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   Chapter 1 A WEB OF FATE.

They Looked and Loved By Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller Characters: 10770

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"I would sell my soul to Satan for a chest of gold!" cried a despairing voice.

It was a young girl who uttered the words. She was standing under a tree in Central Park, watching the equipages that rolled past in a constant stream. A handsome victoria, in which sat a golden-haired beauty, one of the famed Four Hundred of New York, had just whirled past, and the dust from the wheels had blown into the speaker's face, drawing those reckless words from her lips:

"I would sell my soul to Satan for a chest of gold!"

Of a truth, the girl was fair enough to have exchanged places with the regal woman in the carriage, for her face and form had been shaped in beauty's fairest mold, though the cheek was wan and pale from the pangs of grief and hunger, and the peerless form was draped in worn and shabby garments.

But the fires of pride and ambition burned brightly in the large Spanish-looking dark eyes, as the girl clasped her small ungloved hands together.

"Would you marry me?" asked a low, sneering voice in her ear.

She turned with a start of terror, and it appeared to her as if her reckless words had summoned the arch-fiend himself to her side.

The person who had addressed her was a horribly ugly and grotesque-looking old man.

He was at least sixty-five years of age, bent and stoop-shouldered, with features that were homely to the point of grotesqueness. His nose was large, his mouth wide, his small malevolent gray eyes peered beneath bushy red eyebrows supplemented by grizzled hair and whiskers of the same lurid color. His clothing was scrupulously neat, but well-worn and of cheap material.

"Would you marry me?" repeated this old man, and the beautiful girl gave a start of surprise not unmixed with fear.

"You-you-why, you are as poor as I am!" she gasped, her eyes roving over his shabby attire.

"Appearances are often deceitful, young lady. I look like a beggar, I know, and, truth to tell, I live like one, but I am rich enough to give you your heart's desire-a chest of gold. Did you ever hear of Charles Farnham, the miser?"

"Yes."

"I am Farnham, the miser, young lady, and for once I have a generous impulse. You are young, beautiful, and poor. I am old, ugly, and rich. In the world of fashion such marriages are not uncommon. Will you marry me?"

She gazed into his repulsive features, and shuddered.

"No, no, no!"

"You are very independent," he sneered. "What is your name? Where do you live?"

"My name is no concern of yours. My home will soon be-in-the-river!"

"What mean you, girl?"

"What I have just told you, sir. I am a poor and honest girl, out of work, penniless, and friendless, turned into the streets to-day to starve. Before nightfall I shall end my sorrows in the river."

"A girl with that beautiful face and form need never starve," returned the old miser, with a significant leer.

The pale, young face flushed to a burning crimson, and the large, dark eyes flashed angrily.

"I have been told that many times, sir, but I am an honest girl. I can die, but I cannot do wrong."

"It is too beautiful a day to die," returned the old miser, looking around him at the green grass and flowers and golden sunshine.

The park was crowded. There were throngs on foot, throngs in carriages. Beautiful women were plenty, but none of them could compare with the young girl standing there in the dust of their carriage-wheels talking to the old miser.

"Look at those handsome creatures in their magnificent carriages with liveried servants-look at their silks and jewels. Do you not envy them?" demanded Farnham. "You are more beautiful than they are. It is very foolish of you to drown yourself for lack of bread when I offer you wealth and splendor as my wife."

"But I could not love you. You are old-hideous-and I could not marry any one I did not love; I would rather die."

A fierce gleam came into the old man's eyes.

"You are the proudest pauper I ever saw, yet your very scorn makes you seem more desirable in my eyes," he exclaimed. "Come, give your consent to marry me, and you shall have one of the finest homes in New York-carriages, jewels, Paris dresses, opera-boxes, and an adoring husband. Would you not like all this?"

"All but the husband!" answered the girl frankly and sadly. "Oh, forgive me, sir, but your wealth would not make me happy if I had to live by your side."

"Yet you said just now that you would sell your soul to Satan for a chest of gold."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"I-I spoke thoughtlessly, sir. I did not think that Satan would hear me," she murmured in an undertone.

The miser saw in her eyes a girlish scorn that maddened him; yet, strange to say, it made him more eager to possess this luring though scornful beauty. He stood gazing covetously at her, and suddenly she added archly:

"I have read stories about people who sold themselves to the devil; but you see they had a little respite first, and rather enjoyed life before he claimed them, but if I married you I should be signed, sealed, and delivered over at once to the enemy," and she laughed, a mocking, mirthless laugh, for, in truth, she was desperate with despair and misery.

