Teddie, as she swung into the open road and headed for the blue hills of Forgetfulness, which receded as she approached them, remembered that she was at least mistress of that ever-responsive piece of machinery on which she sat poised like a stormy petrel on the crest of a comber. It was hers to hasten and retard, to control and direct, as she wished. It was hers to curb into submission and harry into dust-trailing violation of the state road-laws. And as she went careening along the open highway, crouched frowningly over her mahogany wheel, she sought to ease the tumult in her perplexed young body by drinking up distance very much as disheartened men drink alcohol. She did her best to drug herself with speed, letting the air whip through the opened wind-shield and sting her clouded and untalcumed young face.
When she caught sight of Luddy O'Brien, the traffic cop at the Valley Crossing, she dropped an eye to her speedometer and automatically slowed down. Quite automatically, too, she accosted that officer, after the long-established manner so disapproved of by her family, by raising her left hand to the level of her ear, holding the palm outward, and wigwagging her bunched fingers nervously up and down, very much as if she were twanging the strings of an invisible Irish harp.
Luddy grinned briefly but fraternally, saluted, and declined to commit himself, as an officer of the law, by turning to observe her as she swept past him and mounted the next hill—at a rate, be it recorded, not strictly in accordance with traffic regulations.
Teddie, in fact, was already discovering how brief and deluding can be the sense of release born of four flying wheels with nowhere in particular to fly to. She almost wished that she might hear the put-put of Luddy's motorcycle as it rode her down. She almost wished that Luddy would arrest her and have her committed to a jail-yard with high walls where she couldn't possibly get out and where she could spend what remained of her blighted life breaking limestone rocks with a big hammer, breaking them by thumping them until they went to pieces, the same as she'd like to thump a few heads!
Then her thoughts went back to her car. From the crest of the hill which it had mounted like a swallow, Teddie could see the familiar gray ribbon of the road where it twined through the woodlanded valley below her. It was a very inviting road. It was more than inviting, in Teddie's present mood—it was challenging. And she breathed deeper as she saw that she couldn't even afford to keep an eye on her speedometer dial.
She was more than half-way down the long slope when she first caught sight of the motor-truck loaded with a double tier of cement blocks. That failed to trouble her, however, for she had ample room to slither by. What troubled her, for a moment, was something coming down the opposing slope. It was a pigeon-gray roadster stripped of its top, a homely and heavy-bodied roadster which trailed rolling cumuli of road-dust in its wake. Her quick eye told her that as the different factors now revealed themselves the pigeon-gray roadster would pass the motor-truck before she could. This meant that she would have to give way and slow down and humbly wait for the autocrat piloting the pigeon-gray roadster. And this Teddie had neither the desire nor the intention of doing. For she knew who owned that roadster. She knew it even before she saw the bareheaded driver alone in the high-backed seat, the tanned and goggled face with the oil-stained old putty-colored motor-coat buttoned close up under the bony young Cæsar-Augustus chin. It was Gerry West's car. And Gerry West was in it, imperially demanding his right-of-way as he pounded man-like down a road which he regarded as entirely and altogether his own. But it was not Teddie's intention, that afternoon, to play second fiddle to anyone.
Her heart tightened a little, for she knew it would take promptness to swing out to the left and back to the right again before the lordly roadster pounded opposite the motor-lorry. If he had to slow up, at the last moment, so much the better, for he seemed, at the moment, to stand typical of those steam-rollers of life which she had always so actively resented. It was a bigger car than hers, a distinctly male car, and as such it owed her consideration. The burden of courtesy naturally must rest upon it.
Subliminally her practised eye was measuring the distances, appraising the speed of the rival car, evaluating the advance of the motor-truck. Her hand-palm punched the horn at the same time that her shoe-sole pushed down on the accelerator. Then she careened ahead, claiming her fairway by right of conquest. She punched the horn again, for the dust was troubling her more than she had expected. She swung out to the left to clear the thundering motor-track, rocked up to it, was abreast of it, and saw the pigeon-gray roadster opposing her, dancing down on her, with no visible decrease of speed.
He was not giving way an inch—and she knew what it meant. The truck still hemmed her in on the right, cluttering brisky forward, imperturbable and indifferent. It was too late to swing ahead and over; it was too late to slow down and drop back. Gerald Rhindelander West was refusing to give in to her!
But Gerry, at that moment, must have seen her. He must have seen her for the first time, just as he saw for the first time what was going to happen if they thundered together. And he gave way.
