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- The Hollow of Her Hand - 6/75 -
"No ma'am. Seven-forty is the first."
She waited a moment. "Then I shall have to ask you to come out and get your fellow-deputy. He is useless to me. I mean to go on in the machine. The sheriff understands."
The fellow hesitated.
"I cannot take him with me, and he will freeze to death if I leave him in the road. Will you come?"
The man stared at her.
"Say, IS it your husband?" he asked agape.
She nodded her head.
"Well, I'll go out and have a look at the fellow you've got with you," said he, still doubtful.
She stood in the door while he crossed over to the car and peered at the face of the sleeper.
"Steve Morley," he said. "Fuller'n a goat."
"Please remove him from the car," she directed.
Later on, as he stood looking down at the inert figure in the big rocking chair, and panting from his labours, he heard her say patiently:
"And now will you be so good as to direct me to the Post-road."
He scratched his head. "This is mighty queer, the whole business," he declared, assailed by doubts. "Suppose you are NOT Mrs. Wrandall, but--the other one. What then?"
As if in answer to his question, the man Morley opened his blear-eyes and tried to get to his feet.
"Wha--what are we doin' here, Mis' Wran'all? Wha's up?"
"Stay where you are, Steve," said the other. "It's all right." Then he went forth and pointed the way to her. "It's a long ways to Columbus Circle," he said. "I don't envy you the trip. Keep straight ahead after you hit the Post-road." He stood there listening until the whir of the motor was lost in the distance. "She'll never make it," he said to himself. "It's more than a strong man could do on roads like these. She must be crazy."
Coming to the Post-road, she increased the speed of the car, with the sharp wind behind her, her eyes intent on the white stretch that leaped up in front of the lamps like a blank wall beyond which there was nothing but dense oblivion. But for the fact that she knew that this road ran straight and unobstructed into the outskirts of New York, she might have lost courage and decision. The natural confidence of an experienced driver was hers. She had the daring of one who has never met with an accident, and who trusts to the instincts rather than to an actual understanding of conditions. With her, it was not a question of her own capacity and strength, but a belief in the fidelity of the engine that carried her forward. It had not occurred to her that the task of guiding that heavy, swerving thing through the unbroken road was something beyond her powers of endurance. She often had driven it a hundred miles and more without resting, or without losing zest in the enterprise: then why should she fear the small matter of thirty miles, even under the most trying of conditions?
The restless, driving desire to be as far as possible from that horrid sight at the inn, with all that went to make it repellant, put strength into her arms. The car swung from one side of the road to the other, picking its way through the opaque desert, reeling from rut to rut past hideous shadows and deeper into the black abyss that lay ahead. No friendly light gleamed by the wayside; the world was black and cold and dead. She alone was on the highway, the only human creature who defied the night. Off there on either side people lived, and slept, and were in darkness just as she was, but not in dreadful darkness. They were not pursued by ghosts; they were not running away from a Thing! They slept and were at peace, and their lights were out for they were not afraid in the dark. She thought of it: she was alone! No other creature was abroad--not one!
Sharply there came to her mind the question: was she the only one abroad in this black little world? What of the other woman? The one who was being hunted? Where was she? And what of the ghost at HER heels?
The car bounded over a railroad crossing. She recalled the directions given by the man at the station and hastily applied the brake. There was another and more dangerous crossing a hundred yards ahead. She had been warned particularly to take it carefully, as there was a sharp curve in the road beyond.
Suddenly she jammed down the emergency brake, a startled exclamation falling from her lips. Not twenty feet ahead, in the middle of the road and directly in line with the light of the lamps, stood a black, motionless figure--the figure of a woman whose head was lowered and whose arms hung limply at her sides.
The woman in the car bent forward over the wheel, staring hard. Many seconds passed. At last the forlorn object in the roadway lifted her face and looked vacantly into the glare of the lamps. Her eyes were wide-open, her face a ghastly white.
"God in heaven!" struggled from the stiffening lips of Sara Wrandall. Her fingers tightened on the wheel.
She knew. This was the woman!
The long brown ulster; the limp, fluttering veil! "A woman about your size and figure," the sheriff had said.
The figure swayed and then moved a few steps forward. Blinded by the lights, she bent her head and shielded her eyes with her hand the better to glimpse the occupant of the car.
"Are you looking for me?" she cried out shrilly, at the same time spreading her arms as if in surrender. It was almost a wail.
Mrs. Wrandall caught her breath. Her heart began to beat once more.
"Who are you? What do you want?" she cried out, without knowing what she said.
The girl started. She had not expected to hear the voice of a woman. She staggered to the side of the road, out of the line of light.
"I--I beg your pardon," she cried,--it was like a wail of disappointment,--"I am sorry to have stopped you."
"Come here," commanded the other, still staring.
The unsteady figure advanced. Halting beside the car, she leaned across the spare tires and gazed into the eyes of the driver. Their faces were not more than a foot apart, their eyes were narrowed in tense scrutiny.
"What do you want?" repeated Mrs. Wrandall, her voice hoarse and tremulous.
"I am looking for an inn. It must be near by. I do--"
"An inn?" with a start.
"I do not recall the name. It is not far from a village, in the hills."
"Do you mean Burton's?"
"Yes. That's it. Can you direct me?" The voice of the girl was faint; she seemed about to fall.
"It is six or eight miles from here," said Mrs. Wrandall, still looking in wonder at the miserable nightfarer.
The girl's head sank; a moan of despair came through her lips, ending in a sob.
"So far as that?" she murmured. Then she drew herself up with a fine show of resolution. "But I must not stop here. Thank you."
"Wait!" cried the other. The girl turned to her once more. "Is--is it a matter of life or death?"
There was a long silence. "Yes. I must find my way there. It is--death."
Sara Wrandall laid her heavily gloved hand on the slim fingers that touched the tire.
"Listen to me," she said, a shrill note of resolve ringing in her voice. "I am going to New York. Won't you let me take you with me?"
The girl drew back, wonder and apprehension struggling for the mastery of her eyes.
"But I am bound the other way. To the inn. I must go on."
"Come with me," said Sara Wrandall firmly. "You must not go back there. I know what has happened there. Come! I will take care of you. You must not go to the inn."
"You know?" faltered the girl.
"Yes. You poor thing!" There was infinite pity in her voice.
The girl laid her head on her arms.
Mrs. Wrandall sat above her, looking down, held mute by warring emotions. The impossible had come to pass. The girl for whom the whole world would be searching in a day or two, had stepped out of the unknown and, by the most whimsical jest of fate, into the custody of the one person most interested of all in that self-same world. It was unbelievable. She wondered if it were not a dream, or the hallucination of an overwrought mind. Spurred by the sudden doubt as to the reality of the object before her, she stretched out her hand and touched the girl's shoulder.
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