E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE BARONET'S BRIDE
Or, A Woman's Vengeance
MAY AGNES FLEMING
Author of Lady Evelyn, Queen of the Isle, Who Wins?, Estella's Husband, The Heiress of Glendower, etc.
New York The New York Book Company
The clouds, which rise with thunder, slake Our thirsty souls with rain; The blow most dreaded falls to break From off our limbs a chain; And wrongs of man to man but make The love of God more plain. As through the shadowy lens of even The eye looks farthest into heaven On gleams of star and depths of blue The glaring sunshine never knew!
JOHN G. WHITTIER.
It falls before, it follows behind, Darkest still when the day is bright; No light without the shadow we find, And never shadow without the light.
From our shadow we cannot flee away; It walks when we walk, it runs when we run; But it tells which way to look for the sun; We may turn our backs on it any day.
Ever mingle the sight and shade That make this human world so dear; Sorrow of joy is ever made, And what were a hope without a fear?
A morning shadow o'er youth is cast, Warning from pleasure's dazzling snare; A shadow lengthening across the past, Fixes our fondest memories there.
One shadow there is, so dark, so drear, So broad we see not the brightness round it; Yet 'tis but the dark side of the sphere Moving into the light unbounded.
THE BARONET'S BRIDE.
"And there is danger of death—for mother and child?"
"Well, no, Sir Jasper—no, sir; no certain danger, you know; but in these protracted cases it can do no harm, Sir Jasper, for the clergyman to be here. He may not be needed but your good lady is very weak, I am sorry to say, Sir Jasper Kingsland."
"I will send for the clergyman," Sir Jasper Kingsland said. "Do your best, Doctor Godroy, and for God's sake let me know the worst or best as soon as may be. This suspense is horrible."
Doctor Parker Godroy looked sympathetically at him through his gold-bowed spectacles.
"I will do my best, Sir Jasper," he said, gravely. "The result is in the hands of the Great Dispenser of life and death. Send for the clergyman, and wait and hope."
He quitted the library as he spoke. Sir Jasper Kingsland seized the bell and rang a shrill peal.
"Ride to the village—ride for your life!" he said, imperatively, to the servant who answered, "and fetch the Reverend Cyrus Green here at once."
The man bowed and departed, and Sir Jasper Kingsland, Baronet, of Kingsland Court, was alone—alone in the gloomy grandeur of the vast library; alone with his thoughts and the wailing midnight storm.
A little toy time-piece of buhl on the stone mantel chimed musically its story of the hour, and Sir Jasper Kingsland lifted his gloomy eyes for a moment at the sound. A tall, spare middle-aged man, handsome once—handsome still, some people said—with iron-gray hair and a proud, patrician face.
"Twelve," his dry lips whispered to themselves—"midnight, and for three hours I have endured this maddening agony of suspense! Another day is given to the world, and before its close all I love best may be cold and stark in death! Oh, my God! have mercy, and spare her!"
He lifted his clasped hands in passionate appeal. There was a picture opposite—a gem of Raphael's—the Man of Sorrows fainting under the weight of the cross, and the fire's shine playing upon it seemed to light the pallid features with a derisive smile.
"The mercy you showed to others, the same shall be shown to you. Tiger heart, you were merciless in the days gone by. Let your black, bad heart break, as you have broken others!"
No voice had sounded, yet he was answered. Conscience had spoken in trumpet-tones, and with a hollow groan the baronet turned away and began pacing up and down.
It was a large and spacious apartment, this library of Kingsland Court, dimly lighted now by the flickering wood-fire and the mellow glow of a branch of wax-lights. Huge book-cases filled to overflowing lined the four walls, and pictures precious as their weight in rubies looked duskily down from their heavy frames. Busts and bronzes stood on brackets and surmounted doors; a thick, rich carpet of moss-green, sprinkled with oak leaves and acorns, muffled the tread; voluminous draperies of dark green shrouded the tall, narrow windows. The massive chairs and tables, fifty years old at least, were spindle-legged and rich in carving, upholstered in green velvet and quaintly embroidered, by hands moldered to dust long ago. Everything was old and grand, and full of storied interest. And there, on the wall, was the crest of the house—the uplifted hand grasping a dagger—and the motto, in old Norman French, "Strike once, and strike well."
It is a very fine thing to be a baronet—a Kingsland of Kingsland, with fifteen thousand a year, and the finest old house in the county; but if Death will stalk grimly over your threshold and snatch away the life you love more than your own, then even that glory is not omniscient. For this wintery midnight, while Sir Jasper Kingsland walks moodily up and down—up and down—Lady Kingsland, in the chamber above, lies ill unto death.
An hour passes—the clock in the turret and the buhl toy on the stone mantel toll solemnly one. The embers drop monotonously through the grate—a dog bays deeply somewhere in the quadrangle below—the wailing wind of coming morning sighs lamentingly through the tossing copper-beeches, and the roar of the surf afar off comes ever and anon like distant thunder. The house is silent as the tomb—so horribly silent that the cold drops start out on the face of the tortured man. Who knows? Death has been on the threshold of that upper chamber all night, waiting for his prey. This awful hush may be the paean that proclaims that he is master!
A tap at the door. The baronet paused in his stride and turned his bloodshot eyes that way. His very voice was hollow and unnatural as he said:
A servant entered—the same who had gone his errand.
"The Reverend Cyrus Green is here, sir. Shall I show him up?"
"Yes—no—I cannot see him. Show him into the drawing-room until he is needed."
"He will not be needed," said a voice at his elbow, and Doctor Parker Godroy came briskly forward. "My dear Sir Jasper, allow me to congratulate you! All is well, thank Heaven, and—it is a son!"
Sir Jasper Kingsland sunk into a seat, thrilling from head to foot, turning sick and faint in the sudden revulsion from despair to hope.
"Saved?" he said, in a gasping whisper. "Both?"
"Both, my dear Sir Jasper!" the doctor responded, cordially. "Your good lady is very much prostrated—exhausted—but that was to be looked for, you know; and the baby—ah! the finest boy I have had the pleasure of presenting to an admiring world within ten years. Come and see them!"
"May I?" the baronet cried, starting to his feet.
"Certainly, my dear Sir Jasper—most certainly. There is nothing in the world to hinder—only be a little cautious, you know. Our good lady must be kept composed and quiet, and left to sleep; and you will just take one peep and go. We won't need the Reverend Cyrus."
He led the way from the library, rubbing his hands as your brisk little physicians do, up a grand stair-way where you might have driven a coach and four, and into a lofty and most magnificently furnished bed-chamber.
"Quiet, now—quiet," the doctor whispered, warningly. "Excite her, and I won't be answerable for the result."
Sir Jasper Kingsland replied with a rapid gesture, and walked forward to the bed. His own face was perfectly colorless, and his lips were twitching with intense suppressed feeling. He bent above the still form.
"Olivia," he said, "my darling, my darling!"
The heavy eyelids fluttered and lifted, and a pair of haggard, dark eyes gazed up at him. A wan smile parted those pallid lips.
"Dear Jasper! I knew you would come. Have you seen the baby? It is a boy."
"My own, I have thought only of you. My poor pale wife, how awfully death-like you look!"
"But I am not going to die—Doctor Godroy says so," smiling gently. "And now you must go, for I cannot talk. Only kiss me first, and look at the baby."
Her voice was the merest whisper. He pressed his lips passionately to the white face and rose up. Nurse and baby sat in state by the fire, and a slender girl of fifteen years knelt beside them, and gazed in a sort of rapture at the infant prodigy.
"Look, papa—look? The loveliest little thing, and nurse says the very picture of you!"
Not very lovely, certainly; but Sir Jasper Kingsland's eyes lighted with pride and joy as he looked. For was it not a boy? Had he not at last, after weary, weary waiting, the desire of his heart—a son to inherit the estate and perpetuate the ancient name?
"It is so sweet, papa!" Miss Mildred whispered, her small, rather sickly face quite radiant; "and its eyes are the image of yours. He's asleep now, you know, and you can't see them. And look at the dear, darling little hands and fingers and feet, and the speck of a nose and the dot of a mouth! Oh papa! isn't it splendid to have a baby in the house?"
"Very splendid," said papa, relaxing into a smile. "A fine little fellow, nurse! There, cover him up again and let him sleep. We must take extra care of the heir of Kingsland Court. And Mildred, child, you should be in bed. One o'clock is no hour for little girls to be out of their nests."
"Oh, papa! as if I could sleep and not see the baby!"
"Well, you have seen it, and now run away to your room. Mamma and baby both want to sleep, and nurse doesn't need you, I am sure."
"That I don't," said nurse, "nor the doctor, either. So run away, Miss Milly, and go to sleep yourself. The baby will be here, all safe for you, in the morning."
The little girl—a flaxen-haired, pretty-featured child—kissed the baby, kissed papa, and dutifully departed. Sir Jasper followed her out of the room, down the stairs, and back into the library, with the face of a man who has just been reprieved from sudden death. As he re-entered the library, he paused and started a step back, gazing fixedly at one of the windows. The heavy curtain had been partially drawn back, and a white, spectral face was glued to the glass, glaring in.
"Who have we here?" said the baronet to himself; "that face can belong to no one in the house."
He walked straight to the window—the face never moved. A hand was raised and tapped on the glass. A voice outside spoke:
"For Heaven's sake, open and let me in, before I perish in this bitter storm."
Sir Jasper Kingsland opened the window and flung it wide.
"Enter! whoever you are," he said. "No one shall ask in vain at Kingsland, this happy night."
He stepped back, and, all covered with snow, the midnight intruder entered and stood before him. And Sir Jasper Kingsland saw the strangest-looking creature he had ever beheld in the whole course of his life.
ACHMET THE ASTROLOGER.
An old man, yet tall and upright, wearing a trailing cloak of dull black, long gray hair flowing over the shoulders, and tight to the scalp a skull-cap of black velvet. A patriarchal board, abundant and silver-white, streamed down his breast, and out of a dull, white face, seamed and wrinkled, looked a pair of eyes piercing and black.
Sir Jasper took a stop backward, and regarded this singular apparition in wonder. The old man folded his arms across his bosom—and made him a profound Oriental salaam.
"The Lord of Kingsland gazes in amaze at the uninvited stranger. And yet I think destiny has sent me hither."
"Who are you?" the baronet demanded. "What jugglery is this? Are you dressed for an Eastern dervish in a melodrama, and have you come here to play a practical joke? I am afraid I can not appreciate the humor of the masquerade. Who are you?" sternly.
"Men call me Achmet the Astrologer."
"An astrologer? Humph! your black art, it seems, could not protect you from a January storm," retorted Sir Jasper, with a cynical sneer. "But come in—come in. Astrologer or demon, or whatever you are, you look too old a man to be abroad such a night, when we would not turn an enemy's dog from the house. The doors of Kingsland are never closed to the tired wayfarer, and of all nights in the year they should not he closed to-night."
