Strong replaced the mustard, and raked up the fire. Then she looked carefully to the fastenings of the doors, and returned to the bedside. Already her mistress was in a heavy slumber.
Putting in her pocket the keys of both doors, Strong retired to the dressing-room and, loosening her garments, threw herself down wearily upon a couch, and was soon sleeping the sleep of the just, and breathing heavily.
For some moments after the loud breathing told that her maid was asleep, Cora lay quietly, but with eyes wide open. Then she stirred, making a slight noise, but the heavy breathing continued as before.
Cora now raised herself up on her elbow and again listened. Still the heavy breathing. Again she moved audibly, at the same time calling softly: "Strong!"
But Strong slumbered on.
Quickly snatching the bandages from her much enduring face, Cora sprang lightly from the bed. Taking something from under her pillows, she stole noiselessly into the dressing-room and up to the couch of the sleeping Strong. In another instant there was a pungent odor in the room, and something white and moist lay over the musical proboscis of the slumbering giantess.
In five minutes more, Cora Arthur stood arrayed in a dark traveling suit, with a pair of walking boots in one hand, and the key of her chamber door in the other. Swiftly and silently as a professional house-breaker, she opened the door and passed out, closing it quietly behind her.
Like a shadow she glided down the now unlighted stairway, and through the dark and silent hall, in the direction of the dining-room. Turning to the left, she paused before a side door, the very door through which Madeline had escaped on a certain eventful June night, and noiselessly undid the fastenings. In another moment she was outside, and the door had closed behind her.
She drew a long breath of relief, and sat down to put on her shoes. Her escape was well timed; the train for the city, the midnight express, was due in twenty minutes. Strong would hardly waken before that time, and then—she would be flying across the country at the heels of the iron horse.
Rising to her feet, she took one step in the darkness—only one. Then a light suddenly flashed before her eyes, a heavy hand grasped her arm, and a gruff voice said: "This is a bad night for ladies to be abroad. You had better go back, ma'am!"
Cora made a desperate effort to free herself, but the hand held her as in a vise, and the bull's eye of the dark lantern flashed in her face as the speaker continued:
"Yes, you are the identical one I am looking for. Got a red face—toothache didn't make you a trifle lightheaded, did it? Come, turn about, quick!"
And Cora knew that Madeline Payne had not been as blind as she had seemed. It was useless to struggle, useless to protest. The strong hand pushed her toward the entrance. The man gripped the lantern in his teeth, while he opened the door, and pushing her through, followed after. Closing the door again, and never once releasing his hold upon her, he forced her unwilling feet to retrace their steps, saying, as they ascended the stairs:
"Show the way to your own room, if you don't want me to rouse the house."
Quivering with rage, Cora pointed to the door, and was immediately ushered, with more force than politeness, back into her own dressing-room and the presence of her still insensible maid.
"Now, then," said her tormentor, "where is Miss Payne's room? No nonsense, mind; I'm not a flat."
Cora, thoroughly convinced of the truth of this statement, sullenly directed him to Madeline's door.
"Stand where you are," was the next command of the man; "it might jar your tooth to move."
And Cora stood where he had left her, while he aroused Miss Payne and communicated to her the news of the night's exploit.
In a very few moments Joliffe appeared, and without so much as casting a glance at Cora, set herself to arouse the stupefied Strong—a feat which was soon accomplished, for the woman had nearly exhausted the effects of her sleeping potion. A moment later, and Madeline appeared upon the threshold. After surveying the scene in silence for an instant, she entered the room, closed the door, and said with a laugh that set Cora's blood boiling: "So you were tired of our society, and fancied that you could outwit me? Undeceive yourself, madame; it is not in your power to escape from my hands, and whatever fate I choose to adjudge you."
Then turning to the man, she said: "You have done well, Morris; this kind of work you will find more profitable than well-boring. You may go now."
The man bowed respectfully, and silently quitted the room.
Then Madeline addressed Joliffe: "You will stay here the remainder of the night. Let Strong sleep; she is not to blame for permitting her charge to escape, and she will be more wary in future."
Then turning again to Cora, who had flung herself in a chair and sat gazing from one to the other in sullen silence, she said, with a smile on her lips: "You should not work against your own interests, Mrs. Arthur. Had you succeeded in escaping on the midnight express, who, think you, would have been summoned to meet you on your arrival in the city?"
"Doubtless an officer," replied the woman, doggedly. "I might have known you for a sleuth hound who would guard every avenue."
"Thanks; you do me honor. I should not have summoned an officer, however; there is some one else waiting anxiously to welcome you there."
"Indeed," sarcastically; "who?"
Cora started up in her chair. "For God's sake, what are you?"
"A witch," said the girl, demurely. "I am as old as the world, and can fly through the air on a broomstick, so don't think to escape me again, step-mamma. I trust you will enjoy your brief repose, for it will soon be morning, and if I don't see your fair face at the breakfast table, I shall not be content."
Cora put two fingers to her blistered cheek, saying: "You can't ask me to come down with this face."
"True, I can't. Good-night, step-mamma; it would have been better if you had let the doctor pull that tooth."
And Miss Payne swept away, leaving the would-be fugitive to her own reflections.
THE DOCTOR'S WOOING.
Mrs. Ralston had become to Olive Girard as one of the family. There was a strange affinity between the two women, who had known so much of sorrow, so many dark, dark days. As yet, however, there was not entire confidence. Mrs. Ralston knew nothing of the movements then on foot to liberate the husband of her hostess; and Olive knew no more of Mrs. Ralston's past than had been communicated by Claire, which was in reality but very little.
Dr. Vaughan had become an ardent admirer of the grave, sweet, pale lady, who had, in her turn, conceived a very earnest admiration for him.
Always a close student of the human countenance, Mrs. Ralston had not been long in reading in the face of the young man his regard for Claire Keith. Having discovered this, she studied him still more attentively, coming, at last, to the conclusion that he was worthy of her beloved Claire.
But Claire appeared ever under a strange restraint in the presence of Dr. Vaughan. She seemed always to endeavor to keep either her sister or her friend at her side, as if she found herself more at ease while in their proximity. Evidently she was keeping close guard over herself. And just as evidently she was glad to be in the presence of Clarence Vaughan when supported by her sister and friend, and safe from a tete-a-tete.
Mrs. Ralston was really troubled by this apparent misunderstanding, or whatever it might be, that rendered Claire less cordial towards Dr. Vaughan than she would have been to one who was only a friend, and far less worthy of friendship. She mentally resolved, when a fitting opportunity should occur, to endeavor to win the confidence of the girl, for she saw that two natures, formed to love each other, were drifting apart, with no prospect of a better understanding. And that opportunity came sooner than she had expected.
One day, a day destined to be always remembered by the chief actors in our strange drama, Mrs. Ralston seated herself at a davenport in Mrs. Girard's pretty library to write a letter to Mr. Lord. The promptness and energy of that good man had completely baffled the acute detective, and the danger which Mrs. Ralston had so much feared, the danger of being discovered by her worthless husband, was now past.
She had entered the library through the drawing-room and, both rooms being untenanted, had left the door of communication between them half open.
Sitting thus, she heard the door of the drawing-room open, and the rustle of feminine garments betokened the entrance of one of her friends. Presently soft ripples of music fell upon her ear, and she knew that it was Claire who was now at the piano, playing dreamily, softly, as if half fearful of awakening some beloved sleeper.
After a few moments, the ripple changed to a plaintive minor accompaniment, that had in it an undertone as of far-off winds and waves. Then the full, clear voice of the girl rang out in that most beautiful of songs, which alone should make famous the genius of Jean Ingelow and Virginie Gabriel:
"When sparrows build and the leaves break forth, My old sorrow wakes and cries."
The singer sang on, all unconscious that two listeners were noting the passion and pain in her voice:
"How could I tell I could love thee to-day, When that day I held not dear? How could I know I should love thee, away, When I did not love thee near?"
As the last note died away in sorrowful vibrations, Mrs. Ralston, in the library, was conscious of tears trickling down her cheek.
At the same moment there was a discordant crash among the piano keys, and Claire's voice was saying, almost angrily: "Dr. Vaughan! how came you here? How dared you—"
There was a suspicious tremor in her voice, and she stopped speaking, as if too proud to show how very much she had been thrown off her guard.
"Forgive me, Miss Keith," the deep voice of Clarence Vaughan responded. "Believe me, I did not intend my presence as an impertinence. Your servant admitted me, and I thought it not wrong to enter unannounced, although I hardly hoped to find you alone. Surely you do not blame me for my silence while you sang?"
Claire made no reply. She was strongly tempted to fly and let Clarence Vaughan think what he would. But before she could stir, he had moved a step nearer and was looking straight down in her eyes.
"Claire," he said, in tones of reverential tenderness, "I have waited for the time to come when I might say to you what you must let me say now. You have seemed to avoid me of late; I can not guess why. And to-day, as I listened to your song, a new thought, a new fear, has entered my mind. Claire, tell me, have you read the love that has been in my heart since I first saw your face, and have you sought to shun me because you love another?"
