MISCHIEVOUS MAID FAYNIE
Author's Special Edition
LAURA JEAN LIBBEY
Author of Ione, Parted By Fate, Sweet Kitty Clover, etc.
THE LOVER'S TRYST.
It was five o'clock on a raw, gusty February afternoon. All that day and all the night before it had been snowing hard. New York lay buried beneath over two feet of its cold white mantle, and with the gathering dusk a fierce hurricane set in, proclaiming the approach of the terrible blizzard which had been predicted.
On this afternoon, which was destined to be so memorable, two young men were breasting the sleet and hail, which tore down Broadway with demoniac glee, as though amused that the cable cars were stalled fully a mile along the line, and the people were obliged to get out and walk, facing the full fury of the elements, if they hoped to arrive at their destinations that night.
It could easily be ascertained by the gray, waning light that both young men were tall, broad-shouldered and handsome of face, bearing a striking resemblance to one another.
They were seldom in each other's company, but those who saw them thus jumped naturally to the conclusion that they were twin brothers; but this was a great mistake; they were only cousins. One was Clinton Kendale, whom everybody was speaking of as "the rage of New York," the handsomest actor who had ever trod the metropolitan boards, the idol of the matinee girls, and the greatest attraction the delighted managers had gotten hold of for years.
His companion was of not much consequence, only Lester Armstrong, assistant cashier in the great dry goods house of Marsh & Co., on upper Broadway.
He had entered their employ as a cashboy; had grown to manhood in their service, and he had no further hope for the future, save to remain in his present position by strict application, proving himself worthy of a greater opportunity if the head cashier ever chose to retire.
He lived in the utmost simplicity, was frugal, dressed with unusual plainness, and put by money.
He hadn't a relative on earth, save his handsome, debonair cousin, who never sought him out save when he wanted to borrow money of him.
Clint Kendale's salary was fifty dollars per week, but that did not go far toward paying his bills at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, keeping a fast horse and giving wine suppers. In his early youth he had begun the pace he was now going. He had received a fine collegiate education, and at his majority stepped into the magnificent fortune his parents had left him. It took him just one year to run through it, then, penniless, he came from Boston to New York and sought out his poor cousin. Lester Armstrong succeeded in getting a position for Kendale with the same firm with which he was employed, but at the end of the first week Clinton Kendale threw it up with disgust, declaring that what he had gone through these six days was too much for him. He had rather die than work.
He borrowed a hundred dollars from his Cousin Lester and suddenly disappeared. When he was next heard from he blossomed out, astonishing all New York as the handsomest society actor who had ever graced the metropolitan boards, and caused a furore.
There was another great difference between the two cousins, and that was a heart; just one of them possessed it, and that one was Lester Armstrong.
On this particular afternoon Kendale had lain in wait for his cousin at the entrance of Marsh & Co.'s to waylay him when he came from the office. He must see him, he told himself, and Lester must let him have another loan.
Lester Armstrong was glad from the bottom of his true, honest heart to see him, but his brow clouded over with a troubled expression when he learned that he wanted to borrow five hundred dollars. That amount seemed small, indeed, to the lordly Kendale, but to Lester it meant months of toil and rigid self-denial.
"Come into the cafe, and while we lunch I will explain to you why I must have it, old fellow," said Kendale, always ready with some plausible story on his glib tongue.
"Haven't time now," declared Armstrong. "I must catch the five-twenty train from the Grand Central Depot; haven't a moment to lose. I will be back on the nine o'clock train. If you will come over to my lodging house then I'll talk with you. I cannot let you have the sum you want. I'll tell you why then, and you will readily understand my position. Ah, this is your corner. We part here. Wish me luck on the trip I am about to take, for I never had more need for your good wishes."
"You are not going off to be married, I hope?" exclaimed Kendale in the greatest of astonishment.
A light-hearted, happy, ringing laugh broke from Armstrong's mustached lips, the color rushed into his face, and his brown eyes twinkled merrily.
"There's the dearest little girl in all the world in the case," he admitted, "but I haven't time to tell you about it now. I'll see you later."
With this remark he plunged forward into the gathering gloom, leaving Clinton Kendale standing motionless gazing after him in the greatest surprise. But the cold was too intense for him to remain there but an instant; then wheeling about, he hastily struck into a side street, muttering between his teeth:
"He must let me have that five hundred dollars, or I am ruined. I must have it from him by fair means or foul, ere the light of another day dawns. I've borrowed a cool two thousand from him in four months. I wonder how much more he has laid by? I must have that five hundred, no matter what I have to resort to to get it, that's all there is about it. I am desperate to-night, and a person in my terrible fix fears neither God nor man."
Meanwhile Lester Armstrong pushed rapidly onward, scarcely heeding the bitter cold and terrible, raging storm, for his heart was in a glow.
He reached the Grand Central Depot just as the gates were closing, but managed to dash through them and swing himself aboard of the train just as it was moving out of the station.
The car was crowded; standing room only seemed to be the prospect, but the young man did not seem disturbed by it, but settled his broad frame against the door and looked out at the sharp sleet that lashed against the window panes with something like a smile on his lips.
He had scarcely twenty miles to ride thus, but that comforting remembrance did not cause the pleasant smile to deepen about the mobile mouth.
He was thinking of the lovely young girl who had written him a note to say that she expected him at the trysting place, without fail, at seven that evening, as she had something of the greatest importance to communicate to him.
"Of course my dear little girl will not keep the appointment in such a blizzard as this. She could not have foreseen how the weather would be when she wrote the precious little note that is tucked away so carefully in my breast pocket; but, like a true knight, I must obey my little lady's commands, no matter what they may be, despite storm or tempests—ay, even though I rode through seas of blood!"
Half a score of times the engine became firmly wedged in snowdrifts in traversing as many miles. There were loud exclamations of discomfiture on all sides, but the handsome young man never heard them. He was still staring out of the window—staring without seeing—and the smile on his face had given place to an expression of deep wistfulness.
"Sometimes I wonder how I have dared to aspire to her love—the beautiful, petted daughter of a millionaire, and I only an assistant cashier on a very humble salary—ay, a salary so small that my whole year's earnings is less than the pin money she spends each month.
"If she were but poor like myself, how quickly I would make her mine. How can I, how dare I, ask her to share my lot? Will her father be amused, or terribly angry at my presumption?
"This sort of thing must stop. I cannot be meeting my darling clandestinely any longer. My honor forbids, my manhood cries out against it.
"But, oh, God! how the thought terrifies me that from the moment they find out that we have met, and are lovers, they will try to part us—tear my darling from me!"
They had met in a very ordinary manner, but to the infatuated young lover it seemed the most ideal, most romantic of meetings. The pretty little heiress had gone to the office of Marsh & Co. to settle her monthly account. The old cashier was out to lunch. His assistant, Lester Armstrong, stepped forward and attended to the matter for the pretty young girl, surely the sweetest and daintiest that he had ever beheld.
That night he dreamed of the lovely, dimpled rosebud face, framed in a mass of golden curls; a pair of bewildering violet eyes, and a gay, musical voice like a chiming of silver bells, and lo! the mischief was done. The next day the assistant cashier made the first mistake of his life over his accounts. The old cashier, Mr. Conway, looked at him grimly from over the tops of his gold-rimmed glasses.
"I hope you have not taken to playing cards nights, Mr. Armstrong," he said. "They are dangerous; avoid them. Wine is still worse, and above all, let me warn you against womankind. They are a snare and a delusion. Avoid them, one and all, as you would a pestilence."
But the warning had come to the handsome young assistant cashier too late.
"YOU MUST NOT MARRY HIM—HEAVEN INTENDED YOU FOR ME."
Slowly but surely the sturdy engine struggled on through the huge snowdrifts, reaching Beechwood a little after seven, over an hour and a half behind time.
Lester Armstrong swung himself off the rear platform into fully five feet of snow, floundering helplessly about for an instant, while the train plunged onward, and at last struck the path that led up over the hills in the village beyond.
Beechwood consisted of but a few elegant homes owned and occupied by retired New Yorkers of wealth. Horace Fairfax was perhaps the most influential, as well as the wealthiest of these; his magnificent home on the brow of the farthest hill was certainly the most imposing and pretentious.
Lester Armstrong's heart gave a great bound as he came within sight of it, standing like a great castle, with its peaks and gables, and windows all blazing with light and the red glow of inward warmth against its dark background of fir trees more than a century old, and the white wilderness of snow stretching out and losing itself in the darkness beyond.
All heedless of the terrible storm raging about him, the young man paused at the arched gate and looked with sad wistfulness, as he leaned his arms on one of the stone pillars, up the serpentine path that led to the main entrance.
"What I ought to do is never to see Faynie again," he murmured, but as the bare thought rushed through his mind, his handsome face paled to the lips and his strong frame trembled. Never see Faynie again! That would mean shut out the only gleam of sunshine that had ever lighted up the gray somberness of his existence; take away from him the only dear joy that had made life worth the living for the few months. He had drifted into these clandestine meetings, not by design; chance, or fate, rather, had forced him into it.
Mr. Marsh, the senior member of the firm by whom he was employed, also resided in Beechwood. It was his whim that the keys of the private office should be brought to him each night. Thus it happened that the performance of his duties led Lester each evening past the Fairfax home.
One summer evening he espied Faynie, the object of his ardent admiration, standing in the flower garden, herself the fairest flower of all. It was beyond human nature to resist stopping still to gaze upon her. This he did, believing himself unseen, but Faynie Fairfax had beheld the tall, well-known form afar down the road, and she was not displeased at the prospect of having a delightful little chat with the handsome young cashier.
Faynie's home was not as congenial to the young girl as it might have been, for a stepmother reigned supreme there, and all of her love was lavished upon her own daughter Claire, a crippled, quiet girl of about Faynie's own age, and Faynie was left to do about as she pleased. Her father almost lived in his library among his books, and she saw little of him for days at a time.
