‘TWAS a bloomy morning, all crocuses and tree buds, and Antony sniffed it into his nostrils thankfully, even while he scowled.
“Come, come!” said his Uncle Julius, a wealthy old gentleman buttoned firmly into a white vest, “what a face! It is nothing so terrible that I ask of you! One would think it a hanging matter, to beau a pretty young girl about the place!”
“You know that I do not care for schoolgirls, Uncle Julius,” said Antony severely.
“Fiddlestick!” his Uncle Julius cried, “and what are you sir, but a school boy, I should like to know? What shall we hear next, I wonder?”
Antony put on some fresh grey gloves with a sigh.
Antony buttoned his gloves.
“Or if she does, it will be your fault, sir,” pursued his uncle.
Antony selected a slender walking stick from a rack of many, and reviewed his collar with a critical hand.
“The young lady’s topics of conversation will be a matter of indifference to me, Uncle Julius,” said he, “I assure you.”
“And I assure you,” cried Uncle Julius, “that if we were not on this open porch, I should be strongly tempted to apply that stick of yours where, as we used to say, it would do the most good!”
Antony adjusted his coat trimly and started down the steps.
He strode along the flagged walk with Uncle Julius puffing behind him, loquaciously indignant.
“Look at your mates, sir, as we pass them, and notice how enviously they smile,” he urged the youth, who replied shortly that he observed them.
“In my time, I can tell you,” said Uncle Julius, “there was no shilly shallying in these matters. We had more blood. Let any college lad be given a free day–and a fine day, too–and one of the prettiest girls that ever wore a petticoat to enjoy It with him, and he was the envy of all his fellows. And I believe,” he ended with a fine optimism, “that it is so now! Not one of these lads but would change places with you at a nod.”
“Hush! there she is!” his uncle whispered, and Antony at once removed his hat with a lordly and accomplished gesture, which Uncle Julius noted with unwilling admiration.
“Well, here we are!” he said, with an attempt at prankish levity in which he received no assistance from Antony. “Here we are at last, Nette dear, dressed in our best for you!”
“So I see. And this is, I suppose, your young nephew, Mr. Julius?” said the person at whose face Antony had not yet looked.
If she had intended to remedy this omission she could not have devised a more efficacious means. Not only did Antony look at her: he stared. From the topmost strand of her braided chestnut hair to the lowest dimple In her olive cheek–for she was of that irritatingly attractive class of females that combines deep-set violet eyes with a gipsy colouring–every curve of her audacious body spelled youth, unmitigated youth, and her tone was correspondingly insulting.
“I am truly pleased to meet you,” he said with the air of one to whom experience has lent tolerance.
“I should truly never have guessed it,” she returned promptly with an amused smile.
Antony flushed. An impudent chit, this. A girl to be taught her place, and that right early.
“I am to have, I believe,” he said, with a fine air of disregard for any previous conversation, “the honour of escort–of show–of, er, of entertaining you for the day.”
“That distinction is indeed yours,” she replied gravely, “I have no doubt that I shall be escort–show–er, entertained most agreeably.”
With this insulting remark she but half concealed a yawn and Antony’s blood boiled within him.
“Come,” chirped Uncle Julius with a fatuous chuckle, “we are getting along famously! What did I tell you? Yes, indeed!”
To this idiotic speech neither his nephew nor that nephew’s new acquaintance made any further reply than two eloquent but totally ineffective glances. They were ineffective because the glance 7as a medium of expression had not been included in Uncle Julius’s aesthetic training.
“And what are you going to do first, hey? Where does the great day begin–see the town sights, I suppose?” this Imbecile old relative maundered on.
“It will give me great pleasure, if she wishes to see them,” said Antony coldly, “to point out the various objects of local interest to Miss—-“
“Good gracious!” Uncle Julius interrupted, “what’s come over the boy? ‘Miss,’ indeed! Didn’t I tell you that this is my old godmother’s own daughter’s stepdaughter? ‘Miss!’ Her name is Nette.”
