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My Pretty Maid
Mrs. Alex. McVeigh Miller
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A DESPERATE CHANCE.
"How fast the river flows! How it roars in my ears and drowns the sound of your voice, my dearest! It is bearing me away! Oh, save me! Save me!"
The river was the stream of Death, and the lone voyager floating out on its rushing tide was a loved and loving young wife.
The frail white hands clung fondly to her husband's as she rested with her head upon his breast, and the faint voice murmured deliriously on:
"How it rushes on—the wild river! How it rocks me on its broad breast! It is not so noisy now; it is deeper and swifter, and its voice has a lulling tone that soothes me to sleep. Hold me tight—keep me awake, dear, lest it sweep me away to the sea!"
Ah, he would have given the world to hold her back, his darling, the dearest of his heart, but the rushing torrent was too strong. It was sweeping her away.
Several days ago a beautiful daughter—her first-born after five years' wifehood—had been laid in her yearning arms.
But, alas! The first night of its birth, during a temporary absence of the old nurse from the room, the little treasure had been stolen from its mother.
Panic seized the whole household, and rigorous search was at once begun and kept up for days, but all to no avail.
The father was frantic, but, though he would have given his fortune for the return of the child, he was powerless; and now, as a sequel to this tragedy of loss and pain, his dear young wife lay dying in his arms—dying of heartbreak for the lost babe—poor bereaved young mother!
Tears rained from his eyes down on her pallid face as he strained her to his breast, his precious one, going away from him so fast to death, while outside, heedless of his despair, the golden sun was shining on the green grass, and the fragrant flowers, and the little birds singing in the trees as if there were nothing but joy in the world.
The old family physician came in softly, with an anxious, sympathetic face, and whispered startling words in his ear.
A look of aversion crossed the young husband's face, and he groaned:
"Doctor Jay, I cannot bear the thought!"
"I feared you would feel so, Mr. Clarke, but all my medical colleagues agree with me that nothing but the restoration of her child can save my patient's life. It is the desperate chance we take when we feel that all hope is lost."
"Then I must consent!"
"You are wise," the old doctor answered, tiptoeing from the room, only to reappear a little later, followed by the nurse with a little white bundle in her arms.
The low voice of the delirious woman went babbling on.
"Darling," murmured her husband, pressing his lips to her pale brow.
"Yes, yes, dear, I'm going away from you. Hark!"
The sudden wail of an infant had caught her hearing.
Her dull eyes brightened with returning intelligence, she moved restlessly, and the nurse laid a wailing infant against her breast.
"Dear mistress, can you hear me? Here is your baby back again."
They had taken a desperate chance when all hope seemed lost.
By the advice of the consulting physicians, another child had been substituted for the stolen one, and, at its helpless cry, hope crept back to the mother's breaking heart; the rushing waves ceased to moan in her ears, silenced by that little piping voice, and the sinking life was rallied.
She lived, and the babe grew and throve in its luxurious surroundings, and the mother worshiped it. No one ever dared tell her the truth—that it was not her own infant that had been restored to her arms, but a little foundling. No other child ever came to rival it in Mrs. Clarke's love, and it was this fact alone that sealed her husband's lips to the cruel secret that ached at his heart. He feared the effect of the truth on his delicate wife, taking every precaution to keep her in ignorance, even to moving away from his own home, and settling in a distant place.
Though he never relaxed his efforts to find his lost child, the years slipped away in a hopeless quest, and Roma, the adopted girl, grew eighteen years old, and her beauty and her prospects brought her many suitors.
In his heart Mr. Clarke hoped the girl would make an early marriage, for he was tired of living a lie, pretending to love her as a daughter to deceive his wife, while an aching void in his own heart was always yearning for his own lost darling.
FATE IS ABOVE US ALL.
It was six o'clock by all the watches and clocks at Stonecliff, and the girls at Miss Bray's dressmaking establishment hastily put up their work and were starting for home, chattering like a flock of magpies, when their employer called after them testily:
"Say, girls, one of you will have to take this bundle up to Cliffdene. Miss Clarke wanted it very particularly to wear to-night. Liane Lester, she lives nearer to you than any of the others. You take it."
