TRUE LOVE'S REWARD
A Sequel to Mona
MRS. GEORGIE SHELDON
Author of Virgie's Inheritance, A True Aristocrat, Trixy, Lost A Pearle, Helen's Victory, etc.
A NEW DISCOVERY DEEPENS A MYSTERY.
When Mrs. Montague entered her room, an hour after Mona went up stairs, there was a deep frown upon her brow.
She found Mona arrayed in a pretty white wrapper, and sitting before the glowing grate reading a new book, while she waited for her.
"What are you sitting up for, and arrayed in that style?" she ungraciously demanded.
"I thought you would need help in undressing, and I put on this loose wrapper because it was more comfortable than any other dress," Mona answered, as she regarded the lady with some surprise, for she had never before quite so curtly addressed her.
Mrs. Montague did not pursue the subject, and Mona patiently assisted her in taking off her finery, hanging the rich dress carefully over a form, folding her dainty laces, and arranging her jewels in their cases.
"Can I do anything more for you?" she asked, when this was done.
"At what time shall I come to you in the morning?" the fair girl inquired, without appearing to heed the uncivil monosyllable.
"Not before nine o'clock; but you can mend that rip in my traveling suit before that, as we shall go back to New York on the eleven o'clock express."
"Very well; good-night," Mona said, with gentle politeness, as she turned to leave the room.
"Stop a moment, Ruth," Mrs. Montague commanded.
Mona turned back, flushing slightly at the woman's imperiousness.
"I have not been at all pleased with your deportment this evening," the woman continued, "You have been exceedingly forward for a person in your position."
Mona's color deepened to a vivid scarlet at this unexpected charge.
"I do not quite understand you—" she began, when her companion turned angrily upon her, thus arresting her in the midst of her speech.
"I do not see how you can fail to do so," was her icy retort. "I refer to your acceptance of Mr. Palmer's attentions. One would have supposed that you regarded yourself as his equal by the way you paraded the drawing-room with him to-night."
Mona could hardly repress a smile at this attack, and she wondered what Ray would have thought if he could have heard it. Yet a thrill of indignation shot through her at this unreasonable abuse.
"You witnessed my introduction to Mr. Palmer this evening," she quietly replied; "you heard him offer to conduct me to Mr. Wellington, and so know how I happened to accept his attentions."
"You should have rejected his offer," was the quick retort.
"I could not do so without appearing rude—you yourself know that no young lady would have done so under the circumstances."
"No young lady—no, of course not," interposed Mrs. Montague, with significant emphasis; "but you must not forget that your position will not admit of your doing what might consistently be done by young ladies in society. You received Mr. Palmer's attentions as a matter of course—as if you considered yourself his equal."
"I do so consider myself," Mona returned, with quiet dignity, but with a dangerous sparkle in her usually mild eyes. The woman's arrogance was becoming unbearable, even to her sweet spirit.
"Really!" was the sarcastic rejoinder. "Your vanity, Ruth, would be odious if it were not so ridiculous. But you should not allow your complacency, over a merely pretty face, to lead you into such presumption as you have been guilty of to-night. I blame myself somewhat for what has occurred; if I had not accorded you permission to witness the dancing, you would not have been thrown into such temptation; but I did not dream that you would force yourself upon the notice of any of Mr. Wellington's guests."
"You are accusing me very unjustly, Mrs. Montague," Mona began, with blazing eyes, but the woman cut her short.
"I consider myself a competent judge in such matters," she insolently asserted. "At all events, however, you are to receive no more attentions from Mr. Palmer. He—is the son of the gentleman whom I expect to marry, and I have no intention of allowing my seamstress to angle for my future step-son."
"Madame—" began Mona, indignantly.
"We will not discuss the matter further," Mrs. Montague interposed, imperiously; "you can go now, but be sure to have my traveling dress ready by nine o'clock in the morning."
Mona went out, and forced herself to shut the door after her without making the slightest sound, although every nerve in her body was tingling with indignation and resentment, to which she longed to give some outward expression.
But for one thing, she would have faced the coarse, rude woman, and proclaimed that she was already the promised wife of Raymond Palmer, and had a perfect right to receive his attentions whenever and wherever she chose.
That secret of the desertion of her mother haunted her, however, and she was bound to curb herself and bear everything for three months longer, while she would diligently apply herself to the task before her.
She retired immediately, but she could not go to sleep until she had relieved her overcharged heart of its bitterness and passion in a burst of weeping.
The next morning early Ray and his father were on their way to New York, and ten o'clock found them seated in the private court-room, where Mrs. Vanderheck was to answer the charges against her.
Money will accomplish a great deal, and in this case it had secured the privilege of a private examination, before a police justice, who would decide whether the suspected culprit should be held for the grand jury.
Immediately upon the arrival of the Palmers, Detective Rider came to them, accompanied by a gentleman whom he introduced as Justin Cutler, Esq., of Chicago.
They all took seats together, and presently a door opened to admit Mrs. Vanderheck, who was attended by her husband and counsel, and who was richly attired in a close-fitting black velvet robe, and wore magnificent solitaires in her ears, besides a cluster of blazing stones at her throat.
If she was the adventuress whom the officials were searching for, she was certainly bringing a bold front to the contest in thus parading her booty before their very eyes.
Her husband was an elderly gentleman, who appeared to be in feeble health, but who conducted himself with dignity and self-possession.
The case was opened by Mr. Cutler's counsel, who told the story of the purchase of the spurious crescents in Chicago, and affirmed that they had been found upon the person of the party under arrest.
Mrs. Vanderheck listened with intense interest throughout the recital, while a look of astonishment overspread her face as the narrative proceeded.
The crescents were produced and Mr. Cutler brought forth the bogus ones, which he still had in his possession, and the two pairs appeared to be exact counterparts of each other.
The magistrate examined them with interest and care, after which he placed them on the desk before him.
Mrs. Vanderheck's counsel then said that his client would like to relate how the contested jewels came in her possession.
Permission being given for her to do so, the lady took the stand and began:
"Three years ago the coming month, which, according to the dates just given by the prosecuting counsel, was about three months after the gentleman in Chicago was defrauded, I was boarding at the Revere House, in Boston. While there I became acquainted with a lady—a widow who called herself Mrs. Bent, and her appearance corresponds with the description given of Mrs. Bently. I was very much pleased with her, for she seemed to be a lady of very amiable character, and we became quite intimate. She appeared to have abundant means, spent her money very freely, and wore several diamonds of great beauty and value—among them the crescents which were taken from me last Friday evening. About two months after becoming acquainted with her, she came to me one day in great distress and said that the bank, in which she was a large stockholder, had suspended payment, and all her available funds were locked up in it. She said she had considerable money invested in Western land, which she might be able to turn into cash later, but until she could do so she would be absolutely penniless—she had not even enough ready money to defray her hotel bill, which had been presented that day. Then with apparent reluctance and confusion she remarked that she had often heard me admire her diamond crescents, and so she had ventured to come and ask me if I would purchase them and thus relieve her in her present extremity, while she offered them at a price which I considered a great bargain. I said I would consult my husband.
"I have a weakness for diamonds—I confess that I am extravagantly fond of them," Mrs. Vanderheck here interposed, a slight smile curling her lips, "and my husband has generously gratified my whims in this respect. He approved of the purchase of the crescents, provided some reliable jeweler would warrant that they were all right. I reported this decision to Mrs. Bent, and we went together to an expert to submit the stones to his verdict.
"He pronounced them exceedingly fine, and valued them far above the price which my friend had put upon them, and I told her I would take them. We returned to our hotel and went directly to my rooms, where my husband drew up a check for a hundred dollars more than the stipulated price, Mrs. Bent giving a receipt for the amount, while she was profuse in her expressions of gratitude for our kindness in relieving her from pecuniary embarrassment. 'I shall go immediately to pay my bill,' she said, looking greatly pleased that she was able to do so, as she handed me the case containing the diamonds, and then she immediately left the room. Half an hour later she came to me again, her eyes red and swollen from weeping, an open telegram in her hand. Her mother was dying, and had sent for her, and she was going immediately to her. She took an affectionate leave of me and soon after left the hotel. This, your honor, is how I came to have the crescents and"—taking a folded paper from her elegant purse—"here is the receipt for the money paid for them."
The lady took her seat after giving this testimony, while the receipt was examined by the police justice and Mr. Cutler's counsel.
"I hope the lady has not been a victim to the same cunning scheme that served to defraud the gentleman from Chicago," he gravely observed.
"You do not mean to imply that my stones are not genuine!" exclaimed Mrs. Vanderheck, with sudden dismay.
"I am not able to say, madame," his honor courteously replied, "but I should like to have them examined by an expert and proved."
Mr. Palmer here stated that he could settle the question if he were allowed to examine them.
Both cases were passed to him, and after closely inspecting the crescents for a moment or two, he returned them, with the remark:
"The stones are all paste, but a remarkably good imitation. I should judge that they had been submitted to a certain solution or varnish, which has recently been discovered, and is used to simulate the brilliancy of diamonds, but which, if the stones are dropped in alcohol, will dissolve and vanish."
"Impossible!" Mrs. Vanderheck protested, with some warmth. "It cannot be that I have worn paste ornaments for more than three years, and never discovered the fact."
"It is not strange that you were deceived," the gentleman replied, glancing at the glittering gems, "for I think that only an expert could detect the fact, they are such a clever imitation of genuine gems."
"I cannot believe it," the lady persisted, "for Mrs. Bent was not out of my sight a moment, from the time the expert in Boston pronounced his verdict, until they were delivered to roe in my room at the hotel."
"Nevertheless," Mr. Palmer positively affirmed, "the woman must have adroitly managed to change the crescents on the way back, substituting the bogus for the real ones, for these are certainly paste."
