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   Chapter 2 THE BEGINNING OF FLIGHT

Nedra By George Barr McCutcheon Characters: 24120

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Mr. Ridgeway paced back and forth outside the iron gates in the Grand Central Station on the afternoon of April 1st, 190--, a smile of anticipation and a frown of impatience alternating in his fresh, young face. Certain lines of care seemed to have disappeared since we saw him last, nearly a week ago, and in their stead beamed the light of a new-found interest in life. Now and then he took from his pocket a telegram; spectators stared amusedly at him as he read and reread:

DETROIT, MICHIGAN, March 81, 190--.

To H.B. Ridge:

Got away safely. Meet me Forty-second Street, New York, to-morrow at three. Feel awfully queer and look a fright. Sympathetic lady, next compartment, just offered condolences for loss of my husband. What are the probabilities of storm? Be sure and find out before we start.

SISTER GRACE.

"Isn't that just like a girl!" he muttered to himself. "Where else would Forty-second Street be but New York! London?"

They had decided to travel as brother and sister and to adopt Ridge as the surname. Hugh had taken passage for Liverpool on the liner Saint Cloud, to sail on the second, having first examined the list of passengers to ascertain if there were any among them who might know him or his companion in the adventure. The list was now complete, and he, assured that there was no danger of recognition, felt the greatest weight of all lifted from his mind.

He had also considerately inquired into the state of the weather and learned that it promised well for the voyage. The whole affair was such a glorious lark, such an original enterprise, that he could scarcely restrain himself in his exhilaration from confiding in his chance hotel acquaintances.

Purposely, the night before, he had gone to an hotel where he was unknown, keeping under cover during the day as much as possible. According to the prearranged plan, they were to go aboard ship that evening, as the sailing hour was early in the morning.

He was waiting for her train. Every now and then his glance would shoot through the throng of people, somewhat apprehensively, as if he feared, instead of hoped, that some one might be there. This searching glance was to determine whether there might be any danger of Chicago or New York acquaintances witnessing the arrival of the person for whom he waited. Once he recognized a friend and dodged quickly behind a knot of people, escaping notice. That is why he audibly muttered:

"Thank Heaven!"

Every nerve was tingling with excitement; an indescribable desire to fly, to shout, to race down the track to meet the train, swept through him. His heart almost stopped beating, and he felt that his face was bloodless. For the twentieth time in the last two hours Ridgeway looked at his watch and frowningly exclaimed:

"Only five after two! Nearly an hour to wait!"

He sat down for a moment, only to arise the next and walk to the board announcing the arrival of trains. Almost immediately one pulled into the station. Perceiving a bystander--one of the sort that always give the impression of being well-informed--he inquired casually where it was from.

"Chicago," was the ready answer.

"Great Scott! Lucky I came early! Grace's idea of time--oh, well, only the small matter of an hour out of the way."

Quickly he sprang forward, taking up a good position to watch. First came a man hurriedly and alone. A bunch of people followed him. Hugh peered unsuccessfully here and there among them. Another bunch; she was not in it, and he began to feel a trifle nervous. Now came the stragglers and he grew bewildered. Finally, the last one--a woman hove in sight. With renewed hope he scanned her approach. It was not Grace! His brain was in a whirl. What could have happened? Where was she? Again he jerked out the telegram.

"Meet me Forty-second Street, New York, at three," he read half-aloud. "Nothing could be plainer," he mused in perplexity. "No train at three; another at--she must be on a later one."

"What time is the next Chicago train due?" he inquired anxiously at the Information Bureau.

"Five-thirty, sir," politely answered the official.

"Five-thirty!" he repeated disgustedly.

Again the telegram was brought out and this time shown.

"On what road did you expect the lady?" was the question put with well-simulated interest that every few minutes was practised on different individuals.

"Road?" Hugh stared blankly at his questioner. "What road?" Then, like a flash, the solution of the problem pierced his brain.

"What an ass I am!" he burst out, and added sheepishly: "West Shore!"

Purposely avoiding the other's face for confirmation of his self-depreciatory exclamation, together with its unmistakable expression of professional tolerance for the imbecilities of mankind, Hugh looked at the time. It was two-thirty. Tearing out of the station, he hailed a cab.

