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Chapter 3
At seven o'clock Frances was warming her cold fingers over Susan's red-hot stove and making some show of drinking the coffee and eating the toasted roll the old darkey, with much grumbling, had gotten ready.

"Don't see what yuh wants to go trapsin' off for dis time o' day, nohow, ridin' arter dem hounds. Dey's low down dogs, anyhow; always did 'spise er houn' ebin ef 'tis chasin' er fox."

"Pshaw, Susan, you know you don't know anything about it!" bantered Frances.

"Don't, don't I? Well, I 'spec I knows sumpin' 'bout de time dey brought you home las' wintah laid out in a drag wid de blood all ober yo does an' dat cut right up dyar, right on de forehead; little more to de lef, an' yuh wou'dn't be standin' hyar; an' yo' hyar jes does hide de scar now. Tell yuh, honey," she went on solicitously, coming up close to[Pg 35] Frances, "young gals cyarnt tek no chances wid de looks nohow, dat's a fac'! Don't go smash yo'self up!"

"There's the trap!" cried Frances, delighted to put an end to such forebodings. "Good-by; give father a nice breakfast!" and she went running out into the hall.

She opened the heavy outer door softly. The frosty air struck her like a blow. She looked over her shoulder. Susan was not watching her off. She ran back and swooped down on the black skin rug at the foot of the polished stair and flung it over her arm.

"Just like them to put a linen robe in the trap this morning! I would freeze."

She closed the big door quietly. Her father was asleep. Outside, the long corridor stretched deserted and dusky; the quadrangle was in heavy shadow; the white frost glittered on the grass, on the edge of the brick pavement to the corridor, and on the balcony rails running from house to house overhead; the scarlet and yellow leaves drifted from the maples; the young girl caught a whirl of them in her long skirt and[Pg 36] carried them rustling in her train as she hurried along. Starlight was tied to the rail outside the quadrangle and she laughed as she saw the linen robe.

"I'm ahead of them this time!" she said to herself as she stood up and folded the great rug about her and turned up the fur collar of her coat and snapped the heavy driving-gloves on her wrists. The mountain air was cold at that hour, the tingle of it was in Starlight's blood as well as in his driver's. He gave a few friskings of balancing on his hind legs and pawing with the others wildly in air before he settled down to business. Frances, turning her head for fear Susan would see, had one swift gleam of the old darkey's wrinkled, anxious face at an upstairs window, watching her off, after all. She had only a glimpse, Starlight, his head tucked down far as his rein allowed, was tearing down the drive.

She took the short cut this time; down the steep hill beneath the lower quadrangle where the buildings towered straight overhead like a sheer precipice crowned with[Pg 37] white, and flecked with scarlet where the ivy crept; out by the curving road from whence she glimpsed the far-off crests of the Ragged Mountains showing the morning light upon their tawny sides; through the town, for a short distance, and then sharply off to a country road.

The trap bumped and jostled. Sparks flew from Starlight's heels when they pounded the rough rocks; sparks flew from the wheels as they rolled over rock and hard red clay. Down in the valley, where the mist still clung like a veil above the clear brown stream, the little plank bridge rattled loudly as they flew over; and now, as they breasted the long high hill beyond, the frosty air echoed with the clear mellow music of a horn wound lustily and with the deep impatient bayings of the hounds. Frances leaned over the dashboard and shook the reins impatiently.

"Get up, Starlight!" she cried.

Again the horn wound its call—clear, shrill, the soul note of the frosty morning. Frances turned her head; behind her were horsemen clattering down the way; on the[Pg 38] road which met hers at the hill-top she could hear the sharp sounds of beating hoofs. The sun was rolling up the gray clouds on the horizon's edge, and the blue vault overhead, with slow reluctance, was throwing off the soft veil of fleecy clouds; the gray of the early autumn morning was changing to opalescent hues above the mountain tops.

The horsemen behind were closer, were abreast of her; she turned to see Lawson on one side, his fellow-student on the other.

"Going to ride?" Lawson called, with a mischievous glance at the heavy trap.

Frances shook her head, outwardly she was gay enough, inwardly she was fuming.

Lawson's mount was irreproachable, so were his clothes.

"Heard we went fox-hunting up here before he came," accused Frances mentally; "got them all ready for the occasion."

But in truth Lawson was not conscious at all. He had lost his head, as every one else was doing, at the clattering hoof-beats and the insistent clarion-callings of the[Pg 39] horn and the wild, impatient bayings of the hounds.

