"More is the pity; I could have loved her dearly as a sister," responded Lady Linton, in an injured tone. "But," she added, after a thoughtful pause, "it seems you were mistaken in thinking that your wife was collecting proofs of her marriage with the intention of coming here to claim her position. If that had been her plan, doubtless she would have been here long ago."
"Yes—oh! I cannot understand it; but, if I ever discover who has been at the bottom of this mischief, it will be a sad day for that individual!" cried the' baronet, with stern emphasis.
Lady Linton suddenly stooped to brush a thread from her black dress, and when she sat upright again there was considerable more color than usual in her face.
"I am troubled to see you so unhappy, William," she said, more kindly than she had yet spoken, "and perhaps, after all, a change will be the best thing for you. What are your plans?"
"I have none. I simply wish to get away from myself, if that is possible; to steep my troubled thoughts in some excitement. I believe I will go to the Far East—Egypt, Palestine—anywhere to escape this feeling of utter desolation," he answered, dejectedly.
"When will you go?"
"At once—before the week is out, if I can arrange to do so."
"Have you any special commands for me to attend to during your absence?"
"None, save that you are to remain here as usual, if you like, and in case any word comes from my loved ones, send for me at once."
"Very well. Have you any idea how long you will be away?"
"No. I may not be gone a month; I may stay ten years; it will depend upon how well I can kill time," returned Sir William, moodily.
"Oh, William, I wish you would try and rise above this trouble," said his sister, out of all patience with him at heart, but speaking in a soothing tone. "I do not like to pain you, but, truly, it looks to me as if your wife had been guilty of willful desertion in thus hiding herself from you, and I believe there would be a great deal of happiness yet for you if you could be freed from her entirely, and then bring some good, gentle woman here to make your home pleasant for you."
It was the first time that she had ever been able to gather courage sufficient to make this proposition; but she was wholly unprepared for the storm of wrath which the suggestion brought upon her head.
Sir William came and stood, tall and stern, before her, his face almost convulsed with mingled pain and wrath, his eyes blazing dangerously:
"Miriam Linton," he began, in a suppressed tone, "never dare to open your lips on such a subject to me again. I married my darling for better or worse, until death should part us, and only my death or hers will ever break the tie—at least with my consent—that binds us."
He turned abruptly and left the room as he ceased speaking, more angry with her than he had ever been before.
Lady Linton was thoroughly startled by what he had said, and she knew she would never dare suggest such a measure again to him; but she still had a secret hope, from what Mrs. Farnum had written her, that the injured wife would seek a legal separation from him.
She imagined that this might be the reason of Virgie keeping so quiet just at present, and she was all the more willing and glad to have her brother go away from home, as he proposed doing, because she knew that he would have to be notified whenever any such proceedings should be instituted, and she feared if he were there to receive them he would at once post off to America again, and upset all her plans by bringing about a reconcilation at the last moment.
So in less than a week Sir William left England for, Egypt and the Holy Land, and Lady Linton experienced a feeling of intense relief at his departure. Time, she reasoned, was a great healer, and she hoped much from this season of travel and change.
It was rather lonely for her at Heathdale during the winter, but she was grateful to be released from the anxiety she had suffered on his account for the last year.
Spring came, summer passed; a year had come and gone since the disappearance of her brother's young wife, when one day there came an official-looking document addressed to the baronet, and bearing the California postmark.
Lady Linton quivered in every nerve as she saw it, for her heart told her instantly what it contained.
Still, she could not be satisfied until she knew beyond a doubt, and she skillfully opened it for examination before forwarding it to her brother.
It was even as she had hoped.
Virgie had kept her word; she was about to repudiate her husband for his supposed faithlessness to her, and Lady Linton's lips curled in a smile of exultation as she read the paper notifying her brother that proceedings for a divorce were about to be instituted in the courts of San Francisco by Lady Virginia Heath against Sir William Heath, of Heathsdale, England.
"Everything is working beautifully," she murmured, triumphantly; "his pride will never let him seek her after this takes effect; it will be conclusive evidence to him that she, at least, desires to have the tie that binds them broken. Let me see! he is notified to appear on the ninth of next month—in a little more than four weeks. Ha, ha! he was in Alexandria when he last wrote, and this could not possibly reach him in season to admit of his obeying the summons in time. Matters will have reached a crisis before he gets it—the injured and beautiful little savage will have secured her divorce, and my brother will be free, long before he will know what has been done. However, I will do my duty, and forward it to him instantly."
With a lighter heart than she had known for months, the crafty woman carefully resealed the document in a way to defy suspicion that it had been tampered with, inclosed it in another envelope, directed and marked it "important," and dispatched it by the very next mail to her brother.
Three months passed and she had heard nothing from him. She began to feel anxious as to how he had received the news of what Virgie was doing, when there came another similar-looking document, bearing the same postmark as before.
"The deed is done!" she cried, joyfully, the moment her eyes rested upon it. "I do not even need to open this to be assured of the nature of its contents."
She was filled with triumph over the success of all her plans thus far, and yet she could not forget Virgie's threat that a day of retribution would surely overtake their proud family.
But she determined not to worry, for the child might not live long enough for her to carry her threat into execution. Virgie, herself, might die, and a hundred other things might happen to prevent.
Her brother might never consent to marry again—she feared he would not—and poor Sadie Farnum's reviving hopes would again be crushed; but, if he did, she felt very sure that her son, Percy—and a noble young fellow he was, too—would be very likely to inherit Heathdale, while Lillian would doubtless receive a handsome dowry when she came to marry.
"I do not believe I will send this to William," she muttered, as she turned that precious document over and over in her hands, and feasted her eyes upon it. "I will at least wait until I hear something from him regarding the other; these priceless papers might be lost on the way, and then——"
Her musings were suddenly cut short by a violent ring at the hall bell.
She started, and sat erect to listen, her face growing pale and anxious, for there seemed to be something ominous in that vigorous jangle which went echoing through the house with such an imperious sound.
The night was raw and stormy; darkness had settled down over the country earlier than usual; there had been a disagreeable chill in the air all day, and a dismal sense of loneliness pervaded the mansion.
She heard the butler go to the door; then there was a sudden exclamation of surprise, followed by a few indistinct sentences, a step, strangely familiar, outside the library door, and the next moment Sir William, gaunt, haggard, and wretched, staggered into the room where his sister was sitting.
Virgie Makes a Home for Herself.
"William," cried Lady Linton, springing excitedly to her feet, the document which had caused her so much joy but a moment before dropping unheeded on the table beside her. "What brings you home in this unceremonious manner? Are you ill? Has anything happened?"
"Am I ill? Yes, by heart is broken—dying within me. Has anything happened? My wife is lost to me forever!" he cried, in a hollow tone, as he sank weakly into a chair and groaned aloud.
"What can I do for you? Let me call John to remove your boots and bring you dry clothing," his sister said, thoroughly alarmed by his appearance; and suiting the action to her words, she rang for the butler.
John came, and attended to his master's wants with alacrity. Wood was piled upon the already cheerful fire, something hot was provided the traveler to drink, and Lady Linton soon had the satisfaction of seeing something like warmth and life stealing into her brother's haggard face.
