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   Chapter 3 THE FIRST OBSTACLE

Nedra By George Barr McCutcheon Characters: 16209

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A drizzling rain began to fall and an overcast sky, cold and bleak, dropped lower and lower until it covered the dripping park like a sombre mantle. The glass in the hood of the hansom kept out the biting rain, but the drear approach of a wet evening was not to be denied. For nearly three hours Hugh and Grace had been driven through the park and up the Riverside, killing time with a nervous energy that was beginning to tell. The electric lights were coming on; pavements glistened with the glare from the globes; tiny volcanoes leaped up by thousands as the patting, swishing raindrops flounced to the sidewalks.

"Isn't it dismal?" murmured Grace, huddling closer to his side. "I thought the weather man said it was to be nice? It's horrid!"

"I think it's lovely!" said he beamingly. "Just the sort of weather for a mystery like this. It begins like a novel."

"I hope it ends as most of them do, commonplace as they are. Anyhow, it will be fun to dine at Sherry's. If any one that we know should see us, we can say--"

"No, dear; we'll not attempt to explain. In the face of what is to follow, I don't believe an accounting is necessary. This is to be our last dinner in good old America for many a day, dear. We'll have a good one, just for history's sake. What kind of a bird will you have?"

"A lark, I think," she said with a bright smile.

"Oh, one doesn't eat the lark for dinner. He's a breakfast bird, you know. One rises with him. Bedsides, we should try to keep our lark in fine feather instead of subjecting it to the discomforts of a gridiron in some--"

His observations came to an abrupt close as both he and his companion pitched forward violently, barely saving themselves from projection through the glass. The hansom had come to a sudden stop, and outside there was a confused sound of shouting with the crunching of wood and the scraping of wheels. The horse plunged, the cab rocked sharply and then came to a standstill.

"What is it?" gasped Grace, trying to straighten her hat and find her bag at the same time. Hugh managed to raise the glass and peer dazedly forth into the gathering night. A sweep of fine rain blew into their faces. He saw a jumble of high vehicles, a small knot of men on the sidewalk, gesticulating hands on every side, and then came the oaths and sharp commands.

"We've smashed into something!" he said to her.

"Some one is hurt! Confound these reckless drivers! Why can't they watch where--"

"Come down off that!" shouted a voice at the wheel, and he saw a huge policeman brandishing his club at the driver above. "Come down, I say!"

"Aw, the d---- fool backed into me," retorted the driver of Hugh's hansom. His fare noticed that they were at the Sherry corner, and the usual crowd of seven-o'clock cabs was in full evidence.

"That'll do--that'll do," roared the officer. "I saw the whole thing. Ye've cracked his head, you dirty cur."

Two men were holding the horse's head and other policemen were making their way to the side of their fellow-officer. Evidently something serious had happened.

"What's the trouble?" Hugh called out to the officer.

"You'll find out soon enough," answered the policeman. "Don't butt in--don't butt in!"

"Here, here, now!" exclaimed Mr. Ridgeway. "You've no right to talk like that to--"

"Oh, I ain't, eh? Well, we'll see if somebody else has a right. You dudes can't kill people and then get off with talk like that. Not much, my Johnny. You go along, too, an' explain yer hurry to the captain."

"But I've got a lady here--"

"Tush! tush! Don't chew the rag. Stay in there!"

Other officers had dragged the driver from the cab, jostling him roughly to the outer circle of wheels. The man was protesting loudly. Rain had no power to keep a curious crowd from collecting. Hugh, indignant beyond expression, would have leaped to the ground had not a second and superior officer stepped up and raised his hand.

"Don't get down, sir," he said with gentle firmness. "I'm afraid you'll have to go to the station for a few minutes."

"But, confound it, officer--I have nothing to do with this row."

"That may be true, sir. You can explain all that at the desk. We have to get at the bottom of this. This is no place to argue."

A moment later the hansom, with a bent axle, was hobbling its way down the street engineered by bluecoats. Hugh, seeing that it was useless to remonstrate, sank back in the seat and swore audibly.

"Don't worry about it, Hugh," said a soft voice in his ear. "We can explain, can't we?"

"You can't explain anything to asses, Grace," he lamented, "especially if they wear buttons." They lapsed into a mournful, regretful silence. For five full minutes the hansom wobbled painfully along and then pulled up in front of a building which Hugh lugubriously recognized as a police station. "We've got to make the best of it, dear. Did you ever hear of such beastly luck? I'll see if they won't let me go in alone and square things. You won't be afraid to sit out here alone for a few minutes, will you? There's really nothing to be alarmed about. This driver of ours is in trouble, that's all. We're not to blame. A word or two will fix everything. I'll be out in a jiffy."