On the plateau cresting the hill-top, the whole scene burst upon his view; roads from many directions met and intersected beneath the oaks, on all of them hunters were hurrying—women, men, dogs. Beyond showed the white fa?ade of Orange Grove, the fence before the lawn lined with carriages.

Frances was earlier than she thought. She turned in the road behind the master of the hounds, who, grown too stout for riding, had a nag and a buggy could race on any mountain-road. He leaned out and called back to her.

"What are you driving for?"

"Father wouldn't let me ride!"

"Well, you can trot behind me," he laughed.

As they drove past the front of the house, the big gate beyond the stable-yard was flung open and the whole train, horsemen, carriages, dogs, swept out on the open rolling hillside beyond.

[Pg 40]

The master of the hounds drew off to the left.

"Leave a space there! Clear the way there! That's where the fox will be started!"

The crowd followed them to the field side.

Lawson rode up to the trap. "What are they going to do?" he asked in bewilderment.

Frances looked at him uncomprehendingly. She had been calling gay badinage to one and another of those about her.

"Where are they going to start the fox? Don't you let the dogs—"

"Oh!" with a long intonation of comprehension, "why, we've got the fox with us; first catch your fox, you know—"

"Who—where?"

"Why, Mr. Payne has him. Every boy in the county knows he will pay a big price for a fox. They have their traps out and when they catch one they bring it in to him, and then—" a comprehensive wave of her hand finished the sentence.

"The dogs—" began Lawson, still unenlightened.

[Pg 41]

"Oh they put the dogs up in the stables, don't you see? Watch them!" she turned in the trap seat and Lawson wheeled his horse.

A boy stood guard at the stable door. One by one their masters were coaxing and coercing the dogs inside. Their calls echoed all over the field. "Here, Dixie!" "Here, Duke!" and now and then an impatient master wound his horn to call his dogs to his feet, whereat every dog inside the big echoing stable went fairly mad with barking.

"H-e-r-e, M-u-s-i-c!" "H-e-r-e, S-a-l!" Two frisky dogs were careering down the hillside, their masters in wild pursuit.

"There they go, the two worst dogs in the county!" cried Frances impatiently.

"And the two best hunters, once they are started!" declared Mr. Payne.

Lawson, tired of the dogs' antics, turned his attention to the scene about him. The hill rolled from where they waited down to a wide stream at its foot. It was waste land, and the long grasses were deeply green or purple with seed-pods or browned with[Pg 42] sering weeds; down by the stream was a tangle, scarlet and yellow leaved, and gray and purple-stemmed, a tangle of sumach and blackberry and bramble; and beyond, on the climbing land, was the great forest where the pine showed vivid green and the chestnut flared like gold in the sunshine gilding the hillside and pricking out all its colorings—the oaks' persistent russet, the changing hues of the tangled undergrowth.

About him were riders of every description; smart vehicles filled with bright-faced women, the farmer in top-boots astride his nag, the Englishman from his fancy stock farm in the country hard by on his bobtailed horse and wearing the toggery of his irreproachable hunting outfit, women in jackets or long skirts on skittish-looking steeds, and women in tailor-made habits exact in set and fit, with stiff derbies on their smooth hair and heavy crops in their hands.

The hounds were all prisoned at last. The men who had dismounted hurried to their horses. Those who had not, settled themselves in their saddles. In the tense[Pg 43] silence all the sounds of the morning could be heard, the deep breathings of the horses, the creakings of the saddles, even the wind stealing through the grasses and singing in the trees of the forest across the way and the gurgling of the stream about the rocks in its bed.

Mr. Payne got nimbly out of his buggy, holding a big bag of burlap, with a squirming something inside. He walked to the middle of the cleared space and laid the tied bag down carefully, the mouth turned to the hillside. He bent over the cords. There was a sharp, triumphant bark.

"Good Lord!" he groaned as he snatched up the bag, tossed it over his shoulders and ran for his buggy.

Music and Sal had nosed wildly around in the stable until they had found a loose board, had broken cover, and were baying their triumph to the countryside, a dozen venturers at their heels. The boy who guarded the door was pressing the board against the other prisoners and calling loudly for help.

"Oh!" groaned Frances, "they've got it[Pg 44] all to go over again!" and she settled back in the trap in comic despair.

Lawson by this time was growing impatient. He was used to seeing things differently managed. He was concluding secretly that this boasted Virginia fox-hunting was somewhat overrated. Music and Sal still bayed upon the hillside.

