Alex. McVeigh Miller
They Looked and Loved; Or, Won by Faith
"A year," repeated old Farnham temptingly, "and in all that time I will not come near you. Only speak the word, and we will go now to a lawyer, I will have a marriage contract drawn, waiving all rights for one year from the date of marriage. Then we will be married. I will secure a chaperon and maid for you, and, leaving you in a home of luxury, take my departure until the months of your respite are over. Perhaps by then your gratitude to me will lead you to look on me with favor—if not, there is still the river"—leering wickedly.
Surely a stranger offer had never been made to a fair and homeless girl. It was romantic in some of its aspects, and it was tempting to the forlorn young creature. A gleam of piteous hope came into the large, sad eyes. A year or more of life, of ease, of comfort.
"No poor girl ever had such a chance before. Surely, you consent," continued the wily tempter.
"Yes, I consent," answered the girl, with stiff lips and unsmiling eyes.
"Good," uttered the miser, with a chuckle of satisfaction. He caught her small ungloved hand and pressed it with awkward gallantry. It was cold as a lump of ice, and fell stiffly from his clasp. Then she looked at him and spoke again, briefly and coldly:
"I am trusting fully in your promises," she said. "Remember, you must not play me false, or weak girl as I am, I shall know how to punish you."
"You can trust me, for I love you," he answered, in wheedling tones. "Come now, let us go at once to a lawyer. We can get a cab at the park gates."
She followed him away from the park, and when seated in the cab on their way to the lawyer's, he said:
"When the contract is drawn up, and we are married, the first thing will be to get you some clothing and jewels suitable for a beautiful young heiress. The next thing will be a chaperon. Well, I know an aristocratic woman, widowed and reduced to poverty, who will gladly take charge of you for the splendid salary and privileges she will get. She has one daughter, who will be a fitting companion for you. These two will make it possible for you to enter at once into the best society. You will be introduced to them as my ward, not as my wife. Then, with your chest of gold, you will enter upon a dazzling career. Your wealth and your beauty, and the prestige your chaperon will confer upon you, will enable you to dazzle the world of society and fashion. Does the picture please you?"
"I must be dreaming," answered the girl, passing her hand across her eyes in a bewildered fashion.
But the rest of the day seemed but a continuation of her dream. They went at once to a lawyer, who drew up the strange marriage-contract; then to a minister, who united them in matrimonial bonds. Next the old miser took his bride to a large store, where he gave orders that she should be supplied with an outfit of clothing suitable to her needs as a young heiress. Obsequious clerks flew to do his bidding; then, drawing her aside, he said:
"I shall leave you here several hours while I go to see the lady who will be your chaperon during the one year that you will pass as my rich ward instead of my wife."
He paused a moment, then added, with an air of hesitancy:
"I have decided that your home shall be for the first few weeks at a seaside residence I own in New Jersey. I will arrange for you to go this evening, as it is but a short distance from New York. Be all ready in your traveling-dress when I call for you with the lady and your maid at six o'clock."
AT PIRATE BEACH
It was midnight, and the moon rode high in the star-spangled sky, and mirrored itself in the ocean as it rolled its long and heavy swells in upon the silvery sands of the shell-strewn shore.
Far up the beach stood an old, graystone mansion, many-gabled and picturesque, surrounded by handsome and spacious grounds dotted with trees and shrubberies. Up in the second story a dim light gleamed from an open casement, and from it leaned a girl watching the beauty of the summer night with dark, solemn eyes—Nita Farnham, the miser's bride.
Charles Farnham, Mrs. Courtney, the chaperon; a maid, and several servants had accompanied Nita here. The old man had stayed only one hour, at the end of which he had accompanied his bride to her chamber and showed her upon the hearth-rug a small iron-bound box containing the promised gold.
"The little chest is yours, all yours," he said, with a strange emphasis. "There are many thousands of dollars in it, but they are nothing to my great wealth. I am many times a millionaire. Ah, Farnham, the miser, eking out his wretched life by selling cigars on the elevated railroad, but they little dream of his stores of hidden wealth. Wait one year more, and they will stare in envy at my Fifth Avenue palace and my peerless bride!"
She shuddered uncontrollably, and, dropping the cold hand he had taken in farewell, he turned away with a grin.
"Good-by, for a year, my beauty!"
