Jarvis cocked up one eye as he replied, while shuffling the cards: "Every horn!"
"Want to buy?"
Jarvis looked him straight in the eye. "Want to sell?"
Jarvis dealt round with great precision, and then said: "All right, Cap. I'll talk with you when I get through this game."
Clarence nodded, and presently sauntered away. As soon as his back was turned, Jarvis jerked his thumb toward him, saying, confidentially:
"Young fellow; swell farmer; big stock-raiser." And then he plunged into the game with much enthusiasm.
Clarence resumed his seat and, for a few moments, thought very earnestly. The words of the detective had confirmed his suspicion. He now felt assured that Jarvis was bound for Bellair, and if so he was, no doubt, in the employ of Lucian Davlin, for some unknown purpose. What that purpose was, he must know at any cost.
By the time his plans were fairly matured, he observed that the group of card-players was breaking up. In another moment, Jarvis lounged lazily along and threw himself down upon the seat beside him.
In little more than half an hour they would be due in Bellair, and what Clarence desired to say must be said quickly. Taking out his cigar-case, he offered the man a weed, which was accepted with alacrity, and while it was being lighted, Clarence said: "Are you especially busy now?"
"N-o; only so-so."
"Learned anything more in regard to my man?"
"No," puffing contentedly; "we don't move in a case after it's paid off."
"I see," smiling; and then, making his first real venture: "Could you do some work for me to-morrow?"
Jarvis looked keenly at him, and Clarence hastened to say, with perfect, apparent, candor:
"The fact is I have been put back by a patient, and my own personal affairs have been neglected. So I have been unable to look you up at the office, in order to put a little matter into your hands. To-day I am called away unexpectedly." Then, as if struck by a sudden thought, "How long will you be out of town?"
Jarvis shook his head. "Don't know."
"By Jove, what a pity. I'd rather have you than any other man, and I won't stand about money; but my work won't keep long."
The doctor's flattery and the detective's avarice combined, had the desired effect. Jarvis unbent, and became more communicative. "Fact is," he said, squaring about, "I don't know my lay just yet."
"No?" inquiringly: "Going far out?"
"Well," as if about to drop the conversation, "I'm sorry you can't do the job. It's big pay and success sure. The truth is," lowering his voice confidentially, "there are two parties beside myself interested, and both have plenty of money. It's a snug sum to the man who does our work."
The detective looked grave, and then became confidential in his turn.
"The fact is,"—he was fond of using "facts" when it was possible to lug one in—"I am sent out to a small town as a sub."
"Yes; substitute. You see, one of our men was detailed to do some work for a chap who came to the Agency from this little town. It was a case of record hunting. Well, the man went out last night all O. K.; he was a little on the sport when off duty, but a tip-top chap when at work. Well, he got into a gambling brawl, and this morning they brought him in, done up."
"Yes; killed, you know."
"And so, you see, I am ordered down here to take the instructions of my gentleman, in the place of my pard, who won't receive any more orders here below."
"Then you don't yet know precisely what is required of you?"
"No; I was packed off at half an hour's notice, and don't even know the name of my employer. I have my instructions and his address here," tapping his breast pocket. "I believe the party lives out of town, at some manor or other."
Clarence was thinking very fast. There was but one "Manor" in or near Bellair. He looked at his time-card; there was but one town between them and that village. Holding the card in his hand he said:
"Well, I will try and tell you what I want done; that is, if there is time—how soon do you leave the train?"
Jarvis now scented a fat job, and thinking only of getting the particulars of that replied, rather incautiously, as he consulted the time-card in the hand of Clarence.
"By goshen! it's only two stations off—Bellair."
"Oh! Bellair, eh?"
Jarvis nodded ruefully, and then asked: "Where do you land?"
Clarence smiled a little as he replied: "Wait until you hear my business, then you will know where I am going."
"All right; fire away."
And the expert settled himself into a listening attitude. "The truth is, Jarvis, I want you back on the old case."
"What, the gambler's?"
"Yes, Davlin; he is about at the end of his rope, and will, in a short time, be trying to quit the country. Did you ever see the woman who is his partner in iniquity? You heard considerable of her while looking up this business."
"Heard of her? I should think so. Never saw her, though."
"No matter; you may see her soon. You see, they are now at work upon a fine piece of rascality. She has actually married an old man, supposing him to be wealthy, and Davlin is figuring as her brother. In reality, the old man, their victim, holds only a life interest in the property. So you see, even if they succeed with the thing in hand, they won't make much. And the person who will inherit, after the old gentleman passes away, is aware of their real character and is ready to spring upon them at the proper moment."
Jarvis gave a long, low whistle.
"Now, then, there is another crime—one that occurred some years ago, with which this man and woman are connected, and they are allowed to go free for a little time in order to complete the evidence in this second case."
Jarvis nodded sagely.
"So you see there will be double fees, and large ones. First, from the heir, and next, from the parties interested in the last case. The two are friends, in fact, and work together. Of course, I should expect to act according to the rules of your office, and I know that you are paid by your manager, but—if you can put me in possession of all the movements of Lucian Davlin for the next week, in addition to the salary paid you by your head officials, I will promise you one thousand dollars. If, later, you can supply the missing evidence, it shall be five thousand."
Jarvis looked hastily behind him. "Is he in this train?"
"Then were the dev—"
"Wait," interrupted Clarence. "I'll tell you where he is. But first you may attend to the business on which you came to Bellair. You may obey the instructions you shall receive to the letter. But I must know what it is you are bidden to do."
Jarvis knitted his brows and finally said, as if giving up a knotty problem, "Make things plainer; I am befogged."
"Plainly, then," said Clarence, "you are going to Bellair; and," drawing out his pocket-book, "you are not retained as yet for this work?"
"Well," placing a one hundred dollar bill in his hand, "I retain you for my case, here and now, and you may accept the other fee if you like."
"Look at the address of your new client."
Jarvis took from his pocket a number of cards, shuffled them off deftly and, selecting the right one at last, read slowly the name of his unseen employer. Then he glanced quickly up at Clarence, re-read his card, and leaning back upon the cushion, shook with silent laughter.
"Well, if you ain't the rummest one yet! And I'm your man! Why, bless my soul, you are a lawyer and detective all in one!"
Clarence smiled, but he knew this was the highest compliment that Jarvis was capable of. "Then I may depend upon you?" he asked.
They were nearing the village of Bellair now, and Clarence, who did not intend to let Jarvis know too much concerning his movements, gave him some hasty instructions, and ended by asking: "When do you go back to the city to report?"
"By the next train. Davlin is expecting me, and I shall take his orders and then go back."
"Very well; I'll see you in town to-morrow. Now, as it won't do to risk the chance of being seen together, I will go into the other car." And Clarence sauntered away.
"THOU SHALT NOT SERVE TWO MASTERS" SET AT NAUGHT.
Meanwhile, as they steamed into the village, which was the destination of both, Mr. Jarvis soliloquized, as he caressed his wallet pocket:
"I know who will butter my bread. Davlin is as slippery as an eel, and will end in trouble. Dr. Vaughan is a man of his word, and I don't need his bond. I'm sure of one thousand, if not of five. And I never was over fond of this gentleman gambler."
It may be remarked that Davlin was a man pretty well known by the police and detectives. A gambler riding the top wave of success might have found more favor in the eyes of Jarvis. But he knew, because of his previous investigations, that Davlin was not "flush" at that time.
Clarence kept carefully out of sight when the train reached the village. Springing lightly to the ground, on the opposite side from the platform, he walked swiftly away, unnoticed in the darkness. Once more he crossed the field and knocked at the door of Hagar's cottage, and this time it was Hagar who admitted him.
Eagerly he listened, while the old woman told him how very fast Cora was recovering now; how they had got Miss Arthur and Percy back into the house; and how very careful both Cora and Lucian were to treat them politely. Madeline had not confided to Hagar the story of Olive, and the old woman knew no more of Edward Percy than that he was, as she termed it, "a handsome hypocrite."
Clarence questioned Hagar closely. Had they made any attempt to find the one who took the papers?
"No," Hagar replied; "they had said that Celine Leroque had stolen money and jewels, but they had not said one word about any papers."
Last of all, she told him how, fearing that Henry was becoming too restive, and fearing, also, the effect of too much of the Professor's medicine upon the somewhat enfeebled system of the prisoner, she had made known to Henry the fact that he was working in the cause of his young lady. On learning this, and having it proved to his satisfaction, for he was at first inclined to be skeptical, he had been much delighted, and had since carried out the orders of Madeline as transmitted through Hagar.
Their conversation lasted a full hour, and then, having learned all that could be learned from that source, and having delivered all of the messages sent by Madeline, he bade the old woman a kind good-night, and retraced his steps across the field and back to the village.
* * * * *
When the night train halted at Bellair, Jarvis seated himself in the smoking-car, feeling quite self-satisfied. When the train moved on, he lighted a very black cigar, and began to contemplate the situation.
"Well, how do we stand now?"
As the voice of Clarence Vaughan fell upon his ear, Jarvis bounded from his seat like an india rubber ball and stared wildly at the young man who had dropped down into the seat beside him as if from the ceiling.
"Well, you are a rum one," said he, at last. "Might I ask where you came from?"
"From the ladies' carriage."
"Oh!" with the air of having made a discovery. "So you ride out of the city in a smoking-car for the purpose of riding back in the ladies' carriage?"
Clarence laughed again, settled himself comfortably in his seat and took out his cigar case. "Not exactly," proceeding to light a weed. "I am on pretty much the same business that you are, to-night." Then, taking a big puff, "I have been to Bellair, like yourself."
"The deuce you have!"
"Yes; how did your business prosper?"
Jarvis eyed him sharply. "Perhaps you know already."
"Perhaps I do. You have not got to look for stolen diamonds, have you?"
Jarvis laughed derisively.
"Or stolen money?" pursued Clarence.
Jarvis shrugged his shoulders.
Jarvis began to look foxy.
"Or a runaway young woman?"
Jarvis thought furiously for a moment; then turning square upon his interlocutor, said, significantly: "So there are stolen papers?"
Clarence smiled, but said nothing.
"And," pursued Jarvis, "when one loses one's papers, say deeds, or a—marriage certificate, one naturally thinks of hunting the records for proofs that such papers existed."