“Ah,” said Antony.
“And his,” continued Uncle Julius, with a flip of his finger at his nephew and a wink at the young lady, “is Tony. Let’s have no formality among chicks of your age. No, no; Tony’s his name.”
She smiled with a perfunctory brightness and continued in some inexplicable manner to look down at her escort–though had she been presented with ten thousand dollars for every one of the inches over five feet in her height she would not have appeared before the world as any considerable heiress. The object of this remarkably achieved envisagement writhed inwardly. Uncle Julius rubbed his hands in maudlin delight at her appreciation of his nephew’s baptismal acquirements, and she continued, prettily stifling a second yawn between her white little pointed teeth:
“Since our young friend naturally pants to show us the beauties of his Alma Mater, let us by all means begin with them,” and get them over, said the strangled yawn.
Antony bit his tongue in his seething rage and the pain turned him crimson and wet-eyed. This did not escape the intolerable chit and her deep-set violet eyes twinkled maliciously.
“It will not be at all necessary to see”–he began, when Uncle Julius’s round, astonished eyes interrupted them.
Antony could have choked him for the apprehension that passed over his young charge’s face.
“You will not desert me, Mr. Julius?” she cried with a melting glance that visibly warmed the cockles of his infatuated old heart, “you can’t mean to leave me”–to the awkward attentions of this red faced boy! her eyebrows continued the appeal, intelligible only to Antony.
“But that’s just what I do mean, Miss Nette,” he assured her, winking incredibly, “I am this moment due at my trustees’ meeting. I’m off directly. You must”–and he flapped his hand with airy abandon–“endure the time without me!”
Here he smiled with disgusting coquetry and pattered like a plump white rabbit down the shady brick path. As they stared blankly after him he turned and waved his stick at them.
“Oh, I’m no spoil-sport!” he crowed, and rounded his corner. They were left alone.
“I beg your pardon?” said the young lady, “did you speak?”
“Not to you,” he replied briefly. She shook out a fluffy white parasol and under its becoming shadow looked curiously about her.
“Indeed–to whom, then,” she inquired.
Antony was silent.
“Minx!” he thought.
“You are not at all like your uncle, are you?” she began, after a moment of this pregnant silence. Then after another moment she added absently, “he has such pleasant, easy manners!”
Antony settled his fleckless straw hat firmly upon his head and tightened his grip on his stick.
“My uncle,” he began with great control, “is an estimable man. His intentions are of the best–that is to say, I have always believed them to be–but like too many others he does not always carry out his intentions. Take, for instance, this present situation. It was evidently his intention to give you (and me) a pleasurable day. It is quite obvious to me, at least, that he has failed in his intention–to a certain extent,” he added politely, for he had 11by now talked himself into his usual superior calm. His eyes were fixed upon the tip of the young lady’s parasol, some distance below him, as she sat on the brick steps of the old porch before which he stood, her slender figure leaning against a white pillar.
“Now, I have a suggestion to make,” he continued, quite pleasantly by this time. “I can plainly see that my uncle’s somewhat Philistine scheme for my showing you about the place is likely to bore you extremely. Let us, then, omit that part of the programme altogether. We must try to think of something that will attract you, however,” Antony had by this time a fairly paternal interest in the young lady, “and if you will help me out, no doubt we can. Perhaps,” he concluded tentatively, “you would really prefer to remain by yourself, and not be entertained at all?”
He paused, and as no reply appeared to be forthcoming, slowly lowered his eyes along the fluffy parasol till they reached the level of those deep-set violet ones. He could not have recognised them by their colour, however, for they were closed; the gentle rise and fall of the young lady’s breast, the placid and uncharacteristic kindness of her half-smile made the reason 12for this closing only too obvious. She was sleeping.
