Olive began to feel her presence irksome to the lovers, and hurried away, saying, carelessly:
"I must go and find Ela; I have not seen her for some time."
Ela had gone with her to bribe the gypsy, and since they had parted company at the door of the tent, Olive had not seen her at all. It now began to seem strange to her, and she had decided to look for her cousin.
Ela had walked away from the crowd and the lights, nursing a secret unhappiness, love and ambition waging a desperate war in her heart.
She had loved Vernon Ashley very dearly; but the ambition to make a grand match had caused her to throw him over in the most heartless fashion, ignoring his letters, and refusing him a single interview, though he prayed for it so humbly.
The discovery to-day of Ellsworth's engagement to Dainty discouraged her hopes of marrying him; but still there remained the hope of being made her aunt's heiress, so she steeled her heart and fought down her murdered love in its heaving grave, saying to herself, consolingly:
"It is painful at first, because I really loved him well; but I shall soon get over the worst, and forget."
She was turning toward the crowd and the lights again, when suddenly a dark form emerged from behind the tree, a pair of hands grasped her wrists in a steely grip, and a low, menacing voice hissed in her ear:
"Cruel, heartless girl, you shall stay and hear me at last!"
A MADDENED LOVER.
"What is there that I should turn to, Lighting upon days like these? Every door is barred with gold, And opens but to golden keys. Every gate is thronged with suitors, All the markets overflow; I have but an angry fancy, What is there that I should do?"
Ela trembled with fear when those hands clutched her and those words were hissed in her ear, for she knew she had come to her reckoning with her wronged lover.
And no one knew better than herself the mad, jealous temperament with which she had to deal. Vernon Ashley's love was a frenzy, a tornado, sweeping all before the wild rush of its passion.
He had spent all the force of this passion on the pale-faced, gray-eyed Ela, and she had returned it with all the love of which her weak nature was capable.
If Mrs. Ellsworth's invitation had never come, Ela would have married her lover, and been as tolerably happy with him as it was possible for a woman whose god was self, and who worshiped gold as the most precious thing in life.
The sudden wild ambition to win the rich master of Ellsworth made her sweep aside like chaff every obstacle she found in her way, and on leaving Richmond, a cold and cruel letter went to Vernon Ashley, breaking their engagement, with the lying excuse that she had been mistaken in her feelings, and found she did not love him, after all.
Mad with love and jealousy, he followed her to Ellsworth, hoping to win her back.
He could not believe that she did not love him, after all that had passed between them in their happy courtship days; but he comprehended that ambition was spurring her on to win a richer lover, since she had never concealed from him her wild yearning for wealth.
Baffled, thwarted, his heart burning for a sight of her too fatally beloved face, he had lingered in the neighborhood, hoping to surprise an interview from her, and in this hope he had come to the church to-night and waited about till success crowned his hopes.
He saw her steal away to brood alone over her secret pain beneath the dark shadows of the trees, and the sight of the pale, fair face and the limpid gray eyes thrilled his heart with the longing to clasp her madly in his arms and kiss her till the old love flowed back into her breast and made her own her falsehood and plead for his forgiveness.
Lingering behind the tree where she sat, he waited and watched till she turned to go, then the hunger of his heart overcame him. He darted forward, clasping her wrists in a steely grasp, hissing angrily in her ear:
"Cruel, heartless girl! You shall stay and hear me at last!"
Ela trembled with fear, and tried to struggle away; for she knew well that he had a most violent temper when aroused, and that her falsity had lashed his nature almost to madness.
"Let me go, or I shall scream!" she whispered, threateningly.
But he answered, coolly:
"Dare to scream, and when they come to your aid, they will find a dead woman on the ground!"
"Would you murder me?" she shuddered.
"Do you not deserve it, false-hearted girl? Have you not ruthlessly murdered my love and faith, thrown my heart aside like a worn-out glove? Did you think I was a man to be played with in that fashion?"
She realized that she dare not defy him; she must try to work on the softer side of his nature. With her eyes faltering before the wrath of his piercing black eyes, she murmured:
"Oh, forgive me, I entreat you. I did not mean to play with your love, but I was mistaken in my feelings. I realized I did not love you well enough to marry you, so it was better to break the engagement."
"You lie, false-hearted girl! You loved me well, and you love me still. Love can not be so quickly unlearned. It is ambition that tempted you from me—that love of gold that always cursed your weak nature!" he returned, scornfully, stinging her to retort, angrily:
"What then? You can not help yourself! A girl may take back her promise if she will, and there is no law to make her marry when she does not choose!"
He tightened his clasp on her wrists till she sobbed with pain, and bent his dark face, distorted with demoniac rage, close to hers, hissing:
"And with the poor excuse that there is no law against it, you break a human heart and wreck a human life as ruthlessly as you would trample a flower springing in your path. Are you not afraid?"
"Afraid—of what?" she murmured, uneasily; and her fair face, as the moonlight gleamed on it down through the leaves, was ghastly with sudden fear.
"Of—me!" he answered, with a mocking laugh that made her very blood run cold, as he continued: "I am tempted to kill you for your falsity, but not yet!—that is, I will wait till I see how things turn out. Perhaps," mockingly, "you will tell me if you expect to marry Lovelace Ellsworth?"
"No; he is engaged to my cousin."
"Are you speaking the truth?"
"Yes," she sobbed, nervously.
His midnight eyes flashed dangerously as he answered, menacingly:
"I hope that you are, and it will be well for you if you are, for, mind you, Ela Craye, there is, as you say, no law to punish you for what you have done to me, yet I mean to take justice into my own hands. You may never be mine, but I swear no other man shall ever possess you. Remember this that I tell you now: In the hour that you wed another, there will be murder done! Either your life or my rival's shall pay the forfeit for what you have done!"
"How dare you threaten me? Let me go! I—I—"
Ela began to sob hysterically, and then he caught her in his arms, clasping her fiercely, and kissing her in a sort of frenzy.
"One more kiss—for old time's sake! Do you remember how sweet our love used to be, Ela? You shall never forget it! I seal the memory of it on your brow with these last kisses fiery with my heart's passion! Nay, you dare not scream! The crowd would come rushing here, and you would not like to have them find you here in my arms!"
But Ela's fear of him made her frantic, and she began to shriek, though he stifled the sound with his kisses. Then sudden steps crashed through the undergrowth, and a man's tall form loomed up in the moonlight.
"What is that cry? Good heavens! Unhand that lady, you hound!" thundered Love Ellsworth, rushing on the scene, and clutching Ashley with such strength that he released his hold and staggered back from his victim.
Instantly Ela clung wildly to his arm, sobbing fearfully.
"You are safe now; but—good heavens! that wretch is escaping!" exclaimed Ellsworth, regretfully, as, hindered by her hold, he beheld Ashley making off into the woods, from whence the next minute a pistol shot whistled back, grazing Love's temple, and burying itself in the tree beyond.
A startled cry escaped him, and Ela wailed:
"Oh, that wretch! He has wounded you!"
"It is nothing—a mere scratch," he answered, a little nervously, putting his handkerchief to his brow to stanch a few drops of blood, as he added: "But I had a narrow escape certainly. But why did you venture so far from the light, Miss Craye? Your cousin has been searching for you everywhere, and at last sent me to find you. I heard your smothered shriek, and hastened to your assistance, just in time, it seemed. Was the fellow trying to rob you?"
"Yes," she faltered, nervously, glad of the pretext for hiding the truth. "But he did not succeed, thanks to your timely appearance on the scene. I am very sorry I strayed so far away. I was tempted by moonlight, and had not a thought of danger. Oh, believe me, I am very grateful for your aid; I will never forget it."
"Let us go and relieve your cousin's anxiety," Love returned, leading her away from the dark shadows of the trees back to the old church again, where the story of the dreadful highwayman created such a sensation that the gathering was soon broken up, every one departing for home, while many regrets were expressed that Miss Craye could not describe the appearance of her assailant clearly enough to lead to his identification.
When Love and Dainty were parting in the hall that night, he detained her a few moments, saying:
"I must start early in the morning for Lewisburg, our county seat. It is twenty miles distant, and I shall not return until night. Do you think you can bear the day without me?" playfully.
"Must you really go?" she sighed.
"Yes; I have some business that must not be postponed. I would take you with me, darling, but it is a long drive over rough mountain roads, and would fatigue you too much. But I hate to leave you for a whole day, Dainty, and I shall be thinking of you all day," whispered the fond lover, longing to take her in his arms and bid her an ardent farewell, but deterred because his step-mother was lingering officiously close by.
They parted with a swift-stolen kiss when her head was turned, and Dainty went reluctantly enough to her room, dreading the almost nightly repeated experience with the grim ghost of Ellsworth.
She had grown to dread with a sickening terror the nights that were stealing some of the rose-bloom from her cheeks and the brightness from her violet eyes; but in her pride lest Love should deem her a coward, she would not yield to the longing to ask him to let her go home to her mother till the wedding day.
"It would be too great a triumph for my cruel rivals to have me go home now, and they would try to turn my lover's heart against me. Besides, now that he has written mamma to come, she will soon be with me, and then I shall not fear anything," she thought, as she entered the room reluctantly, hating the night and the company of the coarse Sheila Kelly, but too unwilling to spend the night alone to dismiss her from the room.
But to her surprise she was confronted by an aged negro woman with a kindly black face that beamed benevolence on the startled girl.
"Hi, honey, yo' look 'sprised ter see me in yo' room. Aine Massa Love tole you dat I gwine tek de place o' dat uppish Irish gal?" she exclaimed, gently.
