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"My plots fall short, like darts which rash hands throw With an ill aim, and have too far to go." --SIR ROBERT HOWARD.
"I'm so glad it's all over at last!"
"What, my little friend?" and Mr. Travilla looked fondly into the sweet face so bright and happy, where the beauties of rare intellect and moral worth were as conspicuous as the lesser ones of exquisite contour and coloring.
"The wedding and all the accompanying round of dissipation. Now I hope we can settle down to quiet home pleasures for the rest of the winter."
"So do I, and that I shall see twice as much of you as I have of late. You can have no idea how I missed you while you were absent. And I am more than half envious of our bride and groom. Shall our trip be to Europe, Elsie?"
"Are we to take a trip?" she asked with an arch smile.
"That will be as you wish, dearest, of course."
"I don't wish it now, nor do you, I know; but we shall have time enough to settle all such questions."
"Plenty; I only wish we had not so much. Yet I don't mean to grumble; the months will soon slip away and bring the time when I may claim my prize."
They were riding towards the Oaks; the sun had just set, and the moon was still below the horizon.
Elsie suddenly reined in her horse, Mr. Travilla instantly doing likewise, and turned a pale, agitated face upon him. "Did you hear that?" she asked low and tremulously.
"What, dear child? I heard nothing but the sound of our horses' hoofs, the sighing of the wind in the tree-tops, and our own voices."
"I heard another; a muttered oath and the words, 'You shall never win her. I'll see to that.' The tones were not loud but deep, and the wind seemed to carry the sounds directly to my ear," she whispered, laying a trembling little hand on his arm, and glancing nervously from side to side.
"A trick of the imagination, I think, dearest; but from whence did the sounds seem to come?"
"From yonder thicket of evergreens and--I knew the voice for that of your deadly foe, the man from whom you and papa rescued me in Landsdale."
"My child, he is expiating his crime in a Pennsylvania penitentiary."
"But may he not have escaped, or have been pardoned out? Don't, oh don't, I entreat you!" she cried, as he turned his horse's head in the direction of the thicket. "You will be killed."
"I am armed, and a dead shot," he answered, taking a revolver from his breast pocket.
"But he is in ambush, and can shoot you down before you can see to aim at him."
"You are right, if there is really an enemy concealed there," he answered, returning the revolver to its former resting-place; "but I feel confident that it was either a trick of the imagination with you, or that some one is playing a practical joke upon us. So set your tears at rest, dear child, and let us hasten on our way."
Elsie yielded to his better judgment, trying to believe it nothing worse than a practical joke; but had much ado to quiet her agitated nerves and recover her composure before a brisk canter brought them to the Oaks, and she must meet her father's keen eye.
They found Arthur in the drawing-room, chatting with Rose. He rose with a bland, "Good-evening," and gallantly handed Elsie to a seat. Arthur was a good deal changed since his recall from college; and in nothing more than in his manner to Elsie; he was now always polite; often cordial even when alone with her. He was not thoroughly reformed, but had ceased to gamble and seldom drank to intoxication.
"Thank you; but indeed I must go at once and dress for tea," Elsie said, consulting her watch. "You are not going yet?"
"No, he will stay to tea," said Rose.
"But must go soon after, as I have an engagement," added Arthur.
Elsie met her father in the hall. "Ah, you are at home again," he remarked with a pleased look; "that is well; I was beginning to think you were making it very late."
"But you are not uneasy when I am in such good hands, papa?"
"No, not exactly; but like better to take care of you myself."
The clock was just striking eight as Arthur mounted and rode away from his brother's door. It was not a dark night, or yet very light; for though the moon had risen, dark clouds were scudding across the sky, allowing but an occasional glimpse of her face, and casting deep shadows over the landscape.
In the partial obscurity of one of these, and only a few rods ahead of him, when about half-way between the Oaks and Roselands, Arthur thought he discovered the figure of a man standing by the roadside, apparently waiting to halt him as he passed.
"Ha! you'll not take me by surprise, my fine fellow, whoever you may be," muttered Arthur between his set teeth, drawing out a revolver and cocking it, "Halloo there! Who are you; and what d'ye want?" he called, as his horse brought him nearly opposite the suspicious looking object.