While he was uttering this speech, Claire Keith had regained her self-command, and her answer now came low and clear: "Dr. Vaughan, you have not guessed aright. I have not avoided you because I love another."
"Claire, nature did not make you an actress. There was love in your voice when you sang that song!"
"Thank you," coolly; "I have been taught to sing with expression."
"Claire, Claire Keith, I beg you answer me truly; do you really dislike me? You say you do not love another; could you learn to love me?"
"Tell me, Claire, do you not know how deeply I love you?"
"Claire, Claire, speak to me. End this suspense. Will you not try to love me?"
She moved away from him, and avoiding his eyes, answered in an odd, hard voice: "No, Dr. Vaughan, I will not try to love you."
His next words were uttered almost tremulously. "Ah! I understand. I have displeased you; tell me how."
"You have never displeased me. You are goodness itself. Let me pass, Doctor Vaughan; I must not listen to you."
"Must not? Then you do avoid me?"
"Yes," almost inaudibly.
"Why?" stepping before her and cutting off her retreat.
"I won't tell you. Yes, I will, too. Oh, how blind you are! How can you love me when—when there is some one better, better a thousand times, and braver, too. Some one whose life needs your love, because it has been so loveless always. I won't love you. I won't listen to you. If you want me to be your friend, make the life that is giving its best to others, as happy as it deserves to be. And—don't ever talk—like this—to me again."
Before he could open his lips, or put out a hand to detain her, she had rushed from the room.
Clarence Vaughan gazed after the flying form in speechless grief and amazement. Then flinging himself into a chair, he bowed his head upon his hands in sorrowful meditation. Sitting thus he did not perceive the approach of some one, who laid a hand lightly upon his bowed head, murmuring: "Blind! blind! blind!"
Starting up, he saw the face of Mrs. Ralston bending toward him and wearing an expression of mingled compassion and amusement.
"Forgive me," she said, her countenance resuming its usual gravity. "I was in the library, and heard all. I listened willfully, too, for I have been observing you and Claire, and I want to help you."
Clarence dropped disconsolately back in his chair. "If you have heard all," he said, "you know that it is useless to try to help me."
Mrs. Ralston laughed outright. "If you were not blind you would not need my help," she said. "As it is, you do."
"Mrs. Ralston, what do you mean?"
"I mean that your battle is half won. If you will explain to me one half her words, I will explain to you the other half."
"You are laughing at me," he said, wearily. "What can you explain?"
"That ridiculous girl commanded you to bestow your love upon some more worthy object; some one who was living for others; or some such words. Whom did she mean, may I ask?"
He started up as if inspired by a new thought. "I see!" he exclaimed; "She must have meant—a very dear friend of hers."
He could not say the name that was in his thought. It would sound like egotism.
"That is sufficient," said the lady. "Now, I am going to betray Claire, as she has betrayed this other one. You foolish fellow, can't you see that the child loves you and is striving to do a Quixotic thing by giving you up to her friend? Think over her words and manner, and don't take her at her bidding. If this other, to whom Claire commands you to turn, is a true woman, she would not thank you for the offer of a preoccupied heart."
"She is a true woman," said Clarence, emphatically. "And as dear to me as a sister could be, but—"
"Then let her be a sister still," said Mrs. Ralston, quietly. "And don't lose any time in persuading Claire that she is wronging herself as well as you; and that you would be wronging still more this friend whom you both love, were you to offer her so pitiful a thing as a hand without a heart. She is a true woman, you say. If so, she would never forgive that. Believe me, Dr. Vaughan, there are even worse depths of sorrow than to have loved worthily—and lost."
Mrs. Ralston turned and went softly from the room.
For a few moments, Clarence Vaughan stood wrapped in thought. Then his face became illuminated as he said, half aloud: "What a fool I have been, that I should have so misunderstood that dear girl! Oh, I can be patient now, and bide my time."
And now his reverie was broken in upon by Olive, who entered hurriedly, saying: "Doctor Vaughan, are you here alone? I thought Claire was with you."
He made no answer to this remark, but said, as he took her proffered hand: "I ran down to tell you that I have taken the detectives off. Jarvis is still in our pay, in case of emergency. He has sent his report to Davlin, and a scant one it was. Of course, Davlin is glad to have him withdraw; that is, if he knows, as he must, that the papers are not in Percy's hands."
"Then all depends upon Madeline now?"
"All depends upon Madeline."
"Poor Philip," sighed Olive, "what would he say if he knew that his fate rests in the hands of a mere girl?"
"If he knew of that 'mere girl' what we know, he would say that his fate could not rest in better hands. No man ever had a more efficient champion, nor one half so brave and beautiful."
They had not dared to tell Philip of the hope that was daily growing stronger in their hearts; if they failed, he should be thrust back into no gulf of black darkness because they had cheated him with a false hope.
A FRESH COMPLICATION.
On leaving so abruptly the companionship of Dr. Vaughan, Claire rushed straight to her room. Closing and locking the door, she flung herself down upon a couch and indulged in a hearty cry. She was at once happy and sorry, angry and pleased. Presently, Claire sat up and began to review things more calmly.
"What a wretched little dunce I am!" she soliloquized. "And what must he think of me! Well!" with a little sigh, "the worse his opinion of me, the better for Madeline. And here I am this minute, in spite of myself, actually rejoicing in my heart because he has not done the very thing I have resolved that he should do. But he never will know it. Neither shall any one else. I won't give him another chance to talk to me; no, not if I have to take to my heels ten times a day. It's only right that I should give him up; I, indeed, who fancied myself in love with a white-handed, yellow-haired villain."
At this point in her meditations, some one rapped softly at her door.
"Claire, dear," said a soft voice, "open your door; I want to come in."
It was Mrs. Ralston, and Claire advanced slowly and turned the key in the lock.
"I—I thought it was somebody else," she said, hypocritically. "Come in, Mrs. Ralston."
Thus invited, the lady entered. Without making a comment on the disturbed appearance of her young friend, she crossed to the window, and sitting down in a cosy dressing-chair, said: "Come directly here, young lady, and sit down on that ottoman."
Looking somewhat surprised, the girl obeyed.
"Claire, my child, I have a confession to make. I was in the library while you sang: 'When sparrows build.'"
The girl's cheek flushed and then paled; but she made no answer.
"And," pursued Mrs. Ralston, "I heard more than your song."
"And more than your words!"
"More than—my—my words?"
"Yes; I heard your heart's secret."
Claire's face drooped. "What do you mean?" she asked, deprecatingly.
"My darling, I mean that your heart spoke through your voice, and it belied your words. Why did you deny your love for so noble a man?"
Claire raised her head. "I didn't!" she said, suddenly, as if driven to bay.
"No," smiled Mrs. Ralston. "You were a wily little serpent. But you deceived him."
"I don't care," doggedly.
"Now you are telling a fib!"
"Well, I am not sorry, then," getting hold of her monitor's hand. "Why do you turn against poor me, when I am trying to do my duty?"
"Because you are not doing your duty."
"Yes, I am; indeed, I am. You don't know."
"Then tell me, and let me be your friend and adviser."
"But you can't advise," objected Claire, "because you don't know the—the other one."
"Well, I do know you."
"There it is!" burst forth the champion of the absent. "You know me, but you don't know what a worthless, unattractive little imp I am compared to her. You don't know her, but you shall! And when you do, poor me will have to take a seat lower down in the tabernacle of your affections."
"I wonder if this 'other' would so readily resign her lover to you?" she said.
"Would she!" flashed Claire. "Would she not? Has she not? Ah, if you knew her, you would never say that!" Then suddenly capturing the other hand of the lady, she said, in quieter but very grave tones: "Can you listen to a long story, Mrs. Ralston; rather to several stories combined in one? I am going to tell you what I have so much wanted you to know—the story of Madeline Payne."
Mrs. Ralston expressed her more than willingness to hear all that Claire had to tell, and the girl settled down comfortably on the ottoman at the feet of her friend, and began at the beginning. It was indeed a long story, for Claire omitted nothing. As she told how Madeline had exposed to her the baseness of Percy, Mrs. Ralston started up, her face pale as death, and then sank back in her chair.
"Percy!" she cried. "What—what is his other name?"
Claire stared at her in amazement. "What is it, Mrs. Ralston—you are ill?"
"No," almost gasped the lady; "tell me—his name."
"I did not intend to speak his name," Claire said, slowly. "It is Edward Percy."
Mrs. Ralston was on her feet in an instant, her face flushing with excitement. "Come with me!" she almost shrieked. "Quick! to my room."
Wondering vaguely, Claire followed.
Mrs. Ralston almost flew to her apartment. She flung open the door, and in an instant was on her knees beside a trunk, opening trays and searching for something eagerly.
"Look!" she cried, suddenly thrusting out something toward Claire; something from which she averted her own face. "Look, did you ever see that face?"
The girl gave one glance and uttered a sharp cry. It was a miniature painted on ivory; painted years ago, but she knew it only too well.
Mrs. Ralston regained her feet, trembling so that she could scarcely stand.
"Where did you get it?" cried Claire. "It is he; Edward Percy!"
Mrs. Ralston started forward and took the picture from her hand. "It is my husband!" she whispered.
