THE UNSEEN BRIDEGROOM;
WEDDED FOR A WEEK
BY MAY AGNES FLEMING
THE WALRAVEN BALL.
A dark November afternoon—wet, and windy, and wild. The New York streets were at their worst—sloppy, slippery, and sodden; the sky lowering over those murky streets one uniform pall of inky gloom. A bad, desolate, blood-chilling November afternoon.
And yet Mrs. Walraven's ball was to come off to-night, and it was rather hard upon Mrs. Walraven that the elements should make a dead set at her after this fashion.
The ball was to be one of the most brilliant affairs of the season, and all Fifth Avenue was to be there in its glory.
Fifth Avenue was above caring for anything so commonplace as the weather, of course; but still it would have been pleasanter, and only a handsome thing in the clerk of the weather, considering Mrs. Walraven had not given a ball for twenty years before, to have burnished up the sun, and brushed away the clouds, and shut up that icy army of winter winds, and turned out as neat an article of weather as it is possible in the nature of November to turn out.
Of course, Mrs. Walraven dwelt on New York's stateliest avenue, in a big brown-stone palace that was like a palace in an Eastern story, with its velvet carpets, its arabesques, its filigree work, its chairs, and tables, and sofas touched up and inlaid with gold, and cushioned in silks of gorgeous dyes.
And in all Fifth Avenue, and in all New York City, there were not half a dozen old women of sixty half so rich, half so arrogant, or half so ill-tempered as Mrs. Ferdinand Walraven.
On this bad November afternoon, while the rain and sleet lashed the lofty windows, and the shrill winds whistled around the gables, Mrs. Ferdinand Walraven's only son sat in his chamber, staring out of the window, and smoking no end of cigars.
Fifth Avenue, in the raw and rainy twilight, is not the sprightliest spot on earth, and there was very little for Mr. Walraven to gaze at except the stages rattling up the pave, and some belated newsboys crying their wares.
Perhaps these same little ill-clad newsboys, looking up through the slanting rain, and seeing the well-dressed gentleman behind the rich draperies, thought it must be a fine thing to be Mr. Carl Walraven, heir to a half a million of money and the handsomest house in New York.
Perhaps you might have thought so, too, glancing into that lofty chamber, with its glowing hangings of ruby and gold, its exquisite pictures, its inlaid tables, its twinkling chandelier, its perfumed warmth, and glitter, and luxury.
But Carl Walraven, lying back in a big easy-chair, in slippers and dressing-gown, smoking his costly cheroots, looked out at the dismal evening with the blackest of bitter, black scowls.
"Confound the weather!" muttered Mr. Walraven, between strong, white teeth. "Why the deuce does it always rain on the twenty-fifth of November? Seventeen years ago, on the twenty-fifth of this horrible month, I was in Paris, and Miriam was—Miriam be hanged!" He stopped abruptly, and pitched his cigar out of the window. "You've turned over a new leaf, Carl Walraven, and what the demon do you mean by going back to the old leaves? You've come home from foreign parts to your old and doting mother—I thought she would be in her dotage by this time—and you're a responsible citizen, and an eminently rich and respectable man. Carl, my boy, forget the past, and behave yourself for the future; as the copy-books say: 'Be virtuous and you will be happy.'"
He laughed to himself, a laugh unpleasant to hear, and taking up another cigar, went on smoking.
He had been away twenty years, this Carl Walraven, over the world, nobody knew where. A reckless, self-willed, headstrong boy, he had broken wild and run away from home at nineteen, abruptly and without warning. Abruptly and without warning he had returned home, one fine morning, twenty years after, and walking up the palatial steps, shabby, and grizzled, and weather-beaten, had strode straight to the majestic presence of the mistress of the house, with outstretched hand and a cool "How are you, mother?"
And Mrs. Walraven knew her son. He had left her a fiery, handsome, bright-faced lad, and this man before her was gray and black-bearded and weather-beaten and brown, but she knew him. She had risen with a shrill cry of joy, and held open her arms.
"I've come back, you see, mother," Mr. Carl said, easily, "like the proverbial bad shilling. I've grown tired knocking about this big world, and now, at nine-and-thirty, with an empty purse, a light heart, a spotless conscience, and a sound digestion, I'm going to settle down and walk in the way I should go. You are glad to have your ne'er-do-well back again, I hope, mother?"
Glad! A widowed mother, lonely and old, glad to have an only son back! Mrs. Walraven had tightened those withered arms about him closer and closer, with only that one shrill cry:
"Oh, Carl—my son! my son!"
"All right, mother! And now, if there's anything in this house to eat, I'll eat it, because I've been fasting since yesterday, and haven't a stiver between me and eternity. By George! this isn't such a bad harbor for a shipwrecked mariner to cast anchor in. I've been over the world, mother, from Dan to—What's-her-name! I've been rich and I've been poor; I've been loved and I've been hated; I've had my fling at everything good and bad under the shining sun, and I come home from it all, subscribing to the doctrine: 'There's nothing new and nothing true.' And it don't signify; it's empty as egg-shells, the whole of it."
That was the story of the prodigal son. Mrs. Walraven asked no questions. She was a wise old woman; she took her son and was thankful. It had happened late in October, this sudden arrival, and now, late in November, the fatted calf was killed, and Mrs. Walraven's dear five hundred friends bidden to the feast.
And they came. They had all heard the story of the widow's heir, so long lost, and now, dark and mysterious as Count Lara, returned to lord it in his ancestral halls. He was a very hero of romance—a wealthy hero, too—and all the pretty man-traps on the avenue, baited with lace and roses, silk and jewels, were coming to-night to angle for this dazzling prize.
The long-silent drawing-rooms, shrouded for twenty years in holland and darkness, were one blaze of light at last. Flowers bloomed everywhere; musicians, up in a gilded gallery, discoursed heavenly music; there was a conservatory where alabaster lamps made a silver moonlight in a modern Garden of Eden; there was a supper-table spread and waiting, a feast for the gods and Sybarites; and there was Mrs. Walraven, in black velvet and point lace, upright and stately, despite her sixty years, with a diamond star of fabulous price ablaze on her breast. And there by her side, tall, and dark, and dignified, stood her only son, the prodigal, the repentant, the wealthy Carl Walraven.
"Not handsome," said Miss Blanche Oleander, raising her glass, "but eminently interesting. He looks like the hero of a sensation novel, or a modern melodrama, or one of Lord Byron's poems. Does he dance, and will he ask me, I wonder?"
Yes, the dusky hero of the night did dance, and did ask Miss Blanche Oleander. A tall, gray-eyed, imperious sort of beauty, this Miss Blanche, seven-and-twenty years of age, and frightfully passe, more youthful belles said.
Mr. Walraven danced the very first dance with Miss Oleander, to her infinite but perfectly concealed delight.
"If you can imagine the Corsair, whirling in a rapid redowa with Medora," Miss Oleander afterward said, "you have Mr. Walraven and myself. There were about eighty Guinares gazing enviously on, ready to poniard me, every one of them, if they dared, and if they were not such miserable little fools and cowards. When they cease to smell of bread and butter, Mr. Walraven may possibly deign to look at them."
It seemed as if the dashing Blanche had waltzed herself straight into the affections of the new-found heir, for he devoted himself to her in the most prononc manner for the first three hours, and afterward led her in to supper.
Miss Blanche sailed along serene, uplifted, splendidly calm; the little belles in lace, and roses, and pearls, fluttered and twittered like angry doves; and Mme. Walraven, from the heights of her hostess-throne, looked aslant at her velvet and diamonds with uneasy old eyes.
"The last of all you should have selected," she said, waylaying her son after supper. "A woman without a heart, Carl—a modern Minerva. I have no wish to interfere with you, my son; I shall call the day happy that brings me your wife, but not Blanche Oleander—not that cold-blooded, bold-faced, overgrown grenadier."
Madame hissed out the words between a set of spiteful, false teeth, and glared, as women do glare, upon the gray-eyed Blanche. And Carl listened, and laughed sardonically.
"A woman without a heart. So much the better, mother; the less heart the more head; and I like your clever, dashing women, who are big and buxom, and able to take care of themselves. Don't forget, mother mine, I haven't proposed to the sparkling Blanche, and I don't think I shall—to-night. You wouldn't have me fall at the feet of those mealy-winged moths fluttering around us, with heads softer than their poor little hearts—you wouldn't, I hope?"
With which Mr. Walraven went straight back to Miss Oleander and asked her to dance the lancers.
Miss Oleander, turning with ineffable calm from a bevy of rose-robed and white-robed young ladies, said, "Yes," as if Mr. Walraven was no more than any other man, and stood up to take his arm.
But there is many a slip. Miss Oleander and Mr. Walraven never danced that particular set, for just then there came a ring at the door-bell so pealing and imperious that it sounded sharply even through the noisy ball-room.
"The Marble Guest, surely," Blanche said, "and very determined to be heard."
Before the words were well uttered there was a sound of an altercation in the hall—one of the tall footmen pathetically protesting, and a shrill female voice refusing to listen to those plaintive protests. Then there suddenly fell peace.
"After a storm there cometh a calm," Mr. Walraven said. "Miss Oleander, shall we move on? Well, Johnson, what is it?"
For Johnson, the taller of the two tall footmen, stood before them gazing beseechingly at his master.
"It's a woman, sir, all wet and dirty, and horrid to look at. She says she will see you, and there she stands, and Wilson nor me we can't do nothing with her. If you don't come she says she'll walk up here and make you come. Them," said Johnson, plaintively, "were her own language."
Blanche Oleander, gazing up at her companion's face, saw it changing to a startled, dusky white.
"Some beggar—some troublesome tramp, I dare say." But he dropped her arm abruptly as he said it. "Excuse me a moment, Miss Oleander. I had better see her to prevent noise. Now, then, Johnson."
Mr. Johnson led the way down a grand, sweeping staircase, rich in gilding and carving, through a paved and vaulted hall, and out into a lofty vestibule.
There a woman stood, dripping wet and wretchedly clad, as miserable-looking a creature as ever walked the bad city streets. The flare of the gas-jets shone full upon her—upon a haggard face lighted up with two blazing eyes.
"For God's sake! Miriam!"
Carl Walraven started back, as if struck by an iron hand. The woman took a step forward and confronted him.
"Yes, Carl Walraven—Miriam! You did well to come at once. I have something to say to you. Shall I say it here?"
That was all Messrs. Johnson and Wilson ever heard, for Mr. Walraven opened the library door and waved her in, followed, and shut the door again with a sounding slam.
"Now, then," he demanded, imperiously, "what do you want? I thought you were dead and—"
"Don't say that other word, Mr. Walraven; it is too forcible. You only hoped it. I am not dead. It's a great deal worse with me than that."