Dainty smiled and shook her head. The old woman continued:
"Den I must interduce myse'f to yo', honey. My name is Virginny, but yo' kin call me Mammy, kase I been de black mammy o' two ginerations o' Ellsworfs—from Massa Love's pappy down to Massa Love heself—an' maybe I gwine lib to nuss his chillen, too. Hi, what yo' blushin' at? Won't yo' be proud when yo' an' Massa Love git married an' settle down, wif de little ones springing up around yo' like flowers, some wif sassy black eyes like deir pappy, an' some wif blue-vi'let eyes like deir mammy. Oh, I want to lib ter see dat day, an' ter rock dem in my ole arms, an' snuggle deir shiny heads up agin my breast, an' sing to dem like I done sing to deir pappy an' deir grandpappy," folding her arms on her breast and crooning musically:
"Byo, baby boy, bye— Byo, li'l boy! Oh, run ter 'is mammy, En she tek 'im 'er arms— Mammy's li'l baby boy!
"Who all de time er frettin' in de middle er de day? Mammy's li'l boy, mammy's li'l baby boy! Who all de time er gittin' so sleepy he can't play? Mammy's li'l boy, mammy's li'l baby boy!
"Byo, baby boy, bye— Byo, li'l boy! Oh, run ter 'is mammy, En climb up en 'er lap— Mammy's li'l baby boy!
"Who all de time stumpin' 'is toe ergin a rock? Mammy's li'l boy, mammy's li'l baby boy! Who all de time er rippin' big hole in 'is frock? Mammy's li'l boy, mammy's li'l baby boy!
"Byo, baby boy, bye— Byo, li'l boy! En 'e run ter 'is mammy Fer ter git 'im out er trouble— Mammy's li'l baby boy!"
Dainty had sunk down in the easy-chair at the open window, and the tender tears flashed into her eyes at the sweet domestic picture painted by the loving old black mammy.
How beautiful it had sounded, the picture of the future to her fond young heart; but would it ever come true, or would the malice of her enemies yet come between her and happiness? Sad foreboding filled her mind as she recalled Olive's black looks and cruel words while she played the gypsy fortune-teller.
"She was trying to frighten me to death, and I believe she would have succeeded, had not Love so fortunately discovered her identity," she mused, while mammy crooned on monotonously with her nursery song. Suddenly coming to herself, she cried:
"Dar now, I forgot mys'f, as I often do, and t'ought I was back in de good ole times, nussin' de babies dat's all growed up now, an' some on 'em dead, too! But as I was a-sayin', Miss Dainty, deares', Massa Love he kem down ter my darter's cabin dis arternoon, an' say, 'Well, well, mammy, settin' in de sun an' bakin' yo' ole haid es usual! How it brings up de chilehood days wheneber I see yo'! Here's a dollar fer yer, an' some baccy fer yer pipe, an' mammy, I want yer ter do er favor fer yer li'l boy.'
"When Massa Love speak dat coaxin' way he knows I gwine let him tromp on ole black mammy ef he want ter; an' I nods, an' he goes on:
"'Mammy, I come to tole yer I gwine git married on my birfday—de first o' August, yo' know. My sweetheart is a-visitin' at Ellsworf, an' she's de prettiest girl in de world! Her cheeks is like roses, an' her hair is bright like sunshine, an' her eyes blue as de dark vi'lets down in de wood. An' she's good as she's pretty; but dem mean servants at Ellsworf dey done tole her ghost stories, an' she's dat nervous she can't sleep at night for vain 'maginings of hearing ole men coughin' an' seein' ole monks paradin' an' layin' cole hands on her face. She must not sleep alone, fer she's never been parted from her mammy before; but she hates dat coarse Sheila Kelly; so, mammy, you must go up ter de house an' watch in my dear girl's room ebery night till her own mammy comes from Richmun', an' yo' must sleep all day an' lie awake all night ter soothe my nervous darlin' ef she gits frightened, an' mammy, you shall hab a silber dollar ever' mornin' fer takin' keer ob my lub.' So you see why I come, honey. Kase he want me, not fer de silber dollar; kase I don' mean ter tek hit at all, only I didn't tell him so, not ter git inter an argyment wif him. So now, honey, lemme he'p yer to baid, an' I'se warrant de ha'nts sha'n't 'sturb you dis night."
"Then you don't believe the stories of the old monk, mammy?" Dainty said, timidly, as she laid her golden head down on the lace pillow.
"Monks, indeed! No, chile, no; deir aine no monks at Ellsworf, an' never was, 'cept when de circus kem ter de kentry, las' summer was a year agone. Dey was two cute li'l monks den, wif white faces like li'l ole men, an' dey was mighty cur'us li'l rascals, an' dat sassy wif deir red suits and yaller caps; but I aine never heerd o' deir gitten loose from de circus, an' I don' b'leeve dey ever did, an' you can 'pend on what I say, fer I been at Ellsworf ever sence I was born, an' dat's a hunnerd years more or less. Now shet yo' eyes, ma honey. I gwine sing yo' to sleep."
And while Dainty dozed away, thinking gratefully of the fond care of her noble lover, the old woman crooned over her in monotonous cadences the lulling nursery song:
"Byo, baby girl, bye— Byo, li'l girl! Oh, run ter 'er mammy, Fer ter git 'er out o' trouble— Mammy's li'l baby girl!"
Softly the white lids drooped over the tired eyes, and Dainty slept peacefully as a little child.
Then the old black mammy hushed her lullaby song and relapsed into silence, gazing in admiring pride at the lovely sleeping face under its billows of golden hair, perhaps wondering why God made people so different—some as fair and beautiful as angels, others black and homely like herself.
But no discontent or envy marred her humble thoughts. Instead, she murmured a low prayer of blessing for the girl who had prayed for herself, kneeling by the bed, but a little while ago; then put out the light and moved over to the window to keep the vigil her "Massa Love" had commanded over his precious darling.
And as she was accustomed to watching by sickbeds, and had been sleeping all afternoon, she managed to keep awake all night, and Dainty slept dreamlessly till dawn. Apparently the ghost was exorcised.
DAINTY WOULD NEVER FORGET THAT DAY.
Lovelace Ellsworth was delighted when he saw Dainty's bright, happy face next morning, showing that nothing had marred her calm repose.
Black mammy's ebony face shone with delight, too, as she related how peacefully her charge had slumbered, without a single disturbing dream, all night.
"Bress her dear heart! Mammy gwine tek keer ob her ebry night, an' don't want no silber dollar for it, neider, dat she don't!" she exclaimed, pushing away Love's hand, though he afterward surreptitiously dropped the money into her capacious apron pocket.
After breakfast he kissed his darling a tender good-bye and rode away happily, in the July sunshine, on the little business trip of which he had spoken to Dainty the evening before. He returned so late that night that he did not see her until morning, when he received the same encouraging report. Mammy had proved a most faithful guardian, effectually keeping at bay all the unquiet spirits of the night.
Indeed, for quite a week everything went on pleasantly at Ellsworth.
The mistress of the mansion and her two favorite nieces seemed to have swallowed their chagrin and accepted the situation. They were blandly courteous to the lovers, and seemed to have relaxed their endeavors to wound and annoy them; but, could one have looked beneath the surface, a volcano would have been seen to be smoldering beneath the thin upper crust of politeness.
Mrs. Ellsworth, angry and indignant at the thwarting of her cherished schemes, steeled her heart to all the charms of her youngest niece, and cherished a secret resentment that was destined to bear bitter fruit.
Olive Peyton, mad with slighted love and thwarted ambition, was quite as eager as her aunt for revenge on her lovely rival, while Ela Craye was not behind either in her resentment. Having thrown over her lover for the sake of gold, she was all the more anxious to realize her desires. So the three conspirators stood secretly but solidly against the lovers, and only the future could prove whether the forces of good or evil would win in the bitter contest.
True, Ela was a little frightened still when she recalled the sensational interview with her wronged lover; but she knew that he had fled from the scene of his attempted crime, and returned to his office in Richmond. Indeed, she had written him a curt letter, taking credit to herself for not having betrayed his identity to Love Ellsworth that night. She threatened him, frankly, that if he should ever interfere with her or Mr. Ellsworth again, she should denounce him for the attempted assassination, of which Love bore witness in a slight scar on his white brow.
Vernon Ashley made no reply to Ela's letter, and she began to breathe more freely, hoping that he would trouble her peace no more.
During that calm week, Dainty had one bitter disappointment.
It was the news that her dear mother would be unable to join her at Ellsworth until two days before the wedding.
She had very unfortunately taken a young married pair to board after the girls went to the mountains, and the young wife now lay quite ill, the mother of a feeble infant.
Mrs. Chase did not consider the hired nurse very competent, and had not the heart to desert the young couple in their trouble.
"I have taken the care of the babe on myself," wrote the motherly soul, "and I believe it will be two weeks yet before I can safely desert my post. Then my boarders will leave for the country, and I shall fly to you, my darling, whom I have so sadly missed since you went away."
And, oh! what a joyful heart the loving mother bore at the fruition of all her fond hopes for her lovely daughter!
How bitterly she had grieved over her poverty for Dainty's sake! How she had dreaded to see her assume the drudgery of school-teaching, fading her bright bloom in wearisome toil! But now it would never have to be.
The girl's own natural charms, unhindered by the lack of finery, had won for her the love of a noble man, who would fill her life with sunshine. It was a triumph, too, to see how Olive's and Ela's spite had recoiled on themselves, and failed to harm winsome Dainty, whom they hated simply for her grace and beauty.
