HotFreeBooks.com
Madeline Payne, the Detective's Daughter
by Lawrence L. Lynch
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Lucian took upon himself the responsibility of visiting the city and calling at St. Mary's, there to be reassured of the fact that one Martha Grey had died within its walls and been buried.



CHAPTER XIII.

MISS ARTHUR'S FRENCH MAID.

After this the days flew by very much alike.

Miss Arthur's maid arrived, and proved indeed a treasure, nor was she as obnoxious to Mr. John Arthur as he had evidently intended to find her. Perhaps Celine Leroque knew by instinct that the master of Oakley cherished an aversion to French maids in particular; or perhaps she was an exceptional French maid, and craved neither the smiles nor slyly administered caresses, that fell to the lot of pretty femmes de chambre, at least in novels. At any rate, certain it is that Miss Arthur's maid manifested no desire to be seen by the inmates of the household, and she had been domiciled for some weeks without having vouchsafed to either John Arthur or Lucian Davlin more than a fleeting glimpse of her maidship.

Things were becoming very monotonous to some of the occupants of the Oakley manor; very, very dull and flavorless.

Cora was growing restless. Not that the astute lady permitted signs of discontent to become manifest to the uninitiated, but Lucian Davlin saw, with a mingled feeling of satisfaction and dismay, that the role of devoted wife had ceased to interest his blonde comrade in iniquity.

The fact gave him a malicious pleasure because, as fate had dared to play against him, he would have felt especially aggrieved if a few thorns had not been introduced into the eider down that seemingly enveloped his fair accomplice.

But he felt some dismay, for he knew by the swift flash of azure eyes under golden lashes, by the sway of her shoulders as she paced the terrace, by the nervous tapping of her slippered foot at certain times in the intervals of table chat—that Cora was thinking. And when Cora thought, something was about to happen.

It was in obedience to one of those swift side glances, that he followed her from the morning room, one forenoon about three weeks after the news of Madeline's death had come to them. The day was bright but chill, and the woman had wrapped herself in a shawl of vivid crimson, but stood with bared head in the sunlight waiting the approach of her counterfeit brother.

"Cover your head, you very thoughtless woman," was his brotherly salutation as he approached, plunging about in his pockets in search of a cigar the while.

"Bother!" she ejaculated, tossing her golden locks; "my hair needs a sunbath. I only wish I dare indulge myself further! If you had any heart you wouldn't torture me so constantly with the odor of those magnificent Havanas, when you know how my very soul longs for a weed!"

"Poor little woman," laughing maliciously; "fancy Mrs. John Arthur of Oakley smoking a Perique! Isn't it prime, Co.?" puffing out a cloud of perfumed smoke.

"Prime! bah! I'd like to strangle you, or—"

"Or?—" inquiringly.

"Somebody," laughing nervously.

"Just so; Miss Arthur would be a good subject and that would confer a favor on me, too, by Jove!"

"I don't want to confer a favor on you. You had much better try and do me one, I think."

"With all my heart, taking my ability for granted, of course; only tell me how."

Cora shrugged her crimson-clad shoulders, and they paced forward in silence for a time. Then as if his stillness had been speech of a distasteful kind, she ejaculated, crossly, and without turning her head: "Stuff! you talk too much!"

Lucian smiled maliciously, removed his cigar from between his lips, described a smoke wreath in mid-air, replaced his weed, and said: "Do I? then mum's the word;" and he relapsed into silence.

He seemed bent on annoying her, for there was a laughing glimmer in his eye, and he obstinately refused to attempt to draw her out, and so make easier whatever she might have to say, for he knew that she had signaled him out to-day for a purpose.

Mutely he walked by her side, and contentedly puffed at his cigar until, at length, she turned upon him, and struck petulantly at the hand that had just removed it from his lips. The weed fell from his fingers to the ground, and Cora set her slippered heel upon it, as if it were an enemy, and laughed triumphantly.

"Now we are on a level," she cried. "Do you suppose I intend to give you that advantage over me?"

"It seems not," with a shrug expressive of resignation and a smile hidden by his mustache.

He was not the man to be angered, or even ruffled, by these little feminine onslaughts. In fact, they rather pleased and amused him, and he had become well accustomed to Cora's "little ways," as he called them. Deprived of his cigar, he thrust his hands into his pockets and whistled softly.

"Lucian, if you don't stop looking so comfortable, and content, and altogether don't-care-ish, I shall do something very desperate," she exclaimed, pettishly.

"No?" raising his eyebrows in mock incredulity; "you don't tell me. I thought you were in a little heaven of your own, Mrs. Arthur."

"Oh! you did? Very clever of you. Well, Mr. Davlin, has it occurred to you that heaven might not be a congenial climate for me?"

"Not while your wings are so fresh, surely? You have scarcely entered your paradise, fair peri."

"Haven't I?" ironically. "Well, I am tired of manna, anyhow." Cora was not always strictly elegant in her choice of expressions. "Now, Lucian, stop parleying, and tell me, when is this going to end?"

"When?"

He stopped and looked down at her intently. Twice they had traversed the terrace, and now they paused at the termination furthest from the house. Just before them a diminutive flight of stone steps led down to a narrow graveled walk, that skirted a velvety bit of lawn, and was in its turn hedged by some close and high-growing shrubs from the "Bellair woods," as they were called. Beyond the steps was a gap in the hedge, and this, cut and trimmed until it formed a compact and beautiful arch, was spanned by a stile, built for the convenience of those who desired to reach the village by the shortest route, the Bellair woods.

"Don't repeat like a parrot, Lucian." Cora raised her voice angrily. "I say, when is this to end? and how?"

They were just opposite the gap in the hedge and Lucian, looking down upon Cora, stood facing the opening. As the words crossed her lips, his eyes fell upon a figure just behind her, and he checked the conversation by an involuntary motion of the hand.

The figure came toward them. It was Miss Arthur's French maid, and she carried in her hand a small parcel. Evidently she was returning from some errand to the village. Miss Arthur's maid had black hair, dressed very low on the forehead; eyes of some sort, it is to be presumed, but they were effectually concealed by blue glasses; a rather pasty complexion; a form that might have been good, but if so, its beauties were hidden by the loose and, as Cora expressed it, "floppy," style of jacket which she habitually wore. She passed them with a low "Bon jour, madame," and hurried up the terrace. At least she was walking swiftly, but not very smoothly, up the terrace when Lucian cast after her a last disapproving glance.

"Your lady's maid is not a swan nor a beauty," he said, as they by mutual consent went down the steps.

Cora made no reply to this, seeming lost in thought. They walked on for a moment in silence.

But Celine Leroque did not walk on. She dropped her package and, stooping to recover it, cast a swift glance after the pair. They were sauntering slowly down the hedgerow walk, their backs toward her.

Probably the falling parcel had reminded the French maid of something forgotten, for she turned swiftly, silently, and without any of her previous awkwardness retraced her steps and disappeared beyond the stile.

"What's the row, Co.?" asked Lucian, kicking a pebble with his boot toe. "You are getting restive early in the game. Can't you keep to the track for another two months?"

"No."

"What then?"

"This. We must get that fool out of the way."

"Meaning who?"

"She, of course—Ellen Arthur. The woman will make a raving maniac of me in two months more."

"By Jove! and of me, too, if I don't get out of this."

"We must get rid of her."

"How?"

"I don't know—somehow, anyhow."

"And then?"

"And then—" she gave him a side glance, and laughed unpleasantly.

"And then? You have a plan, my blonde. Out with it; I am a listener."

And he did listen.

Slowly down the hedgerow path they paced, and at the end, halted and stood for a time in earnest consultation. There was some difference of opinion, but the difference became adjusted. And they turned toward the house, evidently satisfied with the result of the morning's consultation.

Not long after, Miss Arthur's maid returned also.

"I see by the papers that Dr. LeGuise has come back from Europe, Cora," announced Mr. Davlin from his seat at the lunch table that day.

"Dr. LeGuise! how delightful! Now one will not be afraid to be sick—our old family physician, you know," to Miss Arthur; "and so skillful. He has been in Europe a year. The dear man, how I long to see him!"

"Well!" laughed Lucian, "I will carry him any amount of affection, providing it is not too bulky. I find that I must run up to the city to-morrow, and of course will look him up."

"Oh!" eagerly, "and find out if he saw the D'Arcys in Paris; and those delightful Trevanions!" Then, regretfully, "can't you stay another week, dear?"

"Out of the question, Co., much as I regret it," glancing expressively at Miss Arthur. "But I shan't forget you all."

"Pray do not," simpered the spinster. "And when do you return?"

"Not for two or three weeks, I fear. But rest assured I shall lose no time, when once I am at liberty."

During his lazy, good-humored moments, Mr. Davlin had made most ridiculous love to Miss Arthur, and that lady had not been behind in doing her part. Now, strange to say, the face which she bent over her napkin wore upon it a look, not of sorrow, but of relief. And why?



CHAPTER XIV.

WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS.

"Take especial care with my toilet this morning, Celine," drawled Miss Arthur, as she sat before a mirror in her luxuriously appointed dressing-room.