With the words on her lips, she fell heavily to the floor, in a dead faint.
When Mrs. Ralston awoke to consciousness, she was lying upon her bed, with Dr. Vaughan bending over her, Olive standing near, and Claire a little aloof, looking pale and anxious. Her first thought was of the picture.
"Where is it?" she murmured, addressing Claire, who stepped forward eagerly.
"It is here, dear Mrs. Ralston," said Claire. "I caught it from your hand after you fell. I thought—" And then she hesitated.
"I understand," she said, looking at the girl fixedly. "Drop it from your hand, Claire; drop it there," pointing to the grate. "It has done its work; we need never look upon it again."
Claire obeyed her silently. For the second time she had consigned to the flames the pictured face of Edward Percy.
To the surprise of the three who had so lately seen her coming slowly back from the swoon, so like death, Mrs. Ralston raised herself to a sitting posture, and then slowly arose from the bed and stood upright before them, and there was a flush on her cheek, and a light in her eyes that was new to that usually pale, sad face.
"Dear friends," she said, turning toward Clarence and Olive, who had been watching the burning of the picture with surprised and somewhat curious eyes, "I am quite recovered; and I want to think. Will you please leave me alone, quite alone, for a little while?"
Olive, Claire and Clarence went slowly and silently down to the drawing-room, Claire keeping very close to her sister and carefully avoiding the eyes of the young man. Seating herself beside Olive, Claire told, in her own way, all that she knew of the affair.
"I wanted to tell Mrs. Ralston of Madeline," she commenced, "and, not to omit anything, I told her poor Philip's story,—all about the two men, and how the man, Percy, had appeared at Oakley as the lover of Miss Arthur. When I spoke his name, she ran to her room, almost dragging me with her, and—"
Suddenly she paused, horrified at a sudden thought. How could she explain to these two, who knew nothing of her "affair" with Edward Percy—who did not dream that she had ever seen his face—her ability to recognize the picture Mrs. Ralston had shown her?
"And?" interrogated Olive.
Clarence Vaughan saw that there was a reason for her hesitation, and while wondering what it could be, came to her rescue. "And fainted, of course," said he. "Well, she is better now, and perhaps we shall hear the conclusion of the mystery all in good time."
If she had dared, Claire would have given him a glance of gratitude. As it was, she only averted her face and felt herself a great hypocrite.
Doctor Vaughan was to remain for lunch; and while he talked quietly with Olive, Claire sat considering what they would say if they knew all. Presently her reverie was interrupted by the entrance of a servant, who said:
"Mrs. Ralston wishes Miss Keith to come to her."
Claire started up, and without a word to either her lover or her sister, hurried into the presence of her friend.
Mrs. Ralston advanced to meet the girl as she entered the room, and laying a hand upon her shoulder, said: "I understood you to say that your sister knows nothing of your acquaintance with that man. Am I right?
"And you do not wish her to know?"
Claire hesitated. "I did not then think it was wrong to conceal it from her," she said, finally; "but now, if you think it best, I will try and tell her."
"But I do not think it best, my darling. I should have been convinced of his identity even had I not used the picture as a test. We will say nothing on that subject. And now, let us go down-stairs, for we have work to do!"
So saying, she led the way from the room and Claire followed, wondering how all this was to end.
MRS. RALSTON'S STORY.
Mrs. Ralston entered the drawing-room with the light of a new and strong purpose shining in her eyes.
"Dear friends," she said, "sit near me and give me your attention. I have a story to tell, and I must not fatigue myself too much in the telling."
Without a word, Clarence moved forward an easy chair. As she seated herself, they all grouped about her with grave, expectant faces.
"I will make brief mention of myself," said the lady, sinking back in the luxurious chair with a slightly weary smile. "My life has never been a bright one. Married for the first time at the age of sixteen, my childhood was prematurely blighted, and my first real trouble fell upon me. It was not a happy marriage, and during the years of my first husband's life, I became more and more alienated from my relatives.
"When at last my husband died, I was thirty-six years old, and owing to ill-health, looked much older. But—I was wealthy. Then I met a man, younger than myself, and very handsome. I was weak and foolish. I believed in him and—married him. For four years he squandered my money and made my life a burden. At last, when I could endure no longer, and when, because he had inherited a fortune from some relative, I knew he would trouble himself little as to particulars, I caused him to believe me dead and buried.
"In reality I was in better health than usual, and while he was spending his new fortune and fancying me in the grave, I sailed for Europe. Before I departed, however, I saw him once more, myself unseen. It is this part of my story that will make your hearts glad."
She paused for a moment, and her three listeners gazed into each other's faces in silent wonder.
"I was going to Europe in company with some friends of Mrs. Lord who, of course, knew my secret. They twice postponed their time for sailing, and while waiting for them I went with my maid to a little mountain inn where travelers only came for a day, and then went on up the mountain.
"When I first arrived, the garrulous hostess made frequent mention of a hunting party that had gone up the mountain a few days before, stopping for dinner at the inn. I had been nearly two weeks in my mountain retreat when my maid came rushing in, one day, crying out that the hunting party had come back, and that one of their number had been badly hurt.
"Well, they brought the wounded man up-stairs, and put him in the room that adjoined my sleeping apartment. The partitions between were of the sham kind—merely boards papered over. After he was settled, and the hum of many voices died away, I went into my little bed-room.
"I had scarcely entered when a voice from the next room, a man's voice, deep and full, although then subdued, startled me. I listened unthinkingly. 'There's no use in being weak about this business,' he said. 'Of course, you can make me trouble if you like, but hang me, Percy, I can't see how it will benefit you.'
"I see you are amazed, Doctor Vaughan, and Mrs. Girard is turning pale. You are beginning to guess the truth. Yes, it was Edward Percy who answered the first speaker, and—Edward Percy is my husband."
Again she paused for a moment. One could have heard a pin drop, so breathlessly eager, so silent, were her listeners. No one stirred or spoke, and she soon resumed:
"At the first sound of the other voice, I sank down sick with fear lest the man should, in some way, find me out. Sitting there, I heard him say, in the half fretful, wholly languid tones that I knew so well, 'It's easy to talk as you do; show me wherein it will be to my advantage, if you don't want me to knock down your pretty story. Curse you, what did you try to murder me for?"
"Then the other answered impatiently: 'I tell you, man, I was mistaken. I took you for him. Now listen: Neither you nor I love the fellow, and we each hold a trifle of power over the other. You can refute my statement, if you like, and accuse me of attacking you. In that case I may be imprisoned; but that won't keep you above water long. If I am arrested for assault with intent to kill, you will soon find yourself in the next cell, accused of the still more serious crime of bigamy. On the other hand, if you let the matter rest as it is, and let him take his chances, I won't use those little documents I hold, which prove conclusively that you married a second wife while the first was living. Come, what do you say?'
"I remember their very words; not one syllable escaped me then, or has drifted from my mind since. And I could have predicted what the next words of my husband would be. I know his weakness so well, and I knew, too, then, for the first time, that my vague suspicions had been too true—that he had indeed been false to me, more than false.
"'I will do this,' said he, halting at every few words. 'If you will give me back the money you won from me up there, and will give me up those papers, we will not quarrel over this affair. We will let His Majesty take the consequences of your act, if you choose. I like him even less than I do you. But the money I must have.'
"The other replied: 'I'll do it.' Then the money was counted out and the 'papers' changed hands.
"While they talked, I was seized with an unaccountable desire to see the man I had once loved. I heard my maid moving in the next room, and I arose and went to her. She was a quick-witted creature, and knew just what to do. She made me put on a hat and veil, and throw a shawl about me, and then bade me go down-stairs, while she knocked at the door of the sick-room. When I heard it open I was to come up, and while she made a pretense of offering her services, in case of need, I could obtain, over her shoulder, a view of the occupants of the room. Her ruse was successful. When I ascended the stairs, I obtained a full view of the two men. I should know the dark face of the tall stranger if I came upon it in Africa.
"To do myself justice, I never once thought of the wrong they were doing their victim; never realized that it was my duty to denounce them. Having seen the face of my husband I had but one idea, one desire; to get away, anywhere, the farther the better.
"Early the next morning, I was en route to the city, and there, to my infinite relief I found my friends ready to sail. When at last I was actually on the ocean, and realized that I was safe from discovery, I began to think of the victim whose name I had not heard. But it was too late then, and I tried to ease my conscience by thinking that, after all, as Edward was not dangerously hurt, it might not turn out a serious matter. I watched the papers, but somehow the accounts of the trial all missed me."
As she ceased speaking, her eyes rested sadly upon the face of Olive, and she started forward suddenly, saying: "Doctor, she is going to faint!"
"No," gasped Olive, half-rising, "I, I—"
And she fell forward to be caught in the ready arms of Clarence Vaughan. When at last they succeeded in arousing her from that death-like stupor, and she could sit up and look about her, slowly recalling events, Mrs. Ralston stepped readily into the position of leader, and turning to Claire, said:
"Go and see that lunch is served immediately, dear. We have much to do before night, and must not work fasting."
