"Claire,"—Madeline's face was very sad again—"this case is our case."
"Yes, ours; Olive's, yours, mine. And now I am going to test your strength."
Claire did not look very strong just then.
"You saw Edward Percy to-day."
Claire Keith sprang to her feet. "How do you know that? And what has he to do with the case?"
"I know it because we, Mr. Percy and myself, came to this city by the same train, and I could easily surmise that his business here was with you."
"Ah!" sadly; "you are almost angry with me now. But listen, Claire. Are you perfectly familiar with all the facts connected with poor Philip Girard's sad disgrace?"
"I think so," coldly.
"You know that he was convicted upon the testimony of Lucian Davlin and another?"
"Do you recall the name of the man who was wounded, so said the jury, by Mr. Girard?"
Up sprang Claire, her eyes blazing. "Madeline," she cried, "I see what you are coming at. You have got into your head the ridiculous idea that this man Percy and Edward Percy are the same. It is absurd!"
"Because—because it is!" Then, as if the matter were quite settled, "why, he must have been in Europe at the time."
"Claire, you are getting angry with me, and I have a long story to tell you. But there is an easy way to settle this matter. Are you willing to let me take the picture you have of Edward Percy, and accompany me into Olive's presence while I ask her if she ever saw the original?"
Nothing else could have so effectually quenched Claire's wrath. She saw that Madeline had some strong reason for her strange words. Sitting down with paling cheeks and trembling limbs, she thought. Then looking across at Madeline, she said, wearily:
"I can't understand you at all, Madeline. It never once occurred to me to connect the man who brought all that trouble upon poor Philip with my Edward Percy. It does not seem possible that they could be the same. I had supposed the other Percy to be a man like—like Davlin."
"My dear, did you ever see Davlin?"
"And you have fancied him a sort of handsome horse jockey, and this Percy one of the same brotherhood?"
"Perhaps;" smiling a little.
"Claire, Lucian Davlin is an Apollo in person, a courtier in manner, and a Mephistopheles at heart. And Percy is an abridgement of Davlin."
"I can't see," said Claire, rather frostily, "even if Edward Percy is the man who was wounded by some unknown person five years ago, why he must of necessity be a villain and a deceiver. It would be very, very unpleasant, of course, to find that such were the case. But I could not hate Edward Percy for that, even if the fact must separate us."
"Claire, Edward Percy is not only the man who helped send your sister's husband to prison, but he is a villain doubly perjured; a deceiver, a betrayer. If justice ever gets her due he will end his days in the penitentiary."
Then, seeing that Claire was about to speak: "Let me finish; now you shall have your proof."
She recounted all there was to tell, from the day when Claire showed her the picture and she distrusted the face, to the present moment.
Claire Keith listened in immovable silence; not a muscle quivered. For many minutes after Madeline had finished her recital, she sat staring straight before her, like a statue. At length she arose and crossed to the door, drew back the bolt with a steady hand, put up a warning finger, and said, in a voice like frozen silver: "Wait;" then disappeared.
Madeline scarcely had time to wonder what she meant, before Claire was back, standing before her, calm and cold as an iceberg. She held in her hand the picture of Edward Percy, with the face turned away, and this she extended to Madeline.
"It is best that we make no mistakes," she said, quietly; "go show that to Olive. Don't tell her how it came into your possession; ask her if it is he. Then come back to me."
"Shall I tell her—" began Madeline.
"Tell her nothing until you have brought me back the picture."
She pushed her toward the door.
Madeline walked down-stairs, sorely puzzled, but thinking fast. "She fights these facts bravely," she muttered. "Does she doubt, I wonder?"
Olive was sitting before the window, watching the movements of John, the gardener, when Madeline entered the parlor. Going straight to her, she placed the picture in her hand, and said:
"Do you know that face?"
Olive Girard gave a startled cry.
"Madeline, how did you come by this?"
"No matter," calmly; "do you know the picture?"
"Who is he?"
"The man who sent my husband to prison—Percy."
Madeline took the picture from her hand. "Are you sure?"
"I could swear to the face after these five years."
"Thank you, Olive. Now be patient; I must go back to my room for a little while. Don't ask me any questions yet. When I come down I will tell you how I obtained this, and why I have talked to you so much of this man."
Madeline walked out of the room, leaving Olive staring after her in bewilderment.
Claire was sitting in the same attitude as when she left her. "Well?" she said, raising her eyes.
"She recognized it immediately. She would swear that it is the man who sent her husband to prison."
"Thank you, dear."
Claire took the picture from her hands, and without once glancing at it, she bent forward and dropped it into the grate.
Madeline threw herself on her knees at the girl's side. "Oh, Claire, Claire! I have made you miserable; forgive me."
"What for? You have done me a great service. Do you think I want that man's love?"
"I loved an ideal; that ideal, see;" pointing to the grate. "Do you think I shall cry after a pinch of ashes?" looking her full in the face. Then, with a shrug of annoyance. "You have roused poor Olive's curiosity; she must hear of this miserable discovery of ours, or yours—bah," stamping her foot angrily, "my pride is hurt more than my heart!"
"Your pride need not suffer more than it does already, Claire. You have seen me humbled to the dust; see me so still; and surely it won't be so very bitter to think that poor Madeline knows that your sunny life has suffered one little shadow. I will tell Olive all I know of Edward Percy, save that you have ever seen him. The knowledge that he has crossed your path can in no way benefit her, or aid us in unmasking him. Evidently, he does not know that you are in any way connected with the fortunes of Philip Girard. Let this rest between us. If this plan suits you, perhaps I had better go and tell my story to Olive. I have twice postponed a revelation to-day."
"The plan does suit me. Many, many thanks, dear Madeline," said Claire, calmly and gently. "And now, as I must, of course, be supposed to first hear this story after it has been told to Olive, or at that time, I would prefer being present when you enlighten her. Let us dress for dinner, go down together, and—I leave the rest to your tact."
Madeline could readily comprehend that it would be easier for Claire to sit, with Olive, a listener, than to wait and hear the story from the lips of her sister. If it were left to Olive to tell, Claire's face might betray her heart, perhaps. But now, hearing it from Madeline, and with Olive, whose surprise and dismay at the revelation would quite effectually cover up any signs of emotion Claire might manifest, the thing did not appear so difficult.
Madeline signified her approval, and they separated to dress for dinner.
Claire Keith made her toilet with swift, firm fingers, and all the while she was thinking fiercely, scornfully. She was not stunned by the blow that had stricken her love and her pride. Rather, it seemed, she was quickened into unusual activity and clearness of thought.
After a time, perhaps, she would feel more the sadness, the cruelty, of the hurt; now she felt the outrage to her pride, and a fierce self-scorn that she could have ever loved a man so base. She hated Edward Percy for having deceived her, and equally she despised herself for having been thus deceived by this specious flatterer.
"You little fool!" she scoffed at her image reflected back from her mirror. "You are a very idiot among idiots! I wonder where are all your high notions now. So," giving her hair an angry jerk, "you perched yourself aloft on a pinnacle, didn't you? You looked down upon all your sisterhood who were deceived, or betrayed, or sorrowing; and you wondered how women could be so weak; how they could be deluded by base men. You looked upon poor dead Kitty, and wondered what was the flaw in her intellect that made her the slave of a gambler and a villain. You argued that only an unsophisticated school girl could be deceived as was poor Madeline. Oh, you have been very proud, and very high has been your standard of manly worth, Miss Claire Keith! So high that the man who has occupied it might easily slip from that pedestal to—Haman's gallows!"
At this point in her tirade, something suspiciously like a sob arose in her throat, and checked her utterance. But it did not retard her activity, and in a much shorter time than she usually spent upon an evening toilet, Miss Keith stood, accoutered and defiantly calm, at Madeline's door.
A DUAL RENUNCIATION.
Madeline Payne had lingered over her toilet, pondering the incomprehensible manner of Claire Keith. She now stood before her mirror, brush in hand, thinking.
"Not ready yet?"
If Madeline could believe her eyes, Claire was actually smiling!
"I thought you would be waiting for me," continued Claire, composedly, pulling a big chair forward, and sitting down where she could look full in Madeline's face. "But it is just as well; there is something that I want to say, before we go down. Why don't you go on with your hair?"
Madeline's hand, brush and all, had dropped to her side, and she was silently staring at her friend. Without a word she resumed her employment, looking more at Claire than at her own reflected image.
"You guessed rightly, when you accused me of having seen Mr. Percy to-day," pursued Claire.
"Well, informed, then. I did see him. He wrote me a letter; it was posted at Bellair; you see," smiling bitterly; "that I have no reason for doubting anything you have told me."
A new light broke over Madeline's face. "Do you doubt?" she asked, quickly.
"Not one word!"
"Oh!" drawing a breath of relief. "You were so composed I thought—"
"That I was hoping to disprove your statements? Not at all. And why should I not be composed? Do you think my heart could break for such a man?"
"Hearts don't break so easily," said Madeline, gloomily, "but they ache sometimes."
"Do they?" placing her hand over her heart and smiling faintly. "Well, mine don't ache either, yet; but it burns."
Madeline stayed her brush again. "No," she murmured, "it don't ache yet."
