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"Do not laugh," says Miss Ventnor, austerely; "there is nothing to laugh at. A dark and direful tragedy was enacted within the walls of that gloomy red farm-house—let me see—four—yes, nearly five years ago. Do you see that third window to the right, in the attic story? Well, a man was murdered—stabbed to death in that room."
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1.—GUY EARLSCOURT'S WIFE. 2.—A WONDERFUL WOMAN. 3.—A TERRIBLE SECRET. 4.—NORINE'S REVENGE. 5.—A MAD MARRIAGE. 6.—ONE NIGHT'S MYSTERY. 7.—KATE DANTON. 8.—SILENT AND TRUE. 9.—HEIR OF CHARLTON. 10.—CARRIED BY STORM. (New.)
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"SILENT AND TRUE," "A MAD MARRIAGE," "A TERRIBLE SECRET," "GUY EARLSCOURT'S WIFE," "A WONDERFUL WOMAN," "ONE NIGHT'S MYSTERY," ETC., ETC.
"When she is angry she is keen and shrewd, And, though she is but little, she is fierce."
Midsummer Night's Dream.
ook at it well," says Miss Ventnor, "it is what you have never seen before—what you may never see again—a Haunted House!
One slim, gloved hand, looking like a perfect hand in dark gray marble, points the dramatic speech. Miss Ventnor is given to dramatic and epigrammatic little speeches at all times, but as she is not given to talking nonsense at any time, I know there is "method in the madness" of this assertion now. And yet—a haunted house! I laugh a little, as I lean out from the carriage to look.
"Do not laugh," says Miss Ventnor, austerely; "there is nothing to laugh at. A dark and direful tragedy was enacted within the walls of that gloomy red farm-house—let me see—four—yes, nearly five years ago. Do you see that third window to the right, in the attic story? Well, a man was murdered—stabbed to death in that room."[Pg 8]
"Ugh! how horrid!" I say, with a shudder. If she had told me he had drowned himself, or poisoned himself, or charcoaled himself, a la Français, or even hanged himself, or gone out of time into eternity by any one of those other violent but unbloody gates, her tragedy would have lost its most grisly element. But the average female mind shrinks in repulsion from the thought of a severed jugular or a pool of blood.
"And ever since the house has been haunted, of course," says Miss Ventnor, folding one gray kid calmly over the other. "It is a good house and a fine farm, and since Sleaford's time—Sleaford was the victim—the rent has been merely nominal. All in vain. Sleaford 'walks,' and in the 'dead waste and middle of the night' the struggle is re-enacted, and panic-stricken, belated wayfarers fly. It is all nonsense, of course," says Miss Ventnor, changing suddenly from a Siddons' voice to a practical, every-day one. "Sleaford, poor wretch, lies over yonder in Potter's Field and troubles nobody. But the fact remains that people will not live in the place, and the most audacious tramp and thief will give the peach trees and melon patches of Sleaford's a wide berth, be he never so hungry. And—I do not mind admitting that even I would go half a dozen miles roundabout rather than pass it alone after nightfall. So take a good look at it, my dear, a bona fide haunted house is a sight to be respected and remembered, if only for its rarity in this degenerate age. And this evening, after dinner, I will tell you all about it."
I do not need the injunction—I am taking a good look at Sleaford's! Even without Miss Ventnor's ghastly legend the place could hardly fail to impress[Pg 9] one in a weird and dismal way. But just now the mise en scene is in keeping with the story. A gray, fast-drifting autumnal sky, lying low, and threatening rain; a chill, complaining, fitful wind, rising and falling over the rich rank marshes; a long stretch of flat farm land, sear and brown, corn-stalks rattling their melancholy dry bones, the orchard trees stripped and forlorn. In the midst the house, long, low, a dull brick-color, broken panes in the windows, broken fences around, no dog at the gate, no face at the casement, no smoke from the chimneys, no voice to welcome or warn away. Desolation has lain her lean brown hand upon it, and marked her own. Anything more forlorn, more "ramshackle," more forbidding, no fancy can picture. And from being a deserted house, no matter what the cause, from ghosts to bedbugs, to being a haunted house, there is but a step.
"There it stands," says Miss Ventnor, musingly, her elbow on her knee, her pretty chin in her hand,
and yet I can remember when Sleaford's was the rendezvous of all that was youngest, loudest, merriest, in a radius of twenty miles—the 'jolliest old roost going,' as poor Frank Livingston used to tell me. The Sleaford girls were the handsomest, reddest-cheeked, blackest-eyed, loudest-laughing gypsies to be seen for a mile. There were two of them, as much alike as peas in a pod, as round and rosy as twin tomatoes. There were the two Sleaford boys, tall, strapping fellows, with more of the wild gypsy strain even than their sisters, the best dancers, wrestlers,[Pg 10] rowers, singers, fighters, everything but the best farmers—they never worked. There was Giles Sleaford himself, who went up to that attic room one moonlight night, a strong, stalwart man, and was carried down next morning—an awful spectacle. And last of all there was—Joanna."
Miss Ventnor's voice takes a sudden change as it slowly—reluctantly, it seems—pronounces this name, a touch of strong repulsion it has not had even when telling the story of Sleaford's grisly death. She sits suddenly erect as she utters it, and gathers up the reins.
"Let us go," she says, with a shiver; "it is a horrible place, haunted by evil memories if by nothing more tangible. It is growing cold, too. Do not look at it any more—it is uncanny. You will dream of Sleaford's to-night."
"Wait!" I say; "look there!"
I speak in a whisper, and lay my hand on her arm. Miss Ventnor bends forward. Over the broken pickets of the fence the solitary figure of a man leans, his arms folded across the top, his eyes fixed steadfastly on the house. A moment ago he was not there; we have not seen him approach; the apparition could not have been more unexpected if he had risen from the ground.
"Ah!" Miss Ventnor says, a half-startled look coming into her eyes, "I did not know he was here. That is the one man of all the men on earth who could throw light on part of the Sleaford mystery—if he chose."
"And he does not choose?"