"Your money or your life, Dinsmore," returned the other with a coarse laugh. "Don't pretend not to know me, old chap."
"You!" exclaimed Arthur, with an oath, but half under his breath. "I thought you were safe in----"
"State prison, eh? Well, so I was, but they've pardoned me out. I was a reformed character, you see; and then my vote was wanted at the last election, ha! ha! And so I've come down to see how my old friends are getting along."
"Friends! don't count me among them!" returned Arthur, hastily; "jail-birds are no mates for me."
"No, I understand that, the disgrace is in being caught. But you'd as well keep a civil tongue in your head; for if you're covering me with a revolver, I'm doing the same by you."
"I'm not afraid of you, Tom," answered Arthur, with a scornful laugh, "but I'm in a hurry; so be good enough to move out of the way and let me pass." For the other had now planted himself in the middle of the road, and laid a heavy hand upon the horse's bridle-rein.
"When I've said my say; no sooner. So that pretty niece of yours, my former fiancee, is engaged to Travilla? the man whom, of all others, I hate with a hatred bitterer than death. I would set my heel upon his head and grind it into the earth as I would the head of a venomous reptile."
"Who told you?"
"I overheard some o' their sweet talk as they rode by here not two hours ago. He robbed me of her that he might snatch the prize himself; I saw his game at the time. But he shall never get her," he concluded, grinding his teeth with rage.
"Pray, how do you propose to prevent it?"
"I'll call him out."
Arthur's laugh rang out mockingly upon the still night air. "Southern gentlemen accept a challenge only from gentlemen; and as for Travilla, besides being a dead shot, he's too pious to fight a duel, even with his own class."
"He'll meet me in fair fight, or I'll shoot him down, like a dog, in his tracks." The words, spoken in low tone, of concentrated fury, were accompanied with a volley of horrible oaths.
"You'd better not try it!" said Arthur; "you'd be lynched and hung on the nearest tree within an hour."
"They'd have to catch me first."
"And they would, they'd set their bloodhounds on your track, and there'd be no escape. As to the lady having been your fiancee--she never was; she would not engage herself without my brother's consent, which you were not able to obtain. And now you'd better take yourself off out of this neighborhood, after such threats as you've made!"
"That means you intend to turn informer, eh?"
"It means nothing of the kind, unless I'm called up as a witness in court; but you can't prowl about here long without being seen and arrested as a suspicious character, an abolitionist, or some other sort of scoundrel--which last you know you are," Arthur could not help adding in a parenthesis. "So take my advice, and retreat while you can. Now out o' the way, if you please, and let me pass."
Jackson sullenly stood aside, letting go the rein, and Arthur galloped off.
In the meantime, the older members of the family at the Oaks were quietly enjoying themselves in the library, where bright lights, and a cheerful wood-fire snapping and crackling on the hearth, added to the sense of comfort imparted by handsome furniture, books, painting, statuary, rich carpet, soft couches, and easy chairs.
The children had been sent to bed. Mr. and Mrs. Dinsmore sat by the centre table, the one busy with the evening paper, the other sewing, but now and then casting a furtive glance at a distant sofa, where Mr. Travilla and Elsie were seated side by side, conversing in an undertone.
"This is comfort, having you to myself again," he was saying, as he watched admiringly the delicate fingers busied with a crochet needle, forming bright meshes of scarlet zephyr. "How I missed you when you were gone! and yet, do you know, I cannot altogether regret the short separation, since otherwise I should have missed my precious budget of letters."
"Ah," she said, lifting her merry brown eyes to his face for an instant, then dropping them again, with a charming smile and blush, "do you think that an original idea, or rather that it is original only with yourself?"
"And you are glad to have mine? though not nearly so sweet and fresh as yours." How glad he looked as he spoke.
"Ah!" she answered archly, "I'll not tell you what I have done with them, lest you grow conceited. But I have a confession to make," and she laughed lightly. "Will you absolve me beforehand?"
"Yes, if you are penitent, and promise to offend no more. What is it?"
"I see I have aroused your curiosity, I shall not keep you in suspense. I am corresponding with a young gentleman. Here is a letter from him, received to-day;" drawing it from her pocket as she spoke, she put it into his hand.
"I have no wish to examine it," he said gravely, laying it on her lap. "I can trust you fully, Elsie."
