Or, The Secret of a Royal Mirror
MRS. GEORGIE SHELDON
Author of Virgie's Inheritance, A True Aristocrat, Trixy, Lost A Pearle, Helen's Victory, etc.
A FASCINATING YOUNG WIDOW OPENS THE STORY.
"Appleton, don't look quite yet, but there's a woman just behind you whom I want you to see. I never before saw such a face and figure! They are simply perfection!"
The above remarks were made by a young man, perhaps thirty years of age, to his companion, who, evidently, was somewhat his senior.
The two gentlemen were seated at a private table in the dining-room of a large hotel in Chicago, Illinois, and were themselves both handsome and distinguished in appearance.
"There!" the speaker continued, as a slight commotion near them indicated that some one was rising from a table; "she is about to leave the room, and now is your chance."
The gentleman addressed turned to look as the lady passed; but the moment she was beyond the possibility of hearing he broke into a laugh of amusement.
"Oh, Cutler!" he exclaimed; "I never would have believed that you could rave so over a red-head—you who all your life have held such hair in detestation!"
"Well," returned Mr. Cutler, flushing guiltily, "I acknowledge that I have always had a peculiar aversion to red hair; but, truly, hers is an unusual shade—not a flaming, staring red, but deep and rich. I never saw anything just like it before. Anyhow, she is a magnificent, specimen of womanhood. See! what a queenly carriage! what a figure!" and his glance followed the lady referred to, lingeringly, admiringly.
"Yes, she certainly is a fine-looking woman," his companion admitted; "and, if I am any judge, the diamonds she wears are worth a small fortune. Did you notice them?"
"No; I saw only herself," was the preoccupied response.
"Aha! I see you are clean gone," was the laughing rejoinder of Mr. Appleton.
The lady referred to was indeed a strangely attractive person. She was rather above the medium height, straight as an arrow, with a perfectly molded figure, although it was somewhat inclined to embonpoint, while her bearing was wonderfully easy and graceful. Her complexion was exquisitely fair, her features round, yet clearly cut and regular. She had lovely eyes of blue, with a fringe of decided, yet not unbecoming red upon their white lids, while her hair was also a rich but striking red, and was worn short, and curled about; her fair forehead and down around her alabaster neck in bewitching natural rings.
She was apparently about twenty-five or twenty-eight years of age, with all the strength and verve of perfect health in her movements. She was dressed wholly in black, which served but to enhance her fairness, while in her ears and at her throat she wore peculiar ornaments shaped like small crescents, studded with diamonds, remarkable for their purity and brilliancy.
For several days Mr. Cutler and Mr. Appleton sat at the same table, and were quietly observant of this lovely woman.
She came and went, apparently unconscious of their notice or admiration, was gently dignified in her bearing and modest in her deportment, and the two gentlemen became more and more interested in her.
Upon inquiring, they learned that she was a young widow—a Mrs. Bently, whose husband had recently died very suddenly. He was supposed to have been very wealthy, but, there being no children, there was some trouble about the settlement of the property, and she was boarding in the city until matters should be adjusted, when she contemplated going abroad.
She seemed to be an entire stranger to every one, and very much alone, save for the companionship of a maid, by whom she was always attended, except at meal-time. Mr. Appleton was called from the city about ten days after his attention was first called to her, but his friend, Mr. Cutler, was still a guest at the hotel, and before the expiration of another week he had managed to make the acquaintance of the fascinating widow.
The more he saw of her the more deeply interested he became, until he began to realize that his interest was fast merging into a sentiment of a more tender nature.
Mr. Cutler was an energetic young broker, and report said that he was rapidly amassing a fortune, and ere long would be rated rich among rich men. He was fine-looking, very genial and social in his nature, and so, of course, was a general favorite wherever he went.
His admiration for Mrs. Bently soon became the subject of remark among his acquaintances at the hotel, and they predicted that the fair and wealthy widow would soon capture the gallant and successful broker.
Six weeks spent in the attractive widow's society convinced Justin Cutler that she was as lovely in character as in person. She was remarkably sweet-tempered, very devout, and charitable beyond degree. She would never listen to or indulge in gossip of any kind; on the contrary, she always had something kind and pleasant to say to every one.
Upon several occasions, Mr. Cutler invited her to attend the theatre, lectures and concerts, and she honored him by graciously accepting his attentions; while, occasionally, he was permitted to accompany her to church.
That faultless face, her unvarying amiability, her culture and wit, were fast weaving a spell about him, and he had decided to ask her to share his fate and fortune, when he suddenly missed her from her accustomed seat at the table, and failed to meet her about the house as usual.
For three days he did not see anything of her, and he began to be deeply troubled and anxious about her. He could not endure the suspense, and made inquiries for her. He was told that she was ill, and this, of course, did not relieve his anxiety.
On the fourth day, however, she made her appearance again at dinner, but looking so pale and sad, that his heart went out to her with deeper tenderness than ever.
He waited in one of the parlors until she came out from the dining-room. She made her appearance just as a lady, one of the hotel guests, was leaving the room. With eagerness he stepped forward to greet her, and then, with kind solicitude, inquired regarding her recent illness.
"Thank you, Mr. Cutler; I have not been really ill," she said, with a pathetic little quiver of her red lips, "but—I am in deep trouble; I have had bad news."
"I am very sorry," returned the young broker, in a tone of earnest sympathy. "Shall I be presuming if I inquire the nature of your ill-tidings?"
She smiled up at him gratefully.
"Oh, no, and you are very kind. It—it is only a business trouble," she said, a vivid flush dyeing her fair cheek; "but being a woman, perhaps I cannot meet it with quite the fortitude of a man."
"Can I help you in any way?" the gentleman asked, eagerly. "Come into the little reception-parlor yonder—there is no one there—and confide in me, if you will honor me so far."
The fair widow took the arm he offered her, and he led her within the room, and shut the door.
"Sit here," he said, placing a comfortable rocker for her, then he sat opposite her, and waited for her to open her heart to him.
"You know," she began, falteringly, "that I have lost my husband; he died several months ago, and there has been some trouble about the settlement of his estate.
"His relatives contested the will, but my lawyer has always assured me that he could at least secure a handsome amount for me, even if he could not win the whole. But the first of this week, I learned that I am to have almost nothing—that there was not nearly as much as at first supposed, and Mr. Bently's relatives will get that: and so—I am penniless."
"Oh, not so badly off as that, I hope!" exclaimed Mr. Cutler, looking grave.
"It is true. My lawyer's charges will take every dollar that is coming to me, and—oh! it is humiliating to tell you of it—I owe a great deal of money here at this hotel, besides. I never dreamed," she went on, hurriedly, and flushing hotly again, "but that I could pay my bills. I thought that I should have a large fortune, and I—I am afraid that I have been very extravagant: but now—I do not know what I shall do."
Mr. Cutler saw that she was in a very perplexing situation, and she seemed so crushed by it that all his tenderest sympathies were enlisted.
"If you would allow me to lend you any amount," he began, when the widow showed him the first burst of temper that he had ever seen her exhibit.
"Sir, do you suppose I would borrow what I could never expect to pay?" she cried, with almost passionate scorn, and flushing to her temples.
"I beg your pardon," Justin Cutler returned, feeling almost as if he had been guilty of an inexcusable insult; "believe me, I would not wish to put you under any obligation that would be burdensome."
Then he asked himself if it would be safe for him to tell her of his love then and there, lay his fortune at her feet, and thus relieve her from her present trouble and all anxiety for the future.
But he feared she might resent the offer, coming at such a time—think it was prompted more by pity than affection, and reject it as scornfully as she had refused his offer of a loan.
She was very attractive as she sat there before him, her white hands folded on her lap, her eyes cast down in troubled thought, and a grieved expression about her beautiful mouth, and he longed, with all the earnestness of his generous nature, to help her in this emergency.
Suddenly his face lighted.
"Are you willing to confide in me the amount of your indebtedness, Mrs. Bently?" he gently asked.
She falteringly named a sum that staggered him, and told him that she had indeed been very extravagant.
"I—I have always had what I wanted. I have never had to count the cost of anything, for my husband was very generous and indulgent," she apologized, with evident embarrassment, as she met his grave look.
"May I make a practical suggestion without the fear of offending you?" the young man questioned, with some confusion.
"Oh, if you would!" cried his companion, eagerly, her face brightening, while she uttered a sigh of relief, as if she expected that his suggestion, whatever it might be, would lift the burden from her heart.
