Alex. McVeigh Miller
They Looked and Loved; Or, Won by Faith
In the strange confusion of her abrupt departure Nita did not notice that she had left Dorian Mountcastle's room by a door exactly opposite to the one she had entered.
But in a moment she realized that she had blundered. She found herself in a dark, narrow, carpetless corridor, with closed doors frowning grimly upon her from either side of the moldy-smelling hall.
"It must be the servant's quarters, but I will try to escape this way. I cannot possibly go back through his room," she murmured, and pursued her way timorously along the hall, soon losing herself in an intricacy of abrupt turnings and obscure passages seeming to have no outlet.
"How strange," she murmured uneasily; "I do not seem to be finding my way out at all, and perhaps I could not find it back to Mr. Mountcastle's room. Ah! there is a narrow door and a dark little stairway. I suppose it will lead me out-doors into the garden," and Nita began to descend the dark, rickety old stairway, all unconscious of the startling discovery she was on the eve of making, or she would have fled back in an agony of terror.
IN DEADLY PERIL
Slowly and carefully Nita went down the dark, narrow, dusty steps to the rickety door at the foot, expecting confidently that it would lead her straight out-doors, most probably into the kitchen-garden. She found the door slightly ajar, pushed it quickly open, and found herself, without warning or premonition, in a small, dingy, cobwebby room, full of gloomy shadows, and dimly lighted by a flaring dip, in an old battered tin candlestick.
The little closetlike chamber, barely eight feet wide, was furnished with a small table, and an arm-chair, over which was thrown a coarse, dark-gray blanket. Against the walls were ranged a large number of small, iron-bound chests, similar to the one up-stairs in Nita's closet. The lids of several were open, and the wondering girl saw that they were filled to the brim with money, that gleamed bright and yellow in the flaring, uncertain light of the solitary candle.
But not even all this hoarded gold could have surprised Nita as did the central figure of it all—the old man kneeling with his back to her over one of the open chests, and running his shriveled fingers through the bright coins, while his lips worked nervously, emitting chuckling and guttural noises of ghoulish delight.
Nita's instant alarm struck her dumb. She was for the moment incapable of speech or motion. She could only stare in an appalled silence. She had recognized in the crouching old man gloating over his treasure her miser-husband, Charles Farnham, whom she had supposed to be far away from this place, according to the terms of the marriage-contract.
Even while she gazed there crept over her a sensation of deadly fear and dread, that seemed to freeze the very blood in her veins. She thought in wild alarm:
"I have blundered upon this secret, and the accident may cost me my life. Heaven help me to escape before he discovers me!"
Absorbed in his fascinating employment, the miser had not noticed her entrance. He continued to play with the gold like a child, pouring it from one trembling hand to the other, muttering and chuckling in a strange ecstasy.
Nita summoned all her will-power to break the thrall of terror that seemed to hold her limbs immovable. Suddenly, the power of motion returned. She turned softly, made two catlike steps, and was on the stairs on the other side of the door, safe—ah, what was that grating sound?
In drawing the door softly to behind her the rusty hinge had creaked harshly! Nita's heart gave a bound of deadly fear, she gasped for breath, and sprang wildly forward.
If only she could reach the corridor above with its intricate windings, she could elude pursuit in some dark corner.
But from the room she had left came a sound between a howl and a groan, and the old man bounded to the stairs with such wondrous agility that his outstretched hand caught the long skirts of the escaping girl, and dragged her ruthlessly backward.
Clutching her fiercely, in spite of her cries and struggles for liberty, and bearing her forward into the light, he gazed eagerly into her face. A bitter oath escaped his lips as he beheld in his struggling captive the face of his beautiful, unloving bride.
To Nita, with her nerves yet unstrung by sickness and excitement, the sight of the old miser's face, distorted by rage and surprise, was absolutely terrifying.
She trembled like a leaf in his rude grasp, and moans of terror came from her blanched lips.
"Spy!" he hissed angrily, and in the fierce malevolent gleam of his snakelike eyes she read a wild temptation to grasp her fair white throat in his strong hands and throttle her to death.
