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Nedra By George Barr McCutcheon Characters: 16443

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

London. A thick fog, and the elopers on board the Tempest Queen, one of the fastest and most palatial of the liners which ply between England and the Far East, and for ten years under the command of Captain Shadburn, formerly of the British Navy. For the elopement was now an established fact, and Hugh, looking back on their Atlantic voyage, hoped that in this new ship fortune would be more propitious.

Excitement, an exaggerated dread of being followed by detectives, together with seasickness, had been too much for Grace, and all those weary days she had scarcely left her stateroom. Alone in her bunk, ticketed to the other side of the world, running away from nothing but a foolish aversion, the girl had felt her heart grow cold with a nameless dread, a clammy fear that she had undertaken something that she could not accomplish. Almost hourly each day of that unending voyage, Hugh would knock at her door and beg to be allowed to do something to alleviate her sufferings; then a thrill of new tenderness would dart into her soul as she thought of her champion for all time.

And Hugh. Never had time seemed such an eternity. Do what he would, he could not escape the Nemesis-like conviction that he had led the girl he loved into the most unheard-of folly; had carried her to the point where ruin stood on equal footing with success, and joy itself was a menace. Yet during all these days of torment concerning her enfeebled condition and his recklessness, he remembered with sardonic satisfaction that he had left in the safety vault, in Chicago, a full statement of their plans and intentions, with instructions to have the seal broken on March 30th, one year after date of deposit. If anything happened to them, this was to be the means of shedding light on the mystery. And when in New York he had deposited a second statement, with instructions to send it to Chicago on April 1st, one year later. In this he had made known their itinerary as fully as he could give it at the time. And although he cursed himself often for being a fool, there were moments, and especially as they neared the foreign shores, when he rejoiced over this maddest, jolliest of frolics.

The fact that the short rest in London had done wonders for Grace, together with the hurry and bustle incident to sailing, sent Hugh's spirits higher and higher. As the two watched the ship drawn away from the pier and dragged slowly into clearer waters, the knowledge that they were irrevocably consigned to the consummation of their project acted on him like a stimulant. Just before going on board he had asked, half-fearful that she was losing heart, if she still desired to complete the journey. He told her that it was not too late to turn back and that he would agree to any modification of the original plan that she might suggest.

There was not a waver in the clear brown eyes, nor a quiver in her voice as she replied. Instead, there was a flicker indicating injured pride, followed by the sweetest, tenderest smile that he ever had seen on her face.

"Dear old Hugh! Did I not tell you that I would go to the end of the world with you?"

"But we may go to the bottom of the sea," he interposed, seizing her hands, his face lighting up gladly.

"Then I shall go to the bottom of the sea with you. I never have felt the faintest desire to turn back. It has been my greatest happiness to think that some day we shall reach Manila, where our dear adventure may have its second and most delightful epoch. Would I turn back? Would you?" She looked divinely happy as she answered her first triumphant question with the second.

And so they sailed again.

As on their first voyage, their staterooms adjoined. Passage and accommodation had been booked for H.B. Ridge and Miss Ridge, Chicago, U.S.A.

The following morning, Grace was awakened by a rattling at her stateroom door.

"How are you feeling?" called a well-known voice rather anxiously.

"Quite well, thank you. Is it time to get up?"

"I should say so, Sis."

"All right; in ten minutes." As she set her feet upon the floor she observed a tendency on their part to touch twice before settling finally. A momentary dizziness came over her. She closed her eyes quickly and waited a moment before reopening them. Suddenly Hugh's photograph, which was leaning against her hat on the steamer trunk, ducked slowly toward her as if bowing a polite good-morning, and then fell face downward. Miss Vernon rubbed her eyes and stared at the overturned picture for a full minute before resuming her toilet. Then she laughed nervously and made all haste to get on deck. She was one of the few women who dress quickly and yet look well. Attired in a becoming gown, a jaunty cap, checked raincoat and rough brown gloves, she ventured forth expecting to find Hugh waiting for her. At the same time she was thanking her lucky stars that no longer need she fear the authorities.

Slightly dismayed and a little bewildered, she looked to the right and left, trying to remember which stateroom Hugh occupied. The left, she concluded, and forthwith applied her pretty knuckles to the panel; vigorously. The door flew open, almost taking her breath, and a tall, dark man stood before her, but he was not Hugh Ridgeway. He looked askance in a very polite way.

"I beg your pardon," she stammered in confusion. "I have made a mistake. This isn't Mr.--my brother's room, is it? Oh, dear, how absurd of me." She was turning away as she concluded.