Wise Cora had seen the propriety of giving to this unwelcome sister-in-law with the heavy purse, apartments of the best in the newly fitted-up portion of the mansion.

"I want you to be especially careful with my hair and complexion," Miss Arthur continued.

"Yes, mademoiselle," demurely. Then, as if the information might bear upon the question of the toilet, "Does mademoiselle know that Monsieur Davlin left an hour ago?"

"Certainly, Celine, but I expect a visitor. He may arrive at any time to-day, and you must do your very best with my toilet."

"Mademoiselle est charmante; slight need of Celine's poor aid," cooed the little hypocrite, and the toilet proceeded.

At length, the resources of art having been exhausted, Miss Arthur stood up, and approved of Celine's handiwork.

"I really do look nicely, Celine; you have done well, very. Now go send me a pot of chocolate and a bit of toast."

"Yes, mademoiselle."

"And a bit of chicken, or a bird's wing."

"Oui."

"And a French roll, Celine, with perhaps an omelette."

"Pardonne, mademoiselle, but might I suggest we must not forget this," touching Miss Arthur's tightly laced waist.

"True, Celine, quite right; the toast, then. And, Celine, remain down-stairs and when Mr. Percy comes," (her maid visibly started at the name) "show him into the little parlor, and tell him I am somewhere in the grounds—you understand? Then come and let me know. I prefer to have him fancy me surprised, you see," smiling playfully.

"I see; mademoiselle has such tact," and the French maid disappeared.

"Mr. Percy?" muttered the French maid, in very English accents; "I will certainly look for your coming, Mr. Percy. Can it be that I am to meet you at last?"

Mrs. John Arthur was restless that morning. She fidgeted about after the departure of her brother; tried to play the agreeable to her husband, but finding this a difficult task, left him to his cigar and his morning paper, in the solitude of his sanctum, and seizing her crimson shawl, started out for a turn upon the terrace.

The "little parlor," as it was called, commanded a view of one end of the terrace walk, but no portion of it was visible from the immediate front of Oakley mansion, the terrace running across the grounds in the rear of the dwelling, and being shut off from the front by a thicket of flowering shrubs and trees.

The hall facing the front entrance to Oakley was deserted now, save for the figure of Celine Leroque, who was ensconsed in one of the windows thereof. She had been watching there for more than an hour, and Cora had promenaded the terrace half that time, when a gentleman approached the mansion from the front gate-way.

Celine's eyes were riveted upon the coming figure, as it appeared and disappeared among the trees and shrubbery along the winding walk. At length he emerged into open space and approached nearer.

Celine Leroque suppressed a cry of astonishment as she anticipated his ring and ushered him in. A very blonde man, with the lower half of his face covered with a mass of yellow waving beard; pale blue, searching, unfathomable eyes; pale yellow hair; a handsome face, the face she had seen pictured in Claire's souvenir!

Celine Leroque led the way toward the little parlor with a heart beating rapidly.

"Miss Arthur is in the grounds," she said, in answer to his inquiry. "I will go look for her;" and she turned away.

Mr. Percy placed his hat upon a little table and tossing back his fair hair, said: "I think I can see her now."

Approaching the window he looked down upon the terrace.

Celine looked, too, and catching a gleam of crimson, said: "That is not Miss Arthur."

"Stop a moment, my girl," the man exclaimed.

He was gazing down at Cora, who was walking away from them, with a puzzled look. "Good God!" he ejaculated, as she turned and he saw her face.

He checked himself, and withdrawing hastily from the window, took up his hat as if about to depart. Approaching the window once again, he looked cautiously forth, and seeing Cora still pacing the terrace in evident unconcern, he muttered to himself, but quite audibly, "Thank goodness, she did not see me."

Then turning to Celine: "Girl, who is that woman?"

The girl approached the window: "That, monsieur, is Madame Cora Arthur."

"A widow, eh?"

"Oh, no, monsieur. Mr. Arthur is the master of Oakley."

"Oh! and madame—how long has she been his wife?"

"She is still a bride, monsieur."

"Still a bride, is she? How exceedingly pleasant." Mr. Percy had evidently recovered from his panic. "Was she a miss when she married the master of Oakley?"

"Oh, no, monsieur; a widow."

"Widow?" stroking his whiskers caressingly. "What name?"

"Madame Torrance, monsieur."

"Madame Torrance, eh? Well, my good girl, take this," offering a bank note. "I really thought that Madame Torrance, I mean Arthur, was an old friend; however, it seems I was mistaken. Now, my girl, go and tell that lady that a gentleman desires to see her, and do not announce me to Miss Arthur yet. May I depend upon you?" glancing at her keenly.

"You may, monsieur."

Taking the offered money, she made an obeisance, and withdrew.

The little parlor had but one means of egress—through the door by which Mr. Percy had entered. This door was near the angle of the room; so near that, as it swung inward, it almost grazed against a huge high-backed chair, stiff and grim, but reckoned among the elegant pieces of furniture that are always, or nearly always, uncomfortable. This chair occupied the angle, and behind its capacious back was comfortable room for one or two persons, should they fancy occupying a position so secluded. The act of opening the door completely screened this chair from the view of any person not directly opposite it, until such time as the door should be again closed.

As Celine Leroque opened the door and disappeared one might have fancied, had they been gazing at that not-very-interesting object, that the high-backed chair moved ever so little.

Celine flew along the hall and down the stairway, tearing viciously at something as she went. Once in the open air, the brisk autumn breezes caught something from her hand, and sent little fragments whirling through space—paper scraps, that might have been dissected particles of a bank note.

Cora listened in some surprise to the messenger, who broke in upon her meditations with a trifle less of suavity than was usual in Miss Arthur's maid.

"A gentleman, to see me! Are you quite sure, Celine?"

Mrs. Arthur, for various reasons, received but few friends, and Celine thought now that she looked a trifle annoyed.

"Well, Celine, where is the gentleman? Stop," as if struck by a sudden thought, and changing color slightly, "tell him I am out, but not until I have got up-stairs," she said; "not until I have had an opportunity to see him, myself unseen," she thought.

"But, madame," hesitated Celine, "he is in the little parlor. He saw madame at the upper end of the terrace."

"Confusion! What did he say, girl?" excitedly.

"He said, madame, that he wished to speak with you; that he was an old friend."

"Well, go along," sharply. "I will see the man."

Celine turned about and Cora followed her almost sullenly. She had some apprehension as to this unknown caller, but he had seen her, and whoever he was she must face him, for Cora was no coward.

Celine tripped along thinking intently.

"This man is Edward Percy—Edward Percy, the lover of two women. He was frightened when he saw this Mrs. Arthur, and my words reassured him; why? At the mention of a strange caller, she must needs see him before she permits him an interview—for that is what she meant. Do they know each other? If so, the plot thickens."

Edward Percy had certainly been agitated at sight of Mrs. Arthur, and had as certainly recovered when assured that the lady was Mrs. Arthur. He looked the image of content now, as he lounged at the window. Under the blonde mustaches, a smile of cunning and triumph rested; but his eyes looked very blue, very, very calm, very unfathomable.

"Madame Arthur, sir."

Celine opens the door gently, and admits the form of Cora. Then, as the two face each other in silence, the door quietly closes, neither one having glanced toward the girl, who has disappeared.

Cora stands before him, the folds of the crimson shawl falling away from the plump, graceful shoulders, and mingling with the sweep of her black cashmere wrapper in rich, graceful contrast. One fair hand gathers up the crimson fabric and, instinctively, the other thrusts itself out in a repellant gesture, as the soft voice utters, in tones of mingled hate and fear: "You!"

He laughs softly. "Yes, I. I knew you would be delighted." All the time he is gazing at her critically, apparently viewing her loveliness with an approving eye.

And now the woman feels through her whole being but the one instinct—hate. She has forgotten all fear, and stands before him erect, pallid, but with eye and lip expressing the bitterness that rages within her.

"You won't say you are glad to see me? Cruel Alice," he murmurs, plaintively. "And after all these years, too; how many are they, my dear?"

"No matter!" fiercely. "They have given the devil ample time to claim his own, and yet you are upon earth!"

"Yes," serenely; "both of us."

"Both of us, then. How dare you seek me out?"

"My dear wife, I never did you so much honor. I came to this house for another purpose, and Providence, kind Providence, has guided me to you."

The woman seemed recalled to herself. Again the look of fear overspread her face, and looking nervously about her, she said. "For God's sake, hush! What you wish to say say out, but don't let your voice go beyond these walls."

"Dear Alice, my voice never was vulgarly loud, was it? recollect, if you please," in an injured tone.

"Well! well! what do you want with me? Percy Jordan, I warn you—I am not the woman you wronged ten years ago."

"No; by my faith, you are a handsomer woman, and you carry yourself like a duchess. Why didn't you do that when you were Mrs.—"

"Hush!" she cried; "you base liar, it did not take me long to find you out, even then. Don't forget that you have lived in fear of me for ten long years."

"Just so," serenely; "haven't they been long? But they are ended now, my dear; my incubus is dead and—"

"But documents don't die," she interrupted; "don't forget that!"

