II
TWO STRANGERS IN A COACH

Lorry wasted very little time. He dashed into the depot and up to the operator's window.

“What's the nearest station east of here?”

“P——,” leisurely answered the agent, in some surprise.

“How far is it?”

“Four miles.”

“Telegraph ahead and hold the train that just left here.”

“The train don't stop there.”

“It's got to stop there—or there'll be more trouble than this road has had since it began business. The conductor pulled out and left two of his passengers—gave out wrong information, and he'll have to hold his train there or bring her back here. If you don't send that order I'll report you as well as the conductor.” Grenfall's manner was commanding. The agent's impression was that he was important that he had a right to give orders. But he hesitated.

“There's no way for you but to get to P—— anyway,” he said, while turning the matter over in his mind.

“You stop that train! I'll get there inside of twenty minutes. Now, be quick! Wire them to hold her—or there'll be an order from headquarters for some ninety-day lay-offs.” The agent stared at him; then turned to his instrument, and the message went forward. Lorry rushed out. On the platform he nearly ran over the hurrying figure in the tan coat.

“Pardon me. I'll explain things in a minute,” he gasped, and dashed away. Her troubled eyes blinked with astonishment.

At the end of the platform stood a mountain coach, along the sides of which was printed in yellow letters: “Happy Springs.” The driver was climbing up to his seat and the cumbersome trap was empty.

“Want to make ten dollars?” cried Grenfall.

“What say?” demanded the driver, half falling to the ground.

“Get me to P—— inside of twenty minutes, and I'll give you ten dollars. Hurry up! Answer!”

“Yes, but, you see, I'm hired to—”

“Oh, that's all right! You'll never make money easier. Can you get us there in twenty minutes?”

“It's four mile, pardner, and not very good road, either. Pile in, and we'll make it er kill old Hip and Jim. Miss the train?”

“Get yourself ready for a race with an express train and don't ask questions. Kill 'em both if you have to. I'll be back in a second!”

Back to the station he tore. She was standing near the door, looking up the track miserably. Already night was falling. Men were lighting the switch lanterns and the mountains were turning into great dark shadows.

“Come quickly; I have a wagon out here.”

Resistlessly she was hurried along and fairly shoved through the open door of the odd-looking coach. He was beside her on the seat in an instant, and her bewildered ears heard him say:

“Drive like the very deuce!” Then the door slammed, the driver clattered up to his seat, and the horses were off with a rush.

“Where are we going?” she demanded, sitting very straight and defiant.

“After that train—I'll tell you all about it when I get my breath. This is to be the quickest escape from a dilemma on record—providing it is an escape.” By this time they were bumping along the flinty road at a lively rate, jolting about on the seat in a most disconcerting manner. After a few long, deep breaths he told her how the ride in the Springs hack had been conceived and of the arrangement he had made with the despatcher. He furthermore acquainted her with the cause of his being left when he might have caught the train.

“Just as I reached the track, out of breath but rejoicing, I remembered having seen you on that side street, and knew that you would be left. It would have been heartless to leave you here without protection, so I felt it my duty to let the train go and help you out of a very ugly predicament.”

“How can I ever repay you?” she murmured. “It was so good and so thoughtful of you. Oh, I should have died had I been left here alone. Do you not think my uncle will miss me and have the train sent back?” she went on sagely.

“That's so!” he exclaimed, somewhat disconcerted. “But I don't know, either. He may not miss you for a long time, thinking you are in some other car, you know. That could easily happen,” triumphantly.

“Can this man get us to the next station in time?” she questioned, looking at the black mountains and the dense foliage. It was now quite dark.

“If he doesn't bump us to death before we get half way there. He's driving like the wind.”

“You must let me pay half his bill,” she said, decidedly, from the dark corner in which she was huddling.

He could find no response to this peremptory request.

“The road is growing rougher. If you will allow me to make a suggestion, I think you will see its wisdom. You can escape a great deal of ugly jostling if you will take hold of my arm and cling to it tightly. I will brace myself with this strap. I am sure it will save you many hard bumps.”

Without a word she moved to his side and wound her strong little arm about his big one.

“I had thought of that,” she said, simply. “Thank you.” Then, after a moment, while his heart thumped madly: “Had it occurred to you that after you ran so hard you might have climbed aboard the train and ordered the conductor to stop it for me?”

“I—I never thought of that?” he cried, confusedly.

“Please do not think me ungrateful. You have been very good to me, a stranger. One often thinks afterward of things one might have done, don't you know? You did the noblest when you inconvenienced yourself for me. What trouble I have made for you.” She said this so prettily that he came gaily from the despondency into which her shrewdness, bordering on criticism, had thrown him. He knew perfectly well that she was questioning his judgment and presence of mind, and, the more he thought of it, the more transparent became the absurdity of his action.

“It has been no trouble,” he floundered “An adventure like this is worth no end of—er—inconvenience, as you call it. I'm sure I must have lost my head completely, and I am ashamed of myself. How much anxiety I could have saved you had I been possessed of an ounce of brains!”

“Hush! I will not allow you to say that. You would have me appear ungrateful when I certainly am not. Ach, how he is driving! Do you think it dangerous?” she cried, as the hack gave two or three wild lurches, throwing him into the corner, and the girl half upon him.