He gave way in the only manner possible, by throwing over his wheel and taking the ditch. There was a thump and scrape of mud-guards, a shout from the startled truck-driver, and an involuntary soprano scream from Teddie as she stiffened at her wheel and with a grinding of rubber and gravel brought her car to a stop.
When she looked back, with her heart in her mouth, she saw no sign of a roadster and no sign of Gerry along the road. This both puzzled and bewildered her. And still again she stared back through the settling dust.
Then she saw, and understood. She saw the heavy roadster half-way up the slope of the side-hill, with its nose buried in a privet-hedge, oddly suggestive of a shoat rooting for tubers. And on the dust-powdered grass beside it she saw Gerry, lying startlingly inert, with a stain of red on the putty-colored motor-coat.
She made incoherent small cries of protest as she left her car in the middle of the road and ran back to him. She bent over him, and unbuttoned his coat, and saw the little stream of red running from a cut on his wrist.
"Oh, Gerry, I've killed you!" she wailed as she sat down beside him and tore a band of white from her petticoat and bound up the bleeding wrist. He opened his eyes as she stooped over her work, and promptly closed them again. "Oh, my love, my love, I've killed you!" she said in helpless little moans as she struggled to knot the bandage tight over the well-wrapped wrist-bone.
It reminded her of her aeronantical days of old. And she tried to tell herself to be calm, and to remember what one should do in such cases. She even slipped a hand over his heart, and found it to be beating, and summoned up the courage to study his face. On his left temple she noticed a lump, almost as big as a shirred egg, and a subsidiary small pain shot through her as she remembered how much it looked like the lump Gunboat Dorgan had once brought out on Raoul Uhlan's pallid forehead. She was brushing the dusty hair back from this slowly discoloring lump when she awakened for the first time to the knowledge that the driver of the motor-truck was not only standing there beside her, but addressing her in none too commiserative tones.
"Yuh've kilt him, all right, lady! Yuh've kilt him, and I s'pose yuh're satisfied!"
"I haven't killed him," protested Teddie as she took Gerry's head in her lap.
"Yuh sure set ont to kill something," announced the blue-denimed giant from the truck. "And this looks to me like yuh got what yuh was after!"
"Don't be silly," cried Teddie. "But get into my car and get back here with a doctor. Do you understand: I want a doctor right away!"
"It'd be more sensible to get the body into the truck," maintained the heartless one in blue-denim.
"You get that doctor!" blazed Teddie with a stare which drove the truck-driver off even as naked steel might have done. And when he was gone she leaned over the still inert Gerry, and wiped the dust from his face with her tiny mockery of a handkerchief, and murmured ridiculous little incoherencies which made him open one eye, like a sleepy hound on a hearth-rug, and quite inconsiderately close it again.
"Oh, Gerry!" she moaned as she put her hand once more in under his vest, to make sure his heart was still beating, and fell to pondering the reason for a resultant small writhe of his body. She leaned closer over his face, assuring herself that he was still breathing.
Then she stooped still lower. She slipped an arm in under his head and held his dusty cheek against hers. And then she kissed him.
She kissed him grimly, determinedly, abandonedly, saying "Oh, Gerry!" in foolish little gasps and not bothering to wipe away the tear that was running down her nose.
Then she sat back, with his head still in her arms, for his eyes were open and gazing up into her face.
"How dare you do that?" demanded Gerry, in a voice singularly steady for one so recently emerging from unconsciousness.
"Oh, Gerry!" repeated Teddie, hugging him tight. And she kissed him again, out of sheer relief at finding him still anchored to the same muddled-up old world with her.
"You'll have to marry me for this, remember! announced Gerry, doing his best to look magisterial.
"I couldn't live without you, Gerry," she had the honesty to acknowledge. "And they said I was going to lose you!"
"Not if I know it," proclaimed her captive.
Teddie looked up for a moment at the sadly wrecked roadster.
"But it wasn't sporting of me, Gerry!"
"Everything—everything I've done!"
Gerry reached out with his one good arm.
"No queen, Teddie, can possibly do wrong. But there's one thing, Belovedness, I want to know, I've got to know."
"What is it?"
"I've got to know just why you kissed me!"
Teddie studied him with solemn eyes. Then she studied the lengthening shadows along the valley-slope and the blue hills beyond.
"Because, Gerry, you're so different from other men," she finally acknowledged.