"You have some very costly jewels," Mr. Cutler remarked, the color deepening in his cheek as he glanced at the flashing stones in her ears; "perhaps you would be willing to dispose of them and thus relieve yourself from your present embarrassment."
"Oh, you mean sell my—my diamonds?" cried the lovely widow, with a little nervous sob, and instantly her two white hands went up to her ears, covering the blazing gems from his sight, while a painful flush leaped to her brow and lost itself beneath the soft rings of her burnished hair.
"Yes," pursued Mr. Cutler, wondering at her confusion. "If I am any judge, they are very valuable stones, and I suppose you might realize a handsome sum upon them."
He was secretly planning to redeem them and restore them to her later, if she should favorably regard his suit.
"But—but;" and her confusion became intensified a hundred-fold, "they aren't real. I'd be glad enough if they were, and would willingly sell them to cancel my indebtedness, but they are only paste, although an excellent imitation."
Her companion regarded her with astonishment.
"You surely do not mean that?" he exclaimed, "for if I ever saw pure white diamonds, those which you wear are certainly genuine."
"No, they are not," she returned, shaking her head with a positive air. "I am very fond of diamonds and I had some very nice ones once, but they were stolen from me just after my husband died. I could not afford to replace them, just then, and I had these made to wear until I could do so. They were made in Paris, where they are very clever at such work. I hoped when my husband's estate was settled, I could have some real stones again; but, of course, I cannot now," she regretfully concluded.
"Will you allow me to examine them, please?" Mr. Cutler asked, still sure that the stones were genuine.
Mrs. Bently unhesitatingly removed one of the crescent ornaments from her ear and laid it in his hand.
He examined it critically and was still confident that it was really composed of precious gems. He believed that if she had had them made to order to replace the stolen ones, either the jeweler had been guilty of a wretched blunder, or else some friend had interposed to replace the jewels which she so regretted.
"I am sure there is some mistake. I am confident that these are real diamonds and very valuable," he asserted, positively.
"Oh, no, they are not," she repeated, with grave assurance.
Then she naively added, and with a little ripple of laughter:
"I am glad to know that they are so good an imitation as to deceive you. There is some comfort in that, although it is not pleasant to have to acknowledge the sham."
Still her companion was not convinced. Surely no paste jewels ever emitted such a brilliant white light as those which lay upon his palm, catching and reflecting the various colors about them in such dazzling gleams.
"Would you be willing to go with me to some reliable jeweler and have them tested?" he asked.
The lovely woman flushed crimson.
"No, I couldn't do that; I should not like to—to have it known that I had been wearing such things," she said. "To be sure," she added, with a quick upward glance that made her companion thrill with secret joy, "I have confessed it to you, but you were so kind and sympathetic I—I trusted you involuntarily."
"Thank you," Justin Cutler returned, a brilliant smile lighting his face, and he longed to open his heart to her, but deemed it better to wait a while. "Then, if you would not like to go with me, will you trust the stones with me, and allow me to have them tested for you?"
"Of course I will, if you want to take that trouble; though," she added, with a little skeptical laugh, as she removed the crescent from her other ear and gave it to him, "I assure you the trust isn't such a responsible one as you imagine."
"We shall see," he smilingly responded, as he put the ornaments carefully in his purse and arose, "I shall submit them to some reliable dealer in diamonds, get him to set a value upon them, and will inform you of the verdict this evening."
"Thank you, Mr. Cutler—you are very kind to be so interested for me," the beautiful woman gratefully murmured.
"I would I might," the young man began, eagerly, then suddenly checked himself and added, "might assist you in some way regarding your other troubles."
Again he had been on the point of declaring himself, but told himself that the moment was not a propitious one.
"I am afraid it is too late for that," she responded, with a sigh; "the case is settled, and Mr. Bently's relatives have won. But, good-by—do not let me detain you longer."
"I will see you again this evening," he returned, adding, as he passed out of the room: "I will be very careful of your property, and hope to bring you a good report."
Mrs. Bently shrugged her graceful shoulders indifferently, as if she had no faith in his belief, and felt that it would be but a small loss if the jewels were never returned. Then, with a smile and a bow, she went up stairs to her own rooms.
THE VICTIM OF A WOMAN'S WILES.
Justin Cutler, after leaving the hotel, went directly to one of the first jewelers of the city, a well-known diamond expert, and submitted Mrs. Bently's ornaments to his judgment.
"They are remarkably fine stones." Mr. Arnold remarked, after having carefully examined them through a microscope; "very pure and clear, most of them without a flaw. So far as I can see, there is not one of them that is in the least off-color."
"I thought so," was Mr. Cutler's inward and exultant comment; but he simply asked, as if he accepted the man's verdict as a matter of course: "What is your estimate of their value?"
"Well," said the jeweler, smiling, "if you wish to know their real value just for your own satisfaction, I can give it; but that might considerably exceed the amount I should be willing to name in case you might wish to dispose of them to me."
"I understand," Mr. Cutler returned; "but what would they be worth to you—what would you be willing to give for the stones?"
Mr. Arnold considered the matter a few moments, and then named a sum which Mr. Cutler deemed a fair price under the circumstances, and one which he felt sure Mrs. Bently would be only too glad to secure in her emergency.
"You make that offer for them, then—you will purchase them if the lady agrees to take the sum you have named?" he asked.
"Yes, and the offer shall be open for her acceptance or refusal for three days."
"Thank you; I will see you again before the time expires," Mr. Cutler replied; and, taking up the diamonds, which Mr. Arnold had placed in a small box, he put them carefully away in an inside pocket and left the store.
When he returned to his hotel he sent his card up to Mrs. Bently, with a request that she would see him for a few moments in the reception-room. But he was greatly disappointed when the waiter returned and said that the lady was out.
He had an engagement for the evening, and thus he would not be able to see her until the next morning. He was somewhat troubled, for he did not like to retain her diamonds over night; but since he could not return them to her, he judged they would be safer about his person than anywhere else, and so did not remove them from his pocket.
The next morning he was early in his place at breakfast-time and anxiously awaiting the appearance of Mrs. Bently.
She soon came in, looking much brighter and fresher than she had been the day before, and he noticed that she was in her traveling-dress.
Could she be contemplating leaving the hotel? he asked himself, with a sudden sense of depression.
She smiled and bowed as she passed him, and he remarked, in a low tone, as he returned her salutation:
"I will wait for you in the reception-room."
She nodded assent, but a gleam of amusement shot into her expressive eyes, which he interpreted to mean that she believed he had failed in his errand and would be obliged to acknowledge the truth of what she had told him about her ornaments.
This thought greatly elated him, and he chuckled to himself as he imagined her astonishment when he should inform her of the offer of the diamond merchant.
He soon finished his breakfast and repaired to the reception-room, where he drew forth his morning paper to while away the time until Mrs. Bently should appear.
But she did not hurry, and he began to grow impatient. Evidently she had no faith in the genuineness of the stones, and had no intention of spoiling her breakfast just to be told what she already knew.
It was nearly half an hour before she came to him, but he could forgive her for making him wait, for her greeting was unusually cordial, and she seemed lovelier than ever in her pretty dress of dark gray trimmed with black. It was made very high at the throat, and fitted her perfect form like a glove. Her face was like a flawless pearl, and he had begun to think the soft ruddy rings that crowned her milk-white brow and made her look so youthful, the most beautiful hair in the world.
He sprang to his feet, his face all aglow, and went forward to take the hand she extended to him.
"I have such good news for you, Mrs. Bently," he said, as he drew the little box from his pocket. "Your gems are real after all," and he slipped them into her hand as he spoke.
She lifted a startled, incredulous look to his face.
"You cannot mean it—you are only jesting!" she cried.
"Indeed no; I would not jest and I do mean just what I have said," he persisted.
"Impossible! Why, Mr. Cutler, I gave less than ten dollars for the crescents."
The young man looked blank.
"Then some one has made an expensive blunder, and set real diamonds for you instead of paste. Where did you purchase them—or order them made?"
"Of Hardowin & Leroux, under the Palais Royal, Paris, less than a year ago," Mrs. Bently promptly responded.
"It does not seem possible that any one could have made such a costly mistake," Justin Cutler said, looking perplexed. "It is almost incredible."
"Yes, and I am just as astonished by your report," his companion said, lifting the cover of the box and gazing upon the blazing stones. "They do look wonderfully real," she added, "and yet I can hardly believe, Mr. Cutler, that any one would be willing to purchase them and give me the value of diamonds."