Liane Lester would have liked to protest, but she did not dare. With a decided pout of her rosy lips, she took the box with Miss Clarke's new silk cape and hurried to overtake Dolly Dorr, the only girl who was going her way.
"What a shame to have to carry boxes along the village street late in the afternoon when everyone is out walking! I think Miss Bray ought to keep a servant to fetch and carry!" cried Dolly indignantly. "Oh, look, Liane! There's that handsome Jesse Devereaux standing on the post-office steps! Shouldn't you like to flirt with him? Let's saunter slowly past so that he may notice us!"
"I don't want him to notice me! Granny says that harm always comes of rich men noticing poor girls. Come, Dolly, let us avoid him by crossing the street."
Suiting the action to the word, Liane Lester turned quickly from her friend and sped toward the crossing.
But, alas, fate is above us all!
Her haste precipitated what she strove to avoid.
Drawing the veil down quickly over her rosy face, the frolicsome wind caught the bit of blue gossamer and whirled it back toward the sidewalk. Jesse Devereaux gave chase, captured the veil, and flew after the girl.
She had gained the pavement, and was hurrying on, when she heard him at her side, panting, as he said:
"I beg pardon—your veil!"
A white hand was thrust in front of her, holding the bit of blue gauze, and she had to stop.
"I thank you," she murmured, taking it from his hand and raising her eyes shyly to his face—the brilliant, handsome face that had haunted many a young girl's dreams.
The dazzling dark eyes were fixed eagerly on her lovely face, and his red lips parted in a smile that showed pearly-white teeth as he exclaimed gayly:
"Old Boreas was jealous of your hiding such a face, and whisked your veil away, but out of mercy to mankind I concluded to return it."
"Thank you, very much!" she answered again, and was turning away when Dolly Dorr rushed across the street, breathless with eagerness.
"How do you do, Mr. Devereaux?" she cried gayly, having been introduced to him at a church festival the evening before.
"Ah, Miss——" he hesitated, as he lifted his hat, and she twittered:
"Miss Dorr; we met at the festival last night, you know. And this is my chum, Liane Lester."
"Charmed," he exclaimed, while his radiant black eyes beamed on Liane's face, and he stepped along by Dolly's side as she placed herself between them, intent on a flirtation.
"May I share your walk?" he asked, and Dolly gave an eager assent, secretly wishing her girlfriend a mile away.
But as she could not manage this, she proceeded to monopolize the conversation—an easy task, for Liane walked along silent and ill at ease, "for all the world," thought the lively Dolly to herself, "like a tongue-tied little schoolgirl."
No wonder Liane was demure and frightened, dreading to get a scolding from granny if Jesse Devereaux walked with them as far as her home.
Liane lived alone, in pinching poverty, with a feeble old grandmother, who was too old to work for herself, and needed Liane's wages to keep life in her old bones; so she was always dreading that the girl's beauty would win her a husband who would pack the old woman off to the poorhouse as an incumbrance.
She kept Liane illy dressed and hard worked, and never permitted her to have a beau. Marriage was a failure, she said.
"What was the use of marrying a poor man, to work your fingers to the bone for him?" she exclaimed scornfully.
"But one might marry rich," suggested innocent Liane.
"Rich men marry rich girls, and if they ever notice a poor girl, she mostly comes to grief by it. Don't never let me catch you flirting with any young man, or I'll make you sorry!" granny answered viciously.
She had not made her sorry yet, for the girl had obeyed her orders, although her beauty would have brought her a score of lovers had she smiled on their advances, but Liane had not seen any man yet for whom she would have risked one of granny's beatings.
How would it be now, when her young heart was beating violently at the glances of a pair of thrilling dark eyes, and the tones of a rich, musical voice, when her face burned and her hands trembled with exquisite ecstasy?
Old Boreas, why did you whisk her veil away and show Jesse Devereaux that enchanting young face, so rosy and dimpled, with large, shy eyes like purple pansies, golden-hearted, with rims of jet, so dark the arched brows and fringed lashes, while the little head was covered with silky waves of thick, shining chestnut hair? What would be the outcome of this fateful meeting?
Sure enough, as they came in sight of Liane's humble home, there was granny's grizzled head peeping from the window, and, with an incoherent good evening to her companions, Liane darted inside the gate, hurrying into the house.
