'I begin to interest you,' she cried. 'But, frankly, you are condemned to help me. If the service I had to ask of you were serious, were suspicious, were even unusual, I should say no more. But what is it? To take a pleasure trip (for which, if you will suffer me, I propose to pay) and to carry from one lady to another a sum of money! What can be more simple?'
'Is the sum,' asked Challoner, 'considerable?'
She produced a packet from her bosom; and observing that she had not yet found time to make the count, tore open the cover and spread upon her knees a considerable number of Bank of England notes. It took some time to make the reckoning, for the notes were of every degree of value; but at last, and counting a few loose sovereigns, she made out the sum to be a little under 710 pounds sterling. The sight of so much money worked an immediate revolution in the mind of Challoner.
'And you propose, madam,' he cried, 'to intrust that money to a perfect stranger?'
'Ah!' said she, with a charming smile, 'but I no longer regard you as a stranger.'
'Madam,' said Challoner, 'I perceive I must make you a confession. Although of a very good family--through my mother, indeed, a lineal descendant of the patriot Bruce--I dare not conceal from you that my affairs are deeply, very deeply involved. I am in debt; my pockets are practically empty; and, in short, I am fallen to that state when a considerable sum of money would prove to many men an irresistible temptation.'
'Do you not see,' returned the young lady, 'that by these words you have removed my last hesitation? Take them.' And she thrust the notes into the young man's hand.
He sat so long, holding them, like a baby at the font, that Miss Fonblanque once more bubbled into laughter.
'Pray,' she said, 'hesitate no further; put them in your pocket; and to relieve our position of any shadow of embarrassment, tell me by what name I am to address my knight-errant, for I find myself reduced to the awkwardness of the pronoun.'
Had borrowing been in question, the wisdom of our ancestors had come lightly to the young man's aid; but upon what pretext could he refuse so generous a trust? Upon none he saw, that was not unpardonably wounding; and the bright eyes and the high spirits of his companion had already made a breach in the rampart of Challoner's caution. The whole thing, he reasoned, might be a mere mystification, which it were the height of solemn folly to resent. On the other hand, the explosion, the interview at the public- house, and the very money in his hands, seemed to prove beyond denial the existence of some serious danger; and if that were so, could he desert her? There was a choice of risks: the risk of behaving with extraordinary incivility and unhandsomeness to a lady, and the risk of going on a fool's errand. The story seemed false; but then the money was undeniable. The whole circumstances were questionable and obscure; but the lady was charming, and had the speech and manners of society. While he still hung in the wind, a recollection returned upon his mind with some of the dignity of prophecy. Had he not promised Somerset to break with the traditions of the commonplace, and to accept the first adventure offered? Well, here was the adventure.
He thrust the money into his pocket.
'My name is Challoner,' said he.
'Mr. Challoner,' she replied, 'you have come very generously to my aid when all was against me. Though I am myself a very humble person, my family commands great interest; and I do not think you will repent this handsome action.'
Challoner flushed with pleasure.
'I imagine that, perhaps, a consulship,' she added, her eyes dwelling on him with a judicial admiration, 'a consulship in some great town or capital--or else--But we waste time; let us set about the work of my delivery.'
She took his arm with a frank confidence that went to his heart; and once more laying by all serious thoughts, she entertained him, as they crossed the park, with her agreeable gaiety of mind.