"Spy! You have followed me here!" the old man hissed again savagely.
He shook her rudely until the breath had almost left her body, then flung her upon one of the chests, and, locking the little door, dropped the key into his pocket. She was at the mercy of this fiendish old man who had come into her life so strangely, and at so dark an hour.
"Release me, oh, release me!" she gasped faintly, pleadingly, but he looked at her with pitiless eyes, and answered:
"Once before a woman, filled with the greed for gold, followed me here to find out the secret of my hidden treasures. Well—her friends are searching for her yet, as perchance yours will be, too, for many a year."
"You murdered her!" gasped Nita, with a creeping thrill of utter horror.
"No," he replied, and after a moment's pause continued with a hideous leer:
"I simply left her locked in this room and went away, leaving her alone with the treasure she coveted. It was a long, long time before I came back, and then—I found her still here."
"Still here!" the startled captive repeated. He saw the shudder that crept over her frame, and laughed mockingly.
"Still here—waiting for me still," he sneered. "Always here, waiting for me when I come. Look!"
Turning from her, he threw aside the dark blanket that had draped the chair by the table. Nita looked and shrieked aloud.
The coarse blanket had concealed the fleshless skeleton of a human being sitting at ease in the chair, with the bony digits of one hand resting on the table. About the neck was clasped a golden chain with a shining pendant, while on one finger gleamed a magnificent emerald ring, ghastly mockery of adornment.
Nita's overstrained nerves gave way at the startling sight. She crouched upon the chest of gold with her hands before her eyes, while appalling shrieks burst from her lips.
She doubted not the same awful fate would be her own, despite the fact that she was bound to Charles Farnham by the most solemn tie.
At her shrieks he turned upon her with the fierce command:
"Silence! Do not think that your cries will bring assistance to this vault! This wing of Gray Gables is utterly uninhabited and isolated from the newer part of the house. You are wholly in my power and at my mercy to punish as I will."
From his excited, remorseless face she doubted not what that punishment would be—isolation and starvation in the miser's hidden treasure-vault in company with that awful thing yonder, the ghastly, grinning, jewel-bedecked skeleton.
There came a swift thought of Dorian Mountcastle. She should never see him again. Would he miss the girl into whose eyes he had gazed with such passion? Would the mystery of her strange fate sadden his life? She cried out, rebelliously:
"Punish at your will! Yet I have done nothing—nothing!" and, falling on her knees, she poured out impetuously the story of the mistake in opening the door that had brought her to this terrible strait.
"Through no fault of mine," she sobbed wildly. "Yet—yet—I am to suffer death for this unconscious wrong. Ah, sir, how can you be so cruel? Why, then, did you save me from the river for this more terrible fate?"
He stood silent, gazing at the beautiful, convulsed face. Yes, it was scarce a week since he had turned her aside from a self-sought death.
He remembered her strange, almost stoical calm, in such contrast with her wild agitation now. Life had grown sweeter, dearer now since that day in Central Park, when, starving and friendless, she had derided him with the scorn of a hopeless and reckless despair.
"Let me go free, only give me my liberty, and the secret I have unwillingly discovered shall never pass my lips!" she cried frantically. "Do you remember that day in the park when you pretended that you loved me? Then, how can you be so cruel?"
The old miser's face changed suddenly from rage and malevolence to a leering softness more hateful still to her shrinking eyes. He came closer, and she started back in disgust.
THE SERPENT RING
"Ah, Nita, you remember that day still!" cried the old man in a transport of joy. "You remember that you are my wife! Do you know that in my wrath I had almost forgotten it? And so you appeal to my love? Have you none to give me in return, pretty one?"
As he approached her she thrust him violently back with hands that were nerved by the strength of fear and hate.
"Do not touch me, do not ask me for love. Remember our marriage-contract!" she exclaimed.
"I remember it," he answered, gazing on her with fiery eyes. "But, listen, Nita; I will give you one chance of escape from the doom that hangs over you. Burn the marriage-contract. Become my wife in reality as you are now only in name, and we will begin our new life to-day. I love you, Nita, but only on these terms can you regain your freedom."