"He does not choose—I doubt if he ever will[Pg 11] choose. I wonder—I wonder what he has done with her!"
"With her? with whom? One of the black-eyed, tomato-cheeked Misses Sleaford?"
"Misses Sleaford?" contemptuously. "No, Joanna. That is her window he is looking at—the attic room next to the chamber of horrors. I wonder what he has done with her," says Miss Ventnor, speaking to herself; "it must have been worse than having a white elephant on his hands. That is George Blake."
"George Blake! H-m! a commonplace cognomen enough for the hero of a melodrama. Do I understand you to say this Mr. Blake eloped with Mlle. Joanna?"
"No; Joanna eloped with him. He was the victim. Never mind now. I am cold, and I want my dinner. I am going home. Get along, Frisky."
Frisky pricks up his ears, tosses his brown mane, and gets along. The sound pierces through Mr. Blake's brown study; he turns sharply and sees Miss Ventnor. She inclines her head, he lifts his hat—a moment, and we are out of sight. In that moment I have caught a glimpse of a sallow and rather handsome face, a slight and medium-sized figure, two dark eyes, and a brown mustache.
"A very commonplace young man to be the first lover in a melodrama," I reiterate. "Is—ah—your Mr. Blake a gentleman, Olga?"
"My Mr. Blake!" repeats Miss Ventnor, laughing; "well, you wouldn't know much difference. He is a newspaper man, a journalist, a penny-a-liner, works on daily papers—is clever, they say, and has good[Pg 12] manners. A thousand times too good to have his life spoiled by a woman."
"My dear, that is the only thing of interest about him, the leaven that lightens the whole man. There is always the element of the heroic in a man whose life has been spoiled by a woman—if there is anything in him it is sure to force it out. And men bear it so well, too! I dare say Mr. George Blake eats his three meals per diem with as Christian a relish, and writes twice as pungent paragraphs as before. Was Joanna pretty? Quaint little ugly name, by-the-bye—Joanna."
Olga Ventnor does not reply. At last she lowers the reins and looks at me.
"Do you believe," she asks, "in people being possessed?"
"Good gracious!" I cry, aghast.
It is the second startling speech within the hour, and really this last is quite too horrid.
"Because," says Miss Ventnor, trenchantly, "if ever any human being was possessed of a demon Joanna was! Now, do not ask any questions, for here we are, and thumbscrews would not extort another syllable from me until I have had my dinner."
The threatening rain begins to fall with the falling darkness. It is beating sharply against the panes as we descend to the dining-room half an hour later. But plate-glass and crimson curtains shut out wind, and rain, and night; a fire burns in the shining grate, the gas-lights in their ground-glass lily-cups flood the deep red carpet, the gilt picture-frames, the polished mahogany sideboard, the sparkling crystal, and rough[Pg 13] old silver of the dinner service. And Miss Ventnor, in dark-blue silk, with a good deal of black lace about it, and a sweet-smelling crimson rose in her hair, is quite an ideal hostess. But all through soup and salmon, roast and entrees, jellies and pastry, iced pudding and peaches, and black coffee, I think of the Sleafords and the gloomy red farm-house, the awful upper chamber, the tomato-faced maidens, the gypsy sons, the mysterious Joanna, and the lonely figure of Mr. George Blake, leaning with folded arms on the broken rails, and gazing at the lattice of the young woman who had eloped with him. Does Mr. Blake prefer coming back here, and sentimentalizing over four greenish panes of glass to gazing on the charms of Mistress Joanna in the flesh?
After dinner, with slippers on the fender, the ruby shine of the fire on her trailing azure silk and fine laces, and red rose and pretty fair hair, Olga tells me the story of the Sleafords.
Outside there is the accompaniment of fast-falling rain, dully-sighing wind, wetness, blackness, night. I set it down here in different words, and much more than Miss Ventnor told me, much more than she knew herself that memorable night. Bit by bit the strange affair has come to light, and to the knowledge of those interested therein, among whom no one is, or has been, more vividly interested than myself. If I do not carry you away as I was carried away that evening, it is because pen, ink, and paper do not constitute a handsome young lady in silk attire, with sweet, clear voice, sweet, shining eyes, and a story-telling talent that would have done honor to one of those improper creatures in the Decameron, who told tales by moon[Pg 14]light in the garden of Boccaccio to the listening Florentines. This, in my way, and with additions, is the story Olga Ventnor told me that wet October night—the tragic story of the Sleafords.
he village of Brightbrook! You do not know it, perhaps, and yet it is not unknown to fame or fashion in the heated months—but it was both, twenty odd years ago, when Olga Ventnor first set her blue, bright eyes upon it. A slim lassie, an only child, an heiress, a dainty, upright, fair-haired fairy, all Swiss muslin, Valenciennes lace, Hamburg embroideries, many tucks, and much ruffling. Straight as a dart, white as a lily—a delicate little aristocrat, from the crown of her golden head to the sole of her sandaled foot; idolized by papa, adored by mamma, paid court to by friends, relatives, playmates, teachers, servants, village folk—a small princess, by royal right of beauty, birth, wealth. That is a correct picture of Miss Olga Ventnor, ætat ten.
And yet, in spite of all, of spoiling and flattery enough to ruin an army of innocents, she was a charming child, simple and natural, with a laugh all wild and free, pretty childish ways, full of flawless health and rosy life. It was for her sake—the apple of his eye, and the pride of his life—that Colonel Ventnor[Pg 15] resigned Swiss mountains, Lake Como sunsets, ascents of Vesuvius, Texan plains on fleet mustangs, yachting adown the picturesque coast of Maine, camping out on the Adirondacks, mountain trout baked in cream, and all the other delights of his existence, and built this pretty villa in Brightbrook, and came down here in the month of roses, with eight "in help," and a pretty, pallid, invalid wife—foreswore all wild, wandering ways forever, so that little Olga might run wild among the clover and buttercups, and from much fresh air, and sweet milk, and strawberries picked with her own taper fingers, grow up to blooming health and maidenhood.