Therefore there was no one to notice why Faynie suddenly developed such a liking for roaming in the garden at twilight; no one to notice the growing attachment that sprang up and deepened into the strongest of love between the petted heiress and the poor young cashier.
Lester Armstrong had struggled manfully against it, but it was for a higher power than man's to direct where the love of his heart should go. He made strong resolutions that the lovely maiden should never guess the existing state of affairs, but he might as well have attempted to stay the mighty waters of the ocean by his weak will. All in an unforeseen moment the words burst from his lips—the secret he had attempted to guard so carefully was out.
He had expected that beautiful Faynie Fairfax would turn from him in anger and dismay, but to his intense surprise, she burst into a flood of tears, even though she looked at him with smiling lips, April sunshine and showers commingled, confessing with all a young girl's pretty, hesitating shyness that she loved him, even as he loved her, with all her heart. Then followed half an hour of bliss for the lovers such as the poets tell of in their verses of a glimpse of Paradise.
Although they exchanged a hundred vows of eternal affection, Lester Armstrong hesitated to speak of marriage yet. Faynie was young—only eighteen. There was plenty of time. And to tell the truth, he dared not face the possibilities of it just yet. It required a little more courage than he had been able to muster up to seek an audience with the millionaire—beard the lion in his den, as it were—and dare propose such a monstrously preposterous thing as the asking of his lovely, dainty young daughter's hand in marriage. Lester was timid. He dreaded beyond words the setting of the ball rolling which would tear his beautiful love and himself asunder. Heaven help him, he was so unutterably happy in the bewildering present.
His reverie was suddenly interrupted by seeing a little black figure hurrying down the path. Another instant, and the little breathless figure was clasped in his arms, close, close to his madly throbbing heart.
"Oh, Faynie, my love, my darling, my precious, why did you brave the fury of the tempest to keep the tryst to-night? I am here, but I did not expect you, much as I love to see you. I was praying you would not venture out. Oh, my precious, what is it?" he cried in alarm, as the fitful light of the gas lamp that hung over the arched gate fell full upon her. "Your sweet face is as white as marble, and your beautiful golden hair is wet with drifted snow, as is your cloak."
To his intense amazement and distress, she burst into the wildest of sobs and clung to him like a terrified child. All in vain he attempted to soothe her and find out what it was all about.
The first thought that flashed through his mind was that their meetings had been discovered, and that they meant to put him from Faynie, and he strained her closer to his heart, crying out that whatever it was, nothing save death should separate them.
Little by little the story came out, and the two young lovers, clasped so fondly in each other's arms, did not feel the intense cold or hear the wild moaning of the winds around them. Through her tears Faynie told her handsome, strong young lover just what had happened. Her father had sent for her to come to his library that morning, and when she had complied with the summons, he had informed her that a friend of his had asked for her hand in marriage, and he had consented, literally settling the matter without consulting her, the one most vitally interested. She had most furiously rebelled, there had been a terrible scene, and it had ended by her father harshly bidding her to prepare for the wedding, which would take place on the morrow, adding that a father was supposed to know best what to do for his daughter's interests; that the fiat had gone forth; that she would marry the husband he had selected for her on the morrow, though all the angels above or the demons below attempted to frustrate it.
"You will save me, Lester?" cried the girl, wildly clinging to him with death-cold hands. "Oh, Lester, my love, tell me, what am I to do? He is very old, quite forty, and I am only eighteen. I abhor him quite as much as I love you, Lester. Tell me, dear, what am I to do?"
He gathered her close in his arms in an agony that words are too weak to portray.
"You shall not, you must not, marry the man your father has selected for you, my darling. You are mine, Faynie, and you must marry me," he cried, hoarsely. "Heaven intended us for each other, and for no one else. You shall be mine past the power of any one human to part us ere the morrow's light dawns, if—if you wish it so."
She clung to him, weeping hysterically, answering:
"Oh, yes, Lester, let it be so. I will marry you, and you will take me away from this place, where no one, save Claire—not even my father—loves me."
He strained her to his throbbing heart with broken words, but at that instant the shriek of an approaching train sounded upon his ears. He tore himself away from her encircling embrace.
"To do all that I have to do, I must return to the city, quickly arrange for the marriage and a suitable place to take my bride. I will return by ten o'clock. Be at this gate, my darling, with whatever change of clothing you wish to take with you. I will bring a carriage. The way by carriage road from the city is less than seven miles, you know. We will drive to the minister's in the village below. A few words and I shall have the right to protect you through life, and oh! my darling, my idol, my trusting little love, may God deal by me as I deal with you!"
Those were the last words Faynie heard, for in the next instant her lover had torn himself free from her clinging arms and was dashing like one mad through the drifts toward the railroad station again. Then, with a strange, unaccountable presentiment of coming evil, Faynie Fairfax turned and stole up the serpentine path into the house again.
In just an hour's time Lester Armstrong was hurrying along Broadway again, making all haste toward his lodgings. Suddenly some one tapped him on the shoulder, and a voice which he instantly recognised as his cousin's said, laughingly:
"Both bent in the same direction, it seems. Well, we'll travel along together to your lodging house, Lester."
But alas! Who can see the strange workings of destiny? In that instant Lester Armstrong slipped on the icy pavement, and Kendale, bending quickly over him, exclaimed:
"He has broken his neck! He is dying. He won't last five minutes!"
A TERRIBLE PLOT AGAINST A HELPLESS YOUNG GIRL.
A gasp of horror broke from Kendale's lips. Yes, Lester Armstrong was fatally injured, he could see that.
Glancing up, he saw that they were within a few doors of his lodgings. Picking him up by main force, he carried him thither at once and placed him upon his couch. He had expected to see him breathe his last, but to his great surprise Lester Armstrong opened his eyes and whispered his name.
"It is all over with me, Clinton," he whispered. "I—I realize that my fall was fatal, and that it is a question of moments with me, but I—I cannot die until I have told you all, and you have promised to go quickly to my darling and tell her my sad fate."
"Any commission you have you may be sure I will execute for you," replied Kendale, and even while he spoke he was wondering whereabouts in that room Lester Armstrong kept his cash.
Between gasps, his voice growing fainter and fainter with each word, poor Lester told his story, of his love, his wooing and the climax which was to have taken place in two hours' time.
Kendale listened with bated breath. To say that he was amazed, dumfounded, scarcely expressed his intense surprise.
Armstrong, his poor plodding cousin, to strike such luck as to be about to marry an heiress! It seemed like a veritable fairy story. Who would have thought the poor cashier would have known enough to play for such high stakes?
Almost as soon as Lester Armstrong had uttered the last word, he fell back upon his pillow in a dead faint.
"The end is not far," muttered Kendale. "I suppose it would look better to send a call for an ambulance and have him sent to the hospital."
He acted upon the thought without a moment's delay, and while the wagon was en route made a quick search of his unfortunate cousin's apartment, a sardonic smile of triumph lighting his face. And as he transferred the money to his pocket, a sudden thought rushed through his brain—a thought that for the instant almost took his breath away.
Like one fascinated, he looked down at the white face. "I could do it; yes, I am sure I could do it," he muttered, drawing his breath hard.
At that moment the ambulance wagon rattled up to the door. In another instant the two attaches entered the room.
"What is the difficulty?" queried the man, and briefly Kendale explained.
"It seems hardly worth while to take him to the hospital," said one of the men; "he would hardly last until we reach there. Still, if you insist—"
"Yes, I insist," he cut in sharply.
"What name is to be entered?" asked the surgeon.
"Clinton Kendale. He is an actor, and my cousin," he responded in a low even voice.
He watched them while they carried forth the unconscious man.
"My first test will be with the people of this house," he muttered, shutting his teeth hard.
Thrusting the money still deeper in his pocket, he walked boldly down the stairs, tapping at the door to the right, which he knew to be the living room of the family.
"I am going to give up my room," he said.
"Laws a mercy, Mr. Armstrong!" exclaimed the old lady. "What sudden notice! I am so sorry to lose you!"
He chatted for a few moments, paid what was due her, then turned hastily and left the place, remarking before he went that he should not need the few things that he left in his room; that she could keep them if she liked as remembrances.
Once again he was out on the street, with the cold wind blowing on his face.
"Nothing ventured, nothing won!" he said, under his breath. "Now for the heiress and the million of money. By Jove! it's better to be born lucky than rich. I shall need an accomplice in this affair, and that imp of Satan, Halloran, is just the one to help me out with my scheme. It's lucky I have an appointment with him to-night. I shall be sure to catch him. I think it was a stroke of fate that I wasn't in the cast for the rest of the week, though I kicked pretty hard against it at the time. Good-by, footlights and freezing dressing-rooms. I can make a million of money ere the day dawns."
He hailed a passing cab, jumped into it and was driven across the city.
Halloran, the comedian at the same theatre, was sitting in his room half asleep over a half-emptied rum bottle. He always resorted to this course to drown his sorrows when he was laid off.
An hour later the two men were driving with lightning-like rapidity toward the direction of Beechwood.
"Ten," sounded from the belfry of a far-off church as the horses, plunging and panting, struggled up the road that led to the Fairfax mansion.
"Now see that you play your cards right," warned Halloran.
"Trust me for that," replied his companion, removing a cigar from his white teeth, and blowing forth a cloud of smoke. He was about to draw a flask from his breast pocket, but Halloran put a restraining hand on his arm.
"Remember that is your besetting sin," he said. "You have had enough of that already. It will require a steady nerve to meet the girl and carry out the deception, for the eyes of love are quick to discern. If she should for an instant suspect that you are not her lover, Lester Armstrong, the game is up, and you have lost the high stake you are playing for."
