Mr. Gouger suggested that Mr. Weil would be at Midlands soon, as he had an invitation to the wedding.
"No," replied Mr. Fern, chokingly. "I received word from him to-day that he could not attend. He is out of the city."
Roseleaf gave vent to an expression of nausea.
"Are you yourself deceived?" he exclaimed. "He will not attend my wedding; certainly not! He is attending his own. If, indeed, he does not compass his ends without that preliminary."
Weak and old as Mr. Fern was he would have struck the speaker had not the third person in the room interfered.
"Do you dare to speak in that manner of my daughter!" he cried. "Must you attack the character not only of my best friend but of my child as well? I thank God at this moment, whatever be her fate, that she did not join her life to yours!"
With a majestic step he strode from the presence of his late prospective son-in-law. Gouger, with a feeling that some one should accompany him, followed. But first he turned to speak in a low key to the novelist.
"Do not go out to-night, unless you hear from me," he said, impressively. "This may not be as bad as you think, after all. I will go to Midlands and return with what news I can get. Don't act until you are certain of your premises."
The young man was removing his wedding suit, already.
"I shall not go out," he responded, aimlessly.
"You might write a few pages—on your novel," suggested the critic, as he stood in the hallway. "There will never be a better—"
A vigorous movement slammed the door in his face before he could complete his sentence.
Hastening after Mr. Fern, Gouger accompanied him home, where the first thing he heard was that there was still no news of the missing one.
AN AWFUL NIGHT.
It was an awful night for Wilton Fern. The presence in the house of Mr. Gouger and Mr. Boggs aided him but little to bear the weight that pressed upon his heart. It was better than being entirely alone, but not a great deal. Together they listened whenever their ears caught an unusual sound. Twenty times they went together to the street door and opened it to find nothing animate before them.
Morning came and still no tidings. The earliest trains from the city were visited by servants, for the master of the house was too exhausted to make the journey. And at nine o'clock the gentlemen who had passed the night at Midlands took the railway back to New York, with no solution of the great problem.
Mr. Gouger had not been in his office an hour before the door opened and in walked Archie Weil. The critic started from his chair at the unexpected sight, and remarked that he had not expected to see his visitor so early.
"I presume you heard the news and came home at once," he added, meaningly.
Mr. Weil was pale, and wore the look of one whose rest has been disturbed.
"I don't know what you mean," he replied. "I was called away on business that I could not evade, and came back as soon as I could. I fear the Ferns thought it rather rough of me to stay away from the wedding, but I could not very well help it. You were there, of course. Everything went off well, I trust."
The speaker had the air of a man who tries to appear at ease when he is not. His voice trembled slightly and his hands roamed from one portion of his apparel to another.
"Then you have heard nothing!" repeated Gouger, gravely. "Prepare yourself for a shock. There was no wedding last night at the Ferns'. Miss Daisy disappeared yesterday morning, and has not been seen since."
If Mr. Weil had been pale before, his face was like a dead man's now. With many expressions of incredulity he listened to the explanations that followed. He declared that the occurrence was past belief, and that he could see no way to account for it. Clearly something had happened that the girl could not prevent. She would never have absented herself of her own accord. She loved the man who was to be her husband, and if she had wished to postpone her marriage she could have easily arranged it.
"I can think of nothing but a fit of temporary insanity," he added, with a sigh. "And Shirley—poor fellow—how does he take it? Completely broken up, I suppose?"
When he heard the attitude that Mr. Roseleaf had assumed, Mr. Weil seemed stupefied. Little by little Mr. Gouger revealed to him the answers that the young man had made to Mr. Fern, finally referring to the charge that he (Mr. Weil) had eloped with the bride. Archie's face grew more and more rigid as he listened, but the anger that the relator had anticipated did not show there.
"He is crazy," was the mild reply. "I will go and see him, at once, and enlist his assistance in the thorough search that must be undertaken. Come, Lawrence, leave your work for an hour and go with me."
Remembering his promise to return in the morning with the latest tidings, Mr. Gouger put on his hat and coat and entered the cab which his friend summoned. He felt that he was about to witness another chapter that would make most dramatic reading in that great novel!
"You had best let me go in first," he whispered, when they stood at Roseleaf's door. "He is in an excitable frame of mind, I fear."
For answer, Archie brushed the speaker aside and preceded him into the chamber, without the formality of a knock. Roseleaf lay before them in his easy chair, bearing evidence in his attire that he had not disrobed during the night. He greeted his visitors with nothing more than a look of inquiry.
"I only heard of your terrible disaster a few moments ago," said Mr. Weil. "I learn that Miss Daisy had not been heard from up to nine o'clock this morning. We must bring all our energies to bear on this matter, Shirley. Her father is unable to help us much. For all we know she may be in the most awful danger. Rouse yourself and let us consult what is best to do."
Incredulousness was written on the quiet face that looked up at him from the armchair.
"Why don't you tell us what you have done with her?" said the bloodless lips, slowly.
Mr. Weil trembled with suppressed emotion.
"This is no time for recriminations," he replied, "or I might answer that in a different way. We must find this girl. Before we go to the police let us consider all the possibilities, for they will deluge us with questions. Did any one think," he asked, suddenly, turning to Gouger, "of sending word to her sister Millicent?"
Mr. Gouger replied that they had done so. A servant had been dispatched early in the evening to Millicent's residence and had returned with the answer that she had heard nothing of Miss Daisy and did not wish to. She had previously sent a sarcastic reply to an invitation to attend the wedding.
"And she never came to comfort her father in his distress!" exclaimed Mr. Weil. "What a daughter!"
They could get nothing out of Roseleaf. He answered a dozen times that it would be much easier for Mr. Weil to send Daisy home or to write to her father that she was in his keeping, than to attempt the difficult task of deceiving the police, who would have enough shrewdness to unmask him.
"Then you will do nothing to help us?" demanded Archie, his patience becoming exhausted, though he kept his temper very well. "In that case we must lose no more time. Ah, Shirley! I thought you worthy of that angelic creature, but now—"
He checked himself before finishing the sentence, and went out into the hall.
"I think I had best go to Midlands and consult with Mr. Fern," he said to Gouger in a low tone. "There is a possibility that his daughter has returned since you came away. What an awful list of horrible thoughts crowd on one! If you can help me any I will send you word later."
When Mr. Weil was gone, Mr. Gouger opened the door and looked again into Roseleaf's room. The young man had not changed his position in the least.
"He has started for Midlands," he said. "What do you think of his explanation in regard to his absence last night?"
"I think—I know—it is a lie!" was the quick reply.
"You really believe she went away to meet him—and that he has passed the last twenty-four hours with her."
The critic waited a minute.
"Do you think they are married?" he asked.
Roseleaf closed his eyes, as a terrible pain shot across them. He wondered dimly why this fellow should delight in uttering things that must cause suffering. Gouger deliberated whether to say more, but thinking that he had left the right idea in the young man's mind for the purpose he had in view, he softly withdrew from the chamber and left the house. When Roseleaf looked up again, some minutes later, he was alone.
* * * * *
Mr. Weil's hand was grasped feebly by the owner of Midlands, when he came into the presence of the gentleman. Though completely exhausted Mr. Fern had not been able to sleep. He listened wearily while his caller suggested possibilities to account for his daughter's absence, but could not agree that any of them were probable. When the idea was broached of communicating with the police he shrank from that course, but finally admitted that it must be adopted, if all else failed. In answer to a hundred questions he could only say that he had no idea of anything that could make her absence voluntary.
"She loved her chosen husband devotedly," said the old man. "When she hears what I have to tell her she will hold a different opinion."
"Then," said Archie, ignoring the latter expression, "she must either be the victim of an accident, a fit of aberration, or—"
He could not bear to finish the sentence, but the father bowed in acquiescence.
Lunch was served and Mr. Weil sat down to it, trying by his example to persuade Mr. Fern to take a few mouthfuls. Neither of them had any appetite, and the attempt was a dismal failure.
"I leave everything to you," said the host, as Mr. Weil prepared to take his departure. "You are the truest friend I ever had, and whatever you decide upon I will endorse. But I have an awful sinking at the heart, a feeling that I shall never see my child alive. Do you believe in premonitions? I have felt for weeks that some misfortune hung over me."
Before Mr. Weil could reply a servant entered with a telegraphic message that had just been received. Tearing it open hastily Mr. Fern uttered a cry and handed it to his companion:
"I am alive and uninjured. Look for me to-morrow.—Daisy."
A gush of tears drowned the exclamations of joy that the father began to utter.
"Alive!" he exclaimed. "And will be home to-morrow! Ah, Mr. Weil, hope is not lost, after all. But why, why does she leave me in my loneliness another night? Is there any way in which you can explain this mystery?"
Mr. Weil confessed his inability to do so. He tried, however, to show the father the bright side of the affair, and bade him rest tranquil in the certainty that only a few hours separated him from the child he adored. When Daisy came home she would explain everything to his satisfaction. In the meantime he ought to indulge in thankfulness for what he had learned rather than in regrets.
"Go to bed and get a good rest," he added. "I will make a journey to the telegraph office in the city and see if it is possible to trace this message. If I learn anything I will ring you up on the telephone at once. And remember, if you do not hear from me, there is a proverb that no news is good news. Daisy has promised to come home to-morrow. This is something definite. An hour ago we were plunged in despair. Now we have a certainty that should buoy us up to the highest hope."