"Not for worlds. For instance, I remember that in a certain church register may be seen the marriage lines of Alice Ford and—ahem—myself. And somewhere, not far away, there must be on record the statement that Mr. Arthur, of Oakley, has wedded the incomparable Mrs. Torrance, a blonde widow—ahem. Where did you go, my dear, when you left my bed and board so very unceremoniously?

"'What had I done, or what hadst thou, That through this weary world till now I've walked with empty arms.'"

He stretched out those members tragically.

"And I don't forget that I was never legally your wife, as you had another living," cried Cora, ignoring the latter part of his speech.

"No; of course not. Does Mr. John Arthur know that you were once my—"

"Dupe? no," she interrupted. "Come, time passes; tell me what you know, and what you want."

"Softly, softly, Mrs. Arthur. I know enough to insure me against being turned out of Oakley by you; and I want a wife and a fortune."

"I don't understand you."



"Possibly not, Madame Arthur." Then, with mock emotion: "Might I, dare I, ask you to give to my keeping, that incomparable maiden, that houri of houris, your young and lovely sister-in-law, Miss Ellen Arthur?"

The woman looked at him in silence for a time, and then, flinging herself upon a couch, burst into a peal of soft laughter. She understood it all now.

"So you are the expected lover!" she ejaculated, laughing afresh; "and she is up-stairs, in bright array, waiting for you."

"And I am down here, pleading for permission to address this pearl of price."

Cora arose and gathered her crimson wrap about her shoulders. "And how is it to be between us?" she asked coolly.

"My sweet Alice, if you were John Arthur's widow instead of John Arthur's wife, it should be as if the past ten years were but a dream."

"Indeed—provided, of course, I were John Arthur's heiress as well."

"Certainly!"

"And how is it that you are once more fortune hunting? Five years ago you inherited wealth sufficient for your every need."

The elegant Mr. Percy went through the pantomime of shuffling and dealing cards, then looked at her with a grimace.

"All?" she inquired, as if the action had been words.

"Every ducat," solemnly. "So what is to be my fate, fair destiny?"

Cora mused, then laughed again. "After all, you may prove a friend in need," she said. "I shan't interfere between you and Miss Arthur; be sure of that."

Then they fell to settling the preliminaries of a siege upon the heart of Miss Arthur, together with other little trifles that occurred as they talked. They had both thrown off their air of hostility, and were seated opposite each other, conversing quite comfortably, when the door swung open, and Miss Arthur stood before them; Miss Arthur, in the full glory of snowy cashmere, with cherry satin facings; Miss Arthur, with curls waving, and in all her war-paint.

The two plotters arose, and saluted her with much empressement.

Miss Arthur advanced a step and stood beside the high-backed chair, one hand still resting upon the door. Percy came toward her with outstretched hands.

"Ah-h-h!" screeched the spinster, "what was that?"

Turning quickly she encountered nothing more formidable than her French maid, who had evidently hurried to the spot, for she breathed rapidly, and said, in an anxious manner:

"Pardon, mademoiselle, it is I,—did mademoiselle ring? I thought so."

"You stepped on my dress, girl," said Miss Arthur, sharply. "No, I did not ring; perhaps Mrs. Arthur did."

"I did ring, Ellen," lied Cora, sweetly, wondering what lucky providence sent the girl to the door just then. "I rang for you, as Mr. Percy here, in whom I have discovered a Long Branch acquaintance, would hardly treat me civilly, so impatient has he been to see Miss Arthur."

Miss Arthur looked somewhat appeased. "You may go, Celine," she said, with her most stately air.

Thus she sailed forward to meet Mr. Percy.

Celine departed, smiling an odd little smile. She went to her own room and sitting down upon the bedside, meditated. Presently she arose, and walking over to her mirror, gazed at her reflected image, and shaking her head at it, murmured:

"What a nice little maid you are, Celine Leroque—and how these people will love you by and by! You now hold in your hands the thread that will unravel this mixture of mystery, and when the reckoning comes, it will not be you that falls."

Thoughtfully she paced the little apartment. By and by she threw herself upon the bed and closed her eyes, still thinking. If she could only know just how these two had separated—Edward Percy and Cora Arthur; and what part Lucian Davlin had played in that separation drama. Did Cora know Lucian ten years ago—did Percy know him for his rival? Suddenly the girl sprang up, and smiting her two palms together, exclaimed:

"If these two men were rivals, then we may yet find a reason why Lucian Davlin should attempt the life of Edward Percy!"

And now what should she do?

Claire Keith's bright face rose before her as she asked herself the question. Claire must be warned and saved; but how? The girl's brow darkened.

"She will scorn the man," she muttered, between pale lips, "and then she will learn to value that other. She will grieve for a time, perhaps, but not for long; then—then she will become his wife, while I—What right has she to all the blessings?"

The girl stood motionless, with hands tightly clasped. The conflict lasted but a moment when, in a firm, clear voice she continued:

"It would be base not to save her from this wretch—and save her I will; and I will restore to Olive Girard her husband; is that not payment enough for all they have done for me? But he, Clarence, my hero—why must I yield him up without a struggle? She does not love him; she never will love him if I say the word; she is as generous as—as I am base, I think. No, it is not base to love him, to try to win him. And why not? I must think, think, think."

All that day and night the girl pondered deeply. In the morning she arose weary, unrefreshed.

"I will save Claire Keith from the suffering that befell me," she said. "But she shall not have all the good things of this life, and I none."



CHAPTER XV.

CORA AND THE FRENCH MAID MEASURE SWORDS.

During the day, Miss Arthur communicated to her maid the fact that Mr. Percy would remain in Bellair for the present. He was going away for a day on business; then he would return and take up his abode at the Bellair inn.

"Would monsieur be absent to-morrow?"

"Yes."

Then, as mademoiselle would not especially need her, would she graciously give her the day? Her sister had just returned from Paris, and would very soon leave the city en route for Washington. Her sister was in the service of Mrs. General Delonne—of course mademoiselle had heard of Madame Delonne; knew her, perhaps. Celine much desired to see this sister, and expected to get some valuable hints from her regarding the very latest French coiffeurs, etc., etc. In short, could mademoiselle spare her to-morrow, just for one little day?

Mademoiselle, after due deliberation, perhaps in consideration of the new coiffeurs, graciously consented. This matter was settled while the dinner toilet of the lady was in progress; and Celine spared no pains to make her mistress satisfied with herself and all about her.

"How long had Mr. Percy been in the little parlor, Celine, before I came down?" questioned the lady.

She was still a trifle dissatisfied at having found her lover so cosily tete-a-tete with her fascinating sister-in-law.

"Oh, a very short time, my lady—I mean mademoiselle."

"And how did he meet Mrs. Arthur?" anxiously.

"Madame was just entering from the terrace; they met in the hall," glibly.

"And did they meet like old friends, Celine?"

"Oh, no! mademoiselle; quite formally. At first I fancied he was really displeased at meeting her—but of course mademoiselle knew the reason for that," slyly.

"Hush, you foolish girl," said the flattered spinster; "it's all right, of course." And she relapsed into reverie.

Miss Arthur had exhausted her patience waiting for her tardy admirer, and, finding her own apartments dull, had come down to the parlor, thus interrupting the interview, to the disgust of more than one of those interested.

Mr. Percy had many questions yet to propound to his newly-found wife, as he called her, and she, knowing him so well, felt a trifle more uneasy than was comfortable, wondering what use, if any, he intended to make of the small amount of power he still possessed over her. She must hold another interview with him, and that soon. Meantime, she left him to the tender mercies of the happy spinster.

It was late in the evening when she at last found a convenient opportunity, and crossed the hall in the direction of Miss Arthur's dressing-room. She was about to open the door and enter, when her movement was anticipated by Celine, who appeared upon the threshold in hat and shawl.

Mrs. Arthur seemed not at all abashed, but pushing the girl back into the room, stepped in herself and closed the door. "You were going out, Celine?" smiling sweetly.

"Yes, madame," respectfully.

"May I ask where?"

"Certainly, madame. I have leave to go and see my sister to-morrow. I am going to telegraph her that she may expect me. Can I serve madame?"

Madame pondered a moment.

"Celine," she said, abruptly. "Why did you pretend to answer a ring this morning, when your mistress came down to the little parlor?"

"I trust madame was not offended," deprecatingly.

"No, no," impatiently; "but I want to understand you."

"Madame shall. Madame must know that my mistress is not always smooth in temper?"

"Yes," laughing wickedly.

"This morning she bade me admit the gentleman, tell him she was in the grounds, and then come to her. He came, and almost immediately saw you, madame, walking on the terrace."

"Stop. How did he act when he saw me, Celine?"

The girl looked at her in apparent hesitation. "Madame will not be angry with me?"

"No, no."

"He looked almost frightened, and took his hat, as if about to go."

Cora uttered a low, triumphant, "Ah, did he?"

"Then he called me back as I was leaving the room to summon my mistress, and asked me who you were. I told him. He looked relieved, said he had mistaken you for an old acquaintance, and bade me ask you to come to him, and say nothing to Miss Arthur until he desired it."