"Oh," cried Olive, as Claire disappeared, "is this true? Will Philip be released at last, released with every doubt cleared away, every suspicion removed? Tell me, I cannot realize it."
"It is true, dear Mrs. Girard; and now you must not give way to weakness. We dare not lose time. Dr. Vaughan, yourself, and I, in putting these facts in the hands of the right parties, must hasten the legal process by which Philip will be released."
When Claire Keith returned, she found them deep in a discussion as to the quickest way of effecting the release of Philip Girard.
"Let me settle it," she said, imperiously. "To-day you will go to see Philip's lawyers, and when this stupid law process is put in motion, Olive—I know her—will go straight and set herself down outside the very prison gates. But your beautiful laws can lock an honest man up much quicker than they can let him out, and can serve a warrant sooner than do a tardy act of justice. So, if you please, I am going down to Oakley to arrest that vile Lucian Davlin, and get him off poor Madeline's hands."
"You!" cried the two ladies in the same breath.
"Yes, I! Philip won't want anyone but Olive, and Olive will snub me unmercifully if I venture to offer myself as an escort. I'm going to do myself the honor of seeing Mr. Davlin arrested."
"Claire is right," said Mrs. Ralston; "the man must be arrested immediately."
"And," interrupted Olive, "you must all three go to Bellair; that is," looking at Mrs. Ralston, "if—"
"If I will go?" interrupted that lady. "Yes, I, too, intend to be present when Miss Payne gives her enemy up to justice."
"Are you in earnest about going to Bellair, Miss Keith?" Clarence Vaughan asked. "Shall you go, really?"
Claire bestowed upon him a willful little nod over her shoulder, saying, as she did so: "I shall, 'really.' I am confident that something will happen there, and I want a chance to faint!"
CORA "STIRS UP THE ANIMALS."
It was evening—the evening of the day on which Mrs. Ralston had made her startling revelation. Madeline Payne stood alone in her own room, looking moodily out upon the leafless grove that was fast taking on a covering of snow.
The storm that had been impending for days, had broken at last. For two hours the snow had been falling thickly, steadily, in great feather-like flakes, which quickly covered the brown earth, and clothed the naked treetops with a fair, white garment.
Madeline had been standing, motionless and moody, for many minutes. Her eyes were full of dissatisfaction, and her lips were compressed. She had been taking a mental review of the situation, and its present aspect was far from pleasing.
"What a knot," she soliloquized; "what a difficult, baffling, miserable knot! To be kept thus inactive just because the last knot in the tangle will not come straight—good gracious, how like a pun that sounds! How much longer must I smile upon these wretches? How much longer must I conceal my real feelings? I will put my forces into action, and make my last, desperate venture, for this is becoming intolerable. I must force, or buy, this secret from Edward Percy, at the cost of his safety, or my fortune, if need be."
She pressed her face against the frosted pane, peering down through the gathering night and the snow.
"Mercy!" she ejaculated, "who on earth can be plowing through this storm? And on what errand? It looks like—and, as I live, it is, yes, it is, Mr. Edward Percy! He is too dainty to expose himself for nothing. I must look into this."
While she was musing at the window, Cora, curled up behind one of the crimson curtains of the red parlor, had become the possessor of a valuable secret.
She had entered the room but a few moments before. Finding it dimly lighted, and heated to a Summer temperature, she ensconced herself a la Sultana in one of the deep window embrasures, and lay sulkily watching the flying snowflakes and the fast coming night. Presently the sound of approaching footsteps, and almost simultaneously the opening of the door, disturbed her quiet. With a quick movement, she drew the curtains together and sat, a silent listener, to a brief dialogue.
The new comers were Miss Arthur and Edward Percy. After a few sentences had been interchanged, Percy left the room, and then it was that Madeline saw him take his way toward the village.
Presently Miss Arthur also quitted the room; and going straight up-stairs, Cora knocked at Madeline's door. "Now, then," muttered she, "I'll stir up the animals."
Madeline did not look especially gratified at sight of her visitor, but Cora entered with scant ceremony. Pushing the door shut with unnecessary emphasis, she turned upon her, saying, rather ungraciously:
"I have made a discovery of which, I think, you will thank me for telling you. And I am going to tell you because I can't spoil their plans, but you can, and I want to see them spoiled."
"Your frankness is commendable," said Madeline, ironically. "Go on!"
"Percy and the old maid are going to be privately married to-morrow morning."
"How do you know?"
Cora related the particulars of her ambush, and gave a concise report of the conversation of the lovers.
"He has gone to the village on that very business now," Cora said. "She is to walk down to the clergyman's house, and he is to meet her there. Then they will come back, and no one to be the wiser."
Madeline laughed. "Be at ease," she said. "I will try and prevent the necessity for such a disagreeable walk as that would be for so fragile a lady. We won't have a wedding just yet."
"What a cool one you are!" cried Cora. "If you were not my enemy, I could admire you vastly."
"Don't, I beg of you," said the girl, gravely. "I am sufficiently humiliated by being obliged to deal with you as an enemy."
Cora flushed angrily. "Then I should think the humiliation of being made love to by my brother, would overcome you," she sneered.
"It does, almost," replied the girl, wearily.
"Then let me do you another favor. Mr. Davlin is no more my brother than he is yours."
Madeline's answer fairly took her breath away. "Madame, you are very good, but I have known that from the first."
"What!" gasped the woman; adding, after a moment of silence, "Is he your lover as well as—"
"Yours?" finished Madeline. "And what then, Mrs. Arthur?"
"Then," hissed Cora; "then, I hate you both."
Madeline laughed bitterly. "As you have told me a secret, and as I don't want to remain in your debt, I will tell you one in return. Lucian Davlin is my lover, but I am his bitterest foe!"
Cora came closer and looked her eagerly in the face. "What has he done to you?" she asked, breathlessly.
"You may find out later; just now we are even. Understand, no word of warning to him, if you value your safety. Obey my wishes, and when I am done with you, you may go free. Attempt any treachery, and I will give you up to justice."
"I shan't put myself in jeopardy for him now, whatever I might have done. You may believe that."
"I think I may," replied Madeline, dryly.
When Cora retired to her own room, to chuckle over the discomfiture in store for the spinster and Mr. Percy, and to wonder wrathfully what the mystery concerning Miss Payne and Lucian could mean, Madeline stood for many minutes lost in thought.
Finally she threw herself down upon a couch, uttering a half sigh, and looking utterly weary and perplexed. A moment later, Joliffe entered noiselessly, as usual, and the girl said to her:
"When Miss Arthur retires for the night, which won't be for some time, do you see Mr. Percy when he is alone, mind, and tell him Miss Payne desires him to wait her pleasure in the library."
Joliffe bowed and went out again like a cat.
When, at last, the other members of that incongruous family circle were safely out of the way, Madeline, warned by the everpresent, soundless Joliffe, awaited in the library the coming of Mr. Percy.
Wondering much what the haughty heiress could have to communicate to him, and dimly hoping that the tide was turning in his favor, Mr. Percy entered the presence of the arbiter of his fate. Bowing like a courtier, he approached her.
"Miss Payne has deigned to honor me with an interview," he said, in his slowest, softest, most irresistible manner. "I can never be sufficiently grateful."
Madeline motioned him to a seat opposite her own, saying, with an odd smile: "You shall, at least, have an opportunity for repaying your debt of gratitude, sir, and that immediately."
Percy took the seat indicated and bowed gravely. "Command me, Miss Payne."
"It rests with you," Madeline began, "whether we shall be from to-night neutral toward each other, or enemies."
"Enemies!" he exclaimed. "Oh, that would be impossible."
Madeline was full of inward rage. She longed to lean across the table and dash her hand full in that smiling blonde face. But she looked at him instead quite tranquilly, and said, with a queer smile: "Then you would do me a favor, even at your own personal—inconvenience, Mr. Percy?"
"Would I not?" fervently. "Only command me, Miss Payne."
"I will take you at your word, then. Mr. Percy, you will oblige me very much by putting off your marriage with Miss Arthur one week longer."
Here was a bomb-shell. It electrified the languid gentleman. He became suddenly animated by fear. "What—what do you mean, Miss Payne?" starting half out of his seat and nervously sitting down again.
"Precisely what I say, sir. It does not please me to have my relative leave my house to be married in this clandestine manner. There, don't ask me how I discovered what you thought was a profound secret. You see I did discover it. Will you put off this romantic marriage—to oblige me?"
Percy was trying very hard to think. If he could believe it was because he had found favor in her eyes, that she asked this. But no; even his vanity could not credit that suggestion. Of late she had openly shown a preference for Davlin. What, then, could be her motive? Could it be that at the instigation of Cora she had sought this interview?
He rallied his forces and replied: "Miss Payne, you have taken me by storm. If I may not ask how you made this discovery, may I not, at least, beg to know why you make this demand?"
"I have told you; it shocks my sense of propriety."
"Pardon me if I say there must be another motive."
"You are pardoned," coolly; "now, do you grant my request?"
Percy arose from the table flushed and angry. "Pardon me, Miss Payne, you demand too much."
"Nevertheless, I do demand it."
"And I beg to decline."
