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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. 11.—LOST FOR A WOMAN. 12.—A WIFE'S TRAGEDY. 13.—A CHANGED HEART. 14.—PRIDE AND PASSION. 15.—SHARING HER CRIME (New).
"Mrs. Fleming's stories are growing more and more popular every day. Their delineations of character, life-like conversations, flashes of wit, constantly varying scenes, and deeply interesting
"GUY EARLSCOURT'S WIFE," "A TERRIBLE SECRET," "SILENT AND TRUE," "A WONDERFUL WOMAN," "LOST FOR A WOMAN," "ONE NIGHT'S MYSTERY," "A MAD MARRIAGE," ETC., ETC.
t was Christmas Eve. All day long crowds of gayly dressed people had walked the streets, basking in the bright wintry sunshine. Sleigh after sleigh went dashing past, with merrily jingling bells, freighted with rosy cheeks, and bright eyes, and youthful faces, all aglow with happiness.
But the sun must set on Christmas Eve, as on all other days; and redly, threateningly, angrily, he sank down in the far west. Dark, sullen clouds came rolling ominously over the heavens; the wind blew piercingly cold, accompanied with a thin, drizzling rain that froze ere it fell.
Gradually the streets were deserted as the storm in[Pg 8]creased in fury; but the Yule logs were piled high, the curtains drawn, and every house, save one, in the handsome street to which my story leads me, was all aglow, all ablaze with light.
In a lull of the storm the sounds of music and merry-making would rise and swell on the air, as light feet tripped merrily amid the mazes of the dance; or a silvery peal of laughter would break easily on the wayfarer's ear. The reflection of the light through the crimson curtains shed a warm, rosy glow over the snowy ground, brightening the gloom of that stormy winter's night.
But rising dark, grim, and gloomy amid those gayly lighted mansions, stood a large, quaint building of dark-red sandstone. It stood by itself, spectral, shadowy, and grand. No ray of light came from the gloomy windows that seemed to be hermetically sealed. All around was stern, black, and forbidding.
And yet—yes, from one solitary window there did stream a long, thin line of light. But even this did not look bright and cheerful like the rest; it had a cold, yellowish glare, making the utter blackness of the rest of the mansion blacker still by contrast.
The room from which the light issued was high and lofty. The uncarpeted floor was of black polished oak, as also were the wainscoting and mantel. The walls were covered with landscape paper, representing the hideous Dance of Death, in all its variety of frightful forms. The high windows were hung with heavy green damask, now black with dirt and age. A large circular table of black marble stood in one shadowy corner, and a dark, hard sofa, so long and black that it resembled a coffin, stood in the other.
A smoldering sea-coal fire, the only cheerful thing in that gloomy room, struggled for life in the wide, yawn[Pg 9]ing chimney. Now it would die away, enveloping the apartment in gloom, and anon flame fitfully up, until the ghostly shadows on the wall would seem like a train of ghastly specters flitting by in the darkness. The elm trees in front of the house trailed their long arms against the window with a sound inexpressibly dreary; and the driving hail beat clamorously, as if for admittance.
On either side of the fire-place stood two large easy-chairs, cushioned with deep crimson velvet. In these, facing each other, sat two persons—a man and a woman—the only occupants of the room.
The woman was tall, straight, and stiff, and seemingly about fifty years of age. Her dress was a rustling black satin, with a small crape handkerchief fastened on her bosom with a magnificent diamond pin. Her hands, still small and white, were flashing with jewels as they lay quietly folded in her lap. A widow's cap rested on her head, which was alternately streaked with gray and jet. But her face—so stern, so rigid, no one could look upon it without a feeling of fear. The lips—so thin that she seemed to have no lips at all—were compressed with a look of unswerving determination. Her forehead was low and retreating, with thick black eyebrows meeting across the long, sharp nose, with a look at once haughty and sinister. And from under those midnight brows glittered and gleamed a pair of eyes so small, so sharp and keen—with such a look of cold, searching, steely brightness—that the boldest gaze might well quail before them. On that grim, hard face no trace of womanly feeling seemed ever to have lingered—all was stern, harsh, and freezingly cold. She sat rigidly erect in her chair, with her needle-like eyes riveted immovably on the face of her companion, who shifted with evident uneasiness beneath her uncompromising stare.
He was a man of forty, or thereabouts, so small of[Pg 10] stature that, standing side by side, he could scarcely have reached the woman's shoulder. But, notwithstanding his diminutive size, his limbs were disproportionately large for his body, giving him the appearance of being all legs and arms. His little, round bullet-head was set on a prodigiously thick, bull-like neck; and his hair, short, and bristling up over his head, gave him very much the look of the sun, as pictured in the almanacs.
This prepossessing gentleman was arrayed in an immaculate suit of black, with a spotless white dickey, bristling with starch and dignity, and a most excruciating cravat. Half a dozen rings garnished his claw-like hands, and a prodigious quantity of watch-chain dangled from his vest. The worthy twain were engaged in deep and earnest conversation.
"Well, doctor," said the lady, in a cold, measured tone, that was evidently habitual, "no doubt you are wondering why I sent for you in such haste to-night."
"I never wonder, madam," said the doctor, in a pompous tone—which, considering his size, was quite imposing. "No doubt you have some excellent reason for sending for me, which, if necessary for me to know, you will explain."
"You are right, doctor," said the lady, with a grim sort of smile. "I have an excellent reason for sending for you. You are fond of money, I know."
"Why, madam, although it is the root of all evil——"
"Tush, man! There is no need for Satan to quote Scripture just now," she interrupted with a sneer. "Say, doctor, what would you do to earn five hundred dollars to-night?"
"Five hundred dollars?" said the doctor, his small eyes sparkling, while a gleam of satisfaction lighted up his withered face.[Pg 11]
"Yes," said the lady, "and if well done, I may double the sum. What would you do for such a price?"
"Rather ask me what I would not do."