"What do you want?" Mr. Walraven repeated, steadily, though his swarth face was dusky gray with rage or fear, or both. "What do you come here for to-night? Has the master you serve helped you bodily, that you follow and find me even here? Are you not afraid I will throttle you for your pains?"
"Not the least."
She said it with a composure the best bred of his mother's guests could not have surpassed, standing bolt upright before him, her dusky eyes of fire burning on his face.
"I am not afraid of you, Mr. Walraven (that's your name, isn't it?—and a very fine-sounding name it is), but you're afraid of me—afraid to the core of your bitter, black heart. You stand there dressed like a king, and I stand here in rags your kitchen scullions would scorn; but for all that, Carl Walraven—for all that, you're my slave, and you know it!"
Her eyes blazed, her hands clinched, her gaunt form seemed to tower and grow tall with the sense of her triumph and her power.
"Have you anything else to say?" inquired Mr. Walraven, sullenly, "before I call my servants and have you turned out?"
"You dare not," retorted the woman, fiercely—"you dare not, coward! boaster! and you know it! I have a great deal more to say, and I will say it, and you will hear me before we part to-night. I know my power, Mr. Carl Walraven, and I mean to use it. Do you think I need wear these rags? Do you think I need tramp the black, bad streets, night after night, a homeless, houseless wretch? No; not if I chose, not if I ordered—do you hear?—ordered my aristocratic friend, Mr. Walraven, of Fifth Avenue, to empty his plethoric purse in my dirty pocket. Ah, yes," with a shrill laugh, "Miriam knows her power!"
"Are you almost done?" Mr. Walraven replied, calmly. "Have you come here for anything but talk? If so, for what?"
"Not your money—be sure of that. I would starve—I would die the death of a dog in a kennel—before I would eat a mouthful of bread bought with your gold. I come for justice!"
"Justice"—he lifted a pair of sullen, inquiring eyes—"justice! To whom?"
"To one whom you have injured beyond reparation—Mary Dane!"
She hissed the name in a sharp, sibilant whisper, and the man recoiled as if an adder had stung him.
"What do you mean?" he asked, with dry, parched lips. "Why do you come here to torment me? Mary Dane is dead."
"Mary Dane's daughter lives not twenty miles from where we stand. Justice to the dead is beyond the power of even the wealthy Carl Walraven. Justice to the living can yet be rendered, and shall be to the uttermost farthing."
"What do you want?"
"I want you to find Mary Dane, and bring her here, educate her, dress her, treat as your own child."
"Where shall I find her?"
"At K——, twenty miles from here."
"Who is she? What is she?"
"An actress, traveling about with a strolling troupe; an actress since her sixth year—on the stage eleven years to-night. This is her seventeenth birthday, as you know."
"Is this all?"
"All at present. Are you prepared to obey, or shall I—"
"There!" interrupted Mr. Walraven, "that will do. There is no need of threats, Miriam—I am very willing to obey you in this. If I had known Mary Dane—why the deuce did you give her that name?—was on this continent, I would have hunted her up of my own accord. I would, upon my honor!"
"Swear by something you possess," the woman said, with a sneer; "honor you never had since I first knew you."
"Come, come, Miriam," said Mr. Walraven, uneasily, "don't be cantankerous. Let by-gones be by-gones. I'm sorry for the past—I am indeed, and am willing to do well for the future. Sit down and be sociable, and tell me all about it. How came you to let the little one go on the stage first?"
Miriam spurned away the proffered chair.
"I spurn it as I would your dead body if it lay before me, Carl Walraven! Sit down with you? Never, if my life depended on it! The child became an actress because I could keep her no longer—I couldn't keep myself—and because she had the voice and face of an angel—poor little wretch! The manager of a band of strolling players, passing through our village, heard her baby voice singing some baby song, and pounced upon her on the instant. We struck a bargain, and I sold her, Mr. Walraven—yes, sold her."
"You wretch! Well?"
"Well, I went to see her occasionally afterward, but not often, for the strolling troupe were here, there, and everywhere—from pillar to post. But I never lost sight of her, and I saw her grow up a pretty, slender, bright-eyed lass, well dressed, well fed, and happy—perfectly happy in her wandering life. Her great-grandmother—old Peter Dane's wife—was a gypsy, Mr. Walraven, and I dare say the wild blood broke out. She liked the life, and became the star of the little band—the queen of the troupe. I kept her in view even when she crossed the Atlantic last year, and paid her a visit a week ago to-night."
"Humph!" was Carl Walraven's comment. "Well, Mistress Miriam, it might have been worse; no thanks to you, though. And now—what does she know of her own story?"
"Nothing, I tell you. Her name is Mary Dane, and she is seventeen years old on the twenty-fifth of November. Her father and mother are dead—poor but honest people, of course—and I am Aunt Miriam, earning a respectable living by washing clothes and scrubbing floors. That is what she knows. How much of that is true, Mr. Walraven?"
"Then she never heard of me?"
"She has never had that misfortune yet; it has been reserved for yourself. You are a rich man, and you will go to K——, and you will see her play, and will take a fancy to her, and adopt her as your daughter. There is the skeleton for you to clothe with flesh."
"And suppose she refuses?"
"She will not refuse. She likes handsome dresses and jewelry as well as any other little fool of seventeen. You make her the offer, and my word for it, it will be accepted."
"I will go, Miriam. Upon my word I feel curious to see the witch. Who is she like, Miriam—mamma or me?"
The woman's eyes flashed fire.
"Not like you, you son of Satan! If she was I would have strangled her in her cradle! Let me go, for the air you breathe chokes me! Dare to disobey at your peril!"
"I will start for K—— to-morrow. She will be here—my adopted daughter—before the week ends."
"Good! And this old mother of yours, will she be kind to the girl? I won't have her treated badly, you understand."
"My mother will do whatever her son wishes. She would be kind to a young gorilla if I said so. Don't fear for your niece—she will be treated well."
"Let it be so, or beware! A blood-hound on your track would be less deadly than I! I will be here again, and yet again, to see for myself that you keep your word."
She strode to the door, opened it, and stood in the illuminated ball. Johnson just had time to vanish from the key-hole and no more. Down the stair-way pealed the wild, melancholy music of a German waltz; from the dining-room came the clink and jingle of silver, and china, and glass. The woman's haggard face filled with scorn and bitterness as she gave one fleeting, backward glance.
"They say there is a just and avenging Heaven, yet Carl Walraven is master of all this. Wealth, love, and honor for him, and a nameless grave for her; the streets, foul and deadly, for me. The mill of the gods may grind sure, but it grinds fearfully slow—fearfully slow!"
They were the last words Carl Walraven heard her utter. She opened the house door, gathered her threadbare shawl closer around her, and fluttered away in the wild, wet night.
The little provincial theater was crowded from pit to dome—long tiers of changing faces and luminous eyes. There was a prevalent odor of stale tobacco, and orange-peel, and bad gas; and there was bustle, and noise, and laughter, and a harsh collection of stringed instruments grinding out the overture.
There were stamps and calls for the tawdry curtain to rise, when a gentleman entered, sauntered up to a front seat, took up a bill and began to read it—a tall, middle-aged, rather distinguished-looking man, black and bearded, with piercing eyes, superfine clothes, and a general aristocratic air about him.
People paused to look again at him—for he was a stranger there—but nobody recognized him, and Mr. Carl Walraven read his bill undisturbed.
The play was "Fanchon the Cricket," and the bill announced, in very big capitals, that the part of Fanchon was to be played by that "distinguished and beautiful young English actress, Miss Mollie Dane."
Mr. Walraven saw no more; he sat holding the strip of paper before him, and staring at the one name as if the fat letters fascinated him—"Fanchon, Miss Mollie Dane."
A shrill-voiced bell tinkled, and the drop-curtain went up, and the household of Father Barbeaud was revealed. There was a general settling into seats, hats flew off, the noises ceased, and the play began.
A moment or two, and, in rags and tatters, hair streaming, and feet bare, on the stage bounded Fanchon, the Cricket.
There was an uproarious greeting. Evidently it was not Miss Dane's first appearance before that audience, and still more evidently she was a prime favorite.
Mr. Walraven dropped his bill, poised his lorgnette, and prepared to stare his fill.
She was very well worth looking at, this clear-voiced Mollie Dane—through the tatters and unkempt hair he could see that. The stars in the frosty November sky without were not brighter than her dark, bright eyes; no silvery music that the heir of all the Walravens had ever heard was clearer or sweeter than her free, girlish laugh; no golden sunburst ever more beautiful than the waving banner of wild, yellow hair. Mollie Dane stood before him a beauty born.
Every nerve in Carl Walraven's body thrilled as he looked at her. How lovely that face! How sweet that voice, that laugh! How eminently well she acted!
He had seen women of whom the world raved play that very part; but he had never, no, never seen it better played than he saw it to-night.
"She will make the world ring with her name if she adheres to the stage," Carl Walraven said to himself, enthusiastically; "and she never will play anything better than she plays the 'Cricket.' She is Fanchon herself—saucy, daring, generous, irresistible Fanchon! And she is beautiful as the angels above."
The play went on; Fanchon danced, and sobbed, and sung, and wept, and was mischievous as a scratching kitten, and gentle as a turtle-dove; took all the hearts by storm, and was triumphantly reunited to her lover at last.
I don't know how many young men in that audience were left without an atom of heart, how many would have given their two ears to be in handsome Landry Barbeaud's boots.
The roof nearly rose with the thunders of applause when the curtain fell, and Carl Walraven got up with the rest, his head whirling, his brain dizzy.
"Good Heaven!" he thought, stumbling along the dark, chilly streets to his hotel, "what a perfectly dazzling little witch she is! Was there ever such another sparkling, bewildering little fairy in the world before?"
Mr. Walraven spent the night in a fever of impatience. He was one of those men who, when they set their hearts on anything, find no peace, no rest, until they obtain it. He had come here partly through curiosity, partly because he dare not refuse Miriam; he had seen Mary Dane, and lo! at first sight he was dazzled and bewitched.
Next morning, at breakfast, Mr. Walraven obtained all the information he desired concerning Miss Mollie Dane. Some half dozen of the actors were stopping at the hotel, and proved very willing, under the influence of brandy and water, to give the free-handed stranger Miss Dane's biography as far as they knew it.
She was just as charming off the stage as on; just as pretty, just as saucy, just as captivating. She was wild and full of tricks as an unbroken colt; but she was a thoroughly good girl, for all that, lavish of her money to all who needed, and snubbing lovers incontinently. She was stopping up the street at another hotel, and she would in all probability be easily accessible about noon.