"But the gentleman to whom I submitted them—a jeweler and an expert—made me an offer for them," and he named the sum.
"So much?" murmured the fair woman, flushing. "Ah, it would be such a help."
"This offer," Mr. Cutler resumed, "is to remain open to you for three days, and you can take them to him within that time if you see fit, and Mr. Arnold will give you the money."
Mrs. Bently made a sudden gesture of repulsion, her head drooped, a flush swept up to her brow, and tears rushed to her eyes.
"Poor little woman!" said Justin Cutler to himself, "it humiliates her to think of selling her jewels—of course it must."
Then he asked, after a moment of thought:
"Would you accept the amount that Mr. Arnold offered?"
"Why, yes, if—if you are sure that they are real, and think it would be right for me to do so," she answered, with a somewhat troubled expression on her fair face.
"Of course it will be perfectly right; the man knew what he was talking about, for, as I told you, he is a diamond expert, and he examined them with the utmost care."
"The amount would be very acceptable," said the fair widow, musingly, "and I shall be glad to sell them; but—"
"The thought of going personally to sell your jewels humiliates you," the generous-hearted young man added; "then let me do it for you, and relieve you of the disagreeable task."
"How kind you are; how you read my very thoughts; but I do not like to trouble you," murmured the beautiful woman, with a quiver of her red lips and a thrilling glance. "And yet," she continued, "I must have money at once. I was going to my lawyer this morning to beg him to try and raise something for me in some way, for I must settle my bill here to-day. I have dismissed my maid and engaged a room at No. 10 —— street, and am going there this afternoon. Oh! Mr. Cutler, it is very hard to be obliged to confess my poverty," and she had to abruptly cease her remarks, in order to preserve her self-control, for she seemed upon the point of breaking down utterly.
"Mrs. Bently," said the young man, with sudden impulse, "let me relieve you from all unpleasantness; let me advance you the sum which Mr. Arnold named; then I can take the crescents to him and he will make it right with me."
A peculiar smile lingered about his lips as he concluded.
"That is exceedingly kind of you," Mrs. Bently said, gratefully, "but, truly, Mr. Cutler, I am almost afraid to take you at your word."
"Because I have always regarded the crescents as paste, and—and I cannot quite divest myself of the idea even now, in spite of your assurance," she answered, with a clouded brow.
Her companion laughed aloud.
"I will be responsible for their genuineness," he returned. "See!" he added, drawing a card from his pocket and writing rapidly upon it. "I will give you this to ease your conscience."
She took it and read:
"I, the undersigned, purchase of Mrs. Bently a pair of crescent ornaments which she affirms are paste, but which I am content to accept as genuine, for the sum agreed upon."
The price was carried out in figures, and his full name signed underneath.
She looked up at him with tears in her eyes.
"You are determined to befriend me, in spite of my scruples," she murmured, brokenly.
"I would gladly do a hundred-fold more for you," he replied, with tender earnestness. "Will you let me have the crescents now?"
"Yes, and thank you more than I can express," she answered, with drooping lids.
He drew forth a wallet filled with bills, and began to count out the sum he had named.
"Wait a moment," said Mrs. Bently, the color mounting to her temples; "I have a handsome case for the ornaments. I will go and get it for you."
She turned suddenly and vanished from his presence, before he could tell her he would rather take them in the little box.
"How sensitive the poor child is!" he murmured, with a tender smile; "she could not even bear to see me count out the money."
Mrs. Bently soon returned with a handsome morocco case in her hands.
"They look better in this," she remarked, as she lifted the lid, and revealed the crescents lying upon a rich black velvet bed; "and," with a nervous little laugh, "now that I know they are genuine, I really am very loath to part with them, in spite of my necessity."
She closed the case with a snap, and passed it to him, and he slipped a roll of crisp bank-bills into her hand.
"This arrangement will smooth all difficulties, I trust," he said, "and now," with a slight tremor in his voice, "I have a special favor to ask. May I come to see you at No. 10 —— street?"
"Certainly, you may, Mr. Cutler," she replied, lifting a bright, eager face to him, "and I assure you I shall have a warmer welcome for no one else. I cannot tell you how grateful I am—"
"Do not speak of that," he interposed. "I am amply repaid for anything I have done by seeing the look of trouble gone from your face. I must bid you good morning now, but I shall give myself the pleasure of calling upon you very soon."
He held out his hand to her, and she laid hers within it. He was surprised to find it icy cold and trembling, but he attributed it to emotion caused by the parting with him.
"Then I shall only say au revoir," she responded, smiling.
She looked so lovely that he longed to draw her within his arms and take a more tender leave of her, but again putting a curb upon himself, he simply bowed, and left her, when with a quick, elastic step, she swept up stairs to her own apartments.
Justin Cutler was very busy all the morning, and did not find time to go to the jeweler's until the afternoon.
He had no intention of disposing of the crescents—he simply wished to tell him that he had himself concluded to purchase them, and then ask the privilege of depositing them in Mr. Arnold's safe for a few days; for they were to be his gift to the woman he loved, if she received his suit with favor.
The gentleman was in, and his eyes lighted as his glance fell upon the case which Mr. Cutler laid upon the show-case, for he believed that, in purchasing the crescents, he was going to get an unusually good bargain.
"Ah," he remarked, "the lady has decided to dispose of the stones?"
"Yes; but—" Mr. Cutler began, when he suddenly stopped, and gazed, astonished, at the man.
He had taken the case, opened it, and started in dismay as he saw what were within, while a look of blank consternation overspread his face.
Then he turned sternly, almost fiercely, upon the young man.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded, in a threatening tone. "Did you imagine you could cheat me in this miserable way? You have got hold of the wrong customer if you did."
"What do you mean, sir?" inquired Mr. Cutler, amazed, but flushing angrily at being addressed so uncivilly.
"These are not the stones you brought to me yesterday," said Mr. Arnold, who was also very angry.
"Sir!" exclaimed Justin Cutler, aghast, but with haughty mien.
"They are nothing but paste," continued the jeweler, eyeing the beautiful crescents with disdain; "and," he added, menacingly, "I've a mind to have you arrested on the spot for attempting to obtain money under false pretenses."
Mr. Cutler grew pale at this with mingled anger and a sudden fear.
He reached across the counter and took the case from Mr. Arnold's hand.
He turned the stones to the light.
At the first glance they seemed to be all right—he could detect nothing wrong; for aught that he could see the crescents were the same which he had submitted to the merchant the day before. But as he studied them more closely the gleam of the gems was entirely different—the fire of the genuine diamond was lacking.
"Can it be possible that I have been duped, swindled?" he exclaimed, with white lips and a sinking heart.
"I should say, rather, that you were attempting to dupe and swindle some one else," sarcastically retorted the diamond dealer. "The stones are a remarkably fine imitation, I am free to confess, and would easily deceive a casual observer; but if you have ever tried and succeeded in this clever game before, you are certainly caught this time."
"Mr. Arnold, I assure you that I am blameless in this matter—that I honestly believed the jewels to be the same that I brought to you yesterday," the young man said, with an earnest directness which convinced the gentleman that he spoke the truth. "I see now," he continued, "that they are not; and"—a feeling of faintness almost overpowering him as he realized all that this experience would cost him, aside from his pecuniary loss—"I have been outrageously deceived and hoodwinked, for I have already advanced the sum you named to the woman who wished to dispose of the diamonds."
Mr. Arnold searched the manly face before him, and was forced to believe in the truth of his statements.
"If that is so, then you have indeed been wretchedly swindled," he said; "for these crescents are but duplicates in paste of those I examined yesterday. How did you happen to be so taken in?"
Mr. Cutler briefly related the circumstances, and when he concluded, Mr. Arnold remarked:
"The woman was an accomplished cheat, and led you on very adroitly. Your mistake was in advancing the money for the stones; if you had brought these things to me first, you would have saved yourself this loss. But of course she never would have allowed that; her game was to get the money from you, and she worked you finely for it."
Mr. Cutler groaned in spirit as he realized it all, and how he had tied his own hands by what he had written on the card that he had given to the wily woman.
He kept this portion of the transaction to himself, however; he could not confess how foolishly weak he had been. Surely his infatuation for the beautiful widow had led him beyond all bounds of common sense and good judgment; but he had no one but himself to blame, and he must bear his loss as best he could. His lost faith in womanhood was the heaviest part of it.