"Then I must deal with Miss Arthur. The knowledge that you have one wife in the grave, and another under this very roof, may have the desired effect upon her."
Percy dropped back in his chair, pale as ashes. All was lost, then. Cora had betrayed him! But he resolved not to commit himself. Perhaps Madeline had only verbal information. While he was trying to frame a speech, however, she knocked this last prop from under him.
"I may as well assure you that parleying is useless. I have known, from the first moment you entered this house, just upon what terms you stood with Mrs. Arthur. Don't trouble yourself to ask how I know. Perhaps you have been puzzled to know why Mrs. Arthur and her brother so suddenly became cordial and invited you to Oakley, where you so much desired to be. Let me enlighten you. They fancied that you had regained possession of important documents—two marriage certificates, in fact—for they had lost them."
"What?" ejaculated Percy.
"And—I found them," added Madeline.
His countenance fell again.
"They are in my possession," pursued she. "Shall I show them to Miss Arthur, or not?"
"It can't make much difference now," said the man, sullenly.
"Let us understand each other fully," said Madeline. "I am not acting in concert with Cora Arthur. She is even more in my power than you are. I have no desire to undeceive Miss Arthur. Neither do I wish you to leave Oakley. On the contrary, I want you here; you can be of service to me, by and by. And I pledge you my word that so long as you remain under this roof, those papers shall not be used against you."
"And if I don't choose to remain?"
Madeline laughed. "Then you must take the consequences," she said, carelessly.
"And what will they be?"
"Exposure and arrest."
Percy drew pen, ink, and paper toward him. "What shall I write to the clergyman?" he asked, sullenly.
"Whatever you choose. And I will send it. Make your peace with Miss Arthur, too, in your own way."
"And when I leave Oakley, what then?" he grunted.
"Then, if you have fulfilled the conditions, I will burn the papers in your presence, and you are free henceforth."
"There is the note," he said, flinging it toward her as soon as written. "After all, I may as well be in your power as in hers," and again he arose to go from the room.
"I am glad you take so sensible a view of it," retorted she, looking up from her perusal of his note. "Good-night, Mr. Percy."
And thus cavalierly dismissed, Mr. Percy bowed, somewhat less gallantly than when entering, and left the room.
"So, that is nipped in the bud," soliloquized Madeline, as she went wearily to her own room once more. "When will this miserable complication unravel itself, or be unraveled?"
Little did she dream how soon she would receive an answer to this question.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
The next morning dawned clear and beautiful. Over head, one unbroken expanse of blue; under foot, a mantle of soft, white ermine. All the trees were transformed into fairy-like, silver-robed, pearl-studded, plume-adorned wonders. Diamonds floated in the air, and sunbeams lighted up the whole with dazzling brilliancy. Everything was white, pure, wonderful, and the whole enclosed in a monster chrysolite; earth, air, and sky, were shut within a radiant sphere that had never an outlet.
Madeline had passed an almost sleepless night. But when she arose, with the first gleam of sunlight, and looked upon this new, white, imprisoned world, she felt strong for a fresh day's battle.
"I must go out," she said to herself; "out into this sparkling air. I can breathe in the brightness; I know I can. I almost feel as if I could catch it, and weave it into my life."
She hastily donned her wraps and set off for a brisk walk, no matter where, through that glorious Winter glow.
Under the snow-laden arms of the grand old trees, out of the grounds of Oakley. Before she realized it she was half way down the path leading to the village.
Something that jarred upon her sense of the beautiful, awakened her to herself, and she turned suddenly about.
"How dare ugly little brown bears come out in the white glitter," she muttered, whimsically. "I will turn about; he spoils the fairy picture. I had forgotten there were boys, or men, in the world."
Something came panting behind her. The "brown bear" had accelerated his pace, and now came up at a round trot.
"Hold on a minit; darned if I can see who ye air in this snow," he cried, pausing before her and rubbing his eyes vigorously. "All right; I thought it was you," he added, after considerable blinking. "I've got a tellygram for ye, Miss Payne; orders were not to give it to anyone but you, so I chased ye sharp."
Madeline laughed outright as she took the telegram from his hand. The boy, without waiting for her words of thanks, took to his heels, shouting back over his shoulder: "No answer!"
Madeline gazed for a moment after the flying figure, and wonderingly opened the message. This is what she read:
Be at H——'s to-night when evening train comes down. We are ready for action; have found a witness.
Madeline lifted her eyes from the scrap of paper and looked about her incredulously, as if she expected to find some explanation shining in the air.
"Ready for action," she murmured. "That means—can it mean that Lucian Davlin is at last in our power? Can those detectives have solved the mystery? Oh! how can I wait until night!"
She fairly flew along now, eager to keep in motion. On, on she went, over the stile, through the glittering white-robed grove; on, until she reached Hagar's cottage. It was locked and deserted, as she knew, but she cared not for that. She must walk somewhere, then why not here?
For a moment she stood on the snow-laden door stone, and gazed about her. Then swiftly, as swiftly as before, she flew down the path—the same path she had taken on the Summer day when she had heard from Hagar's lips her mother's story. When she reached the tree in whose arms she had nestled so often, where she had listened to the bargain between her step-father and decrepit old Amos Adams, and where she had been wooed by Lucian Davlin—she paused. There, coming toward her, was Lucian Davlin himself.
"What a fatality!" muttered the girl. "He is coming to meet me; has been watching me, perhaps."
She stood calmly gazing up at the snow-laden branches, and again she saw herself standing underneath them, a hesitating girl, wondering if she could let her lover go away alone. Then she turned her head and her eyes met those of Lucian Davlin.
"Good morning, Miss Payne," he said, lifting his hat with his usual grace. "I am happy to know that we have one taste in common—a love of nature in this disguise. Is not the wintry world beautiful?"
"Beautiful, indeed," replied Madeline, resuming her walk homeward. "The trees are fairy palaces. It is lovelier than Summer, is it not?"
"It is very lovely," gazing not at the trees but down into her face, "but—so cold."
She understood his meaning and replied, calmly: "Cold? Yes; it is not Summer."
"No," he assented, with a sad intonation, "it is not Summer. Miss Payne, Madeline, will it ever be Summer again?"
Madeline looked up and about her, and smiled as she did so. "Yes," she replied, "it will be Summer—soon."
He had turned and retraced his steps at her side. She was walking swiftly again, and for some time neither spoke. When they entered the grounds of the manor, he said, half deprecatingly:
"Madeline, may I ask this one question?"
"I saw you pause under that tree and look about you," he said, slowly; "was it because you thought of other days, and of me?"
Slowly she turned her face toward him, saying, simply: "Yes."
They were nearing the entrance, and he half stopped to ask his next question. "Will you tell me what were your thoughts, Madeline?"
Slowly she ascended the steps, and at the door turned and faced him: "I will tell you to-night."
And with a ripple of laughter on her lips, she entered the hall of Oakley.
THE SWORD OF FATE.
Evening at Oakley.
At last the long day was done: the day that to Madeline Payne had seemed almost endless. At last, too, the early evening hours had dragged themselves away, and the time of her triumph was at hand.
From out Hagar's cottage a silent party issued, and took their way across the snow to the little stile just above the terrace walk. Here they paused for a moment. Some one was loitering on the terrace, where the shadows fell thickest. Madeline stepped through the gap, saying softly: "Joliffe!"
Immediately the form emerged from the shadow. It was the cat-like waiting-maid.
"It's all right, Miss," she said, in a whisper. "They are all in the drawing-room, but I think they are getting uneasy."
"Well, I will not keep them in suspense long," said Madeline, and in the darkness she smiled triumphantly. "Lead on, Joliffe."
Silently they moved on, and paused again at the side entrance; the one from which Cora had endeavored to escape but a short time before. Madeline opened the door, and in another moment she, with Mrs. Ralston, Claire Keith, Clarence Vaughan and two strangers, stood within the walls of Oakley.
They moved on like shadows to the rear end of the hall, up the servant's stairway, and straight to the west wing. Evidently they were expected here too, for in obedience to a light tap, the door opened, and they passed quietly within the outer room of John Arthur's prison suite.
"Close the door, Henry," said Madeline.
This being done, she turned and surveyed her comrades.
"So far, good," she pronounced. "Now, can you make yourselves comfortable here for a little while? Hagar and Joliffe will know just what to do as soon as I have, myself, viewed the field of battle; or perhaps I had better pilot you in person."
"As you please," said the foremost of the strangers. "I think we understand each other."
"Then we won't lose time," said Madeline. "Henry, call Dr. Le Guise."
Henry tapped at the door of the inner room, and in a trice the worthy Professor stood in their midst. He glanced from one to another in amazement, and the look of confidence forsook his face. He had not been prepared to see these strangers, and his first thought was, of course, for his own safety.
"Have no uneasiness, sir," said Madeline, seeing the fear in his face; "these ladies and gentlemen will not interfere with you. They are here because it is desirable that the people below should not know of their proximity just yet. You are about to aid us, and need have no fear for yourself."
The Professor drew a breath of relief.
