell. Everything's arranged. You go into Car 5 and I in Car 7—"
"With a whole car between us? Heavens!"
"It's safest, dear. There might happen to be some one on board who'd know us and suspect. Keep your veil down until you get into the berth. There's not much danger of any one being up at this time of night, but don't take any chances."
"Goodness, isn't it thrilling! And when do we get to Omegon?"
"Little after seven in the morning. My cousin will meet us in a hack and drive us straight to the church. His wife will go with us as the extra witness. By eight o'clock we'll be married. Derby will be on the train with us. He's a full-fledged preacher now, and he'll marry us without a whimper."
"Oh," she sighed deliciously, in spite of the jarring of the motor, "isn't it nice to have old college chums who can be depended upon?"
"Poor old Windomshire," he laughed in the buoyancy of conquest.
"I don't think he'll—-" She stopped.
"Care very much," she concluded. He laughed doubtingly.
Mile after mile the car traversed the misty night, jolting over the ruts in the lane, taking the hills blindly—driven entirely by the hand of Good Luck.
Suddenly the "honk, honk!" of an invisible motor struck upon their tense ears, the sound coming from some point ahead in the black, narrow lane. Dauntless sat straight and peered ahead, sounding his horn sharply.
"I hope no one is coming toward us," he groaned, slowing up sharply. "We never can pass in this confounded lane. If we get off into the soft ground—Hello! Here he comes—and no lights either! Hey! Look out!" He brought his car to an abrupt standstill.
"Where are we, Joe?" she cried.
"Near the crossroads, I'm sure. Curse an idiot that runs around without lights on a night like this," he growled, forgetting that his own lamps were dark.
Out of the misty blackness loomed another car, directly ahead. It had come to a sudden stop not ten feet away. Both cars were tooting their horns viciously.
"Where are your lights?" roared Dauntless.
"Where are yours?" came back angrily through the fog.
"Good Lord!" gasped Joe, panic-stricken.
"It's Mr. Windomshire," whispered Eleanor, in consternation.
Before she realised what was happening her companion lifted her bodily over the back of the seat and deposited her in the bed of the tonneau.
"Hide, dearest," he whispered. "Get under the storm blankets. He must not see you! I'll—I'll bluff it out some way."
"Wha—what is he doing out here in a machine?" she was whispering wildly. "He is pursuing us! He has found out!"
In the other car Windomshire—for it was the tall Englishman—was hoarsely whispering to some one beside him:
"It's Dauntless! Hang him! What's he doing here?" Then followed a hurried scuffling and subdued whispers. A long silence, fraught with an importance which the throbbing of the two engines was powerless to disturb, followed the mutual discovery. Joe's brain worked the quicker. Disguising his voice as best he could, he shouted through the fog:
"We can't pass here."
"Is—is this Cobberly Road?" cried Windomshire, striving to obtain what he considered the American twang.
"No, it's not. It's O'Brien's Lane."
Then, after a long silence, "Can't you back out?"
"It's rather—I mean sorter risky, mister. I don't know how far I'd have to back, doncherknow—er, ahem!"
"The crossroads can't be more than a hundred yards behind you. Where are you going?"
"I'm going for—a doctor," called Windomshire, hastily.
"Well, then, we ought not to stand here all night," groaned Joe, his ears open to catch the sound of the locomotive's whistle. There was no time to be lost.
"I'll—I'll try to back her out," shouted Windomshire. Eleanor whispered something shrilly and anxiously from the tonneau, and Joe called out instantly:
"Who is ill?"
"Mrs.—Mrs. Smith," replied the other, bravely.
"Good!" exclaimed Dauntless, heartily. Windomshire was not in the least annoyed by the lack of sympathy. He began to drive his car backward by jerks and jolts, blindly trusting to luck in the effort to reach the road which he had passed in his haste a few minutes before. Joe was shouting encouragement and pushing slowly forward in his own machine. The noise of the engines was deafening.
"Hang it all, man, don't blow your horn like that!" roared Windomshire at last, harassed and full of dread. Joe, in his abstraction, was sounding his siren in a most insulting manner.
At last Windomshire's wheels struck a surface that seemed hard and resisting. He gave a shout of joy.
"Here we are! It's macadam!"
"Cobberly Road," cried Joe. "Back off to the right and let me run in ahead. I'm—I'm in a devil of a hurry."
"By Gad, sir, so am I. Hi, hold back there! Look out where you're going, confound you!"
"Now for it," cried Joe to Eleanor. "We've got the lead; I'll bet a bun he can't catch us." He had deliberately driven across the other's bows, as it were, scraping the wheel, and was off over Cobberly Road like the wind. "Turn to your right at the next crossing," he shouted back to Windomshire. Then to himself hopefully: "If he does that, he'll miss Fenlock by three miles."
They had covered two rash, terrifying miles before a word was spoken. Then he heard her voice in his ear—an anxious, troubled voice that could scarcely be heard above the rushing wind.
"What will we do if the train is late, dear? He'll be—be sure to catch us."
"She's never late. Besides, what if he does catch us? We don't have to go back, do we? You're of age. Brace up; be a man!" he called back encouragingly.
"There are too many men as it is," she wailed, sinking back into the tonneau.
"Here we are!" he shouted, as the car whizzed into a murky, dimly lighted street on the edge of Fenlock, the county seat. "There are the station lights just ahead."
"Is the train in?" she cried, struggling to her feet eagerly.
"I think not." He was slowing down. A moment later the throbbing car came to a stop beside the railway station platform. The lights blinked feebly through the mist; far off in the night arose the faint toot of a locomotive's whistle.
"We're just in time," he cried. "She's coming. Quick!" He lifted her bodily over the side of the car, jerked two suitcases from beneath the curtains, and rushed frantically to the shelter of the platform sheds.
"I'll leave you here, dear," he was saying rapidly. "Wait a second; there is your railroad ticket and your drawing-room ticket, too. I'll wake Derby when I get on board. I have to run the automobile down to Henry's garage first. Won't take ten seconds. Don't worry. The train won't be here for three or four minutes. Get on board and go to sleep. I'll be two cars ahead."
"Oh, Joe, won't I see you again before we start?" she cried despairingly.