Mr. Payne, bag in hand came up to the trap. "Want to see him," he whispered.

Frances nodded delightedly.

"He's a beauty!" He unfastened the bag carefully and peering down into it she saw first a red fluffy curl and then two big jewel-bright eyes, looking pathetically scared.

"Ah!" she said, pityingly.

"A red fox!" cried Mr. Payne enthusiastically, "a genuine red fox!"

But Frances had no bright answer ready; she was seeing just two dark scared eyes and that big fluff of a tail curled about the pointed face. The hunt did not seem as joyous as a moment ago. She did not notice that the baying had ceased, that Mr. Payne had gotten again from his buggy with his burden, and[Pg 45] then her startled eyes saw a flash of reddish yellow straight down the hillside, a flying leap across the stream and a swift taking to cover.

She heard Mr. Payne's "Quick, pull in behind me!" as he drove out to the middle of the field. She saw the riders range to left to right, she saw the fringe of carriages by the fence corner where the sober ones waited to see the start; but she, in the trap, was close behind the toughest rider in the country. She heard the snapping of the watches in the tense silence and the low "How many minutes?"

"Seven!" cried Mr. Payne, thrusting his watch in his pocket and standing up in his buggy. He waved his arm.

"Turn out the hounds!"

And then Frances forgot everything. She was driving down the roadless hillside swift as the wind. The trap lurched to right to left. The wind cut her cheek. Horsemen dashed past. The hounds were almost underfoot, running straight; the chorus of their voices filled all the echoing valley.[Pg 46] The stream was crossed with a swift splash. The nag ahead was running straight up-hill and Starlight was following. The wheels struck a rock and jolted her to her knees; she slid back on the seat again. The riders were in the woods now, but their course lay straight as the road ran. Fences and woods and fields of stacked corn and wayside cabins slid past, but they kept the pace.

Then Starlight went more slowly, the heavy trap was telling on him; the gray nag and her driver were nearly out of sight, the driver waving an impatient hand at the loiterer as he sped around the last turning. Worse too, the baying was growing less and less distinct; she urged Starlight on. He gave a burst of speed, the wheels went rolling over a rock, and in a breath the trap was going down—down—and Frances rolled quite easily into the dry ditch.

For a moment she lay still, dazed. She watched the deep, intense, blue of the sky overhead and the screen of oak branches against it and the buzzards floating lazily high up in ether. She stretched her limbs and[Pg 47] found them unhurt, and then she turned her head on her arm. "Father will never let me go again!" she moaned. She got to her feet. "I wonder what is the matter, anyway!" she muttered; but the trouble was easy enough to see. The violent wrench had turned the wheel inside out and broken every spoke off short at the hub.

Starlight, head turned, was looking behind him reproachfully.

"Turn your head, you old goose; it isn't my fault either!" she vowed to the woods and the fallen leaves and the empty road. "That man at the stables hasn't been washing the wheels as he should; he's let them get too dry!"

But it was useless to patch up any such excuse as this even to herself; she knew quite well it was her own reckless driving that did it and she knew there was a scene with her father ahead; but she set her lips firmly and turned to the work in hand. She got the trap as best she could out of the road, she unharnessed Starlight and flung the black rug upon his back. "I suppose I will have[Pg 48] to ride you home so— My soul!" She jumped a foot. A little creature running swiftly down the fence rails, sprang to the ground just ahead of her and flashed into the woods.

It was a full second before she knew what it meant. Then she heard the baying of the dogs.

The fox, close cornered, had taken to the fence rails to throw the dogs off its scent and then, seeing her, he had leaped across the road. She sprang to the fence; far over in the field beyond the dogs were running aimlessly about. She climbed up, standing sharply silhouetted on the high fence of chestnut rails, and waved her hand frantically. Some one saw her, understood, came pounding that way, others at his heels, calling the dogs sharply.

Frances sprang on Starlight's back and went crashing through the woods. A dog sped by her, another. She heard a rider close behind, but she was still ahead; and then she and the dogs pulled up short before a narrow stream and a wall of tangled [Pg 49]vine-clad rocks on the other side. They had run the fox to earth, but he was safe. Even then she was glad.

The dogs were baying like mad about her, Starlight was in a lather of foam and breathing heavily, the loosened tendrils of her hair whipped against her scarlet cheek, her eyes were gleams of fire.

"First, first!" she cried, as the rider she had heard broke through the woods.

It was Lawson.



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