Inside, and moving fast, he winced a little as he thought of his late strictures on girls and their ways. What a shame to have abused Grace, when he himself had told her to take the Wabash as essential to their plan. What a blooming idiot he was! New York in the telegram meant, of course, the New York side of the river. He recovered his equanimity; the world was serene again.

With a sharp pull the cabman brought up at the ferry and Hugh took his stand among those waiting for the boat to disgorge its load of passengers.

At that moment a thought struck him, and acting on it, he called out:

"Hi! porter!"

"Here, sir!"

"Where can I get some note paper?"

"All right, sir!" and in an instant a pad of paper was forthcoming.

Hugh took out his pencil and wrote a brief note. Then, in a low voice, he said:

"Here, porter! I want you to do something for me."

"Yes, sir!"

"I'll make it worth your while, but I won't hare you attending to any one else--understand?"

The porter demonstrated with a nod his perfect comprehension of what was required, and there followed from his employer a minute description of the lady.

"Young, slight, tall, fair, black hat and veil, and--"

"In mourning, sir, undoubtedly?"

"Mourning! No, of course not. Cannot a lady wear black without being in mourning?" Hugh expostulated sharply.

"Certainly, sir; but generally--"

Whatever costume the worldly-wise porter would have approved as en régle for a lady, under conditions to his thinking so obviously indiscreet, the description was forestalled by the ingenuous young man, who, dissimilarly apprehensive and oblivious to the innuendo, was heard to grumble:

"What on earth is the matter with people? Everybody seems to delight in painting this most delectable of undertakings in the most funereal colors!" and went on anxiously: "You're sure you won't miss, her?"

With an indulgent smile for the youth and inexperience of his patron, and glancing surreptitiously at the size of the bill in his hand, the attendant calmly announced that there was not the faintest possibility of an error. He took his position a little to the right of and behind Hugh, like an adjutant at dress parade. Through the ferry rushed the weary, impatient travellers. Owing to the place Hugh had taken at one side of the run, Grace, at first, did not perceive him. Anxiety, almost fright, showed in her face; there passed through her a thrill of consternation at the thought that perhaps he had not received her telegram. The tense figure clasped the travelling-bag convulsively, and her brown eyes flashed a look of alarm over the waiting throng. Another moment and their gaze met; a voice ringing with happiness assailed her; her heart throbbed again, and the blood rushed back to her troubled face.

Hugh started forward.

"Hello, old man!" came suddenly from out of the crowd, and two heavy bags plunked down on the floor; two strong hands grabbed Hugh by the shoulders and their owner cried out boisterously: "What in the name of all the gods are you doing here in New York?"

Hugh's heart was in his mouth. His blood froze within him. For, shaking him with the embrace of a playful bear, was his old friend McLane Woods--his chum at Princeton.

Dazed, and not daring to look up, the entangled man made a wild, imploring gesture to the porter The latter caught it, stepped forward and placed the note in the girl's hands.

"In case I am held up, go to the Astor. Will follow," were the words she read quickly. With ready wit and only one stealthy glance at the two men, Grace speedily followed in the wake of the too obsequious porter, who placed her in a cab.

"To the Astor!" was the transferred instruction. The cabman, quick to note the ambiguity in the direction given, prepared, with the subtlety of his kind, for a long drive downtown.

However, the little comedy had not quite escaped attention. There was a note of banter in the strident voice that again addressed Hugh, the speaker accompanying it with a resounding slap on the back.

"Congratulations in order, old man? Come--you're caught--own up! Who is she?" This with a crony-like dig in the ribs. "Runaway match, eh?"

At the other's greeting, Ridgeway promptly assured himself that all was lost, and was about to return the welcome as best he could, when the danger in the final words checked him, compelled a subterfuge.

Assuming a stony glare, an unnatural twist of the mouth, the "old man" turned his bewildered glance upon the speaker, allowing it to resolve itself into a sickening show of reproachfulness, and said in a voice that almost made its owner laugh, it was so villainously artificial:

"You have the best of me, sir!"

An amazed expression came over the face of Mr. Woods. His glowing smile dwindled into an incredulous stare.

"Don't you know me, Hugh?" he finally demanded, half indignantly.