While this conversation was going on, Mrs. Ralston and Claire had removed their wraps, as if they knew quite well what they were about, which, indeed, they did. Now, as Madeline did likewise, preparatory to entering the room of the prisoner, they seated themselves, looking grave, but perfectly composed. Dr. Vaughan said a few quiet words to Henry, and the two strangers stood "at ease," looking as indifferent as statues.
Entering the inner room; in company with the Professor, Madeline found John Arthur pacing restlessly up and down.
"I wish you to go down-stairs with us for a few moments," said Madeline. "It is to your own interest to do so. It is the easiest and surest way of imparting to you what you must know, and, when you know all, I shall be your jailer no longer. It shall then remain for you to decide whether you will accept my terms, and end your days with at least a semblance of honor, or whether you will remain here to be pointed at as a man disgraced and dishonored, and deservedly so. When you have seen justice done to those who have wronged you more than they have me, for little as I desire to serve you circumstances have constituted me your avenger—you will be free to act as you may see fit."
With this she turned and abruptly quitted the room, leaving John Arthur fairly stunned by her words, yet utterly unable to comprehend their full meaning. Returning to the ante-room, Madeline found Hagar awaiting her.
"Well, Hagar," said the girl, "we are ready to go down; is the library lighted?"
"Yes, Miss Madeline."
"And the door leading to the drawing-room?"
"Is closed, Miss."
"Then go down, Hagar; open the library door, and leave it open. Move the fire screen opposite the door leading to the drawing-room. When we are all within the library turn out the light. That is all."
Hagar moved away to do her bidding, smiling grimly.
* * * * *
Time was dragging, in the drawing-room.
Cora was there, not from choice, but because Madeline had so ordered it, and the aggrieved lady was not at all inclined to conversation.
Miss Arthur, who was hoping for a tete-a-tete with her lover, was alarmingly glum. She had accepted, in good faith, his statement that he had received a note from the clergyman, saying that he had been suddenly called away and would be absent some days, but she did not quite understand why another would not do as well. Somehow, all that day, she had found no opportunity for hinting to her lover that a Unitarian minister lived quite near.
Finding the ladies so little disposed to be entertained, the two men retired within themselves, each after his own peculiar fashion.
Lucian Davlin lounged, in his favorite manner, in a big arm chair, and absorbed himself in the mazes of "Lalla Rookh."
Percy, seated sidewise on a sofa directly opposite a large mirror, gazed languidly at his own reflected image, and furtively at the two women opposite, stroking his handsome blonde whiskers the while.
At last Miss Arthur broke the silence by saying, with a side glance toward Cora: "There is one thing that I have not yet asked to be enlightened about. Perhaps you could explain the mystery, Mrs. Arthur? I mean the appearance of Madeline at my bedside not long ago—or her ghost."
Cora uttered a disagreeable laugh, and then replied: "How should I be able to explain? I am not the keeper of Miss Payne, or 'her ghost.'"
"Probably not; however, you are so friendly, so sisterly, I might say, that I thought perhaps—"
"You thought perhaps my step-mamma was in the secret?" said the voice of a new comer.
All eyes were turned toward the library, where Madeline Payne stood, clad in a walking dress, and looking fairly radiant with suppressed excitement.
"You misjudge my step-mamma, Aunt Ellen." As she speaks, Madeline advances toward the silent group, leaving the library door ajar. "I will explain that singular phenomenon. I intend to clear up all the mysteries to-night—here—now. First, then, about the ghost: It was I, Miss Arthur, Madeline Payne, in the flesh."
Lucian Davlin's book lies on his knee neglected now.
Edward Percy's face has lost its look of languor.
Cora is flushing red and then paling, while she wonders inwardly if her time has come; if she is to be exposed to a last humiliation.
"We will settle another point," continues Madeline, imperturbably, while she rests one arm upon a cushioned chair back, and looks coolly from one to another. "Some of you have felt sufficient interest in me to wonder why I sent home, to my sorrowing friends, the false statement of my death. I will explain that. When I left home it was with wrath in my heart, and on my lips the vow that I would come back and with power in my hands. I had wrongs to avenge, and I swore to be mistress of my own, and to bring home to a bad man the heartache and bitterness he had measured out to another. Well, I did not know just how this was to be accomplished, but Providence, or fate, showed me the way. Then I saw the necessity for coming back to Oakley, and to pave the way for my new advent, I sent Nurse Hagar with the false account of my death. A girl had died in the hospital—a poor, heart-broken, homeless, friendless, wronged, little unfortunate,—'Kitty the Dancer' she was called in the days when she was fair to see, and men, bad men, set snares for her feet."
What ails Lucian Davlin? He is compressing his lips, and struggling hard for an appearance of composure.
Madeline goes calmly on. "The poor girl died forlorn. She had been wooed by a vile man, a gambler. She had been to meet him and was returning from a rendezvous when the carriage that was conveying her to her poor lodging was overturned, and she was taken up a helpless, bleeding mass, and carried to the hospital. Then she sent for this heartless villain, again and again. She implored him to come to her, at least to send assistance, for she was destitute—a pauper. He refused, this thing, unworthy the name of man. He was setting other snares. He had no time, no pity, for his dying victim. Well, she died, and was buried as Madeline Payne, while I, standing beside her coffin, prayed to God to make my head wise, and my heart strong, that I might hunt down, and drive out from the haunts of men, her soulless destroyer."
Madeline pauses, and three pair of eyes gaze at her with genuine wonder. But the eyes of Lucian Davlin are fixed upon vacancy, and with all the might of his powerful will he is struggling to appear calm.
Madeline turns her eyes calmly from his face to Cora's, and seems to see nothing of this, as she resumes:
"Some strange fatality had made this man the bane of other lives, that were to be brought into contact with mine. I found that the happiness of two noble beings was being wrecked by this same man. One of these two had been my benefactor, had saved me from a fate worse than death, so I set myself to hunt this man down. And here I found that I could accomplish two objects at one stroke. I found that the man was playing into my hands. I followed him in disguise. Little by little I gained the knowledge of his secrets, enough to send him to State's prison, and more than enough. But one thing was wanting. For that I waited; for that I breathed the same air with creatures whom my soul loathed, and now that one missing link is supplied. At last, I am free! At last, I can throw off the mask! At last, I can say to the destroyer of poor Kitty, to the man who swore away the liberty of another to screen himself—Lucian Davlin, I have hunted you down! I have held you here to be taken like a rat in a trap! Officers, seize him! He has been my prisoner long enough!"
Was it a transformation scene?
While she is uttering those last words, suddenly the room becomes full of people, and Lucian Davlin is writhing in the grasp of the two officers; struggling hopelessly, baffled completely, maddened with rage and shame. When at last he has ceased to struggle, because resistance is so utterly useless, he turns his now glaring eyes upon the brave girl whose life he had sought to wreck, and hisses:
"Don't forget to mention how you first came to the conclusion that I had wronged you! Don't forget to state that you ran away from Bellair with me; that you lodged in my bachelor quarters; that—"
A heavy hand comes in forcible contact with the sneering mouth, as one of the officers says, gruffly: "None o' that, my lad. I'd sooner gag you than not, if you give me another chance."
But Madeline answers him with a scornful laugh: "That I shot you in your own den? Coward! do you think my friends do not know all? Here stands the man who saw me in your company that night," pointing to Clarence Vaughan; "and here," turning to Claire, "is the sister of the woman who came to me, at Dr. Vaughan's request, and told me who and what you were! It was these two who nursed me during my illness, and who have been, from first to last, my friends. Bah! man, you have been only a dupe. Your servant, your doctor, your detectives, are all in my service! I have fooled you to the top of your bent, and kept you under this roof until we had found the proof that it was you, and not Philip Girard, who struck this man," pointing to Percy, "and robbed him, five years ago."
With a muttered curse, Lucian Davlin flings himself down in the seat he had lately occupied, the watchful officers, pistol in hand, standing on either side of him.
Edward Percy, for the first time since her entrance, withdraws his eyes from Madeline's face and casts a frightened glance about him. Having done this, he feels anything but reassured.
Near the outer door stand the two "well-diggers," who have entered like spirits, and now look as if, for the first time since their advent in Oakley, they feel quite at home. Nearest to Madeline stands Clarence Vaughan. Back of these, a little in the shadow, two others—two women. One stands with her face turned away, and he can only tell that the form draped in the rich India shawl is tall and graceful. But the other—she moves out from the shadow and her eyes meet his full.
Great heavens! it is Claire Keith!
He moves restlessly, his fair face flushing and paling. The first impulse of his coward heart is flight. But the two "well-diggers" are not surmountable obstacles. He turns his face again toward the Nemesis who is now gazing scornfully at him.
"I have no intention of neglecting any one of you four," she says, icily. "Edward Percy, I told you last night that I would burn certain papers in your presence. I am quite ready to keep my word. There will be no use for them after to-night. But I shall not stifle the testimony of living witnesses against you." Then she raised her voice slightly. "Dr. Le Guise, bring in your patient."
John Arthur, pallid with fear and rage, stands upon the threshold of the drawing-room, closely attended by the Professor and Henry.
Then Madeline turned to the now terror-stricken Cora. "Come forward, Mrs. John Arthur," she says, scornfully. "It is time to let you speak!"