"And that is your work?"
"Take you out of the city?"
"Only a few miles."
Clarence reflected for a time, and then said: "You can do your work, but report all discoveries to me."
Jarvis assented, and they continued to talk of the matter in hand until the city was reached. Then, having made an appointment for the coming day, and agreed to let the work of shadowing the gambler or, rather, his business, remain a "private spec." to Jarvis, they separated.
Thoroughly wearied, Clarence sought his bachelor apartments and the repose he so much needed.
Early the next day he was up, and after paying a visit to his patient, he turned his steps, or the steps of his horse, in the direction of the villa.
He found Madeline sitting up, feeling much better, and looking altogether lovely. Drawing their chairs near together in front of the crackling grate fire, the three discussed the result of the journey to Bellair. Having first related the news imparted by Hagar, Dr. Vaughan turned to Madeline and asked:
"What is your theory, sister mine, in regard to this change at Oakley? Why have they turned about and taken up Miss Arthur and her fiance with such sudden affection. Have you guessed?"
The girl smiled up at him as she replied: "Certainly; have not you?"
"You incorrigible little lawyer! Yes, but give us yours first."
"Why," said Madeline with a light laugh, "I suppose they have been suspecting the wrong party. They think that I was an emissary of Mr. Percy's."
"Undoubtedly that is the truth," assented Clarence.
"And," added Madeline, "believing the documents in his possession, it is easy to understand that they prefer having the gentleman under the same roof with themselves."
"True; now, the question that interests us is, how long will it be before they find out their mistake?"
"I think," said the girl, reflectively, "that their game will be covert, not open, attack, from the fact that they have kept the loss of the papers so carefully from the servants. If this is true, they will move cautiously, and aim to convince the man that they do not suspect him."
"You see the necessity for action, do you not?" Madeline said, after a silence. "I must make my next move within a few days."
"I don't fancy that we need fear any new developments that will be dangerous to our cause just yet."
Then he told them of his meeting with the detective, and its results, adding: "You see, Jarvis can withhold his reports to suit our convenience, and you can grow strong, feeling secure."
Meantime, Jarvis set about his task of record hunting. He was energetic and resolute as a sleuth hound on the scent; so he soon made one or two discoveries.
One day, very cleverly gotten upon as a dapper lawyer, he dropped in at the office of Messrs. Lord & Myers, bankers. Mr. Lord was an old man with a shrewd, twinkling eye; and as the sham lawyer had selected his time wisely, he found the old banker alone.
They were closeted in close converse for nearly half an hour, at the end of which time, the dapper lawyer took his departure, looking rather downcast; and Mr. Lord, with his little eyes brighter than ever, sat down and penned a letter to his friend and brother banker, Mr. Allyne, of Baltimore.
MR. LORD'S LETTER.
The friendship that had sprung up between Claire Keith and Mrs. Ralston, grew and strengthened as the days went by.
Claire's enthusiasm had overflowed in more than one letter to Olive. The oft-repeated wish that her new friend and her much loved sister might meet, had at last drawn from that somewhat preoccupied sister a very cordial invitation to bring Mrs. Ralston to New York.
When this invitation came, Claire, feeling that it was now time to unfold to her friend the sad pages of Olive's history, sought her for that purpose. But as she deemed that the time had not yet come for telling anyone of the hoped-for lifting of the cloud, especially as to do so she must tell too of Madeline, she refrained from mentioning the names of the actors in that miserable drama.
Mrs. Ralston was deeply interested in the story of Olive's sorrow; and having heard it, she felt a stronger desire than before to see this beautiful, sad-hearted sister, who was so beloved by Claire. Bending down she kissed the fair face, flushed with the excitement Claire always felt when recounting her sister's wrongs, and those of Philip Girard, and said, tenderly:
"Thank your sister in my name, my darling. And tell her that I will certainly avail myself of her kind invitation, at some future time."
Claire's eyes danced eagerly. "Oh, I wish we could go now—at least, soon."
Fate chose to grant Claire's desire in a most unexpected manner, for while they were still sitting, talking, in the semi-twilight, the library door opened and a servant announced Mr. Allyne, to see Mrs. Ralston. At once Mrs. Keith and her daughter arose to leave the room. But Mrs. Ralston said, earnestly:
"Pray, do not go; there can be no need for a private interview."
And as at that moment Mr. Allyne himself appeared on the threshold, the ladies all advanced to welcome him, and, this ceremony being over, resumed their seats.
"I have just received this letter from Mr. Lord," said Mr. Allyne, after some moments of general conversation. "Read it, and then tell me your opinion of its contents."
The lady took the letter, looking the while somewhat anxious. As she read, the look of apprehension deepened. When at last she dropped the letter, her hands were trembling visibly, and her face was pale and agitated. For a moment she sat in silence, her eyes full of fear and her hands working nervously. Then she seemed to recover herself by a powerful effort of will. Taking up the letter, she placed it in the hand of Mrs. Keith, saying: "Read it, dear friend."
Mrs. Keith took the letter and read:
NEW YORK, Dec. 7th.
WM. ALLYNE, ESQ.,
Dear Sir:—A man assuming to be a lawyer called on me this afternoon, and requested information regarding our friend, Mrs. Ralston. If I am not much mistaken he is in reality a detective—I think I remember him in the Mallory case—and is, doubtless, looking up evidence in regard to the lady's second and most unfortunate marriage, either at the instigation of her vagabond husband or some of his supposed heirs.
If you know the present address of Mrs. R., it would be well to communicate with her, as some of her old servants are now in this city, at service, and this fellow might ferret out something through them.
Having no authority to act in the matter, I could do no more than baffle this man's inquiries so far as I was concerned, much as I desire to serve the lady when I know the way.
One thing: the fellow evidently believes in the story of her death.
Yours, etc., J. M. LORD.
The three, Mrs. Ralston, Claire and Mr. Allyne, listened in silence while Mrs. Keith read this letter. When at last she raised her eyes, Mrs. Ralston said:
"I must go to New York immediately, Mrs. Keith, and do, pray, allow Claire to accompany me. I must accept of the hospitality of Mrs. Girard, and I can not go alone."
Mrs. Keith looked grave for a moment. Then, she said: "Mr. Allyne, is it necessary that Mrs. Ralston should go at once?"
"I think it advisable," replied Mr. Allyne. "Once in New York, Lord can receive Mrs. Ralston's instructions, and act for her. In cases like these I don't think it is best to trust to correspondence."
"And, oh! don't let us delay a moment! Once there, I can keep my old servants, who are all true friends, from inadvertently betraying me. And I can trust Mr. Lord to find out who is the instigator of this search," said Mrs. Ralston, eagerly. "Mr. Allyne, when can we start; how soon?"
"Not earlier than to-morrow morning."
"Claire, can you be ready on such short notice?" asked the now anxious lady.
"I? Oh, yes, indeed!" laughed the girl. "I could be ready in an hour! I do detest waiting—don't you, Mrs. Ralston?"
"Very much, just now," said that lady, making an effort to smile; "forgive me, dear friends, but I am really unstrung. The thought of being hunted by that man is too horrible, after these years of peace."
"Then don't think of it, dear Mrs. Ralston," cooed Claire. "You will be as safe as safe in the seclusion of my sister's villa. And you can set things straight soon, when we have arrived. There can't be much to fear, can there, Mr. Allyne?"
"Nothing very formidable," said the banker, rising to take his leave. "Pray, don't exaggerate the trouble, Mrs. Ralston. Prompt attention, such as Lord will give the matter, will make all safe. Besides, he is not hunting you; the man thinks you dead."
"True; I had forgotten," said the lady, looking somewhat reassured. "Claire, we will pack to-night, and then try and be content until it is time to go."
"Meantime, I will telegraph to Lord and let him know that you will come, and when," said Mr. Allyne, taking up his hat to depart.
The morning of their departure dawned clear and bright. Claire was in extravagant spirits, while even Mrs. Ralston seemed to catch the infectious cheeriness of the day, and her companion's mood.
When they were about to enter the carriage that was to take them to the depot, a letter was put into the hand of Miss Keith. She flung back her veil and leaning back among the cushions perused it in attentive silence. Having finished, she looked up with a little frown upon her brow, and exclaimed:
"How very provoking!"
Mrs. Ralston looked alarmed. "Is your sister ill?"
"Oh, no; it's Madeline."
"The young girl I have heard you speak of?"
"Is she ill?"
"No; she got well, just to avoid me; she is gone."
"Yes; or will be, when we arrive. Why, how stupid I am not to explain! Madeline Payne has been with Olive nearly a week. She has been sick, but is better, and will leave there to-day."
Claire had said but little concerning Madeline, fearing lest in her enthusiasm she should say too much. But she had revolved many plans for bringing about a meeting between Mrs. Ralston and her "brave girl."
"I HAVE COME BACK TO MY OWN!"
Quite the pleasantest of all the rooms that had been so sumptuously fitted up, when "Mrs. Torrance" came to Oakley, a bride, was the back drawing-room. At least it was pleasantest in Winter. Its large windows faced south and west, and all of the Winter sunshine fell upon them, glowing through crimson curtains, and helping the piled-up anthracite in the grate to bathe the room in a ruddiness of crimson and golden bronze.
On this particular December day, the air was crisp and cold, and full of floating particles of hoar frost, while the winter sun shone bright and clear. Outside, one felt that it was an exceedingly cold sun. But viewed from within, it looked inviting enough, and one felt inspired to dash out into the frosty air and try if they could not walk a la hippogriffe, without touching their feet to the ground.
Some such thought was floating through the mind of Mrs. John Arthur, who was progressing in her convalescence very rapidly now, and who had, on this day, made her second descent to the drawing-rooms.
She had donned, for the first time since her illness, a dinner-dress of rosy silk, its sweeping train and elbow sleeves enriched with flounces of black lace. As there was, at present, no need to play the invalid—herself and Davlin being the sole occupants of the room—she was sweeping up and down its length like a caged lioness.
By and by she swerved from her course, and coming to the grate, put a daintily shod foot upon the bronze fender. Resting one hand on a chair, and looking down upon Davlin, who was lounging before the fire in full dinner costume, she said, abruptly:
"How very interesting all this is!"
Davlin made no sign that he heard.