"Well, the job is an easy one. 'Tis but to——"
She paused, and fixed her eyes on his face with such a wild sort of gleam that, involuntarily, he quailed before her.
"Pray go on, madam. I'm all attention," he said, almost fearing to break the dismal silence. "'Tis but to—what?"
"Make away with—a woman and child!"
"Murder them?" said the doctor, involuntarily recoiling.
"Do not use that word!" she said, sharply. "Coward! do you really blanch and draw back! Methought one of your profession would not hesitate to send a patient to heaven."
"But, madam," said the startled doctor, "you know the penalty which the law awards for murder."
"Oh, I perceive," said the woman, scornfully, "it is not the crime you are thinking of, but your own precious neck. Fear not, my good friend; there is no danger of its ever being discovered."
"But, my dear madam," said the doctor, glancing uneasily at the stern, bitter face before him, "I have not the nerve, the strength, nor the——"
"Courage!" she broke in, passionately. "Oh, craven—weak, chicken-hearted, miserable craven! Go, then—leave me, and I will do it myself. You dare not betray me—you could not without bringing your neck to the halter—so I fear you not. Oh, coward! coward! why did not heaven make me a man?"
In her fierce outburst of passion she arose to her feet, and her tall figure loomed up like some unnaturally large, dark shadow. The man quailed in fear before her.[Pg 12]
"Go!" she said, fiercely, pointing to the door, "You have refused to share my crime. Go! poor cowardly poltroon! but remember, Madge Oranmore never forgives nor forgets!"
"But, my dear Mrs. Oranmore, just listen to me one moment," said the doctor, alarmed by this threat. "I have not refused, I only objected. If you will have the goodness to explain—to tell me what I must do, I will—see about it."
"See about it!" hastily interrupted the lady. "You can do it—it is in your power; and yes, or no, must be your answer, immediately."
"No buts, sir. I will not have them. If you answer yes, one thousand dollars and my future patronage shall be yours. If you say no, yonder is the door; and once you have crossed the threshold, beware! Now, Doctor Wiseman, I await your reply."
She seated herself again in her chair; and, folding her hands in her lap, fixed her hawk-like eyes on his face, with her keen, searching gaze. His eyes were bent in troubled thought on the floor. Not that the crime appalled him; but if detected—that was the rub. Doctor Wiseman was, as his name implies, a man of sense, with an exceedingly accommodating conscience, that would stretch ad libitum, and never troubled him with any such nonsense as remorse. But if it were discovered! With rather unpleasant vividness, the vision of a hangman and halter arose before him, and he involuntarily loosened his cravat. Still, one thousand dollars were tempting. Doctor Nicholas Wiseman had never been so perplexed in his life.
"Well, doctor, well," impatiently broke in the lady, "have you decided—yes or no?"[Pg 13]
"Yes," said the doctor, driven to desperation by her sneering tone.
"'Tis well," she replied, with a mocking smile, "I knew you were too sensible a man to refuse. After all, 'tis but a moment's work, and all is over."
"Will you be good enough to give me the explanation now, madam?" said the doctor, almost shuddering at the cold, unfeeling tone in which she spoke.
"Certainly. You are aware, doctor, that when I married my late husband, Mr. Oranmore, he was a widower with one son, then three years old."
"I am aware of that fact, madam."
"Well, you also know that when this child, Alfred, was five years of age, my son, Barry, was born."
"Perhaps you think it unnecessary for me to go so far back, doctor, but I wish everything to be perfectly understood. Well, these two boys grew up together, were sent to school and college together, and treated in every way alike, outwardly; but, of course, when at home, Barry was treated best. Alfred Oranmore had all the pride of his English forefathers, and scorned to complain; but I could see, in his flashing eyes and curling lips, that every slight was noticed. Mr. Oranmore never interfered with me in my household arrangements, nor did his son ever complain to him; though, if he had, Mr. Oranmore had too much good sense to mention it to me."
The lady compressed her lips with stately dignity, and the doctor looked down with something as near a smile as his wrinkled lips could wear. He knew very well Mr. Oranmore would not have interfered; for never after his marriage had the poor man dared to call his soul his own. The lady, however, did not perceive the smile, and went on:[Pg 14]
"When Barry left college, he expressed a desire to travel for two or three years on the Continent; and I readily gave him permission, for Mr. Oranmore was then dead. Alfred was studying law, and I knew his dearest wish was to travel; but, as a matter of course, it was out of the question for him to go. I told him I could not afford it, that it would cost a great deal to pay Barry's expenses, and that he must give up all idea of it. Barry went, and Alfred staid; though, as things afterward turned out, it would have been better had I allowed him to go."
Her eyes flashed, and her brows knit with rising anger, as she continued;
"You know old Magnus Erliston—Squire Erliston, as they call him. You know also how very wealthy he is reputed to be—owning, besides the magnificent estate of Mount Sunset, a goodly portion of the village of St. Mark's. Well, Squire Erliston has two daughters, to the eldest of whom, in accordance with the will of his father (from whom he received the property), Mount Sunset Hall will descend. Before my husband's death, I caused him to will his whole property to my son Barry, leaving Alfred penniless. Barry's fortune, therefore, is large, though far from being as enormous as that Esther Erliston was to have. Well, the squire and I agreed that, as soon as Barry returned from Europe they should be married, and thus unite the estates of Oranmore and Erliston. Neither Barry nor Esther, with the usual absurdity of youth, would agree to this arrangement; but, of course, their objection mattered little. I knew I could easily manage Barry by the power of my stronger will; and the squire, who is rough and blustering, could, without much difficulty, frighten Esther into compliance—when all our schemes were suddenly frustrated by that meddler, that busy-body, Alfred Oranmore."[Pg 15]
She paused, and again her eyes gleamed with concentrated hatred and passion.