"I see; but why did you follow her, when she came down? Did she know we were there?"

"No, madame."

"Then why—"

"Pardon," with a sidelong glance at her face, "but madame is beautiful, and my mistress is jealous. I thought you might wish me to do as I did, and I desired to serve you, madame."

Cora eyed her keenly. "But why serve me, Celine?"

"Madame has ever been gracious to Celine," said the girl, lowering her eyes. "Even a servant appreciates kindness—my mistress never considers that."

Cora's thoughts flew fast. If she could trust this girl, she might make her very useful. She had sought this interview to question her concerning the adventure of the morning, and now might she not be of still more service?

A few more sharply-put questions were asked, and answered with corresponding shrewdness. Then Celine detailed, in her own way, her interview with her mistress on the subject of Mr. Percy's visit.

Cora was at last fully satisfied that, for some reason, Miss Arthur had aroused a feeling of antagonism in the breast of her maid. She resolved to profit by this state of affairs. Accordingly, a few moments later, Celine Leroque flitted out from the house the bearer of two important messages.

One, in writing, was a telegram to be sent to Lucian Davlin.

The other was a verbal message to be delivered, in some way, to Mr. Percy before he quitted the grounds of Oakley.

Pausing at a safe distance from the house, Celine produced from her pocket some waxen matches. She lighted one, having looked cautiously about her, and spreading open the telegram to Mr. Davlin, read these words:

Come down to-morrow without fail. It is most important.

C.

"So," muttered Miss Arthur's maid as, flinging away the match, she hurried on her way; "so he must be consulted; he must come down. In the absence of Percy, too. I wonder if he knows, this Percy, that Lucian Davlin at present personates the dutiful brother of his fair lost love." Such a sneer rested on the face of the French maid. "Well! Mr. Davlin must come and, unfortunately, I can't be present at this interview. However, I shall be able to judge pretty accurately by their future movements what was its portent."

Edward Percy, as he chose to call himself, was not aware of the position held by Lucian Davlin in that household. Cora had seized an opportunity to murmur to Miss Arthur a soft warning.

"Ellen, dear!" she had said, "pray don't mention Lucian to Mr. Percy, unless you wish to shorten his stay with us. The fact is, the two had a slight misunderstanding while we were all at Long Branch, about a horse or something. Lucian was very much to blame, I think, but they parted bad friends. It is best never to interfere in men's quarrels, so I have not mentioned Lucian's name to him at all."

Cunning Celine! Her tact had made this explanation seem a quite probable one; and as Miss Arthur certainly had no desire to drive Mr. Percy from Oakley, she assured her "kind, thoughtful Cora," that she would be very guarded and never once mention Mr. Davlin's name in his enemy's presence.

Of this fact, of course, Celine was in total ignorance, as she proceeded on her way, which was not to the telegraph office; at least not yet.

Hurrying through the Oakley wood in the opposite direction from the village, she crossed the meadow and approached the cottage of Nurse Hagar. A light was dimly visible through the paper curtains, but no sound was heard from within. The girl listened at the door a moment, and then tapped softly.

Presently slip-shod feet could be heard crossing the uncarpeted floor, and a key creaked in its lock, after which the door opened, a very little way, and the old woman's face peered cautiously out into the night. Then she hastily opened the door wide and admitted the visitor.

"Is it you, dearie?" she asked, rather unnecessarily, surveying her critically by the light of a flaring tallow candle.

"No, Aunt Hagar, it's not I," laughed the girl; "it's Miss Arthur's French maid that you see before you. And don't drop that tallow on her devoted head," lifting a deprecating hand.

"Umph! we seem in great spirits to-night," leading the way back to the fire-place, beside which stood her easy splint-bottomed chair.

"So we are," assented the girl; "and why shouldn't we be, pray? Aren't we a very happy French maid, and a very skillful one, and a very lucky one?"

"How should I know?" grumbled the old woman; "what do I know? I'm only old Hagar; don't mind explaining anything to me!"

"By which you mean, beware of your wrath if I don't explain things to you; eh, auntie?"



Hagar mumbled something, not exactly intended to be a speech but simply a small growl, illustrative of her mood. Then, as if her dignity had been sufficiently asserted, she relaxed her grimness, and looking kindly down upon the girl, and pushing her toward the big chair, said:

"But law! child, you look fagged out. Sit down, sit down, and don't mind an old woman's grumbling."

"Did I ever?" laughed the girl, sinking into the big chair as if indeed willing to rest. "But I can't sit here long, nursie; my day's work, or rather my night's work, is not yet finished."

"Not yet? Oh, Madeline, my little nursling, give up these wild plans and plots; they will bring you no good."

"Won't they?" nodding significantly. "I think they will do me good, and you, too, Nurse Hagar; and before very long, too. Why, bless you, these precious plotters won't wait for me to bring them into my net; they are tumbling in headlong—all of them. They are helping me, with all their might, to bring about their own downfall. Hagar," and the girl leaned suddenly forward and looked closely into the old woman's face, "I want you to come back to Oakley."

Hagar started back as if struck by a knife. She was about to open her lips and set free a torrent of indignant protest, when the girl lifted her hand, interrupting her in the old characteristic way.

"Wait until I explain, auntie. I want you to go to Oakley to-morrow, at the hour when Mr. John Arthur is always supposed to be taking his after-dinner nap. Just after dinner, I want you to see Madame Cora; manage it in your own way, but see her you must."

"I won't!" broke in the old woman.

"You will," said the girl, quietly, "when I have told you why."

Drawing her chair close to that occupied by her companion, she resumed in a low voice:

"Yesterday Miss Arthur sent me to the village to purchase some trifling articles for the adornment of her precious person. Returning through the woods, I came upon Mr. Davlin and his 'sister,' conversing very earnestly, just at the lower end of the terrace. I arrived at the hedgerow stile just in time to hear madame say, very emphatically, that something must be done immediately. They were going down the terrace steps when I passed them, pretending to be in a great hurry. As soon as their backs were toward me, I turned quickly, and without noise crossed the stile, followed them on the opposite side of the hedge, and listened."

Here the speaker paused and looked up, but her auditor was gazing moodily into the fire, and never stirred nor spoke.

"Madame was saying," resumed the narrator, "that she was heartily weary of the part she was playing; that its monotony sickened her; that they had secured the victims, and fate had been kind enough to remove the only stumbling block in their path, save the old man himself; that she considered my very sensible demise a direct answer to her pious prayers."

The old woman shuddered and cast a look of horror upon the speaker.

"They had evidently discussed this matter before, and partially settled their plans, only the man seemed to think it was too soon to begin to act. But madame declared that she should do worse if they did not commence operations at once, and finally she overruled him."

"Of course," savagely.

"Of course. Well, I now lost a little of their conversation, but I kept the thread of it. You see, I had to move very cautiously, and sometimes fall behind them a bit, when the leafage became less thick."

Hagar nodded.

"Their plan was a beautiful one, and they have already set it in motion."

"Already?"

"Already; don't interrupt, please; I will tell you how in good time. First, then, madame is to fall ill—not desperately ill, but just ill enough to be interesting, and to alarm the old man. By the way, Mr. Davlin left this morning for the city; that is one move. He is to remain in the city until after the illness of madame, who is to refuse to receive any of the village doctors. Finally, he is to be sent for, and admonished to bring with him their old family physician, who has but just returned from Europe. Well, they come, the brother and the family physician—do you follow me?"

"Yes, yes!" nodding eagerly.

"They come. And the doctor says madame is threatened with a malignant fever, and orders everybody out of the house. It is needless to say that Miss Arthur flies instantly; but le docteur, interviewing the half-sick, fidgety old man, discovers that he, too, is threatened with the fever. Of course, he can not leave then."

Old Hagar's eyes were twinkling, and she was bending forward now in an eagerly attentive attitude. "No," she breathed, unconsciously.

"Well, the heroic brother will refuse to fly from the fever, and will implore the skillful man of medicine to remain and minister unto the sick. The good doctor stays. Of course, such of the servants as are at all likely to prove troublesome, through possessing a trifle more brains than is usually alloted to an idiot, will be kindly told that, rather than endanger their lives, the household will dispense with their valuable services. Then a nurse, perhaps two, will come down from the city, and the plotters have the game in their own hands."

Here the girl paused, and leaned back in her chair as if her story were done.

"And then?" exclaimed Hagar.

"And then!" echoed her companion, bending forward and resting her hand upon the old woman's wrist; "and then madame will recover—but John Arthur will remain an invalid and a prisoner! It will be said in the village that the fever has affected his brain, and his unpopularity, arising from the fact that he has always shunned and scorned the village folk, will insure them against intrusive investigators. Auntie, they have hatched a pretty plot."

"But," objected Hagar, "they will have to stay at Oakley, if he is to be a prisoner. They won't dare leave him with keepers and—"

"True," the girl interrupted. "I don't know how they will manage the rest; but having settled this much, madame and her 'brother' paused at the end of the path. I saw her as she looked up into his face, and this is what she said: 'When he is once a prisoner, what could be more natural than that a crazy, sick old man should die some day?' Then the man replied, 'Nothing;' and they both returned to the house, without another word."