The seedy, strolling players drank their diluted brandy, smoked their cigars, and told Mr. Walraven all this. They rather laughed at the New York millionaire when he was out of sight. He had fallen in love with pretty, blue-eyed Mollie, no doubt, and that was a very stale story with the shabby players.
Noon came, and, speckless and respectable to the last degree, Mr. Walraven presented himself at the other hotel, and sent up his card with a waiter to Miss Dane.
The waiter ushered him into the hotel parlor, cold and prim as it is in the nature of hotel parlors to be. Mr. Walraven sat down and stared vaguely at the papered walls, rather at a loss as to what he should say to this piquant Mollie, and wondering how he would feel if she laughed at him.
"And she will laugh," he thought, with a mental groan; "she's the sort of girl that laughs at everything. And she may refuse, too; there is no making sure of a woman; and then what will Miriam say?"
He paused with a gasp. There was a quick patter of light feet down the stairs, the last two cleared with a jump, a swish of silken skirts, a little gush of perfume, and then, bright as a flash of light, blue-eyed Mollie stood before him. She held his card in her fingers, and all the yellow hair fell over her plump shoulders, like amber sunshine over snow.
"Mr. Carl Walraven?" Miss Dane said, with a smile and a graceful little bow.
Mr. Carl Walraven rose up and returned that pretty courtesy with a salute stiff and constrained.
"Yes, Miss Dane."
"Pray resume your seat, Mr. Walraven," with an airy wave of a little white hand. "To what do I owe this visit?"
She fluttered into a big black arm-chair as she spoke, folded the little white hands, and glanced across with brightly expectant eyes.
"You must think this call, from an utter stranger, rather singular, Miss Dane," Mr. Walraven began, considerably at a loss.
Miss Dane laughed.
"Oh, dear, no! not at all—the sort of thing I am used to, I assure you! May I ask its purport?"
"Miss Dane, you must pardon me," said Mr. Walraven, plunging desperately head first into his mission, "but I saw you play last night, and I have—yes, I have taken a violent fancy to you."
Miss Mollie Dane never flinched. The wicked sparkle in the dancing eyes grew a trifle wickeder, perhaps, but that was all.
"Yes," she said, composedly; "go on."
"You take it very coolly," remarked the gentleman, rather taken aback himself. "You don't appear the least surprised."
"Of course not! I told you I was used to it. Never knew a gentleman of taste to see me play yet and not take a violent fancy to me. Pray go on."
If Miss Dane wished, in her wickedness, to utterly disconcert her middle-aged admirer, she could not have adopted a surer plan. For fully five minutes he sat staring in hopeless silence.
"Have you anything more to say?" queried the dauntless Mollie, pulling out her watch. "Because, if you have, you will please say it at once. My time is precious, I assure you. Rehearsal is at three, and after rehearsal there are the spangles to sew on my dress, and after that—"
"I beg your pardon, Miss Dane; I have a great deal more to say, and if you will listen you need never attend rehearsal again, and never sew on spangles any more."
The blue eyes opened very wide in a fixed, unwinking stare.
"I like you very much, Miss Dane—so much that I think it is a thousand pities you should waste your youth, and beauty, and genius on desert air. So—"
"Yes," said Miss Dane—"so you have fallen in love with me at first sight. Is that what you are trying to say?"
"No!" responded Mr. Walraven, emphatically. "I am not in the least in love with you, and never mean to be—in that way."
"Oh, in what way, then, Mr. Walraven?"
"I am a rich man, Miss Dane, and a lonely man very often, and I should like to have a daughter to cheer my old age—a daughter like you, Mistress Cricket, saucy and bright, and so pretty that it will be a pleasure only to look at her."
"And a very complimentary papa you will make. Have you no daughters of your own, Mr. Walraven?"
"None, Miss Mollie. I have the misfortune to have no wife."
"And never mean to have?"
"Can't say about that. I may one day."
"And you are quite sure you will never want me to fill that vacant honor?"
"Surer than sure, my dear little girl I want you only for my adopted daughter."
"And you never saw me before last night?"
"Never," said Carl Walraven, unflinchingly.
"You are a very rich man, you say?"
"Very rich—a millionaire—and you shall be my heiress when I die."
"I am afraid I shall be a very long time out of my inheritance, then. Well, this is a surprise, and you are the oddest gentleman I have met for some time. Please let me catch my breath! You are quite certain you are not playing a practical joke at my expense all this time?"
"No! upon my word and honor, no! I mean precisely what I say."
"And supposing I say yes—supposing I agree to go with you, for the fun of the thing, what do you mean to do with me, Mr. Walraven?"
"To treat you as I would a Miss Walraven of seventeen years old, if there were such a person; to fill your pockets with money, and your wardrobe with fine clothes; to give you a horse to ride, and a piano to play, a carriage to drive in, and a waiting-maid to scold. What more can I do? I will give you masters to teach you everything under the sun. Balls, parties, and the opera at will—everything, in short, your heart can desire."
The starry eyes sparkled, the rose-tinted cheeks flushed with delight.
"I can not believe it; it is too good to be true. Oh, you can't mean it, Mr. Walraven. No one ever had their wildest flight of fancy realized in this manner."
"You shall if you will become my daughter. If my promise proves false, are you not free to return? There are no ogres nowadays to carry young ladies off to enchanted palaces and eat them. Come with me to my home in New York. If I fail in aught I have promised, why, return here."
Mollie brought her two little palms together with an enthusiastic slap.
"I'll do it, Mr. Walraven! I know it's all a dream and an illusion, but still I'll see the dream to the end; that is, if you can make it all right with Mr. Harkner, the manager."
"I can make it all right!" exclaimed Mr. Walraven. "Money can do anything under the sun. He has his price, like other men, and I can pay it. If Mr. Harkner and I come to terms, will you be ready to start with me to-morrow, Mollie?"
"Quite ready. But you won't make it right. He will never let me go; you will see."
"I am not afraid. I will call upon him at once, and after the interview I will let you know the result. He is in the house now, is he not?"
"Down at the bar, very likely. I will wait for you here."
Mr. Walraven took his hat and left, delighted with his success.
The manager was at the bar, as Miss Dane had predicted, and eyed Mr. Walraven suspiciously from head to foot when he found his business concerned his star actress.
He was accustomed to gentlemen falling in love with her, and quite willing to take little bribes from them; but he stared in angry amazement when he heard what Carl Walraven had to say.
"Carry off Mollie!" exclaimed Mr. Harkner, "and adopt her as your daughter! What do you take me for, to believe such a story as that?"
Mr. Harkner was pretty far gone, and all the more inclined to be skeptical. Mr. Walraven saw it, and knew that appearances were dead against him, and so swallowed his wrath.
"It is the truth, upon my honor. Miss Dane believes me and has consented. Nothing remains but to settle matters with you."
"I won't settle matters! I won't hear of it! I won't part with my best actress!"
"Yes you will for a fair price. Come, name the sum; I'll pay it."
Mr. Harkner opened his eyes. Mr. Walraven opened his check-book.
"You do mean it, then?"
"Don't I look as if I meant it? Quick, I say! If you don't look sharp I will take her without any price!"
"She's a priceless treasure!" hiccoughed the manager—"worth her weight in gold to me, and so—"
He named a sum that made even Carl Walraven wince; but he was a great deal too reckless to draw back.
"It is a most cold-blooded extortion," he said; "but you shall have it. And at your peril you ever interfere with my adopted daughter afterward."
He signed the check and flung it to the manager, turned and went out, and left that individual staring in blank bewilderment.
Golden-haired Mollie was pacing impatiently up and down the parlor when Mr. Walraven walked in again, his face aglow with triumph.
"It is all right, Mollie. I told you I was more than a match for your manager. You have trod the boards for the last time."
"Excuse me, Mr. Walraven; I am going to tread the boards again to-night. It is Cricket still. Don't you want to be enchanted once more?"
"Just as you please. Once is neither here now there. But you will be ready for the eight A.M. train to-morrow, Mollie?"
"I have promised, Mr. Walraven, and I always keep my word. So Mr. Harkner has consented? Now, that is not flattering, is it? What winning ways you must possess to make all the world do as you say!"
Mr. Walraven held up his purse, gold shining through its silken meshes.
"Behold the magic key to every heart, Cricket! Here, you shall be my purse-bearer now."
He tossed it into her lap. Mollie's blue eyes sparkled. She was only seventeen, poor child, and she liked money for what money brought.
"I shall leave you now," Mr. Walraven said, looking at his watch. "Three o'clock, Mollie, and time for rehearsal. I shall go and see Cricket to-night, and to-morrow morning Cricket must be ready to go with me. Until then, my adopted daughter, adieu!"
That night, when the green curtain went up, the strange gentleman sat in the front seat for the second time, and gazed on the antics of Fanchon, the Cricket.
The girl played it well, because she played her own willful, tricky self, and she kissed her taper fingers to the enraptured audience, and felt sorry to think it might be for the last time.
Next morning, as demure as a little nun, in her traveling suit of gray, Miss Cricket took her seat beside her new-made guardian, and was whirled away to New York.
"Pray, what am I to call you?" she asked, as they sat side by side. "Am I to keep at a respectful distance, and say 'Mr. Walraven,' or, as I am your adopted daughter, is it to be papa?"
"Well, Cricket, personally I have no objection, of course; but, then, 'papa'—don't you think 'papa' might set people asking questions, now?"
"Very true; and some clever person might get investigating, and find out you were my papa in reality."
"Mollie!" said Mr. Walraven, wincing.
"That's the way in the melodramas, you see, and you are very like the hero of a five-act melodrama. Well, Mr. Walraven, decide what I shall call you!"
"Suppose you say guardian. That will hit the mark, I think. And we will tell people who ask troublesome questions that you are the orphan daughter of a dead cousin of mine. What do you say?"
"As you please, of course. It is all one to me."
The train thundered into the depot presently, and there was the usual turmoil and uproar. Mr. Walraven called a cab, and half an hour's rattling over the stony streets brought them to the Walraven mansion.
Mollie Dane, accustomed all her life to dingy hotels and lodgings, glanced up at the grand staircase and imposing hall in rapturous surprise. Mme. Walraven stood graciously waiting to receive her.
"Here's a granddaughter for you, mother," said Mr. Walraven—"a companion to cheer and brighten your future life. My adopted daughter—Mollie Dane."
The stately old lady bent and kissed the bright, fresh face.
"I am very happy to welcome you, my dear, and will try heartily to make your new home pleasant. You are tired, of course? Here, Margaret, show Miss Dane to her room."