She understood at once that he must have been nearly crushed upon receiving the document which she had sent him, and that he had immediately started for home. He must have been taken ill on the way and been detained else he would have been there before, and she could imagine how he would chafe over the delay, and how heart-sick he had grown over the fact of being too late to stay the proceedings for the divorce.
She dreaded to have him know that the die was irrevocably cast, although his own words had told her that he apprehended it; but she absolutely feared the first passionate outbreak when she should give him those other papers that had but just arrived.
When he began to grow more calm, and to realize the comfort of being once more before his own hearthstone Lady Linton stole softly away to confer with the housekeeper about preparing him something specially tempting for his supper.
She was absent perhaps fifteen minutes, and was about to return to him, when she was startled by a heavy fall on the floor above her.
Her heart told her what had caused it, and she hurried up stairs with all the speed that fear could lend to her feet, and burst into the library, to find her brother stretched lifeless upon the floor, an open paper clutched tightly in his hand, while John, the faithful butler, was bending over him in an agony of terror.
"Send for Sir Herbert Randal at once, then come back to me," commanded her ladyship, as she stooped to lift her brother's head to place a cushion under it and loosen his necktie.
John sped to do her bidding, and during his absence Lady Linton succeeded in removing that tell-tale document from Sir William's hand, and locking it away from all inquisitive eyes; for her first thought was that there must be no scandal over the affair.
Few knew of his marriage. She had persisted in keeping still about it, in spite of all his orders to the contrary, and after his return from his fruitless search for Virgie, he had been far too sensitive upon the subject to talk of it himself, and thus almost everybody believed him to be still a single man. Hence Lady Linton's anxiety that nothing should be known regarding the divorce.
When John returned to her she summoned other servants and had Sir William carried to his own rooms, where she and the housekeeper applied all remedies that were at hand to revive him.
When the physician arrived he had recovered from his swoon, but was in a raging fever, and wild with delirium.
Sir Herbert pronounced his illness to be brain fever of a serious type, and Lady Linton knew, from the grave look on the wise man's face, that he had but very little hope of his recovery.
* * * * *
When Virgie left the hotel on the morning after Mr. Eldridge requested her to vacate her rooms, she drove to a quiet street, where she engaged lodgings for a few days, until she could arrange her plans for the future. She then gave notice at the bank where her money was deposited that she should draw it all on a certain date. As soon as she received it she purchased a ticket for San Francisco, and a week from the time of receiving Lady Linton's cruel letter she was rolling over the Central Pacific Railroad toward her former home, intent upon only one purpose—that of gaining indisputable proof of her lawful marriage, in order to shield her child from wrong and shame.
She reached a small town only a few miles from her old home among the mountains, and then sent a messenger for Chi Lu to come to her.
He came at once, glad to do anything for the "young missee" whom he had served for years, and learned to regard with great affection.
Virgie felt sure that she could safely confide in him, so she told him something of her trouble, and asked him to help her gather the proofs of her marriage.
He proved himself very efficient in this respect, and was only too eager to secure justice for her.
After all was done, and she had the precious papers in her own hands, she would have paid him handsomely and sent him hack to the mountains again. But he threw at her feet the money she offered him, and begged to be allowed to go with her wherever she went—to let him work for her and the "little missee," as he used to in the old days before she went away. "He did not want any money—only let him have a little rice and curry, and a mat to sleep on, and he would serve her as long as she needed him."
Virgie was moved to tears by this evidence of his faithfulness, and, though she had not thought of such a thing before, it suddenly occurred to her that it might be a wise proceeding on her part to grant his request.
She knew that he was entirely trustworthy; he was very capable in many ways, and she was sure she should feel a sense of security and protection with him that she could not experience to go alone into a strange place, and have to depend entirely upon herself.
"I should like to have you, Chi," she said, thoughtfully, "but I am afraid it would be hardly fair to you, for I haven't a great deal of money, and I shall have to be very economical."
Chi Lu's little round black eyes flashed at this. "He takee monee too?" he demanded, with contemptuous emphasis on the pronoun.
Virgie flushed. She could not bear, from another, the slightest reference to the wrong she had suffered.
"How much monee?" the man hastened to add, as he saw that she was troubled.
"I have a little over four thousand dollars," Virgie replied, thinking it best to fully confide in him.
Her bills had been heavy in New York, and it had taken the most of one thousand dollars out of the five thousand that Sir William had deposited for her, to settle them.
Chi Lu gave a grunt of delight at the information.
"Good! missee live long. Chi Lu know how; he fix 'em," he said, with an air of confidence that was reassuring and Virgie believed that he would indeed make a better steward of her limited means than she could possibly be with her inexperience, so she resolved to trust him, and told him that he should go with her if he wished.
The next question to settle was regarding a place of residence, and she finally decided, after talking the matter over with her servant, that she would be less conspicuous in some large city, and as there was no place she knew so well as San Francisco, she resolved to once more make her home in that city.
These matters decided, Chi Lu went back to the mountains to dispose of his cabin and settle up his affairs, and when he rejoined his young mistress, they proceeded directly to San Francisco, where the Chinaman soon succeeded in securing three very comfortable rooms in a quiet and good locality.
Virgie furnished these simply, though prettily, and, when all was completed, really felt quite at home, and as if she had at last found a haven of safety.
There was a small parlor and bedroom for her own use, a tiny kitchen, with a good-sized closet opening out of it, which was allotted exclusively to Chi Lu.
Virgie soon found that she had indeed done wisely to take her old servant again into her employ, for he managed everything in a most economical and comfortable way, while she realized that if she had been obliged to depend wholly upon herself and have the care of her little one besides, her strength and courage would have both failed her in a little while.
The younger Lady of Heathdale demanded a great deal of attention during that first year of her life, and, being wholly unaccustomed to children, Virgie found the care a great tax upon her.
They had been in San Francisco some three months, when Chi Lu proposed to Virgie to go into business for himself.
He told her that he had not half enough to do to keep busy; there was a large unoccupied room adjoining the building they were in, which he could secure for a moderate rent, and he desired to set up the laundry business.
He wanted to employ two or three of his countrymen to do the work, while he simply had charge of it, which he could easily do and attend to his duties with her at the same time.
Virgie willingly consented to this arrangement, never once suspecting that it was a plan on the part of Chi Lu to obtain funds to contribute toward her support when her own resources should fail. She knew that the little which he consented to receive from her was but a small compensation for the services he rendered her, and she was very glad to have him make something for himself.
Thus in the course of time the faithful Chinaman established quite a thrifty business, while his face would light up and his small eyes gleam with satisfaction as he gathered in the dollars day by day, and he might have been heard from time to time to mutter, with a gleeful chuckle:
"Good! Muche monee for missee and little missee by'm-by!"
But, as Virgie's baby grew older and capable of amusing herself somewhat, time began to hang heavily on the young mother's hands.
