THE DISGUISED VILLAINS MEET HADLEY—THE RESULT—CONCLUSION.
As already stated, Bill and Dick had disguised themselves in the garb of gentlemen, and with certain disfigurements of countenance which completely hid their features and rendered it impossible to identify them, either in their character of villainous murderers, or as the abductors, on a former occasion, of their present captive. When Bill first discovered Eveline in the woods, he was about to make known to her that he and Dick were the friends who had promised to liberate her, but on second thought he deemed it best to keep up the disguise, and learn, if possible, whether she had any knowledge of his real intentions and their ultimate destination. Hence her inability to trace the voice, which sounded so familiar, to the wily villain who had enticed her to meet Hadley for the purpose of placing her in Duffel's power.
Bill endeavored by every indirect means, not calculated to excite suspicion, to draw from Eveline the facts of her situation, with the view of informing himself of her sentiments toward the friends who had promised her freedom; but she kept her own counsels, and completely baffled him in his object. He knew that the present course of deception could not long be persisted in, as, at furthest, on the morrow a development of facts must take place, or, at least, a continued persistence in the disguise as to destination would be impossible. How to make himself known in his real character was a matter which puzzled him not a little; for he well knew from her manners and from the resistance she had made to Duffel, that it would be no easy task to force her all the way to Virginia. If he could only manage to keep up appearances until a certain point was gained, which he hoped to reach by night on the second day, he felt pretty sure of final success; for he would then be on a route along which friends were numerous, and he knew where to stop for refreshments and at what places to put up for the night. But how to reach that point was the difficulty.
After bestowing much thought on the subject, he at last hit upon the plan which he concluded would enable him to accomplish his ends without being mistrusted by Eveline. His plan was simply this: To give Eveline to understand that it would be impossible for them to reach C—— that day; and when, on the morrow, it should appear to be time for the termination of their journey, he would, in seemingly well disguised uneasiness, inform her that they were lost in the wilderness! and as the day wore away, that it might be possible they would have to remain in the forest all night, if they did not happen to stumble on some settlement or lone cabin. In this way he could gain the time desired; and he well knew what solitary cabin he would reach at night!
Poor Eveline was again in the toils of an enemy, and it would seem now that nothing but death could release her from the snare in which she had unconsciously fallen. In her situation, "ignorance was certainly bliss;" for while the web of fate was weaving so surely around her, she was thinking of home and friends with joy at heart, that soon she would return to the one and be greeted by the others. Alas! how little knew she of the dark purposes of the vile wretches who were confided in as friends!
Without lingering to describe the particulars of the day and night, except to mention that the latter was spent at a first class public house, and without the occurrence of any note worthy of incident, we will simply state that Bill, who let Dick into his secret, carried out his plans to the letter; and on the second day, about noon, communicated to Eveline the unwelcome and, to her, startling intelligence that they had missed their way and were somewhat bewildered, but still hoped all would come out right. All the horrors of her former night's adventure in the wilderness came up in her mind, and she shuddered at the thought that a repetition of its dreadful experience might be before her, but concealed her feelings as well as she could, though Bill saw that a sudden pallor overspread her face, and that she was really alarmed.
Bill produced a pocket compass, and pretended to take directions and shape their course from it. Toward evening, he announced the fact, that he was quite confident they were near a secluded dwelling occupied by an old half-hermit sort of a fellow and his family, which, though affording but poor accommodations, would be preferable to the forest as a shelter for the night. As predetermined by him, they reached this desolate looking habitation, and put up for the night. Seeing that Eveline was ill at ease, he found means to whisper in her ear:
"Do not be alarmed at appearances; these people are rough, but honest; and in any emergency, be assured we will defend you with our lives!"
But this whispered assurance of defense had the contrary effect from what was intended, for Eveline at once had her fears confirmed that there was danger to be apprehended. She did not, however, manifest her increased apprehensions of evil, but seemed as calm as possible until she was shown her sleeping apartment for the night, which was a room on the first floor, with a bolt to the rude door on the inside. She fastened herself in; but instead of sleeping, put out her light, and listened with sharpened ears to every noise that disturbed the stillness of the night. She had been in her room but a little while when she was startled by a call from without:
"Halloo, the house!"
She waited a moment, and then heard the owner go to the door and demand:
"A benighted traveler, who has lost his way, and wishes to obtain shelter for the night."
"The house is already full of guests, and I cannot take any more."