"I'll be back in a minute. It's only half a block to Henry's. All I have to do is to leave the car in front of his place. His men will look after it. It's all understood, dearest; don't worry. I'll be here before the train, never fear. Stand here in the shadow, dear." He gave her what might have been a passionate kiss had it not been for the intervention of veil and goggles. Then he was off to the motor, his heart thumping frantically. Standing as stiff and motionless as a statue against the damp brick wall, she heard the automobile leap away and go pounding down the street. Apparently she was alone on the platform; the ticking of telegraph instruments came to her anxious ears, however, and she knew there were living people inside the long, low building. The experience certainly was new to this tall, carefully nurtured girl. Never before had she been left alone at such an hour and place; it goes without saying that the circumstances were unique. Here she was, standing alone in the most wretched of nights, her heart throbbing with a dozen emotions, her eyes and ears labouring in a new and thrilling enterprise, her whole life poised on the social dividing line. She was running away to marry the man she had loved for years; slipping away from the knot that ambition was trying to throw over her rebellious head. If she had any thought of the past or the future, however, it was lost among the fears and anxieties of the present. Her soul was crying out for the approach of two objects—Joe Dauntless and the north-bound flyer.
Her sharp ears caught the sound which told her that the motor had stopped down the street; it was a welcome sound, for it meant that he was racing back to the station—and just in time, too; the flyer was pounding the rails less than half a mile away.
Fenlock was a division point in the railroad. The company's yards and the train despatcher's office were located there. A huge round-house stood off to the right; half a dozen big headlights glared out at the shivering Eleanor like so many spying, accusing eyes. She knew that all trains stopped in Fenlock. Joe had told her that the flyer's pause was the briefest of any during the day or night; still she wondered if it would go thundering through and spoil everything.
Miss Thursdale, watching the approaching headlight, her ears filled with the din of the wheels, did not see or hear a second motor car rush up to the extreme south end of the platform. She was not thinking of Windomshire or his machine. That is why she failed to witness an extraordinary incident.
As the driver leaped from the car a second man disconnected himself from the shadows, paused for a moment to take orders from the new arrival, and then jumped into the seat just vacated. Whereupon the one-time driver performed precisely the same feat that Dauntless had performed three minutes before him. He jerked forth a couple of bags and then proceeded to lift from the tonneau of the car a vague but animate something, which, an instant later, resolved itself into the form of a woman at his side.
"I've settled with the company, Meaders," hurriedly announced Windomshire to the man on the seat. "The car is in your hands now."
"Yes, sir; I understand. Your week is up to-night. Hope it was satisfactory, sir." The car shot off in the night, almost running down a man who scudded across the street in its path.
"Just in time, Anne," said Windomshire to the tall, hooded figure beside him. "Thank God, we didn't miss it."
"Hasn't it been good sport, Harry?" cried the young woman, with an unmistakably English inflection. "It's just like a book."
"Only more so," he observed. "This has really happened, you know. Things never really happen in books, don't you know. You've not lost your tickets, dear?"
"No; they do that only in books. Really, I'm trembling like a leaf. I can't realise that it is all taking place as we planned, and that I am to be your wife after all. Ah, Harry! isn't it splendid?"
"'Gad, little woman, I am the one who hasn't the right to realise. By Jove, I didn't give myself credit for the cleverness to fool every one so neatly. Really, don't you know, however, I feel a bit sorry for Miss Thursdale. She's a ripping good sort, and I'm sorry on that account."
Miss Courtenay—erstwhile governess—took hold of the lapels of his raincoat and looked seriously up into his face. "Are you sure you'll never regret giving her up for me—with all her money?"
"Oh, I say, Anne dear, it's I who am running away, not you. I've always wanted you—all my life. I've been something of a cad—-"
"It wasn't your fault. Mrs. Thursdale was bound to have you. It's her way."
"It hurts my pride to say it, but hanged if I think—er—Eleanor was very strong for the match. I've a notion she was bullied into it."
"I'm quite sure of it."
"You're doing her a good turn, my dear. You see, I couldn't love her, and I'd probably have beaten her and all that. It wasn't as if I had to marry her for her money. Deuce take it, I've got a few pounds of my own."
"I'm only Anne Courtenay, the governess."
"You'll be Lady Windomshire some day, my word for it—if the other chaps manage to die, God bless 'em. I say, here's the train. Good- night, dear, up you go! I'll go up ahead. Don't forget! The wedding's at noon to-morrow."
The long, shadowy train came to a stop. He elbowed the porter aside and helped her up the steps. Neither of them noticed the vague figure which rushed across the platform and into the second car below.
"Where's the luggage car?" shouted Windomshire to the porter.
"I mean the baggage van."
"Way up front, sir. Where they're puttin' on the trunks, sir."
Swinging his travelling bag almost at arm's length, the long Englishman raced forward. His own and Miss Courtenay's pieces had come over during the afternoon, skilfully smuggled out of the Thursdale house. Just as he reached the baggage truck a panting, mud-covered individual dashed up from the opposite direction, madly rushing for the train. They tried to avoid a collision, but failed. A second later the two men were staring into each other's eyes, open-mouthed and dismayed.
"Hello!" gasped Dauntless, staggered.
"What the devil, sir, do—My word! It's Dauntless!" sputtered Windomshire.
"Where is she?" shouted Joe, convinced that his rival had captured his runaway fiancee and was now confronting him for explanation.
"Confound you, sir, it's none of your business," roared Windomshire, confident that Dauntless had been sent by Mrs. Thursdale to intercept him in his flight with the governess. "Damn your impudence!"
"Stand aside, Windomshire," exclaimed Joe, white with anger and dread. "I'm going to find her. What have you done with her?"
"You sha'n't interfere, Dauntless," cried Windomshire, squaring himself. "She's going to be my wife, and—-"
"I guess NOT! Get out of my way, or—-"
"She's on that train, confound you, and I'm going away with her whether you like it or not—or anybody else, for that matter," said Windomshire, refusing to budge an inch.
"Well, you'll have a damned hard time getting rid of me," roared Joe, trying to break past his rival. A baggage-man leaped between them in time to prevent blows. He held the angry, mistaken rivals apart,— rivals no longer, if they only knew. "Let go of me! Hold this fellow and I'll give you a hundred dollars—hold him till the train goes!"