Her sorrow was one that could not be easily out-grown and sometimes life seemed a burden almost too heavy to be borne. Day after day her heart cried out in rebellion against her lonely bitter lot; night after night her pillow was wet with scalding tears, as for hours she lay weeping for the love that she had lost.
She began to realize at last that her health was suffering from such constant grieving, and that she must find something to occupy her time more fully and take her thoughts from herself, or she would soon break down beneath such severe mental strain.
It was after a day of unusual depression and sadness that she took up the evening paper and began carelessly to glance over the columns.
Suddenly her eyes lighted upon an advertisement.
It stated that a well-known publishing house of that city offered a prize of three hundred dollars for the most unique and tasteful design for a Christmas souvenir. It described what was required, mentioned the conditions of its acceptance, and the time when the designs of all competitors must be delivered.
Virgie was interested at once.
"Why, cannot I do something of that kind?" she murmured "Papa used to say that I was remarkably skillful in making pen-and-ink sketches, and why should I not turn, my talent to some account? If I should succeed it would not only give me something with which to occupy my time, but perhaps enable me to earn for the future; my money is not going to last so very long, in spite of all Chi Lu's economy."
The idea pleased her, and she set about putting it into practice at once.
During the next three months she applied herself diligently and as she worked she became deeply interested in her occupation. Almost immediately there was a change for the better in her health and general appearance Her eye brightened, the lassitude that pervaded her movements disappeared and something of her old energy returned to her.
She wasted no more time in useless brooding and pining; less tears were shed at night, for, wearied with her close application to her work during the day, sleep stole her senses and wrapped her in healthful rest.
At the time appointed for all competitors to send in their designs, Virgie was ready to subject her work to criticism.
She had made three designs, each differing in style and character from the others, but all so attractive that she felt almost sure they would bring her some return, even if she was not the fortunate winner of the prize.
Besides these, she had been hard at work upon an idea of her own, which she intended to show the publisher, hoping to win his approbation and assistance in bringing it before the public.
Dressing herself plainly, but with taste, she started out one morning with her treasures, and presenting herself at the publishing house referred to, asked to see the proprietor.
The gentlemanly clerk led her to a private office, where she found a pleasant-looking, elderly gentleman who regarded her a trifle curiously, but greeted her courteously, and then politely asked her business with him.
"Some time ago I saw an advertisement in your name, relating to Christmas souvenirs," Virgie began, "and as this is the date on which they were required to be delivered I have brought my contribution for your inspection."
The gentleman bowed, but hesitated a moment before replying.
Virgie's manner and language told him that she was a lady, and he did not like to say anything to wound her; but the advertisement to which she referred had distinctly stated that competitors were, under no consideration to expect a personal interview regarding their contributions. They were either to be sent by mail or left at the office until an examination by the proprietor should decide who the fortunate winner of the prize might be.
"Ah!" he began, "I understand you desire to leave the specimens of your work with me."
Virgie flushed, for his tone was rather frigid. Then she recovered herself, and her face lighted with her rare, beautiful smile, which went directly to the publisher's heart.
"Yes, sir," she answered, laying a package upon his desk. "Of course I understand that I am not to expect a private examination of my work. I had no intention of annoying you with the matter. I am willing to take my chance with others. But there is another matter upon which I would like to consult with you if you can spare me a little time."
She now drew forth a more bulky package from her bag.
"Some manuscript, perhaps, which you would like examined?" responded the gentleman, glancing at it, but speaking indifferently.
"No, not manuscript according to the common acceptation of the term; and yet, in reality, I suppose it is."
"Can you not leave it with me? I will look at it with pleasure later;" but his tone was not very encouraging.
"I should prefer not to do so, because there is not very much time between now and Christmas, and if you do not approve of it I shall like to take it elsewhere," Virgie replied, untying the dainty ribbon which bound her package, and, removing the wrapper, she laid before him a little book about eight inches square and comprising some twenty or thirty pages.
It was composed of half sheets of the heaviest and nicest of unruled paper, tied together in three places with beautiful little cords and tassels of pale-blue silk.
On the cover, in a lovely design composed of mountain ferns, most exquisitely executed, there was written, in a dainty hand, the title—"Gleanings from the Heights."
The gentleman uttered a low exclamation of pleasure as his eye fell upon this.
His attention was riveted; there was no indifference in his manner now.
A Mysterious Stranger.
"Did you do this?" Mr. Knight, the publisher, asked, looking up after a close examination of the dainty cover.
"Yes, sir," Virgie answered, with a quiet smile, and, seeing that she had gained her point, that he would not leave it until he had seen the whole, she sat down near him to await his verdict.
Page after page was turned and on each there was a lovely group of mountain foliage, flowers, or ferns, all beautifully executed in pen and ink, while underneath the design, or cunningly woven around it, was written, in a dainty hand, some appropriate verse or couplet, quotations from various authors, with now and then a bit of real heart rhyme that had been the outgrowth of Virgie's own sad experiences.
Everything, as the title indicated, had been taken from the mountains—from those heights where she had spent the last few years of her life.
It had been her custom, after gathering the wild, beautiful things, to carefully arrange them and then copy them upon paper.
This amusement had served to pass away many an otherwise tedious hour, and she had a portfolio full of these charming designs, which were likely to prove of great value to her in the future, as we shall see.
Mr. Knight took ample time for his examination of her work, so much, indeed, that Virgie began to grow weary and anxious to get back to her little one.
But at last the gentleman leaned back in his chair, took off his spectacles, and turned his keen, searching glance full upon his visitor's face.
"Madam," he said, "it is not my custom to speak extravagantly upon any subject; but I am bound to admit that this is the finest thing of its kind that it has ever been my privilege to examine."
A beautiful color sprang into Virgie's cheeks at this high praise. She had known that her work was well done, but she had not expected to be told of it quite so frankly or emphatically.
She bowed, and murmured her thanks for his appreciation
"What do you want to do with it?" Mr. Knight asked.
"Get it published as a holiday souvenir, and make it pay me a handsome sum for my trouble," Virgie responded, in a business-like tone, and then was half-frightened at her own boldness.
The publisher's eyes twinkled with amusement.
"What would you consider a handsome sum?" he inquired.
Virgie thought a moment; then she replied:
"You have offered one, two, and three hundred dollars as prizes for the simple souvenirs described in your advertisement, and surely a work like this must be worth much more."
"Very true; but will you name some price for it? I confess that I should like to take it, if you do not value it too highly."
Virgie was astonished at this.
She had not expected to be allowed to name her own price. She had supposed, if her work was approved at all, to receive some moderate offer, which she could accept or decline as she saw fit.
But she shrank from setting a value upon her work. It was her first effort, and she had no more idea of its worth, as a work of art, than a child.
"Sir," she returned, "I will tell you frankly that I never did anything of the kind before; that is, I have never attempted to dispose of any of my work and I do not know what it ought to bring me. I have been suddenly thrown upon my own resources, and it occurred to me that I might turn my one talent to some account."
"Your 'one talent' will prove a very valuable one, if rightly employed," interposed the publisher, smiling.
"Thank you," returned Virgie, flushing again. "And now, since my little book pleases you, will you kindly make me an offer?"