"He went to Mount Sunset, and by some means met Esther Erliston. Being what romantic writers would call one of 'nature's princes,' he easily succeeded in making a fool of her; they eloped, were married secretly, and Squire Erliston woke up one morning to learn that his dainty heiress had abandoned papa for the arms of a beggar, and was, as the wife of a penniless lawyer, residing in the goodly city of Washington.
"Pretty Esther doubtless imagined that she had only to throw herself at papa's feet and bathe them with her tears, to be received with open arms. But the young lady found herself slightly mistaken. Squire Erliston stamped, and raged, and swore, and frightened every one in St. Mark's out of their wits; and then, calming down, 'vowed a vow' never to see or acknowledge his daughter more. Esther was then eighteen. If she lived to reach her majority, Mount Sunset would be hers in spite of him. But the squire had vowed that before she should get it, he would burn Sunset Hall to the ground and plow the land with salt. Now, doctor, I heard that, and set myself to work. Squire Erliston has a younger daughter; and I knew that, if Esther died, that younger daughter would become heiress to all the property, and she would then be just as good a wife for Barry as her sister. Well, I resolved that Esther should no longer stand in my way, that she should never live to reach her majority. Start not, doctor, I see that you do not yet know Madge Oranmore."
She looked like a very fiend, as she sat smiling grimly at him from her seat.
"Fortune favored me," she continued. "Alfred Oranmore, with two or three other young men, going out one day for a sail, was overtaken by a sudden squall—they[Pg 16] knew little about managing a boat, and all on board were drowned. I read it in the papers and set out for Washington. After much difficulty I discovered Esther in a wretched boarding-house; for, after her husband's death, all their property was taken for debt. She did not know me, and I had little difficulty in persuading her to accompany me home. Three days ago we arrived. I caused a report to be circulated at Washington that the wife of the late Alfred Oranmore had died in great poverty and destitution. The story found its way into the papers; I sent one containing the account of her death to Squire Erliston; so all trouble in that quarter is over."
"And Esther?" said the doctor, in a husky whisper.
"Of her we will speak by and by," said the lady, with a wave of her hand; "at present I must say a few words of my son Barry. Three weeks ago he returned home; but has, from some inexplicable cause, refused to reside here. He boards now in a distant quarter of the city. Doctor, what says the world about this—is there any reason given?"
"Well, yes, madam," said the doctor, with evident reluctance.
"And what is it, may I ask?"
"I fear, madam, you will be offended."
"'Sdeath! man, go on!" she broke in passionately. "What sayeth the far-seeing, all-wise world of him?"
"'Tis said he has brought a wife with him from Europe, whom he wishes to conceal."
"Ha! ha!" laughed the lady, scornfully. "Yes, I heard it too—a barefooted bog-trotter, forsooth! But 'tis false, doctor! false, I tell you! You must contradict the report everywhere you hear it. That any one should dare to say that my son—my proud, handsome Barry—would marry a potato-eating Biddy! Oh! but[Pg 17] for my indignation I could laugh at the utter absurdity."
But the fierce gleam of her eye, and the passionate clenching of her hand, bespoke her in anything but a laughing humor.
"I would not for worlds this report should reach Lizzie Erliston," she said, somewhat more calmly. "And speaking of her brings me back to her sister. Doctor, Esther Oranmore lies in yonder room."
He startled slightly, and glanced uneasily in the direction, but said nothing.
"Doctor," continued Mrs. Oranmore, in a low, stern, impressive voice, while her piercing eyes seemed reading his very soul, "she must never live to see the sun rise again!"
"Madam!" he exclaimed, recoiling suddenly.
"You hear me, doctor, and you must obey. She must not live to see Christmas morning dawn."
"Would you have me murder her?" he inquired, in a voice quivering between fear and horror.
"If you will call it by that name, yes," she replied, still keeping her blazing eyes fixed immovably on his face. "She and her child must die."
"Yes, come and see it. The night of its birth must be that of its death."
She rose, and making a motion for him to follow her, led the way from the apartment. Opening a heavy oaken door, she ushered him into a dim bed-room, furnished with a lounge, a square bedstead, whose dark drapery gave it the appearance of a hearse, and a small table covered with bottles and glasses. Going to the lounge, she pointed to something wrapped in a large shawl. He bent down, and the faint wail of an infant met his ear.[Pg 18]
"She is yonder," said the lady, pointing to the bed; "examine these bottles; she will ask you for a drink, give it to her—you understand! Remember, you have promised." And before he could speak, she glided from the room.
or a moment he stood still, stunned and bewildered. Understand? Yes, he understood her too well.
He approached the bed, and softly drew back the heavy, dark curtains. Lying there, in a troubled sleep, lay a young girl, whose face was whiter than the pillow which supported her. Her long hair streamed in wild disorder over her shoulders, and added to the wanness of her pale face.
She moaned and turned restlessly on her pillow, and opened a pair of large, wild eyes, and fixed them on the unprepossessing face bending over her. With lips and eyes opened with terror, she lay gazing, until he said, in as gentle a voice as he could assume;
"Do not be afraid of me—I am the doctor. Can I do anything for you, child?"
"Yes, yes," she replied, faintly; "give me a drink."
He turned hastily toward the table, feeling so giddy he could scarcely stand. A tiny vial, containing a clear,[Pg 19] colorless liquid, attracted his eye. He took it up and examined it, and setting his teeth hard together, poured its contents into a glass. Then filling it with water he approached the bed, and raising her head, pressed it to her lips. His hand trembled so he spilt it on the quilt. The young girl lifted her wild, troubled eyes, and fixed them on his face with a gaze so long and steady that his own fell beneath it.
"Drink!" he said, hoarsely, still pressing it to her lips.
Without a word she obeyed, draining it to the last drop. Then laying her back on the pillow, he drew the curtain and left the room.
Mrs. Oranmore was sitting, as she had sat all the evening, stern and upright in her chair. She lifted her keen eyes as he entered, and encountered a face so pallid and ghastly that she almost started. Doctor Wiseman tottered rather than walked to a seat.