Colonel Ventnor—he had served with distinction in the far West—was a very rich man, and the descendant of a family of very rich men. Such a thing as a poor Ventnor perhaps had never been heard of. They were wealthy always, high-bred always, holding enviable positions under government always, never defiling their patrician fingers with trade or commerce of any kind, and, in a general way, considering their status and superiority to all earthly pursuits, with quite as many brains as was good for them. Of these mighty men, Colonel Raymond Livingston Ventnor was the last, and little Olga, in her Swiss tucks and Leghorn sun-hat, the very last daughter of the house, born, if ever embryo belle and heiress was yet, with a golden spoon in her mouth.
"We must marry her to Frank Livingston in about ten years from now," said the family conclave, "and so keep everything in the family. Pity she is not a boy—too bad to sink the Ventnor for Livingston[Pg 16]—but Frank can add the old name by and by, when he marries Olga."
Perhaps this imperial ukase was not read in form to the bride-elect, but it met the approval of papa and mamma, and certainly was announced to the future bridegroom, a slim, very pretty young fellow of eighteen or so, with a passion for base-ball, and another for pencil drawing. He was really a bright lad, and at this age quite a wonder to see in the way of tallness, and slimness, and straightness. And he only grinned when his fond mamma folded him with effusion in her arms, and announced, with joyful tears, that he—he—her Francis—her darling boy, and not Anselm Van Dyack, nor Philip Vandewelode, had been chosen for the distinguished position of prince consort to the heiress of many Ventnors.
"And you need never lower your family, nor slave yourself to death painting pictures now, my dearest, dearest boy! Olga Ventnor's fortune must be simply immense—IMMENSE!"
"All right, mother," says Frank, still grinning; "and when is it to be—this week or next? Or am I to wait until she grows up? I am on hand always; when you want me please to ring the bell."
"Frank, this is no theme for jesting. They will not permit it for at least ten years. Say her education is finished at eighteen, then two years of travel, then the wedding. Meantime, whenever you see little Olga be just as nice as possible—impressions made at her age often last through life."
Frank throws back his head, and laughs immoderately. "Did I ever dream in my wildest dime novel days it would come to this? Did I ever think that,[Pg 17] like Dick Swiveller, I would have a young woman growing up for me? Don't wear that face, mother, or you will be the death of me. I'll run down to Brightbrook next week, if you like, and do a little stroke of courting, and hunt butterflies with the little dear until the end of July."
So Frank runs down, and is made welcome at the pretty white villa, all embowered in pink roses and scented honeysuckle, like a cottage in a picture, and by none more gladly than little Olga. All that mere money can buy is hers; but even money has its limits as to power, and it cannot buy her a playmate and constant companion of her own age. The child is a little lonely, surrounded by love and splendor. Brother or sister she has never had, mamma is always ailing and lying on the sofa, papa is away a great deal, Jeannette, the bonne, is lazy and stupid, and says it is too hot to play, and in all Brightbrook there is no one this dainty, little curled darling may stoop to romp with. Yes, by-the-bye, there is one, just one, of whom more anon, but she is not always available. So the little princess, forgetting the repose which marks the caste of Vere de Vere, utters a scream of joy at sight of Cousin Frank, and flings herself absolutely plump into his arms.
"Oh! I am so glad!" she cries out. "Oh! Frank, how nice of you to come. I've been wanting you every day of my life since we came down here—oh, ever and ever so! Mamma, you know I've been wanting Cousin Frank."
Mamma smiles. Frank lifts the little white-robed, golden-haired, rose-cheeked vision up higher than his head, kisses her, and with her perched on his shoulder,[Pg 18] and shrieking with delight, starts off for the first game of romps. It is all as it should be. Mrs. Colonel Ventnor settles her muslins and laces, lies back in her blue satin chair, and resumes her book, very well pleased.
Frank's one week lasts well on into September. Brightbrook abounds in cool hill-side streams and tarns, from which it takes its name, and these sparkling waters abound, in turn, with fine trout. Fishing is dreamy, lazy, insouciant sort of work, suited to sleepy, artistic fancies, and the young fellow spends a good deal of his time armed with rod and line and lunch-basket, and waited upon dutifully by his devoted little hand-maiden, Princess Olga. All the world adores her, she in turn adores Frank. He is the handsomest, the cleverest, the dearest cousin in all the world. He paints her picture, he bears her aloft in triumph on his shoulder, he sings her German drinking songs, he teaches her to bait her hook and catch fish, he takes her for long rambles in the woods, he instructs her in the art of waltzing, he tells her the most wonderful goblin tales ever human brains invented.
And all this without a jot of reference to his mother's romance of the future. That he laughs at—simply because she is the prettiest little darling in the world, and he is fond of children. Marry her in ten years—ten years, forsooth! Why not say half a century at once, and have done with it? He is seventeen—ten years looks a long perspective, a little forever, to eyes seventeen years old.
October comes. With the first bleak blast and whistling drift of maple leaves, these birds of summer[Pg 19] forsake their fragile nest, and flutter back to the stately family home of the Ventnors on Madison avenue. The pretty white villa, with its roses, and verandas, and conservatories, and sun-dial, is shut up, and only an old man and his daughter left to care for it until the next June honeysuckles blow.
Little Olga goes back to her books and her piano, under an all-accomplished governess; Frank goes in for painting, and takes a trip to the everglades of Florida. Early next summer the Ventnor family return, making a mighty stir throughout Brightbrook, and in due course down comes Mr. Frank.
A year has made its mark on this young man. His fine tenor voice is changing to an ugly bass, a callow down is forming on his upper lip, and is loved and caressed as a youthful mother may her first-born babe. He is absent a great deal from the cottage, and he very seldom takes Olga with him anywhere now.
Nobody knows where he spends his time. Olga is the only one who inquires; Olga, piqued and pouting, yet too proud even at eleven to let him see how much she cares.
"Where have you been now?" she will ask.
"Oh, up the village!"