"Well, Miss —— What shall I call you, please? I like to know the names of people with whom I am dealing," Mr. Knight observed, with a business-like air.
A sudden shock went over Virgie, making her tingle to her finger-tips at this question.
It was the first time that she had been asked to give her name since coming to San Francisco.
She had lived so like a recluse that there had been no occasion, and she had never decided what she would be called. She could not use her husband's name.
If she had more time to think she might have answered the publisher differently; but, as it was, she said, hastily, and not without some confusion:
"My name is Mrs.—Alexander."
Mr. Knight started slightly, and threw a searching glance at her.
"Alexander! Ah, I used to know—But, pardon me; I was about to make you an offer, I believe."
He seemed to consider a moment, then continued:
"I will give you five hundred dollars for this little work, just as it stands, and if it proves to be a success after it is published, I will add ten per cent, of the sales to that amount."
Virgie could scarcely credit her hearing at this generous offer.
She had never dreamed of anything like it, and bright visions of future prosperity for herself and her child, attained through her own efforts, alone, flitted through her mind.
But she did not lose her self-possession or betray her excessive delight at the unexpected proposal.
"What am I to understand by your words, 'if it proves a success?'" she asked.
Again the publisher's eyes twinkled.
He knew that she was a novice in dealing with business men, but he saw that she was shrewd and practical, and, finding her talent valuable, meant to make the most of it.
He meant, however, to do so well by her that she would be satisfied to give her services exclusively to him.
"Well," he replied, "if the sales reach a thousand copies I shall consider the book a success."
He knew well enough, if he could get it out in season, he could easily sell three times that number for it was a wonderfully unique and attractive affair.
"More than that," he continued, "if you are pleased to accept my offer, I should like to engage you to prepare two or three designs of a similar character for the Easter trade."
Virgie was not proof against all this good fortune. Her lips trembled, and she was very near breaking down.
It seemed almost as if heaven had suddenly opened and sent her a kind friend in the midst of her darkness and trouble.
"You are very kind, sir; I feel that you have made me a most liberal offer, and I accept it most gratefully," she said.
Something in her tone—a sort of hopeless cadence mingling with the gratitude, as if with all this good fortune there were a lurking despair in her heart—touched the gentleman deeply.
He was becoming greatly interested in this beautiful woman, who, with that look of heart-broken sadness in her violet eyes, and that grieved droop about her sweet mouth, he believed must have some thrilling history connected with her young life.
"Then, Mrs. Alexander, do your best, and give me something especially nice for Easter," he returned, brightly, and appearing not to notice her emotion.
He arose as he spoke, and took leave of her with a cordial handshake, saying that she would hear from him again soon regarding her other designs, and Virgie went on her homeward way with more of hope and courage than she had known since her great trouble came upon her.
She had nearly reached the street where she lived, when something occurred to give her a fearful start.
In turning a corner she suddenly came face to face with a man who was wrapped in a heavy circular cape, its collar turned up close about his face and concealing the whole lower portion of it. He wore a wide-brimmed hat that was drawn down over his brow, so that, with the collar and hat together, scarcely anything of his countenance was visible save a pair of piercing black eyes, and a long, sharp nose.
As Virgie met those eyes, which were fixed upon her with an eager, questioning look, she had difficulty in repressing a scream of fear and surprise.
The next moment, however, she recovered herself, and passed him as if he had been an utter stranger; but, though outwardly calm and indifferent, she was trembling in every limb, while a sense of weakness caused by the shock she had received, made it seem as if she could not go on her way.
But she knew it would not do for her to stop, for a sidelong glance over her shoulder and the sound of a step behind her told her that the muffled figure was following her, evidently with the intention of accosting her.
"How dare he come back here? It cannot be that he knows me after all these years," she said to herself as she quickened her pace and sped on toward her home.
Then a sudden thought smote her.
"He must not know where I live, if it is he, and I am sure I cannot be mistaken, for those eyes are like no others in the world. What shall I do?"
She was rapidly nearing her own door, but a sudden purpose impelled her to keep on and go straight by, without even a pause or a look that way.
A block or two beyond she came to a store where she sometimes went to purchase articles that she needed She entered, and going to a counter, called for the first thing she could think of, but kept her eye on the door to see if the man had followed her.
Yes, there could be no doubt that her steps were dogged, for the man passed even as she looked.
His keen glance searched her out immediately; then he paused, turned, and walked slowly back.
The store was on a corner, and there were two entrances to it—one on the front, one at the side.
Virgie paid for her purchase, then worked her way around, going from counter to counter, until she reached the side entrance, when she went slyly out, waited until she saw a car approaching, hailed it, and in another moment went rolling down the street, believing that she had eluded the keen eyes that were on the watch for her.
Not so, however; for the man, having heard the car stop, darted around the corner, and espied her in it just as it was about turning into another street.
He could not overtake it, and with a muttered expression of annoyance, he was obliged to wait for the next one. But he saw no more of Virgie that day, for she took a transfer, and when about a mile from her home changed cars and at length reached her own door, confident that she had escaped her pursuer for that time.
A day or two afterward she saw a personal in one of the daily papers that both puzzled and alarmed her.
F.V.A., whom I met on the corner of W. and C. streets, will communicate with M.A., Lock Box 95, she will learn something to her advantage.
This was the advertisement, and Virgie knew at once that she had been recognized by that man muffled in the cloak.
"That means me," she said, growing deadly white, "and I was not mistaken. He has come back. How dare he? What can he want of me? But I will never see him. I will have nothing to say to him. I will hide myself from him. It is evident he has not discovered where I live, else he would have been here before this, and I will take care that he does not find me out."
After that she was very careful about going out, always closely veiling her face, and wearing a long circular to conceal her form, when she was obliged to do so, which was not often, as, with rare exceptions, her business with Mr. Knight could be mostly transacted by correspondence.
Thus several months passed without her seeing or hearing anything more of the person who had so disturbed her, until at last she believed he must have left the city, and she gave herself no further concern about him.
The Tie Is Broken.
There was no lack of employment now for Virgie. She had plenty to occupy heart, and brain, and hands, and of such a congenial nature that she reaped great benefit from it both mentally and physically.
Of course nothing could ever blot out from her memory the terrible trouble and suffering that she had had to endure, but her work brought its own enjoyment so that she no longer spent such wretched days and nights as formerly. Her baby was every day growing interesting and a source of great comfort to her, while her life generally was tending to bring out the latent qualities of her character, the energy and self-reliance, the skill and talent which otherwise might never have developed into activity.
More than a year went by, while every month she was earning a handsome sum, having been permanently engaged by Mr. Knight to keep him supplied with those novelties which she was so skillful in originating.
Her "Gleanings from the Heights" proved a great success, selling faster than the firm could issue them. Besides this she had been awarded the first prize on the other souvenirs, so that, pecuniarily, she had nothing to fear for the future.
And now she set about another undertaking which she had long contemplated; that of obtaining a divorce from her husband.
She did not take this step because she had any desire to break the tie that bound her to him, and she would never have moved in the matter at all but for the fact that others had assailed her fair name and assumed that her child was dishonored.