"Do you know how long we have been playing this little game, sir?"
The man smiled, in that cool way, so exasperating always to her, and lifting one hand, began to tell off the months on his fingers.
"Let me see, ball opened in June, did it not?"
She nodded impatiently.
"June!" He was thinking of his June flirting with Madeline Payne, and involuntarily glanced at the windows from whence could be seen the very trees under which they had wandered, himself and that fair dead girl, in early June. "Yes, the last of June—I remember,"—reflectively.
"And pray, from what event does your memory date?" exclaimed Cora, with strong sarcasm.
He glanced up quickly. "Why, Ma Belle, from your introduction to the hills and vales of Bellair, and the master of Oakley."
"Oh, I thought it was from the time you received your pistol wound."
Davlin smiled. "Yes, that scratch was given in June; but I don't date from trifles, Co."
"Oh! Well, I fancy it was not the fault of the hand that aimed the bullet, or rather of the heart, that you got a 'mere scratch.' I never believed in your card-table explanation of that affair, sir."
"Well, don't call me to account for your want of faith."
"I believe you promised yourself revenge on the fellow who shot at you. Why didn't you take it?"
Lucian stooped down and brushed an imaginary speck from his boot toe, saying, as he did so: "I was forestalled."
"Oh, well, I don't care about dead men—what I am anxious about is this—"
"Oh, yes," maliciously. "Return to subject under discussion. You embarked in this enterprise in June—"
"Late in Summer, bagged your game; in early Autumn, fitted up this jolly old rookery—"
Cora gave a sniff of disdain.
"Next—well, you know what next. We haven't been two months at this last job."
"Nevertheless I am tired of it."
"I won't stay here a prisoner much longer!"
Davlin came close to her, and letting one hand rest upon her shoulder, placed the other over hers, which still lay upon the chair back.
"Cora, we won't quarrel about this. The situation is as trying to me as to you; more so. But our safety lies in moving with caution, and—I will not permit you to compromise us by any hasty act. You understand!"
His eyes held her as in a spell, and when, after a moment, the hand fell from her shoulder and his eyes withdrew their mesmeric gaze, the woman shrunk from under the one detaining hand and turned sullenly away, looking like a baffled leopardess.
Davlin resumed his seat and his former careless attitude. Cora walked to the window and looked down upon the scene below.
At length the man asked, carelessly: "Where's Percy?"
"Down there," nodding toward the terrace, a portion of which was visible from her point of view. "And, of course, my lady is in her room watching from her window. When he throws away his cigar, and turns toward the house, she will come down; not before."
Davlin laughed at her emphasis, and while the sound still vibrated on the air, the woman turned, and flinging herself upon a divan, said:
"There, she is coming!"
Complain as she might in private, Cora had acted her part to perfection. Between herself and Miss Arthur, there now existed an appearance of great cordiality and friendliness. While she treated Percy with utmost politeness and hospitality, the remembrance of ten years ago acted as an effectual bar to anything like coquetry, where he was concerned.
Scarcely had Cora settled herself comfortably upon her divan, when the door opened noiselessly, and Miss Arthur sailed in, diffusing through the room the odor of Patchouli as she came. She was, as usual, a marvel of beflounced silk, false curls, rouge, and pearl powder. Her face beamed upon Cora in friendliness as she approached her, saying, with much effusion:
"Oh, you poor child, how delightful to see you once more among us, and looking like yourself."
Lucian arose and gallantly wheeled forward a large easy chair, saying: "And how charming you look, Miss Ellen; you make poor Cora appear quite shabby by contrast."
Cora cast a rather ungrateful glance at the gentleman, and the spinster simpered, "Oh, you horrid man! Brothers are so ungrateful!"
At this juncture, as Cora had predicted, Mr. Percy presented himself, and the four fell into attitudes, in front of the grate—Percy leaning on the back of Miss Arthur's chair, and Cora and Davlin in their former places.
"Merci," said Miss Arthur, pretending to stifle a yawn, "why can't we all be out in this keen air and sunshine? If there were but snow on the ground!"
"Snow!" cried Cora, annoyed out of her usual assumption of feebleness; "don't mention it, if you don't want me to die. We won't have snow, if you please, until I can drive in a cutter."
Percy laughed softly; his laugh was always disagreeable to Cora, as having an undercurrent of meaning intended for her alone. And Davlin said:
"Hear and heed, all ye gods of the wind and weather."
"Well, laugh," said Cora, half laughing herself, "but I am beginning to feel ambitious. Do let's try to set something afoot to make us feel as if we were alive, and glad that we were."
"Agreed, Cora," cried Miss Arthur, gushingly, "only tell us what it shall be."
"Suggest, suggest;" this from Davlin.
The spinster glanced up coquettishly, "Edward, you suggest."
Percy caressed his blonde whiskers thoughtfully, and letting his eyes rest carelessly on Cora, said, meaningly: "Let's poison each other!"
"Or commit suicide!" retorted Cora, coolly.
"Let's be more sensible," said Davlin. "Let's organize a matrimonial society, get up a wedding, and go on a journey."
"Anything that will break the monotony," said Cora, while the fair spinster giggled and put her hands before her face.
At that moment the monotony was broken.
While the words were still lingering on the lips of the fair convalescent, the door was opened wide by old Hagar, who said, as if she had been all her life announcing the arrival of great ones at the court of St. James:
"Miss Madeline Payne!"
Then she stepped back, and a vision appeared before them which struck them dumb and motionless with surprise.
Across the threshold swept a young lady, richly robed in trailing silk and velvet and fur; with a face fair as a star-flower, haughty as the face of any duchess; with amber eyes that gazed upon them contemptuously, masterfully, fearlessly; with wave upon wave of golden brown hair, clustering about the temples and snowy neck; and with scarlet lips half parted in a scornful smile.
She swept the length of the room with matchless grace and self-possession, and pausing before the astonished group, said, in a voice clear as the chime of silver bells:
"Good-evening, ladies and gentlemen! I believe I have not the honor of knowing—ah, yes, this is Miss Arthur; Aunt Ellen, how do you do?"
There are some scenes that beggar description, and this was such an one.
Miss Arthur, who clearly recognized in this lovely young lady the little Madeline of years ago, was so stricken with astonishment that she utterly forgot how appropriate it would be to faint.
Cora sat like one in a nightmare.
Percy was conscious of but one feeling. True to his nature even here, he was staring at this vision of beauty, thinking only, "how lovely! how lovely!"
And Lucian Davlin? At the first sight of that face, the first sound of that voice, he had felt as if turning to stone, incapable of movement or speech. At that moment, had Cora once glanced toward him, his face must have betrayed his secret. But her eyes were fixed on Madeline.
Davlin felt a tempest raging within his bosom. Madeline alive! This glowing, brilliant, richly robed, queenly creature—Madeline! Again in his ears rang her farewell words. Quick as lightning came the thought: she was his enemy, she would denounce him! And yet, throughout every fiber of his being, he felt a thrill of gladness. Again there surged in his heart the mad love that had sprung into being when she had so gloriously defied him. She was not dead, and he was glad!
Old Hagar had closed the door after her young mistress; and now she stood near it, calm and immovable as a block of ice.
Madeline Payne stood, for a moment, gazing laughingly into the amazed face of the spinster. Then she said: "Come, come, Aunt Ellen, don't stare at me as if I were a ghost! Introduce me to your friends. Is this lady my new step-mamma?"
Cora roused herself from her stupor, and said, haughtily: "I am Mrs. Arthur, and the mistress of the house!"
"Ah! then you are my new step-mamma? And you have been very ill, I understand. Pray, don't rise, madame; you look feeble." Then, turning again to Miss Arthur: "Don't you intend to speak to me, Aunt Ellen?"
"But," gasped the spinster, "I thought, that—you—"
"Oh, I see! You thought that I was dead, and you have been grieving for me. Well, I will explain: I ran away from my respected papa because he had selected for me a husband not at all to my taste. Not desiring to return immediately, I seized an opportunity that came in my way, and bestowed my name upon a poor girl who died in the hospital, thus making sure that my anxious friends would abandon all search for me. However, I have thought better of my decision, and so I return to my own home to take my position under the chaperonage of my pretty step-mamma, as the Heiress of Oakley!"
These last words opened the eyes of Cora to the new "situation." Springing to her feet, she forgot for the moment all her weakness, and cried, wrathfully: "You cannot come here with such a trumped-up story! Madeline Payne is dead and buried. You are a base impostor!"
Madeline turned tranquilly towards the spinster. "Aunt Ellen, am I an impostor?"
"No," said Ellen Arthur, sullenly; "you are Madeline Payne. Any one in the village could testify to that."
Madeline turned to Cora. "Step-mamma, I forgive you. It is hard to find the entailed estate of Oakley slipping out of your hands, no doubt, but this world is full of disappointments."
Cora's eyes sought Lucian. That gentleman, who had, outwardly at least, regained his composure, telegraphed her to be silent.
Miss Payne asked: "Which of these gentlemen is your brother, Mrs. Arthur?"
Lucian stepped forward with his usual grace, saying; "I am Mrs. Arthur's brother, Miss Payne. Pray, let me apologize for her discourteous reception of you; she has been very ill, and is nervous."
Madeline sank into a chair and surveyed him coolly, while she said: "It is not necessary to apologize for your sister, Mr.—"
"Davlin," supplied Miss Arthur.
"Davlin," repeated Madeline, as if the name had fallen upon her ears for the first time. "No doubt we shall be the best of friends by and by. I certainly have to thank her for making so marked an improvement in these old rooms," glancing about her.
Here the still confused Miss Arthur, in obedience to a sign from her lover, said: "Miss Madeline, this is my friend, Mr. Percy."
Mr. Percy advanced, bowing like a courtier. The young lady scrutinized him coolly, saying, with a gleam of mischief in her eyes: "I am delighted to meet any friend of my aunt's."
Then she turned to Davlin again: "But where is my step-papa? I have kept myself partially informed of events here. Is he still unable to be about?"
Davlin looked very serious: "Miss Payne, I fear that my unhappy brother-in-law will never recover his reason."
Madeline uttered an exclamation expressive of concern, and said: "Oh, Mr. Davlin, then don't let him know that I am here; at least not yet. I am so afraid of the insane. I couldn't bear to see him now."