It is his invariable answer, and it being a dull little village, and Mr. Francis of a lively turn, and fond of life, even rough and rollicking life, it is a little puzzling. Olga does not like it at all—he is not nearly so nice as on the preceding year, he leaves her to Jeannette and mamma, and amuses himself very well without her. The absences grow more frequent and prolonged. He stays away whole days, and his latch-key opens the hall-door gently far into the dim watches of the night.[Pg 20] Lying awake, looking at the summer moonlight stealing whitely in, the child will hear that cautious click, that light footstep passing the door, and presently the little Swiss clock on the mantel will chime out, silvery and sharp, two or three. Three in the morning, and up at the village! It is odd. But presently the mystery is solved for Olga in quite a sudden and awful way.
There is no reply. Stretched on the sun-steeped grass, his straw hat pulled over his face, his long length casting a prodigious shadow in the afternoon sunshine, Cousin Frank is leagues away in the lovely land of dreams.
"Frank! Cousin Frank! Frank Livingston! Oh, dear!" sighs Olga, impatiently. "No wonder he is asleep. It struck three this morning before—Frank! Oh! how stupid you are! Do, do wake up!"
Thus adjured, and further urged by the pointed toe of a most Cinderella-like shoe of blue kid, Frank consents to slowly and lazily open his handsome blue eyes.
"Oh!" she says, with a pout, "at last! You are worse than the Seven Sleepers. Here you have been fast asleep for the past two hours, and all that tiresome time I have been waiting here. I think it is horrid of you, Frank Livingston, to act so!"[Pg 21]
"To act so! To act how, fairest of fairy cousins? What has your Frank, the most abject of thy slaves, Lady Olga, been doing now, to evoke your frown? There is no harm in taking a snooze on the grass, is there?" says Frank, with a prolonged yawn.
Miss Olga stands beside him, slim, straight, white, blonde, pouting, and very, very pretty.
"There is harm in never coming home until half-past three in the morning every night. If you didn't do that you wouldn't sleep on the grass all the next afternoon. What would mamma say?"
He rises suddenly on his elbow and looks at her. Pretty well this, for a demoiselle of eleven! She stands rolling the gravel with one blue boot-tip, her wide-brimmed leghorn shading her face, the long, almost flaxen ringlets falling to her slender waist, her delicate lips pouting, the light figure upright as a dart.
"Princess Olga," Frank says, after a pause and a stare, "what an uncommonly pretty little thing you are getting to be! I must make a sketch of you just as you stand; that sunshine on your yellow curls and white dress is capital! Do not stir, please, my sketch-book is here; I will dash you off in all your loveliness in the twinkling of a bed-post!"
Frank's sketch-book and Frank himself are never far apart. He takes it up now, as it lies at his elbow, selects a fair and unspotted page, points a broad black pencil, and begins.
"Just as you are—do not move. 'Just as I am, and waiting not, to rid myself of one—some sort of blot,'—how is it the hymn goes? And so you heard me come in last night? Now who would think such pretty little pink ears could be so sharp!"[Pg 22]
"Last night!" pouts Olga; "this morning, you mean. Half-past three. I heard the clock strike."
"Don't believe the clock—it is a foul slanderer. Those little jeweled jimcracks that play tunes before they strike always tell lies. Did you tell mamma about it this morning, Olly?"
She flings back her head, and her blue eyes—very like Frank's own—kindle.
"Tell mamma! I am not a tell-tale, Cousin Frank."
The young fellow, sketching busily, draws a breath of relief.
"Most gracious princess, you are a little trump. I ask pardon. Turn your head just a hair-breadth this way. Ah! thanks—that will do. Well, now, Olga, I was out rather late; but I met some—some fellows, and we played a game or two, and so——"
"Were you up the village?"
"Yes, up the village. You see, Brightbrook is such a deadly-lively sort of place at the best, and a fellow must amuse himself a little in some way. And that reminds me—I have an engagement at five. What's the time, Olly? just look at my watch, will you?"
She obeys after a moment—a moment in which wistful longing and precocious pride struggle for mastery. Then she stoops and looks.
"A quarter of five. But you said——"
"Well, I said——"
"You said—you promised Leo Abbott yesterday that you would drive me over there this afternoon, and we would have croquet and tea."
"Oh, did I?" carelessly. "Well, you must let me[Pg 23] off, Olly, and make my excuses to little Leo. Upon my honor, I cannot manage it—awfully sorry all the same. But it need not keep you, you know; your papa will drive you, or Peters will."
Peters is head coachman, the safest of charioteers. Papa is always willing to drive his darling anywhere. But Olga Ventnor turns hastily away, and the childish eyes that look at the setting sun are full of tears she is too proud to let fall.
"There!" Frank says, after five minutes more devoted to the sketch; "there you are, as large as life, but not half so handsome. Here it is for a keepsake, Olga. When you are a tall, fascinating young lady—a brilliant belle, and all that—it will help to remind you of how you looked when a chickabiddy of eleven."
He tears out the leaf, scrawls under it, "Princess Olga, with the love of the most loyal of her lieges," and hands it to her. She takes it, her lips a little compressed, pique, pain in her eyes, plainly enough in spite of her pride, if he cares to look. But Frank has a happy knack of never looking, nor wishing to look, below the surface of things, and he has something to think of besides his little cousin's whims just at present.
"I am off," he says, jumping up. "And—look here, Olly—go to sleep like a good little thing when you go to bed, and don't lie awake o' nights in this wicked way counting the clock. It will bring gray hairs and wrinkles before you reach your twelfth birthday. You will wake up some morning and find, like Marie Antoinette, all these long curls turned from gold to silver in a single night."[Pg 24]
He pulls out one of the long tresses, fine as floss silk, to an absurd length, as he speaks.
"And besides, I am going to reform, to turn over a new leaf, numbers of new leaves, to become a good boy, and go to bed at ten. So say nothing to nobody, Olly, and, above all, above everything, shut those blue peepers the moment your head is on the pillow, and never open them, nor the dear little pink ears, until six the next morning."
He gives the pink ear an affectionate and half-anxious tweak, smiles at the grave face of the child, flings his hat on, and departs.
