BY MARGARET CAMERON
THIS is another of those preposterous things that everybody knows could not happen, notwithstanding the fact that something equally incredible has happened at least once within everybody's immediate knowledge. That this sort of thing not only occurred, but recurred many times in the Dolliver's experience was undoubtedly due in part to their joyous unworldliness. Although never actually formulating their faith, they assumed that the Golden Rule, being a good rule, must necessarily work both ways, and that therefore most other people were not only animated by motives as sincere and kindly as were their own, but were also moved to responses as unfailing.
Consistently put into practice, this philosophy is capable of producing astonishing results, and the time inevitably came when the young couple took sweet counsel together—bitter-sweet, it may have been—and agreed, in self-defense, to curb their altruistic impulses. They firmly—even sternly—resolved to have no more adventures. But somebody once described them as "the sort of people things happen to," and perhaps there is something, after all, in that theory of psychological currents that carry us each to his own particular type of dilemma, however he may struggle to escape.
Be that as it may, Dolliver, driving alone along a mountain road in the dusk of a gray October day, stopped without second thought when he saw the distressed face of the young man working over a disabled car. He was a very young man, scarcely more than a boy.
"Want any help?" Dolliver called. "Tools, or anything?"
"No—thanks. It isn't that. At least—" The youth looked up into the other's pleasant, interested face. "Are you in a great hurry?"
"I'm going to be late to dinner, anyhow. I might as well be a little later."
"I wonder if you'd be willing to take a girl—a trained nurse—over to Hartsville in time to catch the down express? She's Dad's regular nurse—he's an invalid, you see—and she came up here with some other girls to rest." He was evidently very anxious, and it was difficult for Dolliver to understand his hurried utterance. "But he's worse, and the family wired me—I've been camping with some fellows over on Little Crow Lake—they wired me to bring her down to-night. I 'phoned her—helped myself to this car—it belongs to one of the fellows who wasn't there—and now the damn fan's busted! She's waiting at a cross-road about two miles ahead. Got somebody to bring her that far to save time. Will you take her on to that train? It's thirty miles."
"Sure! Come along!"
"Can't! This isn't my car. 'Twouldn't be square to leave it on the road. I can get back to the village with it, somehow. Here's the money for her fare. I'll arrange to have somebody meet her in New York. And I'll come by the five-sixteen in the morning. Awfully good of you!"
"That's all right! Pleasure!" Dolliver was figuring that he could reach Hartsville and telephone to Marjorie before she would have time to become very much alarmed. They were camping with the Holdens, on Mirror Lake, several miles off the main road. Not being clairvoyant, he had no means of knowing that friends of their host's had arrived immediately after his departure that afternoon, bent on taking them all to their own distant camp for a couple of days' fishing, and that Marjorie, perceiving how greatly the Holdens desired to go, had bundled them off, insisting that it would be a lark for herself and Page to keep house alone in the wilderness during their absence.
"You'll have to hustle," the young man said. "Know the road?"
"No—but I'll find it."
"You've only fifty minutes, and there's a bad detour. Can you make it?"
"I can try, anyhow. Good luck!" Waving his hand above his head in farewell, Dolliver called the last words over his shoulder, and presently the boy in the road, listening to the hum of the engine as the speeding car took the next hill on high, wagged his head and gave a little sigh.
"He'll make it, all right," he said to himself. "Golly! I wonder who he is? I never thought to ask—or to give him my card! Oh, well—Lucy 'll fix that."
All the summer hotels were closed, and except for an occasional party of hunters or anglers in some remote camp the only people for miles around were the few mountaineers, who rarely ventured forth at night, so Dolliver had the road to himself, and he made the most of it. His speedometer showed a mile and a half when he saw a cross-road ahead and slowed down, but he could discover no waiting woman. A mile farther on he began to wonder whether he had passed her in the deepening dusk, and at two miles he was about to turn back when he caught sight of her standing at the side of the road, peering at the approaching car. As he drew nearer she nervously caught up the suit-case at her feet, looking over her shoulder down the crossroad through which she had evidently come. He thought she seemed frightened.
"Good evening," he called. "You're waiting for a young man to take you to Hartsville to the train, aren't you?"
"Y-yes," she admitted, apparently startled.
"His car broke down about three miles back. I happened along—he explained the situation—and asked me to take you on." By this time he was standing beside her, cap in hand. "Let me have your suit-case."
