Chapter XVI. My Plans Alter
 

The rest of that day we spent chatting very amicably in our Pullman arm-chairs. I couldn't understand it myself--when I had a moment to think, I was shocked and horrified at it. I was so terribly at home with them. These were friends of Dr. Ivor's--friends of my father's murderer! I had come out to Canada to track him, to deliver him over, if I could, to the strong hand of Justice. And yet, there I was talking away with his neighbours and friends as if I had known them all my life, and loved them dearly. Nay, what was more, I couldn't in my heart of hearts help liking them. They were really sweet people--so kind and sympathetic, so perceptive of my sensitiveness. They asked no questions that could hurt me in any way. They showed no curiosity about the object of my visit or my relation to Dr. Ivor. They were kindness and courtesy itself. I could see Mr. Cheriton was a gentleman in fibre, and Elsie was as sweet as any woman on earth could be.

By-and-by, the time came for the Pullman saloon to be transformed for the night into a regular sleeping-car. All this was new to me, and I watched it with interest. As soon as the beds were made up, I crept into my berth, and my new friend Elsie took her place on the sofa below me. I lay awake long and thought over the situation. The more I thought of it, the stranger it all seemed. I tried hard to persuade myself I was running some great danger in accepting the Cheritons' invitation. Certainly, I had behaved with consummate imprudence. Canada is a country, I said to myself, where they kidnap and murder well-to-do young Englishmen. How much easier, then, to kidnap and murder a poor weak stray English girl! I was entirely at the mercy of the Cheritons, that was clear: and the Cheritons were Dr. Ivor's friends. As I thought all the circumstances over, the full folly of my own conduct came home to me more and more. I had let these people suppose I was travelling under an assumed name. I had let them know my ticket was not for Palmyra but for Kingston, where I didn't mean to go. I had told them I meant to change it at Sharbot Lake. So they were aware that no one on earth but themselves had any idea where I had gone. And I had further divulged to them the important fact that I had plenty of ready money in Bank of England notes! I stood aghast at my own silliness. But still, I did not distrust them.

No, I did not distrust them. I felt I ought to be distrustful. I felt it might be expected of me. But they were so gentle-mannered and so sweet-natured, that I couldn't distrust them. I tried very hard, but distrust wouldn't come to me. That kind fellow Jack--I thought of him, just so, as Jack already--couldn't hurt a fly, much less kill a woman. It grieved me to think I would have to hurt his feelings.

For now that I came to look things squarely in the face in my berth by myself, I began to see how utterly impossible it would be for me after all to go and stop with the Cheritons. How I could ever have dreamt it feasible I could hardly conceive. I ought to have refused at once. I ought to have been braver. I ought to have said outright, "I'll have nothing to do or say with anyone who is a friend or an acquaintance of Courtenay Ivor's." And yet, to have said so would have been to give up the game for lost. It would have been to proclaim that I had come out to Canada as Courtenay Ivor's enemy.

I wasn't fit, that was the fact, for my self-imposed task of private detective.

A good part of that night I lay awake in my berth, bitterly reproaching myself for having come on this wild-goose chase without the aid of a man--an experienced officer. Next morning, I rose and breakfasted in the car. The Cheritons breakfasted with me, and, sad to say, seemed more charming than ever. That good fellow Jack was so attentive and kind, I almost felt ashamed to have to refuse his hospitality; and as for Elsie, she couldn't have treated me more nicely or cordially if she'd been my own sister. It wasn't what they said that touched my heart: it was what they didn't say or do--their sweet, generous reticence.

After breakfast, I steeled myself for the task, and broke it to them gently that, thinking it over in the night, I'd come to the conclusion I couldn't consistently accept their proffered welcome.

"I don't know how to say no to you," I cried, "after you've been so wonderfully kind and nice; but reasons which I can't fully explain just now make me feel it would be wrong of me to think of stopping with you. It would hamper my independence of action to be in anybody else's house. I must shift for myself, and try if I can't find board and lodging somewhere."