Claire made a gesture of impatience. "Oh, I know what you mean, Madeline! By and by my heart will ache, of course—I know that, having discovered, quite recently, that I am human. One can't feel outraged and angry always, and sometimes, I suppose, my day-dreams will come back and haunt me. Well, that is a part of the price we have to pay for intruding into dreamland when we are not asleep. But this is not what I began to say. Edward Percy met me to-day, and this is what he told me: He said he was going away, upon some geological expedition, and would most likely be gone a year. He wanted me to promise to hold myself free until he could return and claim me. He would exact no other promise now, only pledging himself. At the end of a year, all obstacles to our open engagement would be removed. I, of course, supposed, then, that the 'obstacles' referred to, were business and financial ones. Don't think, Madeline, that we have been in the habit of meeting clandestinely. He visited me openly in Baltimore, but not often enough to excite remark; and we frequently met at other places, as he went in the best society there."
Claire paused, but Madeline went on with her toilet in grave silence.
"Madeline, darling, I can't thank you enough for opening my eyes before it was too late, while it was no worse—and I can't explain my feelings. I despise him, and I despise myself for being thus duped. It is my pride that is suffering now but, of course, I know that, despise the man as I may, my heart will be heavier and my life darker, because of what I believed him to be. Now let us go to Olive."
Madeline Payne threw her arms impulsively about her friend and murmured, brokenly:—"Claire, Claire! you are braver than I, and far, far more worthy. You have a right to be happy, and you shall be."
And in that moment the girl renounced a resolve she had taken, and a hope she had cherished.
As they descended the stairs together Claire fancied that she looked paler, and a thought sadder than before.
They found Olive and dinner waiting. As they took their places about the luxury-laden board, three lovelier women or three sadder hearts could not have been found in a day's journey.
Of the three, Claire Keith was the calmest, the most self-possessed. All that was to be related by Madeline, all that Olive was waiting in anxious expectation to hear, she knew already. The best and the worst had been revealed to her; her own course was clear before her. So she ate her dinner with composure, and bore a large share in the table talk that, but for her, would have been rather vague and spasmodic.
Dinner was an ordeal for Olive, at least, on that day, for her mind was filled with thoughts of Philip, and wonderment as to how the picture of the man who had been his ruin came into the possession of Madeline, who was making herself more and more of a mystery.
Madeline, too, was restless. She wished the revelation were made and done with. She wondered if she could control the future so far as Olive was concerned, for she had made her plans, and did not propose to let the work be taken out of her hands.
When Madeline had related to Olive the events that had been transpiring at Oakley, she had narrated faithfully the scenes between Cora and Percy, but she had withheld the name of the latter, a fact which was not even noticed by Olive, who had not been especially interested in this last actor upon the scene.
Now, when dinner was over, and they had grouped themselves about the grate, its ruddy glow illuminating the twilight that was fast giving place to evening shadows, Madeline retold the story of Percy's first interview with Cora on his arrival, and his second, in the summer-house, the overhearing of which had caused that long absence from Miss Arthur's dressing-room, which necessitated her ingenious and highly improbable explanation to the aggrieved spinster, with which the reader is already acquainted.
During this recital the face of Olive Girard was a study. It changed from curiosity to wonder; from wonder to a dawning hopefulness of finding in all this a possible clue, that might help her husband to his freedom. Then despair took the place of hope, as the clue seemed to elude her grasp. At the end, astonishment and incredulity fairly took away her breath. She sank back in her chair without uttering a word.
Madeline waited for comments, but Claire was the first to speak. During the recital she had been able to think, and to some purpose. As the disjointed fragments were joined together by Madeline, Claire was drawing shrewd and close inferences. Now she lifted her head and asked:
"Madeline, have you formed any sort of a theory, as to how all this might affect Olive and Philip?"
Madeline looked up in surprise at the question, and answered it by asking another: "Have you?"
"Yes, but I think Olive would rather hear yours; and mine is, as yet, but half formed."
Olive had regained a measure of her composure, and now she sat erect, and said, eagerly:
"Madeline, I have been too much surprised and shocked to think clearly. Think for me, child, and for mercy's sake, tell me at once all that you suspect."
"I suspect much," replied the girl, gravely; "but what we want is proof. First we want to find out who is the party who accompanied Madame Cora, or Alice, as Percy called her, to Europe, for to Europe she went. Did she know Lucian Davlin ten years ago? Did they go together to Europe?"
"You want to know, first of all," said Claire, interrupting her, "when the intimacy of those two did begin. The woman may not have known him ten years ago. It would be easier to find out if they have been allies during the past five years."
Madeline turned a look of surprised admiration upon the speaker as she replied:
"You are right, Claire, and keener than I. Yet, my theory is, that they were friends before the woman fled from her cottage in the suburbs. I think the stealing of the marriage certificate has a strong savor of a man's thoughtful cunning. The woman could not have been so deep a schemer in those days. Now, Olive, let us suppose that these two were plotting in unison. Edward Percy's first wife dies, and no one the wiser about the marriage. Then he inherits his uncle's wealth. If Edward Percy were to die then, the woman, Cora, could come forward as his widow, display the proofs of their marriage, and inherit his fortune. He seems to have no living relatives, but, even should other heirs appear, she would claim her widow's portion."
"Good heavens!" gasped Olive.
"Wait," pursued Madeline; "now, don't you see, supposing all the rest true, that if Lucian Davlin attempted the life of this man, with the view of getting his money, and if he failed in some manner unknown,—don't you see that, holding over Percy's head the fear of the law, and the proofs of his having committed bigamy, he might thus silence him? Then, that the two disliking Philip Girard, and finding the opportunity to throw suspicion upon him by circumstantial evidence, would naturally do so."
Olive Girard was fearfully agitated, but, after a few moments, had in a measure recovered her self-possession. Then the three seemed seized with a desire to talk all at once. And talk they did,—fast, earnestly, excitedly at times.
At last, out of many words, they evolved a plan of action, and having arrived at a definite conclusion, they settled down into partial calm once more; a calm that was broken by a most agreeable ripple.
Doctor Clarence Vaughan was announced, and ushered into their presence, all in the same moment.
Doctor Vaughan was glad to see Madeline; that was evident. But while he expressed his pleasure in frank, brotherly fashion, his eyes wandered from her face to that of Claire Keith.
It was only a look, but Madeline Payne would have exchanged all the smiles, hand clasps, and brotherly words she could ever hope to receive from him, for one such glance from his eyes. But the tender wistfulness was all for Claire—blind Claire, who saw nothing of it.
Madeline withdrew her hand from his clasp, uttering, as she did so, a flippant commonplace in response to his hearty greeting, but Claire had caught the look in his eyes, and the false gayety in Madeline's voice, and it caused her to wonder.
Heretofore she had lived in a dream of her own, and had been careless of the varying expressions of those about her. Her dream had been dispelled, and she seemed now to have a keener eye for the emotion of others. Troubles of our own, sometimes, open our eyes to the fact that our friends are not all supremely happy. Then we naturally fall to speculating as to the cause. This was the case with Claire. She speculated a little as to why the eyes of Dr. Vaughan rested upon her, with that half-sad expression in them. Then she wondered why the spirit of perversity had possessed Madeline, and induced her to extend to Doctor Vaughan so shabby a welcome. Then, without realizing it, she fell to observing the manner of these two more closely.
"Well, Miss Payne, what report do you bring from the enemy's country?" he asked, after a few commonplaces between himself and the mistress of the house.
"I have not been in the enemy's country, Doctor Vaughan; the enemies are infesting mine."
"As you please, little warrior," smiled he. "Then may I ask, how goes the battle?"
"Oh, yes! you may ask," crossing over and seating herself beside Olive, "but your curiosity must wait. It's a ridiculous, tiresome story, and wouldn't amuse you much, or interest you, either. I am going to let Mrs. Girard inflict it upon you, when she thinks you need a penance."
"I think you need a penance now, Miss Payne, for accusing me of too much curiosity, and too little interest."
"Oh, I didn't mean that, exactly," shrugging her shoulders carelessly. "I suppose, of course, a physician is interested to a certain extent in all his subjects, living or dead; but I can't let you dissect my mind to-night. Besides," laughing maliciously, "I know you would recommend leeches and blisters, and maybe a straight jacket, and I can't be stopped in my charming career just yet."
Clarence Vaughan seemed not in the least offended by the girl's cool insolence. He smiled indulgently, and when Olive ventured a gentle remonstrance, he murmured to Claire, with a half laugh: "Miss Madeline is incomprehensible to me; do you understand her, Miss Keith?"
And Claire, looking across at her friend, replied, oddly: "I love her, Doctor Vaughan, and I begin to understand her, I think."
"Do you?" smiling down upon her. "Then some day will you not interpret her to me?"
Claire's answer was again given oddly, as, lifting her eyes to his face, she said, quite gravely: "If it is necessary to do so, perhaps I will."
Then conversation became general; rather Dr. Vaughan talked, and they all listened.
Claire found herself thinking that Doctor Vaughan was a noble-looking man; not alluringly handsome, as was Edward Percy; not possessing the magnetic fascination that Madeline had described as belonging to Lucian Davlin. But he had a fine face, nay, a grand face, full of strength and sweetness; not devoid of beauty, but having in it something infinitely better, truer, and more godlike than mere physical beauty can impart to any face.
Then she thought of Madeline, of her loneliness, her sorrow, and her need of just such a strong, gentle nature to lean upon, to look up to, and to obey. "She would obey him," quoth Claire to herself.
Next she fell to watching Madeline, through half-closed eyelashes. She saw how the girl listened to his every word; how, when his eyes were not upon her, she seemed to devour him with a hungry, longing, sorrowful gaze.
"As if she were taking leave of him forever," thought Claire.
