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Chapter 6
"Frances," the professor had said every Court-day since she was old enough to be out on her own affairs, "Frances, this is Court-day," and that warning was sufficient.

It meant that his daughter must not be far afield on the country roads in the morning when men from farm and mountain-cabin and homes near by and nooks far away would be riding by twos and threes—a led horse, perhaps, by one, a cow driven before another, to be traded in town—or driving a wagon-load of farm produce, a calf in the rear bleating prophecies of his fate; and that she should avoid the roads when these same men were going home, some of them the worse from their visits to the saloons dotted plentifully through the town, and disposed to be quarrelsome, and none too ready to give a woman the right of way. But most of all it meant that she must avoid the congested streets[Pg 72] about the Court-house. This was an unwritten law of the town.

This morning he forgot. His mind was still filled with thoughts of his visit and his friend, a man whose ways, unlike the professor's, had led him into many highways and byways of the world and taught him strange things. Their lives had not touched for many years and now the point of contact had sparkled with helpful brilliancy for both.

Frances, used to being reminded, took no thought for herself. She ordered up Starlight for a morning's ride with some gay badinage over the 'phone as to his condition.

"He's a little nervous this morning," Mr. Carver called back. "Hasn't gotten over his run-away."

"Run-away!" repeated Frances indignantly, at her end of the 'phone.

"Well, I'll tell the boy to rub him down well and bring him up. Don't ride him too hard."

"Good-by!" called Frances shortly, as she rang him off.

The town was quiet enough as she rode[Pg 73] through and turned out Park street. The wide way was drifted with wet leaves; under the carpet of them on lawn and yard the grass showed vivid green; chrysanthemums flaunted their colors in every door-yard; at window or porch the rider glimpsed many a friendly face and bowed cheerily. As the houses grew more scattered the land fell away from the ridge over which the road wound showing sunlit vistas of valley and mountain to left and to right, crest upon crest towering away to the sky line. The coloring everywhere was brilliant after the storm of the night; the clay of the road, where it climbed the mountain-side far away, showed deeply red; the ruffled pools underfoot mirrored the blue sky; crows were calling jubilantly overhead; the wind blew softly against Frances' cheek. Starlight and his rider went on fast and fleet, and farther than his rider had intended.

They were crossing a ravine on the high bridge which spanned it, and Frances had drawn rein to look with delight up and down at the clear stream curving on its way through[Pg 74] a narrow valley of rich meadow-land, where the corn was stacked in sere wigwams across the field, and to gaze down at the wild gorge below, tree-clad, with the stream foaming at its base; or just across, where the land dipped suddenly and a ruined cottage, moss-grown, tree-hidden, clung to the hillside. She was wondering whether she should try the steep hill beyond, slippery from the rain, when she saw a man riding slowly down it, another followed him, and another. Their splashed top-boots and loose-fitting coats and wide soft hats bespoke the mountaineer. But Frances, remembering the level stretch of road beyond, where Starlight could take the top of his speed, rode on. Before she breasted the hill she met a farmer driving his wagon, full to the brim with yellow ears of corn, and a man on his sure-footed mule riding carelessly by his side, talking the topics of the county. Then she remembered the day.

She looked at her watch,—it was after ten; when she got back the hubbub would be at its height, and her way, of necessity, lay by[Pg 75] the Court-house. She turned her horse's head.

All the way homeward she thought of her adventure gleefully; it was no fault of her own she was abroad, and as she must go through the throng, she was going to see it all. She had always wished it because it was forbidden, now she would have her wish.

About the Court-house the streets were thronged for a square on either side—horses, carriages, men. The autumn court was an important one. Farmers were not so pressed, there was leisure to look outside of their own fields; men of the town, of distant towns, of farms far and near, of mountain cabins, thronged the steps and the bit of green about the house and the street, back to the small houses and narrow pavements built about it like a court when the town was a village a century and more ago.