"You are right," exclaimed the other, "nothing must interfere with the marriage."
"This must be the place," exclaimed Halloran, in a low voice; "large gabled house, arched gate, serpentine walk; yes, there is the figure of a woman in the shadow of the stone post this way. You are actually trembling. Remember, it's only a young girl you are to face on this occasion, and a deucedly pretty one, at that. The time that you will be more apt to be shaky is when you face her father; but I guess you're equal to it."
A low laugh was his companion's only answer. The next moment Kendale called to the driver to halt, threw open the door and sprang out into the main road, hastening toward the little figure that had emerged out of the shadow.
"Oh, Lester, you have been so long," cried the girl, springing into his arms with a little sobbing cry. "I have been waiting here almost half an hour."
"It took longer to come than I had reckoned on, my darling," he answered. "You know I had to stop at the village below and make arrangements for the wedding."
The girl drew back and looked at him.
"Your voice sounds so hoarse and strange, Lester," she said. "Have you been crying?"
His arms fell from her; he drew back, laughing immoderately.
"What, weeping on the happiest day of my life?" he cried. "Well, that's pretty good. I've been up to my ears in business, rushing around, to get everything in shipshape order, but, good Lord! what am I thinking about, to keep you standing here in the snow? Here is the coach, and by the way, I've brought along an old friend of mine, who was wild to witness the marriage ceremony."
As he spoke he took her by the arm and drew the girl toward the carriage in waiting.
What was there about her lover that seemed so changed to the girl, that caused the love to suddenly die out of her heart?
"Lester," she cried, drawing back, "oh—oh, please do not be angry with me, but I've changed my mind. It seemed such a terrible thing to do. Let us not be married to-night."
Something like an imprecation rose to his lips, but he chopped it off quickly, uttering again that laugh, so hard, so cruel, so blood-curdling, that it sent a chill of terror to her young heart.
"It's too late to change your mind now," he exclaimed. "It's only natural you should feel this way; girls always do. Here is the coach and the horses. The driver and my friend will be impatient to be off."
Either the excitement of his coming triumph or the brandy he had taken had made him recklessly wild.
He drew her along, heedless of her struggles, her passionate protest. His face was flushed, his dark eyes gleamed; he was ready at that moment to face and defy devils and men.
"Don't make a fuss, my darling. You've got to come along," he exclaimed. "Of course, you have scruples and all that. I think the more of you for them, but you'll thank me for not listening some day. I'll bring you back after the ceremony's over and set you down at your own gate, if you say so, I swear I will," and as he spoke he caught her in his arms and fairly thrust her into the vehicle, placed her on the seat and sprang in beside her.
The door closed with a bang and the horses were off like a flash.
Too terrified to utter another word of protest, and half fainting from fright, Faynie sank back, gasping, into the farthest corner. Her companion turned to the man sitting opposite.
"My friend, Smith, Faynie," he said by way of introduction, and adding, before the other could utter one word to acknowledge the introduction, "let's have a little more of that. I'm chilled to the marrow with the cold, standing out there in the snow."
There was a faint move of the little bundle huddled up in the corner. She fell forward in a dead faint.
"So much the better," cried Kendale. "She will not bother us until we've had time to formulate our plans. Ha, ha, ha! how easy it is for a sharp-witted fellow like myself to make a million of money!"
FOND LOVE TO HATRED TURNED.
Despite the severe shock which caused Faynie to swoon, her unconsciousness lasted but a few moments, then, dazed and bewildered, her blue eyes opened slowly, and she realized with horror too great for words that she was whirling swiftly over the snowy road, still in the company of the two men, her lover and his companion.
They were talking together in low, guarded tones. She could not help but hear every word distinctly, and they fell upon her ears with horror so intense she wondered that she lived through it from moment to moment.
It was Lester Armstrong who was speaking at that moment, and she was obliged to clutch her hands tightly together to keep from screaming aloud as she heard him say to his companion:
"I have always been a free lance among the pretty girls, drifting about much after the fashion of the bee wherever my fancy listed, and it will be more than irksome to yoke myself in the matrimonial harness to this girl. She is not of the kind—face, figure, temperament, anything—that is calculated to arouse my admiration. I detest your baby-faced creatures of her stamp, but she's heiress to a million, and I have concluded to swallow the gilded pill.
"There's one thing I assure you of, before she is married to me a fortnight I'll break that cursed temper of hers, if I have to break her neck or her heart, or both, to do it. She shall find that I'm her lord and master from this hour henceforth, and my word is law."
"I'd advise you not to rush the scheme for getting that big sum of money until you have gained her confidence a little. More flies can be caught with molasses than vinegar, you know."
"I shall have little patience with her," declared her lover. "I detested her the first instant my eyes rested upon her, and I am positive the feeling will grow upon me with every passing hour, instead of diminishing."
"It is easy enough to guess the reason for that," laughed the other. "You are in love with the queenly Gertrude, who has already more adorers than she can count. It is common report that you are the beauty's favorite, however, and if you weren't both so confoundedly poor, you'd make a first-class couple. As it is, of course it's not to be thought of."
"Except in one way," cut in the other in a sharp, dry, hard voice. "If this girl whom I marry to-night were to die suddenly on the wedding trip, for instance, I would come in for her fortune; then, when the excitement blew over, I could go to Gertrude and say—"
The sentence was never finished, for at that moment the door of the vehicle was suddenly wrenched open, and with a piercing cry Faynie sprang out into the raging storm and the inky blackness of the night.
A terrible imprecation broke from the lips of the handsome scoundrel by her side.
"I'll bet a dollar to a doughnut that that little fool tricked us by feigning unconsciousness, and has heard every word we uttered. Of course, it's to be regretted, but that doesn't change my plans a particle. I'll be the husband of the willful little heiress in an hour's time, or my name isn't—"
"Lester Armstrong," put in the other, laconically.
The coach was instantly stopped, and both men made a flying leap into the huge snowdrift that banked both sides of the country road, calling back to the driver to light a lantern, if he had been careful enough to bring one with him, and hand it to them in double-quick order.
The search lasted for fully half an hour. Had the ground suddenly opened and swallowed her? they asked each other, with imprecations both loud and furious.
To have a fortune of a cool million so near his clutches, and suddenly lose it, was more than the villain could endure calmly. He was frenzied. His rage at the girl slipping so cleverly, so audaciously, through his fingers knew no bounds, and he made no attempt to stifle the fierce exclamations that sprang to his lips of what he should do when he once found her.
When Faynie had jumped from the vehicle she lay for an instant half stunned upon the cold, frozen ground where she had fallen. It had taken the coach a minute to stop, but that minute had carried it several rods beyond the spot where she lay. She saw by the uncertain glimmer of the carriage lamp the two forms spring out into the darkness and come back in search of her, and a piteous cry of unutterable fear rose to her blanched lips from the very depths of her panting, terror-stricken heart.
She tried to spring to her feet and fly, but the depth to which she sank with every step exhausted her quickly, and she sank down among the white drifts awaiting her doom like a wounded bird in the brush whom the cruel sportsmen are nearing with their hounds.
She raised her lovely young face to the dark night sky, calling upon God and the angels to protect her, to save her from the man she had loved with all the passionate strength of her heart up to that hour, and whom she hated and feared now a thousandfold more than she had ever loved him.
All in a few moments of time her idol had fallen from its high pedestal of manly honor and lay in ruins at her feet.
How could she ever have believed Lester Armstrong noble, good and true, a king among men? Where was the tenderness in voice and manner that had won her heart from her, and his oft-repeated assurance that he cared for her for herself alone; that he wished to Heaven she were no heiress, but as poor as himself, that he might show her the power of his great love? An hour ago—only an hour ago—yet it seemed the length of a lifetime in the shadowy past, she had crept out of the house to meet her lover at the trysting place, her heart beating with love for him, sobbing out to Heaven to send her true love quickly back to her.
As she had closed the door of the great mansion noiselessly behind her, she realized that she was putting wealth and luxury away from her deliberately and choosing a life of rigid economy with the lover whose earnings were, alas, so much smaller than even the pin money she had been accustomed to.
But with love to brighten the way, she felt that she could endure any hardship with noble Lester Armstrong, who loved her so dearly and devotedly.
After a time, perhaps, her father would forgive her for this step, and take her back to his home and heart, and welcome Lester, too. She had read of such things.
The night air blew bitterly cold against her face as she stepped bravely forth, but she did not waver.
The great hall clock chimed the hour of ten, and her heart beat faster, for she said to herself that her lover was nearing the trysting place and she had not much time to spare.
"Good-by, papa," she murmured, turning for an instant and looking up at his lighted window. "Good-by, my stepmamma," she whispered. "You have always hated me and wished me out of the way. I am going now, and you will rejoice. Good-by, Claire," she added, as her eyes wandered upward to the little lighted window in the western wing. "You never hated me. You always loved me as though we had indeed been sisters. Good-by, kind old family servants. You will all miss me, I know, but I am going to happiness and love. What fate could be better?"
She waited some moments at the trysting place ere she heard the sound of crunching wheels on the snow. A moment later she heard the welcome voice saying: "Faynie, where are you?" The next instant she was folded in a pair of strong, masculine arms.
But as the owner of them touched her lips with his own Faynie had started back with a terrible feeling of faintness rushing over her. For the first time her lover's breath was strong with the odor of brandy.
And the voice, which was always so gentle, kind and endearing, was muttering something about "the cursed darkness of the night."
No wonder the girl's soul revolted, and that she changed her mind suddenly about the elopement, which was to make or mar her young life. And what she heard after he forced her into the coach only added to the terror which had grown into her heart against him, and when she made that flying leap from the coach, her one cry to Heaven was that she might escape the man whom she had but so lately madly adored, but whom she now so thoroughly abhorred.