Her chief aim, in collecting the proofs of the legality of her marriage, had been to secure to little Virgie the right to the name she bore, and an indisputable title to her inheritance by and by when she should be of a suitable age to claim and enjoy it.
She meant to give her every advantage as she grew older, and do everything possible to fit her for a high position in life; and when, at length, she should reach her majority, she would claim her rights and take care that she secured them in spite of all opposition.
This was all the revenge that Virgie ever intended to take for the wrong that she believed herself to have suffered at her husband's hands. She would scorn to accept anything for herself, but the lawful position of her daughter must and should be recognized.
Her residence of a year in San Francisco had given her the right to apply to the court to have her marriage bonds annulled, and she put her case into the hands of a competent lawyer, recommended by Mr. Knight, to whom she had confided something of her history, and solicited his advice regarding the matter.
He had advised her not to take any legal proceedings until she had tried to confer with Sir William again.
"There is some mistake, I feel sure," he said, "some misunderstanding which might be explained if proper measures were adopted."
"A mistake!" repeated Virgie, scornfully, her eyes blazing with indignation. "I imagine that the only mistake about the whole matter is that I allowed myself to become the dupe of an unprincipled man."
"It can at least do no harm to write him what your intentions are," suggested Mr. Knight, mildly.
"I wrote him letter after letter while I was in New York. Mrs. Farnum, of whom I have told you, knew the whole family, and wrote of me to Lady Linton, but they appeared to be in total ignorance of even my existence, while Mrs. Farnum asserted that Sir William had been engaged for years to Miss Stanhope, and I have already told you of his subsequent marriage with her."
"Still I cannot comprehend how he should dare to commit such a wrong," persisted Mr. Knight. "He must have known that his marriage with you was legal, according to the laws of the State in which it occurred, and the mere fact of his leaving the country could not annul it. If he had assumed a name while he was here, it would not seem so inexplicable, but all the papers which you hold go to show that he married you under his own name and title; while your description of the character of the man makes it seem utterly impossible that he should be guilty of such conduct."
"True. When I think of that, I am heart-broken," said Virgie, breaking down for a moment. "He seemed so true and noble in every respect, and he was particular to have his title appear in the certificate, although he did not adopt it while traveling because he found he was less conspicuous as plain Mr. Heath."
"It almost seems to me as if some plot had been laid to separate you," said Mr. Knight, thoughtfully.
"Impossible! How could such a thing be?" queried Virgie, skeptically. "Who would plot against us?"
"Your letters on both sides may have been intercepted by some enemy with that end in view."
"He has no enemy that I am aware of; neither have I. I did not know a single individual when I went to New York, so there was no one there who would be likely to meddle with our correspondence. More than this, if he did not hear from me, and was true to me, or had possessed an atom of affection for his child, it is but natural to suppose that he would have taken prompt measures to ascertain what the trouble was. No; the more I dwell upon it, the more I am convinced that what he has done was a scheme to secure my property, and then leave me to my fate. I can think of no other object that he could have had."
Alas! Virgie realized long after how she had wronged a noble man with these dreadful suspicions, and even while she was giving utterance to them, her heart was heavy with a sense of injustice done the man whom, even then, she loved most fondly.
Mr. Knight shook his head in a doubtful manner at her last words, and yet he looked perplexed.
"You think I am too hard," Virgie continued, bitterly "but does not even the provision which he made for me before leaving New York look as if he did not intend to return to me?"
"You refer to the five thousand dollars which he deposited for you; it was a very generous amount, truly."
Of course I could not begin to use such a sum in the few weeks that he pretended he should be away; while the additional five hundred dollars which he sent me through his sister goes to prove that he had no intention of ever coming back to me, yet did not wish me to suffer for lack of means."
"I do not like the aspect of that transaction at all," responded Mr. Knight, emphatically. "It looks to me as if his sister had had more to do with the matter than rightly belonged to her. Who knows but what she may have been opposed to her brother's marriage and has been at the bottom of all the trouble?" he concluded, reasoning with a shrewdness which he did not realize.
But Virgie could not be convinced.
"I do not believe that," she said, with a sigh; "it looks to me as if he was ashamed—conscience-smitten—and did not have the moral courage to communicate with me himself."
Yet, even as she said it, she knew that such a course was utterly at variance with his character, as she had known it.
"Well, Mrs. Alexander—or Mrs. Heath, I suppose I ought to call you—I will not say more to dissuade you from your purpose; but let me advise you, as a sincere friend, to go to England and ascertain for yourself just how matters are, before you proceed any further."
Virgie started to her feet, with crimson cheeks and flashing eyes.
"Go to England!—to Heathdale! to find another woman queening it there in my place!—to be brow-beaten and insulted by that proud family!—to be disowned by the man who has already wronged me beyond all forgiveness! Never, sir!"
"You could at least demand your own—the money that your father left you."
"And do you suppose I should get it? I have no proof that my father ever left me a dollar. Sir William has every paper in his own possession. I have not a scrap even that would enable me to wrest so much as a pound from him as my right."
Mr. Knight looked grave. Certainly matters were not very promising for the injured wife.
"Well, it is the most incomprehensible affair that I ever heard of," he said. "I still think, though, that a personal interview would be the wiser course before proceeding further. However, a proper notice will have to be served upon the man, and if there has been any misunderstanding, or he has any desire to contest your appeal for a divorce, he will probably make it apparent when the right time comes. And now, regarding the best counsel for you, I think my friend, Templeton would work well for you, and secure a bill with as little notoriety as any one."
Virgie shivered at this business-like talk of "a bill." It was almost like severing soul from body to break the sacred tie that bound her to the man she so fondly loved, and nothing save the belief that another was occupying the place that rightly belonged to her could have induced her to take such a step.
She applied to Mr. Templeton, as Mr. Knight advised He, too, counseled further intercourse with the baronet, for, to his keen mind, also, the whole affair appeared more like a conspiracy on the part of enemies than a willful wrong perpetrated by the husband.
But Virgie utterly refused to hold any communication with Sir William.
"He will have to be notified regarding the proceedings about to be instituted against him," she said, "and if he is guiltless of wrong he will surely hasten to make it apparent."
In spite of her obstinate refusal to make further overtures, something of hope had been revived in her heart by the united opinions of Mr. Knight and her lawyer that some enemy had plotted to separate her from her husband. She remembered what Mrs. Farnum had told her about the pride of his family, and it might be there was some foundation for the belief of the two gentlemen. She could understand how that might possibly be the case as far as intercepting their letters was concerned, but those other facts of the long engagement and the marriage with Miss Stanhope were things which she could not explain by any reasoning.
Still she kept hoping for some word during the time that intervened between the notification and the day set for the hearing of the case. Day after day she waited and watched for some tidings from her husband starting at every unusual sound, growing almost faint at the opening and shutting of a door, and even imagining she saw a familiar form as she sat at her window and eagerly scanned every passer-by.
She grew thin and pale with this dreadful suspense; she seemed to be consuming with fever, and was so restless and nervous that her friend, Mr. Knight, feared that her mind might suffer from such tension.
