Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Miss Caprice, Page 2

St. George Rathborne



  The scene, so peaceful, so picturesque, is rudely broken in upon by aclamor so strange and awful that the blood is chilled in the listeners'veins. Cries are heard down the steep street; cries that indicate alarm,even terror; cries that proceed from children, women, ay, and strongmen, too.

  Our party comes to a halt midway between the brow of the hill and thebase. On either side tall houses, the declivity ending only at thewater. It is a bustling street at all hours, with loungers, businessmen, women going to and returning from market, and children playing aschildren do the world over, in the dirt.

  "What can it mean?" says Lady Ruth, as she looks breathlessly down thestreet.

  No one in their party can explain the cause of the excitement. They seepeople running madly this way and that, as if panic-stricken.

  "By Jove! it must be a fire!" suggests the colonel, twirling hiswhiskers.

  "Nonsense! we should see the smoke," declares sensible Aunt Gwen.

  "You are right; it is something more than a fire. Those people arealmost crazed. I've seen such a sight in Chicago, when a wild Texansteer got loose and tossed things right and left," asserts the medicalstudent.

  "That's what's the matter. See! they point at something as they run!Look out for the bull!" cries Philander.

  Thus, in watching for a bulky frame to appear, they fail to notice theactual cause of the disturbance.

  The street is almost deserted, save where people begin to reappearbelow, as though the danger were past, to reappear and shout afresh asthey wave their arms.

  Some one is shouting close to them now. They turn their heads and beholdthe crowd of commissionaires dashing headlong for the shelter ofadjacent houses, and acting like crazy men.

  It is Signor Giovani who shouts, first in Arabic, then in Italian, andfinally in English. They hear him now, and no wonder the blood runs coldin their veins--it is a cry to alarm the boldest warrior on earth.

  "Mad dog! Run, signors!--save the ladies! To the houses, or you arelost!"

  That is what the old fencing-master of Malta shouts while he retreats.It causes them to turn their heads, and what do they see? Advancing upthe middle of the inclined street, turning aside for neither king norpeasant, comes a great gaunt beast, his square head wagging from side toside, his eyes blood-shot, and the foam dropping from his open jaws.

  Heavens! What a spectacle to rivet one with horror to the spot.Fortunately there are some people of action present.

  Aunt Gwen clutches her _infant_ by the shoulder, and drags him along inthe direction of the nearest house.

  "Run, Philander, or you're a goner! It's worse than snake poison, thebite of a mad dog is. Haven't I seen a bitten man so furious that itrequired six to hold him down? Faster, professor! on your life!"

  With that iron grip on his shoulder poor Philander's feet barely touchthe ground as he is whirled through space, and the dog, mad or not, thatovertakes Aunt Gwen and her infant must be a rapid traveler, indeed.Thus they reach a house, and in another minute reappear upon a balcony,to witness a scene they will never forget.

  Lady Ruth, though naturally quivering with excitement, has plenty ofcavaliers to hurry her to a place of safety. Besides, after that onefirst shock, she shows more grit than might have been expected of her.

  She allows herself to be hurried along. A strong hand grasps each arm;and if every one in the path of the mad brute were as well attended,there would be little cause for anxiety or alarm.

  Now they have reached a house, and safety is assured, for the hospitabledoor stands open to welcome them.

  Already a number have preceded them, for they seem to be the last in thevicinity.

  Just as they arrive, the colonel, who appears intensely excited, issaying, hoarsely:

  "Enter quickly, I beg, Lady Ruth."

  She turns her head in curiosity for one last look, impelled by anunknown power--turns, and is at once petrified by what she sees.

  They notice the look of horror on her lovely face, and instinctivelyguessing, also cast a glance in the direction where last the savagebrute was seen.

  He has continued to advance in the interim, and is now quite close,though not moving out of the straight line in the center of thestreet--a repulsive looking object truly, and enough to horrify thebravest.

  Colonel Lionel gives a gasp. He is trembling all over, for it chancesthat this brave soldier, who has led forlorn hopes in the Zulu war, andperformed prodigies of valor on Egyptian battle-fields, has a peculiardread of dogs, inherited from one of his parents.

  It is not the animal that has fixed Lady Ruth's attention. Just in frontand directly in the line of the dog's advance is a small native childthat has been playing in the street.

  He cannot be over three years of age, and with his curly black head andhalf-naked body presents a picture of robust health.

  Apparently engrossed in his play, he sees and hears nothing of the clamoraround until, chancing to look up, he sees the dog, and fearlesslyextends his chubby arms toward it.

  The picture is one never to be forgotten.

  It thrills every one who looks on.

  No one seems to have a gun or weapon of any kind. A peculiar paralysisaffects them, a feeling of dumb horror.

  A shriek sounds; from a window is seen the form of a native woman, whowrings her hands in terrible anguish.

  The child's mother! God pity her! to be an eye-witness of her darling'sfate!

  Lady Ruth turns to the colonel, to the man who so recently proudlydeclared that no English woman ever asked a favor that a British officerwould not grant, no matter what the risk.

  "Save the darling!" her pallid lips utter.

  He trembles all over, groans, takes a couple of tottering stepsforward, and then leans against the wall for support.

  "I cannot," he gasps.