A spruce waiting-maid appeared at the old lady's summons, and led Miss Dane, through carpeted corridors, into the daintiest of dainty bed-chambers, all blue silk and white lace drapery, and rich furniture, and exquisite pictures.
In all her life long, Mollie had never beheld anything half so beautiful, and she caught her breath with one little cry of delight.
"Shall I help you, miss?" very respectfully asked the girl. "I'm to be your maid, please, and luncheon will be ready by the time you are dressed."
Miss Dane permitted her to remove her traveling-dress in ecstatic silence, and robe her in azure silk, just a shade less blue than her eyes.
Very, very pretty she looked, with all her loose golden ringlets, and that brilliant flush on either cheek; and so Mrs. Walraven and her son thought when she appeared, like a radiant vision, in the dining-room.
The afternoon and evening went like a swift dream of delight in viewing the house and its splendors. She retired early, with a kiss from guardian and grandmamma, her head in a whirl with the events of the day.
Margaret's tasks were very light that night; her little mistress did not detain her ten minutes. When she had gone, and she was fairly alone, Mollie sprung up and went whirling round the room in a dance of delight.
"To think of it!" she cried—"to think all my wildest dreams should come true like this, and my life go on like a fairy tale! There is Mr. Walraven, the good genii of the story; Mrs. Walraven, the old but well-meaning fairy godmother; and I'm Cinderella, with the tatters and rags turned to cloth of gold, and nothing to do but wait at my ease for the fairy prince, and marry him when he comes. Cricket! Cricket! you're the luckiest witch's granddaughter that ever danced to her own shadow!"
MR. WALRAVEN'S WEDDING.
Mollie Dane made herself very much at home at once in the magnificent Walraven mansion. The dazzle of its glories scarcely lasted beyond the first day, or, if it did, nobody saw it. Why, indeed, should she be dazzled? She, who had been Lady Macbeth, and received the Thane of Cawdor at her own gates; who had been Juliet, the heiress of all the Capulets; who had seen dukes and nobles snubbed unmercifully every night of her life by virtuous poverty, on the stage. Before the end of the first week Mollie had become the light of the house, perfectly indispensable to the happiness of its inmates.
Miss Dane was launched into society at a dinner-party given for the express purpose by "grandmamma". Wondrously pretty looked the youthful dbutante, in silvery silk and misty lace and pearls, her eyes like blue stars, her cheeks like June roses.
In the wintery dusk of the short December days, Mrs. Walraven received her guests in the library, an imposing room, oak-paneled, crimson-draped, and filled from floor to ceiling with a noble collection of books. Great snow-flakes fluttered against the plate glass, and an icy blast howled up the avenue, but in the glittering dining-room flowers bloomed, and birds sung, and tropical fruits perfumed the air; and radiant under the gas-light, beautiful Miss Dane flashed the light of her blue eyes, and looked like some lovely little sprite from fairy-land.
Miss Blanche Oleander, darkly majestic in maize silk and jewels, sat at Miss Dane's right hand, and eyed her coldly with jealous dislike. Mollie read her through at the first glance.
"She hates me already," thought Mr. Walraven's ward; "and your tall women, with flashing black eyes and blue-black hair, are apt to be good haters. Very well, Miss Oleander; it shall be just as you like."
A gentleman sat on her other hand—a handsome young artist—Mr. Hugh Ingelow, and he listened with an attentive face, while she held her own with the sarcastic Blanche, and rather got the best of the battle.
"The little beauty is no dunce," thought Mr. Hugh Ingelow. "Miss Blanche has found a foe worthy of her best steel."
And coming to this conclusion, Mr. Ingelow immediately began making himself agreeable to his fair neighbor. Miss Oleander was a pet aversion of his own, and this bond of union drew him and her saucy little antagonist together at once.
"Rather a sharp set-to, Miss Dane," the artist remarked, in his lazy voice. "Miss Oleander is a clever woman, but she is matched at last. I wonder why it is? You two ought to be good friends."
He glanced significantly at Mr. Walraven, devoting himself to Miss Oleander, and Mollie gave her white shoulders a little shrug.
"If we ought, we never will be. Coming events cast their shadows before, and I know I shall detest a guardianess. Who is that brigandish-looking gentleman over there, Mr. Ingelow? He has been staring at me steadily for the last ten minutes."
"Lost in speechless admiration, no doubt. That gentleman is the celebrated Doctor Oleander, own cousin to the fair Blanche."
The gentleman in question certainly was staring, but his staring was interrupted at this moment by a general uprising and retreat to the drawing-room. Mr. Ingelow, on whose arm she leaned, led her to the piano at once.
"You sing, I know—Mrs. Walraven has told me. Pray favor us with one song before some less gifted performer secures this vacant seat."
"What shall it be?" Mollie asked, running her white fingers over the keys.
"Whatever you please—whatever you like best. I shall be sure to like it."
Mollie sung brilliantly, and sung her best now. There was dead silence; no one had expected such a glorious voice as this. Hugh Ingelow's rapt face showed what he felt as Mollie rose.
"Miss Dane ought to go upon the stage; she would make her fortune," said a deep voice at her elbow.
She turned sharply round and met the dark, sinister eyes and pale face of Dr. Oleander.
"Miss Dane forgets me," he said, with a low bow, "among so many presentations. Will you kindly reintroduce me, Mr. Ingelow?"
Mr. Ingelow obeyed with no very good grace; the sparkling, blue-eyed coquette had made wild work with his artist heart already.
"Mrs. Walraven desired me to bring you to her for a moment," the suave doctor said, offering his arm. "May I have the honor?"
Mr. Ingelow's eyes flashed angrily, and Mollie, seeing it, and being a born coquette, took the proffered arm at once.
It was the merest trifle grandmamma wanted, but it served the doctor's turn—he had got the beauty of the evening, and he meant to keep her.
Mollie listened to his endless flow of complimentary small-talk just as long as she chose, and then glided coolly away to flirt with a third adorer, the eminent young lawyer, Mr. Joseph Sardonyx.
Mollie hovered between those three the livelong evening; now it was the handsome artist, now the polished doctor, now the witty, satirical lawyer, flirting in the most unpardonable manner.
Even Mr. Walraven was a little shocked, and undertook, in the course of the evening, to expostulate.
"Flirting is all very well, Mollie," he said, "but it really mustn't be carried too far. People are beginning to make remarks."
"Are they?" said Mollie; "about which of us, pray? for really and truly, guardy, you have been flirting the worst of the two."
"Nonsense, Mollie! You mean Miss Oleander, I suppose? That is no flirtation."
"Indeed! then it is worse—it is serious?"
"Yes, if asking her to marry me be serious. And she has said yes, Mollie."
Miss Dane looked at him compassionately.
"You poor, unfortunate guardy! And you are really going to marry Blanche Oleander! Well, one comfort is, you will be ready to blow your brains out six months after; and serve you right, too! Don't let us talk about it to-night. I am sorry for you, and if you have any sense left you will soon be sorry for yourself. Here comes Doctor Oleander, and I mean to be as fascinating as I know how, just to drive the other two to the verge of madness."
She danced away, leaving Mr. Walraven pulling his mustache, a picture of helpless perplexity.
"I wonder if I have put my foot in it?" he thought, as he looked across the long room to where Blanche stood, the brilliant center of a brilliant group. "She is very handsome and very clever—so clever that I don't for the life of me know whether I made love to her or she to me. It is too late now for anything but a wedding or heavy damages, and of the two evils I prefer the first."
Mrs. Walraven's dinner-party broke up very late, and Blanche Oleander went home with her cousin.
"A pert, forward, bold-faced minx!" Miss Oleander burst out, the moment they were alone in the carriage. "Guy, what on earth did you mean by paying her such marked attention all evening?"
"What did Carl Walraven mean by paying you such marked attention all evening?" retorted her cousin.
"Mr. Walraven is no flirt—he means marriage."
"And I am no flirt—I mean marriage also."
"Guy, are you mad? Marry that nameless, brazen creature?"
"Blanche, be civil! Most assuredly I will marry her if she will marry me."
"Then you will repent it all the days of your life."
"Probably. I think I heard Miss Dane making a similar remark to your affianced about you."
"The impertinent little wretch! Let her wait until I am Mr. Walraven's wife!"
"Vague and terrible! When is it to be?"
"The wedding? Next month."
"Poor Walraven! There, Blanche, don't flash up, pray! When you are married you will want to get blue-eyed Mollie off your hands, so please transfer her to me, little flash of lightning that she is! I always did like unbroken colts for the pleasure of taming them."
Mrs. Walraven was told of her son's approaching marriage the day after the dinner-party; disapproved, but said nothing. Mollie disapproved, and said everything.
"It's of no use talking now, Mollie!" her guardian exclaimed, impatiently. "I must and will marry Blanche."
"And, oh! what a pitiable object you will be twelve months after! But I'll never desert you—never strike my flag to the conqueress. 'The boy stood on the burning deck.' I'll be a second Casi—what you may call him? to you. I'll be bride-maid now, and your protector from the lovely Blanche in the future."
She kept her word. In spite of Miss Oleander's dislike, she was first bride-maid when the eventful day arrived.
But fairer than the bride, fairest of the rosy bevy of bride-maids, shone blue-eyed Mollie Dane. A party of speechless admirers stood behind, chief among them Hugh Ingelow.
The bridal party were drawn up before the surpliced clergyman, and "Who giveth this woman?" had been asked and answered, and the service was proceeding in due order when there was a sudden commotion at the door.
Some one rushed impetuously in, and a voice that rang through the lofty edifice shouted:
"Stop! I forbid the marriage!"
Carl Walraven whirled round aghast. The bride shrieked; the bride-maids echoed the bride in every note of the gamut—all save Mollie; and she, like the bridegroom, had recognized the intruder.
For, tall and gaunt as one of Macbeth's witches, there stood the woman Miriam!
There was a blank pause; every eye fixed on the towering form of the specter-like woman.
"I forbid the marriage!" exclaimed Miriam. "Clergyman, on your peril you unite those two!"
"The woman is mad!" cried Carl Walraven, white with rage. "Men, turn her out!"
"Stop!" said Mollie—"stop one moment I know this woman, and will see what she means."
No one interfered; every one gazed in breathless interest as Miss Dane quitted her post and confronted the haggard apparition. The woman uttered a cry at sight of her, and caught her impetuously by the arm.
"Mad girl! have you forgotten what I told you? Would you marry that man?"
"Marry what man? What do you mean? I am not going to marry any man to-day. It is you who have gone mad, I think."
"Why, then, do you wear those bridal robes?"
"Bride-maid robes, if you please. Gracious me, Miriam, you didn't think I was going to marry Mr. Walraven, did you?"
