"I could almost swear that I am getting the tremens again, or that my eyes deceive me," he muttered. "If ever I saw Gerelda Northrup in the flesh, that is she!"
He stopped short, and touched her on the shoulder, his eyes almost bulging from their sockets.
"Miss Northrup— I— I mean Mrs. Varrick—is this you? In the name of Heaven, speak to me!"
She looked at him, her great dark eyes studying his face with a troubled expression.
"Varrick!" she muttered below her breath. "Where have I heard that name before? And your face too! Where have I seen it? It recalls something out of my past life," she muttered.
With a low cry he bent forward.
"Then it is you, Gerelda— Mrs. Varrick?"
Rosamond Lee, whose face had grown from red to white, sprung excitedly to her feet.
"What mystery is this?" she cried. "What do you mean by calling this girl Mrs. Varrick? There is a friend of mine—a Mr. Hubert Varrick—who is soon to be married to a Jessie Bain. You haven't the two mixed, have you, sir?"
Frazier turned impatiently to her.
"I have seen the announcement of Hubert Varrick's marriage to Jessie Bain," he returned, his face darkening. "But the question is: how dare he attempt to marry another girl while he has a wife living. I do not know who you may be, madame," facing Rosamond impatiently. "You say that you know Hubert Varrick well, yet you do not appear conversant with his history. He married this young girl sitting beside you, who was then Miss Gerelda Northrup. On their wedding journey the steamer 'St. Lawrence' was lost, and she was supposed by all her friends to have perished in the frightful accident."
While he had been speaking, Gerelda—for it was indeed she—had been watching him intently.
As he proceeded with his story, a great tremor shook her frame.
With a low cry she sprung to her feet.
"Oh, I remember— I remember all now!" shrieked Gerelda. "I— I was on the train with Hubert whom I had just married. Then we went on the steamer. We had a quarrel, and he told me that he did not love me, even though he had wedded me, and I— Oh, the words drove me mad! There was a great rumbling of the boiler, a crashing of timbers, and I felt myself plunged in the water. But my head—it pains so terribly! I scarcely felt the chill of the water. The next I remember I was lying in a cottage, with a young girl bending over me. My God! it was Jessie Bain, my enemy. I remember it all now. I wonder that memory did not come back to me when I heard the name Jessie Bain. She did not know that it was I who was Hubert Varrick's wife, or she would have let me die."
The effect of Gerelda's words was startling upon Rosamond.
"What are you going to do about it?" she asked, eagerly.
"Do?" echoed Gerelda. "I am going to claim my husband. He is mine, and all the powers on earth can never take him from me!"
"I suppose," said Rosamond, "now, from the way this amazing affair has culminated, you will not want me to go with you to Hubert— Mr. Varrick, I mean."
Gerelda turned haughtily on her.
"No," she said. "Why should you wish to go with me to my husband? What interest have you in him?"
Rosamond shrunk back abashed, though she stammered:
"I— I should like to see how he takes it."
"I would like to accompany you for the same reason," interposed Captain Frazier. "He will be angry enough at you coming back to frustrate his marriage with the girl whom he idolizes so madly."
Gerelda's face grew stormy as she listened. There was an expression in her eyes not good to see, and which Captain Frazier knew boded no good to the object of her wrath.
At this juncture the express rolled into the Boston depot. Bidding Rosamond Lee and Captain Frazier a hasty good-bye, and insisting that under no circumstances should they accompany her, Gerelda hailed a cab, and gave the order: "To the Varrick mansion."
Captain Frazier stepped suddenly forward and hailed a passing cab, saying to himself that he must be present, at all hazards, at that meeting which was to take place between Gerelda and Hubert Varrick.
"Keep yonder carriage in sight," he said, pointing out the vehicle just ahead of them, and producing, as he spoke, a bank-note, which he thrust into the cab-man's hand.
The man did his duty well.
Pausing suddenly, and bending low, he whispered to the occupant of his vehicle that the carriage ahead had stopped short.
"All right," said Captain Frazier, sharply. "Spring out—here is your fee, my good man."
The captain drew back into the shadow of the tall pines as his carriage drove away, lest the occupant of the vehicle ahead should discover his presence there. He saw Gerelda alight and pause involuntarily before the arched entrance gate that led around to the rear of the Varrick mansion.
Captain Frazier watched her keenly as she stood there for a moment, quite irresolute. His heart was all in a whirl, as he glanced up at the grand old mansion whose huge chimneys confronted him from over the tops of the trees.
"From the very beginning, Varrick has always had the best of me," he muttered. "I never loved but one thing in all my life," he cried, hoarsely; "and that was Gerelda Northrup, and he won her from me. From that moment on I have cursed him with all the passionate hatred of my nature. Since that time life has held but one aim for me—and that was, to crush him—and that opportunity will soon be mine—that hour is now at hand. He will shortly be wedded to another, if Gerelda does not interfere, and then—ah!—and then—"
His soliloquy was suddenly cut short, for the sound of approaching footsteps was heard on the snow.
He would have drawn back into the shadow of the interlacing pines, but that he saw he was observed by a minister who stepped eagerly forward.
"You are a stranger in our midst," he said, holding out his hand to him; "I do not recollect having seen your face before. I— I have a favor to ask of you. Would you mind lending me your assistance as far as the house yonder—the Varrick mansion—which you can see over the trees? I— I am not very well—have just recovered from a spell of sickness. I— I wish to visit the inmates of the mansion to perfect some arrangements concerning a happy event that is to take place on the morrow, within those walls. I find myself overtaken by a sudden faintness. I repeat, would you object to giving me your arm as far as the entrance gate yonder?"
Captain Frazier complied, with a profound bow.
"I shall be only too happy to render you any assistance in my power," he murmured. "I used to know the family at Varrick mansion a few years ago," he went on. "I am not so well acquainted, however, with the present heir. Pardon me, but may I ask if the event to which you allude, that is to take place to-morrow, is a marriage ceremony?"
The minister bowed gravely.
