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   Chapter 24 THE MISER SENDS FOR HIS BRIDE.

They Looked and Loved By Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller Characters: 14325

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"What a nuisance!" muttered Mrs. Courtney, but she bathed Nita's face until she came to herself with a long, low sigh of deepest pain.

"I have been dreaming-oh, such a dreadful dream!" she shuddered.

"No, it was not a dream, Nita. I was telling you your guardian was alive, and you fainted-from excess of joy, I suppose," added the lady maliciously.

Nita sat up and pressed her small hand wearily to her brow. Despair made her brave.

"No, Mrs. Courtney, it was excess of sorrow," she answered frankly.

"Oh, you cruel, wicked girl!"

"Do you think so?" asked Nita, with calmness. "No matter, I was glad when I heard that he was dead. I hated him-oh, I cannot tell you how I feared and hated him."

"But why?" curiously.

"Can you ask?" cried Nita despairingly. "Who could love that grim, horrible old man? And I told you once-you remember that night-that he would never, never let me marry Dorian!"

"Yet you married him, all the same, so what does his life matter? He cannot undo the elopement!" returned Mrs. Courtney, wondering at the girl's strange words and manner.

"But I believed that he was dead. Oh, Mrs. Courtney, listen patiently, please. I did not know that my impatient lover had made any plans to elope with me when I went on the yacht for a moonlight trip. Then came the duel, you know, and Dorian was so badly wounded. He sent his friend to ask me to marry him, but at first I refused, for I knew my guardian would never consent, and I did not dare disobey him! Oh, you cannot guess how I fear that horrible old man! Then Captain Van Hise told me he was dead, and I consented to marry Dorian. We were married, and only a few minutes afterward I was swept into the sea by the great wave rolling over the ship. Oh, God! why was I saved from death to meet this awful fate?-to be parted forever from my own love, when happiness seemed so near?"

"But your guardian cannot punish you for marrying your lover-these fears are quite groundless, Nita," Mrs. Courtney said, coldly, but decidedly.

"Oh, madam, I am the most friendless and unhappy girl in the whole world!" she cried passionately. "I have no kindred hearts to pity me, no one to care for me! You have never liked me, I know, but I plead with you to have pity on me, and try to be my friend. Oh, I will be so grateful for a little kindness and pity in this dark hour!"

An earthquake could hardly have shocked Mrs. Courtney more than this humble plea from Nita, who had always resented her dislike and given her scorn for scorn. She put out her slender, aristocratic hand and clasped Nita's gently, drawing her to a seat by her side.

"My dear girl, of course I am your friend, and will do anything in the world for you," she exclaimed. "But let me tell you that you are very nervous and fanciful to-night. How can you call yourself friendless and alone when you have a rich and noble husband like Dorian Mountcastle? I assure you that a loving husband is always a woman's best friend. Then, too, you have a doting guardian."

The girl rose from her seat and stood before the woman, pale as a ghost.

"Mrs. Courtney, do not call them my friends, those two men," she said, almost sternly. "From to-night and henceforth forever, they are my bitterest foes."

Surprise held the listener dumb, and Nita continued:

"Never again while the world stands will I consent ever to look upon the face of Charles Farnham or Dorian Mountcastle."

"The girl is mad, mad as a March hare. Her adventures have turned her brain," murmured Mrs. Courtney amazedly.

"No, madam, I am not mad, I am perfectly sane, and I wish to make you an offer. Will you and Azalea go abroad with me, and travel wherever you wish for a year? I am rich. I will pay every expense if you will chaperon me on this trip. I will be perfectly frank with you. I want to avoid the two men of whom we have been speaking. I am afraid of them both. I have wronged them both, yet I am innocent of blame. Yet I fear the miser's hate and Dorian's love in equal measure. Oh, madam, be kind to me. Grant my prayer, and I will be forever grateful! And the time will come, I swear it to you, when you will say to yourself and to the world: 'I am glad I was kind to poor Nita, and had no hand in her tragic fate.' What say you, madam? Shall we start to-morrow on our travels?"

Nita need not have felt any doubt over the answer. It was the strangest turn of Fortune's wheel that Mrs. Courtney had ever known-the strangest, and the most welcome.