Miriam passed her hand over her brow with a bewildered air.
"Whom, then, is it, if not you?"
"Miss Blanche Oleander, of course, as anyone could have told you, if you had taken the trouble to ask before rushing in here and making a scene."
"I only heard last night he was to be married," Miriam said, with a bewildered face, "and took it for granted that it must be you."
"Then you must have had a poorer opinion of my taste than I should have thought it possible for you to have. Come in and beg everybody's pardon, and tell them it was all a shocking mistake."
"One word first: Are you well and happy?"
"Perfectly well, and happy as a queen. Come on; there is no time to lose. People are staring dreadfully, and the bride is glaring with rage. Quick—come!"
She flitted back to her place, and Miriam, stepping forward, addressed the assembly:
"I ask your pardon, ladies and gentlemen. I have made a mistake. I thought the bride was Miss Dane. I beg the ceremony will proceed."
She pulled a veil she wore down over her gaunt face, and with the last word hurried out and disappeared. Mr. Walraven, suppressing his rage, turned to the minister.
"Proceed!" he said, impatiently, "and make haste."
The bride, very white with anger and mortification, resumed her place; the ceremony recommenced. This time there was no interruption, and in ten minutes the twain were one flesh.
Half an hour later they were back at the Walraven mansion to eat the wedding-breakfast, and then the new-made Mrs. Walraven, with an eye that flashed and a voice that rang, turned upon her liege lord and demanded an explanation. Mr. Walraven shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly.
"My dearest Blanche, I have none to give. The woman must be mad. Speak to Mollie."
"Carl Walraven, do not dare to deceive me on my wedding-day. You know more of this than you choose to say."
"Mrs. Walraven, do not raise your angel voice to such a pitch for nothing. I said before, speak to Mollie. I say again, speak to Mollie; and here she is."
"So she is," said Miss Dane, sauntering in. "Do you want me to allay a post-nuptial storm already? Auspicious beginning! What is it?"
"Who was that woman?" demanded the bride.
"A very old friend of mine, madame."
"Why did she come to the church and try to stop the marriage?"
"Because she thought I was the bride. She said so, didn't she? And being very well acquainted with me, she was moved with compassion for the deluded man and came to warn him in time. I explained her little mistake, as you saw, and she apologized handsomely, and—exit, Miriam. Isn't that satisfactory?"
"Are you speaking the truth?"
Miss Dane laid her hand upon her heart, and bowed profoundly.
"Doesn't Mr. Walraven know her?"
"That is a question I can not take it upon myself to answer. Mr. Walraven is of age. Let him speak for himself."
"I told you before," said the bridegroom, angrily. "Let us have no more about it, Blanche, or I may chance to lose my temper."
He turned on his heel and walked off whistling, and the bride, in her snowy robes and laces, went down to breakfast, trying vainly to clear her stormy brow. Mollie puckered up her rosy lips into a shrill whistle.
"And this is their wedding-day! I told him how it would be, but of course nobody ever minds what I say. Poor guardy! what ever would become of him traveling alone with that woman! How thankful he ought to be that he has me to go along and take care of him!"
For Mollie had made it an express stipulation, contrary to all precedent, that she was to accompany the happy pair on their bridal tour. Miss Oleander's ante-nuptial objections had been faint; Mrs. Walraven, less scrupulous, turned upon her husband at the eleventh hour, just previous to starting, and insisted that she should be left at home.
"It will be ridiculous in the extreme," exclaimed the bride, "having your ward traveling with us! Let her remain at home with your mother."
Mr. Walraven looked his bride steadfastly in the eye for a moment, then sat down deliberately.
"Look here, Mrs. Walraven," said Mr. Walraven, perfectly cool, "you have made a little mistake, I fancy. Permit me to rectify it. Wearing the breeches is a vulgar expression, I am aware, and only admissible in low circles; still, it so forcibly expresses what I am trying to express, that you will allow me to use it. You are trying to don the inexpressibles, Blanche, but it won't do. My ward goes with us on our bridal tour, or there shall be no bridal tour at all. There! you have it in plain English, Mrs. Carl Walraven!"
Five minutes later Mr. and Mrs. Walraven descended to the carriage, Mrs. Walraven with her veil drawn down, and making her adieus in a smothered sort of voice. Mr. Walraven handed in his ward next, then followed; the coachman flourished his whip and they were gone.
The happy pair were merely going to Washington. Mr. Walraven had had a surfeit of Europe, and Washington, this sparkling winter weather, was at its gayest and best. The Walraven party, with plethoric purses, plunged into the midst of the gayety at once.
"I like this sort of thing," said Mollie to her guardian; "the theater, and the opera, and a ball, and two or three parties every night. I like dancing until broad daylight, and going to bed at six in the morning, and getting up to breakfast at one. I like matinees at three in the afternoon, and dinners with seventeen courses, and going to the White House, and shaking hands with the President, and sailing around the East Room, and having people point me out as the beauty of the season. It's new and it's nice, and I never get tired, or pale, or limpy, like most of the girls. I never enjoyed myself so much in my life, and you would say the same thing, guardy, only you're in your honey-moon, and not capable of enjoying anything."
"But, Mollie," Mr. Walraven remonstrated, "it isn't right to flirt so much as you do. There's young Ingelow. The way you devoted yourself to that young man last night set everybody talking."
"Let 'em talk," responded Miss Dane, loftily. "When Mr. Ingelow followed me all the way from New York, I think it was the very least I could do in common politeness. He found it a waste and howling wilderness without me—yes, he did; he said so. And then, Mr. Walraven, I like him."
"You like him?"
"Yes, ever and ever so much; and I'm dreadfully sorry for him, because I know it'll break his heart when I refuse him."
"He hasn't proposed yet, then?"
"Not yet, but I expect it shortly. I know the symptoms. He looked almost as sheepish last night as you used to before you proposed to Miss Oleander."
It was quite true; the handsome young artist had followed Miss Dane to Washington. He had hardly known how much he was in love with her until she was gone, and all young-ladydom grew flat, stale, and insipid as dish-water.
Mr. Ingelow, of rather an indolent temperament, disposed to take things easy and let the world slide, was astonished himself at the sudden heat and ardor this little girl with the sunny smile had created within him.
"It isn't her beauty," thought the handsome artist, "although she is pretty as an angel; it isn't her blue eyes and her golden hair, for I see blue eyes and golden hair every day of my life, and never give them a second thought; it isn't her singing or dancing, for half the girls I know sing and dance as well; and it can't be her spirited style of conversation, for that's not so very new, either. Then what is it?"
Mr. Ingelow, at this point, always fell into such a morass of pros and cons that his brain grew dazed, and he gave the problem up altogether. But the great, incontrovertible fact remained—he was headlong in love with Mollie, and had followed her to Washington expressly to tell her so.
"For if I wait, and she returns to New York," mused Mr. Ingelow, "I will have Oleander and Sardonyx both neck and neck in the race. Here there is a fair field and no favor, and here I will try my luck."
But Mr. Ingelow was mistaken, for here in his "fair field" appeared the most formidable rival he could possibly have had—a rival who seemed likely to eclipse himself and Oleander and Sardonyx at one fell swoop.
At the presidential levees, on public promenades and drives, Miss Dane had noticed a tall, white-haired, aristocratic-looking gentleman attentively watching her as if fascinated. Every place she appeared in public this distinguished-looking gentleman hovered in the background like her shadow.
"Who is that venerable old party," she demanded, impatiently, "that haunts me like an uneasy ghost? Can I be a lost daughter of his, with a strawberry mark somewhere, or do I bear an unearthly resemblance to some lovely being he murdered in early life? Who is he?"
And the answer came, nearly taking away Cricket's breath:
"Sir Roger Trajenna, the great Welsh baronet, worth nobody knows how many millions, and with castles by the dozen in his own land of mountains."
It was Mr. Ingelow who gave her the information, and the occasion was a brilliant ball. Mollie had often heard of the Welsh baronet, but this was the first time she had encountered him at a ball or party.
"I thought that Sir Roger Trajenna never accepted invitations," she said, opening and shutting her fan. "This is the first time I ever saw him at a private party."
"I think I know the reason," responded Mr. Ingelow. "Rumor sets him down as the last in Miss Dane's list of killed and wounded."
"So I have heard," said Mollie, coolly; "but it is too good to be true. I should dearly love to be my lady and live in a Welsh castle."
"With sixty-five years and a hoary head for a husband?"
"How painfully accurate you are! With his countless millions and his ancestral castles, what does a little disparity of years signify?"
"Miss Dane," asked Mr. Ingelow, very earnestly, "would you accept that old man if he asked you?"
"My dear Mr. Ingelow, what a dreadfully point-blank question! So very embarrassing! I thought you knew better!"
"I beg your pardon. But, Miss Dane, as a sincere friend, may I ask an answer?"
"Well, then, as a friend, I can't say for certain, but I am afraid—I am very much afraid I would say—"
"Miss Dane, permit me!" exclaimed a voice at her elbow—"Sir Roger Trajenna, Miss Dane."
Miss Dane turned calmly round to her hostess and the guest of the evening, and graciously received the venerable baronet's profound bow. At the same instant the music of a waltz struck up, to the jealous artist's infinite relief.
"Now, then, Miss Dane, if you are ready," said Mr. Ingelow, rather imperiously.
"Excuse me, Mr. Ingelow," replied Miss Dane, with infinite calm; "I am really too much fatigued for this waltz. Sir Roger, some one is singing yonder. I should like to hear him."
And under Mr. Ingelow's angry eyes, she took the enraptured old baronet's arm and walked away.
"The hoary dotard!" muttered the artist, glaring and grinding his teeth; "the sixty-five-year-old imbecile! It is the first time I ever heard her decline a waltz under the plea of fatigue. She's a heartless coquette, that Mollie Dane, and I am a fool to waste a second thought upon her."
Miss Dane danced no more that evening, and Sir Roger never left her side. She talked to him until his old eyes sparkled; she smiled upon him until his brain swam with delight.
And that was but the beginning. The torments Mr. Hugh Ingelow suffered for the ensuing two weeks words are too weak to describe. To cap the climax, Dr. Oleander suddenly appeared upon the scene and glowered under bent black brows at coquettish Mollie.
"The idea of being civil to anything so commonplace as a mere doctor," Miss Dane said to her guardian, when taken to task for the airs she assumed, "when Welsh baronets are ready to go down on their knees and worship the ground I walk on! If he doesn't like the way he is treated, he knows the way back to New York. I never sent for him to come here."