Mr. Cutler's counsel here stated that his client had an important statement to make, whereupon that gentleman related that Mr. Arnold, the Chicago expert to whom the real crescents had been submitted, had made a private mark upon the setting, with a steel-pointed instrument, and if such a mark could be discovered upon Mrs. Vanderheck's ornaments they were doubtless real.
He produced the card which Mr. Arnold had given him, and the crescents were carefully examined, but no mark of any kind could be found upon them, and the general conclusion was that they were but a skillful imitation of genuine diamonds, and that Mrs. Vanderheck had only been another victim of the clever adventuress, whose identity was still as much of a mystery as ever.
Mr. Palmer and Ray now began to feel quite uncomfortable regarding the cross which Mr. Rider had also taken in charge. They consulted a few moments with Mrs. Vanderheck's counsel, and then the cross was quietly submitted to Mr. Palmer's examination.
He at once said it did not belong to him, although it was very like the one that had been stolen, for he also was in the habit of putting a private mark upon his most expensive jewelry; and he further remarked that he very much regretted that Mrs. Vanderheck should have been subjected to so much unpleasantness in connection with the unfounded suspicion.
The case was then dismissed without further discussion, and the lady behaved in the most generous and amiable manner toward both Mr. Cutler and Mr. Palmer.
She said it was not at all strange that she should have been suspected, under the circumstances, and she bore them no ill-will on account of the arrest. She was only annoyed that any publicity had been given to the matter. She even laughingly accused Ray of having suspected her on the evening of Mr. Merrill's reception, and then she explained the cause of her own strange behavior on that occasion. She had read of the Palmer robbery and the circumstances of his being kidnapped, and she realized at once, upon being introduced to him when he had mispronounced her name, that his suspicions had fastened upon her.
She shook hands cordially with Mr. Cutler, and remarked that, while she experienced some vexation and mortification over the discovery that the crescents were spurious, the imposition had taught her a lesson, and she should henceforth purchase her diamonds of a reliable dealer in such articles.
"But," she added, gayly, "I shall never see a diamond crescent after this without asking the owner to allow me to examine it. I believe I shall turn detective myself and try to ferret out the original ones if they are still in existence."
She bowed smilingly to the three gentlemen, and passed out of the room, leaning upon the arm of her husband.
"Well, Ray," Mr. Palmer remarked, as they wended their way to the store, "we may as well give up our diamonds once for all; I have not the slightest hope that we shall ever see them again. If we ever do find them," he added, with an arch glance, "I'll present them to your wife on her wedding day—that is, if they come to light before that event occurs."
"Then my wife is to have no diamonds unless the stolen ones are found?" Ray responded, in a tone of laughing inquiry.
"I did not mean to imply that, my boy," Mr. Palmer responded. "I will present your wife with diamonds, and fine ones, too, when I am introduced to her."
"Then I will give you three months in which to make your selection," Ray retorted, with animation.
"Whew! you are hopeful, my son, or else you have had good news of your lady-love," the elder gentleman exclaimed, with surprise. "You are a sly dog, and I thought you seemed happier than usual, when you came to Hazeldean. You must tell me more about it when you have time. But three days will be time enough for my selections for your wife, and she shall have the stolen ones also, if they are ever recovered."
Mr. Rider was the most disappointed one of the whole party, for he had been so sure of his game; while he had been doggedly persistent for over three years in trying to hunt down the tricky woman, who had imposed upon Justin Cutler, and it was a bitter pill for him to swallow, to discover, just as he believed himself to be on the verge of success, that he was only getting deeper into the mire.
"She is the keenest-witted thief I ever heard of," he muttered, moodily, when the case was dismissed, "but if I could only get track of some of the Palmer diamonds there might be some hope for me even now, for I firmly believe that the same woman is at the bottom of all three thefts."
He would not take anything from Mr. Cutler for what he had done or tried to do, although the gentleman offered to remunerate him handsomely for his labor.
"I've earned nothing, for I've accomplished nothing," he said, dejectedly. "I feel, rather, as if I ought to pay your expenses on from the West, for it's been only a wild-goose chase."
"I had other business, aside from this, which called me to New York, so don't feel down at the mouth about the trip," Mr. Cutler kindly replied. "I am going to remain in the city for a few weeks, then I go to Havana to meet my sister, who has been spending the winter in Cuba for her health."
The same week Mrs. Vanderheck appeared at a select ball, wearing more diamonds than any one had ever before seen upon her at once; but after that one brilliant appearance it was remarked that she was becoming more subdued in her tastes, for she was never again seen in New York with such an expensive display of gems.
A STORMY INTERVIEW.
After their return from Hazeldean, Mrs. Montague seemed to forget her spite against Mona. Indeed, she was even kinder than she had ever been. Mona quietly resumed her usual duties, and was so faithful and obliging that the woman apparently regretted her harshness on the night of the ball, and was very considerate in her requirements, and verified what Mary, the waitress, had once said, that she was a kind mistress if she wasn't crossed.
On the morning after their arrival in New York, Mona wrote a note to Ray, related something of what had occurred, and suggested that it might be as well not to antagonize Mrs. Montague further by being seen together while she remained in her employ. She told him where she would attend church the following Sabbath, and asked him to meet her so that they could talk over some plan by which they might see each other from time to time without exciting suspicion regarding their relations.
Mr. Amos Palmer called by appointment upon Mrs. Montague on Wednesday evening, following the return from Hazeldean, when he formally proposed, and was accepted.
When, on Thursday morning, the triumphant widow announced the fact to her nephew, he flew into a towering passion, and a bitter quarrel ensued.
"You have promised me that you would never marry," he cried, angrily; "you have pledged your word that I should be your sole heir, and I swear that you shall not give me the go-by in any such shabby fashion."
"Hush, Louis; you are very unreasonable," said his aunt. "I believe that it will be for your interest as well as mine that I marry Mr. Palmer, and because I simply change my name, it does not follow that you will not be my heir. You know that I have no other relative, and I mean that you shall inherit my fortune. If you will marry Kitty McKenzie immediately. I will settle a hundred thousand upon you outright."
"But I don't like the idea of your marrying at all—I vow I won't stand it!" the young man reiterated, and ignoring the subject of his own marriage. "I suppose you have reasons for wishing to change your name," he added, with a sneer, "but you must not forget that I know something of your early history and subsequent experiences, and I have you somewhat in my power."
"And you are no less in mine, young man," his companion sternly retorted. "It will not be well for you to make an enemy of me, Louis—it will be far better for you to yield to my plans gracefully, for my mind is fully set on this marriage. Can't you understand that as the wife of a man in Mr. Palmer's position, nothing that has ever been connected with my previous history will be liable to touch me. Mrs. Richmond Montague," with a sneering laugh, "will have vanished, or become a myth, and Mrs. Palmer will be unassailable by any enemies of the past."
"Yes; I can fully understand that," her nephew thoughtfully replied, "and perhaps—Well, if I withdraw my objections, will you let me off from any supposed obligations to Kitty McKenzie? Truly, Aunt Marg," with unusual earnestness, "I don't want to marry the girl, and I do want to marry some one else; give me the hundred thousand and let me choose my own wife, and we will cry quits."
"Louis Hamblin, I believe you will drive me crazy!" cried Mrs. Montague, growing crimson with sudden anger, "What new freak has got into your head now? Who is this some one else whom you wish to marry?"
"That girl up stairs—Ruth Richards, she calls herself," the young man answered, flushing, but speaking with something of defiance in his tone.
"Good gracious, Louis! you cannot mean it!" she exclaimed, aghast. "I told you I would have no nonsense in that direction. Does she, Ruth, suspect your folly?"
"Only to toss her head and turn the cold shoulder on me. She is in no way responsible for my folly, as you call it, except by being so decidedly pretty. You'd better give in, Aunt Marg—it'll be for your interest not to make an enemy of me," he quoted, in a peculiar tone, "and it will make a man of me, too, for I vow I love the girl to distraction."
Mrs. Montague uttered a sigh of despair.
"I was afraid you'd make a fool of yourself over her, and now I shall have to send the girl away. It is too bad, for she is the only expert seamstress I have had for a year," she said, tears of vexation actually rushing to her eyes.
"No, you don't," the young man retorted, flaming up angrily; "don't you dare to send her away, or I swear I will do something desperate. Besides, the girl doesn't care a rap for me, but she is dead gone on young Palmer; and if you drive her away, the next you'll know she will forestall you in the Palmer mansion."
Mrs. Montague grew pale at this shaft, and sat for several moments absorbed in thought.
"I thought that he was in love with Walter Dinsmore's protegee, Mona Montague," she at last remarked, with a bitter inflection.
A peculiar smile flitted over Louis Hamblin's lips at this remark. But he quickly repressed it, and replied:
"So I heard and thought at one time; but he was deeply smitten with Ruth the night of the Hazeldean ball, and never left her side after refreshments; they sat in the balcony, half concealed by the draperies, until after one o'clock."
"You don't mean it!" Mrs. Montague exclaimed, with a start and frown. "Then the girl is more artful than I thought; but, on the whole, I'm not sure but that I should prefer to have Ray Palmer marry Ruth Richards rather than Mona Montague—it might be better for me in the end. I wonder where she is. I am almost sorry—"
She broke off suddenly, but added, after a moment:
"I don't know, Louis—I am somewhat perplexed. If, as you say, Ray Palmer is so deeply smitten with Ruth he must have gotten over his penchant for the other girl. I will think over your proposition, and tell you my conclusion later."
An expression of triumph swept over Louis Hamblin's face, but quickly assuming a grateful look, he remarked:
"Thank you, Aunt Margie—if you'll bring that about I'll be your loyal slave for life."
Mrs. Montague's lips curled slightly at his extravagant language, but she made no reply to it.
