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"At last I know thee--and my soul, From all thy arts set free, Abjures the cold consummate art Shrin'd as a soul in thee." --SARA J. CLARK.
The rest of the winter passed quietly and happily with our friends at Ion and the Oaks, Mr. Travilla spending nearly half his time at the latter place, and in rides and walks with Elsie, whom he now and then coaxed to Ion for a call upon his mother.
Their courtship was serene and peaceful: disturbed by no feverish heat of passion, no doubts and fears, no lovers' quarrels, but full of a deep, intense happiness, the fruit of their long and intimate friendship, their full acquaintance with, and perfect confidence in each other, and their strong love. Enna sneeringly observed that "they were more like some staid old married couple than a pair of lovers."
Arthur made no confidant in regard to his late interview with Jackson; nothing more was heard or seen of the scoundrel, and gradually Elsie came to the conclusion that Mr. Travilla, who occasionally rallied her good-naturedly on the subject of her fright, had been correct in his judgment that it was either the work of imagination or of some practical joker.
Arthur, on his part, thought that fear of the terrors he had held up before him would cause Jackson--whom he knew to be an arrant coward--to refrain from adventuring himself again in the neighborhood.
But he miscalculated the depth of the man's animosity towards Mr. Travilla, which so exceeded his cowardice as at length to induce him to return and make another effort to destroy either the life of that gentleman or his hopes of happiness; perhaps both.
Elsie was very fond of the society of her dear ones, yet occasionally found much enjoyment in being alone, for a short season, with Nature or a book. A very happy little woman, as she had every reason to be, and full of gratitude and love to the Giver of all good for His unnumbered blessings, she loved now and then to have a quiet hour in which to count them over, as a miser does his gold, to return her heartfelt thanks, tell her best, her dearest Friend of all, how happy she was, and seek help from Him to make a right use of each talent committed to her care.
Seated in her favorite arbor one lovely spring day, with thoughts thus employed, and eyes gazing dreamily upon the beautiful landscape spread out at her feet, she was startled from her reverie by some one suddenly stepping in and boldly taking a seat by her side.
She turned her head. Could it be possible? Yes, it was indeed Tom Jackson, handsomely dressed and looking, to a casual observer, the gentleman she had once believed him to be. She recognized him instantly.
A burning blush suffused her face, dyeing even the fair neck and arms. She spoke not a word, but rose up hastily with the intent to fly from his hateful presence.
"Now don't, my darling, don't run away from me," he said, intercepting her. "I'm sure you couldn't have the heart, if you knew how I have lived for years upon the hope of such a meeting: for my love for you, dearest Elsie, has never lessened, the ardor of my passion has never cooled----"
"Enough, sir," she said, drawing herself up, her eyes kindling and flashing as he had never thought they could; "how dare you insult me by such words, and by your presence here? Let me pass."
"Insult you, Miss Dinsmore?" he cried, in affected surprise. "You were not wont, in past days, to consider my presence an insult, and I could never have believed fickleness a part of your nature. You are now of age, and have a right to listen to my defense, and my suit for your heart and hand."
"Are you mad? Can you still suppose me ignorant of your true character and your history for years past? Know then that I am fully acquainted with them; that I know you to be a lover of vice and the society of the vicious--a drunkard, profane, a gambler, and one who has stained his hands with the blood of a fellow-creature," she added with a shudder. "I pray God you may repent and be forgiven; but you are not and can never be anything to me."
"So with all your piety you forsake your friends when they get into trouble," he remarked with a bitter sneer.
"Friend of mine you never were," she answered quietly; "I know it was my fortune and not myself you really wanted. But though it were true that you loved me as madly and disinterestedly as you professed, had I known your character, never, never should I have held speech with you, much less admitted you to terms of familiarity--a fact which I look back upon with the deepest mortification. Let me pass, sir, and never venture to approach me again."
"No you don't, my haughty miss! I'm not done with you yet," he exclaimed between his clenched teeth, and seizing her rudely by the arm as she tried to step past him. "So you're engaged to that fatherly friend of yours, that pious sneak, that deadly foe to me?"
"Unhand me, sir!"
"Not yet," he answered, tightening his grasp, and at the same time taking a pistol from his pocket. "I swear you shall never marry that man: promise me on your oath that you'll not, or--I'll shoot you through the heart; the heart that's turned false to me. D'ye hear," and he held the muzzle of his piece within a foot of her breast.
Every trace of color fled from her face, but she stood like a marble statue, without speech or motion of a muscle, her eyes looking straight into his with firm defiance.
"Do you hear?" he repeated, in a tone of exasperation, "speak! promise that you'll never marry Travilla, or I'll shoot you in three minutes--shoot you down dead on the spot, if I swing for it before night."
"That will be as God pleases," she answered low and reverently; "you can have no power at all against me except it be given you from above."
"I can't, hey? looks like it; I've only to touch the trigger here, and your soul's out o' your body. Better promise than die."
Still she stood looking him unflinchingly in the eye; not a muscle moving, no sign of fear except that deadly pallor.
"Well," lowering his piece, "you're a brave girl, and I haven't the heart to do it," he exclaimed in admiration. "I'll give up that promise; on condition that you make another--that you'll keep all this a secret for twenty-four hours, so I can make my escape from the neighborhood before they get after me with their bloodhounds."