Sir Roger's devotion was inexpressible. No wonder Mollie was dazzled. The city was on the qui vive. The piquant little New York beauty, whom the men adored and the women abused, had caught the golden prize. Would he really ask her to become Lady Trajenna, or would the glamour wear off and leave the saucy little flirt stranded high and dry?
The last night of Mr. Walraven's stay in Washington settled that question. They were at a grand reception, Mrs. Walraven magnificent in moir and diamonds, and Mollie floating about in a cloud of misty pink, and sparkling pearls, and amber tresses. There, of course, was Sir Roger, and there (also, of course) were Dr. Oleander and Hugh Ingelow in a state of frantic jealousy.
It had come, long ere this, to be a settled thing that the Welsh baronet should never leave her side, except while she was dancing. So that when, a little before supper, they strolled out on the piazza, it was nothing surprising or remarkable.
The winter night was windless and mild. Sir Roger's asthmatic and rheumatic afflictions were quite safe in the warm atmosphere. Moonlight flooded everything with its misty glory, stars spangled the sky, music came softened by distance from the ball-room—all was conducive to love and to love-making. Sir Roger Trajenna, inspired by the music, the moonlight, and the charming little beauty beside him, there and then laid name, heart, and fortune at Miss Dane's fair feet.
There was a pause. Even Mollie felt a little fluttered, now that the time had come.
"I know the disparity of years is great," the baronet said, quite trembling in his eagerness; "but my whole existence will be devoted to you; every pleasure wealth can purchase shall be yours; every wish that I can anticipate shall be anticipated. You will be my darling, my idol. I love you passionately. Say not, then, I am too old."
"I don't," said Mollie—"I don't mind your age in the least. I rather dislike young men; I've had such a surfeit of them."
"Then I may hope?" breathlessly.
"Oh, yes, Sir Roger, you may hope. I am not in love with anybody else that I know of."
"And you will be my wife?"
"Ah, that's another thing! I don't seem to care about being married, somehow. You must give me time, Sir Roger. Come, let us go in to supper. I will tell you by and by."
"As you please, my beautiful Mollie. Only don't keep me waiting too long, and let your answer be 'yes' when it comes."
Miss Dane partook of supper with a very good appetite, accepted Mr. Ingelow for a waltz and Dr. Oleander for a quadrille, smiled sweetly and graciously upon both, and took Sir Roger's arm, at the close of the ball, for the carriage.
"Well, Miss Dane—Mollie!" the baronet said, eagerly, "have you decided? What is it to be—yes or no?"
And Mollie looked up in his face with those starry, azure eyes, and that bewildering smile, and answered sweetly:
Miss Dane returned to New York "engaged," and with the fact known to none save herself and the enraptured Welshman.
"There is no need to be in a hurry," the young lady said to her elderly adorer; "and I want to be safely at home before I overwhelm them with the news. There is always such fussing and talking made over engagements, and an engagement is dreadfully humdrum and doweryish anyhow."
That was what Miss Dane said. What she thought was entirely another matter.
"I do want Doctor Oleander and Mr. Sardonyx to propose; and if they discover I've accepted the baronet, they won't. I am dying to see the wry faces they will make over 'No, thanks!' Then there is Hugh Ingelow—"
But Mollie's train of wicked thoughts was apt to break off at this point, and a remorseful expression cloud her blue eyes.
"Poor Hugh! Poor fellow! It's a little too bad to treat him so; and he's dreadfully fond of me, too. But, then, it's impossible to help it; of course it is. I want to be rich, and wear diamonds, and travel over the world, and be 'My Lady!' and poor, dear Hugh couldn't keep a cat properly. Ah! what a pity all the nice men, and the handsome men, must be poor!"
Faithfully in the train of the Walraven party returned Mollie's adorers. No one was surprised at the continued devotion of Messrs. Ingelow and Oleander; but every one was surprised at Sir Roger Trajenna.
"Is it possible that proud old man has really fallen seriously in love with that yellow-haired, flighty child?" asked Mrs. Carl Walraven in angry surprise. "He was attentive at Washington, certainly; but I fancied his absurd old eyes were only caught for the moment. If it should prove serious, what a thing it will be for her! and these antediluvians, in their dotage, will do such ridiculous things. My Lady Trajenna! Detestable little minx! I should like to poison her!"
Miss Dane carried on her flirtations, despite her engagement, with her three more youthful admirers.
Now and then Sir Roger, looking on with doting, but disapproving eyes, ventured on a feeble remonstrance.
"It is unfair to yourself and unfair to me, my darling," he said. "Every smile you bestow upon them is a stab to me. Do let me speak to Mr. Walraven, and end it at once."
But still Mollie refused to consent.
"No, no, Sir Roger; let me have my own way a little longer. There is no need of your being jealous. I don't care a straw for the three of them. Only it is such fun. Wait a little longer."
Of course the fair-haired despot had her way.
The second week of their return Mr. and Mrs. Walraven were "at home" to their friends, and once more the spacious halls and stair-ways were ablaze with illumination, and the long ranges of rooms, opening one into another, were radiant with light, and flowers, and music, and brilliant ladies.
Mrs. Walraven, superb in her bridal robes, stood beside her husband, receiving their guests. And Miss Mollie Dane, in shimmering silk, that blushed as she walked, and clusters of water-lilies drooping from her tinseled curls, was as lovely as Venus rising from the sea-foam.
Here, there, everywhere, she flashed like a gleam of light; waltzing with the dreamy-eyed artist, Hugh Ingelow, hanging on the arm of Dr. Oleander, chattering like a magpie with Lawyer Sardonyx, and anon laughing at all three with Sir Roger Trajenna.
You might as well have tried to regulate the vagaries of a comet—as well guess from what quarter the fickle wind would next blow.
"Women are all puzzles," said Dr. Oleander, in quiet despair to Mrs. Walraven. "That is a truism long and tried; but, by Jove! Miss Mollie Dane puts the toppers on the lot. I never met with such a bewildering sprite."
"Odious, artful creature!" hissed the bride of Carl Walraven. "It is all her crafty scheming to attract the attention of that hoary-headed simpleton, Sir Roger Trajenna. If you are in love with her, Guy (and how you can is a mystery to me), why don't you propose at once?"
"Because I am afraid, madame."
"Afraid!" scornfully—"afraid of a goosey girl of seventeen! I never took you for a born idiot before, Guy Oleander."
"Thanks, my fair relative! But it is quite as disagreeable to be refused by a 'goosey girl of seventeen' as by a young lady of seven-and-twenty. Your age, my dear Blanche, is it not?"
"Never mind my age!" retorted Mrs. Walraven, sharply. "My age has nothing to do with it. If you don't ask Mollie Dane to-night, Hugh Ingelow or James Sardonyx will to-morrow, and the chances are ten to one she accepts the first one who proposes."
"Oh, for the sake of being engaged, being a heroine, being talked about. She likes to be talked about, this bewildering fairy of yours. She isn't in love with any of you; that I can see. It isn't in her shallow nature, I suppose, to be in love with anybody but her own precious self."
"My dear Mrs. Walraven, are you not a little severe? Poor, blue-eyed Mollie! And you think, if I speak to-night, I stand a chance?"
"A better chance than if you defer it. She may say 'yes' on the impulse of the moment. If she does, trust me to make her keep her word."
"That is my affair. Ah! what, was that?"
The cousins were standing near one of the long, richly draped windows, and the silken hangings had fluttered suddenly.
"Nothing but the wind," replied Dr. Oleander, carelessly. "Very well, Blanche, I take you at your word. I will ask Mollie to-night."
Mrs. Walraven nodded, and turned to go.
"Ask her as quickly as possible. You are to dance the polka quadrille with her, are you not? After the polka quadrille, then. And now let us part, or they will begin to think we are hatching another Gunpowder Plot."
"Or Mr. Carl Walraven may be jealous," suggested Dr. Oleander, with an unpleasant laugh. "I say, Blanche, the golden-haired Mollie couldn't be his daughter, could she?"
Mrs. Walraven's black eyes flashed.
"Whoever she is, the sooner she is out of this house the better. I hate her, Doctor Oleander—your Fair One with the Golden Locks, and I could go to her funeral with the greatest pleasure!"
The plotting pair separated. Hardly were they gone when the silken curtains parted and a bright face, framed in yellow ringlets, peeped out, sparkling with mischief.
"Two women in one house, two cats over one mouse, never agree," quoth Mollie. "Listeners never hear any good of themselves, but, oh! the opportunity was irresistible. So Doctor Guy Oleander is going to propose, and Mollie Dane is to say 'yes' on the impulse of the moment, and Mamma Blanche is to make her stick to her word! And it's all to happen after the polka quadrille! Very well; I'm ready. If Doctor Oleander and his cousin don't find their match, my name's not Mollie!"
Miss Dane consulted her jeweled tablets, and discovered that the polka quadrille was the very next in order.
Shaking out her rosy skirts, she fluttered away, mercilessly bent on manslaughter. Every one made way for the daughter of the house, and in a moment she was beside Dr. Oleander, holding up the inlaid tablets, and smiling her brightest in his dazzled eyes.
"Such disgraceful conduct, Doctor Oleander! I have been searching for you everywhere. I appeal to you, Colonel Marshland; he engaged me for this quadrille. There is the music now, and he leaves me to hunt the house for him."
"Unpardonable," said the gallant colonel. "At his age I should have known better. Oleander, make your peace if you can."
The colonel made his bow, and then he walked away.
Dr. Oleander drew her arm inside his own, bending very low over the sparkling sprite.
"You are not implacable, I trust, Miss Mollie. It was all the colonel's fault, I assure you."
Mollie shrugged her shoulders.
"Of course you say so. Oh, don't wear that imploring face! I forgive you; but sin no more. There! they are waiting—come!"
All through the dance Miss Dane sparkled as she had never sparkled Before. Ere the quadrille was over, Dr. Oleander was ten fathoms deeper in love than ever.
"It is so very hot here!" Mollie exclaimed, impatiently—"perfectly stifling! Do let us go somewhere and get cool."
"Let us go into the conservatory," said Dr. Oleander, delightedly, quite unconscious that his fair enslaver was playing into his hand. "We are sure to find solitude and coolness there."
The conservatory was delightfully cool, after the African temperature of the ball-room. Alabaster lamps shed a pale sort of moonlight over the sleeping flowers, and splashing fountains, and marble goddesses.
Miss Dane sunk down under a large orange-tree and began fanning herself languidly.
"How nice—this half light, these perfumed roses, those tinkling water-falls, music, and solitude! Do I look like Love among the Roses, Doctor Oleander?"
"Yes; like Love, like Venus, like everything that is bright, and beautiful, and irresistible, Miss Dane!"
"Monsieur overwhelms me! Why, good gracious, sir! What do you mean?"
