The discovery of the shortage in her bank account made Mrs. Vernon very nervous, and for two nights the lady slept but little.
Robert noticed the change in her condition, and pitied her greatly.
“It’s a shame that Frederic Vernon can’t turn over a new leaf,” he thought. “But I am afraid that it isn’t in him.”
On the day that Mrs. Vernon expected a reply to her cablegram she felt worse than ever, and Robert suggested that they take a drive together.
“We can go along the river road, and then along the cliffs,” he said. “I am certain the morning air will do you good, for it promises to be very clear.”
“Very well, Robert. I will go with you, and you can get a team without delay,” she answered.
“And shall I drive?”
“If you want to.”
Mrs. Vernon spoke thus, for Robert had taken her out a number of times and had always proved a very careful and reliable driver.
In a few minutes Robert was on his way to the livery stable. He met Frederic Vernon on the street, bound for his aunt’s boarding place.
“Hullo, Frost, how is my aunt to-day?” cried the young man.
“Not so well, Mr. Vernon.”
“That’s too bad. What seems to be the trouble?”
“She can’t sleep nights, so she says.”
As Robert spoke he looked sharply at the fellow, but Vernon did not change color.
“You ought to take her out for a drive,” said the young man.
“That is just what I am going to do.”
“Indeed! This morning?”
“Yes, just as soon as I can get a team and a carriage.”
“Good for you. I would take her out myself but somehow I never made a fist at driving.”
“That is strange. I thought all young men in your station of life liked to drive.”
“Well–er–the trouble is, I was scared by a horse when I was a little boy. I’ve never liked horseflesh since.”
“I see. Well, I have never yet seen the team I was afraid of,” answered Robert, telling the exact truth.
“Is that so? Well, your time may come.”
There was a significance in Frederic Vernon’s words which was lost upon our hero.
“Where are you going to drive?” went on the spendthrift.
“Along the river road first, and then along the cliffs.”
And with these words Robert passed on. He was afraid that if he stopped to talk longer Frederic Vernon might invite himself to go along, and he was quite certain the ride would do Mrs. Vernon no good were such the case.
Watching his opportunity, Vernon followed our hero and saw Robert hire a team of white and gray horses, and have them hooked up to a light road carriage.
Then he hurried to his boarding house with a peculiar smile on his evil face.
“I can see that team coming a long way off,” he said to himself. “And I won’t make any mistake.”
With quite a little flourish Robert drove around to Mrs. Cabe’s boarding place, and tied up at the block. Soon Mrs. Vernon came out, and he handed her to a seat.
“I met your nephew when I went to the livery stable,” he observed, as he drove away. “Did he come in?”
“No,” answered Mrs. Vernon. “Where was he going?”
“I thought he was coming to see you.”
“Did he want to know if I was going out?”
“He suggested I take you for a drive, after I told him you were not very well again.”
“I wonder he never offers to take me driving,” mused the lady.
“He said he didn’t like to drive–that he was afraid of horses.”
“What, Frederic? Why, he used to own a very fast horse and go out driving in Lincoln Park at home nearly every day.”
“He told me he had been frightened when a boy by a horse, and had never cared for horseflesh since.”
“That is not true, Robert. How queer that he should tell such a falsehood. Do you suppose he did it just to get out of driving me?”
“I don’t know what to think, Mrs. Vernon. On the whole, I think your nephew is a very peculiar young man.”
“It’s too bad.” Mrs. Vernon gave a deep sigh. “And he is the only near relative I have!”
Fearful that the drive would do the lady small good if they continued to talk about Frederic Vernon, Robert changed the subject, and so skillfully did he manage it that presently Mrs. Vernon grew quite cheerful. Down along the river they stopped for a few minutes, and the boy picked a bunch of wild flowers and presented them to his companion.
At length they left the river road and took to that running up along the cliffs previously mentioned. This road was but little used, but its wildness was attractive to both Mrs. Vernon and the youth, for from the upper heights they could see for many miles around.
“I would not mind owning a summer home up here,” said Mrs. Vernon, as they halted at the highest point in the road. “See how beautiful the Thames looks, winding along through the meadows and woods below us.”
“It is nice,” answered Robert. “But as for a summer home, I rather think I would prefer one in the United States.”
The lady smiled.
“I can see you are an out-and-out Yankee lad, Robert. Well, I cannot blame you. I agree that our life at home is good enough for anybody.”
Presently Robert started the team again, and they bowled along the edge of the cliff at a rapid gait.
To one side was a mass of rocks and shrubbery, while to the other was a valley or gorge forty or fifty feet deep, at the bottom of which flowed a tiny brook on its way to the River Thames.
The team was a fresh one, and the drive along the river had just warmed them up. They went along at a spanking pace, and Robert had his hands full holding them in. But it was a pleasant task.
“I love a good team,” he said, as they sped along. “No old slow-pokes for me.”
“You are certain you can control them?” asked Mrs. Vernon, as the horses stepped out livelier than ever.
“Oh, yes, they are all right,” he answered.
A quarter of a mile more was covered, when they reached a point where the cliff road wound around a sharp bend.
Mrs. Vernon had just called Robert’s attention to a pretty scene in the valley far below, when of a sudden somebody leaped out in the road in front of the horses.
It was a man wrapped in a white sheet and with a pistol in his hand.
The pistol was discharged, and one end of the sheet waved wildly at the same time.
The mettlesome horses were badly frightened and reared and plunged wildly.
“Oh, Robert, we will be killed!” burst from Mrs. Vernon’s lips. “We will be thrown over the cliff!”
“Don’t jump!” he answered, as he saw her rise up as if to leap from the carriage.
He held the reins tightly and spoke to the team as gently as possible. But now another pistol shot rang out, and off sped the team on a furious gallop down the cliff road, with the carriage bumping and rocking after them.
Robert felt that a crisis in his life had suddenly arisen. Should he lose all control of the horses it was more than likely that they would leap over the cliff, and that would mean death for both Mrs. Vernon and himself. All in a flash it came to him that Frederic Vernon must have been the man wound in the white sheet who had fired the pistol.
“The scoundrel!” he thought. “If we get out of this alive, he’ll have a big score to settle with me!”
On and on plunged the team, the carriage jolting from side to side, and Mrs. Vernon prepared to leap out at the first move the horses might make toward the gorge. Robert held on to the lines like grim death, his feet braced firmly against the dashboard. It was truly a ride for life or death. In the meantime the man in the white sheet had disappeared as suddenly as he had come.
So far the road had been tolerably even, but now came a stretch which was rough, and the carriage came closer and closer to the edge of the cliff.
“We are going!” shrieked Mrs. Vernon.
“Not yet,” answered Robert, and tried to pull the team around. He had partly succeeded when snap! went one of the reins, and he was thrown backward.
The breaking of the rein presented a new obstacle to be overcome, and for the second our hero did not know what to do. The team were now out of control, and even the youth was afraid they might leap over the cliff at any instant.
But then a new thought occurred to him, and as quick as a flash he stood up and leaped to the back of one of the horses.
“Whoa!” he shouted. “Whoa!” and clapped his hat over the creature’s eyes.
A rearing and a plunging followed. But the horse slowed up and brought the carriage around to the thicket opposite to the cliff. A crashing of bushes followed, and in a few seconds more the team was halted. One of the wheels of the carriage was badly shattered and one horse was cut about the legs, but otherwise no damage was done.