And that is what Madeline was doing. When she came to the city, it was with the determination to win the love of this man, if it could be won; to let nothing stand between herself and the fulfillment of that purpose. But all this had been changed, and seeing how bravely Claire bore the shock of her lover's baseness, how proudly, how nobly, she commanded herself, Madeline had abandoned her purpose.
"I am not worthy of him, and she is," she told herself.
When she declared that Claire should be happy, she bade farewell to her own hope of future happiness. She would help him to win the girl he loved, and then she would be content to die; aye, more than content.
To-night, therefore, she was saying in her heart a farewell to this man, who was so dear to her. She had almost hoped that she should not meet him again for the present, and yet she was so glad to have seen him once more. She was glad of his presence, yet fearful lest her good resolution might be shaken. She would not let him be too kind to her, rather let him think her ungrateful, anything—what could it matter now?
"Shall you not come back to the city soon, Miss Payne? Surely your old home can not be the most charming place, in your eyes," questioned Clarence, after a time.
"I don't intend returning to the city—at least, not for some time, Doctor Vaughan."
Clarence looked perplexed.
To break the silence that ensued, Claire crossed to the piano and began playing soft, dreamy fragments of melody.
Presently Olive took up the conversation, and when Madeline again turned her face toward him, he was listening to Olive and looking at Claire. It was the same look, yearning, tender.
Claire, all unconscious of his gaze, was looking at Madeline, as she played softly on.
As Olive and Clarence talked, Claire saw the face of the girl grow dark; she saw her eyes full of a hungry, despairing light, and gradually there crept upon her the remembrance that she had seen that same look, only not so woful, in the eyes of Clarence Vaughan; that same look fixed upon herself. Involuntarily her fingers slipped from the keys, and she turned from the instrument to encounter the same gaze fastened upon her now; ardent, tender, longing eyes they were, and her own fell before them.
Claire Keith was troubled. She wanted to be alone, to think. She murmured an excuse; her head ached; she would retire.
Clarence had noted an unusual brightness in her eye, and a feverish flush upon her cheek. Now, however, she was quite pale, and as she extended her hand to him with a strange, new sensation of diffidence and consciousness, he clasped it for a moment in his own, and said, earnestly: "You do not look at all well, Miss Keith; you are sure it is only a headache?"
"Quite sure," smiling faintly.
"Then good-night. I shall enquire after your head to-morrow."
"Thank you," she murmured.
Then nodding to her sister and Madeline, she glided from the room.
It had all come upon her at once. Edward Percy was an impostor; Edward Percy, as she had believed in him, had never existed. The love that she had believed hers was hers no longer, or, if it were, she no longer desired it. Almost simultaneously with this knowledge, came the unspoken assurance that she was the possessor of a worthier love, a manlier heart.
She could not feel glad to know this, yet she was not sorry. Somehow it soothed her to know that she was not a forsaken, loveless maiden. It was something to possess the love of so good a man, even if she could make it no return.
But Madeline. Poor Madeline; she loved this man; she needed his love, she must have it.
Claire pulled back the curtains from her window, and gazed out into the starlit night. "She needs this love," the girl murmured. "Clarence Vaughan shall learn to love her, if I can bring it about. Yes, even if I loved him, I would give him up to her."
STRUGGLING AGAINST FATE.
When Claire left the drawing-room, Madeline had started up as if about to follow her. Recalling herself, she sat down again, keeping, as before, near to Olive, and taking as little share in the conversation as was possible. She dared not trust herself too much; her good resolves were strong, but not stronger than was the charm of his voice and presence.
"Let them think me uncivil," she murmured to herself; "what does it matter now?"
But her trial was not over. Olive and Clarence had held frequent council together concerning the wayward girl, and how they could best influence her aright without breaking the letter or spirit of their promise to her. And the absence of Claire added to their freedom of speech.
Olive had intimated to Doctor Vaughan that Madeline had taken some, perhaps unsafe, steps in the pursuit of her enemies. He, understanding the impetuosity of the girl, as well as her reckless fearlessness, could not conceal the anxiety he felt.
Acting under an impulse of disinterested kindness, Clarence Vaughan crossed the room and sat down by Madeline's side.
"Miss Madeline," he said, as respectfully as if to an empress, "we, Mrs. Girard and myself, cannot get rid of the idea that somehow you partly belong to us; that we ought to be given a little, just a very little, authority over you."
There was a shade of bitterness in the girl's answer. "You have the right to exercise authority over me, if you choose to do so. You are my benefactors."
They felt the reproof of her words. This keen-witted, uncontrollable girl, was putting up barrier upon barrier between herself and their desire to serve her. Very quietly he answered her:
"You do us an injustice, when you suggest that we claim your confidence on the score of any indebtedness on your part. It has been our happiness to serve you. If we have not your esteem, if we may not stand toward you in the light of a brother and sister, anxious only for your welfare and happiness, then we have no claim upon you."
The face was averted, but the lips were pale and drawn, and the words came through them like a moan.
Olive stirred uneasily. She could see that the girl was suffering, although she did not guess at the cause.
"Yes," continued Clarence, laying his hand gently upon hers; "Madeline,—will you let me call you Madeline?—will you let me be your brother? I have no sister, almost no kin; I won't be an exacting brother," smilingly. "I won't overstep the limits you set me, but we must have done with this nonsense about benefactors, and gratitude, and all that."
No answer, eyes down dropped, face still half-averted, and looking as if hardening into marble.
"What is my fate?" still holding her hand. "Can you accept so unworthy a brother?"
"Yes," in such a cold, far-away tone.
He lifted the hand to his lips. "Thank you, Madeline," he said, as if she had done him high honor.
Madeline felt her courage failing her. How could she listen to him, talk to him, with anything like sisterly freedom, and not prove false to her resolve to further his cause with Claire? And yet how could she refuse him the trust he asked of her?
It was very pleasant to know that he was thus interested in her; she felt herself slipping quickly into a day-dream in which nothing was distinct save that there existed a bond between them, that he had claimed the right to exercise authority over her, and that she was very, very glad even to be his slave. Listening to his voice, a smile crept to her lips, and—
"The eyes smiled too, But 'twas as if remembering they had wept, And knowing they would some day weep again."
"I don't intend to give up my claims upon Madeline; I elected her my sister, when I brought her home with me. And I had been flattering myself that I was to have a companion, but I am afraid she will run away from me. She ought to take Claire's place in my home, ought she not? Claire is with me so little," said Olive.
Madeline smiled sadly. "I could never do that," she said; "I could no more fill Claire's place than I could substitute myself for the rays of the sun."
"Claire would laugh at you for that speech," said Olive.
"But it is true; is it not?" appealing to Doctor Vaughan.
He colored slightly under her gaze. "We don't want two Claires," he said; "but you can be yourself, and that will make us happy."
The girl let her eyes fall, and rest upon her clasped hands.
"I would like to make you happy," she said, softly.
"Really," lifting her eyes to his face.
"Then, promise us that you will let us help to right your wrongs, and that you will come back, like a good sister, and stay with Mrs. Girard."
Her face hardened. "I can not," she said, briefly.
"You will not," seriously.
"Madeline, what is it you wish to do?"
"What I wish to do, I can not. I can tell you what I intend to do," sitting very erect.
"Then what do you intend?"
"I intend," turning her eyes away from them both, and fixing them moodily upon the fire, "to follow up the path in which I have set my feet. I intend to oust a base adventuress from the home that was my mother's; to wrest the fortune that is mine from the grasp of a bad old man, and make him suffer for the wrong he did my mother. I intend to laugh at Lucian Davlin, when he is safe behind prison bars; to hunt down and frustrate an impostor, and by so doing, clear the name of Philip Girard before all the world." Her voice was low, but very firm, dogged almost, in its tone.
He turned a perplexed face toward Olive.
"What does it all mean?" he asked.
"What she says," replied Mrs. Girard, flushing with suppressed excitement. "She has found a clue that may lead to Philip's release."
He moved nearer to the girl, and taking her hand, drew her toward him, until she faced him. "Madeline, is this true?"
"And you will hold me to a promise not to lift a hand to help clear the name of my friend?" reproachfully.
"Are you doing right, my sister?"
She attempted to draw away her hand.
"Child, what can you do?"
She turned her eyes toward Olive. "She will tell you what I have done. I can do much more."
Olive came suddenly to her side. "Oh, Madeline!" she said, "let him take all this into his hands. It is not fit work for you. It will harden you, make you bitter, and—"
Madeline wrested her hand away and sprang up, standing before them flushed and goaded into bitterness.
"Yes," she cried, wildly, "I know; you need not say it. It will harden me; it has already. It will make me bitter and bad, unfit for your society, unworthy of your friendship. I shall be a liar, a spy, a hypocrite—but I shall succeed. You see, you were wrong in offering me your friendship, Doctor Vaughan. I shall not be worthy to be called your sister, but," brokenly, "you need not have feared. I never intended to presume upon your friendship; I never intended to trouble you after—after my work is done. Ah! how dared I think to become one of you—I, whom you rescued from a gambler's den; I who go about disguised, and play the servant to people whom you would not touch. You are right; after this I will go my way alone."
Her voice became inarticulate, the last word was a sob, and she turned swiftly to leave the room.