"I sincerely regret having put you to so much trouble, Mr. Arnold," he courteously remarked, as he closed the jewel-case and put it out of sight, "and as a favor, I would ask that you regard this matter as strictly confidential. I have been miserably fooled, and met with a heavy loss, but I do not wish all Chicago to ring with the story."
"You may trust me, and accept my assurance that I am sincerely sorry for you," the jeweler returned, in a tone of sympathy, and now entirely convinced of the honesty of the young man. "And let me tell you," he added, "for your personal benefit, while examining those crescents yesterday, I put a private mark on the back of the settings with a steel-pointed instrument; it was like this"—making a cipher on a card and passing it to him. "If you should ever be fortunate enough to come across them again, you could identify them by it."
"Thank you," Mr. Cutler returned, as he put it carefully away.
Then he wished the gentleman a polite good-day, and went out of the store, a wiser, but a somewhat poorer, man than he had been the previous day.
He was almost crushed by the wrong which had been perpetrated against him. He had been thoroughly and artfully deceived. Mrs. Bently—if indeed that was her real name, which he doubted—had seemed such a modest and unassuming woman, so frank, and sweet, and ingenuous, that he would have indignantly resented it had any one hinted to him that she was not all that she appeared to be.
He had never met any woman who possessed such power to charm him, and yet she had never seemed to seek his notice—had never appeared to thrust herself upon him in any way. He had instead sought her and been especially attracted to her by the very simplicity and naturalness of her deportment; and this rude awakening to the fact of her duplicity was therefore far more bitter than the loss of his money, although that was considerable.
He was greatly depressed, but, on leaving Mr. Arnold's store, he proceeded directly to the street and number which she had given as her future place of residence. It proved to be an empty house with the sign "To Rent" staring at him from several windows.
He next sought for the lawyer who, Mrs. Bently had told him, had conducted her business affairs. There was no such person to be found.
Then, his indignation getting the better of his grief and disappointment, he sought a detective, told his story, and gave the case into his hands.
"Keep the matter quiet, Rider," he said, "but spare no expense to find the woman. If she is a professional thief, she will try the same trick on some one else; and though we may not be able to bring her to justice in this case, since I so rashly tied my hands by giving her that writing, yet I should like to give my evidence against her for the benefit of some other unfortunate victim."
Thus the matter rested for the time, and Justin Cutler once more threw himself heart and soul into business, vowing that he would never trust a woman again.
"But I'll keep the bogus crescents, to remind me of my folly, for of course I shall never see the real ones again."
"Mona, come here, dear, please."
A gentleman, of perhaps forty-five, looked up from the desk where he had been writing, as he uttered this request; but his voice trembled slightly, and was replete with tenderness, as he spoke the name which heads this chapter.
The girl whom he addressed was sitting by a window on the opposite side of the room, and she lifted her bright brown head and turned a pair of dark, liquid eyes upon the speaker.
"Yes, Uncle Walter," she cheerfully responded, as, laying down her book, she arose and moved gracefully across the room toward the handsome, aristocratic-looking man at the desk, who watched her every motion with a fond intentness that betrayed a deep and absorbing affection for her.
He frowned slightly, however, as she spoke, and a half-bitter, half-scornful smile curled his finely chiseled lips for an instant.
The young girl was tall and exquisitely formed, but her face was one not easily described. Her features were delicate and clearly defined, yet with a certain roundness about them such as one sees in a faultlessly sculptured statue, while unusual strength of character was written indelibly upon them. Her hair was slightly curly, and arranged with a careful carelessness that was very becoming, while here and there a stray ringlet, that had escaped the silver pin that confined it, seemed to coquet with the delicate fairness of her neck and brow.
Reaching her uncle's side, she laid one white hand upon his shoulder, then slid it softly about his neck.
"What is it, Uncle Walter? What, makes you look so sober? Have I done something naughty that you are going to scold me for?" she concluded, playfully, as she bent forward and looked archly into his eyes.
His face grew luminous instantly as he met her gaze, while he captured her small hand and toyed with the rosy, taper fingers.
"Do I look sober?" and a brilliant smile chased the gloom from lip and brow. "I did not mean to, while you know I could not scold you if you were ever so naughty, and you are never that."
"Perhaps every one does not look upon me with your partial eyes," the lovely girl returned, with a musical little laugh.
The man carried the hand he held to his lips and kissed it lingeringly.
"Let me see," he remarked, after thinking a moment, "isn't it somebody's birthday to-day?"
"So it is! but I had not thought of it before," exclaimed the maiden, with a lovely flush sweeping into her cheeks. "And," with a far-away look in her eyes, "I am eighteen years old."
"Eighteen!" and Walter Dinsmore started slightly, while a vivid red suddenly dyed his brow, and a look of pain settled about his mouth.
But he soon conquered his emotion, whatever it might have been, and strove to say, lightly:
"Well, then, somebody must have a gift. What would you like, Mona?"
She laughed out sweetly again at the question.
"You know I have very strange notions about gifts, Uncle Walter," she said. "I do not care much about having people buy me pretty or costly things as most girls do; I like something that has been made or worn or prized by the giver—something that thought and care have been exercised upon. The little bouquet of blue-fringed gentians which you walked five miles to gather for me last year was the most precious gift I had; I have it now, Uncle Walter."
"You quaint child!" said the man, with a quiver of strong feeling in his tone. "You would like something prized by the giver, would you?" he added, musingly. "Well, you shall be gratified."
He turned again to his desk as he spoke, unlocked and pulled out a drawer.
"Would you like this?" he asked, as he uncovered a box about eight inches square.
"Why, it is a mirror! and what a queer one!" exclaimed the maiden, as she bent forward to look, and found her lovely, earnest face reflected from a square, slightly defaced mirror that was set in an ebony frame richly inlaid with gold and pearl.
"Yes, dear, and it once belonged to Marie Antoinette. Doubtless it reflected her face many times during the latter half of the last century, as it now reflects yours, my Mona," said Mr. Dinsmore.
"To Marie Antoinette?" repeated Mona, breathlessly, "to the Queen of France? and would you give it to me—me, Uncle Walter?"
"Yes, I have kept it for you many years, dear," the man answered, but turning away from her eager, delighted eyes and glowing face, as if something in them smote him with sudden pain.
"Oh! thank you, thank you! It is a priceless gift. What can I say? How can I show you how delighted I am?" Mona cried, eagerly.
"By simply accepting it and taking good care of it, and also by giving me your promise that you will never part with it while you live," Mr. Dinsmore gravely replied.
"Of course I would never part with it," the young girl returned, flushing. "The mere fact of your giving it to me would make it precious, not to mention that it is a royal mirror and once belonged to that beautiful but ill-fated queen. How did it happen to come into your possession, Uncle Walter?"
The man grew pale at this question, but after a moment he replied, though with visible effort:
"It was given to your great grandmother by a Madame Roquemaure, an intimate friend, who was at one time a lady in waiting at the court of Louis the Sixteenth."
"What was her name?" eagerly asked Mona—"my grandmother's, I mean."
"She was a French lady and her maiden name was Ternaux, and when her friend, Madame Roquemaure, died, she bequeathed to her this mirror, which once graced the dressing-room of Marie Antoinette in the Tuileries."
"What a prize!" breathed Mona, as she gazed reverently upon the royal relic. "May I take it, Uncle Walter?"
"Certainly," and the man lifted it from the box and laid it in her hands.
"How heavy it is!" she exclaimed, flushing and trembling with excitement, as she clasped the precious treasure.
"Yes, the frame is of ebony and quite a massive one," said Mr. Dinsmore.
"It looks like a shallow box with the mirror for a cover; but of course it isn't, as there is no way to get into it," observed the young girl, examining it closely.
Her companion made no reply, but regarded her earnestly, while his face was pale and his lips compressed with an expression of pain.
"And this has been handed down from generation to generation!" Mona went on, musingly. "Have you had it all these years, Uncle Walter—ever since you first took me?"
"Yes, and I have been keeping it for you until you should reach your eighteenth birthday. It is yours now, my Mona, but you must never part with it—it is to be an heir-loom. And if you should ever be married, if you should have children, you are to give it to your eldest daughter. And, oh! my child," the agitated man continued, as he arose and laid his hands upon her shoulders and looked wistfully into her beautiful face, "I hope, I pray, that your life may be a happy one."
"Why, Uncle Walter, how solemn you have grown all at once!" cried the young girl, looking up at him with a smile half startled, half gay, "One would think you were giving me some sacred charge that is to affect all my future life, instead of this lovely mirror that has such a charming and romantic history. I wish," she went on, thoughtfully, "you would tell me just how you came to have it. Did it descend to you from your father's or your mother's ancestors?"