"When an heir is born to an ancient name and a princely inheritance, you speak rightly, my Lord of Kingsland."
"How say you? What do you know of the events of this night, Sir Astrologer?"
"Much, Sir Jasper Kingsland, and for the very reason you deride—because I am an astrologer. I read the stars, and I lift the veil of the future, and, lo! I behold your life years before you have lived it!"
Sir Jasper Kingsland laughed a cynical, unbelieving laugh.
"You jeer at me, you scoff at my words," murmured the old man, in soft, steady tones, "and yet there was no one to tell me on my way here that a son and heir had been born to the house of Kingsland within the past hour."
He lifted his arm and pointed to the clock, his dark eyes fixed upon the baronet's changing face.
"You deride the power I profess, yet every day you quote your English poet, and believe him when he says: 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.' But I am accustomed to derision, and it does not offend me. Let me prove my power, so that even the most resolute skeptic dare doubt no longer. Judge of my skill to read the future by my ability in reading the past. I have come here—I have taken a long journey to look into the future of your new-born son. Before I begin, let me look into the past of his father. Sir Jasper Kingsland, let me read your palm."
But Sir Jasper drew back.
"You have taken a long journey to look into the future of my son? Pray, what is my son to you?"
"That is my secret, Sir Jasper, and my secrets I keep. Come, hold forth your hand, and test my skill."
"Why should I? Even if you can bring before me my past life, of what use will it be, since I must know all better than you?"
"My power to read the past may prove my power to read the future."
"Nay, you may easily know the past, without magical skill. Many thanks, my venerable friend, but I will not put your necromancy to the test."
"Is Sir Jasper Kingsland afraid?" he said. "Surely not, for he comes of a daring race. And yet it seems like it."
"By Heaven! if a younger man had spoken those words I would have hurled him by the throat from yonder window. Be careful of your words, old man, else even your hoary hairs may fail to save you."
Once more the astrologer bent servilely.
"I cry your mercy, my haughty Lord of Kingsland. It shall be as you say. I will depart as I came. I will not serve you nor your new-born son, since you refuse to be served. I will depart at once. I fear no earthly storm. Good-night, Sir Jasper Kingsland. Look to the heir of your house yourself. When 'angels unaware' visit you again, treat them better than you have treated me."
With a gesture indescribably grand and kingly, the silver-haired old man turned to go, folding his long cloak about him. But the voice of the baronet called him back.
"Stay," he said. "You speak of serving my son. What danger threatens his infant life that you can avert?"
"I know of none. I have not cast the horoscope yet."
"Then you wish to do so?"
"With your good permission. I have taken a long journey for that very purpose, Sir Jasper."
"Then you shall," the baronet cried, yielding to a swift impulse—"you shall cast his horoscope. If it can avert no evil, it can, at least, cause none. But, first, there is no action without its ruling motive. What are me or mine to you, to make you take a long and toilsome journey on our account?"
The old man paused, drawn up to his fullest height, imposing as a new King Lear, his deep, dark eyes glowing with inward fire.
"I will tell you," he said. "Years ago, Sir Jasper, when you were a young man, you did an honor and a service to one I dearly love; that I have never forgotten and never will forget! You have ceased to remember it years ago, no doubt; but I never have, nor ever will until my dying day."
"A service! an honor! What could it have been? I recollect nothing of it."
"I expected as much; but my memory is a good one. It is stamped on my heart forever. Great men like Sir Jasper Kingsland, grandees of the land, forget these little things. I owe you a long debt, Sir Jasper, and I will pay it to the uttermost farthing, so help me God!"
His black eyes blazed, his low voice rose, his arm uplifted fiercely for an instant in dire menace. Then, quick as lightning flashes, all was transformed. The eyes were bent upon the carpet, the arms folded, the voice sunk, soft and servile.
"Forgive me!" he murmured. "In my gratitude I forget myself. But you have my motive in coming here—the desire to repay you; to look into the future of your son; to see the evils that may threaten his youth and manhood, and to place you on your guard against them. 'Forwarned is fore-armed,' you know. Do not doubt my power. In far-off Oriental lands, under the golden stars of Syria, I learned the lore of the wise men of the East. I learned to read the stars as you Englishmen read your printed books. Believe and trust, and let me cast the horoscope of your son."
"First let me test your vaunted power. Show me my past, before you show me my son's future."
He held forth his hand with a cynical smile,
"As you will. Past and future are alike to me—save that the past is easier to read. Ah! a palm seamed and crossed and marked with troubled lines. Forty years have not gone and left no trace behind—"
"Forty years!" interrupted Sir Jasper, with sneering emphasis. "Pray do not bungle in the very beginning."
"I bungle not," answered Achmet, sternly. "Forty years ago, on the third of next month, you, Jasper Southdown Kingsland, were born beneath this very roof."
"Right!" he said. "You know my age. But go on."
"Your boyhood you passed here—quiet, eventless years—with a commonplace mother and a dull, proud father. At ten, your mother went to her grave. At twelve, the late Sir Noel followed her. At thirteen, you, a lonely orphan, were removed from this house to London in the charge of a guardian that you hated. Am I not right?"
"You are. Pray go on."
"At fourteen, you went to Rugby to school. From that time until you attained your majority your life passed in public schools and universities, harmlessly and monotonously enough. At twenty-one, you left Cambridge, and started to make the grand tour. You were tolerably clever; you were young and handsome, and heir to a noble inheritance. Your life was to be the life of a great and good man—a benefactor to the human race. Your memory was to be a magnificent memento for a whole world to honor. Your dreams were wild, vague, and impracticable, and ended in—nothing."
Sir Jasper Kingsland listened and stared like a man in a dream. Achmet the Astrologer continued to read the palm with a fixed, stony face.
"And now the lines are crossed, and the trouble begins. As usual, a woman is at the bottom of it. Sir Jasper Kingsland is in love."
There was a pause. The baronet winced a little.
"It is in Spain—glowing, gorgeous Spain—and she is one of its loveliest children. The oranges and pomegranates scent the burning air, the vineyards glow in the tropic sun, and golden summer forever reigns. But the glowing southern sun is not more brilliant than the Spanish gypsy's flashing black eyes, nor the pomegranate blossoms half so ripe and red as her cheeks. She is Zenith, the Zingara, and you love her!"
"In the fiend's name!" Sir Jasper Kingsland cried, "what jugglery is this?"
"One moment more, my Lord of Kingsland," he said, "and I have done. Let me see how your love-dream ends. Ah! the old, old story. Surely I might have known. She is beautiful as the angels above, and as innocent, and she loves you with a mad abandon that is worse than idolatry—as only women ever love. And you? You are grand and noble, a milor Inglese, and you take her love—her crazy worship—as a demi-god might, with uplifted grace, as your birthright; and she is your pretty toy of an hour. And then careless and happy, you are gone. Sunny Spain, with its olives and its vineyards, its pomegranates and its Zenith the Gitana, is left far behind, and you are roaming, happy and free, through La Belle France. And lo! Zenith the forsaken lies prone upon the ground, and goes stark mad for the day-god she has lost. There, Sir Jasper Kingsland! the record is a black one. I wish to read no more."
He flung the baronet's hand away, and once more his eyes glowed like the orbs of a demon. But Sir Jasper Kingsland, pale as a dead man, saw it not.
"Are you man or devil?" he said, in an awe-struck tone. "No living mortal knows what you have told me this night."
Achmet the Astrologer smiled—a dire, dark smile.
"Man, in league with the dark potentate you have named, if you like. Whatever I am, I have truthfully told you the past, as I will truthfully tell your son's future."
"No, by the stars. And behold!" drawing aside the curtain, "yonder they shine!"
"Take me to an upper room," the astrologer exclaimed, in an inspired tone, "and leave me. Destiny is propitious. The fate that ruled your son's birth has set forth the shining stars for Achmet to read. Lead on!"
Like a man in a dreamy swoon, Sir Jasper Kingsland obeyed. He led the astrologer up the grand sweeping staircases—up and up, to the very top of the house—to the lofty, lonely battlements. Cloudless spread the wide night sky; countless and brilliant shone the stars; peaceful and majestic slept, the purple sea; spotless white gleamed the snowy earth. A weird, witching scene.
"Leave me," said the astrologer, "and watch and wait. When the first little pink cloud of sunrise blushes in the sky, come to me. My task will have ended."
He waved him away with a regal motion. He stood there gazing at the stars, as a king looking upon his subjects. And the haughty baronet, without a word, turned and left him.
The endless hours wore on—two, three, and four—and still the baronet watched and waited, and looked for the coming of dawn. Faintly the silver light broke in the Orient, rosy flushed the first red ray. Sir Jasper mounted to the battlements, still like a man in a dazed dream.
Achmet the Astrologer turned slowly round. The pale, frosty sunrise had blanched his ever-white face with a livid hue of death. In one hand he held a folded paper, in the other a pencil. He had been writing.
"Have you done?" the baronet asked.
"I am done. Your son's fate is here."
He touched the paper.
"Is that for me?" he asked, shrinking palpably from it even while he spoke.
"This is for you." The astrologer handed him the paper as he spoke. "It is for you to read—to do with after as you see fit. I have but one word to say: not I, but a mightier power traced the words you will read—your son's irrevocable fate. Don't hope to shirk it. My task is ended, and I go. Farewell!"
"No, no," the baronet cried; "not so! Remain and breakfast here. The morning is but just breaking."
"And before yonder sun is above the horizon I will be far away. No, Sir Jasper Kingsland, I break no bread under your roof. I have done my work, and depart forever. Look to your son!"
He spoke the last words slowly, with a tigerish glare of hate leaping out of his eyes, with deadly menace in every syllable. Then he was gone down the winding stair-way like a black ghost, and so out and away.
Sir Jasper Kingsland took the folded paper and sought his room. There in the pale day-dawn he tore it open. One side was covered with cabalistic characters, Eastern symbols, curious marks and hieroglyphics. The other side was written in French, in long, clear, legible characters. There was a heading: "Horoscope of the Heir of Kingsland." Sir Jasper sat down and began to read.
Nearly an hour after, a servant, entering to replenish the faded fire, fled out of the room and startled the household with his shrieks. Two or three domestics rushed in. There lay Sir Jasper Kingsland prone on his face on the floor, stiff and stark as a dead man. A paper, unintelligible to all, was clutched tightly as a death grip in his hand. Reading that crumpled paper, the strong man had fallen there flat on the floor in a dead swoon.
THE HUT ON THE HEATH.