"Between young Mr. Varrick and a Miss Bain?"
Again the reverend gentleman inclined his head in the affirmative, remarking that the bride-to-be was as sweet and gracious as she was beautiful.
Captain Frazier looked narrowly at his companion for an instant, then he asked, quickly:
"Again I ask your pardon for the questions I wish to put to you, but are you not the same minister who was sent to perform the marriage ceremony up at the Thousand Islands? and, again, the same minister who, later on, united Mr. Varrick in marriage to the beautiful Gerelda Northrup?"
The reverend gentleman bowed, wondering vaguely why the stranger should catechise him after this fashion.
"You seem well acquainted with the family history, my friend," he remarked, slowly.
"Yes," Frazier answered, shortly, adding, in a low, smooth voice: "It was a fatal accident which robbed Hubert Varrick, some time since, of the bride whom he had just wedded. Her death has never been clearly proven, has it?"
"Oh, yes, it has," returned the minister. "Her body was among the unfortunates who were afterward recovered."
"Ah!" said Frazier, sotto voice, adding: "It is so very strange, my good sir, that after this thrilling experience, Varrick should take it upon himself to secure another wife."
The good minister looked at him, quite embarrassed. He did not care to discuss the subject with one who was an entire stranger to him, wondering that he should introduce such a personal subject, and at such a time and place.
"Excuse me, my friend, but I feel a little delicacy in discussing so personal a matter," he said, gently.
But this did not in the least abash Captain Frazier.
"It seems to me that I should insist upon proof positive—ay, proof beyond any possibility of doubt—that my first wife was dead ere I contracted a second alliance," remarked Frazier, quite significantly.
"Mr. Varrick believes that he has this, I understand," said the minister, gravely.
Frazier shrugged his shoulders, turned and looked at the man from under his lowering brows—a look which the minister did not relish.
"But, then, Varrick has always believed in second marriages," remarked Frazier, flippantly.
The minister started, giving an uncomfortable glance at the other.
"I believe the girl to whom he is about to be united is Varrick's first love?" Frazier went on, nonchalantly.
"Indeed you are mistaken," retorted his companion earnestly. "I have known Hubert Varrick for long years, and to my certain knowledge he never had a fancy for any of the fair sex previous to the time he met beautiful Miss Northrup. She was his first love. Of that I am quite positive."
By this time they had reached the bend in the road hard by the entrance gate.
The reverend gentleman could not help but notice that his companion seemed unduly excited over the questions which he had propounded and the answers which he had received thereto, and he felt not a little relieved at bidding him good-afternoon and thanking him for the service which he had rendered him; and he wondered greatly that he excused himself at the entrance gate, instead of accompanying him to the house, if he was as intimate a friend of the family as he claimed to be.
The minister proceeded slowly up the wide stone walk, from which the snow had been carefully brushed, with a very thoughtful expression on his face.
Mrs. Varrick stood at the drawing-room window, and, noticing his approach, hurriedly rang for a servant to admit him at once.
He found himself ushered into the wide corridor before he could even touch the bell. Mrs. Varrick was on the threshold of the drawing-room, waiting to greet him as he stepped forward.
"I thought I observed some one with you at the gate?" she said, as she held out her white hand, sparkling with jewels, to welcome him. "Why did you not bring your friend in with you?"
The minister bowed low over the extended white hand.
"You are very kind to accord me such a privilege," he declared, gratefully; "but the person to whom you allude is an entire stranger to me—a gentleman whom I met by the road-side, and whom I was obliged to call upon for assistance, being suddenly attacked with my old enemy, faintness. I may add, however, that he seemed to have been an acquaintance of the family."
"Perhaps he is an acquaintance of my son; his friends are so numerous that it is very hard for me to keep track of them," added Mrs. Varrick, asking: "Why did he not come into the house with you?"
"He declined, stating no reason," was the reply.
Looking through the drawing-room window a few moments later, the minister espied the stranger leaning against the gate, looking eagerly toward the house, and he called Mrs. Varrick's attention to the fact at once.
She touched the bell quickly, and to the servant who appeared, she gave hurried instructions concerning the man.
"I have sent out to invite the gentleman to come into the house," she explained. "Hubert will be in directly, and I know that this will meet with his approval. He has very little time to spare to any one just now," she explained, with a smile, "he is so wrapped up in his fiancee, and will be, I suppose, from now on."
"Naturally," responded the minister, with a twinkle in his grave eyes.
THE MIDNIGHT VISITOR.
But we must now return to Gerelda. She fell back, pale and trembling, among the cushions of the carriage, her brain in a whirl, her heart panting almost to suffocation.
At the entrance gate of the old mansion, Gerelda dismissed the cab. Stealing around by the rear wall, she entered the grounds by an unused gravel walk, and gained the arbor. Then she crept up to one of the windows whose blind had swung open from a fierce gust of wind. The room into which she gazed had not changed much. A bright fire glowed cheerily in the grate, its radiance rendering all objects about it clear and distinct.
She distinguished two figures standing hand in hand in the softened shadows. The girl's face, radiant with the light of love, was upturned toward the handsome one bending over her. He was talking to her in the sweet, deep musical voice Gerelda remembered so well.
She saw the girl lay one little hand caressingly on his arm, and droop her pretty, golden head until it nearly rested on his broad shoulder. Then Gerelda heard him say, "I have in my pocket the wedding-gift with which I am to present you. It is not so very costly, but you will appreciate it, I hope," disclosing as he spoke a ruby velvet case, the spring of which he touched lightly, and the lid flew back, revealing a magnificent diamond necklace and a pendant star.
"Oh, Hubert, you can not mean that that is for me!" cried Jessie.
But the second dinner-bell rang, and ere the sound died away, Mrs. Varrick and a few guests entered the room. All further private conversation was now at an end, but from that moment all sights and sounds were lost to the creature outside. She had fallen in a little dark heap on the ice-covered porch, lost to the world's misery in pitiful unconsciousness.