Cora drew a breath of relief, on hearing this. But Lucian, who knew the girl better, began to fear her, and mentally resolved to define his own position as speedily as possible. One thing was evident; it was no part of her plan to betray him, at least not yet.
"Nurse," said Madeline, turning to Hagar, "see that a room is prepared for me immediately, and send a servant to the station for my luggage. Also, prepare a room for my maid, who is below, and tell her to get me out a dinner dress immediately."
Then turning to Cora, "Step-mamma, you look fatigued. Do go to your room and rest before dinner. Mr. Davlin, at what hour do you dine?"
He explained their reason for dining so early, and she said, as she turned again to Cora,
"Do lie down, step-mamma; there is still a half-hour before dinner. And now I will go look after my maid."
She swept them all a stately courtesy, and Percy springing forward to open the door, she thanked him with a charming side glance, and passed from the room like a young princess.
There was dead silence among them for a full minute after the door had closed behind her. Then Percy turned with a disagreeable smile upon his face, and said:
"You don't stand in need of something exciting now, do you,—Mrs. Arthur?"
This was too much. Cora sprang to her feet and casting one meaning glance toward Davlin, swept from the room, erect and firm, utterly regardless of the fact that her exit was quite incompatible with the invalid role she had been sustaining.
An angry flush overspread the face of Lucian Davlin, as he realized, after one quick look at the face of Percy, how thoroughly she had betrayed herself. He was too good a diplomat, however, to quit the field without a stroke in his own behalf. So giving a low whistle he turned toward the spinster, saying:
"See what excitement will do. One would think she had the strength of two of us."
To which Percy responded, dryly: "She certainly did not step like an invalid."
Then the three stood looking aimlessly at each other or anything, seemingly not at all inclined to converse.
After a few moments of listless gazing out at the window, Lucian turned upon his heel and quitted the room. He was too wise to approach Cora in her present mood. Even had he thought it advisable, he felt little inclination to see and converse with her or anyone then. Like a man in a dream, he wandered out and down the wide hall. Almost unconsciously he opened the library door, and crossing to the great double window, leaned against the casement and looked out.
Again his eyes rested upon the grove where he had so often wandered with the lovely girl who, to-day, had so coolly ignored him. Then she had clung to him with trusting affection; now,—how did she look upon him now? Could the love that she surely had felt for him in those Summer days, have entirely died out in her heart? Did not a woman's love outlast her anger? And was he not the same man, with the same will-power, and the same strength of magnetism?
Where had she been all these months? And how came she here now, robed liked a princess; she, who had certainly left her home penniless? Clearly, she had found friends. Who were they? And what did they know of matters here at Oakley?
For once Mr. Davlin was at a loss how to act. Would it be safe to stay? Would it be wise to go? Would he be able to control Cora in this new emergency? One thing was certain: The heiress of Oakley meant to be mistress in her mother's house, and she was in a fair way to possess the throne.
Lucian turned away from the window, and from the scene that mocked him, muttering: "I will see her alone, let come what will. I will make one struggle to regain my power over her, and if I succeed—"
Evidently the wily gambler could not testify as to what would be likely to follow. For the second time since his partnership with Cora, he found that lady a stumbling-block by no means despicable.
On leaving the drawing-room, Cora rushed up the stairs, and throwing open the door of her dressing-room, fairly precipitated herself across the threshold, forgetting in her blind rage to close the door behind her. She stood still for an instant, and then, springing to the window, threw it wide open, letting in a flood of wintry air. For a moment she leaned across the sill, drinking in deep draughts of the frosty ether. Then dashing down the sash, she turned swiftly, and encountered a pair of bright black eyes that looked in at her from the secure darkness of the hall. Sweeping across the room, she confronted the owner of the eyes, demanding haughtily:
"Who are you? And how dare you spy at my door?"
The woman—for it was a woman—came forward and said, respectfully: "If you please, I am Miss Payne's maid, and I was just bringing up some things from the hall, ma'am," lifting to view a chatelaine and shawl strap. "I didn't mean to annoy you. I was only surprised to see such a pretty young lady here."
Miss Payne's maid was a large woman of a very uncertain age, arrayed in sober black, not at all like the usual ladies' maid. But she seemed so very respectful, and full of contrition at having annoyed such a "pretty lady," that Cora made no further assault upon her, but closed the door with unusual emphasis instead, and gave way once more to the wrath that was filling her soul.
To be baffled like this now; now, when her schemes were approaching fruition; now, when this fair domain, this splendid fortune, was just within her grasp, to have it plucked from her hand by a mere girl, who mocked her while she said, "this wealth is mine, this house is mine; woman, you have schemed in vain!"
And this was not all. She had bound herself hand and foot. She had jeopardized her liberty, for what might not occur, now that this girl could demand access to the imprisoned old man, her step-father? If she dared, she would go away that very night. But no; this would only confirm suspicion, if suspicion were entertained.
Not the least drop in her cup of bitterness, was the knowledge that Edward Percy was secretly enjoying her discomfiture. As she thought of him, and his look when she swept past him, Cora stopped short in her angry promenade, and frowned fiercely. Then she crossed to her mirror and surveyed her agitated face, saying, half aloud:
"At least I will rob him of that pleasure; baffled as I may be, he shall never enjoy my discomfiture! I can act a part yet. And Edward Percy shall find that if my schemes are to be overthrown, his, too, may suffer. He rejoices to see me thwarted; I will thwart him, let it cost what it may!"
And Cora began to smooth her rumpled locks, and put her somewhat disarranged toilet in order, with swift, firm fingers. While she was thus occupied, there came a tap upon her door. Recognizing it at once, as Davlin's knock, she said, "come," and never once lifted her eyes from her task.
Lucian, finding that the dinner hour was at hand, and beginning to fear that Cora might still further commit herself, had thought it wisest to come and see what was the state of her feelings, and endeavor to persuade her to play out her part. He entered the room with some apprehension; but seeing her so composed, came close as she stood before her dressing-glass and said, as he gazed down at the flounce she was busy adjusting:
"Now is the time for pluck, Co. You will come down?"
Cora gave a last touch to the silk and lace and then, letting the sweeping train fall from her hand, and standing very erect before him, said:
"Yes, I shall go down. Do you suppose I will let that man think that I am completely annihilated? There; don't talk to me now! I shall not forget myself again, never fear. But after dinner, come to me here. You were wise enough to bring me into this charming 'corner,' now let your wisdom take me out of it, or I will extricate myself in my own way."
Again the iron hand fell upon her shoulder, as her partner in iniquity hissed in her ear:
"And I intend that you shall not be a fool! Our game is not lost. Let me once get the lay of the land, and we may win yet."
She turned her eyes upon him with angry incredulity. "How, pray?"
"Wait and see!"
She made no reply, but, taking up her dainty handkerchief, turned to leave the room, motioning him to precede her. In the hall, she paused at the head of the stairs, saying:
"Go down; I will come directly."
"What are you going to do?"
"Go down," she repeated; "I know what I am doing."
She went slowly down the hall in the direction of the room before which stood Madeline's luggage that had just arrived from the little station.
Lucian gazed after her in some amazement, watched her tap softly, heard the door open, saw her enter the room, and then went slowly down-stairs.
CORA UNDER ORDERS.
When Cora entered the room, Madeline Payne stood before her mirror, while her maid, kneeling beside her, arranged the folds of lustrous azure silk that fell about the slender form.
The door had been opened by Hagar, who could scarcely keep her eyes off the beautiful face and form of her young mistress, and who was, in consequence, making very slow progress with the work of putting away the garments that had been discarded in favor of the lovely dinner dress.
Madeline realized fully that the part she was now playing was even more difficult and distasteful than that which she had abandoned. But she was resolute. To go back now would be worse than death. While she felt a thrill of repugnance as she saw the fair, sensual face of John Arthur's wife reflected in her mirror, she turned with smiling countenance, saying:
"Is it you, step-mamma? How kind of you! Am I delaying the dinner?"
"No more than I am," smiled Cora, in return. "I thought you might like me to wait for you, as you are so much of a stranger to your old home."
"Oh, I am not at all timid, I assure you; but it is nicer to go together. Am I almost ready, Strong?"
"Almost, Miss Payne."
"How quickly your maid dresses you," said Cora, resolved to keep the conversational ball rolling.
"Oh, yes; Strong knows how to pack things so that what you want first is uppermost, and I had my dinner dress in a hand traveling-case." Then, turning about she asked, abruptly: "Have you a good maid, step-mamma?"
Cora laughed nervously as she replied: "I have no maid, good or bad. My maid ran away a week ago, after robbing me and nearly killing me with chloroform."
"Mercy, what a wretch! What have you done with her?"
"We have not found her."
"Did you look?"
"Yes; detectives are looking for her now."
"Well, I hope they will find her. Now I am ready; come, step-mamma."
And together the two descended the stairs.
Three faces reflected three degrees of surprise, as the ladies entered the drawing-room with every appearance of good feeling and mutual satisfaction. Davlin and Percy took their cue immediately. The only one whom an observer would have pronounced not quite at ease, was Miss Ellen Arthur, who stared from one to the other rather more than was polite, and who sustained her part in the conversation in a very nervous, fragmentary manner.
Dinner being announced, Mr. Davlin promptly offered his arm to Madeline, who accepted it with perfect nonchalance. They followed Cora to the dining-room, themselves followed by Miss Arthur and Percy.
Where four people separately, and each for his own end, determine to appear cordial and perfectly at ease, each one bent upon completely blinding the other three, there must of a necessity be much conversation, and more or less hilarity, whether real or assumed.
These four, who were waging upon each other secret and deadly war, ate and drank together; and while Madeline regaled them with a fictitious account of herself during the time she had been supposed dead, the others listened and commented, and vied with each other in paying hypocritical court to the heiress of Oakley.
"You see, step-mamma," said Madeline, as they lingered over their dessert, "I was never ignorant of what was going on here. My old nurse kept me informed. When I sent you the fiction of my death, I had no intention of returning, for I had determined never to live at Oakley during my step-father's reign. But upon hearing of his insanity, I resolved to come back, being now, of course, the real head of the house. Mr. Arthur being non compos mentis, I, as heiress, assume control of my own."