“Not in the least,” he gasped, the breath knocked out of his body. Just the same, he was very much alarmed. It was as dark as pitch outside and in, and he could not help wondering how near the edge of the mountain side they were running. A false move of the flying horses and they might go rolling to the bottom of the ravine, hundreds of feet below. Still, he must not let her see his apprehension. “This fellow is considered the best driver in the mountains,” he prevaricated. Just then he remembered having detected liquor on the man's breath as he closed the door behind him. Perhaps he was intoxicated!

“Do you know him?” questioned the clear voice, her lips close to his ear, her warm body pressing against his.

“Perfectly. He is no other than Lighthorse Jerry, the king of stage drivers.” In the darkness he smiled to himself maliciously.

“Oh, then we need feel no alarm,” she said, reassured, not knowing that Jerry existed only in the yellow-backed novel her informant had read when a boy.

There was such a roaring and clattering that conversation became almost impossible. When either spoke it was with the mouth close to the ear of the other. At such times Grenfall could feel her breath on his cheek, Her sweet voice went tingling to his toes with every word she uttered. He was in a daze, out of which sung the mad wish that he might clasp her in his arms, kiss her, and then go tumbling down the mountain. She trembled in the next fierce lurches, but gave forth no complaint. He knew that she was in terror but too brave to murmur.

Unable to resist, he released the strap to which he had clung so grimly, and placed his strong, firm hand encouragingly over the little one that gripped his arm with the clutch of death. It was very dark and very lonely, too!

“Oh!” she cried, as his hand clasped hers. “You must hold to the strap.”

“It is broken!” he lied, gladly, “There is no danger. See! My hand does not tremble, does it? Be calm! It cannot be much farther.”

“Will it not be dreadful if the conductor refuses to stop?” she cried, her hand resting calmly beneath its protector. He detected a tone of security in her voice.

“But he will stop! Your uncle will see to that, even if the operator fails.”

“My uncle will kill him if he does not stop or come back for me,” she said, complacently.

“I was mot wrong,” thought Grenfall; “he looks like a duelist. Who the devil are they, anyhow?” Then aloud: “At this rate we'd be able to beat the train to Washington in a straight-away race. Isn't it a delightfully wild ride?”

“I have acquired a great deal of knowledge in America, but this is the first time I have heard your definition of delight. I agree that it is wild.”

For some moments there was silence in the noisy conveyance. Outside, the crack of the driver's whip, his hoarse cries, and the nerve-destroying crash of the wheels produced impressions of a mighty storm rather than of peace and pleasure.

“I am curious to know where you obtained the coin you lost in the car yesterday,” she said at last, as if relieving her mind of a question that had been long subdued.

“The one you so kindly found for me?” he asked, procrastinatingly.

“Yes. They are certainly rare in this country.”

“I never saw a coin like it until after I had seen you,” he confessed. He felt her arm press his a little tighter, and there was a quick movement of her head which told him, dark as it was, that she was trying to see his face and that her blue eyes were wide with something more than terror.

“I do not understand,” she exclaimed.

“I obtained the coin from a sleeping-car porter who said some one gave it to him and told him to have a 'high time' with it,” he explained in her ear.

“He evidently did not care for the 'high time,'” she said, after a moment. He would have given a fortune for one glimpse of her face at that instant.

“I think he said it would be necessary to go to Europe in order to follow the injunction of the donor. As I am more likely to go to Europe than he, I relieved him of the necessity and bought his right to a 'high time.'”

There was a long pause, during which she attempted to withdraw herself from his side, her little fingers struggling timidly beneath the big ones.

“Are you a collector of coins?” she asked at length, a perceptible coldness in her voice.

“No. I am considered a dispenser of coins. Still, I rather like the idea of possessing this queer bit of money as a pocket-piece. I intend to keep it forever, and let it descend as an heirloom to the generations that follow me,” he said, laughingly. “Why are you so curious about it?”

“Because it comes from the city and country in which I live,” she responded. “If you were in a land far from your own would you not be interested in anything—even a coin—that reminded you of home?”

“Especially if I had not seen one of its kind since leaving home,” he replied, insinuatingly.

“Oh, but I have seen many like it. In my purse there are several at this minute.”

“Isn't it strange that this particular coin should have reminded you of home?”

“You have no right to question me, sir,” she said, coldly, drawing away, only to be lurched back again. In spite of herself she laughed audibly.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, tantalizingly.

“When did he give it you?”

“Who?”

“The porter, sir.”

“You have no right to question me,” he said.

“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.”

“At Denver?”

“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 was 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?”

“Assuredly.”

“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 against the blackness.

Almost before they realized how near they were to the lights, the horses began to slacken their speed, a moment later coming to a standstill. The awful ride was over.

“The train! the train!” she cried, in ecstacy. “Here, on the other side. Thank heaven!”

He could not speak for the joyful pride that distended his heart almost to bursting. The coach door flew open, and Light-horse Jerry yelled:

“Here y'are! I made her!”

“I should say you did!” exclaimed Grenfall, climbing out and drawing her after him gently. “Here's your ten.”

“I must send you something, too, my good fellow,” cried the lady. “What is your address—quick?”

“William Perkins, O——, West Virginny, ma'am.”

Lorry was dragging her toward the cars as the driver completed the sentence. Several persons were running down the platform, dimly lighted from the string of car windows She found time to pant as they sped along:

“He was not Light-horse Jerry, at all!”

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