The house was wrapped in darkness when she woke to consciousness. Gerelda struggled to her feet, muttering to herself that it was surely death that was stealing slowly but surely over her.
Slowly, from over the distant hills, she heard some church-clock ring out the hour. "Eleven!" she counted, in measured strokes. As the sound died away, Gerelda crept round the house to the servants' entrance.
To her intense delight, the door yielded to her touch, and Gerelda glided noiselessly across the threshold. The butler sat before the dying embers of the fire, his paper was lying at his feet, and his glasses were in his lap. So sound was his slumber that he did not awaken as the door opened. Gerelda passed him like a shadow and gained the door-way that led into the corridor.
She knew Hubert's custom of going to the library long after the rest of the family had retired for the night. She would make her way there, and confront him. As she reached the door she heard voices within. She recognized them at once as Hubert's and his mother's.
She crouched behind the heavy velvet portieres of the arched door-way, until his mother should leave.
"Good-night again, Hubert," the mother said.
"Good-night mother," he answered.
He flung himself down in the soft-cushioned arm-chair beside the glowing grate, drew a cigar from his pocket and lighted it, dreamily watching the curling rings. Suddenly he became aware that there was another presence within the room beside his own.
His eyes became riveted upon a dark object near the door-way. It occurred to him how strangely like a woman the dark shadow looked.
And as he gazed, lo! it moved, and to his utmost amazement, advanced slowly toward him. For an instant all his powers seemed to leave him.
"Gerelda, by all that's merciful," he cried.
"Yes, it is I, Gerelda!" she cried, hoarsely, confronting him. "I have come back from the grave to claim you!"
She did not heed his wild cry of horror, but went on, mockingly: "You do not seem pleased to see me, judging from your manner."
For an instant the world seemed closing around Hubert Varrick.
She cried, "I repeat that I am here to claim you!" flinging herself in an arm-chair opposite him.
"Now that your wife is with you once again, you are saved the trouble—just, in time, too—of wedding a new one;" adding: "You are not giving me the welcome which I expected in my husband's home. Turn on the lights and ring for every one to come hither!" she said. "If you refuse to ring the bell, I shall."
Hubert Varrick cried out that he could not bear it; he pleaded with her to leave the house with him; that since Heaven had brought her back to him, he would make the best of it; all that he would ask would be that she should come quietly away with him.
This did not suit Gerelda at all; she had set her heart upon abusing Jessie Bain, and she would brook no refusal. She sprang hastily for the bell-rope. Divining her object, he caught her arm.
If he had not been so intensely excited he would have realized, even in that dim light, that there was something horribly wrong about her; that once more reason, which had been until so lately clouded, wavered in the balance.
"Unhand me, or I shall scream!" she cried.
Varrick placed one hand hurriedly over her mouth, in his agony, hardly heeding what he was doing.
"For the love of Heaven, I beg you to listen to me!" he cried. "You must—you shall!"
She sprang backward from him, falling heavily over one of the chairs as she did so. There was a heavy thud which awakened with a start the sleeping butler on the floor below. With one bound he had reached the door that opened upon the lower corridor.
"Thieves! robbers!" he ejaculated under his breath.
His first impulse was to cry aloud, but the next moment it occurred to him that the better plan would be to break upon the midnight intruder unawares, and assist his master in vanquishing him. The door was ajar, and in the semi-darkness he beheld Hubert Varrick, his master, struggling desperately with some dark, swaying figure. In that same instant Varrick tripped upon a hassock and fell backward, striking his head heavily against the marble mantel.
The butler lost no time. Quick as a flash he had cleared the distance between the door-way and that other figure—which attempted to clutch at him in turn—and raising the knife he had caught up from the table of the room below, he buried it to the hilt in the swaying, writhing form. The next instant it fell heavily at his feet. A moan, that sounded wonderfully like a woman's, fell upon his horrified ear.
Varrick did not rise, though the terrified butler called upon him vehemently. He had the presence of mind, even in that calamity, to turn on the gas, and as a flood of light illumined the scene, he saw that it was a woman lying at his feet—ay, a woman into whose body he had plunged that fatal knife!—while his master lay unconscious but a few feet distant.
"Help! I am dying!" gasped the woman.
Those words recalled his scattered senses. Self-preservation is strong within us all. As in a glass, darkly, the terrified butler, realizing what he had done, saw arrest and prison before him, and realized that the gallows yawned before him in the near future.
The thought came to him that there was but one thing to do, and that was to make his escape.
Every moment was precious. His strained ear caught the sound of a commotion on the floor above. He knew in an instant more they would find him there with the tell-tale knife, dripping with blood, in his hand.
He flung it from him and made a dash from the room. It was not a moment too soon, for the opposite door, which led to the private stair-way, had barely closed after him ere the sound of approaching footsteps was plainly heard hurrying quickly toward the library.
In that instant Hubert Varrick—who had been dazed by his fall, and the terrible blow on his head caused by striking it against the mantel—was struggling to a sitting posture. Varrick had scarcely regained his feet ere the portieres were flung quickly aside, and his mother and half a dozen servants appeared.
A horrible shriek rent the air as Mrs. Varrick's eyes fell upon her son, and the figure of a woman but a few feet from him with a knife lying beside her.
"What does it mean?" cried Mrs. Varrick.
He pointed to the fallen figure.
"Gerelda has come back to torture me, mother!" he cried.
By a terrible effort Gerelda struggled to her knees.
"Hear me, one and all!" she cried. "Listen; while yet the strength is mine, I will proclaim it! See, I am dying—that man, my husband, is my murderer! He murdered me to keep me from touching the bell-rope—to tell you all I was here!"
With this horrible accusation on her lips, Gerelda sunk back unconscious.
Who shall picture the scene that ensued?
"It is false—all false—so help me Heaven!" Hubert panted. That was all that he could say.
The sound of the commotion within had reached the street, and had brought two of the night-watchmen hurrying to the scene. Their loud peal at the bell brought down a servant, who admitted them at once. In a trice they had sprung up the broad stair-way to the landing above, from whence the excited voices proceeded, appearing on the threshold just in time to hear Gerelda's terrible accusation. Each laid a hand on Hubert Varrick's shoulder.