The little girl stands watching him until he is out of sight, then, with a deep sigh that would have infinitely amused Master Frank could he have heard, turns for consolation to the drawing. Is she really so pretty as this? How clever Cousin Frank must be to sketch so—dash off things, as he calls it—all in a moment. She has it yet, yellow, faded, stored away among the souvenirs treasured most.
"Madame votre mere says will mademoiselle not come for one leetle walk before her supper?" says the high Norman sing-song voice of Jeannette, appearing from the house; "it will give ma'amselle an appetite for her tartine and strawberries."
"Very well, Jeannette. Yes, I will go. Here, take this up to my room. I will go on this way. You can follow me."
So, with a slow and lingering step, the little heiress of many Ventnors sets off. She is a somewhat precocious little girl, old-fashioned, as it is phrased, a trifle prim in speech and manner, except now and then when the wild child-nature bursts its trammels, and she[Pg 25] runs, and sings, and romps as wildly as the squirrels she chases. Just at this moment she is under a cloud. Cousin Frank has wounded and disappointed her. He will not tell her where he goes or what he does all these long hours of absence.
"Up the village" is vague and unsatisfactory to a degree; he has broken his promise about taking her to Abbott Wood, and she likes to play croquet with Geoff and Leo Abbott. Frank's promises, she is beginning to discover, are very pie-crusty indeed; he makes them with lavish prodigality, and breaks them without a shadow of scruple. All these things are preying on Miss Ventnor's eleven-year-old mind for the first few minutes, and make her step lagging and her manner listless. Then a brilliant butterfly swings past her, and she starts in pursuit—then a squirrel darts out of a woodland path and challenges her to a race—then a tempting cluster of flame-colored marsh flowers catches her eye, and she makes a detour to get them—then she finds herself in a thicket of raspberry bushes, and begins to pluck and eat. Overhead there is a hot, hot sun, sinking in a blazing western sky like a lake of molten gold.
In these woody dells there are coolness and shadow, sweet forest smells, the chirp of birds, the myriad sounds of sylvan silence. A breeze is rising, too. She goes on and on, eating, singing, chasing birds and butterflies, rabbits and field mice, all live things that cross her path.
All at once she pauses. Where is Jeannette? She has been rambling more than an hour, she is far from home, the sun has set, she is tired, the place is strange, she has never been here before. Her dress is soiled,[Pg 26] her boots are muddy; woods, trees, marshes are around her—no houses, no people. Oh! where is she—where is her bonne?
"Jeannette! Jeannette!" She stops and cries aloud: "Jeannette! where are you?"
Her shrill, childish voice echoes down the dim woodland aisles. Only that, and the gathering stillness of the lonesome evening in the wood.
"Jeannette! Jeannette! Jeannette!"
In wild affright the young voice peals forth its piteous cry. But only the fitful sighing of the twilight wind, only the mournful rustle of the leaves, only the faint call of the little mother birds in their nests, answer her. Then she knows the truth—she is lost!
Lost in the woods, far from any habitation, and night close at hand. Jeannette has lingered behind to gossip; she, Olga, has gone heedlessly on; now it is coming night; she is alone, and lost in the black, whispering, awful, lonely woods!
She stands still and looks around her. Overhead there is a gray and pearl-tinted sky, very bright still in the west, but with a star or two gleaming over the tree-tops. In the forest it is already pitch-dark. In the open, where she now stands, it will be light for half an hour yet. To the right spreads the pine woods, whispering, whispering mysteriously in the solemn darkening hush; to the left is a waste of dry and dreary marsh land, intermediate and blankly gray in the gloaming. No house, no living thing to be seen far or near!
hat shall she do? The child is not a coward—she has been so sheltered, so loved, so encompassed by care all her short life, that fear is a sensation almost unknown. If it were noonday she would not fear now, she would wander on and on, calling for Jeannette until some one came to her aid, some one who would be sure to take care of her and bring her home. But the gathering darkness is about her, the tall black trees stand up like threatening giants, the deep recesses of the wood are as so many gaping dragon's jaws, ready to swallow her up. Perhaps there are ghosts in that grim forest—Jeannette has a wholesome horror of revenants, and her little mistress shares it. Oh! what shall she do? Where is papa? Where is Frank, mamma, Jeannette, any one—any one she knows, to come to the rescue? She stands there in that breathless, awesome solitude, a panic-stricken, lonely little figure, in her soiled dress, and muddy, blue kid boots.
"Jeannette! Jeannette! JEANNETTE!"
The terrified voice pierces wildly the stillness, its desolate echo comes back to her, and frightens her more and more. Oh! what shall she do? Must she stay here in this awful, awful place until morning! What will become of her? Are there bears, or lions, or robbers in that spectral forest? She has on a necklace of gold beads—will they kill her for that?[Pg 28]
"Jeannette! Jeannette!" she cries, in sobbing despair, but no Jeannette answers. She is indeed lost, hopelessly lost, and the dark, dreadful night is already here.
All this time she has been standing still, now a sudden panic seizes her. Fiery eyes glare at her out of the vast depths of the wood, strange weird moans, and voices in pain, come to her from its gloomy vastness. She turns wild with fright, and flies, flies for life from the haunted spot.
She runs headlong—how long or how far she never knows. Panting, gasping, slipping, falling, flying on! She does not cry out, she cannot, she is all spent and breathless. Something terrific is behind her, in hot pursuit, ghost, goblin, fiery dragon—who knew what? stretching forth skeleton hands to catch her—a phantom of horror and despair! And still the silvery twilight deepens, the stars shine out, and still she rushes on, a wildly-flying, small white figure in the lovely summer dusk.
At last—overtasked nature can bear no more, she falls headlong on the soft, turfy ground, her eyes closed, her hands clenched, and lies panting and still. Is she dying, she wonders; she feels dizzy and sick—is she going to die far from papa and mamma, and Frank, alone in this lonesome place? How sorry they will all be to-morrow, when they come upon her lying like this, all cold and dead. She thinks of the Babes in the Wood, and wonders if the robins will cover her with leaves.