Olive sprang forward with a remorseful cry, but Clarence Vaughan motioned her back, and with a quick stride was at the door, one hand upon it, the other firmly clasping the wrist of the now sobbing girl. Closing the door, which she had partially opened, he led her back, very gently, but firmly, and placing her in a chair, stood beside her until the sobs ceased. Then he drew a chair close to her own, and said, softly:
"My little sister, we never meant this. These are your own morbid fancies. Because you are playing the part of amateur detective, you are not necessarily cut off from all your friends. We would not give you up so easily, and there is too much that is good and noble in you to render your position so very dangerous to your womanhood. You have grieved Mrs. Girard deeply by imputing any such meaning to her words. Can't you understand, child, that it is because we care for you, because we want to shield you from the hardships you must of necessity undergo, that we wish you to let us work with and for you?"
Madeline shivered and gave a long, sobbing sigh. He took both listless hands in his own.
"Now, sister mine, won't you make me a promise, just one?"
Her hands trembled under his. How could she resist him when his strong, firm clasp was upon her; when he was looking into her eyes pleadingly, even tenderly; when his breath was on her cheek, and his voice murmured in her ear? She sat before him, contrite, conquered, strangely happy; conscious of nothing save a wish that she might die then and there, with her hands in his. She was afraid to speak and break the spell. He had said that he cared for her, was not that enough?
"Tell me, Madeline."
"Yes," she breathed, rather than uttered.
"Thank you. Now, sister, we are going to trust to your sagacity in this matter. But you must promise me, as your brother, who is bound to look after your welfare, that you will take no decisive steps without first informing us, and that as soon as the work becomes too heavy for your hands, you will call upon me to help you. My sister will surely do nothing that her brother cannot sanction?"
She dropped her eyes and said, simply: "I will do what you wish me to."
"You will give me your confidence, then?"
"Am I to hear a complete history of all that has happened thus far from Mrs. Girard?"
"And, after hearing it, may I communicate with you?"
She glanced up in surprise.
"Or," continued he; "better still, may I come down to Bellair and talk things over with you, should I deem it advisable?"
"If you wish;" looking glad.
"Mind, I don't want to intrude; I will not come if you don't desire it; but I shall wish to come. And you may manage our interviews as you see fit. I will do nothing to compromise you in the eyes of the people you are among. May I come?"
"Yes;" very softly, and trembling under his hand.
"Then we will say no more about all this to-night. You have already abused your strength, and if you don't get rest and sleep we shall have you ill again, and then what would become of our little detective?"
Olive came forward with outstretched hands and pleading eyes. "I can't wait any longer to be forgiven for my thoughtless words," she said. "Madeline, you will forgive me?"
"Of course Madeline will," replied Clarence. "Now you had better forgive Madeline for putting such a perverse construction upon your words, and then we will send her away to get the rest she must have."
"I was abominable, Olive," said the girl, so ruefully that Clarence laughed outright. "Of course, I know you are too kind to say a cruel thing. I—I believe I was trying to quarrel with you all; do forgive me."
"Of course you were trying to quarrel with us; and I haven't a bit of faith in your penitence now, young lady," said Clarence, rising and smiling. "I can't believe in you until I am assured that you will go to bed straightway, and swallow every bit of the wine I shall send up to you."
"With something nice in it," suggested Olive.
"With something very nice in it, of course. Now, will you obey so tyrannical a brother, and swallow his first brotherly prescription without making a face?"
All his kindness and care for her comfort brought a thrill of gladness to the girl's heart, and some of the old debonnaire, half-defiant light back to her eyes, as she replied, while rising from her chair, in obedience to a gesture of playful authority from Clarence, "Will I accept a scolding and go to bed, that means."
Then making a wry face and evidently referring to the wine: "Is it very bitter?"
"Not very; but you must swallow every drop."
"And I will order the wine," said Olive, touching the bell. "You know, Dr. Vaughan, that Madeline leaves us in the morning?"
"No?" in surprise. "Must you go so soon?"
"Yes," demurely, "unless I am forbidden."
"We are too wise to forbid you to do anything you have set your heart on. Then I must tell you good-by here and now, for a little time."
"Or a long one," gravely.
"Not for a long one. 'If the mountain won't come,' you know;—well, if I don't get very satisfactory reports from you, look out for me."
"You can't get at me," wickedly.
"Can't I? Wait and see. I'll come as your grandfather, or your maiden aunt."
"Please don't," laughing, "one spinster is enough."
"Well, I won't, then; I think I'll come as your father confessor."
At this Olive joined in the laugh.
"Good-night, Dr. Vaughan."
"Good-night, Miss Payne," with exaggerated emphasis and dignity, but holding fast to her hand.
She looked at the hand doubtfully, then up into his face. "Good-night—brother," with pretty shyness.
"That is better," releasing the little hand. "Good-night, sister mine. Mind you drink every drop of the wine."
"I will!" quite seriously. "Good-night, Olive."
Olive stooped and kissed her cheek. "Good-night, dear," she said, "and happy dreams."
Dr. Vaughan opened the door for her, and smiled after her as she looked back from the foot of the stairs. Then closing the door he came back, and stood on the hearth-rug, looking thoughtful.
"It is a difficult nature to deal with, and in her present mood, a dangerous one. She is painfully sensitive, and possesses an exceedingly nervous temperament. Then, that episode with Davlin was very humiliating to her, and it is constantly in her mind. Evidently she has lately been under much excitement, and she is hardly herself to-night. I think, however, if I were you, I would make no further effort to dissuade her from her purpose. It will do no good, and harm might come of it."
"Indeed, I will not," said Olive. "How thankful I am that you were here; your calmness and tact has saved us something not pleasant. I don't think I could have managed her myself."
"Probably not; and now I will prepare a soothing and sleeping draught, and then, as it is late, will detain you no longer. Perhaps you had better see that the draught is administered."
Olive gladly accepted the charge, and shortly after Doctor Vaughan took his departure, wise and yet blind; blind as to the true cause of Madeline's outbreak and subsequent submissiveness.
Madeline obeyed to the letter the instructions of Doctor Vaughan. As a result, she fell asleep almost immediately, before calm thought had come to dispel her mood of dreamy happiness.
In the morning she awoke quieted, refreshed, and quite mistress of herself. She did not once refer to the events of the previous evening. Only, before taking leave of Claire, she whispered in her ear:
"Dear Claire, you can make a noble man happy. Let his love atone to you for this present bitterness. God bless you both."
It was an odd speech, truly. But as Madeline turned her back upon the pretty villa, and was driven swiftly to the railroad depot, she wondered why Claire had responded to it only with a passionate kiss and with tears in her beautiful eyes.
And Claire, having seen her driven from the door, fled precipitately to her room. Locking herself in, she fell upon her knees beside a low chair. Burying her face in her hands she wept bitterly,—not for herself, but for the girl who was so heroically resigning to another the man she loved; who was going forth, alone, to encounter hardship, perhaps danger, to fight single-handed, not only her own battles, but those of her friends as well.
"And I dared to judge her," said the girl, indignantly. "I presumed to criticise the delicacy of this grand, brave nature! Why, I ought to be proud to claim her friendship, and I am!"
From that hour, let Madeline's course seem ever so doubtful, let Olive fear and doubt as she would, Claire Keith stoutly defended every act, and averred that Madeline could do nothing wrong. And from that hour, Claire began to plot upon her own responsibility.
* * * * *
In due course Doctor Vaughan called, and was closeted with Olive a very long time—rather, with Olive and Claire, for this young lady had surprised her sister, by expressing a desire to hear what Doctor Vaughan would say of Madeline's adventures. To tell the truth, Claire had fancied that Clarence would criticise more or less, and it was in the capacity of champion for the absent that she appeared at the interview.
After the matter had been fully discussed, Doctor Vaughan addressed himself to Claire: "Miss Keith, you have been a good listener. Won't you give us your opinion as to the achievements of our little friend?"
Claire came forward, with a charming mixture of frankness and embarrassment: "First, let me make the amende honorable, Doctor Vaughan. I presented myself at this interview with the full intention, and for the express purpose, of waging war upon you both, if necessary, and I had no doubt that it would be."
Doctor Vaughan looked much astonished.
"But," pursued Claire, "I have misjudged you. I did not think you would so heartily approve of Madeline's course, and I was bristling with bayonets to defend her."
"I must own to being of Claire's opinion," interposed Olive, looking somewhat amused.
Clarence smiled and then looked thoughtful.
"I can easily understand," he said, seriously, "how you ladies might have looked upon the course Miss Payne has taken, as an objectionable, even an improper, one. The position in which she has placed herself is, certainly, an unusual, a startling one for a woman of refinement and delicacy. But we must consider that the occasion is also an unusual one, and ordinary measures will not apply successfully to extraordinary cases. As to the impropriety, no one need fear to trust his or her honor in the keeping of a woman as brave and noble as Madeline Payne is proving herself."
"Then you do not censure Madeline for refusing to trust the matter in the hands of a detective?" questioned Olive.
"The matter is in the hands of a detective, Mrs. Girard; in the hands of the shrewdest and ablest little detective that could, by any possibility, have been found. Why, Madeline has accomplished, in a short time, what the best detectives on our regular force might have labored at for a year, and then failed of achieving!"
Claire threw a look of triumph at her sister. "Oh, how glad I am to hear you say all this, and how glad Madeline would be." Then she checked herself suddenly.
"I can suggest but one improvement upon the present state of things," said Clarence, after a moment's reflection. "That is, if we can persuade Madeline to permit it, and I think we can, we should set two men at work, neither one to be aware of the employment of the other. One to trace out as much of the past of this man Percy, as may be. The other to perform the same office for Davlin. Of course, they would not be advised of the actual reason for these researches, and so their investigations would in no way interfere with Madeline's pursuit of the game at Oakley. I don't think we could improve upon the present arrangement there."
