“It is highly improper on my part to come here and meet you,” said Winifred.
“What can it be that you have to say to me of such ‘high importance’?”
The two were in the lane behind the church, at seven that same evening.
Winifred, on some pretext, had escaped the watchful eyes of Rachel Craik, o_ancied that she had, and came hurriedly to the waiting Carshaw. She was al_flutter with expectancy not untinged by fear, she knew not of what. Th_ights were beginning to darken early, and it was gloomy that evening, for th_ky was covered with clouds and a little drizzle was falling.
“You are not to think that there is the least hint of impropriety about th_atter,” Carshaw assured her. “Understand, please, Winifred, that this is n_overs’ meeting, but a business one, on which your whole future life depends.
You cannot suppose that I have followed you to Fairfield for nothing.”
“How could you possibly know that I was here?”
“From the police.”
“The police _again_? What a strange thing!”
“Yes, a strange thing, and yet not so strange. They are keenly interested i_ou and your movements, for your good. And I, of course, still more so.”
“You are wonderfully good to care. But, tell me quickly, I cannot stay te_inutes. I think my aunt suspects something. She already knows about the not_ropped to-day into my lap.”
“And about the boy in the fit. Does she suspect that, too?”
“What, was that a ruse? Good gracious, how artful you must be! I’m afraid o_ou—”
“Endlessly artful for your sake, Winifred.”
“You are kind. But tell me quickly.”
“Winifred, you are in danger, from which there is only one way of escape fo_ou—namely, absolute trust in me. Pray understand that the dream in which yo_eard some one say, ‘She must be taken away from New York’ was no dream. Yo_re here in order to be taken. This may be the first stage of a long journey.
Understand also that there is no bond of duty which forces you to go agains_our will, for the shrewdest men in the New York police have reason to thin_ou are not who you imagine you are, and that the woman you call your aunt i_o relative of yours.”
“What reason have they?” asked Winifred.
“I don’t care—I don’t know, they have not told me. But I believe them, and _ant you to believe me. The persons who have charge of your destiny are no_ormal persons—more or less they have done, or are connected with wrong. Ther_s no doubt about that. The police know it, though they cannot yet drag tha_rong into the light. Do you credit what I say?”
“It is all very strange.”
“It is _true_. That is the point. Have you, by the way, ever seen a man calle_oles?”
“Yet that man at this moment is somewhere near you. He came in the same trai_ith you from New York. He is always near you. He is the most intimat_ssociate of your aunt. Think now, and tell me whether it is not a disturbin_hing that you never saw this man face to face?”
“Most disturbing, if what you say is so.”
“But suppose I tell you what I firmly believe—that you _have_ seen him; tha_t was _his_ face which bent over you in your half-sleep the other night, an_is voice which you heard?”
“I always thought that it was no dream,” said Winifred. “It was—not a nic_ace.”
“And remember, Winifred,” urged Carshaw earnestly, “that to-day and to-morro_re your last chances. You are about to be taken far away—possibly to Franc_r England, as surely as you see those clouds. True, if you go, I shall g_fter you.”
“Yes, I. But, if you go, I cannot be certain how far I may be able to defen_nd rescue you there, as I can in America. I know nothing of foreign laws, an_hose who have you in their power do. On that field they may easily beat me.
So now is your chance, Winifred.”
“But what am I to do?” she asked in a scared tone, frightened at last by th_incerity blazing from his eyes.
“Necessity has no rules of propriety,” he answered. “I have a car here. Yo_hould come with me this very night to New York. Once back there, it is onl_hat my interest in you gives me the right to expect that you will consent t_se my purse for a short while, till you find suitable employment.”
Winifred covered her face and began to cry. “Oh, I couldn’t!” she sobbed.
“Don’t cry,” said Carshaw tenderly. “You must, you know, since it is the onl_ay. You cry because you do not trust me.”
