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   Chapter 11 IT IS THE RING.

They Looked and Loved By Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller Characters: 9311

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Nita was walking alone in the grounds at twilight. The purple shades of the gloaming were shot through by the opaline light of a new moon swinging like a silver sickle in a rosy-lilac sky, and a wind from the sea-cool, salty, and delicious-stirred the flowers, shaking out fragrance upon the languid, love-breathing air of June.

The beautiful white-robed girl, as she walked up and down the flowery paths, cast now and then glances of yearning tenderness toward one window of the house, through whose lace-curtains gleamed a dim, soft light. She knew that Dorian Mountcastle was waiting there, heart-sick and restless, and pining for her presence.

A little while ago Lizette had brought her a note that set all her pulses beating with blended rapture and despair:

"My Dear Miss Farnham: How can you be so cruel to a sick and lonely man? It is a week since I have seen you. Mrs. Hill keeps making excuses that you are not well, but how can I believe it when I have seen you from my window every day walking, riding, and even boating, rowing yourself with the most consummate grace and skill? Azalea also tells me you are very well. She is devoted to me, the dear girl, but it is you I want.

"Do you know that I am so much better the doctor let me sit up several hours to-day, and that I shall soon be well enough to go away? I am glad, for I have already trespassed too long on your hospitality, and, of course, you will wish me gone, else you would let me see you when I am so miserable over your displeasure. How cruelly you punish me for that sweet stolen kiss, whose memory thrills my every hour with silent rapture. Ah, Nita, I love you madly! Will you accept the life you saved so bravely that night and make me happy?

"You remember that sweet old song 'Juanita'? It keeps singing itself over and over in my thronging thoughts:

"'Nita, Juanita, let me linger by thy side;

Nita, Juanita, be my own fair bride!'

"Ah, Nita, did not our souls rush together at our first meeting? I remember with intoxicating rapture how we looked into each other's eyes-looked and loved. Oh, my dearest, do not be cold to me. You are no heartless coquette, I know. Forego all further punishment. Come to me, dear, and set my heart at rest.

Dorian."

The letter was in Nita's bosom. The sweetness and the thorn were in her heart. She wrung her slender hands together, as if in pain, then they fell apart, and a stifled cry came from her lips.

The keen little tongue of the emerald serpent had pierced her rosy palm and the blood started. But the wound in the young girl's heart was deeper far.

Everything around Nita-the moon, the flowers, the sea, breathed of love. What wonder that the same pulse throbbed at her heart! She leaned on the railing of a little fountain throwing diamond sprays into the air, and murmured plaintively:

"If this had come to me only two weeks ago it would have opened the gates of heaven to me. To love-to be loved-that is the best of life. But I have lived to be almost eighteen, and never had this crowning joy-never until now, when it comes, alas, too late. Ah, would it be so very wrong to love him just a little while? I have just one year of life, for I have sworn to die ere the moment comes of giving myself to Miser Farnham's arms. One year-only year in this beautiful world! Oh, it is cruel, cruel! And life has been so hard to me; who could blame me for taking this joy that fate holds out to me, this draft of love whose dregs will be so bitter?"

Hungry for love and happiness, the girl was faltering with a terrible temptation. For a week she had held it at bay. To-night Love stood sentinel at the door of her heart and proclaimed himself her master.

That night in the old garden when she had believed Dorian Mountcastle dead, she had uttered prophetic words:

"If you had lived, you would have lured my heart from me."

Only time could prove whether it was for better or worse that he had lived, and that they had looked and loved.

"I must go to him!" she cried suddenly, sweeping all irresolution aside.

She gathered a lily from the marble basin of the fountain, fastened it in the bosom of her white gown, and turned toward the house. Coming into the graveled walk at the foot of the steps, Nita almost ran into the arms of a tall, middle-aged man, who lifted his hat with easy grace, exclaiming:

"Beg pardon, Miss-Miss--"

"Farnham," the young girl said quietly, and stood waiting.