The man sat down again before he replied, and turned his face slightly away from her gaze as he said:
"It really belonged to your mother, dear, instead of to me, for it has always been given to the eldest daughter on the mother's side; so, after your mother died, I treasured it to give to you when you should be old enough to appreciate it."
"I wish you would tell me more about my mother, Uncle Walter," the young girl said, wistfully, after a moment of silence. "You have never seemed willing to talk about her—you have always evaded and put me off when I asked you anything, until I have grown to feel as if there were some mystery connected with her. But surely I am old enough now, and have a right to know her history. Was she your only sister, and how did it happen that she died all alone in London? Where was my father? and why was she left so poor when you had so much? Really, Uncle Walter, I think I ought to insist upon being told all there is to know about my parents and myself. You have often said you would tell me some time; why not now?"
"Yes, yes, child, you are old enough, if that were all," the man returned, with livid lips, a shudder shaking his strong frame from head to foot.
Mona also grew very pale as she observed him, and a look of apprehension swept over her face at his ominous words.
"Was there anything wrong about mamma?" she began, tremulously.
"No, no!" Mr. Dinsmore interposed, almost passionately; "she was the purest and loveliest woman in the world, and her fate was the saddest in the world."
"And my father?" breathed the girl, trembling visibly.
"Was a wretch! a faithless brute!" was the low, stern reply.
"What became of him?"
"Do not ask me, child," the excited man returned, almost fiercely, but white to his lips, "he deserves only your hatred and contempt, as he has mine. Your mother, as you have been told, died in London, a much wronged and broken-hearted woman, where she had lived for nearly three months in almost destitute circumstances. The moment I learned of her sad condition I hastened to London to give her my care and protection; but she was gone—she had died three days before my arrival, and I found only a wee little baby awaiting my care and love."
A bitter sob burst from the man's lips at this point, but after struggling for a moment for self-control, he resumed:
"That baby was, of course, yourself, and I named you Mona for your mother, and Ruth for mine. The names do not go together very well, but I loved them both so well I wanted you to bear them, I gave you in charge of a competent nurse, with instructions that everything should be done for your comfort and welfare; then I sought to drown my grief in travel and constant change of scene. When I returned to London you were nearly two years old and a lovely, winning child, I brought you, with your nurse, to America, resolving that you should always have the tenderest love and care; and Mona, my darling, I have tried to make your life a happy one."
"And you have succeeded. Uncle Walter, I have never known a sorrow, you have been my best and dearest friend, and I love you—I love you with all my heart," the fair girl cried, as she threw her arm about his neck and pressed her quivering lips to his corrugated brow.
Mr. Dinsmore folded her close to his breast, and held her there in a silent embrace for a moment.
But Mona's mind was intent upon hearing the remainder of his story; and, gently disengaging herself, she continued:
"But tell me—there is much more that I want to know. What was the reason—why did my father—"
She was suddenly cut short in her inquiries by the opening of a door and the entrance of a servant.
"There is a caller for you in the drawing-room, Miss Mona," the girl remarked, as she extended to her the silver salver, on which there lay a dainty bit of pasteboard.
Mona took it and read the name engraved upon it.
"It is Susie Leades," she said, a slight look of annoyance sweeping over her face, "and I suppose I must go; but you will tell me the rest some other time, Uncle Walter? I shall never be content until I know all there is to know about my father and mother."
"Yes—yes; some other time I will tell you more," Mr. Dinsmore said, but with a sigh of relief, as if he were glad of this interruption in the midst of a disagreeable subject.
"I will leave the mirror here until I come back," Mona said, as she laid it again in its box in the drawer; then, softly kissing her companion on the lips, she went slowly and reluctantly from the room.
The moment the door had closed after her, Walter Dinsmore, the proud millionaire and one of New York's most respected and prominent citizens, dropped his head upon the desk before him and groaned aloud:
"How can I ever tell her?" he cried. "Oh, Mona, Mona! I have tried to do right by your little girl—I have tried to make her life bright and happy; must I cloud it now by revealing the wrong and sorrow of yours? Must I tell her?"
A sob burst from him, and then for some time he lay perfectly still, as if absorbed in deep thought.
At length he lifted his head, and, with a resolute look on his fine face, drew some paper before him and began to write rapidly.
At the expiration of half an hour he folded what he had written, put it in an envelope, and carefully sealed it, then turning it over, wrote "For Mona" on the back.
This done he took up the mirror which he had but just given the young girl, pressed hard upon one of the pearl and gold points with which the frame was thickly studded, and the bottom dropped down like a tiny drawer, revealing within it a package composed of half a dozen letters and a small pasteboard box.
The man was deadly pale, and his hands trembled as he took these out and began to look over the letters.
But, as if the task were too great for him, he almost immediately replaced them in their envelopes, and restored them to the drawer in the mirror. Then he uncovered the little box, and two small rings were exposed to view—one a heavy gold band, the other set with a whole pearl of unusual size and purity.
"Poor Mona!" he almost sobbed, as he touched them with reverent fingers. "I shall never be reconciled to your sad fate, and I cannot bring myself to tell your child the whole truth, at least not now. I will tell her something—just enough to satisfy her, if she questions me again—the rest I have written, and I will hide the story with these things in the mirror; then in my will I will reveal its secret, so that Mona can find them. She will be older, and perhaps happily settled in life by the time I get through, and so better able to bear the truth."
He replaced the box and letters in the secret drawer of the mirror, also the envelope which contained what he had written, after which he carefully closed it, and returned the royal relic to the box in his desk.
"There! everything is as safe as if it were buried in Mona's grave—no one would ever think of looking for that history in such a place, and the secret will never be disclosed until I see fit to reveal it."
He had scarcely completed these arrangements when Mona re-entered the room, her face bright and smiling, a lovely flush on her cheeks, a brilliant light in her liquid brown eyes.
"Well, my pet, you look pretty enough to kiss," exclaimed Mr. Dinsmore, assuming a lightness of manner which he was far from feeling. "Have you had a pleasant call?"
"Indeed I have, Uncle Walter, and I have also had an invitation to attend the opera to-night," Mona replied, with increasing color.
"Ah! then I imagine that Miss Susie did not come alone, eh?" and Mr. Dinsmore smiled roguishly.
"No; Mr. Palmer was with her; and just as they were at the door, he discovered that he had forgotten his cards, so he just penciled his name on the back of Susie's; but I did not see it, and of course did not know he was here until I went into the drawing-room," the young girl explained.
"Palmer! Ray Palmer, the son of Amos Palmer, the diamond merchant?" questioned Mr. Dinsmore.
"Yes, I have met him a number of times during the past year, and at Susie's birthday party last week he asked permission to call. May I go to-night, Uncle Walter?" Mona asked, with downcast eyes.
"Who else is to be in the party?" gravely inquired her uncle.
"Susie, and Louis, her brother."
"Then I have no objection to your going also," said Mr. Dinsmore; then he added, as he searched the beautiful face beside him: "I know that Ray Palmer is an exceptionally fine young man, and any girl might feel honored in receiving his attentions. Is he agreeable to you, Mona?"
A vivid scarlet suffused the maiden's face at this pointed question, and the gentleman laughed out softly as he beheld it.
"Never mind, dear," he continued, lightly. "I am already answered, and Mr. Ray Palmer has my best wishes for his future success and happiness. There, run back now, and tell your callers that you will join their party."
A shy, sweet smile wreathed Mona's lips as she again left the room.
But she was not gone, long—scarcely five minutes had elapsed before she returned, and gliding to Mr. Dinsmore's side, she said, with quiet resolution:
"Now, Uncle Walter, I want to hear the remainder of what you have to tell me about my father and mother."
MONA ASKS SOME PERTINENT QUESTIONS.
Mr. Dinsmore's face clouded instantly at Mona's request, but after thinking a moment, he threw back his head with a resolute air, and said:
"There is not so very much more to tell, Mona—it is the oft repeated story of too much love and trust on the part of a pure and lovely woman, and of selfish pleasure and lack of principle on the part of the man who won her. When your mother was eighteen—just your age to-day, dear—she fell in love with Richmond Montague, and secretly married him."
"Then she was legally his wife!" burst forth Mona, with pale and trembling lips. "Oh, I have so feared, from your reluctance to tell me my mother's history, that—that there was some shame connected with it."