"You will have to come with us," they said.
Mrs. Varrick sprung forward and flung herself on her knees before them.
"Oh, you must not, you shall not take him!" she cried; "my darling son is innocent!"
It was a mercy from Heaven that unconsciousness came upon her in that moment and the dread happenings of the world were lost to her. There were the bitterest wailings from the old servants as the men of the law led Hubert away.
In the excitement no one had remembered Gerelda; now the servants carried her to a boudoir across the hall, and summoned a doctor.
"If this poor girl recovers it will be little short of a miracle," he said.
Through all this commotion Jessie Bain slept on, little realizing the tragic events that were transpiring around her. No one thought of awakening her. The sun was shining bright and clear when she opened her eyes on the light the next morning.
How strangely still the house seemed! For a moment Jessie was bewildered. Had it not been that the sun lay in a great bar in the center of the room—and it never reached this point until nearly eight in the morning—she would have thought that it was very, very early.
"My wedding-day!" murmured the girl, slipping from her couch and gazing through the lace-draped windows on the white world without. But at that moment a maid entered and she told Jessie Bain the story of the tragedy.
A thunder-bolt from a clear sky, the earth suddenly opening beneath her feet, could not have startled Jessie Bain more. A few minutes later she recovered her composure and hurried to Mrs. Varrick's room.
Mrs. Varrick reached out her hand to Jessie, and the next moment they were sobbing wildly in each other's arms. Little by little the girl's noble spirit in all its grandeur gained the ascendency. Slowly she turned to the housekeeper, who was sobbing over the fact that there was no one to take care of Hubert's wife, until a trained nurse the doctor had expected should arrive.
"She shall be my care," said Jessie, determinedly. "I will go to her at once; lead the way, please."
Who shall picture the dismay of Jessie when she looked upon the face of the woman who had come between her and the man she was to have wedded that day and found that it was the very creature whom she herself had sheltered—the girl whom she had known as Margaret Moore?
The doctor was greatly moved at the heroic stand Jessie Bain proposed to take in nursing her rival back to health and strength.
"Not one woman in a thousand would do it," he declared. "May Heaven bless you for it! Besides," he added in a low, grave voice, "you could serve poor Hubert Varrick in no better way than by restoring her. If she dies it will go hard indeed with young Varrick."
Jessie realized this but too well, and bent all her energies to nurse her back to health and strength, though what she suffered no one in this world could tell.
If Margaret recovered, she knew that she would go away with Hubert. He might not love her, but he would be obliged to live his whole life out with her. If she died, he would hang for it. Better that he should live, even with the other one, than die.
Her heart went out to Hubert Varrick in the bitterest of sorrow. She realized what he must be suffering. She would have flown to him on the wings of love, but she dared not.
She wrote a letter to him for his mother, at her dictation, adding a little tear-blotted postscript of her own, making no mention of her own great love and the sorrow that had darkened her young life. In that letter she urged him to keep up brave spirits; that everything was being done for Gerelda, his wife, that could be done; that she was sitting up night and day nursing her.
When Hubert Varrick received that tear-stained missive, in the loneliness of his desolate cell he bowed his head and wept like a child, crying out to Heaven that he was surely the most wretched man on God's earth.
He tried to think out all the horrors of that bitter midnight tragedy, which seemed more like a dream to him than a reality. He could not understand how Gerelda came by that wound, unless, through her terrible rage, she had attempted to take her life by her own hand; and through the same intense rage, strong even in death, wanted to persecute him even after she had known that her moments were numbered.
As for Gerelda, her life hung by the slenderest of threads for many days after, and during these anxious hours no one could induce Jessie Bain to leave her bedside. But at last the hour came when the doctors pronounced Gerelda out of danger.
CAPTAIN FRAZIER PLOTS AGAIN.
We must return to Captain Frazier, whom we left standing at the gate when he had parted from the minister, who had gone into the Varrick mansion to make arrangements for the wedding which was to take place on the morrow.
"Gerelda must have made herself known to them by this time, and a lively scene is probably ensuing," he muttered. "I should like to have seen Varrick when Gerelda confronted him, and cheated him out of Jessie Bain. In that moment, perhaps, it occurred to him what I must have suffered when he cheated me out of winning lovely Gerelda Northrup at the Thousand Islands last summer—curse him for it! How strange it is that from that very date my life went all wrong! I invested every dollar I had in that stone house on Wau-Winet Island, and that fire wiped me out completely. I have had the devil's own luck with everything I touched. Everything has gone back on me, every scheme has fallen through, and the best of plans panned out wrong. I should say that I am pursued by a relentless Nemesis. I am growing desperate. Why should Hubert Varrick have so much of this world's good things and I so little? I am reduced to very near my last dollar. I have scarcely enough in my pocket to pay a week's lodging; and when that goes, the Lord knows what the outcome of it will be. Up to date, I am 'too proud to beg, too honest to steal,' as the old song goes; but when a man reaches the end of his resources there's no telling what he may do."
He walked away swiftly among the trees and threaded his way quickly through the net-work of streets, until he found himself at last standing before a dingy little two-story brick house in a narrow court. Advancing hurriedly up to the stone flagging, he knocked loudly. There was no response.
"Evidently no one is in," he muttered. "I will call later in the evening."
He retraced his steps back to the heart of the city, and feeling exceedingly fatigued, he entered a cafe.
"I have almost got to the end of my rope," he muttered, mechanically picking up a newspaper. "If my luck doesn't change within the next few days, I shall do something so desperate that people will never forget the name of Captain Frazier."
He ran his eye idly down the different columns. Suddenly a paragraph attracted his attention. He read it over slowly half a dozen times; then, without waiting to partake of the repast he had ordered, he hurried to the desk, paid his bill, and rushed out into the street.