They made way for her as she came riding slowly through the press and eyed her curiously, but Frances, when she should have hurried, took her time. She was exhilarated. Here the men had cleared a space and a[Pg 76] negro was trotting a horse up and down, the onlookers noting his points sagely; there, drawn close to the curb, were the small wagons of the negroes who were vending things to eat and to drink, queer and curious. And there standing straight in her wagon and looking out eagerly for chances of trade was Roxie. She spied Frances through the crowd.

"Chile, what yuh doin' hyar?" she asked, soon as Frances was abreast of her.

"Forgot! I got caught!" said Frances, just loud enough for her to hear. Starlight was close to the wagon's wheel and for the moment they were held in the crowd.

"Better go 'long home!" warned the old darkey.

"I'm going. Roxie, what have you got there?"

"La! Miss Frances, you don't want none. Dyar's a watermilyun dat's been down in de bottom o' de spring eber since Augus'! It's red as a rose an' I'se gwine sell it fur five cents a slice; 'twill fairly fly at dat. An' dyar's some 'simmon beer—"

[Pg 77]

"Roxie," said Frances, her eyes shining with amusement, "you know I want some persimmon beer."

"Miss Frances," replied the old darkey, impressively, "I'se gwine sabe yuh some and bring it up to yo' house, if yuh'll jes' buy me some 'baccer. Dyar's dead loads of it hyar to-day; yuh know whar dey sells it, right on de street below dis; 'taint no such crowd dyar as dyar is hyar. Ole Ike, he driv right befo' me terday, an' he had de prettiest lot, an' I tried ter swop him fur some all de way in. 'Lowed he didn't love watermilyun, de ole liar, and he nebber drank 'simmon beer—'cause he's honin' fur sumpin' stronger—an' de smell o' dat 'baccer blowin' back to me de whole way 'long! Go 'long, chile, de way is open clear to de end o' de square. Ole Ike, he's right 'round de corner dyar."

Frances, tingling with fun, rode on slowly. Around the corner, as Roxie said, the way cleared and around the corner from that was a scene at which Frances drew rein. Running the length of the square, wagons of all[Pg 78] sorts were drawn close to the curb. They were stored with brown tobacco leaves, well-cut, well-dried, and now to be sold. Men were going from wagon to wagon, pricing, sorting; the buying had hardly begun. One old negro, shabbily clad, hobbled by, his face shining with happiness, his arm rounded over a big sheaf which meant comfort and cheer on many a winter's morning and night by his cabin hearth. On the square beyond were horses and cows for sale before the cattle sheds.

But Frances' eyes were diligently searching the square below for old Ike. He was not there. Ike, venturing on a little original business, had driven first to one or two houses of "de quality," where he hoped to make some sales. The venture had prospered. He came driving back gleefully, his best wares sold, the money in the pocket of his patched vest. The morning air was chill to his old bones and he had wrapped himself up well in his wife's best quilt when he climbed into his shaky "jersey" before his cabin door back on the mountain side;[Pg 79] but the sunshine and his success had warmed him. He had loosened the wrappings of the quilt about his limbs, though it still flopped about his shoulders, pinned with his wife's bonnet-pin under his lean and bristly chin.

As he drove with a showy spurt of speed close by Frances the wind caught the quilt end and slipped it squarely in Starlight's face. With a snort Starlight was off. He plunged the length of the "jersey" and darted past the other vehicles too swiftly for any of the men to act. Frances sitting carelessly was taken unawares and slid half way from the saddle; for a blinding moment she saw nothing but a fall which might be fatal before her, then by a superhuman effort she regained her seat; but her hands were fairly nerveless. Starlight, head down, was racing along the street which crossed the railroad; in one bewildering flash she saw the running people, the opened doors and windows, the long white guards across the street and the heavy freight train on the far track drawn off to make way for the western express.