"No—no, dear child; set your heart at rest upon that score. She was legally married to Richmond Montague; but his first sin against her was in not making the fact public. He was just starting on a tour abroad and persuaded her to go with him. He claimed that he could not openly marry her without forfeiting a large fortune from an aunt, whose only heir he was, and who was determined that he should marry the daughter of a life-long friend. She was in feeble health and wanted him to be married before he went abroad, as she feared she might not live until he should come back. This he refused to do, although he allowed her to believe that he intended to marry Miss Barton upon his return. But he did marry your mother, and they sailed for Europe.
"They spent a few months traveling together, but while they were in Paris, your father suddenly disappeared, and it became evident to your mother that she had been deserted. To make matters worse, the people of the house where they had been living became suspicious of her, accused her of having been living unlawfully, and drove her away. She was desperate, and went directly to London, intending to return to America, but was taken ill there, and was unable to go on.
"Three months later I learned, indirectly, of her wretched condition, and I hastened to her, as I have already told you, only to find that I was too late—she had died just three days before my arrival, and only a few hours after your birth. Oh, Mona! I was heartbroken, for she was all I had, and the knowledge of her wrongs and sufferings drove me nearly wild; but—I cannot live over those wretched days—I simply endured them then because I could not help myself. But, as time passed, I gradually learned to love you—you became my one object in life, and I vowed that I would do everything in my power to make your life happy, for your mother's sake, as well as for your own," he concluded in tremulous, husky tones, while tears stood in his eyes.
"Dear Uncle Walter, no one could have been more kind than you have been," the young girl said, nestling closer to him; "you have been both father and mother to me, and I am very grateful—"
"Hush, Mona! Never speak of gratitude to me," he said, interrupting her, "for you have been a great comfort to me; you have, indeed, taken the place of the little girl who never lived to call me father—and—have helped me to bear other troubles also," he concluded, flushing hotly, while a heavy frown contracted, his brow.
Mona glanced at him curiously, and wondered what other troubles she had helped him to bear; but her mind was so full of her own family history she did not pay much attention to it then. The remark recurred to her later, however.
"There is one thing more, Uncle Walter," she said, after a thoughtful pause. "What became of my father?"
Her companion seemed to freeze and become rigid as marble at this question.
"I wish you would not question me any further, Mona," he said, in a constrained tone. "Your father forfeited all right to that title from you before your birth. Cannot you be satisfied with what I have already told you?"
"No, I cannot," she resolutely replied. "Where did he go? What happened to him after my mother died? Has he ever been heard of since?" were the quick, imperative queries which dropped from her lips.
"Oh, yes," said Mr. Dinsmore, replying to the last query; "he married Miss Barton—the girl his aunt had chosen for him—shortly after his return to this country. The woman had set her heart upon the match, and died a month after the marriage, leaving her nephew the whole of her fortune."
"Did he—my father—know that he had a child living?" demanded Mona, in a constrained tone.
"And—and—" she began, with crimson cheeks and blazing eyes, then choked and stopped.
"I know what you would ask—'did he ever wish to claim you?'" supplemented her companion, a bitter smile curling his white lips. "I have never been asked to give you up, Mona," he continued, apparently putting it thus so as to wound her as little as possible; "but I should not have done so under any circumstances."
"Did he never offer to settle anything upon me out of his abundance?" the young girl asked, bitterly.
"No; no settlement, no allowance was ever made, I alone have cared for you. But do not grieve—it has been a very delightful care to me, dear," Mr. Dinsmore said, tenderly, while he stroked her soft hair fondly with a hand that was far from steady.
"Is the—man living now?" Mona demanded, a cold glitter in her usually gentle eyes.
Mr. Dinsmore threw out his hand with a gesture of agony at this question.
Then suddenly pulling himself together, he hoarsely responded:
But he turned his face away from her gaze as he said it.
"When and where did he die?"
"Do not ask me. Oh, Mona, for pity's sake, ask me nothing more. I cannot, I will not bear this inquisition any longer," the man cried, in a despairing tone.
The young girl's face blanched suddenly at this, and she turned a wild, startled look upon her companion, as a terrible suspicion flashed into her mind.
Had her uncle avenged her mother's wrongs?—was his hand stained with her father's blood, and was this the reason why he was so fearfully agitated in speaking of these things?
It was an awful thought, and for a moment, every nerve in her body tingled with pain. All her strength fled, and she dared not question him further on that point, for her own sake, as well as his.
There was a dead silence for several moments, while both struggled for the mastery of their emotions; then Mona said, in a low, awed tone:
"Just one thing more, Uncle Walter—is—his other wife living?"
"I believe so."
"Where is she?"
"I do not know."
"Did she care nothing for me?"
"No, she hated your mother, and you a hundred-fold on her account."
"That is enough—I have heard all that I wish," Mona said, coldly, as she started to her feet and stood erect and rigid before him. "You said truly when you told me that the man deserved hatred and contempt. I do hate and scorn him with all the hate and strength of my nature. I am glad he is dead. Were he living, and should he ever seek me, I would spurn him as I would spurn a viper. But oh, Uncle Walter, you must let me lean upon you more than ever before, for my heart is very, very sore over the wrong that has been done my poor mother and me. How good you have been to me—and I love you—I will always love and trust you, and I will never ask you any more questions."
She flung her arms around his neck, buried her face in his bosom, and burst into a passion of tears. The sorrowful story to which she had listened, and the fearful suspicion which, at the last, had so appalled her, had completely unnerved her.
The man clasped her to him almost convulsively, though a strong shudder shook his frame, laid his own face caressingly against her soft brown hair, and let her weep until the fountain of her tears was exhausted, and he himself had become entirely composed once more.
"My dear child," he said, at last, "let these be the last tears you ever shed for the wrong done you. I beg you will not allow the memory of it to make you unhappy, my Mona; for as I have assumed a father's care for you in the past, so I shall continue to do in the future; you shall never want for anything that I can give you while I live, and all that I have will be yours when I am gone. I have made an appointment with my lawyer for the day after to-morrow," he went on, in a more business-like tone, "when I purpose making my will, giving you the bulk of my property. I ought to have done this before; but—such matters are not pleasant to think about, and I have kept putting it off. Now dry your tears, my dear; it pains me to see you weep. And here," he added, smiling, and forcing himself to speak more lightly, "I almost forgot that I had something else for your birthday. Come, try on these trinkets, for you must wear them to the opera to-night."
He took a case from his pocket as he spoke, and slipped it into her hands.
Mona looked up surprised.
"But you have already given me the mirror, Uncle Walter," she said. "I could not have anything that I should prize more."
"Ah, well, but I could not let a birthday go by without spending a little money on you," he returned, fondly; "so look at your gifts, and let me see how they will fit."
Mona obediently opened the case, and found within a pair of narrow gold bands, studded with diamonds, for her wrists.
"They are lovely," she cried, a smile of pleasure breaking over her face, "and—I really believe it is the very pair that I was admiring in Tiffany's window only a few days ago!"
"I shouldn't wonder—sometimes the fairies whisper maidens' wishes in older ears, eh?" Mr. Dinsmore archly returned, and glad to see the gloom fading from her face.
"The fairies are great tell-tales then, for you are continually anticipating my wishes," Mona replied. "But," she added, glancing at the clock, "I have some little things to attend to before going out this evening, and I must be about them. A thousand thanks for my diamonds," and she kissed him softly as she said it, "and I shall surely wear them to-night."
"And here is your mirror," he said, taking the box containing it from the drawer of his desk. "Remember your promise, dear, never to part with it."
"It shall never go out of my possession," she gravely replied, as she took it, and then quietly left the room.
She was very grave as she went slowly up stairs, and once or twice a long, sobbing sigh escaped her.
"Oh, why did such a thought ever come to me?" she murmured. "It is too dreadful, and I will not harbor it for a moment. He is good and noble—his whole life has been grand and above reproach, and I love him with all my heart."
That evening, about seven o'clock, Mona Montague went down to the elegant drawing-room of her uncle's residence, exquisitely clad for the opera.
Her dress was a fine black lace, of a delicate and beautiful pattern, made over old gold silk, with the corsage cut low and sleeveless, thus leaving her neck and arms to gleam like alabaster through the meshes of delicate lace. The heavy edging at the throat was just caught together with a shell of Etruscan gold, studded with diamonds. Costly solitaires gleamed in her ears, while her dainty wrists were encircled with Mr. Dinsmore's gift of the morning. Upon her head she wore a jaunty hat of black lace, surrounded by a wreath of old gold crushed roses, that contrasted beautifully with her clear, fair skin and dark eyes. Her face was bright with anticipation, her cheeks were slightly flushed, and she was a vision of loveliness to gladden the heart of any beauty-loving man.
