Terence O'Rourke/Part 1/Chapter 4
HE DOES RIDE; AND WITH HIS FATE
"The Saints," prayed Terence devoutly, "preserve us all!"
Immediately he felt himself stricken as with a dumbness—fairly stunned. The woman upon whose privacy he had so unceremoniously intruded, composedly and with a pretty grace made a place for him by her side; and he, obedient, but speechless, collapsed into the seat.
It came to him that this must be an exceptionally wonderful manner of woman, who could accept his rude invasion with such unruffled calmness; and he had noted that her voice was not only absolutely unmoved, but most marvelously sweet to hear.
The fiacre whirled on as though the devil himself were at the whip (thought O'Rourke). It rocked from side to side, perilously upon one or two or three wheels—never safely upon four; it sheered about corners, scraping the curbs barely.
Conversation became obviously impossible under such circumstances; O'Rourke recognized the necessity of explanations, but found that he must perforce be silent; and, for that matter, he was rather grateful for the chance to get his breath and collect his scattered wits.
So he abandoned as hopeless the task of framing up some plausible excuse for his conduct, as well as that of accounting to himself for the extreme placidity with which his fair neighbor had welcomed him; and, consistently with his character, he at once became the more intensely occupied with an attempt to discover the identity of the woman.
But he was baffled in that. The street lamps, reeling like telegraph poles past the windows of a moving train, illuminated but fitfully the interior of the fiacre, and he could see but little, strain his eyes as he might.
His companion, the woman—or girl, rather; for the youthfulness of her seemed impressed upon the impetuous and impressionable Irishman by his mere propinquity With her—made no effort, for the time being, to break the silence. O'Rourke was moved to marvel much thereat. Was she accustomed to such nocturnal escapades that she could take them as a matter of course? Or was she strangely lacking that birthright of her sex—the curiosity of the eternal feminine?
She nestled closely in her corner, with her head slightly averted, gazing out through the window. Evidently she was in evening dress, and that of the richest; a light opera cloak of some shimmering fabric wrapped soft folds about her. Her arms, gloved in white, were extended languidly before her, while her hands—very bewitchingly small, O'Rourke considered them—lay clasped in her lap. Beneath the edge of the cloak a silken slipper showed, pressing firmly upon the floor as a brace against the sudden lurchings of the fiacre—and surely the foot therein was preposterously tiny!
By now the cries of the rabble had died in the distance, and the speed of the vehicle slackened; presently it was bowling over a broad, brightly lighted boulevard at quite a respectable pace; and within the vehicle the darkness became less opaque.
The Irishman boldly followed up his inspection; but the woman was not aware of it—or, if she were, disregarded it, or—again—was not ill-pleased. And truly that admiration which glowed within O'Rourke's eyes was not unprovoked.
Against the dark background her profile stood in clear, ivory-like relief, clean cut and distinguished as a cameo—and perilously beautiful; her full lips were parted in the slightest of smiles, her eyes were deep, warm shadows, the massed waves of her hair uncovered, exquisitely coiffured … "Faith!" sighed the Irishman. "'Tis a great lady she is, and I …" He was, notwithstanding his self-depreciation, conscious of considerable satisfaction in the knowledge that he was attired properly, as a gentleman; but, "Oh, Lord!" he groaned in spirit. "What will she be doing with me when she finds me out?"
For it was appealing to him as very delightful—this adventure upon which he had stumbled—even though he had not a single sou to give the driver. That O'Rourke was young has been mentioned; he was also ardent and gallant; and it was to his blandishments of tongue that he was trusting to extricate him gracefully from his predicament.
But—did he honestly desire to be extricated? Not—he answered himself with suspicious instantaneousness—if it was to deprive him of the charming companionship which was his, for the moment; not if it left him still hungry for a peep within the cloak of mystery that shrouded the affair.
He made a closer inventory of the fiacre; it was rather elegant in appointment—no mere public conveyance, that is to be picked up on any corner; all of which confirmed his suspicions that this was a woman of rank and pedigree.
And when he ventured a more timid glance, sideways, it was to find her eying him with an inscrutable amusement.
"Mademoiselle," he faltered clumsily, "I—I—faith! if ye'll but pardon me again—"
She looked away at once—perhaps to ignore his eyes, which were pleading his cause far more eloquently than were his lips.
"Monsieur," she pronounced graciously, "is impetuous; but possibly that is no great fault."
"But—but, indeed, I must apologize—"
"Surely that is not necessary, monsieur; it is understood." She paused. "You were long in coming, indeed; I had grown quite weary with waiting. But since you did arrive, eventually, and in time, all is well—let us hope. As for the delay, that was the fault of Monsieur Chambret—not yours."