Antony swallowed hard. Sheer rage choked him and his collar became intolerably tight. His fingers itched along the supple stick he carried and a longing to employ it in an absolutely unheard of manner nearly flooded him off his feet. “Where it would do the most good”–the obnoxious phrase flashed luminously across his mind.
The sudden silence had its natural effect upon the young person on the brick steps. Slowly, inquiringly, her eyelids lifted, and the peculiar, rain-washed effect of those dark blue eyes, so startling above her olive cheeks, was not lost upon Antony.
“Not entertained at all?” she repeated vaguely, diving under the ruffles of the parasol to cover the positively unconcealable 13paroxysm of the third yawn, “oh, on the contrary! Really. I am delightfully entertained, Mr.–Mr. Tony!”
“So it appears,” he returned acidly. A soft dark colour suffused her gipsy cheeks, but she brazened it out. She seemed to possess no sense of shame whatever.
“This sun makes one almost sleepy,” she said calmly, “and I sat up quite late last night, too–playing picquet with your uncle. He is a poor sleeper.”
“Indeed. I am not acquainted with his habits,” Antony responded. “We will look at the buildings now, I think, if you are sufficiently rested.” A fell purpose had suddenly found itself in his humiliated breast. This insolent young puss should have cause indeed for drowsiness.
She sprang instantly to her feet with a quick and pleasing muscular co-ordination, which, again, was not lost upon Antony. She wore a white flannel costume dotted with a dull blue–the blue of Canton china. Of this colour, too, was the silk stocking that flashed down the steps above her low-cut shoes. A ludicrous and daring colour for a brunette–until you encountered her eyes.14
“I am quite ready,” she said demurely, and Antony started briskly down the street.
“On the right,” he began didactically, “you will see Wadsworth Hall, the building of applied sciences. It was presented by the two sons of Mr. Ezra Bement Wadsworth in memory of their father, a prominent graduate. It cost three hundred thousand dollars and is one of the most completely equipped buildings of its kind in the country, I believe.”
“How interesting!” she murmured.
“Yes,” Antony agreed, “it is interesting.”
“To what are the sciences applied?” she inquired placidly.
“To–er, to–really, I have never gone into it so far as that,” Antony returned, biting his lip, “I am not interested in science myself. But that is what it is generally called: it is on a bronze tablet on the corner. It is probably only an expression.”
“Ah, yes, probably,” she assented.
“Beyond it and a shade to the left you will see,” he continued, with a wave of his stick, “Mansfield Hall. It is a dormitory, occupied by sophomores.”
“I do not know,” he informed her briefly.
“Oh, you do not know,” she repeated in her low voice. Something in the falling inflection caused her guide to wriggle uneasily.
“Nobody knows,” he added, rashly. “I should think nobody would want to, it is so hideous.”
“To be sure,” she said. “And sophomores live there. Are you perhaps a sophomore, Mr. Tony?”
“I?” Antony exclaimed; then in level tones, “I am a senior.”
“Really!” she murmured. “I suppose that means that you are one of the older pupils, then? In the first class?”
“It does,” he assented grimly, adding as a cutting afterthought, “a sophomore, I suppose, would be beneath your notice?”
She smiled sweetly. “Oh, dear me, no!” she assurred him, “not in the least–it is all the same to me, you see, Mr. Tony!”
Antony should have realised by this time the folly of any further tilting, but he did not.
“Your interest naturally turns, then, to men of my uncle’s age?” he inquired caustically.
She considered this with a pretty seriousness.
“N-no, hardly that,” she said at length. “It is only that I do not– that I am not–somehow, young men (and such very young men! her eyes added) do not exactly . . .”
“You need not trouble to explain yourself any further,” Antony broke in coldly. “It is somewhat unfortunate,” he continued, enunciating carefully, with averted eyes, “that I, of all people, should have been selected for your escort this morning.”
He had never said anything so nearly rude to a woman; but then he had never to his recollection been so thoroughly annoyed by one, since the dimly distant days when a series of deprecating aunts and spying nurses had darkened his youthful horizon.