"Can I be of service to you?" asked the stranger, stepping forth. He had a very pleasant voice, but she did not remark it at the time.

"No, I thank you," she hastily replied. "His room is on my right, I remember. Sorry if I disturbed you," and she was pounding on the other door. She glanced back at the stranger's door involuntarily and then away instantly. He was staring at her in a most uncalled-for manner.

And Hugh did not answer! She rapped again and--no response. The calm voice of the stranger came to her reddening ears.

"The gentleman who occupies that room just passed me, going on deck. Straight ahead. That's right." He called the last injunction after her swiftly departing form.

"Thank you," came back to him with a breath between the words. Hugh met her at the bottom of the steps. She rushed recklessly toward him and cried,

"Oh, you don't know how glad I am to see you. Where have you been, Hugh Ridgeway--"

"Sh! Ridge without the 'way.' For Heaven's sake, don't forget that. It's every bit as important on this ship as on the other. I've been on deck for a look. Say, are you all right? Are you still glad you're alive?" He was holding her hands and looking into her eyes.

"Of course I am. What a ridiculous question! None but the good die young, and I'm not very good or I wouldn't be running away with you. But come,--take me on deck. Is it raining? Why, your coat is wet. Hurry, Hugh; I want to take a good look," she cried, dragging him up the steps hilariously. A peculiar smile came to his face as he followed her to the deck.

Neither spoke for a full minute, she gazing dumbly at the bleak waste before her, he lovingly at her pretty, bewildered face.

"Where are we, Hugh?" she finally asked, terrified for the moment. "Where is London?"

"You are not afraid, are you, dearest?" he whispered, his strong arm stealing about her. "We are on the bounding main, ticketed for a port thousands of miles away. London is back there," pointing astern.

She placed her hand in his and looked out over the waters. Nothing but rain, leaden sky and rolling waves. What her thoughts were during the silence that followed he learned when she turned to him again, looking imploringly into his eyes.

"Hugh, you will always be good to me?"

"So long as I live, sweetheart," he said, pressing her hand firmly. For some time they stood alone and silent beneath the awning which covered the promenade, the sleety rain pattering dismally over their heads. But few of the passengers were above deck. Several officers were chatting at the end of the deck-house.

"We have not breakfasted yet, Grace, and I'm as hungry as a bear. Isn't it a relief, dear, not to feel the necessity

any longer of keeping a sharp lookout for detectives? Those days on the Atlantic, every other man I met I thought was a sleuth-hound bent on capturing the million-dollar reward that has been offered for our capture by Chicago society."

They went below and found the dining saloon almost deserted. Two or three late risers were drinking a last cup of coffee. Then she told him of the mistake she had made, and together they scanned their fellow-passengers in search of the man who occupied the stateroom adjoining hers on the left. He did not appear for luncheon or dinner, and Hugh cheerfully accused her of murdering him.

The next morning, however, he was seated at the table, directly across from Hugh, a trifle pale and far from hungry. He was making a brave effort to conquer the sickness which had seized him. She nudged Hugh and nodded toward the quiet, subdued eater. He looked across and then gave her a questioning glance. She winked affirmatively.

"Poor devil," muttered Hugh. "I suppose he was just beginning to feel sick when you yanked him out, as if you were telling him the boat was on fire."

"Yanked him out? I did nothing but rap on his door. If he were sick, why did he open it and stare at me in such a remarkably healthy fashion?"

"Because you rapped, I suspect. It's no wonder that he stared at a beautiful young lady who had the temerity to visit him before breakfast. Nice-looking fellow, though, I'll say that much for your sake, sister. And what's more, I believe he's an American," said Hugh, surveying the stranger critically.

"I haven't observed his face," she responded curtly.

"How did you happen to recognize him? By his shoes? You naturally looked down when you saw your mistake, of course, but I don't see how you can get a glance of his shoes now, under the table."

"I mean I have not noticed whether his face is handsome, Hugh."

"Better take a look then. He's particularly good-looking with that piece of beefsteak in his check."

Grace glanced slyly at the man across the table, noting his pale cheeks and the dark rings beneath his eyes. Hugh had misrepresented the facts; he was not eating at all. Instead, he was merely toying with his fork, making uncertain circles in the layer of brown, gravy which covered the plate, his cheek resting on the other hand, a faraway look of distress in his eyes. They were directed at the plate, but saw it not.

"Poor fellow," she murmured compassionately; "he's been awfully sick, hasn't he?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Hugh heartlessly. "They don't go to eating in a day's time if they have been very sick."

A bright look flashed into her eyes and they danced with merriment as she whispered something in his ear.

"By George, maybe you're right. He's a detective and chasing us to earth."