“Oh! I do. But what a thing it is that you propose! To break with all my pas_n a sudden. I hardly even know you; last week I had not seen you—”
“There, that is mistrust. I know you as well as if I had always known you. I_act, I always did, in a sense. Please don’t cry. Say that you will come wit_e to-night. It will be the best piece of work that you ever did for yourself, and you will always thank me for having persuaded you.”
“But not to-night! I must have time to reflect, at least.”
“Perhaps to-morrow night. I don’t know. I must think it over first in all it_earings. To-morrow morning I will leave a letter in the office, telling you—”
“Well, if you insist on the delay. But it is dangerous, Winifred—it i_orribly dangerous!”
“I can’t help that. How could a girl run away in that fashion?”
“Well, then, to-morrow night at eleven, precisely. I shall be at the end o_his lane in my car, if your letter in the morning says ‘Yes.’ Is tha_nderstood?”
“Let me warn you against bringing anything with you—any clothes or a grip.
Just steal out of the inn as you are. And I shall be just there at th_orner—at eleven.”
“I may not have the chance of speaking to you again before—”
But Carshaw’s pleading stopped short; from the near end of the lane a tal_orm entered it—Rachel Craik. She had followed Winifred from the hotel, suspecting that all was not well—had followed her, lost her, and now ha_efound her. She walked sedately, with an inscrutable face, toward the spo_here the two were talking. The moment Carshaw saw this woman of ill omen h_nderstood that all was lost, unless he acted with bewildering promptness, an_uickly he whispered in Winifred’s ear:
“It must be to-night or never! Decide now. ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”
“Yes,” said Winifred, in a voice so low that he could hardly hear.
“At eleven to-night?”
“Yes,” she murmured.
Rachel Craik was now up to them. She was in a vile temper, but contrived t_urb it.
“What is the meaning of this, Winifred? And who is this gentleman?” she said.
Winifred, from the habit of a lifetime, stood in no small awe of that auster_oman. All the blood fled from the girl’s face. She could only say brokenly:
“I am coming, aunt,” and went following with a dejected air a yard behind he_aptor. In this order they walked till they arrived at the door of the Maple_nn, neither having uttered a single word to the other. There Miss Crai_alted abruptly. “Go to your room,” she muttered. “I’m ashamed of you.
Sneaking out at night to meet a strange man! No kitchen-wench could hav_ehaved worse.”
Winifred had no answer to that taunt. She could not explain her motives.
Indeed, she would have failed lamentably had she attempted it. All she kne_as that life had suddenly turned topsy-turvy. She distrusted her aunt, th_oman to whom she seemed to owe duty and respect, and was inclined to trust _oung man whom she had met three times in all. But she was gentle and soft- hearted. Perhaps, if this Mr. Rex Carshaw, with his earnest eyes and wheedlin_oice, could have a talk with “aunty,” his queer suspicions—so oddly borne ou_y events—might be dissipated.
“I’m sorry if I seem to have done wrong,” she said, laying a timid hand o_achel Craik’s arm. “If you would only tell me a little, dear. Why have w_eft New York? Why—”
“Do you want to see me in jail?” came the harsh whisper.
“No. Oh, no. But—”
“Obey me, then! Remain in your room till I send for you. I’m in danger, an_ou, you foolish girl, are actually in league with my enemies. Go!”
Winifred sped through the porch, and hied her to a window in her room on th_irst floor which commanded a view of the main street. She could see neithe_arshaw nor Aunt Rachel, the one having determined to lie low for a few hours, and the other being hidden from sight already as she hastened through the rai_o the small inn where Voles and Mick the Wolf were located.
These worthies were out. The proprietor said they had hired a car and gone t_ridgeport. Miss Craik could only wait, and she sat in the lobby, prim an_uiet, the picture of resignation, not betraying by a look or gesture th_assions of anger, apprehension, and impatience which raged in her breast.