Presently, however, she asked:
"When are you going to attend to that matter of business for me? I do not think it ought to be delayed any longer."
"Blast it! I am tired of business," responded her dutiful nephew impatiently, adding: "I suppose the sooner I go, though, the quicker it will be over."
"Yes, I want everything fixed secure before my marriage, for I intend to manage my own private affairs afterward, the same as before," his companion returned.
Louis laughed with some amusement.
"You ought to have been a man, Aunt Marg; your spirit is altogether too self-reliant and independent for a woman," he said.
"I know it; but being a woman, I must try to make the best of the situation in the future, as I have done all my life," she returned, with a self-conscious smile.
"Well, I will look after that matter right away—get your instructions ready and I will be off within an hour or two," said the young man, as he rose and went out, while Mrs. Montague proceeded directly to her own room.
While Louis Hamblin and Mrs. Montague were engaged in the discussion mentioned in the preceding chapter, below stairs Mona sat in the sewing-room reading the paper of the previous evening. She was waiting for Mrs. Montague to come up to give her some directions about a dress which she was repairing before she could go on with it.
She had read the general news and was leisurely scanning the advertisement columns, as people often do without any special object in view, when her eye fell upon these lines:
WANTED—INFORMATION REGARDING A PERSON named Mona Forester, or her heirs, if any there be. Knowledge to her or their advantage is in the possession of CORBIN & RUSSEL, No.—Broadway, N. Y.
Mona lost all her color as she read this.
"Can it be possible that there is any connection between this Mona Forester and my history?" she murmured thoughtfully; "Mona is a very uncommon name—it cannot be that my mother's surname was Forester, since she was Uncle Walter's sister. Perhaps this Mona Forester may have been some relative for whom she was named—possibly an aunt, or even her mother, and thus I may be one of the heirs. But," she interrupted herself and smiled, "what a romantic creature I am, to be weaving such a story out of a mere advertisement! Still," she added, more thoughtfully, "this woman's heirs cannot be very numerous or it would not be necessary to advertise for them."
She carefully cut out the lines from the paper, slipped the clipping into her pocket-book, then took up her work just as Mrs. Montague entered the room.
She gave instructions regarding the alterations she wished made, and then left Mona by herself again. All day long Mona's mind kept recurring to the advertisement she had cut from the paper, while she had an instinctive feeling that she might be in some way connected with Mona Forester, although how she could not comprehend.
"It would be useless for me to go to Corbin & Russel to make inquiries, for I could give them no reliable information about myself," she said, while considering the matter. "Oh, why could not Uncle Walter have told me more? I could not even prove that I am Mona Montague, for I have no record of my parents' marriage or of my birth. Perhaps, if I could find that woman—Uncle Walter's wife—she might be able to tell me something; but I do not know where to find her. Possibly Mrs. Montague would know whether this Mona Forester is a relative, if I dare ask her; but I do not—I could not—without betraying myself and perhaps spoil all my other plans. Oh, dear, it is so dreadful to be alone in the world and not really know who you are!" she concluded, with a sigh.
About the middle of the next forenoon Mrs. Montague asked her if she would come with her to look over a trunk of clothing preparatory to beginning upon spring sewing.
Mona readily complied with her request, and together they went up to a room in the third story. There were a number of trunks in the room, and unlocking one of these, Mrs. Montague threw back the lid and began to lay out the contents upon the floor. Mona was astonished at the number and richness of the costumes thus displayed, and thought her income must be almost unlimited to admit of such extravagance.
She selected what she thought might do to be remodeled, and then she began to refold what was to be replaced in the trunk.
Among other things taken from it, there was a large, square pasteboard box, and Mrs. Montague had just lifted it upon her lap to examine its contents to see if there was anything in it which she would need, when Mary appeared at the door, saying that Mr. Palmer was below and wished to see her.
Mrs. Montague arose quickly, and in doing so, the box slipped from her hands to the floor and its contents, composed of laces, ribbons, and gloves, went sliding in all directions.
"Oh dear! what a mess!" she exclaimed, with a frown of annoyance, "You will have to gather them up and rearrange them, Ruth, for I must go down. Just lay the dresses nicely in the trunk, and I will lock it when I return."
She went out, leaving Mona alone, and the latter began to fold the ribbons and laces, laying them in the box in an orderly manner.
When this was done she turned her attention again to the trunk into which Mrs. Montague had hastily tumbled a few garments.
"She has disarranged everything," the girl murmured. "I believe I will repack everything from the bottom, as the dresses will be full of wrinkles if left like this."
She removed every article, and noticing that the cloth in the bottom was dusty, took it out and shook it.
As she was about to replace it, she was startled to find herself gazing down upon a large crayon picture of a beautiful girl.
A low, startled cry broke from her lips, for the face looking up into hers was so like her own that it almost seemed as if she were gazing at her own reflection in a mirror, only the hair was arranged differently from the way she wore hers, and the neck was dressed in the style of twenty years previous.
"Oh, I am sure that this is a picture of my mother," she murmured, with bated breath, as, with reverent touch, she lifted it and gazed long and earnestly upon it.
"If you could but speak and tell me all that sad story—what caused that man to desert you in the hour of your greatest need!" she continued, with starting tears, for the eyes, so life-like, looking into hers, seemed to be seeking for sympathy and comfort. "Oh, how cruel it all was, and why should those last few weeks of your life have been so shrouded in mystery?"
She fell to musing sadly, with the picture still in her hands, and became so absorbed in her thoughts that she was almost unconscious of everything about her, or that she was neglecting her duties, until she suddenly felt a heavy hand upon her shoulders, and Mrs. Montague suddenly inquired:
"Ha! where did you get that picture? Why don't you attend to your work, and not go prying about among my things?" and she searched the girl's face with a keen glance.
Mona was quick to think and act, for she felt that now was her opportunity, if ever.
"I was not prying," she quietly responded. "I thought I would pack everything nicely from the bottom of the trunk, and as I took out the cloth to shake and smooth it, I found this picture lying beneath it. I was very much startled to find how much it resembles me. Who can she be, Mrs. Montague?" and Mona lifted a pair of innocently wondering eyes to the frowning face above her.
For a moment the woman seemed to be trying to read her very soul; then she remarked, through her set teeth:
"It is more like you, or you are more like it than I thought. Did you never see a picture like it before?"
"No, never," Mona replied, so positively that Mrs. Montague could not doubt the truth of her statement. "Is it the likeness of some relative of yours?" she asked, determined if possible to sift the matter to the bottom.
"A relative? No, I hope not. The girl's name was Mona Forester, and—I hated her!"
"Mona Forester!" repeated Mona to herself, with a great inward start, though she made no outward sign, while a feeling of bitter disappointment swept over her heart.
It could not then have been a picture of her mother, she thought, for her name must have been Mona Dinsmore, unless—strange that she had not thought of it when she read that advertisement in the paper—unless she had been the half-sister of her Uncle Walter.
"You hated her?" Mona murmured aloud, with her tender, devouring glance fastened upon the beautiful face.
The tone and emphasis seemed to arouse all the passion of the woman's nature.
"Yes, with my whole soul!" she fiercely cried, and before Mona was aware of her intention, she had snatched the picture from her hands, and torn it into four pieces.
"There!" she continued, tossing the fragments upon the floor, "that is the last of that; I am sure! I don't know why I have kept the miserable thing all these years."
Mona could have cried aloud at this wanton destruction of what she would have regarded as priceless, but she dared make no sign, although she was trembling in every nerve.
"Is the lady living?" she ventured to inquire, as she turned away, apparently to fold a dress, but really to conceal the painful quivering of her lips.
"No. You can finish packing this trunk, then you may take these dresses to the sewing-room. You may begin ripping this brown one. And you may take the pieces of that picture down and tell Mary to burn them. I came up for a wrap; I am going for a drive."
Mrs. Montague secured her wrap, then swept from the room, walking fiercely over the torn portrait, looking as if she would have been glad to trample thus upon the living girl whom she had so hated.
Mona reverently gathered up the fragments, her lips quivering with pain and indignation.
She laid them carefully together, but a bitter sob burst from her at the sight of the great ragged tears across the beautiful face.
"Oh, mother, mother!" she murmured, "what an insult to you, and I was powerless to help it."
She finished her packing, then taking the dresses that were to be made over, and the torn picture, she went below.
She could not bear the thought of having that lovely face, marred though it was, consigned to the flames, yet she dare not disobey Mrs. Montague's command to give it to Mary to be burned.
She waited until the girl came up stairs, then she called her attention to the pieces, and told her what was to be done with them.
She at once exclaimed at the resemblance to Mona.
"Where could Mrs. Montague have got it?" she cried; "it's enough like you, miss, to be your own mother, and a beautiful lady she must have been, too. It's a pity to burn the picture, Miss Ruth; wouldn't you like to keep it?"
"Perhaps Mrs. Montague would prefer that no one should have it; she said it was to be destroyed, you know," Mona replied, but with a wistful look at the mutilated crayon.
"You shall have it if you want it, and I'll fix it all right with her," said the girl, in a confidential tone, as she put the pieces back into Mona's hands. She had become very fond of the gentle seamstress, and would have considered no favor too great to be conferred upon her.
That same afternoon, when Mona went out for her walk, she took the mutilated picture with her.
She made her way directly to the rooms of a first-class photographer, and asked if the portrait could be copied.
Yes, she was assured; there would be no difficulty about getting as good a picture as the original, only it would have to be all hand work.
Mona said she would give the order if it could be done immediately, and, upon being told she could have the copy in three days, she said she would call for it at the end of that time.
She did so, and found a perfect reproduction of her mother's face, and upon her return to Mrs. Montague's she gave the pieces of the other to Mary, telling her she believed she did not care to keep them—they had better be burned as her mistress had desired.