"And how do you propose to bring this about?" questioned Olive.
"By going down to Bellair, as soon as I can get the necessary permission from our little generalissimo, and talking the matter over with her. I think she will see the propriety of the move, don't you?" appealing to Claire.
"I think she will follow your advice," gravely.
"I hope she will," said Olive.
"I know she will do exactly right," asserted Claire, so positively that they both smiled.
"I think I may venture to agree with you, Miss Keith," said Dr. Vaughan.
"You had better, both of you, where Madeline is concerned," looking ferocious.
"I begin to think that valor is infectious," laughed Olive, and Clarence joined in the laugh.
Altogether the result of their council was pleasing to each of the three. Olive was hopeful; Clarence was full of enthusiasm, and more deeply in love than ever with generous Claire; and she was pleased with his frank admiration of Madeline's courage, and full of hope for Madeline's future.
"He admires her now. He will love her by and by," she assured herself.
HAGAR AND CORA.
Meanwhile, Lucian Davlin had hastened to Bellair in response to Cora's summons, full of conjectures as to what had "turned up."
When the noon train from the city puffed up to the little platform, Lucian Davlin was among the arrivals, and at the end of the depot platform stood the dainty phaeton of Mrs. John Arthur. That lady herself reined in her prancing ponies, and the whole formed an object of admiration for the few depot loungers.
As Lucian Davlin crossed the platform and took his seat beside the lady, an old woman hobbled across the track. Casting a furtive glance in the direction the ponies were taking, she hobbled away toward the wood.
Miss Arthur's maid had surmised aright. It was no part of Cora's plan to permit the inmates of Oakley a view of Mr. Davlin on this occasion. So the ponies were driven briskly away from the town, and when that was left behind, permitted to walk through the almost leafless woods, while Cora revealed to Lucian the extent of the fresh calamity that had befallen them in the advent of Mr. Percy.
"Well, what have you to say to all this?" demanded the lady, pettishly, after she had disburdened herself of the story, with its most minute particulars. "This is a pretty state of affairs, is it not? I am worn out. I wish Oakley and the whole tribe were at the bottom of the sea!"
"Stuff!" with much coolness; then taking a flask containing some amber liquid from a breast pocket he held it between his eyes and the light for critical examination.
"Stuff? where? In that flask?"
"No, in your words. This," shaking the amber liquid, "is simon pure; best French. Have some? I felt as if I needed a 'bracer' this morning."
"Up all night, I presume," eyeing him askant.
"Pretty much;" indifferently. "Won't take any? Then, here's confusion to Percy," and he took a long draught. "Now, then," pocketing the brandy and turning toward her, briskly, "I'm ready for business. How the deuce did we let this fellow pounce down upon us like this? I thought he was safe in Cuba?"
"He will never be safe anywhere, until he gets to—"
"Heaven," suggested he.
"I suppose it was stupid," she went on, gloomily. "But when Ellen Arthur raved of her dear friend Mr. Percy, how was I to imagine that among all the Percys on earth, this especial and particular one should be the Percy. I wrote you that she had a lover of that name; did it occur to you that it might be he?" maliciously.
"Well, candidly, it did not."
"We were a pair of stupid fools, and we are finely caught for our pains."
"First statement correct," composedly; "don't agree with the last, however."
"Does he know I am on deck?"
"Didn't inquire after me, or say anything about the documents?"
"No special inquiries."
"Well, then, where is the great danger?"
"Where?" much astonished.
"Yes, where? If you told me all the truth concerning yourself ten years ago, we can make him play into our hands."
"Don't go too fast. When you told me that he believed you to have left home because of an unkind step-mother, was that true?"
"It was true. I did leave home and come to the city when I was but sixteen, because my father was a drunkard, and my step-mother abusive, and we were poor and I was proud."
"Don't doubt that fact;" with an outward gesture of the supple hand. "But you told him that you had two big step-brothers!"
Cora laughed. "A big brother is an excellent weapon to hold over the heads of some men," she suggested.
"True," with an amused look. "Why didn't you brandish one over me?"
"Over you?" laughing again. "You and Percy were two different men."
"Much obliged," lifting his hat with mock gravity. "Well, we are 'two different men,' still; just let your pretty little head rest, and leave Percy to me."
"I wish to Heaven you had made an end—"
"'Ah-h-h. I have sighed to rest me,'" warbled Davlin. "Cora, my love, never put your foot on too dangerous ground."
"Well, I do wish so, all the same," said she, with feminine pertinacity.
"Now, tell me what your plan is. We want to understand each other, and have no more bungling."
"All you will have to do will be to keep quiet and follow my cue. When I come down, we must manage it that I meet Percy in Miss Arthur's absence. The rest is easy; this Mr. Percy will not find his path free from obstacles, I think."
"What game will you play?"
"Precisely what I am playing now. I am your brother. That will explain some things that puzzled him some time ago," dryly. "I am your sole protector, saving the old chap, don't you see."
The woman pondered a moment. "I think it will answer," she said, at last. "At any rate, it is the best we can do now."
A little more conversation, and Cora was quite satisfied with that and other arrangements. Then the ponies were headed toward the village, and driven at a brisk pace, thus enabling Mr. Davlin to catch the afternoon train back to the city. No one at Oakley was any the wiser for his visit. It was no uncommon thing for Cora to drive out unattended, and she returned to the manor in a very good humor, considering the situation.
Cora's drive had given her an appetite, and she had partaken of no luncheon. She therefore ordered a very bounteous one to be served in the red parlor. Mr. Arthur was enjoying his usual afternoon siesta; Miss Arthur was invisible, for which Cora felt duly thankful; and so she settled herself down to solitude, cold chicken and other edibles, and her own thoughts.
Ever and anon she gazed listlessly from the window, letting her eyes rove from the terrace to the hedgerow walk, the woods beyond, and back again to the terrace. Suddenly she bent forward, and looked earnestly at some object, moving toward the stile from the grove beyond. A moment later, it appeared in the gap of the hedge.
Cora leaned back in her chair, still observant, muttering:
"I thought so! It is that ugly old woman. Now, what in the world does she want here, for—yes, she is entering the grounds, coming up the terrace."
True enough, old Hagar was coming slowly along the terrace, taking a leisurely survey of the window facing that walk, as she did so. Casting her eyes upward, they met the gaze of Mrs. Arthur. Then, much to the surprise of that lady, she paused and executed a brief pantomime, as grotesque as it was mysterious.
Cora drew back in some astonishment, pondering as to whether or no the old woman might not be partially insane, when Susan, the maid of the romantic mind, appeared before her, and announced that the object of her thoughts was in the kitchen, and begged that Mrs. Arthur would permit her an interview.
Cora was still more surprised. "What can she possibly want with me?" she asked herself, quite audibly.
"If you please, ma'am," volunteered Susan, "she said that it was something important; and that she never would have put her foot inside this house, begging your pardon, only for you."
Flattering though this statement might be, it did not enlighten her much. So, after a moment's reflection, Mrs. Arthur bade the girl, "show the old person up."
Accordingly, in another moment almost, old Hagar was bowing very humbly before the lady with the silken flounces. Susan retired reluctantly, deeply regretting that she could find no time to stop up the key-hole with her ear, thus rendering it impossible for prying eyes to peep through that orifice.
"Well, old woman," began Cora, rather inelegantly, it must be confessed, "what on earth were you making such a fuss about, down on the terrace? And what do you want with me?"
A close observer of the human countenance divine would never have judged, from the small amount of expression that was manifest in the face of Hagar, that her reply would have been such a very humble one. "I want to serve you, dear lady."
The "dear lady" pursed up her lips in surprise. "You—want—"
"To warn you, madame."
Cora was dumb with astonishment, not unmingled with apprehension. What had broken loose now?
"I am only a poor old woman, lady, and nobody thinks that old Hagar has a heart for the wrongs of others. I said that I would never cross John Arthur's threshold again; but I have seen your pretty face, going to and fro through the village streets, and I knew there was no one to warn you but me."
"Oh, you did," remarked Cora, not knowing whether to be alarmed or amused, at the old woman's earnestness. "Well, old—what's your name?"
"Well, old Hagar, do you mean to tell me that I am in any particular danger just at present?"
"Is the dove in danger when it is in the nest of the hawk?" said Hagar, closing her eyes tight as she uttered the words, but looking otherwise very tragical.
Cora laughed musically. "Good gracious, old lady!" She was modifying her titles somewhat, probably under the influence of Hagar's flatteries. "You mean to compare me to a dove," laughing afresh, "in—a hawk's nest? Oh, dear! oh, dear!" wiping her eyes. "Now, then, please introduce me to the wicked hawk."
Hagar was getting tired of her part, and she made a direct rush at the point of the business, and with very good dramatic effect. "I mean your husband," she said, vehemently. "I mean John Arthur. He is a bad man. If he has not done it already, he will make you miserable by-and-by."
Cora drew herself up and tried to look severe. "Old lady," she said, with supernatural gravity, "don't you know that it is very improper for you to come and talk to me, like this, about my husband?"
"Just hear her!" sniffed Hagar, rather unnecessarily; "all because I think she is too young, and too pretty, to be sacrificed like the others—"
"Like the others? What others?"
"Like his first wife. She was young, like you, and a lovely lady. His cruelty was her death. And then he must worry and abuse her poor daughter, until she runs away and comes to an untimely end. And now—"
"Now, you fear he will make an end of me?" briskly. "Sit down, old lady," becoming still more affable. "So Mr. Arthur ill-used his first wife, my predecessor?"