But at the very threshold the old woman met her with a snarl of rage, slapping her in the face with a skinny, clawlike hand as she vociferated:
"Take that for disobeying me, girl! Walking out with that handsome dude, after all my warnings!"
"Oh, granny, please don't be so cruel, striking me for nothing! I'm too big a girl to be beaten now!" pleaded Liane, sinking into a chair, the crimson lines standing out vividly on her white cheeks, while indignant tears started into her large, pathetic eyes.
But her humility did not placate the cruel old hag, who continued to glare at her victim, snarling irascibly.
"Too big, eh?" she cried; "well, I'll show you, miss, the next time I see you galivanting along the street with a young man! Now, who is he, anyhow?"
"Just a friend of Dolly Dorr's, granny. I—I—never saw him till just now, when he asked Dolly if he might share her walk."
"Um-hum! A frisky little piece, that Dolly Dorr, with her yellow head and doll-baby face! I don't want you to walk with her no more when he goes along, do you hear me, Liane? Two's company, and three a crowd."
"Now, what have you got in that pasteboard box, I say? If you've been buying finery, take it back this minute. I won't pay a cent for it!"
"It's finery, granny, but not mine. Miss Bray sent me to carry it to the rich young lady up at Cliffdene, and I just stopped in to see if you will make your own tea while I do my errand, for I shouldn't like to come back alone after dark."
"Better come alone than walking with a man, Liane Lester!" grunted the old woman, adding more amicably: "Go along, then, and hurry back, and I'll keep some tea warm for you."
"Thank you, granny," the poor girl answered dejectedly, going out with her bundle again, her face shrouded in the blue veil, lest she should meet someone who would notice the marks of the cruel blow on her fair cheek.
Her way led along the seashore, and the brisk breeze of September blew across the waves and cooled her burning face, and dried the bitter tears in her beautiful eyes, though her heart beat heavily and slow in her breast as she thought:
"What a cruel life for a young girl to lead—beaten and abused by an old hag whom one must try to respect because she is old, and poor, and is one's grandmother, though I am ashamed of the relationship! I fear her, instead of loving her, and it is more than likely she will kill me some day in one of her brutal rages. Sometimes I almost resolve to run away and find work in the great city; but, then, she has such a horror of the poorhouse, I have not the heart to desert her to her fate. But I could not help being ashamed of her when Mr. Devereaux saw her uncombed head and angry face leering at us out of the window. Never did I feel the misery of my condition, the poverty of my dress and my home, so keenly as in his presence. I do not suppose he would stoop to marry a poor girl like me, especially with such a dreadful relation as granny," she ended, with a bursting sigh of pain from the bottom of her sore heart.
The tide swept in almost to her feet, and the sea's voice had a hollow tone of sympathy with her sorrow.
"Oh, I wish that I were dead," she cried with a sudden passionate despair, almost wishing that the great waves would rush in and sweep her off her feet and away out upon the billows, away, from her weary, toilsome life into oblivion.
But here she was at the gates of beautiful Cliffdene, the home of the Clarkes, a handsome stone mansion set in spacious ground on a high bluff, washed at its base by the murmuring sea.
She opened the gate, and went through the beautiful grounds, gay with flowers, thinking, what a paradise Cliffdene was and what a contrast to the tumble-down, three-roomed shanty she called home.
"How happy Miss Clarke must be; so beautiful and rich, with fine dresses, and jewels, and scores of handsome lovers! I wonder if Mr. Devereaux knows her, and if he admires her like all the rest? He would not mind marrying her, I suppose. She does not live in a shanty, and have a spiteful old grandmother to make her weary of her life," thought poor, pretty Liane, as she paused in the setting sunlight before the broad, open door.
At that moment a superb figure swept down the grand staircase toward the trembling girl—a stately figure, gowned in rustling silk, whose rich golden tints, softened by trimmings of creamy lace, suited well with the handsome face, lighted by spirited eyes of reddish brown, while the thick waves of shining, copper-colored hair shone in the sunset rays like a glory. Liane knew it was Miss Clarke, the beauty and heiress; she had seen her often riding through the streets of Stonecliff.
"What do you want, girl?" cried a proud, haughty voice to Liane as they stood face to face on the threshold, the heiress and the little working girl.
