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THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Penelope tapped sharply at Nan's bedroom door.
"Nan, are you ready? Your taxi's waiting outside."
"Ticking tuppences away like the very dickens, too!" returned Nan, emerging from her room dressed for a journey.
It was a week or two later and in response to a wire--and as the result of a good deal of persuasion on the part of Penelope--Nan had accepted an engagement to play at a big charity concert in Exeter. Lady Chatterton, the organiser of the concert, had offered to put her up for the couple of nights involved, and Nan was now hurrying to catch the Paddington West-country train.
"I've induced the taxi-driver to come up and carry down your baggage," pursued Penelope. "You'll have to look fairly sharp if you're to catch the one-fifty."
"I must catch it," declared Nan. "Why, the Chattertons are fourteen miles from Abbencombe Station and it would be simply ghastly if they sent all that way to meet me--and there was no me! Besides, there's a rehearsal fixed for ten o'clock to-morrow morning."
While she spoke, the two girls were making their way down the circular flight of stone steps--since the lift was temporarily out of order--preceded by the driver grumblingly carrying Nan's suit-case and hat-box. A minute or two later the taxi emitted a grunt from somewhere within the depths of its being and Nan was off, with Penelope's cheery "Good luck!" ringing in her ears.
She sat back against the cushions and gasped a sigh of relief. She had run it rather close, but now, glancing down at her wrist-watch, she realised that, failing a block in the traffic, she would catch her train fairly easily.
It was after they had entered the Park that the first contre-temps occurred. The taxi jibbed and came abruptly to a standstill. Nan let down the window and leaned out.
"What's the matter?" she asked with some anxiety.
The driver, descending leisurely from his seat, regarded her with a complete lack of interest.
"That's just w'ot I'm goin' to find out," he replied in a detached way.
Nan watched him while he poked indifferently about the engine, then sank back into her seat with a murmur of relief as he at last climbed once more into his place behind the wheel and the taxi got going again.
But almost before two minutes had elapsed there came another halt, followed by another lengthy examination of the engine's internals. Engine trouble spelt disaster, and Nan hopped out and joined the driver in the road.
"What's wrong?" she asked. She looked down anxiously at her wrist-watch. "I shall miss my train at this rate."
"I cawn't 'elp it if you do," returned the man surlily. He was one of the many drivers who had taken advantage of a long-suffering public during the war-time scarcity of taxi-cabs and he hoped to continue the process during the peace. Incivility had become a confirmed habit with him.
"But I can't miss it!" declared Nan.
"And this 'ere taxi cawn't catch it."
"Do you mean you really can't get her to go?" asked Nan.
"'Aven't I just bin sayin' so?"--aggressively. "That's just 'ow it stands. She won't go."
He ignored Nan's exclamation of dismay and renewed his investigation of the engine.
"No," he said at last, straightening himself. "I cawn't get you to Paddington--or anyw'ere else for the matter o' that!"
He spoke with a stubborn unconcern that was simply maddening.
"Then get me another taxi--quick!" said Nan.
"W'ere from?"--contemptuously. "There ain't no taxi-rank 'ere in 'Yde Park."
Nan looked hopelessly round. Cars and taxis, some with luggage and some without, went speeding past her, but never a single one that was empty.
"Oh"--she turned desperately to her driver--"can't you do anything? Run down and see if you can hail one for me. I'll stay by the taxi."
He shook his bead.
"Callin' taxis for people ain't my job," he remarked negligently. "I'm a driver, I am."
Nan, driven by the extreme urgency of her need, stepped out into the middle of the road and excitedly hailed the next taxicab that passed her carrying luggage. The occupant, a woman, her attention attracted by Nan's waving arm, leaned out from the window and called to her driver to stop. Nan ran forward.
"Oh, are you by any chance going to Paddington?" she asked eagerly. "My taxi's broken down and I'm afraid I'll miss my train."
The woman smiled her sympathy. She had a delightful smile.
"How awful for you! But I'm not going anywhere near there. I'm so sorry I can't help."
The taxicab slid away and Nan stood once more forlornly watching the stream go by. The precious moments were slipping past, and no one in the world looked in the least as if they were going to Paddington. The driver, superbly unconcerned, lit up a cigarette, while Nan stood in the middle of the road, which seemed suddenly to have almost emptied of traffic.
All at once a taxi sped up the wide road with only a single suit-case up-ended in front beside the chauffeur. She planted herself directly in its path, and waved so frantically that the driver slowed up, although with obvious reluctance. Someone looked out of the window, and with a vague, troubled surprise Nan realised that the cab's solitary passenger was of the masculine persuasion. But she was far beyond being deterred by a mere detail of that description.