"I have no time to lose," he muttered; "this country is getting too hot for me. I must get away at once. If I but had the wherewith I would take the first outgoing steamer. What a capital idea it would be!" he cried, laughing aloud, grimly. "If I could manage to abduct Hubert Varrick's intended bride and hold her for a ransom? I made a success of it with Gerelda Northrup when she stood at the very altar with him; and what a man does once he can do again. The first time it was done for love's sake; now it would be a question of money with me. I have but little time to lose."
Again he made his way to the lonely, red-brick house on the side street, taking good care that he was not observed. In response to his repeated knocks, the door was opened at length by a small, dark-complexioned man.
"Captain Frazier! by all that's amazing!" he cried. "When did you blow into port, I should like to know?"
"I came in this morning," was the reply.
"I am never quite sure what you want of me," replied the other, eyeing the captain suspiciously in the dim twilight. "But come in—come in," he added, hastily. "We are just sitting down to supper. Come and take something with us, if you're not too proud to sit at our humble table."
"I've got over being proud long ago," said the captain, following the other along a very narrow hall.
The interior of the room into which he was ushered bespoke the fact that it was inhabited by men—presumably sailors, from the nautical implements thrown promiscuously about. It was unoccupied, and Captain Frazier took his seat at the head of the table.
"Some of the boys left very hurriedly when they heard the loud, resounding knock on the front door," his companion said, laughingly, as he heaped the tempting viands on Frazier's plate.
The captain, whose appetite had been sadly neglected, paid great attention to the savory dishes before him.
"We have been accustomed to talking and eating at the same time," he began.
"Of course," returned the other.
"When do you make your next trip out?"
"In a week's time, probably, if all is favorable."
"I think I shall ship with you," said the captain. "This part of the country is getting too unsafe for me. I see by to-day's paper that they are searching for me."
"Well, you must have expected that."
"Yes, I have determined to leave the country," Captain Frazier repeated; "but I do not propose to go alone."
His companion looked at him curiously, wondering what was coming; then, leaning nearer him, the captain whispered a plot in his ear that made his friend open his heavy eyes wide in amazement.
"I haven't a cent of money," admitted the captain; "but if you will work with me, you shall have half the ransom."
"A woman is a nuisance on board of a boat like ours," said the other; "but if you are sure so large an amount will be paid for her return, it will be well worth working for."
An hour longer they conferred, and when Frazier left the red-brick house on the side street, the most daring plan the brain of man had ever conceived was well-nigh settled.
When the hour of eleven struck clear and sharp, Captain Frazier was standing silently before the Varrick mansion. In making a tour of the grounds, much to Frazier's amazement, he found the rear door ajar.
"The devil helps his own," he muttered, sarcastically. "I imagined that I should have a serious time in gaining admittance, when lo! the portals are thrown open for the wishing."
He made his way through the dimly lighted corridors, dodging into the first door that presented itself when he heard the sound of voices approaching.
He found himself in the library, and had just time to dodge behind a jardiniere on a heavy, square pedestal, which was placed in a recess in the wall, when Hubert Varrick entered. He was followed a moment later by his mother. He heard him talk over his future plans for the coming marriage on the morrow, and a great wonder filled his mind. Had not Gerelda seen him yet?
It had been many hours since he himself had seen her enter those very gates. While he was thinking over the matter, Hubert's mother left the room. Much to the watcher's discomfiture, Hubert Varrick did not follow, but instead, threw himself down in an easy-chair before the glowing grate-fire, and lighted a cigar.
Scarcely a moment had elapsed ere he heard the sound of cautious footsteps. Peering again out of the foliage which concealed him so well, he saw Gerelda cautiously approach through the open door-way, and again he was compelled to be a listener to all that transpired.
Then, like a flash, came the terrible denouement, and Frazier, crouching behind the huge pillar, distinctly saw the butler enter and he witnessed the crime. He tried to prevent it by springing forward in time to save the hapless girl, but he seemed powerless to move either hand or foot. He could not have taken one step had his very life depended on it. And when the terrible crime had been committed, and people flocked to the room, he dared not come forward, lest he should be accused of the horrible crime himself. In the great excitement he soon made his escape, though it was not until he found himself several blocks from the scene of the catastrophe that he dared stop to take breath.
The next day the captain made another visit to the little stone house, assuring his friends that this would make no difference in their plans, that, as soon as the excitement subsided, he would carry out his original scheme.
A week passed by, and during that time Captain Frazier, prowling incessantly about the neighborhood, watched carefully his opportunity to meet Jessie Bain.
The owner of a little sloop lying under cover down the bay was greatly annoyed at the loss of time; he was waiting too long, he told Frazier repeatedly, declaring at length that unless Frazier could manage to gain possession of the girl that very night that he would have to sail without her. This decision made Captain Frazier desperate, for he was now reduced to his last penny.
It was no easy matter to gain an entrance into the Varrick mansion a second time, and no one but the most desperate man in the world would have thought of attempting it; but, as on a former occasion, at last fate aided him.
The drawing-room being considered too warm, one of the servants threw open a large French window to cool off the apartment. This was Frazier's chance. Like a shadow he stole into the room.
It was no easy matter to make out in which room he should find Jessie Bain. At length the sound of light, measured footsteps in a room he was just passing fell upon his keen ear. He pushed the door cautiously open. All was darkness within, save a narrow strip of light that came from the closely drawn portieres of an inner apartment. Applying his eye to a small slit in the heavy velvet, he saw the object of his search. She was bending over a woman's form lying on a couch, a form he knew to be Gerelda's, while standing a little distance from them was a doctor mixing a potion. He heard him give Jessie Bain strict injunctions regarding the administration of it; then he saw the physician take his leave.
For a moment a death-like silence reigned in the room.
"Let me implore you," sobbed Jessie, "to save the man you love from the terrible fate that awaits him."
"I would not lift my finger or my voice to save him. If I must die, it is a satisfaction to me to know that he must die too!" whispered Gerelda.