This relieved her mind, for she did not wish the girl to practice any deception for her sake, and she feared that Mrs. Montague might inquire if her orders had been obeyed.
The following day she took the fresh portrait with her when she went out, and proceeded directly to the office of Corbin & Russel, who had advertised for information regarding Mona Forester or her heirs.
A gentlemanly clerk came forward as she entered, and politely inquired her business.
She asked to see a member of the firm, and at the same time produced the slip which she had cut from the paper.
The clerk's face lighted as he saw it, and his manner at once betrayed deep interest in the matter.
"Ah, yes," he said, affably; "please walk this way. Mr. Corbin is in and will be glad to see you."
He led the way to a private office, and, throwing open the door, respectfully remarked to some one within:
"A lady to see you, sir, about the Forester business." Then turning to Mona, he added: "This is Mr. Corbin, miss."
A gentleman, who was sitting before a desk, at once arose and came eagerly forward, scanning Mona's face with great earnestness.
"Have a chair, if you please, Miss ——. Be kind enough to tell me what I shall call you."
"My name is Mona Montague," the young girl replied, a slight flush suffusing her cheek beneath his keen glance.
The gentleman started as she spoke it, and regarded her more closely than before.
"Miss Mona Montague!" he repeated, with a slight emphasis on the last name; "and you have called to answer the advertisement which recently appeared in the papers. What can you tell me about Miss Mona Forester?"
"She was my mother, sir," Mona replied, as she seated herself in the chair offered her. "At least," she added, "my mother's name was Mona Forester before her marriage."
"Well, then, young lady, if you can prove that the Mona Forester, for whom we have advertised, was your mother, there is a snug little sum of money awaiting your disposal," the gentleman smilingly remarked.
Mona looked astonished. She had scarcely given a thought to reaping any personal advantage, as had been hinted in the advertisement, from the fact of being Mona Forester's child. Her chief desire and hope had been to prove her mother's identity, and to learn something more, if possible, of her personal history.
She was somewhat excited by the information, but removing the wrapper from her picture, she arose and laid it before Mr. Corbin, remarking:
"This is a portrait of Mona Forester, and she was my mother."
Mr. Corbin took the crayon and studied the beautiful face intently for a few moments; then turning his glance again upon his visitor, he said, in a tone of conviction:
"There can be no doubt that you and the original of this picture are closely united by ties of consanguinity, for your resemblance to her is very striking. You spoke in the past tense, however, so I suppose the lady is not living."
"No, sir; she died at the time of my birth," Mona answered, sadly.
"Ah! that was very unfortunate for you," Mr. Corbin remarked, in a tone of sympathy. "You gave your name as Mona Montague, so, of course, Miss Forester must have married a gentleman by that name. May I ask—ah—is he living?"
"No, sir, he is not."
"Will you kindly give me his whole name?" Mr. Corbin now asked, while his eyes had a gleam of intense interest within their dark depths.
Again the lawyer started, and a look of astonishment passed over his features.
"Where have you lived, Miss Montague, since the death of your parents?" he inquired.
"Here in New York, with my uncle."
"Ah! and who was your uncle, if you please?" and the man seemed to await her reply with almost breathless interest.
"Mr. Dinsmore—Walter Dinsmore."
The lawyer sat suddenly erect, and drew in a long breath, while his keen eyes seemed to be trying to read the girl's very soul.
He did not speak for nearly a minute; then he said, with his usual composure:
"So, then, you are the niece of Walter Dinsmore, Esq., who died recently, and whose property was claimed by a—a wife who had lived separate from him for a good many years."
Mona flushed hotly at this remark. It seemed almost like a stain upon her uncle's fair name to have his domestic affairs spoken of in this way, and she had been very sore over the revelation that he had had a discarded wife living.
"Yes, sir," she briefly responded, but with an air of dignity that caused a gleam of amusement to leap to the lawyer's eyes.
"Well—it is very queer," he remarked, musingly, while his eyes traveled back and forth between the picture he held in his hands and the face of the beautiful girl before him.
Mona looked a trifle surprised—she could not understand what was "queer" in the fact that she was Walter Dinsmore's niece.
"I suppose," resumed Mr. Corbin, after another season of reflection, during which he looked both grave and perplexed, "that you have the proofs of all that you claim? You can prove that you are the daughter of Mona Forester and—Richmond Montague?"
Again Mona blushed, and hot tears of grief and shame rushed to her eyes, as, all at once, it flashed into her mind that her errand there would be a fruitless one, for she was utterly powerless to prove anything, while the peculiar emphasis which Mr. Corbin had almost unconsciously used in speaking of her father made her very uncomfortable. She had hoped to learn more than she had to reveal, and that her strong resemblance to her mother's picture would be sufficient to prove the relationship between them; but now she began to fear that it would not.
"What proofs do I need?" she asked, in a voice that was not quite steady.
"The marriage certificate of the contracting parties, or some witness of the ceremony, besides some reliable person who can identify you as their child," was the business-like response.
"Then I can prove nothing," Mona said, in a weary tone, "for I have no certificate, no letters, not even a scrap of writing penned by either my father or my mother."
A peculiar expression swept over Mr. Corbin's face at this statement, and Mona caught sight of it.
"What could it mean?" she asked herself, with a flash of anger that was quite foreign to her amiable disposition. "Did the man imagine her to be an impostor, or did he suspect that there might have been no legal bond between her parents?"
This latter thought made her tingle to her fingertips, and aroused all her proud spirit.
"I can at least prove that I am Walter Dinsmore's niece," she added, lifting her head with a haughty air, while her thoughts turned to Mr. Graves, her uncle's lawyer. He at least knew and could testify to the fact. "He took me," she continued, "three days after mother's death, and I lived with him from that time until he died."
"Ah! and your mother was Mr. Dinsmore's sister?" questioned Mr. Corbin.
"Yes. I always supposed, until within a few days, that she was his own sister," Mona said, thinking it best to be perfectly open in her dealings with the lawyer; "that her name was Mona Dinsmore; but only this week I learned that it was Mona Forester, so, of course, she must have been a half-sister."
"Well, if you can prove what you have stated it may lead to further developments," said Mr. Corbin, kindly. "Let me examine your proofs, and then I shall know what to do next."
A sudden fear smote Mona—a great shock made her heart almost cease its beating at the lawyer's request.
What proofs had she for him to examine? How could she establish the absolute fact?
It was true that her uncle had authorized a will to be made leaving all his property to his "beloved niece," but he had not been able to sign it, and it of course amounted to nothing. Must even this relationship be denied her in law? Oh, why had he not been more careful in regard to her interests? It was very hard—it was very humiliating to have her identity thus doubted.
"Mr. Horace Graves was my uncle's lawyer; he will tell you that I am his niece," she faltered, with white lips.
"My dear young lady, I know Mr. Graves, and that he is a reliable man," Mr. Corbin observed; "but a hundred people might assert that you were Mr. Dinsmore's niece, and it would not prove anything. Don't you know that to satisfy the law upon any point there must be indisputable proof forthcoming; there must be some written record—something tangible to demonstrate it, or it amounts to nothing? You may be the niece of Mr. Dinsmore; you may be the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Richmond Montague; this may be the portrait of Miss Mona Forester; but the facts would have to be established before your claim could be recognized and the property bequeathed to Miss Forester made over to you."
"Oh," cried Mona, in deep distress, "what, then, shall I do? I do not care so much about the property as I do about learning more about my mother. I will tell you frankly," she went on, with burning cheeks and quivering lips, "that I know there is some mystery connected with her married life; my uncle told me something, but I have reason to believe that he kept back much that I ought to know," and Mona proceeded to relate all that Mr. Dinsmore had revealed to her on her eighteenth birthday, while the lawyer listened with evident interest, his face expressing great sympathy for his fair young visitor.
"I am very glad to have you confide in me so freely," he remarked, when she concluded, "and I will deal with equal frankness with you so far as I may. Our reason for advertising for information regarding Miss Mona Forester was this: I received recently a communication from a lawyer in London, desiring me to look up a person so named, and stating that a certain Homer Forester—a wool merchant of Australia—had just died in London while on his way home to America, and had left in his lawyer's hands a will bequeathing all that he possessed to a niece, Miss Mona Forester, or her heirs, if she was not living. The date and place of her birth were given, but further than that Homer Forester could give no information regarding her."
"Where was she born?" Mona here interposed, eagerly, "Oh, sir, it is strange and dreadful that I should be so ignorant of my own mother's history, is it not?"
"Miss Forester, according to the information given in her uncle's will, was born in Trenton, New Jersey, March 10th, 1843, but that is all that I can tell you about her," bestowing a glance of sympathy upon the agitated girl. "You say that she died at the time of your birth. I wish you could bring me proof of this and that you are her daughter; but of course your mere assertion proves nothing, nor your possession of this picture, which may or may not be her. Believe me, I should be very glad to surrender this property to you if it rightly belongs to you."
"Of course I should like to have it, if I am the legal heir," Mona said, thoughtfully; "but," with a proud uplifting of her pretty head, "I can do without it, for I am able to earn my own living."
"Is there no one to whom you can appeal? How about Mr. Dinsmore's wife, who succeeded in getting all his property away from you—could she prove anything?" and Mr. Corbin regarded his companion with curious interest as he asked the question.
"I do not know—I have never even seen her," said Mona, thoughtfully; "or, at least, if I have, it must have been when I was too young to remember anything about her; besides, I should not know where to find her. There is only one person in the world, I believe, who really knows anything about me."
"And who is that?" interposed Mr. Corbin, eagerly.
"Mrs. Richmond Montague, my father's second wife."
Mr. Corbin suddenly arose from his chair, and began to pace the floor, while, if she had been watching him closely, Mona might have seen that his face was deeply-flushed.