Catching at this view of the case, Mr. Fern consented to seek rest and Mr. Weil took the next train to the city. Engaging a carriage he bade the driver take him with all speed to Mr. Roseleaf's residence. Notwithstanding the harsh manner in which he had been treated by his late friend, he wanted to be the first to inform him that Daisy had been heard from. He was smarting, naturally, under the imputation upon his own honor, and felt that the telegram in his hand would at least remove that suspicion.
"I couldn't help coming again, Shirley," he said, when he was in the presence of the novelist. "I know, despite the cruel manner you have assumed, that you still love Daisy Fern and will be glad to hear that she is safe from harm. Here is a telegram that her father has just received, stating that she is well and will be at home to-morrow."
His face glowed with pleasure as he held out the missive, but darkened again when Roseleaf declined to take it in his hand. The young man had not moved, apparently, from the chair in which he had been seen three hours before, and his expression of countenance was unchanged.
"Does she say where she passed the night—and with whom?" he inquired.
"No. But she says she is well and will return. Is not that a great deal, when we have feared some accident, perhaps a fatal one?"
The novelist uttered a sneering laugh.
"My God, Shirley, why do you treat me like this!" exclaimed Mr. Weil, excitedly. "I have been your friend in everything, as true to you as man could be! If I had done the dastardly thing of which you accuse me, why should I come to you at all? I could have taken my bride and gone to the other end of the earth. We need not have adopted these contemptible measures. But although I did care for this girl—more than I ever cared or ever shall care for another—I knew it was you she loved and I did all I could to aid you in your suit. Have you forgotten how I brought her here, as you lay in that very chair, and removed the misunderstandings that had grown up between you? As God hears me, I have no idea what caused her absence last night! I am going now to the telegraph office to trace, if possible, the message and find where she is at present, for I want to relieve her father's mind still more."
Roseleaf seemed partially convinced by this outburst. He left his chair, and began slowly to arrange his attire before the mirror.
"If you are sincere," he said, "I will accompany you. I will also do my best to discover the resting-place of this young woman. You must remain with me till she is found. If we do not see her before to-morrow morning, we will walk into her presence at Midlands together. Do you agree to this?"
"With all my heart!" was the joyous reply.
In ten minutes they entered the carriage at the door, and were driven to the station from which the telegram had been sent.
"THIS ENDS IT, THEN?"
There was nothing to be learned at the telegraph office. As near as could be remembered a boy had brought the message, paid for it and vanished. Only one discovery amounted to anything. The original dispatch was produced and proved to be in Daisy's handwriting. Roseleaf attested to this, and he knew the characters too well to be mistaken.
It was not advisable, in Mr. Weil's opinion, to go to the police, after the receipt of this word from the missing girl. It would only add to the notoriety of the family in case the press got hold of the news. But he did think it wise to go to see Isaac Leveson and find a man named Hazen, whose reputation as a detective was great. He could rely on the absolute silence of both of them. The ride to Isaac's was consequently made next, and by good fortune Hazen happened to be in. He listened gravely to the situation as it was outlined by Mr. Weil, but expressed his opinion that nothing would be gained by doing anything before the next day.
"That telegram is genuine," he said. "It follows that, unless she is detained forcibly, she will be at home to-morrow. The writing in this message is not like that of a person under threats, like one compelled to send a false statement. Your best way is to wait till she comes home, providing it is not later than she indicates, and hear her story. Perhaps it will explain the mystery. If she declines to do this, I will undertake to probe it to the bottom, if you wish."
Mr. Roseleaf took no part in this discussion. He was becoming convinced that Archie Weil was innocent of any complicity in this affair, but he was still disinclined to talk much.
"Where shall we go now?" he asked, when they came out of the restaurant.
"To the Hoffman House?" said Weil, interrogatively. "I believe with Hazen that we can do nothing to-night."
Very well, to the Hoffman House they would go. But they had not been in Weil's room five minutes when a boy came up with a telephonic message from Mr. Fern, stating that Daisy was safe at Midlands.
"Let us return without delay," said Weil, enthusiastically. "We should not lose a moment in removing this terrible cloud! Come, Shirley, we can catch the six o'clock train if we hasten."
Mechanically the younger man followed his companion through the hall, down the elevator and into a carriage at the door. Forty minutes later they alighted from the train at Midlands and were soon in the familiar parlor at Mr. Fern's. A servant who had admitted them, stated that Miss Daisy had been home about two hours but that she was now lying down. He would inquire whether she would receive the visitors.
What seemed an interminable time followed before the appearance of Mr. Fern and his daughter. When at last they came in together, leaning on each other, they were two as forlorn objects as one can imagine. The sight of his sweetheart's woe-begone face smote Roseleaf like a blow. He regretted to the bottom of his heart the cruel things he had thought and said of her.
"Daisy!" he exclaimed, stepping forward. "Daisy—my—"
He could get no further, for Mr. Fern, with a majestic motion of his hand, waved him back. The presence of the intended bridegroom was evidently not agreeable to the old gentleman.
"Sit down," said Mr. Fern, in a quavering voice, addressing himself wholly to Weil. "I telephoned to you that my daughter had returned, for I knew you would be anxious." He bore with special stress on the word "you." "I—I did not know that you intended to bring—any other person."
The allusion to Roseleaf was so direct, that he could not help attempting some kind of a reply.
"Who could be more anxious than I?" he asked, in a tone that was very sweet and tender; in vivid contrast, the old man thought, to his manner of the preceding evening. "No one has a greater interest to learn where she has been these long, desolate hours."
Mr. Fern abandoned his intention not to recognize the fact that Roseleaf was present, and turned upon him with a fierce glare in his sunken eyes.
"What right have you to ask questions?" he demanded, pressing the trembling form of his daughter to his own. "You were the first to doubt her—even her innocence—this lamb that would have given her life for you only yesterday! She has returned to me, and henceforth she is mine! You could not have her though you came on your knees! You wish to know where she has been! Well, you never will! She will not tell you! It is her own affair. I am speaking for her when I say that we desire no more of your visits to this house; we are through with you, thank God!"
It would be hard to tell which of the two men who listened to this was the more surprised. Mr. Weil felt his heart sink as well as did Roseleaf. Daisy clung to her father, without raising her eyes, and there was nothing to indicate that she disputed his assertions.
All was over between her and Roseleaf! Nothing could bring them together again! And she did not mean to divulge the cause of her remaining away a day and a night—that day and night that had been expected to precede and succeed her marriage.
Shirley rose slowly. He bent his eyes earnestly on the father and daughter, and his voice was firm.
"When one is dismissed, there is nothing for him but to go. I regret sincerely what I said last night, when the horror of this thing came suddenly upon me. I love you, Daisy, and I know by what you have told me so often that you love me. Are the foolish utterances of a distracted man to separate us forever? Conceive the agony I was in when at the very moment I was to start for my wedding I heard that my bride could not be found! If I had not adored you passionately would I have been on the verge of madness, saying and doing things without reason and excuse? I am ordered to leave you, my sweetheart, and if you do not bid me stay I can only obey the mandate. But I love you more at this moment than ever. All I ask to know is why you made this flight. If your answer is satisfactory there will be nothing on my part to prevent our marriage."
Archie Weil wished that he could have led this young man aside for just a moment, to show him that this was no time to make demands or exact conditions. He had no doubt that Daisy would explain everything, a little later. All that was wanted now was a revocation of the dismissal that Mr. Fern had pronounced. But he could not control the stormy ocean upon which they rode.
"You seem singularly obtuse," came the shaking voice of the old gentleman. "It is not for you to dictate terms. We want to see you no more. Is not that clear enough?"
It certainly did not seem to be. Roseleaf lingered, wondering if these were really to be the last phrases he would hear in that house—in that very room where he had expected to hear the words that would make this sweet girl his for life.
"Daisy," he said, addressing himself once more to the silent figure, "I cannot believe you have so soon learned to hate me!"
She looked up at the solemn face and then dropped her eyes again.
"You will tell me where you were?" he pleaded. "It is my right to know."
She looked up again, with a wild horror in her features.
"Oh, I cannot!" she cried. "I never can tell you. I never can!"
This statement shocked more than one person in that room. Up to this moment Mr. Fern had only understood, from the disjointed expressions of his daughter when she entered the house, that she did not wish to be questioned at that time. She had also explained to him that she had sent the telegram to make the coast clear of all except her parent, as she did not wish to meet others on her first arrival. When he had urged the duty of informing Mr. Weil she had acquiesced, not dreaming that Mr. Roseleaf would be in his company.
And now the old man felt that there was more in the answer she had given than he had suspected—something very like a confession of wrong. Mr. Weil felt this also, though he could not believe Daisy meant anything very heinous, and Shirley Roseleaf had a dagger in his breast as he reflected what interpretation might be given to her words.
"You cannot!" he repeated, ignoring the position in which he stood, and the presence of the others. "You must!"
Mr. Weil made haste to allay the storm that he saw was still rising.
"Let us be considerate," he said. "Miss Fern is not well. She is tired and nervous. To-morrow, when she has rested, she will be only too glad to tell us the history of her strange disappearance."
Mr. Fern looked uneasily from his daughter to the gentlemen and back again. He loved her dearly, and in this new danger that seemed to threaten her—danger perhaps even to her reputation—he wanted more than ever to shield her from all harm. Whatever had happened she was his child. She should not be baited and badgered by any one. But Daisy did not give him time to speak in her defense. She answered Mr. Weil almost as soon as the question left his lips.