"Well?" she said, inquiringly.
"Well," he replied, hoarsely, "I have obeyed you."
"That is well. But pray, Doctor Wiseman, take a glass of wine; you are positively trembling like a whipped schoolboy. Go to the sideboard; nay, do not hesitate; it is not poisoned."
Her withering sneer did more toward reviving him than any wine could have done. His excitement was gradually cooling down beneath those calm, steady eyes, bent so contemptuously upon him.
He drank a glass of wine, and resumed his seat before the fire, watching sullenly the dying embers.
"Well, you have performed your task?"
"I have, madam, and earned my reward."
"Not quite, doctor; the infant is yet to be disposed of."
"Must it die, too?"[Pg 20]
"Yes, but not here. You must remove it, in any way you please, but death is the safest, the surest."
"And why not here?"
"Because I do not wish it," she answered, haughtily; "that is enough for you, sirrah! You must take the child away to-night."
"What shall I do with it?"
"Dolt! blockhead! have you no brains?" she said, passionately. "Are you aware ten minutes' walk will bring you to the sea-side? Do you know the waves refuse nothing, and tell no tales? Never hesitate, man! You have gone too far to draw back. Think of the reward; one thousand dollars for ten minutes' work! Tush, doctor! I protest, you're trembling like a nervous girl."
"Is it not enough to make one tremble?" retorted the doctor, roused to something like passion by her deriding tone; "two murders in one night—is that nothing?"
"Pshaw! no—a sickly girl and a puling child more or less in the world is no great loss. Hark!" she added, rising suddenly, as a wild, piercing shriek of more than mortal agony broke from the room where Esther lay. "Did you hear that?"
Hear it! The man's face was horribly ghastly and livid, as shriek after shriek, wild, piercing, and shrill with anguish, burst upon his ear. Great drops of perspiration stood on his brow—his teeth chattered as though by an ague fit, and he trembled so perceptibly that he was forced to grasp the chair for support.
Not so the woman. She stood calm, listening with perfect composure to the agonizing cries, that were growing fainter and fainter each moment.
"It is well none of the servants are in this end of the house," she said, quietly; "or those loud screams would[Pg 21] be overheard, and might give rise to disagreeable remarks."
Receiving no answer from her companion, she turned to him, and seeing the look of horror on his ghastly face, her lip curled with involuntary scorn. It was strange she could stand there so unmoved, knowing herself to be a murderess, with the dying cries of her victim still ringing in her ears.
They ceased at last—died away in a low, despairing moan, and then all grew still. The deep, solemn silence was more appalling than her shrieks had been, for they well knew they were stilled forever in death.
"All is over!" said Mrs. Oranmore, drawing a deep breath.
"Yes," was the answer, in a voice so hoarse and unnatural, that it seemed to issue from the jaws of death.
Again she looked at him, and again the mocking smile curled her lip.
"Doctor," she said, quietly, "you are a greater coward than I ever took you to be. I am going in now to see her—you had better follow me, if you are not afraid."
How sardonic was the smile which accompanied these words. Stunned, terrified as he was, it stung him, and he started after her from the room.
They entered the chamber of the invalid. Mrs. Oranmore walked to the bed, drew back the curtains, and disclosed a frightful spectacle.
Half sitting, half lying, in a strange, distorted attitude she had thrown herself into in her dying agony, her lips swollen and purple, her eyes protruding, her hair torn fiercely out by the roots, as she had clutched it in her fierce anguish, was Esther.
The straining eyeballs were ghastly to look upon[Pg 22]—the once beautiful face was now swollen and hideous, as she lay stark dead in that lonely room.
Moment after moment passed away, while the murderers stood silently gazing on their victim. The deep silence of midnight was around—nothing was heard save the occasional drifting of the snow against the windows.
A stern, grave smile hovered on the lips of Mrs. Oranmore, as she gazed on the convulsed face of the dead girl. Drawing the quilt at last over her, she turned away, saying, mockingly:
"Where now, Esther Oranmore, is the beauty of which you were so proud? This stark form and ghastly face is now all that remains of the beauty and heiress of Squire Erliston. Such shall be the fate, sooner or later, of all who dare to thwart me."
Her eyes flamed upon the shrinking man beside her, with an expression that made him quake. A grim smile of self-satisfied power broke over her dark face as she observed it, and her voice had a steely tone of command, as she said:
"Now for the child. It must be immediately disposed of."
"And she?" said the doctor, pointing to the bed.
"I shall attend to that."
"If you like, madam, I will save you the trouble."
"No, sir," she replied, sharply; "though in life my enemy, her remains shall never be given up to the dissecting-knife. I have not forgotten she is a gentleman's daughter, and as such she shall be interred. Now you may go. Wrap the child in this, and—return without her!"
"You shall be obeyed, madam," said Doctor Wiseman, catching the infection of her reckless spirit. He stooped and raised the infant, who was still in a deep sleep.[Pg 23]
Muffling it carefully in the shawl, he followed the lady from the room, and cautiously quitted the house.
The storm had now passed away; the piercing wind had died out, and the midnight moon sailed in unclouded majesty through the deep blue sky, studded with myriads of burning stars.
The cool night air restored him completely to himself.
Holding the still sleeping infant closer in his arms, he hurried on, until he stood on the sloping bank commanding a view of the bay.
The tide was rising. The waves came splashing in on the beach—the white foam gleaming coldly brilliant in the moonlight. The waters beyond looked cold, and sluggish, and dark—moaning in a strange, dreary way as they swept over the rocks. How could he commit the slumbering infant to those merciless waves? Depraved and guilty as he was, he hesitated. It lay so confidingly in his arms, slumbering so sweetly, that his heart smote him. Yet it must be done.
He descended carefully to the beach, and laying his living bundle on the snowy sands, stood like Hagar, a distance off, to see it die.