"But—I don't understand." She refused to yield the suit-case. "Why—why should I go—with you? Couldn't he come—with you?"
"He couldn't leave the car in the road. It was borrowed."
"Borrowed! What happened to his own car?"
"I don't know." He smiled and shook his head, speaking very rapidly. "I never saw him before—don't even know now what his name is. All I know is that he asked me to hurry you to that train. He said he'd arrange to have some one meet you in New York—here's the money for your fare—and he'll follow by the next train. Five-sixteen in the morning. Now, please don't delay. We have little enough time as it is!" He tossed the suit-case into the tonneau, and she allowed herself to be pushed in after it, apparently somewhat dazed. "Don't be frightened," he added, as he slid into his own seat. "I shall have to drive fast."
He did drive fast. Up hill and down they raced, clattering over bridges and swinging around curves, the horn almost constantly sounding, until they came to a barricade, placarded with an arrow marking the detour, when he turned off into a rough, narrow dirt road winding through thick woods. By this time it was dark, and there was a feeling of approaching rain in the air. The car rocked and jounced over the ruts, and he had to slow down, but still made the best time he dared, taking chances on the integrity of his springs. Presently the road forked, and he stopped, turning his search-lights this way and that, looking for a sign-post.
"Which way?" he asked.
"I—don't know. Left—I think."
He got out and examined all the near-by trees, in vain search for the arrow with which detours are usually marked. "There's the track of one car to the left," he said. "But the traffic seems to be to the right—and it's generally safer to follow traffic."
"Well," she assented. So he took the road to the right, which presently led them over a long, very steep grade, down even a steeper one, and then through a stretch of sticky mud, in which the car sank almost to its hubs, requiring every ounce of power the engine could produce to pull out.
"Jiminy!" Dolliver muttered to himself. "I wonder if this is the right road?" But to go back that difficult path on an uncertainty seemed madness, and he remembered the boy's warning that it was a bad detour. Therefore he kept on, across another steep hill, over an encouraging stretch of comparatively good road, and down into a bog of heavy, wet clay again. The car had almost struggled out of this, its fore wheels within a couple of yards of higher, drier ground, when without any additional protest or demonstration the laboring motor stopped.
"Good Lord!" he ejaculated, blankly, with an apprehensive glance at the rear wheels, deeply imbedded in mire.
"What's the matter?" The girl's voice sounded frightened.
"I don't know." He tried the self-starter, and found it of no avail. "But if it happens to be the crank-shaft—as it might be—"
"Well?" she questioned more sharply, as he stepped out into mud over his shoe-tops. "If it is the crank-shaft—"
"Then the Lord help us!" he solemnly returned, wading forward to the engine.
It was the crank-shaft. The strain of propelling the car through the second stretch of mud had proved too much for it. After making all the examinations and trying all the expedients customary in such emergencies, he sighed heavily. "Well—that's what it is. The blamed thing's evidently broken."
"Oh—is it?" She was only vaguely dismayed as yet. "How long will it take you to fix it?"
"That's it. It can't be fixed. Nothing but a new shaft—"
"And you haven't a new shaft with you?"
"Well—but—you don't mean— We can't stay here!" Again her soft tone sharpened with alarm. "My train! I must make that train!"
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm afraid that's out of the question now."
"But—you don't seem to understand! I can't miss it!"
She seemed to be growing slightly hysterical, and he spoke soothingly.
"I know. I do understand. And I'm awfully sorry. I know how you must feel. He told me his father was worse—I could see how they depend upon you—and I assure you I've done my best—"
"He—he told you—what?"
"All about it. That you were his father's nurse—"
"Who told you I was a nurse?"
"But—you are, aren't you?"
"Certainly not!" In spite of her consternation her tone was noticeably tinged with hauteur.
"Then, in Heaven's name, who are you?"
"My name is Ruth Hazard."
"But you said— I asked you—"
"You never said a word about a nurse! You said he sent you—"
"You certainly said you were waiting for him—going to that train—"
"I was waiting for him. But I'm not a nurse—and I don't believe he ever said I was! He wouldn't do that, even if I—if we—are running away."
"Yes, e—e—" She stopped, swallowed, and then said, with great dignity, "Eloping."
"Eloping!" He stood transfixed, ankle-deep in mud, staring at her dim outline. "Well—by—heck! So that's it, is it? Heh! Well, that kid is certainly one accomplished young liar!"
