Chapter X. Miss West's Request
 

The surprising change in her held me speechless. All the animation of the breakfast table was gone: there was no hint of the response with which, before, she had met my nonsensical sallies. She stood there, white-lipped, unsmiling, staring down the dusty road. One hand was clenched tight over some small object. Her eyes dropped to it from the distant road, and then closed, with a quick, indrawn breath. Her color came back slowly. Whatever had caused the change, she said nothing. She was anxious to leave at once, almost impatient over my deliberate masculine way of getting my things together. Afterward I recalled that I had wanted to explore the barn for a horse and some sort of a vehicle to take us to the trolley, and that she had refused to allow me to look. I remembered many things later that might have helped me, and did not. At the time, I was only completely bewildered. Save the wreck, the responsibility for which lay between Providence and the engineer of the second section, all the events of that strange morning were logically connected; they came from one cause, and tended unerringly to one end. But the cause was buried, the end not yet in view.

Not until we had left the house well behind did the girl's face relax its tense lines. I was watching her more closely than I had realized, for when we had gone a little way along the road she turned to me almost petulantly. "Please don't stare so at me," she said, to my sudden confusion. "I know the hat is dreadful. Green always makes me look ghastly."

"Perhaps it was the green." I was unaccountably relieved. "Do you know, a few minutes ago, you looked almost pallid to me!"

She glanced at me quickly, but I was gazing ahead. We were out of sight of the house, now, and with every step away from it the girl was obviously relieved. Whatever she held in her hand, she never glanced at it. But she was conscious of it every second. She seemed to come to a decision about it while we were still in sight of the gate, for she murmured something and turned back alone, going swiftly, her feet stirring up small puffs of dust at every step. She fastened something to the gate-post, - I could see the nervous haste with which she worked. When she joined me again it was without explanation. But the clenched fingers were free now, and while she looked tired and worn, the strain had visibly relaxed.

We walked along slowly in the general direction of the suburban trolley line. Once a man with an empty wagon offered us a lift, but after a glance at the springless vehicle I declined.

"The ends of the bone think they are castanets as it is," I explained. "But the lady - "

The young lady, however, declined and we went on together. Once, when the trolley line was in sight, she got a pebble in her low shoe, and we sat down under a tree until she found the cause of the trouble.

"I - I don't know what I should have done without you," I blundered. "Moral support and - and all that. Do you know, my first conscious thought after the wreck was of relief that you had not been hurt?"

She was sitting beside me, where a big chestnut tree shaded the road, and I surprised a look of misery on her face that certainly my words had not been meant to produce.

"And my first thought," she said slowly, "was regret that I - that I hadn't been obliterated, blown out like a candle. Please don't look like that! I am only talking."

But her lips were trembling, and because the little shams of society are forgotten at times like this, I leaned over and patted her hand lightly, where it rested on the grass beside me.

"You must not say those things," I expostulated. "Perhaps, after all, your friends - "

"I had no friends on the train." Her voice was hard again, her tone final. She drew her hand from under mine, not quickly, but decisively. A car was in sight, coming toward us. The steel finger of civilization, of propriety, of visiting cards and formal introductions was beckoning us in. Miss West put on her shoe.

We said little on the car. The few passengers stared at us frankly, and discussed the wreck, emphasizing its horrors. The girl did not seem to hear. Once she turned to me with the quick, unexpected movement that was one of her charms.

"I do not wish my mother to know I was in the accident:," she said. "Will you please not tell Richey about having met me?"

I gave my promise, of course. Again, when we were almost into Baltimore, she asked to examine the gun-metal cigarette case, and sat silent with it in her hands, while I told of the early morning's events on the Ontario.

"So you see," I finished, "this grip, everything I have on, belongs to a fellow named Sullivan. He probably left the train before the wreck, - perhaps just after the murder."

"And so - you think he committed the - the crime?" Her eyes; were on the cigarette case.

"Naturally," I said. "A man doesn't jump off a Pullman car in the middle of the night in another man's clothes, unless he is trying to get away from something. Besides the dirk, there were the stains that you, saw. Why, I have the murdered man's pocket-book in this valise at my feet. What does that look like?"

I colored when I saw the ghost of a smile hovering around the corners of her mouth. "That is," I finished, "if you care to believe that I am innocent."

The sustaining chain of her small gold bag gave way just then. She did not notice it. I picked it up and slid the trinket into my pocket for safekeeping, where I promptly forgot it. Afterwards I wished I had let it lie unnoticed on the floor of that dirty little suburban car, and even now, when I see a woman carelessly dangling a similar feminine trinket, I shudder involuntarily: there comes back to me the memory of a girl's puzzled eyes under the brim of a flopping hat, the haunting suspicion of the sleepless nights that followed.

Just then I was determined that my companion should not stray back to the wreck, and to that end I was determinedly facetious.

"Do you know that it is Sunday?" she asked suddenly, "and that we are actually ragged?"

"Never mind that," I retorted. "All Baltimore is divided on Sunday into three parts, those who rise up and go to church, those who rise up and read the newspapers, and those who don't rise up. The first are somewhere between the creed and the sermon, and we need not worry about the others."

"You treat me like a child," she said almost pettishly. "Don't try so hard to be cheerful. It - it is almost ghastly."

After that I subsided like a pricked balloon, and the remainder of the ride was made in silence. The information that she would go to friends in the city was a shock: it meant an earlier separation than I had planned for. But my arm was beginning again. In putting her into a cab I struck it and gritted my teeth with the pain. It was probably for that reason that I forgot the gold bag.

She leaned forward and held out her hand. "I may not have another chance to thank you," she said, "and I think I would better not try, anyhow. I cannot tell you how grateful I am." I muttered something about the gratitude being mine: owing to the knock I was seeing two cabs, and two girls were holding out two hands.

"Remember," they were both saying, "you have never met me, Mr. Blakeley. And - if you ever hear anything about me - that is not - pleasant, I want you to think the best you can of me. Will you?"

The two girls were one now, with little flashes of white light playing all around. "I - I'm afraid that I shall think too well for my own good," I said unsteadily. And the cab drove on.