She felt that behind it lay some strange dark mystery, a baffling mystery that it should be her task to ferret out if it lay in mortal power, but in the meantime she accepted Nita's offer with pretended reluctance, putting it solely as a favor to the young girl. Then, after recommending her to retire as early as possible, she returned to her guests with a heart full of secret exultation.

Nita locked her door and fell down on her couch in a fit of hysterical sobbing. Mrs. Courtney's revelation had shown her all the horror of her position. Wife to two living men, she loathed the one who had the legal right to claim her.

And Nita knew, and the knowledge added poignancy to her pain, that it was her own fault. Why had she betrothed herself to Dorian when she was not free, cheating herself with a little semblance of happiness, and so led him on to the elopement that must now wreck his life?

She believed that Miser Farnham's wrath would be murderous when he recovered and learned what she had done. And Dorian, how he would hate her for her sin!

She would rather die than meet Dorian again-he whom she had so terribly deceived. If he cursed her for her folly she could not bear it; she must die at his feet of her bitter shame-and if he forgave her madness and loved her still, what then? Still she was not free! And how could she own the truth to him? She could never do that. She would sooner fly to the other end of the world.

She leaned from the window, and gazed upon the great ocean and the starlit sky.

"Oh, how beautiful the world is, and why should there be so much unhappiness in it?" she cried.

Nita's musings were interrupted by the sudden entrance of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, who was wild with joy over the news of Nita's return.

"Mrs. Courtney has told me how you were saved by a sailor, and brought back," she cried gladly, and added in a more subdued key: "But poor Lizette, that dear, good girl, what a pity she was not saved, too."

Nita was about to exclaim that Lizette was alive, but she suddenly remembered Donald Kayne's entreaty for her silence, and made no reply. In spite of his cruelty, she pitied the man.

Jack Dineheart had told her that the maid, on finding herself entrapped and deserted, had jumped from the window and broken her neck, but she tried not to believe the horrible story.

All that Donald Kayne had told in New York about Dorian Mountcastle was true. When concealment was no longer possible his friends had been obliged to break to him, as gently as might be, the news of Nita's death, and that it was her wraith, and not a living girl, that had appeared to him on bo

ard the yacht that fateful night. The despair of the bereaved young husband was awful in its intensity. His reason tottered, and it was found necessary to place him in strict confinement, and guard him closely for several days until his violent mood subsided into moody melancholy.

Captain Van Hise was tender and devoted as a woman to his stricken friend, and when Dorian, after weeks of despair, became a pale, quiet shadow of his former self, he persuaded him to go abroad with him.

They went, but Dorian dwelt ceaselessly on the memory of that strange night when Nita had come to him and laid her head on his breast and her arms about his neck-aye, and kissed him, too, with ardent lips that seemed to burn with the breath of life. He prayed Heaven to grant him that sweet vision of his lost love again.

Van Hise was in despair.

"He will go crazy in earnest if he keeps on this way," he said to himself, despondently.

It was nearing spring then, and they were in Paris. But Dorian was familiar with Paris. Perhaps he had exhausted its delights long ago. He wearied of its splendors.

"I am tired. Let us go somewhere else," he said impatiently.

"But, my dear fellow, we have been everywhere."

"No, we have not. I know some men who are going on a journey into the interior of Norway. I have accepted for us both their invitation to join the party," said reckless Dorian.

"It will be quite out of the world," groaned the soldier, but he yielded.

It was strange that Dorian and Nita should both be abroad so many months without meeting each other, or even being aware of each other's movements.

And yet it was a fact that Captain Van Hise and Dorian had never even heard that Nita was alive, and Nita knew nothing of Dorian since the fateful night when Jack Dineheart had torn her from his arms and carried her back to Pirate Beach.

Since she had gone abroad with the Courtneys, life had been one feverish whirl of gayety, change, and sight-seeing. Nita, with her heart upon the rack, and a smile upon her lips, had borne her part bravely in all, lavishing gold like water in the pursuit of forgetfulness. The Courtneys, nothing loath, accepted her munificence, and made the most of it, although wondering at her reckless extravagance. They did not know how often she said to herself:

"The chest of gold is melting like snow in the sun, but why should I care? There remain to me but a few more months of life and liberty, then-darkness, nothingness, and death. Let me make the most of it!"