She rejoiced in Dainty's happiness, and the girl had been careful not to grieve her by a hint of her annoyances at Ellsworth.
"Poor mamma, she has troubles enough of her own fighting the hard battle of poverty; but, thank Heaven! it will soon be over, for Love has promised that her home shall be here with me always," the young girl thought, with a heart full of joy.
So the happy days slipped away, each crowded with pleasures, for there was never a dull day at Ellsworth. The mistress kept it gay with pleasant entertainments, to which she always invited the best people in the county, especially the eligible young men, hoping that the nieces Lovelace had slighted for Dainty might yet catch rich husbands.
But somehow the best catches seemed already engaged, and the next best ones, while politely attentive to Mrs. Ellsworth's guests, did not betray any marked predilection for their society. Though handsome and well-dressed, they failed somehow in that indefinable charm that often wins for a plainer girl a really enviable lover.
This fact has been often observed in life. The most perfect beauty, unless united to an innate goodness that forms an attractive aura about the person, often fails to impress and win.
"What a beautiful girl! Pray introduce me!" exclaims some admiring young man; but on being presented, he feels an unconscious chill, and after leaving the beauty's presence, finds he has lost all interest in what before had charmed him so. The most probable cause is, that the fair face hid an ignoble soul whose influence had vaguely chilled and depressed his admiration.
Olive Peyton was peculiarly of this unpleasant type. Proud, vain, cold, and ambitious, she had never possessed any magnetic power of attraction, and had actually never received a single proposal, though it would have mortified her intensely for any one to find it out.
Ela, who patterned after Olive as nearly as possible, had never had any offer but that of Vernon Ashley, which she had been glad enough to accept until she thought a better chance had presented itself.
So, very naturally, both the young girls cherished an inward spite and envy for the sweet, lovable girl who had won so easily the prize they coveted.
They could see, too, from the actions of the young men who came to Ellsworth, that they envied the proud lover the prize he had won. She might easily have had a dozen other offers had not Love won her promise so quickly. How could any one wonder at it who saw how kind-hearted and gentle she was, always thinking of others more than herself, always pitying another's sorrow, always glad of another's joy, always light-hearted and sunny, hiding her grief, if she ever had one, under a merry smile?
"Her laugh, As light as wine or chaff, Breaks clear at witty sallies, As brooks Run bubbling through the nooks Of all her southern valleys.
"Her voice, By nature and by choice, Even those who knew her slightest Would find As soft as southern wind When southern winds are lightest."
So the summer days flew, and the happy lover was making all the preparations for the wedding.
It must be a grand affair, of course. Half the county would expect an invitation to the wedding of Lovelace Ellsworth, and he was not averse to having them witness his happiness.
The invitations were sent out two weeks beforehand. Dainty would never forget that day, because it was on that very night that the Ellsworth ghost reappeared to cast its lowering shadow again over her happiness.
It was quite a week since she had seen it, and Love had almost persuaded her that she had dreamed the whole thing, or that Sheila Kelly had probably played ghost to annoy her, when suddenly one night it reappeared more horribly than ever before, striking consternation to even the stout heart of old black mammy, who roused the whole house with her terrified shrieks, and filled Love Ellsworth's heart with rage at her graphic story.
BLACK MAMMY'S STORY.
In the dead waste and middle of the night, the sleeping household of Ellsworth was startled from repose by long, loud, wailing cries that rang through the wide corridors and vaulted roofs like the shrieks of some lost, despairing soul.
Instantly every sleeper was wide awake. Hurrying on scraps of outer clothing, they rushed from their rooms in wild alarm to the scene of disturbance.
On the floor at some distance from the half-open door lay Dainty Chase, clothed only in her night robes, her fair face upturned to the dim night light like the face of one dead, while over her bent the figure of old black mammy, grotesque in her red flannel petticoat, large-flowered calico sacque, and white turban, and pathetic in the grief with which she chafed Dainty's cold little hands, begging her to open her eyes and speak just one word to her poor old mammy.
"Yo' aine dead, is yo', honey, darlin', is yo' now? Don't you know dat I done chase dat ole debbil, an' made him drap you ter sabe heself? When I clutch him tight an' pinch he arms, he groan wif pain an' drap ye on de flo', slap me clean ober, and run fer his life. Open yer eyes now, deares', fer here comes Massa Love an' de ladies, an' all."
It was true. There was Love, his step-mother, her nieces, and several of the upstairs servants on the scene; but Dainty Chase lay among them white and still as one already dead, making no reply to the old woman's affectionate pleadings.
With a terrified cry, Love knelt by his stricken darling and clasped her tiny hands in his, but they were cold and limp like the newly dead.
"What means this?" he cried, sternly, to the wailing old negress; and she sobbed:
"Oh, Massa Love, de black debbil heself kem by Miss Dainty's bed, grab her up in his arms, an' fly 'way wif her, an' I follow lik' de wind and pinch he arms so he scream wid pain an' drap her on de floor, kase he seen he cain't git 'way from me. Den he slap me so hard hit made me see stars, an' tumbled me ober by Miss Dainty, while he got 'way ter he own bad place ergin."
"What silly lies! Do not listen to her, Love. She is as hysterical as Dainty!" cried Mrs. Ellsworth, scornfully. "Take the girl back to her room, some of you gaping servants, and let us bring her out of this spell."
But Love took the silent figure up in his own arms and carried her back, after saying sternly to the servants:
"A hundred dollars reward to the person who discovers the fiend who has played ghost and frightened Miss Chase again. Now, Carter, mount the fleetest horse, and bring the nearest physician here at once."
"But that is needless. We can revive her as we did the other night she had another spell like this!" Mrs. Ellsworth cried, as she followed into the room, where he laid his darling down tenderly, drawing the covers over the cold form with reverent hands.
"You can go now, Love. Your presence in the room is not quite seemly, and there are plenty women to attend Dainty," she added, imperiously, while Olive and Ela looked silently on.
To her chagrin, he answered, firmly:
"I shall not withdraw until she revives. She is my promised wife, and I do not recognize any impropriety in my presence at such a crisis."
Fire flashed from her eyes; but she dared not oppose the master of Ellsworth further. She could only say, with a furtive sneer:
"Then Olive and Ela, you had better return to your rooms, as it is improper for you to stay under the circumstances. Do not be uneasy over your cousin. She will soon be all right."
The girls hurried away, and Mrs. Ellsworth remained with the old mammy and two white women servants all vying with each other in efforts to restore Dainty to consciousness, while Love looked on in wild anxiety.
"It is useless, all that you can do. As well wait till the doctor comes!" he said, hopelessly, at last; and indeed the throb of Dainty's heart was so weak it did not seem as if she should ever return to the life from which the great shock seemed to have driven her.
"Poor old black mammy, I was forgetting you! Here, drink this," he said, hurriedly, mixing a stimulant, and placing it to the lips of the trembling old negress, who had sunk to the floor, utterly unnerved, and turning to an ashen-gray pallor. "As soon as you feel better," he added, "I would like to hear a truthful account of all that happened to throw you and Miss Chase into such a state."
The old woman gasped, rolled the whites of her big eyes at him; then, lying heavily back in the arm-chair where he had placed her, muttered, feebly:
"I gwine tell de trufe, an' nothin' else, Massa Love, an ef dat pore darlin' eber comes back ter life ergin, she gwine tell yer de same as I does. De black debbil hese'f comed inter dis room an' grab her up an' run off wif she inter de hall. I seen him plain as day, in his long black gownd wif a string o' beads hangin' down by de side, an' er li'l ole skull-cap on his haid, an' he face all gashly white like a corp—umme!" she groaned; adding: "But I'll tell de trufe—he didn't pear to hab no hoofs nor horns, an' I always did hear dat he had both. Umme! ter think o' seein' dat ole debbil heself, an' livin' arterward!" groaned old mammy, while every one listened eagerly, Mrs. Ellsworth alone giving little sniffs of incredulity.
"Is that all?" queried Love, at this juncture; and dolefully wagging her turbaned head, mammy answered, impressively:
"No, suh, no, 'tain't all! I gwine begin at de beginnin' now, an' 'late de whole story. Fust t'ing, es I was settin' an' noddin' in my cheer, I heerd de soun' o' somebody coughin' an' coughin' er dreadful hackin' cough, lak some one in de last stage o' consumption. Hit soun' so nateral it made my flesh creep, fer I suddenly 'members de story o' de ghost-cough dat frighten sweet Miss Dainty. I turn my eyes to de baid ter see ef she's awaken' by de noise, an' in de darkness dere all at once flash a li'l blue-green gashly light, flickerin' erbout de ceilin', den here an' dar erbout de room, den down on Miss Dainty's face, an' I see her so pale, wif her big blue eyes wide open, skeered lak, an' she listenin' an' lookin', silent-lak, in turrible fear, so pitiful it nigh bruk my heart!"
THE GHOST ALARM.
Mrs. Ellsworth turned from her task of chafing Dainty's cold hands, and glared scornfully at the black mammy, exclaiming:
"How can you listen to such silly lies, Love? The old woman is in her dotage!"
Love gave her a cold glance of rebuke and made no reply, motioning the old woman to continue.
With her big eyes rolling in her ashy-pale face, and her toil-worn black hands nervously clasping and unclasping each other, the old woman went on:
"I'se sorry, Massa Love, but I cudn't git up as quick as I ought to go ober to dat poor chile's aid, kase I was kinder struck dumb wif terror an' 'sprise; an' whiles I was settin' an' watchin' her, all to onct I seen a figger come glidin' from back o' me somewhar to de bedside, an' I seen 'twas dressed in a long black gownd, wif string o' beads down de side, an' a li'l black skull-cap on his haid, an' his face white like a corpse, an' glarin' eyes dat struck terror to my soul!"