"It cannot be. Not to-morrow, nor at any other time, can I tell you—or any person—anything. You must never ask me. It would merely give me pain, and heaven knows I shall suffer enough without it. Let me say a little more, for this is the last time I shall ever speak of these things. To you, Mr. Weil, I want to give my warmest thanks. You have been a true friend to me and mine. I do not mean to seem ungrateful, but I can tell you no more. And as for you, Shirley," she turned with set eyes to the novelist, "you know what we were to each other. It is all ended now. Even if you had expressed no disbelief in me when you heard I had disappeared, it would be just the same. I hold no hard feelings against you, whatever my father may say. It is simply good-by. I shall not remain here much longer. Do not let this make you unhappy any longer than you can help. Now, you must excuse me, for my strength is gone."
Daisy had been much longer saying these things than the reader will be in perusing them. They had come in gasps, as from one in severe pain, and there were pauses of many seconds. When she had finished she rose, and leaning heavily on the feeble old man who escorted her, walked slowly out of the room.
"Well, this ends it, then," said Roseleaf, gloomily, following the fair figure with heavy eyes.
"No, Shirley, it does not; it shall not!" replied Weil. "There is some dreadful mistake here, and a little time will clear it away. Have patience."
The novelist gazed at the speaker with a strange look.
"I have treated you like a brute," he said, slowly. "And I have treated Mr. Fern just as badly. My punishment is well deserved. But how can this puzzle of her absence be accounted for! Of course she would have had to satisfy me on that point before I could have married her."
The listener turned giddily toward a window.
"And yet you talk of love!" he said, recovering. "If that girl had done me the honor she did you I would not have asked her such a question—I would have refused to listen if it gave her the slightest pain to tell."
"I wonder she did not love you instead of me—for she did love me once," was the sober reply. "You would be a thousand times better, more suitable, than I."
There was no reply to this, but the two men walked slowly out of the house and to the station, where they took the next train for the city. On the way they talked little, and at the Grand Central Depot they separated.
Lawrence Gouger, who had in some strange way learned the news of Miss Fern's return, was awaiting Roseleaf in his rooms.
"Well, I hear the missing one is found," he said, as the novelist came in.
"Yes. She is with her father. But the peculiar thing is that she closes her lips absolutely about her absence. She not only refuses to speak now, but announces that her refusal is final."
Mr. Gouger hesitated what card to play.
"When does the marriage take place?" he asked, finally.
"With me? Never. I have been thrown over. Unless she had explained I could not have married her, any way; could I?"
The critic said he did not know. It would certainly have been awkward.
"And what is your theory?" he added. "Do you still lay anything to Weil?"
"No. I am completely nonplussed. But, never mind. It is over."
Roseleaf stretched himself, and yawned.
"Do you know, Gouger, I almost doubt if I have really been in love at all. I feel a queer sense of relief at being out of it, though there is a dull pain, too, that isn't exactly comfortable. I told Archie coming in that she should have married him. Upon my soul I wish she would. She's an awful nice little thing, and he has a heart that is genuine enough for her. Well, it's odd, anyway."
Astonishment was written on the face of the other gentleman as he heard these statements.
"You have at least gained one point," he said, impressively. "You have done the best part of the greatest novel that ever was written. Sit down as soon as you can and finish it, and we shall see your name so high up on the temple of fame that no contemporary of this generation can reach it."
"So high the letters will be indistinguishable, I fear," responded Roseleaf, with a laugh. "Where do you think I can get the heartiest supper in New York? I am positively starved. I don't believe I've eaten a thing since yesterday. If you can help me any to clear the board, let us go together."
This invitation was accepted, and Roseleaf began making a more particular toilet, taking great pains with the set of his cravat and spending at least ten minutes extra on his hair when he had finished shaving himself. He never had allowed a barber to touch his face.
"You won't lose any time on the novel, will you?" asked Gouger, anxiously, while these preparations were in progress. "You must take hold of it while the events are fresh in your mind."
"All right. I'll begin again to-morrow morning, and stick to the work till it's done. Where shall we go to supper? I'll tell you—Isaac Leveson's."
The critic could not conceal his surprise at the overturn that had taken place so suddenly in the young man's conduct. He stared at him with a look that approached consternation.
"You want to go there!" he exclaimed, unable to control himself. "You wish to dine with some pretty girl, eh?"
Roseleaf started violently.
"No, no! Not—yet!" he answered. "We can get a supper room without that appendix. I wish to be among men as mean as myself. I want to dine in a house full of people who would cut a woman's throat—or break her heart—and sleep soundly when they had done it!"
AN UNDISCOVERABLE SECRET.
The Ferns did not stay much longer at Midlands. Crushed by their misfortunes neither cared to remain near the scenes that had made them so unhappy, nor where they would be likely to meet faces which kept alive their grief. The father knew no more than at first concerning the strange conduct of his daughter. She had told him nothing, and he had not asked her a single question. It was enough for him that she was bowed with a great trouble. His only thought was to mitigate her distress in every possible way. He was old—how old he had not realized until that week when she changed from a happy, laughing girl, standing at the threshold of a marriage she longed for, to a sombre shadow that walked silently by his side. He was the one who under ordinary circumstances should have received the care and the thoughtfulness—but everything was altered now. He guided and directed the younger feet, even though his own were faltering and slow.
Where they had gone no one seemed to know. Archie Weil received one brief note from Mr. Fern thanking him again in touching phrase for his many kindnesses, and saying that Daisy wished to add her most earnest wish for his happiness. The letter said they were going away for some time; but no more. He went one day to Midlands, hoping to learn something from the servants, and found the home entirely deserted. A neighbor told him a real estate agent near by had the keys, but that the place was neither for sale nor to rent. The agent, when found, could add nothing to his stock of information. Mr. Fern had merely mentioned that he was going on a journey and asked to have a man sleep at the house during his absence, as a precaution against robbery.
Mr. Weil saw Roseleaf two or three times, but the interviews were so unsatisfactory that he felt them not worth repeating. The novelist told him, as he had told Gouger, that he did not believe he had ever really loved Daisy, and was actually relieved now that the strain was ended. No persuasion could turn him from this statement, which he made rather in explanation of his present course than as a defense of it. Gouger had persuaded him that a love affair was necessary to develop his talents as a writer. Before he knew what he was about, such an affair had been precipitated upon him. He had felt its pleasures and pains to the uttermost, and now it was ended. All that was left as a result was a pile of MSS. which the critic pronounced wonderful. It was as if he had been in a trance, or mesmerized. Henceforth he would confine his writings to actualities or to poetic imaginings.
Talking with a man who held these views was not inspiring, to put it mildly, and Archie reluctantly gave up all hopes of making Daisy Fern a happy woman through this source. He had dreamed of unraveling the mystery that surrounded her and placing the young couple again in the position which, by some horrible mischance, had been so vitally changed in the short space of one day. Though he still loved Daisy with all the warmth of his nature, Archie had no thought of trying to win her for himself. She had given the fullness of her innocent heart to Roseleaf and he did not believe she was one to change her affections to another so soon as this.
What had happened! What had happened! He thought it over day by day, and night by night.
Among the things he did before leaving New York—for he felt that a journey was necessary for him—was to seek out Millicent. He found the elder sister adamant to every suggestion of love for her family. She believed herself injured by them, and would have nothing more to do with either. As to the strange affair regarding Daisy she declared she had no theory. She did not think it sufficiently interesting even to try to formulate one. Her time was given to writing, and she had found another assistant that quite filled Roseleaf's place. The firm of Scratch & Bytum had accepted her latest novel, as she did not care to have anything more to do with Mr. Gouger.
When she mentioned the name of Roseleaf, Mr. Weil looked at her intently, and saw that she uttered it with the utmost calmness. She had hardened. Her fancied grievances had made her a different woman. She was cynical before, but now she was bitter. He would not have believed that such an alteration could have taken place in so short a time.
"What is your new book about?" he asked, trying to be polite.
"Crime!" she answered briefly. "It deals with the lowest of the low. It suits the mood I am in. I am writing of things so terrible that they will hardly be credited. To get at my facts I have to go into the most depraved quarters, and associate with the canaille. But I am going to make a hit that has not been equaled in recent years!"
He smiled sadly.
"Roseleaf had the same expectation," he said. "And yet he tells me that he is doing nothing on that wonderful tale over which I have heard Gouger rave so often. He has reached a point where he can go no farther, and unless he rouses himself, all he has done is merely wasted time."
Millicent closed her eyes till they resembled those of a cat at noonday.
"Keep watch for mine," she said. "It will be all I claim for it."
During the winter Mr. Weil was in California. As spring approached he returned to the East and visited a well known resort in North Carolina, where by one of those curious coincidences that happen to travelers, he found himself placed at table exactly opposite to Mr. Walker Boggs. The ordinary salutations and explanations followed, and then Mr. Boggs alluded to a more interesting subject.
"I think I can surprise you," he remarked, "by something that I learned the other day. Mr. Fern and Miss Daisy are living within five miles of here."
It was certainly news, and entirely unexpected at that. Those people might be in Greenland, for all Archie had known, and indeed he had supposed they were on the other side of the ocean. He listened with interest while Boggs went on to say that they had hired an old plantation house and grounds and were living a strictly secluded life. The narrator had seen them in one of his drives through the country, and had talked a few minutes with Mr. Fern; but—and he said it with a touch of pique—he had not been invited to visit them, nor had any apology been made for the neglect.
"By George, I thought it rather tough!" he added, "considering the way you and I got him out of that nigger's clutches."
"But you must remember what he has since endured," replied Archie, mildly.