Far away from the lofty, battlemented ancestral home of Sir Jasper Kingsland—straight to the seashore went Achmet the Astrologer. A long strip of bleak marshland spreading down the hill-side and sloping to the sea, arid and dry in the summer-time—sloppy and sodden now—that was his destination. It was called Hunsden's Heath—a forlorn and desolate spot, dotted over with cottages of the most wretched kind. To one of these wretched hovels, standing nearest the sea and far removed from the rest, Achmet swiftly made his way.
The sun was high in the heavens; the sea lay all a-glitter beneath it. The astrologer had got over the ground at a swift, swinging stride, and he had walked five miles at least; but he paused now, with little sign of fatigue in his strange white face. Folding his arms over his breast, he surveyed the shining sky, the glittering sea, with a slow, dreamy smile.
"The sun shines and the sea sparkles on the natal day of the heir of Kingsland," he said to himself; "but for all that it is a fatal day to him. 'The sins of the father shall be visited on the children even to the third and fourth generation,' saith the Book Christians believe in. Christians!" he laughed a harsh, strident laugh. "Sir Jasper Kingsland is a Christian! The religion that produces such men must be a glorious one. He was a Christian when he perjured himself and broke her heart. 'Tis well. As a Christian he can not object to the vengeance Christianity teaches."
He turned away, approached the lonely hut, and tapped thrice—sharp staccato knocks—at the door. The third one was answered. The door swung back, and a dark damsel looked out.
"Is it thee, Pietro?"
"It is I, Zara."
He stepped in as he spoke, closed the door, took her face between his hands, and kissed both brown cheeks. The girl's dark face lighted up into the splendor of absolute beauty as she returned his caress.
"And how is it with thee, my Zara, and thy little one?"
"It is well. And thyself, Pietro?"
"Very well. And the mother?"
"Ah, the mother! Poor mother! She lies as you saw her last—as you will always see her in this lower world—dead in life! And he"—the girl Zara's eyes lighted fiercely up—"didst see him, Pietro?"
"I have seen him, spoken to him, told him the past, and terrified him for the future. There is a son, Zara—a new-born son."
"Dog and son of a dog!" Zara cried, furiously. "May curses light upon him in the hour of his birth, and upon all who bear his hated name! Say, Pietro, why didst thou not strangle the little viper as you would any other poisonous reptile?"
"My Zara, I did not even see him. He lies cradled in rose leaves, no doubt, and the singing of the west wind is not sweet enough for his lullaby. No profane eye must rest on this sacred treasure fresh from the hands of the gods! Is he not the heir of Kingsland? But Achmet the Astrologer has cast his horoscope, and Achmet, and Zara, his wife, wilt see that the starry destiny is fulfilled. Shall we not?"
"If I only had him here," Zara cried, clawing the air with her two hands, "I would throttle the baby snake, and fling him dead in his father's face. And that father! Oh, burning alive would be far too merciful for him!"
Achmet smiled, and drew her long black braids caressingly through his fingers.
"You know how to hate, and you will teach our little one. Yes, the fate I have foretold shall come to pass, and the son of Sir Jasper will live to curse the day of his birth. And now I will remove my disguise, and wash and breakfast, for I feel the calls of hunger."
The lower apartment of the hut on the heath was the very picture of abject poverty and dreary desolation. The earthen floor was broken and rough; the sunlight came sifting through the chinks in the broken walls. A smoky fire of wet driftwood smoldered, under a pot on the crook. There was neither table nor chairs. A straw pallet with a wretched coverlet lay in one corner; a few broken stools were scattered around; a few articles of clothing hung on the wall. That was all.
"The little one sleeps," the man said, casting a swift glance over at the pallet. "Our pretty baby, Zara. Ah, if Sir Jasper Kingsland loves his first-born son as we love our child, or half so well, we are almost avenged already!"
"He had need to love it better than his first-born daughter!" Zara said, fiercely. "The lion loves its whelp, the tiger its cub; but he, less human than the brutes, casts off his offspring in the hour of its birth!"
"Meaning yourself, my Zara?" the man said, with his slow, soft smile. "What would you have, degraded daughter of a degraded mother—his toy of an hour? And there is another daughter—a fair-haired, insipid nonentity of a dozen years, no more like our beautiful one here than a farthing rush-light is like the stars of heaven."
He drew down the tattered quilt, and gazed with shining eyes of love and admiration at the sleeping face of a child, a baby girl of scarce two years, the cherub face rosy with sleep, smiling in her dreams; the long, silky black lashes sweeping the flushed cheek; the abundant, feathery, jet-black curls floating loosely about—an exquisite picture of blooming, healthful, beautiful childhood.
Zara came to where the man knelt.
"My beautiful one! my rosebud!" she murmured. "Pietro, the sun shines on nothing half so lovely in this lower world!"
"And yet the black, bad blood of the Gitana flows in her veins, too. She is a Spanish gypsy, as her mother and grandmother before her. Nay, not her mother, since the blue blood of all the Kingsland's flows in her veins."
"Never!" cried Zara, her eyes ablaze. "If I thought one drop of that man's bitter blood throbbed in my heart, the first knife I met should let it forth. Look at me!" she wildly cried, "look at me, Pietro—Zara, your wife! Have I one look of him or his abhorred English race?"
"My Zara, no! You are Sir Jasper Kingsland's daughter, but there is no look of the great Sir Jasper in your gypsy face, nor in the face of our darling, either. She is all our own!"
"I would strangle her in her cradle, dearly as I love her, else!" the woman said, her passionate face aflame. "Pietro, my blood is like liquid fire when I think of him and my mother's wrongs."
"Wait, Zara—wait. The wheel will turn and our time come. And now for breakfast!"
She whipped off the pot, removed the lid, and a savory gush of steam filled the room. The man Pietro laughed.
"Our poached hare smells appetizing. Keep the choicest morsel for the mother, Zara, and tell her I will be with her presently. There! Achmet the Astrologer lies in a heap."
He had deftly taken off his flowing cloak, his long, silvery beard and hair, and flung them together in a corner, and now he stood in the center of the room, a stalwart young fellow of thirty or thereabouts, with great Spanish eyes and profuse curling hair of an inky blackness.
"Let me but wash this white enamel off my face," he said, giving himself a shake, "and Pietro is himself again. Sir Jasper would hardly recognize Achmet, I fancy, if he saw him now."
He walked to a shelf on which was placed a wash-bowl and towel, and plunged his face and head into the cold water. Five minutes' vigorous splashing and rubbing, and he emerged, his pallid face brown as a berry, his black hair in a snarl of crisp curls.
"And now to satisfy the inner man," he said, walking over to the pot, seizing a wooden spoon, and drawing up a cricket. "My tramp of last night and this morning has made me famously hungry, Zara."
"And the hare soup is good," said Zara. "While you breakfast, Pietro, I will go to mother. Come up when you finish."
A steep stair-way that was like a ladder led to the loft. Zara ascended this with agile fleetness, and the late astrologer was left alone at his very unmagician-like work of scraping the pot with a wooden spoon. Once or twice, as the fancy crossed him of the contrast between Achmet, the Astrologer reading the stars, and Pietro the tramp scraping the bones of the stolen hare, he laughed grimly to himself.
"And the world is made up of just such contrasts," he thought, "and Pietro at his homely breakfast is more to be dreaded than Achmet casting the horoscope. Ah! Sir Jasper Kingsland, it is a very fine thing to be a baronet with fifteen thousand pounds a year, a noble ancestral seat, a wife you love, and a son you adore. And yet Pietro, the vagabond tramp—the sunburned gypsy, with stolen hares to eat, and rags to wear, and a hut to lodge in—would not exchange places with you this bright March day. We have sworn vendetta to you and all of your blood, and we will keep our vow!"
His swarthy face darkened with passionate vindictiveness as he arose.
"'As a man sows so shall he reap,'" he muttered between his clinched teeth, setting his face toward Kingsland Court. "You, my Lord of Kingsland, have sown the wind. You shall learn what it is to reap the whirlwind!"
"Pietro! Pietro!" crowed a little voice, gleefully. "Papa Pietro! take Sunbeam!"
The little sleeper in the bed had sat up, her bright, dark face sparkling, two little dimpled arms outstretched.
The man turned, his vindictive face growing radiant.
"Papa Pietro's darling! his life! his angel! And how does the little Sunbeam?"
He caught her up, covering her face with kisses.
"My love! my life! my darling! When Pietro is dead, and Zara is old and feeble, and Zenith dust and ashes, you will live, my radiant angel, my black-eyed beauty, to perpetuate the malediction. When his son is a man, you will be a woman, with all a woman's subtle power and more than a woman's beauty, and you will be his curse, and his bane, and his blight, as his father has been ours! Will you not, my little Sunbeam?"
"Yes, papa—yes, papa!" lisped the little one.
"Pietro!" called his wife, "if you have done breakfast, come up. Mother is awake and would see you."
He kissed the baby girl, placed her on the pallet, and sprung lightly up the steep stair.
The loft was just a shade less wretched than the apartment below. There was a bed on the floor, more decently covered, two broken chairs, a table with some medicine bottles and cups, and a white curtain on the one poor window.
On the bed lay a woman, over whom Pietro bent reverently the moment he entered the room. It was the wreck of a woman who, in the days gone by, must have been gloriously beautiful; who was beautiful still, despite the ravages years, sickness, and poverty had wrought.
The eyes that blazed brilliant and black were the eyes of Zara—the eyes of the baby Sunbeam below—and this woman was the mother of one, the grandmother of the other.
Pietro knelt by the pallet and tenderly kissed one transparent hand. The great black eyes turned upon him wild and wide.
"Thou hast seen him, Pietro?" in a breathless sort of way. "Zara says so."
"I have seen him, my mother; I have spoken to him. I spent hours with Sir Jasper Kingsland last night."
"Thou didst?" Her words came pantingly, while passion throbbed in every line of her face. "And there is a son—an heir?"
She snatched her hand away and threw up her withered arms with a vindictive shriek.
"And I lie here, a helpless log, and he triumphs! I, Zenith, the Queen of the Tribe—I, once beautiful and powerful, happy and free! I lie here, a withered hulk, what he has made me! And a son and heir is born to him!"
As if the thought had goaded her to madness, she leaped up in bed, tossing her gaunt arms and shrieking madly:
"Take me to him—take me to him! Zara! Pietro! Take me to him, if ye are children of mine, that I may hurl my burning curse upon him and his son before I die!"
She fell back with an impotent scream, and the man Pietro caught her in his arms. Quivering and convulsed, she writhed in an epileptic fit.
"She will kill herself yet," Pietro said. "Hand me the drops, Zara."
Zara poured something out of a bottle into a cup, and Pietro held it to the sick woman's livid lips.
She choked and swallowed, and, as if by magic, lay still in his arms. Very tenderly he laid her back on the bed.
"She will sleep now, Zara," he said. "Let us go."
They descended the stairs. Down below, the man laid his hands on his wife's shoulders and looked into her face.