"Nonsense!" Mrs. Ellsworth cried, testily; but mammy paid no heed; she only looked at Love, and went on with her story.
"When I seen dat figger all in black, I t'ought sure 'tis de debbil hese'f, an' I got to sabe Miss Dainty from his clutches. I seen him lean down, I seen him look in her pale face, an' I hear her low, stranglin' moan o' fear, an' I pray, 'Lord he'p us!' den I rise to my feet an' start to'ard de baid, dough shakin' lak a leaf; but jest den de brack vilyun swoop down lak a hawk on a li'l chick, an' grab her up in his arms an' run to de do', me a-follerin' an' screamin' at de top o' my voice. Out de do' we dash, de good Lord givin' strength to my laigs, so dat in de hall I catch holt o' dat black gownd, an' hang on a-screechin' an' henderin' de debbil, so dat he hab to let go and drap de honey-chile on de flo'. But de owdacious vilyun clapped me a lick onter my haid, an' I seen so many stars as I fell ober Miss Dainty, dat he got away safe enough befo' yo' all come rushin' out from yo' rooms—umme!" concluded mammy, groaning, for her old gray head ached with the force of the blow she had received in her plucky defense of her beautiful young charge.
At that moment the old physician, Doctor Platt, was ushered into the room, and Love turned to greet him, saying anxiously:
"Some one has played ghost and frightened Miss Chase into such a long spell of unconsciousness that I fear for her life."
The old doctor looked very grave when he saw his patient lying like one dead among the pillows, in spite of all that the women were doing to revive her, and he muttered in his irascible way:
"The person that was mean enough to frighten this sensitive young girl into such a state deserves lynching."
And having delivered this frank opinion, he turned all his attention to Dainty, and by his skill succeeded after some time in restoring her to consciousness again, though it was indeed a pale, woeful face that looked up at the anxious group around the bed.
"You are better, dear!" cried Love, gladly; and he took her little hand and kissed it before them all in his great joy, heedless of his step-mother's angry frown.
"Yes, she is better; but I shall stay and watch by her a little while," said Doctor Platt; and he did not go till the pale dawn glimmered through the windows.
By that time Dainty was vastly improved, and able to corroborate mammy's strange story of the abduction by the mysterious visitor that had appeared to her imagination no less a person than his satanic majesty.
Doctor Platt was most indignant; but he laughed at the idea of a supernatural visitant, and concurred in Love's belief of some malicious person in the house playing ghost.
When he started home, leaving Dainty in a deep sleep from the effect of a sedative he had administered for her nerves, he talked quite seriously to Love as they stood on the steps in the struggling light of early morn.
"It would seem as if Miss Chase has a malignant enemy who is trying to frighten her into death or insanity," he said. "Another such experience as this of to-night would probably effect her enemy's purpose. She is of a very nervous physique, and this shock told most terribly upon her. I warn you that the perpetrator should be discovered at once, and severe punishment meted out for the offense. If this proves impossible, why not send the young girl home to remain until her wedding-day?"
"I am loath to do so, because the weather in Richmond is so hot at this season," Love replied; adding: "I shall take such measures, however, that it will be impossible for this thing to occur again!"
The stern tone of his voice and the flash of his eyes assured Doctor Platt that he would keep his word, and he went away much comforted, for all his sympathies had been keenly enlisted by Dainty's misfortunes.
The young girl herself slept on heavily till noon, when she awoke, refreshed by her long rest, and was able to meet the family at luncheon, though her pallid cheeks and wistful eyes were enough to strike remorse to the hearts of her bitter enemies, if they had not been hard and cold as stone.
But her lover's looks and smiles were warm enough to atone for the indifference of the rest, and the soft color flew to her cheeks again as he took her hand tenderly, saying:
"Get ready, darling, and I shall take you for a long drive into the country this evening."
Ah! how Olive and Ela envied her the bliss of the long tete-a-tete drive as they watched the lovers going away in the elegant phaeton behind the spirited gray ponies, the sunshine resting so lovingly on Dainty's curly locks beneath the simple white hat. When they returned, in the last rosy glow of sunset, Dainty seemed to have received a new baptism of beauty, she was so changed from the pale, nervous girl of a few hours ago. Now her cheeks and lips glowed rosy-red, and her eyes were bright with happiness—the happiness of loving and being loved. It made her cousins so angry they could have killed her in their jealous spite, for it lacked but two weeks to the wedding now, and it seemed as if nothing that spite or malice could invent had any power to break off the consummation of the engagement.
They were so furious they would willingly have poisoned her, but for fear of being found out.
No words could tell how they hated that fair face and golden hair, that rosy mouth, those blue eyes and dimples that had rivaled them in the prize they longed to win.
The sight of the happy lovers was gall and wormwood to their envious hearts.
They were indignant, too, because they could see, beneath the surface of Love's coldly courteous manner, that he vaguely suspected them of having a hand in the mysterious plot to frighten his timid betrothed.
To-day he had carried matters with a high hand, interrogating all the servants carefully, and offering a reward of a hundred dollars to any one who should discover the identity of the person playing ghost.
Their greed thus excited, every hireling was anxious to earn the reward, and it would certainly be dangerous for any one to attempt again the cruel role of ghost, for detection seemed almost certain.
The young man had also made some investigations that resulted in showing him how very easy it had been for the malicious enemy of Dainty to intrude on her whenever it seemed desirable to do so.
The room adjoining hers was an unused bedroom that communicated with hers by a narrow curtained door back of her bed. How easy it had been for the intruder to enter the vacant room, imitate the monk's cough there to the heart's content, then glide through the curtained door to the bedside, alarming the sleeping girl by a cold touch or hacking cough, and escaping before she could give any alarm!
Love even found that a small hole had been bored in the wall between the two rooms, thus affording an opportunity for the use of chemicals in displaying the grisly green light whose weird play upon the walls and about the room had so alarmed the victims of the cruel joke.
"How careless I have been! I should have discovered all this long ago if I had believed it was aught but a girl's nervous fancies; but mammy's corroboration assures me it was reality. Now I shall take such steps that she will never be annoyed again," he said, sternly; and suited the action to the word by giving up the room next his own, an airy dressing-room, to Dainty's use, making it perfectly safe by having in a carpenter to attach a wire to the young girl's bed, that, running along the ceiling, passed through into his own room, with a large bell at the end.
The whole household was made aware of this unique ghost alarm, and Love said, sternly:
"At the least disturbance in Miss Chase's room, she has but to touch the wire by her bed, and the communicating bell will ring close to me, so that I can fly to her rescue. I do not need to say that the practical joker will fare badly at my hands."
Poor, nervous, shaken black mammy had been sent home to rest.
Dainty would not need any one, now that she had her ghost alarm, the young man said, smilingly; and every one understood his determination to protect his love at every hazard. The guilty party must have felt rather disconcerted at the turn affairs had taken.
Black mammy had not told any one yet that she had a clew by which she hoped to win the reward Love had offered for the detection of the impostor; but after she had grappled with the wretch who was bearing off Dainty, she had found in the claw-like grasp of her fingers some bits of torn torchon lace that might have been clutched forcibly from the sleeve of a night-dress.
She kept the fragments carefully, determining to find the garment they matched.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE WEDDING.
Apparently the Ellsworth ghost became disgusted with the prosaic means adapted to secure its identification.
From that horror-haunted night it ceased to invade Dainty's chamber with its grewsome cough and ghoulish presence.
It was true that in some of her occasional solitary moments, in some quiet twilight hour, she had been startled by the sound of that hateful cough, coming from apparently nowhere; but she fled at once in terror from the spot, and forebore to mention it to her lover, who was radiantly happy, deeming that the malicious ghost was exorcised forever.
The beautiful summer days flew past on wings of joy, bringing the fateful first of August that was to witness Dainty's bridal, as well as the twenty-sixth birthday of the handsome master of Ellsworth.
Everything was in readiness for the wedding when the last day of July brought Mrs. Chase to her daughter's arms again, and Dainty's happiness seemed complete.
Everything seemed to be going on so propitiously that Dainty cast her dismal forebodings to the winds.
Surely nothing could part her from her lover now! The malice of her enemies had fallen harmless to the ground.
Mrs. Ellsworth and her two favorite nieces were playing propriety with perfect ease. Indeed, the former had persuaded Olive and Ela to act as bridemaids, and provided them with elegant gowns of sheer white organdie over rich white silk. Mrs. Chase had brought with her Dainty's pretty, simple traveling gown and hat, and she had yielded to her lover's wish that the marriage vows should be spoken in the same beautiful white robes that had graced his mother at her wedding, twenty-eight years before.
They had been folded away in linen and lavender many years—the lace veil and satin gown—and the owner would never need them more, for she was wearing the robe of righteousness in the great procession of angels before the Great White Throne. While Love was yet in his babyhood she had passed gently away to heaven like a lily fading on its slender stem.
Love cherished her memory as something holy, and his heart ached with silent grief when, five years later, his father gave him a step-mother, a handsome, stately woman, who had been uniformly kind to him until now, when her imperious nature overstepped the mark in her anxiety to have him marry Olive or Ela.
But thwarted in her will, the lady was bearing her disappointment with what appeared to be graceful resignation, and she spared no efforts in preparing for the grand wedding, that it might do honor to the proud master of Ellsworth. A magnificent banquet was ready, and the floral decorations of the mansion were superb. It was to be a morning wedding, followed by a summer fete on a magnificent scale, and that evening the bride and groom would leave for a Northern tour, and thence to Europe.