"And there's been no explanation, of any sort?"
"Not the slightest. I'd give half I'm worth if I could get a clue. It worries me all the time. A life like that girl's ruined—simply ruined—in twenty-four hours, and nobody able to tell why! It's enough to drive a man frantic!"
Mr. Weil did not drive immediately to Oakhurst, which he learned was the name of the estate that Mr. Fern rented, but he enclosed his card in a hotel envelope and sent it there by mail, without a word of comment. If they thought it best to see him he would be glad to go, otherwise he would not intrude on their privacy.
Several days after—mails were slow in the South—an answer came. It briefly requested that Mr. Weil and Mr. Boggs, if the latter were still in town, would come to lunch on the following Wednesday. Boggs fumed slightly at the apparent difference made between him and Weil, but ended by going with his friend to Oakhurst.
Mr. Fern did not look any worse than when Archie had last seen him—indeed, if anything, he had improved in appearance. Time helps most griefs to put on a better face, and though the marks of what he had passed through would not be likely to leave his countenance, the utter hopelessness had in a measure disappeared. When Daisy came into the parlor, she also wore a mien not quite so crushed as when she left the room at Midlands with her words of farewell. Whatever her trouble was, it had not left her without something to live for. Her youth was doing its work, and it seemed to the anxious eyes of the onlooker that time would restore her nearly, if not quite, to her former radiance.
In the presence of Mr. Boggs, neither father nor daughter cared to discuss the past. They talked of the plantation on which they resided, of the pleasant drives in the vicinity, and of matters connected with the world in general, of which they had learned through the newspapers. But after the lunch was finished Archie found himself alone with Daisy, wandering through the extensive oak forest that gave the place its name.
"How long shall you stay here?" he asked her, as a prelude to the other questions he wanted to follow it.
"I don't know," she replied. "We shall probably go north during the warm weather, perhaps to the White Mountains."
He suggested that it must be rather lonesome at Oakhurst.
"Not for us," she said, quickly. "We are all in all to each other, and require no thickly settled community to satisfy us."
"Daisy," he said, after a pause, "there are things I must say to you, and I hope—with all my heart—you will find a way to answer them. In the first place, do you believe me, really, truly, your friend?"
She placed her hand in his for answer. The action meant more than any form of words.
"Then, tell me—tell me as freely as if I were your brother, your priest—why you stayed from home that night."
She withdrew the hand he held, to place it with the other over her eyes.
"It is impossible," she responded, with a gasp. "I told you that I never could explain, and I never can."
He looked sorely disappointed.
"I know no person on earth—not even my father," she proceeded, giving him back the clasp she had loosened, "that I would tell it to sooner than you. I have not given him the least hint. I know it leaves you to think a thousand things, and I can only throw myself on your mercy; I can only ask you to remember all you knew of me before that day, and decide whether a girl can change her whole mental and moral attitude in a moment."
He drew her arm caressingly through his, and breathed a sigh on her forehead.
"Not for one second have I doubted your truth!" he replied. "Believe that, Daisy, through everything. But I hoped for an explanation, for something that might assist me to punish the guilty ones, for such there must have been."
The face that she turned toward him was full of terror.
"Why do you say that?" she exclaimed.
"No, no!" she cried, interrupting him. "I do not want to hear you! We must not talk on the subject! There is nothing to be told, nothing to be guessed. This must be alluded to no more between us. It must end here and now!"
Thoroughly disappointed, he could do no more than acquiesce in the decision, and he indicated as much by a profound bow. Then she changed the conversation by an abrupt allusion to Roseleaf. When he told her, as he thought it wisest to do, how well the young man had borne his loss, she said she was very thankful. She had feared that he would suffer when he came to his senses, and it was a mercy that this reflection had been spared her.
He spoke of her sister, and of the call he had made upon her, suppressing, however, the disagreeable features of her remarks. Daisy said she had written twice and received no reply. It was evident that the separation in the family was final.
Toward evening the visitors drove back to their hotel, discussing the strange events that had occurred. Archie Weil did not close his eyes that night. The love he had tried to suppress broke forth in all its original fervor. He could not sleep with the object of his adoration five miles away, so lonely and so desolate.
* * * * *
The next day Mr. Boggs went away, and the next after this, a new visitor carried from the north. On coming out upon the veranda to smoke, Mr. Weil found Shirley Roseleaf there.
The surprise was mutual. Dying of ennui, Archie was glad even to meet the novelist. They talked for hours and afterward went to ride together. It appeared that Roseleaf had come south to get material for an article in the interest of the magazine on which he was employed.
One night, a week later, Roseleaf came into Weil's room and asked if he would like to take a moonlight canter with him. Glad of any means to vary the awful monotony Archie accepted, and the horses were soon mounted. Weil noticed that the route was in the direction of Oakhurst, but as he supposed Roseleaf knew nothing of the presence of the Ferns there, and as the family were doubtless abed at this time, he made no attempt to induce him to take an opposite course. It was a sad pleasure to pass within so short a distance of the roof that sheltered the one he loved best. On they rode, until they were within a mile of Oakhurst, and then Roseleaf drew his animal down to a walk. A little further he turned sharply into a by-path and alighted.
"What's all this?" asked Archie, stupefied with astonishment.
"I PLAYED AND I LOST."
Roseleaf did not immediately reply. He busied himself by tying his horse to a tree, taking particular pains to make the knot good and strong. He apparently wanted a little time to think what form of words to use.
"I want you to see something that will interest you," he said, finally, in the lowest tone that could well be heard. "If you will follow my example and accompany me some distance further I think you will be paid for your trouble."
Mr. Weil was pale. He felt certain that this strange visit had been premeditated, and that some revelation regarding the Fern family was about to be made. The dread of an unknown possibility for which he had no preparation—affecting the girl for whom he had so deep a love—unmanned him.
"I have a right to ask you to explain," he responded. "If your statement is satisfactory I will accompany you gladly. I do not see the need of any mystery in the matter."
The younger man drew a long breath and looked abstractedly at the ground for some moments. Then he spoke again:
"There are subjects," he said, "that one does not like to discuss. There are names that one hesitates to pronounce. If you will tie your horse and go with me, your eyes and ears will make questions unnecessary."
A momentary suspicion flashed through the mind of the other—a suspicion that he was being beguiled to this lonely spot from a sinister motive that boded his safety no good. But it was immediately dismissed, and after another second of delay, Archie slipped from his saddle and followed the example of his companion.
"Lead on," he said, laconically.
Without waiting for a second invitation, Roseleaf began to penetrate the wood. He found a footpath, after going a short distance, and crept along it slowly, taking evident pains not to make unnecessary noise. They were going in the direction of Oakhurst, and in less than ten minutes the chimneys of that residence could be seen in front of them. A little further and Roseleaf stopped, placing himself in the attitude of an attentive listener.
The silence was profound. A slight chill permeated the atmosphere, but neither of the prowlers felt cold. On the contrary, perspiration covered the bodies of both of them. Roseleaf went, very slowly, along the path, till he came near a fence, and then, diverging from it, drew himself quietly into a thick copse, motioning Weil to follow. Here the leader sank to the ground, with a motion which indicated that the journey was temporarily, at least, at an end, and the second member of the party followed his example.
Half an hour passed with nothing to indicate the reason for these most peculiar actions. Half an hour that was interminable to Mr. Weil, torn with a thousand fears as to what it might all portend. At last, however, a faint sound broke the stillness. Some one was approaching. Roseleaf touched the shoulder of his companion to indicate the necessity of absolute silence.
Hardly ten feet away there passed a tall, athletic form, walking with a quick stride, as of one who has no suspicion that he is watched by unfriendly eyes. As the man's face became visible in the moonlight it was well that Roseleaf had a pressure of warning on his companion's shoulder. It was almost impossible for the latter to restrain an exclamation that would have ruined everything.
It was the face of Hannibal, the negro!
Horrified, Archie turned his bloodshot eyes toward Roseleaf. What could this strange visit of Hannibal's to that vicinity presage? Did he intend to murder the master of the house and abduct the daughter? What was he doing there, at an hour not much short of midnight? The terrors of his previous imaginings gave way to yet more horrible ones.
But the mute appeal that he shot at his companion produced no answer, except a resolute shake of the head—an absolute prohibition against the least sound or movement.
Hannibal reached the fence and, without any attempt at concealment, climbed over it into the enclosure where were situated the house and outbuildings of the Oakhurst estate. He acted like one who knows his ground and has no occasion to pick his way. He went, however, but a little farther in the direction of the residence. In a place where the shadow of a smokehouse hid him from the possible view of any one looking from the windows, he waited in an attitude of expectation.
The difficulty of controlling himself grew stronger and stronger for Archie Weil. He wanted to end this terrible doubt—to spring over that fence, pinion this fellow by the throat and demand what business he had on those premises at that hour. Roseleaf realized all that was passing in his mind, and kept his hand still on his shoulder, at the same time warning him by signs that the least movement would ruin everything. It seemed to Archie, when he thought it over afterward, that he had never endured such pain. He knew beyond reasonable doubt that Hannibal was awaiting some one by appointment. Who could it be? That was the stupendous question that Roseleaf might have answered in a whisper, but that he preferred for some mysterious reason his friend should discover in the natural course of events. And that course was horribly, torturously slow!
