Read CHAPTER VIII - THE CARRIAGE AT THE FORD of Captain Dieppe , free online book, by Anthony Hope, on ReadCentral.com.

The direct issue between her Excellency and the innkeeper at Sasellano had ended as all such differences (save, of course, on points of morality) should ­in a compromise.  The lady would not resign herself to staying at Sasellano; the landlord would not engage to risk passenger, carriage, and horses in the flood.  But he found and she accepted the services of a robust, stout-built fellow who engaged with the lady to drive her as far as the river and across it if possible, and promised the landlord to bring her and the equipage back in case the crossing were too dangerous.  Neither party was pleased, but both consented, hoping to retrieve a temporary concession by ultimate victory.  Moreover the lady paid the whole fare beforehand ­not, the landlord precisely stipulated, to be returned in any event.  So off her Excellency rattled in the wind and rain; and great was her triumph when the rain ceased, the wind fell, and the night cleared.  She put her head out of the rackety old landau, whose dilapidated hood had formed a shelter by no means water-tight, and cried, “Who was right, driver?” But the driver turned his black cigar between his teeth, answering, “The mischief is done already.  Well, we shall see!”

They covered eight miles in good time.  They passed Paul de Roustache, who had no thought but to avoid them, and, once they were passed, took to the road and made off straight for Sasellano; they reached the descent and trotted gaily down it; they came within ten yards of the ford, and drew up sharply.  The lady put her head out; the driver dismounted and took a look at the river.

Shaking his head, he came to the window.

“Your Excellency can’t cross to-night,” said he.

“I will,” cried the lady, no less resolute now than she had been at the inn.

The direct issue again!  And if the driver were as obstinate as he looked, the chances of that ultimate victory inclined to the innkeeper’s side.

“The water would be inside the carriage,” he urged.

“I ’ll ride on the box by you,” she rejoined.

“It ‘ll be up to the horses’ shoulders.”

“The horses don’t mind getting wet, I suppose.”

“They ’d be carried off their feet.”

“Nonsense,” said she, sharply, denying the fact since she could no longer pooh-pooh its significance.  “Are you a coward?” she exclaimed indignantly.

“I ’ve got some sense in my head,” said he with a grin.

At this moment Captain Dieppe, wishing that he were dry, that he had a hat, that his moustache would curl, yet rising victorious over all disadvantages by virtue of his temperament and breeding, concealing also any personal interest that he had in the settlement of the question, approached the carriage, bowed to its occupant, and inquired, with the utmost courtesy, whether he could be of any service.

“It ’s of great importance to me to cross,” said she, returning his salutation.

“It’s impossible to cross,” interposed the driver.

“Nonsense; I have crossed myself,” remarked Captain Dieppe.

Both of them looked at him; he anticipated their questions or objections.

“Crossing on foot one naturally gets a little wet,” said he, smiling.

“I won’t let my horses cross,” declared the driver.  The Captain eyed him with a slightly threatening expression, but he did not like to quarrel before a lady.

“You ’re afraid for your own skin,” he said contemptuously.  “Stay this side.  I ’ll bring the carriage back to you.”  He felt in his pocket and discovered two louis and two five-franc pieces.  He handed the former coins to the driver.  “I take all the responsibility to your master,” he ended, and opening the carriage door he invited the lady to alight.

She was dark, tall, handsome, a woman of presence and of dignity.  She took his hand and descended with much grace.

“I am greatly in your debt, sir,” she said.

Ladies, madame,” he replied with a tentative advance of his hand toward his moustache, checked in time by a remembrance of the circumstances, “confer obligations often, but can contract none.”

“I wish everybody thought as you do,” said she with a deep sigh.

“Shall I mount the box?”

“If you please.”  He mounted after her, and took the reins.  Cracking the whip, he urged on the horses.

“Body of the saints,” cried the driver, stirred to emulation, “I ’ll come with you!” and he leaped up on to the top of a travelling-trunk that was strapped behind the carriage.

“There is more good in human nature than one is apt to think,” observed the Captain.

“If only one knows how to appeal to it,” added the lady, sighing again very pathetically.

