The Man in Lower Ten/Chapter 9
THE HALCYON BREAKFAST
WE were still dazed, I think, for we wandered like two troubled children, our one idea at first to get as far away as we could from the horror behind us. We were both bare-headed, grimy, pallid through the grit. Now and then we met little groups of country folk hurrying to the track: they stared at us curiously, and some wished to question us. But we hurried past them; we had put the wreck behind us. That way lay madness.
Only once the girl turned and looked behind her. The wreck was hidden, but the smoke cloud hung heavy and dense. For the first time I remembered that my companion had not been alone on the train.
"It is quiet here," I suggested. "If you will sit down on the bank I will go back and make some inquiries. I've been criminally thoughtless. Your—traveling companion—"
She interrupted me, and something of her splendid poise was gone. "Please don't go back," she said. "I—am afraid it would be of no use. And—I don't want to be left alone."
Heaven knows I did not want her to be alone. I was more than content to walk along beside her aimlessly, for any length of time. Gradually, as she lost the exaltation of the moment, I was gaining my normal condition of mind. I was beginning to realize that I had lacked the morning grace of a shave, that I looked like some lost hope of yesterday, and that my left shoe pinched outrageously. A man does not rise triumphant above such handicaps. The girl, for all her disordered hair and the crumpled linen of her waist, in spite of her missing hat and the small gold bag that hung forlornly from, a broken chain, looked exceedingly lovely.
"Then I won't leave you alone," I said manfully, and we stumbled on together. Thus far we had seen nobody from the wreck, but well up the lane we came across the tall dark woman who had occupied lower eleven. She was half crouching beside the road, her black hair about her shoulders, and an ugly bruise over her eye. She did not seem to know us, and refused to accompany us. We left her there at last, babbling incoherently and rolling in her hands a dozen pebbles she had gathered in the road.
The girl shuddered as we went on. Once she turned and glanced at my bandage. "Does it hurt very much?" she asked.
"It's growing rather numb. But it might be worse," I answered mendaciously. If anything in this world could be worse, I had never experienced it.
And so we trudged on bareheaded under the summer sun, growing parched and dusty and weary, doggedly leaving behind us the pillar of smoke. I thought I knew of a trolley line some where in the direction we were going, or perhaps we could find a horse and trap to take us into Baltimore. The girl smiled when I suggested it.
"We will create a sensation, won't we?" she asked. "Isn't it queer—or perhaps it's my state of mind—but I keep wishing for a pair of gloves, when I haven't even a hat!"
When we reached the main road we sat down for a moment, and her hair, which had been coming loose for some time, fell over her shoulders in little waves that were most alluring. It seemed a pity to twist it up again, but when I suggested this, cautiously, she said it was troublesome and got in her eyes when it was loose. So she gathered it up, while I held a row of little shell combs and pins, and when it was done it was vastly becoming, too. Funny about hair: a man never knows he has it until he begins to lose it, but it's different with a girl. Something of the unconventional situation began to dawn on her as she put in the last hair-pin and patted some stray locks to place.
"I have not told you my name," she said abruptly. "I forgot that because I know who you are, you know nothing about me. I am Alison West, and my home is in Richmond."
So that was it! This was the girl of the photograph on John Gilmore's bedside table. The girl McKnight expected to see in Richmond the next day, Sunday! She was on her way back to meet him! Well, what difference did it make, anyhow? We had been thrown together by the merest chance. In an hour or two at the most we would be back in civilization and she would recall me, if she remembered me at all, as an unshaven creature in a red cravat and tan shoes, with a soiled Pullman sheet tied around my neck. I drew a deep breath.
"Just a twinge," I said, when she glanced up quickly. "It's very good of you to let me know, Miss West. I have been hearing delightful things about you for three months."
"From Richey McKnight?" She was frankly curious.
"Yes. From Richey McKnight," I assented. Was it any wonder McKnight was crazy about her? I dug my heels into the dust.
"I have been visiting near Cresson, in the mountains," Miss West was saying. "The person you mentioned, Mrs. Curtis, was my hostess. We—we were on our way to Washington together." She spoke slowly, as if she wished to give the minimum of explanation. Across her face had come again the baffling expression of perplexity and trouble I had seen before.
"You were on your way home, I suppose? Richey—spoke about seeing you," I floundered, finding it necessary to say something. She looked at me with level, direct eyes.
"No," she returned quietly. "I did not intend to go home. I—well, it doesn't matter; I am going home now."
A woman in a calico dress, with two children, each an exact duplicate of the other, had come quickly down the road. She took in the situation at a glance, and was explosively hospitable.