Everything has an end, and the dread of the watcher changed to another feeling as he saw distinctly one of the outer doors of the residence open and Daisy Fern's form come out. Without glancing to the right or the left she walked in the direction where the negro was waiting. For an instant, overcome by his apprehensions, Archie closed both his eyes in despair. The voice of Roseleaf was at last heard in his ear, a whisper nearly inaudible, conjuring him not to betray his presence whatever the provocation.
When Archie opened his eyes again he saw that Hannibal stood in an attitude of respect. When the girl approached he bowed, without offering any more intimate courtesy. Daisy had the look of one who has made up her mind to endure an unpleasant interview and desires to end it as quickly as possible.
"Well?" she said, in a low tone.
"I am going to-morrow," he replied, in a voice that shook with emotion.
"And, as I told you, I want to say good-by once more."
Archie breathed a trifle easier. He could not tell what fears had crowded upon him—they were indistinct in their horribleness—but some of them had already flown.
"You are as cold as ever," continued the rich voice of the negro, in a cadence that was meant to be reproachful.
"Do you think I could be anything else?" was the quick reply, as if forced from lips that had meant to remain silent. "Has your conduct been such as to make me like or respect you?"
The negro's eyes fell before her indignant gaze.
"No," he answered, humbly. "I expect nothing; I ask nothing. I can see my mistakes now. And yet, it would have been no different had I played the part of an angel toward you. The entire question with you was settled in advance by the fact that my skin was black."
The pressure on Weil's shoulder grew heavier, from time to time, as his companion realized his temptation to break from his covert.
"If it had been as white as any man's who ever lived," replied Daisy, boldly, "your conduct would have earned the contempt of a self-respecting person! A blackmailer, an abductor, a conspirator against the peace of mind of an old man and a young girl who never harmed you! I wonder you can talk of other reasons when you created so many by your wicked acts!"
Hannibal shrugged his shoulders.
"It is true, nevertheless," he replied. "I am a negro. In a moment of insanity I dreamed I was a Man! I dreamed I might gain for my wife a woman whose ancestors had been born in a more northerly clime than my own. To gain that end I took the only course that seemed open. I possessed myself of an influence that would make her father fear me. Well, I played and I lost—and then, like other players and losers, even white ones, I was desperate. You were to be married to another—a man I hated. Life had lost its only charm, I could not bear that you should be his bride. My torture was intense. I asked but for death."
These revelations, so novel to at least one of the listeners, smote him with terrific force.
"You asked for more!" said the girl, hoarsely. "You asked for my death as well as your own. And you wanted me to die in such a situation that all the world would say I had perished willingly with you. Could anything more cowardly be conceived! Was anything more dastardly ever devised! It was the morning of my wedding day; my father was waiting for me at home; my promised husband was preparing for the bridal; my friends were invited to the ceremony. What were all these to you? With Mephistophelian cunning you sent me a letter in another person's handwriting, saying that, if I would come to a certain address, and pay fifty dollars, several forged notes given by my father would be returned to me. You knew I would respond. You knew I would tell no one where I was going, as I did not expect to be detained more than an hour, and there was apparently the strongest reasons for secrecy. And when I was completely in your clutches you gave me the alternative of marrying you—ugh!—or of taking the poison you had so carefully prepared. Oh, how could you! how could you, when you professed to like me!"
There was a low gurgle in Archie Weil's throat, that he could not suppress. Fearful that it might be heard in that dead silence, Roseleaf shook his companion slightly. Mingled with his other emotions there now came to Weil a stupefied wonder at the apparent coolness of the novelist.
"When one is willing to die for his love, it should not be questioned," said the negro. "I could not have you in life—I wanted you in death. I wanted the world, which had despised me, to think a beautiful woman had preferred to die with me rather than marry a man she did not wish to wed. But why should we recall that dreadful day and night? You won the victory. You, with your superior finesse, triumphed over the African as your race has always triumphed over mine. I demanded love or death. You dissuaded me from both. And the next day I permitted you to depart, and saw vanish with you the last hope of happiness I shall ever feel."
The rich voice of the speaker broke completely at the close, but the girl who heard him seemed to feel no sympathy for his distress.
"Always yourself!" she exclaimed. "Do you ever think of the life you left to me—a life hardly more kind than the murder you contemplated. Before you opened the portals that you had meant for my tomb you made me swear never to reveal where I had passed those hours. Never, no matter what the provocation, was I to utter one word to implicate you in the tragedy that had ruined two households. You were the one to be protected—I the one to suffer! Had it not been for the sacrifice to my reputation in being found there with you dead—no explanation being possible from my closed lips—I would have accepted the alternative and swallowed the poison rather than live to bear what I do to-day!"
Weil closed his eyes again. His brain was swimming.
"And you are sure," asked the negro, after a pause, "that you have not violated that promise? You can still swear that you have never, even by a hint, given the least cause of suspicion against me?"
"Never!" said the girl. "I consider my oath binding, notwithstanding the manner in which it was obtained. You may live in what peace your conscience allows you, free at least from that fear."
The negro evidently believed her, for he heaved a sigh of relief.
"Well, good-by," he said.
"Good-by," she replied. "And—you are not to come again, remember. There is nothing to be gained from another meeting between us. If—if you want money—I can send it to you."
He lifted his head rather proudly at the last suggestion.
"I do not want any," he said. "I am not low enough for that. I took the sum from you to go to France, because I hoped—in my infatuation—that I could make myself something that you would not despise. If I had wanted money I could have got thousands out of your father, and I could still, notwithstanding the pretence of those men that they wrote the signatures I saw him forge. No, I mean to give you back what I had from you, if ever I can compose my mind enough to go to work and earn it. I have no ambition. I stay in my mother's cabin, day after day, unable to make the least effort. Perhaps I can do something—in time."
The negro took a step away, and then turned, as if unable to go so abruptly.
"Good-by," he said, again.
"Good-by," answered Daisy, impassively. "I want to tell you, now I think of it, where I got that $1,000 I gave you. It was lent to me by the man you hated so, Mr. Roseleaf."
Hannibal did not seem to care for this information.
"He did not lend it for any good-will to me," he replied. "I have heard, by-the-way, that he did not mind losing you—this man for whom you spurned a heart that worshiped your very footprints. I believe some day I'll take a shot at him."
The girl shuddered.
"It would be like you," she said, "if no one was looking, and he did not know of your presence. I don't believe, with all your claims, there is a manly trait in you."
The tall form drew itself up and the athletic arms were folded firmly.
"Take care!" said the red lips, sharply, and the ivory white teeth gleamed.
"Oh, I am not afraid," replied Daisy. "My maid is watching us from behind the blinds of my room. I told her my own story about why I was to meet you, but should harm happen to me the alarm bell would ring out."
Startled visibly at this information, Hannibal glanced in the direction indicated, and then began to take his departure in earnest.
"All right," he said, as he mounted the fence. "Keep your word and I'll keep mine. But if you play any tricks, remember that's a game for two."
The men could not arise without startling Daisy, who would undoubtedly have uttered a loud scream had they suddenly appeared before her vision. They saw her stand there for at least ten minutes, before she went into the house. When she was out of sight, Weil crawled into a safer place and rose to his feet.
"I am going to follow that cur!" he muttered, between his teeth.
"To-morrow is soon enough," was the calm reply of his friend. "I know where he lives."
Most men who are by nature excitable surprise their friends on occasions by exhibiting great calmness. Shirley Roseleaf, who had often been thrown into the greatest heat by far less important happenings than the one just narrated, seemed a picture of repose as he walked through the wood with his friend in the direction of the horses they had tethered.
"How did you discover they were going to have this meeting?" asked Weil, nervously. "I am all at sea."
"I have been on his track ever since the day I was to have been married," was the reply. "I didn't intend to leave a mystery like that unsolved. I discovered that the Ferns were living here, and that Hannibal originated a few miles further on. I found that Miss Daisy was still a little afraid of him, that he was using an influence over her which was to say the least strange. Before I got at the truth I had some queer misgivings, you may believe."
Mr. Weil stared at his companion.
"But how did you learn all this?" he demanded.
"Oh," said Roseleaf, with a slight laugh, "I've been in this neighborhood for two months. They haven't met once but I heard every word they said. Little by little I gained the truth of the matter. And to-night, as it was perhaps the last time they would be together, I wanted you to understand it perfectly."
Archie frowned at the thoughts that crept in upon his brain.
"Excuse me for saying that you don't appear to mind it much," he muttered. "If you have heard many conversations like the one to which I just listened, and could go away without expressing the thoughts you ought to feel, you are made up differently from me."
"That may be so, too," smiled the other, good-humoredly. "But remember that things are changed. I once was a man in love—now I am simply a writer of romance."
The elder man shivered.
"Could one be actually in love with a girl like that and then recover from it?" he asked, half to himself.
"I don't think I ever was very much in love," was the quick reply. "But never mind that. Let us talk of Hannibal. You spoke of going after him. What would you have done had you carried out that intention?"
Weil had not thought of the matter in this concrete form. He had wanted to punish the negro for his crimes against the woman he so dearly loved, against the old man for whom he had such a warm affection. How he would have accomplished this he had not decided. The first thing was to follow and tax the wretch with his offense. Subsequent events would have depended on the way Hannibal met the accusation. Certainly the temper of the pursuer would have been warm, and his conduct might have been severe.
"I don't know," he said. "I should have told him for one thing that he would have to reckon with something more than a weak girl or a poor old man if he annoyed that family again. In case he had been impertinent I cannot say what I might have been tempted to do."