Somehow, the Captain received the idea that she was in trouble.  He felt drawn to her, and not only by the sympathy which her courage and her apparent distress excited; he was conscious of some appeal, something in her which seemed to touch him directly and with a sort of familiarity, although he had certainly never seen her in his life before.  He was pondering on this when one of the horses, frightened by the noise and rush of the water, reared up, while the other made a violent effort to turn itself, its comrade, and the carriage round, and head back again for Sasellano.  The Captain sprang up, shouted, plied the whip; the driver stood on the trunk and yelled yet more vigorously; her Excellency clutched the rail with her hand.  And in they went.

“The peculiarity of this stream,” began the Captain, “lies not so much in its depth as in ­”

“The strength of the current,” interposed his companion, nodding.

“You know it?” he cried.

“Very well,” she answered, and she might have said more had not the horses at this moment chosen to follow the easiest route, and headed directly downstream.  A shriek from the driver awoke Dieppe to the peril of the position.  He plied his whip again, and did his best to turn the animals’ heads towards the opposite bank.  The driver showed his opinion of the situation by climbing on to the top of the landau.

This step was perhaps a natural, but it was not a wise one.  The roof was not adapted to carrying heavy weights.  It gave way on one side, and in an instant the driver rolled over to the right and fell with a mighty splash into the water just above the carriage.  At the same moment Dieppe contrived to turn the horses in the direction he aimed at, and the carriage moved a few paces.

“Ah, we move!” he exclaimed triumphantly.

“The driver ’s fallen off!” cried the lady in alarm.

“I thought we seemed lighter, somehow,” said Dieppe, paying no heed to the driver’s terrified shouts, but still urging on his horses.  He showed at this moment something of a soldier’s recognition that, if necessary, life must be sacrificed for victory:  he had taken the same view when he left M. Guillaume in order to pursue Paul de Roustache.

The driver, finding cries useless, saw that he must shift for himself.  The wheel helped him to rise to his feet; he found he could stand.  In a quick turn of feeling, he called, “Courage!” Dieppe looked over at him with a rather contemptuous smile.

“What, have you found some down at the bottom of the river?  Like truth in the well?” he asked.  “Catch hold of one of the horses, then!” He turned to the lady.  “You drive, madame?”

“Yes.”

“Then do me the favour.”  He gave her the reins, with a gesture of apology stepped in front of her, and lowered himself into the water on the left-hand side.  “Now, my friend, one of us at each of their heads, and we do it!  The whip, madame with all your might, the whip!”

The horses made a bound; the driver dashed forward and caught one by the bridle; the lady lashed.  On his side Dieppe, clinging to a trace, made his way forward.  Both he and the driver now shouted furiously, their voices echoing in the hills that rose from the river on either side, and rising at last in a shout of triumph as the wheels turned, the horses gained firm footing, and with a last spring forward landed the carriage in safety.

The driver swore softly and crossed himself devoutly before he fell to a rueful study of the roof of the landau.

“Monsieur, I am eternally indebted to you,” cried the lady to Dieppe.

“It is a reciprocal service, madame,” said he.  “To tell the truth, I also had special reasons for wishing to gain this side of the river.”

She appeared a trifle embarrassed, but civility, or rather gratitude, impelled her to the suggestion.  “You are travelling my way?” she asked.

“A thousand thanks, but I have some business to transact first.”

She seemed relieved, but she was puzzled, too.  “Business?  Here?” she murmured.

Dieppe nodded.  “It will not keep me long,” he added gravely.

The driver had succeeded in restoring the top of the landau to a precarious stability.  Dieppe handed the lady down from the box-seat and into the interior.  The driver mounted his perch; the lady leant out of the window to take farewell of her ally.

“Every hour was of value to me,” she said, with a plain touch of emotion in her voice, “and but for you I should have been taken back to Sasellano.  We shall meet again, I hope.”

“I shall live in the hope,” said he, with a somewhat excessive gallantry ­a trick of which he could not cure himself.

The driver whipped up ­he did not intend that either he or his horses, having escaped drowning, should die of cold.  The equipage lumbered up the hill, its inmate still leaning out and waving her hand.  Dieppe watched until the party reached the zigzags and was hidden from view, though he still heard the crack of the whip.