For some moments silence reigned in Hagar's dwelling. The old woman seemed either unable, or unwilling, to utter a word of comment upon the story to which she had been so attentive a listener.

Celine at length arose and said, as she began pacing to and fro before the old woman. "Well, have you anything to say to this?"

"Yes," quietly.

"Then why don't you speak out? Are you horribly shocked?"

"No."

"No? Well, so much the better!"

Hagar arose, pushed back her chair, crossed the room, and, pulling back the curtain, looked out into the night. Then turning her inscrutable old face upon the girl she said, quite calmly:

"Why should not others measure out to John Arthur the same bitter draught that he filled for your mother, years ago? Bah! it is only retribution!"

"True," said the girl, sternly. Then, in a guarded tone: "And you would make no attempt to overturn their finely laid plans?"

"I? No!" fiercely. "You? I thought you wanted revenge."

"And so I do,—and will have it."

"How, then?"

"Will you go to Madame Arthur?"

"What for?"

"Ah, now you reason. I will tell you."

Hurriedly she unfolded her plan; and after some differences of opinion, dame Hagar agreed to play her part in the coming drama. Having finally arranged Hagar's role to their mutual satisfaction, Celine hurriedly recounted her day's adventures, saying, by way of finale:

"So now you see, nursie, I must hasten and send madame's message on its way. I shall depend upon you to tell me if Mr. Davlin comes to Bellair to-morrow, for I have a fancy that madame will manage, in some way, to prevent his coming to the house, as it was fully settled that he was not to appear at Oakley until summoned to his sister's sick-bed."

"I can easily learn if he appears at the Bellair station."

"Exactly; that is all I wish to know. Now I must go and waylay Mr. Percy. So good night, auntie, and cheer up; our time is coming fast."

"And trouble coming, too; God help us."

The girl turned upon her swiftly, with flashing eyes. "Are you afraid? Do you want to give it up?"

"I am afraid for you. But give up now; never!"

"Brave old nursie!"

The girl flung both arms about the old woman, and kissed her withered cheeks.

"Never fear for me; my star is rising. Don't forget your mission, auntie; good-night."

The "good-night" came back over her shoulder, as the girl was hurrying down the cottage steps, and Hagar closed the door behind her retreating figure.



CHAPTER XVI.

FACE TO FACE.

It is surprising to note how many pretexts a resolute, husband-hunting spinster can find for keeping a victim at her side, long after his soul has left her, and gone forth with yearning for a downy couch, a fragrant cheroot, or a fairer face.

Edward Percy could be agreeable, for a reasonable length of time, to a very ugly woman. But even he felt himself an injured man when, at a late hour, he said good-night for the eleventh time to his fair enslaver—literally an enslaver, he thought. As the door of Oakley manor actually and audibly closed behind him, he heaved a sigh of gratification, and strode rapidly down the winding avenue.

When the first group of trees had sheltered him from the view of the infatuated spinster, should she still be gazing after him, Mr. Percy paused, and standing in the shadow, produced a cigar and was proceeding to light it, when a hand fell lightly upon his arm, and he turned with a confused idea that she had followed him, and was about to lead him back a prisoner. But the figure that he dimly saw was, certainly, not that of Miss Arthur.

"Pardon, monsieur! but I have a message for you."

"Ye gods!" ejaculated the aggrieved man.

Evidently the girl interpreted his thoughts, for she stifled a laugh as she said, quickly: "Not from Miss Arthur, monsieur; but from madame."

"Oh, from madame," drawing a long breath. "Well, even madame will be a blessed relief; out with it, girl."

"Madame will be grateful, I am sure," said the girl, mockingly. "Madame desires a word with you—now, to-night. Will you follow me?"

"Where?"

"To madame; she will be in the terrace arbor directly."

"Oh, very well," replacing his cigar in his pocket; "lead on, then."

Celine flitted on before, until the arbor became dimly visible down the pathway. Then she paused, pointed it out to her companion, and said: "Madame will soon join you there, sir. Now I must hasten to my mistress; I have kept her waiting too long."

With a low, mischievous laugh she darted away in the direction of the house.

Percy turned and gazed after her; then followed a few paces and watched again, until she disappeared under a wide portico. Heaving a sigh of relief he turned back toward the arbor.

"I want no eavesdropping," he muttered; "and that minx might listen if she had time. She is no more a French maid than I am; she forgot her monsieur just now. But a sham maid is very appropriate for a sham maiden; now for Alice;" and he entered the arbor.



Had Mr. Percy been able to follow the retreating footsteps of the objectionable French maid, however, he might have found occasion to change his opinion of her lack of time for eavesdropping, and there was excellent opportunity for its practice about the shrubbery-surrounded arbor.

* * * * *

Meantime Ellen Arthur, having reluctantly bidden her "blonde demi-god" a last good-night, sought her chamber, swelling with satisfaction, and feeling somewhat hungry. Passing the door of her sister-in-law's rooms, she encountered Sarah, the romantic housemaid, who was just entering, bearing wine and a tiny glass. Glancing within, she encountered the gaze of Cora, who stood holding in her hand some black lace drapery.

"Horribly late, isn't it?" yawned that lady, nodding good-naturedly. "Set down the wine, Sarah, and then you may go. I'm so dismally slumbersome that if I keep you to help me, I shall fall asleep on your hands. Have some wine, Ellen?"

"No, thanks," said the spinster. "If you don't want Sarah, she may bring me up a nice lunch as soon as possible. I won't detain you any longer; good-night."

And Miss Arthur, who had meditated entering and giving Cora the benefit of some of her maiden dreams and fancies, marched away, a trifle offended at the manner in which her sleepy sister-in-law had anticipated and warded off the interview. Cora's good-night floated after her as she sailed down the corridor. Then she heard the door closed and the bolt shot into the socket. A little later, the door opened noiselessly, and a female figure glided down the dark stairways out into the night, and toward the arbor.

"Celine shall undo my hair," Miss Arthur thought, "and I'll have her try that new set of braids and puffs, if it is late. I don't feel as if I could sleep."

But Celine was not dutifully waiting in her mistress's dressing-room.

Sarah appeared with the lunch, and offered her services, but was summarily dismissed, for Miss Arthur did not deem it wise to initiate the house servants into the fearful and wonderful mysteries of her toilet. Therefore, she lunched in solitude and disgust, but heartily, notwithstanding, having just put off her very elaborate, but rather uncomfortable evening dress and donned a silken gown, acting as her own maid.

Then she fidgeted herself into a most horrible temper, and sat deliberately down before the grate in a capacious dressing-chair, determined to wait until the girl came, and deliver a most severe and stately reprimand, the exact words of which she had already determined upon.

The lady, sitting thus with her feet on the fender, her hands comfortably clasping the big arms of the dressing chair, and her head lolling rather ungracefully over its back, fell into slumber.

* * * * *

If Mrs. John Arthur had made a midnight appointment with Lucifer, she would have fortified herself for the encounter by making a "stunning" toilet. It was one of her fixed principles—she had fixed principles—never to permit friend or foe of the male persuasion to gaze upon her charms when they would show at a disadvantage. So when she entered the arbor, which was suffused with a soft moonlight glow from a heavily-shaded lamp, for the arbor stood among dense shrubbery, and but for this lamp would have been in Egyptian darkness, she was indeed a personification of loveliness.

Ungracious as was his mood, Percy would not have been a beauty-adoring mortal if he had not paid involuntary tribute to the charms of the woman who was his bitterest foe. Gazing down upon her a moment, he said in his soft legato:

"I am almost angry at you for being so beautiful, after having taken yourself to other lovers, Ma belle."

The woman smiled triumphantly, as she threw herself into an easy chair, and said in her softest, sweetest tone: "And did you expect me to go mourning for you all these years, sir?"

"I don't think you were ever the woman to do that;" dropping lazily into a rustic seat near her. "May I smoke?"

Cora nodded.

"Are you sure we are quite safe here?" looking about him. "Somehow, I am suspicious of that sharp French maid."

"Quite sure," nodding again. "Mr. Arthur was in bed before I came out; Miss Arthur was ordering up a lunch to her room, and the French maid must needs be in attendance for an hour or more; and besides, I know she is not at all dangerous. None of the other servants ever have occasion to come here, and most of them are in bed by now."

"So your charming sister-in-law eats, does she? After parting from me, too; ugh!"

"Eats? I should think so," laughing softly; "in her own room, when her stays are not too tight."

"Spare me!"

He held up both hands in mock deprecation; then, dropping his bantering tone, said, as he puffed at his cigar:

"But now to business. You did not come out here in such bewitching toilet to tell me that my charmer eats?"

"Hardly," with a pretty shrug.

"For what, then?"

"To come to an understanding with you," coolly.

"As how?" in the same tone.

"As to our future standing with each other."

"I thought that was settled to-day?"

"Did you? I don't think it was settled."

"Well, what remains, fair Alice?"

"Will you drop that name?"

"For the present, yes; but with reluctance."

"Oh, certainly!" bitterly. "Now, what are we to be henceforth?"