But the bluecoats would not see it that way. Miss Vernon was compelled to climb down from the seat and march indignantly into the desk sergeant's presence. Hugh at once began to explain and to expostulate against what he called an outrage.

"What had we to do with it? The truth is, I don't know what has happened," he was saying.

"Neither do I," said the bewhiskered sergeant shortly. "Who are you, sir?"

"These people saw the whole thing, sir. They were in the hansom when Bernhardt smashed him, an' this felly had ordered him to get to Sherry's in five minutes if he had to kill some one," explained the officer who had first addressed Hugh in the crowd.

"That's a lie," cried Hugh. "I said if he had to kill the old plug. Who is Bernhardt? What the deuce is it all about?"

"I don't believe the gentleman saw the row," said the polite roundsman. "It happened in the crush there."

"Somebody shall pay for this outrage," exclaimed Ridgeway. "It's beastly to drag a lady and gentleman into a police station like common criminals when they--"

"That will do, sir," commanded the sergeant sharply. "You'll talk when you are asked to, sir."

Turning to the patrolman, he asked, "Has that fellow been taken to the hospital?"

"The ambulance came up just as we left, sir."

"Bernhardt says he didn't hit him. He says the guy fell off his own cab."

"Don't cry, dear," Hugh managed to whisper to Grace as they took the seats designated by a brusque man in blue.

"Never!" she whispered bravely. "It's a lark!"

"Bravo! We'll have that bird yet--at Sherry's." Then he approached the desk with determination in his eye. "Look here, officer, I demand respectful attention. Whatever it was that happened between those cabmen, I had nothing to do with it, and I am absolutely ignorant of the trouble. We have a dinner engagement, and I want you to take our statements, or whatever it is you want, and let us go our way."

"What is your name?" shortly.

"Why--er--that isn't necessary, is it?" floundered Hugh.

"Of course it is. Name, please."

"Will it get into the papers?"

"That's nothin' to me. Will you answer now, or do you want to stay here till mornin'?"

"My name is Smith."

"Place of residence?"

"Brooklyn."

"Who's the lady?"

"My sister."

"Step up here, lady, if you please!"

Hugh felt the floor giving away beneath him. That Grace could not have heard a word of the foregoing examination, he was perfectly aware. Vainly, and with a movement of his lips, he essayed to convey the name she should answer.

"Don't butt in, you!" was the instant warning given by the observant officer, and then--

"Lady, what is your name?"

For a moment the question bewildered the girl. With considerable misgiving she discerned that another occasion for prevarication was unavoidable, and something like a s

igh escaped her lips; but as suddenly fear gave way to a feeling of elation. How clever Hugh would consider her remembrance of his instructions! What felicity to extricate him from this predicament! Alone, she would save the situation!

Unblushingly, and with a glance at him for instant approval, she stepped forward and pronounced jubilantly the alias agreed upon:

"Ridge--Miss Ridge is my name."

A smothered exclamation of dismay burst from Hugh's lips.

"Eh, what? Miss Ridge, and your brother's name--Smith?" ejaculated the man of authority.

For a brief moment there was a pause of embarrassment; and then with a dazzling, bewitching smile directed at her questioner, she electrified them both:

"Most assuredly. Mr. Smith is my half-brother."

Hugh could have shouted for joy, as he watched the somewhat amused discomfiture of the officer.

"Where do you live?"

"St. Louis," gasped she, with blind confidence in luck.

"Oh, humph! Well, wait a minute," he said, and both were gratified to see a good-natured grin on his face. "Buckley, see if there is a family named Smith in Brooklyn with connection in St. Louis. Sit down, Miss Ridge, please, and don't be worried. This is what we have to do. Your driver slugged another of his kind and he's likely to die of the fall he got. We'll have to use you as witnesses, that's all, an' we must have you where we can put our hands on you in the mornin'. The captain will be here in an hour or two and you can probably manage to give some kind of bond for your appearance. People like you don't like to appear in court, you see, so we've got to make sure of you."

"But we must go to our--our dinner," she wailed so prettily that he coughed to cover his official severity.

"Can't be helped, ma'am. Duty, you know. The captain will soon be here. Would you like to telephone, sir?"

Hugh stared and looked embarrassed. Who was there for him to talk to over the 'phone? And that brought another ghastly thought to mind. Who could he ask to give security for his or her appearance in the morning? He found words to say he would telephone to his friends, a bright idea suddenly coming to the rescue. Grace looked her amazement and alarm as he marched into the telephone booth. Bravely he called up Sherry's and, with the sergeant listening, he sent word to the head waiter to inform Mr. ---- (mentioning the name of a very prominent society leader) that Mr. Smith and Miss Ridge were unavoidably detained and could not join the party until quite late, if at all. He came from the booth very much pleased with himself, and sat down beside Grace to await developments.