If a wish could have killed, Cora would have closed forever that insolent smiling mouth. But she felt herself powerless.
Davlin, with inimitable tact, came to her rescue: "Cora will be only too glad to welcome the queen back to her own. Indeed, she has been for some time declaring her intention of abdicating, for a time at least, and taking Mr. Arthur south to some medicinal springs. But the doctor fears the change will not benefit him."
Madeline turned her eyes upon Cora. "She can't go just yet," she said, with odd decision; "I want her society. Where is your doctor, Mr. Davlin?"
"He is up-stairs with his patient, Miss Payne. He usually joins us at breakfast, but not often at dinner."
The truth was that Lucian, not feeling upon safe ground, had advised the "doctor" to keep discreetly out of the way of this shrewd young lady for the present, lest her keen questions should draw out something not to their advantage.
Miss Payne turned to Cora again. "You have perfect confidence in the skill of this doctor, step-mamma?"
"Oh, yes!" said Cora, positively; "he has been known to me a very long time. Besides, we had in one of the Bellair doctors, who agreed with Dr. Le Guise in every particular."
"Well, I must see this learned gentleman to-morrow, and my step-papa also, I think. Step-mamma, you look fatigued; dining is too much for your strength. Let us leave the gentlemen to their wine and cigars."
As if she had been presiding at that table all her life, Miss Payne arose, bowed to the two men, and preceding the two astonished ladies, swept from the dining-room.
Cora, as she followed the graceful figure, could hardly restrain her mortification and rage. She felt a longing amounting almost to frenzy, to spring upon the girl and stab her in the back.
The two men did not linger long in the dining-room. Each felt anxious, for reasons of his own, to be again in the presence of Miss Payne, and so soon joined the ladies in the drawing-room.
After a little more hypocrisy on all their parts, Cora arose to retire to her apartments, declaring that the excitement of Miss Payne's arrival had made her forgetful of herself and her health, and that she began to feel her fictitious strength departing.
Madeline, too, arose, and offering her arm to Cora, said that she would also retire. Nodding a careless good-night to the three deserted ones, she left the room, with the fair invalid leaning languidly upon her arm.
To the surprise and dissatisfaction of Cora, Madeline not only accompanied her to her own apartment, but entered with her. Having closed the door carefully behind them, she turned about, and dropping all her assumed gayety and friendliness, said with the air of a queen commanding a subject:
"Now, Mrs. Arthur, let us understand each other!"
The sudden and marked change of her voice and manner startled the woman out of all her self-possession. She stood staring in the stern face of the girl with all of the audacity frightened out of her own.
Cora was an adventuress to the tips of her fingers. She was fond of intrigue; she possessed a certain kind of courage; but she was, after all, at heart, a coward. She was quite willing to compromise her soul for gain, but not her body. In short, she loved herself too well to find any piquancy in personal danger.
Since the loss of the papers and the flight of Celine Leroque had shaken her feeling of security, Cora had been restive and anxious to bring this plot to a climax. She had found it not at all to her taste to have Percy holding over her head a sword, be it ever so slender. And now, as she confronted Madeline, all her selfishness was alarmed. She waited in absolute fear the next words from the lips of her enemy.
"You need not weary yourself by playing the invalid in my presence, madame," pursued the girl. "I am quite well aware that your illness has been all a sham. I know, too, that you have found the role of invalid very irksome."
The eyes of Cora widened still more, and all the color fled from her lips. But she made a fierce struggle and, although she could not summon up her usual insolence, she managed to gasp out, half defiantly: "What do you mean?"
"You understand my meaning," replied the girl, with contempt. "I mean that you are in my power, and that you must obey my will."
For a moment Cora's anger outweighed her fear. She came a step nearer and said, sneeringly: "Indeed, Miss Payne! That remains to be seen!"
"True," assented Madeline, coldly. "First, then, you had better instruct your friend, Dr. Le Guise, not to administer hasheesh to Mr. Arthur to-morrow, in order to have him properly insane when I visit him."
Cora's knees bent under her, and all the color fled out of her face. But she rallied her flying courage enough to say: "Explain yourself, Miss Payne."
Madeline drew toward her Cora's easiest lounging chair, and seated herself therein with much deliberation, saying, as she did so:
"You had better sit down, Mrs. Arthur; there is no necessity for a display of anger, or for any more attempts at deception. The one is as useless as the other is transparent. And I have considerable to say to you."
Cora moved sullenly toward a chair and sank into it, feeling like a woman in a nightmare.
"First, then, for your position," pursued Madeline. "It is sufficient to say that I know of your scheme to dispose of Mr. Arthur and inherit the wealth you supposed to be his."
Cora was beginning to feel a return of combativeness, and she exclaimed quickly: "That is false!"
"I know," pursued her inquisitor, ignoring her retort, "that this man you call 'Dr. Le Guise,' is your tool and—I have had every drug that has been prescribed by him analyzed by city physicians!"
Cora saw that she was indeed undone, and began to fight with the recklessness of despair. "I don't believe you!" she cried, reckless that she was committing herself. "That old spy, Hagar, has fancied these things. How could you get the medicines?"
"Not through Hagar."
"Just as I got the certificate of your marriage with Mr. Percy."
The woman sprang to her feet. "You—you are—"
"Celine Leroque, madame!" with an imitation of the ladies' maid accent.
Cora fell back in her chair panting.
"Now," resumed Madeline, "why don't you reflect that, if it were my intention to denounce you, I could have done that long ago. Are you not aware that my step-father is my enemy?"
"Not—in that way."
"In that way precisely. John Arthur tortured my mother until she died heart-broken. He made my childhood miserable, and shut me up in a convent to pass my girlhood in loneliness. He bartered me in marriage to a man older and uglier than himself, for ten thousand dollars. Then I defied him to his face; swore to revenge upon him my mother's wrongs and mine; and ran away. Do you understand now why I have allowed you to persecute John Arthur?"
Cora's courage began to revive. "I think I do," she said, slowly.
"You see, Mrs. Arthur, it is in my power to arrest you; first, for Bigamy, and second, for Attempted Poisoning."
Cora looked at her coolly. "But you won't do either," she said.
"Won't I? And why not?"
"Because, to do either, you must bring your own name into too prominent notice."
Madeline laughed scornfully.
"You forget," she said, "I left my home for revenge. I feigned to be dead—I returned to Oakley in disguise—for revenge. Do you think that I will let my pride stay me when, by exposing you, I can complete my vengeance upon John Arthur?"
Cora's countenance fell. She had not viewed the matter in just that light. She made no answer, and Madeline continued:
"Don't flatter yourself that I shall hesitate, if I cannot effect my purpose otherwise. I am not disposed just now to war with you, but if you do not see fit to accept my terms, then I must turn against you."
"What do you want of me?" sullenly.
"I want you to continue as we have begun. I want Miss Arthur, Mr. Percy, and your brother, to believe us the best of friends. Above all, I want John Arthur to think us allies."
"And what then?"
"Then, you will be safe so far as I am concerned. Then, when I have accomplished my purpose and hold in my hands the keys to the Oakley coffers, you shall have money, and shall go hence to resume your career in whatever field you choose."
"What security have I for all this?"
"And if I reject your terms?"
Madeline smiled oddly.
"What is to prevent my leaving this place now, to-night?" said Cora.
Madeline laughed, saying: "Do you want to try that?"
"If I did, what then?"
"Then—you would not be permitted to leave these premises!"
"Ah! you have spies in this house!"
"Yes; and out of it. There is no chance for you to escape. There is no chance for any one to escape. Mrs. Arthur, is this man that you call your brother really such, or is he, too, in your plot?"
Cora looked at her keenly, but it was no part of Madeline's plan to let her know that she had ever seen Lucian Davlin before that evening. Her face was as calm and inscrutable as the face of the sphinx.
"No," said Cora, at length "my brother does not know of it."
"I am glad of that," replied Madeline. "But, for fear of any deception, he will be kept under surveillance; and if anything is communicated to him I shall surely know it."
"Why did you rob me of those papers?" asked Cora, abruptly.
"Because," said Madeline, leaning forward, "you and I have a common enemy."
"What! not Percy?"
Cora looked amazed. "But—have you known him before?"
"I never saw him until he came to Oakley."
"I can't see how he has incurred your enmity here."
"He has not incurred my enmity here. I hated him before I ever saw him."
"Because he has wronged a friend who is as dear to me as life."
"Don't puzzle your brain over this; you won't be enlightened. It is sufficient for you to know that you can serve me if you choose, because we are both enemies of the same men." Then, rising, "Now choose; will you remain here as my ally, or leave in disgrace, and a prisoner, as my enemy?"
Cora reflected, and finally said: "I accept your terms."
"Very good; and now for precautions. You must allow me to supply you with a maid."
"You are an invalid; I am well and strong. What could be more natural than that I should desire you to have every care and comfort that I can desire? I shall give you my maid; she will supply the place of Celine Leroque."
"I won't have her," cried Cora, angrily. "I won't have a jailer."
"Certainly not; you will have my maid, however. I will get another to-morrow."
"I won't have her!"
"Nonsense." Madeline stepped quickly to the door and opened it. "Strong," she said, softly.
Instantly in stepped Strong, who had been just outside awaiting the orders of her mistress.
"Strong," said Madeline, "I am going to let you wait upon Mrs. Arthur. She is in delicate health, and needs a maid. You must be very attentive, and don't let her get into any draughts. You can sleep in the dressing-room; and if she is not well cared for, I shall hold you accountable."
Cora looked at the big, robust woman, so appropriately called Strong, and felt that she was indeed a prisoner.
Strong bowed in silent submission to the will of her late mistress, and turned her broad visage upon her new one.
Madeline moved to leave the room, saying, with a return to her former manner: "Good-night, step-mamma; try and go down to breakfast with me in the morning, won't you?"
Without waiting for a reply, she opened the door and swept across the hall, and Cora heard her door close behind her. Not deigning a single glance at Strong, Cora sat tapping her foot upon the carpet and reviewing the situation. After some angry musing, the practical side of her nature began to assert itself. She reflected that she was not, after all, in immediate danger; and that she would be still, to all outward appearance, the mistress of Oakley. There was not much to fear just now, and she would keep her eyes open.