"Friends, of course," knocking the ashes off his cigar.

"You and I may be allies; we can never be friends," she said, scornfully.

"Don't trouble yourself to be insulting, Mrs.—a—Arthur."

"Then don't make me remember how I have hated you!"

"Have you really hated me? How singular."

"Very!" sarcastically; then: "If you don't drop that disagreeable tone we shall quarrel. I wish to know what you want with Ellen Arthur."

"Shade of my grandmother! If you don't drop that disagreeable name, I shall expire. Haven't I had enough of her for one day? Alice, I know revenge is sweet, but spare me."

"Bother! I must talk about her, else how can we settle anything? Do you suppose I am going to allow that sweet girl to be deceived?" This with mock indignation.

"Oh, no; certainly not! Well, if I must, I must. First, then—"

"First, what position do you intend to take towards me?"

"That depends upon yourself."

"On conditions?"

"On conditions."

"Name them."

"I am to be received as an honored guest whenever I shall choose to visit Oakley."

"Well."

"Next, you are to do all in your power to further my suit with Miss—you know."

"That's an easy task."

"Lastly, you are to promise me not, now or at any future time, to declare to any one aught you may know that might be to my disadvantage."

"That is to say, I am not to tell Ellen Arthur, or others, that you have two wives—"

"Softly; one, my dear, one. Mrs. Percy Jordan, number one, is dead; you alone are left. You see, Alice, my dear, the thing is reversed. You have two husbands now, while I—"

"Will have two wives as soon as you can get them!"

"Just so."

"And what guarantee have I that you will not betray me to Mr. Arthur?"

"The very best in the world; mutual interest."

Cora pondered. "I don't see but that you are right," she said, at last. "It certainly will not be to your interest to attempt to annoy me now, but how long is this truce to last?" looking at him keenly.

Percy smoked away in tranquil silence.

"Of course, I understand what you mean by a marriage with Miss Arthur," scornfully. "How long will it take you to squander her dollars? And after that, what will you do?"

"Question for question, fair cross examiner; how long do you intend remaining so quietly here, the bond slave of this idiotic old man? And what will you do when this play is played out?"

"Because I ran away from a profligate young husband, who had decoyed me into an illegal marriage—illegal for me, but sufficiently binding to have put you in the penitentiary for a bi—"

"Don't say it, my dear; don't. It's an ugly word, and, after all, are we not both in the same boat?"

"No," angrily. "Do you think I have been so poorly schooled during these years that you can make me think now that you have any hold upon me? Bah! your case is but a flimsy one. When you deceived me into a marriage with you, you had already another wife. You hid me away in a suburban box of a cottage, fancying I would be content, like a bird in a gilded cage. You never dreamed that meek little I would follow you, and find out from the woman's own lips that she had a prior claim upon you!"

"Candidly, I didn't credit you with so much pluck," said Percy, coolly.

"No! and when I charged you with your perfidy, and wept and upbraided you, and then became pacified when you told me that every proof of your marriage with that other was in your control, you did not dream that I would feign submission until I had gained possession of the proofs of both your marriages, and then run away?"

"And succeed in baffling my search for ten long years," supplemented he, grandiloquently. "No, fair dame, I did not."

"Your search, indeed! It was not a very eager one."

"Well, in truth it was not. The fact is, your beauty entrapped me into that very foolish marriage; but I was a trifle weary of blonde loveliness in tears, etc., so I didn't get out the entire police force, you see."

"And you wouldn't have found me if you had."

"Indeed! why not?"

"Because, if it will afford you any satisfaction to know at this late stage of the game, I sailed for Europe the very day I quitted your house."

"No!" opening his eyes in genuine astonishment. "Had it all cut and dried? Well, I like that! Why, little woman, if you had only developed one half the pluck latent in you, before you flitted, I would never have given you 'just cause,' etc., for leaving me."

The woman smiled triumphantly, but made no other answer.

"Well, what next? I am really becoming interested in your career."

"Sorry I can't gratify your curiosity. My career has been a very pleasant one—seeing the world; generally prosperous. And this brings me back to the starting point: why should you think, because I left you with good cause, ten years ago, that I must necessarily forsake, sooner or later, a husband who is kindness itself, and who leaves no wish of mine ungratified?"

"First reason," checking them off on his fingers: "Because you don't love this old man, and love is the only bond that such women as you will not break."

"Thanks!" ironically, bending her head.

"Second, because a dull country house, be it ever so elegant, will not long satisfy you as an abiding place. I have not forgotten your girlish taste for pomp, pageant and all manner of excitement; a taste that has doubtless become fully developed by now. Third, because you have, at this present moment, a lover whom you prefer above all others, and to whom you will flee sooner or later."

"Perhaps you can substantiate that statement," sneered Cora.

"Well, not exactly; but I know women. My dear, say what you please to me, but don't expect to be believed if you will insist upon doing the devoted wife."

"I insist upon nothing," said Cora, rising, "and I have not time for many more words. Let us come to the point at once: With my life, after I left you, you have nothing to do; you know nothing of it now, and you will learn no more from me. Of you, I know this much. I know that you clung, after your fashion, to the skirts of your unfortunate wife, spending her income and making her life miserable. I know that six years ago you inherited a fortune from a distant relative. I know that from that time you utterly neglected your wife, who had been an invalid for years; and that soon after she died, heart-broken and alone."

Percy turned upon her, and scrutinized her face keenly; then, coming close to her, said, meaningly: "And then I wonder that you did not come back to me."

For a moment the woman seemed confused, and off her guard. But she had not sought an interview with this man without fully reviewing her ground.

"I had ceased to care for you," she said, lifting her unflinching eyes to his face; "and I did not need your money. Come, enough of the past; you have squandered your fortune, and now you want another. You want to put yourself still more into my power by marrying a third wife—so be it; I consent."

"Not so fast. You are first to promise me to place in my hands, on my 'marriage morn,' those unpleasant little documents which you hold against me. In return for which you will receive a sum of money, the amount of said sum to be hereafter arranged. Then we go our separate ways."

"And if I refuse?"

"Then, painful as it is, I must do my duty. You are to give me your answer when I return to Bellair; no time for tricks, mind. If the answer is no, then I interview Mr. John Arthur."

"And you return?—"

"The day after to-morrow."

"Then you shall have my answer. Until then—"

She swept him a stately courtesy, which he returned with a most elaborate bow.

Without another word from either, they separated; she gliding swiftly and silently toward the house, he going once more in the direction of Bellair village.

* * * * *

How long she had slept it never afterward occurred to Miss Arthur to inquire. Something recalled her from the land of visions, and starting up in her chair she saw Celine, standing demurely before her, her face wreathed in smiles, and no signs of any uncanny adventure lingering about her.

Beholding her safe and sound Miss Arthur began to pour out upon the luckless head of Celine, the vials of wrath prepared for her benefit.

The girl listened with a face indicative of some secret source of amusement. Noting her look of evident unconcern, and the laughter she seemed vainly striving to keep under, Miss Arthur brought her tirade to an abrupt termination, and demanded to know what Miss Celine Leroque saw, in her appearance, that was so very ludicrous.

Whereupon Miss Celine Leroque dropped upon a hassock, at the feet of her irate mistress, and laughed outright—actually laughed unreservedly, in the presence and despite the rage of the ancient maiden!



Then observing that she was preparing another burst of wrath, the girl appeared to be struggling for composure, and vainly endeavoring to articulate something, of which Miss Arthur could only catch the name, "Mr. Percy." Thereupon she fairly bounced out of her chair, demanding to know "what on earth" Mr. Percy had to do with her maid's reprehensible conduct.

"Oh, mademoiselle, everything!" gasped Celine. "Only let me explain, and mademoiselle will laugh, too. Oh, Mon dieu, Mon dieu!"

Calming herself by a violent effort, Celine told her story, and its magic dispelled the wrath of her much neglected, sorely aggrieved mistress. Such a pretty little story it was, interspersed with sly looks, knowing nods, and rippling bursts of laughter. Listened to with, first, disdainful silence; then, growing interest; last, spasmodic giggles, apropos ejaculations, and much blushing and maidenly confusion.

"You see, mademoiselle, after you had gone down, I went to my room, to take just a few little stitches upon some of my poor garments, that I must wear to-morrow. I don't know how it was, but I sat on my bedside thinking, after it was done, and fell off asleep."

"Off the bed?"

"Oh! no, no, mademoiselle; off into sleep, I mean. When I awoke I was anxious to know how much time I had slept away, and came down to your apartments. You were still in the drawing-room, and I passed on to the kitchen, surprised to find that it was very late. 'I will hasten,' I thought, 'and can so go to the village, and telegraph my sister before my mistress rings for me;' for I didn't think," with a sly look, "that you would be at liberty very early in the evening. The—what you name him?—a—operateur, was out, and I had to wait a little time. Coming back so late, I became afraid of the woods, and took the path along the highway. Entering at the front and coming up the avenue, I was about to pass around by the east walk to the side entrance when,—" stifling a laugh.



"Well?" impatiently.

"When the front door opened and I, standing in the shadow, saw the light fall upon the face and figure of Monsieur Percy."