"Hum! Mrs. Richmond Montague—is—Where is Mrs. Richmond Montague?" he questioned, somewhat incoherently.
"Here, in this city."
"Then why do you not appeal to her?" demanded the lawyer, studying the girl's face with some perplexity.
"Because—there are reasons why I do not wish to meet her just at present," Mona said, with some embarrassment, "and I do not know that she would be able to prove anything. To be frank," she continued, with increasing confusion, "the present Mrs. Montague entertained a strong dislike, even hatred, against my mother. Doubtless her animosity extends to me also, and she would not be likely to prove anything that would personally benefit me."
"You have not a very high opinion of Mrs. Richmond Montague, I perceive," Mr. Corbin remarked, with a curious smile.
"I have nothing special against her personally, any further than that I know she hated my mother, and I do not wish to meet her at present. Why," with sudden thought, "could not you try to ascertain from her some facts regarding my mother's marriage?"
"I might possibly," said Mr. Corbin, gravely, "but that would not benefit you; you would be obliged to meet her in order to be identified as Mona Forester's child."
"I had not thought of that," replied Mona, with a troubled look, "and," she added, "she could not even identify me to your satisfaction, for she never saw me to know me as Mona Montague."
"As Mona Montague!" repeated the quick-witted lawyer; "does she know you by any other name? Are you not keeping something back which it would be well for me to know?"
"Yes; I will tell you all about it," Mona said, flushing again, and resolving to disclose everything. She proceeded to relate the singular circumstances which led to her becoming an inmate of Mrs. Montague's home, together with the incident of finding her mother's picture in one of her trunks.
"Ah! I think this throws a little light upon the matter," Mr. Corbin said, when she concluded. "If you had told me these facts at first we should have saved time. And you never saw this woman until you met her in her own house?" he asked, in conclusion, and regarding Mona searchingly.
"No, never; and had it not been for the hope of learning something about my mother's history, I believe I should have gone away again immediately," she replied.
"I should suppose she would have recognized you at once, by your resemblance to this picture," remarked her companion.
"She did notice it, and questioned me quite closely; but I evaded her, and she finally thought that the resemblance was only a coincidence."
"Well, I must confess that the affair is very much mixed—very much mixed," said the lawyer, with peculiar emphasis, "but I believe, now that I know the whole story, that the truth can be ascertained if right measures are used; and," he continued, impressively, "if we can prove that you are what you assert, the only child of Richmond Montague and Mona Forester, you will not only inherit the money left by Homer Forester, but, being the child of the first union—provided we can prove it legal—you could also claim the bulk of the property which your father left. Mrs. Montague, if she should suspect our design, would, of course, use all her arts to conceal the truth; but I imagine, by using a little strategy, we may get at it. Yes, Miss Montague, if we can only work it up it will be a beautiful case—a beautiful case," he concluded, with singular enthusiasm.
Mona gave utterance to a sigh of relief. She was more hopeful than ever that the mystery, which had so troubled her, would be solved, and she was very grateful to the kind-hearted lawyer for the deep interest he manifested in the matter.
"You are very good," she said, as she arose to take her leave; "but really, as I have said before, I am not so anxious to secure property as I am to know more about my parents. Do you suppose," she questioned, with some anxiety, "that the enmity between my uncle and my father was so bitter that—that Uncle Walter was in any way responsible for his—my father's—death?"
"Poor child! have you had that terrible fear to contend against with all your other troubles?" asked Mr. Corbin, in a tone of compassion. "No, Miss Montague," he added, with grave positiveness, "I do not believe that Walter Dinsmore—and I knew him well—ever willfully committed a wrong against any human being. Now," he resumed, smiling, to see the look of trouble fade out of her eyes at his assurance, "I am going to try to ferret out the 'mystery' for you. Come to me again in a week, and I believe I shall have something definite to tell you."
Mona thanked him, after which he shook hands cordially with her, and she returned to West Forty-ninth street.
"Well, well!" muttered the lawyer, after his fair client had departed, "so that is Dinsmore's niece, who was to have had his fortune, if he could have had his way about it! I wonder what Madame Dinsmore would say if she knew that I had taken her husband's protegee as a client! It is a burning shame that she could not have had his money, if it was his wish—or at least a share of it. Poor little girl! after living in such luxury all her life, to have to come down to such a humdrum existence as sewing for a living! I will do my best for her—I will at least try to secure Homer Forester's money to her. It's strange, too, that I should happen to have dealings with the brilliant Mrs. Montague, also. It's a very queer case and there is a deep scheme behind it all! I believe—"
What he might have believed remained unsaid, for the office-boy entered at that moment and announced another client, and the astute lawyer was obliged to turn his attention, for the time, in another direction.
MR. CORBIN MAKES A CALL.
On the evening of the same day that Mona visited the office of Corbin & Russel, attorneys at law, and shortly after Mrs. Montague had finished her lonely dinner—for her nephew was away on business—there came a sharp ring at the door of No.—West Forty-ninth street.
Mary answered it, and, after ushering the gentleman into the reception-room, went to her mistress to inform her that a caller was waiting below.
"Erastus Corbin," Mrs. Montague read, as she took the neat card from the salver, and her face lighted with sudden interest.
"Perhaps he has sold that property for me," she murmured. "I hope so, for I wish to turn all my real estate into money, if possible, before my marriage."
She made some slight change in her costume, for she never allowed herself to go into the presence of gentlemen without looking her best, and then hastened below.
She greeted the lawyer with great cordiality, and remarked, smilingly:
"I hope you have good news for me. Is that property sold yet?"
"I cannot say that it is sold, madame," Mr. Corbin returned; "but I have had an offer for it, which, if you see fit to accept, will settle the matter very shortly."
"Tell me about it," said the lady, eagerly.
Mr. Corbin made a statement from a memorandum which he drew from his pocket, upon the conclusion of which Mrs. Montague authorized him to sell immediately, saying that she wished to dispose of all her real estate, even if she had to sacrifice something in doing so, remarking that a bank account was far less trouble than such property; and, having discussed and decided some other points, the lawyer arose as if to take his leave.
"Pray do not hasten," Mrs. Montague smilingly remarked.
She happened to have no engagement for the evening, and, being alone, was glad of even the companionship of a prosy attorney.
"Thank you," Mr. Corbin politely returned; "but I have other matters on hand which ought to be attended to."
"Surely you do not work evenings as well as during the day?" Mrs. Montague observed, with some surprise.
"Not always; but just now I seem to have some very knotty cases on hand—one, in particular, seems to baffle all my skill with its mystery. Indeed, it bids fair to develop quite a romance."
"Indeed! you pique my curiosity, and we women are dear lovers of romance in real life, you know," said the charming widow, with an arch smile. "Would it be betraying confidence to tell me a little about it?" she added, persuasively.
"Oh no; the matter is no secret, that I know of, and really you are so cozy here," with an appreciative glance about the attractive room as he resumed his seat, "I am tempted to stay and chat a while. I recently received a communication from an English lawyer who desired to turn a case over to me, as it related to American parties, and he had no time to come here to look them up. A man who was on his way home from Australia, was taken ill in London and died there; but before his death he made his will, leaving all his property to a niece, although he did not know whether she was living or not. All the information he could give regarding her was her name, with the date and place of her birth. In case she should not be living, her heirs are to inherit the money. I have made every effort to find her—have been to the place where she was born—but can get no trace of her—no one remembered such a person, and I could not even learn whether she had ever married. I am afraid that the case will prove to be a very complicated and vexatious one."
"I should think so," responded Mrs. Montague, who appeared to be deeply interested in the story. "What was the girl's name?"
"Mona Forester!" repeated the woman, in a startled tone, and growing as white as her handkerchief. "I didn't know she had a relative in the world, except—"
She abruptly paused, for she had been thrown entirely off her guard, and had committed herself, just as the wily lawyer intended and suspected.
A flash of triumph gleamed in his eyes for an instant at the success of his ruse.
"Ah! did you ever know of such a person?" he demanded, eagerly, and with well-feigned surprise.
"I—I knew of—a girl by that name before I was married," Mrs. Montague reluctantly admitted, and beginning to recover her composure.
"Where did she reside?"
"She was born in Trenton, New Jersey, I believe," was the evasive reply.
"Yes, my papers so state—and she must be the same person," said Mr. Corbin, in a tone of conviction. "But that is very meager information. Was Trenton your home also?"
"No, I lived in New York until my marriage."
"Was Miss Forester ever married?"
"Ah! how fortunate that I happened to mention this circumstance to you this evening!" exclaimed the lawyer, with great apparent satisfaction, but ignoring the evident reluctance of his companion to give him information. "Perhaps you can give more particulars. Whom did the lady marry?"
"Don't ask me anything about her, Mr. Corbin," Mrs. Montague cried, excitedly, and with an angry gesture. "The girl ruined my life—she loved the man I loved and—I hated her accordingly."
"But surely you can have no objection to telling me what you know of her history," returned Mr. Corbin, with assumed surprise. "I have this case to settle, and I simply wish to find the woman or her heirs, in order to do my duty and carry out the instructions of the will. It would assist me greatly if you could tell me where I might find her," he concluded, in an appealing tone.
"She is dead—she died more than eighteen years ago."
"Ah! where did she die?"
"Did she leave any heirs?"
"She died in giving birth to her only child."
"Did the child live?"
"Was it a son or a daughter?"
"What became of her—where is she now?"
"I do not know—I do not care!" were the vicious words which burst from the woman's white lips, and Mr. Corbin saw that she was greatly excited, while everything that she had said thus far went to corroborate the statements Mona had made to him regarding her mother.