Sweet, shy Dainty, so like a lovely, modest violet, gazed in wonder at all the preparations for the magnificent wedding, scarcely able to realize that it was to do honor to her, the simple girl with whom her rich and noble lover had seen fit to choose to share his heart, and name, and wealth. She said to herself that she was surely the happiest, most fortunate girl in the whole world, and that her love story read like some romantic fairy tale, with Lovelace Ellsworth as the grand Prince Charming.
Oh, how proud and happy Mamma Chase was, too, in her daughter's good fortune! The years seemed to fall from her like a cast-off garment, and on her gentle face, Mrs. Ellsworth, who had wondered so where Dainty got her radiant beauty, read the traces of what had once been rare loveliness before time and sorrow had faded her flower-like bloom. Mrs. Ellsworth could not help being courteous to the gentle lady who was her half-brother's lonely widow, so that last day passed away busily and happily, crowded with excitement, and that night the guest-chambers of Ellsworth were full to overflowing with visitors who had been bidden from a distance to their kinsman's wedding.
Until far into the moonlit summer night the halls and parlors of Ellsworth echoed with music and laughter, for the gay young people crowded together could scarcely be persuaded to retire even for "a beauty sleep" to enhance their charms to-morrow.
But at length all went to their rooms, and the weary servants closed the great house, darkened the lights, and everything sank into silence, broken only now and then by the call of a night bird in the shrubbery, or the whistle of a far-away locomotive. The full moon sailed high in the deep blue heaven, brooding over the sleeping world in its mystery, its beauty, its joy and sorrow.
Love and Dainty had gone along the corridors hand in hand like happy children, pausing to say good-night before their own doors.
"Mamma will share my room to-night—we have so much to say to each other this last night," Dainty said to her lover, with a fleeting blush like the sunset glow.
They were quite alone, with no envious eyes peering in the dim night light, and Love took his charming sweetheart in his arms and clasped and kissed her many times in passionate love.
"'This last night!' how solemn it sounds!" he echoed, then laughed. "Oh, my love, my love! what rapture to know that after to-night we never shall be parted again!"
"Never, never!" she cried, joyfully, and clasped her white arms around his neck, laying her soft cheek to his, whispering: "Oh, how glad I am that you love me, that you chose me for your very own, life of your life, heart of your heart! I thank God for His goodness to me, and I will try always to deserve my great happiness."
Sweet, shy Dainty had never spoken to her lover with such ardor and eloquence before, and his reply was such a shower of kisses that she could hardly tear herself away to enter her own room, where her mother waited, and said, laughingly:
"Darling, I thought you and Love were not going to say good-night till the morning dawned!"
THE WEDDING MORN.
Love retired into his room and sat down beside the window to brood over his great happiness.
Something like humility blended with his grateful thoughts.
Who was he, what had he done, that Heaven should be so good to him, giving him the fairest, truest, sweetest girl in the world for his adored and loving bride?
He lifted his dark, dreamy eyes to the moonlit heavens and prayed reverentially:
"God make me worthy of the prize I have won!"
From the next room he could hear the low murmur of voices, as Dainty conversed with her mother in happy tones; but by and by all grew silent, as the fair girl sank to sleep, nestling against her mother's heart for the last time, for to-morrow would give her to her husband's arms.
Love heard the clock in the tower chime the midnight hour, and retired to dream of the happiness that would be his to-morrow.
And never came fairer dreams of the future to any lover's heart, as surely no lover's heart had ever been so bound up in its beauteous idol.
"Love thee? So well, so tenderly Thou'rt loved, adored by me, Fame, fortune, wealth, and liberty Were worthless without thee. Though brimmed with blessings pure and rare Life's cup before me lay, Unless thy love were mingled there, I'd spurn the draught away.
"Without thy smile the monarch's lot To me were dark and lone, While, with it, even the humblest cot Were brighter than his throne. Those words for which the conqueror sighs For me would have no charms; My only world thy gentle eyes, My throne thy circling arms."
Wrapped in blissful dreams, he slumbered on till the night passed away. The morning dawned and the sun rode high in the heavens ere he started, broad awake, remembering that this was his wedding-day, and that he had overslept himself.
Indeed, at that moment, some one tapped on the door, and the voice of Harry Chilton, his cousin and best man, called out, gayly:
"Heavens, man! what can you mean by sleeping to within two hours of your wedding?"
"Is it possible?" cried Love, looking at his clock, and finding that the assertion was quite true.
He opened the door to his cousin, and they became immediately immersed in preparations for the ceremony which was to take place in the large parlor at nine o'clock, to be followed by the splendid wedding-breakfast.
The great house was in a hubbub of excitement with the final preparations and the dressing of the guests; but the bride's door had never opened yet, though no one thought strange of that, for she had gently declined all offers of assistance at her toilet, saying that mamma would do all that was necessary.
Never had there been a fairer morn for a birthday bridal. Not the slightest cloud marred the deep-blue sky; the sun shone in radiant splendor on the dewy flowers and the green earth, and the little birds seemed almost to know that there was to be a wedding, they warbled so persistently in the joy of their little hearts.
Time wore on till it lacked but fifteen minutes to the ceremony. The house was thronged with the wedding-guests, and the bishop of the diocese had arrived to perform the ceremony. The musicians were getting ready to play the wedding-march.
Love was all ready, looking faultlessly handsome in his wedding-suit, and he began to grow impatient because he had received no message from his darling that morning.
"How strange if she and her mother have overslept themselves! I will go and knock on the door," he said, suiting the action to the words.
He could not hear the least sound in the room, and he received no answer to his knock. He rapped impatiently again.
"Dainty! Mrs. Chase!" he called, anxiously, several times.
But there was no reply.
He bent his ear to the key-hole, but there was not a sound within the bride's room—all was still as the grave.
The handsome bridegroom grew pale and alarmed, crying out to his best man, who stood by his side:
"Surely something has happened, for I have heard not a sound from the room. We must force the door."
They put their shoulders against it; the lock yielded, it flew open, and they stood within the room.
The curtains and the shutters were closely drawn, and the night-lamp flickered dimly behind a screen. At one end of the room several chairs were littered with the wedding finery—the tiny white silken hose and slippers, the satin gown, the misty thread-lace veil.
In the midst of it all, Mrs. Chase lay on the bed, sleeping heavily, but Dainty was nowhere to be seen.
Love stood looking about him, pale and alarmed, but it was Harry Chilton who first caught sight of a note pinned on the pillow, and drew Love's attention to it.
"She is gone. Perhaps that may explain," he said.
Love caught up the note from the pillow, and read with staring eyes:
"DEAR MR. ELLSWORTH,—I have deceived you, and I can not keep the farce up any longer. I never loved you, never; but mamma always told me to get a rich husband if I could, and I was going to marry you for your money, knowing I would be a wretched wife, because all my heart was given to another.
"But last evening I met my lover in the grounds, and he persuaded me to go away with him. When this reaches you, I shall be his happy bride. We will be poor, but we shall have love to cheer us. Forgive me, and don't let the wedding be spoiled. Marry Olive or Ela.
Once in a lifetime a man may excusably swoon. Lovelace Ellsworth fell heavily to the floor like an insensate log.
A MADMAN'S DEED.
When he came back to life presently, with a strangling gasp of pain, he met the anxious gaze of Doctor Platt, who was kneeling beside him.
"Good! You are better! Let me help you to rise," said the old man, aiding him to a sofa. Taking a chair by him, he continued: "You have been unconscious for ten minutes, and we have read your letter from Miss Chase, which I believe to be a cussed forgery!"
"You are right," declared Love, sitting upright, deathly pale and trembling; while he added, sternly: "Dainty never went away of her own free will. It is a case of kidnaping!"
"Yes; for there lies her poor mother in a drugged sleep that will most likely last several hours longer. I have examined the dregs left in their pitcher of ice-water last night, and found a potent drug in it. I may also tell you that the overhead wire connecting this room with the bell in yours has been cut, thus making the bell powerless to ring if Miss Chase had wished to summon you to her assistance. There is evidence that the malice of Miss Chase's enemies has triumphed at last," sorrowfully replied the old doctor, who had in his heart been a true and stanch friend to the lovers.
A groan of anguish passed Love's pallid lips.
"Oh, my dearest, what have they done to you, my treasure, the ruthless enemies who hated you!"
At that moment a stately figure in rustling silk crossed the threshold, and a haughty voice exclaimed:
"Doctor Platt and Mr. Chilton, will you kindly withdraw for a few moments? I wish to speak privately with my step-son."
She closed the door on their retreating forms, glanced scornfully at the silent, sleeping face of Mrs. Chase, and exclaimed, eagerly:
"What strange story is this that is being whispered around, Love, that Dainty has deserted you and eloped with a more favored lover?"
"There is the note I found on her pillow. You are welcome to read it," he replied, coldly.
She took it up from the table, glanced quickly over the contents, and groaned:
"What a wicked girl to throw you over at the eleventh hour like this! How will you bear the shame of it, my poor boy, jilted like this, at the very altar, by the poor nobody whom you had stooped to raise to your side?"
Love answered not one word. He simply rested his head on his elbow, and stared curiously into Mrs. Ellsworth's eager, excited face with his dark, penetrating eyes as she continued:
"I am pained for you, my dear Love, but not at all surprised. I feared something like this, for I knew that Vernon Ashley was Dainty's lover, not Ela's, and I believed that love would triumph in the end over the greed for gold. Poor Dainty! she must have loved him well to sacrifice all her ambitions for a poor man's love. But she will be happier with him than she could have been with you. The hand without the heart does not promise well for wedded bliss."