"Cruel, cruel creature!" cried Jessie. "May Heaven find pardon for you, for I can not. I will ask no more for mercy at your hands. But hear me! I will save Hubert Varrick if it lies within human power. I will find a way; he shall not die, I swear it!"
A gleam crept into Gerelda's eyes.
"He is beyond your aid!" she cried, excitedly, half rising on her pillow. The effort this cost her proved almost too much for her. A dangerous whiteness overspread her face, and she fell back fainting, a small stream of blood trickling from her lips. Jessie sprang quickly to her feet, and administered a cordial from a small vial.
At that moment the doctor entered. He was alarmed at the expression on his patient's face.
"There has been a sudden change for the worse," he declared. "Still, I knew it would come sooner or later. I said from the first, if she lived the week out I should be surprised. I see now that the end is very near. When the sun rises on the morrow, her spirit will have reached its last resting-place, poor soul. You will need to exert extra care over her to-night, Miss Bain."
Soon after he took his departure, and once more Jessie was left alone with the girl whom Hubert Varrick had wedded, but did not love—the girl who had blasted all the happiness this world held for her. Yet she felt sorry from the depths of her soul that the girl's life was ebbing away so fast.
Midnight struck, and the little hands of the cuckoo-clock on the mantel crept slowly round to one. Still there was no change, save that the white face on the pillow grew whiter, with a tinge of gray on it now.
The clock on the mantel seemed to tick louder and louder, and cry out hoarsely:
"Time is fleeing fast! It will soon be too late for Gerelda to clear Hubert Varrick and save him from a felon's death!"
Jessie Bain paced the floor up and down, in agony.
Suddenly a thought came to her—a thought so terrible that it nearly took her breath away.
"I will try it," whispered Jessie, hoarsely.
She crept pantingly across the room to an escritoire which stood in the corner. Raising the lid, she drew from it a sheet of paper and a pen, and catching up a tiny ink-well, she hurried back to the bedside. Bending with palpitating heart over the still form lying there, Jessie Bain muttered:
"No one will ever know," taking a quick glance about the room. "Gerelda and I are all alone together—all alone!"
Thrusting the pen in the limp fingers, Jessie Bain dipped it in the ink, and with her own hand guided the hand of Gerelda, making her write the following words on the white paper:
"VARRICK MANSION, February 23d, 1909.
"To those whom it may concern: I, Gerelda Varrick, lying on my death-bed, and realizing that the end may come at any moment, wish to clear from any suspicion, Hubert Varrick. I do solemnly swear it was not he who struck the fatal blow at me which ends my life. It was some stranger, to me unknown.
"[Signed] GERELDA VARRICK. "Witnessed by ——."
And here Jessie took the pen from the limp fingers affixing her own signature—"JESSIE BAIN."
The deed was done. Jessie drew a long, deep breath, ere she could reach forth to secure the all-important paper, a great faintness seized her, and throwing up her hands, she fell in a dead faint beside Gerelda's bed.
Scarcely a moment had elapsed ere the portieres that shut off an inner room were thrust quickly aside by a man's hand.
IN THE TOILS.
Captain Frazier had seen all that had transpired.
He was just about to spring into the apartment and tear the paper from Jessie Bain's hands, when he saw her fall lifeless by the couch. Quickly he flung the portieres aside and sprang into the apartment. It was but the work of a moment to secure the document, and to thrust it in his vest-pocket. Then, without an instant's loss of time, he caught up the insensible form of Jessie, throwing a dark, heavy shawl about her, he shot hurriedly out of the room and down the corridor, making for the drawing-room, whose long French windows opened on the porch. He had scarcely crossed the threshold ere he heard the sound of hurrying footsteps.
"Ha! they heard the sound of her fall," he muttered, dashing open the window and springing through it with his burden, landing knee-deep in the white, soft snow-drift.
It took but a moment more to gain the road, and then he well knew the dark, waving pines would screen him from the sight of any one who might attempt to pursue him. As he stopped to take breath for a moment, he glanced back at the mansion, and saw lights moving to and fro in the upper windows.
Dashing breathlessly onward, he threaded his way up one deserted street and down another, dodging into hall-ways if he saw a lone pedestrian quite a distance off, approaching, remaining there until their footsteps had passed and died away. To add to his annoyance Jessie began to show signs of returning consciousness.
"This will never do at this crisis of affairs," he cried to himself.
He had come well equipped for the emergency, and drawing a small vial from an inner pocket, he dashed half of its contents over the shawl which enveloped the girl's head. Its pungent odors soon quieted Jessie's struggles.
Hailing a passing coupe, he soon deposited his burden therein, jumping in himself after giving instructions to the driver to make all possible haste. They were jostled along the road with lightning-like rapidity, and half an hour afterward had made the distance, and the cab drew up in the loneliest part of the wharf.
"Here we are, sir," the driver said, springing down from his box and opening the door.
The gentleman within did not respond.
"What is the matter with the man?" he muttered, striking a match and thrusting it into the strange customer's face. He drew back with a great cry. The man's face was as white as death, and at that instant he became aware of the strong odor of chloroform, which filled the vehicle to suffocation.
"Here's a pretty go," muttered the cabman, "and in my coach too.
"The best thing to do would be to dash a cup of water over him and restore him to consciousness."
The cabman hurried to a watering-trough a few feet distant. Snatching up one of the tin cups which was fastened to it by a chain, he soon wrenched it free. But before he had advanced a single step with its contents, a great cry of horror broke from his lips; the horses dashed suddenly forward and were galloping madly down the same street which they had so lately traversed.
He reported his loss to the nearest station, not daring to mention the serious condition of the occupants of the cab. But up to noon the following day not even a trace of the vehicle could be discovered.
Old Mrs. Varrick was fairly paralyzed over the disappearance of little Jessie, whom she had learned to love as a daughter. She would not believe that she had left the house of her own accord—wandered away from it.
"There has been foul play here," she cried.
And immediately old Stephen, the servant, said to himself:
"It all comes from the stranger who was loitering about the place about a week ago;" and he made up his mind to do a little detective work on his own account. "If he is in the city, I will find him," he muttered. "I will tramp night and day up and down the streets until I meet him. Then I will openly accuse him of abducting poor pretty Miss Jessie."
