The Hidden Hand (Chapter 16)

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Chapter 16

Who passes by this road so late?
Companion of the Majolaine!
Who passes by this road so late?
Say! oh, say?

--Old French Song.

Of a naturally strong constitution and adventurous disposition, and inured from infancy to danger, Capitola possessed a high degree of courage, self-control and presence of mind.

At the touch of that ruthless hand, at the sound of that gibing voice, all her faculties instantly collected and concentrated themselves upon the emergency. As by a flash of lightning she saw every feature of her imminent danger--the loneliness of the woods, the lateness of the hour, the recklessness of her fearful companion and her own weakness. In another instant her resolution was taken and her course determined. So, when the stranger repeated his mocking question: "Whither away so fast, pretty one?" she answered with animation: "Oh, I am going home, and so glad to have company; for, indeed, I was dreadfully afraid of riding alone through these woods to-night."

"Afraid, pretty one--of what?"

"Oh, of ghosts and witches, wild beasts, runaway negroes, and--Black Donald."

"Then you are not afraid of me?"

"Lors, no, indeed! I guess I ain't! Why should I be afraid of a respectable-looking gentleman like you, sir?"

"And so you are going home? Where is your home, pretty one?"

"On the other side of the river. But you need not keep on calling me 'pretty one;' it must be as tiresome to you to repeat it as it is to me to hear it."

"What shall I call you, then, my dear?"

"You may call me Miss Black; or, if you are friendly, you may call me Capitola."

"Capitola!" exclaimed the man, in a deep and changed voice, as he dropped her bridle.

"Yes--Capitola; what objection have you got to that? It is a pretty name, isn't it? But if you think it is too long, and if you feel very friendly, you may call me Cap."

"Well, then, my pretty Cap, where do you live across the river?" asked the stranger, recovering his self-possession.

"Oh, at a rum old place they call Hurricane Hall, with a rum old military officer they call Old Hurricane," said Capitola, for the first time stealing a sidelong glance at her fearful companion.

It was not Black Donald; that was the first conclusion to which she rashly jumped. He appeared to be a gentlemanly ruffian about forty years of age, well dressed in a black riding-suit; black beaver hat drawn down close over his eyes: black hair and whiskers; heavy black eyebrows that met across his nose; drooping eyelashes, and eyes that looked out under the corners of the lids; altogether a sly, sinister, cruel face--a cross between a fox and a tiger. It warned Capitola to expect no mercy there. After the girl's last words he seemed to have fallen into thought for a moment, and then again he spoke: "Well, my pretty Cap, how long have you been living at. Hurricane Hall?"

"Ever since my guardian, Major Warfield, brought me from the City of New York, where I received my education (in the streets)," she mentally added.

"Humph! Why did you ride so fast, my pretty Cap?" he asked, eying her from the corner of his eyes.

"Oh, sir, because I was afraid, as I told you before; afraid of runaway negroes and wild beasts, and so on; but now, with a good gentleman like you, I don't feel afraid at all; and I'm very glad to be able to walk poor Gyp, because he is tired, poor fellow."

"Yes, poor fellow," said the traveler, in a mocking tone, "he is tired; suppose you dismount and let him rest. Come, I'll get off, too, and we will sit down here by the roadside and have a friendly conversation."

Capitola stole a glance at his face. Yes, notwithstanding his light tone, he was grimly in earnest; there was no mercy to be expected from that sly, sinister, cruel face.

"Come, my pretty Cap, what say you?"

"I don't care if I do," she said, riding to the edge of the path, drawing rein and looking down as if to examine the ground.

"Come, little beauty, must I help you off?" asked the stranger.

"N-n-no," answered Capitola, with deliberate hesitation; "no, this is not a good place to sit down and talk; it's all full of brambles."

"Very well; shall we go on a little further?"

"Oh, yes; but I don't want to ride fast, because it will tire my horse."

"You shall go just as you please, my angel," said the traveler.

"I wonder whether this wretch thinks me very simple or very depraved? He must come to one or the other conclusion," thought Capitola.

