Acton glanced to the little bridge half a mile down the long white road, where the road narrowed to meet the low stone walls, and he knew as well as though he saw it that the carriage would catch the bridge and be shivered to match-wood. The horses must be stopped before they reached it, or the lady would be killed. Now Acton, with all his faults, was no coward. Without thinking of the terrible risk he ran, he sprang out into the middle of the road and waved his arms frantically at the horses moving like a thunderbolt towards him. But they were too maddened with terror to heed this waving apparition in their path, and Acton, in the very nick of time, just jumped aside and avoided the carriage-pole, pointed like a living lance at his breast.
[Illustration: AS THE HORSES WHIRLED PAST, HE CLUTCHED MADLY AT THE LOOSE REINS.]
As the horses whirled past, he clutched madly at the loose reins, see-sawing in the air. He held them, and the leather slid through his frenzied grasp, cutting his palms to the bone. When he reached the loop he was jerked off his feet with a terrible shock, and was whirled along the dusty road, the carriage-wheels grinding, crunching, and skidding within a foot of his head. Luckily the reins held, and when, after being dragged a hundred yards or so, and half choked by the thick dust, he managed to scramble to his feet, he pulled with frenzied, convulsive strength on the off-side rein. The horses swerved to the fearful saw on their jaws, and pulled nearly into the left-hand hedge. Acton’s desperate idea was to overturn the carriage into the hedge before the horses could reach the bridge, for he felt he could no more pull them up than he dare let them go. There was just a chance for the lady if she were overturned into the bank or hedge, but none whatever if she were thrown at the bridge. In a minute or so the carriage lurched horribly sideways: there was a grinding crash, and the carriage overturned bodily into the bank. The lady was shot out, and the next minute the horses’ hoofs were making tooth-picks of the wrecked carriage.
Acton darted up the bank and found the lady dazed and bruised, but was overjoyed to see she wasn’t dead. “Are you much hurt?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said, with a brave smile; “but I expected to be killed any moment. You are a brave man, sir, to risk your life for a stranger.”
Acton said quietly, “Not at all; but I think I was very lucky to turn them in time.”
In a minute or two there was a small crowd. Half a dozen stray cyclists had wheeled up, and with their help Acton got out the horses, dreadfully cut about the legs and shivering with terror, from the wreckage. Down the dusty road were men running for dear life, and ahead of all Acton caught sight of a well-known athletic figure running like a deer, and in another moment Phil Bourne was asking the lady in panting bursts if she were not really hurt.