Meantime, she would not be unnecessarily uncomfortable. And so, being by nature indolent, she decided to make the most of the unwelcome Strong. Turning toward the statue-like figure near the door, she galvanized it into life by saying:
"Strong, get my dressing-gown from that closet, and then take off my dress."
And Strong commenced her duties with cheerful alacrity.
John Arthur sat before a smoldering fire, gazing moodily down at the charred embers that had lost their glow and only showed a dark red light here and there, as if to assure one that there was fire in the grate.
He was thinner than of old. His face wore a sickly pallor. His hands that clutched the arms of his invalid's chair worked incessantly, indicating surely that his nerves were in anything but a state of calm. He was feeble, too, in body; but his mind, spite of the verdict of the Bellair physician and the drugs of the Professor, was still unimpaired.
In the solitude of the two rooms, out of which he had not once stepped since first he was removed to the west wing, he had had ample time for reflection; but he had by no means arrived at a state of mental beatitude.
He had found it useless to struggle, useless to bluster, to argue or to plead. Henry was a merciless jailer, and Dr. Le Guise a sarcastic one.
His breakfast had been served, and stood upon the table beside him; but he scarcely glanced at it. When Henry came in from the ante-room to remove the things, he said, without looking up: "Go ask Le Guise to come to me."
Henry carried away the tray, deposited it in the ante-room, locked the door of the chamber carefully, and made his way to the breakfast-room.
At that moment, the incongruous mixture called the family, were there assembled, including the Professor. The latter was just then discussing the condition of his patient with Miss Payne, in blissful ignorance of the fact that the young lady was fully conversant with his mode of treatment, and the true condition of her step-father's health.
"You see, my dear young lady," the Professor said, pompously, "his is the worst form of insanity; the very worst. When a patient raves constantly we know precisely what to do with him. But when he is, at times, to all appearance, as sane as yourself, and yet liable at any moment to blaze out a perfect madman, one dislikes to treat him as a madman, and yet it is not safe to consider him a sane being."
Madeline nodded, with a splendid assumption of profound interest.
"It's a sad case," she said, pensively. "I almost dread the interview."
"I think he is quite collected this morning, and he may be calm throughout. I hope so, for I should not like to have you witness one of his tantrums."
"I have seen him in tantrums when he was considered sane," said the girl, with an odd intonation.
Then looking up, she saw Henry, who had entered the room and stood staring at her in speechless amazement. Hagar had informed him that his young mistress was in the house. But he was not prepared for the vision of loveliness that the girl presented, as she turned toward him clad in her morning robe of snowy cashmere bordered with swansdown, and trailing after her like a train of snow. Luckily no one noted his start of surprise and quick glance of recognition, and Madeline said:
"Is not that my step-father's attendant, doctor? I think he wants you."
The "doctor" beckoned Henry to approach, and said, affably: "Well, and how is our patient, Henry?"
"About as usual, sir. But he wants to see you."
"Oh, he does? Poor soul, I'll come directly, Henry." Then, turning to Madeline: "Shall I break to him the news of your arrival?"
"No; not unless you think it unsafe to surprise him."
"On the contrary, an agreeable surprise might prove beneficial."
The Professor, who had received sundry instructions from Davlin, assumed to be ignorant of the fact that the patient supposed his step-daughter dead.
Smiling a little at the hypocrisy of the man, who pretended to have at heart the interest of a patient supposed to be in an excessively nervous state, yet was quite ready to expose that patient to the shock of meeting, without previous preparation, one supposed to be dead and in her grave, Madeline turned, and with a gesture brought Cora to her side.
"Is Dr. Le Guise aware that my step-papa believes me to be dead?" she asked.
Cora and the Professor looked dubiously at one another for an instant. Then the former, seeing her cue in the face of the latter, said: "He is not."
"Well, step-mamma, I am going up to see him soon, and, on second thought, it will be best to have the doctor inform him of my resurrection."
"And," pursued the girl, "I will only say that I desire you, doctor, to inform him that I feigned death for reasons of my own. That I am here in the flesh, and will appear in his presence soon. When you have prepared him for my coming, have the goodness to come down and tell me."
Saying this she turned away, after which the Professor quitted the room to obey the summons of his patient.
Lucian Davlin had witnessed the interview, the summons and the departure, from a distance. He had found no opportunity for conversing with Cora, as yet, and was sorely puzzled by the present aspect of affairs.
He had watched the two narrowly, but he found himself unable to read the true meaning lurking beneath the soft words that fell from the lips of Madeline. He could hear no jar in the music of her voice, could catch no glance that would give the lie to her honeyed words. She was playing her part like a born actress.
He had not expected to see Cora accept the situation without a struggle. He was glad to find that there was to be no scene, and yet—somehow he felt himself at a disadvantage.
He had viewed the situation from his stand-point, however, and had decided upon his course of action.
First, he was resolved not to quit the field until he had made a desperate attempt to regain his power over the heiress of Oakley. Second, he would use stratagem in order to obtain an interview with her.
In due time, Dr. Le Guise came among them once more, and announced to Madeline his readiness to conduct her into the presence of his patient.
"He is quite prepared to see me, then?" questioned Madeline.
"Quite, although I left him a trifle agitated and upset."
As they paused at the door leading from the hall of the west wing, she said:
"I will go in alone, Dr. Le Guise."
"As you please." Then, as it were an afterthought. "I really believe, for your own safety, you had better keep Henry near you."
"I shall be in no danger," she replied, and entered the outer chamber, closing and locking the door after herself.
In answer to her knock, the door of the ante-chamber was unlocked and opened by Henry. Madeline swept across the threshold and extended her hand to the faithful fellow, saying:
"Henry, I am glad to see you. I hope you do not find your present duties too heavy?"
"Not since I knew I was serving you, miss," said the man, respectfully.
"You are serving me, Henry. I need you here very much; and rest assured you shall have your reward for all you have done or may do for me."
Evidently the prospect of reward was not unpleasing to him. His countenance beamed satisfaction.
"And, Henry," continued his mistress, "attend to this. You are not, on any account, to give your charge any more of the medicine prepared for him by the doctor."
A look of surprise shone from the eyes of the negro, but he answered simply, like the well-trained servant he was: "Yes, miss."
"Above all, Henry, you are to let the doctor think that you administer all that he gives you."
Henry signified that he fully understood and would obey his instructions. Then he opened the inner door, and John Arthur and Madeline Payne stood once more face to face!
For a moment, the two eyed each other in silence. Then John Arthur said, with a sneer on his lip, and in a tone which proved clearly that time and imprisonment had not taught him meekness:
"So, you young jade, what escapade have you been up to now? And how dare you come back here like a young princess? Why don't you keep out of my house?"
Madeline laughed scornfully. "Your house!—But I forgive you, step-papa; of course you are not accountable for your words."
Her tone was mockery itself. The man found it difficult to restrain his wrath as he looked in her scornful face and said: "Don't dare to pretend to believe that I am crazy! Are you in league against me, too?"
Wishing to draw from him just how much of the baseness of Cora he believed in, or suspected, she dropped her voice and asked, in assumed surprise: "Is it possible that you believe some one to be plotting against you?"
"Is it possible! How else could I be kept shut up a prisoner in my own house?"
The girl seemed to ponder. "Who is your enemy?" she asked.
"Every one in this house."
"What! Surely not your wife?"
"I'm not so certain of that."
"But she, too, has been sick."
"Have they locked her up?" snapped he.
Madeline smiled. "Well, not exactly; she is not allowed much liberty, though."
"Why won't she come and see me?"
"Mercy! She is too delicate."
"Seems to me you are well informed for one so lately arrived."
"I am well informed, Mr. Arthur. But I am not a late arrival."
"What do you mean?" sullenly.
"Just what I say," with an odd laugh. "I have been in this house since you were first put in these rooms."
He sat like one stupefied. At last he sprang up and fairly yelled, "In the fiend's name, explain this chicanery. Why are you here? Who is keeping me a prisoner, and wherefore? Is it you, you little virago?"
"Softly, step-papa; one thing at a time. I am here because you are here," she said in a voice of unruffled calm. "Who is keeping you a prisoner, you ask? I am."
Once more he seemed on the point of giving way to a paroxysm of rage, but controlled himself and said, sullenly:
"I suppose I may thank you for my imprisonment from first to last."
"You may thank me if you choose, but it will be bestowing your gratitude upon the wrong party. I did not lock you up. I simply permitted it."
"And why have you leagued with my wife—curse her—to shut me up like a thief?"
"Why?" her voice rising in angry scorn, "Do you ask me why? Why did you make my mother almost a prisoner in her own home? Why did you crush her in life, and blaspheme her in death? Why did you drive her daughter from the home that was hers, to escape from your cruelty, your insults, your avarice? John Arthur, how dare you ask me why you are here!"
Again the flashing eye, the ringing, wrathful voice, the white, uplifted hand. They menaced him again, as on that June evening when she had defied him and then fled out into the darkness, not to return, save in dreams, until now.
Again he felt a thrill of terror, and he sat before her mute and cowering. At last he found voice to say: "Do you mean that you intend to keep me a prisoner?"
Her eyes met his full. They were cold as snow and resolute as fate. "You will never leave these rooms until you accede to the terms I have to propose."
Her audacity fairly stunned him. He fell back a pace as he said: "What—terms?"
"First, you are to agree to resign the guardianship of my property. Second, you are to leave Oakley forthwith and forever, and to keep ever and always away from me and all that is mine."
"Bah!" he cried, angrily, "do you think I am a fool? I won't resign my guardianship; the property is mine, not yours!"
"Then I will choose a new guardian immediately. How ignorant of law you are, step-papa! Don't you know that you are legally dead? Don't you know that a lunatic can't hold property? Legally, I can choose a guardian to-morrow."
"You she-devil! But I am not a lunatic!" sneered he.
"How obtuse you are, step-papa! You are a lunatic; we have the certificates of two physicians to that effect; and that is all the law requires. Now, be reasonable; what can you do?"
"I'll get out, by heavens," he yelled; "and I'll put you in State's prison for false imprisonment!"
She turned upon him with the utmost composure. "My dear sir, you have not one witness to prove that you are a sane man. There are many to prove that you have been subject to violent fits of madness."
She turned again, and he, no longer seeking to control his rage, sprang toward her, uttering a volley of curses.