For Dr. Oleander had actually caught her in his arms and was pouring forth a passionate declaration of love.
"Goodness me! Release me instantly! How dare you, sir? Have you taken leave of your senses, Doctor Oleander?"
"I am mad for love of you, beautiful Mollie! I adore you with my whole heart!"
"Do you, indeed?" said Mollie, looking angrily at her ruffled plumage. "See my dress—not fit to be seen! I'm surprised at you, Doctor Oleander!"
"Mollie, I love you!"
"I don't care—that's no reason why you should spoil my lovely dress, and make me a perfect fright. You had no business going on in that outrageous manner, sir!"
"But, Mollie! Good heavens! will you listen to me? Never mind your dress."
"Never mind my dress?" cried Miss Dane, shrilly. "Doctor Oleander, you're a perfect bear, and I've a good mind never to speak to you again as long as I live! Let us go back to the ball-room. If I had known you were going to act so, I'd have seen you considerably inconvenienced before I came with you here."
"Not until you answer me, Mollie."
"Answer you? Answer you what? You haven't asked me any question."
"I told you I loved you."
"Well," testily, "you don't call that a question?"
"Mollie, will you love me?"
"No—of course not! Oh, what a torment you are! Do let us go back!"
"Never!" exclaimed Dr. Oleander, gathering hope—"never, Mollie, until you answer me!"
He caught both her hands and held them fast, Mollie struggling in vain.
"Oh, dear, dear, what will I say? And there—if there isn't some one coming in! Let me go, for pity's sake, and I'll answer you—to-morrow."
"I won't—there!" wrenching her hands free and springing up. "Come to-morrow, between twelve and one, and you shall have your answer."
She darted away, and almost into the arms of Mr. Hugh Ingelow. That gentleman looked suspiciously from her to Dr. Oleander, emerging from the shadow of the orange-tree.
"Am I de trop, Miss Dane? I thought to find the conservatory deserted."
"And so it will be, in a minute," said Mollie, familiarly taking his arm. "They are going to supper out yonder, and I am almost famished. Take me down."
"And, if I can, I will make you follow Guy Oleander's lead before I release you," was the mental addition of the naughty coquette.
It was no difficult task to accomplish. A powder magazine with the train laid could not have needed a smaller spark to cause its explosion. Those few words elevated the young artist at once to the loftiest pinnacle of bliss.
"She has just refused Oleander, and I may stand a chance," he thought. "I'll ask her, by Jove! after supper."
Mr. Ingelow kept his word. He paid Miss Dane the most marked attention throughout the repast, filled her plate with delicacies and her ears with compliments. And Mollie was sweet as summer cherries, and took his arm when it was over, and let him lead her into a retired nook where amber curtains shut them in; and there, pale and agitated, the poor fellow said his say and waited for his sentence.
Mollie's wicked heart smote her. She liked this handsome young artist more than she was aware of, and the first twinge of remorse for her merciless coquetry filled her mind.
But it was too late to pause in her mischief-making, and the fun ahead was too tempting.
"Speak, Miss Dane," Mr. Ingelow implored: "for pity's sake, don't say you have led me on only to jilt me in cold blood at the last!"
"Rather strong language, Mr. Ingelow," said Mollie, coolly pulling to pieces a rose. "I have not led you on, have I? I have been friendly with you because I liked you—as I have been with a dozen others."
"Then I am to consider myself rejected, Miss Dane?"
He stood up before her, very white, with eyes of unspeakable reproach.
"What a hurry you are in!" said Mollie, pettishly. "Give me until to-morrow. I will think it over. Between twelve and one I will be at home; come then and you shall have your answer. There! let us go back to the ball-room. I have promised this redowa to Mr. Sardonyx."
Mr. Ingelow, in profound silence, led Miss Dane back to the ball-room, where they found the elegant lawyer searching for his partner.
"I thought you had forgotten me, Miss Dane," he said, taking her off at once.
"Impossible, Mr. Sardonyx," laughed Mollie. "So sorry to have kept you waiting; but better late than never."
That dance was the old story over again. At its close the lawyer was so bewitched that he hardly knew whether he stood on his head or heels.
"It is coming!" thought wicked Mollie, looking sideways at him, "and only wants a proper place to come in."
Aloud: "It is so warm here—I feel quite faint, really. Suppose we step out on the piazza a moment?"
An instant later and they emerged through the drawing-room window to the piazza, Mollie wrapped in a scarlet shawl, along which her bright curls waved like sunshine. The night was still, warm, and moonlight; the twinkling lights of the great city shone like a shower of stars.
And here, for the third time that eventful night, Mollie Dane listened to an ardent avowal of love. For the third time the long lashes drooped over the mischievous eyes.
"This is so sudden—so unexpected—Mr. Sardonyx! I feel highly complimented, of course; but still you must pardon me if I do not reply at once. Give me until to-morrow, at noon. Come then and you will be answered."
She fluttered away like a spirit with the last words, leaving the hopeful lawyer standing in ecstasy. Of course she meant to accept him, or she would have refused him on the spot.
For the rest of the time Miss Dane was exclusively the Welsh baronet's, and listened with unruffled serenity to his reproaches.
"You are driving me distracted, Mollie," he said, piteously. "You must let me speak to your guardian without further delay. I insist upon it."
"Very well," replied Miss Dane, calmly. "As you please, certainly. You may tell him to-morrow. Let me see: at noon Mr. Walraven will be at home and alone. Come at noon."
The party was over—a brilliant success.
Mrs. Walraven had been admired, and Miss Dane had scandalized the best metropolitan society worse than ever.
"And, oh!" thought that wicked witch, as she laid her curly head on the pillow in the gray dawn, "won't there be fun by and by?"
Mrs. Walraven descended to breakfast at half past ten, and announced her intention of spending the remainder of the morning shopping.
Mollie, in a charming demi-toilet, and looking as fresh as though she had not danced incessantly the whole night before, heard the announcement with secret satisfaction.
"Are you going, too, Mollie?" asked her guardian.
"No," said Mollie; "I'm going to stay at home and entertain Sir Roger Trajenna. He is coming to luncheon."
"Seems to me, Cricket," said Mr. Walraven, "Sir Roger Trajenna hangs after you like your shadow. What does it mean?"
"It means—making your charming ward Lady Trajenna; if he can, of course."
"But he's as old as the hills, Mollie."
"Then I'll be a fascinating young widow all the sooner."
"Disgusting!" exclaimed Mrs. Carl Walraven. "You are perfectly heartless, Mollie Dane!"
She swept from the room to dress for her shopping expedition. It was almost twelve when she was fairly off, and then Mollie summoned her maid and gave her sundry directions with a very serious face.
"I am going to spend the morning in the blue room, Margaret," she said; "and I expect four gentlemen to call—Sir Roger Trajenna, Mr. Ingelow, Doctor Oleander, and Mr. Sardonyx."
"Yes, miss," said Margaret.
"Sir Roger you will show at once into the blue room," pursued the young lady; "Mr. Ingelow into the library: Doctor Oleander into the drawing-room, and Mr. Sardonyx into the breakfast-parlor. Do you understand?"
"Yes, miss," said Margaret.
"Very well, then; that will do. I am going to the blue room now, and don't you forget my directions, or I shall box your ears."
Miss Dane sailed off. Margaret looked after her with a queer face.
"She'd do it, too! I wonder what all this means? Some piece of mischief, I'll be bound!"
The baronet arrived, prompt to the hour, and was ushered at once into the presence of his enchantress. Fifteen minutes after came Dr. Oleander, shown by demure Margaret into the drawing-room; and scarcely was he seated when ting-a-ling! went the bell, and the door was opened to Mr. Hugh Ingelow. Mr. Ingelow was left to compose himself in the library. Then there was a pause, and then, last of all, arrived Mr. Sardonyx.
The blue room bell rang. Margaret ran up and met her mistress at the door.
"Are they all down-stairs, Margaret?" in a whisper.
"Then show them up in the order they arrived. I don't want Sir Roger to know they've been kept waiting."
Margaret obeyed. In two minutes she opened the blue-room door, and announced Dr. Oleander.
The doctor advanced with an expectant smile; recoiled, a second later, at sight of the baronet, with a frown.
"Good-day, doctor," said Miss Dane, politely. "Happy to see you. Lovely morning, is it not?"
The doctor dropped into a seat. Hardly had he taken it, when—"Mr. Ingelow!" exclaimed Margaret, opening the door.
Mr. Ingelow started, and stared at sight of the trio, where he had looked for but one.
Miss Dane greeted him with smiling cordiality, and there was nothing for it but to sink into a chair.
Before Mollie's last word of welcome was uttered, the door opened for the third time, and enter Mr. Sardonyx.
The tableau was indescribably ludicrous. The four men glared at one another vengefully, and then four pairs of eyes turned indignantly upon Miss Dane for an explanation. They had it.
"Gentlemen," said Miss Dane, with her sweetest smile, "I invited you here this morning because you are very particular friends, and I wished to give you an agreeable surprise before all the avenue knows it. Doctor Oleander, Mr. Ingelow, Mr. Sardonyx, allow me to present to you my plighted husband, Sir Roger Trajenna."
Imagine that tableau!
For an instant there was dead silence; a bomb bursting in their midst could hardly have startled them more. Mollie dared not look in their faces, lest the inward laughter that convulsed her should burst forth.
Sir Roger Trajenna, a little surprised, yet bowed with gentlemanly ease, while the three young men sat perfectly thunder-struck.
The dead blank was broken by Dr. Oleander.
"Permit me to congratulate Sir Roger Trajenna," he said, bowing to that gentleman; "and permit me to thank Miss Dane for this exceedingly unexpected mark of preference. If it is ever in my power to return your condescension, Miss Mollie, believe me you will find my memory good. I wish you all good-morning."
His immovable face had not changed, but his gray eyes flashed one bright, fierce glance at Mollie, that said, plainly as words, "I will have revenge for this insult as sure as my name is Guy Oleander".
But saucy Mollie only answered that sinister look by her brightest glance and smile; and taking his hat, Dr. Oleander strode away.
Then Mr. Sardonyx arose. He had been sitting like a statue, but the words and departure of his fellow-victim seemed to restore consciousness.
"Am I to understand, Miss Dane, that this is the answer you meant when you invited me here to-day?" he sternly asked.
"Did I really invite you? Oh, yes! Of course, Mr. Sardonyx, it must have been. I purposely kept my engagement secret since my return from Washington in order to give you an agreeable surprise."
"I am exceedingly obliged to you. Believe me, I will prove my gratitude if ever opportunity offers."