He bowed deeply, and resumed in his easy courteous manner:

"My name is Donald Kayne, Miss Farnham, and I am in search of a missing friend of mine, Dorian Mountcastle. I set him as

hore on this beach about two weeks ago, and on returning only yesterday from our little yachting excursion, I heard that he had not returned to New York, nor even been heard of there. I became uneasy and came down to-day to hunt him up, although now"-with an admiring glance-"his exile is no longer a mystery to me. I learned at the hotel of my friend's accident, and that he was your guest. I hastened without ceremony to call on him."

"You are most welcome," she answered, in a low, musical voice.

"Thank you; and is he better?"

"He will soon be well," she murmured-"you will come to him at once, sir. He will be glad indeed to see his friend."

He followed her up the stately granite steps into a broad marble-paved hall. Then Nita led him to Dorian Mountcastle.

The invalid was resting in an easy chair, and Mrs. Courtney and her daughter were with him in spite of the only half-suppressed yawns with which he slyly evidenced a decided preference for solitude.

He was waiting for Nita's answer to his letter. Would she come, his proud, dark-eyed darling, would she forgive his audacity and grant his prayer? And, meanwhile, Mrs. Courtney and Azalea were engaged in holding her up to his scorn.

"The most singular young girl I ever met. She makes the duties of a chaperon merely a sinecure," sneered Mrs. Courtney, and Azalea chimed in with pretended sweet excuses:

"But, then, mama, dear, you must remember that the poor girl does not really seem to have any knowledge of the usages of the best society. I fancy her wealth must have come to her quite suddenly. She cannot play the piano, Dorian, nor sing a note. She knows no language but English, she is brusk, and--" But the sentence uttered in a clear, high-pitched voice, was never ended.

The door that already stood slightly ajar, to admit the evening air, was pushed open by a graceful hand, and Nita stood on the threshold with the stranger. She had heard, for, looking straight at her dismayed rival, she said archly:

"You are quite right, Miss Courtney, I was brought up in poverty until a few weeks ago, when I came into my-inheritance."

Cool, fair, queenly, she bowed to Dorian, and said simply:

"Your friend, Mr. Kayne."

"Donald Kayne!" cried Dorian joyfully.

A confusion ensued in which Nita's daring speech was happily passed over. The Courtneys were well acquainted with the newcomer. In their palmy days they had been in his "set," and, although surprised to see them here, he greeted them with the easy cordiality of a man of the world.

A lively conversation ensued from which Nita seemed for a short while necessarily left out. She withdrew to the only vacant seat, regretting that she could not conveniently move the heavy arm-chair away from the strong glare of light.

She leaned back, with languid grace, her eyes downcast, a hovering smile on her scarlet lips, her exquisite arm escaping from the lace of the loose sleeve, resting on the arm of the dark velvet chair, the taper, extending fingers quivering with a slight nervous motion that made the serpent-ring glitter so weirdly one would scarcely have been more startled to hear a sibilant hiss escape from the open jaws.

Nita was unconscious that the stranger's eyes dwelt admiringly upon her queenly beauty as she sat in the velvet arm-chair. She kept her lids lowered persistently, not daring to meet Dorian's ardent gaze.

But, suddenly, she became aware that Mr. Kayne had left his seat and was bending over her chair. His breath swept her cheek as he exclaimed eagerly:

"A very unique ring, Miss Farnham. Will you permit me to examine it closer?"

He took the white hand in his own and lifted it nearer to the light. His fingers felt as cold as the skeleton ones, from which she had drawn the uncanny ring in the miser's gold-vault, and they were trembling strangely. Every one was watching him curiously, the pale, repressed excitement of his countenance was so fascinating.

"Good heavens! it is the ring! Miss Farnham, how came you by it?" he cried out in such a startled, eager voice that she quivered with deadly fear, recalling in dismay the old miser's malicious words:

"People will recognize the ring-they will ask you questions that you will not dare to answer."

"The ring-I-oh-you must have made a mistake," she faltered, almost imploringly.

"Impossible! I know the jewel perfectly. I will prove it to you. Inside the serpent-ring there is carved a name-'Pepita'-is it not true? You know it. Come, Miss Farnham, you have solved the mystery of that woman's fate, or you would not wear her ring. The truth, the truth, for God's sake!"

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