“Very interesting, very interesting!” he murmured to himself.  “But now to business!  Now for friend Guillaume and the Countess!” His face fell as he spoke.  With the disappearance of excitement, and the cessation of exertion, he realised again the great sorrow that faced him and admitted of no evasion.  He sighed deeply and sought his cigarette-case.  Vain hope of comfort!  His cigarettes were no more than a distasteful pulp.  He felt forlorn, very cold, very hungry, also; for it was now between nine and ten o’clock.  His heart was heavy as he prepared to mount the hill and finish his evening’s work.  He must see Guillaume; he must see the Countess; and then ­

“Ah!” he cried, and stooped suddenly to the ground.  A bright object lay plain and conspicuous on the road which had grown white again as it dried in the sharp wind.  It was an oval locket of gold, dropped there, a few yards from the ford.  It lay open ­no doubt the jar of the fall accounted for that ­face downwards.  The Captain picked it up and examined it.  He said nothing; his usual habit of soliloquy failed him for the moment; he looked at it, then round at the landscape.  For the moonlight showed him a picture in the locket, and enabled him to make out a written inscription under it.

“What?” breathed he at last.  “Oh, I can’t believe it!” He looked again.  “Oh, if that ’s the lie of the land, my friend!” He smiled; then, in an apparent revulsion of feeling, he frowned angrily, and even shook his fist downstream, perhaps intending the gesture for some one in the village.  Lastly, he shook his head sadly, and set off up the hill in the wake of the now vanished carriage; as he went, he whistled in a soft and meditative way.  But before he started, he had assured himself that he in his turn had not dropped anything, and that M. Guillaume’s partially depleted portfolio was still safe in his pocket, side by side with his own precious papers.  And he deposited the locket he had found with these other valued possessions.

A few minutes’ walking brought him to the Cross.  The exercise had warmed him, the threatened stiffness of cold had passed; he ran lightly up the hill and down into the basin.  There was no sign of M. Guillaume.  The Captain, rather vexed, for he had business with that gentleman, ­an explanation of a matter which touched his own honour to make, and an account which intimately concerned M. Guillaume to adjust, ­entered the hut.  In an instant his hand was grasped in an appealing grip, and the voice he loved best in the world (there was no blinking the fact, whatever might be thought of the propriety), cried, “Ah, you ’re safe?”

“How touching that is!” thought the Captain.  “She has a hundred causes for anxiety, but her first question is, ‘You’re safe?’” This was she whom he renounced, and this was she whom the Count of Fieramondi deceived.  What were her trifling indiscretions beside her husband’s infamy ­the infamy betrayed and proved by the picture and inscription in the locket?

“I am safe, and you are safe,” said he, returning the pressure of her hand.  “And where is our friend outside?”

“I don’t know ­I lay hidden till I heard him go.  I don’t know where he went.  What do you mean by saying I’m safe?”

“I have got rid of Paul de Roustache.  He ’ll trouble you no more.”

“What?” Wonder and admiration sparkled in her eyes.  Because he was enabled to see them, Dieppe was grateful to her for having replaced and relighted his candle.  “Yes, I was afraid in the dark,” she said, noticing his glance at it.  “But it ’s almost burnt out.  We must be quick.  Is the trouble with M. de Roustache really over?”

“Absolutely.”

“And we owe it to you?  But you ­why, you ’re wet!”

“It’s not surprising,” said he, smiling.  “There ’s a flood in the river, and I have crossed it twice.”

“What did you cross the river for?”

“I had to escort M. de Roustache across, and he ’s a bad swimmer.  He jumped in, and ­”

“You saved his life?”

“Don’t reproach me, my friend.  It is an instinct; and ­er ­he carried the pocket-book of our friend outside; and the pocket-book had my money in it, you know.”

“Your money?  I thought you had only fifty francs?”

“The money due to me, I should say.  Fifty thousand francs.”  The Captain unconsciously assumed an air of some importance as he mentioned this sum.  “So I was bound to pursue friend Paul,” he ended.

“It was dangerous?”

“Oh, no, no,” he murmured.  “Coming back, though, was rather difficult,” he continued.  “The carriage was very heavy, and we had some ado to ­”

“The carriage!  What carriage?” she cried with eagerness.

“Oddly enough, I found a lady travelling ­from Sasellano, I understood; and I had the privilege of aiding her to cross the ford.”  Dieppe spoke with a calculated lightness.

“A lady ­a lady from Sasellano?  What sort of a lady?  What was she like?”

The Captain was watching her closely.  Her agitation was unmistakable.  Did she know, did she suspect, anything?

“She was tall, dark, and dignified in appearance.  She spoke slowly, with a slight drawl ­”

“Yes, yes!”

“And she was very eager to pursue her journey.  She must have come by here.  Did n’t you hear the wheels?”