"Watch her, Zara," he said, "for she is mad, and the very first opportunity she will make her escape and seek out Sir Jasper Kingsland; and that is the very last thing I want. So watch your mother well."
AN UNINVITED GUEST.
Sir Jasper Kingsland stood moodily alone. He was in the library, standing by the window—that very window through which, one stormy night scarcely a month before, he had admitted Achmet the Astrologer. He stood there with a face of such dark gloom that all the brightness of the sunlit April day could not cast one enlivening gleam.
He stood there scowling darkly upon it all, so lost in his own somber thoughts that he did not hear the library door open, nor the soft rustle of a woman's dress as she halted on the threshold.
A fair and stately lady, with a proud, colorless face lighted up with pale-blue eyes, and with bands of pale flaxen hair pushed away under a dainty lace cap—a lady who looked scarce thirty, although almost ten years older, unmistakably handsome, unmistakably proud. It was Olivia, Lady Kingsland.
"Alone, Sir Jasper!" a musical voice said. "May I come in, or do you prefer solitude and your own thoughts?"
The sweet voice—soft and low, as a lady's voice should be—broke the somber spell that bound him. He wheeled round, his dark, moody face lighting up at sight of her, as all the glorious morning sunshine never could have lighted it. That one radiant look would have told you how he loved his wife.
"You, Olivia?" he cried, advancing. "Surely this is a surprise! My dearest, is it quite prudent in you to leave your room?"
He took the slender, white-robed figure in his arms, and kissed her as tenderly as a bridegroom of a week might have done. Lady Kingsland laughed a soft, tinkling little laugh.
"A month is quite long enough to be a prisoner, Jasper, even although a prisoner of state. And on my boy's christening fete—the son and heir I have desired so long—ah, surely a weaker mother than I might essay to quit her room."
The moody darkness, like a palpable frown, swept over the baronet's face again at her words.
"Is he dressed?" he asked.
"He is dressed and asleep, and Lady Helen and Mr. Carlyon, his godmother and godfather, are hovering over the crib like twin guardian angels. And Mildred sits en grande tenue on her cricket, in a speechless trance of delight, and nurse rustles about in her new silk gown and white lace cap with an air of importance and self-complacency almost indescribable. The domestic picture only wants papa and mamma to make it complete."
She laughed as she spoke, a little sarcastically; but Sir Jasper's attempt even to smile was a ghastly failure.
Lady Kingsland folded both her hands on his shoulder, and looked up in his face with anxious, searching eyes.
"What is it?" she asked.
The baronet laughed uneasily.
"What is what?"
"This gloom, this depression, this dark, mysterious moodiness. Jasper, what has changed you of late?"
"Mysterious moodiness! changed me of late! Nonsense, Olivia! I don't know what you mean."
Again he strove to laugh, and again it was a wretched failure.
Lady Kingsland's light-blue eyes never left his face.
"I think you do, Jasper. Since the night of our boy's birth you have been another man. What is it?"
A spasm crossed the baronet's face; his lips twitched convulsively; his face slowly changed to a gray, ashen pallor.
"What is it?" the lady slowly reiterated. "Surely my husband, after all these years, has no secrets from me?"
The tender reproach of her tone, of her eyes, stung the husband, who loved her, to the quick.
"For God's sake, Olivia, don't ask me!" he cried passionately. "It would be sheerest nonsense in your eyes, I know. You would but laugh at what half drives me mad!"
"Don't look at me with that reproachful face, Olivia! It is true. You would look upon it as sheerest folly, I tell you, and laugh at me for a credulous fool."
"No," said Lady Kingsland, quietly, and a little coldly. "You know me better. I could never laugh at what gives my husband pain."
"Pain! I have lived in torment ever since, and yet—who knows?—it may be absurdest jugglery. But he told me the past so truly—my very thoughts! And no one could know what happened in Spain so many years ago! Oh, I must believe it—I can not help it—and that belief will drive me mad!"
Lady Kingsland stood looking and listening, in pale wonder.
"I don't understand a word of this," she said, slowly. "Will you tell me, Sir Jasper, or am I to understand you have secrets your wife may not share?"
"My own dear wife," he said—"my best beloved—Heaven knows, if I have one secret from you, I keep it that I may save you sorrow. Not one cloud should ever darken the sunshine of your sky, if I had my way. You are right—I have a secret—a secret of horror, and dread, and dismay—a terrible secret that sears my brain and burns my heart! Olivia, my darling, its very horror prevents my telling it to you!"
"Does it concern our boy?" she asked, quickly.
"Yes!" with a groan. "Now you can understand its full terror. It menaces the son I love more than life. I thought to keep it from you; I tried to appear unchanged; but it seems I have failed miserably."
"And you will not tell me what this secret is?"
"I dare not! I would not have you suffer as I suffer."
"A moment ago you said I would laugh at it and you. Your terms are inconsistent, Sir Jasper."
"Spare me, Olivia!—I scarce know what I say—and do not be angry."
She drew her hands coldly and haughtily away from his grasp. She was a thoroughly proud woman, and his secrecy stung her.
"I am not angry, Sir Jasper. Keep your secret, if you will. I was foolish enough to fancy I had right to know of any danger that menaces my baby, but it appears I was mistaken. In half an hour the carriages will start for the church. You will find us all in the nursery."
She was sweeping proudly away in silent anger, but the baronet strode after her and caught her arm.
"You will know this!" he said, huskily. "Olivia, Olivia! you are cruel to yourself and to me, but you shall hear—part, at least. I warn you, however, you will be no happier for knowing."
"Go on," she said, steadily.
He turned from her, walked to the window, and kept his back to her while he spoke.
"You have no faith in fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, astrologers, and the like, have you, Olivia?"
"Most certainly not!"
"Then what I have to say will scarcely trouble you as it troubles me—for I believe; and the prediction of an astrologer has ruined my peace for the past month."
"Is that all? The mountain in labor has brought forth a mouse. My dear Sir Jasper, how can you be so simply credulous?"
"I knew you would laugh," said Sir Jasper, moodily; "I said so. But laugh if you can. I believe!"
"Was the prediction very terrible, then?" asked his wife, with a smile. "Pray tell me all about it."
"It was terrible," her husband replied, sternly. "The living horror it has cast over me might have told you that. Listen, Olivia! On that night of our baby boy's birth, after I left you and came here, I stood by this window and saw a spectral face gleaming through the glass. It was the face of a man—a belated wayfarer—who adjured me, in the Savior's name, to let him in."
"Well, you let him in, I suppose?"
"I let him in—a strange-looking object, Olivia, like no creature I ever saw before, with flowing beard and hair silver-white—"
"False, no doubt."
"He wore a long, disguising cloak and a skull-cap," went on Sir Jasper, "and his face was blanched to a dull dead white. He would have looked like a resuscitated corpse, only for a pair of burning black eyes."
"Quite a startling apparition! Melodramatic in the extreme! And this singular being—what was he? Clairvoyant, astrologer, what?"
"Astrologer—an Eastern astrologer—Achmet by name."
"And who, probably, never was further than London in his life-time. A well-got-up charlatan, no doubt."
"Charlatan he may have been; Englishman he was not. His face, his speech, convinced me of that. And, Olivia, charlatan or no, he told me my past life as truly as I knew it myself."
Lady Kingsland listened with a quiet smile.
"No doubt he has been talking to the good people of the village and to the servants in the house."
"Neither the people of the village nor the servants of the house know aught of what he told me. He showed me what transpired twenty years ago.
"Twenty years ago?"
"Yes, when I was fresh from Cambridge, and making my first tour. Events that occurred in Spain—that no one under heaven save myself can know of—he told me."
"That was strange!"
"Olivia, it was astounding—incomprehensible! I should never have credited one word he said but for that. He told me the past as I know it myself. Events that transpired in a far foreign land a score of years ago, known, as I thought, to no creature under heaven, he told me of as if they had transpired yesterday. The very thoughts that I thought in that by-gone time he revealed as if my heart lay open before him. How, then, could I doubt? If he could lift the veil of the irrevocable past, why not be able to lift the veil of the mysterious future? He took the hour of our child's birth and ascended to the battlements, and there, alone with the stars of heaven, he cast his horoscope. Olivia, men in all ages have believed in this power of astrology, and I believe as firmly as I believe in Heaven."
Lady Kingsland listened, and that quiet smile of half amusement, half contempt never left her lips.
"And the horoscope proved a horrorscope, no doubt," she said, the smile deepening. "You paid your astrologer handsomely, I presume, Sir Jasper?"
"I gave him nothing. He would take nothing—not even a cup of water. Of his own free will he cast the horoscope, and, without reward of any kind, went his way when he had done."
"What did you say the name was?"
"Achmet the Astrologer."
"Melodramatic again! And now, Sir Jasper, what awful fate betides our boy?"
"Ask me not! You do not believe. What the astrologer foretold I shall tell no one."
"The carriage waits, my lady," a servant said, entering. "Lady Helen bade me remind you, my lady, it is time to start for church."
Lady Kingsland hastily glanced at her watch.
"Why, so it is! I had nearly forgotten. Come, Sir Jasper, and forget your fears on this happy day."
She led him from the room. Baby, in its christening-robes, slept in nurse's arms, and Lady Helen and Mr. Carlyon stood impatiently waiting.
"We will certainly be late!" Lady Helen, who was god-mamma, said, fussily. "Had we not better depart at once, Sir Jasper?"
"I am quite at your ladyship's service. We will not delay an instant longer. Proceed, nurse."
Nurse, with her precious burden, went before. Sir Jasper drew Lady Helen's arm within his own, and Mr. Carlyon followed with little Mildred Kingsland.
Lady Kingsland watched the carriage out of sight, and then went slowly and thoughtfully back to her room.
"How extremely foolish and weak of Sir Jasper," she was thinking, "to pay the slightest attention to the canting nonsense of these fortune-telling impostors! If I had been in his place I would have had him horsewhipped from my gates for his pains. I must find out what this terrible prediction was and laugh it out of my husband's mind."
Meantime the carriage rolled down the long avenue, under the majestic copper-beeches, through the lofty gates, and along the bright sunlit road leading to the village.
In stole and surplice, within the village church, the Reverend Cyrus Green, Rector of Stonehaven, stood by the baptismal font, waiting to baptize the heir of all the Kingslands.
Stately, Sir Jasper Kingsland strode up the aisle, with Lady Helen upon his arm. No trace of the trouble within showed in his pale face as he heard his son baptized Everard Jasper Carew Kingsland.
The ceremony was over. Nurse took the infant baronet again; Lady Helen adjusted her mantle, and the Reverend Cyrus Green was blandly offering his congratulations to the greatest man in the parish, when a sudden commotion at the door startled all. Some one striving to enter, and some other one refusing admission.
"Let me in, I tell you!" cried a shrill, piercing voice—the voice of an angry woman. "Stand aside, woman! I will see Sir Jasper Kingsland."