"CAN YOU PERFORM THE MARRIAGE CEREMONY AT ONCE, REVEREND SIR?"
It was the hour of eleven by the village clock. Eleven sounded from the old clock on the mantel. The fire burned low in the grate of Rev. Dr. Warner's study. The air was growing chill in the room. Still, the old pastor, who had looked after the village flock for nearly half a century, heeded neither the time nor the chill, he was so intent upon the sermon he was writing for the morrow.
He had scarcely concluded the last line ere he heard a well-known tap upon the door.
He smiled as he arose from his chair, crossed the room and flung open the door.
He knew well whom he should find standing there, old Adam, the village sexton and grave digger, who always stopped when he saw a light in the study window.
"Come in, Adam," said the reverend gentleman; "come up to the fire and warm yourself; it's a wild night to be about. Has any one sent you here for me?"
"No, parson," replied Adam, hobbling in. "There's no call for you to be out on this terrible night, thank Heaven. It's quite by chance that I left my own fireside myself. I had an errand at the other end of the village. The weather caught me returning—a regular blizzard—and I have been floundering about in the drifting snow for hours. I thought I had lost my way until I saw the light in the window, and—"
But the rest of the sentence was never finished, for at that moment both men heard distinctly the sound of carriage wheels without, accompanied by the loud neighing of horses.
Before they could express their wonderment there was a loud peal at the front door bell.
The reverend gentleman answered the summons in person.
Before him stood three persons, two men and a woman, a slender figure wearing a long dark cloak, and whose face was covered by a thick veil.
Both men had their coat collars turned up and their hats pulled low over their faces to protect them from the stinging cold.
"You are the Rev. Dr. Warner?" queried one of the gentlemen. The minister bowed in the affirmative, hurriedly bidding his guests to enter.
"You will pardon our errand," exclaimed the stranger who had already spoken, "but we are here to enlist your services. Can you perform a wedding ceremony in the old chapel across the way? Our time is limited. We are in all haste to catch a train, and wish the marriage to take place with the least possible delay."
"Certainly, certainly, sir," returned the good man. "I am always pleased to join two souls in holy matrimony. Step in; the lady must be thoroughly chilled. This is a dreadful night."
"We prefer to make our way directly over to the chapel," remarked the man who had spoken up to this point. "The lady is warm, having but just left the carriage, a few steps beyond."
"As you will," responded the pastor. Turning to the old sexton, he said, quietly: "Will you step over to the church, Adam, brush the snow from the steps and light the lamps about the altar?"
Adam hastened to carry out his commands. He had scarcely completed his task when the bridal party entered, preceded by the pastor.
Adam watched them curiously as they filed down the aisle, both men still supporting the slender figure quite until the altar was reached.
The Rev. Dr. Warner, shivering with the severe cold of the place, picked up his book quickly.
"Which is the bridegroom?" he asked, looking from one muffled figure to the other. The man toward the left of the girl dropped back a pace or two, silently waving his hand toward his friend.
The old minister had never heard the names of the contracting parties before, and the idle thought for an instant found lodgment in his mind whether or no they could be fictitious. Then he blamed himself roundly for his momentary suspicion, and went on hurriedly with the ceremony.
The man answered in a low, guarded voice. There was a tone in it which somehow jarred on the good minister's sensitive nerves. The girl's voice was pitifully fluttering, almost hysterical.
But that was not an uncommon occurrence. Few brides are calm and self-possessed.
"You will please lift your veil for the final benediction," said the aged pastor, pausing, book in hand, and gazing at the slim, silent, dark-robed figure, who had made her responses faintly, gaspingly, almost inaudibly. Again it was the stranger to the left who complied with his request, but for one instant both the clergyman and the old sexton caught sight of a face white as death, yet beautiful as an angel's, framed in a mass of dead-gold hair; but the flickering of the lamps caused strange shadows to flit over it. There was a moment of utter silence, broken only by the howling of the wind outside.
Then slowly the minister's voice broke the terrible silence by uttering the words: "Then I pronounce you man and wife, and whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder."
As the last word echoed through the dim old church the cold steel of a revolver, which had been pressed steadily to the girl's throbbing heart by the hand of the bridegroom, concealed by her long cloak, was quickly withdrawn.
"My wedded wife!" murmured the man, and in his voice there was a tone of mocking triumph. The girl swooned in his arms, but, turning quickly with her, he hurried forward into the dense shadows of the church, carrying her to the coach in waiting without attracting attention.
He could scarcely restrain himself from shouting aloud, so exuberant were his spirits.
"Rave. Do whatever you like. You cannot change matters now. I am your husband, ay, the husband of a girl worth a million of money. When we are out of hearing of the old parson I will give three rousing cheers to celebrate the occasion and give vent to my triumph—ay, three cheers and a tiger with a will and a vengeance."
The appearance of his friend, who had remained behind to adjust the little matters that needed attention, put a stop to his hilarity for the moment.
"Well, what's next on the programme? What do you suggest now, Halloran?" he exclaimed, as that individual sprang into the coach and took his seat with chattering teeth.
"I propose that you drive to the nearest inn or hostelry, or whatever they choose to call it hereabouts. I understand there is one some five miles from here, and, indeed, the horses won't last much longer than that."
"I'm governed by your advice," replied his companion, with a hilarious laugh. "Give the order to get to the hostelry as soon as the driver can make it. Anything will suit me. I'm not proud, even if I have made a cool million in an hour's time. Ha! ha! ha!"
"Are you mad?" whispered his companion, giving him a violent nudge.
"Bah! You needn't fear that she will hear what I'm saying. The puny little dear has swooned again. Didn't you notice that I had to fairly carry her from the altar?"
"These dainty little heiresses have to be handled with kid gloves," remarked Halloran. "Fainting when anything goes wrong seems to be their especial weakness."
"She will soon find out that I will not tolerate that kind of thing!" exclaimed Armstrong, as he insisted upon being called from that moment out.
"Be easy with her. Don't show your hand or your temper until you get hold of the money," warned Halloran. "Remember you are playing for a great stake, and the surest way of winning is by keeping the girl in love with you."
"She is mine now. I am her lord and master. I shall not bother making love to the milk-and-water, sentimental creature, as the other one probably did. She isn't my style, and I have little patience with her. There was a decided feeling of antagonism between us from the start, and then my forcing her to go through the ceremony at the point of a cold steel weapon will not have the effect of endearing me to her ladyship. She is sure to hate me, but that won't bother me a snap of my finger."
"Don't get independent too soon," remarked Halloran. "Pride always goeth before a fall, you know. You haven't the money in your hands yet. Don't lose sight of that important fact, my dear boy."
They talked on for half an hour or more; then suddenly the driver drew rein.
"This is the country tavern, and my horses cannot go any further; they are dead lame and played out," he announced.
THE VILLAIN AND HIS VICTIM.
It was certainly something entirely out of the experience of the old innkeeper at the country crossroads to be aroused from his slumbers at midnight by guests seeking the shelter of his hospitable roof, and that, too, on the most terrible night of the year.
The old man could scarcely believe his ears when he heard the sound of the old brass knocker on the front door resound loudly through the house.
He quite imagined that he must have dreamed it, until a second and third peal brought him to his senses and his feet at the same instant.
His bewilderment knew no bounds when he appeared at the door a few minutes later and found a coach standing there and the occupants seeking a lodging, also shelter for the horses.
"I haven't but one room to spare," exclaimed the old innkeeper, holding a flaring candle high above his head to better view his visitor.
"Have you a room in which a fire could be made?" asked one of the men. "We have a lady with us."
"I suppose we could let you have my daughter Betsy's, she being off to the city on a visit."
"My companion and his br—his wife could have that; you can dispose of me anywhere," returned the speaker. "I could doze in a chair in the barroom for that matter. The driver could be as easily disposed of."
"Then bring the lady right in," said the old innkeeper. A moment later, the lovely girl, still unconscious, was brought in and laid upon the settee in the best room.
"What is the matter with the young woman?" gasped the innkeeper, his eyes opening wide with amazement.
"Merely fainted from the intense cold," returned one of the men briefly, adding: "If you will see that a fire is lighted in the room that you spoke of I shall be very much obliged."
"I'll have my wife down in a jiffy. No doubt the poor creature's half frozen, but a hot whiskey toddy will thaw her out quicker than you could say Jack Robinson," and he trotted off briskly on his double mission of rousing his wife to look after the girl and his hired help to assist the driver in putting away the horses, while he himself attended to making a blazing fire in the little chamber over the best room.
In less time than it takes to tell it the good housewife was by the girl's side.
"What a beautiful young creature!" she exclaimed, as the veil was thrown back and she beheld the lovely face, white as chiseled marble, framed in its cloud of golden hair. "Is it your sister, sir?" she asked, with all a country woman's thoughtless curiosity.
"No, she is my wife," exclaimed the stranger, who stood over by the fireplace, his brows meeting in a decided frown.
"Laws a mercy! Isn't she young to be married?" exclaimed the woman. "Why, she don't look sixteen. Been married long?"
The stranger by the fireplace deliberately turned his back on the woman, vouchsafing her no reply.
By that time the innkeeper announced that the room above was ready, and that they might come up as soon as they liked.
Again the stranger by the fireplace lifted the slender figure, bore her up the narrow rickety stairway, saying good-night to his friend as he passed him by.
"Good-night to you, and pleasant dreams," replied Halloran; "the same to your wife."
The innkeeper followed the tall stranger with his burden to see that everything was made comfortable, put more logs in the fireplace, then turning, said:
"Is there anything else I can do for you, stranger?"
"Nothing," replied the man curtly, but as the old innkeeper reached the door he called sharply: "Yes, I think there is something else that would add to my comfort, and that is a good stiff glass of brandy, if you have such a thing about the place."
The old man hesitated.