[Pg 80]

Fear nerved her. She tugged at the bridle. Starlight gave no heed. She was close upon the guards. She felt a strong grasp, she was pulled from her seat; for one dizzy moment she knew nothing. When she was again conscious she looked up into an anxious face above her, and looked on. In fear, excitement, anxiety, all thought of environment had burned away. It was a second's space she looked, a breath's space, when the soul, oblivious of the body, sees and seizes the great things of life. The face bending over her was fair, frank, and young, strong and serious, the eyes blue.—Then she came back to the everyday knowledge that she was leaning on his shoulder, his arm holding her close against him, his face bent above her; that she was on his horse before him, that he must have snatched her from the saddle at the last moment. She struggled to sit upright.

"You are not hurt?" he questioned anxiously.

"Starlight?"

"I don't know." He smiled as he looked[Pg 81] at her, a little flash of consciousness showing in his own face. They were riding up a narrow side street.

"You see I had to race after you and I couldn't pull up at once though I managed to turn off up here. Wait!"

In some fashion, awkward enough with her there on the horse before him, he dismounted and held up his hands to lift her down. Frances allowed herself to be taken down meekly. Her eyes were dim with tears of mortification. She stood on the sidewalk, which was black with cinders from the ever passing trains, and saw the curious faces at the doors and windows of the small, sooty houses, saw the crowd running up from the station, and hated the whole adventure to its smallest detail. But before the crowd ran a man with Starlight tugging at the bridle rein he held.

"Bring him here!" Frances begged the stranger.

The young man flung the rein of his own horse across a paling's point, knotted it hastily and ran forward.

[Pg 82]

"So! so!" he cried, smoothing Starlight down the face and talking to him softly as he brought him to his rider.

"Give me your hand!" she demanded quickly.

"Surely—"

"Before they are all here! I'm not afraid! Don't you see?" Her hands were on the pommel; she was in mad haste to escape the crowd almost upon her.

The stranger knelt, held out his hand, tossed her in the saddle and she was off, Starlight trotting decently and quietly, the quivering of his flesh and an indignant snort alone betraying his rashness.

But close behind her and then abreast of her rode her rescuer.

"I must see how he goes at first," he apologized, and the mastery of his tone added to Frances' discomfiture.

She rode with crimson cheeks and downcast eyes, a square—two; she could stand it no longer; she drew rein at the corner.

"I thank you very much," she said as[Pg 83] courteously as she could; "I am going this way," and she turned off.

She took the quietest way home in bitterness of spirit. Never could there have been a worse moment for such adventure. The affair would be known from town to farm, from farm to mountain top, by sunset. There was the spice of danger in it that would insure its telling, and the talk would lose nothing by its many recitals. It would be told to the young man's advantage, too. None of the glory would redound to her. There was no excuse for her being where she had been, no pardon for such an escapade. It would be made the point even for a parent's caution. The thought was maddening.

She crept to her room, glad to close the home doors about her. Susan found her there.

"Yo' pa done 'phoned up dis bery minute he's gwine bring company home ter dinnah."

"Very well!" said Frances spiritlessly.

"Wants ter hab anything 'ticular?"

[Pg 84]

"Oh, whatever you want, Susan; you know as well as I do."

"Hm!" said Susan going down the stairway, "ain't no talk of floating islan' an' cake now, but I'se gwine hab sumpin' good all de same. Marse Robert he laks good things ter eat, ef he doesn't mek any fuss. I'se gwine see dey's dyar on de table as long as de meal holds out in de barrel."

Frances sat down in her room. There was no fire there and she was chilled and miserable. The physical discomfiture chimed with her mood and she was resentful of the bright sunshine that came streaming to her feet. When she got up and took off her riding habit, she dressed without a thought of the guest her father was bringing to dine with him. She heard the opening of the heavy front door, footsteps in the hall, and her father's voice in pleased tones of cordial hospitality. She went down to the library. The door was opened, but the portière hung in heavy folds across the inner side; when she pulled it away she looked full into the face of her hero of the morning, who stood[Pg 85] in the middle of the room, looking back at her with the amazement on his face which must have shown on hers.

