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   Chapter 27 THE TENTH OF JUNE.

They Looked and Loved By Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller Characters: 19257

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

It was true, as the old miser had told Meg Dineheart, Nita had been saved from death by the skilful efforts of a London physician, and in the stupid, weakened state induced by the drug she had taken, and the measures used to counteract its effects, she was like wax in Mrs. Courtney's hands, so that she was brought home with scarcely a protest.

In fact, she was so ill that during the whole voyage to New York she scarcely remembered the old miser's existence, and the dreadful fact that the year of her marriage-contract was drawing to its close.

When she was taken to Gray Gables some glimmerings of memory returned to her, but she did not remember that it was the fatal tenth of June.

It was May when she made the frantic effort to end her life. Since then, in the pangs of keen physical distress, time had slipped by unheeded.

It was touching to see the joy of good Mrs. Hill at the return of her beloved young mistress. She wept with joy, and hugged Nita close to her motherly bosom, kissing the top of the drooping little head, with its crown of dark, wavy tresses, threaded with gold.

She did not say one word to her of the story she had read in the New York paper, but when she looked into the pale and lovely face she knew that the shadow of some pathetic sorrow had fallen darkly on the young girl's heart.

Nita lay wearily on a sofa until it was time to dress for dinner. Then Mrs. Hill came up to help her, for her English maid had not accompanied her home.

"It does not matter what I wear," she said listlessly.

"But Mrs. Courtney expects company this evening, I think," said Mrs. Hill.

"It does not matter," the girl again replied wearily, her eyes full of tears.

But Mrs. Hill had excellent taste, and she laid out a dainty white gown for her young lady.

"I may be old-fashioned in my notions, but to my mind a young girl always looks best in white, and to you, Miss Nita, it's wonderfully becoming," she said, as she shook out the soft, shining robe of feather-light Lansdowne, with its profuse, airy trimmings of white, embroidered chiffon. "This is pretty enough for a bride," she said admiringly. "Won't you wear your moonstone jewelry with it, Miss Nita? It will suit you so well, and I will bring you some pale-pink roses and white jasmine flowers for your corsage. The garden is beautiful now, since the gardener had it in charge. You know last year when we first came it was all of a tangle."

So she rambled on, and listless Nita let her have her way, and barely looked in her mirror when the good woman said enthusiastically:

"Now you are finished, dearie. Look in the glass what a beauty you are!"

She was a beauty. The soft, shining robe draped her form exquisitely, and the filmy chiffon rufflings made a soft mist about her lovely half-bare neck and arms that were clasped with moonstones, set in frosted silver, looking soft and fairylike as linked moonbeams.

On her breast heaved a cluster of starry-white jasmine flowers mixed with pale-pink, half-opened rose-buds, making a delicate contrast of color with the whiteness of her costume.

Beautiful, yes-but with a tragedy of sorrow in the midnight eyes and on the pathetic curves of the exquisitely chiseled lips. She smiled faintly, and murmured some words of thanks, then went down-stairs.

The drawing-room, wearing a holiday air, with profuse decorations of flowers, was deserted as yet. Azalea and her mother were still dressing. With a sigh of relief Nita turned her footsteps to the garden, that, under the care of a gardener had been rescued from the tangle of last year, and made into a fairyland of beauty and fragrance.

Nita walked slowly along the graveled paths, now in the full beams of the rising moon, now in the long dark shadows of the tall fir-trees.

She paused to rest by the fountain where last year she had come with her lover's letter in her bosom, and her wild heart thrilling with pain and rapture. A sob swelled her throat as she lifted her sad gaze to the star-gemmed sky, and murmured:

"Dorian, my love, Dorian, it breaks my heart to know that you are lost to me forever!"

"Your Dorian is here, darling Nita," answered a voice by her side, and his arm drew her fondly to his breast.

A low, shuddering cry, and Nita struggled out of those fond, clasping arms, and faced her lover with startled eyes.

"Dorian," she breathed, in mingled joy and pain-"Dorian, oh, why are you here?"

"I followed you, my sweet. Ah, Nita, I know the story of your mad attempt to end your life. Love, love, why did you do it?"