"Hold me, will you? My word! What is this? A highway robbery!"
Both men broke away from the baggage-man and rushed frantically down the line of cars, each trying to hold the other back. Joe succeeded in grasping the handrail of the first sleeping-car, but his adversary pulled him away. An instant later they were struggling across the station platform, clasped in savage and hysterical combat. The station employees were rushing up to separate them when the train began to move slowly away.
They came to their senses a moment later to find themselves held firmly by brawny peacemakers, the black cars rushing swiftly by without them.
Forgetting the battle so inopportunely begun, they started off madly in pursuit, shouting, yelling, commanding. But the flyer was deaf to their cries, callous against their tears. It whistled off into the north, carrying two trusting, nervous young women, who were secure in the belief that their liege lords to be were aboard, utterly unconscious of the true state of affairs. In the drawing-room of Car 5 Eleanor was still sitting, with her veil down, her raincoat saturating the couch on which she sat stiff and silent. Anne Courtenay in Car 7 was philosophically preparing for bed, absolutely confident that the Englishman she had loved for years was not going to fail her.
Windomshire, alas, came to grief in his useless pursuit. He fell off the end of the platform and rolled in the mud, half stunned. When he painfully picked himself up, he saw Dauntless sitting on the edge of the walk, his haggard, staring face lighted by the glare of a sympathetic lantern. The station agent was offering vain but well- intended commiseration.
"Good God!" he heard Joe groan, but he did not catch the words, "she's gone without me!"
The next instant the distracted eloper was on his feet demanding a special engine.
"I've got to have it!" he shouted.
Windomshire's wits returned. Why not have a special too? It was the only way.
"You can order one for me, too," he exclaimed. "At once. It's imperative."
THE MORNING AFTER
The sun was peeping over the hilltops and shooting his merry glance across the rain-soaked lowlands when Eleanor Thursdale awoke from her final snatch of slumber. A hundred feverish lapses into restless subconsciousness had marked the passage of nearly as many miles of clatter and turmoil. Never before had she known a train to be so noisy; never before had she lain awake long enough to make the natural discovery. It seemed hours before she dropped off in the first surrender to sleep; it seemed hours between the succeeding falls. Her brain and heart were waging the most relentless battle against peace and security. She KNEW Joe Dauntless was but two cars ahead, and yet she wondered if were really there; she wondered and was troubled—oh, so troubled.
Daylight was creeping in beneath the curtain of the window. She stretched her fine, tired young body, and for the first time really felt like going to sleep. The perversity of early morning! Gradually it dawned upon her that the train was not moving; as far back as she could recall in her now wakeful spell it occurred to her that the cars had been standing still and that everything was as quiet as death. She looked at her watch; it was six o'clock.
"Goodness!" she thought, sitting up suddenly, "what is the matter?" The curtain flew up and her startled eyes blinked out upon the glaring world.
There was not a house in sight as far as her eyes could range forward and behind. Instead, a wide sweep of farm lands partially submerged by the flood water of many rains. Far away there were brown hills and a long army of tall trees standing at attention,—a bleak prospect despite the cheery intentions of the sun, which lurked behind the hills. Despondent cornstalks of last year's growth stood guard over the soggy fields; drenched, unhappy tufts of grass, and forlorn but triumphant reeds arose here and there from the watery wastes, asserting their victory over a dismantled winter. It was not a glorious view that met the gaze of the bride on her wedding morn.
Strangest of all, the train was so quiet, so utterly inactive, that an absurd feeling of loneliness grew upon her, gradually developing into the alarming certainty that she was the only living person in the world. Then she heard men's voices outside of the window; her relief was almost hysterical. Scrambling out of the berth, she began a hasty, nervous toilet. Three sharp pushes on the button brought the company's ladies' maid—advertised as a part of the luxury and refinement which made the flyer "the finest train in the world."
"What has happened? Where are we?" she demanded, upon the entrance of the sleepy young coloured woman.
"The Pride River bridge is washed away, ma'am," said the maid. "We can't go on no furder."
"Dear me," sighed Eleanor, turning to be buttoned at the back. "And where is Pride River bridge—or where was it, I mean?"
"'Bout twenty mile south of Omegon, ma'am—miss. The river's a sight— highest 'at it's ever been known. It's all over the bottoms. This here train came mighty nigh running into it, too. A boy flagged it just in time, 'bout five o'clock."
"Have we been standing here a whole hour?"
"Yes, miss; right here. They say we can't go back till the section boss has examined the track in Baxter's Cut. Seems as though there's some danger of a washout back yander."
"Do you mean to say we are likely to stay here indefinitely?" gasped Eleanor. "Ouch! Be careful, please!"
"Oh, it won't be long. The porter says they've sent back over the line to telegraft for the section men."
"Good Heavens, is there no station here?"
"No, ma'am; five miles back. They's one jest across the river, but it might as well be in Africa."
"Be quick, please, and then send the conductor to me—and the porter too," urged Eleanor, in distress.
The porter was the first to arrive.
"Porter, will you go to Car 7 and see if the occupant of lower 4 is awake? I am quite sure that is right, but if it should happen to be wrong, please let me know at once."
"Yes, miss; and what shall I tell her?"
"Ahem! It's a—a gentleman. Ask him to—to come to the rear end of the train. That's all. Oh, conductor, how soon will we be on the track again?" The conductor was standing in the door, evidently impressed by the summons from the drawing-room.
"We're not off the track, madam. There is no danger—just a little delay. I have telegraphed to see if I can have a relief train come down from Omegon and pick us up after we've been ferried across the river."
"This is the very worst road I've ever travelled over—the very worst," was Eleanor's natural complaint. "When will that get us to Omegon?"
"We should be there in an hour after leaving here."
"And when did you say we'd leave here?"
"I didn't say. I don't know."
"Who does know, if you don't?" demanded Eleanor.
"God, I presume," observed the harassed conductor, turning away with the realisation that he had erred in coming to her in the first place. The porter returned at that moment.
"Nobody in that section, ma'am. It was sold, but the party didn't show up."