"But, my dear madame," Mr. Corbin said, soothingly, "while I do not like to trouble you, or recall painful memories, cannot you see that it is my duty to sift this matter and avail myself of whatever information I can get? If Miss Forester was married and had a child, that child, if living, is Homer Forester's heir, and I must find her. Now, if you know anything about these people that will assist me in my search, it becomes your duty to reveal it to me."
"I cannot; I do not know of anything that will assist you," sullenly returned Mrs. Montague, who was mentally reproaching herself in the most bitter manner for having allowed herself to be taken so unawares and to betray so much.
"Whom did the lady marry?" persisted Mr. Corbin.
"I will not tell you!" passionately exclaimed his companion. "Oh, why have I told you anything? Why did I acknowledge that I even knew Mona Forester? I should not have done so, but you surprised the truth from me, and I will tell you nothing more. I hated the girl, and though I have never seen her, I hate the child on her account, and I would not lift even a finger to help her in any way."
"Are you not unreasonably vindictive, Mrs. Montague?" mildly asked Mr. Corbin.
"Unreasonable or not, I mean what I say, and Homer Forester's money may be scattered to the four winds of heaven for any effort that I will make for Mona Forester's child," was the dogged response.
"Do you not see that I must learn the truth?" the lawyer asked, with some sternness, "and though I am averse to using threats to a lady, if you will not tell me voluntarily I shall be obliged to use means to compel you to reveal what you know."
"Compel me!" repeated Mrs. Montague, confronting him with haughty mien. "You cannot do that."
"But I can, Mrs. Montague," Mr. Corbin positively asserted. "Since you have acknowledged so much, and it is evident that you could reveal more, you can be compelled, by law, to do so under oath."
"You would not dare to adopt such stringent measures with me, after all the business that I have thrown into your hands," the woman said, sharply, but growing white about the mouth.
"My duty is just as obligatory to one client as to another. I am under as much obligation to carry out the conditions of Homer Forester's will as I am to be faithful to your interests," the lawyer replied, with inflexible integrity.
"Then you will no longer be faithful to me—you will transact no more business for me," Mrs. Montague asserted, with angry brow and compressed lips.
"Very well, if that is your decision I must submit to it," was the imperturbable response. "And now, madame, I ask you, once for all, to tell me the name of the man whom Mona Forester married?"
"I will not."
"Then let me tell you what conclusion I have drawn from what I have learned during this interview," said Mr. Corbin, as he leaned forward and looked straight into the woman's flashing eyes. "You have said you hated her because she ruined your life—because she loved the man you loved. You have refused to tell me the name of that man. You can have but one reason in thus withholding this information—that motive is fear; therefore, I infer that Mona Forester was the first wife of your husband—her child was your husband's daughter."
"Prove it, then!" cried his companion, with a scornful, though nervous, laugh. "Find the marriage certificate—find the witnesses who saw them married, the clergyman who performed the ceremony, the church register where their names are recorded, if you can."
"I believe they will be found in good time," confidently asserted Mr. Corbin, as he arose the second time to leave; "and, madame, if such proofs are found do you comprehend what the result will be? Not only will Mona Forester's child inherit the fortune left by Homer Forester, but also the bulk of your deceased husband's property."
"Never! for no one in this world can prove that Mona Forester was ever legally married, and—I defy you to do your worst," hoarsely cried Mrs. Montague, with lips that were almost livid, while she trembled visibly with mingled excitement, fear, and anger.
But the gentleman had no desire to discuss the matter further. He simply bade her a courteous good-evening, and then quietly left the house.
"It is the strangest affair that I ever had anything to do with," he muttered, as he walked briskly down the street. "The girl's story must be true, for it tallies exactly with the woman's admissions this evening. There must be proof somewhere, too. Can it be possible," he went on, with a start, "that they are in Mrs. Montague's hands? If so, she is liable to destroy them, and thus plunge my pretty little client into endless trouble. It is strange that her uncle, Dinsmore, could not have been more sensible and left some definite information regarding the child. But I am going to do my best for her, and though I never had quite so mysterious a case before, I believe the very obscurity which invests it only adds interest to it."
Mrs. Montague was in a terrible passion after her lawyer had left. She sprang to her feet and paced the floor from end to end, with angry steps, her face almost convulsed with malice and hatred.
"Can it be possible that I am going to have that battle to fight over again, after all these years?" she muttered; "that the child is going to rise up to avenge the wrongs of her mother? What if she does? Why need I fear her? I have held my own so far, and I will make a tough fight to do so in the future. Possession is said to be nine points in law and I shall hold on to my money like grim death. I never could—I never will give up these luxuries," she cried, sweeping a covetous glance around the exquisitely furnished room. "I plotted for them—I sold my soul for them and him, now they are mine—mine, and no one shall take them from me! Mona Forester, how I hated you!—how I hate your daughter, even though I have never seen her!—how I almost hate that girl up stairs for her strange resemblance to you. I would have sent her out of the house long ago for it, if she had not been so good and faithful a seamstress, and needful to me in many ways. She, herself, saw the resemblance to that picture—By the way," she interposed, with a start, "I wonder if she obeyed me about that crayon the other day! If she didn't—if she kept it I shall be tempted to believe—I'll find out, anyhow."
With a somewhat anxious look on her face, the woman hurried up stairs to her room.
Upon reaching it she rang an imperative peal upon her bell.
Mary presently made her appearance, and one quick glance told her that something had gone wrong with her mistress.
"Bring me a pitcher of ice-water," curtly commanded Mrs. Montague. "And, Mary—"
"Did Miss Richards give you a torn picture the other day?"
"Yes, marm," answered the girl, flushing, "she said you wanted it burned."
"Did you burn it?"
"N-o, marm, somehow I couldn't make up my mind to put it in the fire; it was such a pretty face, and so like Miss Richards, and I've been wanting a picture of her ever since she came here, only I thought maybe she'd resent it if I asked her for one; and so I pasted it together as well as I could, and tacked it up in my room," the girl explained, volubly, and concluded by meekly adding: "I hope there was no harm in it, marm."
"You may bring it to me," was all the reply that Mrs. Montague vouchsafed her attendant; and Mary, looking rather crestfallen, withdrew to obey the command.
"It is a shame to burn it," she muttered, as she took down the defaced picture, and slowly returned down stairs; "but I'm glad Miss Ruth gave it to me before she asked for it."
Mrs. Montague sprang up the moment the girl entered the room, and snatching the portrait from her hands, dashed it upon the bed of glowing coals in the grate.
"When I give an order I want it obeyed," she said, imperiously. "Now go and bring me the water."
Mary withdrew again, wondering what could have happened to make her mistress so out of sorts, and finally came to the conclusion that the lawyer must have brought her bad news.
"There! that is the last of that!" Mrs. Montague said, as she watched the flames curl about the beautiful face in the grate. "I'm glad the girl didn't keep the picture herself; I believe that all my previous suspicions would have been aroused if she had. It can't be that she is Mona's child, for she has always been so indifferent when I have questioned her. Possibly she may be a descendant of some other branch of the family, and does not know it. My only regret is that I did not try to see that other girl before Walter Dinsmore died; then I should have been sure. I wonder where she can be? And to think that Mona Forester should have had an uncle to turn up just at this time! I didn't suppose she had a relative in the world besides the child."
Her musings were cut short at this point by the return of Mary with the water. She poured out a glassful for her mistress, and then was told that she might go.
The lady set down the glass without even tasting its contents; then rising, went to the door and locked it, after which she walked to a small table which stood in a bay-window, and removed the marble top, carefully laying it upon the floor.
This act revealed instead of the usual skeleton stand where a marble top is used a polished table of solid cherry, with what appeared to be a lid in the top, and in which there was a small brass-bound key-hole.
Drawing a bunch of keys from her pocket, Mrs. Montague selected a tiny one from among the others, inserted it in the lock, and the next moment the lid in the table was lifted, thus revealing a secret compartment underneath.
This was filled with various things—paper boxes, packages of various forms and sizes, together with some documents and letters.
Drawing a chair before the table, the woman sat down and began to examine the letters.
There was an intensely bitter expression on her face—a frown on her brow, a sneer on her lips—which so disfigured it that scarcely any one would have recognized her as the brilliant and beautiful woman of the world who so charmed every one in society.
There were perhaps a dozen letters in the package which she took out of the table, and these, as she untied the ribbon that bound them together, and slipped them through her fingers, were all addressed in a delicate and beautiful style of penmanship.
She snatched one from the others, and passionately tore it across, envelope and all. Then she suddenly dropped them on her lap, a shiver running over her, her cheek paling with some inward emotion.
"Ugh! they give me a ghostly feeling! My flesh creeps! I feel almost as if Mona Forester herself were standing beside me, and had laid her dead hand upon me. I cannot look them over—I will tie them up again and burn them all at once," she muttered, in a hoarse tone.
She gathered them up, and hastily wound the ribbon about them, laying them upon the table beside her, then proceeded with her examination of the other contents of the secret compartment.
MONA DECLINES A PROPOSAL.
Mrs. Montague next took a square pasteboard box from the secret compartment in the table, and opened it.
On a bed of pure white cotton there lay some exquisite jewelry. A pearl and diamond cross, a pair of unusually large whole pearls for the ears, and two narrow but costly bands for the wrists, set with the same precious gems.
"Pearls!" sneered the woman, giving the box, with its contents, an angry shake. "He used to call her his 'pearl,' and so, forsooth, he had to represent his estimate of her in some tangible form. There is nothing of the pearl-like nature about me," she continued, with a short, bitter laugh. "I am more like the cold, glittering diamond, and give me pure crystallized carbon every time in preference to any other gem. He wasn't niggardly with her on that score, either," she concluded, lifting the upper layer of cotton, and revealing several diamond ornaments beneath.