"Miss Bray has sent home your silk cape, Miss Clarke."
"Ah? Then bring it upstairs, and let me see if it is all right. I have very little confidence in these village dressmakers, though Miss Bray has very high recommendations from the judge's wife," cried haughty Roma Clarke, motioning the girl to follow her upstairs, adding cruelly: "You should have gone round to the servants' entrance, girl. No one brings bundles to the front door."
Liane's cheeks flamed and her throat swelled with resentful words that she strove to keep back, for she knew she must not anger Miss Bray's rich customer. But she hated her toilsome life more than ever as she followed Roma along the richly carpeted halls to a splendid dressing room, where the beauty sank into a cushioned chair, haughtily ordering the box to be opened.
Liane's trembling white fingers could scarcely undo the strings, but at last she held up the exquisite evening cape of brocaded cream silk, lined with peach blossom and cascaded with billows of rare lace.
It was daintily chic, and had been the admiration of the workroom. All the girls had coveted it, and Dolly Dorr had draped it over Liane's shoulders, crying:
"It just suits you, you dainty princess."
The princess stood trembling now, for Roma flew into a rage the instant her wonderful red-brown eyes fell on the cape.
"Just as I feared! It is ruined in the arrangement of the cascades of lace. Who did it—you?" she demanded sharply.
"Oh, no, Miss Bray arranged it herself, I assure you," faltered Liane.
"It must be altered at once, for I need it walking out in the grounds with my guests to-night. You're one of the dressmaker's girls, aren't you? Yes? Well, you shall change it for me at once, under my directions. Hurry and rip the lace off carefully."
Liane's heart fluttered into her throat, but she protested.
"I—I cannot stay. I should be afraid to go home after dark. I am sure Miss Bray will alter it to-morrow."
"To-morrow! when I want it to-night? You must be crazy, girl! Do as I bid you, or I'll report you to your employer to-morrow and have you discharged."
Liane's throat choked with a frightened sob, and she dared not disobey and risk dismissal from Miss Bray and a beating from granny.
"I will do it, but I am terribly afraid to go home alone," she faltered, taking up the scissors and the garment.
"Nonsense! Nothing will hurt you. Here, this is the way I want it, and be sure you do not botch it, or you will have to do it all over again! Now, I am going down to dinner. I'll be back in an hour and a half, and you ought to have it done by that time!" cried the imperious beauty, sweeping from the room, though Liane heard her tell the maid in the hall to keep an eye on that girl from the dressmaker's, that she did not slip anything in her pocket.
The clever maid sidled curiously into the lighted dressing room, and, as soon as she saw the tears in the eyes of Liane and the crimson print on her fair cheek, she jumped to her own conclusions.
"You poor, pretty little thing, did Miss Roma fly in a rage and slap your face, too?" she exclaimed compassionately.
"Certainly not!" the girl answered, cresting her graceful chestnut-brown head with sudden pride. "Do you think I would allow your mistress to insult me so?"
"She would insult you whether you liked it or not," the maid replied tartly. "She has slapped my face several times in her tantrums since I came here, and I would have quit right off, but her mother is an angel, and when I complained to her, the sweet lady gave me some handsome presents and begged me to overlook it, because her daughter was somewhat spoiled by being an only child and an heiress. So I stayed for the kind mother's sake, and if Miss Roma really did strike you in her rage over the cape, let me tell Mrs. Clarke, and she will reward you handsomely to keep silence!"
"But I assure you Miss Clarke did not strike me!" Liane protested.
"There's the print of her fingers on your face to speak for itself, poor child!"
"That mark was on my face when I came," Liane answered, almost inaudibly, out of her keen humiliation.
"Oh, I see. What is your name?"
"Miss Lester—Liane Lester."
"A pretty-sounding name! I've heard of you before, Miss Lester—the lovely sewing girl whose grandmother beats her. All the village knows it and pities you. Why do you stand it? Why don't you run away and get married? You are so lovely that any man might be glad to get you for his bride."
The color flamed hotly into Liane's cheek. She was proud, in spite of her poverty, and it chafed her to have her private affairs so freely discussed by Miss Clarke's servant.