"I do not, sir. My name is not Hugh, by the way. It is evident that you mistake me for some one else," answered Mr. Ridgeway solemnly and gutturally.

"Do you mean to say--oh, come now, old man, don't stand up there and try to make a monkey of me. When did you get in?" cried Woods.

"Pardon me," sharply responded the other, "but I must insist that you are mistaken. I am Dr. James Morton of Baltimore. The resemblance must be remarkable."

Woods glared at Hugh, perfectly dumb with amazement. He passed his hand over his eyes, cleared his throat a time or two, but seemed completely at a loss for words to express himself.

"Are you in earnest?" he stammered. "Are you not Hugh Ridgeway of Princeton, ninety--" but Hugh interrupted him politely.

"Assuredly not. Never was at Princeton in my life. Yale. Will you give me your name and the address of your friend, please? By Jove, I'd like to hunt him up some time!" Hugh was searching in his pockets as if for a pencil and memorandum-book and waiting for his old chum to give him his name.

"Well, of all the--" muttered Woods, looking into the other's face penetratingly. "I never heard of anything like it. My name is McLane Woods, and the man who looks like you is Hugh Ridgeway of Chicago. I--I'll be hanged if it isn't too strange to be true."

"Very strange, indeed," smiled Hugh, striving to maintain the expression he had assumed at the beginning--a very difficult task.

"But this isn't all. At Newburg, I boarded the train, and happening to go through, I saw some one that I could have sworn was a Miss Vernon, whom I met when visiting Ridgeway in Chicago. I started to speak to her; but she gave me such a frigid stare that I sailed by, convinced that I was mistaken. Two such likenesses in one day beats my time. Doesn't seem possible, by George! it doesn't," exclaimed the puzzled New Yorker, his eyes glued to the countenance of the man before him, who, by the way, had almost betrayed himself at the mention of Miss Vernon's name. A thrill of admiration ran through him when Woods announced his reception by the clever girl who was running away with him.

"I'll do my best to meet this Mr. Ridgeway. I am frequently in Chicago," said he. "Glad to have met you, Mr. Woods,

anyhow. If you are ever in Baltimore, hunt me up. I am in the E--- Building."

"With pleasure, doctor; how long will you be in New York?"

"I am going away to-morrow."

"Won't you come with me to my club?" began Woods, but Hugh interrupted by beckoning to the omnipresent porter.

"Thanks! Much obliged! Like to, you know, but have an appointment!" And, shaking his hand, "Good-by!"

"Good-by!" gasped Woods reluctantly, as if desiring one word more. But Hugh, with a grin on his face that awakened renewed expectations on the part of the porter, was making, stiff and straight, for the baggage-room. Once, looking back over his shoulder, he saw that Woods was standing stock still; and again, with another smile, he watched his mystified friend slowly depart.

"Now, then, my man, tell me quickly--you gave her the note? What did she do? Where did she go? Out with it--why don't you speak?"

"All right, sir. Everything's all right. The lady has gone to the hotel," replied the man as soon as Hugh gave him a chance to answer.

"Good. Find me another cab, quick. And here," handing him a dollar.

Meanwhile, Grace Vernon, quite sanguine of soon being with Hugh, was approaching the lower part of the city, reasoning, quite logically, that a downtown hotel was selected on account of the probable absence of the ultra-fashionable set. There, their secret would be safe,--and also they would be nearer the steamer.

Arriving at her destination, Grace dismissed the disappointed cabman, and entered the ladies' waiting-room, where she rang for the clerk.

"Is there a Mr. Ridge staying here?" she asked of him with an assurance that, she flattered herself, was admirably assumed.

"No such person with us, madam. Were you expecting him?"

"Why, yes," she replied, a little confused. "He should be here any minute."

And to his inquiry as to whether she would require anything in the meantime, there came a reply in the negative and he departed.