"She was a proud little thing, though," she mused, after gazing upon them in silence for a moment, "to go off and leave all these trinkets behind her. I'd have taken them with me and made the most of them. They haven't done me much good, however, since they came into my possession. I never could wear them without feeling as I did just now about the letters. I might have sold them, I suppose, and I don't know why I haven't done so, unless it is because they are all marked."
She covered them and threw the box from her with a passionate gesture, and then searched for a moment in silence among the remaining contents of the table.
She finally found what she wanted, apparently, for a look of triumph swept over her face.
It was a folded document, evidently of parchment.
"Ha, ha! prove your shrewd inferences, my keen-witted lawyer, if you can," she muttered, exultantly, as she unfolded it, and ran her eyes over it. "Mona Forester's child the heir to the bulk of my husband's property, indeed! Perhaps, but she will have to prove it before she can get it. How fortunate that I helped myself to these precious keepsakes when he was off his guard; even he did not dream that I had this," and she shook the parchment until it rattled noisily through the room; then refolding it, she put it carelessly aside, and turned once more to what remained to be examined.
"Here is that exquisite point-lace fan," she said, lifting a long, narrow box, and removing the lid. "I never had a point-lace fan until I bought it for myself; and here is that picture; I never had his likeness painted on ivory and set in a frame of rubies! Ha! Miss Mona, you were a favored wench, but your triumph was of short duration."
It is impossible to convey any idea of the bitterness of the woman's tone, or the vindictiveness of her look, as she took from a velvet case the picture of a handsome young man, of perhaps twenty-five years, painted on ivory, and encircled with a costly frame of gold set with rubies.
"You loved her," she cried, fiercely, as she gazed with all her soul in her eyes upon that attractive face, while her whole frame shook with emotion. "Nothing was too costly or elegant for your petted darling; her slightest wish was your law, while for me you had scarcely a word or a look of affection; you were like ice upon which not even the lava-tide of my idolatry could make the slightest impression. Is it any wonder that I hated her for having absorbed all that I craved? Is it strange that I exulted when they drove her from her apartments in Paris, believing her to be a thing too vile to be tolerated by respectable people. Well, she had his love, but I had him—I vowed that I would win, and—I did."
But, evidently, the memory of her triumph was not a very comforting one, for she suddenly dropped her face upon the hands that still clasped the picture, and burst into a torrent of tears, while deep sobs shook her frame, and she seemed utterly overwhelmed by the tempest of her grief.
Surely in this woman's nature there were depths which no one, who had seen her the center of attraction in the thronged and brilliant drawing-rooms in high-life, would have believed possible to her.
Suddenly, in the midst of this unusual outburst, there came a knock upon the door.
The sound seemed to give her a terrible start in her nervous state.
She half sprang from her chair, a look of guilt and fear sweeping over her flushed and tear-stained face, the table before her gave a sudden lurch, and before she could put out her hand to save it, it went over and fell to the floor with a crash, spilling its contents, and snapping the lid to the secret compartment short off at its hinges.
"What is it?—who is there?" Mrs. Montague demanded, as she went toward the door, while she tried to control her trembling voice to speak naturally.
"What has happened?—I thought I heard a fall," came the response in the anxious tones of Mona's voice.
"Nothing very serious has happened," returned Mrs. Montague, frowning, for the girl, who so closely resembled the rival she hated, coming to her just at that moment, irritated her exceedingly. "I simply upset something just as you knocked. What do you want?"
"I only came to ask if I should finish your tea-gown in the morning, or do the mending, as usual;" Mona replied.
"Finish the tea-gown. I shall need it for the afternoon."
"Very well; I am sorry if I disturbed you, Mrs. Montague. Good-night," and Mona turned away from the door wondering what could have caused such a clatter within the woman's room.
Mrs. Montague went back to the bay-window, righted the table, rearranged its contents, and fitted the broken lid over them with hands that still trembled with her recent excitement.
"What a pity that the lid is broken," she muttered, impatiently, "for now it will do no good to lock it. I cannot help it, however, and perhaps no one will suspect that there is a secret compartment beneath the slab."
She carefully replaced the heavy marble, moved the table to its usual position, and then, worn out with the conflict she had experienced, retired for the night.
But she did not sleep well; she was nervous, and tossed uneasily upon her bed until far into the small hours of the morning, when she finally dropped into a fitful slumber.
She was aroused from this about eight o'clock the following day by Mary, who came as usual to bring her a cup of coffee, which she always drank before rising. There also lay upon the tray a yellow official-looking envelope.
"What is this?" Mrs. Montague demanded, as she seized it and regarded it with some anxiety.
"A telegram, marm. A messenger brought it just as I was coming up stairs," the girl replied.
Her mistress tore it open and devoured its contents with one sweeping glance.
Instantly her face flushed a deep crimson, and she crushed the message hastily within her hand, while she began to drink her coffee, but seemed to become deeply absorbed in her own thoughts while doing so.
A few moments later she arose and dressed herself rapidly, but all the time appeared preoccupied and troubled about something.
"I believe I shall let Louis marry her if he wants to. I could settle the hundred thousand on him, and stipulate that they go West, or somewhere out of the State, to live. I believe I'll do it," she murmured once, while thus engaged, "that is, if—"
She did not finish the sentence, but, with a resolute step and air, went down to her breakfast.
She had no appetite, however, and after dallying at the table for half an hour or so, she went up stairs again and entered the sewing-room.
She found Mona busy at work upon the tea-gown—a beautiful robe of old-rose cashmere, made up with a lighter shade of heavy armure silk.
"Can you finish it in season?" she inquired.
"Oh, yes, easily. I have about an hour's more work to do upon it," the young girl answered.
"That is well, for I want you to go down town to do some shopping for me. I cannot attend to it, as I wish to keep fresh for my high-tea this afternoon," Mrs. Montague returned, flushing slightly. Then she added: "I will make out a list of what I need, and you may go as soon as the dress is done."
Mona was pleased with the commission, for the morning was lovely, and she had felt unusually weak and weary ever since rising. The close application to which she had been subjected since her return from Hazeldean—for she had been hurried with spring sewing—had worn upon her.
A feeling of discouragement had also taken possession of her, for she seemed no nearer learning the truth about her mother than when she had first come there.
She was confident that Mrs. Montague had been her father's second wife, and she fully believed that she must have in her possession papers, letters, or some other documents that would reveal all that she wished to know regarding Richmond Montague's first marriage, and give her some information regarding the great sorrow that had so blighted the life of his beautiful young wife.
She had promised that she would give herself to Ray at the end of three months; he still held her to that promise, and six weeks of the time had already elapsed, and she seemed to be no nearer the attainment of her desires than when she had made it.
True, she had found the picture of her mother, and learned that her name was Mona Forester. She had also discovered that a relative had been seeking for her with the desire of leaving her all that he possessed.
But all this was very unsatisfactory, for she had not gained the slightest clew by which to prove herself to be the child of Mona Forester, or any one else.
It was all a wearisome and harrowing tangle, and it wore both upon her spirits and her strength.
It was true, too, that she had found Ray, and learned that he loved her. This was a great comfort, and she knew she had but to tell him that she was ready to go to him, and he would at once make her his wife; but—a flush of shame flooded her face every time she thought of it—she was continually haunted by the fear that her mother might never have been Richmond Montague's wife—that possibly she might have no legal right to the name she bore, in spite of her uncle's assurance to the contrary, and she shrank from marrying Ray if any such stigma rested upon her.
She had never breathed these fears to him—she kept hoping that some accident, or some remark from Mrs. Montague, would throw light on the perplexing mystery.
But Mrs. Montague never referred in any way to her past life in her presence. She had never once mentioned her husband, and, of course, Mona had not dared to ask her any questions upon these subjects.
"I can never marry Ray until I know," she had told herself over and over in great distress, "for I love him too well ever to bring any blight upon his life."
She had had a dim hope that Mr. Corbin might in some way manage to unravel the mystery, and yet she could not see that he had anything more tangible to work upon than she herself had.
Mona finished the dress and carried it to Mrs. Montague, who seemed very much pleased with it.
"You are a lovely seamstress, Ruth, and a good, faithful girl," she said, as she carefully examined the neatly made garment. "But for one thing," she added, as she covertly searched the girl's fair face, "I believe I should grow really fond of you."
This remark put Mona on her guard in a moment, though it also set her heart to beating with a vague hope.
"Thank you for your praise of my work, Mrs. Montague," she quietly said, "but," lifting a wondering glance to her face, "what is the one thing that I lack to win your esteem? If I am at fault in any way I should be glad to know and correct it."
"You lack nothing. It is because you so much resemble a person whom I used to detest—I am unaccountably antagonized by it," said the woman, frowning, for the clear eyes, looking so frankly into hers, were wondrously like Mona Forester's.
"Oh, I suppose you refer to the person whose picture I found up stairs a while ago," said Mona.
"Yes," and Mrs. Montague looked slightly ashamed of her confession; "I imagine you think I am somewhat unjust to allow my prejudice to extend to you on that account, and I know I am; but the power of association is very strong, and I did hate that girl with all my heart."
Mona was trying to acquire courage to ask what reason she could have for hating any one who looked so gentle and inoffensive, when the woman resumed, with some embarrassment:
"Louis scolded me for the feeling when I mentioned it to him—he is not tainted in any such way, I assure you. Do you know, Ruth," with a little laugh of assumed amusement, "that he is very fond of you?"
Mona's face was all ablaze in an instant—her eyes likewise, although she was greatly surprised to learn that the young man had betrayed his liking for her to his aunt.
"I trust that Mr. Hamblin has not led you to believe that I have ever encouraged any such feeling on his part," she coldly remarked.
"I know that you have been very modest and judicious, Ruth; but what if I should tell you that the knowledge of his preference does not displease me; that, on the whole, I rather approve of his regard for you?" questioned Mrs. Montague, observing her closely.