Mrs. Courtney had been in London in her days of prosperity, and had acquaintances among the nobility. In the spring, when the London season set in, she introduced her ward into the most fashionable set. And the fashionable world raved over the charms of la belle Americaine.

She had lovers by the score. Hearts and titles were laid at her feet, but all soon echoed what Mrs. Courtney had frankly told them of Nita:

"She has no heart."

Nita only smiled when they accused her of her fault.

"It is quite true," she said. "I have no heart to give any one. Why do you not fall in love with pretty, golden-haired Azalea?"

One man, piqued at her indifference, tried to take her advice. He transferred his attention to the affable blonde.

He was Sir George Merlin, a wealthy baronet, middle-aged, but very goodlooking. He was vain and conceited, and Nita's rejection hurt his pride as well as his love. He proposed to Azalea through pure pique.

The blonde accepted gladly, and Mrs. Courtney was transported with joy. The only drawback to her bliss was that the baronet did not seem in any hurry to name the wedding-day. But the engagement was formally announced, and his sister gave a ball in honor of the fair Azalea.

Nita's thoughts often wandered to Dorian. Where was he? What was he doing? Did he know that she was alive, or did he mourn her dead? Somehow, at first she had looked for him, dreaded his appearance with mingled pain and pleasure. As the months went past she gave up the thought of his coming. She began to fancy that he must be dead.

Sometimes it all seemed to her like a feverish dream, those strange past days of love and pain; yet all the time she was drawing nearer and nearer to the fatal end of the year, to the moment when her hated master would claim her as his bride.

It was May now, and the world was all in bloom. Charles Farnham would be coming to claim his bride.

On the very day of Lady Landon's ball for Azalea, Mrs. Courtney received a letter commanding her to return at once to New York with her charge. Mrs. Courtney went at once to Nita in her room.

"Nita, I must break through your rule, never to mention your guardian's name to you. I have a letter from him."

Nita turned a pale face of fear and despair.

"A-letter!" she faltered; "so, then-he-he-is coming for-me?"

The white terror of her face was enough to move a heart of stone. Mrs. Courtney smiled reassuringly.

"Do not look so frightened, Nita, there is no need, for he writes very kindly of you, and makes no mention of your marriage. Perhaps he means to forgive you and Dorian," she said, feeling magnanimous toward the girl now that Azalea's market was made.

Nita only sunk helplessly into a chair, her face white, her eyes wild. It seemed as if she could not reply. Mrs. Courtney, with her eyes on the letter, continued:

"Mr. Farnham is quite well again, and wants me to hasten home with you. He says that he has bought and furnished a Fifth Avenue palace for you, with carriages and horses of the finest, and is most anxious to see you queening it in New York society. Indeed, Nita, after the training I have given you, it will be easy for you to do so"-complacently. "Really, my dear, the old man seems very proud and fond of you, and I never heard of a more generous guardian. You are a very fortunate girl, and I am sure you have only to ask him, and he will pardon you and Dorian."

"Ah! you do not know, you do not dream," moaned the girl, hiding her face in her hands.

Must she go? must she obey the old miser's command?

"This letter has been following us about for some time, and I must reply to it to-morrow," continued the lady. "What shall I say to him, Nita? That we will cross next week?"

"I will not go!" cried Nita, with a frantic gesture.

"But, really, Nita, I think we must go. I cannot understand this strange fear of your guardian. A young girl like you must obey either her guardian or her husband. You repudiate the claim of Dorian Mountcastle, and so you remain subject to the orders of Mr. Farnham."

"Let us speak no more of it now. I will decide to-morrow," Nita answered.

Mrs. Courtney knew that it was almost time to dress for the ball, so she retired, determined in her own mind that she would take Nita speedily back to New York and Fifth Avenue.

"Our leaving now will force Sir George to ask Azalea to name the wedding-day," she thought sagely. "And Nita is so generous I think she will readily purchase the trousseau. The marriage can take place from the miser's place, and Sir George need never know how very poor we are."

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