It is no voice of ghost or goblin. It is unmistakably a human salute, and very close by. She lifts[Pg 29] herself silently, too utterly exhausted to reply, and sees standing beside her, in the dusk of the warm night, the figure of—a girl? Is it a girl? She puts back the tangled golden locks, and gazes up in a dazed, bewildered way, at this apparition.
"Hullo!" says the voice, again. It is not a pleasant voice; the face that looks down at her is not a pleasant face. It is a girl, of twelve or so, in a scant skirt, a boy's blouse belted with a strap of leather, a shaggy head of unkempt reddish hair, a thin, eager, old-young face, long bare legs, and bare feet.
For the third time she hails the prostrate Olga with this salute, in a high-pitched, harsh tone, and for the third time receiving no reply, varies it:
"I say, you! Ye ain't deef, are ye? Can't ye speak? Who are you? What are you doin' here, this time o' night?"
Still no reply. The rasping voice, the scowling look, the wild air of the unexpected figure, have stricken Olga mute with a new terror. No one has ever looked at her, or spoken to her like this, in all her life before.
"Deef are ye, or sulky—which? Git up—git up, I say, or I'll make ye! Say, you! who are you? What are ye about here, lying on the ground? Why—lor! ef it ain't the Ventnor gal!"
She has taken a stride toward Olga, who springs to her feet instantly. They stand confronting one another in the dim light, the little white heiress shaking with fatigue and fear, the fierce-looking, wild creature glancing at her with eyes like a cat.
"Say! If ye don't speak I'll scratch ye, I'll bite[Pg 30] ye—I'll pull your ugly long hair out by the roots! Ain't you the Ventnor gal? Come now—say!"
She makes a threatening step near. The poor little princess puts up two imploring hands.
"Oh! please, please don't bite me! I don't mean any harm. I am only lost, and fell down here!" A great sob. "I am Olga Ventnor, and I want to go home—oh! I want to go home!"
She breaks down in a great passion of sobs. The impish-looking child before her bursts into a discordant, jeering laugh.
"She wants to go home! Oh, she wants to go home! Oh! please somebody come and take this young lady home! Look at her! Ain't she putty with her old white dress, and muddy shoes, and shiny beads. Say, you! give me them beads this very minute, or I'll snatch 'em off your neck."
With rapid, trembling fingers, the child unfastens the necklace, and holds it out to her tormentor.
"What business have you, you stuck-up little peacock!" continues the imp, wrenching, savagely, the costly trinket asunder, "with hair down to your waist, yellow hair too, the color of your beads, and all in nasty ringlets! Oh, lordy! we think ourselves handsome, don't we? And embroidery and lace on our frocks, and pink, and blue, and white buttoned boots, with ribbon bows! I've seen you. And a French servant gal to wait on us, in a white cap and apron! And a kerridge to ride in! And white feathers in our hats, and kid gloves, and silk stocken's! We're a great lady, we are, till we get lost in the woods, and then we can't do nothin' but sit down and blubber like a great calf! Why, you little devil!" she takes a step nearer, and her tone and[Pg 31] look grow ferocious, "do you know that I hate you, that I would like to tramp on you, that I spit at you!" which she does—"that I would like to pull out every one of them long curls by the roots! And I'll do it, too, before I let you go!"
The child is deadly white, deadly still with fear. She does not speak or move, cry out or turn to run—some terrible fascination holds her there breathless and spell-bound.
"What business have you," cries the creature, with ever-increasing ferocity, "with curls, and silk dresses, and gold beads, and servants, and kerridges, while your betters are tramping about barefooted, and beat, and abused, and starved? You ain't no better nor me! You ain't so good, for you're a coward, and a cry-baby, and a little fool! And I'm goin' to hev them curls! And if you screech I'll kill you! I will! I hate you—I've hated you ever since I sor you first!"
She darts a step nearer. Olga recoils a step backward. Still she makes no outcry, no attempt to run. That fascination of intense terror holds her fast.
"I know you, and I know all about you," goes on the goblin. "I know your cousin, Frank Livingston; he comes to our house—he gives presents to Lora and Liz Sleaford. He's sweet on Lora, he is. She wears long curls, Lor bless you, too. Like tar ropes they are, over her shoulders. I'm Sleaford's Joanna; if I don't kill you, you'll know me next time, won't you? And I hate you because you're a young lady, with kerridges, and servants, and nothin' to do, and long yellow ringlets down your stuck-up back."
The ringlets seem to be the one unforgivable sin; she glares at them vengefully as she speaks.[Pg 32]
"I'm goin' to pull them out. I never thought I'd hev the chance. There ain't nobody here to help or come if you yell. I don't care if they beat me to death for it, or hang me—I'll pull 'em out!"
She springs upon her victim with the leap of a wild-cat, and buries her claw-like fingers in the pale gold of the clustering hair. There is no mistaking her meaning—she fully intends it; her fierce eyes blaze with a baleful fire. And now, indeed, Olga finds her voice, and it rings out shrill, pealing, agonized.
"Papa! papa! Oh, papa!"
"Hi!" answers a sharp voice. Then a sharper whistle cuts the air. "Hi! Who's that? Call again!"
"Papa! papa! papa!"
There is a crashing among the trees, and not a second too soon. With a violent push, and—an oath—this diabolical Little Barefoot flings her victim from her, and leaps away into the darkness with the fleetness of a fawn.
t is not papa who comes rushing to the rescue, but it is a man who stoops and picks her up—a young man with a gypsy face, a gun over his shoulder, and two or three yelping dogs at his heels.
"What the dickens is the row?" he asks. "Hold up, little 'un. Good G——! she's dead!"[Pg 33]
It looks like it. She lies across his arm, a limp and inert little form, all white drapery, blonde curls, and pale, still face. The moon is rising now, the big white shield of the July night, and he takes off the crushed Leghorn flat the better to behold his prize.
"By thunder!" he exclaims, aloud, "it's the little Ventnor. The little great lady, the little heiress. Now, then, here's a go, and no mistake."