“Indeed. And why is that?” she asked pleasantly. She had, when she chose, an exceedingly pleasant manner.
“Because,” he returned, astonished at himself, but firm nevertheless, “I am not sufficiently accustomed to the society of young ladies to be certain of my ability to entertain even the ordinary variety–much less those who prefer the society of 17eccentric old gentlemen.” Come, he reflected, that’s not half bad. Perhaps that will teach her a thing or two!
It seemed to him that there was a flash of respect in her eyes, but he could not be sure, it was so fleeting.
“I suppose your studies take up so much of your time that you have no leisure for society,” she said kindly, “but you must not let yourself grow shy: ladies are not very difficult to entertain, really!”
To this remark Antony made no reply, perhaps because he could not think of one which combined the expression of his feelings with anything remotely resembling propriety. They walked on, therefore, in utter silence.
The village through which they took their way was but a tiny one, a green and sheltered cradle for the warm brick walls and lichened chapel of the old college; and soon the grass-grown flagged walk gave way to one of trodden earth, the houses grew sparser and smaller, the trees thicker and less carefully tended. They were in the country. The season was well forward: though the calendar marked April, the warm blue sky, the odorous earth, the fresh, 18full grass, all smelled of May. The early flowers were out long before their wonted times; the birds, misled by the generous sun, were already nesting musically; shock-headed urchins, those most delicate barometers of the real seasons, had bravely cast off their shoes and stockings and renewed the year in the splashing puddles of some recent rain. All the scene spoke peace and promise of better to come–all, I say, but those two fractious young souls who walked diverse among the lovely unity of the pleasant world about them. Antony strode on, his eyes fixed on the winding road, though it is to be doubted if he saw it. Who would have thought to find him, Antony, in such a baited, hot-necked frame? The day had gone hideously awry from the beginning, and it was all the fault of this blue-eyed, brown-cheeked chit.
She, for her part, moved easily and it must be admitted, gracefully, beside him. Her step shot out from the hip, elastic as a boy’s; only the faintest shade of red under her skin confessed to the pace he drove her; she drew regular breaths, through her small nostrils. Though she could not match his stride, she yet fell into a sort of rythmical accompaniment to it; evidently she was an 19accomplished and enduring dancer.
They swung around a sharp corner under a great sprawling oak and fairly mowed down an unattractive red-headed boy, insufficiently attired and freckled beyond belief, who was hurrying frantically in a direction only too obviously opposed to their own. Conscious of a distinct relief at the necessity for constructive action, Antony stooped and raised the howling and resentful creature, who dug his grimy knuckles into his eyes and yelled the louder at each polite query as to his injuries. After a few minutes of this 20fruitless performance, Antony, irritated at his failure to bring even this sordid incident to a triumphant conclusion, was about to produce a coin and leave his victim to the sovereign solace of Time, that great healer, when his companion, who had stood, hitherto, discreetly aside from the business, now stepped forward and laid a small brown hand on the heaving shoulder of the injured infant.
“Where were you going, Bubby?” she asked abruptly.
He looked up from his bent and screening arm, stared a moment, and replied in a matter-of-fact tone, without a trace of the sobs that still echoed about them:
“To see the big snake!”
“The snake?” She shuddered involuntarily. Had the child mentioned Leviathan, the monster would not have seemed more exotic to this rural and domestic spot. By judicious questioning they elicited from the suddenly secretive imp the successive facts of the spectacular and recent arrival of an enormous foreign reptile; its display under a tent on the outskirts of the village, very near their present station; the establishment of a tariff of 21fifteen cents for one view, or two separate opportunities for excitement at the comparatively small sum of a quarter of a dollar; and lastly, the cruel certainty that the delay occasioned by this unexpected and sudden meeting had undoubtedly cost their informant his only possible view of the monster, since the price of his admission, though offered voluntarily by his maternal uncle, was contingent upon his arrival at the tent ahead of his cousin, who, in case of a previous appearance, was to receive the prize.