He went to his old mistress and asked for leave of absence for a few days. Mrs. Varrick shook her head mournfully.
"I should not think you would want to leave me, when you see me in all this trouble, Stephen," she said. "You should stand by me, though every one else fails me. Only this morning the butler gave notice that he intended to leave here on the morrow, and he, like yourself, has been with me for years."
"I am not surprised to hear that, ma'am," returned Stephen, laconically, "for ever since that fatal night in the library the butler has had a very horror of the place. He's as tender-hearted as a little child, ma'am, the butler is. Why, he takes Master Hubert's trials to heart terribly. He walks the floor night and day, muttering excitedly: 'Heaven save poor Master Hubert!'"
Although every precaution was taken to keep the news of Jessie's disappearance from Hubert Varrick, the knowledge soon reached him.
"My God! did I not have enough to bear before," he murmured, "that this new weight of woe has fallen upon me?"
In his sorrow he was thankful that at least one person besides his mother seemed to believe so utterly in his innocence—and that was the butler. He came to see him daily and wept over him, muttering strangely incoherent words, declaring over and over again that he must be proven innocent, though the heavens fell.
"As near as I can see, it will end in a prison cell for life or the gallows," said Hubert, gulping down a sob.
"But they mustn't hang—you shan't hang!" cried the butler, excitedly. "I will—"
The sentence was never finished. He sat back, trembling in every limb, in his seat, his face ashy white, his features working convulsively.
At last the butler came no more to see him, and Hubert heard that he, too, had suddenly disappeared.
The day of the trial dawned clear and bright, without one cloud in the blue azure sky to mar the perfect day. It was a morn dark enough in the history of Hubert Varrick, as he paced up and down the narrow limits of his lonely cell, looking through the grating on the gay, bright world outside.
It did not matter much to him if he left it, he told himself. Suddenly there was the sound of a key turning in the lock, and glancing up, Varrick beheld the old butler standing before him.
He greeted the old servant with a wistful smile, and for a moment neither could speak, so great was their emotion.
"I have been a long way off, Master Hubert," he said, huskily; "but I couldn't stay away when I thought how near it was to—to the time."
"Thank you for your devotion," said Hubert, gratefully. "I am glad you came to see me; and, whatever betides," he continued, huskily, "I hope you will think none the worse of me. Believe that I am innocent; and, dear friend, if the time should ever come when you could clear my stained name from the awful cloud which darkens it, I pray you promise me that you will do it. I can never rest in my grave until this horrible mystery has been cleared." The old butler trembled like a leaf. "I shall haunt the scene of that terrible tragedy, and—"
A great shriek burst from the butler's white lips, and he fell to the floor in a terrible spasm.
The attendant pacing back and forth in the corridor without, hastily removed him. They spoke of it with pity, how devoted he was to his young master.
At noon the case was called, and the greatest of excitement prevailed from one end of the city to the other, for there were few men as popular there as Hubert Varrick. The spacious room was crowded to overflowing. There was a great flutter of excitement when the handsome prisoner was led into the court-room. Those who had known him from childhood were touched with the deepest pity for him. They could not believe him guilty.
In that hour quite as exciting an event was taking place in another part of the great city.
To explain it we must go back to the thrilling runaway that took place a few days before, when Jessie Bain, powerless to aid herself lay back among the cushions of the coach, all unconscious that the mad horses were whirling her on to death and destruction. They careened wildly around first one corner and then another, making straight for the river.
At one of the crossings a man stood, his head bent on his breast, and his eyes looking wistfully toward the dark water beyond.
"If I had the courage," he muttered, "I would drown myself. I can not rest night or day with this load on my mind. It almost seems to me that I am going mad! How terrible to me is the thought that I—whom all the world has always regarded as an honest man—am an unconfessed murderer!"
The very air seemed to repeat his words—"a murderer!"—and the old butler—for it was he—shuddered, as he muttered half aloud:
"I never meant to do it, God knows!"
Suddenly the sound of wheels smote his startled ear.
"A runaway!" he cried.
Without an instant's hesitation he threw himself forward. What mattered it if he lost his life in the attempt? He would save the occupants of the carriage, or give his wretched life in the attempt.
Nearer, nearer came the galloping horses, and just as he was about to throw himself forward to seize them by the bits, they collided with the street lamp. In an instant of time the vehicle was smashed into a thousand pieces.
One of the occupants, a woman, was hurled headlong to the pavement; her companion, half in and half out of the coach, was caught in the jam of the door, while his coat was fairly torn from his body, the papers that had been in his breast packet strewing the street. The butler sprang forward to seize the man and save him, but fate willed it otherwise.
He was too late. And as he stood there paralyzed with horror, the team plunged from the dock down, down into the dark waves. In an instant only a few white bubbles remained to mark the spot where horses, vehicle, and the unfortunate man had gone down.
The butler, who had witnessed all the terrible catastrophe, turned his immediate attention to the poor creature whom he believed must be dead, she lay so white and still, face downward, in the snow-drift.
"Great God! It is Jessie Bain!"
He gathered her up quickly in his arms, together with a few papers that lay under his feet, and carried her to his own lodgings, which were but a few yards distant. He meant to convey her, as soon as it was fairly light, back to the Varrick Mansion.
In the meantime, he would do his best toward restoring her. After pouring a glass of brandy down her throat, he sought to bring back warmth to the ice-cold hands by rubbing them vigorously; but it seemed all useless, useless. Wrapping her in warm blankets, he drew the settle upon which he had placed her, closer to the coal fire and waited to see if the warmth would not soon revive her.
Then his eyes fell upon the papers he had picked up. One of them lay slightly open, and by chance his eyes lighted upon the contents. What was there about it that caught and held his gaze spell-bound? The second and third he scanned. Then, clutching it closely, his hands trembling like aspen leaves, he read on and on until the last word was reached.