"Good Heavens, you—but he DID show up. I—I know he did. Look again. Try—but wait! Ask for Mr. Dauntless. Ask quietly, please."
Her nerves at highest tension, Miss Thursdale made her way toward the rear platform of the train. She passed down the curtained aisles of two coaches, wondering how people could sleep so soundly in a crisis like this. A porter politely opened a door and she slipped out upon the last platform. As far as the eye could reach stretched the roadbed and its telegraph poles, finally disappearing in the haze of the morning. Wide-spread flood, soaking the flat—-
A sharp cry of amazement came from the track just below her. She looked down and into the eyes of Anne Courtenay, the governess. For a full minute they stared blankly at each other, apparently bereft of all the agencies that fall to the lot of woman.
"Miss Courtenay!" finally came from the lips of the girl on the platform.
"Miss Thursdale!" murmured Anne, reaching out to support herself against the bumper. Other words failed to come for the time being. In sheer despair, neither could accomplish more than a pallid smile. To the reader is left the privilege of analysing the thoughts which surged through the brains of the bewildered young women,—the fears, the doubts, the resentments.
"Where—where have you been?" at last fell from Miss Thursdale's lips.
"Been?" repeated Miss Courtenay, vaguely. "Oh, yes; I've been taking a walk—a constitutional. I always do."
Eleanor stared harder than ever. "All this distance?" she murmured.
"Down the track for half a mile, Miss Thursdale."
"Are—were you on this train?" ejaculated Eleanor.
"Yes—but I—I—-" stammered Anne, her face growing red with rising resentment. "I did not think this of you."
"What do you mean? It is—May I ask why you are here, Miss Courtenay? It is most extraordinary."
"It is very easily explained," said Miss Courtenay, after a moment's battle with veracity. "My aunt is very ill in Vancouver." To herself she was saying: "I must keep her from really seeing Harry. She knows what he has done—in heaven's name, how could she have found it out?— and she is waiting to catch us if she can. She has followed us! Thank goodness, I've seen her first."
Eleanor was not blessed with the possibility of such an explanation for Anne's presence; she could only believe that the governess had been suddenly called to the bedside of her aunt—a real person, she happened to know, and very rich. But how was she to account for her own astonishing departure from home? Miss Courtenay had seen her at dinner; nothing had been said regarding "an unexpected journey." In truth, Eleanor remembered with inflexible accuracy that she had announced her intention to go to bed with a headache. Then, what must Miss Courtenay be thinking at this very instant?
An inspiration came to her like a flash. "I—I am running away, Miss Courtenay," she cried, with a brave attempt to appear naive.
"I don't understand," murmured poor Anne.
"Of course you don't," said Eleanor, inspiration heaping itself up within her. "Not really, you know, but just for a few days' rest. Mother thinks I'm looking wretchedly. We didn't say anything about it- -except to Mr. Windomshire, of course. He knows. Perhaps he will run up to Omegon in a day or two to see me. It's very quiet there, and I'll get a good rest. The hotel is delightful—facing the lake. And the bathing's good. Dear me, I'm so sorry about your aunt." Miss Courtenay's eyes actually blinked with perplexity. This was a most staggering bit of news. Eleanor flushed painfully under the gaze of the other; utter rout followed. She stammered some flimsy excuse and dashed back into the car. To herself she was crying: "I must find Joe and tell him to keep out of sight. Oh, how awful this is!"
Just inside the door she met her porter.
"There's nobody named Dauntless on the train, miss. A gentleman who said he was his friend thinks he missed the train perhaps."
"He—he—oh, I see!" said Eleanor, suddenly perceiving method in Joe's reluctance to answer to his own name. "Thank you. That's all." Then, to herself: "He has seen Miss Courtenay, and she HASN'T seen him,— that's plain." She handed the porter a coin.
"I went to the berth you mentioned, ma'am, and I asked through the curtains: 'Is Mr. Dauntless in here?' There was a lady in the upper, miss, an'—an'—well, I'll never forget what she said to me." Eleanor had gone before he concluded, determined to unearth her cautious lover, if possible.
Anne caught the porter before he could follow.
"See here, porter," she whispered softly, "go to Car 5, section 6, and call its occupant. Tell him NOT to get up. Do you understand? NOT to get up!"
It goes without saying, of course, that all efforts, secret or otherwise, failed to locate the missing men. The distracted brides, each trying to run away from the other in a way, were in a state of collapse, necessarily subdued but most alarming. The Rev. Henry Derby, a nice-looking young fellow, who looked more like a tennis player than a minister of the gospel, eventually identified his old friend's ladye faire, and introduced himself with a discreetness that proved him to have been in college at the proper period and in a somewhat different class from that which he now sought to lead. In the privacy of her drawing-room the bewitching but distressed young woman discussed the situation with the man who had been chosen to perform the clandestine ceremony in the far-away town of Omegon. Derby, coming on from his eastern home in loyal acquiescence to his friend's request, had designedly taken this train, it being understood that Dauntless would board it at Fenlock with his fair conspirator. We all know why Dauntless failed to perform his part of the agreement; Derby, with the perspicuity of a college man, finally advanced a reason for his inexplicable failure to appear. Eleanor had begun tearfully to accuse him of abandoning her at the last moment; Mr. Derby indignantly scouted the idea. When she related their chase in the motor and their escape from Windomshire, he formed his conclusions, and they were in the main remarkably correct.
"I'm afraid, Miss Thursdale, that your disappointed lover, our ancient enemy, the Englishman, was not to be overcome so neatly. Has it occurred to you that he may have reached Fenlock before the train left, and that he is the explanation for Joe's non-appearance?"
"You—you don't mean that he has killed—-" she was gasping, growing whiter and whiter. He hastened to reassure her.
"Oh, no; not so bad as that. But it is possible and quite probable that he—if, as you say, he was on to your—I should say, aware of your flight, it is probable that he succeeded in detaining Joe in Fenlock. That would—-" "Impossible! Joe wouldn't let him!" she cried indignantly.
"Perhaps Joe couldn't help himself. Such things happen. At any rate, you'll understand, the despised enemy could have—-"
"Mr. Windomshire is not a despised enemy. He's a VERY nice man, Mr. Derby," she interrupted.
