Our latest Reading Between The Lines podcast short story episode is “A Mysterious Elopement” by anonymous, first published September 1913. Read along with the story below and listen to see what the team had to say about it!
As he painfully extracted himself from the ditch into which for about the tenth time he had stumbled, Robert Radford realised that he was indeed lost.
And realising this fact, he halted in the middle of the narrow track in which he found himself and rather ruefully surveyed the situation.
Four hours previously he had the misfortune to miss his connection at the little wayside station of Greenhill, and had been informed by an unsympathetic porter that there was not another train for five hours.
In reply to further questioning, the porter vouchsafed the information that by walking across the moor to the junction, a distance of about four miles, he would be able to catch an express which would land him at his destination some hours sooner than the local.
Having plenty of time at his disposal, Radford naturally decided to adopt this course. But he had not calculated on the mist which had blown across the moor shortly after he started and enveloped the whole landscape in a white mantle, completely obliterating the landmarks he had depended upon to guide him to his destination.
Looking around he endeavoured in vain to pierce the gloom. One thing was certain; he could not remain where he was, and the only alternative was to move forward, trusting to luck to guide him to some shelter where he could find an asylum until the fog lifted sufficiently to enable him to reach his destination.
With his object in view he toiled slowly onward. At length, when he had almost abandoned hope of finding sanctuary and was beginning to reconcile himself to the prospect of spending the night on the moor, he stumbled against a wall—a sure indication he had emerged once more on the confines of civilisation.
The wall was a high one—too high to be climbed, and apparently surrounded a park or garden of some extent. Confident that by following it he must eventually reach a gate or lodge of some sort, he walked forward with renewed strength and in a few minutes he observed with satisfaction the dim outline of a building emerge from the gloom. A light glimmered in one of the windows indicating that the house was inhabited.
Approaching the door he knocked loudly on the panel. As he did so, a window on the upper story was noiselessly thrown open, and a girl thrust her head out exclaiming as she did so, in an excited whisper.
“Why did you come here? All is discovered! Get away before you are seen.”
Before Radford could reply to the extraordinary and unexpected warning the door opened, and an old man, holding a lighted candle in his hand, peered out. At the same time the girl swiftly withdrew her head and closed the window.
“I beg your pardon,” said Radford apologetically. “I hope I have no disturbed you, but the fact is I have lost my way in this wretched fog, and if you can give me shelter till it clears I will be very much obliged.”
The old man looked dubious for a moment and seemed about to return a curt answer. But a hasty whisper from someone behind him caused him to change his tone.
“Certainly, certainly,” he mumbled with a peculiar smile. “Step inside.”
Radford followed him into the house and through a passage to the kitchen, which apparently also served as a sitting-room.
As soon as he was inside his conductor closed the door with a loud bang, and at the same time a deep voice exclaimed in tones of bitter triumph—”You scoundrel! So we meet at last.”
The speaker, an elderly man of military appearance stood on the hearthrug. In his hand he held a heavy riding crop with which he was viciously slashing at his heel; the angry flush on his cheek betraying a desire to apply the weapon in another direction.
“Aye, you may well look surprised,” he continued as Radford stood stock still with amazement. “You villain, I have a good mind to thrash you within an inch of your life! But I will not soil my hands on your filthy carcase. Berthing, seize hold of him and lock him up.”
Before Radford had time to utter one word of protest he was caught from behind by the old man, and after a futile struggle dragged across the floor and thrust ignominiously into a dark room. Next moment he heard a key turn in the lock and a derisive laugh from his captors.
Groping his way in the darkness, he surveyed his prison. There was a window through which a faint gleam of light penetrated, but it was too narrow to admit of escape in that direction. The door was securely fastened. Realising the futility of attempting to force his way out, he sat down on an upturned box and ruefully considered the situation.
“This is getting interesting,” he muttered, whimsically. “I wonder what house of mystery this is that I have landed in. Apparently the warning was well meant if only I had had the sense to have taken advantage of it. Seems as if I had fallen into the hands of a pair of lunatics. However, I suppose I will get out of it somehow, and anyway I am in no worse plight than if I had been compelled to wander about the moor all night.”
Consoling himself in his philosophic fashion he leant his head against the wall and resigned himself to his fat.
How long he remained in this position he did not know. Suddenly he was roused by hearing a scraping noise overhead. Looking up he observed a trap door in the ceiling slowly rise. Presently a lighted candle appeared in the opening and the girl he had seen at the window peered down at him.