In less than ten minutes, he knew, the waves would have washed it far away.
As he stood, with set teeth and folded arms, the merry jingle of approaching sleigh-bells broke upon his startled ear. They were evidently approaching the place where he stood. Moved by a sudden impulse of terror, he turned and fled from the spot.
Guilt is ever cowardly. He sped on, scarcely knowing whither he went, until in his blind haste he ran against a watchman.
The unexpected shock sent both rolling over in the snow, which considerably cooled the fever in Doctor[Pg 24] Wiseman's blood. The indignant "guardian of night," with an exclamation which wouldn't look well in print, laid hold of the doctor's collar. But there was vigor in Doctor Wiseman's dwarfed body, and strength in his long, lean arms; and with a violent effort he wrenched himself free from the policeman's tenacious grasp, and fled.
"Charley" started in pursuit, and seeing he would soon be overtaken, the doctor suddenly darted into the high, dark portico of an imposing-looking house, and soon had the satisfaction of beholding the angry watchman tear past like a comet, in full pursuit.
aving assured himself that all danger was past, Doctor Wiseman was about to start from the building, when a sudden moonbeam fell on the polished door-plate, and he started back to see the name it revealed.
"The astrologer, Ali Hamed!" he exclaimed. "Now what foul fiend has driven me to his accursed den to-night? 'Tis said he can read the future; and surely no man ever needed to know it more than I. Can it be that[Pg 25] the hand of destiny has driven me here, to show me what is yet to come. Well, it is useless going home or attempting to sleep to-night; so, Ali Hamed, I shall try what your magical black art can do for me."
He rang the bell sharply, but moment after moment passed, and no one came. Losing all patience, he again rang a deafening peal, which echoed and re-echoed through the house.
Presently the sound of footsteps clattering down stairs struck his ear, and in a moment more the door was cautiously opened, and a dark, swarthy face protruded through the opening. Seeing but one, he stood aside to allow him to enter, and then securely locked and bolted the door.
"The astrologer, Ali Hamed, resides here?" said the doctor.
Accustomed to visitors at all hours of the day and night, the man betrayed no surprise at the unreasonable time he had taken to inquire, but answered quietly in the affirmative.
"Can I see him?"
"I think so; step in here one moment, and I will see."
He ushered Dr. Wiseman into a small and plainly furnished parlor, while he again went up stairs. In a few moments he reappeared, and, bidding his visitor follow him, led the way up the long staircase through a spacious suite of apartments, and finally into a long, dark room, where the astrologer usually received visitors.
The doctor glanced around with intense curiosity, not unmingled with awe. The floor was painted black, and the walls were hung with dark tapestry, covered with all manner of cabalistic figures. Skulls, crucibles, magic mirrors, tame serpents, vipers, and all[Pg 26] manner of hideous things were scattered profusely around.
While the doctor still stood contemplating the strange things around him, the door opened and the astrologer himself entered. He was an imposing-looking personage, tall and majestic, with grave, Asiatic features, and arrayed with Eastern magnificence. He bent his head with grave dignity in return to the doctor's profound bow, and stood for a few moments silently regarding him.
"You would know the future?" said the astrologer, at length, in his slow, impressive voice.
"Such is my business here to-night."
"You would have your horoscope cast, probably?"
"Then give me the day and hour of your birth, and return to-morrow morning."
"No, I cannot wait until then; I must know all to-night."
The astrologer bowed, and after many tedious preliminaries, directed the doctor to quit the room until he should send for him. Dr. Wiseman then entered one of the long suite of apartments through which he had passed, and seated himself in a state of feverish anxiety to hear the result. Some time elapsed ere the swarthy individual who had admitted him presented himself at the door and announced that the astrologer was ready to receive him.
Dr. Wiseman found Ali Hamed standing beside a smoking caldron, with his cross-bones, and lizards, and mystic figures around him, awaiting his entrance.
Not much given to credulity, the doctor determined to test his skill before placing implicit belief in his predictions; and therefore, bluntly announcing his skepticism, he demanded to know something of the past.[Pg 27]
"You are a widower, with one child," said the astrologer, calmly.
The doctor bowed assent.
"You are not rich, but avaricious; there is nothing you would not do for money. You are liked by none; by nature you are treacherous, cunning, and unscrupulous; your hands are dyed, and your heart is black with crime; you——"
"Enough!" interrupted the doctor, turning as pale as his saffron visage would permit; "no more of the past. What has the future in store for me?"
"A life of disgrace, and death on the scaffold!"
A suppressed cry of horror burst from the white lips of the doctor, who reeled as if struck by some sudden blow.
"To-night," continued the astrologer, unheeding the interruption, "a child has been born whose destiny shall be united with yours through life; some strange, mystic tie will bind you together for a time. But the hand of this child will yet bring your head to the halter."
He paused. Dr. Wiseman stood stiff, rooted to the ground with horror.
"Such is your future; you may go," said the Egyptian, waving his hand.
With his blood freezing in his veins, with hands trembling and lips palsied with horror, he quitted the house. An hour had scarcely passed since his entrance; but that hour seemed to have added ten years to his age. He felt not the cold, keen air as he slowly moved along, every sense paralyzed by the appalling prediction he had just heard.
"Die on the scaffold!" His crime deserved it. But the bare thought made his blood run cold. And through a child born that night he was to perish! Was it the child of Esther Oranmore? Oh, absurd! it had been swept[Pg 28] far away by the waves long ere this. Whose, then, could it be? There were more children born this Christmas Eve than that one; but how could any one ever know what he had done? No one knew of it but Mrs. Oranmore; and he well knew she would never tell.
He plunged blindly onward through the heaps of drifted snow, heeding not, caring not, whither his steps wended. Once or twice he met a watchman going his rounds, and he shrank away like the guilty thing that he was, dreading lest the word "murder" should be stamped on his brow. He thought with cowardly terror of the coming day, when every eye, he fancied, would turn upon him with a look of suspicion.