"Are you going to Paddington?" she asked breathlessly.
"Yes, I am," came the answer. The speaker's voice had a slight, well-bred drawl in it, reminiscent of the public school. "Can I do anything for you?"
"You can drive me there, if you will," she replied, with the bluntness of despair. "My taxi's broken down."
"But with pleasure."
The man was out of his own cab in an instant, and held the door open while she paid her fare and ordered her luggage to be transferred. The driver showed no very energetic appreciation of the idea; in fact, he seemed inclined to dispute it, and, at the end of her patience, Nan herself made a grab at her hat-box with the intention of carrying it across to the other taxicab. In the same moment she felt it quietly taken from her and heard the same drawling voice addressing her recalcitrant driver.
"Bring that suit-case across and look sharp about it."
There was a curious quality of authority in the lazy voice to which the taxi-man responded in spite of himself, and he proceeded to obey the order with celerity. A minute later the transference was accomplished and Nan found herself sitting side by side in a taxi with an absolute stranger.
"He was a perfect beast of a driver!" was her first heart-felt ejaculation.
The man beside her smiled.
"I'm sure he was--a regular 'down-with-everything' type," he replied.
She stole a veiled glance at him. His face was lean, with a squarish jaw, and the very definitely dark brows and lashes contrasted oddly with his English-fair hair and blue-grey eyes. In one eye he wore a horn-rimmed monocle from which depended a narrow black ribbon.
"I can't thank you enough for coming to my rescue," said Nan, after her quick scrutiny. "It was so frightfully important that I should catch this train."
Somehow the brief question compelled an explanation, although it held no suggestion of curiosity--nothing more than a friendly interest.
"Yes. I have a concert engagement to-morrow, and if I missed this train I couldn't possibly make my connection at Exeter. I change on to the South-Western line there."
"Then I'm very glad I sailed in at the crucial moment. Although you'd have been able to reach your destination in time for the concert even had the worst occurred to-day. You could have travelled down by an earlier train to-morrow; if everything else had failed."
"But they've fixed a rehearsal for ten o'clock to-morrow morning."
"That certainly does complicate matters. And I suppose, in any case, you'd rather not have to play in public immediately after a long railway journey."
"How do you know I play?" demanded Nan. "It's just conceivable I might be a singer!"
A distinct twinkle showed behind the monocle.
"There are quite a number of 'conceivable' things about you. But I heard Miss Nan Davenant play several times during the war--at concerts where special seats were allotted to the wounded. I'm sorry to say I haven't heard you lately. I've only just come back from America."
"Oh, were you in the war?" she asked quickly.
"Why, naturally." He smiled a little. "I was perfectly sound in wind and limb--then."
Nan flushed suddenly. She knew of one man who had taken no fighting part. Maryon Rooke's health was apparently more delicate than anyone had imagined, and his artistes hands were, so he explained, an asset to the country, not to be risked like hands made of commoner clay. This holding back on his part had been the thing that had tortured Nan more than anything else during the long years of the war, in spite of the reasons he had offered in explanation, not least of which was the indispensability of his services at Whitehall--in which he genuinely believed.
"It's simply a choice between using brains or brawn as cannon-fodder," he used to say. "I'm serving with my brain instead of with my body."
And Nan, attracted by Rooke's odd fascination, had womanlike, tried to believe this and to thrust aside any thoughts that were disloyal to her faith in him. But, glancing now at the clever, clean-cut face of the man beside her, with its whimsical, sensitive mouth and steady eyes, she realised that he, at least, had kept nothing back--had offered brain and body equally to his country.
"And now? You look quite sound in wind and limb still," she commented.
"Oh, I've been one of the lucky ones. I've only got a game leg as my souvenir of hell. I just limp a bit, that's all."
"I'm so sorry you've a souvenir of any kind," said Nan quickly, with the spontaneousness which was part of her charm.
"Now that's very nice of you," answered the man. "There's no reason why you should burden yourself with the woes of a perfect stranger."
"I don't call you a perfect stranger," replied Nan serenely. "I call you a Good Samaritan."
"I'm generally known as Peter Mallory," he interjected modestly.
"And you know my name. I think that constitutes an introduction."
"Thank you," he said simply.
"The thanks are all on my side," she answered. "Here we are at Paddington, and it's entirely due to you that I shall catch my train."
The taxi pulled up and stood panting.
"Shares, please!" said Nan, when he had paid the driver.
For an instant a look of swift negation flashed across Mallory's face, then he replied composedly:
"Your share is two shillings."