"The youngster you're trying to elope with. He put one over on me!"
"He's not a 'youngster! He's a man!"
"Oh yes!" Dolliver shrugged his shoulders. "They're 'men' out of high school these days!"
"But he is a man! He's as old as you are! He's thirty-two."
"Wha—what's that? Look here, my child, let's get to the bottom of this!" He waded toward her and put one hand on the door of the tonneau. "What does he look like—this 'man' you talk about?"
"He's big—and dark—and awfully good-looking!"
"Good God!" said Dolliver, and sat down suddenly on the running-board, dropping his face into his muddy hands.
"Why?" The girl slid across the seat and poked his shoulder, peering down at him over the edge of the car. "What's the matter now?"
His reply was muffled. "The chap I saw was about your age—and he had red hair."
"But—why, then—then where was Wallace?"
"Give it up. Where was the nurse? I never saw either of 'em!" Then he told her the story.
"But that's perfectly preposterous!" she protested. "There couldn't be two of us—on the same road—for the same train!"
"That's what I thought," he reminded her. "So here we are!"
"Well, you might have asked—"
"I thought I did. I'm awfully sorry—but I didn't know there'd be two!"
"I suppose that's so. But—oh, this is perfectly hideous! Poor Wallace! He probably thinks— Oh, I can't stay here, you know! Do something! Can't we— Well, you just must do something!"
"There's only one thing to do now. If you'll stay here in the car—"
"Alone? No, indeed!"
"Well, come with me, if you prefer. There must be a house on ahead somewhere. We haven't passed one since we left the State road. We may find a farmer with a car—or horses—who'll take us on. Or take us back. Anyway, we're pretty sure to find shelter for you. It's going to rain before long. And if there isn't a telephone I'll keep on going until I find one and send word to your friends—and to my wife." With a pang he pictured Marjorie's alarm when he should fail to arrive, and wondered how soon Holden would set out to look for him.
"Oh—are you married?" she asked, with apparent relief.
But he was not ready to talk about Marjorie just then. He put up the top and all the side curtains of the car. anticipating rain, and found a small log, which he dragged over to make a bridge across the deepest mud. Then they trudged up the hill, stumbling a little and not talking much. At the top they emerged from the woods, and presently he made out the vague masses of farm buildings ahead.
Their enthusiasm was short-lived, however, for everything about the place was locked and barred, and vigorous pounding on various doors brought no response, so they tramped on. The clouds settled lower, the darkness deepened, and they had difficulty in following the road. They had gone perhaps two miles farther when they felt the first drops of rain, and a little later they saw a light ahead, toward which they joyfully hurried.
Dolliver had knocked twice before a window was opened in the second story, where the light was, and a woman's voice asked, "Who be ye?"
"We're strangers—and we're lost," he replied. "There's a lady with me—"
"Fer the land sakes! Where'd ye come from?" the voice interrupted.
"Our car broke down in a mud-hole up the road a bit, and we walked here. It's beginning to rain and we want to get under cover—and to hire a team—or use your telephone—"
"Ye can't come in here."
"But, madam! I tell you there's a woman down here in the rain!"
"Well, she'd better stay in the rain. We got a little girl down with dipthery. Malignant, too, I guess," she added, with a sort of dreary enjoyment. "He's just went fer the doctor."
"Diphtheria! Oh, horrible!" Ruth whispered, shrinking.
They learned that they had taken the wrong road at the fork, eleven miles back, and that Clear Brook, the next town, was nineteen miles ahead. The nearest house was six miles on, "an' they ain't to home, neither. They're gone to visit his folks." There was no telephone, and "he" had taken the horses and would stay at Clear Brook until morning, because the team was "skittish in the dark." The doctor had an automobile.
Here Ruth suddenly announced, with a little sob, that she was going into the house; and when Dolliver caught her arm, demanding a reason, she returned: "She mustn't stay here alone all night with a sick child! That's horrible!"
Further inquiry elicited the fact that the woman's two sisters were with her and that there was nothing to do but wait for the doctor. They were sure the child had diphtheria, "'cause everybody 'round here's been hevin' it. I s'pose we'll all hev it, too, now." She added apathetically that they might stay in the barn if they chose—an alternative that Ruth shudderingly refused to consider. Dolliver asked the woman if she had a lantern to spare, and she told him to take the one "in the back entry," for which he was very grateful.