Involuntarily he wandered to the sea-shore, and stood on the bank where he had been one hour before. The waves were dashing now almost to his feet; no trace of any living thing was to be seen around.
"It has perished, then!" he exclaimed, with a feeling of intense relief. "I knew it! I knew it! It, then, is not the child which is to cause my death. But, pshaw! why do I credit all that soi-disant prophet told me! Yet he spoke so truly of the past, I cannot avoid believing him. Perish on the scaffold! Heavens! if I felt sure of it, I would go mad. Ha! what is that? Can it be the ghastly white face of a child?"
He leaned over and bent down to see, but nothing met his eye save the white caps of the waves.
"Fool that I am!" he exclaimed, turning away impatiently. "Well might stony Madam Oranmore deem me a coward did she see me now. I will hasten back to her, and report the success of my mission."
He turned away, and strode in the direction of her house as fast as he could walk over the frozen ground, quite unconscious of what was at that same moment passing in another quarter of the city on that same eventful night.
t was a luxuriously furnished apartment. A thick, soft carpet, where blue violets peeped from glowing green leaves so naturally that one involuntarily stooped to cull them, covered the floor. Rare old paintings adorned the wall, and the cornices were fretted with gold. The heavy crimson curtains shut out the sound of the wintry wind, and a glowing coal fire shed a living, radiant glow over everything around. The air was redolent of intoxicating perfume, breathing of summer and sunshine. On the marble-topped center-table stood bottles and glasses, a cigar-case, a smoking-cap, and a pair of elegant, silver-mounted pistols. It was evidently a gentleman's room, judging by the disorder. A beautiful marble Flora stood in one corner, arrayed in a gaudy dressing-gown, and opposite stood a dainty little Peri adorned with a beaver hat. Jupiter himself was there, with a violin suspended gracefully around his neck, and Cupid was leaning against the wall, heels uppermost, with bent bow, evidently taking deliberate aim at the flies on the ceiling.
Among the many exquisite paintings hanging on the wall, there was one of surpassing beauty; it represented a bleak hill-side, with a flock of sheep grazing on the scanty herbage, a lowering, troubled sky above; and one[Pg 30] could almost see the fitful gusts of wind sighing over the gray hill-tops. Standing erect was a young girl—a mere child in years—her long golden hair streaming wildly in the breeze, her straw hat swinging in her hand, her fair, bright face and large blue eyes raised with mingled shyness and sauciness to a horseman bending over her, as if speaking. His fiery steed seemed pawing with impatience; but his rider held him with a firm hand. He was a tall, slight youth, with raven black hair and eyes, and a dark, handsome face. There was a wild look about the dark horseman and darker steed, reminding one of the Black Horseman of the Hartz Mountains. Underneath was written, in a dashing masculine hand, "The first meeting." There was something strikingly, vividly life-like in the whole scene; even the characters—the slender girl, with her pretty, piquant face, and the handsome, graceful rider—were more like living beings than creations of fancy.
And—yes, standing by the fire, his arm resting on the mantel, his eyes fixed on the hearth, stood the original of the picture. The same tall, superb form; the same clear olive complexion; the same curling locks of jet, and black eyes of fire; the same firm, proud mouth, shaded by a thick black mustache—there he stood, his eyes riveted on the glowing coals, his brow knit as though in deep and painful thought. Now and then the muscles of his face would twitch, and his white hands involuntarily clench at some passing thought.
At intervals the noise of doors shutting and opening would reach his ear, and he would start as though he had received a galvanic shock, and listen for a moment intently. Nothing could be heard but the crackling of the fire at such times, and again he would relapse into gloomy musing.
"What a fool I have been!" he exclaimed, at length[Pg 31] between his clenched teeth, as he shook back with fierce impatience his glossy hair, "to burden myself with this girl! Dolt, idiot that I was, to allow myself to be bewitched by her blue eyes and yellow hair! What demon could have possessed me to make her my wife? My wife! Just fancy me presenting that little blushing, shrinking Galway girl as my wife to my lady mother, or to that princess of coquettes, Lizzie Erliston! I wish to heaven I had blown my brains out instead of putting my head into such a confounded noose—making myself the laughing-stock of all my gallant friends and lady acquaintances! No, by heaven! they shall never laugh at Barry Oranmore. Eveleen shall be sent back to her friends. They will be glad enough to get her on any terms; and she will soon forget me, and be happy tending her sheep once more. And yet—and yet—poor Eveleen!" he said, suddenly, pausing before the picture, while his dark eyes filled with a softer light, and his voice assumed a gentler tone; "she loves me so well yet—far more than I do her. I hardly like the thought of sending her away; but it cannot be helped. My mother's purse is running low, I fear; Erliston's coffers must replenish it. Yes, there is no help for it; Eveleen must go, and I must marry little Lizzie. Poor child; she left home, and friends, and all for me; and it does seem a villainous act in me to desert her for another. But go she must; there is no alternative."
He was walking up and down in his intense excitement—sometimes pausing suddenly for a few moments, and then walking on faster than before. Thus half an hour passed, during which he seemed to have formed some determination; for his mouth grew stern, and his clear eyes cold and calm, as he once more leaned against the mantel, and fell into thought.
Presently the door opened and a woman entered. She[Pg 32] was a stout, corpulent person, with coarse, bloated face, and small, bleared eyes. As she entered, she cast an affectionate glance toward the brandy bottle on the table—a glance which said plainly she would have no objection to trying its quality. She was arrayed for the street, with a large cloak enveloping her ample person, and a warm quilted hood tied over her substantial double chin.
"Well, sir, I'll be movin', I reckon," said the woman, adjusting her cloak. "The young lady's doing very nicely, and the baby's sleeping like an angel. So they'll get along very well to-night without me."
The young man started at the sound of her voice, and, looking up, said carelessly:
"Oh, it's you, is it? Are you for leaving?"