With the last ringing words the intruder burst past the pew-opener, and rushed wildly into the church. A weird and unearthly figure—like one of Macbeth's witches—with streaming black hair floating over a long, red cloak, and two black eyes of flame. All recoiled as the spectral figure rushed up like a mad thing and confronted Sir Jasper Kingsland.
"At last!" she shrilly cried, in a voice that pierced even to the gaping listeners without—"at last, Sir Jasper Kingsland! At last we meet again!"
There was a horrible cry as the baronet started back, putting up both hands, with a look of unutterable horror.
"Good God! Zenith!"
"Yes, Zenith!" shrieked the woman; "Zenith, the beautiful, once! Zenith, the hag, the crone, the madwoman, now! Look at me well, Sir Jasper Kingsland—for the ruin is your own handiwork!"
He stood like a man paralyzed—speechless, stunned—his face the livid hue of death.
The wretched woman stood before him with streaming hair, blazing eyes, and uplifted arm, a very incarnate fury.
"Look at me well!" she fiercely shrieked, tossing her locks of old off her fiery face. "Am I like the Zenith of twenty years ago—young and beautiful, and bright enough even for the fastidious Englishman to love? Look at me now—ugly and old, wrinkled and wretched, deserted and despised—and tell me if I have not greater reason to hate you than ever woman had to hate man?"
She tossed her arms aloft with a madwoman's shriek—crying out her words in a long, wild scream.
"I hate you—I hate you! Villain! dastard! perjured wretch! I hate you, and I curse you, here in the church you call holy! I curse you with a ruined woman's curse, and hot and scathing may it burn on your head and on the heads of your children's children!"
The last horrible words aroused the listeners from their petrified trance. The Reverend Cyrus Green lifted up his voice in a tone of command:
"This woman is mad! She is a furious lunatic! Dawson! Humphreys! come here and secure her!"
"The child! the child!" she cried, with a screech of demoniac delight; "the spawn of the viper is within my grasp!"
One plunge forward and the infant heir was in her arms, held high aloft. One second later, and its blood and brains would have bespattered the stone floor, but Mr. Carlyon sprung forward and wrenched it from her grasp.
The two men summoned by the clergyman closed upon her and held her fast; her frantic shrieks rang to the roof. Then suddenly, all ceased, and, foaming and livid, she fell between them in a fit.
A dead pause of blank consternation; the faces around a sight to see; horror and wonder in every countenance—most of all in the countenance of Sir Jasper Kingsland.
The clergyman was the first to speak.
"The woman is stark mad," he said. "We must see about this. Such violent lunatics must not be allowed to go at large. Here, Humphreys, do you and Dawson lift her up and carry her to my house. It is the nearest, and she can be properly attended to there."
"You know her, Sir Jasper, do you not?" asked Lady Helen, with quick womanly intuition.
"Know her?" Sir Jasper replied, "know Zenith? Great Heaven! I thought she was dead."
The Reverend Cyrus Green and Lady Helen exchanged glances. Mr. Carlyon looked in sharp surprise at the speaker.
"Then she is not mad, after all! I thought she mistook you for some one else. If you know her, you have the best right to deal with her. Shall these men take her to Kingsland Court?"
"Not for ten thousand worlds!" Sir Jasper cried, impetuously. "The woman is nothing—less than nothing—to me. I knew her once, years ago. I thought her dead and buried; hence the shock her sudden entrance gave me. A lunatic asylum is the proper place for such as she. Let Mr. Green send her there, and the sooner the better."
The Reverend Cyrus Green looked with grave, suspicious eyes for a moment at the leaden face of the speaker.
"There is wrong and mystery about this," he thought—"a dark mystery of guilt. This woman is mad, but her wrongs have driven her mad, and you, Sir Jasper Kingsland, are her wronger."
"It shall be as you say, Sir Jasper," he said, aloud; "that is, if I find this poor creature has no friends. Are you aware whether she has any?"
"I tell you I know nothing of her!" the baronet cried, with fierce impatience. "What should I know of such a wretch as that?"
"More than you dare tell, Sir Jasper Kingsland!" cried a high, ringing voice, as a young woman rushed impetuously into the church and up the aisle. "Coward and liar! False, perjured wretch! You are too white-livered a hound even to tell the truth! What should you know of such a wretch as that, forsooth! Double-dyed traitor and dastard! Look me in the face and tell me you don't know her!"
Every one shrunk in terror and dismay; Sir Jasper stood as a man might stand suddenly struck by lightning. And if looks were lightning, the blazing eyes of the young woman might have blasted him where he stood. A tall and handsome young woman, with black eyes of fire, streaming, raven hair, and a brown gypsy face.
"Who are you, in mercy's name?" cried the Reverend Cyrus Green.
"I am the daughter of this wretch, as your baronet yonder is pleased to call my mad mother. Yes, Mr. Green, she is my mother. If you want to know who my father is, you had better ask Sir Jasper Kingsland!"
"It is false!" the baronet cried, "I know nothing of you or your father. I never set eyes on you before."
"Wait, wait, wait!" the Reverend Cyrus Green cried, imploringly. "For Heaven's sake, young woman, don't make a scene before all these listeners. We will have your mother conveyed into the vestry until she recovers; and if she ever recovers, no time is to be lost in attending to her. Sir Jasper, I think the child had better be sent home immediately. My lady will wonder at the delay."
A faint wail from the infant lying in the nurse's arms seconded the suggestion. That feeble cry and the mention of his wife acted as a magic spell upon the baronet.
"Your mad intruders have startled us into forgetting everything else. Proceed, nurse. Lady Helen, take my arm. Mr. Carlyon, see to Mildred. The child looks frightened to death, and little wonder!"
"Little, indeed!" sighed Lady Helen. "I shall not recover from the shock for a month. It was like a scene in a melodrama—like a chapter of a sensation novel. And you know that dreadful creature, Sir Jasper?"
"I used to know her," the baronet said, with emphasis, "so many years ago that I had almost forgotten she ever existed. She was always more or less mad, I fancy, and it seems hereditary. Her daughter—if daughter she be—seems as distraught as her mother."
"And her name, Sir Jasper? You called her by some name, I think."
"Zenith, I suppose. To tell the truth, Lady Helen, the woman is neither more nor less than a gypsy fortune-teller crazed by a villainous life and villainous liquor. But, for the sake of the days gone by, when she was young and pretty and told my fortune, I think I will go back and see what Mr. Green intends doing with her. Such crazy vagrants should not be allowed to go at large."
The light tone was a ghastly failure, and the smile but a death's-head grin. He placed Lady Helen in the carriage—Mr. Carlyon assisted the nurse and little Mildred. Then Sir Jasper gave the order, "Home," and the stately carriage of the Kingslands, with its emblazoned crest, whirled away in a cloud of dust. For an instant he stood looking after it.
"Curses on it!" he muttered between set teeth. "After all these years, are those dead doings to be flung in my face? I thought her dead and gone; and lo! in the hour of my triumph she rises as if from the grave to confound me. Her daughter, too! I never knew she had a child! Good heavens! how these wild oats we sow in youth flourish and multiply with their bitter, bad fruit!"
He turned and strode into the vestry. On the floor the miserable woman lay, her eyes closed, her jaw fallen. By her side, supporting her head, the younger woman knelt, holding a glass of water to her lips. The Reverend Cyrus Green stood gravely looking on.
"Is she dead?" Sir Jasper asked, in a hard voice.
It was to the clergyman he spoke, but the girl looked fiercely up, her tones like a serpent's hiss.
"Not dead, Sir Jasper Kingsland! No thanks to you for it! Murderer—as much a murderer as if you had cut her throat—look on her, and be proud of the ruin you have wrought!"
"Silence, woman!" Mr. Green ordered, imperiously. "We will have none of your mad recriminations here. She is not dead, Sir Jasper, but she is dying, I think. This young woman wishes to remove her—whither, I know not—but it is simply impossible. That unfortunate creature will not be alive when to-morrow dawns."
"What do you propose doing with her?" the baronet asked, steadily.
"We will convey her to the sexton's house—it is very near. I have sent Dawson for a stretcher; he and Humphreys will carry her. This young woman declines to give her name, or tell who she is, or where she lives."
"Where I live is no affair of yours, if I can not take my mother there," the young woman answered, sullenly. "Who I am, you know. I told you I am this woman's daughter."
"And a gypsy, I take it?" said Mr. Green.
"You guess well, sir, but only half the truth. Half gypsy I am, and half gentlewoman. A mongrel, I suppose, that makes; and yet it is well to have good blood in one's veins, even on the father's side."
There was a sneering emphasis in her words, and the snaky black eyes gleamed like daggers on the baronet.
But that proud face was set and rigid as stone now. He returned her look with a haughty stare.
"It is a pity the whipping-post has been abolished," he said, harshly. "Your impertinence makes you a fit subject for it, mistress! Take care we don't commit you to prison as a public vagrant, and teach that tongue of yours a little civility when addressing your betters."
"My betters!" the girl hissed, in a fierce, sibilant whisper. "Why, yes, I suppose a daughter should look upon a father in that light. As to the whipping-post and prison, try it at your peril! Try it, if you dare, Sir Jasper."
Before he could speak the door opened, and Dawson entered with the stretcher.
"Lay her upon it and remove her at once," the rector said. "Here, Humphreys, this side. Gently, my men—gently. Be very careful on the way."
The two men placed the seemingly lifeless form of Zenith on the stretcher and bore her carefully away.
The daughter Zara followed.
"She will not live until to-morrow morning," the rector said; "and it is better so, poor soul! She is evidently hopelessly insane."
"And the daughter appears but little better. By the way, Mr. Green, Lady Kingsland desires me to fetch you back to dinner."
The rector bowed.
"Her ladyship is very good. Has your carriage gone? I will order out the pony-phaeton, if you like."
Ten minutes later the two gentlemen were bowling along the pleasant country road leading to the Court. It was a very silent drive, for the baronet sat moodily staring at vacancy, his mouth set in hard, wordless pain.
"They will tell Olivia," he was thinking, gloomily. "What will she say to all this?"
But his fears seemed groundless. Lady Kingsland treated the matter with cool indifference. To be sure, she had not heard quite all. A madwoman had burst into the church, had terrified Lady Helen pretty nearly to death with her crazy language, and had tried to tear away the baby. That was the discreet story my lady heard, and which she was disposed to treat with calm surprise. Baby was safe, and it had ended in nothing; the madwoman was being properly cared for. Lady Kingsland quietly dismissed the incident altogether before the end of dinner.
The hours of the evening wore on—very long hours to the lord of Kingsland Court, seated at the head of his table, dispensing his hospitalities and trying to listen to the long stories of Mr. Carlyon and the rector.