"I'll pay well for it," said the other, eagerly.
"You see, we haven't a license, stranger, to sell drinks, and they're pretty strict with us hereabouts. I generally let a man have it when I know him pretty well, but I can't say how it would affect you."
"Have no fear on that score," returned the other. "Here's a five-dollar note for a pint bottle of brandy. Will that pay you?"
"Yes," returned the innkeeper. It was the golden key. The man laughed to see how quickly he trotted off on his errand, returning with the bottle in a trice.
"Anything else, sir?" he said.
"No," replied the other, "save," adding, "do not call us too early to-morrow. We're not of the kind that rise with the sun. Nine o'clock will answer. And see that that wife of yours gets up the best breakfast that can be obtained."
"You won't have to complain of that, sir," exclaimed the innkeeper, pompously. "You'll get a piece of steak with the blood followin' the knife; crisp potatoes, a plate of buckwheat cakes, with butter as is butter, and honey that's the real thing; a mug of coffee that would bear up an egg, with good old-fashioned cream, not skim milk, to say nothing of—"
"That will do," exclaimed the stranger, with an impatient wave of his white hand. "I never like to know beforehand what I'm going to get."
"But the lady, sir? Mebbe she'd like somethin' kind a delicate like—a bit o' bird or somethin' like that?"
"We'll see about that to-morrow all in good time," fairly closing the door in the garrulous innkeeper's face "Good-night," and he shut the door with a click and turned the key in the lock, and for the first time he was alone with the girl he had forced so dastardly into the cruellest of marriages. He had placed Faynie on the white couch. He crossed the room and stood looking down at her, with his hands behind his back, and a sardonic smile on his face.
"You and your millions of money belong to me," he cried, under his breath. "Ye gods! what a lucky dog I am after all!" and a low laugh that was not pleasant to hear broke from his lips.
At that instant a broken sigh stirred the girl's white lips.
"Ah, you are coming to, are you?" he muttered. "The old lady's toddy is beginning to revive you."
He could not help but notice how unusually beautiful the girl was.
"What a chance of fortune this is for me, but it does not follow, even though she was madly in love with my cousin, that she will hold me in the same favor. But I'll stand none of her airs. I'll show her right from the start that I'm the boss, and see how that will strike her fancy. There'll be a terrible time when she comes to—screams, shrieks of anger, that will call everybody to the door."
He turned on his heel and walked over to the mantel, where the innkeeper had deposited the bottle and the glass.
He poured out a heavy draught and drank it at a single swallow. This was followed by another and yet another.
"Ah, there's nothing like bracing oneself up for a scene like this," he muttered, with a sardonic laugh.
The liquor seemed to turn the blood in his veins to fire and set his heart in a glow. He laughed aloud. In that moment he felt as rich as a king, and as diabolical as Satan himself.
He was nerved for any emergency; he was the girl's lord and master, her wedded husband. She would be made to understand that fact with little ceremony.
He threw himself down in a chair, where he could watch her, and waited results, and each instant he sat there the fumes of the brandy rose higher and higher, until it reached his brain.
"There was a laughing devil in his sneer That woke emotions of both hate and fear; And where his scowl of fierceness darkly fell, Hope, withering, fled and mercy sighed farewell."
Yes, a few short moments and consciousness would return to the girl—the stormy scene would begin.
Would the sharp eyes of love detect the difference between himself and Lester Armstrong, whom he was impersonating? He knew every tone of his cousin's voice so perfectly that he would have little difficulty in imitating that. The more closely he watched the girl, the more conscious he became of her wonderful beauty, and his heart gave a bound of triumph.
It was worth a struggle, after all, to have as beautiful a bride as she, even though she hated him.
"If I watch her much longer it will end by my being madly in love with her," he mused. "I never could withstand a pretty face."
The wild winds moaned like demons outside. The bare branches writhed and twisted in the storm, tapping weirdly against the window pane. The room grew warmer as the fire took hold of the logs in the grate, and with the heat the fumes of the brandy rose into his brain, and with it his color heightened, his cheeks and lips were flushed and his eyes scintillating. With unsteady hand he reached out for the flask again, uncorked it, and without taking the trouble to reach for the glass, placed the bottle to his lips and drained it to the dregs.
"She is awaking," he muttered, with a maudlin laugh, and springing from his seat with unsteady steps, he crossed the room and stood by the couch, looking down eagerly into the beautiful white face upon the pillow. As if impelled by that steady, serpentine, fiery glance, the girl moaned uneasily.
"Awaking at last!" he muttered, with a diabolical smile. At that moment Faynie's violet eyes opened wide and stared up into his face.
HE RAISED HIS CLINCHED HAND, AND THE BLOW FELL HEAVILY UPON THE BEAUTIFUL UPTURNED FACE.
With returning consciousness, Faynie's violet eyes opened slowly—taking in, by the flickering light of the candle, the strange room in which she found herself; then, as they opened wider, in amazement too great for words, she beheld the figure of a man, half hidden among the shadows, standing but a few feet away from the couch, his eyes fastened upon her; she could even hear his nervous breathing.
With a gasp of terror Faynie sprang from the couch with a single bound; but the cry she would have uttered was strangled upon her lips by the heavy hand that fell suddenly over them, pressing so tightly against them as to almost take her breath away.
"Don't attempt to scream or make any fuss," cried a hissing voice in her ear—"submit to the inevitable—you are my wife—there is nothing out of the way in your being here with me. Come, now, take matters philosophically and we shall get along all right."
He attempted to draw the girl into his encircling arms, her wonderful beauty suddenly dawning upon him; but she shrank from his embrace, and from the approach of his brandy-reeking lips, as though he had been a scorpion.
With a suddenness that took him greatly aback, and for an instant at a disadvantage, she freed herself from his grasp, and stood facing him like a young tragedy queen in all her furious anger and outraged pride.
"Do not utter another word, Lester Armstrong!" she panted, "you only add insult to injury—why it seems to me some horrible trick of the senses—some nightmare—to imagine even that I could ever have cared for you—to have believed you noble, honorable and—a gentleman. Why, you almost seem to be a different person in his guise—you are so changed in tone and manner from him to whom I gave my heart. The affection that I thought I had for you died a violent death."
She did not notice that the man before her started violently at these words—but the look of fear in his eyes gave place the next instant to braggadocio.
He would have answered her, but she held up her little white hand with a gesture commanding silence, saying, slowly, with quivering lips:
"I repeat, the affection that I believed filled my heart for you died suddenly when I told you that I had changed my mind about eloping, and instead of studying my desires you insisted that the arrangement must be carried out."
"My—my—love for you prompted it, Faynie," he exclaimed, in a maudlin voice. He knew he had the name wrong, but could not think what it was to save his life. "Come, now, let's kiss and make up, and love each other in the same old way, as the song goes."
"What! love a man who thrusts me into a coach despite my entreaties, takes me to a church, and with a revolver pressed close to my heart—beneath my cloak—forces me to become his wife! No. No! I loathe, abhor you—open that door and let me go!"
With an unsteady spring he placed himself between her and the door, crying angrily as he ground out a fierce imprecation from between his white teeth. "Come, now, none of that, my beauty. You're my wife all right, no matter how much of a fuss you make over it. I want to be agreeable, but you persist in raising the devil in me, and though you may not know it, I've a deuce of a temper when I'm thoroughly roused to anger—at least that's what the folks who know me say.
"Sit right down here now, and let's talk the matter over—if you want to go home to the old gent, why I'm sure I have no objection, providing he agrees to take your hubby along with you. There'll be a scene of course—we may expect that—but when you tell him how you love me, and couldn't live without me and all that—and mind, you put it on heavy—it will end by his saying: 'Youth is youth, and love goes where it is sent. I forgive you, my children; come right back to the paternal roof—consider it yours in fact.' And when the occasion is ripe, you could suggest that the old gent start your hubby in business. Your wish would be law; he might demur a trifle at first, but if you stuck well to your point he'd soon cave in and ask what figure I'd take to—"
"Stop!—stop right where you are, you mercenary wretch!" cried Faynie in a ringing voice. "I see it all now—as clear as day. You—you—have married me because you have believed me my father's heiress, and—"
"You couldn't help but be, my dear," he hiccoughed. "An only child—no one else on earth to come in for his gold—couldn't help but be his heiress, you know—couldn't disinherit you if he wanted to. You've got the old chap foul enough there, ha, ha, ha!"
"You seem to have suddenly lost sight of the fact that there is some one beside myself—my stepmother and her daughter Claire."
He fell back a step and looked at her with dilated eyes—despite the brandy he had imbibed he still understood thoroughly every word she was saying.
"A stepmother—and—another daughter!" he cried, in astonishment—almost incoherently.
"You seem to forget that you always used to say to me—that you hoped they were well," said Faynie with deepening scorn in her clear, young voice.
"Oh—ah—yes," he muttered, "but you see I was not thinking of them—-only of you," and deep in his heart he was cursing the hapless cousin—whom he believed dead by this time—for not mentioning that the girl had a stepmother and sister.
"Had you taken the time to listen to something else that I had to tell you, you might have reconsidered the advisability of eloping with me in such haste," went on the girl in her clear, ringing tones, "for it has become apparent to me—with even as little knowledge of the world as I possess—that you are a fortune hunter—that most despicable of all creatures—but in this instance your dastardly scheme has entangled your own feet. Your well-aimed arrow has missed the mark. You have wedded this night a penniless girl. An hour before you met me at the arched gate my father disinherited me, and when he has once made up his mind upon any course of action—nothing human, nothing on earth or in heaven would have power enough to induce him to change it."
The effect of her words were magical upon him. With a bound he was at her side grasping her slender wrists with so tight a hold that they nearly snapped asunder.
Intense as the pain was, Faynie would not cry aloud. He should not see that he had power to hurt her, even though she dropped dead at his feet at last from the excruciating torture of it.
