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- Green Fancy - 2/51 -
against the gale, gripping her hat tightly with one hand and straining under the weight of the bag in the other. The ends of a veil whipped furiously about her head, and, even in the gathering darkness, he could see a strand or two of hair keeping them company.
He hesitated. Evidently her way was up the steep, winding road and into the dark forest, a far from appealing prospect. Not a sign of habitation was visible along the black ridge of the wood; no lighted window peeped down from the shadows, no smoke curled up from unseen kitchen stoves. Gallantry ordered him to proffer his aid or, at the least, advice to the woman, be she young or old, native or stranger.
Retracing his steps, he called out to her above the gale:
"Can I be of any assistance to you?"
She turned quickly. He saw that the veil was drawn tightly over her face.
"No, thank you," she replied. Her voice, despite a certain nervous note, was soft and clear and gentle,--the voice and speech of a well- bred person who was young and resolute.
"Pardon me, but have you much farther to go? The storm will soon be upon us, and--surely you will not consider me presumptuous--I don't like the idea of your being caught out in--"
"What is to be done about it?" she inquired, resignedly. "I must go on. I can't wait here, you know, to be washed back to the place I started from."
He smiled. She had wit as well as determination. There was the suggestion of mirth in her voice--and certainly it was a most pleasing, agreeable voice.
"If I can be of the least assistance to you, pray don't hesitate to command me. I am a sort of tramp, you might say, and I travel as well by night as I do by day,--so don't feel that you are putting me to any inconvenience. Are you by any chance bound for Hart's Tavern? If so, I will be glad to lag behind and carry your bag."
"You are very good, but I am not bound for Hart's Tavern, wherever that may be. Thank you, just the same. You appear to be an uncommonly genteel tramp, and it isn't because I am afraid you might make off with my belongings." She added the last by way of apology.
He smiled--and then frowned as he cast an uneasy look at the black clouds now rolling ominously up over the mountain ridge.
"By Jove, we're going to catch it good and hard," he exclaimed. "Better take my advice. These storms are terrible. I know, for I've encountered half a dozen of them in the past week. They fairly tear one to pieces."
"Are you trying to frighten me?"
"Yes," he confessed. "Better to frighten you in advance than to let it come later on when you haven't any one to turn to in your terror. You are a stranger in these parts?"
"Yes. The railway station is a few miles below here. I have walked all the way. There was no one to meet me. You are a stranger also, so it is useless to inquire if you know whether this road leads to Green Fancy."
"Green Fancy? Sounds attractive. I'm sorry I can't enlighten you." He drew a small electric torch from his pocket and directed its slender ray upon the sign-post. So fierce was the gale by this time that he was compelled to brace his strong body against the wind.
"It is on the road to Frogg's Corner," she explained nervously. "A mile and a half, so I am told. It isn't on the sign-post. It is a house, not a village. Thank you for your kindness. And I am not at all frightened," she added, raising her voice slightly.
"But you ARE" he cried. "You're scared half out of your wits. You can't fool me. I'd be scared myself at the thought of venturing into those woods up yonder."
"Well, then, I AM frightened," she confessed plaintively. "Almost out of my boots."
"That settles it," he said flatly. "You shall not undertake it."
"Oh, but I must. I am expected. It is import--"
"If you are expected, why didn't some one meet you at the station? Seems to me--"
"Hark! Do you hear--doesn't that sound like an automobile--Ah!" The hoarse honk of an automobile horn rose above the howling wind, and an instant later two faint lights came rushing toward them around a bend in the mountain road. "Better late than never," she cried, her voice vibrant once more.
He grasped her arm and jerked her out of the path of the on-coming machine, whose driver was sending it along at a mad rate, regardless of ruts and stones and curves. The car careened as it swung into the pike, skidded alarmingly, and then the brakes were jammed down. Attended by a vast grinding of gears and wheels, the rattling old car came to a stop fifty feet or more beyond them.
"I'd sooner walk than take my chances in an antediluvian rattle-trap like that," said the tall wayfarer, bending quite close to her ear. "It will fall to pieces before you--"
But she was running down the road towards the car, calling out sharply to the driver. He stooped over and took up the travelling bag she had dropped in her haste and excitement. It was heavy, amazingly heavy.
"I shouldn't like to carry that a mile and a half," he said to himself.
The voice of the belated driver came to his ears on the swift wind. It was high pitched and unmistakably apologetic. He could not hear what she was saying to him, but there wasn't much doubt as to the nature of her remarks. She was roundly upbraiding him.
Urged to action by thoughts of his own plight, he hurried to her side and said:
"Excuse me, please. You dropped something. Shall I put it up in front or in the tonneau?"
The whimsical note in his voice brought a quick, responsive laugh from her lips.
"Thank you so much. I am frightfully careless with my valuables. Would you mind putting it in behind? Thanks!" Her tone altered completely as she ordered the man to turn the car around--"And be quick about it," she added.
The first drops of rain pelted down from the now thoroughly black dome above them, striking in the road with the sharpness of pebbles.
"Lucky it's a limousine," said the tall traveller. "Better hop in. We'll be getting it hard in a second or two."
"I can't very well hop in while he's backing and twisting like that, can I?" she laughed. He was acutely aware of a strained, nervous note in her voice, as of one who is confronted by an undertaking calling for considerable fortitude.
"Are you quite sure of this man?" he asked.
"Absolutely," she replied, after a pause.
"You know him, eh?"
"By reputation," she said briefly, and without a trace of laughter.
"Well, that comforts me to some extent," he said, but dubiously.
She was silent for a moment and then turned to him impulsively.
"You must let me take you on to the Tavern in the car," she said. "Turn about is fair play. I cannot allow you to--"
"Never mind about me," he broke in cheerily. He had been wondering if she would make the offer, and he felt better now that she had done so. "I'm accustomed to roughing it. I don't mind a soaking. I've had hundreds of 'em."
"Just the same, you shall not have one to-night," she announced firmly. The car stopped beside them. "Get in behind. I shall sit with the driver."
If any one had told him that this rattling, dilapidated automobile,-- ten years old, at the very least, he would have sworn,--was capable of covering the mile in less than two minutes, he would have laughed in his face. Almost before he realised that they were on the way up the straight, dark road, the lights in the windows of Hart's Tavern came into view. Once more the bounding, swaying car came to a stop under brakes, and he was relaxing after the strain of the most hair-raising ride he had ever experienced.
Not a word had been spoken during the trip. The front windows were lowered. The driver,--an old, hatchet-faced man,--had uttered a single word just before throwing in the clutch at the cross-roads in response to the young woman's crisp command to drive to Hart's Tavern. That word was uttered under his breath and it is not necessary to repeat it here.
He lost no time in climbing out of the car. As he leaped to the ground and raised his green hat, he took a second look at the automobile,--a look of mingled wonder and respect. It was an old-fashioned, high- powered Panhard, capable, despite its antiquity, of astonishing speed in any sort of going.
"For heaven's sake," he began, shouting to her above the roar of the wind and rain, "don't let him drive like that over those--"
"You're getting wet," she cried out, a thrill in her voice. "Good night,--and thank you!"
"Look out!" rasped the unpleasant driver, and in went the clutch. The man in the road jumped hastily to one side as the car shot backward with a jerk, curved sharply, stopped for the fraction of a second, and then bounded forward again, headed for the cross-roads.
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