O'Rourke stared almost rudely, transfixed with amazement, incapable of understanding a single word. What did she mean, anyway?
"Me soul!" he whispered to himself. "Am I in Paris of to-day—of me day—or is this the Paris of Dumas and of Balzac?"
But he received no direct answer; the girl waited a moment, then, since he did not reply, proceeded, laughing lightly.
"At first, I'll confess, the sudden burst of noise in the street alarmed me, monsieur. And when you appeared at the door, I half fancied you the wrong person—perhaps a criminal fleeing from the gendarmes."
"And what reassured ye, mademoiselle?" he stammered blankly.
"The password, of course; that set all right."
"The password!" he echoed stupidly.
"Naturally; yes, monsieur!" She elevated her brows in delicate inquiry. "'To the Gare du Nord,' you cried; and by that I knew at once that you were sent by Monsieur Chambret."
Beauty and mystery combined were befuddling the Irish- man sadly; when she ceased, looking to him for an answer, he strove to recall her words.
"Monsieur Chambret?" he iterated vaguely. Then, to himself, in a flash of comprehension: "The password, 'To the Gare du Nord'!"
"Mais oui!" she cried, impatiently tapping the floor with the little slipper. "Chambret—who else? Oh!" She sat forward abruptly, her eyes wide with dismay. "You must be from Monsieur Chambret? There cannot have been any mistake?"
For a second O'Rourke was tempted to try to brazen it out; to lie, to invent, to make her believe him indeed from this "Monsieur Chambret." But to his credit be it, the thought was no sooner conceived than abandoned. Somehow, he felt that he might not he to this woman and retain his self-respect.
Not that alone, but now that he could see more clearly her eyes, he fancied that he perceived evidences of mental anguish in their sweet depths; she seemed to have been counting dearly on his being the man she had expected. No—he must be frank with her.
"I fear," he admitted sadly, "that there is a mistake, mademoiselle. In truth, I'm not from your friend; ye were right when ye fancied me a fugitive. I was running away— to avoid arrest for an offense that was not wholly mine: I had been strongly provoked. I saw the fiacre, supposed it empty, of course, jumped in … Ye understand? Believe me, I sincerely regret deceiving ye, mademoiselle, even unintentionally."
He waited, but she made no answer; she had drawn away from him as far as the fiacre would permit, and now sat watching his face with an expression which he failed to fathom. It was not of anger, he knew instinctively; it was no fear of him, nor yet acute disappointment; if anything, he could have fancied her look one informed with a subtle speculation, a mental calculation. But as to what?
That was the stumbling-block. He gave it up.
"If I can be of any service in return—?" he floundered in his desperation. "But I must again humbly sue for pardon, mademoiselle. I will no longer—"
The man's accustomed glibness of tongue seemed to have forsaken him most inopportunely; he saw that it was a thankless task to try to set himself right. What cared she for his protestations, his apologies?
And in such case he could do no more than act—get out of her sight, leave her to her disappointment. He reached toward the trap in the roof, intending to attract the driver's attention and alight.
But it appeared that this was not a night upon which even a headstrong O'Rourke could carry to a successful conclusion any particular one of his determinations. For, as he started up, the girl stirred, and put a hand upon his arm, with a gesture that was almost an appeal.
He halted, looking down.
"One moment, monsieur," she begged. "I—I—perhaps you might be willing to—" She hesitated, torn with doubts of the man, total stranger that he was to her.
"To make amends?" he broke in eagerly. "To be of service to ye, mademoiselle? If I can, command me—to the uttermost—"
"Then …" She sat back again, but half satisfied that she was acting wisely; her eyes narrowed as she pondered him; O'Rourke felt that her gaze pierced him through and through. She frowned in her perplexity—and was thereby the more enchanting.
"Thank you," she concluded, at length. "Possibly—who can tell?—you may serve me as well as he whom I had expected."
"Only too gladly, mademoiselle!" he cried with unfeigned enthusiasm.
She nodded affirmatively, patting her lips with her fan—lost upon the instant in meditation, doubting, yet half convinced of the wiseness of her course.
O'Rourke waited uneasily, afire with impatience, fearful lest she should change her mind. Eventually, she mused aloud—more to herself than to the stranger.
"You are honest, I believe, monsieur," said she softly; "you would not he to me. Who knows? You might prove the very man we need, and—and, oh, monsieur, our need is great!"
"But try me!" he pleaded abjectly.
"Thank you, monsieur—I will," she told him, a smile lightening the gravity of her mood.
And the fiacre came to a halt.