"What are we to do?" she whispered.

"Give me time to think, dear. I fooled him that time. Perhaps I can do it again. Great bluff, wasn't it? What do you suppose Mr. ---- will think?"

"But if they should insist upon holding us till morning," she cried, on the verge of tears, trouble looming up like a mountain.

"They won't dare do that. They'll probably send us to a hotel with a plain-clothes man unless we give bond, but that's all. I'll try another bluff and see how it works. There's no use kicking about it. We're not in a position to stir up much of a row, you see, dear."

He tried it when the captain came in unexpectedly a few minutes later, and with the most gratifying results. He obtained consent to go with a plain-clothes man to a nearby restaurant for a "bite to eat." In the meantime he was to send a messenger boy with a note to an influential friend in Brooklyn, requesting him to hurry over and give security for their appearance. If this failed, they were to go to a hotel under guard.

"The only thing that sounds fishy about your story, Mr. Smith, is that you say you are brother and sister," said the captain. "Driving all afternoon in the park with your own sister? Queer."

"She's from Missouri, you know," said Hugh with a fine inspiration. The captain laughed, even though he was not convinced.

"Now, Grace, dear," said Hugh as they waited for the cab to be called, "our adventure is on in dead earnest. We have to give this plain-clothes man the slip and get aboard the Saint Cloud before they have time to think. They won't look for us there and we're safe."

"Hugh, I'm frightened half to death," she whispered. "Can we do it? Would it not be wiser to give up the whole plan, Hugh, and--"

"Oh, Grace!" he cried, deep regret in his voice. "What a cad I am to be dragging you into all this sort of thing! Yes, dear. We'll give it up. We'll go back to Chicago. It's too much to ask of you. I'll--"

"No, no, Hugh! Forgive me. I'll be strong and firm. I wouldn't give it up for all the world. I--I was just a bit weak for a second, you know. It does look pretty big and wild, dear,--all that is ahead of us. But, after all, it's like any sea voyage, isn't it? Only we're going to be married when it's over. We Wouldn't think anything of taking a trip to Manila under ordinary circumstances, would we? It's all right, isn't it?" He squeezed her hand cautiously but fervently.

To their disgust the plain-clothes man took the seat opposite them in the brougham, remarking as he did so that he had sense enough to get in out of the rain. They had no opportunity to concoct a plan for escape, and it was necessary for them to go on to the restaurant in Longacre Square. It occurred to Hugh that it would be timely to explain why they were not dressed for dinner. They were on their way to the hotel to dress when the fracas took place. The plain-clothes man was not interested. Evidently the authorities did not apprehend much trouble from the two young people; their guardian performed his duties perfunctorily and considerately. He even disappeared from view after they entered the restaurant.

"We'll have that bird," said Hugh, "before we do anything else. I'm hungry. Haven't eaten since last night, dear. I've been too excited to think of eating--or sleeping."

In a quiet corner of the big café they had their bird and just enough champagne to give them the courage that counts. With their heads close together they planned and plotted until they forgot the rain that pattered against the window panes, and dreariness turned to rosy assurance.

"Just a little nerve, dear," said he as they arose. "Do as I have told you and trust to luck. It can't fail."

The plain-clothes man was just outside the door. Scores of people were hurrying past, umbrellas raised in the face of the drizzle. Down Broadway the glare of lights was broken and left hazy in the fog like rain. The sidewalks in the distance looked like a bobbing field of black mushrooms, shiny and sleek. The air was chill with the wet shadows of a night that hated to surrender to the light of man.

"Where's the cab?" demanded Hugh. "Get it up here quick. I don't want to keep my friend waiting at the station. Come in and have a drink, officer. It's no fun standing around this kind of weather. No job for a decent human being, I'd say. Especially when one's set to watch respectable people and not criminals. This is a rattling good joke on me--and my sister. I need about three good, stiff drinks? We'll go in next door here. Get into the cab, Marian, We won't be inside two minutes."

If the plain-clothes man was willing to take the drink, all well and good, but if he refused--but he did not refuse. He looked carefully about, shivered appropriately, and said he "didn't care if he did." Grace urged them to hurry as she entered the cab and Hugh gave his promise. Scarcely had the two men passed beyond the light screen doors when Grace Vernon coolly stepped from the cab and hurriedly made her way off through the crowd of umbrellas, first telling the driver to wait for her in front of the drug store.

A moment later she boarded a Broadway car, and excited, but intent only on reaching a place where she could safely engage a cab to take her to the dock. And all the time she was hoping and praying, not for herself, but for the important young gentleman who was clicking his righteous glass in a den of iniquity.

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