Nan tendered a two-shilling piece, blessing him in her heart for refraining from putting her under a financial obligation to a stranger. He accepted the money quite simply, and turning away to speak to a porter, he tucked the two-shilling piece into his waistcoat pocket, while an odd, contemplative little smile curved his lips.
There was some slight confusion in the mind of the porter, who exhibited a zealous disposition to regard the arrivals as one party and to secure them seats in the same compartment.
Mallory, unheard by Nan, enlightened him quietly.
"I see, sir. You want a smoker?"
Mallory nodded and tipped him recklessly.
"That's it. You find the lady a comfortable corner seat. I'll look after myself."
He turned back to Nan.
"I've told the porter to find you a good seat. I think you ought to be all right as the trains aren't crowded. Good-bye."
Nan held out her hand impulsively.
"Good-bye," she said. "And, once more, thank you ever so much."
His hand closed firmly round hers.
"There's no need. I'm only too glad to have been of any service."
He raised his hat and moved away and Nan could see the slight limp of which he had spoken--his "souvenir of hell."
The porter fulfilled his obligations and bestowed her in an empty first-class carriage, even exerting himself to fetch a newspaper boy from whom she purchased a small sheaf of magazines. The train started and very soon the restaurant attendant came along. Since she detested the steamy odour of cooking which usually pervades the dining-car of a train, she gave instructions that her lunch should be served to her in her own compartment. This done, she settled down to the quiet monotony of the journey, ate her lunch in due course, and finally drowsed over a magazine until she woke with a start to find the train at a standstill. Thinking she had arrived at St. David's Station, where she must change on to another line, she sprang up briskly. To her amazement she found they were not at a station at all. Green fields sloped away from the railway track and there was neither house nor cottage in sight. The voices of the guard and ticket-collector in agitated conference sounded just below and Nan thrust her head out of the window.
"Why are we stopping?" she asked. "Have we run into something?"
The guard looked up irritably. Then, seeing the charming face bent above him, he softened visibly. Beauty may be only skin deep, but it has an amazing faculty for smoothing the path of its possessor.
"Pretty near, miss. There's a great piece of timber across the line. Luckily the driver saw it and just pulled up in time, and a miss is as good as a mile, isn't it?"
"How horrible!" ejaculated Nan. "Who d'you think put it there?"
"One of they Bolshies, I expect. We've got more of them in England than we've any need for."
"I hope you'll soon get the line clear?"
The guard shook his head discouragingly.
"Well, it'll take a bit of time, miss. Whoever did, the job did it thoroughly, and even when we get clear we'll have to go slow and keep a sharp look-out."
"Then I shall miss my connection at Exeter--on to Abbencombe by the South-Western?"
"I'm afraid you will, miss."
Her face fell.
"It's better than missing a limb or two, or your life, maybe," observed the guard with rebuke in his tones.
She nodded and tipped him.
"Much better," she agreed.
And the guard, with a beaming smile, moved off to the other end of the train, administering philosophic consolation to the disturbed passengers on his way.
It was over half-an-hour before the obstruction on the line was removed and the train enabled to steam ahead once more.
Nan, strung up by the realisation of how close she had been to probable death, found herself unable to continue reading and gazed out of the window, wondering in a desultory fashion how long she would have to wait at St. David's before the next train ran to Abbencombe. It was impossible now for her to catch the one she had originally proposed to take. She was faintly disquieted, too, by the fact that she could not precisely recollect noticing any later train quoted in the time-table.
The train proceeded at a cautious pace and finally pulled into St. David's an hour late. Nan jumped out and made enquiry of a porter, only to learn that her suspicions were true. There was no later train to Abbencombe that day!
Rather shaken by the misadventures of the journey, she felt as though she could have screamed at the placidly good-natured porter: "But there must be! There must be another train!" Instead, she turned hopelessly away from him, and found herself face to face with Peter Mallory.
"In trouble again?" he asked, catching sight of her face.
She was surprised into another question, instead of a reply.
"Did you come down by this train, then, too?" she asked.
"Yes. I travelled smoker, though."
"So did I. At least"--smiling--"I converted my innocent compartment into a temporary smoker."
But she was pleased, nevertheless, that neither their unconventional introduction, nor the fact that he had rendered her a service, had tempted him into assuming he might travel with her. It showed a rarely sensitive perception.
"I suppose you've missed your connection?" he pursued.
"Yes. That's just it. The last train to Abbencombe has gone, and my friends' car was to meet me there. I'm stranded."
He pondered a moment.