"What is it you say—the old rascal has—disinherited you?" he cried, scarcely crediting the evidence of his own ears.
"That is just what I said—my father has disinherited me," she replied slowly and distinctly, adding: "His money was his own—to do with as he pleased—he gave me the choice of—of—marrying to suit him or being cut off entirely. I—I—refused to accept the man he had selected for me. That ended the matter. 'Then from this hour know that you shall not inherit one penny of my wealth,' he cried. 'I will cut you off with but the small amount required by law. There is nothing more to be said. You are a Fairfax. You have taken your choice, and as a Fairfax you must abide by your decision!' You will remember I told you I had something to tell you the moment you came up to me at the arched gate, but you would not listen. Now the consequence is upon your own head."
"I have married a beggar, when I thought I was marrying an—heiress!" he cried in a rage so horrible that Faynie, brave as she was, recoiled from him in terror and, dismay.
"You have married a penniless young girl," she corrected, half inaudibly.
He raised his clinched hand with a terrible volley of oaths, before which she quailed, despite her bravery.
"When the old man cast you off you thought you would tie yourself on to me," he cried. "You women are cunning—oh, yes, you are, don't tell me you're not; and you are the shrewdest one I've come across yet. You lie when you say you meant to tell me what had happened beforehand, and you know it. But you'll find out at your cost what it means to bind me to a millstone for a wife. But you shan't be a millstone. You'll do your share toward the support. Yes, by George, you shall. I'll put you on the stage—and you—"
"Never!" cried the girl with a bitter sob. "I'd die first."
"Don't set up your authority against mine," he cried, and as he uttered the words—half crazed by the brandy he had drunk so copiously—his clinched fist came down with a heavy blow upon the girl's beautiful, upturned face, and she fell like one dead at his feet.
WHAT HAPPENED AT MIDNIGHT ON THE LONELY RIVER ROAD.
For one moment he looked down half stupefied at his work—the girl lay in a little dark heap at his feet just as he had struck her down—the crimson blood pouring from a wound on her temple which his ring had caused.
"I—I've killed her," he muttered, setting his teeth together hard—"she—she provoked me to it—curse her! My God! the girl is actually dying." Then, through his half-dazed brain came the thought that his crime would soon be discovered, and his only safety lay in instant flight.
It was but the work of a moment to hurry from the room, making his way through the inky darkness as best he could to the barroom, where he knew he should find Halloran and the cabby dozing in the big armchairs.
The full realization of his crime had quite sobered him by this time.
The innkeeper had left a dim light in the barroom. By the aid of this he made his way quickly to his friend's side. A few rapid words whispered excitedly in Halloran's ear told him the condition of affairs.
"You are right," exclaimed Halloran, springing to his feet. "We must get out of here without a moment's delay. The cabman must go with us, taking his horses, even though we have to pay him the price of them."
"I—I—will leave everything to you, Halloran," muttered his companion, huskily, "your brain is clearer and a thousand times shrewder than mine."
"Nor must the girl be left here," went on Halloran. "She must not be found dead in this house."
"Why, what in Heaven's name could we do with her?" returned the other, sharply. "I tell you she is dying, any one could see that."
"Put her effectually out of the way, and past all human possibility of any one finding out how she came by her death. I have a desperate plan. I cannot explain it to you now. All I say is, be guided by my directions to-night—leave everything to me," said Halloran, with a grim gaze.
"I put myself in your hands, Halloran," was the husky reply.
The cabby was hurriedly awakened. At first he demurred angrily against the idea of starting off again; but when a roll of bank notes was pressed into his hands as the price of his complying with their demand—a sum that would more than cover the price of the horses if he lost them—he no longer found grounds for complaint, but agreed with alacrity to do their bidding.
Besides, Halloran knew a little secret of the cabby's past—just how he came by the money to buy that outfit—and as it was done in a particularly shady way, the man dared not make an enemy of him.
In less time than it takes to tell it the coach stood at the door again.
It was Halloran—nervy, cool-headed Halloran, whom the other had always dubbed half man, half fiend—who stole up to the room above, found the girl lying in the exact spot his companion had described, and, catching up her cloak, wrapped it about her, bore her noiselessly down the stairs and out to the coach in waiting.
"Is it all over with her yet?" whispered the other in a strained, husky voice, showing intense fear.
"Almost," returned Halloran, briefly, jumping in and closing the door after him.
For some moments they rode along in utter silence. Then, as Halloran made no attempt to break it, his companion leaned over, asking breathlessly: "Where are we going—and—and—what do you propose to do with her?"
"I am just trying to solve that problem in my mind, and it is a knotty one. I must have more time to think it over," replied Halloran, tersely.
Before his companion could reply, the coach came to a sudden standstill, and both of the men within heard their driver's voice in earnest colloquy with some one standing by the roadside.
"It is the girl's father, or friends, who have just discovered her absence and have been scouring the country about to find her," gasped the fraudulent Lester Armstrong, and the hand that grasped his companion's arm shook like an aspen leaf.
"Don't be a coward!" hissed Halloran. "If worst comes to worst, whoever it is can share the girl's fate," and with these words he opened the door of the coach, asking sharply, angrily:
"What is the matter, driver?"
"Nothing, save a poor old fellow who wants me to give him a lift on the box beside me. He has lost his way. He's an old grave digger, who says he lives hereabouts, somewhere. He's half frozen with the cold tramping about. I told him 'Yes, climb up;' it's a little extra work for the horses, but I suppose as long as I don't mind it you'll not object."
"Ha! Satan always helps his own out of difficulties," whispered Halloran to his companion; and, without waiting for a reply, he was out of the coach like a flash, and his hand was on the old grave digger's arm ere he could make the ascent to the box beside the driver.
"Wait a moment, my good friend," said Halloran, "we have a little work which you of all persons are best fitted to perform for us ere we proceed."
Old Adam, the grave digger, looked at the tall gentleman before him in some little perplexity, answering, slowly:
"I hope you will not take it amiss, sir, if I answer that I do not fully comprehend your words."
"Perhaps not; but permit me to make them clear to you, in as plain English as I can command. I want you to dig a grave here and now."
"A grave—here!" echoed Adam, quite believing his old ears were not serving him truly—that he had certainly not heard aright.
"That is what I said," returned Halloran, grimly.
"But, sir!" began old Adam, "this is no graveyard."
"Curse you, who said it was?" cut in the other, sharply.
"It is not to be thought of, sir," murmured the grave digger, trembling in every limb, his brain too bewildered to try to reason out the meaning of this strange request, and quite believing the stranger must be an escaped lunatic.
Coolly and deliberately Halloran drew a revolver from his pocket, and placed it at Adam's throbbing temple, saying, grimly, and harshly:
"You will do as I command or your life will pay the forfeit. I give you one moment of time to decide."
It was a moment so fraught with tragic horror that in all the after years of his life Adam always looked back to it with a shudder of deadly fear.
He was no longer young—the sands of life were running slower than in the long ago—still, life was sweet to him, ah, very sweet. He had a good wife and little bairns at home, and an aged mother, to whom he was very dear, and he was their only support.
Who was this dark-browed stranger? Why did he wish a grave dug by the roadside on this terrible night? Whom did he wish to bury there, and was the body within the coach?
All these thoughts were surging rapidly through his brain, when suddenly Halloran said:
"Your moment for contemplation is up. Will you dig the grave here and now as I command you, or will you prefer that the next passer-by should find you on this spot with a bullet hole through your head?"
Even through the semi-darkness old Adam could see the stranger's eyes gleaming pitilessly upon him as he uttered the words, and he realized that if he refused he might expect no mercy at this man's hands.
"Your answer!" said Halloran, pressing the messenger of death still closer to the throbbing brow of the now thoroughly terrified old grave digger.
"Y—es," stammered old Adam.
"That is well," declared Halloran, removing the weapon. "Begin right here by the roadside. This is as good a spot as any. You need not make it the regulation depth—three feet or such a matter will answer. Begin without delay. I will also add that not only will you save your own neck, but you shall earn a comfortable fee if you work quickly. Mind, every minute counts."
The old grave digger slowly took his spade from his shoulder, and by the light from the carriage lamp began his work on the spot pointed out, while Halloran stood by watching him with keen interest.
Old Adam was used to work in the terrible heat of summer and in the bitter cold of the winter. He set to work with a will, and the frozen ground yielded quickly to the strokes of his trusty spade, and surely the faint moon, glimmering from between the drifting clouds sweeping across the dark face of the black heavens overhead, never looked upon a wilder, more weird scene.
Twice old Adam paused, the perspiration pouring down his face like rain.
He was about to cry out: "I cannot go on with this uncanny work," but each time the cold steel of the revolver was pressed to his throbbing brow, and the harsh voice of the muffled stranger said: "Go on; your work is almost accomplished."
"THERE MUST NOT BE A SINGLE TRACE LEFT TO MARK THE SPOT OF THE GRAVE YOU ARE NOW DIGGING," SAID THE MUFFLED STRANGER.
The old grave digger worked on faster and faster by the fitful light of the carriage lamp, with the wild night winds howling about him, and the perspiration streaming down his face, as the stranger stood over him covering his heart with the deadly revolver.
"That will do, my man," he said, as old Adam paused for breath a moment. "That is deep enough, I guess. It will not take long to place its future tenant therein; then you must replace the earth and pack the snow so carefully about it that it would not attract the attention of the casual passer-by. Do you comprehend?"
"Yes," answered the old grave digger, and it seemed to him that his own voice sounded like nothing human.
The stranger turned and walked leisurely to the coach in waiting.
Old Adam would have fled from the spot in mortal terror, but that his limbs were trembling and refused to carry him.