“No ­I ­I ­was n’t thinking.”  But she was thinking now.  The next instant she cried, “I must go, I must go at once.”

“But where?”

“Why, back home, of course!  Where else should I go?  Oh, I may be too late!”

Unquestionably she knew something ­how much the Captain could not tell.  His feelings may be imagined.  His voice was low, and very compassionate as he asked: 

“You ’ll go home?  When she ’s there?  At least, if I conclude rightly ­”

“Yes, I must go.  I must get there before she sees Andrea, otherwise, all will be lost.”

For the instant her agitation seemed to make her forget Dieppe’s presence, or what he might think of her manner.  Now she recovered herself.  “I mean ­I mean ­I want to speak to her.  I must tell her ­”

“Tell her nothing.  Confront her with that.”  And the Captain produced the gold locket with an air of much solemnity.

His action did not miss its effect.  She gazed at the locket in apparent bewilderment.

“No, don’t open it,” he added hastily.

“Where did you get it?”

“She dropped it by the river.  It was open when I picked it up.”

“Why, it ’s the locket ­ How does it open?” She was busy looking for the spring.

“I implore you not to open it!” he cried, catching her hand and restraining her.

“Why?” she asked, pausing and looking up at him.

The question and the look that accompanied it proved too great a strain for Dieppe’s self-control.  Now he caught both her hands in his as he said: 

“Because I can’t bear that you should suffer.  Because I love you too much.”

Without a doubt it was delight that lit up her, eyes now, but she whispered reprovingly, “Oh, you!  You the ambassador.”

“I had n’t seen that locket when I became his ambassador.”

“Let go my hands.”

“Indeed I can’t,” urged the Captain.  But she drew them away with a sharp motion that he could not resist, and before he could say or do more to stop her she had opened the locket.

“As I thought,” she cried, hurriedly reclasping it and turning to him in eager excitement; “I must go, indeed I must go at once!”

“Alone?” asked Captain Dieppe, with a simple, but effective eloquence.

At least it appeared very effective.  She came nearer to him and, of her own accord now, laid her hands in his.  Shyness and pleasure struggled in her eyes as she fixed them on his face.

“I shall see you again,” she murmured.

“How?” he asked.

“Why, you ’re coming back ­back to the Castle?” she cried eagerly.  The doubt of his returning thither seemed to fill her with dismay.

The Captain’s scruples gave way.  Perhaps it was the locket that undermined them, perhaps that look to her eyes, and the touch of her hands as they rested in his.

“I will do anything you bid me,” he whispered.

“Then come once again.”  She paused.  “Because I ­I don’t want to say good-bye just now.”

“If I come, will it be to say good-bye?”

“That shall be as you wish,” she said.

It seemed to Dieppe that no confession could have been more ample, yet none more delicately reserved in the manner of its utterance.  His answer was to clasp her in his arms and kiss her lips.  But in an instant he released her, in obedience to the faint, yet sufficient, protest of her hands pressing him away.

“Come in an hour,” she whispered, and, turning, left him and passed from the hut.

For a moment or two he stood where he was, devoured by many conflicting feelings.  But his love, once obedient to the dictates of friendship and the unyielding limits of honour, would not be denied now.  How had the Count of Fieramondi now any right to invoke his honour, or to appeal to his friendship?  Gladly, as a man will, the Captain seized on another’s fault to excuse his own.

“I will go again ­in an hour ­and I will not say good-bye,” he declared, as he flung himself down on one of the trusses of straw and prepared to wait till it should be time for him to set out.

The evening had been so full of surprises, so prolific of turns of fortune good and evil, so bountiful of emotions and changeful feelings, that he had little store of surprise left wherewith to meet any new revolution of the wheel.  Nevertheless it was with something of a start that he raised his head again from the straw on which he had for a moment reclined, and listened intently.  There had been a rustle in the straw; he turned his head sharply to the left.  But he had misjudged the position whence the noise came.  From behind the truss of straw to his right there rose the figure of a man.  Monsieur Guillaume stood beside him, his head tied round with a handkerchief, but his revolver in his hand.  The Captain’s hand flew towards his breast-pocket.

“You ’ll particularly oblige me by not moving,” said Monsieur Guillaume, with a smile.

Of a certainty a man should not mingle love and business, especially, perhaps, when neither the love nor the business can be said properly to belong to him.