The stranger looked at them in a half interested manner when they laughed aloud over the harrowing supposition. They noticed that his eyes were blue and bloodshot, wan and fatigued. He gave Grace a second glance, sharper than the first, and politely resumed his manufacture of circles in the brown gravy and brown study. Miss Vernon flushed slightly.

As they left the table she said to Hugh:

"He remembers me, but he certainly understands it was a mistake, doesn't he?" Hugh looked at her distressed face and laughed.

The weather later that morning was a delightful surprise for all. The sky had resumed its blue and the air was fresh and clear. Notwithstanding the pleasant weather, there was a heavy sea running, the ship rolling uncomfortably for those who were poor sailors. Deck chairs on all sides were occupied by persons who had heroically determined to make the most of the brightness about them.

The elopers found their chairs and joined the long line of spectators. Hugh glanced admiringly at Grace now and then. Her cheeks were warm and glowing, her eyes were bright and flashing with excitement, her whole being seemed charged with animation.

The wan-faced stranger followed them on deck a few minutes later. His eyes were riveted on a chair nearby and his long body moved swiftly toward it. Then came a deep roll, the deck seemed to throw itself in the air, and, with a startled look, he plunged headlong toward Miss Vernon's chair.

His knee struck the chair, but he managed to throw his body to one side. He went driving against the deck-house, sinking in a heap. Miss Vernon gave a little shriek of alarm and pity, and Ridgeway sprang to the side of the fallen man, assisting him to his feet. The stranger's face was drawn with momentary pain and his eyes were dazed.

"Pardon me," he murmured. "I am so very awkward. Have I hurt you?"

"Not in the least," cried she. "But I am afraid you are hurt. See! There is blood on your forehead." She instantly extended her handkerchief, and he accepted it in a bewildered sort of a way, placing it to his forehead, where a tiny stream of blood was showing itself.

"A piece of court plaster will stop the flow," said Hugh critically, and at once produced the article from his capacious pocket-book. Grace immediately appropriated it and asked for his knife.

"You are very good," said the stranger, again pressing the handkerchief to his head. The act revealed to him the fact that he was using her handkerchief for the purpose, soiling it, perhaps. His face flushed deeply and an embarrassed gleam came to his eyes. "Why, I am using your handkerchief. I assure you I did not know what I was doing when I took it from you. Have I ruined it?"

Miss Vernon laughed at his concern and her face brightened considerably. As she looked into his clear blue eyes and his square, firm face she observed for the first time that he was quite a handsome fellow.

"It won't soil it at all," she said.

"But it was thoughtless, even rude of me, to take yours when I had my own. I am so sorry."

"Do you think this will be large enough, Hugh?" she asked, holding up a piece of black court plaster. The stranger laughed.

"If the cut is as big as that I'd better consult a surgeon," he said. "About one-tenth of that, I should say."

"All right," she said cheerfully. "It is your wound."

"But you are the doctor," he protested.

"I dare say it is too big to look well. People might think you were dynamited. Does it pain you?" she asked solicitously. For an instant their eyes looked steadily, unwaveringly, into each other,--one of those odd, involuntary searches which no one can explain and which never happen but once to the same people.

"Not at all," he replied, glancing out over the tumbling waves with a look which proved they were strange to him. Hugh dashed away and soon returned with a glass of brandy, which the stranger swallowed meekly and not very gracefully. Then he sat very still while Grace applied the court-plaster to the little gash at the apex of a rapidly rising lump.

"Thank you," he said. "You are awfully good to a clumsy wretch who might have crushed you. I shall endeavor to repay you both for your kindness." He started to arise from Hugh's chair, but that gentleman pushed him back.

"Keep the chair until you get straightened out a bit. I'll show you how to walk deck in a rough sea. But pardon me, you are an American like ourselves, are you not? I am Hugh Ridge, and this is my sister--Miss Ridge."

"My name is Veath--Henry Veath," the other said as he bowed. "I am so glad to meet my own countrymen among all these foreigners. Again, let me thank you."

"Hardly a good sailor?" observed Hugh.

"As you may readily guess."

"It's pretty rough to-day. Are you going to Gibraltar and Spain?"

"Only as a bird of passage. I am going out for our government. It's a long and roundabout way they've sent me, but poor men must go where opportunity points the way. I assure you this voyage was not designed for my pleasure. However, I enjoyed a couple of days in London."

"An important mission, I should say," ventured Mr. Ridge.

"I'm in the revenue service. It is all new to me, so it doesn't matter much where I begin."

"Where are you to be stationed?" asked Hugh, and something told him what the answer would be before it fell from the other's lips.


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