He stands at a loss, utterly surprised. She has been as a small Sultana in the eyes of all Brightbrook, every one knows her, and to find her like this, dead, to all seeming, murdered, it may be, appalls him.
"She wasn't dead a minute ago; she was screeching for her papa like a good 'un. Perhaps she ain't dead yet. Maybe she's fainted or that, frightened at something. Don't seem to be anybody here to frighten her, nuther. Wonder what's gone with the French ma'amselle? Well, I'll tote her to the house anyhow; if she's alive at all the gals'll fetch her round."
He swings her as he might a kitten over his shoulder. He is a long-limbed, brown-skinned young fellow of twenty, whistles to his dogs, and starts over the star-lit fields at a swinging pace. All the way he whistles, all the way his keen black eyes keep a bright lookout for any one who may be in hiding. No one seems to be, for he reaches his destination, a solitary red farm-house standing among some arid-looking meadows. A field of corn at one side looks, in the shine of the moon, like a goblin play-ground, but the house itself seems cheery enough. Many lights twinkle along its low front, and the lively strains of a fiddle greet him as he opens the door.
The interior is a remarkable one enough. The[Pg 34] room is long and low, the ceiling quite black with smoke, as are also the walls, the broad floor a trifle blacker, if possible, than either; the furniture, some yellow wooden chairs, two deal tables, a wooden sofa, and a cupboard, well stocked with coarse blue delf. It is, in fact, the farm-house kitchen, and in the wide fire-place, despite the warmth of the night, a fire is burning. Over it hangs a large pot, in which the family supper is simmering and sending forth savory odors.
The occupants of the room are four. On one of the tables is perched a youth of eighteen, black-eyed, black-haired, swarthy-skinned, playing the Virginia reel with vigor and skill.
Two girls, young women, as far as size and development make women, though evidently not more than sixteen, are dancing with might and main, their hands on their sides, their heads well up, their cheeks flushed crimson, their black eyes alight, their black hair unbound—two wild young Bacchanti.
The one spectator of the reel sits crouched in the chimney-corner, her knees drawn up, her elbows on them, her chin in her palms, a singularly witch-like attitude, barefooted, shock-headed, with gleaming, derisive dark eyes.
The door is flung wide, and enters the young man of the woods, with his burden, his gun, and his dogs. The reel comes to a sudden stop, and six big black eyes stare in wild wonder at this unexpected sight.
"Why—what is it?" one of the girls cries—"a dead child, Dan? What for the Lord's sake have you got there?"
"Ah! What?" says Dan. "Here, take her, and[Pg 35] see if she's living or dead. I can tell you who she is, fast enough, or who she was, rather, for she looks as dead as a door-nail now, blessed if she don't. Here! fetch her to if you can, you, Lora; it will be worth while, let me tell you."
He lays the limp child in the arms of one of the girls. The firelight falls full upon the waxen face as they all crowd around. Only the crouching figure in the ingle nook stirs not. There is a simultaneous outcry of recognition and dismay.
"It's little Missy Ventnor!"
"It's the kernal's little gal!"
"It's Frank Livingston's cousin!"
"It's the little heiress!"
Then there is a pause, an open-mouthed, round-eyed pause, and gasp of astonishment. It requires a moment to take this in.
"And while you're staring there like stuck pigs," says the sarcastic voice of Brother Dan, "the young 'un stands a good chance of becoming a stiff 'un in reality, if she ain't now. Can't you sprinkle her with water, you fools, or unhook her clothes, or do whatever ought to be done. You, Lora, tote her into the next room, and bring her round, and you, Liz, dish up that hash, for I'm as hungry as a hunter."
Issuing these commands, he draws up a chair to the fire, as though it were December, and proceeds to load a little black pipe to the muzzle. Thus engaged, his eyes fall on the huddled-up figure opposite.
"Oh!" he growls, "you're there, Miss Fiery Head, layin' in the chimney-corner, as usual. Git up and set the table. D'ye hear?"
She does not seem to; she blinks up at him like a[Pg 36] toad, and does not stir. With an oath he seizes a billet of wood, and hurls it at her, but she ducks with a mocking laugh, and it goes over her head. As he stoops for another, she springs to her feet, and sets to work to do his bidding.
Meanwhile, in the next room, the two sisters are doing their unskilled best to bring Miss Ventnor "round." It is the parlor of the establishment, has a carpet on the floor, cane-seated chairs arranged primly around, a rocker to match, sundry gay and gaudy chromos on the walls, china dogs and cats on the mantel, green boughs in the fire-place, and a crimson lounge under the windows. On this lounge they lay her, they sprinkle her plentifully with water, force a little whisky into her mouth, slap her palms, undo her dress, and after some ten minutes of this manipulation there is a long-drawn sigh and shiver, the eyelids flutter, open, shut, open again, and two blue eyes look up into the gypsy faces bending above her.
"There!" says one of the sisters, with a long breath of satisfaction, "you're all right now, ain't you? Gracious! how white and limpsy you was, to be sure. First time I ever saw anybody in a faint before in my life. Drink a little drop of this, it's whisky and water."
But Olga pushes away the nauseous beverage with disgust.
"I don't like it," she says, faintly; "the smell makes me sick. Please take it away." She pushes back her tangled hair and looks vaguely about her. "Where am I?" she asks, beginning to tremble. "What place is this?"
"Oh, you're all right; don't be scared, deary," says[Pg 37] the sister called Lora; "this is Sleaford's. I'm Lora Sleaford; this is my sister, Liz. Bless us, what a pretty little thing you are, as fair as a lily, I do declare! I wish I was; but I am as black as a crow. We all are, father and all, even our Joanna, in spite of her horrid red hair. Don't be frightened, little missy; we know who you are, and you are all safe. And we know your cousin, Frank Livingston; he is a right nice fellow, comes here most every night. Likely's not he'll be here in a little while, now, and then he can take you home. Liz! there's the boys calling for their supper, and I hear father. You'd better go and get it for them."
"Joanna's there," says Liz, not stirring; "let her."