“Hush!” she exclaimed, in a warning whisper. “Do not make a sound or we will be discovered. Can you climb? I am letting down a rope, and if you can manage to scramble up you can easily reach the ground from this room. Make haste. There is not a moment to lose!”
As she spoke she lowered a coil of rope which fell softly by Radford’s side.
With a shrug of his shoulders he rose to his feet. Altogether the situation was too incomprehensible to fathom. One thing, however, was obvious. The mysterious young lady was willing to befriend him and was doing her best to extricate him from the trap into which he unwittingly had fallen. Undoubtedly his best course was to take advantage of the means of escape she was placing at his disposal. Afterwards there would be time for explanations.
Hauling the rope taut, he scrambled upwards and with a struggle succeeded in wriggling through the narrow trap door.
The light was now extinguished and the room in which he found himself was in darkness. As he opened his lips to speak a warning hush silenced him.
“Not a word,” the girl whispered. “Quiet! This way! Lower the rope from the window. There is still time if you make haste.”
As she spoke she caught him by the arm and literally dragged him to the open window.
“Now get down as quickly as you can,” she said when the rope had been lowered. “I will follow.”
Radford obeyed the instructions and silently descended to the ground. A moment later, with surprising agility, the girl followed suit and stood by his side.
By this time the fog had in some measure cleared away, and the struggling moonbeams threw a faint light on the scene.
“What time is it?” exclaimed the girl in an excited tone.
Radford drew out his watch and peered at the dial.
“It is twenty-five minutes past twelve,” he answered.
“Good. We will just manage to catch the quarter to one train by cycling to the station. Wait a moment until I fetch the bicycles. But oh, I forgot to tell you that the arrangements have all been changed. Everything has been discovered. Fortunately Miss Violet got warning in time and she has gone to London. She had no opportunity to meet you and we are to join her in London. But there is no time to explain further. We must make haste.”
Before Radford, to whom the situation was becoming more inexplicable than ever could demand a further explanation, she darted into the outlying shed reappearing a minute later wheeling a couple of bicycles.
At the same moment a light appeared at the window of the chamber they had just quitted and a man’s head appeared.
“Peggy,” he cried angrily. “Peggy. Confound the girl, what is she up to?”
“Oh, quick, quick!” exclaimed the girl in alarm. “That is my grandfather. In another instant your escape will be discovered. There is not a moment to lose! Follow me!”
As she spoke she passed one of the cycles to Radford and hastened to the gate. Reaching the highway, she sprang deftly to the saddle. Realising it was the only thing to be done, Radley followed suit. As he did so, a volley of fierce objurgations reached his ears, and looking he observed his captors rush from the house frantically shaking their fists at him in impotent rage.
Clear of the cottage, if Radford thought the time for further explanation was come he was doomed to disappointment. For the pace set by his conductress was so fast that it was all he could do, pedalling as hard as he was able, to keep up with her, and any attempt at conversation was entirely out of the question.
After ten minutes hard riding they reached the top of the ascent. In the hollow beneath about a mile further on, a solitary twinkling light indicated the railway station that was their goal.
As they commenced the descent into rumbling sound of a train was borne to their ears across still air.
“Faster, faster,” panted the girl. “We can do it yet.”
The train was already drawn up to the platform as they dashed into the deserted space adjoining the booking office. Recklessly abandoning the bicycles to their fate, they rushed to the platform and as the guard sleepily waved his lamp sprang into an empty third-class compartment.
As the train was gliding out of the station a porter suddenly thrust his head in the window.
“Letter for your, miss. I was to give it to you most particular before you got in, but I hadn’t a chance sooner.”—and as he spoke he tossed a letter on the seat and dexterously stepped from the now fast-moving train to the platform.
With a perplexed frown the girl picked up the envelope and glanced at the superscription. Then she tore open the cover and drew out the letter.
As she was thus engaged Radford took advantage of the opportunity to survey her more closely than he had hitherto had the chance of doing. Despite her flushed and somewhat dishevelled condition, she was undeniably good looking, and there was an undeniable charm about her which moved him strangely. Undoubtedly the rather trying night he had experienced was not without its compensating adventures, he mused, when it secured for him the companionship of so fair a fellow traveller.
The frown on the girl’s face deepened as she read the letter. Suddenly she put down the sheet, and gazed at Radford with an expression of dismay and alarm.