It was worse in the drawing-room, with the lights and the music, and his stately wife at the piano, and Lady Helen at his side, prattling with little Mildred over a pile of engravings. All the time, in a half-distracted sort of way, his thoughts were wandering to the sexton's cottage and the woman dying therein—the woman he had thought dead years ago—dying there in desolation and misery—and here the hours seemed strung on roses.
It was all over at last. The guests were gone, the baby baronet slept in his crib, and Lady Kingsland had gone to her chamber. But Sir Jasper lingered still—wandering up and down the long drawing-room like a restless ghost.
A clock on the mantel chimed twelve. Ere its last chime had sounded a sleepy valet stood in the doorway.
"A messenger for you, Sir Jasper—sent by the Reverend Mr. Green. Here—come in."
Thus invoked, Mr. Dawson entered, pulling his forelock.
"Parson, he sent me, zur. She be a-doying, she be."
He knew instantly who the man meant.
"And she wishes to see me?"
"She calls for you all the time, zur. She be a-doying uncommon hard. Parson bid me come and tell 'ee."
"Very well, my man," the baronet said. "That will do. I will go at once. Thomas, order my horse, and fetch my riding-cloak and gloves."
The valet stared in astonishment, but went to obey. It was something altogether without precedent, this queer proceeding on the part of his master, and, taken in connection with that other odd event in church, looked remarkably suspicious.
The night was dark and starless, and the wind blew raw and bleak as the baronet dashed down the avenue and out into the high-road. He almost wondered at himself for complying with the dying woman's desire, but some inward impulse beyond his control seemed driving him on.
He rode rapidly, and a quarter of an hour brought him to the sexton's cottage. A feeble light glimmered from the window out into the blackness of the night. A moment later and he stood within, in the presence of the dying.
The Reverend Cyrus Green sat by the table, a Bible in his hand. Kneeling by the bedside, her face ghastly white, her burning black eyes dry and tearless, was the young woman. And like a dead woman already, stretched on the bed, lay Zenith.
But she was not dead. At the sound of the opening door, at the sound of his entrance, she opened her eyes, dulling fast in death, and fixed them on Sir Jasper.
"I knew you would come," she said, in a husky whisper. "You dare not stay away! The spirit of the dying Zenith drove you here in spite of yourself. Come nearer—nearer! Sir Jasper Kingsland, don't hover aloof. Once you could never be near enough. Ah, I was young and fair then! I'm old and ugly now. Come nearer, for I can not speak aloud, and listen. Do you know why I have sent for you?"
He had approached the bedside. She caught his hand and held it in a vise-like clutch.
"No," he said, recoiling.
"To give you my dying malediction—to curse you with my latest breath! I hate you, Sir Jasper Kingsland, falsest of all mankind! and if the dead can return and torment the living, then do you beware of me!"
She spoke in panting gasps, the death-rattle sounding in her skinny throat. Shocked and scandalized, the rector interposed:
"My good woman, don't—for pity's sake, don't say such horrible things!"
But she never heeded him.
"I hate you!" she said, with a last effort. "I die hating you, and I curse you with a dying woman's curse! May your life be a life of torment and misery and remorse! May your son's life be blighted and ruined! May he become an outcast among men! May sin and shame follow him forever, and all of his abhorred race!"
Her voice died away. She glared helplessly up from the pillow. A deep, stern, terrible "Amen!" came from her daughter's lips; then, with a spasm, she half leaped from the bed, and fell back with a gurgling cry—dead!
"She is gone!" said the rector, with a shudder. "Heaven have mercy on her sinful soul!"
The baronet staggered back from the bed.
"I never saw a more horrible sight!" continued the Reverend Cyrus. "I never heard such horrible words! No wonder it has unmanned you, Sir Jasper. Pray sit down and drink this."
He held out a glass of water. Sir Jasper seized and drank it, his brain reeling.
With stoical calm, Zara had arisen and closed the dead woman's eyes, folded the hands, straightened the stiffening limbs, and composed the humble covering. She had no tears, she uttered no cry—her face was stern as stone.
"Better stay in this ghastly place no longer, Sir Jasper," the rector suggested. "You look completely overcome. I will see that everything is properly done. We will bury her to-morrow."
As a man walks in a dreadful dream, Sir Jasper arose, quitted the room, mounted his horse, and rode away.
One dark, menacing glance Zara shot after him; then she sat stonily down by her dead. All that night, all next day, Zara kept her post, neither eating, nor drinking, nor sleeping. Dry and tearless, the burning black eyes fixed themselves on the dead face, and never left it.
When they put the dead woman in the rude board coffin, she offered no resistance. Calmly she watched them screw the lid down—calmly she saw them raise it on their shoulders and bear it away. Without a word or tear she arose, folded her cloak about her, and followed them to the church-yard.
One by one the stragglers departed, and Zara was left alone by the new-made grave. No, not quite alone, for through the bleak twilight fluttered the tall, dark figure of a man toward her. She lifted her gloomy eyes and recognized him.
"You come, Sir Jasper," she said, slowly, "to see the last of your work. You come to gloat over your dead victim, and exult that she is out of your way. But I tell you to beware! Zenith in her grave will be a thousand times more terrible to you than Zenith ever was alive!"
The baronet looked at her with a darkly troubled face.
"Why do you hate me so?" he said. "Whatever wrong I did her, I never wronged you."
"You have done me deadly wrong! My mother's wrongs are mine, and here, by her grave, I vow vengeance on you and yours! Her dying legacy to me was her hatred of you, and I will pay the old debt with double interest, my noble, haughty, titled father!"
She turned with the last words and sped away like an evil spirit, vanishing in the gloom among the graves.
TWO DYING BEQUESTS.
This midsummer night was sultry and still. The darkness was like the darkness of Egypt, lighted every now and then by a vivid Hash of lightning, from what quarter of the heavens no man knew. The inky sky was invisible—no breath of air stirred the terrible calm. The midsummer night was full of dark and deadly menace.
Hours ago a fierce and wrathful sunset had burned itself out on a brassy sky. The sun, a lurid ball of fire, had sunk in billows of blood-red cloud, and pitch blackness had fallen upon earth and sky and sea. Everything above and below breathed of speedy tempest, but the midnight was drawing near, and the storm had not yet burst.
And on this black June night Sir Jasper Kingsland lay on his stately bed, dying.
The lofty chamber was but dimly lighted. It was a grand, vast room, paneled in black oak, hung with somber draperies, and carpeted in rich dark Brussels.
Three wax candles made white spots of light in the solemn gloom; a wood-fire burned or rather smoldered, in the wide hearth, for the vast rooms were chilly even in midsummer; but neither fire-light nor candle-light could illumine the ghostly depths of the chamber. Shadows crouched like evil things in the dusky corners, and round the bed, only darker shadows among the rest, knelt the dying man's family—wife and daughter and son. And hovering aloof, with pale, anxious faces, stood the rector, the Reverend Cyrus Green, and Doctor Parker Godroy.
The last hope was over, the last prayer had been said, the last faint breaths uttered between the dying lips. With the tide going out on the shore below, the baronet's life was ebbing.
Lady Kingsland, kneeling in tearless grief by her husband's side, bent over him to catch the faint whisper.
"My dearest, I am here. What is it?"
"Where is Everard?"
Everard Kingsland, a fair-haired, blue-eyed, handsome boy, lifted his head from the opposite side. It was a handsome, high-bred face—the ancestral face of all the Kingslands—that of this twelve-year-old boy.
"My boy! my boy! whom I have loved so well—whom I have shielded so tenderly. My precious, only son, I must leave you at last!"
The boy stifled a sob as he bent and kissed the ice-cold face. Young as he was, he had the gravity and self-repression of manhood already.
"I have loved you better than my own life," the faint, whispering voice went on. "I would have died to save you an hour of pain. I have kept the one secret of my life well—a secret that has blighted it before its time—but I can not face the dread unknown and bear my secret with me. On my death-bed I must tell all, and my darling boy must bear the blow."
Everard Kingsland listened to his father's huskily murmured words in boyish wonderment. What secret was he talking of? He glanced across at his mother, and saw her pale cheeks suddenly flushed and her calm eyes kindling.
"No living soul has ever heard from me what I must tell you to-night, my Everard—not even your mother. Do not leave me, Olivia. You, too, must know all that you may guard your son—that you may pity and forgive me. Perhaps I have erred in keeping any secret from you, but the truth was too horrible to tell. There have been times when the thought of it nearly drove me mad. How, then, could I tell the wife I loved—the son I idolized—this cruel and shameful thing?"
The youthful Everard looked simply bewildered—Lady Kingsland excited, expectant, flushed.
She gently wiped the clammy brow and held a reviving cordial to the livid lips.
"My dearest, do not agitate yourself," she said. "We will listen to all you have to say, and love you none the less, let it be what it will."
"My own dear wife! half the secret you know already. You remember the astrologer—the prediction?"
"Surely. You have never been the same man since that fatal night. It is of the prediction you would speak?"
"It is. I must tell my son. I must warn him of the unutterable horror to come. Oh, my boy! my boy! what will become of you when you learn your horrible doom?"
"Papa," the lad said, softly, but growing very white, "I don't understand—what horror? what doom? Tell me, and see how I will bear it. I am a Kingsland, you know, and the son of a daring race."
"That is my brave boy! Send them out of the room, Olivia—priest, doctor, Mildred, and all—then come close to me, close, close, for my voice is failing—and listen."
Lady Kingsland arose—fair and stately still as twelve years before, and eminently self-sustained in this trying hour. In half a minute she had turned out rector, physician, and daughter, and knelt again by that bed of death.
"The first part of my story, Olivia," began the dying man, "belongs to you. Years before I knew you, when I was a young, hot-headed, rashly impulsive boy, traveling in Spain, I fell in with a gang of wandering gypsies. I had been robbed and wounded by mountain brigands; those gypsies found me, took me to their tents, cared for me, cured me. But long after I was well I lingered with them, for the fairest thing the sun shone on was my black-eyed nurse, Zenith. We were both so young and so fiery-blooded, so—Ah! what need to go over the old, old grounds? There was one hour of mad, brief bliss, parting and forgetfulness. I forgot. Life was a long, idle summer holiday to me. But she never forgot—never forgave! You remember the woman, Olivia, who burst into the church on the day of our boy's christening—the woman who died in the sexton's house? That woman was Zenith—old and withered, and maddened by her wrongs—that woman who died cursing me and mine. A girl, dark and fierce, and terrible as herself, stood by her to the last, lingered at her grave to vow deathless revenge—her daughter and mine!"
The faint voice ceased an instant. The fluttering spirit rallied, and resumed:
"I have reason to know that daughter was married. I have reason to know she had a child—whether boy or girl I can not tell. To that child the inheritance of hatred and revenge will fall; that child, some inward prescience tells me, will wreak deep and awful vengeance for the past. Beware of the grandchild of Zenith, the gypsy—beware, Olivia, for yourself and your son!"