When he returned from getting it he found Ruth awaiting him in the road, and at his repeated suggestion that it might be wise to accept the invitation to stay in the barn she shivered.
"Oh, don't! Please don't even talk about it! I'm so afraid! Diphtheria's so horrible— My mother died—that way—and it's my terror— I couldn't!"
"But you wanted to go in!"
"I thought she was alone. Think of being alone with it—all night!"
"You little brick!" Dolliver's voice was husky. "I don't wonder that chap wanted to run away with you!"
At this she began to cry softly, and to divert her thoughts he made her decide what they should do. She decreed a return to the car, where at least they would be dry and safe until daylight, when the woman had promised to send her husband with his team to rescue the car. The episode at the house seemed to have broken down some barrier between them, and all the way back in the drizzling rain she chattered feverishly of Wallace Comstock. As he listened Dolliver perceived more and more clearly that she was very young, very inexperienced, impulsively generous, and so sensitive that she would be easily led.
He learned that she had known Comstock only two months, that his wooing had been precipitate in the extreme, and that her father—apparently a dictatorial, unsympathetic person—instead of reasoning with her had sent her up into the mountains with an ancient and arbitrary aunt, to remain until she should have renounced Wallace Comstock and all his works. Discovering her whereabouts, her lover—whom she seemed to accept unquestioningly at his face value—had followed, and, having met her through the connivance of a subsidized attendant, had swept her off her feet by the ardor of his pleading and overruled all her objections to this elopement. Again and again she interrupted her narrative to cry: "Oh, Mr. Dolliver, what could have happened? Why was he late? What will he think? What can it mean?"
Dolliver had his own opinion as to what it might mean when a man of thirty-two, who had not hesitated to take this generous, responsive child by storm, regardless of her possible sober second thought, failed himself to be at the trysting-place when she arrived. But it was not an opinion that he cared to voice at the moment, so he talked evasively of tire trouble. "All sorts of things can happen to motorists," he said. "If I should tell you some of the things Marjorie and I have been up against—" This gave him an idea, and he did tell her some of these things, beginning with the nice old ladies whom they had once picked up on a country road, and who had afterward suspected Marjorie of stealing a purse.
Meanwhile, although the lantern now made it possible for them to pick their steps, she was stumbling badly before they reached the car, and he saw that she would be unequal to the long walk to the State road which he had hoped they might undertake after a brief rest. She was desperately tired and, like himself, faint with hunger. He helped her across the log again and made her as comfortable as he could with dry rugs in the tonneau, still talking steadily of the dangers he and Marjorie had passed. Toward morning she fell asleep, leaving him free to indulge his own uneasy thoughts. He listened to the slow drip of occasional gentle showers, looked at his watch every five or ten minutes, wondering whether day and sane procedure would ever dawn, and tried to guess at what was happening back in the real world, from which they two had slipped into this interminable nightmare. But not even his excited imagination could picture adequately all the stress and circumstance of that fevered night.
Wan, preliminary streaks of gray were appearing in the east when he heard a car approaching from the State road, and stepped out on the running-board to hail this Heaven-sent wanderer. As its search-lights touched him he heard a startled, familiar cry, and called, incredulously:
"Marjorie? Is that you, Marjorie?"
"Oh, Page! Page!" his wife's voice wailed. "Where have you been? I'm nearly crazy! Are you all right?"
"All right, dear—absolutely all right! You poor girl! I'm so sorry!" Blinded by the glare of the head-lights, he was unable to see the machine, but he became conscious with a shock that the motor had stopped. "Come on! Come on, you idiot!" he urged, in sudden fear. "What's the matter with you, Dick? If you stop there, you'll never get out!" He heard the engine start, and stall—and start, and stall again, in futile effort to move the car through the mire. "Can't you make it? Keep her in low!" he shouted, as the rasp of changing gears reached him. "For Heaven's sake, who's driving that car?"
"I—I am," Marjorie quavered. "And when I saw you, I—I— Oh, Pa-age!"
"You! Good Lord!" Knee-deep in heavy slush, he waded toward her, excitedly demanding: "Whose car is that? Where's Holden? Dearest, you're not alone?"
"Yes, I am! I've been out all night—hours and hours! Oh, Page, how could you! Why didn't you 'phone? I thought you'd been killed!"