"You are very complimentary," said her strange suitor, with a contortion of the lip that was a cross between a grin and a sneer. He had an angry longing to strike the beautiful

face that looked at him with such defiant scorn, for the girl was as proud as she was poor, and she had her treasured love-dreams like all other young girls-dreams of a rich and handsome lover who might some day woo her for his bride.

Miser Farnham, with a frightful grimace, withdrew from her side, but remained close by, watching the lonely, desolate creature with keen, calculating gray eyes.

Something more than an hour went by, and as the brilliant pageant of wealth and fashion began to fade, the girl drew a long, shuddering sigh, and turned to leave the park. A jibing voice sounded in her ear:

"Are you going to the river now?"

The dark eyes, heavy now with despair, turned upon the face of the old man.

"Yes; I am going to the river," she replied, in a dull, dreary tone.

"Will you wait one moment, please?"

She stopped and looked at him in dull wonder, her face so pallid, her eyes so despairing, that he shuddered to meet them.

"You said just now that Satan always gave a respite to those whose souls he bought; I have pondered deeply over those words, and here is the result: I will give you a respite, if you will marry me. No, don't turn away so recklessly. I mean it, young lady. Marry me to-day, and I will not see you again for a whole year. In the meantime you shall reign a queen in a palace; your life shall be a dream of delight. In my hand is the wand of the magician-gold-yellow gold-and I can accomplish all that I promise, and more! Think! A whole year of luxury, of pleasure, and in that time not one sight of my face. Can you turn from this to the dark, cold river? Surely, then, you must be mad!"

The girl stood like one rooted to the spot, her eyes dark, burning, eager. What was it he was offering? Wealth, ease, happiness-and she was homeless and starving. Her brain reeled; she trembled with excitement.

"A year," repeated old Farnham temptingly, "and in all that time I will not come near you. Only speak the word, and we will go now to a lawyer, I will have a marriage contract drawn, waiving all rights for one year from the date of marriage. Then we will be married. I will secure a chaperon and maid for you, and, leaving you in a home of luxury, take my departure until the months of your respite are over. Perhaps by then your gratitude to me will lead you to look on me with favor-if not, there is still the river"-leering wickedly.

Surely a stranger offer had never been made to a fair and homeless girl. It was romantic in some of its aspects, and it was tempting to the forlorn young creature. A gleam of piteous hope came into the large, sad eyes. A year or more of life, of ease, of comfort.

"No poor girl ever had such a chance before. Surely, you consent," continued the wily tempter.

"Yes, I consent," answered the girl, with stiff lips and unsmiling eyes.

"Good," uttered the miser, with a chuckle of satisfaction. He caught her small ungloved hand and pressed it with awkward gallantry. It was cold as a lump of ice, and fell stiffly from his clasp. Then she looked at him and spoke again, briefly and coldly:

"I am trusting fully in your promises," she said. "Remember, you must not play me false, or weak girl as I am, I shall know how to punish you."

"You can trust me, for I love you," he answered, in wheedling tones. "Come now, let us go at once to a lawyer. We can get a cab at the park gates."

She followed him away from the park, and when seated in the cab on their way to the lawyer's, he said:

"When the contract is drawn up, and we are married, the first thing will be to get you some clothing and jewels suitable for a beautiful young heiress. The next thing will be a chaperon. Well, I know an aristocratic woman, widowed and reduced to poverty, who will gladly take charge of you for the splendid salary and privileges she will get. She has one daughter, who will be a fitting companion for you. These two will make it possible for you to enter at once into the best society. You will be introduced to them as my ward, not as my wife. Then, with your chest of gold, you will enter upon a dazzling career. Your wealth and your beauty, and the prestige your chaperon will confer upon you, will enable you to dazzle the world of society and fashion. Does the picture please you?"

"I must be dreaming," answered the girl, passing her hand across her eyes in a bewildered fashion.

But the rest of the day seemed but a continuation of her dream. They went at once to a lawyer, who drew up the strange marriage-contract; then to a minister, who united them in matrimonial bonds. Next the old miser took his bride to a large store, where he gave orders that she should be supplied with an outfit of clothing suitable to her needs as a young heiress. Obsequious clerks flew to do his bidding; then, drawing her aside, he said:

"I shall leave you here several hours while I go to see the lady who will be your chaperon during the one year that you will pass as my rich ward instead of my wife."

He paused a moment, then added, with an air of hesitancy:

"I have decided that your home shall be for the first few weeks at a seaside residence I own in New Jersey. I will arrange for you to go this evening, as it is but a short distance from New York. Be all ready in your traveling-dress when I call for you with the lady and your maid at six o'clock."

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