With a sigh of relief at being alone, she crossed over to a desk and busied herself in writing a long letter. This accomplished, she arose, moved over to the window and looked out. The waiting-room faced the main artery of the city, and below her was the endless stream of humanity. Endeavoring to check a slight feeling of uneasiness that was fast coming over her at Hugh's unexpected non-appearance, she tried to concentrate her thoughts on the panorama of the streets. A half hour passed. Then, in spite of herself, nervousness assailed her. What could be keeping him? Had he met with an accident? Or, could she have made a mistake in the name under which he was to register--could he be waiting for her all the time? Back and forth, to and fro the girl paced. Thoroughly alarmed and in spite of a sense of mortification at such an undertaking, she again interviewed the clerk.

"Will it be convenient for me to see the register?" she inquired, forced to conceal her embarrassment.

The clerk obligingly brought the book and eagerly she scanned the list. Unfortunately, for her, there was no mistake. Nothing like Ridgeway, Ridge or Hugh's handwriting greeted her anxious eyes.

A silence that seemed an inconceivably long one to the almost overwrought girl was broken by the clerk asking would she register?

Grace could hardly restrain her agitation. The critical moment had come. Something must be done. But what? Should she register and under what name? Or, should she wait longer; and if not, where should she go? Finally, with a desperate effort, she looked imploringly at him, and with heightened color, gasped:

"No, thank you; I'll wait a little longer for my--my--brother."

It was out. The prevarication had been uttered, and Grace felt as if she had committed a crime and punishment was at hand. Tears of distress came to her eyes; the situation was becoming intolerable.

It was just then that there came a shrill cry:

"Miss Ridge!"

Grace remained immovable. The name she had inquired for a few minutes ago was called without bringing a sign or change of expression to the beautiful face, on which the wondering eyes of the clerk were fixed. He started to speak, but was withheld by her impassibility.

Again the same cry, and this time, the last word was accentuated. A boy entered.

As the clerk, slightly raising his eyebrows, turned toward her, Grace gave a little start; an enlightened glance shot from her eyes; the significance of the call gradually dawned upon her.

"I am Miss Ridge!" came excitedly from her trembling lips, the hot blood crimsoning her cheeks.

"A telephone--"

"For me?" she asked uneasily.

"From Mr. Ridge; wants you to wait," finished the boy.

"Thank you! Oh, thank you!" The girl beamed her relief on the staring bell-boy. And, the message having been delayed, the grateful words were hardly spoken before Hugh, almost distracted, rushed into the room. Regardless of appearances or consequences, the tall young fellow seized her and kissed her in a fashion that would have brought terrible rebuke, under any other circumstance, and which certainly caused the clerk to consider this Mr. Ridge the most demonstrative brother that in a long experience in hotel life he had ever encountered. When Hugh held her at arm's length to give his admiring gaze full scope, he saw tears of joy swimming in her eyes. Her voice quivered as she sighed:

"I should have died in another moment!"

"You are the dearest girl in all the world!" Then he explained to her the cause of the delay. After getting rid of Woods, he had rushed to the Hotel Astor, where he expected to find her waiting for him. All inquiries as to whether any lady answering to her description had been seen there had resulted in failure. He would have been there yet, growing angrier all the while, had not a gentleman who had overheard his troubles suggested that he telephone the Astor House, in the hope that the lady might be waiting there.

At the end of this recital of his vexatious experience Hugh seized her travelling-bag, and together they made their way out of the hotel.

"Oh, Hugh!" cried Grace, hanging back a little. "What did Mr. Woods say to you? What did you say? Do you know he tried to speak with me on the train?"

"Honestly, I don't remember, dear--sister. He's the most muddled man, though, in New York, I'll bet a dollar. And now that I think of it, it wasn't absolutely necessary; but when he guyed me about a runaway match, it paralyzed me, and I had to do something, so I swore that I had never heard of such a person as Ridgeway."

Grace was too astounded to speak.

"Then he told me of meeting you," he continued, "and that settled it. Poor old Woods! What a trump you were, Grace!"

"You wouldn't have thought so if you could have seen me when I first boarded the train. My! I was blue! Fortunately, I did not see him until we were nearly here. Hugh Ridgeway--Ridge, I mean--do you know what I did? It will make you very angry!" she said as they waited for a cab.

"Nothing could make me angry." This was said ten seconds later, when they were inside the cab and a nervous, smiling young woman at his side was squeezing his arm expressively. "Driver!" he called out, "go uptown--anywhere--through the park until I tell you to stop!" and turning to her, added: "We'll have a bit of dinner somewhere and then go aboard. Now, what did you do?"

