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   Chapter 32 ON TRIAL FOR HER LIFE.

They Looked and Loved By Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller Characters: 12223

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


When the day of Nita's trial approached the popular verdict had adjudged her guilty. It was believed that if the jury cleared her it would only be to send her for life to an insane asylum.

Azalea Courtney and her mother read the papers with deepest interest, they exulted in every harsh criticism aimed at Nita, and they hoped that she would get the severest sentence.

"If she is spared to be Dorian's wife, I shall hate her even more bitterly than I do now," asserted Azalea vindictively.

"I thought you had gotten over your passion for Dorian, now that you are going to make such a grand match," her mother returned uneasily.

Azalea was lounging on a sofa, the picture of indolence. She raised herself on her elbow and looked into her mother's face with a spark of fire leaping into her large blue eyes.

"Dorian Mountcastle is the only man I ever loved, or ever shall love," she answered, "I shall marry Sir George of course, but I shall love Dorian as long as I live. I thought that time when I threw him over that I should soon forget, but I was young, and did not realize the power of love. Fancy then how horribly I hate Nita, whom he loves so dearly."

"Somehow I think it would have been more to our interest if we had taken her part and hidden our hatred in our own hearts," said Mrs. Courtney. "Soon we shall be turned out of doors penniless, with no claim on her pity or protection."

"But, mama, you will get the ransom for that-thing," returned Azalea, growing pale at the memory of her fright.

"I am not so sure of that. There are no answers to my letters."

"Then, mama, it may not be as important as we thought. We had better destroy it before we are suspected," cried Azalea, unconscious that a woman listening at the keyhole gave a start of dismay.

"Yes, I will burn it, and keep the white silk for your wedding-gown," said Mrs. Courtney thriftily, unheeding her daughter's shudder.

"Perhaps I'll never need a wedding-gown, mama. I have not had a letter from the baronet for two weeks. He only proposed to me to pique Nita, you know, and he may intend to back out of the engagement now."

"If he does he will have a suit for breach of promise on his hands," exclaimed Mrs. Courtney viciously, and the woman listening outside the door sneered as she grasped closer in her hands a thin, foreign-looking letter, bordered and sealed with black.

Then she retreated a few paces, gave a loud cough, and, again advancing, rapped on the door and delivered her letter.

"Good Heavens, mama! a London letter in mourning. And, see, it is in a strange hand-a woman's! What can it mean?"

"Open it, Azalea, and see!"

Her daughter obeyed, exclaiming in another moment:

"Sir George's sister, mama-Lady Landon-oh, mama, this is terrible. Sir George was thrown from his horse two weeks ago, down at his country place, and fatally injured, dying in a few hours. He never spoke, never was conscious again-so farewell to all my ambitious dreams! Fate has baffled me again."

Mrs. Hill, who had taken the liberty of lingering, now had to help bring Azalea out of a fit of hysteria induced by the failure of her brilliant prospects. Mrs. Courtney dismissed the housekeeper, and began to comfort her daughter.

"Don't grieve any more over it, my dear. Fortunately your affections are not hurt in the least."

"No-but it's the money and the position I've lost-that's what I'm thinking of, mama."

"It can't be helped now, and I have another plan-if all goes well."

"What is it, mama?"

"Azalea, you know that old Farnham was very rich. Now, if Nita should be-ahem-executed for his murder-who is to inherit all that money?"

"I don't know, mama. Perhaps that old fortune-teller will try for it."

"She will be disappointed. I shall claim it myself-or, rather, you."

"Mama, you must be crazy!"

"Not at all, my dear, but I have a secret. Miser Farnham was your father's half-brother, older than your father, the black sheep of the family, and disowned by all his kin. Why, barely sixteen years ago that old man was the master of a smuggling vessel-a dishonest craft, so strongly suspected of piratical tendencies that she was seized and sunk by the authorities. Then old Farnham gave up his seafaring life, and became a scamp on land as he had been on sea. But I needn't bore you with a recital of his rascality. Suffice it to say he was closely related to the Courtneys, although we never had any reason to be proud of the relationship. But now that he is dead you are your uncle's heiress; if Nita-ahem-dies, it will come to you-the wealth he has hoarded so long-and even if she is cleared, you can sue for a share unless he has made a formal will and left her the whole property."

* * *

It seemed to Nita that she could not live through her trial; as if she should fall dead of her shame and despair when she was led into court that morning to meet the curious faces of the dense crowd.

But there was Dorian, with his encouraging smile, and there was Mrs. Van Hise, with her tender, motherly ways, and Lena, with her steadfast heart; Donald Kayne, too, and Captain Van Hise, with Colonel Harlow, her lawyer-all these true friends were there, and by their love and faith helped her to bear her terrors bravely, and not to mind the dark, glowering faces of Meg Dineheart and her son as they sat ready to swear away her life.

There was one thing that surprised her-the absence of Mrs. Courtney and Azalea. At the inquest over the dead miser these two had done all in their power, told all they knew against her, and she had been told that they would be witnesses for the prosecution.

When she whispered her wonder to Mrs. Van Hise, the cheek of the good lady turned slightly pale, and she whispered hurriedly:

"They may have been detained, but I see that Mrs. Hill, the kind housekeeper from Gray Gables, is here. Perhaps she will explain."