He leaned heavily on his spade, asking himself in growing fright—what terrible mystery was this that fate had drawn him into, and awaiting with quaking heart what would follow.
He had not long to wait. The stranger who had stepped to the carriage evidently proposed to lose no time.
In less time than it takes to recount it, he had lifted from the vehicle a slender figure, closely wrapped in a long dark garment, and as he did so a second person stepped from the coach—a man, closely muffled like his companion—and wearing his soft hat pulled low over his eyes.
One glance at the flickering light of the carriage lamp fell upon them, bearing the slender figure between them, and old Adam's heart fairly stood still with horror.
He recognized them at once as the parties who had stood before the altar in the old stone church scarcely an hour before.
Great God! could it be? Ah, yes, it must be the body of the beautiful, hapless young bride they were bringing to this wild and lonely grave.
How did she happen to die? She who had been so full of bounding life but one short hour before—only the all-seeing eye of the God above could tell—ay, could solve this horrible mystery.
Another moment, and in utter silence, the slender figure was lowered into the frozen ground by the two strangers.
This accomplished, the same man turned to old Adam again, saying, abruptly:
"Now finish your work as speedily as possible, I repeat the caution—mind—not a trace must be visible when you have accomplished your task, to mark the spot."
No word from the old grave digger answered him. He could not have uttered a single syllable if his very life had depended upon it.
While the other had been speaking, a gust of wind had for a single instant tossed aside the heavy cloth that covered the face, and old Adam saw beyond all doubt that it was indeed the lovely young creature who had within that hour been made a bride, and with that terrible discovery came another—there was, as sure as fate, a flush upon the beautiful face of her whom they were consigning to the tomb.
"Hold!" he cried out with all his strength, drawing back from his work, shaking with terror. "The—the—girl is not dead; there is color—"
A fierce oath from the lips of both men simultaneously cut his words short.
"The girl is dead," exclaimed the man who had so far done the talking. "That is blood you see on her face. She had a hemorrhage. Go on with your work, you fool—or, here! give me the spade. I will make a short shift of it."
But as the stranger uttered these words, stepping quickly forward to put the thought into execution, a sudden thought, like an inspiration, occurred to the ancient grave digger.
"No—no—I will finish my work," he muttered. "I—I—can do it best, as I—I—understand it—and—and—you, would not."
"Make all haste, then; it is growing bitter cold. We shall all freeze to death."
"Could you not get into the coach, sir, to keep warm?" suggested old Adam; "you can be of no aid to me, you know. When I have finished—you—you can step out and see if it is done to your satisfaction."
For a moment the stranger hesitated, then said, sharply:
"I think I will take your advice, my man; my feet are about as numb as they could well be, I assure you; and as you say, my standing here will not help you. I can watch from the carriage window, and when the work is done step out and look at it."
With that he hurried quickly to the vehicle, and with a thankfulness in his heart that words are weak to describe, and with a mental "God be praised," the old grave digger bent to his task with renewed energy.
Both men watched narrowly and anxiously, as spadeful after spadeful of dirt quickly disappeared from the white ground. Then the white heaping snow was leveled over the dark narrow space, and the grave digger announced that his work was completed.
"I do not know as it is worth while to examine it; the old fellow knows his business," remarked Halloran to his companion, who was by this time fairly well under the weather from large draughts of brandy he had drunk from a bottle he had seized from the bar. "Step up on the box beside the driver"—thrusting a bank note into the old grave digger's nervous, trembling hand—"we will take you along the road as far as we go."
For an instant old Adam hesitated, but it was only for an instant, for he said to himself he must not arouse the suspicion of this stranger by refusing to ride, especially as he had begged for that permission so short a time before. He could frame no reasonable excuse for asking to remain behind.
Marking the spot as best he could in the intense darkness, he climbed up to the driver's box as he had been bidden, and took his seat.
With a sharp cut of the whip upon their flanks, the horses were started, and swaying to and fro with their every motion as they dashed along over the uneven road, the coach sped onward.
No word fell from the driver's lips, and old Adam was too much excited to vouchsafe a remark.
He knew that the men, as well as the rig, did not belong thereabouts, for he well knew every team in the village, and those of the adjoining farmers.
How far they traversed thus he could not judge, but to his intense relief he saw at last that they were passing a familiar landmark, an old bridge that spanned a dry creek which was scarcely a dozen rods from his own door.
"I will leave you here," said Adam. "I thank you for giving me a lift."
Again the coach came to a halt, and the man within put out his head, inquiring sharply:
"What is the matter now?"
"This man wants to get off here."
"Very well," replied Halloran, drawing back into the warmth of the coach and giving the matter no further thought, and resuming the castles in the air which he had been building when the vehicle came to a stop. "I shall see that you carry out to the fullest detail the little plot I am laying this night for you," he muttered, looking steadily at his companion, who had dozed off into a heavy stupefied sleep upon the opposite seat, "and when you come into possession of the money which your marriage to the little heiress to-night will bring you, I shall come in for the lion's share of it. You dare not refuse my demands, no matter how exorbitant they may be, under penalty of exposure. That will be the sword in my hands that will always hang over your head.
"It would have been more difficult to accomplish my scheme if the girl had lived. It is best as it is. Dead people tell no tales. Of course they will search for the girl when they discover that she has eloped, but will believe she is cleverly eluding them or traveling about the country. I have always had golden dreams of a fortune that would be in my grasp some day, and now, lo! my dream is about to be realized."
While he was thus soliloquizing, old Adam, the grave digger, was standing silently in the road where they had set him down, then suddenly he turned abruptly—not toward his home—but as quickly as his aged limbs could carry him back over the ground the coach had just traversed, praying to Heaven to guide him to the spot where he had dug the lonely grave of the beautiful, hapless young bride of an hour.
SNATCHED FROM THE GRAVE.
Back over that terrible road of drifting snow the old grave digger made his way as swiftly as his trembling limbs could carry him.
He had endeavored to mark carefully the spot where he had made that lonely grave, but the snow was drifting so hard with each furious gust of wind as to make it almost impossible to find it upon retracing his steps.
Quaking with terror, and with a prayer on his lips to Heaven to guide him, old Adam sat down his lantern, and by its dim, flickering light peered breathlessly around.
There was the blasted pine tree and toward the right of it the stump. The grave must be less than a rod below it.
With a heart beating with great strangling throbs, he paced off the distance, and then stood quite still, holding his lantern down close to the frozen earth.
For an instant his heart almost ceased beating—there was no sign of the little mound, with the leafless branch of bush he had been so careful to place there.
Then, suddenly a moan from beneath his very feet fell upon his ear, causing him to fairly gasp for breath.
"Thank God! I have found it!" he cried.
In an instant he had thrown off his coat, thin though it was, and set to work as he had never worked in all his life before—against time.
He had thrown in the earth loosely, taking care to leave the head exposed, for he felt as sure as he did of his own existence that life was not yet extinct in the body of the young girl for whom he was forced to prepare that grave at the point of a revolver in the hands of the two desperate strangers.
He had taken his own life in his hands when he had announced the work finished satisfactorily, for had the man stepped from the coach to examine the work he would have found the deep hole which left the head uncovered.
The cold winds and the drifting snow blew into the old grave digger's face, but he worked on with desperate zeal, realizing that another life might depend upon the swiftness of his rescue.
At last, after what seemed to him an eternity of time, he reached the body, and quickly lifted it from its resting place.
Half an hour later he reached his own humble cottage home, bearing the slender burden in his strong arms.
His good wife had waited up for him. She could never sleep when Adam was away from home.
She heard his footstep on the crunching snow and hastened to open the door for him, starting back with a cry of great surprise as she caught sight of the figure in his arms.
"Is it some neighbor's little girl lost in the storm, Adam?" she cried, clasping her hands together in affright.
"Don't ask any questions now, Mary," he exclaimed, delivering the burden into her willing, motherly arms, and sinking down into the nearest chair, thoroughly exhausted. "I'll tell you all about it later, when I get my breath and my nerves are settled. Do everything you can to revive the poor young creature. She is freezing to death."
As old Adam's kindly wife threw back the dark cloak which had enveloped the fair young face and form, an exclamation of surprise broke from her wondering lips.
"She is a stranger hereabouts," she observed, but she wisely obeyed her husband's injunctions, making no further remark, knowing she would hear all about it in good time.
In less time than it takes to tell it, the beautiful young stranger was put to bed in the little spare room up under the eaves, wrapped in flannel blankets, with bottles of hot water at the feet, and a generous draught of brandy, which the grave digger's wife always kept in the house for emergencies, forced down her throat.
"She will soon return to consciousness now," she exclaimed to her husband, who stood beside the bedside anxiously watching her labors; "see that flush on her cheeks. We will sit down quietly and wait until she opens her eyes. It won't be long."
And while they waited thus, Adam told his wife the story he had to tell concerning the young girl—this fair, hapless, beautiful young stranger whose wedding he had witnessed and burial he had assisted in within the hour, first binding his wife to solemn secrecy.
The good woman's amazement as she listened can better be imagined than described. For once in her life she was too dumfounded to offer even a theory.
As they glanced toward the bed, to their amazement they saw the girl's eyes fastened upon old Adam with an expression of horror in them, heartrending to behold, and they realized that she had heard every word he had said.
In an instant they were on their feet bending over the couch.
"Is it true—they buried me—and—you—you—rescued me?" she asked, in a terrified whisper, catching at the old man's hands and clutching them in a grasp from which he could not draw them away, her teeth chattering, her violet eyes almost bulging from their sockets.
"Since you have heard all, I might as well confess that it is quite true," he answered. "And God forgive that brute of a husband you just married. He ought to swing for the crime as sure as there is a heaven above us. There will be no end of the good minister's wrath when he hears the story, my poor girl."
Again the beautiful young stranger caught at his hands.