"Yes; go on."

"I mention this, mademoiselle, only to show you how I know so positively that it was monsieur who—oh! oh!" laughing again softly.

"Who?" with increased impatience; "who did what, girl?" eyeing her suspiciously.

Celine composed herself and continued: "Seeing monsieur, I stopped, for I did not wish him to discover me abroad so late. So I stood in the thick shade until he should have passed. He came slowly toward me and, just about four paces from my hiding-place, paused, turned and looked, back at the house. I could see him gazing toward the upper windows, and presently I saw your shadow upon the blind as you entered your dressing-room. The light shone out from your window, too; and after looking for a while, I heard him murmur to himself: 'That must be her window; I believe I am bewitched, for I can't bear to lose its light,' and then—"

"Stop laughing, you ridiculous girl! And what then?"

"And then, mademoiselle, he began walking up and down within sight of your window—"

"Ah!" rapturously.

"Oui; and I—oh, mademoiselle, he was in the very path that I must take to approach the side entrance. And he walked and walked, and I waited and waited. Then I thought I would try getting around by the other way, and creep up carefully from the terrace. So I crept along to the other side, back of the arbor, and up the terrace, and managed to reach the entrance unseen. Mon Dieu, mademoiselle, the door was locked! I was shut out! What was I to do then? I sat me down in the shadow of the portico and waited once more. After a terribly long time I could see that he was not moving up and down. I peeped cautiously, and he seemed to be departing. Then I came out stealthy as a cat, and found that he was going away, and the reason—"

"The reason?"

"Oui, mademoiselle; the light in your room had disappeared."

"Disappeared!"

"Oui, mademoiselle. Then I bethought me there might yet be a chance. I came up to the front entrance and tried the door. It was not locked. My heart leaped for joy. I blessed the carelessness of the servants, and stole cautiously in. I came to this room. All was dark; but the coals there showed me your figure in the chair. I could not mistake the graceful outlines of mademoiselle. I entered very quietly, relighted your lamp—some little breeze must have flared it out while you slept. I was looking at you, and wondering what you would say if you knew how nearly crazy with love you had driven that stately, handsome Monsieur Percy, when you awoke."

It is needless to say that, long before Celine had finished her recital, her mistress was in the best of humors. Indeed, Celine's volubly uttered, intensely flattering, highly probable recital, had an exhilarating effect upon her; so much so, that the lady found sleep now quite impossible. So poor Celine was doomed, after all, to build the new braids and puffs into a wonderful edifice upon the head of Miss Arthur, and to repeat over and again the sweet story of "how he loved her."

The "wee sma'" hours were beginning to lengthen once more when Celine was released from duty, and went wearily up to her room; wearily, yet with undimmed eyes, and the mischievous dimples still lurking about the corners of her mouth.

She muttered: "Bah! it is better than sleep, after all; if only the others were as easily duped as she!"

By which words, a listener might have been led to suppose that Celine Leroque had been practising deception upon some confiding individual.



CHAPTER XVII.

GATHERING CLUES.

Claire had been absent all the morning, had gone to make some call; at least she had said to Olive, at breakfast, "I think I will take the ponies, Olive, and drive into the city this morning. It is nice out of doors, and I have made no calls since I came here."

Olive Girard sat alone in her cosy drawing-room. She had been reading, but the book was somehow not in tune with her mind or mood. She had allowed it to fall at her feet, where it lay, half opened, while she drifted away from the present in sorrowful reverie. Lifting her eyes, she saw a cab drive away from the villa gate, and a form hurrying along the marble pathway. Springing up, Olive herself threw open the door, and clasped her arms about—Miss Arthur's French maid! who returned the caress with much enthusiasm.

"Madeline, my dear child, how glad I am to see you!"

"Even in this disguise?" laughed the girl.

"Even in blue glasses, and that horrid jacket," smiled Olive. "What an ugly thing it is. Come and take it off, ma belle; do," leading the way up the stairs.

"I come, autocrat, and I shall much enjoy getting out of this head-gear," shaking her bewigged head. Then abruptly, "Where's Claire?"

"Out for a drive and some calls," without looking back. "How surprised and glad she will be to see you. Now, come in and make a lady of yourself once more." She led the way into Madeline's room. "Are you tired, dear?"

"Not at all."

"Then come into my boudoir when you are dressed, and we will have a cosy chat while waiting for Claire."

"I won't be long," responded the girl. "I have a good many things to say to you, which had better be said before Claire comes."

"Very well; I await your ladyship," and Olive closed the door, leaving Miss Arthur's maid alone.

"I thought so," muttered she, tearing off the blue glasses; "she has gone to meet Edward Percy. Poor dupe! it is indeed time to act."

She discarded the ill-fitting jacket, flung away the ugly black wig, and, in a very few moments, stood arrayed in a pretty, neatly fitting gown, glowing and lovely,—Madeline Payne once more.

"I wonder if I shall see or hear of him," she whispered to herself as she crossed to Olive's boudoir. "Oh, if I could! It would be one ray of sunlight only to clasp his hand!"

Olive had been informed of all that Madeline herself knew, of the doings at Bellair, at the time when the girl went down, disguised as Celine Leroque. Now, therefore, Madeline lost no time in making Olive acquainted with, at least a part of, the events that had transpired during her sojourn in the Oakley mansion, in the capacity of maid. Of Edward Percy she said not a word, for reasons of her own, wishing to keep all knowledge of him from Olive for the present.

"You see, I was just in time, Olive," she supplemented, when Mrs. Girard had expressed her astonishment at the startling revelations of the past four weeks. "I had not an hour to lose in setting my snare for these plotters. They little dream what is in store for them. Poor Kitty! I feel like a wretch when I think of the advantage I took of her, by making her poor dead body a weapon, as one might say, against a villain whom she would never have lifted a finger to injure in her life. But I could see no other way. Do you know, Olive, they are going to erect a stone over her, bearing my name?"

Olive looked up in surprise. "No! is it possible?"

"Yes, quite. I fancy John Arthur thinks he will feel more thoroughly assured of my demise, when he can see my name on a marble slab."

"Now, tell me what especial purpose brought you up to town to-day."

Madeline moved restlessly in her chair. "A medley," she said, laughing uneasily. "A woman's reason; things being quiet, I wanted recreation, and to tell you of my success thus far. Then, a detective's reason; to get from you some information bearing upon your own affairs, as connected with Lucian Davlin. Then I want to see Dr. Vaughan, in his professional capacity. But mind, Olive, not a word to him of my discoveries just yet."

"Certainly not, if you do not wish it."

And this was all the mention made by either of Clarence Vaughan.

"You see," began Madeline, after a brief silence, "Mrs. John Arthur and her quondam brother, hold occasional private interviews. As they generally prove interesting, I make it a point to be present whenever possible. Now, from some chance words dropped at different times, I have been led to think that if I were more fully informed in regard to this Percy, I might find the missing link. Indeed, I may tell you I have found a clue, just the shadow of something that, if I could develop it, might prove of wonderful value to both of us."

"Oh! if you could find out anything that would throw light upon this dark wrong they have done Philip, these men—"

"Well, Olive, I think we may hope. Now, may I begin to cross-question you?"

Olive smiled sadly. "Go on, my little lawyer."

"First, then, were you personally acquainted with this Percy?"

"No."

"You have seen him?"

"At the trial; yes."

"Describe him."

"A blonde man, handsome, some would call him, with a soft, languid voice. I did not observe further."

"Would you know him if you saw him again?"

"Certainly. His was a rather uncommon face, and then the association—"

"Just so," interrupting her; "and would he know you?"

"I think not. I was heavily veiled, by Philip's order."

"Now, try to recall all that Philip has told you of this man."

"They were college students together. Philip said that Percy was indolent and vain, and too fond of female society of any sort or grade. He made wonderful progress in such studies as he chose to apply himself to, and, had he been less of a sybarite, might have obtained high rank as a scholar. But he was erratic, full of queer conceits, and never made himself popular with either professors or students."

"Social standing not good, eh? Now, as to his finances."

Olive looked somewhat surprised at this question, but replied: "His parents were not well to do, but he was a favorite with a rich old uncle, who paid his college expenses and made him a liberal allowance. However, he fell into disgrace just before his class graduated, and his uncle cast him off. He never took his degree."

"What was the occasion of his disgrace?"

"Some scandalous affair with a mechanic's daughter; the particulars I did not learn."

"Of course not. They are of no consequence. This happened how long ago?"

Olive mused. "Philip is now thirty-three; this was twelve years ago."

"Good! Did he hear of Mr. Percy after that?"

"Yes; in less than a year, he married a wealthy woman, ten years his senior, and a widow, so it was reported. Percy, it is said, denied this marriage, and continued to live and go and come, like a bachelor. If the marriage ever occurred, it was kept, for some reason, very much under the rose. Be this as it may, Percy was always provided with money from some source. He used to gamble sometimes, but was not an habitual gamester. Philip said he was too much of a sybarite and ladies' man to be wedded to such sports."

"Yet he played with Lucian Davlin, and lost heavily?"

"True."