"I have come down to receive your verdict, Uncle Walter," she remarked, smiling, and sweeping him a graceful courtesy, as he threw down his paper and arose to meet her, "Will I do?"
His face lighted with love and pride as he ran his eye over her.
"Really, Mona," he said, "you make me almost wish that I were going to see 'Il Trovatore' with you in Ray Palmer's place. You are a very queen of beauty to-night."
Mona flushed as he uttered Ray Palmer's name, but she put up her lips to kiss him for his compliment, and at that moment the young man himself was announced.
His eyes lighted with admiration, as he approached to salute the beautiful girl, and a thrill of delight ran through him as he clasped the hand she so cordially extended.
He was several inches taller than Mona, and a young man of singularly noble bearing, and perhaps twenty-three years of age.
Dignity of character and sincerity of purpose were stamped upon every feature of his intelligent face, and gleamed from his frank, genial eyes, which met yours with a directness that won the heart and confidence at once, while his manner and bearing as well as every detail of his dress, betrayed the thorough gentleman.
Mr. Dinsmore smiled complacently as he marked the exchange of greetings between the two young people. He saw that Mona was deeply interested in her handsome escort, as her deepening color and drooping eyes plainly betrayed.
He followed them to the door, and wished them a genial good-night, after which he went back to his library, saying to himself:
"I could wish nothing better for her. If I can but see her safely settled in life, I should have little to fear for the future, in spite of the miserable past. Young Palmer is a fine fellow, and I will favor his suit with all my heart. Then, with my will signed and sealed, my mind will be at rest."
Alas! alas! "Man proposes and God disposes."
MONA'S APPALLING DISCOVERY.
Mona Montague was very happy throughout that memorable evening as she sat beside Ray Palmer, and listened to the opera of "Il Trovatore."
The four young people occupied a proscenium box, and made a very interesting group. Many a glass was turned upon them, many an eye studied their bright, animated faces, and found the sight almost as entertaining as the scene being enacted upon the stage.
To Ray Palmer's partial eye the fair girl beside him was the most beautiful object in the world, for he loved her with all his heart, and he made up his mind to win her if it were possible.
When the opera was over, the quartet repaired to a fashionable cafe, where they had a delicious little supper, and spent another happy half-hour discussing the merits of "Il Trovatore"; then they separated to go to their homes.
"You have given me great pleasure this evening, Miss Montague," Ray Palmer remarked, as he lingered for a moment beside her at the door of Mr. Dinsmore's residence, and loath to bid her good-night.
"Then I am sure the pleasure has been mutual, Mr. Palmer, for I have enjoyed myself exceedingly," Mona replied, as she lifted her flushed and smiling face to him.
"You are very kind to give me that assurance," he returned, "and you embolden me to crave another favor. May I have your permission to call upon you occasionally?"
"I am only very happy to grant it; pray consider yourself welcome at any time," Mona answered, cordially, but dropping her eyes beneath his earnest look.
"Thank you; I shall gladly avail myself of your kindness," the young man gratefully responded; and then, with a lingering clasp of the hand, he bade her good-night and ran lightly down the steps.
With a rapidly beating heart and throbbing pulses, Mona softly let herself in with a latch-key, turned out the hall gas, which had been left burning dimly for her, and started to mount the stairs, when she espied a gleam of light shining beneath the library door.
"Why! Uncle Walter has not gone to bed yet! Can it be that he is sitting up for me?" she murmured. "I will go and tell him that I have come in, and get my good-night kiss."
She turned back and went quietly down the hall, and tapped lightly at the door. Receiving no response, she opened it, and passed into the room.
The gas was burning brightly, and Mr. Dinsmore was sitting before his desk, but reclining in his chair, his head thrown back against the soft, bright head-rest, the work of Mona's skillful fingers.
"He has fallen asleep," said the fair girl, as she went to his side and laid her hand gently upon his shoulder.
"Uncle Walter," she called, "why did you sit up for me? Wake up now and go to bed, or you will be having one of your dreadful headaches to-morrow."
But the man did not make or show any signs of having heard her.
He was breathing heavily, and Mona now noticed that his face was unnaturally flushed, and that the veins upon his temples were knotted and swollen.
A startled look swept over her face, and she grew white with a sudden fear.
"Uncle Walter!" she cried out, sharply, and trying to arouse him; "speak to me! Oh! there is something dreadful the matter with him; he is ill—he is unconscious!"
With a wild cry and sob of fear and anguish, she turned and sped with flying feet from the room.
A moment later she was knocking vigorously at the door of the serving-man's room, begging him to "get up at once and go for Doctor Hammond, for Mr. Dinsmore was very ill."
Having aroused James, she called the other servants, and then flew back to her idolized uncle.
There was no change in him; he sat and breathed just the same. Instinctively feeling that something ought to be done immediately for his relief, with trembling fingers she loosened his neck-tie, unbuttoned his collar, then drenching her handkerchief with water from an ice pitcher, she began to bathe his flushed and knotted forehead.
She imagined that this afforded him some relief, and that his breathing was not quite so labored, but his condition drove her nearly frantic with fear and anxiety.
James was very expeditious in his movements, and in less than half an hour returned with the family physician.
"Oh, Doctor Hammond, what is the matter with him?" Mona cried, with a sinking heart, as she saw the grave expression that settled over the doctor's face the moment he reached his patient's side.
"An apoplectic attack," he replied, thinking it best that she should know the truth, and so be somewhat prepared for what he feared must soon come.
The unconscious man was borne to his chamber, and everything which human skill could devise was done for him. He rallied somewhat toward morning, but Doctor Hammond gave them no hope that he would ever be any better, or even retain his consciousness for any length of time.
The whole of his right side was helpless, and his tongue was also paralyzed, so that he was entirely speechless.
His efforts to talk were agonizing to witness, for he appeared to realize that his hours were numbered, and seemed to have something special on his mind that he wished to make those around him understand.
Mona alone, who never left his side, seemed able to interpret something of his meaning, and she asked him question after question trying to learn his desire; but he could only slowly move his head to signify that she did not yet understand.
"Oh, what shall I do?" she moaned, in despair; then a bright thought flashed upon her. "Is there some one whom you wish to see, Uncle Walter?" she asked.
His eyes lighted, and a faint nod of the head told her that she had got hold of the right thread at last.
"Who is it?" she said, eagerly; then remembering his helplessness, she added: "I will say over the letters of the alphabet, and when I reach the right one you must press my hand."
This method proved more successful, and Mona finally spelled out the name of Graves.
"Graves—Graves," she repeated, with a puzzled look; then she cried, her face lighting: "Oh, it is Mr. Graves, your lawyer, whom you want."
Again the sufferer nodded, and weakly pushed her from him with his left hand to show that he wanted her to be quick about summoning the man.
In less than an hour Mr. Graves was in the sick-room, and by signs and questions and Mona's use of the alphabet, he finally comprehended that Mr. Dinsmore wished him to draw up a will for him, leaving everything he had to Mona.
While the lawyer was thus engaged in the library, the invalid tried to make Mona understand that there was something else he wished to tell her, and she spelled out the word "mirror."
"Oh, you want me to remember my promise never to part with it—is that it, Uncle?" she asked.
"No," he signaled, and looked so distressed that the much-tried girl sobbed outright. But she quickly controlled her grief, and finally spelled the word "bring," though her heart almost failed her as she realized that his left hand was fast becoming helpless like the other so that she could scarcely distinguish any pressure when she named a letter.
But she flew to her room and brought the royal mirror to him, and he tried to make her understand that there was something he wished to explain in connection with it.
We who have learned the secret of it, know what he wanted, but he could not even lift his nerveless hand to show her the gilded point beneath which lay the spring that controlled the hidden drawer and its contents.
Mona asked him question after question, but all that she could elicit were sighs, while great tears welled up into the man's eyes and rolled over his cheeks; and when at last a groan of agony burst from him, she could bear it no longer, and went weeping from the room, bearing the ancient relic from his sight.
She remained in her own room a few moments to compose herself before going back to him, and during her absence, Mr. Graves went up to him with the will which he had hastily drafted.
