The next instant he stood on his feet, as the carriage swayed to and fro over the turf, balanced himself marvelously as it staggered in that furious gallop from side to side, clinched the reins hard in the grip of his teeth, measured the distance with an unerring eye, and crouching his body for the spring with all the science of the old playing-fields of his Eton days, cleared the dashboard and lighted astride on the back of the hunting five-year old—how, he could never have remembered or have told.
The tremendous pace at which they went swayed him with a lurch and a reel over the off-side; a woman’s cry rang again, clear, and shrill, and agonized on the night; a moment more, and he would have fallen, head downward, beneath the horses’ feet. But he had ridden stirrupless and saddleless ere now; he recovered himself with the suppleness of an Arab, and firm-seated behind the collar, with one leg crushed between the pole and Maraschino’s flanks, gathering in the ribbons till they were tight-drawn as a bridle, he strained with all the might and sinew that were in him to get the grays in hand before they could plunge down into the water. His wrists were wrenched like pulleys, the resistance against him was hard as iron; but as he had risked life and limb in the leap which had seated him across the harnessed loins of the now terrified beast, so he risked them afresh to get the mastery now; to slacken them, turn them ever so slightly, and save the woman he loved—loved, at least in this hour, as he had not loved her before. One moment more, while the half-maddened beast rushed through the shadows; one moment more, till the river stretched full before them in all its length and breadth, without a living thing upon its surface to break the still and awful calm; one moment—and the force of cool command conquered and broke their wills despite themselves. The hunter knew his master’s voice, his touch, his pressure, and slackened speed by an irresistible, almost unconscious habit of obedience; the carriage mare, checked and galled in the full height of her speed, stood erect, pawing the air with her forelegs, and flinging the white froth over her withers, while she plunged blindly in her nervous terror; then with a crash, her feet came down upon the ground, the broken harness shivered together with a sharp, metallic clash; snorting, panting, quivering, trembling, the pair stood passive and vanquished.
The carriage was overthrown; but the high and fearless courage of the peeress bore her unharmed, even as she was flung out on to the yielding fern-grown turf. Fair as she was in every hour, she had never looked fairer than as he swung himself from the now powerless horses and threw himself beside her.
“My love—my love, you are saved!”
The beautiful eyes looked up, half unconscious; the danger told on her now that it was passed, as it does most commonly with women.
“Saved!—lost! All the world must know, now, that you are with me this evening,” she murmured with a shudder. She lived for the world, and her first thought was of self.