She hoped until the last moment, although she tried to conceal it, but when the dreaded day arrived, when her case was presented and there was no one to contest it; when the judge rendered his decision, declaring that her marriage was null and void, that henceforth in the eyes of the law and the world she was free from the man to whom she had solemnly promised to cling until death should part them, her courage and strength forsook her, and she was carried lifeless from the court-room, while for three weeks afterward she lay weak and ill, and almost indifferent to life.
The only grain of comfort in this time of woe was derived from the fact that the child had been given to her, and she had no fear of ever having it taken from her, even if Sir William should ever be moved to a desire to have her.
For a time she seemed wholly unlike herself; but the kind-hearted publisher knew that the best antidote for all kinds of trouble is work, and he kept her crowded with orders, until she felt obliged to rally her failing energies and to take up the burdens of life once more.
Thus the winter passed; but, when summer came again, little Virgie began to droop in the noisome atmosphere of the city, and the physician said she must be taken where she could have purer air and country living; so Virgie went to a quiet little place a few miles out of the city, where she remained the entire season, not returning to San Francisco until late in October, and thus a cruel fate again seemed to mock her, for during her absence Sir William Heath had come to seek her again, and not finding her, he, too, had grown heart-sick with despair and hope deferred.
Sir William Becomes Guardian.
Very distressing were the thoughts of the young baronet, who had so suddenly returned to his home and been stricken with illness.
He had been sick at Alexandria when he received the document notifying him that Virgie was seeking a divorce.
He was absolutely paralyzed as he read it, and saw by the date that it would be utterly impossible for him to reach America in time to stay the proceedings.
He could not even reach England in season to cable for that purpose, and he was so overcome by the knowledge and his own helplessness, as to render him unable to travel for a couple of weeks longer.
One thing gave him some satisfaction. He at least knew that Virgie was in San Francisco, and that she must have been residing in the State for some time to allow her the right to apply for the divorce there. She must have been there even while he was there searching for her, and it seemed terribly cruel to him that he should have missed her.
But he resolved that he would find her yet, if she lived. Poor darling! what a bitter lot had been hers during this last year, believing what she must of him. It should not go on, however; he would seek her and vindicate himself; he would prove to her that he had never wavered in his truth to her in spite of all the evidence against him. He would prove his love for her, and he would win her again, even though the dread decree had been pronounced, bring her back with him to Heathdale, and they would be happy yet.
And his child—the precious little one whom he had never seen—his heart cried out for her with an uncontrollable yearning—his baby! his miniature Virgie!
Thus, as we already know, he went directly to Heathdale where he arrived on the very evening that Lady Linton had received the papers announcing that his wife had secured a decree of divorce.
He was very wretched in spite of his sister's hearty welcome and efforts to render him comfortable; and during her absence from the room to see that something unusually nice should be prepared for him, anxious, bitter thoughts crowded his mind, and he rebelled against the arbitrary weariness and lassitude that bound him, as with chains of iron, and compelled him to rest.
Gradually, however, his glance began to wander over the familiar room, lingering now upon some picture, now upon some rare article of virtu, each endeared by peculiar associations, until at length it rested upon the table and that document, which his sister had dropped and forgotten in her surprise at his appearance.
Its likeness to the one he had previously received startled him.
He arose and went forward to examine it. Its postmark told him at once whence it had come.
A deathly paleness overspread his face; a horrible numbness fell upon his heart.
With trembling hands he tore it open, and one glance was sufficient to tell him the nature of its contents.
It was the one bitter blow too much, even though he had half-expected it, and, with a despairing cry that would have melted the hardest heart, "Lost! lost! Virgie, my love! my love!" he fell prone upon the floor, clutching that fatal paper in his grasp.
Long weeks of watching and anxiety followed—weeks during which Lady Linton began to fear that she was paying dearly for her plotting and treachery, even though her son might become the master of Heathdale in the event of her brother's death.
But he did not die. His constitution was naturally rugged, and by the end of winter, after many alternations of hope and fear, he slowly began to rally.
As soon as he was able to be dressed and sit up he began to talk of going again to America.
Of course Sir Herbert Randal vetoed such a proposition at once.
"You are not to stir outside the grounds of Heathdale for three months at least," he said, decidedly.
"But I must, Sir Herbert. You have no idea how much is at stake," the sick man pleaded.
"You must not. I cannot help how much there is at stake," returned the physician, firmly. "I have had hard work to get you up, even so far, from this nervous prostration and the least excitement or imprudence will cause a dangerous relapse."
And so, with despair at his heart, Sir William was obliged to submit.
He tried to write to Virgie, intending to send the letter to her through the lawyer whom she had employed and whose name had appeared in connection with the papers he had received, but he could not; he found that his brain was too weak to permit of the framing of even a sentence, and he knew that he could never plead his cause successfully in such a state.
He shrank from asking any one else to write for him; his sister he knew was not in sympathy with him, and he would not confide in her.
When his mind had become strong enough to realize what was going on about him, he had one day asked Lady Linton to bring him both documents that had come to him from America.
She obeyed him, making no comment, though her manner betrayed that she knew well enough their character.
He told her to lock them in a certain drawer which no one was ever allowed to open save himself.
She did so in his presence, and earnestly hoped, as the key clicked upon them, that that episode in her brother's life was buried for all time.
But she was not long in finding that she was to be disappointed
As summer advanced Sir William gained more rapidly and by August he was pronounced comparatively well, although he was still but the ghost of his former self.
Then he announced his determination of again crossing the Atlantic, and Lady Linton's heart failed her. Would he never relinquish his chase after that miserable girl?
She earnestly pleaded that he would not leave home again.
"I must," he replied, sternly. "I must find my wife."
"Your wife!" she retorted, losing all patience; "you have no wife."
"Be still, Miriam," he commanded, growing frightfully pale. "I see that you know what has occurred, and though the law may have succeeded in breaking the tie between us, yet in my heart I claim Virgie as my wife just as truly to-day as she ever was. I will search the world over for her; if I find her the law will give her to me again, for I believe that she is still true to me, whatever she may think of me; if I do not find her, I shall live and die cherishing her image alone."
Lady Linton knew that he meant what he said.
"That will be bad for Sadie's hopes," she thought; "but doubtless Percy will be the gainer, unless he succeeds in finding that girl. I never believed his pride would let him go chasing after her like this."
The last of August found him again on the ocean.
The voyage proved beneficial, and he was in much better health and strength when he landed in New York than when he left England.
He proceeded directly to San Francisco as fast as steam and wheels could take him, determined to seek out Mr. Templeton, Virgie's lawyer, who, he believed, would tell him where she could be found.
But a terrible disappointment awaited him there.
Mr. Templeton had retired from business at the beginning of summer, and, with his family, had gone abroad for an indefinite period.
He could not even obtain his address, and was thus prevented from communicating with him by letter.
Then he began another wearisome search. Day after day he haunted the streets of the city. He inquired, he advertised, and used every method he could think of to ascertain where his darling was, but without avail, for, as we know, she had gone into the country on little Virgie's account, while Mr. Knight was away on a trip to British Columbia, or he might have seen Sir William's advertisements, and helped him in the matter so near, his heart.