"When you know very well she won't if she takes the notion," retorts Lora, angrily; "there! there's father calling you. Now, you must go."
It seems she must, for she does. Lora turns back again to her charge. There is not much difference in these two sisters, and naturally, for they are twins, but Lora is rather the better looking, and decidedly the better natured of the pair.
"How did you come to be with our Dan, anyhow?" she asks, curiously. "Where did he find you? and what on earth made you faint away?"
The question arouses memory. Olga shuts her eyes with a shudder, and turns so white that Lora thinks she is going to faint again.
"Oh! that dreadful girl! that dreadful girl!" she says, with a shuddering gasp.
"What dreadful girl? What do you mean? Did you get lost, and did somebody scare you in the woods? What was she like?" demands Lora, sharply.[Pg 38]
But Olga cannot tell. She trembles, and shivers, and covers her eyes with her hands, as if to shut out some dreadful vision. "She said she would pull my hair out, and then—and then I got dizzy, and it got dark, and—and that is all," she replies, incoherently.
"Now I wonder if it wasn't our Joanna?" Miss Sleaford says, musingly. "It would be just like her—little imp! If I thought it was—but no, Joanna was in the house ever so long before they came. Well, don't you cry, little deary. Frank Livingston will be here pretty soon, and he'll take you home. Now I'll go and get you something to eat. You're hungry, ain't you, and would like some tea?"
"Oh, I only want papa!—nothing but papa!" sobs the child, quivering with nervous excitement. "Oh, papa, papa, papa."
"Well, there, don't make a fuss; your papa will come directly, I tell you. And you are all safe here, and needn't be afraid. Now I'll go and get you something—toast and tea—if there is any tea. So stop crying, or you'll make yourself sick."
Miss Sleaford departs. In the kitchen the two young men, and their father, Giles Sleaford, are seated at one of the deal tables, partaking of steaming hash with the appetites of hunters and constitutionally hungry men. The father is like the sons, a powerful, black-bearded, sullen-looking man. Evidently he has heard the story, for he looks up, with a glower, as his daughter enters. "Well?" he says, in a growling sort of voice; "how is she?"
"Oh, all right," Lora responds. "Crying for her papa, of course. She won't take any of that stuff," pointing to the greasy dish of hash with some disdain;[Pg 39] "I must make her some toast, if there is any raised bread."
"There ain't any raised bread," says Liz.
"Make her tea," suggests Dan; "that's the stuff they drink. Store tea, and some short-cake."
"There ain't no tea," says Liz again.
"Get some, then," growls the master of the house; "she's worth taking care on. Send to Brick's and get some."
"Joanna!" calls Liz, sharply; "d'ye hear? Go!"
She turns to the chimney-corner, where, crouched again, like a small salamander, in her former attitude, is Joanna, basking like a lizard in the heat.
"Won't!" returns Joanna, briefly; "go yourself."
"What?" cries Giles Sleaford, turning in sudden ferocity from the table—"what?"
"Says she won't," says Liz, maliciously—"says go myself."
The man rises and takes down a horsewhip from a shelf near, without a word. The dark, glittering eyes of the girl follow him, but she does not stir. "Won't, won't she?" says Mr. Sleaford. "We'll see if she won't. You little —— ——!"—two oaths and a hissing blow. "You won't go, won't you, you little foxy —— ——!"
With each imprecation, a cut of the whip falls across the shoulders of the crouching child. Two or three she bears in silence, then with a fierce scream of pain and passion, she leaps to her feet, darts across the room, and spits at him like a mad cat.
"No, I won't, I won't, I won't!—not if you cut me in pieces with your whip! I won't go for tea for her! I won't go for nuthin' for her! I won't go for[Pg 40] you—not if you whip me to death! I won't go! I won't, I won't, I won't!"
The man pauses: used as he is to her paroxysms of fury she looks so like a mad thing, in her rage at this moment, that he actually holds his brutal hand.
"Oh, come, dad, you let her alone," remonstrates his younger son; "don't cut her up like that."
But recovering from his momentary check, Giles Sleaford lays hold of her to renew the attack. As he does so Joanna stoops and buries her sharp white teeth in his hand. And at that same instant a small white figure, with blanched face and dilated eyes, glides forward and stands before him.
"Don't! Oh, don't!" Olga Ventnor says. "Oh! pray, pray don't beat her like that!" She holds up her clasped hands to Giles Sleaford, who, partly from the pain of the bite, partly from surprise, recoils and lets go his hold. Instantly Joanna darts away, opens the door, and disappears.
"That's the last of her till dinner-time to-morrow," says the younger Sleaford, with a laugh, "she'll roost with the bluebirds to-night. Dad mayn't think so, but he'll drive that little devil to run a knife into him yet."
There is many a true word spoken in jest, says the adage. In the dark and tragical after days that somber speech comes back to young Judson Sleaford like a prediction.
o it befalls, that in spite of threats and horsewhip, Joanna has her own way, and does not go for the tea. Giles Sleaford retires to the chimney-corner, grumbling internally, as is his sullen wont, and looking darkly askance at the small intruder. He makes uneasy signs to his daughters to take her back whence she came, as he fills his after-supper pipe. Both his sons are already smoking, and the tobacco-laden atmosphere half chokes the child.
"Come, dear," says Lora, taking her by the hand.
"But what is she to have to eat?" queries Liz. "I suppose, Jud, you wouldn't go for the tea?"
"No, I wouldn't," answers Jud, promptly. "I'm dead tired. I don't stir out o' this corner, 'cept to go to bunk to-night. Besides, she says she don't drink it—heerd her yourself, didn't yer?"
"Perhaps she'll take milk," suggests Dan. "Ask her, Lorry."
"Oh, yes, please, I will take milk," Olga responds, shrinking into herself; "anything. Indeed, I am not in the least hungry."
"And I'll poach her an egg," says Liz, brightening, now that this difficult question of the commissariat is settled. "I'll fetch it in in five minutes. You undress her, Lora, and put her to bed."
"But I want to go home!" Olga says, beginning to[Pg 42]
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