Still without a word, he listened to the fluent tide of her speech, a strange, mocking light in his eyes, whose portent she could not fathom.
She continued, insinuatingly:
"But Dainty Chase has done you a cruel injustice, Love, for, besides depriving you of a bride to-day, she has cheated you out of your inheritance. Remember, unless you are married to-day, your fortune reverts to me!"
He bowed in silence, and Mrs. Ellsworth added, nervously:
"No wonder you are stricken dumb by the magnitude of your misfortune, losing everything that made life worth living, as it were. But cheer up, my dear boy, for I am not so selfish as to wish to deprive you of your fortune; and as soon as I heard that Dainty had eloped with another, I began to plan to help you, and I soon saw that there was a way out of your difficulty."
"Yes?" Love said, inquiringly, and his pale lips curled with a sneer whose subtle meaning she could not understand; but taking it for encouragement, she blurted out, boldly:
"The preacher is here, the people are here, and the wedding-breakfast waits. You can vanquish fate if you will. Though Dainty is gone, I have two other nieces."
Again that cold, scornful smile as she added, desperately:
"I see that Dainty advises you here to marry either Olive or Ela. Well, you can have either one for the asking."
His pale, writhing lips unclosed to ask, curtly:
"Are you speaking with their permission?"
"Yes," she replied, eagerly and hopefully, feeling sure that he must capitulate now and yield to her wishes. It was better to marry the wrong girl than lose such a princely fortune. It was impossible that he should hesitate over such a question.
She waited, almost confident of his answer, only wondering which he would choose—Olive, who was her secret preference, or the equally pretty Ela.
But he was slow in making his choice. Suddenly sitting upright, he gazed curiously at her excited face several minutes without replying, until the silence grew irksome, and she cried, with veiled impatience:
"I do not wish to hurry you, Love, but you must see for yourself how important it is that you should make a speedy decision. The bishop and the guests are waiting for the wedding, and unless it comes off soon the breakfast will be spoiled."
Slowly Love got upon his feet, and steadying his trembling frame by a hand on the back of a chair, startled her with the mocking words:
"You have plotted cleverly, madame, but you have lost the game. Neither Olive nor Ela will ever be bride of mine!"
Her eyes flashed in her pale face, and she said, insolently:
"Very well, then; I am the mistress of Ellsworth, and you a pauper!"
"Not so fast; you have not heard all," he answered coolly. "I understand the little game you have been playing, madame, you and your two clever nieces. You have plotted to frighten Dainty to death, but foiled in that, you kidnaped her at the eleventh hour, hoping to frighten me into marrying one of your nieces by the threat of disinheritance; but your malicious scheme has failed. There exists an insuperable objection to my marriage with Olive or Ela."
"Insuperable?" she muttered, incredulously.
"Yes; I am a married man already."
A bolt of lightning would not have startled her as much as those calmly spoken words.
It was her turn now to stare speechlessly, while Love continued, earnestly:
"You are detected in your hellish plotting, madame. The proof of it is in that letter there. A base forgery, since Dainty Chase could not possibly have written it—Dainty Ellsworth, I should say rather, for she has been my wife two weeks."
"Your wife?" she faltered, wildly.
"Yes; there was a secret marriage two weeks ago, designed to prevent just what has happened now—some treachery on the part of the three women who hated Dainty and were trying to work her ill. Yes, I understand your game; as I said just now, Dainty was kidnaped, and you know where she is, but your malice can not undo the fact that she is my wife, and my inheritance safe. I go now to break the truth to the wedding guests, and their indignation will compel you to restore me my bride!"
He rushed from the room, heedless of her shrieks for him to stay, and sought the thronged parlor, where the disappointed guests waited for an explanation.
Within the door he paused, raised his hand, and began:
"My dear friends, I—"
The sentence stopped abruptly, for through the window near by hurtled a bullet, sent by a madman's brutal hand. It crashed through his head, and he fell senseless and bleeding to the floor.
THE END OF THE DAY.
Ah, how terrible a finale to a birthday wedding that had dawned so fairly and been anticipated with such happiness.
The bride mysteriously vanished, the bridegroom weltering in his blood! Both the victims of wrong and crime heinous enough to make the very angels turn away from watching such a wicked world.
Yet the sun shone on as brightly, the flowers bloomed as fairly, the birds sang as sweetly as if two beautiful young lives had not been blasted in their happiest hour.
Instantly these was the greatest confusion in the long parlors where the merry guests who had come to witness a bridal now beheld the handsome bridegroom murdered before their startled eyes.
A few moments before they had been excitedly watching for quite a different denouement.
Whispers of what had happened—of Dainty Chase's note and her cruel flight—had been circulated among the guests with startling rapidity, and Mrs. Ellsworth had been heard to exclaim that they should not be disappointed of a wedding, after all; she had two more nieces, and Lovelace was not the man she took him for if he could not persuade one or the other to step into the awkward breach and save him from the consequences of Dainty's treachery.
Then she hurried away, to further her scheme with the deserted bridegroom, and the guests waited most impatiently, gossiping among themselves over the strange turn affairs had taken, wondering how Dainty could turn her back on such a bridegroom and such a future, wondering still more if Mrs. Ellsworth would indeed induce her step-son to take Olive or Ela in place of the false bride, and on which his choice would chance to fall.
Preferences were quite evenly divided between the two girls, both of whom tried to look cool and unembarrassed, though their hearts beat furiously with anticipation, and Olive, at least, since her heart was enlisted in the contest, felt a burning thrill of jealousy of her cousin Ela, saying to herself:
"If he should choose her, I know I could not help but envy and hate her, for her heart is not interested like mine in this affair. I believe that she still loves Vernon Ashley, and but for his poverty would rather have him for her husband than any other man. Oh, I pray that his choice may fall on me! I know Aunt Judith secretly wishes it, because I resemble her more than any of her other relatives, and naturally she would prefer for me to succeed her at Ellsworth."
Suddenly she beheld a face that made her start and draw in her breath with a sort of strangled gasp.
Her eyes had strayed to Ela, who stood near the door, then wandered aimlessly to the nearest window—aimlessly, then with a flash of terrified recognition.
Between the rich lace curtains there peered the dark face of Ela's jilted lover, Vernon Ashley, and in the glittering eyes, fixed immovably on Ela, shone a baleful, boding light enough to frighten a stranger, and much more so Olive, who knew of the cruel wrongs that had goaded him to jealous frenzy.
It was simply blood-curdling, the demoniac look on Ashley's face; and Olive watched him with a creeping sort of terror; for Ela had confided to her that it was he who had fired at Lovelace Ellsworth the night of the festival, and uttered dark threats of vengeance that now recurred to her mind and filled her with alarm.
"He is bent on mischief. His eyes glare like a madman's or a drunkard's, I am not certain which; but either way they bode evil. I must warn Ela of her peril," she thought, nervously taking a step forward, but pausing instantly in consternation; for at that moment Lovelace Ellsworth rushed into the room, his handsome face pale as death, his dark, curly hair pushed back in disorder from his high, white brow, his eyes flashing with a strange fire, his ashen lips curled back from his white teeth with a mocking smile.
Consciously or unconsciously, he made his way straight to where Ela Craye was standing, pausing just at her side, and the act sealed his doom.
The man at the window had heard of the wedding that was to take place, and he had returned to Ellsworth, hoping to persuade Ela to take him back into her favor, now that all hope of a rich match was over.
But in the days while writhing in the throes of rejected love, the man had cast to the winds all honor and manliness, and drowned memory and sorrow in the flowing bowl.
A piteous wreck of his former handsome self, he now peered through the window, hoping to attract Ela's attention; but, unfortunately, no premonition of the truth caused her to turn her limpid gray eyes toward the dissipated lover now half crazed with thoughts of either love or vengeance.
And while he watched and waited, he heard the talk of Dainty's flight and Mrs. Ellsworth's promise—they should not be disappointed in the wedding—Ellsworth would persuade one of her other nieces to marry him.
His brow grew dark, his heart beat heavily, his breath came thick and fast with fear. In his passion for Ela he felt sure that Lovelace could choose no one but her, his heart's fickle queen.
"It shall never be!" the maddened lover groaned to himself in jealous fury, for he had said to himself, day after day, that ere Ela should become the bride of another, he would stretch her dead at his feet, and give her sweet white beauty to the worms and the grave rather than to the arms of a rival.
The man was temporarily insane. Love and despair and reckless indulgence in the bottle had made him so. He was as dangerous at this moment as a wild beast from the jungle.
Lovelace Ellsworth rushed into the room, and, without seeing Ela Craye at all, paused directly at the young girl's side, and began to speak.
To the jealous hearts of Olive and Vernon Ashley, the act had but one interpretation.
His choice had fallen on Ela, and he was about to announce it publicly to his friends.
A pang of the bitterest pain and jealousy tore like a red-hot needle through the heart of Olive, and involuntarily, she looked again at the window for the lowering face of Ela's rejected lover, wondering how he would bear the strain of the moment.
The sight of his face made her shudder with alarm, for it had grown dark and demoniac in its fury; and while she gazed, she saw his hand lifted, and the shining point of a pistol directed full at the head of Lovelace Ellsworth.
Simultaneously with the first words of Lovelace, a loud, warning shriek burst from Olive's lips; but both were silenced together by the loud report of the pistol whose contents had entered the victim's head.