About the middle of October he decided to go once more to her old home among the mountains of Nevada, hoping to learn something of her there.
But, of course, he did not, and he finally came to the conclusion that she must have left California after obtaining her divorce. At least he thought she would leave San Francisco, for he knew that there were unpleasant associations connected with her past life there, and he did not believe she would like to make her home in that city, where disagreeable rumors might still exist. But, still resolving to find her at any cost, he turned his face in another direction, and began anew his wanderings up and down the land.
Three weary years he spent thus, following every clew, but all to no purpose. Then, saddened and disheartened he was compelled to give up the chase and return to Heathdale, for his estate demanded his personal attention.
Mrs. Farnum and her daughter were full of hope, after learning that the decree of divorce had been granted, that the beauty and belle would at last succeed in securing the prize she had so long coveted.
Every art was made use of to captivate the wealthy baronet, but it was evident that his heart was irrevocably fixed—that he had no intention of ever marrying again. Finally the disappointed girl gave her hand to a rich, but aged and feeble lord, and tried to satisfy her heart and ambition with the golden husks thus achieved.
Mrs. Farnum lost her husband soon after her return from America, and afterward made her home mostly with her daughter. But she was far from being a happy woman, even though she had everything which unlimited wealth could purchase. Her conscience never ceased to trouble her for the part she had played in helping to ruin the life of that beautiful wife and mother whom she had met in New York. She was ever haunted by that sad, sweet face. She had been half-tempted, many times, to confess everything to Sir William, hoping thus to atone in part for what she had done, and because, after she found that Sadie's cause was hopeless, she began to pity that poor, injured girl; but her fear of Lady Linton, and also of Sir William's righteous anger, prevented her doing so.
Thus five years passed.
It was now ten years since Sir William Heath's marriage with Virgie, but he was still true to the one love of his youth. He continued to cherish her image in his heart, even as he had vowed to do, and though he had come to believe her lost to him forever, he had determined that no other should occupy the place he had once given to her.
But about this time something occurred to create a pleasant change in his saddened life.
A dear friend of his youth died, leaving to his care his fine, manly little son, now in his twelfth year, who had been the pride of his father's heart, the comfort of widowered, lonely years.
Major Hamilton had been in Her Majesty's service for many years, and at the time of his death was serving on an important appointment abroad.
During this service he had acquired many honors and great wealth. His wife was the second daughter of Lord Shaftonsberry, but she had lived only one short month after the birth of their only son, Rupert, who was now to become the ward of Sir William Heath.
He was a noble little fellow, and it was not long before the baronet became fondly attached to him, and believed that perhaps he had at last found, in rearing this child of promise to manhood, something that would add interest and zest to his dreary and monotonous life.
Lady Linton, who was still at Heathdale, and nominally its mistress, received the orphaned stranger with great kindness.
He was heir presumptive to the title and estates of Shaftonsberry, if death should remove the present incumbent who as yet had no children of his own, and this circumstance, in addition to the great wealth which young Rupert inherited from his father, made him a person of considerable consequence.
Her ladyship's mind, with its habitual cunning, leaped forward eight or ten years, and planned a union of the houses of Linton and Shaftonsberry, by the marriage of her daughter, Lillian, now eleven years of age, with her brother's ward.
She argued that everything was in her favor for accomplishing this, for the children would be reared beneath the same roof, and it would be comparatively easy to educate them to consider themselves destined for each other.
Of course this arch plotter kept all this to herself, for she well knew that her brother would sternly oppose all match-making of this sort; but it became a dearly cherished plan with her, and she bent all her energies toward its accomplishment.
"I Shall Never Marry Again."
Virgie returned to San Francisco about two weeks after Sir William quitted the city.
Her little girl, now more than two years old, was much improved, and had grown to be a remarkably interesting child, while she was of the greatest comfort to her mother whose every hope was now centered in her.
Virgie entered upon her work with renewed interest, although she had not been idle during the summer by any means. With her pen she had copied nature in every possible phase, and had brought home, for her winter's campaign, rich treasures of beauty and art.
She had for some time been engaged upon quite an extensive work, which was to be elegantly bound, and which promised to be something very rare and unique.
She threw herself into this with such energy, after her return, and worked at it so steadily and with so much enthusiasm, that Mr. Knight really began to fear that she would overtax her strength.
From the first he had been deeply interested in the beautiful and talented woman who bore her sorrows so bravely and battled so courageously with the adverse fate that had well-nigh ruined her life. He had pitied her friendlessness, and tried to throw around her a sort of fatherly care and protection; but as he came to know her better, to realize her strength of mind and character, and beauty of disposition, a warmer feeling began to take the place of pity and compassion, until, as she grew to confide in and rely upon him more and more, the hope that he might perhaps win her to share and brighten his lonely home during the declining years of his life, gradually dawned upon him, and he finally resolved to ask her to become his wife.
"I could save her from all this toil, and all uncertainty about the future. I would ask no greater happiness than to see her mistress of my home during the remainder of my life, and then, when I am gone, she will have all my wealth to smooth her own future."
Thus he mused while considering the propriety of putting his fate to the test.
One day Virgie came into his office to consult with him regarding some point connected with her book, and he thought she appeared weary and looked paler than usual.
"You are working too hard, Mrs. Alexander," he said. "Do not apply yourself so closely—there is no need."
"No need?" returned Virgie; "there is every need. I am very mercenary, Mr. Knight," she added, smiling "I am determined to make all the money I can, so that my dear little girl may have every advantage by and by."
"But if you tax your strength too severely you may break down, and that would be far worse than not to make money quite so rapidly."
"I do not think I am going beyond my strength," Virgie replied, gravely. "Besides, I am much more content when I am very busy; it keeps me from—thinking."
"You ought to be far more than simply 'content,'" answered Mr. Knight, regarding the fair face wistfully, "for you are not only making plenty of money, but winning fame for yourself also. The name of Alexander bids fair to become renowned."
Virgie started violently at this, and glanced sharply at her companion. Then a burning blush suffused her face, and she said, in a low, pained tone:
"Oh, I hope not! I—I do not wish to be known. I am afraid I have done wrong in using the name at all. I did it hastily, impulsively——"
She stopped, covered with confusion, a look of distress on her lovely face for having allowed herself to say so much.
Mr. Knight looked astonished for a moment, while he earnestly studied her countenance. Then light seemed to dawn upon him suddenly.
"Pardon me," he said, leaning eagerly toward her, "but what you have said has enlightened me regarding something that has puzzled me since the day I first met you. You are the daughter of Abbot Alexander who disappeared so mysteriously from this city several years ago."
"Yes, it is true," Virgie confessed, with bowed head and burning cheeks. "But, oh, Mr. Knight, pray do not allow any one else to suspect my identity if you can avoid it. Put some other name to my books, or put no name at all to them. For my father's sake, I shrink from attracting public attention to his name."
"My dear young friend, I fear you are morbidly sensitive I used to know your father, and I always esteemed him as a noble man—one whose honor was unimpeachable."