"Fate was against us, Dorian, and I could not live without you, I begged you to die with me, but you were cruel. Life was more to you than love. That is a man's way. But, being only a weak woman, I chose death-only they were so hard they would not let me die."

Her voice sank into his heart.

"Oh, my poor, little love. I did not believe your wild words. How could I think you would try to end so sweet a life?" he cried, but Nita did not reply; she only gazed at him with the fixity of despair.

"Nita, I distrusted you that night. I spoke cruelly to you. Will you forgive me my harshness, my dear wife?"

"Oh, not that word-not that!" and Nita shrank and shivered, drawing back as he approached her. "Oh, Dorian, do not think of me, nor speak to me as your wife ever again," she continued wildly. "Remember that grim old man-remember Miser Farnham, Dorian. Have I not told you I never can be your wife while he lives! Oh, why does Heaven permit such wretches to walk the earth, a barrier to the happiness of true lovers?" and she wrung her hands despairingly.

"Do not give up like this to your sorrow, my darling," he said soothingly, "for I believe that the mysterious barrier to our happiness will soon be removed. I do not like to fight with shadows, Nita, so after my interview with you in London, I came to New York to see your guardian, and ask him frankly what was the secret of his objection to your marriage."

"You asked him-that?" Nita faltered in an indescribable tone.

"Yes, dearest, for it seemed best to know his reasons and combat them in a practical fashion."

"But he did not tell you-he dare not yet!" she muttered, rather to herself than him.

"He did not tell me then, but he made an appointment to meet me here to-night, the tenth of June-when he said I should hear the secret, Nita, from your own lips."

He never forgot the awful look on Nita's lovely face. It was convulsed with agony and deadly fear.

"To-night," she muttered hoarsely-"to-night, the tenth of June-oh, how could I forget that day-of all days in the world? And he-is coming here to-night?" The voice did not sound like her own.

"Yes, Nita; and bade me meet him here with my friend, Van Hise, who went with me to see him. Mrs. Courtney told me you were in the garden, so I left my friend with her and came to seek you here. Farnham will be here presently, and soon the worst will be over. Courage, sweetheart; you are my wife, after all, and he cannot really keep us apart!"

But it seemed as if she had forgotten him. Her form trembled like a reed in the wind, her eyes were fixed upon the ground, she muttered hoarsely:

"It is diabolical! That old fiend has planned his triumph with cold-blooded malice! How he will exult in my shame and despair! I cannot bear it-no, no, no!" And with the spring of a startled fawn, Nita flew past her lover, a vanishing white shape, toward the garden-gate.

Dorian stood like one stunned a moment, then followed in swift pursuit. But he was suddenly arrested by an outstretched arm.

"Where are you flying to, Dorian?" demanded Captain Van Hise, who had just come out to look for his friend.

"Do not detain me, Van Hise. I am following Nita, who has just fled from me in some strange alarm. She went out at the garden-gate. Come! let us pursue her, for I fear her terrors will lead her into something dreadful," faltered Dorian, dragging his friend with him in pursuit of the flying girl.

But the slight delay had given her the advantage of them. She flew like the wind along the sands, flying from the degradation that she could not face, flying to seek refuge in the deep, dark sea from her wretched life and its crowding ills.

They could never have overtaken her, she had gained too much the start of them, and terror lent wings to her feet, but-suddenly she stumbled and fell prostrate over an inert body lying directly in her path.

In her frenzied flight she had not perceived it, but now-now, as she struggled to rise again, a startled cry shrilled over her lips.

She comprehended the ghastly truth-here, almost at the gates of Gray Gables, murder had been done! Recoiling with a strangled cry, she looked down at the body at her feet-the ugly, twisted body, the hideous face, the evil eyes set in a ghastly stare of death. On the instant she recognized him-Miser Farnham!

He was dead-murdered almost at the gates of Gray Gables, while on his way to claim his bride, to score his horrid triumph and break two loving hearts. It was a dastardly deed, and fate or retribution had met him on his way.