When Edward Percy turns his eyes toward Claire, she has instinctively moved nearer to Madeline's side, at the same time favoring him with a look so fraught with contempt that the villain lowers his eyes, and turns away his face. As Madeline now addresses the fair adventuress, Claire again moves. She has been standing directly between Cora and her Nemesis. Now she takes up a position quite apart from her friends, and near the officer who guards Lucian Davlin on the right.
Cora sees that all is lost. But she recalls the promises of safety given her by Madeline, and nerves herself for a last attempt at cool insolence. Her quick wits have taken in the situation. Now she understands why Madeline has led Davlin on, and why her hatred of him is so intense. Now she knows the meaning of the words that last night seemed so mysterious: "Lucian Davlin is my lover, but I am his bitterest foe." Now, as she steps forward, the hate she feels shining in her eyes, and with a growing air of reckless bravado as she glances at him, Cora, too, is Lucian Davlin's bitter foe.
"Cora!" The name comes from the lips of John Arthur, almost in a cry.
But she never once glances toward him. She fixes her eyes upon Madeline's face and doggedly awaits her command.
"Tell us what you know of this man," Madeline says, pointing to Edward Percy: "and be brief."
Cora turns her eyes slowly upon the man. She surveys him with infinite insolence, and then she turns with wonderful coolness toward Ellen Arthur.
"Miss Arthur," she says, with a malicious gleam in her eyes, "this will interest you. I knew that man ten years ago. I was making my first venture out in the world, and it was a very bad one. I fell in love with his pretty face, and married him. Before long I discovered that matrimony was a mania of Mr. Percy's—by-the-by, he sailed under another name then. I found that he had another wife living; a woman he had married for her money. Well, being sensitive, I took offense, and after a little, I ran away from him, carrying with me the certificates of his two marriages, which I had taken some pains to get possession of. After that—"
Cora pauses suddenly and glances toward Madeline.
"After that you went to Europe. You may pass over the foreign tour, and take up the story five years later," subjoins Madeline, coldly.
"After that, I went to Europe," echoes Cora. "And five years later found me in Gotham."
"Be explicit now, please: no omissions," commands Madeline.
"Five years ago, then," resumes Cora, "that gentleman there," motioning to Davlin, but never turning her face toward him, "came to me one day with the information that my dear husband was a rich man, thanks to some deceased old relative, and that his other wife was dead. For some reason this other marriage had been kept very secret, and my friend there argued that in case anything happened to Percy, I might come in as his widow, and claim his fortune. Well, Mr. Percy did not die, more's the pity. Instead of that he lived and squandered his money in less than three years. He was hurt, somehow, and a certain Mr. Philip Girard was falsely accused and convicted for attempted murder."
"Who was the real would-be assassin?" asked Madeline, sternly.
"Lucian Davlin," emphatically.
Madeline turns swiftly to Percy. "Mr. Percy, explain, if you wish to lighten your own burden, by what means did that man persuade you to let him go free?"
"By—threatening me with an action for—"
"Bigamy!" finished Cora.
The villain, bereft of all hope and courage, stood white and trembling, under the eyes of his accusers and judges.
"I am letting these people hear you tell these things because I want that man,"—pointing to John Arthur, who had long since collapsed into a big chair—"to hear all this from your own lips," says Madeline.
Turning again to Cora, she says:
"Lucian Davlin made use of the papers—the certificates you had stolen from Edward Percy—to intimidate that gentleman, and secure himself from danger. Am I correct?"
"Yes," replies Cora, casting a malignant glance from one to the other of the accused men.
"Very good. Now we will pass on four or more years. You were in some little trouble last June, Mrs. Arthur. Explain how you came to Bellair."
"Yes, for what purpose. And at whose instigation."
Cora hesitated, and Davlin moved uneasily.
"Don't think that you will damage your cause by making a full statement," suggested Miss Payne, meaningly. "Answer my questions, please."
Again Cora glances at Davlin. Then turning toward Madeline she assumes an air of defiant recklessness, and answers the questions promptly. "I came at Lucian Davlin's suggestion, and because he had induced me to think that I could easily become—what I am."
"And that is—"
"Mrs. Arthur, of Oakley!" with a mocking laugh.
The old man in the chair utters a loud groan, but no one heeds him. All eyes are fixed upon Madeline and Cora.
"You plotted to become John Arthur's wife?" pursues Madeline, relentlessly.
"You planned to keep him a prisoner?"
"And Lucian Davlin, your pretended brother, was your accomplice?"
Madeline turns swiftly toward her step-father, as she does so moving nearer toward Edward Percy.
"John Arthur, are you satisfied?" she asks, sternly. "Shall the knowledge of your disgrace go beyond this room? Do you choose to remain here and be pointed at by every boor in Oakley, as the man who married an adventuress, a gambler's accomplice? or will you accept my terms?"
John Arthur lifts his head, then staggers to his feet. "Curse you!" he cries. "Curse you all! What proof have I that these people will respect my feelings?"
"You have my word," replies the girl, coolly. "These gentlemen of the Secret Service are not given to gossip. Mr. Davlin will have but little opportunity for circulating scandal where he is going. Mr. Percy, and your wife, will hardly remain in the neighborhood long enough to injure you here, unless by your own choice. Your sister will scarcely betray you, and the rest are my friends. Choose!"
Pallid with rage and shame, the old man turned toward Cora.
"You she-devil!" he screams, "this is your work—"
"No," interposes Madeline, calmly, "it is your work, John Arthur! What you have sown, you are reaping. Will you have all your guilty past, your shameful present, made known? Or will you leave my mother's home and mine, and cease to usurp my rights? Choose!"
Every eye is turned upon the old man and his questioner. Every ear is intently listening for his answer.
Every ear, do we say? No; one man is only feigning rapt attention; one mind is turning over wicked possibilities, while the others await, with different degrees of eagerness or curiosity, John Arthur's answer.
"Needs must when the devil drives," says the baffled old man, turning toward the door. "I will go, and I leave my curse behind me!"
This is the moment which Lucian Davlin has watched. While all eyes are turned toward John Arthur, he bends suddenly forward. He has wrenched the pistol from one of his guardians, and the weapon is aimed at Madeline's heart!
Instantaneously there is a quick, panther-like spring, and Claire Keith's little hand strikes the arm that directs the deadly weapon. There is a sharp report, but the direction of the bullet is changed.
Madeline Payne stands erect and startled, while Edward Percy falls to the floor, the blood gushing from a wound in his breast. In another instant, Lucian Davlin lies prostrate, felled by a blow from one detective, while the other bends over him and savagely adjusts a pair of manacles.
The others, even to Cora, group themselves about the wounded man. Dr. Vaughan kneels beside him a moment, then he lifts his eyes to meet those of Madeline.
"It is a death wound," he says.
"Prepare a couch in the next room directly. He must not be carried up-stairs."
When this order has been obeyed, and the injured man has been removed, Madeline returns to the drawing-room, untenanted now save by the officers and their prisoner. They are waiting there until the midnight train shall be due, and the time approaches. Moving quite near to the now silent, sullen villain, the girl surveys him with absolute loathing.
"The goddess you worship has deserted you, Lucian Davlin," she says, slowly. "It was not in the book of chance that you should triumph over or outwit me. The bullet you designed for me has completed the work you began five years ago. Go, to live a convict, or die on the scaffold, and when you think upon the failure of your villainous schemes, remember that this retribution has been wrought by a woman's hand! Officers, take him away!"
Through the darkness they hurry him, from the sights and scenes of Oakley and Bellair—forever. His goddess has indeed forsaken him. When the two officers take leave of him at the prison, he has had his last glimpse of the outside world.
From the moment when he failed in his attempt upon the life that had defied him, no word had escaped his lips. Silent, moody, and utterly hopeless, this proud-spirited, evil-hearted Son of Chance, enters the prison gates, and, as they close upon him, we have done with Lucian Davlin, a convict for life!
AS THE FOOL DIETH.
Edward Percy is dying—was dying when they lifted him from the drawing-room carpet, and gently laid him on the couch hastily prepared by Hagar and the frightened servants. They have watched beside him through the night, and now, in the gray of the morning, Clarence Vaughan still keeps his vigil.
The wounded man moves feebly, and turns his fast dimming eyes toward the watcher. "I thought—I saw—some one," he says, brokenly, "when—I fell. Who—was—the lady?"
His voice dies away, as Clarence, bending over him, answers gently: "You mean the lady that stood near the door, whose face was turned away?"
"Yes," in a whisper; "was it—my—wife?"
Clarence turns toward the window where Mrs. Ralston sits, out of view of the sick man.
She moves forward a little. "Tell him," she says, in a low voice.
Edward Percy is a dying man, but his mind was never clearer. He perfectly comprehends the explanations made by Clarence. He had recognized the face of his wife when he lay bleeding at her feet. He closes his eyes and is silent for some moments. Then he asks, in that dying half-whisper, the only tone he ever will use: "You think—I—will—die?"
"You cannot live," replies Clarence, gravely.
Again the wounded man shuts his eyes and thinks; then: "How long—will I—last?" he questions.