Mr. Dinsmore had had some conversation with him, in a general way, about the matter previous to this, and so he had drawn up the instrument to cover every point that he could think of. He read it aloud, and Mr. Dinsmore signified his satisfaction with it, and yet he looked troubled, as if it did not quite cover all that he desired.
Doctor Hammond and the housekeeper were summoned to act as witnesses; then Mr. Graves placed the pen, filled with ink, within the sick man's fingers, for him to sign the will. But he could not hold it—there was no strength, no power in them.
In vain they clasped them around it, and urged him to "try;" but they instantly fell away, the pen dropped upon the snowy counterpane making a great, unsightly blotch of ink, and they knew that he was past putting his signature, or even his mark, to the will.
As he himself realized this, a shrill cry of despair burst from him, and the next instant he lapsed into unconsciousness from a second stroke.
"The end has come—he will not live an hour," gravely remarked Doctor Hammond, as his skilled fingers sought the dying man's feeble pulse.
In half that time Walter Dinsmore was dead, and Mona Montague was alone in the world.
We will pass over the next few days, with their mournful incidents and the despairing grief of the beautiful girl, who had been so sadly bereft, to the morning after the funeral ceremonies, when Mr. Graves, with Mr. Dinsmore's unsigned will in his pocket, called to consult with Mona regarding her uncle's affairs and her own plans for the future.
He found her in the library, looking sad and heavy-eyed from almost incessant weeping, her manner languid and drooping.
She was engaged in trying to make up some accounts which the housekeeper had requested her to attend to, hoping thus to distract her mind somewhat from her grief.
She burst into tears as the lawyer kindly took her hand, for the sight of him brought back to her so vividly the harrowing scenes of that last day of her idolized uncle's life.
But she strove to control herself after a moment, and invited the gentleman to be seated, when he immediately broached the subject of his call.
"Perhaps you are aware, Miss Montague," he began, "that Mr. Dinsmore, on the morning of his death, tried to make his will, in which he stated his wish to leave you all his property; but he was unable to sign it; consequently the document cannot stand, according to law. I was somewhat surprised," Mr. Graves continued, looking thoughtful, "at his excessive anxiety and distress regarding the matter, as he had previously given me to understand that you were his only living relative. Still he might only have wished to make assurance doubly sure. Do you know of any heirs beside yourself?"
"No," Mona answered, "he had no relatives as near to him as I. There are, I believe, one or two distant cousins residing somewhere in the South."
"Then you are of course the sole heir, and will have the whole of his handsome fortune—the will would only have been a matter of form. Mr. Dinsmore was a very rich man, Miss Montague, and I congratulate you upon being the heiress to a large fortune," the lawyer continued, with hearty sincerity in his tone.
But Mona looked, up at him with streaming eyes.
"Oh! but I would rather have my uncle back than all the wealth of the world!" she cried, with quivering lips.
"True. I know that your loss is irreparable—one that no amount of money can make up to you," was the kind and sympathetic response. Then the man returned to business again, "But—do you mind telling me your age, Miss Montague?"
"I was eighteen the day before my uncle died," the stricken girl replied, with a keen heart-pang, as she recalled that eventful day.
"You are very young to have care of so much property," said the lawyer, gravely. "What would be your wish as to the management of it? You ought really to have a guardian for the next few years. If you will designate some one whom you would wish, and could trust to act as such, I will gladly assist in putting Mr. Dinsmore's affair in convenient shape for him."
"You are very good, Mr. Graves," Mona thoughtfully returned. Then she added, wistfully: "Why cannot you act as my guardian? I know of no one in whom I have so much confidence. Uncle Walter trusted you, and surely there can be no one who understands his affairs as well as you do."
The man's face lighted at this evidence of her trust in him.
"Thank you, Miss Mona," he said. "It is of course gratifying to me to know that you desire this, and I really think that Mr. Dinsmore would have suggested such an arrangement had he been able to do so; but of course I felt delicate about proposing it. Walter Dinsmore was a dear and valued friend, as well as my client, and, believe me, I feel a deep interest in you, for his sake, as well as your own. I will accept the trust, and do the best I can for you, my child, thanking you again heartily for your confidence in me."
He spent a long time, after that, talking over business matters and looking over some of Mr. Dinsmore's papers, and when at length he took his leave, Mona was really greatly comforted, and felt that she had found a true friend to rely upon in her loneliness.
A BOLD AND CUNNING SCHEME.
On the afternoon previous to Mr. Dinsmore's death a woman of perhaps sixty years alighted from an elegant private carriage before the door of a fine residence on West —— street, in New York city.
She was simply but richly clad in heavy, lustrous black silk, and was a woman of fine appearance, although her face wore a look of deep sadness which seemed to indicate some hidden trouble or sorrow.
Her hair was almost white, but carefully arranged, and lay low upon her placid, but slightly wrinkled, brow in soft, silken waves that were very becoming to her. Her complexion was unusually clear and fair for one of her years, although it might have been enhanced somewhat by the fine vail of white tulle which she wore over it. She was tall and commanding in figure, a little inclined toward portliness, but every motion was replete with graceful dignity and high-bred repose.
After giving directions to her coachman to wait for her, she mounted the steps leading to the door, pausing for an instant to read the name, "R. Wesselhoff, M.D." engraved upon a silver plate, before ringing the bell.
A colored servant soon answered her call, and responded affirmatively to her inquiry if the noted physician was in, then ushered her into a small but elegantly appointed reception-room upon the right of the lofty hall.
Five minutes later an elderly and singularly prepossessing man entered and saluted his visitor in a gracious and respectful manner.
"Mrs. Walton, I suppose?" he remarked, just glancing at the card which she had given the servant.
The woman bowed, then observed, with a patient but pathetic sigh:
"I have called, Doctor Wesselhoff, upon a very sad errand, and one which I trust you will regard as strictly confidential."
"Certainly, madame; I so regard all communications made by my patients," the gentleman courteously responded.
"I have a son," madame resumed, "who has of late betrayed symptoms of the strangest mania, although he appears to be in perfect health in all other respects. He imagines that some gigantic robbery has been committed; sometimes he declares that bonds to a large amount have been stolen, at other times it is money, then again that costly jewels have disappeared; but the strangest phase of his malady consists in the fact that he accuses me, and sometimes other members of the family, of being the thief, and insists that he must have me arrested. This has gone on for some time, and I have been obliged to adopt every kind of device in order to keep him from carrying out his threats and thus creating a very uncomfortable scandal. This morning he became more violent than usual, and I felt obliged to take some decided step in regard to proper treatment for him; therefore my visit to you."
"It is a singular mania, truly," said the physician, who had been listening with the deepest interest to his companion's recital. "I think I never have met with anything exactly like it before in all my experience. How old is your son, Mrs. Walter?"
"Twenty-four years," the woman replied, with a heavy sigh; "and," she added, tremulously, "I cannot bear the thought of sending him to any common lunatic asylum. I learned recently that you sometimes receive private patients to test their cases before sending them to a public institution, and that you have frequently effected a cure in critical cases. Will you take my son and see what you think of his case—what you can do for him? I shall not mind the cost—I wish to spare nothing, and I do not wish any one, at least of our friends and acquaintances, to know that he is under treatment for insanity until you pronounce your verdict. He seems sane enough upon all other topics, except now and then he persists in calling himself by some other name, and I know he would be very sensitive, should he recover, to have his condition known. He does not even suspect that I am contemplating any such thing, and I shall be obliged to use strategy in bringing him to you."
Doctor Wesselhoff was evidently very deeply interested in the case; he had never heard of anything like it before, and all his professional enthusiasm was aroused.
He spent some time questioning his visitor, and finally decided that he would receive the young man immediately—to-morrow afternoon Mrs. Walton might bring him, he said, if she could conveniently arrange to do so.
"I think, perhaps, it will not be best for me to come with him myself," the lady said, after considering the matter for some time. "Truly," she added, with a sad smile, "I almost fear to go out with him, lest he put his threats into execution and have me arrested. But I think I can arrange with my sister, Mrs. Vanderbeck, to persuade him to come with her as if to call upon a friend."
The matter was arranged thus, and madame arose to take her leave, the physician accompanying her to the door and feeling deep sympathy for the cultured and attractive woman in her strange affliction.
The next day, about one o'clock—the day following Mona Montague's attendance at the opera with Ray Palmer, and only a few hours after Mr. Dinsmore's death, a brilliantly beautiful woman, who might have been forty-five years of age, entered the handsome store of Amos Palmer & Co., diamond merchants and jewelers.