But who had done that awful deed? Some enemy, of course-perhaps the wicked old fortune-teller. But, though she trembled and shuddered, it came to her with a thrill of joy that now she was free-now Dorian need never know the secret of which she was so bitterly ashamed-that she had been for one cruel year a wife in name to the wicked miser.

She would fly back to the house-she would steal up to her own room and remove the white dress with its bloo

d-stains where she had slipped and fallen on the body. No one should know that she had found the murdered man there.

With a stifled moan she turned to retrace her steps, and-ran almost into the arms of the two men coming in pursuit. In the near distance they had seen her kneeling there, they came up just as she turned to fly.

"Who is this? What is this?" cried the soldier, bending down over the body at his feet.

Nita answered with a hysterical sob:

"Look, I found him lying here when I was flying to cast myself in the sea. It is-it is-my guardian-and some one has-murdered-him!" with the last words she shuddered violently, and fell unconscious at Dorian's feet.

He lifted her up in his arms, and his hands were wet with the blood-spatters on her white gown-the bridelike robe that looked so stainless when she stood there by the fountain a few minutes ago.

"I will carry her up to the house, Van Hise, and you had better remain here by the body until I send some one back to help remove it," he said, in a shaken voice, turning away.

At that moment there appeared on the scene the hobbling form of Meg, the fortune-teller. After a few moments of unconsciousness she had come to herself in the lonely cabin, and curiosity had induced her to follow the old miser up to Gray Gables.

She stopped short with a shrill cry, and, stooping down, examined the dead, drawing back with a shudder as her hand became wet with blood.

"Ugh! it is the old miser-and murdered! Who has done this?" she croaked dismally.

Van Hise explained to her that he did not know anything about it, that Miss Farnham found the body there but a moment ago.

"And it is not more than half an hour since he left my cabin alive and well, going up to Gray Gables to keep an important appointment with Nita," croaked the old woman. She looked after the retreating form of Dorian, and sneered:

"Perhaps she grew impatient and came out to meet the old man, did she not?"

"She came out alone, certainly, but for what purpose I cannot tell," answered the puzzled soldier, who had never seen old Meg before, and he added:

"I know nothing about the matter except that she was very unhappy and excited, and my friend and I followed her as fast as we could, fearing she might commit some desperate deed."

"Some desperate deed, ha, ha! yes, and so she did!" shrieked the old crone, in horrid glee. "She met the old man she feared and hated, and she murdered him-murdered him so that he should not betray her secret!"

"Woman, woman! how dare you utter such a fiendish lie!" exclaimed the soldier angrily.

He sprang forward as though to strike her down, but she eluded him, and drew a glittering knife to defend herself.

"Lay but a finger on old Meg, and you will be stretched out there by the miser's side," she menaced, and again laughing a horrible laugh, she continued:

"She murdered him, I say it again, and before twenty-four hours go over her head she shall lie in prison for her crime! Ah! she thinks her secret safe now, but barely an hour ago he told me she had been his wife in secret for a year, and that he was going there to claim her to-night!"

* * *

Stiff and stark in his last long sleep, Miser Farnham lay in his coffin awaiting burial-this was the end of his plotting and planning-his scheming and sinning.

The inquest was over, and Meg Dineheart, as chief witness, had hounded the hapless girl she hated to a terrible fate. Circumstantial evidence had pointed so strongly to Nita as the slayer of the miser, that she had been consigned to prison to await trial for murder.

There were few who could believe in the young girl's innocence, for the evidence against her was so overwhelmingly strong, and the motive for the murder so plain. And there were not lacking witnesses to prove that the girl had been desperate with despair and misery.

The Courtneys were the first to turn against her, and as witnesses they did their worst. They could tell the story from the beginning of Nita's falling in love with another man, and her fear and hatred of the miser; they could tell of the elopement, of the return, and of Nita's desperate despair and frantic grief when she learned that the miser had survived the dreadful railway accident. They could dwell with telling effect on her wickedness in encouraging Dorian's love when she was another man's wife, they could dilate on the attempted suicide in London.

All their stifled hatred of the girl who had benefited them could be aired now, and without one word of pity for her sorrows, they became old Meg's able allies in hounding her to her doom.