"Certainly, Miss Thursdale. What I meant to say was, that he was morally sure of preventing the wedding if he could only keep you far enough apart. Now that is probably what he has done. You can't marry Joe in Omegon or anywhere else unless he is there and not in Fenlock."
"I see. Well, I'll go back to Fenlock!" she exclaimed emphatically, a little line of determination and stubbornness settling about the erstwhile trembling lips.
"I admire your loyalty," he said warmly. "Just at present, however, we are water-bound here, and we've got to make the best of it. I fancy Joe will telegraph before long."
"If—if he hasn't been hurt. Oh, Mr. Derby, they may have fought. It would be just like them. It may be dreadfully serious. You don't know as much about men as I do. They're terribly—-"
"Please don't worry, Miss Thursdale," he said, smiling in recollection of his football days. "You'll find there's been nothing bloody about all this. The delay is vexatious, but only temporary, I'm sure."
"I'll marry Joe Dauntless now if it has to be delayed a hundred years," she cried, her eyes flashing.
During the next half-hour poor Derby ran errands, carried messages and complaints to every one of the train men, finally administering smelling salts when it occurred to Eleanor that Joe might have fallen off the train during the night.
In the meantime Anne Courtenay was having a sad half-hour of it. She had no one to turn to, no one to think it all out for her; she was alone and in great despair. The porter had failed to find the tall Englishman; the conductor had been equally unsuccessful; she herself had searched in vain. His trunks and hers were in the baggage car, she found, but there was no sign of the man himself. She was a self- reliant, sensible young woman, accustomed to the rigours of the world, but this was quite too overwhelming. The presence on the train of the girl that she had, to all intents and purposes, cruelly deceived, did not add to her comfort. As a matter of fact, she was quite fond of Eleanor; they were warm friends despite the vagaries of love. Miss Courtenay, among other things, began to wonder, as she sat in her tumbled berth, if retribution had more to do with this than chance.
"Could he have fallen off the train?" she wondered, with a sudden chill of apprehension. The next instant she was calling to the porter. "Send the conductor to me at once. My friend has fallen off the train- -out of his window, perhaps. I am quite sure of it. I want an engine to go back and look for him. Hurry, please! don't stand there grinning."
The Pullman conductor came up at that moment.
"Are you the young lady who was asking for Mr. Dauntless?" he asked.
"Dauntless?" she murmured. "No, I'm asking for an engine. Have you—"
"There's another young lady asking for an engine, too, madam. It's impossible."
"Am I to understand that I shall have to walk?—Oh," with a sudden start, "is—is there a Mr. Dauntless missing too?"
"Seems so. He's gone."
Anne dropped the curtains in his face, and then stared at them for a long time. Gradually she began to comprehend. A panic of fear came over her.
"They have met somewhere and quarrelled! Mr. Dauntless was jealous— terribly so. He may have—good Heavens!—he may have killed him in the mistaken idea that Harry was running away with Eleanor. She's on this very train! It's perfectly natural. Porter," she called, "there has been foul play!"
"Gee, miss! That's what the other lady is saying!"
"The other—then it is a double murder! Don't laugh! It's—it's—"
"Don't cry, miss; it's all right." She looked at him piteously for a moment, and then smiled at the absurdity of her conjecture.
A tousled head came from between the curtains of the upper berth opposite, and a sleepy, hoarse voice demanded:
"How long will we be here? What's the latest?"
"We're on time, sah," replied the porter, from sheer force of habit.
"The devil we are! Say, I've got to be in Omegon by ten o'clock. I'll sue this infernal road," snarled the irascible party, snapping the curtains together. It transpired that he was an agent for a medical college, travelling to Omegon on a most unwholesome but edifying mission. He was going up to take possession of the body of a man who had willed his carcass to the school. As the poor chap was not yet dead, but hopelessly ill, the desire for haste on the part of the agent may be misunderstood. It seems, however, that there was some talk of interference by relatives—and the disquieting prospect of a new will.
"If I were you, miss," counselled the porter, "I'd go out and take a little walk. The sun is up, an' it's fine. The relief train will be here 'fore long—an' you all will be rowed acrost the river. Don't worry."
"But I want to go back the way I came," expostulated Anne, feebly. "I can't go on without—until I know what has happened to—to Mr. Windomshire." She took his advice, however, and made her way to the rear platform.
A number of disgruntled passengers were now abroad, and complaining bitterly of the delay. There was no hope of breakfast until the train reached Omegon, where a dining car was waiting. She stood on the platform and looked gloomily back over the long stretch of roadbed.
"Isn't that an engine coming?" some one asked excitedly at her side. She turned and found Miss Thursdale, attended by a gentleman, to whom the question was addressed.
"I believe—yes, it is, Miss Thursdale."
"Then—then we'll all be taken back to the city," she said dejectedly.
"I fancy not. It's probably bringing relief."
"They—they may be bringing bad news," Eleanor groaned. "Oh, Miss Courtenay, how do you do—again? How is your—your grandmother, wasn't it?"
"I—I—yes, I think so—I mean, I think she's no better. They may be bringing his body!" said the other girl, her eyes fixed on the distant locomotive.
"Oh!" almost screamed Eleanor, and stared wildly without words.
A brakeman far down the track was flagging the locomotive; it came to a stop, and several men were seen climbing down from the cab. Two of them eventually disengaged themselves from the little group and hurried forward. One was carrying a suitcase, and both walked as though they were either in pain or attended by extreme old age.
"Why—why—" gasped Eleanor, "it's Joe!"
"And—yes, thank God, it's Har—Mr. Windomshire," almost shrieked Anne.
Then they turned and looked at each other in confusion. Neither had the courage to carry out the desire to fly to the arms of the man she longed to see more than all else in the world. They felt themselves to be caught red-handed.
MRS. VAN TRUDER INTRUDES
None but the most eager, loving eyes could possibly have recognised the newcomers. It is not unlikely that the remaining passengers mistook them for tramps. The rivals, morbidly suspicious of each other, taciturn to the point of unfriendliness, had indeed chartered a locomotive—not jointly by intention, but because of provoking necessity. There was but one engine to be had. It is safe to say that while they travelled many sore and turbulent miles in close proximity to each other, neither felt called upon to offer or to demand an explanation.