With a moan of pain, Ellsworth sank to the floor, and a scene of instant confusion ensued, some rushing to the young man's aid, others pursuing the murderer; for Olive was not the only one who had witnessed the fatal shot.
Several persons had observed the dark face of the stranger peering in at the window, and two persons besides Olive had seen him fire the fatal shot. He was instantly pursued and overtaken, and from his furious ravings he was at first supposed to be an escaped lunatic.
But a guest from the station quickly recognized him as Vernon Ashley, a young man who had visited in the neighborhood some weeks before, and had caused some sensation by declaring he was engaged to Miss Craye, and betraying a furious jealousy of Lovelace Ellsworth.
Ashley was taken away to prison, despite his entreaties to see Miss Craye, who had gone into hysterics, it was said, on hearing who it was that had shot Ellsworth.
When she learned that Ashley was begging to see her, she refused his request with a shudder of fear, and he sent back an angry message:
"Tell her I have carried out my threat!"
They bore him away to prison, shuddering at his insane rejoicings that he had killed his rival, and the house of joy and feasting was turned into one of gloom and sorrow.
But Lovelace Ellsworth was not dead yet, though the end was expected at any moment.
Indeed, it was a wonder that he had not died instantly, declared all three doctors who examined him. The bullet had crashed through the side of his head near the top, and was certainly imbedded in his brain, for all endeavors to locate it failed of success, and they decided not to worry the poor fellow with these useless attempts, but to let him pass away in peace.
Love lay with closed eyes in a comatose condition, breathing heavily, his pulse sinking fast, and it was believed that each moment must be his last.
But as the minutes ebbed and the frail breath of life still fluttered feebly in his frame, they became mystified by his tenacity of life, and decided to risk removing him to his bed, which was accordingly done without any appreciable harm to his condition.
Meanwhile, the house was full of hysterical women sobbing in earnest fright and demanding as much attention as the victim himself, not the least of whom was Mrs. Ellsworth.
She had followed Lovelace to the parlors after his startling communication to her in wild excitement, and had swooned on beholding his fall, recovering from one long spell only to go into another, and actual fears for her life began to be entertained.
It was touching, said all, to see how devoted she had been to her step-son, seeing that the events of to-day would make her the mistress of his splendid fortune.
WOULD HEAVEN TURN AWAY FROM HER WILD APPEAL?
"Oh, Thou to whom my thoughts are known, Calm, oh, calm these trembling fears; Oh, turn away the world's cold frown, And dry these falling tears! Oh, leave me not alone in grief— Send this anguished heart relief! Oh, make my life Thy future care! Sweet Spirit, hear my prayer— Ah, hear my prayer!"
Beneath the ruined wing of Castle Ellsworth were mysterious underground passages and chambers, and in one of these grewsome places Dainty Chase was held a prisoner, while over her head, in the golden light of the summer day, the stirring events of the interrupted wedding were in progress.
While wrapped in the unconsciousness of a drugged sleep the night previous, the hapless girl had been borne away from her mother's side in the arms of the person who had so successfully enacted the part of the monk's ghost, and placed on a couch, where she slept on heavily till the day was far advanced toward its meridian.
She woke at last in semi-darkness, lighted only by the dim rays of a sputtering kerosene lamp, whose vile odor made the close air almost insufferable.
"Mamma!" she murmured, stretching out her arms for the beloved one who had slumbered by her side all night.
But her yearning arms touched empty air, and she found herself resting on a hard and narrow mattress, while her eyes, growing accustomed to the feeble light, showed her the bare stone wall of a narrow chamber like a dungeon, whose only ventilation came from narrow slits in the heavy oaken door.
Half-dazed, the girl lay and gazed about her unfamiliar surroundings until, suddenly overpowered with terror, she shrieked aloud, and springing up, dashed herself against the hard, unyielding door in the wild desire of escape.
In vain! The pressure of her light form did not even shake the heavy, cell-like door that was securely locked on the outside.
She could only sink back upon the narrow cot, while a terrified realization of the truth forced itself on her bewildered senses.
She was a prisoner in some unknown dungeon, locked away from her beloved forever.
The spite and malice of her enemies had triumphed at last. They had parted her from Love before the dawn of her wedding-day. The second attempt to kidnap her must have succeeded well, for she could remember nothing of how she had been brought here.
"Ah! I comprehend all now!" she cried, despairingly. "That pitcher of ice-water last night had somehow a bitter taste. We were drugged—mamma and I—and I was stolen away in the hope of preventing my marriage to Love, so that one of my rivals might be forced on him in my stead, lest he lose his inheritance!"
Then, in spite of her misery, a sweet, mocking laugh dimpled the girl's lips, as she added, gratefully:
"Oh, what a clever thought it was of Love's, that secret marriage! I feared I did wrong letting him persuade me into it; but I see now his presentiments of evil had good ground, and he did wisely in making me his wife two weeks ago."
She clasped her dimpled hands together in a sort of ecstacy, as she continued:
"And oh! how happy he has made me, my darling young husband! How full of bliss our secret honeymoon! Oh, I can never forget while life lasts the sweetness of our wedded love! But how chagrined Aunt Judith and my cruel cousins will be when Love tells them the startling truth. I can guess how they will try to deceive him. They will say to him: 'Dainty has eloped with Vernon Ashley. He was her lover all the while, though she made you think he was Ela's. Now that she has deceived you, it is imperative for you to marry some one else immediately, lest by the terms of your father's will you lose your grand inheritance!'"
The blue eyes beamed, and the rosy mouth dimpled proudly as Dainty's thoughts ran on happily.
"They will be fit to die of rage when they hear my darling laugh them to scorn, and say: 'All your wicked plots to part me from my love are in vain! I knew you were scheming to do this all along, so I forestalled you by making her my wife in secret two weeks ago, and the denouement of to-day shows me how wisely I acted. Now you must restore my love to me, or I will denounce you to the world for your treachery!'"
This was how Dainty pictured it to herself, and in her excitement it seemed to her that Love would be coming directly to release her from her confinement, because they could have no interest in keeping them apart any longer, knowing that they were married now, and that there was no chance for Olive and Ela to get him away from his wedded wife.
Oh, how impatient she grew, waiting and hoping for him to come! But long hours of silence and solitude dragged by, till her brave heart began to fail, and she sobbed, piteously:
"Perhaps they are unrelenting in their hate, and will not tell him where to find me. They may leave me here to starve and die!"
Already she felt faint from lack of food, and her heart sank hopelessly from its new dread. She fell on her knees, and prayed to Heaven to have pity on her sorrow, and send her speedy rescue.
It was indeed a sight to move the pity of Heaven; the innocent, white-gowned girl kneeling on the cold stone floor of the damp cell, with her bare feet and naked arms and shoulders, her appealing blue eyes raised upward, the golden hair streaming like a shining veil about her slender form, her sweet lips moving in prayer to God. Would He indeed hear that prayer unmoved, or would He send her relief?
The slow hours dragged away without interruption, and she saw with terror that her miserable light began to flicker with exhaustion. Soon the desolation of darkness would be added to loneliness and hunger.
Dainty fell back, sobbing, on her hard couch, her frame shaking as with an ague chill.
The horror of her position was enough to drive her mad.
It seemed to her that she was entombed alive, and left to her fate—left to die of darkness, terror, grief, and starvation, the wretched victim of a most cruel persecution; she who had so much to live for; youth, health, beauty, and a loving young husband!
Her faltering voice rang out in a despairing prayer:
"Oh, God, have mercy on me, and on my poor unhappy husband and mother, whose hearts I know are aching with grief over my mysterious absence! Oh, send some pitying angel to guide them to my dreary prison!"
As if in answer to the wild aspiration, a key suddenly clicked in the lock outside, and she sprang upright on the cot with a strangling gasp of fear and hope commingled.
Slowly the heavy oaken door swung outward wide enough to admit a tall, dark-gowned figure, then shut inward again, locking Dainty in with the feared and abhorred ghost of the old monk.
In the dim, flickering light of the cell, the horrible figure towered above the girl, who crouched low in breathless fear at the dreaded apparition, speech frozen on her lips, her heart sinking till the blood seemed freezing in her veins, not observing in her alarm that the ghost had a rather prosaic air by reason of carrying a large basket on one arm.
Suddenly the ghastly creature spoke: the first time it had ever opened its lips in all its visitations to Dainty.
"You don't seem glad to see me," it observed, in hoarse, mocking accents that somehow had a familiar ring in her ears.
There flashed over her mind some words that Lovelace Ellsworth had said to her lately:
"I am convinced that the pretended monk is a creature of flesh and blood, and if you could only summon courage to tear away its mask when it calls on you again, you would most likely find beneath it the coarse Sheila Kelly, or very probably one of your malicious cousins. Try it next time, and you will see that I am right, darling."
At sound of that gibing voice, with its oddly familiar ring, a desperate courage came to poor Dainty, and suddenly springing erect on her bed, she made a fierce onslaught on her foe, tearing away in one frantic clutch the ghastly mask, skull-cap, wig, and all, and leaving exposed the astonished features of the coarse Irish woman, Sheila Kelly.
The woman uttered a fierce imprecation in her surprise, recoiling a step, then laughing coarsely:
"What a little wild-cat, to be sure! But why didn't you do it long ago?"
"I never thought of it being you, Sheila Kelly! How could I, when I've seen you lying asleep in my room and the old monk standing by my bed?" faltered Dainty in surprise and bewilderment.