Overcome afresh by the bitterness of his lot, the red-headed boy would have renewed his unpleasant and gulping demonstrations, had not Antony hastily produced a coin of sufficient size to insure two periods of ecstasy and offered it in reparation for what he handsomely described as his clumsiness. Staggered by this princely generosity, the urchin balanced the silver piece doubtfully, then with a shy and unlooked-for courtesy suggested that they should use it together.
The boy hesitated.
“Girls don’t like snakes,” he finally mumbled; “you could wait outside!”
“Where is that tent?” she demanded indignantly, and they hurried on, one on each side of their unconscious guide. No kindly premonition laid a thrilling chill along Antony’s stiff spine; no wholesome doubts as to the successful issue of that doomed expedition slowed the springing step of his companion. They hurried on, I say, each with a hand upon the earth-stained, ragged shoulder of that freckled imp whom Fate had selected as the instrument of their destiny, and in ironic rivalry they literally urged him on, and shot him, panting, through the roped enclosure that protected the elect possessors of the admission price from contact with the envious herd.
With the curt direction to their guide to invite, if he pleased, a friend to enter with him, Antony slapped down a coin on the improvised counter, received two greasy green cardboard slips and strode towards the canvas flap of the small tent. The mingled odour of tobacco smoke, crushed grass, and tethered horses, the cheerful, chattering crowd, the honk and blare of a great claret-coloured 23motor-car, hurtling inquiringly up the slope, all imparted a festival air, a holiday spirit; and it was with a mild excitement that Antony pushed into the close tent, clearing the way punctiliously for his companion.
In the middle, under the opening, was a standard painted a dull, forbidding red, and on this, in a cage of twisted iron, lay a monstrous, coiled thing, hideously and brilliantly mottled, his blunt, flattened head lazily resting on his topmost ring, his 24malignant, weary eyes fixed in a listless stare, that drooped over the human mushrooms around him, over the seas he had travelled, back to the old gods and the beginnings of things. The inked diamonds along his great length gleamed in a dreadful, supple pattern; the eye, entranced in a seductive terror, followed the massive rounds of those murderous coils, longing, yet dreading, to trace them to their horrid head: it seemed that a faint, uncanny odour, a hint of dead spices, like the secret wrapping cloths of old mummies, hung in the air. Now Antony knew, or supposed he knew, that cobras exhale no such odour, and in a disgusted curiosity he peered about for the source of it, but found nothing in the stained and faded tent, nor any nook or cranny in the obvious bareness where the source of it could lurk.
The scene was a strange one; no officious showman called attention, in a raucous voice, to the ugly thing in the middle. There appeared to be no director, no advertisement of any kind, no appeal to a credulous or morbid crowd. The tent could contain but a score of visitors simultaneously, and they pushed in, fairly quiet as soon as they had entered, slowly encircled the scornful, wicked-eyed 25heap on the standard, discussed it in low tones and went out through another flap to make room for the next group. Indeed, the accustomed ease with which they performed these evolutions awoke in Antony the wonder whether they had not rehearsed them many times, and he involuntarily mentioned this idea to the girl, who gazed, at once fascinated and repelled, as Eve at the Seducer.
“I suppose,” she returned musingly, “they keep coming to see if it will by any chance bite some one.”
At this precise moment there pushed through the entrance-flap one who by his distinctive dress showed himself the mechanician of the claret-coloured motorcar. He was as obviously a foreigner, and among the simple rural types that filled the tent his mustachioed personality stood out as startlingly as the great cobra’s. Elbowing his way through the little crowd he made himself a place directly beside Antony and the freckled boy, who had attached himself definitely to his patron, and smiled at the young man in easy cosmopolitan contempt of the rustics, conveying at the same time, In a graphic Continental hint of respectful salutation, his 26duty to the young lady. Antony accepted the smile with a lordly nod, expressive of his familiarity with mechanicians as a class and his appreciation of their place in the general scheme of things, and the two men surveyed the reptile in silence.