"From what you told me a moment ago, I should suppose you would feel anything but approval," Mona replied, without being able to conceal her scorn of this sanction to Louis Hamblin's presumption.
"What do you mean?" demanded her companion, with some sharpness.
"I refer to the prejudice which you confessed to entertaining against me."
"But did I not acknowledge that it was unjust? And when one confesses wrong and is willing to correct it, credit should not be withheld," Mrs. Montague retorted, with some warmth. "But seriously, Ruth," she continued, with considerable eagerness, "Louis is very much in earnest about this matter. He has dutifully asked my permission to address you, and I believe it would be for his happiness and interest to have a good wife, such as I am confident you would make. I know that he has betrayed something of this feeling to you, or I should not presume to speak to you about it; but my reason for so doing is that I thought perhaps you might feel more free to accept his suit if you knew that I approved of the union."
Mona was trembling now with mingled excitement and indignation. Excitement over the discovery that Louis Hamblin had really been in earnest when he had made love to her at Hazeldean, and indignation that he should still presume to think that she would marry him after the decided rebuff she had given him at that time. She was also astonished that Mrs. Montague should propose such a thing after what she had said, on the night of the ball, about her "angling for Ray Palmer, and imagining herself to be his equal in any respect."
Then she grew very pale with a sudden suspicion. Perhaps Mrs. Montague had discovered who she was, possibly Mr. Corbin had been to her to question her, and had aroused her suspicions that she was Mona Montague, and she was plotting to marry her to her nephew in order to keep her fortune in the family, and thus tie Mona's hands to render her incapable of mischief.
These thoughts inspired her with fresh hope and courage, for she told herself that if this was the woman's object, there must be some proofs in existence that her mother's marriage with Richmond Montague had been legal.
But Mrs. Montague was waiting for some answer, and she could not stop to consider these points very fully now.
"I thank you," she said, trying hard to curb the scorn that was surging fiercely within her, "but I shall be obliged to decline a union with Mr. Hamblin—I could never become his wife."
"Why not, pray?" sharply demanded her companion.
"Because I believe that marriage should never be contracted without mutual love, and I do not love Mr. Hamblin," Mona returned, with cold positiveness.
"Really?" Mrs. Montague sneered, with a frowning brow, "one would suppose that a person in your position—a poor seamstress—would be only too glad to marry a handsome young man with Louis' prospects—for he will eventually inherit my fortune if he out-lives me."
"Then, perhaps, it will be a surprise to you to learn that there is one poor seamstress in the world who does not regard marriage with a rich young man as the most desirable end to be achieved in life," Mona responded, with quiet sarcasm.
Mrs. Montague grew crimson with anger.
"Then you would not marry my nephew if he should offer himself to you?" she indignantly inquired.
"No, madame; I could not. With all due appreciation of the honor intended me, I should be obliged to decline it."
The girl spoke with the utmost respect and courtesy, yet there was a slight inflection upon certain words which irritated Mrs. Montague almost beyond endurance.
"Perhaps you are already in love with some one else—perhaps you imagine that you may win young Palmer, upon whom you so indelicately forced your society at Hazeldean," she snapped.
Mona could not quite conceal all emotion at this unexpected attack, and a lovely color stole into her cheeks, at which the watchful woman opposite her was quick to draw her own conclusions, even though the fair girl made no reply to her rude speech.
"Let me disabuse your mind at once of any such hopes and aspirations," Mrs. Montague continued, with increased asperity, "for they will never be realized, since Ray Palmer is already engaged."
This statement was made upon the strength of what she had learned from Mr. Palmer regarding Ray's affection for Mr. Dinsmore's niece, and his own approval of the union if the young lady could be found.
Poor Mona's powers of endurance were tried to the utmost by this thrust, and she longed to proclaim, there and then, that she knew it—that she was the young man's promised wife.
But the time for such an avowal was not yet ripe; a few weeks longer, if she could have patience, and then she hoped there would be no occasion for further secrecy.
She put a strong curb upon herself, and simply bowed to show that she had heard and understood Mrs. Montague's statement.
The effort, however, drove every atom of color from her face, and seeing this, Mrs. Montague believed that she had planted a sharp thorn in her bosom.
She did not wish to antagonize her, however, and she was almost sorry that she had said so much; but she was a creature of impulse when her will was thwarted, and did not always stop to choose her words.
She had, for certain reasons, yielded her objections to Louis marrying her, and now this unexpected opposition on Mona's part only served to make her determined to carry the point, for the sake of conquering her, if for no other.
"Well, we will not quarrel over the matter, Ruth," she said, in a conciliatory tone. "Of course I have no right to coerce you in such a matter, and you are too useful to me to be driven away by contesting the point. So we will drop the subject; and now if you will take this memorandum and go about the shopping I shall be obliged to you. I shall need all my strength for this evening, because I am to have a large company to entertain, and—"
She abruptly paused, and seemed a trifle confused for a moment. Then she asked, with unusual consideration:
"Shall I send you in the carriage?"
"No, I should prefer to take a car down town and then walk about to the different stores. I sit so much I shall be glad of the exercise," Mona replied, as she turned to leave the room, but wondering what Mrs. Montague had been going to add when she stopped so suddenly.
RAY MAKES AN IMPORTANT DISCOVERY.
Mona hastened to her own chamber, after leaving Mrs. Montague, where she hastily exchanged her house dress for a street costume, and then started out upon her errands.
She had a great deal to think of in connection with her recent conversation with Mrs. Montague, but, although much had been said that had annoyed her greatly, on the whole she had been inspired with fresh hope that the mystery enshrouding her mother's life would eventually be solved.
She therefore quickly recovered her spirits, and her face was bright and animated as she tripped away to catch the car at the corner of the street.
She had several errands to do, and she very much enjoyed the freedom of running about to the different stores, to buy the pretty things regarding which Mrs. Montague had discovered she possessed excellent taste and judgment.
She had nearly completed her purchases—all but some lace, which that lady wished to add to the ravishing tea-gown which was to be worn that evening, and to get this she would have to pass Mr. Palmer's jewelry store.
Her heart beat fast as she drew near it, for she had been hoping all the way down town that she might see Ray and have a few minutes' chat with him.
She glanced in at the large show-window, as she went slowly by, and, fortunately, Ray was standing quite near, behind the counter, talking with a customer.
He caught sight of her instantly, but indicated it only by a quick flash of the eyes, and a grave bow, and quietly continued his conversation.
Mona knew, however, that having seen her, he would seek her at the earliest possible moment, and so slowly sauntered on, looking in at the different windows which she passed.
It was not long until she caught the sound of a quick step behind her, and the next moment a firm, strong hand clasped hers, while a pair of fond, true eyes looked the delight which her lover experienced at the unexpected meeting.
"My darling!—I was thinking of you the very moment you passed, and wishing that I could see you. I have something very important to tell you," he said, eagerly, but his fine face clouded as he uttered these last words.
"It is something that troubles you, I am sure, Ray," said Mona, who was quick to interpret his every expression.
"Yes, it is—I am free to confess," he admitted, then added: "Come in here with me—there will not be many people about at this hour—where we can talk more freely, and I will tell you all about it."
They were passing the Hoffman House at that moment, and the young man led the way inside the cafe.
They proceeded to a table in a quiet corner, where, behind some palms and tall ferns, they would not be likely to be observed, and then gave an order for a tempting lunch, the preparation of which would require some time.
While waiting for it, Ray confided his trouble to Mona.
"My father is really going to marry Mrs. Montague," was the somewhat abrupt communication which he made with pale lips and troubled brow.
"I have known it for some time, but did not like to speak of it to you," Mona quietly replied.
"You have known it for some time?" Ray exclaimed. "For how long, pray?"
"Ever since we were at Hazeldean."
"Impossible! for my father did not make his proposal until after our return to New York."
"But she certainly told me the night of the ball, when she came up stairs to retire, that she expected to marry Mr. Palmer," Mona returned, and flushing at the memory of that conversation, which, however, she had been too proud to repeat to her lover.
"Well, she may have expected to marry him, and I imagine that his own mind was pretty well made up at that time," said Ray, gloomily, "but the matter was not settled until after our return, as I said before, and the engagement is to be formally announced this afternoon at the high-tea given by Mrs. Montague."
Ah! this explained to Mona what had puzzled her just before leaving home—why Mrs. Montague had once or twice appeared embarrassed during their conversation, why she had abruptly paused in the midst of that last sentence, and why, too, she had been so unusually particular about her personal appearance for a home-reception.
She mentioned these circumstances to Ray, and asked, in conclusion, if he were also invited to the high-tea.
"Yes; but, really, I am so heart-sick over the affair I feel as if I cannot go. I am utterly at a loss to understand this strange infatuation," he continued, with a heavy sigh. "My father, until this meeting with Mrs. Montague, has been one of the most quiet and domestic of men. He went occasionally into society, but never remained late at any reception, and never bestowed especial attention upon any lady. He has been a dear lover of his home and his books. We have seldom entertained since my mother's death, except in an informal way, and he has always appeared to have a strong antipathy to gay society women."
"How strange! for Mrs. Montague is an exaggerated type of such a woman; her life is one continual round of excitement, pleasure, and fashion," Mona remarked, "and I am sure," she added, with a glance of sympathy at her lover's downcast face, "that Mr. Palmer would soon grow very weary of such an existence."
"I am certain of it, also," Ray answered, "and more than that, from what I have learned of the woman through you—of her character and disposition—I fear that my father is doomed to a wretched future, if he marries her."
"I have similar forebodings," Mona said, thoughtfully, as her mind recurred to the conversation of the morning. "How would it do for you to tell your father what you know? It might influence him, and I shall not mind having my secret revealed if he can be saved from future unhappiness."