"Let him in;" said Bill, whose voice Eveline recognized. "He may be worth taking in, you know."
The man then called out:
"My guests think you can be accommodated; so you may come in, I reckon, and share such fare and lodging as we can give, which are none the best."
"If you will show me the way to the stable, I will first see to my horse," said the traveler.
The host pointed out a shed where the beast could stand, and soon the two returned to the house.
The moment the new-comer entered the door, Bill and Dick cast inquiring glances at each other; paleness as of death was on their cheeks, and superstitious alarm at their hearts; for in the stranger they beheld CHARLES HADLEY! Was it his ghost come to torment them in the hour of their triumph and security? Several minutes passed before they could be assured of his identity, that he was veritably flesh and blood, and not a spirit. It was well for them that the obscure light of the room cast their features in shadow, or their blanched cheeks and disquiet looks might have betrayed them. In a very short time they found it convenient, as on a former occasion, when seeking the life of the same man, to go out to see after their horses.
"Well, Dick!" said Bill, when they were alone, "What now?"
"D——n me, ef I didn't think the dead had come to life, when I first seen that feller! He must be bullet proof, for I placed my pistol plumb ag'in' him when I fired. I'm half a mind to believe yet that it's his ghost."
"But it is not his ghost, that's certain, though I could have sworn that he was dead; and we must get rid of him, some way, or he'll play the d——l with us."
"I think the best thing we can do is, to leave the gal in his care, and cut stick for Virginny as straight as we can shoot."
"Nonsense! We can easily get old Sampson to kill him for his money, and that will save us from any further fear of his revealing our secret."
"I don't like this bizness of killin'; 'taint human, no way you can fix it."
"Come, Dick, don't make a fool of yourself. I want you to stand by me now, like a man."
"I shall have nothing to do with killin' Hadley; you may jist put a peg there, and say no more about it."
"Well, let me alone, then, and don't interfere with my plans, and I'll do it myself."
"Ef it's to be done at all, better let old Sampson do it. I'd a good deal rather his hands should be made red with Hadley's blood than mine. The truth is, Hadley is a first rate chap, and it's a mean, cowardly act to take his life." "Come, come! no more of that sort of talk. If you don't want to help me, just let me alone; with old Sampson's aid, I can get along without you; but I don't see what has come over you, of late."
"Well, I ken soon tell you that I'm down on this wimen bizness, and allers have been; and it is mean, low, dirty work—this steelin' poor things—any way you ken fix it, and I've told you so often. I don't believe any good will come of it in the end, either; ef I could have my way, there shouldn't, that's certain. Ef you will go ahead, why, go; but I tell you no good will come of it at last. I would be glad ef you would quit now; but I'll not stand in your way, becoz I've agreed to stand by you already."
With this understanding, the rascals returned to the house—if house it could be called—and very soon afterward intimated that they would retire.
"As the stranger seems very tired," said Bill to the host, "we will willingly remain until you show him his room," and he gave the proprietor of the premises a knowing wink.
As Hadley rose to follow the host, he thanked the men for their kindness, and Dick turned away to conceal his feelings, for he was really sick at heart, bad as he was, at the thought that so noble a fellow should fall a sacrifice for such a base purpose; and he half resolved to give him warning of his danger, and save his life. While his thoughts were thus occupied, the host returned, and he and Bill very soon went out together, Dick too well knew for what purpose.
"Ef I could only let them out and get them off safely, I'd do it," mused Dick; "but there it is, I can't do it, and it's no use tryin'."
But notwithstanding he came to this hopeless conclusion, he continued to think about the matter. At last he concluded:
"Well, ef I can't do anything else, I ken give the feller a friendly word of advice, jist to kinder put him on his guard, like."
So he stepped to the door of Hadley's room, and gently tapping it until he gained the occupant's attention, whispered in his listening ear:
"There is danger about, stranger, and ef you take the advice of a friend, you'll not sleep over heavy to-night. Better have your arms ready for anything that may happen."
"Thank you! my friend," whispered Hadley, in response.
"No thanks, stranger; I'd help you more, if I could; but my hands are kinder tied like, and if they were free, sarcumstances would prevent me from givin' you any aid."
Having thus compromised the matter with his conscience, Dick walked away, resolved to have nothing to do with the affair. Indeed, his sickness of the "wimen bizness" was hourly increasing, and he was half tempted to leave Bill, unless he would relinquish Eveline.