Five hours in the tender of an engine had done much to reduce them to the level of the men in the cab, so far as personal appearance was concerned. They were still wearing their raincoats, much crumpled and discoloured; their faces were covered with coal dust; they were wet, bedraggled, and humble to the last degree. The American, naturally, was the one who clung to his suitcase; he had foreseen the need for a change of linen. They came toward the train with hesitating, uncertain steps. If their souls were gladdened by the sight of the two young women, general appearances failed to make record of it. It was noted by those who watched their approach that once both of them stopped short and seemed to waver in their determination to advance. That was when each became suddenly aware of the presence of an unexpected girl. Naturally, the Englishman was seriously staggered. The unexplained Eleanor appeared before his very eyes as an accusing nemesis; it is no wonder that his jaw dropped and his befuddled brain took to whirling.
The girls, less regardful of appearances, climbed down from the platform and started forward to meet their knights-errant. The reader may readily appreciate the feelings of the quartette. Not one of them knew just precisely how much or how little the others knew; they were precariously near to being lost in the labyrinth. Something intangible but regular urged Windomshire to be politic; he advanced to meet Eleanor as if it were her due. Anne fell back, perplexed and hurt.
"Hang it all," thought Joe, rage in his heart, "he beat me to her, after all. He'll be enough of a damned ass to try to kiss her before all these people, too." Whereupon, he closed his eyes tightly. When he opened them, Miss Courtenay was walking beside him and asking questions about the weather. Her cheeks were very pink. Windomshire had awkwardly clasped the hand of Miss Thursdale, muttering something not quite intelligible, even to himself. Eleanor was replying with equal blitheness.
"How nice of you to come. Where are you going?"
"Surprised, are you?" he was floundering. "Charmed. Ha, ha! By Jove, Eleanor—er—I heard you were booked by this train and I—I tried to catch it for a bit of a ride with you. I missed it, don't you know. I'll—I'll wager you don't know what I did in my desperation."
"I couldn't guess," she said, trying to catch Joe's eye.
"I hired a private engine, 'pon my word, and then telegraphed ahead to stop this train!"
"Di—did you do that?" she gasped, forgetting that the bridge was out.
Dauntless, meantime, was trying to explain to Miss Courtenay. She already had told him that her aunt was ill in Vancouver, and he had smiled politely and aimlessly.
"I'm on my way to M——. Sudden trip, very important," he was saying. "Missed the train—I dare say it was this one—so I took an engine to follow up. Had to ride in the tender."
"It must have been important," she ventured.
"It was. I—" then with an inspired plunge—"I was due at a wedding."
"How unfortunate! I hope you won't miss it altogether."
Joe caught his breath and thought: "Now what the devil did she mean by that? Has Eleanor told her the whole story?"
It must not be supposed that these young persons were lacking in the simpler gifts of intelligence; they were, individually, beginning to put two and two together, as the saying goes. They were grasping the real situation—groping for it, perhaps, but with a clear-sightedness and acumen which urged that a cautious tongue was expedient. If the duplicity was really as four-handed as it seemed, there could be no harm in waiting for the other fellow to blunder into exposure. Nothing could be explained, of course, until the conspirators found opportunity to consult privately under the new order of assignment.
"How romantic!" Eleanor said, as she walked stiffly ahead with her uncomfortable fiance.
"Eh?" was his simple remark. He was suddenly puzzled over the fact that he HAD caught up to the train. There was something startling in that. "Oh—er—not at all romantic, most prosaic. Couldn't get a coach. Been here long?"
"Since five o'clock."
"I—I suppose you got up to see the sunrise."
"No, to see the river rise," she replied. "The bridge is gone." He was silent for twenty paces, trying to recall what he had said about telegraphing ahead.
"You don't mean it! Then I daresay they haven't got my telegram stopping the train."
Dauntless had just said to Anne, in a fit of disgust: "Windomshire's got a lot of nerve. That was my engine, you know. I hired it."
Windomshire went on to say, careful that Joe was quite out of hearing: "Mr. Dauntless was quite annoying. He got into my engine without an invitation, and I'm hanged if he'd take a hint, even after I hired a stoker to throw a spadeful of coal over him. I don't know why he should be in such a confounded hurry to get to—what's the name of the place? I—er—I really think I must go and speak to Miss Courtenay, Eleanor. She—er—looks ill."
"It's her grandmother who is ill—not she. But, yes! Please try to cheer her up a bit, Harry. She's terribly upset."
"I'm sure she is," muttered he, dropping back with more haste than gallantry. Mr. Dauntless sprang forward with equal alacrity, and wrong was right a moment later.
"Joe dear," whispered Eleanor, "I've been nearly crazy. What happened?" He was vainly trying to clasp her hand.
"Nell, he's on to us. I wish I knew just why Miss Courtenay is here. Lord, I'll never forget that ride."
"It was just like you to take advantage of his engine."
"His engine!" exploded Joe, wrathfully. Securely separated from the others, the elopers analysed the situation as best they could. Two separate enterprises struggled earnestly for an outcome. On the surface, the truth seemed plain enough: it was quite clear to both parties that the extraordinary chain of coincidence was not entirely due to Providence. There was something of design behind it all. The staggering part was the calamitous way in which chance had handled their dear and private affairs.
"He doesn't know that you were in my automobile," concluded Dauntless, almost at the same time that a like opinion was being expressed by Windomshire. "Are you willing to go on with it, Nell? Are you scared out of it?"
"No, indeed," she exclaimed, perplexity leaving her brow. "At first I feared he might have telegraphed to mother, but now I am sure he hasn't. He was not following me at all. He is in love with Anne, and he was surreptitiously off for a part of the distance with her. He really doesn't want to marry me, you know."
"Well, he isn't going to, you see. By all that is holy, nothing shall stop us now, dear. We'll go on to Omegon and carry out everything just as we planned. If he's running off after another girl, it's time you put an end to him. Don't give him a thought."
"Don't you think we'd better talk it over with Mr. Derby? He discreetly disappeared when he saw it was you."
"Right! Let's hunt him out. By Jove, we can have him marry us right here,—great!"