They rode on very slowly for a mile further, and then, having arrived at an open glade, the stranger drew rein and said: "Come, pretty lark, hop down; here's a nice place to sit and rest."

"Very well; come help me off," said Capitola, pulling up her horse; then, as by a sudden impulse, she exclaimed: "I don't like this place either; it's right on top of the hill; so windy, and just see how rocky the ground is. No, I'll not sit and rest here, and that I tell you."

"I am afraid you are trifling with me, my pretty bird. Take care; I'll not be trifled with," said the man.

"I don't know what you mean by trifling with you any more than the dead. But I'll not sit down there on those sharp rocks, and so I tell you. If you will be civil and ride along with me until we get to the foot of the hill, I know a nice place where we can sit down and have a good talk, and I will tell you all my travels and you shall tell me all yours."

"Ex-actly; and where is that nice place?"

"Why, in the valley at the foot of the hill."

"Come--come on, then."

"Slowly, slowly," said Capitola; "I won't tire my horse."

They rode over the hill, down the gradual descent and on toward the center of the valley.

They were now within a quarter of a mile of the river, on the opposite side of which was Hurricane Hall and--safety! The stranger drew rein, saying: "Come, my cuckoo; here we are at the bottom of the valley; now or never."

"Oh, now, of course; you see, I keep my promise," answered Capitola, pulling up her horse.

The man sprang from his saddle and came to her side.

"Please be careful, now; don't let my riding-skirt get hung in the stirrup," said Capitola, cautiously disengaging her drapery, rising in the saddle and giving the stranger her hand. In the act of jumping she suddenly stopped and looked down, exclaiming: "Good gracious! how very damp the ground is here, in the bottom of the valley!"

"More objections, I suppose, my pretty one; but they won't serve you any longer. I am bent upon having a cozy chat with you upon that very turf," said the stranger, pointing to a little cleared space among the trees beside the path.

"Now, don't be cross; just see how damp it is there; it would spoil my riding-dress and give me my death of cold."

"Humph!" said the stranger, looking at her with a sly, grim, cruel resolve.

"I'll tell you what it is," said Cap, "I'm not witty nor amusing, nor will it pay to sit out in the night air to hear me talk; but, since you wish it, and since you were so good as to guard me through these woods, and since I promised, why, damp as it is, I will even get off and talk with you."

"That's my birdling!"

"But hold on a minute; is there nothing you can get to put there for me to sit on--no stump nor dry stone?"

"No, my dear; I don't see any."

"Could you not turn your hat down and let me sit on that?"

"Ha, ha, ha! Why, your weight would crush it as flat as a flounder!"

"Oh, I know now!" exclaimed Capitola, with sudden delight; "you just spread your saddle-cloth down there, and that will make a beautiful seat, and I'll sit and talk with you so nicely--only you must not want me to stay long, because if I don't get home soon I shall catch a scolding."

"You shall neither catch a scolding nor a cold on my account, pretty one," said the man, going to his horse to get the saddle-cloth.

"Oh, don't take off the saddle--it will detain you too long," said Cap, impatiently.

"My pretty Cap, I cannot get the cloth without taking it off," said the man, beginning to unbuckle the girth.

"Oh, yes, you can; you can draw it from under," persisted Cap.

"Impossible, my angel," said the man, lifting off the saddle from his horse and laying it carefully by the roadside.

Then he took off the gay, crimson saddle-cloth and carried it into the little clearing and began carefully to spread it down.

Now was Cap's time. Her horse had recovered from his fatigue. The stranger's horse was in the path before her. While the man's back was turned she raised her riding whip and, with a shout, gave the front horse a sharp lash that sent him galloping furiously ahead. Then, instantaneously putting whip to her own horse, she started into a run.

Hearing the shout, the lash and the starting of the horses, the baffled villain turned and saw that his game was lost; he had been outwitted by a child! He gnashed his teeth and shook his fist in rage.

Turning as she wheeled out of sight, Capitola--I am sorry to say--put her thumb to the side of her nose and whirled her fingers into a semicircle, in a gesture more expressive than elegant.

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