“I know heem well,” volunteered the big fellow in the leather suit, at last.
“C’est Monsieur le Cobra, zat one. We have take ze car all s’rough ‘is country. Wait–I will amuse Mademoiselle. Watch heem!”
Lowering his head till the great goggles on his cap fronted the slitted eyes in the cage he emitted a long, piercing hiss, a nerve racking, whistling call. Everyone in the tent jumped backward spasmodically; Antony threw out his arm and pushed the girl behind him before he realised that there was no danger.
Upon the great snake the effect of the sudden noise was even more appalling. His ugly flat head appeared suddenly high above his writhing folds; no one saw the movement, for it was too lightning-quick for sight, but it was undoubtedly the fact that his head was no longer pillowed. The symmetrical turban on his forehead puffed and quivered, his cold eye caught every eye 27in the tent with a swift, horrible glance; and every eye shrank, terrified, from his.
“A very unpleasant old party, that snake,” Anthony remarked, “I trust our friend won’t think it advisable to repeat—-“
In the middle of his sentence the Frenchman hissed again. The cobra, irritated beyond further endurance, threw its massive weight against the side of the cylindrical cage, which swayed slightly and then dropped forward into the panic-stricken crowd.
Antony felt a soft, sighing breath on his neck and caught his companion as she fell; he heard the ribs of her fluffy parasol crack under somebody’s stamping feet and braced himself to meet the crushing, struggling rush of the frightened crowd. Through the oaths and shrieks of the nightmare moment piped shrill the voice of the red-headed boy.
“Mister, the cover’s on! The cover’s on tight.”
Between the grovelling legs of two infuriated men, fighting 28like demons for leeway from the horrid cage, Antony caught a glimpse of it and realised that it was, indeed, completely fastened. Though it rolled and bounded under the lashings of its excited occupant, it was securely padlocked, and another moment of frenzied struggle for the door-flaps emptied the tent sufficiently to give passage to two angry men who threw a heavy canvas over the cage and righted it, breathing hard.
One of these as he rose to his feet met Antony’s eyes, shifted his gaze to the fainting girl on his arm, and thrust his hand into the capacious pocket of his flapping linen coat.
“Try her with this,” he said shortly, “I’ve got the crowd to settle. Then we’ll kill the Frenchy, and then we’ll leave!”
Antony forced the offered flask into the girl’s mouth and 29dragged her backward through the open flap. As the air reached her she gasped and choked, gulping down the strong spirit nervously, then stiffening herself in his arm and adjusting her hat.
“Your town is not dull, at any rate, Mr. Tony!” she observed, and the observation, though a little breathless, was almost perfectly under her control.
Antony felt his admiration rise into his eyes, nor did he seek to conceal it.
“You are a brave, sensible–for heaven’s sake, what’s the matter now?” he cried anxiously, staring at a point behind her. Involuntarily she turned and looked in the same direction.
The greater part of the crowd had scattered and fled far down the long hill; only a few groups of the most hardy and venturesome among the villagers remained at varying distances from the deserted tent. The most important of these groups now fell apart slightly, disclosing as its centre a large and writhing human figure, prone on the grass. The light box coat, the great goggles, proclaimed this figure the ill-fated mechanician. Even as he sprawled and twisted, the men who surrounded him turned and looked at 30Antony and his companion, and there was an unpleasant fixity, an unmistakable threatening, in their regard that chilled the young gentleman slightly, though he was utterly at a loss as to its import. Presently one of the men caught his eye and beckoned commandingly.
“They seem to want me over there,” he said to the girl, with an attempt at unconcern, “perhaps I’d better step over a moment–I’ll return immediately. You don’t object?”
She looked at him with a curious vague smile, then shook her head slowly. This he took for acquiescence to his request, and as she said nothing, he left her and joined the group about the prostrate foreigner. She stared idly at him, but appeared little 31impressed by his irritated and repeated pantomimic denials of what was, to judge from the faces of the men, a grave charge of some sort. Even when he threw off a hand on his arm and hastened angrily back to her, his countenance dark with angry concern, she did not alter that vague smile, and this vexed him still further, as he began to explain their situation.
“I am very, very sorry Miss–Miss Nette,” he began, his voice fairly trembling with irritation, “but a most absurd and disgusting complication has arisen. This French fellow swears he has been bitten, and they think he is accusing you of hissing at the snake. I don’t think he is really such a cad as all that, but he is practically hysterical, and now I don’t believe he knows what he is saying. There is certainly some mark on his wrist and one of the men says that he saw the snake’s head touch him, and they have filled him so thoroughly with whisky that he really is not responsible for what he says. I think,”–he marvelled at her lack of fright or emotion of any kind–“indeed, I am sure, that they have merely misunderstood his broken French, but these people are so idiotically obstinate, you know. They’ve sent for a doctor, 32and they insist that they hold–me responsible, and that if we don’t stay here quietly they’ll–in short, I don’t see what to do. I’m dreadfully sorry.”
He paused, ready for reproaches, for tears, for rebellion. But none of these was apparent.
“How silly!” said Nette carelessly, glancing a moment at the group of men.
Antony felt slightly relieved, but only slightly.
“I’m afraid that it can be made quite disagreeable, however,” he explained gently, “though it is silly. The fellow deserved to be bitten–if he is, which I’m not at all certain of,” he interjected hastily, “and it’s none of our business and all his fault; but I’ve tried everything–bribing and bullying–and we seem to be caught here. I regret it so much–as soon as we can get to my uncle, it will be all right, of course, but nobody here will take a message for me and–and I think perhaps it will make less publicity and fuss, you know, if we go quietly with–with whoever they ask us to and . . .”
He ground his teeth–if only he had been alone! He saw himself the butt of the whole college, nick-named for eternity, blamed by his uncle, that bulwark of convention, self-disgraced by reason of 33utter, crude failure in this, the greatest social crisis of his life. It was maddening, humiliating–and this thick-skinned, feather-headed girl by his side seemed absolutely indifferent to her (to say the least) embarrassing situation. Stealing a glance at her he perceived that she was still smiling. Nay, more, she now directed the smile straight at him, and though its warm brightness cheered him irrationally for a moment, it was for a moment only, and the gloom of their plight shut round him again as he caught the eye of the leader of the hostile group beyond.
Suddenly he felt a tug at his coat, turned to see the gleaming red head of the author of all his woes, and seized him by the arm with a confused idea of vengeance.
“The doctor’s coming, mister, he’s nearly got here!” panted this unconscious instrument of Fate, “and I’ll bet that foreign man dies! I’ll bet he does! He got a terrible bite! Did you see it?”
“Oh, dear, no!” she said, “he won’t die, little boy. Chauffeurs don’t die–they explode!”
Antony had a sense of moral shock. This passed frivolity. Really, the girl was scarcely human; sympathy was wasted on her.
“Did you know the sheriff was coming?” the freckled-faced imp pursued, after a mildly contemptuous stare at his patron’s incomprehensible friend. “I wouldn’t go with him, if I was you. My uncle says he’s got no right to make you.”
“Of course he’s got no right,” Antony exclaimed angrily, “but what can I do about it? I can’t fight eight or ten men, can I? I’d rather go than be carried.”
“Why don’t you jump into that automobile?” the boy asked abruptly. “I would. She goes easy–I saw him start her up before. She’ll whizz off, I’ll bet you!”
The girl turned abruptly. “That’s it!” she cried; “let’s do that, Mr. Tony!”
In a flash he caught the practical possibility of the scheme. Once at his uncle’s and the affair was finished. But common sense gave pause.
“Oh, that’s nothing–they run themselves!” she said competently, “I’m used to them. Hurry–here comes a man, now!”