During their entire interview, Henry had stood like a sentinel at the outer door of the ante-room, while that leading into the chamber of the prisoner stood wide open. At the first accent of rage, he darted forward; and as the girl sprang away from her step-father, that gentleman felt himself seized and hurled with scant ceremony to the middle of the room.
"Don't you try that, sir!" cried Henry, in high wrath. "You won't find me a friend, if you do."
"So," panted the old man, "this is one of your hirelings, is it? And pray, sir, what is this young fiend to pay you for your services?"
"That's my affair," responded the man, coolly. "You can't buy me off; and if you try that game again, you will get yourself into a straight jacket."
Madeline laughed, and said: "There, Henry, you need not be alarmed for me. But when you report this attack to the doctor, tell him that I think he had better take measures to secure his safety and yours, in case your patient should be again seized with a fit of violence."
John Arthur immediately saw that he had damaged his own cause.
"You had better sleep upon my proposition, Mr. Arthur," said Madeline, from the threshold. "If you pine for liberty, send for me. And don't think, for a moment, that I shall allow you to go free without taking the necessary precautions to insure myself against any trouble you might desire to make me. Adieu, Mr. Arthur." And she swept from the room.
John Arthur stood for many minutes in the same place and attitude. When his anger would permit him, he began to wonder. She had come and gone, and how much the wiser was he? Where had she been all these months? Why had she allowed them to think her dead? Who were her friends, for friends she must have found? Why had her presence in the house, if she had been here, been kept from him? How had she gained the ascendancy over every one in that house? He thought so long and intensely that he started up, at last, almost beginning to fear that he was becoming mad.
When Dr. Le Guise again came into his presence, he began to question him. But it was labor lost. Dr. Le Guise would not admit that he was a sane man. Dr. Le Guise knew nothing, absolutely nothing, outside the range of his professional duties. He was sorry for his patient; very sorry. He assumed to take all assertions on the part of Mr. Arthur as so many fresh evidences of insanity.
He was very grave, was Dr. Le Guise, but not to be moved. In fact, the prisoner fancied that he could observe in the doctor's tone, manner, and countenance, an unusual degree of complacency, and relish for his position and authority. And the prisoner was right. The reason for the doctor's placidity of manner was simply this:
Madeline on leaving the rooms of the west wing, had encountered the worthy "doctor" just at the turn of the passage, and she had paused, saying:
"Dr. Le Guise, you were right about my unfortunate step-father. He is quite mad, and really a dangerous charge. An ordinary fee is too little to offer you, considering what you have undertaken. I don't know what terms my step-mamma has made with you, but I will volunteer to double her price. You will be amply remunerated, and must consider the house and everything in it at your disposal, so long as you keep your patient safe, and do not permit him to do any mischief."
The astute Professor had taken in the full meaning of her words, which served to quiet the fears that had haunted him since the advent of Miss Payne; fears that the young lady would prove to be an enemy, and one keen enough to fathom the secret they were keeping hidden in the west wing.
He had seen that, for some reason, neither Cora nor Davlin dared, or did, oppose her. Now he fancied he understood the reason; it was because they did not fear her, for her interests were in common with theirs.
"He is certainly a dangerous man," said the Professor, gravely; "I will obey your instructions to the letter."
Madeline having left the morning-room, accompanied by the too observant Professor, Lucian saw at once his opportunity for a few words with Cora. Without too great an appearance of haste, he moved across the room, pausing before the fire, in front of which Miss Arthur was seated, and addressing to her a few careless words. Then he glanced at Percy, who sat at the most remote corner of the room, assuming to be much interested in some geological specimens in a little cabinet.
Cora divined his intention. She knew, too, that this was the very best place for an interview, which she desired to make a brief one, being somewhat afraid of committing herself if she allowed him to ask too many questions. So she moved over to the window, and seated herself in a low chair.
She had decided upon her own present course of action. She would play her part well while she remained at Oakley, and she would escape from it as soon as she had succeeded in blinding the eyes of her jailers, for she mentally acknowledged them as such.
When Davlin at length crossed the room, and dropped carelessly down in the chair at her side, she lifted her eyes to his, and said, inquiringly: "Well?"
He looked at her keenly for a moment. Then, not to lose any time by useless words, came straight at the point.
"Time's precious, Co. We can't attract attention by a long dialogue, and yet we must talk things over. When can I find you alone?"
"Not at all for a day or two."
"Why not?" elevating his eyebrows.
Cora rested her head upon her hand in such a way as to conceal from those at the opposite end of the room, the expression of her face, and said:
"Because I want to be sure that we can talk without being observed. Miss Payne seems very friendly, and has given me her maid because, she says, an invalid needs waiting on, and she sleeps in my dressing-room. I don't want to excite suspicion by sending her away, in order to admit you, and—I don't see that there is much to be said."
Lucian seemed weighing her words for a moment. Then he asked: "What do you make of Miss Payne?"
"What do you make of her?" she retorted, quickly.
"Nothing, as yet."
"No more do I."
Another brief silence, and then he asked: "Do you think there is any immediate danger—for us?"
"From him: Arthur."
Now came Cora's grand coup. She felt pretty sure that Lucian knew of her interview with Madeline, and believed that she would be telling him no news when she said:
"Listen! She went with me to my room last night, and she asked a good many questions about him. And I am sure of this: she is no friend to him, and if she sees no reason for suspecting any of us, she won't trouble herself about him. She told me that she ran away from home because she had been so oppressed by him, and that his attempt to marry her off, in order to put money in his own pocket, was only one among many of the things she had endured at his hands. Of one thing I am sure: the old man may be a stumbling-block to us, but he is an object of positive hatred to her."
Cora uttered this combination of truth and falsehood without the least compunction. If she could have warned him of the danger hanging over them without jeopardizing herself, she would have done so. But that, she knew, was impossible.
He had planned this "game" which now bade fair to be such an utter failure, and if anyone must suffer, why, let it be him. And then, too, she reasoned, she had not gathered from the words of Madeline that she suspected Mr. Davlin of duplicity of any kind. As for the Professor, Cora cared little what became of him. She could gain nothing and might, doubtless would, lose much by warning him.
Lastly, Cora assured herself that were their positions reversed, and Lucian the one who saw that his own safety lay in leaving her to her fate, he would not scruple to make her his scapegoat. And in this she was quite right.
Again the man seemed to puzzle over some knotty, mental question. Then he arose, and leaning against the window frame in a favorite attitude, glanced across at Percy and the spinster as he asked, slowly: "Did she say anything about me?"
Cora looked up in genuine surprise. "About you? No; why should she?"
"I mean," he said, "did she say anything to cause you to think that she suspected us?"
"No," shortly; "why should she? She never saw either of us until yesterday."
"What do you think brought her back here just now?"
"It's easy enough to see why she came back. She has heard of the insanity of Mr. Arthur, and has come, as she said, to take possession of her own."
Another pause; then Cora said: "Is the Professor 'up' to anything new?"
"Then don't let him take the alarm. It would hurt us. We can't run now, and I don't think we have much to fear. We will lose the money—that's all."
Lucian looked out upon the evergreens and graveled walks of Oakley, and said, under his breath: "Will we?"
Then he turned upon his heel and sauntered out of the room.
The question that was then uppermost in his mind, the question that had been since the first shock of her reappearance had given him time to think, was, why had Madeline returned to Oakley?
Was it, as she alleged, because she had changed her mind, and wanted to be mistress of her own? Or was it because he was there? If he could convince himself that the latter reason was the true one, then he would know how to act.
She had kept herself informed of affairs at Oakley. Then she must have known of the fact that the so-called brother of John Arthur's wife was Lucian Davlin. She must have known that. Of course she knew it. Did not her manner on the evening of her arrival prove that? Not for one instant did she lose her self-possession. Had his presence been unexpected, she could hardly have restrained every sign of emotion, of recognition. Clearly, she was prepared for their meeting.
Ah! now he was getting at things. If she came to Oakley, knowing him to be established there as a member of the family, she came expecting to meet him. She was not afraid of him, then. She was not averse to meeting him. Perhaps—he began to think it highly probable—she came solely to meet him. If so, did she come for love, or—for revenge?
If she came for revenge why did she not denounce him? But no, she would hardly do that. What woman would? But she might have assumed toward him a more hostile attitude.
Finally, his masculine vanity helped him to a conclusion. A woman seldom forgets her first love so easily, and he could meet her so differently now. She had not forgotten her love for him. He could win it back, and her forgiveness with it. And then—then, if he could but manage Cora, what would hinder him from marrying her, and being in clover ever after! He was tired of roving; they could go to the city; he need not give up gaming, and—he really loved the girl; had loved her since the day she had escaped from his snare.
Having arrived at this stage in his day-dream, he began to feel buoyant. And when he heard from the Professor the result of Madeline's visit to her step-father, his complacency was at high tide.
"It's all in a nutshell to me," said the Professor, as they smoked their confidential cigars in the privacy of Lucian's own room. "Mind, I don't suppose she is up to our game; she can't be, you know; but she is pretty thoroughly convinced that what she thinks is his insanity, is but temporary."
"How do you know that?" interrupted Lucian, sharply.
"Not from anything she said; I had very few words with her. But look here, Davlin, isn't this a clear case enough? When I went up to see the old fool, after their interview, I find him in a paroxysm of rage. Of course he makes his complaint; his ravings informed me of this: She told him that she did not really think him very crazy herself, but two doctors did, and she didn't feel called to dispute them. She told him that he could not prove himself sane in any court in America; and that he, being insane, was dead in law; and she was going to choose another guardian."
Lucian Davlin fairly bounded from the chair. "That's it!" he ejaculated under his breath.
"Then," pursues the Professor, puffing away tranquilly, "she comes straight from this interview and meets me, to whom she says that, 'It is a most deplorable and dangerous case; that he is really liable to attack me or Henry at any moment; that I must take every precaution and guard against his sudden attack, even if I were forced to confine him still more closely; and that she had suspected him of partial insanity long ago.' Now, what do you think of that?"
Precisely what he thought it was not Mr. Davlin's intention to tell. One idea, however, he expressed promptly enough: "I think," he said, leaning a little forward and looking full at his companion, "that you had better take the advice of Miss Payne. Confine him close, the closer the better; but don't drug him any more at present!"