While these events were transpiring, Eveline, wide awake and excited by fear, continued to listen to every sound without, remaining perfectly still herself, so that the inmates of the house supposed she was sleeping.
We will here remark, that the house was a double-cabin, with a kitchen attached to one of the ends, and a sleeping-room to the other. The family were in the kitchen, and Eveline was in the room opposite to it on the same side, but at the other end of the house. The part of the cabin leading to and from the kitchen, was in one large room; but the part leading to and from Eveline's room, was divided into three apartments, two small sleeping-rooms, and one large hall-shaped one, extending the full length of the house, which was a kind of sitting-room, and into it opened all three of the bed-rooms, two at the side and one at the end. There was a rude chamber above these rooms, furnished with beds; for old Sampson's was a rendezvous for thieves and pickpockets, who often assembled there in considerable numbers, rendering it necessary for him to have these various accommodations for their benefit. Old Sampson himself was an outlaw, and many a murder had been committed in his house, and always in the room occupied by Hadley, with which there was a secret communication, and beneath it a vault for the reception of the dead bodies of his victims, until such time as they could be removed without detection.
With this brief explanation, we return to the thread of the narrative.
When Eveline heard the voice of the stranger, she was struck with its peculiarity, but, as it was louder than she had been used to hear Hadley speak, she did not recognize it, and the few brief words she afterward heard him utter, were too indistinctly heard by her to elicit the truth. When, however, she heard that well-known voice thanking the men for their kindness, she recognized it in a moment, and but for the fact that he was just retiring, she would have rushed out and thrown herself in his arms.
Hadley had not long been gone, when she heard a low murmuring of voices back of her room, and noiselessly approaching the side of her apartment nearest the speakers, she placed her ear to a crevice in the logs, and listened.
"I don't want to go to extremes unless there is good reason to believe he has considerable money about him."
These words, spoken by the host, were the first she heard distinctly.
"I think there is no doubt on that point," was the reply, "for to my certain knowledge he has just inherited an estate from a rich uncle."
"Has he indeed? Then he may be worth plucking. But can we rely on your companion?"
"Oh yes; Dick is true as steel. He will not take an active part in the affair, because he does not like my taking the girl, on one side, and for the reason that Hadley has never wronged him, on the other, but he will be as far from betraying us as we ourselves; I will answer for him there."
Dick! Hadley! In the quickness of the lightning's flash, the whole truth beamed into Eveline's soul. Her pretended guides were none other than Duffel's accomplices, and the plotters, afterward, of her own destruction, and she was now on her way to that cave in Virginia!
But the horrors of her own situation were lost sight of in contemplating the fate that was hanging over Hadley, who was to be killed for his money! As the light of these great truths broke in upon her mind, she came very near screaming out in affright, but fortunately did not. She still listened to see if she could learn how the dark deed of blood was to be consummated, but the mode of dispatching victims seemed to be understood by both and was only alluded to and not explained, and the villains soon left the spot and re-entered the house.
What a world of conflicting emotions and thoughts now contended in the bosom of the long and deeply tried girl! She knew Hadley lived; but oh, what a fate hung over him! Could she save him? Alas! it seemed an impossibility. Should she make the effort, it might only hasten the catastrophe she would prevent. If she could only put him on his guard; but that was out of her power, for she could hear Dick walking to and fro across the large room, and she believed he was a sentry on guard.
In this dilemma she sat down on the only chair in the room, and leaned her head upon her hand. She then found that her brow was covered with large drops of cold perspiration, which the intensity of her feelings had forced out. What to do she knew not; and so she sat, in an agony of suspense, while the slow moments passed away. At length she thought of her arms, which she still retained, and as she did so, resolved to use them in case of emergency, either for the preservation of her lover, or to preserve herself from the fate in store for her if Hadley should be murdered and she carried off.
From the first, Hadley did not like the appearance of things about the house, nor the looks of his host, who was not only rough in features and manners, but carried with him a countenance with a very sinister expression upon it, and an eye that spoke of crime and a guilty soul; but when Dick gave the warning, he was doubly confirmed in his first impressions, and resolved to profit by the advice so singularly volunteered. He did not undress, but before extinguishing his light examined his pistols, a brace of which he had procured for defense, to see that they were in proper order for immediate use. After making all needful preparations, he put out his candle, and remained in perfect quiet. Soon he heard the two men return, and then Dick went above to rest, and the others were left alone.
For a long time all was still; not a sound was heard; not a whisper broke the profound silence; yet there were four pairs of sleepless eyes in that house, whose owners were all within a few feet of each other!