"He must never know!" she cried, incoherently. "Promise me, by all you hold dear, that both you and your wife will keep my secret—will never reveal one word of what has happened this night."
"It is not right that we should keep silent upon such an amazing procedure. That would be letting escape the man who should be punished, if there is any law in the land to reach him for committing such a heinous crime."
"I plead with you—I, who know best and am the one wronged, and most vitally interested, to utter no word that would cause the story to become blazoned all over the world. Let me make my words a prayer to you both—to keep my pitiful secret."
It was beyond human power to look into those beautiful violet eyes, drowned in the most agonized tears, and the white, terrified, anxious face, without yielding to her prayer.
"I do not know what good reason you may have for binding us to secrecy," he said, slowly and reluctantly, "but we cannot choose but to give you the promise—nay, the pledge—you plead for. I can answer for my Mary as well as myself—the story of to-night's happenings shall never pass our lips until you give us leave to speak."
"Thank you! Oh, I thank you a thousand times!" sobbed the girl. "You have lifted a terrible load from my heart. If the time ever comes when I can repay you, rest assured it shall surely be done."
She tried to rise from her couch, but the good wife held her back upon her pillow with a detaining hand, exclaiming:
"What are you about to do, my dear child?"
"Go away from here," sobbed the girl, again attempting to arise from the couch, but falling back upon the pillow from sheer weakness.
She did not leave that couch for many a day. What she had undergone had been too much for her shattered nerves.
Brain fever threatened the hapless girl, but was warded off by the faithful nursing of old Adam's faithful wife.
And during those weeks the good woman could learn nothing of the history of the beautiful young stranger, who persistently refused to divulge one word concerning herself. She would turn her face to the wall and weep so violently when any allusion was made to her past that the grave digger's wife gave up questioning her.
One morning the bed was empty. It had not been slept in. The girl had fled in the night.
Who she was, or where she had gone, was to them the darkest, deepest mystery. Would it ever be revealed? They could not discuss it with the old minister or any of the neighbors, for their lips were sealed in eternal silence concerning the matter.
"I feel sure the end of this matter is not yet," said old Adam, prophetically. "When the girl comes face to face with the dastardly villain she wedded that night, it will end in a tragedy."
"God forbid!" murmured his wife with a shudder; but down in her own heart she felt that her husband had spoken the truth; the tragic end of this affair had not yet come.
"YOU ARE DISINHERITED—EVERYTHING IN THIS HOUSE IS MINE."
Faynie had indeed departed from that humble home as she had entered it, in the dark, dim silence of the bitter-cold night.
She made her way as best she could to the station which, fortunately enough, was not far distant. The station master was old and anxious to get home, and therefore paid little heed to the little dark-robed figure who bought a ticket to New York, and soon after crept silently aboard of the train which steamed into the little depot of the hamlet, almost buried in the snowdrifts across the hills.
Weak and faint from her recent illness, Faynie, the beautiful, petted little heiress of a short time before, huddled into a corner of the seat by the door, and drawing her veil carefully over her face, wept silently and unheeded as the midnight express bore her along to her destination.
She was going home to Beechwood; going back to the home she had left in such high spirits to join the lover who was to be all in all to her forever more; the lover who was to shield her henceforth and forever from the world's storms, and was to be all devotion to her and love her fondly until death did them part. And this had been the end of it. Her high hopes lay in ruins around her. Her idol had been formed of commonest clay, and lay crumbled in a thousand fragments at her feet.
Surely, no young girl's love dream ever had such a sad awakening, and was so cruelly dispelled.
She would go home to her haughty old father, tell him all, then lie down at his feet and die. That would end it all. Even in that moment lines she had once read came back to her with renewed meaning:
"And this is all! The end has come at last! The bitter end of all that pleasant dream, That cast a hallow o'er the happy past, Like golden sunshine on a summer stream.
"Sweet were the days that marked life's sunny slope, When we together drew our hearts atune, And through the vision of a future hope, We did not dream that they would pass so soon.
"In happy mood fair castles we upreared, And thought that life was one long summer day; We had no dread of future pain, nor feared That shadows e'er should fall athwart our way.
"But sunken rocks lie hid in every stream, And ships are wrecked when just in sight of land; So we to-day wake from our pleasant dream To find our hopes were builded on the sand.
"I do not blame you that you do not keep The troth you plighted e'er your heart you knew; Better the parting now than wake to weep, When time has robbed life's roses of their dew.
"Another face will help you to forget, The idle dream that had its birth in trust, And other lips will kiss away regret, For broken faith and idols turned to dust,
"Ah, well, you chose, perhaps, the better way; Another love may in your heart be shrined; And I—I shall go down my darkened way, Seeking forever what I ne'er shall find."
It was two o'clock by the church belfry when she reached Beechwood, and a quarter of an hour later when she reached the great mansion that stood on the brow of the hill.
She remembered that one of the rear doors, seldom used, was never fastened, and toward this she bent her faltering footsteps. It yielded to her touch, and like a ghost she glided through it and up the wide, familiar corridors, her tears falling like rain at every step.
She knew it was her father's custom to spend long hours in his library, sometimes far into the gray dawn. He found this preferable to the presence of his sharp-tongued second wife, who was always nagging him for more money, or to put his property into her name as proof positive of his unbounded, undying affection for her.
In his library, among his books, there was no nagging. Here he found peace, silence and quiet.
Therefore, toward the library, late as the hour was, Faynie made her way, stealing along quietly as a shadow.
The door stood slightly ajar, and a ray of light, a narrow, thread-like strip, fell athwart the dim corridor.
When Faynie reached the door she paused, trembling with apprehension, a feeling of intense dread, like a presentiment of coming evil, stealing over her like the shadow of doom.
She was prepared for his bitter anger, for the whirlwind of wrath that would be sure to follow, but she would cast herself on her knees at his feet, and with head bowed, oh, so lowly, so piteously, wait for the hurricane of his rage to exhaust itself. Then she would bend over her head still lower, her pride crushed, her pitiful humiliation complete, and sue on her bended knees, with her hands clasped for his pardon and his love again.
She would plead for it for the sake of the fair, hapless young mother whom she had loved and lost in his early youth. Surely, for her sake he would find mercy, perhaps pardon, for the child she had left behind her, the fair, petted, hapless daughter, who had been so lonely, and whose heart yearned so for love ever since he had brought in a second wife to rule over his household.
Ay, from that hour he and his daughter had seemed to drift apart.
Nerving herself for the ordeal, the girl crept to the door and timidly swung it back.
There was a figure bending over the writing desk; not the tall form of her father, but her stepmother.
Faynie drew back with a startled cry.
In a single instant, with the swiftness of a lioness, the woman who had been examining the desk, cleared the space that divided her from the girl, and clutched her by the shoulder.
"You!" she panted, in a voice that was scarcely human, it was so full of venomous hatred. "You!" she repeated, flinging the girl from her, as though she had been something vile to the touch. "How dare you come here?"
Faynie looked at her for a moment with dilated eyes gazing out from her pale face.
Had her stepmother suddenly gone mad? was the thought that flashed through the girl's brain.
"I—I have come back to my father, and—and to his home—and mine. Any explanation I have to offer will be made to him alone."
The woman laughed a sneering, demoniac laugh, and her clutch on the girl's shoulder grew stronger, fiercer.
"How lovely, how beautifully worded, how dutiful!" she sneered. "By that I judge that you have not been keeping abreast of the times, or you would have known, girl, that your father is dead, and that he has disinherited you, leaving every dollar of his wealth to me."
"Dead!" Faynie repeated the words in an awful whisper.
It seemed to her that every drop of blood in her veins seemed suddenly turned to ice. A mist swam before her eyes and she put out her hand gropingly, grasping the back of the nearest chair for support.
She did not even hear the last of the sentence. Her thoughts and hearing seemed to end with that one awful word.
"That is what I said," replied her stepmother, nonchalantly, "and you are his murderess, girl, quite as much as though you had plunged a dagger in his heart. Your elopement caused him to have a terrible hemorrhage. He knew all the details about it in less than an hour's time, learning from one of the servants how you stole out of the house and met the tall man at the gate, who took you off in a closed carriage, and just as he made this discovery one of the maids handed him your note, which you left pinned to the pillow, addressed to him. He had no sooner read it than he fell into a rage so horrible that it ended as I have said, in a hemorrhage. Within ten minutes' time your name, which he cursed, was stricken from his will, and he left everything to me, disinheriting you. Do you comprehend the force of my remark?"
The steady, awful look in the young girl's eyes made the woman quail in spite of her bravado. "I—I do not care for my father's wealth, but that he should curse me—oh, that is too much—too much. Oh, God, let me die here and now, that I may follow him to the Great White Throne and there kneel before him and tell him all my pitiful story!"
"That is a pretty theory, but people cannot go to and come at will from the Great White Throne, as you call it. You had better get back to the realities of life on this mundane sphere, where you find yourself just at present. I repeat for the third time that you are disinherited. I cannot seem to make you grasp that fact. This home and everything in it belongs absolutely to me."
Faynie heard and realized, and without a word, turned and staggered like one dying toward the door, but her stepmother put herself quickly before her.
"Sit down there. I have something else to say to you," she added in a shrill whisper, pushing the girl into the nearest seat.
"I must go. I will not listen," cried Faynie, struggling to her feet.
"Yes, you shall listen and comply with my proposition," exclaimed her stepmother, her glittering eyes fastened on the beautiful face of the girl she hated so intensely.
We must return for one brief instant, dear reader, to our hero, Lester Armstrong, whom we left as he was being hurried off to the hospital on the night which proved so thrillingly eventful.
At the first rapid glance, the surgeon had believed his patient dying, but upon examination after he had reached the hospital, it was discovered that his injury was by no means as serious as had been apprehended; but a trouble quite as grave confronted the patient.