Mrs. Hill had nodded and smiled in the most endearing fashion at her favorite, but her kind heart sank at the pale, sad looks of Nita. The long weeks of close confinement those sweltering summ

er days had told sadly on the young girl's health and strength.

Her cheeks were wasted with sorrow and washed pale with tears, her dark eyes were heavy and downcast, her lips pathetic in their weary, wistful droop. Her black silk costume, plain and close-fitting, was nunlike in its simplicity, and had no relief of color except some roses, the gift of Dorian, that she carried listlessly in her small white hand where the serpent-ring still glittered in its baleful splendor.

She had offered the ring to Donald Kayne, but he had refused to accept it.

"Keep it for Pepita's sake, and think of her kindly sometimes, for I believe it was for you she lost her life," he said huskily, and Nita tearfully put the splendid jewel back upon her finger. But the old terror of it was gone now, and she thought often and tenderly of the woman who had owned it, and whose tragic fate had saddened the life of Donald Kayne.

Pale and trembling with the horror of her awful position, Nita sat, the cynosure of hundreds of curious eyes, some of them soft with pity, others harsh with blame. She shuddered as her thoughts went back over her short life, so full of sorrows, and with so little sunshine in it. Dorian loved her-that was the only gleam of brightness. With that thought she looked timidly at him, and the world of love in the eyes that returned her gaze thrilled her heart with joy.

And, meanwhile, Colonel Harlow had begun to argue his client's case. The grave jury and the eager crowd hung upon the words that fell from his lips.

But the lawyer for the prosecution, who was young, and had his spurs yet to win, had a slightly sarcastic smile on his lips. Colonel Harlow was great, he knew, but he could not clear the prisoner by a brilliant speech unless he had evidence to show that some one else had committed the crime, and Lawyer Field was certain that such evidence was not to be given. So he listened with a smile, and grew impatient for his own turn, when he expected to eclipse Colonel Harlow's oratory and convict the prisoner. In his own mind he felt certain of her guilt.

Colonel Harlow spoke effectively for several hours and then the examination of the witnesses began. They were few, but they were so rigidly cross-examined that it took a long time.

Eagerly every one watched Dorian's pale, harassed face, as he gave the testimony he was not permitted to withhold. Nita choked back the rising sob lest it should grieve him, but after he and Captain Van Hise sat down, and were followed by old Meg and her son, it seemed to the girl as if she were already condemned.

Lena Van Hise was sobbing bitterly by her friend's side, unable to restrain her emotion. She believed with Nita that the evidence of those four witnesses would be fatal. Lawyer Field was certain of it, too. He smiled to himself as he watched Colonel Harlow's pale and troubled face.

"He feels certain of his defeat," decided Fields exultantly.

He did not know what a sensation was to follow upon the call for the next witness.

"Mrs. Courtney!"

Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper from Gray Gables, rose in her place to announce that the witness was dead.

"Dead!"

And a murmur of uncontrollable excitement arose. When it had been quelled she was asked when the witness had died, and the answer was given that she had met her death the night before in leaping from the window of Gray Gables, which had been partially burned to the ground.

"Miss Azalea Courtney!"

Miss Courtney had been saved from the burning house by the brave exertions of the firemen, but was so badly burned she would not be able to come into court for months, if ever.

Nita's white face dropped into her hands, while she stifled a cry of horror. Gray Gables almost burned to the ground, Mrs. Courtney dead, Azalea injured-how dreadful it was. Her heart thrilled with pity for her relentless foes.

Mrs. Hill was a witness, too, and her loving testimony to Nita's goodness made the girl's heart beat warmly again-love and praise were so dear to her sad heart, even from this humble source.

She looked away from the angry, glowering eyes of Jack Dineheart and his mother, and fixed her gaze on the kind face of the good woman, who, although the cause of the burning of Gray Gables did not come exactly under the head of evidence, managed to give the listeners the benefit of her theory.

Mr. Kayne had left a skeleton secreted in the house, and the Courtneys had stolen and hidden it, hoping, by their blackmailing efforts, to receive a large ransom for it. Failing in their designs, and fearful of detection, they had attempted to destroy their prize by fire, resulting in the disaster by which the mansion had been destroyed, and both women injured, the elder one fatally.

As for the skeleton, she, Mrs. Hill, had discovered its hiding-place several hours before, and assisted Mr. Kayne to remove it to a place of safety.

Nor did Mrs. Hill forget to give the gaping public the benefit of the sensation it received in hearing of the death of Miss Courtney's titled lover across the sea.

Fate had baffled the pretty plotter at every point, and, penniless and friendless, even her beauty, the weapon on which she prided herself so much, now totally destroyed, she was nothing now but an object of pity and charity to those whom she had sought to wrong.

When Mrs. Hill's highly sensational evidence was all in she was permitted to resume her seat, and the court announced that all the witnesses had been examined and the speech for the prosecution would begin.

At that moment Colonel Harlow arose to say that he had another and very important witness yet, and from the expression of his face the lawyer for the prosecution began to feel rather nervous.

"The new witness," announced Colonel Harlow, "is Miss Lizette Brittain, a former maid of Miss Farnham, who has been missing for some time, but has turned up just when most needed."

When Nita saw the face of Lizette again she half-rose in her seat, with a cry of joy.

Lizette gave her a loving smile in return, and a reassuring nod.

* * *

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