"Thank you, dear lady; you are very kind to a poor old woman," seating herself gingerly on the edge of a chair opposite Cora. "Yes, indeed, he did ill-use her. She was my mistress, and I shall always hate him for it."
Cora mused. Here was an old servant who hated the master of Oakley; might she not prove useful, after a time? At any rate, it would be well to sound her.
"You were very much attached to the lady, no doubt?" insinuatingly.
"Yes; and who would not be? She was very sweet and good, was my poor mistress. Oh, he is a bad, bad man, madame, and you surely cannot be very happy with him."
"And he was unkind to his step-daughter, too?" ignoring the last supposition.
"Unkind? He was a wretch. Oh, I could almost murder him for his cruelty to that poor dead lassie!" fiercely.
"Perhaps he was none too kind to you," suggested Cora.
"Oh, he never treated me like a human being. He hated me because I tried to stand between her and harm. But he could not get rid of the sight of me. I have a little home where he can't avoid seeing me sometimes. I believe, if I kept always appearing before him, he would go raving mad, he hates me to that extent."
"Um-m! Is that so?"
"Yes, indeed. Why, lady, if I were without house or home, and you, out of the kindness of your heart, were to take me into your employment as the very humblest of your servants, I believe he would kill us both."
"You think he would?"
Cora actually seemed to encourage the old woman in her garrulity.
"Oh, I know it. It's not much in the way of charity, or kindness, you will be able to do in this house. If he don't imprison you in one of these old closed-up musty rooms, you will be lucky. He is very dangerous. Sometimes I used to think he must be insane."
Cora started. "Well, Hagar," she said, sweetly, "it's very good of you to take so much interest in me. He is very cross sometimes, but, perhaps, it won't be so bad as you fear."
"I hope it won't," rising to go and shaking her head dubiously; "but I am afraid for you."
"Well," laughing, "I'll try and not let him lock me up, at any rate. Now, is there anything I can do for you?"
"Oh, no, lady. You looked so pretty, and so good, that I wanted to warn you; that is all. I should be glad if I could serve you, too, but I could never serve him. I don't want for anything, dear lady. Now the old woman will go."
"I won't forget you, Hagar, if I ever need a friend."
Hagar turned toward her. "If you ever want to make him feel what it is to make others suffer, Hagar will help you."
There was a vindictive light in the old woman's eyes, and she hobbled out of the room, looking as if she meant all she had said.
Cora sat, for a time, pondering over the interview, and trying to trace out some motive for insincerity on the old woman's part. But she could see none. She resolved to investigate a little, and all that evening was the most attentive and agreeable of wives. Abundant and versatile was her conversation. Deftly she led the talk up to the proper point, and then said, carelessly:
"Driving through the village, to-day, I passed that queer old woman—Hagar, do they call her? She glared at me, oh! so savagely."
"She is an old hag!" Mr Arthur answered, with unnecessary fierceness. "I don't see what Satan has been about, all these years, that he's not taken her away to her proper atmosphere."
"Why," in pretty surprise, "I thought she used to be one of your servants?"
"She was a servant to my first wife," moodily. "I got rid of the baggage quick enough, when Mrs. Arthur died. She is an old viper, and put more disobedience into that girl Madeline's head, than I ever could get out."
"What a horrid old wretch she must be!" shuddering.
Then the conversation dropped, and Cora was satisfied.
"The old woman shall be my tool," she thought, triumphantly.
TO BE, TO DO, TO SUFFER.
On the day that followed the events last related, Madeline Payne returned to Oakley to resume her self-imposed task.
Leaving the train, the girl took the path through the woods. When she had traversed it half way, she came upon old Hagar, who was seated upon a fallen log awaiting her. Looking cautiously about, to assure herself that the interview would have no spectators, Madeline, or Celine, as we must now call her, seated herself to listen to the report of Davlin's visit, and the success of Hagar's interview with Cora.
Expressing herself fully satisfied with what she heard, Celine made the old woman acquainted with the result of her visit to the city, or as much of it as was necessary and expedient. Then, after some words of mutual council, and a promise to visit her that evening, if possible, the girl lost no time in making her way to the manor, and straight into the presence of her mistress.
Considering that her maid was—her maid, Miss Arthur welcomed her with an almost rapturous outburst. Celine had held high place in the affections of Miss Arthur, truth to tell, since her astonishing discovery of Mr. Edward Percy, in the character of young Romeo, promenading within sight of his lady's window.
"Celine," simpered Miss Arthur, while the damsel addressed was brushing out her mistress's hair, preparatory to building it into a French wonder; "Celine, I may be wrong in talking so freely to you about myself and my—my friends, but I observe that you never presume in the least—"
"Oh, mademoiselle, I could never do that!" cooed the girl, with wicked double meaning.
"And," pursued Miss Arthur, graciously, "you are really quite a sagacious and discreet young person."
"Thanks, miladi." Then, as if recollecting herself, "Pardon, mademoiselle, but you are so like her ladyship, Madame Le Baronne De Orun, my very first mistress—"
"Oh, I don't mind it at all, Celine. As I was saying, you seem quite a superior young person, and no doubt I am not the first who has made you a sort of confidante.
"Merci! no; my lady. Madame Le Baronne used to trust me with everything, and often deigned to ask my advice. But French ladies, oui, mademoiselle, always put confidence in their maids. And a maid will die rather than betray a good mistress—"
"Exactly, Celine—are you going to put my hair so high?"
"Very high, miladi."
"Oh, well; will it be becoming?"
"Oui; La mode la Francaise," relapsing into ecstacy and French. "Le coiffeur comme il faut! Chere amie, le-chef-a-oeuvre!"
Miss Arthur collapsed, and Celine continued to build up an atrociously unbecoming pile of puffs and curls in triumphant silence.
Celine never indulged in her native tongue, so she assured her mistress, except when carried away by momentary enthusiasm, or unwonted emotion. It was bad taste, she averred, and she desired to cultivate the beautiful American language.
Presently Miss Arthur made another venture, feeling quite justified in following in the footsteps of so august a personage as Madame Le Baronne.
"Did you see Mr. Percy after you left Bellair?"
"Did you observe if he returned in the same train with yourself?"
"No, mademoiselle." Then, with a meaning little laugh: "Monsieur will not remain long from Oakley."
Miss Arthur tried to look unconscious, and succeeded in looking idiotic.
"Pardon, mademoiselle, but I can't forget that night. Mademoiselle is surely relieved of one fear."
"What is that?"
"The fear of being wooed because of her wealth."
Miss Arthur started, then said: "There may be something in that, Celine; and it is not impossible that I may inherit more."
"Yes. Possibly you have learned from the servants that Mr. Arthur lost a young step-daughter not long ago; just before you came, in fact."
"I don't remember. Did she die, mademoiselle?"
"Yes. She was a very wild, unruly child, a regular little heathen—oh!"
"Pardon, oh, pardon, did it hurt?" removing a long, spiky hair pin, with much apparent solicitude.
"A—a little; yes. As I was saying, this ridiculous girl was sent to school and no expense spared to make a lady of her."
"Yes; and then she rewards my brother for all his kindness by running away."
"Merci, mademoiselle!" suddenly recalling her French.
"And then she died among strangers, just as provokingly as she had lived. She must even run away to die, to make it seem as if her home was not a happy one."
"What a very wicked young person; how you must have been annoyed."
"We were all deeply grieved."
"And I don't suppose that dead young woman was even grateful for that."
"Oh, there was no gratitude in her."
"Of course not! Now, mademoiselle, let me do your eyebrows," turning her about.
"But," pursued Miss Arthur, "when she died, my brother acquired unconditional control of a large fortune, and you must see that my brother is getting rather old. Well, in case of his death, a part, at least, of this fortune will become mine."
"My brother is too much afraid to face the thought of death and make a new will, and papers are in existence that will give me the larger portion of his fortune. Of course, Mrs. Arthur will get her third."
Celine was now surprised in earnest.
Miss Arthur had spoken the truth. With shrewd foresight, she had made John Arthur sign certain papers two years before, in consideration of sundry loans from her. And of this state of affairs every one, except their two selves and the necessary lawyer, had remained in ignorance.
The girl's eyes gleamed. This was still better. It would make her vengeance more complete.
And now Miss Arthur was thrown into a state of girlish agitation by the appearance of Susan, who announced that Mr. Percy was in the drawing-room, awaiting the pleasure of his inamorata.
She bade Celine make haste with her complexion and, after the lapse of something like half an hour, swept down to welcome her lover, with a great many amber silk flounces following in her wake.
Celine Leroque gazed after her for a moment and then closed the door. Flinging herself down "at ease" in the spinster's luxurious dressing chair, she pulled off the blue glasses and let the malicious triumph dance in her eyes as much as it would.
"Oh, you are a precious pair, you two, brother and sister! The one a knave, the other a fool! It is really pathetic to see how you mourn my loss. I have a great mind to—"
Here something seemed to occur to her that checked her mutterings, and sent her off into a deep meditation. After a long stillness she uttered a low, mocking laugh that had, too, a tinge of mischief in it. Rising slowly from the dressing chair she said, as she nodded significantly to her image reflected back from Miss Arthur's dressing glass:
"I'll put that idea into execution some nice night, and then won't there be a row in the castle? Ah! my charming mistress, if you had spoken one kind or regretful word for poor Madeline, it would have been better for you!"