“It’s—it’s all so inexplicable,” she gasped. “Are you not Captain Mainwaring? If not, who are you?
“Really, the last is a question I have been trying to get an opportunity to answer the last two hours. I am certainly not Captain Mainwaring, nor have I the pleasure of knowing even of the existence of that gentleman. As a matter of fact, I am simply Robert Radford, a humble commercial traveller, whose misfortune it was to get lost in the fog, and who has been, in more senses than one, hopelessly befogged for some time. I knocked at the cottage door with the intention of seeking shelter for the night, only to find myself involved in a series of adventures more suggestive of the Arabian Nights than of the ordinary humdrum existence of modern days. If it is not an impertinent question, may I ask an explanation of the circumstances which have resulted in my finding myself here?”
To this explanation the girl listened in silent amazement. Gradually as the situation dawned on her, a faint smile broke over her face.
“What a horrible mix up,” she exclaimed. “I cannot yet realise the blunder I have made. What must you think of it all!” But there is no harm in telling you everything now. I will explain, and you will understand how the mistake has happened.
“My name is Peggy Berthing,” she continued, “and I am a companion to Miss Vernon, of The Oaks. Miss Vernon became engaged to Captain Mainwaring, but Sir George would not hear of the marriage. Consequently they decided to elope. It was arranged that Captain Mainwaring should come to-night, and they should go off together. When the fog came down Miss Vernon sent me to the lodge, which is occupied by my grandfather, to look out for the Captain Mainwaring in case he should lose his way. When there, Sir George came in, and I learnt he had discovered what was on foot, and was also on the look-out. The rest you know. When you knocked at the door, we both concluded you were the Captain which accounts for the treatment you received.
“From this letter I learned for the first time the awful mistake we made. Captain Mainwaring found his way to the house all right, and Miss Vernon managed to escape. They reached the station safely, and travelled by an earlier train than the originally intended. In this letter Miss Vernon tells me to return to The Oaks, and wait her return from the honeymoon, when she will send for me. And, oh dear!” she exclaimed, suddenly becoming grave. “What am I to do? I cannot go back to The Oaks now. Sir George—you know how violent he is—would almost kill me for the share I had in the elopement. And my grandfather dare have nothing more to do with me, even if he wished! Oh dear, oh dear!” and overcome with emotion she buried her face in her hands, and wept.
In clumsy fashion Radford endeavoured to soothe her.
“Come, come,” he said. “Things are not as bad as you imagine. When we get to London you can write Miss Vernon, and explain what has happened.”
“That is just what I cannot do,” returned the girl. “I do not know her address. All I know is they were to be married in the morning, and then going abroad for a couple of months. When they return she will, of course, send for me, but till then what am I to do? I have no home—no friends. And I have not a penny in the world!”
Without doubt it was an awkward predicament. And Radford, as he rubbed his hands in perplexity, sorrowfully reflected he was unwittingly responsible for it. If he had only frankly explained at the very beginning who he was (though he certainly had not much opportunity to do so), instead of allowing himself to be blindly led by fortune, the unfortunate contretemps would never have occurred. And yet, as he gazed at the figure opposite to him, he experienced a flash of selfish joy in the very fact that it had occurred.
“There is only one thing to be done,” he said slowly. “But first, you have seen very little of me, and know nothing beyond what I have told you. Can you trust me?”
She looked at him for a moment wonderingly.
“I—I think so,” she returned simply.
“Then what I propose is that you should come with me to my home. My mother, I am sure, will be delighted to receive you as a guest until such time as Miss Vernon, or rather Mrs Mainwaring, as she will be then, returns, when you can then rejoin her.”
“But I could not think of throwing myself on your charity in hat fashion.”
“Oh, it is not a question of charity at all. It is only a matter of making some reparation for the mischief I have done. Or, if you feel any scruples on the point, you could come as a paying guest, the score to be settled afterwards. In any case you must come to us in the first place until you decide what to do. You will, won’t you?”
“I—I suppose so. There seems to be nothing else to be done.”
Many months have passed since the event above recorded occurred, but Peggy has not yet quitted the pretty little suburban cottage in which she found a haven of refuge. Instead she is now installed as its mistress, and in the gloomy days of the late autumn, when the fog demon creeps out from the great city and throws his mantle round their home she and her husband bear it with a tolerance surprising to those who do not know that to a fog they owe their great happiness.
Catch up with Reading Between The Lines news and previous stories.