"No," she cried firmly, "it MUST be in a church." He could not move her from that stand.
"Oh, if we could only get across that confounded river!" scolded Joe, as they went off in search of Derby.
Windomshire was slowly reconciling himself to the fact that Eleanor loved Dauntless, but he could not get it out of his head that she still expected to marry as her mother had planned.
"See here, Anne, it's all very well to say that she loves Dauntless. Of course she does. But that isn't going to prevent her from marrying me. I don't believe she was running away with him, don't you know. He was simply following her. That's the way these Americans do, you know. Now, the question is, won't she think it odd that you and I should happen to be doing almost the same thing?"
"To be sure she will," said Anne, coolly. "She has a very bad opinion of me. I'm sure she doesn't believe you expect to marry me."
"By Jove, dear, it sounds rather dreadful, doesn't it?" he groaned. "But of course you ARE going to marry me, so what's the odds? Then she can marry Dauntless to her heart's content. I say, are we never to get away from this beastly place?"
"They are to row us across the river in boats. We'll be taken up by another train over there and carried on. Poor Mr. Dauntless, he looks so harassed."
"By Jove, I feel rather cut up about him. He ought to have her, Anne. He's a decent chap, although he was da—very unreasonable last night. I like him, too, in spite of the fact that he kicked coal over me twice in that confounded bin. He was good enough to take a cinder out of my eye this morning, and I helped him to find his watch in the coal-bin. I say, Anne, we might get a farm wagon and drive to some village where there is a minister—"
"No, Harry! you know I've set my heart on being married in a church. It seems so much more decent and—regular; especially after what has just happened."
A porter appeared in the rear platform and shouted a warning to all those on the ground.
"Get yo' things together. The boats'll be ready in ten minutes, ladies and gen'l'men." The locomotive uttered a few sharp whistles to reinforce his shouts, and everybody made a rush for the cars.
The conductor and other trainmen had all they could do to reassure the more nervous and apprehensive of the passengers, many of whom were afraid of the swollen, ugly river just ahead. Boats had been sent up from a town some miles down the stream, and the passengers with their baggage, the express, and the mail pouches were to be ferried across. Word had been received that a makeshift train would pick them up on the other side, not far from the wrecked bridge, and take them to Omegon as quickly as possible.
It was also announced that the company would be unable to send a train beyond Omegon and into the northwest for eight or ten hours, owing to extensive damage by the floods. Repairs to bridges and roadbed were necessary. In the meantime, the passengers would be cared for at the Somerset Hotel in Omegon, at the company's expense. The company regretted and deplored, etc.
There was a frightful clamour by the through passengers, threats of lawsuits, claims for damage, execrations, and groans. In time, however, the whole company went trooping down the track under the leadership of the patient conductor. It was a sorry, disgruntled parade. Everybody wanted a porter at once, and when he could not get one, berated the road in fiercer terms than ever; men who had always carried their own bags to escape feeing a porter, now howled and raged because there was not an army of them on the spot. Everybody was constantly "damning" the luck.
The conductor led his charges from the track through a muddy stubble- field and down to a point where half a dozen small rowboats were waiting among the willows. Dauntless and Eleanor were well up in front, their faces set resolutely toward Omegon. For some well-defined reason, Windomshire and Anne were the last in the strange procession. The medical college agent, the tall and sombre Mr. Hooker, was the first man into a boat. He said it was a case of life or death.
Eleanor looked backward down the long file of trailers, a little smile on her lips.
"They are not all going away to be married, are they, Joe?" she said, taking note of the unbroken array of sour countenances.
"It looks like a funeral, my dear. Look at the cadaverous individual beside the con—Heavens, Nell, isn't that—by George, it is! It's old Mrs. Van Truder! Back there about half-way—the fat one. See her? Good Lord!"
Eleanor turned pale and the joyous light fled from her eyes.
"Oh, dear! I forgot that the Van Truders spend all their summers at Omegon. And it is she—and he, too. Oh, Joe, it's just awful!"
"She's the worst old cat in town," groaned Dauntless. "We can't escape her. She'll spot us, and she'll never let go of us. I don't mind him. He's so near-sighted he couldn't see us. But she!"
"She will suspect, Joe—she's sure to suspect, and she'll watch us like a hawk," whispered the distressed Eleanor. The Van Truders lived in the same block with the Thursdales in town. "She'll telegraph to mother!"
"That reminds me," muttered Joe, looking at his watch. "I had hoped to telegraph to your mother about this time."
"She will forgive us," said she, but she failed in her assumption of confidence. As a matter of fact she felt that her mother would not forgive.
"Well, you left a note pinned on your pillow," said he, as if that covered all the sins.
"Yes, but it was directed to Miss Courtenay, asking her to break it gently to mamma," said she, dismally.
They had reached the edge of the river by this time and others came up with them. For a while they managed to keep out of old Mrs. Van Truder's range of vision, but her sharp eyes soon caught sight of them as they tried to slip into a boat that was already crowded to its full capacity.
"Why, Eleanor Thursdale!" shouted the old lady, her aristocratic eyes almost crossing in their stare of amazement.
"Discovered!" groaned Dauntless to the willows.
Mrs. Van Truder pounced upon Eleanor and, between personal questions and impersonal reflections upon non-government railways, gave her a dizzy quarter of an hour. She ignored Mr. Dauntless almost completely,—quite entirely when she discovered Mr. Windomshire in the background. Little old Mr. Van Truder, in his usual state of subjection, was permitted to study the scenery at close range.
"I was so afraid you'd marry that horrid Dauntless fellow," whispered Mrs. Van Truder. Eleanor gave vent to a constrained laugh.
"How perfectly preposterous!"
"When are you to be married, my dear?"
"At once—I mean, quite soon. Isn't the scenery beautiful, Mr. Van Truder?" asked Eleanor in desperation.
"It's too far away. I can't see it," grumbled the old gentleman.
"He's so very near-sighted," explained his wife. "Do you expect to stay long at the Somerset?"
"It all depends," said Eleanor, with a glance at Dauntless.
"Isn't that your governess with Mr. Windomshire? I can't be mistaken."
"Yes, she's going out to spend a few weeks with a rich aunt,—her sister's mother, I think."
"How's that?" gasped the old lady.