"Well," she went on, "I actually tossed up a quarter in the compartment to see whether I should go on or turn back."

"You did? Really? Who won?"

"I did," she answered na?vely.

"No; I did. I am beginning to feel too lucky to be awake. And would you have turned back if you had lost? Would you have left me here with all this anticipation to dispose of?" he cried.

"If it came tails, I was to turn back. It came tails."

"What! And you came anyhow?"

"Well, you see, after the first flip I concluded to make it two out of three trials. So I flipped again, Hugh, and it came tails. Then I made it three out of five. That was only fair, wasn't it?"

"Certainly. Seven out of thirteen or eleven out of twenty, just so you won."

"I tossed that coin seventeen times, and the final count was nine for New York and eight for Chicago. The train had started, so I didn't flip again. Wasn't it a narrow majority, dear?"

"If it were not for appearing ridiculous, I would kiss you seventeen times right here. Oh, how about your baggage--luggage, I mean?" he cried.

"The transfer man will take them to the dock. I have ten big ones--new steamer trunks. You'll never know how much trouble I had in getting them packed and out of the house."

"Ten! Great Scott! I have but two!"

"Don't worry, dear. You can pack some of your things in mine--coming home, of course," she said laughingly.

"Great, isn't it?" he chuckled. "Nobody on earth ever did anything like it. But before I forget it, how did you leave your aunt?"

"Poor Aunt Elizabeth! She will be so disappointed. I promised to do a lot of shopping for her. But she's well and can endure the delay, I fancy. To prepare her for the shock, I told her that I might stay East for a couple of weeks, perhaps longer. She does not suspect a thing, but she was awfully cut up about my leaving at this time."

"I'm glad you quieted Aunt Elizabeth, for it would be just like her to send detectives after us." Both laughed as he whispered this to her. As the cab whirled away she said:

"What happy fools we are!"

"Sit back, quick! Cover your face," he suddenly cried.

"What--who is it?" she giggled.

"We just passed a policeman, and he looked rather hard at the windows," he cried, with a broad grin.

"Oh, you ninny!"

"Well, we must elope with fear and trembling or it won't count," he cried. "Is there anything you have to buy before we sail? If there is, we must attend to it now, because we leave at a most outlandish hour in the morning."

Miss Vernon looked alarmed for a moment, the real enormity of the escapade striking her with full force. But she smiled in the next and said that she could make a few necessary purchases in a few minutes if he would direct the cabman. "It's a long way to Manila, you know," she said. "Hugh, I noticed in the paper the other day that this is the season for typhoons, or whatever you call them, in the Indian Ocean. I looked them up in the dictionary. There's a picture of one in action, and they must be dreadful things. One of them could tear our ship to pieces in a minute, I should judge. Wouldn't it be awful--if--if--"

"Pshaw! Typhoons are nothing! It's a simoon that you're thinking about, and they happen only on the desert. In what dictionary did you see that?"

"Webster's, of course."

Mr. Ridgeway did not continue along that line, but mentally resolved to look into Webster's on the sly, and, furthermore, to ask the captain of the Saint Cloud to tell him all he knew about typhoons.

"Have him drive to Arnold's, Hugh."

She left him in the carriage in front of the store, promising to be gone not more than five minutes. Ten minutes passed and Hugh resignedly lighted a cigarette, stepping to the sidewalk to smoke. After he had smoked four cigarettes a perceptible frown approached his brow. He looked at the big doorway, then at his watch, then at the imperturbable cabman. Her five minutes had grown to half an hour. His good nature was going to the bad and he was about to follow in her footsteps when suddenly he saw her emerging from the store.

"I had to mail a letter," she explained as they drove off. "Oh, Hugh, I'm so nervous, I know that I will do something silly before we sail."

"A letter?"

"Yes; I mailed one letter to Uncle Harry before I left Chicago, you know, but I forgot something important, so I had to write again to-day."

"What did you forget?"

"I forgot to tell him you were coming out on the same ship and would look after me as if I were your own sister, Hugh."

Strange to say, neither of them smiled as their hands met in a warm, confident clasp.

* * *

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