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   Chapter 9 THE SERPENT RING.

They Looked and Loved By Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller Characters: 5650

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"Ah, Nita, you remember that day still!" cried the old man in a transport of joy. "You remember that you are my wife! Do you know that in my wrath I had almost forgotten it? And so you appeal to my love? Have you none to give me in return, pretty one?"

As he approached her she thrust him violently back with hands that were nerved by the strength of fear and hate.

"Do not touch me, do not ask me for love. Remember our marriage-contract!" she exclaimed.

"I remember it," he answered, gazing on her with fiery eyes. "But, listen, Nita; I will give you one chance of escape from the doom that hangs over you. Burn the marriage-contract. Become my wife in reality as you are now only in name, and we will begin our new life to-day. I love you, Nita, but only on these terms can you regain your freedom."

She shrank back with dilated eyes full of horror, and cried:

"I would not abridge one hour of that year if twenty lives were at stake. Ah, no, no, no-sooner death!"

"So be it!" he exclaimed bitterly, incensed by her scorn, and pointing to the skeleton. "I will go now and leave you to the companionship of this grim lady whose fate you will share." He moved toward the door, but she sprang before him with desperate courage to do battle for her liberty.

"Do not dare to leave me here!" she cried imperiously. "Listen to me, you wicked wretch! If you leave me here to perish with this woman you have already murdered, I-while I am dying of starvation here in this gold-vault, surrounded by enough wealth to feed famishing thousands-I will curse you with my latest breath! I, to whom Heaven will listen because I am good and friendless, will pray God to chastise you with a terrible punishment, and to bring down on you a death even more awful than mine. And after death I will haunt you night and day, if such things can be, until I drive you mad with horror."

Before the solemn force of Nita's frenzied adjuration, the old man started and grew ashen pale. His eyes glared, his knees trembled. She saw quickly that her desperate words had some effect upon him, and continued:

"See, I will take an oath, if you let me go free, never to reveal the secret of what I have seen here to-night, never to enter this place again. The secret of your hidden wealth, and of this murdered woman, shall be as though I had never known it. Will not this suffice?"

Charles Farnham did not answer at first. With bowed head and ashen features, he remained in deep thought several minutes, while Nita waited in keen anxiety. Then he looked up, and said:

"You promise to take a solemn oath! Very well. For the love I bear you I will spare your life. But there is one condition."

"Yes," she breathed eagerly.

"You note the ring on that skeleton-hand there? Come nearer, Nita, and examine it. You shudder. A

coiled serpent, with quivering, emerald scales, you observe. Is it not magnificent and unique? It has a history, and was made for this woman by a foreign artisan, who then destroyed the pattern. Note the tiny quivering gold wires that uphold each emerald scale. At the least movement of the hand the serpent-head seems to raise itself, and the eyes and scales to glow with malignant greenish fire."

"Yes, yes," she answered impatiently. "But the condition, sir-the condition?"

Scowling darkly at her, he hissed rather than spoke:

"That you take your oath of silence with that skeleton hand clasped in your own, and afterward withdraw the serpent-ring from that bony finger, and wear it always, in memory of this hour."

She shuddered and recoiled at first, then, catching the gleam of triumph in his eye, answered, with apparent calm:

"I agree to your condition."

With an evil, jeering smile, he said:

"Perchance there are people yet alive who have never given up the hope of tearing aside the thick veil of mystery that enshrouds the fate of this woman. If you wear this ring you may meet them-they will recognize it, they will ask you questions that you will not dare to answer."

Her brain was reeling, her limbs trembled, her strength was fast going in this atmosphere of horror, but there was an element of desperate bravery in the girl when driven to bay. She answered her tormentor:

"Only give me my liberty, and I will risk it all-all!"

The die was cast. He looked at her for a moment with a strange expression, and exclaimed warningly:

"One moment, please. You will remember that you will have no chance to prove a traitor to your oath, even if you dared. This door I shall wall up immediately, as there is a secret entrance that I shall use hereafter. So beware of attempted treachery, girl."

With a shudder she replied:

"The wealth of the Indies would not tempt me to return to this dreadful place! Now, the oath."

With wolfish eyes he saw her white hand close shrinkingly over the dead one on the table. Sepulchrally he spake some words which Nita repeated after him through stiff white lips, her eyes dilated with horror.

Then she drew the glistening ring from the skeleton's bony hand, and placed it on her third finger. The emerald scales quivered with greenish fire, and a shock as of electricity seemed to thrill through her at the contact. Repressing a cry of terror, she turned toward the stairway.

"You must return the way you came," said Farnham, unlocking the door, and holding it ajar. "Good-by, Nita, and do not forget the oath sworn on the dead hand."

But the girl was speechless. Flitting past him like a shadow she crept up the stairway, and heard with silent thanksgiving the lock turn in the door, between her and the miser's gold-vault.

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