"Och, thin it was Miss Peyton playing the part. Shure, she's as tall as mesilf, and I don't mind satisfyin' yer cur'osity now, seein' as yer'll never git out o' this alive to blow on us!" returned the woman, with cool effrontery.
"What do you mean, Sheila?" cried the young girl in alarm.
"Shure, I mane what I say! Ye're a pris'ner fer life, Miss Dainty Chase, sintenced by yer aunt and cousins to solitary confinement on bread and water till you die—and the sooner you do that last the better they will be pleased!" returned the coarse woman letting down her basket and taking out a glass tumbler, two large bottles of water, some loaves of stale bread, and some of Dainty's clothes, saying, facetiously: "Here's yer duds and yer grub—enough o' both ter last yer a week—and at the end of a week I'll call again with more provisions, miss—and likewise, if you get tired of living in such luxury, here's a bottle of laudanum to pass yer into purgatory," coolly putting it on the only chair the room contained, while Dainty's blue eyes dilated in horror at her fiendish brutality.
"Sheila, Sheila, surely this is some cruel jest! You can not mean to leave me here alone as you say! Oh, what harm have I ever done to you that you treat me so cruelly?" she cried in anguish.
"As for the harrum, none; but I always hated ye from the first time I looked on yer bonny face. As for the raison, 'tis soon towld. I fell in love with the young masther soon's ever he kem home from Yurrup, and I did me best ter make up ter him; but he would none of me. And I seen straight away his heart was wid you, and I hated yer ever since, and forby yer two cousins and t' ould Leddy Ellsworth turned against yer for the same raison, because yer won the masther's heart. So whin they offered ter make me fortune for scaring yer ter death, I was ready and glad ter take the job ter pay off me own score agin ye! So there now, ye see it's small good luck yer pritty face got ye!" concluded the cruel Irish woman, exultantly.
Poor Dainty, gazing into that hard face, felt the utter uselessness of all appeals for mercy. The woman had the heart of a fiend, and was openly glad of her victim's misery.
She determined to appeal to her cupidity, and ventured, timidly:
"If you will only give me my liberty, Sheila, I give you my word of honor Mr. Ellsworth will make you rich."
"Rich, is it? and him a-dying!" grunted Sheila Kelly, indifferently.
"Dying! Oh, what mean you, Sheila? Speak! What has happened to my darling?" shrieked poor Dainty, in wild alarm.
Sheila Kelly shrugged her shoulders, and proceeded to fill the dying lamp with fresh oil from a tin can she had brought in her capacious basket. Then sitting down on the foot of the narrow cot, she began and recounted the events of the morning to her anxious listener, ending with:
"Shure, the mane, murtherin' Ashley is safe in jail, t' ould Leddy Ellsworth, going from one fainting fit ter another, and Masther Lovelace a-laying with ter bullet in his head, niver spakin' a worrud since he was shot, niver opening his eyes, jist a-dying by inches, sez all the docthers."
Oh, the shrieks of despair that filled the gloomy cell! They were enough to move a heart of stone; but Dainty's tormentor was cruel as a fiend.
She listened unmoved to the expressions of despair and the prayers for liberty, and laughed incredulously, when the girl cried, desperately:
"Oh, Sheila! for God's sake, let me go to the side of my dying husband! Yes, he is my own dear husband, and my place is by him now, to soothe his last hours. We were married secretly two weeks ago, because he feared our cruel enemies would devise some scheme to tear us from each other, as indeed they have done. But now that you know the truth, you would not keep a young wife from the side of her dying husband, would you? You will set me free, to go to him?"
But the wretch shook her head, with a mocking laugh.
"You will never see the light of day again!" she said, calmly.
"Oh, Sheila, do you forget that I have a mother to mourn me as well as a husband? A poor widowed mother, who has no one but me in the wide, wide world! I am the light of her eyes and her heart. She will die of a broken heart at my mysterious fate! For her sake, Sheila, if not for my own and my husband's, I beg you for my liberty!" prayed the wretched prisoner, kneeling on the cold floor at her tormentor's feet.
But she might as well have prayed to the cold stone wall as to such a fiend in human form.
"Ye're wastin' worruds, Dainty Chase!" she said, mockingly, as she rose to go. "Ye'll niver come out of this cell alive, I tell you; so the sooner yer make up yer mind ter die, the better; and I'll kem ag'in this day week, hoping ter find yer cold corp on the bed!"
"One word!" implored the wretched girl, detaining her. "Where am I, Sheila Kelly? Is this, as I suspect, a dungeon beneath the ruined wing of Ellsworth?"
"Yes, ye're right; 'tis the underground chambers, where t' ould Ellsworths hid from the Indians and kept their prisoners, and this will be yer tomb, Dainty Chase. Better try the laudanum, and put yersilf out of misery at once!" flashing out, and locking the door on the outside as before.
AH! THE PITY OF IT!
The oaken door clanged heavily to, and the massive bolt, as it shot into place, sounded in Dainty's ears like the trump of doom, shutting her into a living grave; for now that she had heard of her husband's condition, she had no longer the least hope of rescue.
In all the wide, cruel world, who was there that had any interest in poor Dainty Chase save her husband and her mother?
Her husband was dying, and her poor, helpless little mother was powerless to save her.
They would tell her that her fair daughter had eloped with a favorite lover; and how was she to know that the story was untrue?
In her desire to spare her gentle little mother pain, Dainty had withheld the whole story of the persecutions she had suffered at Ellsworth.
In every letter home she had written the substance of these words:
"It is very pleasant here, and I am very happy. I long for you to be with me."
And the mother's heart had rejoiced in her daughter's happiness.
When she should awaken from her drugged sleep, and hear that Lovelace was dying, and her daughter fled with another, there would be no one to comfort her, none to say that the story was untrue. She would have to simply accept it in all its horror, and her tender heart would break with the despair of it all.
"Oh, my husband; my mother!" sobbed the heartbroken girl; and she wondered how Heaven could permit such cruelties as had been practised on her by her relentless enemies.
Before the coming of her heartless jailer she had been suffering with hunger and thirst; but she forgot both now as she lay weeping and moaning and praying, until after awhile the deep sleep of exhaustion stole over her, and she slumbered for long hours, starting fitfully now and then and murmuring feverishly the name of her beloved.
When she started broad awake at last, the lamp had burned low, and she knew by this that another day must have passed.
Her lips were parched with thirst, and she seized the bottle of water, and drank feverishly, though she thought bitterly:
"Most likely it is poisoned, and the draught will bring me a horrible death! But what matter? A speedy death is better than dying by inches in a living tomb!"
But she was mistaken—the water was not drugged. Her enemies would have been shocked at the idea of a downright murder.
When she died of the foul air and deprivation and grief, they would complacently call it the visitation of God. If she was driven to swallow the poison they had sent her, it would be by her own choice that she had died a suicide's death. It would not rest like a weight on their consciences; and they hoped she would do it, for then they would place the body where it might conveniently be found, and the coroner's verdict would say she died from laudanum administered by her own hand.
Oh, the fiendish deed had been plotted well! And when Mrs. Ellsworth revived next day, and heard from Sheila Kelly the story of Dainty's despair, she was well pleased, saying to herself, excusingly:
"I would not have done it, only that she wilfully defied me, and thwarted all my plans for marrying Love to one of my favorite nieces. But it can not be helped now, and her death is quite necessary to my plans; for if Love dies, as they say he is bound to, I should inherit all his money, unless Dainty should return and prove the marriage that he claims took place between them weeks ago. How fortunate he was shot down before he could make the story public; for now it is known to none but me, and it shall never pass my lips—not even to my nieces. Dainty will soon die of her imprisonment, even if she is not tempted to end her sufferings speedily with the laudanum, and then I shall adopt the two girls as my heiresses, and take them here to live with me. As for Mrs. Chase, I hardly know what to do with the woman. They say she woke up soon after the shooting, and is taking on pitiably about Dainty's flight and Love's condition. I shall have to show her some kindness, I suppose, just to keep up appearances."
If she could have looked into the prison to which she had heartlessly consigned her fair young niece, she would have felt encouraged in her schemes; for the lovely girl was fading like some fair flower rudely broken from its stem.
Weeping and praying ceaselessly, she had eaten but a few morsels of the stale bread, for her anguish made her incapable of hunger; but the water was all gone in four days, though Dainty tried to husband it longer; for a fever had seized on her, and she was almost crazed by thirst, raving now and then deliriously in the darkness, for the tiny can of oil was exhausted, too, and the blackness of the tomb brooded over the cell.
She had sobbed till her throat was dry and parched and aching; she had wept till her tears were all exhausted in their fountains; she was so weak that she could not stand upright on the floor, and she could only lie like a stony image of despair on her bed and wait for death.
And she had looked forward so happily to this wretched week—she and Love. They were to have been upon the ocean now, en route for foreign lands, so happy in their love that listening angels might have envied their bliss. Ah, the pity of it, this terrible reality of pain!
At times, when she was not asleep or delirious, her thoughts flew to Love. She wondered if he were dead yet, and prayed for his spirit to come and visit her in her loneliness.
So the awful hours dragged by, though Dainty did not know whether they were days or months, in the bewilderment of her mind. They seemed to her like endless years; and the time came when she could bear her agony no longer, when, in burning fever and delirium, she prayed for death, and recalled her enemy's subtle temptation.
In the black darkness, the weak, white hand groped for the laudanum and unstoppered it.
"God forgive me!" cried the maddened girl, pressing the bitter draught to her fever-parched lips.
Then the vial crashed in fragments on the stone floor, and all was still.
THE DARKEST HOUR.