By this time she was sobbing hysterically, in the sharp reaction following many tense, terror-ridden hours, and he climbed into the car, regardless of trailing mud, gathering her into his arms, while in broken sentences and incoherent gasps each tried at once to soothe and question and explain, neither gaining at first a very clear impression of what the other was trying to convey. She understood vaguely that he had been called upon in an emergency to take a nurse to Hartsville and had mistaken the road. And he learned, bit by bit, that for some reason the Holdens had left her alone, and that after agonizing in uncertainty and inaction until two o'clock she had set out in Holden's car, convinced that disaster had befallen him, to scour the roads until she found him.
"But what on earth brought you away over here on this devilish trail?" he asked. "If you'd broken down anywhere—in that other mud-hole—" He broke off with something between a groan and a grunt.
"I've been everywhere!" she gasped. "I was coming back from Hartsville—and I saw this road—and tracks of tires like ours—and I couldn't tell where you'd be! Nobody had seen you. They were all looking for some girl who's disappeared—and they said—oh, Page, they said you'd eloped with her!"
"You didn't believe that, Marjorie!" He held her away from him to look into her face, and neither of them was conscious that Ruth, roused from heavy sleep by their excited voices, was standing on the running-board of the other car, calling vain questions to them across the intervening bog. You didn't!"
"Of course I didn't! I just knew you were dead!"
"Oh, my poor darling! We tried to 'phone—we walked miles—"
"We'? Who's 'we'? Oh—the nurse?"
"Miss Hazard and— Great Scott! there she is!" For the first time since Marjorie's arrival Dolliver gave a thought to the girl in the other car, and looked up to see her waving her hand and desperately calling in her soft, unresonant voice:
"Mr. Dolliver! Please listen!"
"All right," he returned. "Miss Hazard, this is my wife. She's been out all night hunting for me."
"Well, what are you staying there for? Why don't you come on?"
"Jove! I'd forgotten! I think we're mired—but I'll see."
"Hazard?" Marjorie repeated dazedly, as she yielded her place behind the wheel. "Why—that's the name of the girl who eloped! Ruth Hazard."
"I know." Dolliver started the engine. "This is the girl."
"But—you said a nurse! She isn't a nurse—is she?"
"No. But I thought she was. Damn!" The engine had stalled again. "Just wait until we get out of this bog, and I'll tell you all about it."
"Oh, wait! Please—just a minute!" Ruth begged. "Mrs. Dolliver, did you meet a man—I mean—do you happen to know— Is anybody looking for me?"
"Anybody!" Marjorie laughed shortly. "The whole countryside's looking for you! Search-parties out in every direction—and most of them think you've eloped with my husband! Somebody even said you'd left a note—"
"Yes—but Wallace? Wallace Comstock? Haven't you seen him?"
"Comstock? No—I don't think I've heard anything about him. But your grandmother—or your aunt—or whoever she is—has every man within telephoning distance out looking for you."
"What's the use of looking for her if she left word she'd gone with—" Dolliver broke off sharply, smitten by an appalling thought. "See here, young woman, you said in that note that you'd gone with Comstock, didn't you? I mean—you used his name?"
"No—no, I didn't. I knew they'd know. I just said I'd gone with—with the only man I—I could ever—" Weeping, she disappeared within the curtained tonneau.
"Good Lord!" said Dolliver, giving the self-starter a vicious punch.
He was standing in the mud, adding such persuasion as he could apply to the spokes of a rear wheel, while Marjorie manipulated the willing but outmatched engine, when he saw the lights of a car coming from the direction of Clear Brook, and exclaimed: "Thank God, here comes somebody! Perhaps they'll give us a boost!"
"There they be. Doc! By gum, we got 'em!" a jubilant voice declared, as a runabout—of a breed which Dolliver scornfully called "tin bugs"—slid down the hill and stopped at the edge of the muddy stretch. Hearing new voices, Ruth again stepped out eagerly to the running-board of Dolliver's car, and the same voice exclaimed: "Hullo! There's two of 'em! What might your name be, miss?"
"And shame on ye! Runnin' away with a married man!"
"I didn't!" she indignantly returned. "I was running away with somebody else! I thought Mr. Dolliver was taking me to him! He said he was! At least— How dare you say—!"
"Oh, he said that, did he? Where is he? Let's hear what he'll say now?"