Voles did not come. An hour passed; eight struck, then nine. Once the word “carousing”! passed Miss Rachel’s lips with an intense bitterness; but, on th_hole, she sat with a stiff back, patient as stone.
Then after ten there came the hum and whir of an automobile driven at hig_peed through the rain-sodden main street. It stopped outside the inn. _inute later the gallant body of Voles entered, cigar in his mouth, and a loo_f much champagne in his eyes.
“What, Rachel, girl, you here!” he said in his offhand way.
“Are you sober?” asked Rachel, rising quickly.
“Sober? Never been really soused in my life! What’s up?”
He dropped a huge paw roughly on her shoulder, and her hard eyes softened a_he looked at his face and splendid frame, for Ralph “Voles” was Rache_raik’s one weakness.
“What’s the trouble?” he went on, seeing that her lips were twitching.
“You should have been here,” she snapped. “Everything may be lost. A man i_own here after Winifred, and I’ve caught her talking to him in secret.”
“A cop?” and Voles glanced around the otherwise deserted lobby.
“I don’t know—most probably. Or he may be that same man who was walking wit_er on Wednesday night in Central Park. Anyway, this afternoon he tried t_and her a note in offering her a newspaper. The note fell, and I saw it.
Afterward he managed to get it to her in some way, though I never for a momen_et her out of my sight; and they met about seven o’clock behind the church.”
“The little cat! She beat you to it, Rachel!”
“There is no time for talk, Ralph. That man will take her from us, and the_oe to you, to William, to us all. Things come out; they do, they do—th_eepest secrets! Man, man—oh, rouse yourself, sober yourself, and act! We mus_e far from this place before morning.”
“No more trains from here—”
“You could hire a car for your own amusement. Rush her off in that. Snatch he_way to Boston. We may catch a liner to-morrow.”
“But we can’t have her seeing us!”
“We can’t help that. It is dark; she won’t see your face. Let us be gone. W_ust have been watched, or how could that man have found us out? Ralph! Don’_ou understand? You must do something.”
“Where’s this spy you gab of? I’ll—”
“This is not the Mexican border. You can’t shoot here. The man is not th_oint, but the girl. She must be gotten away at once.”
“Nothing easier. Off, now to the hotel, and be ready in half an hour. I’l_ring the car around.”
Rachel Craik wanted no further discussion. She reached the Maples Inn in _lurry of little runs. Before the door she saw two glaring lights, the lamp_f Carshaw’s automobile. It was not far from eleven. Even as she approache_he hotel, Carshaw got in and drove down the street. He drew up on a patch o_rass by the roadside at the end of the lane behind the church. Soon afte_his he heard a clock strike eleven.
His eyes peered down the darkness of the lane to see Winifred coming, as sh_ad promised. It was still drizzling slightly—the night was heavy, stagnan_nd silent. Winifred did not come, and Carshaw’s brows puckered with care an_oreboding. A quarter of an hour passed, but no light tread gladdened his ear.
Fairfield lay fast asleep.
Carshaw could no longer sit still. He paced restlessly about the wet grass t_ase his anxious heart. And so another quarter of an hour wore slowly. The_he sound of a fast-moving car broke the silence. Down the road a pair o_ragon-eyes blazed. The car came like the chariots of Sennacherib, in reckles_light. Soon it was upon him. He drew back out of the road toward his ow_acer.
Though rather surprised at this urgent flight he had no suspicion tha_inifred might be the cause of it. As the car dashed past he clearly saw o_he front seat two men, and in the tonneau he made out the forms of two women.
The faces of any of the quartet were wholly merged in speed and the night, bu_ome white object fluttered in the swirl of air and fell forlornly in th_oad, dropping swiftly in its final plunge, like a stricken bird. He darte_orward and picked up a lady’s handkerchief. Then he knew! Winifred was bein_eft from him again. He leaped to his own car, started the engine, turned wit_eckless haste, and in a few seconds was hot in chase.