What was the girl meditating now? What did she mean?
"Yes, good people at Oakley, I believe I'll take a little private amusement out of you all, while I feel quite in the mood. I won't be too partial."
Then she betook herself to her own room and let her thoughts fly back to Olive and Claire and—Clarence.
Presently, for she was very weary, spite of the previous night's repose, she fell asleep.
Late that evening she flitted through the woods and across the meadow to the cottage of old Hagar. Sleep had refreshed her and she had dreamed pleasant dreams. She felt stout of heart, and firm of nerve.
Old Hagar was overjoyed to see a smile in her nursling's face, and to hear, at times, a laugh, low and sweet, reminding her of olden days. The girl remained with her old nurse for nearly an hour. When they parted there was a perfect understanding between them, in regard to future movements and plans.
No one at Oakley was aware of Lucian Davlin's flying visit; thus much Celine knew. But of the purport and result of that visit, she knew nothing. Nor could she guess. She must bide her time, for there seemed just now little to disturb the monotony of waiting.
One thing was, however, necessary. When the time came for Miss Arthur to leave Oakley, Celine must remain. To that end she must contrive to fall out with the spinster, and "fall in" with Madame Cora. If that lady could not be beguiled into retaining her at Oakley, she must resort to a more hazardous scheme. She had already taken a step toward ingratiating herself with Mrs. Arthur, and with tolerable success. She was maturing her plans and waiting for an opportunity to put them into action.
No doubt but that by the time she had accomplished her object, if it could be accomplished, the opposite forces would come into conflict.
SETTING SOME SNARES.
Three days had now passed since Madeline's return from the city. On the morning of the fourth day, she seized the first leisure moment for a visit to the post-office. Instead of the single letter from Olive that she had expected, she found three.
They were enclosed in one wrapper. This she removed on her way back to Oakley, and found the first, as was the wrapper, addressed in Olive's hand. The penmanship of the second was fairy-like and beautiful, and she recognized it as Claire's. At sight of the third, her heart gave a great bound, and then almost stood still. It was superscribed in a firm, manly hand, and was, it must be, from Dr. Vaughan.
Once securely locked in her room, Madeline opened the first of her letters with eager fingers. Yes, Olive's first. The desire to see what he had said was strong in her heart, but she had decided not to humor her heart. She held his letter caressingly for a moment and then putting it beside Claire's opened and read Olive Girard's letter.
It was like Olive's self; sweet, womanly, hopeful, yet sad:
I am only now beginning to realize the new life and hope you have put into my heart. As I think again of what you have done and are doing, I cannot but feel faith in your success. Oh, if I could but work with you; for you and for Philip!
Again and again I implore you to pardon me for ever doubting your wisdom or strength. If at any time I can aid you—such poor aid—my purse is yours, as your cause is mine.
Claire and Doctor Vaughan will speak for themselves. And as I dare make no more suggestions to so wise a woman, I only put in a faint little plea. Do, pray, grant Doctor Vaughan's request, and may God aid you in all that you do.
"Doctor Vaughan's request!" repeated the girl. "Would that I could grant him not only all his requests, but all his wishes!"
Then she opened Claire's letter.
MY GRAND MADELINE:
How proud I am to claim you for my friend! I shall never again conduct myself with any degree of meekness toward people who have not the happiness of knowing you. And you should hear Doctor Vaughan extol you! He says you are wiser and braver than any detective. That he would trust you in any emergency. That if any one can lift the cloud that hangs over poor Philip, it is you.
My heart tells me that you will yet prove the good angel of Philip and Olive, as already you have been mine; and soon, I pray, you will become that and more to Doctor Vaughan; you must and shall. I shall have no wish ungratified when I can see your trials at an end; and yourself, surrounded by us who love you, happy at last. Don't let all these other claimants push me out of your heart; always keep one little place for your loving, grateful
Madeline's eyes were moist when she lifted them from the perusal of this letter.
"Bright, beautiful, brave Claire," she murmured; "who could help loving her?"
Then her eyes fell again upon the letter, and she started:
"'You will become that and more to Doctor Vaughan,'" she read. "What can she mean? Can it be possible that, after all, I have betrayed myself to her?"
She re-read the letter from beginning to end, her face flushing and paling.
"Oh!" she whispered softly, "she has read my heart, and we are playing at cross purposes! What a queer rivalry," the girl actually laughed; "a rivalry of renunciation. Does she yet know how he loves her, I wonder?" Then, her face growing graver, "she won't be long in making that discovery now."
She took up Clarence Vaughan's letter, almost dreading to break the seal.
MY BRAVE LITTLE SISTER:
You perceive, I have commenced my tyranny. And instead of being able to grant favors to my new sister, I am reduced to the necessity of begging them at her hands. In a word, I want to come to Bellair. Not to be a meddlesome adviser; I am too firmly a convert to your method of procedure for that. Besides, I should have to declare war upon Miss Keith if I presumed thus far. But I do desire to further your plans, and to this end would make a suggestion that has occurred to me since hearing of your marvelous detective work.
Believe me, I cannot express the admiration I feel for your daring and tact. I have no longer the faintest scruple as to trusting this issue, so important to all of us, in your hands. And I am more than proud of such a sister.
May I come to Bellair, say on Monday next? I will stop at the little station a few miles this side of the village, and walk or drive over, and find my way to the cottage of your old nurse, where you can meet me, unless you have a better place to suggest. I shall anxiously await your answer, and am your brother to command.
C. E. VAUGHAN.
Madeline's cheeks were flushed, her eyes shining.
"How they all trust me!" she ejaculated; "and they always shall. I will never be false to their friendship; no, not if to serve them my heart's blood must become wormwood and gall."
She re-read all her letters, but would not allow herself to linger too long over that of Clarence Vaughan. She had resolved to have no more weakness, no more outbreaks of passion. She was very stern with herself. Even as a friend and brother, she would not allow her thoughts to dwell too much upon him, until she grew stronger, and more perfect in her renunciation.
Then she sat down at her humble little table, and answered her letters.
To Olive she wrote a sweet, cheery note, telling of her gratitude, her affection, her hope for the future; and then she added a womanlike P. S. as follows:
Please say to Doctor Vaughan that I will be at Hagar's cottage on Monday evening, but can't tell the precise time I may be able to appear. If he follows the main road through the village, until he has passed the grounds of Oakley, he will have no difficulty in finding the cottage. It stands alone, almost in the middle of a field, facing the west, and is the first habitation after Oakley.
"I cannot write to him," she said; "at least not now."
Then she wrote Claire a long, cheery letter, saying little of herself, and much of her friends,—of all save Doctor Vaughan. She would not mention him tenderly, she could not mention him lightly; so she would say of him nothing at all.
But if Madeline was astute, Claire, too, was beginning to develop that quality. So when the latter young lady read this letter, she smiled and said: "The dear little hypocrite! As if she could deceive me by this evidently studied neglect. Oh! you proud, stiff-necked, little detective!"
And their game of cross purposes went on.
Madeline had sealed her letters, and was about to reach for her hat preparatory to hastening with them to the post office, when her attention was arrested by a sound, slight but unusual, and not far away. She stood erect, silent, motionless, listening intently. Presently the sound was repeated, and then a look of intelligence passed over the girl's face.
"Some one is in the deserted rooms," she thought. And she abandoned for the present her purpose of going out.
There was but one way to approach the closed-up rooms, and that way led past the door of Madeline's room.
A few paces beyond her door, the hall connecting the west wing with the more modern portion, made a sharp curve and opened into the main hall of that floor. Celine Leroque opened her door cautiously, having first donned her not very becoming walking attire. Then she took up her position just outside the angle of the western hall, and so close to it that if an approach was made from below, she could easily retire behind the angle.
She had grown heartily tired of her sentinel task when, at last, a soft rustle was heard near at hand. Celine turned so quickly into the narrower hall that she fairly ran upon and stopped—Mrs. John Arthur! who uttered a sharp exclamation expressive of surprise and annoyance.
Celine poured forth a mixture of French and English, expressive of her contrition and horror at having "almost overturned madame," and wound up by saying, "Madame has been to my room? Madame has desired some service, perhaps? If so, she has only to command."
Cora drew a breath of relief, having sufficiently recovered from the collision and accompanying confusion, to draw a breath of any kind, and at once rallied her forces.
"Yes, Celine, I wanted you to do something for me, if you will."
Madame was collecting her thoughts. "I—I wanted to ask if you could find time to come to my room and try and do something with my hair. Your hair-dressing is perfect, and I am so tired of my own."
Celine would be only too happy. Should she come now? She had just returned from the village; she would put off her hat and be at madame's disposal. But madame was not inclined to be manipulated just then. Celine might come to her dressing room and do her hair for dinner—after she was done with Miss Arthur, of course.
So they separated, mutually satisfied.
A VERITABLE GHOST.
What a day of glory it had been to the spinster, this day on which Madeline had read her three letters, and Cora had explored the shut-up wing.
And what a day of torture to fastidious Edward Percy, who would have welcomed any third presence, even Cora or John Arthur—any one, anything, was better than that long slavery at the feet of a painted and too-visibly ancient mistress. But even the longest days have an end. At last he was set at liberty, and he hurried back to the little inn, literally kicking his way through the Autumn darkness.
The old house of Oakley stood, with its last light extinguished, tall and somber, against a back-ground of black sky and blacker trees. At last every soul under its roof was asleep—all but one. That one was very wide awake and intent on mischief.
