Colonel Carter lit a cigar. It was a deeply satisfying moment. Nothing like a cheroot under the heavens, he thought sentimentally, staring up at the starry sky. Good to be out in open country again. The city had been hemming him in. Here, just a few hundred feet from the Old Post Road, was the garden of Eden itself, with thick grass to lie on, a hedgerow shielding them from the curious, and a nearby chicken coop to supply their meager wants. Of course, he would not have minded staying at an inn, even fancied signing, with a flourish, "Colonel and Mrs.", but Nan would hear none of it. She was convinced they were the object of dark forces in hot pursuit, that they must avoid all stations and turnpikes in favor of the more rural paths. As to where they were going, he had no idea. But that did not greatly trouble the Colonel. In his perfect world it was the woman who had the ideas, and the cash. He followed the path of least resistance when it came both to thought and economics. A damsel in distress, was how he saw the situation. Though her head might not be screwed on tight, she certainly felt herself in danger and so it was his sworn duty to escort her. Besides, he could not have paid this month's rent, and Mrs. Griggs had been talking about having him paint a bench in the garden as compensation. Hardly fit work for an officer.
Nan stirred and moaned beside him.
"Sleep," he said, patting her frail shoulder.
The first night, they had lain in each other's arms. But she would let him do nothing. When he did try fiddling with one of her buttons he found it a fake, a clever diversion guarding no fortified pass.
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," she said.
Hardly pillow-talk, he reflected. As far as he could gather, they were heading towards some safe-haven, a magically curative spot remembered or imagined from the poor girl's past. There, apparently, lived a person who could help or at least advise her. She guided them with the desperate determination of one sick in mind and body, stumbling sometimes, searching for and discovering landmarks invisible to him, the position of a mountain, the smell of new-mown hay. He slipped into villages along the way, bought their provisions and himself this lovely smoke. One might be on a fool's errand but it was good to feel needed.
"Says he loves me," she sneered.
"Who?" the Colonel asked.
"The Devil," she answered, still with her eyes closed. "The Devil incarnate!"
"He won't find us here, Nan. Rest now."
It was his strange ability, just as he was always good with horses, to soothe her. She relaxed and sank back to sleep. The Colonel waited a few minutes, then quietly unfolded a sheet of paper he had removed from the wall of the hostelry he had visited this evening. On it was a picture of Nan, a crude drawing which still caught the essence of her innocent face, the slightly parted lips, the eyes wide and vulnerable, the absurdly affecting jut of the jaw, bravely confronting what she would not be able to withstand. Beneath it, in fine print, ran: "Missing. 'Nan Conner', late of Nag's Head and the Seven Dials Road. Anyone with information concerning her whereabouts contact Messrs. Hasby & Basby, 23 Gower St., London. All communications confidential. Reward." The last word of the notice glowed especially in the red light of the Colonel's cigar.