"That I promise, if you will be gone at once."
"You'll not say a word to any one of having seen me, or suspecting I'm about here?"
"Not a word until the twenty-four hours are over."
"Then good-bye. Your pluck has saved your life; but remember, I've not said I won't shoot him or your father, if chance throws them in my way," he added, looking back over his shoulder with a malicious leer, as he left the arbor, then disappearing from sight among the trees and shrubbery beyond.
Elsie's knees shook and trembled under her; she sank back into her seat, covering her face and bowing her head upon her lap, while she sent up silent, almost agonizing petitions for the safety of those two so inexpressibly dear to her. Some moments passed thus, then she rose and hastened, with a quick nervous step, to the house. She entered her boudoir, and lay down upon a couch trembling in every fibre, every nerve quivering with excitement. The shock had been terrible.
"What de matter wid my chile? what ails you, honey?" asked Aunt Chloe, coming to her side full of concern.
"I think one of my bad headaches is coming on, mammy. But oh, tell me, is Mr. Travilla here?--and papa! where is he?"
"Here daughter," his voice answered, close at hand, "and with a note for you from Mr. Travilla, who has not shown himself to-day."
She took it eagerly, but with a hand that trembled as if with sudden palsy, while the eyes, usually so keen-sighted, saw only a blurred and confused jumble of letters in place of the clear, legible characters really there.
"I cannot see," she said, in a half-frightened tone, and pressing the other hand to her brow.
"And you are trembling like an aspen leaf," he said, bending over her in serious alarm. "My child, when did this come on? and what has caused it?"
"Papa, I cannot tell you now, or till to-morrow, at this hour; I will then. But oh, papa dear, dear papa!" she cried, putting her arm about his neck and bursting into hysterical weeping, "promise me, if you love me promise me, that you will not leave the house till I have told you. I am sick, I am suffering; you will stay by me? you will not leave me?"
"My darling, I will do anything I can to relieve you, mentally or physically," he answered in tones of tenderest love and concern. "I shall not stir from the house, while to do so would increase your suffering. I perceive there has been some villainy practised upon you, and a promise extorted, which I shall not ask you to break; but rest assured, I shall keep guard over my precious one."
"And Mr. Travilla!" she gasped. "Oh, papa, if I only knew he was safe!"
"Perhaps the note may set your mind at rest on that point. Shall I read it for you?"
"Yes, sir," she said, putting it into his hand with a slight blush, "he never writes what I should be ashamed or afraid to have my father see."
It was but short, written merely to explain his absence, and dated from a neighboring plantation, where he had gone to assist in nursing a sick friend whom he should not be able to leave for some days. There were words of deep, strong affection, but as she had foreseen, nothing that she need care to have her father know or see.
"Does not this news allay your fears for him?" Mr. Dinsmore asked tenderly.
"Yes, papa," she answered, the tears streaming from her eyes. "Oh, how good God is to me! I will trust Him, trust Him for you both, as well as myself." She covered her face with her hands while shudder after shudder shook her whole frame.
Mr. Dinsmore was much perplexed, and deeply concerned. "Shall I send for Dr. Barton?" he asked.
"No, no, papa! I am not ill; only my nerves have had a great, a terrible shock; they seem all unstrung, and my temples are throbbing with pain."
"My poor, poor darling! strange that with all my care and watchfulness you should have been subjected to such a trial. Some ruffian has been trying to extort money from you, I presume, by threatened violence to yourself, Travilla, and me. Where were you?"
"In my arbor, sir."
"Yes, papa; I thought myself safe there."
"I forbid you to go there or to any distance from the house, alone, again. You must always have some one within call, if not close at your side."
"And my father knows I will obey him," she said, tremulously lifting his hand to her lips.
He administered an anodyne to relieve the tortured nerves, then sitting down beside her, passed his hand soothingly over hair and cheek, while with the other he held one of hers in loving, tender clasp. Neither spoke, and at length she fell asleep; yet not a sound, refreshing slumber, but disturbed by starts and moans, and frequent wakings to see and feel that he was still there. "Papa, don't go away; don't leave me!" was her constant cry.
"My darling, my precious one, I will not," was his repeated assurance; "I will stay with you while this trouble lasts."
And all that day and night he never left her side, while Rose came and went, full of anxiety and doing everything that could be done for the sufferer's relief.
It was a night of unrest to them all; but morning found her free from pain, though weak and languid, and still filled with distress if her father was absent for more than a few moments from her side. She inquired of him at what hour she had come in the day before: then watched the time and, as soon as released from her promise, told them all.
Great was his indignation; and, determined that, if possible, the villain should be apprehended and brought to justice, he sent word at once to the magistrates: a warrant was issued, and several parties were presently out in different directions in hot pursuit.
But with the twenty-four hours' start Jackson had made good his escape, and the only advantage gained was the relief of knowing that he no longer infested the neighborhood.
"But when may he not return?" Elsie said with a shudder. "Papa, I tremble for you, and for--Mr. Travilla."
"I am far more concerned for you," he answered, gazing upon her pale face with pitying, fatherly tenderness. "But let us cast this care, with all others, upon our God. 'Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee; because he trusteth in Thee.'"
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