"But I should like you to read it; 'tis from Mr. Mason, my chaplain at Viamede, and gives a lengthy, and very interesting account of the Christmas doings there."
"Which I should much prefer to hear from your lips, my little friend."
"Ah, read it, please; read it aloud to me; I shall then enjoy it as much as I did the first time; and you will learn how truly good and pious Mr. Mason is, far better than from my telling. Not that he talks of himself, but you perceive it from what he says of others."
He complied with her request, reading in the undertone in which they had been talking.
"A very well written and interesting letter," he remarked, as he refolded and returned it. "Yes, I should judge from it that he is the right man in the right place. I presume the selection of gifts so satisfactory to all parties must have been yours?"
"Yes, sir; being with them, I was able to ascertain their wants and wishes, by questioning one in regard to another. Then I made out the list, and left Mr. Mason to do the purchasing for me. I think I can trust him again, and it is a great relief to my mind to have some one there to attend to the welfare of their souls and bodies."
"Have you gotten over your fright of this evening?" he inquired tenderly, bending towards her, and speaking lower than before.
"Almost if--if you have not to return to Ion to-night. Must you, really?"
"Yes; mother would be alarmed by my absence; and she seldom retires till I am there to bid her good-night."
"Then promise me to avoid that thicket," she pleaded anxiously.
"I cannot think there is any real danger," he said, with a reassuring smile, "but I shall take the other road; 'tis but a mile further round, and it would pay me to travel fifty to spare you a moment's anxiety, dearest."
She looked her thanks.
He left at ten, his usual hour, bidding her have no fear for him, since no real evil can befall those who put their trust in Him whose watchful, protecting care is ever about His chosen ones.
"Yes," she whispered, as for a moment his arm encircled her waist, "'What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee.' It is comparatively easy to trust for myself, and God will help me to do it for you also."
She stood at the window watching his departure, her heart going up in silent prayer for his safety. Then, saying to herself, "Papa must not be disturbed with my idle fancies," she turned to receive his good-night with a face so serene and unclouded, a manner so calm and peaceful, that he had no suspicion of anything amiss.
Nor was it an assumed peace and calmness; for she had not now to learn to cast her care on the Lord, whom she had loved and served from her very infancy; and her head had not rested many moments upon her pillow ere she fell into a deep, sweet sleep, that lasted until morning.
While Elsie slept, and Mr. Travilla galloped homeward by the longer route, the moon, peering through the cloud curtains, looked down upon a dark figure, standing behind a tree not many yards distant from the thicket Elsie had besought her friend to shun. The man held a revolver in his hand, ready cocked for instant use. His attitude was that of one listening intently for some expected sound.
He had stood thus for hours, and was growing very weary. "Curse the wretch!" he muttered, "does he court all night? How many hours have I been here waiting for my chance for a shot at him? It's getting to be no joke, hungry, cold, tired enough to lie down here on the ground. But I'll stick it out, and shoot him down like a dog. He thinks to enjoy the prize he snatched from me, but he'll find himself mistaken, or my name's n----" The sentence ended with a fierce grinding of the teeth. Hark! was that the distant tread of a horse? He bent his ear to the earth, and almost held his breath to listen. Yes, faint but unmistakable; the sounds filled him with a fiendish joy. For years he had nursed his hatred of Travilla, whom he blamed almost exclusively for his failure to get possession of Elsie's fortune.
He sprang up and again placed himself in position to fire. But what had become of the welcome sounds? Alas for his hoped-for revenge; they had died away entirely. The horse and his rider must have taken some other road. More low-breathed, bitter curses: yet perchance it was not the man for whose life he thirsted. He would wait and hope on.
But the night waned: one after another the moon and stars set and day began to break in the east; the birds waking in their nests overhead grew clamorous with joy, yet their notes seemed to contain a warning tone for him, bidding him begone ere the coming of the light hated by those whose deeds are evil. Chilled by the frosty air, and stiff and sore from long standing in a constrained position, he limped away, and disappeared in the deeper shadows of the woods.
Arthur's words of warning had taken their desired effect; and cowardly, as base, wicked, and cruel, the man made haste to flee from the scene of his intended crime, imagining at times that he even heard the bloodhounds already on his track.
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