"So am I. I must get on to Abbencombe, though, and I propose to hire a car and drive there. Will you let me give you a lift? Probably your chauffeur will still be at the Station. The side-line train is a very slow one and stops at every little wayside place on the way. To make sure, we could telephone from here to the Abbencombe station-master, asking him to tell your man to wait for you as you're coming on by motor."
"Oh--" Nan almost gasped at his quick masculine grip of the situation. Before she had time to make any answer he had gone off to see about telephoning.
It was some little time before he returned, but when he finally reappeared, his face wore an expression of humorous satisfaction.
"I've fixed it all," he said. "Your car has just arrived at Abbencombe and the chauffeur told to wait there. I've got hold of another one here for our journey. Now let me put you into it and then I'll see about your luggage."
Nan took her seat obediently and reflected that there was something tremendously reliable about this man. He had a genius for appearing at the critical moment and for promptly clearing away all difficulties. Almost unconsciously she was forced into comparing him with Maryon Rooke--Rooke, with his curious fascination and detached, half-cynical outlook on life, his beautiful ideals and--Nan's inner self flinched from the acknowledgment--his frequent fallings-short of them. Unwillingly she had to confess to the fact that Maryon was something both of poseur and actor, with an ineradicable streak of cynicism in his composition added to a strange undercurrent of passion which he rarely allowed to carry him away. Apart from this he was genuine, creative artist. Whereas Peter Mallory, beautifully unself-conscious, was helpful in a simple, straightforward way that gave one a feeling of steadfast reliance upon him. And she liked his whimsical smile.
She was more than ever sure of the latter fact when he joined her in the car, remarking smilingly:
"This is a great bit of luck for me. I should have had a long drive of twenty-five miles all by myself if you hadn't been left high and dry as well."
"It's very nice of you to call it luck," replied Nan, as the car slid away into the winter dusk of the afternoon. "Are you usually a lucky person? You look as if you might be."
Under the light of the tiny electric bulb which illuminated the car she saw his face alter suddenly. The lines on either side the sensitive mouth seemed to deepen and a weary gravity showed for an instant in his grey-blue eyes.
"Appearances are known to be deceitful, aren't they?" he answered, with an attempt at lightness. "No, I'm afraid I've not been specially lucky."
"In love or in cards?"
The words left Nan's lips unthinkingly, almost before she was aware, and she regretted them the moment they were spoken. She felt he must inevitably suspect her of a prying curiosity.
"I'm lucky at cards," he replied quietly.
There was something in his voice that appealed to Nan's quick, warm sympathies.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she said, rather tremulously. "Perhaps, some day, the other kind of luck will come, too."
"That's out of the question"--harshly.
"Do you know a little poem called 'Empty Hands'?" she asked. "I set it to music one day because I liked the words so much. Listen."
In a low voice, a trifle shaken by reason of the sudden tensity which had crept into the atmosphere, she repeated the brief lyric:
"But sometimes God on His great white Throne Looks down from the Heaven above, And lays in the hands that are empty The tremulous Star of Love."
As she spoke the last verse Nan's voice took on a tender, instinctive note of consolation. Had she been looking she would have seen Peter Mallory's hand clench itself as though to crush down some sudden, urgent motion. But she was gazing straight in front of her into the softly lit radiance of the car.
"Only sometimes there isn't any star, and your hands would be 'outstretched in vain,' as the song says," he commented.
"Oh, I hope not!" cried Nan. "Try to believe they wouldn't be!"
Mallory uttered a short laugh.
"I'm afraid it's no case for 'believing.' It's hard fact."
Nan remained silent. There was an undertone so bitter in his voice that she felt as though her poor little efforts at consolation were utterly trivial and futile to meet whatever tragedy lay behind the man's curt speech. It seemed as though he read her thought, for he turned to her quickly with that charming smile of his.
"You'd make a topping pal," he said. And Nan knew that in some indefinable way she had comforted him.
They drove on in silence for some time and when, later on, they began to talk again it was on ordinary commonplace topics, by mutual consent avoiding any by-way that might lead them back to individual matters. The depths which had been momentarily stirred settled down once more into misleading tranquillity.
In due course they arrived at Abbencombe, and the car purred up to the station, where the Chattertons' limousine, sent to meet Nan, still waited for her. The transit from one car to the other was quickly effected, and Peter Mallory stood bareheaded at the door of the limousine.
"Good-bye," he said. "And thank you, little pal. I hope you'll never find your moon out of reach."
Nan held out her hand. In the grey dusk she felt him carry it to his lips.
"Good-bye," he said once more.
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