  Other Britons there are who would be equal to the emergency. Mortal manhas never done aught in this world that Englishmen dare not imitate, andindeed they generally lead. It is unfortunate for England that anantipathy for dogs runs in the Blunt family.

  This time Lady Ruth does not say "coward," but her face expresses thefine contempt she feels. With that mother's shrieks in her ears, whatcan she think of a man who will hesitate to save a sweet child, evenat the risk of meeting the most terrible death known to the world?

  She turns to face the man who a short time before positively refused torisk his life because Miss Caprice desired it.

  What can she hope from him?

  As she thus turns she discovers that John Craig is no longer there,though three seconds before his hand was on her arm.

  A shout comes from the street, where, when last she looked, not a livingthing could be seen but the advancing mad dog and the kneeling child. Ashout that proceeds from a strong pair of lungs, and is intended to turnthe attention of the brute toward the person emitting it. A shout thatcauses hope to thrill in many hearts, to inspire a confidence that theinnocent may be saved.

  The young doctor from Chicago is seen bounding to meet the maddenedbrute, now so terribly close to the child.

  None knows better than John Craig what the result of a bite may be.He has seen more than one hydrophobia patient meet death in the mostdreadful manner known to the profession.

  Yet he faces this fate now, the man who was thought too cowardly tocrawl out along that bleak rock and secure a white flower for a girl'swhim.

  He goes not because it will be a great thing to do, or on account of theadmiration which success will bring him. That mother's shriek of agonyrings in his ears, and if he even knew that he was going to his death,yet would he still assume the risk.

  It was on account of a mother--his own--he refused to risk his lifebefore, and the same sacred affection inspires his action now, for hecould never look into her dear eyes again, except in a shame-faced way,if he allowed this child to meet death while he stood an inactivespectator of the tragedy.

  As he advances, John draws his right
arm from his coat-sleeve. It is notthe act of thoughtlessness, but has been done with a motive.

  When the coat is free, with a quick motion he whirls it around, so thatit rolls about his left arm.

  Those who see the act comprehend his purpose, and realize that he meansto force the brute to seize him there.

  All this has occurred in a very brief time. Perhaps a quarter of aminute has elapsed since Lady Ruth turned to Colonel Lionel, andbesought his aid.

  John Craig has at least accomplished one purpose. Just as the mad dog isabout to snap at the child, the young medical student snatches the boyaway, and throws him to the rear. The child rolls over and over, andthen, sitting up, begins to cry, more from surprise at the roughtreatment than because he is hurt.

  There is no time for John to turn and fly, and pick up the child on theway.

  The dog is upon him.

  John has only a chance to drop on his knee, and thrust his left armforward.

  Those who are watching, and they are many, hold their breath in dreadsuspense.

  "Heaven preserve him!" says Lady Ruth, wringing her clasped hands in anagony of fear.

  They see the youth, he is hardly more, offer his bound arm to the beast,and those glittering fangs at once close upon it.

  Then, quick as a flash, having filled the dog's jaws, John Craig throwshimself forward, his whole effort being to crush the animal to theground by his weight.

  It is the work of a strategist. A veteran hunter when met by a fiercepanther could not do better than this.

  As John has expected, the dog, taken by surprise, does not offer theresistance that his powerful strength would warrant, but is at onceborne backward, nor can he release his hold from the cloth-bound armwhich his teeth have seized upon.

  A struggle under such circumstances must be a terrible thing, and theshorter it can be made the better.

  They see the man throw himself upon the brute; they know his other handhas sought the animal's throat, as the only means of ending hisexistence.

  Prayers for his safety arise from many a heart, as the people watch thedreadful conflict from windows, and balconies, and other places wherethey have sought refuge.

  The struggle is of brief duration.

  John has the advantage in the contest, and the desire in his soul toprevent this mad beast from injuring others lends him a strength beyondwhat is naturally his portion.

  With a grip of iron he clutches the brute's throat, and in a few momentsthe dog stiffens in death.

  The young medical student arises, but the ferocious brute lies thereharmless in the roadway. The smallest child in Valetta may play on thestreet now and fear no evil, thanks to the love one American bears forhis mother.

  Now that the danger is past, people flock out.

  With the rest our tourists hasten toward the young hero. A form fliespast them with wild eyes and disheveled hair; a form that pounces uponthe little chap still crying in fright, and presses him convulsively toher breast.

  That is the mother of the child.

  They rush to the spot, some to congratulate the youth who slew the dog,others to gaze upon the horrible spectacle the animal presents as helies there devoid of life.

  Lady Ruth comes with the rest, and upon her fair face and in her sunnyeyes can be seen a warmth of keenest admiration, such as poor Bluntfailed to receive when he leaned far over the dizzy precipice to securethe flower Miss Caprice desired.

  "Oh, doctor, how noble of you! I shall never forgive myself for thefoolish blunder I made. See! these people look upon you as a hero, foryou risked your life for a child of Malta. I am proud to be known asyour friend."

  Her looks as well as her words are enough to send any man into theseventh heaven of delight.

  John Craig is very white; a set look is upon his face, but he smiles alittle.

  "I am glad the little fellow was not touched."

  "And you?" she gasps, a sudden fear arising.

  He slowly unwinds the coat which was thrust into the mad dog's mouth,and then rolls up his shirt-sleeve, to disclose to her horrified eyesthe blue imprint of two fangs in the muscular part of his forearm.