"Is this all?" Olivia said, in a constrained, hard voice.
"All I have to say to you—the rest is for Everard. My son, on the night of your birth an Eastern astrologer came to this house and cast your horoscope. He gave that horoscope to me at day-dawn and departed, and from that hour to this I have neither seen nor heard of him. Before reading your future in the stars he looked into my palm and told me the past—told me the story of Zenith and her wrongs—told me what no one under heaven but myself knew. My boy, the revelation of that night has blighted my life—broken my heart! The unutterable horror of your future has brought my gray hairs to the grave. Oh, my son! what will become of you when I am gone?"
"What was it, papa?" the lad asked. "What has the future in store for me?"
A convulsive spasm distorted the livid face; the eye-balls rolled, the death-rattle sounded. With a smothered cry of terror Lady Kingsland lifted the agonized head in her arms.
"Quick, Jasper—the horoscope! Where?"
"My safe—study—secret spring—at back! Oh, God, have mercy—"
The clock struck sharply—twelve. A vivid blaze of lambent lightning lighted the room; the awful death-rattle sounded once more.
"Beware of Zenith's grandchild!"
He spoke the words aloud, clear and distinct, and never spoke again.
* * * * * *
Many miles away from Kingsland Court, that same sultry, oppressive midsummer night a little third-rate theater on the Surrey side of London was crowded to overflowing. There was a grand spectacular drama, full of transformation scenes, fairies, demons, spirits of air, fire, and water; a brazen orchestra blowing forth, and steam, and orange-peel, and suffocation generally.
Foremost among all the fairies and nymphs, noted for the shortness of her filmy skirts, the supple beauty of her shapely limbs, her incomparable dancing, and her dark, bright beauty, flashed La Sylphine before the foot-lights.
The best danseuse in the kingdom, and the prettiest, and invested with a magic halo of romance, La Sylphine shone like a meteor among lesser stars, and brought down thunders of applause every time she appeared.
The little feet twinkled and flashed; the long, dark waves of hair floated in a shining banner behind her to the tiny waist; the pale, upraised face—the eyes ablaze like black stars! Oh, surely La Sylphine was the loveliest thing, that hot June night, the gas-light shone on!
The fairy spectacle was over—the green drop-curtain fell. La Sylphine had smiled and dipped and kissed hands to thundering bravos for the last time that night, and now, behind the scenes, was rapidly exchanging the spangles and gossamer of fairydom for the shabby and faded merino shawl and dingy straw hat of every-day life.
"You danced better than ever to-night, Miss Monti," a tall demon in tail and horns said, sauntering up to her. "Them there pretty feet of your'n will make your fortune yet, and beat Fanny Ellsler!"
"Not to mention her pretty face," said a brother fiend, removing his mask. "Her fortune's made already, if she's a mind to take it. There's a gay young city swell a-waiting at the wings to see you home, Miss Monti."
"Is it Maynard, the banker's son?" she asked.
The second demon nodded.
"Then I must escape by the side entrance. When he gets tired waiting, Mr. Smithers, give him La Sylphine's compliments, and let him go."
She glided past the demons down a dark and winding staircase, and out into the noisy, lighted street.
The girl paused an instant under a street-lamp—she was only a girl—fifteen or sixteen at most, though very tall, with a bright, fearless look—then drawing her shawl closely round her, she flitted rapidly away.
The innumerable city clocks tolled heavily—eleven. The night was pitch-dark; the sheet-lightning blazed across the blackness, and now and then a big drop fell. Still the girl sped on until she reached her destination.
It was the poorest and vilest quarter of the great city—among reeking smells, and horrible sounds, and disgusting sights. The house she entered was tottering to decay—a dreadful den by day and by night, thronged with the very scum of the London streets. Up and up a long stair-way she flew, paused at a door on the third landing, opened it, and went in.
It was a miserable room—all one could have expected from the street and the house. There was a black grate, one or two broken chairs, a battered table, and a wretched bed in the corner. On the bed a woman—the ghastly skeleton of a woman—lay dying.
The entrance of La Sylphine aroused the woman from the stupor into which she had fallen. She opened her spectral eyes and looked eagerly around.
"My Sunbeam! is it thou?"
"It is I, mother—at last. I could come no sooner. The ballet was very long to-night."
"And my Sunbeam was bravoed, and encored, and crowned with flowers, was she not?"
"Yes, mother; but never mind that. How are you tonight?"
"Dying, my own."
The danseuse fell on her knees with a shrill, sharp cry.
"No, mother—no, no! Not dying! Very ill, very weak, very low, but not dying. Oh, not dying!"
"Dying, my daughter!" the sick woman said. "I count my life by minutes now; I heard the city clocks strike eleven; I counted the strokes, for, my Sunbeam, it is the last hour thy mother will ever hear on earth."
The ballet-dancer covered her face, with a low, despairing cry. The dying mother, with a painful effort, lifted her own skeleton hand and removed those of the girl.
"Weep not, but listen, carissima. I have much to say to thee before I go; I feared to die before you came; and even in my grave I could not rest with the words I must say unsaid. I have a legacy to leave thee, my daughter."
The girl opened her great black eyes in wide surprise.
"Even so. Not of lands, or houses, or gold, or honors, but something a thousand-fold greater—an inheritance of hatred and revenge!"
"Listen to me, my daughter, and my dying malediction be upon thee if thou fulfillest not the trust. Thou hast heard the name of Kingsland?"
"Ay, often; from my father ere he died—from thee, since. Was it not his last command to me—this hatred of their evil race? Did I not promise him on his death-bed, four years ago? Does my mother think I forget?"
"That is my brave daughter. You know the cruel story of treachery and wrong done thy grandmother, Zenith—you know the prediction your father made to my father, Sir Jasper Kingsland, on the night of his son's birth. Be it thine, my brave daughter, to see that prediction fulfilled."
"You ask a terrible thing, my mother," she said, slowly; but I can refuse you nothing, and I abhor them all. I promise—the prediction shall be fulfilled!"
"My own! my own! That son is a boy of twelve now—be it yours to find him, and work the retribution of the gods. Your grandmother, your father, your mother, look to you from their graves for vengeance. Woe to you if you fail!"
"I shall not fail!" the girl said, solemnly. "I can die, but I can not break a promise. Vengeance shall fall, fierce and terrible, upon the heir of Kingsland, and mine shall be the hand to inflict it. I swear it by your death-bed, mother, and I will keep my oath!"
The mother pressed her hand. The film of death was in her eyes. She strove to speak; there was a quick, dreadful convulsion, then an awful calm.
Within the same hour, with miles between them, Sir Jasper Kingsland and Zara, his outcast daughter, died.
* * * * * *
The dawn of another day crept silently over the Devon hill-tops as Lady Kingsland arose from her husband's deathbed.
White, and stark, and rigid, the late lord of Kingsland Court lay in the awful majesty of death.
The doctor, the rector, the nurse, sat, pale and somber watchers, in the death-room. More than an hour before the youthful baronet had been sent to his room, worn out with his night's watching.
It was the Reverend Cyrus Green who urged my lady now to follow him.
"You look utterly exhausted, my dear Lady Kingsland," he said. "Pray retire and endeavor to sleep. You are not able to endure such fatigue."
"I am worn out," she said. "I believe I will lie down, but I feel as though I should never sleep again."
She quitted the room, but not to seek her own. Outside the death-chamber she paused an instant, and her face lighted suddenly.
"Now is my time," she said, under her breath. "A few hours more and it may be too late. His safe, he said—the secret spring!"
She flitted away, pallid and guilty looking, into Sir Jasper's study. It was deserted, of course, and there in the corner stood the grim iron safe.
"Now for the secrets of the dead! No fortune-telling jugglery shall blight my darling boy's life while I can help it. He is as superstitious as his father."
With considerable difficulty she opened the safe, pulled forth drawer after drawer, until the grim iron back was exposed.
"The secret spring is here," she muttered. "Surely, surely, I can find it."
For many minutes she searched in vain; then her glance fell on a tiny steel knob inserted in a corner. She pressed this with all her might, confident of success.
Nor was she deceived; the knob moved, the iron slid slowly back, disclosing a tiny hidden drawer.
Lady Kingsland barely repressed a cry as she saw the paper, and by its side something wrapped in silver tissue. Greedily she snatched both out, pressed back the knob, locked the safe, stole out of the study and up to her own room.
Panting with her haste, my lady sunk into a seat, with her treasures eagerly clutched. A moment recovered her; then she took up the little parcel wrapped in the silver paper.
"He said nothing of this," she thought. "What can it be?"
She tore off the wrapping. As it fell to the floor, a long tress of silky black hair fell with it, and she held in her hand a miniature painted on ivory. A girlish face of exquisite beauty, dusky as the face of an Indian queen, looked up at her, fresh and bright as thirty years before. No need to look at the words on the reverse—"My peerless Zenith"—to know who it was; the wife's jealousy told her at the first glance.
"And all these years he has kept this," she said, between her set teeth, "while he pretended he loved only me! 'My peerless Zenith!' Yes, she is beautiful as the fabled houris of the Mussulman's paradise. Well, I will keep it in my turn. Who knows what end it may serve yet?"
She picked up the tress of hair, and enveloped all in the silver paper once more. Then she lifted the folded document, and looked darkly at the superscription:
"Horoscope of the Heir of Kingsland."
"Which the heir of Kingsland shall never see," she said, grimly unfolding it. "Now for this mighty secret."
She just glanced at the mystic symbols, the cabalistic signs and figures, and turned to the other side. There, beautifully written, in long, clear letters, she saw her son's fate.
The morning wore on—noon came; the house was as still as a tomb. Rosine, my lady's maid, with a cup of tea, ventured to tap at her ladyship's door. There was no response.
"She sleeps," thought Rosine, and turned the handle.
But at the threshold she paused in wild alarm. No, my lady did not sleep. She sat in her chair, upright and ghastly as a galvanized corpse, a written paper closely clutched in her hand, and a look of white horror frozen on her face.
AFTER TEN YEARS.
"I have said it, and I mean it; they ought to know me well enough by this time, Godsoe. I'd transport every man of them, the poaching scoundrels, if I could! Tell that villain Dick Darkly that the first time I catch him at his old tricks he shall follow the brother he makes such a howling about, and share his fate."
Sir Everard Kingsland was the speaker. He stood with one hand, white and shapely as a lady's, resting on the glossy neck of his bay horse, his fair, handsome face, flushed with anger, turned upon his gamekeeper.
Peter Godsoe, the sturdy gamekeeper, standing before his young master, hat in hand, looked up deprecatingly.