"Please do not talk to me while I'm sewing," she said firmly, but so gently that the pert maid did not take offense, but slipped away, returning when the cape was nearly done, with a dainty repast on a silver waiter.
"Mrs. Clarke sent this with her compliments. She heard about your being up here sewing, and felt so sorry for you."
Liane had not tasted food since her meager midday luncheon, but she was too proud to own that she was faint from fasting.
"She was very kind, but I—I really am not hungry," she faltered.
"But you have not had your tea yet, and one is apt to have a headache without it," urged the tactful maid, and she presently persuaded Liane to eat, although not before the cape was done, so great was her dread of Miss Clarke's coarse anger.
The maid had adroitly let Mrs. Clarke know all about Liane, and now she slipped a crisp banknote into her hand, whispering:
"Mrs. Clarke sent you this for altering the cape for her daughter."
Liane was almost frightened at the new rustling five-dollar bill in her hand. She had never seen more than three dollars at a time before—the amount of her weekly wages from Miss Bray.
"Oh, dear, I can't take this. It's too much! Miss Bray only gets five dollars for the making of the whole cape," she exclaimed.
"Never mind about that, if Mrs. Clarke chooses to pay you that for altering it, my dear miss. She is rich and can afford to be liberal to one who needs it. So just take what she gives you, and say nothing—not even to her daughter, who has a miserly heart and might scold her for her kindness," cautioned the maid, who pitied Liane with all her heart.
Liane cried eagerly:
"Oh, please thank the generous lady a hundred times for me! I love her for her kindness to a poor orphan girl. Now, do you think Miss Roma would come and look at the cape? For I must be going. Granny will be angry at my coming back so late."
"Here she comes now, the vixen!" and, sure enough, a silken gown rustled over the threshold, and Roma caught the cape up eagerly, crying:
"Ten to one you have botched it worse than before! Well, really, you have followed my directions exactly, for a wonder! That will do very well. You may go now, and if you think you ought to be paid anything for these few minutes' extra work, you can collect it off Miss Bray, as she was responsible for the alterations. Sophie, you can show the girl out," and, throwing the cape over her arm, the proud beauty trailed her rustling silk over the threshold and downstairs again.
"The heartless thing! I'd like to shake her!" muttered Sophie angrily, as she led the way out of the beautiful house down upon the moonlight lawn, adding:
"I'll go to the gates with you, so you won't get frightened at Mr. Clarke's big St. Bernard."
"What a beautiful night, and how sweet the flowers smell!" murmured Liane, lifting her heated brow to the cool night breeze, and the pitying stars that seemed to beam on her like tender eyes.
"Would you like some to take home with you? You will be welcome, I know, for the frosts will be getting them soon, anyhow," cried Sophie, loading her up with a huge bunch of late autumn roses, "and now good night, my dear young lady," opening the gate "you have a long walk before you, but I hope you will get home safely."
Liane opened her lips to tell the woman how frightened she was of the lonely walk home, but she was ashamed of her cowardice, and the words remained unsaid. With a faltering "I thank you for your kindness; good night," she clasped the roses to her bosom and sped away like a frightened fawn in the moonlight, down the road along the beach, a silent prayer in her heart that granny would not be angry again over her long stay, and accuse her of "galivanting around with beaus."
Sophie leaned over the gate, watching her a minute, with pity and admiration in her clear eyes.
"What a beautiful creature!—a thousand times lovelier than Miss Roma!" she thought. "But what a cruel lot in life. It is enough to make the very angels weep."
"MY PRETTY MAID."
There was not a more nervous, startled maiden in all New England that night than Liane as she flew along the beach, haunted by a fear of drunken men, of whom Stonecliff had its full quota.
And, indeed, she had not gone so very far before her fears took shape.
She heard distinctly, above her frightened heartbeats and her own light steps, the sound of a man's tread gaining on her, while his voice called out entreatingly:
"Elinor, Elinor! Wait for me!"
The sea's voice, with the wind, seemed to echo the call.
"Elinor, Elinor! Wait for me!"
But Liane did not wait. She only redoubled her speed, and she might have escaped her pursuer but that her little foot tripped on a stone and threw her prone upon the sands.
Before she could rise a man's arms closed about her tenderly, lifting her up, while he panted:
"Elinor, what girlish freak is this? Why wouldn't you wait for me, dear?"
