I have said they were man and woman. I should have said man and child. She was certainly not more than seventeen, pretty as an angel, just plump enough to damn a saint, and dressed in various shades of blue, from her stockings to her saucy cap, in a kind of taking gamut, the top note of which she flung me in a beam from her too appreciative eye. There was no doubt about the case: I saw it all. From a boarding-school, a black-board, a piano, and Clementi's Sonatinas, the child had made a rash adventure upon life in the company of a half-bred hawbuck; and she was already not only regretting it, but expressing her regret with point and pungency.
As I alighted they both paused with that unmistakable air of being interrupted in a scene. I uncovered to the lady and placed my services at their disposal.
It was the man who answered. 'There's no use in shamming, sir,' said he. 'This lady and I have run away, and her father's after us: road to Gretna, sir. And here have these nincompoops spilt us in the ditch and smashed the chaise!'
'Very provoking,' said I.
'I don't know when I've been so provoked!' cried he, with a glance down the road, of mortal terror.
'The father is no doubt very much incensed?' I pursued civilly.
'O God!' cried the hawbuck. 'In short, you see, we must get out of this. And I'll tell you what--it may seem cool, but necessity has no law--if you would lend us your chaise to the next post-house, it would be the very thing, sir.'
'I confess it seems cool,' I replied.
'What's that you say, sir?' he snapped.
'I was agreeing with you,' said I. 'Yes, it does seem cool; and what is more to the point, it seems unnecessary. This thing can be arranged in a more satisfactory manner otherwise, I think. You can doubtless ride?'
This opened a door on the matter of their previous dispute, and the fellow appeared life-sized in his true colours. 'That's what I've been telling her: that, damn her! she must ride!' he broke out. 'And if the gentleman's of the same mind, why, damme, you shall!'
As he said so, he made a snatch at her wrist, which she evaded with horror.
I stepped between them.
'No, sir,' said I; 'the lady shall not.'
He turned on me raging. 'And who are you to interfere?' he roared.
'There is here no question of who I am,' I replied. 'I may be the devil or the Archbishop of Canterbury for what you know, or need know. The point is that I can help you--it appears that nobody else can; and I will tell you how I propose to do it. I will give the lady a seat in my chaise, if you will return the compliment by allowing my servant to ride one of your horses.'
I thought he would have sprung at my throat.
'You have always the alternative before you: to wait here for the arrival of papa,' I added.
And that settled him. He cast another haggard look down the road, and capitulated.
'I am sure, sir, the lady is very much obliged to you,' he said, with an ill grace.
I gave her my hand; she mounted like a bird into the chaise; Rowley, grinning from ear to ear, closed the door behind us; the two impudent rascals of post-boys cheered and laughed aloud as we drove off; and my own postillion urged his horses at once into a rattling trot. It was plain I was supposed by all to have done a very dashing act, and ravished the bride from the ravisher.
In the meantime I stole a look at the little lady. She was in a state of pitiable discomposure, and her arms shook on her lap in her black lace mittens.
'Madam--' I began.
And she, in the same moment, finding her voice: 'O, what you must think of me!'
'Madam,' said I, 'what must any gentleman think when he sees youth, beauty and innocence in distress? I wish I could tell you that I was old enough to be your father; I think we must give that up,' I continued, with a smile. 'But I will tell you something about myself which ought to do as well, and to set that little heart at rest in my society. I am a lover. May I say it of myself--for I am not quite used to all the niceties of English--that I am a true lover? There is one whom I admire, adore, obey; she is no less good than she is beautiful; if she were here, she would take you to her arms: conceive that she has sent me--that she has said to me, "Go, be her knight!"'
'O, I know she must be sweet, I know she must be worthy of you!' cried the little lady.