"I mean her mother's sister."
"It sounded very strange, my dear."
"About the mother having a sister?" guessed old Mr. Van Truder, sharply. "Seems all right to me."
"They are going to row us across the river," volunteered Eleanor, helplessly.
"Good-morning, Mr. Windomshire," called Mrs. Van Truder. Windomshire started and got very red in the face. Miss Courtenay's bow went unnoticed by the old lady. In sheer despair, the Englishman turned to Dauntless, a fellow-sufferer.
"I say, old man," he began nervously, "I'd like to ask a favour of you."
"Go ahead—anything I can do," said the other, blankly. Windomshire continued in lowered tones:
"Deucedly awkward, but I forgot my bags at Fenlock. I see you've got yours. Would you mind lending me a fresh shirt and a collar, old chap?"
"Gladly," cried Joe, very much relieved. "Will you take them now?" starting to open his bag. Windomshire hastily interposed.
"I'd rather not, old chap. It's rather exposed here, don't you know. Later on, if you please. Thanks, old man; I'll not forget this." They shook hands without any apparent excuse.
"Mr. Windomshire!" called Mrs. Van Truder. He turned with a hopeless look in his eyes. The two girls had misery and consternation plainly stamped in their faces. "We can't all go over in the next boats, you know. I've no doubt you and Miss Thursdale would not in the least mind being left to the last," with a sly smile.
"Oh—er—ah, by Jove!" gasped Windomshire, with a glance at the still faces of the young women. He saw no relief there.
"Blamed cat!" muttered Dauntless, gritting his teeth.
"Mr. Dauntless, will you and Miss Courtenay come with us in this boat? I want some one to keep the snakes away; Mr. Van Truder can't see them, you know."
There was no way out of it. Joe and Anne meekly followed the Van Truders into the wobbly boat, resentment in their hearts, uncertainty in their minds. They rowed away, leaving Windomshire and Eleanor standing among the willows, ill at ease and troubled beyond expression.
AS NIGHT APPROACHES
Neither spoke until the boat came to its slippery, uncertain landing- place on the opposite side of the river. Then each breathed easier, in a sigh that seemed to express both relief and dismay.
"It's a very ugly looking river," she murmured encouragingly. She was afraid he might feel obliged, in honour, to offer an explanation for his presence, perhaps attempt to convince her in some tangible way that she was to expect nothing but slavish devotion from him in the future.
"I don't wonder that the bridge gave way," he replied politely. They looked at each other involuntarily, and then instantly looked away.
"I'd give my head to know what she expects of me," thought Windomshire miserably.
"How I despise that old woman!" welled up in Eleanor's bitter heart. Everything was awry. Luckily for both of them a small boy slipped into the river at that moment. He was rescued by the brakeman, but not until the catastrophe had served its purpose as a godsend. The excitement which attended the rescue saved the couple an uncomfortable ten minutes. Eleanor went to the assistance of the distracted mother; Windomshire, in his eagerness to do something, offered to exchange clothes with the dripping trainman; the small boy howled as lustily as his wheezy lungs would permit. Everybody shouted advice to the mother, rebukes to the boy, and praise to the hero; altogether Providence was acting most handsomely.
At last the final boatload of passengers crossed the river and drew up at the landing; Eleanor, with her bewildered fiance, stepped into the beaming presence of Mrs. Van Truder.
"Come with us," she said with a friendliness that shattered all hope. "Mr. Van Truder has just arranged for breakfast at that farmhouse over there. The relief train won't be here for half an hour or more and you must be famished." Eleanor's flimsy excuses were unavailing; her protestations that she could not eat a mouthful fell on obdurate ears. Windomshire, catching sight of the forlorn Anne, was about to assert himself vigorously in declining the invitation when a meaning look from the governess caused him to refrain. The look very plainly told him to accept.
The unhappy couple followed the Van Truders to the nearby farmhouse. They left behind them on the edge of the crowd, seated side by side on a pile of ties, two miserable partners in the fiasco. Gloomy, indeed, was the outlook for Miss Courtenay and the despised Mr. Dauntless. They were silent for many minutes after the departure, rage in their hearts. Then Mr. Dauntless could hold his tongue no longer.
"Damn her!" he exploded so viciously that Anne jumped and cried out,—
"Oh, you feel just as I do about it only you won't say it aloud," he exclaimed. "I won't stand for it!"
"I—I am sure Miss Thursdale has done nothing to deserve your curses," she began diplomatically.
"Good Heavens, Miss Courtenay, you—Oh, I say, you know I didn't mean Eleanor. The old pelican—that's the one. Old Mrs. Intruder," he grated.
"I am sure it is all quite regular," observed Anne, so seriously that he looked at her in wonder. It began to creep into his head that his speculations were wrong, after all. At any rate it seemed advisable to put a sharp curb on his tongue.
"I'm sorry I spoke as I did about the old lady," he said, after a moment's reflection. "I was thinking of the way in which she left you out of her invitation to breakfast."
"And yourself, incidentally," she smiled.
"Miss Courtenay, I'm—I'm a confounded ass for not thinking of your breakfast. It's not too late. We are both hungry. Won't you come with me and have a bit of something to eat? We'll try that farmhouse ourselves. Come, let us hurry or the crowd will get in ahead of us. Ham and eggs and coffee! they always have that sort of breakfast in farmhouses, I'm told. Come."
She sprang up cheerfully, and followed him across the meadow to the farmhouse. The Van Truder party was entering the door, smoke pouring forth suggestively from a chimney in the rear of the house. The sudden desire for ham and eggs was overcoming, in a way, the pangs of outraged love; there was solace in the new thought.
That breakfast was one never to be forgotten by four persons; two others remembered it to their last days on account of its amazing excellence. A dozen persons were crowded into the little dining-room; no one went forth upon his travels with an empty stomach. No such profitable harvest had ever been reaped by the farmer. Dauntless and Anne ate off of a sewing-table in the corner. Mrs. Van Truder deliberately refused to hear Mr. Windomshire's timorous suggestion that they "make room" for them at the select table. Silent anathemas accompanied every mouthful of food that went down the despot's throat, but she did not know it. Fortunately the lovers were healthy and hungry.