Alex. McVeigh Miller
They Looked and Loved; Or, Won by Faith
"IT IS BETTER THAT YOU DIE."
Nita believed for a moment that she had stumbled over a body cast up by the cruel sea. That strange awe of death overcame her at first, and, struggling painfully to her feet, she was about to hurry from the spot when she was suddenly arrested by a low moan similar to the one that had so startled her when she was several paces away.
She realized that it was not a corpse, it was a living being, lying unconscious at her feet—a living being, wet already with the surf, that went over him each time it rolled in on the shore. The tide was coming in strongly, and presently the fatal undertow would sweep him out to sea.
"It must not be!" she cried.
Sinking down on her knees, she gazed into the white, upturned face for some sign of life.
"Oh, pitiful Heaven, he is dead!" cried Nita wildly, and she laid her white hand with an involuntary, tender caress on the broad, white brow, from which the wet masses of brown curls fell carelessly back.
Did her touch recall him to life? The broad breast heaved suddenly, the eyelids fluttered open, and the young girl met the wondering gaze of a pair of eyes that seemed to pierce her heart.
The next moment a giant wave rolled in and flung her prostrate against his breast. Drenched and shivering, Nita struggled to her knees again.
"You are alive, thank Heaven," she exclaimed gladly. "Oh, speak to me, sir; let me help you to rise, for if we remain here, the sea will sweep us both away."
She had to bend her ear close to his lips to catch the faint reply:
"I am—wounded—and have no—strength—to rise. Go—save yourself—leave me—to—my—fate!"
It must have cost him a severe effort to utter the disjointed words, for with the last one his eyes closed and he became unconscious.
And out upon the ocean Nita saw the white-caps rolling in to the shore, as if eager to seize and carry off their helpless victim. From her pallid lips came a cry of despair, and, seizing his shoulders, she tried to drag him further up the beach.
"God help me to save him," she prayed aloud, for the heavy body resisted her efforts, and she was distinctly conscious of as strong a yearning to save this man's life as though he had been a beloved friend of long, long years.
A happy thought came to her, and, dragging the strong woolen shawl from her head, she passed it with difficulty under his body, knotting the long ends on his breast. Just then another strong wave engulfed them. Clinging to the end of the shawl, she bent down and let it rush and roar above them, with its thunder of sound, and almost resistless fury of force.
With her whole heart uplifted in prayer, Nita grasped the ends of the shawl, and slowly, wearily, but determinedly, dragged the heavy form of her companion far up the beach; and within the gates of her home, where she sank down, exhausted, and gazed anxiously into his unconscious face, her heart convulsed by an agonizing yearning that he might live.
But the features remained still and lifeless, the broad breast did not heave with the faintest sign of life. She noted even then with the eyes of an artist his wonderful beauty.
"Oh, the pity of it that one so beautiful should die like this," she sobbed, and laid her hand caressingly upon his brow. Then she started as from a trance, and withdrew her hand from his brow, sobbing under her breath: "It is better that you died, for if you had lived you would have lured my heart away!"
She shivered as the keen breeze swept over her drenched form, bearing with it the intoxicating scent of June flowers blooming riotously in the neglected gardens, and rising wearily, she toiled up to the house and aroused the servants.
They gazed at her in amazement when she briefly explained the situation, and commanded them to bring the unconscious man into the house, and send for a doctor.
When the man-servant and the housekeeper had brought the dripping form and laid it on a bed, the woman cried out in wonder:
"What a strange thing! Why, I know this young man, Miss Farnham! He is Mr. Dorian Mountcastle."
And the pale young creature, leaning over the pillow, looked at her with dark, eager eyes, and murmured:
"Is he dead? Do you think that he is dead?"
"The Lord knows, honey; he looks like it, that's certain. But we can tell better when the doctor comes. Now do you go right up to your room, please, and get some dry clothes on before you catch your death of cold, while we tend to the young man," pushing her gently toward the door.
Nita threw one long look of mute despair upon Dorian Mountcastle's still and beautiful face, with the long, dark lashes lying so heavily upon the death-white cheeks, and moved silently out of the room, dragging herself wearily up the stairs, encumbered by her dripping wet garments, that left little rills of salt-water wherever she moved.
As she went along the dim corridor to her room her lips moved ever so slightly. She was whispering:
"Dorian! Dorian! What a soft, sweet name!"
When Nita had left her room, obeying the strange impulse that had tempted her out to the shore in the dead hour of the night, she had forgotten the open chest of gold upon the floor; she had even left the door standing slightly ajar with a dim light burning on the dainty dressing-table.
It was just the same now as she stepped across the threshold, little pools of salt-water sinking into the rich carpet. She stopped then, staring before her in wild-eyed horror.
Upon the rug crouched the haglike woman she had seen but a little while ago, cursing Miser Farnham in the old shanty. Her back was turned to Nita, her clawlike, skinny hands were diving into the chest of gold. She was filling her apron with the glittering coins. She had not heard the light footstep behind her, but suddenly a sharp voice rang in her ear:
"Put back that gold, you vile thief! What are you doing here?"
The old woman started so violently that the corners of her apron fell, and the gold pieces rolled in every direction. Springing wildly to her feet, she confronted Nita with the horrible, burning eyes of a murderess.
"I came here to kill you, Juanita de Castro, and to avenge my son!" she hissed, springing on her victim like a tigress.
Ere Nita could cry for help, she was borne down by her enemy's fierce onslaught, her white throat gripped in a clutch of death.
LIZETTE SAVES HER MISTRESS
When Nita had left the room the housekeeper stood gazing with deep commiseration at the deathlike face of Dorian Mountcastle as it lay among the pillows.
"Not much use to send for a doctor, for he is certainly dead, poor fellow," she said aloud.
"Oh, what a pity!" exclaimed a voice at her side, and, turning abruptly, she saw a pretty young woman—Nita's maid, Lizette.
"Oh, Mrs. Hill, I hope he's not dead! Can I do anything to help you, please?"
"Why, Lizette, I did not know you were out of your bed, but I'm glad some one awoke you, for your mistress needs you very badly. Go up-stairs and attend to her while I wait here for the doctor."
Lizette went away obediently, and ascended the stairs to Nita's room, full of surprise at the strange happenings of this summer night at Pirate Beach.
Finding Nita's door ajar, she stepped over the threshold. Then she recoiled with a cry of surprise and terror.
A startling sight was before her eyes. Prostrate upon the floor lay her young mistress, and across her body was stretched the lean, lithe frame of an old witchlike woman, whose skinny claws gripped Nita's throat in a murderous clasp. The victim's face was purple and distorted.
The dim light that shone upon the scene showed also to the wondering maid the open chest of gold and the glittering coins scattered over the floor in reckless profusion, where the hag had dropped them in her spring upon Nita.
One moment's recoil of amazement and horror, then Lizette comprehended the full meaning of the scene—robbery and murder.
"Lord help me!" she exclaimed, and sprang upon the murderess, grasping her arms in a viselike hold, and tearing them apart from Nita's throat, although the hag struggled and snarled like a wild beast baffled of its prey.
Finding herself unable to regain her grip on the girl, she turned with a fierce howl upon her assailant. There was murder in Meg's heart, and she was determined to silence forever the witness to her attempt upon Nita's life.