The Professor nodded serenely as he said: "Right, quite right. Just what I was about to suggest."
He might have added that he had resolved upon taking the course indicated, even if the suggestion had not been made. "The young lady holds the winning cards," he had assured himself. "I will take her orders before I get myself in too deep!" His "too deep" meant deep as the grave.
And now Lucian had a new subject for conjecture. If Miss Payne proposed to appoint for herself a guardian, who would she select? Who had been caring for her during all these months? Was it man or woman?
The only information she had volunteered had been implied rather than spoken. In answer to Miss Arthur's rather abrupt query at the breakfast table, as to how she had managed to prosper so well in a strange city where she had no friends, the girl had replied, with a little laugh:
"I suppose it has never occurred to either yourself or Mr. Arthur that I might have found out some of my mother's friends. I was put in possession of my mother's journal on the very day that I ran away from Oakley. I am not so friendless as you may think."
Lucian was again puzzled, but knowing the girl as he did, he was not prepared to believe that a guardian, in the form of a lover, would appear. He was now convinced that Cora, whom at first he had somewhat doubted, was not for some unknown reason attempting to deceive him.
The Professor's story had corroborated hers, and given him, as he expressed it, "a fresh point" in his game. But alas for Lucian! Every fancied discovery only beguiled him farther and farther from the truth, and rendered him more and more blind to the chains that were being forged about him.
THE DAYS PASS BY.
Several days passed and still Lucian Davlin had not found the much wished for opportunity to converse with Madeline. Neither had he been able to find Cora alone. Visit her room when he would, there was the burly waiting-maid. Finally Cora had warned him, with some asperity, that his "actions looked rather suspicious," and then he obeyed her gentle hint and remained aloof.
Two days after the bestowal of Strong, the maid, upon the not-too-grateful Cora, an angular, grenadier-looking female presented herself at the servants' entrance, announcing that she was "the new maid;" and she was installed as high priestess of Madeline's apartments without loss of time.
The servants below stairs made comments, as servants will. Even Miss Arthur, Percy, and Davlin agreed in calling the two maids, respectively, "Grenadier" and "Griffin."
But only Cora knew that the two were better learned in the art of spying than in matters of the toilet. She knew herself to be under continual surveillance. Above stairs or below, Madeline or Hagar, Strong or Joliffe were not far away. And yet she had not abandoned her plan of escaping.
One morning, Cora, looking from the window of her dressing room, saw two men moving about in the grounds below. Upon commenting upon their presence there, Strong had answered, readily;
"Yes, madame, Joliffe tells me that they are here to sink a well. Miss Payne has decided to have a fountain among those cedar trees, and they are to go to work immediately."
"But a well in winter! They can't dig."
"They don't dig; they bore. It's to be a fountain, madame."
But in spite of the "fountain" explanation, Cora knew that the house was guarded from without as well as from within.
"It's no use to warn Lucian, or anybody, now," she thought. "It would only get us all into worse trouble."
But still she did not abandon the thoughts of her own escape.
And now began a time of trial for poor Ellen Arthur. Madeline Payne, after studiously ignoring the two men for some days, began to unbend. She commenced by conversing with Percy, listening to his slow and stately sentences, smiling her approval, and completely captivating that susceptible gentleman. Then, by degrees, she drew Lucian into the conversation, and smiled upon and listened to him.
All this Cora observed, wondering what the girl was trying to do; while the spinster looked on in untold agony, fearful lest this fair sorceress should avenge herself for some of her childish grievances by robbing her of her lover.
Meanwhile Lucian Davlin interpreted all this in his own favor. "She is proud and still resentful," he thought. "And she is using Percy as a medium of approach to me."
At last Lucian, growing impatient, resorted to an old, old trick. He watched his opportunity, and one evening, as Madeline was following Cora from the drawing-room, the door of which he was holding open for their exit, he pushed into her hand a small scrap of paper.
She would have dropped it; her first impulse was to do so, but Cora turned as her hand was about to loosen its clasp upon the fragment. So she passed on, carrying it with her to her own room. There she opened it and read these pencilled words:
For God's sake do not torture me longer. You have condemned me without a hearing. Be as merciful as you are strong and lovely. At least let me see you alone, when I can plead for myself.
Half an hour later, Hagar tapped at his door. When he opened it, she put in his hand a bit of paper, on which were these faintly-pencilled lines:
If you desire my friendship, you must date our acquaintance from this week. You never knew me in the past.
"And she is right," muttered he; "the Madeline Payne of last summer, and the Madeline Payne of now, are to each other as the chrysalis to the butterfly, in beauty; as the kitten to the panther, in spirit; as the babe to the woman, in mind. That Madeline pleased me; this one, I love."
So he accepted the position, and did not give up striving to draw from her some special word, or look, or tone, that he need not feel belonged as much to Percy as to himself.
Meantime Percy was revolving various things in his learned head.
He had been, as a matter of course, deeply impressed with her beauty, and he had been much puzzled as well.
Having witnessed her arrival, he had fully expected rebellion from Cora, for Cora was not the woman to be barred out from a prospective fortune and make no sign. But there was no war, and no indications of battle. Cora and the heiress were wonderfully friendly. Mr. Percy could not understand it.
The manner of Davlin toward him had not changed in the least, remaining as studiously polite as when he was so cordially invited to take up his abode under the hospitable roof of Oakley.
That of Cora was decidedly different. While before she addressed him with a sort of conciliating courtesy, and had seemed desirous of furthering his plans and hastening on his marriage with Miss Arthur, she now manifested an almost contemptuous indifference, not only to himself, but to his fiance.
True to her nature, Cora was gathering up what gleams of satisfaction she could. When she had become assured that it was not Percy who held possession of her stolen papers, and that the girl in whose hands they were was more his enemy than hers, she rejoiced in his discomfiture to come. Seeing that it was no longer necessary to propitiate her enemy, she indulged in the luxury of acting out her hatred, when she could without betraying to Davlin this change, which might require an explanation.
That some sort of understanding existed between Miss Payne and Cora, Percy instantly surmised, and every day confirmed the belief. That Miss Payne held the power, he also believed. So believing, he began to wonder if it were not better to "be off with the old love," and seek to win the heiress, for the vanity of Mr. Percy inspired him to believe that it would not be a hopeless task. He had heard, however, of that person who, "between two stools," fell to the ground, and he was careful not to reveal to Miss Arthur the laxity of his affections.
And so the days moved on.
Percy dividing his attention between his fiance and Miss Payne; studying the latter, and closely watching Davlin and Cora.
That last named lady smiling and lounging below stairs, sulking and smoking above, and always under surveillance.
Davlin, having assured Cora that he was acting from motives politic, paying open court to Madeline.
That young lady calmly acting her part, thoroughly understanding and heartily despising them all.
John Arthur alternately raging and sulking, obdurately refusing to accede to his step-daughter's terms, and vowing to escape and wreak vengeance upon every one of them.
"Dr. Le Guise," calm as a Summer morning, and taking more real ease and comfort than all the others combined.
Hagar watchful and anxious.
The two new maids making themselves popular in the kitchen, and "sleeping with their eyes open."
* * * * *
And still no clue by which Madeline and her efficient aides de camp could unravel the web of doubt that still clung about, and kept a prisoner, the long-suffering Philip Girard.
A STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM.
After some days of outward calm, came a ripple upon the surface of events.
It had been a dull, cloudy day, with occasional gusts of wind and rain; wind that chilled to the very marrow, and rain that froze as it fell.
The three men, Davlin, Percy and the Professor, had been constrained to abandon their customary morning walk, with cigar accompaniment, up and down the terrace. And the well-borers had been obliged to stop their work.
Mrs. Arthur had kept her room and her bed all day long, afflicted by a raging toothache. Strong was kept at her side, almost constantly applying hot water, laudanum and various other local applications. As the day advanced, the sufferer seemed growing worse; and when Madeline came in to administer consolation, and see if the woman were really ill, Cora sent for Dr. Le Guise, vowing she would have the tooth out, and every other one in her head, if the pain did not stop. But when the Professor arrived, her courage failed her. She drew back at the sight of the formidable forceps, saying that she would "try and endure it a little longer; it seemed a bit easier just then."
All this Madeline noted. Retiring from the room she signaled to Strong to follow her out. "What do you think of her?" questioned Madeline of the latter, as the door closed between them and Cora.
Strong looked dubious. "I really don't know what to think, Miss Payne," she said. "If it is shamming, it is the best I ever saw."
"True," answered Madeline; "I am at a loss. You had better apply some test, Strong, and—keep all your medicines out of her reach. Don't let her get any laudanum, or anything; and presently report to me. She must not be left alone, however; when I send Joliffe in, do you come to me."
Madeline passed on to her own room, and Strong returned to her patient.
When Joliffe went to her relief, Strong presented herself before Madeline, saying: "I can't think she is shamming, Miss Payne. I suggested a mustard blister, and she never made a murmur. I put it on awful strong, and she declared that it was nothing to the pain. When I took it off her cheek was red as flannel, and she wanted it put on again. She says it relieves her, and thinks if the pain don't come back she will sleep. I made sure of the bottles all the same," added Strong. "I have used a lot of chloroform on her, but of course some would evaporate." And she held up to view a half-filled chloroform vial.
She was right; full half an ounce had "evaporated," during the brief minute when she had stood in the hall to confer with Madeline.
Altogether, Strong had a hard day.
Cora kept her continually on her feet. The blinds must be opened, and shut again, every fifteen minutes. The room was too hot, and the fire must be smothered. Then it was too cold, and the fire must be stimulated to a blaze. And no one could wait upon her but Strong.
As night came on, the paroxysms of pain returned in full force, and Strong was implored once more to apply the soothing mustard.
When Madeline looked in at ten o'clock, Cora was groaning in misery, and Strong was applying a blister. When she again looked in, an hour later, the invalid, with blistered face and fevered eyes, feebly declared herself a "trifle easier," and Strong was bathing her head with eau de Cologne.
Madeline soon retired to her room, and her couch. But for half an hour longer, Cora kept the now yawning Strong at her side. Then she said:
"Go now and get some rest, Strong. Leave the mustard on my face, and then I think I can sleep. I am getting drowsy now."