"Great God!" he muttered, half dazed and crazed, "it is the confession of Hubert Varrick's wife that he did not do the deed of which she accused him. No one must ever see this!" he cried. "I will burn this confession, and no one will ever know of it."
Cautiously he made his way to the glowing fire. What was that strange, sharp, rustling sound? He glanced fearfully over his shoulder. Jessie Bain was sitting upon the settle, gazing at him with terror-distended eyes. For an instant the girl was bewildered at her strange surroundings, then she recognized the butler who had left the Varrick mansion a few days before. What was she doing here in his presence?
The last thing she remembered was standing over unconscious Gerelda, and guiding her hand to write the words that would save Hubert Varrick's life. As she looked she saw that same confession in the butler's hands. What was he doing with it? Great Gad! how came he by it? As she gazed she saw him carefully approach the grate, and hold the paper over the flames.
With one bound Jessie Bain had reached his side and torn it from his grasp, just as the flames had caught at it.
"What would you do?" she screamed.
He looked at her with cunning eyes.
"How came you by this?" he cried, in an awful voice, as he struggled with her desperately to gain the paper.
No word answered him.
"You shall not have it!" he cried, wrenching it from her by main force. "You shall not show this up to the world until it is too late to affect Hubert Varrick."
A cry of agony burst from Jessie's death-white lips. She saw, in her terror, that the old butler had lost his reason, and yet withal he was so cunning.
She pleaded with him on her knees, but it was useless. He muttered over and over again that she should not have the paper, that he would keep her there a prisoner until all was over.
Despite her entreaties, to her great horror the man kept his word, and Jessie found herself a prisoner in the isolated place. She was too weak to make any effort to escape; there was none to hear her faint cries.
It must be said for the man that he tended her as faithfully as a woman might have done; but he was deaf to her pitiful and desperate appeal. He taunted her from day to day with the knowledge that it wanted but one day more to Hubert Varrick's trial. At last the terrible time dawned. It seemed to Jessie that she would go mad with the horror of it.
She tried with all her weak strength to break the firm old locks that held her a prisoner there, but it was useless, useless. The sun slowly climbed the heavens, and she knew, oh God! she knew what was to happen to Hubert Varrick within those hours.
She sunk on her knees, crying out that if she could not aid the man she loved, that the same sun would set upon her lifeless form—she would kill herself.
Hardly had this resolve become a fixed purpose with her, ere she became conscious of a loud knock at the door.
"I— I am a prisoner here!" she cried. "I beg you, whoever you are, break the lock of the door!"
This was hastily complied with, and she saw standing before her two officers of the law.
"Oh, sir!" she gasped, "take me to Hubert Varrick at once, or it will be too late to save him!"
"We are here for that very purpose," answered one of them. "We know all. The late butler of the Varrick mansion has just breathed his last, and confessed all—that it was he who committed the murder, and just how it happened, begging us to come after you, and to liberate you at once, and tell you that Hubert Varrick is now free. A carriage is in waiting. Come at once. Mrs. Varrick awaits you there," he adding, noting how stunned the girl looked, as though she could hardly believe what she heard.
There was one thing that Jessie never quite fully understood: how she reached the lonely cottage of the old butler. She believed his mind must have been wandering when he gave such a singular account of a runaway, and a gentleman being with her in the coupe. She firmly insisted that the butler must have chloroformed her, abducted her, and brought her to that place, in the hope that she would then be powerless to aid Hubert Varrick.
Who could describe the meeting between Hubert and Jessie and Mrs. Varrick which occurred an hour later at the Varrick mansion.
Hubert would have taken the girl he loved so madly, in his arms on sight and covered her face with kisses, but she held him off at arm's-length, though she longed to rest in his strong arms and weep on the broad bosom that she knew beat for her alone.
"No, you must not touch me, Hubert," she whispered. "It would not seem right so—so soon after—after poor Gerelda's untimely death."
"Forgive me—pardon me, Jessie," he answered, brokenly. "For the moment I had—forgotten, my love for you was so great!"
Here Mrs. Varrick quickly interposed:
"Jessie is quite right, my boy," she said. "You must not mention one word of love to her for many a day yet. Perhaps your troubles will be over before many months."
"If you both think that, it will not do for me to remain beneath this roof where Jessie is," he declared, huskily. "I am only human, you know, and we both love each other so!"
Thus it was that it was arranged that it was best for Hubert to go away, travel abroad, and return a year from that day to claim Jessie. But it was with many misgivings that Hubert tore himself away.
"If anything comes of this enforced separation, always remember that I pleaded hard against it, but in the end yielded to your wishes." On the morrow Hubert Varrick left Boston.
During the months that followed Jessie lived quietly at the Varrick mansion with Hubert's mother.
The year of probation had not yet waned, when, one lovely April morning, while Jessie was walking through the grounds that surrounded the mansion, she espied a bearded stranger standing at the gate, leaning on it with folded arms, evidently lost in admiration of the early blossoming buds and half-blown roses.
"Permit me to gather you some of the roses you seem to be admiring so much, sir," she said, courteously.
"Pardon me, would you permit me to enter and gather for myself the one I care for most?"
The request was an odd one, but she granted it with a smile.
He swung open the heavy gate, and in an instant was by her side, folding her in his arms, and kissing her with all his soul on his lips.
"Am I changed so that Love can not recognise me?" he cried.
"Hubert—oh, Hubert! is it you—really you?" sobbed Jessie, laughing and crying all in a breath.
And there Mrs. Varrick found them an hour later, planning for the marriage, which Hubert declared should be solemnized before the sun set. This time he had his own way, and when the stars came out, they shone on sweet little Jessie Bain, a bride; and surely the sweetest and most adorable one that ever a young husband worshiped.
And there we will leave them, dear reader, for when a girl marries, all the ills of life should be left behind her, and she should dwell in sunshine and love ever after.
Those who knew her as pretty, saucy, sweet Jessie Bain never forgot her. And may I hope that this will be the case with you, my dear reader?
* * * * *
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