“You may do so, if you like,” said Mrs. Shortridge, composedly; “but I have made a vow to do no extra riding to-day. This road is long enough and rough enough for me.”
Lady Mabel turned from the path, and, followed by L’Isle, was soon ascending the hill. Moodie, somewhat under the influence of his soporific draughts, was in a reverie, wondering whether Lord Strathern would get his letter in time to send a troop of horse after the fugitives, and whether it might not come within the provisions of the military code to have L’Isle court-martialed and shot for running off with his General’s daughter, when, looking up, he missed Lady Mabel, and then discovered her with L’Isle, scampering over the hill. In great confusion, he rode up to Mrs. Shortridge, and asked, “Where are they going now?”
“I scarcely know,” she answered; “but Colonel L’Isle will take care of Lady Mabel, so you can stay and take care of me.”
Moodie cast on her a look of angry suspicion, which scanned her from head to foot, and plainly pronounced her no sufficient pledge for his mistress. Spurring his horse, he followed Lady Mabel at a run. The animal he rode had often carried fifteen stone, in Lord Strathern’s person, over as rough ground as this, and made light of Moodie’s weight, which was scarcely more than nine. Without picking his way, he made directly for his companions ahead; and the clatter of his hoofs soon making Lady Mabel look round, she drew up her horse in haste, and anxiously watched Moodie’s career. A deep chasm, washed out by the winter rains, was cleared by the horse in capital style, but Moodie lit on his valise, and with difficulty recovered the saddle. Just between him and Lady Mabel the last tree on the hill-side, torn from the shallow soil by some heavy blast, lay horizontally on its decaying roots and branches. Moodie rode at it with unquailing eye; and, while Lady Mabel uttered an exclamation of alarm, the horse cleared it in a bucking leap, throwing Moodie against the holsters; but he fell back into his seat, and rode up triumphantly to his mistress. This energetic demonstration seemed to overawe Lady Mabel. Turning from the hill-top before them, she rode demurely back to the party, resolved not to wander from the beaten path, or go faster than a foot-pace, until Moodie had dismounted, and his neck was safe.
A peasant on an ass, coming down the road, had stopped and stood at gaze at a distance, watching these equestrian manoeuvres. But when he saw the party, now united, coming toward him, he turned short to the left, and hastened away at a pace that proved that his burro had four nimble legs.
“That must be a thief,” said Mrs. Shortridge, “afraid of falling in with honest folks.”
“Or an honest man,” suggested L’Isle, “afraid of falling among thieves. I have observed a growing dislike in the peasantry to meeting small parties of our people in out of the way places. I suspect that they are sometimes made to pay toll for traveling their own roads.”