Alex. McVeigh Miller
They Looked and Loved; Or, Won by Faith


She shrank back with dilated eyes full of horror, and cried:

"I would not abridge one hour of that year if twenty lives were at stake. Ah, no, no, no—sooner death!"

"So be it!" he exclaimed bitterly, incensed by her scorn, and pointing to the skeleton. "I will go now and leave you to the companionship of this grim lady whose fate you will share." He moved toward the door, but she sprang before him with desperate courage to do battle for her liberty.

"Do not dare to leave me here!" she cried imperiously. "Listen to me, you wicked wretch! If you leave me here to perish with this woman you have already murdered, I—while I am dying of starvation here in this gold-vault, surrounded by enough wealth to feed famishing thousands—I will curse you with my latest breath! I, to whom Heaven will listen because I am good and friendless, will pray God to chastise you with a terrible punishment, and to bring down on you a death even more awful than mine. And after death I will haunt you night and day, if such things can be, until I drive you mad with horror."

Before the solemn force of Nita's frenzied adjuration, the old man started and grew ashen pale. His eyes glared, his knees trembled. She saw quickly that her desperate words had some effect upon him, and continued:

"See, I will take an oath, if you let me go free, never to reveal the secret of what I have seen here to-night, never to enter this place again. The secret of your hidden wealth, and of this murdered woman, shall be as though I had never known it. Will not this suffice?"

Charles Farnham did not answer at first. With bowed head and ashen features, he remained in deep thought several minutes, while Nita waited in keen anxiety. Then he looked up, and said:

"You promise to take a solemn oath! Very well. For the love I bear you I will spare your life. But there is one condition."

"Yes," she breathed eagerly.

"You note the ring on that skeleton-hand there? Come nearer, Nita, and examine it. You shudder. A coiled serpent, with quivering, emerald scales, you observe. Is it not magnificent and unique? It has a history, and was made for this woman by a foreign artisan, who then destroyed the pattern. Note the tiny quivering gold wires that uphold each emerald scale. At the least movement of the hand the serpent-head seems to raise itself, and the eyes and scales to glow with malignant greenish fire."

"Yes, yes," she answered impatiently. "But the condition, sir—the condition?"

Scowling darkly at her, he hissed rather than spoke:

"That you take your oath of silence with that skeleton hand clasped in your own, and afterward withdraw the serpent-ring from that bony finger, and wear it always, in memory of this hour."

She shuddered and recoiled at first, then, catching the gleam of triumph in his eye, answered, with apparent calm:

"I agree to your condition."

With an evil, jeering smile, he said:

"Perchance there are people yet alive who have never given up the hope of tearing aside the thick veil of mystery that enshrouds the fate of this woman. If you wear this ring you may meet them—they will recognize it, they will ask you questions that you will not dare to answer."

Her brain was reeling, her limbs trembled, her strength was fast going in this atmosphere of horror, but there was an element of desperate bravery in the girl when driven to bay. She answered her tormentor:

"Only give me my liberty, and I will risk it all—all!"

The die was cast. He looked at her for a moment with a strange expression, and exclaimed warningly:

"One moment, please. You will remember that you will have no chance to prove a traitor to your oath, even if you dared. This door I shall wall up immediately, as there is a secret entrance that I shall use hereafter. So beware of attempted treachery, girl."

With a shudder she replied:

"The wealth of the Indies would not tempt me to return to this dreadful place! Now, the oath."

With wolfish eyes he saw her white hand close shrinkingly over the dead one on the table. Sepulchrally he spake some words which Nita repeated after him through stiff white lips, her eyes dilated with horror.

Then she drew the glistening ring from the skeleton's bony hand, and placed it on her third finger. The emerald scales quivered with greenish fire, and a shock as of electricity seemed to thrill through her at the contact. Repressing a cry of terror, she turned toward the stairway.

"You must return the way you came," said Farnham, unlocking the door, and holding it ajar. "Good-by, Nita, and do not forget the oath sworn on the dead hand."

But the girl was speechless. Flitting past him like a shadow she crept up the stairway, and heard with silent thanksgiving the lock turn in the door, between her and the miser's gold-vault.

CHAPTER X.

"WILL YOU NEVER FORGIVE?"

When Nita had left him, Dorian Mountcastle lay with half-shut eyes in a delicious reverie. Believing himself proof against all the darts of Cupid, he had yet gone down helplessly before the fire of a girl's dark eyes, and the charm of her sweet, sad smile. Upon his life's horizon had dawned the radiant star of Love.

He forgot his weakness and illness in the intoxication of the moment. He was too well versed in the signs of love not to interpret aright Nita's looks and blushes. It only brought a smile to his lips when he recalled her strange pallor and sudden flight.

"Sweet girl, she was frightened and agitated at the sudden discovery mutually made that our hearts had leaped to meet each other. She will return when she recovers her composure," he thought happily.

A light tap at the door, then it opened softly, and his heart leaped at the thought that it might be Nita already returning. But it was only Azalea Courtney, radiant as the morning, carrying a little silver pitcher full of iced lemonade.

"Alone, Dorian? I thought Miss Farnham was with you?" she cooed, in silvery tones.

"You were mistaken," he replied coldly, vexed that she had disturbed his sweet love-reverie, and out of mere perversity he refused to drink the draft she proffered, declaring that he was not thirsty.

But if he thought to freeze out his dainty visitor by his indifference he was mistaken. She slipped into the arm-chair by his bed, and began with pretty raillery:

"Miss Farnham made you but a short visit. I fear you did not make a good impression."

"I should be sorry to think so, for in that case I should feel compelled to leave Gray Gables immediately, and be jolted five miles to the nearest hotel," he rejoined maliciously.

"Leave us, Dorian? Indeed, you should not. It would kill you to be moved. Besides, what does it matter what that girl thinks, so long as mama and I are delighted to have you, and to be of service to you?"

"It matters everything, Azalea, since Miss Farnham is the real mistress here. Remember your mama is only her salaried chaperon, and you, like myself, but a transient guest."

Azalea pouted prettily at this rebuke.

"You take pleasure in reminding me of my poverty—you forget the past," she half-sobbed, and he answered impatiently:

"I choose to ignore it, and, pardon me, but it is bad taste in you to recur to it."

"Ah, Dorian, will you never forgive?—never permit me to atone?" she sighed.

The young man made a gesture of impatient scorn, as though dismissing an unwelcome subject, and half-buried his face in the roses that still lay beside his pillow.

Azalea Courtney knew that Nita had sent the roses. A spasm of mingled pain and bitterness crossed the pretty, pink-and-white face, and she cried out sharply:

"Well, how do you like Miss Farnham?"

He knew well how to stab this dainty beauty—perhaps he knew, too, that she deserved it. He looked straight into her curious blue eyes, and answered enthusiastically:

"She is charming!"

"Ah!" breathed Azalea, with her little white hand pressed against her side to still her heart's jealous throbs.
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