Love-making, dear reader, although you may not know it, is a wearisome business, even if ever so agreeable. Especially is it wearisome to those like Miss Arthur—maidens whose waists are too tight, whose complexions will ill-endure lip service, and whose tresses are liable to become not only dishevelled but dislocated. Therefore, when Miss Arthur had dismissed her lover, with a sigh of regret, she lost no time in doffing her glories with a sigh of relief.
Even a very rich and hearty luncheon, which her maid had provided, was gormandized rather than enjoyed, so tempting did her couch look to the worn-out damsel.
Miss Arthur had refreshed herself with an hour's uninterrupted repose, and was revelling in a dreamy Arcadia, hand in hand with her beloved, when something cold falling on her cheek dispelled her visions. She started broad awake, and face to face with a horrible reality.
The moon was pouring a flood of silvery light in through the two windows, facing the south, whose curtains were drawn back, making the room almost as light as at mid-day.
And there, near her bed, almost within reach of her hand, stood Madeline Payne, all swathed in white clinging cerements, ghastly as a corpse, hollow-eyed and awful, but, nevertheless, Madeline Payne! Over her white temples dropped rings of curly, yellow hair, and across the pale lips a mocking smile was flitting.
Miss Arthur gasped and closed her eyes very tight, but they would not stay closed. They flew open again to behold the vision still there. The spinster was transfixed with horror. Cold drops of perspiration oozed out upon her forehead and trickled down her nose. She clutched at the bedclothes convulsively, and gazed and gazed.
Wider and wider stared her eyes, but no sound escaped her lips. She gazed and gazed, but the specter would not vanish. Poor Miss Arthur was terror-stricken almost to the verge of catalepsy.
In consideration of the persistence with which they return again and again, according to good authority, ghosts in general must be endowed with much patience. Be this as it may of the average ghost, certain it is that this particular apparition, after glaring immovably at the spinster for the space of five minutes, began to find it monotonous.
Slowly, slowly from among the snowy drapery came forth a white hand, that pointed at the occupant of the bed with silent menace.
The spell was broken. The lips of Miss Arthur were unclosed, and shrieks, one following the other in rapid succession, resounded in the ears of even the most remote sleepers.
With the utterance of her first yell, Miss Arthur had made a desperate plunge to the further side of her bed, away from the specter; and, turning her face to the wall, shut out thus the appalling white vision.
Having once found her voice, Miss Arthur continued to clutch at the bed clothes, glare at the wall, and shriek spasmodically, even after her "inner consciousness" must have assured her that the room now held others beside herself and the ghost, supposing it to be still on the opposite side of the bed.
Cora, in a state of wild deshabille; John Arthur, ditto, and armed with a cane; Susan and Mary, half in the room and half out; then Celine Leroque, apparently much frightened, without knowing at what.
A volley of questions from the master of the house, and a return of courage to the mistress. But Miss Arthur only gathered herself together, took in a fresh supply of breath, and embarked in another series of howls.
Nothing was amiss in the room; it could not have been a burglar. The night lamp was burning dimly behind its heavy shade; on the table were the fragments of Miss Arthur's lunch; and Mr. and Mrs. Arthur had found easy access through the closed, but unbolted door.
After a time, a long time, during which Cora and Celine administered sal volatile and other restoratives, Mr. Arthur douched her with oaths and ice water, and the servants whispered in a group, the maiden found voice.
It was a very feeble voice, and it conveyed to her audience the astounding intelligence that she had seen a ghost—Madeline Payne's ghost.
Upon hearing her story, John Arthur seemed at first a little startled. But Cora only laughed, and Celine, glancing significantly at the lunch table, said, with a slight smile:
"Mademoiselle has nerves, and she may have lunched heartily before retiring."
John Arthur strode across the room and viewed the debris of luncheon. "Humph!" he grunted. "Oysters and salads, potted meat and pastry; strong coffee and lemon syllabub with brandy. Good Lord, I don't know what should have kept the contents of an entire cemetery from sweeping down upon your slumbers, you female gourmand. Ghosts indeed!"
And he stamped out of the room in high dudgeon. His tirade was wholly lost upon his sister, however, for that lady was whimpering comfortably and putting all her feeble energy into the effort.
Cora glanced up as the door banged after her lord and master, and ordered the servants back to bed. Then she turned toward Celine, saying:
"That door was certainly not locked when we came to it, for I was here even sooner than Mr. Arthur."
Celine smiled again: "Mademoiselle dismissed me before she had finished her luncheon. I had disrobed her previously, and she said she should retire as soon as she drank her coffee. She may have forgotten the door."
Cora turned toward the bed. "Did you lock your door, Ellen?"
But Ellen did not know; she could not remember if she had or had not.
Then Cora said to Celine: "I am glad to find you so sensible. We shall have hard work now to convince those ridiculous servants that there is not a ghost in every corner."
"I do not think that graves open," replied the girl, seriously.
Then she gave her undivided attention to her mistress, who bade fair to be hysterical for the rest of the night.
Miss Arthur would not be left alone again. No argument could convince her that the specter was born of her imagination, and therefore not likely to return. So Cora bade Celine prepare to spend the remainder of the night in Miss Arthur's dressing room.
Accordingly, Celine withdrew to her own apartment, where her preparations were made as follows:
First, she shook out the folds of a sheet that hung over a chair, and restored it to its proper place on the bed. Then she removed from her dressing stand a box of white powder, and brushed away all traces of said powder from her garments and the floor. Next, she carefully hid away a key that had fallen to the floor and lay near the classically folded sheet. These things accomplished, she made a few additions to her toilet, extinguished the light, locked her door carefully, trying it afterward to make assurance doubly sure, and retraced her steps to relieve Cora, who was dutifully sitting by the spinster's bed, and beginning to shiver in her somewhat scanty drapery.
As the night wore on, and Miss Arthur became calmed and quiet, the girl lay back in the big dressing chair, gazing into the grate, and thinking. Her thoughts were sometimes of Claire, sometimes of Clarence; of the Girards, and of Edward Percy; then of her success as a ghostess, and at this she would almost laugh.
But from every subject her mind would turn again and again to one question, that repeated itself until it took the form of a goblin and danced through her dreams, when at last she slept, whispering over and over:
"What is it that Cora Arthur carries in a belt about her waist? what is it? what is it?"
For the girl had made a strange discovery while Cora was sitting beside Miss Arthur's bed, clad only in night's scanty drapery.
SOME DAYS OF WAITING.
Doctor Vaughan had written that he could find his way with ease to Nurse Hagar's cottage, and he did.
Swinging himself down upon the dark end of the platform, when the evening train puffed into Bellair village, he crossed the track, and walked rapidly along the path that led in the direction of the cottage. He strode on until the light from the cottage window gleamed out upon the night, and his way led over the field. Half way between the stile and the cottage, a form, evidently that of a woman, appeared before him, and coming in his direction.
The figure came nearer, and a voice, that was certainly not Madeline's, said: "Is the gentleman going to old Hagar's cottage?"
"Are you Hagar?" replied Clarence, Yankee fashion.
"I am Hagar; and you are?"
"Then pass on, sir; the one you seek is there."
And the old woman waved her hand toward the light and hobbled on.
Clarence stared after her for a moment; but the darkness had devoured her, and he resumed his way toward the cottage.
In hastening to meet a friend we naturally have, in our mind, a picture. Our friend will look so, or so. Thus with Clarence Vaughan. Expecting to meet a pair of deep, sad, beautiful eyes, lifted to his own; to behold a fair forehead shadowed by soft, shining curls; judge of Clarence's surprise when the opened door revealed to him a small being of no shape in particular; a very black head of hair, surmounted by an ugly maid's cap; and a pair of unearthly, staring blue glasses.
Madeline had chosen to appear "in character" at this interview. She intended to keep her own personality out of sight, and she felt that she needed the aid and concealment that her disguise would afford. She would give Claire's schemes no vantage ground.
So Madeline Payne was carefully hidden away under the wig and pigment and padding; and Celine Leroque courteseyed demurely as she held the door open to admit him, and said:
"Good evening, Monsieur le Docteur; you perceive I am here before you."
"Rather, I don't perceive it. You are here before me in a double sense of the word; yes. And I suppose you call yourself—"
"Celine Leroque, at your service; maid-in-waiting to Miss Arthur, of Oakley."
Doctor Vaughan laughed.
"Well, won't you shake hands with an American of no special importance, Celine Leroque?"
She placed her hand in his and then drew forward a chair.
"I hope you found no difficulty in getting out to-night?" he said, sitting down and looking at her with a half-amused, half-grave countenance.
"None whatever; I have been suffering with a sick-headache all day."
"And you can get in again unseen?"
"Easily; in the evening the servants are all below stairs."
"But what an odd disguise! Do they never question your blue glasses?"
"Not half so much as they would question the eyes without them. They believe my eyes were ruined by close application to fine needle-work. And then—" she pushed up the glasses a trifle, and he saw that the eyelid, and a line underneath the eye, were artistically rouged—"they all acknowledge that my eyes look very weak."
"I fancy they'll find those eyes have looked too sharply for them, by and by."
She laughed lightly. "I hope so."
Sitting there in her prim disguise, the girl felt glad to gaze upon him; felt as if, look as much as she would, she was gazing from a safe distance.
Dr. Vaughan came straight to the point of his visit, beginning by requesting a repetition of such portion of the facts she had discovered as related most particularly to the two men, Davlin and Percy. Then he made his suggestion. To his surprise it was a welcome one to the girl.