Liane gasped and looked up at him in terror, but that instant she recognized him, and her fears all fled.
"Oh, Mr. Clarke, you have made a mistake, sir. You don't know me, although I know what your name is. I am Liane Lester!" she cried breathlessly.
He dropped her hand and recoiled in surprise, answering:
"I beg a hundred pardons for my apparent rudeness. I saw you flying along as I smoked my cigar above the hill, and your figure looked so exactly like my wife's that I flew after you. I hope you will find it easy to forgive me, for you do resemble my wife very much, and, although you are young and fair, you may take that as a compliment, for my wife is very beautiful."
"I thank you, sir, and forgive you freely. I have never seen Mrs. Clarke, but I have just come from your house, and was running home every step of the way because I had to stay till after dark, and I feared my grandmother would be uneasy over me!" faltered Liane, blushing at his intent gaze, for the wind had blown her veil aside, and her lovely features, pure as carven pearl, shone clearly in the moonlight.
"And I am detaining you yet longer! Excuse me, and—good night," he said abruptly, smiling kindly at her, lifting his hat and turning back toward Cliffdene, while he thought with pleasure:
"What a lovely girl! She reminded me of Elinor when she was young."
Liane thought kindly of him, too, as she hurried along.
"What a noble face and gracious voice! Miss Roma Clarke is blessed in having such a splendid father."
She had only granny, poor child; coarse, ugly, repulsive, cruel granny. She could not even remember her parents or any other relation. A lonely childhood, whose only bright memories were of its few school days, a toilsome girlhood, robbed of every spark of youthful pleasure; coarse scoldings and brutal beatings. It was all a piteous life—enough, as Sophie, the maid had said, to make the very angels weep in pity.
Strange, as she hastened on, how Jesse Devereaux's eyes and smile haunted her thoughts with little thrills of pleasure; how she wondered if she should ever see him again.
"Perhaps Dolly Dorr will make him fall in love with her, she is so pretty, with her fluffy yellow hair and big torquoise-blue eyes," she thought, with a curious sensation of deadly pain, jealous already, though she guessed it not.
The night was still and calm, and suddenly the dip of oars in the water came to her ears. She looked, and saw a little boat headed for the beach, with a single occupant.
The keel grated on the shore, the man sprang out, and came directly toward her, pausing with hat in hand—a tall fellow, dark and bewhiskered, with somber, dark eyes.
"Ah, good evening, my pretty maid. Taking a stroll all alone, eh? Won't you have a moonlight row with me?"
"No, thank you, sir; I am in a hurry to get home. Please stand aside," for he had placed himself in her way.
"Not so fast, pretty maid. It is good manners, I trow, to answer a stranger's courteous questions, is it not?" still barring her way. "Well, show me the way to Cliffdene."
The trembling girl pointed mutely back the way she had come.
"Thank you—and again: Do you know Miss Roma Clarke?"
"I have just seen her at Cliffdene," she answered.
"So she is not married yet?"
"Oh, no," Liane answered, trying to pass, but he caught her hand, exclaiming mockingly:
"Not married yet? Well, that is very good news to me. I will give you a kiss, pretty one, for that information."
"You shall not! Release me at once, you hound!" cried the girl, struggling to free herself.
But the insolent stranger only clasped her closer and drew her to him, the fumes of his liquor-laden breath floating over her pure brow as he struggled to kiss her shrieking lips.
And, absorbed in the conflict, neither one noticed a third person coming toward them from the town—an exceedingly handsome young man, who hurried his steps in time to comprehend the meaning of the scene before him, and then shot out an athletic arm, and promptly bowled the wretch over upon the wet sands.
"Lie there, you cur, till I give you leave to rise!" he thundered, planting his foot on the fellow's chest while he turned toward the young lady.
"Why, good heavens! Is it you, Miss Lester?" he cried, in wonder.
"Yes, Mr. Devereaux. I was hurrying home from an errand to Cliffdene when this man jumped out of his boat, and threatened to kiss me."
"Apologize to the lady on your knees, cur!" cried Jesse Devereaux, helping him with a hand on his coat collar.
The wretch obeyed in craven fear.
"Now tell me where you came from in the boat."
"From the nearest town," sullenly.