"All the more reason for congratulating yourself," replied Roseleaf, as they reached the horses, "that you did not follow him. He has promised to keep away from the Ferns, and I think they have seen the last of him. What is done can't be undone, ugly as it is. Now," he continued, vaulting into his saddle, "your course is reasonably plain. You must visit Miss Daisy soon, let her know that the extent of her misfortune is in your possession, and after a reasonable time, ask her to marry you."
Archie Weil, who had also mounted his horse, came near falling from the back of the animal at this very abrupt suggestion.
"That is just what you should do," continued Roseleaf, without allowing him to speak. "You are desperately in love. Daisy likes you very well, and it would take but little effort on your part to induce even a warmer sentiment. Her father thinks you one of the angels that came down to earth and forgot to return to heaven. She ought not to go through life alone. Her only trouble is the suspicion that rests on her name—a suspicion she considers herself bound in honor to do nothing to lift. Show her that you know how innocent she is, and you will bring a new light to her eyes, a new smile to her lips."
"But," asked Archie, catching at the straw, "how can I tell her—how can I explain the source of my information?"
"By the novel method of using the truth, or at least a part of it," he said. "Tell her you were out riding and saw Hannibal, and followed him. You needn't count me into it. Why, you've got to let her know, or else I have. It's a thing she would almost give her life to have revealed without her aid. Go like a man and take that heavy weight off her young soul."
Finally Weil consented. He would not discuss the question of whether he would afterwards speak of the hope that lay nearest his heart. But he would go to her, as Roseleaf suggested, and relieve her of the strain that had worn so deeply. He would go the very next day. The sooner it was accomplished the better. The more he thought of it the more delighted he grew that he could carry such tidings. He could make Daisy happier. That was enough for him—at present. If he could make himself happy at a future date—but there was time enough for that.
He sat upright in his saddle and exulted as his horse bounded nimbly over the ground. Why was it not already day, that he might turn the beast in the opposite direction! The hours would be very long before the sun rose and he could start on his joyful errand. The sombre hue of his countenance disappeared before the contentment that began to fill his breast.
He slept well, notwithstanding the fact that he expected to lie awake all night when he retired. In the morning, on going down to breakfast, he found that Shirley had left still earlier, leaving word that he had started on a quest for game. Weil did not mind. He had enough before him for one day. He was going to see Daisy, and he had that to tell which would lighten the load she had so long felt compelled to carry.
He waited until after nine o'clock, feeling that some regard must be paid to les convenances, even on such an important occasion as this. When he was in the saddle he rode as slowly as he could bring himself to do, to make his arrival still later. At last he reached the gate of Oakhurst, and when he had summoned the porter he sent him for Mr. Fern, stating that he had happened to ride in that direction and wanted merely to make a short call.
It was but a few minutes before the servant returned, and the hospitable master of the premises came with him. Mr. Fern upbraided Weil for using so much ceremony, remarking that although he was living in a retired way, there was always one friend he was glad to see. Giving up the horse, Archie accompanied his host to the house, where the latter said he would send at once for Daisy.
"A minute," interpolated Archie. "I want a little talk with you first, alone."
Mr. Fern looked up curiously. He believed he knew what his visitor was about to say. He had long suspected the feelings which Archie entertained for Daisy. He knew also that his daughter would consent to wed no man, no matter who, while there hung over her fair fame the terrible mystery of her wedding night.
"I want to tell you," pursued Archie, before his host could interrupt, "that I have made a great discovery—one of the utmost moment to your family. I know what happened on that day so sad to all of us, and—listen to me, Mr. Fern!—I know that your child is absolutely blameless in the matter."
The listener's face grew very white. He understood imperfectly, but it seemed to him that a tale he could not bear to hear was about to be forced upon him.
"Mr. Weil," he said, earnestly, "I hope you will not continue this subject. I do not know what occurred—I do not wish to know. I have consulted my daughter's sentiments entirely. She prefers to have the veil unlifted, and I respect her wish."
The visitor could hardly contain himself for impatience.
"That has been true hitherto," he replied. "But Miss Daisy herself will be more than delighted when she knows I am aware of the entire facts—which she has been prevented, by a promise extracted from her, from revealing. Call her, let me tell her that I know everything, and how I know it, and you will see the happiest girl in America."
Mr. Fern shook his head doubtfully. He was much afraid of doing something to injure Daisy's feelings. He could not believe she wanted to have the trouble that had crushed her raked up by any one. Archie persisted, however, and his arguments at last won the day.
"You do not think I would come here with any tidings I did not believe agreeable?" he said, interrogatively. "You know I care too much for—for both of you—to do that."
When Miss Daisy was summoned, which she was at last, and Mr. Weil gently let drop a hint of what he had to tell, the girl was hardly less agitated than her father had been. Instead, however, as the visitor expected, of relying on her natural protector during the expected recital, she whispered to Mr. Fern, who obediently rose and let her lead him out of the room. Presently she returned, and took a chair opposite to Mr. Weil. Her face was so pathetic, her attitude so entreating, that he quite forgot what he had come to tell, and leaning toward her, took her hands in his.
"Daisy," he said, "I—I—" and he could go no further.
"Yes, I know," she answered, in a low voice. "But there is a reason why I cannot listen to you. I have told you that before. I ought not even to say as much as this. I should not even remain in the room while you explain the least thing."
He choked down the rising in his throat and hastened, lest she should follow literally the sentiment she had outlined and leave him to himself.
"This has all been true, until now," he said. "You were under a promise, an oath. But—Daisy, last night I heard all that passed between you and your persecutor, and there is no longer any need for mystery between us."
She gasped, as if her breath was going.
"Everything. I was within forty feet of you. Are you sorry that the awful cloud is blown away—that your perfect innocence is proved without a violation of your plighted word?"
For the girl was crying, slowly, without hysteria, crying with both her hands tightly clasped over her eyes.
"I did not need it, not I," continued the man, earnestly. "I knew you had done nothing of your free will that the whole world might not know. But I knew, too, that you would be pleased to have your innocence established. And I was glad for another reason. I love you, Daisy. I have loved you a very long time. Your sister was right in that. Had you not shown such a marked preference for my friend I would have done my best to win you, months and months ago. While you felt that you were an object of suspicion I knew you would not consent to be my wife. Now, that obstacle is gone and—Daisy—I want you."
The hands were withdrawn from the tear-stained face, a handkerchief was hastily passed over it, and Daisy turned half away from the speaker.
"You will not refuse, my love," he murmured, bending again toward her. "You will promise?"
One of her hands strayed toward him, and was clasped joyfully in his own.
"But, in relation to that other matter," said Daisy, some moments later, when the sweet tokens of love had been given and taken, "I must be as silent as before. I have listened to you, but I have not replied. You can understand the reason. Never speak of it to me again, if you do not wish to inflict pain. It is something I cannot discuss."
"I may tell your father, though," he whispered.
"It would be best not. He is content now. No, I beg you, say nothing to any one."
And he promised, like the lover he was, and sealed it with another kiss on her pure mouth.
"I may tell him of—of our love?" he asked.
"Oh, yes; we will tell him of that together."
TRAPPING A WOLF.
When Shirley Roseleaf left the hotel that morning he carried a fishing rod, a rifle, a gamebag and other acoutrements of the sportsman. In his earlier years, before he ever came to the city, he had been accounted something of an expert with these implements. Since being in this country where there was so much to tempt a Nimrod he had made a number of similar excursions. Although it was some distance to the locality where he intended to go the young man did not take a conveyance of any kind. He walked briskly over the road, breathing the pure air of that early hour, and whistling in a low tone to himself as he went along.
Among the other things he carried was a light lunch, for he did not care to break his fast so early in the day. He had, besides, a contrivance for making coffee and for broiling the fish he expected to catch. Even if his jaunt lasted till night his physical needs were well provided for. One would not have imagined, to see his free and easy swing over the road, that he had anything of greater moment on his mind than to watch for some stray rabbit, or a possible deer track.
Not less than six miles from his starting point, he came to a small lake, to reach which he had followed a narrow path that led through the wood. On the shore was a primitive rowboat, or rather canoe, which he had purchased on another occasion from a native for an insignificant price. Into this boat the novelist stepped, and after safely depositing his traps, took up the paddle and used it skillfully. When he had reached approximately the centre of the lake, he sat down, prepared his fishing tackle and began to angle for the denizens of the water below.
With the patience of a true fisherman Roseleaf sat quietly for two hours, during which time he had drawn out but few specimens. The long walk had, however, given him the appetite he needed, and he now pulled his frail craft toward the shore, with the intention of lighting a fire and preparing a meal. But even when he had nearly reached land he saw splinters flying beneath his feet, and immediately after heard a dull sound which showed what had caused the trouble.
A stray bullet, from some careless hunter, had penetrated his canoe. The hole was large enough to render the boat useless, for the water began to come in rapidly. With two more stout movements of the paddle Roseleaf forced his craft against the shore and sprang upon dry land. Then he quietly picked up the things he had brought with him, and walked a little away from the scene.
"These fellows are getting altogether too careless," he muttered, as he inspected his damp belongings. "A little more and that thing would have been tearing splinters in me."
Scraping some dead wood together, he soon had a fire started, and the cooking of his breakfast was begun. He went about the work methodically, whistling again in that low key he had used when on the way from his hotel, and stopping now and then as the noise of a woodbird or some wild quadruped of the smaller kind came to his ears. He sniffed the coffee that was boiling furiously and the freshly caught fish that sent out an appetizing aroma. No meal served at the Hoffman, the Imperial or the far-famed Delmonico restaurant, could equal this primitive repast, for him.