"I'm the man you seem to be looking for," Dolliver called, "but you're making a mistake. There's been no elopement—"
"There hain't, hey? Good reason why, too!" The man laughed unpleasantly. "Go on. Doc!" The runabout started forward, but Ruth told them to take her across, so they stopped beside the disabled car, and the disagreeable man gave her his seat and stood on the running-board himself. "I thought mebbe we'd ketch ye here. We see by your tracks that ye come this way. Who's that other woman?" he asked, as the tin bug chugged unconcernedly through the sticky mass; and when she told him he laughed again. "Heh! Beat us to it, did she? Trust a woman! They say she's been chasin' him like all possessed all night! You're a nice specimen, you are!" addressing Dolliver. "Runnin' away with a young girl—an' you a married—"
"But he didn't run away with her!" Marjorie was saying at the same moment. "He thought she was a nurse—somebody asked him to take a nurse—"
"Oh, that's what he told you! Tells her he's takin' her to her feller—"
"Now there's been about enough of this!" Dolliver announced, as the tin bug stopped beside the mired car, into which Ruth promptly transferred herself. "You listen to me." Wherewith he began his explanation.
But the natives were not to be taken with chaff like that. He might convince a too-credulous wife—he might even persuade an innocent and inexperienced girl, admitting the story she told to be true—but men of their intelligence were not so easily deceived by a palpable invention. They now perceived him to be not only a villain, but a fool.
It transpired that the indignant and loquacious person was the husband of the woman to whom Dolliver and Ruth had applied for shelter the night before. Instead of driving to Clear Brook, he had found a willing messenger at an intermediate point, returning home himself, where he learned of the couple who had come in search of a team to carry them on. The doctor, arriving toward morning, had brought thrilling tidings of the disappearance of a girl, and of a distraught wife pursuing a missing husband, and the sum of two and two had been easily solved. Finding the ailing child to be afflicted with nothing more serious than measles, the two men had joined the chase. "An' when we git you to the village, what you'll git 'll be a-plenty! Tar an' feathers is too good fer you! Tellin' that poor girl you was takin' her to her feller, and tellin' your wife—"
"But he told me he thought I was a nurse, too!" Ruth tearfully insisted. "And he did! I know he did!"
"Nothin' to it, young lady! He's got a slick tongue, all right! But you want to git down on your knees and thank the good Lord fer savin' ye from a scalawag!"
In the end they attached a rope, which the doctor carried for such emergencies, to the rear axle of Holden's car, and the tin bug calmly and without undue effort hauled the big machine out of the mud, after which Dolliver turned it around and they all proceeded toward Crow Lake village, the indignant citizen insisting upon occupying the seat beside Dolliver, and the taciturn but vigilant doctor following.
They had passed the fatal fork and were not far from the State highway, when they met a powerful roadster, driven by a wild-eyed and pallid man who slowed down to peer at them.
"Any news?" he called.
At the same instant Ruth shrieked, and Dolliver put on his brakes with a jerk that almost threw them all out of their seats. But quick though he was, Comstock was quicker, and they found him standing beside their car without knowing how he got there.
"Ruth! For God's sake!" he said, hoarsely. "Where have you been? All night I have been searching for you!"
"Oh—have you? I thought—I wondered—" One glance into his face dispelled all doubt, and she stumbled out, clinging to his arm and sobbing: "Oh, Wallace, I've been so miserable! Where were you? Why didn't you come?"
"I did come! I was late—I couldn't help that! A freight-train broke down and blocked the crossing for an hour just the other side of Crow Lake village. I couldn't get around it—there was no other way for miles—they kept telling me the road would be open in a few minutes! When I did get through I drove like the very devil—but I was fourteen minutes late the best I could do—and you weren't there!"
"Oh, Wallace! Did you think—"
"I thought you'd walked on! Then I thought you hadn't come! I 'phoned the house—they said you'd gone out. Then I began to hunt—up and down these roads—for hours! Then I 'phoned your aunt—she'd found your note—that indefinite note, Ruth! Then we heard that some married woman was looking for a missing husband—"
"Wallace! You didn't think—"
"Think! My God! Is there anything I haven't thought? Where were you?"
"I was all right! I was with Mr. Dolliver—"
"Dolliver? Who's Dolliver?"
"I'm Dolliver—and this is my wife." By this time they were all standing in the road—a disheveled, gray-faced group, their pallor accentuated by the dun morning light.