"You poor things," she said. "If you'll take the first road to the left over there, and turn in at the second pigsty, you will find breakfast on the table and a coffee-pot on the stove. And there's plenty of soap and water, too. Don't say one word. There isn't a soul there to see you."
We accepted the invitation and she hurried on toward the excitement and the railroad. I got up carefully and helped Miss West to her feet.
"At the second pigsty to the left," I repeated, "we will find the breakfast I promised you seven eternities ago. Forward to the pigsty!"
We said very little for the remainder of that walk. I had almost reached the limit of endurance: with every step the broken ends of the bone grated together. We found the farm-house without difficulty, and I remember wondering if I could hold out to the end of the old stone walk that led between hedges to the door.
"Allah be praised," I said with all the voice I could muster. "Behold the coffee-pot!" And then I put down the grip and folded up like a jack-knife on the porch floor.
When I came around something hot was trickling down my neck, and a despairing voice was saying, "Oh, I don't seem to be able to pour it into your mouth. Please open your eyes."
"But I don't want it in my eyes," I replied dreamily. "I haven't any idea what came over me. It was the shoes, I think: the left one is a red-hot torture." I was sitting by that time and looking across into her face.
Never before or since have I fainted, but I would do it joyfully, a dozen times a day, if I could waken again to the blissful touch of soft fingers on my face, the hot ecstasy of coffee spilled by those fingers down my neck. There was a thrill in every tone of her voice that morning. Before long my loyalty to McKnight would step between me and the girl he loved: life would develop new complexities. In those early hours after the wreck, full of pain as they were, there was nothing of the suspicion and distrust that came later. Shorn of our gauds and baubles, we were primitive man and woman, together: our world for the hour was the deserted farm-house, the slope of wheat-field that led to the road, the woodland lot, the pasture.
We breakfasted together across the homely table. Our cheerfulness, at first sheer reaction, became less forced as we ate great slices of bread from the granny oven back of the house, and drank hot fluid that smelled like coffee and tasted like nothing that I have ever swallowed. We found cream in stone jars, sunk deep in the chill water of the spring house. And there were eggs, great yellow-brown ones, a basket of them.
So, like two children awakened from a nightmare, we chattered over our food: we hunted mutual friends, we laughed together at my feeble witticisms, but we put the horror behind us resolutely. After all, it was the hat with the green ribbons that brought back the strangeness of the situation.
All along I had had the impression that Aliaon West was deliberately putting out of her mind something that obtruded now and then. It brought with it a return of the puzzled expression that I had surprised early in the day, before the wreck. I caught it once, when, breakfast over, she was tightening the sling that held the broken arm. I had prolonged the morning meal as much as I could, but when the wooden clock with the pink roses on the dial pointed to half after ten, and the mother with the duplicate youngsters had not come back, Miss West made the move I had dreaded.
"If we are to get into Baltimore at all we must start," she said, rising. "You ought to see a doctor as soon as possible."
"Hush," I said warningly. "Don't mention the arm, please; it is asleep now. You may rouse it."
"If I only had a hat," she reflected. "It wouldn't need to be much of one, but—" She gave a little cry and darted to the corner. "Look," she said triumphantly, "the very thing. With the green streamers tied up in a bow, like this—do you suppose the child would mind? I can put five dollars or so here—that would buy a dozen of them."
It was a queer affair of straw, that hat, with a round crown and a rim that flopped dismally. With a single movement she had turned it up at one side and fitted it to her head. Grotesque by itself, when she wore it it was a thing of joy.
Evidently the lack of head covering had troubled her, for she was elated at her find. She left me, scrawling a note of thanks and pinning it with a bill to the table-cloth, and ran up-stairs to the mirror and the promised soap and water.
I did not see her when she came down. I had discovered a bench with a tin basin outside the kitchen door, and was washing, in a helpless, one-sided way. I felt rather than saw that she was standing in the door-way, and I made a final plunge into the basin.
"How is it possible for a man with only a right hand to wash his left ear?" I asked from the roller towel. I was distinctly uncomfortable: men are more rigidly creatures of convention than women, whether they admit it or not. "There is so much soap on me still that if I laugh I will blow bubbles. Washing with rainwater and home-made soap is like motoring on a slippery road. I only struck the high places."
Then, having achieved a brilliant polish with the towel, I looked at the girl.
She was leaning against the frame of the door, her face perfectly colorless, her breath coming in slow, difficult respirations. The erratic hat was pinned to place, but it had slid rakishly to one side. When I realized that she was staring, not at me, but past me to the road along which we had come, I turned and followed her gaze. There was no one in sight: the lane stretched dust white in the sun,—no moving figure on it, no sign of life.