"Yes, sir; it's time I was home and to bed. I ain't used to bein' up late nights now—don't agree with my constitution; it's sorter delicate. Shouldn't wonder if I was fallin' into a decline."
The quizzical dark eyes of the young man surveyed the rotund person before him, and in spite of himself he burst out laughing.
"Well, now, if you was in a decline yourself, you'd laugh t'other side of your mouth, I reckon," said the offended matron. "S'pose you think it's very funny laughing at a poor, lone 'oman, without chick nor child. But I can tell you——"
"Ten thousand pardons, madam, for my offense," he interrupted, courteously, though there was still a wicked twinkle in his eye. "Pray sit down for a moment; I have something to say to you."
"Well, now, it don't seem exactly right to sit here with you at this hour of the night. Howsomever, I will, to oblige you," and the worthy dame placed her ample frame in a cushioned elbow-chair.[Pg 33]
"Perhaps this argument may aid in overcoming your scruples," said the young man, filling her a glass of wine, and throwing himself on a lounge; "and now to business. You are a widow?"
"Yes, sir. My blessed husband died a martyr to his country—died in the discharge of his duty. He was a custom-house officer, and felt it his duty always to examine liquors before destroying them. Well, one day he took too much, caught the devil-rum tremendous, and left me a disconsolate widder. The coroner of the jury set onto him, and——"
"There, there! never mind particulars. You have no children?"
"No," said the old woman stiffly, rather offended by his unceremonious interruption.
"If you were well paid, you would have no objection to taking one and bringing it up as your own?" said the young man, speaking quietly, though there was a look of restless anxiety in his fine eyes.
"Well, no; I'd have no objection, if——" and here she slapped her pocket expressively, by way of finishing the sentence.
"Money shall be no object; but remember, the world must think it is your own—I am never to be troubled about it more."
"All right—I understand," said the nurse, nodding her head sagely. "S'pose it's the little one in there?"
"It is. Can you take it away now?"
"But laws! ain't it too cold and stormy. Better wait till to-morrow."
"No," was the quick and peremptory answer. "To-night, now, within this very hour, it must be removed; and I am never to hear of it more."[Pg 34]
"And the poor young lady? Seems sorter hard, now don't it? she'll take on wonderfully, I'm feared."
A spasm of pain passed over his handsome face, and for a moment he was silent. Then, looking up, he said, with brief sternness:
"It cannot be helped. You must go without disturbing her, and I will break the news to her myself. Here is my purse for the present. What is your address?"
The woman gave it.
"Very well, you shall hear from me regularly; but should we ever meet again, in the street or elsewhere, you are not to know me, and you must forget all that has transpired to-night."
"Hum!" said the fat widow, doubtfully.
"And now you had better depart. The storm has almost ceased, and the night is passing away. Is Ev—is my wife awake?"
"No; I left her sleeping."
"So much the better. You can take it with you without disturbing her. Go."
The buxom widow arose and quitted the room. Oranmore lay on a lounge, rigidly motionless, his face hidden by his hand. A fierce storm was raging in his breast—"the struggle between right and wrong." Pride and ambition struggled with love and remorse, but the fear of the world conquered: and when the old woman re-entered, bearing a sleeping infant in her arms, he looked up as composedly as herself.
"Pretty little dear," said the widow, wrapping the child in a thick woolen shawl, "how nicely she sleeps! Very image of her mother, and she's the beautifulest girl I ever saw in my life. I gave her some paregoric to make her sleep till I go home. Well, good-night, sir. Our business is over."[Pg 35]
"Yes, good-night. Remember the secret; forget what has transpired to-night, and your fortune is made. You will care for it"—and he pointed to the child—"as though it were your own."
"Be sure I will, dear little duck. Who could help liking such a sweet, pretty darling? I s'pose you'll come to see it sometimes, sir?"
"No. You can send me word of its welfare now and then. Go, madam, go."
The widow turned to leave the room, and, unobserved by the young man, who had once more thrown himself on his face on the sofa, she seized a well-filled brandy-flask and concealed it beneath her shawl.
Quitting the house, she walked as rapidly as her bulksome proportions would permit over the snowy ground. The road leading to her home lay in the direction of the sea-shore; and, as she reached the beach, she was thoroughly chilled by the cold, in spite of her warm wrappings.
"It's as cold as the Arctic Ocean, and I've heerd say that's the coldest country in the world. A drop of comfort won't come amiss just now. Lucky I thought on't. This little monkey's as sound as a top. It's my 'pinion that young gent's no better than he ought to be, to treat such a lovely young lady in this fashion. Well, it's no business of mine, so's I'm well paid. Lor! I hope I hain't gin it too much paregoric; wouldn't for anything 'twould die. S'pose I'd get no more tin then. That's prime," she added, placing the flask to her lips and draining a long draught.
As the powerful fumes of the brandy arose to her head, the worthy lady's senses became rather confused; and, falling rather than sitting on the bank, the child, muffled like a mummy in its plaid, rolled from her arms into a snow-wreath. At the same moment the loud ring[Pg 36]ing of bells and the cry of "Fire! fire!" fell upon her ear. It roused her; and, in the excitement of the moment forgetting her little charge, she sprang up as well as she could, and, by a strange fascination, was soon involuntarily drawn away to mingle with the crowd, who were hurrying in the direction of her abode.
Scarcely five minutes before, Dr. Wiseman had quitted that very spot: and there, within a few yards of each other, the two unconscious infants lay, little knowing how singularly their future lives were to be united—little dreaming how fatal an influence one of them was yet to wield over him.
Some time after, when the flames were extinguished and the crowd had quitted the streets for their beds—when the unbroken silence of coming morning had fallen over the city—the widow returned to seek for her child.
But she sought in vain; the rising tide had swept over the bank, and was again retreating sullenly to the sea.