Miss Dane bowed and smiled. Sir Roger looked hopelessly bewildered. Mr. Sardonyx took his hat.
"Farewell, Miss Dane, and many thanks."
He was gone. Hugh Ingelow alone remained—Hugh Ingelow, white and cold as a dead man. Mollie's heart smote her cruelly for the second time at sight of him. He arose as the lawyer disappeared.
"You have nothing more to say to me, Miss Dane?"
Mollie lifted her eyebrows.
"My dear Mr. Ingelow, what should I possibly have to say to you, except that we will always be most happy to see you—Sir Roger and I?"
"Always," echoed the baronet, with a stately bend.
"You are very kind. Good-day, Sir Roger Trajenna. Congratulations on so eminently suitable a match would be preposterous. Farewell, Miss Dane. I, too, know how to remember!"
With the words he passed out. Sir Roger turned with something like a frown to his bride-elect.
"What does it mean, Mollie?"
Mollie laughed—such a gay, girlish laugh!
"Can't you see, Sir Roger? They are nearly frantic with jealousy, the three of them. What fun it was to see them sitting there and scowling at one another!"
"But they threatened, did they not?" the baronet asked, still frowning.
"Did they? They said they would remember, and I think it is very likely they will. Poor fellows! It was natural, and I don't mind."
"And when am I to speak to your guardian now?"
"As soon as you please—after luncheon, if you like. I don't suppose he'll object."
"Certainly not," Sir Roger said, proudly; "and then, my dearest, when am I to have my lovely little wife?"
"Oh, I don't know! It isn't well to be in any hurry. Wait a year or two."
"A year or two!" cried Sir Roger, in much the same tone as if she had said a century or two. "Impossible—utterly impossible, Mollie!"
"Well, then, a month or two. I am not in any hurry to be married, and I don't see why you should be."
"My darling little Mollie, if you loved me half as much as I love you, you would understand. And you will really be mine in a month?"
"Or two. Yes, if you insist upon it. If I am to be Lady Trajenna first or last, it may as well be first, I suppose."
"And you will not change your mind?"
"Of course not," said Mollie, indignantly. "When Mollie Dane gives her word, the laws of the Medes and—what's their names?—are nothing to it. Don't tease, Sir Roger. When I promise a thing, it's as good as done."
Mollie danced away to the piano, and held her infatuated baronet spell-bound until luncheon time.
At table Mr. and Mrs. Walraven met them, and immediately after the meal the baronet formally requested the pleasure of a private interview.
"Can he really be going to ask for Mollie?" thought Mr. Walraven. "Upon my word, if he is, this is quite a new role for me—playing the part of venerable parent, and that to a white-haired gentleman who numbers a round score more years than myself."
He led the way to his study, followed by the baronet. And Sir Roger came to the point at once, calmly, proudly, with grave dignity.
"The disparity of years is great, I know," he said. "But if she is willing to overlook that objection, you surely may. There is no other drawback that I am aware of. A Trajenna, of Trajenna, might mate with the highest in England."
He lifted his white, erect head haughtily, and looked Carl Walraven full in the face. Mr. Walraven held out his hand and grasped the baroness's cordially.
"My dear Sir Roger, I am proud and happy beyond expression. Mollie may consider herself a fortunate girl to escape the wild young scapegraces who dangle after her, and find a husband in a man like you. She stands alone in the world, poor child, without father or mother. You, Sir Roger, must be all the world to her now."
"Heaven helping me, I will!" the old man said, earnestly.
"My whole life shall be devoted to her happiness."
"And when is it to be?" Mr. Walraven asked, with a smile. "I presume you and Mollie have settled that?"
"In two months. It will be spring then; and we can start at once for Wales. I long to show my fairy bride old Trajenna Castle."
"We shall miss her very much:" and Carl Walraven sighed in good earnest as he said it. "She has been the sunlight of our home. My poor old mother will almost break her heart: but it is for Mollie's good, and all selfish considerations must give way. You are aware, Sir Roger, she has no dower?"
"She needs none," Sir Roger said, proudly. "My fortune is princely; her settlements shall be as ample as though she were heiress to millions. I believe there is nothing more, Mr. Walraven, and so let us rejoin the ladies."
The news spread like wildfire—the avenue was electrified. Mollie Dane—little, coquettish Mollie Dane—sprung from nobody knew where, to carry off the great Welsh baronet, in spite of them all. The man must be in his dotage!
Mr. Walraven's antecedents were mysterious enough, in all conscience; but the antecedents of this wild ward of his were ten times more so. But, in spite of all, the engagement was an accomplished fact.
Every day, beneath the baleful glare of angry female eyes, Mollie Dane went riding and driving and walking with the stately, white-haired old millionaire, who bent over her as obsequiously as though she were a duchess born.
The women might go wild with envy, the men go mad with jealousy; but the days and the weeks went on, and the fairy grew more radiantly beautiful with each. And the wedding-day came, and the guests were bidden, and all was ready, on a scale of unparalleled magnificence. And who was to know the wedding would never be?
Mollie's bridal night! The big brown-stone mansion was one blaze of light. The ceremony was to take place in the lofty drawing-room, and be followed by a ball. This somewhat obsolete way of doing things was by the express desire of Sir Roger, and on the morrow they were to start by steamer for the old land. It was all one to Mollie, and Mr. and Mrs. Walraven acquiesced in every wish of the Welshman.
The hour fixed for the ceremony was ten o'clock. It was nearly nine, and up in her own room the bride stood, under the hands of her maid, robed for the sacrifice.
It was a sacrifice, though giddy Mollie had never thought it so before. Now, when it was too late, her heart began to fail her.
He was dreadfully old, this stately Sir Roger. She didn't care for him in the least, except as she might care for some nice old grandfather; and then there was Hugh Ingelow—handsome Hugh!
But at this point Cricket caught her breath and her thoughts with a gasp.
"Mollie, Mollie, Mollie! How dare you, you wicked, crazy girl! Thinking of Hugh Ingelow, when you oughtn't to remember there's another man alive but Sir Roger Trajenna! I wouldn't marry poor Hugh when he wanted me—a lucky escape for him—and I'm not going to pine away for him now, when it's high treason to do it"
"Hurry, Margaret," the bride said aloud. "Make me just as pretty as ever you can."
The three rejected suitors had been invited to the bridal hall, and, singular to relate, had come.
But their discomfiture had been so singular altogether that perhaps they thought it as well to match Mollie in coolness.
There they were at least, regarding one another in the oddest way, and Mrs. Walraven, gorgeous in amber moir, sidled up to her cousin, and hissed venomously in his ear:
"So the vicious Guy Oleander has lost his little game, after all! Blue-eyed Mollie is destined to be 'My Lady,' in spite of his teeth."
"'There is many a slip'—you know the proverb, Madame."
It was all he said; but his sinister smile, as he moved away, said a great deal.
Hugh Ingelow, very pale, stood leaning against a marble column, all wreathed with festal roses, not as white as his own handsome face.
"What are they plotting, I wonder?" he thought. "No good to her. They hate her, as I ought to, but as I can't, poor, pitiful fool that I am! But my time may come, too. I said I would not forget, and will not."
The bride-maids, a gay group of girls, came fluttering into the "maiden bower" to see if the bride was ready.
"For the clergyman is down-stairs, and the guests are assembled, and Sir Roger is waiting, and nothing is needed but the bride."
"A very essential need," responded Mollie. "I'm not going to hurry myself; they can't get along without me. A letter, Lucy? For me? From whom, I wonder?"
The girl had entered, bearing a note in a buff envelope, addressed, in a sprawling hand, to "Miss Mollie Dane."
"The young person that brought it is waiting in the hall, miss," said Lucy. "I didn't want to take it, and I told her you was just about getting married, but it was no use. She said it was a matter of life or death, and you'd be sure to pay attention to it if you were before the altar."
But Mollie had not listened. She tore open the buff envelope, and the gazers saw her turn deathly pale as she read.
She crushed the letter in her hand and turned impetuously to the girl.
"Where is the person who brought this? I must see her at once. Bring her here; and you, young ladies, let me speak two words to her in private."
The young ladies trooped out, and the bride was left alone, paler than her snowy robes.
A moment, and Lucy was back with the bearer of the letter, a respectable-looking young person enough.
Lucy left her mistress and the girl standing together. Five minutes after the bell rang sharply. Lucy hastened back; on the threshold the bride met and stopped her, with a white, startled face.
"Tell them to postpone the ceremony for an hour, Lucy. Come back here then. For the next hour I wish to be left alone. Tell Mr. Walraven."
She shut the door in the amazed attendant's face. Lucy heard the key turn. A second she stood petrified, then she hastened off to deliver her message.
Mr. Walraven stood aghast. Lucy was plied with questions. Who was the girl? What was she like? What had she said? Where had she come from?
Sir Roger was wildly alarmed at first, but Mr. Walraven reassured him. The company waited, on the qui vive, for they knew not what. Eleven o'clock came. Lucy went up to the bride's room; the door was still fast; she knocked—there was no reply; she called—there was no answer. Then Lucy screamed, and in a twinkling a crowd was around the door. They shook it, they rapped, they called, all in vain. Dead silence reigned.
"Force the door!" exclaimed Carl Walraven, hoarsely.
Strong men forced it. There was a rush in, a recoil, a cry of consternation, for the apartment was empty; the bird had flown.
How the search began no one ever knew, but begin it did. The house was hunted from top to bottom; still in vain. Not a trace of the bride could be found.
The wedding party dispersed in wild confusion, but the search went on. Through the night it lasted; but morning broke, and still no trace. The bride had disappeared as if the earth had opened and swallowed her up!
WHERE THE BRIDE WAS.
The letter in the buff envelope which had so startled Mollie was very brief. There were but eight or nine lines, wretchedly scrawled:
"MOLLIE DANE,—Come to me at once, if you want to find out who you are, who your parents were, what Carl Walraven is to you. This is your wedding-night; but come. I am very ill—dying; I may not see morning. If you delay, it will be too late. The bearer is my friend; she will conduct you to me. Tell no one. Carl Walraven will prevent you, if he can. I say to you, come—come—come.
If there was one thing on earth that flighty Mollie was really in earnest about, it was in knowing her own history. Her marriage sunk into insignificance in comparison.
She dispatched Lucy at once for the bearer of the note, sent her friends to the right-about, and closeted herself with the young woman—a pale young woman, with dark eyes and an intelligent face.
"Who are you?" abruptly demanded the bride, looking curiously at her.
"Sarah Grant," answered the young woman—"a shopgirl."
"Who sent you with this note?"
"A woman who lodges in the same house—a tall, gaunt, half-crazed looking creature. She is dangerously ill."