Even Dorian and Captain Van Hise had been compelled to give damning evidence against Nita. They had found her kneeling and then trying to escape from the murdered man's side, her dress and her hands all wet with the blood.

And there was no one else near, no one until old Meg had appeared. All the evidence given at the inquest had pointed straight to Nita's guilt, and there seemed but one extenuating circumstance-it seemed as if she must have suffered for months from emotional insanity.

In a moment of madness, enraged by the knowledge that her husband had contrived a cunning plot to expose her secret and humiliate her in the eyes of the man she madly loved, she had met the old man coming to Gray Gables, and in her blind rage sprang at him and murdered him.

The weapon had not been found, but it was decided to have been a very keen-bladed knife, and there were two wounds in the region of the heart that must either one have proved instantly fatal.

Doubtless she had thrown the knife away, although careful search had failed to find it. But that was not strange. The encroaching tide, of course, had carried it out to sea.

Only three friends rallied round her, only three hearts believed in her innocence-they were Dorian, Van Hise, and kindly Mrs. Hill. It was this only that saved her from utter heart-break.

With Dorian to believe in her still, Dorian to love her and champion her cause, there was still a little gleam of light in the awful darkness of her fate.

And Dorian, when he engaged the best lawyer in New York to defend her, had told him that he was willing to sacrifice his fortune and his life in her defense.

"Oh, sir, I am not guilty-I am not guilty!" she cried piteously, lifting her great, appealing eyes to the face of the great lawyer, as he entered her gloomy prison-cell.

"I shall prove your innocence-be sure of that," he answered kindly, and then he bade her speak to him without reserve, confiding all her story to his sympathy, that he might best judge how to defend her cause.

And Nita opened all her sad young heart freely and without reserve. From early childhood, as far back as she could remember, her home had been with old Meg, at her rude cabin by the seashore, an unwilling, ill-treated drudge, beaten and cuffed at every small rebellion of her proud spirit.

At length she grew to girlhood, and then Jack Dineheart, old Meg's son, began to persecute her with offers of marriage. She hated Jack, and at fifteen years old ran away to New York to escape his persecutions.

Providence watched over the friendless girl, and she soon found friends, poor, but kind, who took her into their shabby home, and helped her to find work.

For three years she struggled on bravely, first as a nurse-girl, then in a store, as a cash-girl. Then the good old man who, with his kind wife, had befriended her, fell sick and died. His wife, old and feeble, soon followed him to the grave.

Nita left the store to attend these sick friends, and the usual lot of the poor in a great, struggling city, fell to her share. Every penny gone, the few sticks of furniture taken for rent, she was turned into the streets, starving and friendless. She could find no work; she was too proud to beg, so she resolved to end her sorrows in the river.

"I lingered in Central Park watching the gay throngs so rich and happy, while I was starving and miserable. I had resolved not to die until sunset," she told the lawyer. "I clung to life, but I was afraid of a night in the streets of the great city, and I was too timid and ashamed to ask strangers for assistance. Then I met the old miser just as I had murmured a desperate prayer for gold. He offered to marry me, and at first I refused. But he finally told me that if I would consent he would give me a chest of gold, and draw up a marriage-contract giving me perfect liberty for one year. I consented; but, oh, sir, I was deceiving him-I never meant to live with him. I only caught at the chance of a little longer life, and luxury that I craved, but had never known."

The lawyer listened to her in the deepest pity, drawing her out with skilful questions. He thought he had never heard anything more pathetic than the story of her love for Dorian, told so frankly and sadly as though he had been her father.

"And have you no relatives, my child?" he asked, and she told him that old Meg had once said that she was cast up by the sea from a wreck, and had afterward claimed to be her grandmother.

"But I do not believe her. My heart shrinks in loathing from that wicked woman. I believe that she and Mr. Farnham knew all my past story, and all about my relatives," added Nita passionately.

"I think you are right, and I shall leave no stone unturned to ferret out the truth and punish the real murderer," said the lawyer; and when he took his leave he left a little ray of hope shining like a star in the heart of the beautiful prisoner in her lonely cell.

* * *

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