"Find it with us then!" Elsie put in eagerly. "If that's all that's the matter, I'm sure we're not proud--are we, Jack?--not a bit. Sooner than you should go elsewhere and be uncomfortable in your rooms, I'd take you in myself, and board you and look after you. You could pay what you like; and then you'd retain your independence, you see, as much as ever you wanted."

But her brother interrupted her with a somewhat graver air:

"It goes deeper than that, I'm afraid, Elsie," he said, turning his eye full upon her. "If Miss Callingham feels she couldn't be happy in stopping with us, she'd better try elsewhere. Though where on earth we can put her, I haven't just now the very slightest idea. But we'll turn it over in our own minds before we reach Adolphus Town."

There was a sweet reasonableness about Jack that attracted me greatly. I could see he entered vaguely into the real nature of my feelings. But he wouldn't cross-question me: he was too much of a gentleman.

"Miss Callingham knows her own motives best," he said more than once, when Elsie tried to return to the charge. "If she feels she can't come to us, we must be content to do the best we can for her with our neighbours. Perhaps Mrs. Walters would take her in: she's our clergyman's wife, Miss Callingham, and you mightn't feel the same awkwardness with her as with my sister."

"Does she know--Dr. Ivor?" I faltered out, unable to conceal my real reasons entirely.

"Not so intimately as we do," Jack answered, with a quick glance at his sister. "We might ask her at any rate. There are so few houses in Palmyra or the neighbourhood where you could live as you're accustomed, that we mustn't be particular. But at least you'll spend one night with us, and then we can arrange all the other things afterward."

My mind was made up.

"No, not even one night," I said. I couldn't accept hospitality from Dr. Ivor's friends. Between his faction and mine there could be nothing now but the bitterest enmity. How dare I even parley with people who were friends of my father's murderer?

Yet I was sorry to disappoint that good fellow, Jack, all the same. Did he want me to sleep one night at his house on purpose to rob me and murder me? Girl as I was, and rendered timorous in some ways by the terrible shocks I had received, I couldn't for one moment believe it. I knew he was good: I knew he was honourable, gentle, a gentleman.

So, journeying on all morning, we reached Sharbot Lake, still with nothing decided. At the little junction station, Jack got me my ticket. That was the turning point in my career. The die was cast. There I lost my identity. A crowd lounged around the platform, and surged about the Pullman car, calling to see "Una Callingham." But no Una Callingham appeared on the scene. I went, on in the same train, without a word to anyone, all unknown save to the two Cheritons, and as an unrecognised unit of common humanity. I had cast that horrid identity clean behind me.

The afternoon was pleasant. In spite of my uncertainty, it gave me a sense of pleased confidence to be in the Cheritons' company. I had taken to them at once: and the more I talked with them, the better I liked them. Especially Jack, that nice brotherly Jack, who seemed almost like an old friend to me. You get to know people so well on a long railway journey. I was quite sorry to think that by five o'clock that afternoon we should reach Adolphus Town, and so part company.

About ten minutes to five, we were collecting our scattered things, and putting our front-hair straight by the mirror in the ladies' compartment.

"Well, Miss Cheriton," I said warmly, longing to kiss her as I spoke, "I shall never forget how kind you two have been to me. I do wish so much I hadn't to leave you like this. But it's quite inevitable. I don't see really how I could ever endure--"

I said no more, for just at that moment, as the words trembled on my lips, a terrible jar thrilled suddenly through the length and breadth of the carriage. Something in front seemed to rush into us with a deep thud. There was a crash, a fierce grating, a dull hiss, a clatter. Broken glass was flying about. The very earth beneath the wheels seemed to give way under us. Next instant, all was blank. I just knew I was lying, bruised and stunned and bleeding, on a bare dry bank, with my limbs aching painfully.

I guessed what it all meant. A collision, no doubt. But I lay faint and ill, and knew nothing for the moment as to what had become of my fellow-passengers.