Sobered by terror and remorse, the wretched woman trod up and down the dreary, deserted snowy beach until morning broke; but she sought and searched in vain. The child was gone.
he jingle of the approaching sleigh-bells, which had frightened Dr. Wiseman from the beach, had been unheard by the drunken nurse; but ten minutes after she had left, a sleigh came slowly along the narrow, slippery path.
It contained but two persons. One was an elderly woman, wrapped and muffled in furs. A round, rosy, cheery face beamed out from a black velvet bonnet, and two small, twinkling, merry gray eyes, lit up the pleasantest countenance in the world.
Her companion, who sat in the driver's seat, was a tall, jolly-looking darkey, with a pair of huge, rolling eyes, looking like a couple of snow-drifts in a black ground. A towering fur cap ornamented the place where the "wool ought to grow," and was the only portion of this son of darkness which could be discovered for his voluminous wrappings.
The path was wet, slippery, and dangerous in the extreme. The horses were restive, and a single false step would have overturned them into the water.
"Missus Scour, if you please, missus, you'd better git out," said the negro, reining in the horses, in evident alarm; "this yer's the wussest road I'se ever trabeled. These wishious brutes 'll spill me and you, and the sleigh, and then the Lor only knows what'll ever become of us."[Pg 38]
"Do you think there's any danger, Jupiter?" said Mrs. Gower (for such was the name her sable attendant had transformed into Scour), in a voice of alarm.
"This road's sort o' 'spicious anyhow," replied Jupiter. "I'd 'vise you, Missus Scour, mum, to get out and walk till we is past this yer beach. 'Sides the snow, this yer funnelly beach is full o' holes, an' if we got upsot inter one of 'em, ole marse might whistle for you and me, and the sleigh arter that!"
With much difficulty, and with any amount of whoaing, Jupiter managed to stop the sleigh, and assisted stout Mrs. Gower to alight. This was no easy job, for that worthy lady was rather unwieldy, and panted like a stranded porpoise, as she slowly plunged through the wet snow-drifts.
Suddenly, above the jingling sleigh-bells, the wail of an infant met her ear. She paused in amazement, and looked around. Again she heard it—this time seemingly at her feet. She looked down and beheld a small, dark bundle, lying amid the deep snow.
Once more the piteous cry met her ear, and stooping down, she raised the little dark object in her arms.
Unfolding the shawl, she beheld the infant whose cries had first arrested her ear.
"Good heavens! a baby exposed to this weather—left here to perish!" exclaimed good Mrs. Gower, in horror. "Poor little thing, it's half frozen. Who could have done so unnatural a deed?"
"Laws! Missus Scour, what ye got dar?" inquired Jupiter.
"A baby, Jupe! A poor little helpless infant whom some unnatural wretch has left here to die!" exclaimed Mrs. Gower, with more indignation than she had ever before felt in her life.[Pg 39]
"Good Lor! so 'tis! What you gwine to do wid it, Missus Scour, mum?"
"Do with it?" said Mrs. Gower, looking at him in surprise. "Why, take it with me, of course. You wouldn't have me leave the poor infant here to perish, would you?"
"'Deed, Missus Scour, I wouldn't bring it 'long ef I was you. Jes' 'flect how tarin' mad ole marse 'll be 'bout it. Don't never want to see no babies roun'. Deed, honey, you'd better take my 'vice an' leave it whar it was," said Jupiter.
"What? Leave it here to die. I'm ashamed of you, Jupiter," said the old lady, rebukingly.
"But Lor! Missus Scour! ole marse 'll trow it out de winder fust thing. Shouldn't be s'prised, nudder, ef he'd wollop me for bringing it. Jes' 'flect upon it, Missus Scour, nobody can't put no 'pendence onto him, de forsooken ole sinner. Trowed his 'fernal ole stick at me, t'other day, and like to knock my brains out, jes' for nothin' at all. 'Deed, honey, I wouldn't try sich a 'sperriment, no how."
"Now, Jupiter, you needn't say another word. My mind's made up, and I'm going to keep this child, let 'ole marse' rage as he will. I'm just as sure as I can be, that the Lord sent it to me, to-night, as a Christmas gift, in place of my poor, dear Aurora, that he took to heaven," said good Mrs. Gower, folding the wailing infant closer still to her warm, motherly bosom.
"Sartin, missus, in course you knows best, but ef you'd only 'flect. 'Pears to me, ole marse 'll tar roun worser dan ever, when he sees it, and discharge you in you 'sponsible ole age o' life 'count of it."
"And if he does discharge me, Jupiter, after twenty years' service, I have enough to support myself and this little one to the end of my life, thank the Lord!" said[Pg 40] Mrs. Gower, her honest, ruddy face all aglow with generous enthusiasm.
"Well, I s'pose 'taint no sorter use talking," said Jupiter, with a sigh, as he gathered up the reins; "but ef anything happens, jes 'member I 'vised you of it 'forehand. Here we is on de road now, so you'd better get in ef you's agoin' to take de little 'un wid you."
With considerable squeezing, and much panting, and some groaning, good Mrs. Gower was assisted into the sleigh, and muffled up in the buffalo robes.
Wrapping the child in her warm, fur-lined mantle, to protect it from the chill night air, they sped merrily along over the hard, frozen ground.
Christmas morning dawned bright, sunshiny, and warm. The occupants of the sleigh had long since left the city behind them, and were now driving along the more open country. The keen, frosty air deepened the rosy glow on Mrs. Gower's good-humored face. Warmly protected from the cold, the baby lay sleeping sweetly in her arms, and even Jupiter's sable face relaxed into a grin as he whistled "Coal Black Rose."
The sun was about three hours high when they drew up before a solitary inn. And here Jupiter assisted Mrs. Gower into the house, while he himself looked after his horses.
Mrs. Gower was shown by the hostess into the parlor, where a huge wood-fire roared up the wide chimney. Removing the large shawl that enveloped it, Mrs. Gower turned for the first time to examine her prize.