"He takes it very hard, Sir Everard, that you sent his brother to Worrel Jail. His missis was sick, and two of the children had the measles, and Will Darkly he'd been out o' work, and they was poor as poor. So he turns to and snares the rabbits, and—"
"Godsoe, are you trying to excuse this convicted poacher? Is that what you stopped me here to say?"
"I beg your pardon, Sir Everard; I only wanted to warn you—to put you on your guard—"
"To warn me—to put me on my guard? What do you mean? Has that villainous poacher dared to threaten me?"
"Not in my hearing, sir; but others say so. And he's a dark, vindictive brute; and he swore a solemn oath, they say, when his brother went to Worrel Jail, to be revenged upon you. And so, Sir Everard, begging your pardon for the freedom, I thought as how you was likely to be out late to-night, coming home from my lord's, and as Brithlow Wood is lonesome and dark—"
"That will do, Godsoe!" the young baronet interrupted, haughtily. "You mean well, I dare say, and I overlook your presumption this time; but never proffer advice to me again. As for Darkly, he had better keep out of my way. I'll horsewhip him the first time I see him, and send him to make acquaintance with the horse-pond afterward."
He vaulted lightly into the saddle as he spoke.
The brawny gamekeeper stood gazing after him as he ambled down the leafy avenue.
"His father's son," he said; "the proudest gentleman in Devonshire, and the most headstrong. You'll horsewhip Dick Darkly, Sir Everard! Why, he could take you with one hand by the waist-band, and lay you low in the kennel any day he liked! And he'll do it, too!" muttered Godsoe, turning slowly away. "You won't be warned, and you won't take precaution, and you won't condescend to be afeard, and you'll come to grief afore you know it."
The misty autumn twilight lay like a veil of silver blue over the peaceful English landscape; a cool breeze swept up from the sea over the golden downs and distant hills, and as Sir Everard rode along through the village, the cloud left his face, and a tender, dreamy look came in its place.
"She will be present, of course," he thought. "I wonder if I shall find her as I left her last? She is not the kind that play fast and loose, my stately, uplifted Lady Louise. How queenly she looked at the reception last night in those velvet robes and the Carteret diamonds!—'queen rose of the rose-bud garden of girls.' She is my elder by three round years at least, but she is stately as a princess, and at twenty-five preserves the ripe bloom of eighteen. She is all that is gracious when we meet, and my mother has set her heart upon the match. I have half a mind to propose this very night."
She was an earl's daughter, this stately Lady Louise, but so very impoverished an earl that the young Devonshire baronet, with his ancient name and his long rent-roll, was a most desirably brilliant match.
She was down on a visit to her brother, Lord Carteret, and had made a dead set at Sir Everard Kingsland from the hour she had met him first. He was on his way to Lord Carteret's now. There was a dinner-party, and he was an honored guest; and Lady Louise was brilliant, in the family diamonds and old point lace, once more.
She was in the drawing-room when he entered—her stately head regally uplifted in the midst of a group of less magnificent demoiselles—a statuesque blonde, with abundant ringlets of flaxen lightness, eyes of turquoise blue, and a determined mouth and chin.
Sir Everard paid his respects to his host and hostess, and sought her side at once.
"Almost late," she said, with a brilliant, welcoming smile, giving him her dainty little hand; "and George Grosvenor has been looking this way, and pulling his mustache and blushing redder than the carnations in his button-hole. He wants to take me in to dinner, poor fellow, and he hasn't the courage to do it."
"With your kind permission, Lady Louise, I will save him the trouble," answered Sir Everard Kingsland. "Grosvenor is not singular in his wish, but I never gave him credit for so much good taste before."
"Mr. Grosvenor is more at home in the hunting-field than the drawing-room, I fancy. Apropos, Sir Everard, I ride to the meet to-morrow. Of course you will be present on your 'bonny bay' to display your prowess?"
"Of course—a fox-hunt is to me a foretaste of celestial bliss. With a first-rate horse, a crack pack of hounds, a 'good scent,' and a fine morning, a man is tempted to wish life could last forever. And you are only going to ride to the meet, then, Lady Louise?"
"Yes; I never followed the hounds, I don't know the country and I can't ride to points. Besides, I am not really Amazonian enough to fancy a scamper across the country, flying fences and risking my precious neck."
"I must own that, to me, a lady never looks less attractive than in a hunting-field, among yelping hounds, and shouts, and cheers, and cords and tops, and scarlet coats."
"That comes of being a poet and an artist; and Sir Everard Kingsland is accused of being both. You want to fancy us all angels, and you can not reconcile an angelic being with a side-saddle and a hard gallop. Now, I don't own to being anything in the Di Vernon line myself, and I don't wish to be; but I do think a pretty girl never looks half so pretty as when well mounted. You should have seen Harrie Hunsden, as I saw her the other day, and you would surely recant your heresy about ladies and horse-flesh."
"Is Harrie Hunsden a lady?"
"Certainly. Don't you know her? She is Captain Hunsden's only daughter—Hunsden, of Hunsden Hall, one of your oldest Devon families. You'll find them duly chronicled in Burke and Debrett. Miss Hunsden is scarcely eighteen, but she has been over the world—from Quebec to Gibraltar—from Halifax to Calcutta. Two years of her life she passed at a New York boarding-school, of which city her mother was a native."
"Indeed!" Sir Everard said, just lifting his eyebrows. "And Miss Hunsden rides well?"
"Like Di Vernon's self."
"Is your Miss Hunsden pretty? and shall we see her at the meet to-morrow?"
"Yes to both questions; and more than at the meet, I fancy. She and her thorough-bred, Whirlwind, will lead you all. Her scarlet habit and 'red roan steed' are as well known in the country as the duke's hounds, and her bright eyes and dashing style have taken by storm the hearts of half the fox-hunting squires of Devonshire."
She laughed a little maliciously. Truth to tell, not being quite sure that her game was safely wired, and dreading this Amazonian Miss Hunsden as a prospective rival, she was nothing loath to prejudice the fastidious young baronet beforehand, even while seeming to praise her.
"I am surprised that you have not heard of her," she said. "Sir Harcourt Helford and Mr. Cholmondeley actually fought a duel about her, and it ended in her telling them to their faces they were a pair of idiots, and flatly refusing both. 'The Hunsden' is the toast of the country."
Sir Everard shuddered.
"From all such the gods deliver us! You honor Miss Hunsden with your deepest interest, I think, Lady Louise?
"Yes, she is such an oddity. Her wandering life, I presume, accounts for it; but she is altogether unlike any girl I ever know. I am certain," with a little malicious glance, "she will be your style, Sir Everard."
"And as I don't in the least know what my style is, perhaps you may be right."
Lady Louise bit her lip—it was a rebuff, she fancied, for her detraction. And then Lady Carteret gave that mysterious signal, and the ladies rose and swept away in billows of silk to the drawing-room, and the gentlemen had the talk to themselves "across the walnuts and the wine."
To one gentleman present the interim before rejoining the ladies was unmitigatedly dull, even though the talk ran on his favorite topics—-horse-flesh and hunting. He was in love, he thought complacently, and Lady Louise's eyes had sparkled to-day and her smiles had flashed their bewildering brightness upon him more radiantly than ever before.
"How pleased my mother will be!" Sir Everard thought. "I will ask Lady Louise this very night. An earl's daughter—though a bankrupt—is a fitting mate for a Kingsland."
Lady Louise sat at the piano, the soft light falling full on her pale, statuesque face, and making an aureole around her fair, shapely head.
Sir Everard Kingsland crossed over and stood beside her, and Lord and Lady Carteret exchanged significant glances, and smiled.
It was a very desirable thing, indeed; they had brought Louise down for no other earthly reason; and Louise was playing her cards, and playing them well.
If Sir Everard had one taste stronger than another it was his taste for music, and Lady Louise held him spell-bound now. She played, and her fingers seemed inspired; she sung, and few non-professionals sung like that.
The chain of brittle glass that bound the captive beside her grew stronger. A wife who could bewitch the hours away with such music as this would be no undesirable possession for a blase man. He stooped over her as she arose from the piano at last.
"Come out on the balcony," he said. "The night is lovely, and the good people yonder are altogether engrossed in their cards and their small-talk."
Without a word she stepped with him from the open French window out into the starlit night.
What is it that Byron says about solitude, and moonlight, and youth? A dangerous combination, truly; and so Sir Everard Kingsland found, standing side by side with this pale daughter of a hundred earls. But the irrevocable words were not destined to be spoken, for just then George Grosvenor, goaded to jealous desperation, stalked out through the open casement and joined them.
The midnight moon was sailing up to the zenith as Sir Everard rode home. His road was a lonely one through Brithlow Wood, which shortened his journey by over a mile; but his thoughts were pleasant ones, and he hummed, as he rode, the songs Lady Louise had sung.
"Confound that muff, Grosvenor!" he thought. "If it had not been for his impertinent intrusion, the matter would have been safely settled by this time—and settled pleasantly too, I take it; for, without being a conceited noodle, I really think Lady Louise will say yes. Ah! what's this?"
For out of the starlit darkness, from among the trees, started up a giant black figure, and his horse was grasped by the bridle and hurled back upon his haunches.
"You villain," the young man dauntlessly cried, "let go my bridle-rein! Who are you? What do you want?"
"I'm Dick Darkly," answered a deep, gruff voice, "and I want your heart's blood!"
"You poaching scoundrel!" exclaimed Sir Everard, quick as lightning raising his riding-whip and slashing the aggressor across the face. "Let go my horse's head."
With a cry that was like the roar of a wild beast the man sprung hack. The next instant, with a horrible oath, he had seized the young man and torn him out of the saddle.
"I'll tear you limb from limb for that blow, by heavens!" Dick Darkly shouted. "If I hadn't meant to kill you before, I would kill you for that cut of your whip. I've waited for you, Sir Everard Kingsland! I swore revenge, and revenge I'll have! I'll kill you this night, if they hang me for it to-morrow!"
He held his victim in a grip of iron, from which he struggled madly to get free, while the horse, with a shrill neigh of terror, started off riderless.
"I swore I'd kill you, Sir Everard Kingsland," Dick Darkly growled, "when you put my poor brother in Worrel Jail for snaring the miserable rabbits to keep his sick wife and children from starving. I swore it, and I'll keep my oath. You told your gamekeeper this very day you would lash me like a dog, and duck me after. Aha, Sir Everard! Where's the horse-whip and the horse-pond now?"
"Here!" shouted the young baronet; and with a mighty effort he freed his arms, and raising the whip, slashed Dick Darkly for the second time across the face. "You murdering villain, you shall swing for this!"
With a blind roar of pain and rage, the murderer closed with his victim. They grappled, and rolled over and over in each other's arms.
Panting and speechless, the death-struggle went on; but Sir Everard was no match for the burly giant. With a savage cry, the huge poacher thrust his hand into his belt, and a long, blue-bladed knife gleamed in the moon's rays.