"Frances," the professor was saying, so full of his own pleasure he was not noting their embarrassment, "this is Edward Montague. You've heard me talk of Tom Montague, went to school here when I did, settled out in Rappahannock; this is his son." He laid his hand affectionately on the young man's arm. "He has bought the old Northrup place, you know; I hope he'll make a good neighbor. He has made a fine beginning. Some girl's horse was running away with her in town and he raced up behind and snatched her out of the saddle just before she got to the railroad guards; funny he doesn't know the girl's name."

"I rode on to the post-office," said the young man, looking at neither.

"And some one there knew of the adventure. He was glad enough to get away. Came up to me as soon as he saw my mail,—the names on the envelopes I mean."

[Pg 86]

"I had intended visiting you to-day," but, strangely enough, the young man's voice was past courtesy, it was fairly pleading.

"Well, well, I wonder—" the professor's gaze, comprehensive at last, fell on Frances, shrinking back against the portière.

"Frances!"

There was dead, unbroken silence. In the tense awkwardness of the moment the young man, not knowing what to say, was noting shyly the curl of the girl's dark lashes against her scarlet cheek and the droop of her red mouth.

"Was it you?"

The girl raised her eyes and gave the visitor one swift look, indignant, imploring; her impulse was to run from the room back to her own, but she could not; she walked quickly to the window and half turned from them instead.

"It was the strangest thing you ever saw," began the young man so hurriedly, his words tripped over one another. "I was just behind her. I saw her riding down the street. It was a curious sight—the farmers, the[Pg 87] negroes with their tobacco for sale, you know. Just as she stopped"—another break he felt; she would think he had been watching her all the time—as he had from the moment he caught sight of her across the crowd at Roxie's wheel. "Just as she stopped, an old darkey rattled close by her; he was a sight!" the young fellow laughed nervously; "he had a quilt flopping all around him and as he passed the wind flapped it squarely in her horse's face and he was off, I after him. Pluckiest thing I ever saw, I thought she was gone down on those cobbles there." The professor made a little smothered exclamation. "She was half out of the saddle but she got back somehow, got control of the reins, too. But the horse was headed for the railway. I got up to her just in time."

Frances was facing him, gratitude in her eyes, not for the rescue but for the telling.

"Frances—Edward—" began the professor brokenly. He covered his face with his hand for a moment and then he went up close to the young man and spoke his [Pg 88]gratitude in such warm words as brought a flush to his guest's face and to his daughter's.

"Frances, you have thanked him?"

Frances glanced at the young man shyly. He smiled back at her reassuringly.

"Of course!" he said quickly, and for the first time she felt a feeling of warm kindliness to him. She had been on the verge of quite the opposite feeling before.

It was some time after this that the professor, who had been quiet and thoughtful, and limited his conversation largely to table affairs, said suddenly, as if he had at last arrived at a conclusion of his thoughts, "Frances, this is the third accident you have had in less than a year."

"So it is sure to be the last, father," said Frances gayly from the head of the table. She had been growing steadily more cheerful as he went on talking with young Montague, "Ask Susan!"

Susan was hurrying with delight about the table. She had known Edward's father and his mother. He was one of "her folks."

"If a thing that never happened before[Pg 89] happens once, it's bound to happen three times. It's all over; I'm safe!"

The professor began some remonstrance. He had intended then and there to lay down a severely strict law. Instead, "I think I'll look you up a safe horse," he said lamely.

"Perhaps Miss Frances will let me ride with her sometimes," ventured young Montague.

"Not to take care of me," said that young woman wilfully.

"For the pleasure!"

"In that case, I shall be glad to go," sedately, "but I shall not wait for you."

"There will be no waiting!" They were going into the library and he was holding the curtain to let her pass. Frances looked up at him laughingly, and in that instant she forgave him for playing the hero's part.


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