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   Chapter 4 READY FOR THE SEA

Nedra By George Barr McCutcheon Characters: 13189

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Ridgeway, his nerves tense and his eyes gleaming, marched his thoroughly chilled companion up to the bar. He manoeuvred so that the plain-clothes man stood with his back toward the door, and he seemed to be in no especial haste to attract the attention of the bartender. As they gave their order for drinks, Hugh saw Grace, in his mind's eye, slipping from the carriage and off into the crowd--and every fibre of his heart was praying for success to attend her flight. He found himself talking glibly, even volubly to the watcher, surprised that he could be doing it with his mind so full of other thoughts.

"Awful night to be out. I'd hate to have a job like yours," he was rattling on, heaving intermittent breaths of relief as he saw the size of the drink the other was pouring out for himself.

"I've been at it for twelve years. I don't mind anything just so it helps to make a comfortable home for the old lady and the kids."

"Ah, the kids," said Hugh, grasping at the subject as if it were the proverbial straw. "How I love kids! How many have you?"

"Four. The oldest is ten."

"They're worth working for, I'll bet. Nothing like children. How many have you?"

"Four," said the officer, looking at him in surprise.

"I'm a little deaf," explained Hugh, recovering himself quickly. "I thought you said ten."

"No; the oldest is ten. Yes; they're worth slaving for. I've hung onto this job all these years just because it might go hard with 'em if I gave it up and tried something else."

Hugh looked into the sober, serious face and a lump flew to his throat. It struck him as probable that this man was to lose his position the next morning. A sort of pity assailed Ridgeway for an instant, but he put it away resolutely.

After all, he had Grace to think of and not the children of the plain-clothes man.

They had a second drink and it fired his brain with a gleeful desire for action. The plain-clothes man shivered as he swallowed the fiery stuff. He looked thin and haggard and ill, a condition which Hugh, in his hatred, had failed to observe until this moment.

"You certainly have a home and some money saved up by this time," he said, trying to suppress the eager gleam in his eyes.

"We've had lots of sickness and it's taken nearly everything. Besides, I've been too d---- honest. It's my own fault that I haven't a big wad put away."

"What is your name?" demanded Hugh suddenly.


"I understand all that. But what is your name?"

"That's it--George Friend--Street Station."

"Oh, I see." Hugh also saw the picture of this poor fellow as he stood before his superior later on with his luckless tale, facing a thirty-days' lay-off at the lowest. "By the way, I want to write a short note." He secured envelope, paper and stamp from the bar and hastily wrote a brief letter. The inscription on the outside of the envelope was "George Friend,--Police Station, New York," and there were three one-hundred-dollar bills inclosed with the note of explanation. "I'll mail it later," he said. "Come on."

They went forth into the rain, Hugh's blood leaping with excitement, the plain-clothes man shivering as if he were congealing. Mr. Ridgeway dashed across the pavement and peered into the cab. Grace was not there, just as he had hoped and expected.

"The lady's in the drug-store below, sir," announced the cabman.

"Wait here" called Hugh to the plain-clothes man. "I'm afraid she's ill. She's gone to the drug-store." He hurried toward the drug-store as the officer began to question the driver. A second later Mr. Ridgeway turned the corner and was off like the wind toward Sixth Avenue. Turning into an alley, he fled southward, chuckling to himself as he splashed through the puddles and mudholes. He heard shouts in the distance and he did not decrease his speed until he neared the street opening below. There he ran into some one and fell. Besmeared and bespattered, he quickly picked himself up; and when, a moment later, he gained the sidewalk, no one would hardly have recognized in the dilapidated-looking creature the dapper Hugh Ridgeway. Police whistles were calling behind him, nearer and nearer, but he walked boldly out into the street and up to Sixth Avenue. His nerves were tingling and his breathing was hard to control after the mad dash through the alley, but he slouched along in the lee of the buildings to escape the downpour, stopping near the corner.

Suddenly he rushed out and hailed a passing cab, climbed inside and gave orders to drive as quickly as possible to the Twenty-third Street Ferry. Then he sat up boldly and stared forth with all the courage that his escape inspired.

"By Jove," he was shouting inwardly, "that poor devil was on my heels. He looked hard as he hustled past, but I stared back just as hard. It took nerve to face him. Hang it all, I'm sorry for him. He wasn't to blame. But this letter will cheer him up. It's for the kids if anything happens to him."

Apparently changing his mind at Herald Square, he instructed the driver to go down Thirty-fifth Street to Eighth Avenue and drop him at the corner. After leaving the cab he ventured into an all-night shop and bought a cheap raincoat, slouch hat and umbrella. Then, like a thief, he stole forth and warily made his way toward the dock. It was bad going and he hailed a second cab. Before climbing into it, he crossed and dropped an envelope into the mailbox.

"There," he muttered, "that helps my conscience. By Jove, this has been a corking start for the adventure. Talk about dime novels!"

He instructed the driver to take him to a point not far from the dock, a precaution which suddenly invested itself. It would be wise to approach the liner by stealth, taking no chances. They were sailing by one of the obscure lines, not for economy's sake, but to avoid possible contact with friends of their own class.

As he rattled off through the night, huddled back in the blackness of the cab, Hugh began to have the first pangs of uneasiness. The distressing fear that all had not gone well with Grace flooded his brain with misgivings and feverish doubts. A clock in a shop window told him it was nearly ten o'clock. He was cursing himself for permitting her to rush off alone in a night like this, into a quarter that reeked with uncertainty and disorder. Vague horrors presented themselves to his distressed mind; calamity stared at him from the mouth of every dark alley; outrage, crime, misfortune, danced in every shadow. As for himself, he was a sorry sight and enough to frighten Grace into con

vulsions at one glance. Rain-soaked, muddy, bedraggled, it was not the débonnaire Chicagoan of old who skulked away from the cab at a certain black corner and made his way stealthily, even fearfully, toward the distant dock.