"Well, is this all you have to tell of Mr. Percy?"

"Not quite. About a year before the catastrophe of the hunting party, the uncle who had cared for him during his college career, died. Percy inherited his wealth, the old man, after all, making his will in favor of his graceless nephew." Olive paused for a moment, then added, "I believe that is all I can tell you of this man. I have not seen or heard of him since poor Philip was sent to prison."

Madeline sat gazing abstractedly into the grate fire, her hands clasped in her lap, working restlessly, as was their habit, when she was thinking deeply. Suddenly a sharp exclamation broke from her lips, and Olive turned towards her a look of surprised inquiry. But Madeline was clasping and unclasping her hands nervously, with eyelashes lowered, and brow knitted in a frown.

"Olive," she said, after a long cogitation, "you have put into my hands another thread, a very valuable one. Don't ask me any questions now; I want to get my ideas in shape."

Olive's face wore an anxious look, but she had learned the lesson of patient waiting, so she quietly acquiesced, and then a long silence fell between them.

Madeline resumed the conversation, or rather recommenced it. She made no further mention of that part of the subject nearest the heart of Olive Girard. She made inquiries as to affairs and recent events at the village, talked of Claire, and finally said:

"Olive, I want you to go out with me during the day, and perhaps we had better go early. I must return to Bellair by to-morrow morning's train, you know."

"Yes; and I am sorry that you stay with us such a very short time. Where do you intend going, Madeline?"

"To a detective,—that is, if you will repeat your generous offer, which I so cavalierly declined not long ago, to be my banker for an indefinite time."

"Gladly, dear child; now you are beginning to be sensible. But the detective,—may I venture to inquire?" with assumed hesitation.

"You may," laughed Madeline. "And don't give me credit for all the ingenuity. True, I have racked my poor feminine brain and feminine instinct, coupled with the knowledge obtained by some keen experience with Treachery, Despair, and Hate. These grim but very efficient instructors have aided me materially, simple, inexperienced girl as I was so recently—or so long ago, as it seems to me. And good old Aunt Hagar, who has been in this woful world many years—years full of vicissitudes and sharp life-lessons—is my counsellor and adviser. She aids me greatly with her shrewdness, and knowledge of the world and the folk in it. So we have discussed this point together and concluded that, in order to leave no loopholes open in our nice little net, we had better have the movements of Mr. Lucian Davlin closely watched while he is in the city."

"To discover—"

"Who he calls upon, and what manner of man he will choose to assume the role of 'physician from Europe,' etc. Without putting the full facts of the case into the hands of the officer, we will arrange to know all about the man who will help Davlin carry out their last scheme. No train shall leave the city on which he would, by any possibility, set out for Bellair accompanied by this sham physician, without the knowledge of our man, or men, of skill. All discoveries made are to be reported, through you, to Mademoiselle Celine Leroque, who will receive said reports in propria persone, at the Bellair post-office. Then I must proffer a request, that Doctor Vaughan will hold himself in readiness to come to Oakley, should I find it necessary to summon him, accompanied by another physician, or not, as shall be hereafter decided."

"I don't just see how all this is to end, but these two steps appear to me to be in the right direction. I am ready to undertake your commissions, and to act as your banker to the fullest extent of your needs."

After a few more words they decided that, as Claire did not return, and time was precious, they would order a carriage immediately after luncheon, and pay a visit to the detective forthwith. Accordingly, half an hour earlier than usual, a light repast was served, and sparingly partaken of. Then having left a message for Miss Keith, who was momentarily expected, the two friends drove into the city.



CHAPTER XVIII.

THE HAND OF FRIENDSHIP WIELDS THE SURGEON'S KNIFE.

Returning two hours later, they found Claire impatiently waiting their arrival, radiantly beautiful, and overflowing with joy at sight of her beloved Madeline.

"You delightfully horrible girl!" she exclaimed, after greetings had been exchanged, and they had all seated themselves in the drawing-room. "To think that you are growing more lovely every day, and that you go and hide all your beauty under an old fright of a wig, nasty blue spectacles, and deformities of jackets! I declare, it's too bad! And then to wait on an old spinster who wears no end of false hair, and false teeth, and false—"

"Puzzled already. So much for not being a lady's maid; Now, I can enumerate every 'falsehood' assumed by that lady."

Then Madeline gave a ludicrous description of Miss Arthur and her peculiarities, causing even grave Olive to laugh heartily, and Claire to exclaim that she should watch the advertisements, and try playing ladies' maid herself.

Madeline once more recounted, in brief, the state of affairs now existing at Oakley, or as much as she had told Olive, during which recital impulsive Claire kept up a running fire of comments, indicative of surprise, indignation, disgust, and very one-sided interest.

"I never heard of such a nest of vultures," she exclaimed, excitedly, when Madeline had completed her story. "Why, it's worse than a chapter out of a French drama. Goodness gracious, Madeline Payne, I only wish I could help you deal out justice to these wretches! Where is my fairy godmother now, that she don't come and convert me into a six-foot brother, to take some of this burden out of your little weak hands?"

"Not so weak as you may think, you little warrior. These hands," holding them up to view, "have a very strong cause, let me tell you—and you think you would like to help me?" laughing oddly.

"Wouldn't I!" with a fierce nod that made her two companions laugh again.

The afternoon was wearing away, and Madeline began to grow restless, at finding no opportunity for saying a word in private to Claire. At last fortune favored her. Olive, seeing her gardener digging about a little summer-house, which was a favorite retreat on a warm afternoon, bethought herself of a plan for adding to its comfort, by laying down certain vines, etcetera, for next season's growing. So she bade the girls note how she should have improved her arbor by another season, and hurried out to begin an argument, that from previous experience she knew would be hotly contested.



This was Madeline's opportunity. And as soon as Olive was out of hearing, she turned to Claire saying:

"Claire, I have not told you, nor Olive, all that I have discovered. For reasons, which you will understand later, I have thought it best to make them known to you first. We must invent some excuse for absenting ourselves from the parlor for a while."

Claire looked grave and somewhat startled for an instant, but recovering her composure she said, simply: "I am at your disposal, dear."

"I think I had better go to my room and lie down," meaningly. "Tell Olive, when she comes in, that I feel fatigued, and have gone to my room to rest. Then you had better plead letters to write, and follow me. Can you manage it?"

"Easily," smiled Claire. "Why, Bonnie, Aileen, this becomes more and more mysterious and interesting."

"Wait before you pass judgment; now I am gone."

Madeline quitted the drawing-room and sauntered leisurely up-stairs.

When Olive reappeared, Claire carried out the little programme, as arranged, and hastened to join Madeline, musing as she went:

"What could have induced that odd darling to confide in stupid little me, while she leaves wise, thoughtful Olive in the dark?"

Madeline was pacing the floor when Claire entered the room. She motioned her to a chair, and pushed the bolt in the door, thus rendering intrusion impossible.

"What can you be thinking of, Madeline, with that gloomy face?" exclaimed Claire, nestling into an easy chair as she spoke.

"I am thinking, Claire," replied Madeline, gazing down at her sadly, "of the first time I ever saw your sister, and of the errand on which she came to me. How full of hope I was that morning! How radiant the day seemed, and how confident I was of happiness to come; as confident as you are to-day, Claire, darling."

There was something in Madeline's tone that sounded almost like pity, as she uttered these last words. Claire started and colored, but still was silent.

"Olive did a brave, generous deed, but at that time I almost hated her for it," musingly.

"Oh, no, Madeline," interposed Claire, "you don't mean just that, I am sure. You never really hated our noble, unhappy Olive."

"I felt very wicked, I assure you," smiling faintly. Then, abruptly: "How should you have felt, similarly placed?"

"I?" wonderingly; "mercy! I can't tell."

"Claire, think," in a tone almost of entreaty. "I want to know—I must know."

"You must know? Why, Madeline?"

"Because—because I want to find out what is in you; how strong you are."

Claire looked more and more mystified. "State your case, then," she said, quietly. "I will try and analyze myself."

"Good; now, Claire Keith, suppose that you love some man very much, and you trust him without knowing why, for no other reason than that you love him. When you are happiest, because you have but just parted from your lover—"

Claire started and colored a little.

"When you are thinking of the time, not far away, when you shall not part from him any more—suppose that just then I, a friend whom you have loved, come to you and say: 'This hero of yours is false; he is a two-faced villain; he has deceived you; he is not honorable; he will betray you if he can.' What would you answer me?"

Claire lifted her head proudly. "I would make you take back every word you had uttered, or prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt!"

"And if I proved it?"

"Then I would thank you; and hate myself for having been deceived, and him for having deceived me."

"Would you grieve for him, Claire?"

Quick as thought came the answer:

"Grieve for him! No; I could no more love a liar and a villain than I could caress a viper! I tell you, Madeline, I understand your feelings when you say that you hate Lucian Davlin," shuddering.

"And you would not hate me also for rudely undeceiving you?"

"Hate my best friend; my benefactor? No!"

"I am thankful!"

"But, Madeline, what does all this mean? Is this what you wanted to say to me? What can my feelings have to do with your case?"

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse