- CHAPTER XXV A FACE--AND A CHASE
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A FACE--AND A CHASE
"HAVE you been here before, Miss Cassandra?"
"Yes, child, twice, and quite alone. I wanted to see for myself."
They have left their wheels, and are standing close by the bridge, and about to cross.
"You are very brave."
"Bless me, child! I did not come at night. Why should you or I fear these woods? Shall we cross!"
Lorna nods, and, side by side, they go over the new bridge. As they step upon the earth on the further edge of the ravine, Lorna slips her small hand beneath her companion's arm, and, feeling it tremble, and the little thrill that shakes the slight figure, Aunt Cass puts her own firm palm over the soft nervous hand, and clasps it reassuringly, and so they go about this place of sorrowful memories slowly and together; and Lorna points out the log upon which she sat that day, and the bushes where Felix fell, taking her with him in a first and last embrace. But the visit shed no light upon her | | 264 dream or vision, and as they turned to go the spinster suddenly exclaimed--
"Why, Lorna, you did not tell your dream after all!" She paused and leaned her back against a tree, with her face toward the bridge. "Why not tell it now?"
"If you wish." Lorna turns, and, facing her friend, begins--
"I thought that I set out on my wheel to look for the face, and I rode a long, long way, and at last saw, far ahead, what seemed a bicycle, but as I came nearer it, it was the face, but it was turned from me, and the faster I followed it the faster it fled. At first it was a bicycle and a face interchangeably, but at last I gained upon it, and--What is it, Miss Cassandra?"
"N--nothing, child!" making a futile dab at her cheek; "at least, only a fly. Go on, please."
She speaks easily, but when Lorna resumes, with her eyes fixed on vacancy, Aunt Cass turns her own keen orbs once more toward a certain point in the wood across the ravine, where, as she has known for some moments, some one is lurking.
"As I gained upon the face," Lorna again begin, "it remained a face, and then it began to torment me by seeming about to turn, and I was in growing terror for fear it would escape me unseen, and then my wheel began to fail me, and I was in utmost agony for fear-- What is it?" for spinster has suddenly uttered a great sigh of relief and moved out from beneath the tree.
"I've been standing on one foot, child! Your wheel gave out. Do go on!"| | 265
"It almost gave out, when, just then, the wheel and the face were both just before me, and a great wall rose up ahead of us, and suddenly the wheel and the face began slowly, slowly to turn, and, just as my own wheel collapsed, my-- Ah-h-h!--the face--the FACE!"
With arm extended, and dark eyes seeming to stand out from her ghastly face, Lorna stands erect for an instant, pointing straight over the spinster's shoulder, and then falls at her feet as limp and unconscious as on that other day when Felix Chetwynde met his death, and two happy homes were changed to abodes of gloom.
And now, emphatically, we have "the right person in the right place." Hope Chetwynde, in her aunt's position, would have gone down upon her knees beside the fallen girl without loss of time, or so much as a glance beyond her.
Aunt Cass, however, knows a "plain faint when she sees it," and, before Lorna's falling form has reached the ground, she has wheeled, and is looking sharply in the direction indicated by the girl's pointing finger.
What she sees sends her rushing toward her wheel, with just a passing glance at her unconscious companion, crying as she goes--
"Mr. Glynne, Mr. Glynne, come--quick!"
Again the right man is in the right place. Terence Glynne needs no second bidding. From his leafy ambush he has not missed a movement of the girlish figure he loves to watch, even when hopeless of a nearer approach; and when Lorna falls he springs toward the intervening bridge, almost | | 266 cursing the brief distance that lies between them. At the middle of the bridge he passes Aunt Cass, and while neither pauses for an instant, she says, her voice rising as she passes on--
"It is only a faint. Help her home!"
Afterwards it occurs to both that to have reversed this order of things would have been eminently proper. But the eminently proper does not occur to Terry Glynne as he kneels beside the one only being in the world for him at that moment; nor yet to Aunt Cass, as, with wrath in her eyes, she seizes her wheel, and with one quick last glance follows in the direction taken by a flying figure on the other side, vaguely seen now through the intervening trees. She knew what she must do--and when was the time to explain?
Time! Aunt Cass has supposed, until that moment, that she had at least mastered the art of mounting her wheel with all speed. She has never before realised that one must wait, always, with one foot poised until the right pedal has reached a convenient angle. She has never before observed how a woman, minus the bifurcated garment, having placed the foot, must balance, swaying in mid air while she wrestles with an undivided skirt, and at last wriggles into the saddle, and a proper position. And all the while she knows how, on the other side, just behind the three elms, a light figure is giving its own machine a little forward shove, itself a quick upward hop, and is seated and away. Oh, to weigh ninety pounds and to be a boy for just one half hour.
But now she is across the bridge, she casts | | 267 another swift glance in passing at the girl already opening her eyes with a glimmer of consciousness, and dashes recklessly on.
For a little way the path is difficult, but the waggon road, of which she has heard so much, and which crosses the wood belt and joins the "upper road" to Lakeville, lies in sight beyond her, and upon the path ahead, flying toward this wood, is the figure she pants to overtake. The figure of a boy in a shabby outing suit, and striped leggings, riding recklessly, yet skilfully, and fast--all too fast! Aunt Cass sets her teeth, leans over her handle-bar, and pedals faster and faster.
For some distance the path winds, and the ground slopes very gradually. The going is better too, and the work in consequence quite easy. If the spinster is heavy, she is also strong, and for a time the fleeing figure ahead makes no perceptible gain.
Then comes a big curve in the path, and the wild rider in rounding it, looks back, and Aunt Cass, bent over now like a veritable scorcher, hears a burst of shrill mocking laughter, that brings a dangerous flash to her eyes.
On they speed. They have reached the upper road now, and the level track seems to rush backward from beneath the flying wheels. The lad in front skims along like a creature possessed; Aunt Cass is inspired with a fury of motion, and, as yet, no thought of fatigue. The cool air rushes past her in great waves--trees, fences, stocks, stones, and living things, all fly past, or seem to, each attenuated by the shortness of her passing vision; and still the two riders hold their own.| | 268
But now, suddenly, and with another backward glance, the lad wheels out of the high road, and into another footpath, well worn, but narrow. It is new ground to the spinster, but she follows recklessly. This path, in places, is not quite level, not quite smooth, pebbles, like missiles, fly out from beneath the spinning wheels; the dust here flies like a sandstorm, and upon Aunt Cass the perspiration begins to stand out in great drops, and then to drip and trickle. Just beyond is a hill; she has never fatigued herself by attempting a serious hill, but she faces it now without a thought of flinching--with no thought save the wish that she could pause long enough to staunch that river of perspiration trickling off the end of her tip-tilted nose.
Up the hill mounts the lad gaily, or so it seems, to his pursuer. And up mounts Aunt Cass. Drawing in a fierce breath, she urges on her steed, and, standing in the pedals bolt upright, she works on, vaguely wondering that the strength is in her, and panting more and more.
At the top she would gladly pause; every breath seems gone from her body, her mouth is dry, and her tongue parched.
For a little way now the ground is quite level, and the lad ahead seems to relax his speed somewhat. Aunt Cass begins to wonder where this chase will end. And now, by another swift turn, the leader in this strange race comes suddenly out--by what she now knows to be a "short cut"--upon a smooth highway once more, and for a little time pursuer and pursued ride smoothly, easily. Why the lad has relaxed his speed, unless it is, | | 269 as seemed probable, through fatigue, his follower cannot guess, but she is thankful for it, and is meditating a sudden burst which shall bring them to close quarters, when her hair almost lifts itself erect, and a shudder shakes through her frame. Right before them is a long steep descent, trailing off at the bottom in a curve, the end of which is out of sight; and the lad, now at the very top, is already gathering himself for the rush.
Aunt Cass catches her breath. The hill seems to her straight up and down; and then--the curve! The sight is appalling.
At hills, up or down, she has heretofore drawn the line.
But the lad is already off and away, his slim body held erect and motionless.
Is she to be daunted now? Seized with the spirit of utter recklessness--or utter wrath--she shoves off, slides for a yard or two, draws her feet up on the fork, and begins to coast. The wheel seems to fly. Everything whirls before her eyes, which she longs to shut, but dares not, momentarily looking--literally looking--to be dashed to destruction.
Half way down she feels--as by some second sense--dimly aware that the rapid flight is cooling her brow, and that her strained muscles are somehow soothed; but the feeling is momentarily only, and the next instant her prey vanishes around that awful curve, and she is shot across a terrace-like and almost level bit, and reaches its top in her turn.
The boy must have pushed back his cap before taking the hill, for, coming out from the shelter of the curving bank above, a gust of wind takes it off, | | 270 and it goes sailing down before him; and, following the flight of the light head gear, the spinster fairly groans aloud; the railroad track runs squarely across the way at the foot of the steep last dip, and at this very moment a whistle sounds, close by, behind the bank. All things turn black before her for a moment, as the picture of herself, a mangled and inert mass, unrecognisable, and a thing of horror, swims lightning-like before her mental vision.
It is rushing towards sure and certain doom, but she keeps on, her fascinated eyes fixed upon the fleeing form ahead.
She can see the train now. They must meet at right angles, she knows, and she--she can neither stop nor turn back if she would!
Her nerves and muscles seem paralysed; and--good heavens--the lad has struck the rails. He sways a bit--bounds lightly--he is over--and the train is just at hand!
They do not see her! The engineer, the fireman, all are looking in amaze after the other flying figure. And now she has reached the track, and the great, looming, thundering creature, shaking the ground and roaring horribly, is just upon her. Thoughts of the Juggernaut flashes through her mind. "Fling yourself before it," something seems to cry to her, and then--once, twice, and yet again, the wheel bounds, wavers, zig-zags, and then--she is across the track. The train has passed just at her heels. She is safe! But, no! Did her heart fail her at last? Has she ignored the side track yet to be crossed. Bounce, bounce!
From the sublime to the ridiculous, how short | | 271 the step! A woman run down, crushed, and mangled, by the day express is a tragic, an awful sight. A fat spinster scorching down a hill, heading off a train of cars, and herself taking a final header, after bouncing over the last rail, a header which causes her to disappear in a hedgerow of sweet clover gone to seed, until extricated by--can it be possible?--by the very lad she has pursued so desperately.
Half a dozen rods away stands the station of the tiny burg they have reached all unknown to the spinster, and almost instantly there is gathered a curious, exclaiming group of would-be rescuers, and Aunt Cass, sitting, or trying to sit, erect in the sweet clover's embrace, too breathless, bewildered, and shaken to rise, to speak, or fully and at once to understand, sees the lad turn to the foremost comer.
"No, sir," he is saying with perfect gravity, and seeming candour, as if in answer to a question, as indeed it was. "No, sir, we were not together. No, I don't know the lady. She came down the hill just behind me; perhaps her wheel ran away. I did not suppose she meant to cross the track. I just happened to look back," then, as two or three women came hurrying up, he draws back.
"I think I must go now," he says modestly. "I hope the lady is not much hurt," and, as he sees Aunt Cass gathering herself together as if for speech, he bends towards her, meets her eye with a mocking devil of laughter in his own, springs upon his shabby but trusty wheeled steed, and is away; and as he goes, the staring crowd, as well as the speech- | | 272 less spinster, hear that mocking peal of laughter split the air, as the flying wheels bear him from sight.
The sound does much to revive the capsized lady, and she sits more erect, and presently is lifted to her feet and helped across the way to the station.
It has been a narrow escape, all admit, but there are no broken bones, only some painful bruises, a torn and "pulled out" gown, and a mind--but what feeble pen is sufficiently dagger tipped, what ink steeped deep enough in gall to portray the inward wrath of Aunt Cass? At this particular moment it is well for the fleeing lad that he is not in some remote corner alone with her, and at her mercy.
Intense wrath is a great stimulant. Greater even than the glass of wine pressed upon her by a good-hearted, motherly woman, who earns the spinster's lasting gratitude by standing between her and the bevy of questioning lookers-on about her.
"Laud sakes! can't ye see't she's only shuck up like, an' out o' mind. Tell ye what, ma'am, ef ye'll jest come over to my place, right acrost the road, ye can rest up, an' get on to a train fer hum when ye get good an' ready."
The good woman's "place" is a three-room cottage across the track, and very near, and Aunt Cass is glad to avail herself of its hospitality. Her wheel has fared worse than herself; and she could not ride it further if she would. The train which so nearly ran her down was the day express from the south-east, running past the little stations without halt, and with scant slacking of speed, but two others pass, going east and west, | | 273 and by-and-by--stiff, and halting ungracefully, her battered wheel travelling by express--Aunt Cass creeps from her tormenting comforters, and boards the east-bound train for Lee, and the villa; a sadder but not a wiser woman.| | 274
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