"I can keep you alive twenty-four hours—not longer," says Clarence, after a pause.
"Then—I must talk now."
Clarence goes to a table, and pours something into a tiny glass. This he brings, and putting it to the lips of the patient, says: "Try and swallow this. It is a stimulant. Then lie quiet for a few moments; after that you may talk."
This is done, and for a time there is silence in the room. Then the wounded man whispers, with an appearance of more strength: "Tell her—to come here."
Mrs. Ralston moves forward, and he looks at her long and attentively. Then, with a turn of his olden coolness: "You grew tired of me," he said.
"Yes," she replies, in a low, sad voice, "I grew tired of you; very tired. But don't talk of those days now. You are too near the end; think of that!"
"I do," he said, slowly. "But I can't alter the past—and—I don't know—about the future. I want—to see a—notary."
"Don't you want to see a clergyman?"
"What for? If I am dying—it's of no use to play—hypocrite. I don't believe in—your clergyman. I admit that—I wronged—you," he continues, gazing at Mrs. Ralston, "and I deceived Miss Keith. If you two—can forgive me—I will take my chances—for the rest."
Mrs. Ralston bends above him with a face full of pity, but in which there is no love. "I forgive you, Edward; and so will Claire, fully. But you did her very little harm. She was not long deceived. Do you want to see her?"
"Yes; and—don't let Alice—Cora, you call her—come near me."
Truly, this dying sinner is not a meek one, not a very repentant one.
When they ask him if he will see Miss Arthur, his reply is characteristic. "Does she want—to see—me?"
No; she has not asked to see him, they say. But of course she would be glad to come to him.
"Let her alone," he says, "she don't want to see me. If she did, it would be to scratch out—my eyes—because she is—cheated out of—being married. She isn't hurt. She is too big a fool."
When Claire comes to his bedside, accompanied by Madeline, he says: "Miss Claire—I loved you better than any woman I ever knew—truly. If—you had been Mr. Keith's heiress—I would never have come to Oakley. I thought you were—his heiress when—I wooed you—in Baltimore. But you are the only woman—who ever beat me—and puzzled me. You did not care much, after all."
To Madeline he says, after he has swallowed a second stimulant: "But for you, I would not be here. You women have hunted me down. But you are as brave—as a lioness—a little Nemesis. I—won't—bear malice."
At noon, the notary comes, and Edward Percy makes an affidavit as to the truth of the testimony that will convict Lucian Davlin. It is the affidavit of a fast dying man.
All day Mrs. Ralston sits beside him. And Clarence Vaughan watches the slowly ebbing life tide. Once he seems struggling to say something, and his wife bends down to catch what may be some word of penitence.
"Bury—me like a gentleman."
This is what he says, and Clarence Vaughan smiles bitterly as he thinks, "selfish and egotistical to the last."
Night comes on and the end is very near. Over the dying face flits a malignant shadow, and he makes a last effort to speak. Again the watchers bend nearer.
"I hope—they will—hang Davlin," he breathes, feebly.
The two listeners recoil with horror, at the sound of the vindictive wish from dying lips.
These are the last words of Edward Percy. Slowly go the minutes, and deeper grow the shadows. Again Clarence Vaughan bends above the couch, and then he says: "Your vigil is ended, Mrs. Ralston. He is dead."
* * * * *
That night, while the house is hushed to a quiet, one portion of the household asleep, the other keeping the death-watch, Cora again tries to escape from Oakley. But this time Strong is not to be caught napping, and the vanquished adventuress resigns herself to her fate.
Two days more, and then Edward Percy is buried, according to his request, "like a gentleman."
All that is known outside of Oakley concerning his death is that he was shot by Lucian Davlin, between whom, and himself, some feud had existed.
And John Arthur and Cora remain, and "keep up appearances" to the last.
Dr. Le Guise, or the Professor, has stayed too, for appearance sake. But the day after they have buried Edward Percy, he goes, and very gladly, back to the city. Madeline keeps her promise; he goes free, and none save the few ever know that Dr. Le Guise is an impostor.
At the same time John Arthur turns his back upon Oakley forever. "Appearances" are observed to the last. He goes, tenderly attended by the Professor, by Cora, and by his sister. Goes much muffled, and enacting the role of invalid.
They are taking the sick man South; this is what the villagers think.
But when the train reaches the city, this select party disbands. John Arthur becomes active once more and, with his sister, hurries away in the nearest cab, while the Professor and Cora separate by mutual consent.
And here we will leave them—all but Cora.
She has escaped Scylla only to fall upon Charybdis. As she hurries along through the familiar streets, her plans are laid. She will go to Lucian Davlin's rooms; nobody will be there to dispute her possession for a day or two to come, and she has possessed herself of the keys, left behind as useless by their outlawed owner.
When she ascends the steps, some one, who is lounging past the premises, looks at her narrowly. As she disappears behind the swinging outer door, this lounger becomes wonderfully alert, and hastens away as if he had just discovered his mission.
Two hours later, as Cora descends the stairs and emerges into the street, the vision of a monkey-faced old man appears before her. And while another lays a firm detaining hand upon her arm, the old man, fairly dancing with glee, cries out:
"Ah, ha! here you are, my pretty sharper! I didn't have these premises watched for nothing, did I? Now I have got you! Bring her along, officer, bring her along. She won't dodge us this time."
And Cora is hurried into a cab, closely followed by old Verage, who chatters his doubtful consolation, and laughs his eldritch laughter, and finally consigns her to prison to answer to a charge of swindling.
"AND THEN COMES REST."
At last Oakley is rid of its intriguants, its plotters and impostors.
And Madeline and Claire sit alone in the chamber of the former, talking of the strange events that have so lately transpired—of Philip Girard's vindication, of Lucian Davlin's punishment, of Edward Percy's death.
It is the day following that of the burial, and Mrs. Ralston is lying asleep in her own room, with old Hagar in near attendance.
"Poor Mrs. Ralston," says Claire, after a long pause in their converse. "She is thoroughly worn out, and yet, weary as she was, she must have talked with you for hours, Madeline, after we came back from the grave."
Over Madeline's face flits an odd, half-sad smile, as she replies, dreamily:
"Yes, we talked a long time, dear; Mrs. Ralston was then in the mood for talking. Can't you understand how one may be nervously active, may be at just that stage of bodily weariness when the mind is intensely alive? The excitement of all she had lately undergone was still upon her, and the mind could not resign itself to rest while anything remained unsettled or under a cloud."
"Oh, I can understand how that may be." Then, after a pause, "so something remained to be settled?"
"And, between you, you disposed of the difficulty?"
Another silence. Then Madeline turns to look at her companion.
"Why don't you ask me what the 'difficulty' was?"
"But you want to know?"
Claire laughs nervously.
"And I want to tell you," pursues Madeline. "First, we talked of ourselves."
"Oh!" ejaculates Claire, looking immensely relieved.
"Yes, we talked of ourselves first; and we have become great friends."
"Of course!" cries Miss Enthusiasm; "I knew you would."
"We have decided to give our new friendship a severe test."
"How?" asks Claire, forgetting her caution.
"By visiting Europe in each other's society."
Claire springs up excitedly. "Madeline Payne, you don't mean it! You can't! You shall not; there! Europe, indeed. You are crazy! I won't hear of it!" stamping her foot emphatically.
Madeline leans back in her chair and laughs; then suddenly becomes grave.
"But I do mean it, Claire, my darling," she says, softly. "And I'll tell you what else I mean. Sit down here, close beside me and listen."
Instinctively Claire obeys.
"Now, then," continues Madeline, "you know what an odd, uncultivated sort of a life mine has been, and you know that this little world of mine has not been a very bright one. Well, ever since I could read and think, I have longed to see Italy, and France, and England, and Germany, and the Holy Land. My work is done here. There is nothing now to prevent my going—no duty to perform, no one to keep me here. I could not find a better friend and companion than Mrs. Ralston, and she is very anxious to go, and to take me with her. You are all very dear to me, but no one needs me now more than she, nor so much. And, Claire, don't make any mistakes about me. I am not going away sorrowfully, or with any heavy weight upon my spirits. I am going to enjoy and make the most and best of the life and youth God has given me. I am going for change, and recreation, and rest. I have been acting the part of an avenger here, a stern, unforgiving Nemesis, but I would do over again all that I have done, if need be. I am not half so good as you. I can not submit with meekness to injustice and wrong. I shall fight my enemies, if I have more to fight, until the end of the chapter. And now I have a confession to make."
Claire stirs uneasily. "Don't," she says, deprecatingly: "I don't want to hear a confession."
"But I want to make one, and you must listen. First, however, let me tell you that during my talk with Mrs. Ralston, I heard about a certain interview, wherein a ridiculous young lady discarded the man she loved, because she fancied she would wrong some one else if she admitted her love for him, and accepted his. Well—don't turn your face away—that was foolish. But my blunder was a downright wicked one. Yes, Claire, I will tell all the truth. When you and I stood together out under the trees, and talked of Clarence Vaughan; when you showed me the picture and told me the little pastoral about Edward Percy; I knew that Clarence Vaughan loved you—and I thought I loved, nay, I did love, him.