Every sound startled and alarmed him; every pedestrian looked like a pursuer in plain clothes or blue. A couple of policemen eyed him sharply and he trembled in his boots. The sudden, overpowering recollection that he had the passage tickets in his pockets with the reservations and the luggage checks almost sent him flying through the air, so swift was his pace. He lost his way twice, but was set straight by unsuspecting bluecoats.

At last he zigzagged his way through devious channels and into the presence of a company's official, who informed him that Miss Ridge had not gone aboard nor had she presented herself at the dock during the evening. Hugh's jaw dropped and a sick, damp perspiration started on his forehead. Hardly knowing what he did, he went aboard and plied his questions right and left, hoping that she might have come through unobserved. But she was not there, and it was half past ten o'clock.

Out into the drizzle he sallied once more, racked by a hundred doubts and misgivings. Reproaching himself fiercely for a fool, a dolt, he posted himself at the approach to the dock and strained his eyes and ears for the first sight of Grace Vernon. Other people went aboard, but an hour passed before he gave up all hope and distractedly made up his mind to institute a search for the missing girl. He conjectured all manner of mishaps, even to the most dreadful of catastrophes. Runaway accident, robbery, abduction, even murder harassed his imagination until it became unbearable. The only cheerful alternative that he could hope for was that she might not have escaped the authorities after all and was still in custody, crushed and despairing. Reviling himself with a bitterness that was explicit but impotent, he started off resolutely to seek the aid of the police--the last extremity.

A quick little shriek came to his ears, and then the door of a cab that had been standing at the opposite corner flew open.

"Hugh! Hugh!" called a shrill voice. His heart gave a wild leap and then his long legs did the same--repeatedly. As he brought up beside the cab, Grace Vernon tumbled out, sobbing and laughing almost hysterically.

"Good Heavens!" shouted he, regardless of the driver, who grinned scornfully from his private box above, the only witness to this most unconventional comedy of circumstances.

"I've been--been here an hour--in this cab!" she cried plaintively. "Oh, oh, oh! You'll never know how I felt all that time. It seemed a year. Where did you get those awful-looking clothes, and--"

"What--aw--oh, the coat? Great Jehoshaphat! You don't mean to say that--"

"I thought you were a detective!" she sobbed. "Oh, how wretched I've been. Pay the man, dear, and take me--take me any place where there is light. I'm dying from the sight and sound of this awful night."

Mr. Ridgeway lost no time in paying the driver and getting her on board the Saint Cloud. She tried to explain as they hurried along, but he told her there was time enough for that.

"We may be watched, after all," he said, looking anxiously in all directions, a habit that had grown upon him to such an extent that he feared it would cling to him through life. "Go to your stateroom, dearest, and I'll send you something hot to drink. Good Heavens, what an eternity it has been! Oh, if you could only know what I've been calling myself!"

"I'm ashamed to admit it, dear, but I've been calling you things, too. And I've been so worried about you. How did you get away from that man?"

"Not now, dear. I'll meet you out here in the library in half an hour. I'll see about the luggage."

"You must change your clothes, Hugh. You're frightfully wet. Send my small trunk and bag right up, dear."

Like a thief and murderer, Hugh slunk out and attended to the trunks and bags, watching all the time for the dreaded plain-clothes man and his cohorts, trembling with a nervous fear so unbecoming in a strong man that the baggage master smiled in derision and imagined he was looking upon a "greenie" who was making his first voyage and was afraid of the sea. Offering up a prayer of thankfulness, he bolted into his own stateroom soon afterward and came forth later on in dry clothes and a new frame of mind. He was exuberant, happy once more.

They did not look like brother and sister as they sat on one of the wide sofas and drank the toddy that came from below in charge of a well-feed steward.

"Be careful, dear!" he warned, with returning reason. "They'll think we're bride and groom."

"Oh, dear me," she lamented. "It is almost out of the question to act like brother and sister after all we've been through to-night."

"Now, tell me all about it. How did it all work out for you," he asked eagerly.

"Well, it was all very simple--although I was frightened half to death--until I drove up to the spot where you saw me a little while ago. I thought it would be wise to take a look around before I tried to go aboard. Just as I left the cab a man rushed past me and I flew back into my seat like a bullet. He was a tall, slouchy fellow, with a sly look. All at once it came to me that he was a detective. You know, they're always mysterious looking. So I stayed in the cab trying to think what to do next. I was quite sure you had not yet arrived, for I had come down as quickly as possible. And I wasn't real sure, either, that you had escaped. I didn't know how many drinks it might take, dear."

"Don't let me forget to tell you how sorry I was for Mr. Plain Clothes and what I did afterward for the kids," interposed Hugh.

"The kids?"

"Yes. His."

"Oh, I see. Well, pretty soon that awful man came out and stood at the corner. He was waiting for some one. He was nervous and sleuth-like. He acted so queerly that I was sure of it. He was after you and me. Of course, I nearly fainted. All the time I was afraid you would run right into his arms, so I was watching from both windows to warn you if possible. My plan was to get you into the cab and drive away like mad. Hours passed, it seemed to me, and--"

"I know the rest!" he cried, laughing so loud that the steward looked up reprovingly.

"Is everything ready, Hugh?" she asked anxiously. "The trunks, the tickets,--everything?"

"Yes, dear," he said tenderly, soberly. "We are ready for the sea."

"God be with us," she said wistfully.

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