At length Hadley, who had taken a position by the door, heard the softest tread of feet, then a suppressed breathing close by his ear, and he knew that some one was listening. He turned his face away that his own breathing might not betray him, and awaited the result of the other's observation. It was but a little while till a low whispered conversation fell upon his attentive ear!
"Does he sleep?"
"Yes, apparently very soundly."
"Then the sooner it is done the better."
"Yes; bring me the lantern. Now when I go in, close the door and stand near, but do not open it till I call; I don't want the bird to escape."
"All right. Be careful to make sure work of it."
"Trust me for that; he'll never know who struck him."
Hadley knew the decisive moment had come, and he prepared himself for the crisis; but he felt that the odds was fearfully against him, and his hope of escape was small; still he was resolved to make a desperate effort for his life.
As already remarked, the room was small, and the head of the bed came within a few feet of the door, so near, that by taking one step, Hadley could touch it with his hand. Around the bed were long curtains reaching to the floor. It was but the work of a moment for him to secrete himself behind these in such a position as to face the murderer when he turned to look after him in the bed. He had just secured his situation when the door gently opened, and the man of the house entered with the noiseless tread of a cat, bearing a dark lantern in one hand and a monstrous knife in the other. Stealthily he approached the bed, and then gradually lifted the shade and threw the light around the room to be sure his victim was not out on the watch; then he gently parted the curtains and slowly brought the light to bear upon the pillows.
Now! thought Hadley; and as the surprised assassin raised himself up to take a closer scrutiny of the position in which he had expected to find his victim, he leveled his pistol within two feet of his breast and fired! With a heavy groan the old man fell to the floor. Bill rushed into the room, and as he did so, Hadley fired his other pistol, but the uncertain light and Bill's rapid motion caused the shot to be thrown away.
At the same instant a piercing shriek from Eveline's room told that she was alive to all that was passing.
Bill immediately drew a pistol and fired at Hadley, but the latter made a quick movement to one side and avoided the bullet. Then the two sprang at each other and closed in for a life struggle.
It was man to man with them, but Bill had the advantage of much practice, and his strength being equal, his skill must finally gain him the victory, unless fortune should greatly favor Hadley. Life was the prize at stake, and every nerve and muscle was taxed to its utmost capacity. At length they fell, Hadley being uppermost. The knife which had fallen from old Sampson's hand, lay within reach, and Hadley stretched forth his hand to grasp it, but as he did so, Bill, who was watching his opportunity, by a sudden and tremendous effort, turned his antagonist, and seizing the knife, the moment he felt his enemy safely beneath him, raised it for the fatal plunge at his heart, and with an oath exclaimed:
"Die, now, like a dog! and be out of my way!"
But the words were scarcely uttered, when his uplifted hand relaxed its grasp of the deadly weapon, and at the same precise point of time, a flash and report told that a third party had taken part in the deadly conflict. Bill fell over upon his dead companion a corpse, and springing to his feet, Hadley stood face to face with Eveline! Each spoke the other's name, fell into the other's arms, and Eveline fainted away! At this juncture Dick made his appearance, and taking in the whole scene at a glance, hastened out and soon returned with a vessel of water. Hadley took a handful of the fluid and sprinkled Eveline's face, who soon revived.
We shall not attempt to describe the joy of the transported lovers. But the family had been aroused by the unusual noise, and soon the wife and her two daughters stood with the dead. In their horror and distress, Hadley and Eveline forgot their happiness.
There was no more sleep for the inmates of that lonely dwelling that night, and with the early dawn, the lovers, guided by Dick to a public road, left the scene of death and wretchedness for home, where they arrived in safety, the next evening, to the unspeakable joy of Mr. Mandeville, who had just returned from a fruitless search after his daughter, in despair.
Dick went back and buried his dead companion, and old Sampson, after doing which he left the country, and was never afterward heard of.
The League was never revived in that section of the country after the destruction of the cave, though many of the members went to the south-west to join their captain, and the Order is still in existence in a little different form.
We have little more to add. Charles and Eveline were married with the full and free approbation of Mr. Mandeville, who ever after loved Hadley as his own child, and acknowledged that for once the daughter's was better than the FATHER'S CHOICE, and often shuddered as he contemplated how narrowly his beloved daughter had escaped becoming the wife, first, and afterward, the victim, of THE HORSE THIEF RIVAL.