Finally, all was ready. Helping himself to a large plateful of the delicious food, and pouring out a huge tin cup of the coffee, Roseleaf sat down as if to take his ease while breakfasting. But, instead of touching the viands he had been at such pains to prepare, the next thing he did was to fall prone on the ground. And at the same instant a second bullet whizzed past him and buried itself with a tearing of bark and wood in the tree just behind him.
If Roseleaf had laid down with suddenness he rose with no less speed. As he sprang to his feet he picked up his rifle. He made a dozen steps forward, and then, bringing the weapon to his shoulder, cried to some one in front of him:
"Halt, or I fire!"
A human form that had been creeping away on its hands and knees, now stood upright. It was perhaps thirty yards from the speaker, and when it faced him he saw that the countenance was black.
"Don't come any nearer and don't go any farther off," said the novelist, gravely. "You are at a convenient distance. I can shoot you best where you stand."
The negro looked considerably crestfallen. He seemed doubtful whether to break and run or stay and try to face it out.
"I can't help an accident," he said, at last, when the other remained covering him with the rifle.
"No," was the answer. "An accident is liable to happen to any one, they say. But two accidents, of the same kind, on the same day—accidents that might either of them have been fatal if you were not such an awfully bad marksman—are too many. When I get ready to fire, there will be no accident."
The negro was plainly uneasy. He cast his eyes on the ground and writhed.
"You have dropped your gun," said Roseleaf. "That was right. It would have incommoded your flight, and its only cartridge was used. You would have had no time to reload. I know that gun very well; I have heard it many times in the last six weeks. I knew the sound of it to-day when you fired the first time. A rifle has a voice, like a man; did you know that? I knew it was your gun and that you were at the end of it. With that information in my possession, of course you couldn't catch me napping twice. I pretended to watch my cooking, but in reality I watched nothing but you. There is no need that you should say anything, Hannibal. You could not tell me much, if you tried."
The speaker examined his rifle carefully, still keeping the muzzle turned toward the person he was addressing. The latter did not seem to grow less uneasy.
"I spent some time last evening," continued Roseleaf, presently, "in listening to a little conversation you had with a certain young lady living a mile or so from this spot. That surprises you, does it? I thought it might. I learned how you had ruined her peace of mind, how you had artfully contrived to make her appear the opposite of what she really was. Now, you have tried twice within the last hour to murder me. For this I could have forgiven you. What you did to that young woman is, however, a more serious matter. I don't think anything less than pulling this trigger will expiate that."
He placed the rifle to his shoulder again, as he spoke, and glanced along the sight. The negro half turned, as if of a mind to attempt an escape, and then, realizing the hopelessness of such a move, sank on his knees and raised his hands piteously.
"If you have anything to say, be quick!" said the hard voice of the man who held the rifle.
Then Hannibal blurted out his story. He told how he had been led, step by step, to hope that he might rise above his station, until the wild idea entered his brain that he could even make Daisy Fern love and marry him. He pleaded the disappointments he had suffered, the terrible revulsion of feeling he had undergone, the broken life he had been obliged to take up. He did not want to be killed. If allowed to go he would swear by all that was good never to cross the path of the Ferns, or Roseleaf, or any of their friends again. When his treaties brought no verbal response he grew louder in his tone, feeling that something must be done to move the deaf ears to which he addressed his petition.
"If I allowed you to leave here, you would try to shoot me the next time you had a chance," said the novelist. "I should merely be giving my life in exchange for yours, which I do not consider a good bargain."
"No, I swear it before God!" came the trembling words in reply.
"I cannot trust you."
A slight sound attracted the attention of Roseleaf as he uttered the latter words. It was the sound that oars make when dipped in water. With a quick glance to one side he beheld a rowboat, in which were seated Archie Weil and Daisy Fern, and they were coming directly toward him.
"Here are some of the others you have wronged," he said, pointing. "I will wait to see if their opinions agree with mine."
Daisy saw him first, as Weil was handling the oars, and she called her companion's attention to him. Archie called his name.
"Come here!" was Roseleaf's reply. "I have winged a black duck and I cannot leave."
A few more movements of the oars brought the boat to the shore, and the surprise of its occupants can be imagined when they saw the tableau that awaited them. Hannibal was still groveling on the earth, and the attitude of Roseleaf plainly showed the cause of the negro's terror.
"What has he done?" was the first question, and it was Daisy's voice that asked it.
"Let him tell," replied Roseleaf, nonchalantly. "Tell the lady what you did, Hannibal."
With a courage born of his knowledge of the young lady's kind heart, Hannibal now turned his attention toward her. He begged her to plead with his would-be executioner to give him one more chance for his life, and reiterated his promises to cease meddling with all of their affairs if this was granted. As he spoke Daisy crept nearer to Roseleaf's side, and when he paused for a moment to gain breath, she laid her fair hand on the rifle.
"You would not kill a fellow creature?" she said, gently.
"A fellow creature?" he retorted. "No! But a wolf, a snake, a vulture—yes."
She shook her head slowly, while Mr. Weil looked on, uncertain what to do or say. He wanted more than anything else in his life to lay hands upon the cause of all her woes.
"You have not told me yet what he has done," she said.
"He shall tell you," replied Roseleaf, sharply. "Stand up, Hannibal, and answer truly the questions I am about to propound to you."
The crouching figure tottered to his feet. The negro was weak from fear.
"Did you try twice this morning to murder me?"
"Yes," replied the shaking voice. "But I was insane with my troubles—I did not realize what I was doing—I—"
Daisy's slight hand, still on the barrel of the rifle, was bearing it steadily to the ground.
"Once," she said to Roseleaf, impressively, "you told me you loved me! Have you regard enough left to grant me a favor?"
He shook his head.
"There are favors," he said, "that are crimes. It is one's duty to exterminate vermin, in the interest of the human race."
But, even as he spoke, she was having her way. Her slight strength had taken the weapon from him.
Then, with the face of a forgiving angel she turned toward the negro and uttered very softly one word, "Go!"
Glancing at the others to see if he might safely follow this direction, Hannibal disappeared in the thick woods behind him. He walked with an unsteady step. There was a strange lightness in his brain. Some distance away he found the boat in which he had come, and entered it, staggeringly. Pushing from the shore with a feeble touch on his paddle he set out for his home.
* * * * *
The negroes who found his body, a week later, could not decide whether he had perished by accident or by deliberate intention. The boat was not capsized, but it was partially filled with water, indicating either that he had tried to sink the craft or had leaned too heavily to one side in something like a stupor. When his gun was discovered on the shore, new speculations were set in motion.
Those who knew him recalled that he had been moody for a long time—in fact, ever since he came from the north. They remembered him as a young fellow, four or five years previous, not very different from his mates; and they had stared in wonder when he returned with fine clothes and money in his pocket. The dislike between him and his old acquaintances was mutual. They could not understand him; and what an inferior mind does not comprehend it always views with suspicion.
A grave was made near the border of the lake, and the single word "HANNIBAL" was written on the board that marked the spot. But later some envious hand scrawled beneath it:
"HE WANTED TO BE A GENTLEMAN!"
"THE GREATEST NOVEL."
Archie Weil and Daisy Fern were married in June. There was no need of waiting longer. It was a case of true love sanctified by suffering and devotion. The bright eyes and ruddy cheeks of the bride testified to her renewed health and spirits. The news of Hannibal's death—albeit it brought a tear to her eyes, had removed the only shadow that stretched across her pathway.
Shirley Roseleaf did not come to the wedding, to which he was the only invited guest. He wrote that an important mission from his magazine made it impossible to accept the invitation, but he sent a handsome present and a letter to Archie, congratulating him in the warmest manner.
For some time Lawrence Gouger had been urging the novelist to hasten the wonderful story that was to make his fortune and give a new impetus to the house of Cutt & Slashem. They had consulted together a hundred times, and the thirty chapters already finished seemed to leave but a few weeks' steady work to be accomplished. Shortly after the wedding Gouger went to Roseleaf's rooms, one evening, and begged him to lose no further time.
"What is there to wait for now?" he asked. "All the dramatic incidents have occurred. You only need to wind up with a glory of fireworks, showing virtue triumphant and vice buried under a North Carolina sycamore. Come, my dear boy, when may I expect to see the work completed?"
Roseleaf did not answer for some seconds.
"There is a part of this story that you do not comprehend," he said, finally. "A chapter is yet to be written at which you have not guessed."
"Indeed!" exclaimed the listener.
"Yes," nodded the other. "So far the character that is supposed to represent myself appears that of a heartless, cold, unfeeling wretch. Do you think I shall be satisfied to leave it that way?"
The critic stared at the speaker in astonishment.
"I—I do not understand," he replied.
"I thought not," said Roseleaf, soberly. "Well, this story, to be truthful, must do justice to the one who is supposed to personate its author. And, in the first place, to avoid all circumlocution, let me tell you there has never been a moment since I first loved Daisy Fern that she has not been the dearest thing on this earth to me!"
Mr. Gouger could not reconcile this statement with the events that had taken place, and his puzzled countenance said as much.