The indignant citizen, who had made several futile attempts to attract Comstock's attention, now seized his opportunity, shrilly declaring: "He's the man! He had this poor girl! An' ef his machine hadn't 'a' broke down out near my place—"
"Stop!" Dolliver commanded.
"Is that true?" Comstock demanded of Ruth, his hands clenching.
"But I thought he was taking me to you—"
"And he thought she was a nurse—" Marjorie interrupted.
"They come to my house together in the middle o' the night—"
"You damned scoundrel!"
"Take that back!"
Dolliver and Comstock, each with a woman clinging to his arm, confronted each other furiously.
"Listen, can't you?" Marjorie flamed at Ruth's lover. "Aren't you man enough to listen to an explanation? He's suffered more than you have! I know it—and I'm his wife!"
For a moment Dolliver stood rigid, staring back at the other, his eyes like points of fire in an ashen face. Then, with obvious effort at restraint, he said: "Perhaps we'd all better—better remember that it's been a hard night—for everybody. None of us is quite—normal. These are the facts."
Once more he told his incredible story, with Marjorie watching Comstock's angry, unresponsive face, the indignant citizen emitting contemptuous snorts, and Ruth occasionally sobbing out little phrases of corroboration.
When Dolliver had finished the girl said: "That's all perfectly true, Wallace. That's just what happened."
"H'm!" her lover returned, perceiving that she at least was convinced. "If it's true, it's very extraordinary. And if it isn't, it's—ingenious." Again Dolliver started angrily, but Comstock went on, watching Ruth. "There are one or two points that don't seem quite clear. For example, when did he tell you that he thought you were a nurse? Not when he picked you up?"
"Why, no! If he had I wouldn't have gone!"
"Precisely! When did he tell you?"
"After we broke down. But he did think I was a nurse, Wallace! Anybody could see he did!" she urged, replying to a twist of his lips.
"Very well. Grant that—for the moment. Then what became of the nurse? You say you didn't see her." He spoke to Dolliver. "I came along that road four minutes after you. I didn't see her. In all this hue and cry nobody has seen her—or heard of her. If there was a nurse, what became of her?"
"She may not have kept the appointment," Marjorie suggested. "Or she misunderstood the time."
"She'd have kept that appointment. And if she had misunderstood the time I should have seen her afterward. I patrolled that road for hours. Who was the man who sent you for her?"
"I don't know," Dolliver admitted. "I didn't ask his name."
"You say he was camping on the lake. Perhaps—"
"He promised to take the five-sixteen train this morning."
"I see." Comstock looked at his watch. "And it is now five-twenty-three. As I said, it's rather ingenious, but— Perhaps we'd better take the ladies back to the village?"
The tense silence following this was broken by the honk of a rapidly approaching car which none of them had noticed. They stood aside as it came splashing over the wet road, and it was almost upon them when Dolliver flung up his hand with a yell.
"Hey! You!" He pointed a finger at the red-haired youth who sat beside the driver. "Did you ever see me before?"
"What? No!" The young man blinked at the mud-stained figure, and then broke into a broad smile. "Why—sure! You're the chap who went for the nurse last night! Did you get her?"
"I did not! I got a girl who was trying to elope with another man!"
"Holy Mike!" The boy spoke in awed accents. "Was that you? I've been out chasing you all night! Lost my train— Say!" He interrupted himself alertly. "What about that nurse?"
They told him they would like to know. But it was some hours before any of them learned that the nurse, an experienced and eminently modern young woman, had commandeered a passing tin bug five minutes after the appointed hour, and had gone promptly and competently on her way.
Meanwhile, still the center of an excited group huddled in the roadway, Dolliver and Comstock shook hands, amid contrite apologies, explanations, and broken laughter, while the indignant citizen and the doctor unostentatiously disappeared.
Then Ruth, with a vision of possible encounters along the way, began begging the Dollivers not to desert them until they were safely married, and in the end the boy agreed to send a clergyman from Hartsville to the Holdens' camp, where the others would await him.
"I owe you something, anyhow," he said. "I seem to have started this. If my fan hadn't busted—"
"That wouldn't have mattered," Ruth interrupted, "if Wallace had been on time."
"If that infernal freight—"
"If nothing!" Dolliver told them, wearily. "None of you really had anything to do with it. The plain truth is that I'm possessed with a devil!"