It was indeed the fact that a burly, self-satisfied creature was advancing towards them, and Antony’s blood boiled at the pompous rustic’s meaning glance.
“Come, come, Mr. Tony!” she urged excitedly.
“Can you run?” he muttered desperately, “it’s no good if you can’t, you know.”
“Of course I can,” she replied, and he noted how different the tones of her voice had grown, how much richer and more alluring. “I can beat you to the car! Come!”
The freckled boy plucked at his coat urgingly, and in a moment, as one flees in dreams, he was dashing down the slight slope that led to the little tableland at the head of the steeper hill where the huge car stood, pointed towards freedom.
A hoarse, suety cry issued from the constable, answered by the farther group; a number of men rushed hastily in their direction, but no one seemed to realise the object of their flight and the way was left clear. The red-headed boy bounded beside them, 36whooping madly; Nette’s pale skirt flashed valiantly a trifle ahead of them; the loose stones rolled under their flying feet.
With a light bound the girl dropped on the wide leather seat, and Antony tumbled in after her, an agile village boy almost at his heels. Even as it was, this boy would have seized him had not the freckled arbiter of their destinies dexterously tripped him, grinning derisively at his downfall as he dashed to the side of the car and panted:
“Let her go, mister, let her go!”
Mechanically Antony grasped the steering wheel as he had seen others grasp it and turned to his companion. But she had toppled breathless against his shoulder and huddled there motionless. He stared helplessly at the approaching pursuit–his head whirled.
“Here, I’ll pull it!” cried the red-headed urchin and fumbled mysteriously at Antony’s feet. A low, raucous buzzing began forthwith, and as three men dashed up to them triumphantly, the great car shuddered a moment and lurched down the hill, gathering speed with every quarter-second.
There flashed before Antony’s eyes a quick panorama of the extended Frenchman, the kneeling doctor, the threatening men; his ears 37resounded with the gleeful cackle of that freckled Fate who had launched them, and then he faced an empty country road, silent but for the whirring of their chariot. He turned his face to the girl, unconsciously moving the simple steering apparatus so as to keep the car in the middle of the road, while he spoke.
“May I trouble you to take this now?” he said politely. “Your knowledge of this business has undoubtedly saved you a great deal of mortifying bother and delay.”
She stiffened sensibly beside him, and in her voice he caught no hint of the momentary rich abandon that he had noticed at the beginning of their flight, for she spoke with the cool and airy dryness of their first meeting.
“My knowledge?” she repeated, with an obviously sincere surprise, “my knowledge? What do you mean? Why should I take it? I never handled a car in my life!”
Antony’s fingers stiffened and grew damp against the wheel. For a few sick seconds he sat utterly silent, stunned and incredulous, not knowing what he did, while his hands, with a strange muscular memory all their own of the days when he had propelled a 38little mechanical velocipede steered by a wheel, kept the whirring vehicle in the centre of the long, empty road.
“Good heavens!” he muttered at last, “I thought you told me–you certainly said–I understood you–oh, the devil!”
“Put your foot on something!” Nette cried feverishly; “that’s the way they do! It can’t be hard to stop it for just a moment. Put your foot—-“
With that she stamped her little white shoe on a round metal disc projecting like a toadstool from the floor in front of her, and immediately, whether from that cause alone, or because Antony unwittingly complicated the manoeuvre by some untoward pressure of knee or wrist, the car, with a tremendous jerk, began to revolve backward upon itself in a dizzy swoop. A moment more had seen them in the deep ditch beside the road, had not Antony dislodged her foot with an ungraceful but timely kick and allowed the mechanism to right itself and lumber into its course again.
“For God’s sake, sit still!” he shouted hoarsely. “Is it possible you do not understand you are in danger? Do you wish to kill or 39maim us both before it is necessary? I order you to sit perfectly quiet until I tell you to jump!”
“Very well,” she replied meekly, with a short, frightened intake of the breath, and they sped along.
Categories: English Literature