"I acted like a villain, did I not," continued Roseleaf, after a slight pause, "when the news was brought that she had disappeared? I seemed to have no faith in her, no confidence in Archie, no trust in that poor old man, her father. Why? I was so madly, insanely in love that every possible phantasy got possession of my excited brain. To lose her was to deprive me of all hope, all ambition, all care for life. So far, I acted my real self. If what I supposed true had been proven I think there would have been a murder. Not of Daisy; ah, no! but of the man who had robbed me of my treasure. Then I went to Midlands with Archie and I saw her. I heard her speak, and like a lightning flash it came to me. He was as honorable as a man could be and she cared more for him than for my unworthy self. She had contrasted us and discovered how much he was my superior. And I said to myself at that moment, 'I will give her up! If it costs me my happiness as long as I live I will give her up! No matter what happens, I will unite these people, who have been so faithful to me and toward whom I have acted the part of a cur and a coward!'"
The young man was speaking with perfect composure, but with intense earnestness.
"The first thing to be done," he continued, "was to take myself out of their way. The next was to unravel the mystery that had made the trouble. I knew, when my mind had resumed its natural state, that, whatever had occurred, Daisy was blameless. I knew that something far out of the common line had caused her to commit the act which had cast a blight over her reputation. For weeks I could find no clue. Then, one day, in the street, I saw Hannibal, the negro for whom she had borrowed my money and who I supposed was still in France. I cannot help the quick temper I have inherited, and I confess that the sight of that fellow aroused my suspicions against this girl, only they took a new and more horrible form.
"I remembered distinctly what a strong hold Hannibal had on the Fern family. I recalled, with frightful distinctness, the manner in which he attended Daisy at table, his interest in her health, the $1,000 she had given him, her quick movement to prevent my striking him when his answers insulted us both. Perhaps—but I will not dilate on the things that came to my distorted imagination. It was enough for me to put a detective on his track. I engaged Hazen, and in three days he came to tell me that a white woman had passed the night with Hannibal at a house on Seventh Avenue, the date corresponding with the one on which I was to have been married!"
Gouger listened spellbound. It seemed to him that the most exciting chapter of this weird tale was yet to be written.
"If I had lost control of my senses before," pursued Roseleaf, "what do you suppose happened when this information was brought to me? But then I found an excuse for my beloved one. I considered her the victim of one of those forms of hypnotism of which there can no longer be any doubt. She could not have gone there without the demoniac influence of a stronger personality. He had charmed her from her home by the exercise of diabolic arts. My fury was entirely for him. I sought him at once, only to learn that he had left the city a few days before, leaving absolutely no trace. I could not give over the hunt, however. If he was on the earth I must find him and be avenged for the wrong he had done. It occurred to me that an influence so strong as he had exerted would not be given up. Wherever the Ferns had gone, he would probably be found. I discovered the whereabouts of the family, after a great deal of effort, and went to North Carolina. With the patience of a dog and the cunning of a fox I laid in wait for weeks, and one night I saw and heard Daisy Fern and Hannibal in conversation!"
There was no movement on the part of the critic. He sat as still as a block of stone.
"When they began to speak I could have sworn that my recent guesses were correct ones. It was at about the hour of midnight, and she had crept quietly and alone out of her house to meet this African. But the first dozen sentences that were uttered gave me a new version of the affair. It was by no mesmeric power, but by a threat of injury to her father that this fellow held her under bond. I learned that Mr. Fern had done something—I could not then tell what—which rendered him liable to imprisonment. I learned, also, beyond question—for they spoke without restraint, supposing themselves alone—that, whatever the purpose of Hannibal when Daisy came to his rooms on the day she was to have been married, it had not been accomplished. She was afraid of him, but only for her father's sake. And I discovered beside, though not with perfect clearness, that a promise of secrecy accounted for her refusal to explain the cause of that absence which had altered the whole course of our lives.
"I have said I had watched with patience. I determined to continue my watch till I understood the entire situation. About once a week they met in the way I have described, and as the next date was always arranged in my hearing there was no difficulty in my keeping the appointment. In the meantime I learned that Hannibal was born in the vicinity, that he was living a hermit life, and that nobody knew of the surreptitious visits he was paying to Oakhurst. Then one day I heard that Archie was at the hotel, and thinking it time that I let him into the secret I went there, pretending I had just arrived from the north, when in reality I had been boarding for months five miles away. The rest you know. I was enabled to prove to him as well as to myself what had actually happened. Since then justice has been done to us all."
Mr. Gouger had to speak at last.
"To you?" he asked. "Do you admit that all this is just to you?"
"Without doubt," said Roseleaf. "I forfeited every right to the woman I had insulted by my suspicions. There are certain metals that can only be tried by fire. I was placed in the crucible, and found wanting."
The critic shook his head sagely.
"You are a regular Roman father to your own delinquencies," he answered. "But tell me another thing. Would you have shot Hannibal if Mr. Weil and Miss Fern had not made their appearance?"
"I have not the least doubt of it. He was in my eyes at that moment a crawling adder, whose fangs were liable to penetrate the flesh of some one if he was not put out of the way. But I am more than glad I was spared the infliction of his punishment."
Gouger wore a strange look.
"And yet he had one most human quality," said he.
"Yes, I admit that now," was the reply. "In his passionate, barbaric way, he certainly loved. When I revise my novel I shall try to deal fairly with him."
"And you will finish it very soon now?"
"As soon as possible."
A month later Lawrence Gouger received at his office a package marked on the outside, "From Shirley Roseleaf." He could hardly control his excitement until he had untied the strings, taken off the wrappings and disclosed the tin box inside. It was a square box, just the right size for manuscript paper such as he had seen Roseleaf use, and the heart of the enthusiast beat high as he took it in his hands. A jewel case filled with the costliest stones would not have seemed to him more precious. The fame of a new author would soon resound through the world! Cutt & Slashem would have the greatest work of fiction of recent years in their next catalogue! And he, Lawrence Gouger, would be given the credit of discovering—one might almost say of inventing—this wonder!
Opening the box, the critic looked at its contents and then dropped it with an exclamation. It contained nothing but a small sealed envelope and a heap of ashes!
Ashes! Ashes made from recently burned paper!
When he recovered enough to open the envelope, this note was found within:
"TO LAWRENCE GOUGER, ESQ:—DEAR SIR: Enclosed herewith you will find the novel for which you have waited so long. I hope it will please you in all respects, as I certainly have taken the greatest pains with it.
"On reading it over I thought it best to more thoroughly disguise the personality of the characters, lest any of them might be injured by its publication. There was the happiness of a newly-made bride to be considered; her husband's ease of mind; her father's serene old age; her sister's feelings. There was even a black man who had perhaps suffered enough, and a critic employed by a large publishing firm who would not like his true character made manifest in type. In order to protect these people I have applied a match to the pages. You can best tell whether I have performed the work too well.
"If this novel does not bring me the fame you anticipate I shall not much care; I have lost some of my ambitions. If it fails to add to my fortune, never mind; a single man has no great need of wealth.
"I go to-night on board a steamer which sails for Europe at daybreak. When you read this I shall be on the sea. I have secured a position as resident correspondent abroad for one of the great newspapers. Perhaps I never shall return. Truly your friend, S. R."
"The idiot!" cried the reader, as he finished perusing this letter. "The imbecile! Was there ever such a fool born on this earth!"
Then he apostrophised the heap of ashes that lay in the box before him.
"There never was and never will be so great a work of fiction as you were yesterday! And yet a little touch of flame, and all was extinguished! How like you were to man! Let him have the brain of a Shakespeare, and a pound weight falling on his skull ends everything.
"There was a flood in Hungary last week, in which a thousand people were drowned. There was an earthquake in Peru where five hundred perished. A vessel went down off the Caroline Islands. Taken all together, they did not equal to this world your loss.
"The poet knew what he was saying: 'Great wits are sure to madness near allied.' Oh, to think that a mind that could execute your thrilling pages knew no more than to destroy them!
"I will not cast you, sublime ashes, to the winds of heaven! I will keep you reverently, as one preserves the cloak of a great man, or the bones of a mastodon. Behold, I close you again in your covers, where the eye of no mortal shall henceforth behold you."
With the words the disappointed critic performed the action. And to this day visitors to his room read with wonder the inscription he has placed on the box:
"The greatest novel that ever was written."
* * * * *
Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as possible, including obsolete and variant spellings. Obvious typographical errors in punctuation (misplaced quotes and the like) have been fixed. Corrections [in brackets] in the text are noted below:
Table of Contents: typographical error corrected
I. A Rejected Manuscript 1
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would[wouldn't] touch the mooney, maundering mess. It makes my flesh creep, sometimes, to read it." v
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playing at love with each other, might afterwards find that [that] they were experimenting with fire.
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arm around her again, checking himself with difficulty from completeing[completing] the movement) "and dull, and wanting in manners, but you are the only young
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about this matter. She shought[thought] the innocent man at her side had not quite guaged[gauged] the interest that Mr.
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caught her passionately in his arms, and knew no better way to bring her to consiousness[consciousness] than to rain kisses on her cheeks. As might be expected this
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abilities of Mr. Weil, and he had no idea of dispuing[disputing] the conclusions of that wise guide.
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"To me? He would not dare?[!] What angers me is the way he speaks to the rest of you. He
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called the Good side nothing stronger that[than] wines were found on the bill of fare. On the Wicked side every decoction know[known] to the modern drinker was to
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sexes. He half believed that Jennie Pelham and Mrs. Delevan[Delavan] were sitting by his bed, more brazen
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young novelist. More than this, she would have sufficent[sufficient] on hand to send the future amounts that
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Roseleaf waved him back with a sweeep[sweep] of his arm.
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countenance, the utter hopelessness had in a measure diappeared[disappeared]. When Daisy came into the parlor, she
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came with him. Mr. Fern upraided[upbraided] Weil for using so much ceremony, remarking that although he was