She bowed in horror; then locked the door, and stood alone in the luxurious chamber, with the shadow of a fateful tragedy looming over her unconscious head and the price for which she had sold herself—the chest of gold—lying open at her feet.
The maid tapped presently upon the door, but Nita sent her away.
"I shall not need you to-night. You may retire."
But sleep was far from Nita's eyes. Midnight found her leaning from her window, watching the moonlight on the sea and the gray mist creeping up the shore, and murmuring over and over:
"Pirate's Beach! Pirate's Beach! How strange that he should have brought me here! Here of all places in the wide, wide world!"
A strange, beguiling melancholy crept over her as she listened to the voice of the sea as the surf broke continuously upon the beach. The very beauty of the summer night oppressed her.
"I am married, married," she murmured sadly. "I should not mind it if my husband were young and handsome, and we loved each other; but, alas, I am forever cut off from love's sweetness—I am bound by golden chains to that hideous old miser."
Nita was passionate, wilful, and undisciplined. A strange life had been hers, and it had left her like some beautiful, untamed, wild bird—untrammeled by conventionalities. The great, inrolling waves down on the beach seemed crying out to her yearningly:
"Come, come, come. We love you, we understand you!"
She flung a thick woolen shawl over her dark head, and stole down to the beach, and stood there dreamily, her gray-clad form blending softly with the creeping gray mist.
"How familiar it all looks, yet that old man did not dream I had ever been here before. I wonder if old Meg, the fortune-teller, lives here still? What if we meet? What if she recognizes me?"
She ran with a light, quick step along the beach for about half a mile, then paused pantingly close to a tumble-down old shanty that had evidently been constructed out of the black hull of an ancient wreck. From a tiny, smoke-begrimed window a dim light pierced through the murky sea fog, and Nita murmured:
"So she is here still, the old harpy!"
She bent her head, and peered through the dim little panes into the shanty. A smothered cry escaped her lips.
"Good heavens! what is that old man doing here?"
Seated by a table, ornamented with bottles and pipes, Nita had seen an ugly, witchlike old crone in close converse with—Farnham, the miser. It flashed into her mind that he was seeking from old Meg some knowledge of the future which she pretended to foretell, and she smiled in ironical amusement.
"An old man like that ought to know that Meg's pretentions are all humbug," she thought impatiently, and bent her ear to listen to their words. Old Meg was muttering with fierce gesticulations:
"I don't understand your plans nor approve them. Beware how you trifle with me, Farnham, or I will tear her from that stately home. I will make her my slave as in the old days before she ran away from my boy's love, the proud jade!"
Miser Farnham put out a lean hand and gripped the virago's wrist so tightly that she screamed with pain.
"Behave yourself then, you she-devil, and do not presume to question my actions. You will leave the girl alone, remember. She belongs to me now, for I found her after you had let her escape your clutches. No wonder she fled from you. The bare idea of that ruffianly son of yours aspiring to the hand of the proud Juan de Castro's daughter—faugh!"
"You know what he wanted," Meg growled significantly.
"Yes, what he will never get," was the harsh reply, and Farnham only laughed at her incoherent ravings. To Nita it seemed plain that the fiendish pair shared some dark secret between them, and that the man held the balance of power.
"They are plotting against me. They both know the secret of my parentage, although old Meg has told me a hundred times that I was cast up by the sea. What if I go in there and tax them with their villainy, and demand the truth?"
With flashing dark eyes she moved toward the door, and her hand touched the knob to throw it open. A moment's indecision, then her brave heart failed her. She recoiled, shuddering with a sudden fear.
"No, no, I dare not. They might murder me," and she hurried from the spot, with terror-winged feet.
When the old black hulk and its glimmering light were swallowed up in the gloom, Nita stopped a moment to take breath, and turned her exquisite white face toward the sea.
"Oh, ocean, how I love you, you great murmuring mystery!" she cried, stretching out her white hands lovingly, as the surf rolled in.
Hark, what was that blending with the hollow voice of the waves? A human voice, a deep groan as of one dying! Nita uttered a cry of superstitious terror, and ran wildly a few paces farther along the shore. A broken shell pierced the sole of her thin shoe, but she limped painfully on, half-blinded by the salt spray and her own startling tears, when suddenly she stumbled over a body lying directly in her path, and fell prostrate.