"Ah! Then you do not know—"
"Yes, I do know all about that financial earthquake which wrought his ruin and that of many others; but I am sure he was blameless."
"You judge him, then, more kindly than others," Virgie returned, almost weeping to hear her father so warmly defended. "There are few, I fear, who do not believe the very worst of him even now."
"Doubtless that is true," Mr. Knight answered, with a sigh; "but I have always been convinced that that rascally cashier was at the bottom of the wrong. You must pardon me for speaking so plainly. I know that he was a relative, though unworthy the name he bore."
"But all the papers stated that the president and cashier were in league," said Virgie.
"I know it; and at first the affair did have that appearance—at least, such a construction was but natural under the circumstances."
"But papa gave up every dollar he possessed to right the wrong."
"I know he did, but the amount was so small, compared with that which had been stolen, that people were skeptical regarding his motives, and when he also disappeared, they were only too ready to believe that he had gone to share the plunder with the guilty cashier. But I would as soon suspect myself of a crime as Abbot Alexander. I know that he was an honorable man."
"Oh, it is such a comfort to hear you say this," Virgie murmured, her voice husky with emotion, her eyes filled with tears. "Poor papa! his last years were embittered with the thought that every one believed him a defaulter—that he had not one friend in all the world, save his daughter, who had faith in him."
"He made a great mistake in leaving San Francisco as he did," Mr. Knight remarked. "If he had remained here and quietly lived down the scandal, he might in time have recovered the confidence of the people."
"Oh! if the stain could be removed from his name and memory!" sighed Virgie.
"I do not like to pain you, my dear," replied Mr. Knight, sympathetically; "but that would be very difficult to accomplish, unless that cashier should come forward and make a full confession."
Virgie looked up, startled, her face growing very white.
"I saw him here in the city last year," she said.
"Impossible!" exclaimed her friend.
"I am very sure I was not mistaken," Virgie affirmed and then she told the publisher the circumstances of her being followed by that muffled figure and of the advertisement which appeared in the papers a day or two following, desiring communication with her.
"I am afraid that you have made a mistake this time," said Mr. Knight, thoughtfully. "You ought to have communicated with the man."
"But I had such a horror of him; I could not believe that he would be able to tell me of anything to my advantage."
"At least he could have done you no harm, and he might have told you something worth knowing. Promise me, if anything of the same nature occurs again, you will let me know. If he could be arrested he might be forced to a confession of the truth."
Virgie was greatly disturbed by this view of the matter, and regretted that she had not had more wisdom at the time. She readily promised to do as Mr. Knight wished, though she feared she might never again have the opportunity.
"Now that the ice has been broken, and I know who you are, tell me something of your life among the mountains," said her friend. "I fear it must have been a very dreary and monotonous one."
"It was a very quiet and peaceful one," Virgie answered with a sigh, as she thought of the storms she had buffeted since. "Papa's claim proved to be an excellent one, and he made a good deal of money from it; and after we became somewhat used to the change in our life, it was not so bad."
"But all his earnings there had to be sacrificed also. My poor child; what a hard lot has been yours! I almost wonder at your having any faith whatever in human nature," said Mr. Knight, feelingly.
"I am sure that you have proved to me that there is at least one noble man in the world," Virgie returned, gratefully. "I shall never forget your kindness to me, Mr. Knight; you have been a true friend to me."
The publisher leaned eagerly forward, and gathered her hands in his; her words had inspired him with hope.
"Let me be more than a friend to you, dear," he pleaded. "Let me take care of you and your little one in the future. I know that I am much older than you—old enough almost to be your father; but my home is lonely. I lost my wife ten years ago. I have no children, and my heart is hungry for some one to love. Dear child, you have been growing very dear to me ever since you first came to me, and if you can trust me, if you can give yourself to me, I will not ask too much, or even expect that you can feel a great deal of affection for me, for I know how sorely you have been tried and deceived in that respect; but let me persuade you to come to my home as my honored wife, and I will surround you with tenderest care. Life shall be made as pleasant as possible for you, and there will be no need of your toiling any more."
Virgie sat as one stunned after this unexpected proposal.
She had never thought of anything like this during all her intercourse with the kind-hearted publisher. She had learned to esteem him very highly for his goodness to her, and to look up to him almost as to a father, but the thought of ever being any man's wife again had never occurred to her.
She grew very pale at his words, and instinctively shrank a little from him.
That act told him far more than words could have done, and he knew at once that his cause was hopeless.
He gently released her hands, sighing regretfully, while a look of pain settled upon his fine face.
"Oh! my friend," Virgie began, as soon as she could find her voice, "why have you said this to me? I have not had the remotest suspicion of—of your regard and what you have asked can never, never be."
"Then forget that I have said anything about it, my dear. I would not wound you for the world," said the old gentleman, with exceeding gentleness, but with a still pained, white face.
"Oh, please do not think me ungrateful for all your kindness," Virgie cried, the tears dropping thick and fast from her eyes; "but, believe me, I can never marry again. I feel, morally speaking, that I am just as truly Sir William Heath's wife to-day as I ever was, even though the law has rent the bond that existed between us. I do not feel that a marriage can be broken except by death."
"Then why did you appeal for a divorce?" interrupted Mr. Knight, with surprise.
"Simply that he might be free in the eyes of the world to make that other woman a legal wife—so that she need not suffer such a wrong through me."
"But she has already suffered it, if what you have heard is true."
"That may be, but he now has it in his power to do her justice, if he chooses. At all events, I can never feel free to change my condition in life. My whole future must be devoted to the preparation of my child for the position which she will occupy by and by, for I am determined that she shall be acknowledged the rightful heir to Heathdale," Virgie concluded, firmly.
"How about the wrong which this other woman and her children will suffer in that case?" asked the publisher.
"That is something which I cannot help—for which I am in no way responsible. If others suffer, that must be Sir William Heath's punishment for the wrong which he has done me and my child."
Virgie was very pale, showing that she felt strongly on the subject, but she spoke decidedly, as if her purpose was unalterable.
"I can but own the justice of what you have said," responded Mr. Knight, adding: "But of course it will have to be as you say regarding the matter of which I spoke. I should have been very happy in providing for your future, and I had built many hopes upon having your presence in my home. However, I will never pain you by mentioning the subject again, and you must consider me the same friend as before. Come to me with all your plans, your hopes, and your troubles, and believe that I shall always feel the same interest in them as ever."
He arose and held out his hand to her as he spoke, and Virgie could see that it shook with the emotion which he was bravely trying to conceal.
Her heart was almost broken for him, for she knew, that his home was very silent and lonely. There was no one in it save his sister, a maiden lady of uncertain age, to make it pleasant for him.
"Forgive me!" she said, hardly able to speak, and with an impulsive movement she bent forward and touched her lips to the hand extended to her; then turning quickly, she glided from his presence before he could interpose a word to prevent her.
What happened to Virgie, and the final outcome of all her troubles is told in the sequel to this story entitled "Threads Gathered Up," which is published in a handsome cloth binding uniform with this volume.