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- Graustark - 5/57 -
"Oh!" she gasped. "I did not mean to be inquisitive."
"But I grant the right. He gave it me inside of two hours after I first entered the car."
"How do you know I got on at Denver?'
"Why, you passed me in the aisle with your luggage. Don't you remember?"
Did he remember! His heart almost turned over with the joy of knowing that she had really noticed and remembered him. Involuntarily his glad fingers closed down upon the gloved hand that lay beneath them.
"I believe I do remember, now that you speak of it," he said, in a stifled voice. "You were standing at a window?"
"Yes; and I saw you kissing those ladies goodby, too. Was one of them your wife, or were they all your sisters? I have wondered."
"They--they were--cousins," he informed her, confusedly, recalling an incident that had been forgotten. He had kissed Mary Lyons and Edna Burrage--but their brothers were present. "A foolish habit, isn't it?"
"I do not know. I have no grown cousins," she replied, demurely. "You Americans have such funny customs, though. Where I live, no gentleman would think of pressing a lady's hand until it pained her. Is it necessary?" In the question there was a quiet dignity, half submerged in scorn, so pointed, so unmistakable that he flushed, turned cold with mortification, and hastily removed the amorous fingers.
"I crave your pardon. It is such a strain to hold myself and you against the rolling of this wagon that I unconsciously gripped your hand harder than I knew. You--you will not misunderstand my motive?" he begged, fearful lest he had offended her by his ruthlessness.
"I could not misunderstand something that does not exist," she said, simply, proudly.
"By Jove, she's beyond comparison!" he thought.
"You have explained, and I am sorry I spoke as I did. I shall not again forget how much I owe you."
"Your indebtedness, if there be one, does not deprive you of the liberty to speak to me as you will. You could not say anything unjust without asking my forgiveness, and when you do that you more than pay the debt. It is worth a great deal to me to hear you say that you owe something to me, for I am only too glad to be your creditor. If there is a debt, you shall never pay it; it is too pleasant an account to be settled with 'you're welcome.' If you insist that you owe much to me, I shall refuse to cancel the debt, and allow it to draw interest forever."
"What a financier!" she cried. "That jest yeas worthy of a courtier's deepest flattery. Let me say that I am proud to owe my gratitude to you. You will not permit it to grow less."
"That was either irony or the prettiest speech a woman ever uttered," he said, warmly. "I also am curious about something. You were reading over my shoulder in the observation car--" "I was not!" she exclaimed, indignantly. "How did you know that?" she inconsistently went on.
"You forget the mirror in the opposite side of the car."
"Ach, now I am offended."
"With a poor old mirror? For shame! Yet, in the name of our American glass industry, I ask your forgiveness. It shall not happen again. You will admit that you were trying to read over my shoulder. Thanks for that immutable nod. Well, I am curious to know what you were so eager to read."
"Since you presume to believe the mirror instead of me, I will tell you. There was a despatch on the first page that interested me deeply."
"I believe I thought as much at the time. Oh, confound this road!" For half a mile or more the road had been fairly level, but, as the ejaculation indicates, a rough place had been reached. He was flung back in the corner violently, his head coming in contact with a sharp projection of some kind. The pain was almost unbearable, but it was eased by the fact that she had involuntarily thrown her arm across his chest, her hand grasping his shoulder spasmodically.
"Oh, we shall be killed!" she half shrieked. "Can you not stop him? This is madness--madness!"
"Pray be calm! I was to blame, for I had become careless. He is earning his money, that's all. It was not stipulated in the contract that he was to consider the comfort of his passengers." Grenfall could feel himself turn pale as something warm began to trickle down his neck. "Now tell me which despatch it was. I read all of them."
"You did? Of what interest could they have been?"
"Curiosity does not recognize reason."
"You read every one of them?"
"Then I shall grant you the right to guess which interested me the most. You Americans delight in puzzles, I am told."
"Now, that is unfair."
"So it is. Did you read the despatch from Constantinople?" Her arm fell to her side suddenly as if she had just realized its position.
"The one that told of the French ambassador's visit to the Sultan?"
"Concerning the small matter of a loan of some millions--yes. Well, that was of interest to me inasmuch as the loan, if made, will affect my country."
"Will you tell me what country you are from?"
"I am from Graustark."
"Yes; but I don't remember where that is."
"Is it possible that your American schools do not teach geography? Ours tell us where the United States are located."
"I confess ignorance," he admitted.
"Then I shall insist that you study a map. Graustark is small, but I am as proud of it as you are of this great broad country that reaches from ocean to ocean. I can scarcely wait until I again see our dear crags and valleys, our rivers and ever-blue skies, our plains and our towns. I wonder if you worship your country as I love mine."
"From the tenor of your remarks, I judge that you have been away from home for a long time," he volunteered.
"We have seen something of Asia, Australia, Mexico and the United States since we left Edelweiss, six months ago. Now we are going home--home!" She uttered the word so lovingly, so longingly, so tenderly, that he envied the homeland.
There was a long break in the conversation, both evidently wrapped in thought which could not be disturbed by the whirl of the coach. He was wondering how he could give her up, now that she had been tossed into his keeping so strangely. She was asking herself over and over again how so thrilling an adventure would end.
They were sore and fatigued with the strain on nerve and flesh. It was an experience never to be forgotten, this romantic race over the wild mountain road, the result still in doubt. Ten minutes ago--strangers; now--friends at least, neither knowing the other. She was admiring him for his generalship, his wonderful energy; he was blessing the fate that had come to his rescue when hope was almost dead. He could scarcely realize that he was awake. Could it be anything but a vivid fancy from which he was to awaken and find himself alone in his berth, the buzzing, clacking carwheels piercing his ears with sounds so unlike those that had been whispered into them by a voice, sweet and maddening, from out the darkness of a dreamland cab?
"Surely we must be almost at the end of this awful ride," she moaned, yielding completely to the long suppressed alarm. "Every bone in my body aches. What shall we do if they have not held the train?"
"Send for an undertaker," he replied grimly, seeing policy in jest. They were now ascending an incline, bumping over boulders, hurtling through treacherous ruts and water-washed holes, rolling, swinging, jerking, crashing. "You have been brave all along; don't give up now. It is almost over. You'll soon be with your friends."
"How can I thank you"' she cried, gripping his arm once more. Again his hand dropped upon hers and closed gently.
"I wish that I could do a thousand times as much for you," he said, thrillingly, her disheveled hair touching his face so close were his lips. "Ah, the lights of the town!" he cried an instant later. "Look!"
He held her so that she could peer through the rattling glass window. Close at hand, higher up the steep, many lights were twinkling ling against tile blackness,
Almost before they realized how near they were to the lights, the
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