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As Morton Rutherford’s fingers touched the key of the little instrument that was to send forth that fateful message, it was the unconscious touching of a secret spring which was to set in motion a succession of events of which he little dreamed.
He remained at the station until the answer came back over the wires:
“Leave Chicago to-night; will follow instructions to the letter.”
This was on Saturday. On Tuesday the expected party would reach Silver City, where they were to be met by Van Dorn, who would furnish them all details and accompany them on the evening train to the Y, from which point Houston and Morton Rutherford would convey them by team to the mining camp.
From Saturday until Tuesday only! but those intervening days were full of a strange excitement for the little group of friends who were in the secret, and there was that constant sense of expectancy, combined with an alert watchfulness, which kept the nerves tense and rigid, and rendered the mind unusually clear and active.
On Monday, Van Dorn left for Silver City, his errand ostensibly being to replace the broken portions of the machinery, now nearly finished, which were necessary for its completion.
All felt that the climax to which they had looked forward was now very near, and Lyle, who perhaps realized the situation the most keenly of any, was restless and excited, something very unusual for her.
Her search, thus far unsuccessful, had not been abandoned, and as she sat in the little porch on that particular afternoon, idle because she could not fix her attention upon book or work, it seemed as if the years of her early life among the mountains stood out with more than usual distinctness. Among other trifling objects, there was suddenly recalled to her memory a box which used always to stand in Mrs. Maverick’s little bed-room, and which had looked wonderfully attractive to her childish eyes on account of a flowered red and green paper with which it was covered. Once, overcome with infantile curiosity, she had tried to open it, and had received a severe whipping therefor. She could remember it very distinctly now, a box about eighteen inches square, with no fastening, but always securely tied with a stout cord. Late years it had been removed to the little attic and she had forgotten it. Where was it now? She had not seen it for months, or was it years? What could it have contained?
Miss Gladden was occupied with a new magazine. Morton and Ned Rutherford had gone out for a stroll among the rocks. Quietly Lyle slipped up-stairs, and going to the dark, dusty attic, began searching for the object so suddenly recalled to mind.
She could find no trace of it, however, and had about concluded that it must have been destroyed, when her attention was arrested by a pile of old clothing and rubbish on the floor in a particularly dark corner, behind some large boxes. A slight examination revealed that there was some solid substance underneath. Hastily overturning the rubbish, her eyes descried in the dim light the identical red and green papered box familiar to her childhood.
With an exclamation of joy she dragged it forth from its hiding place, and going over to the one tiny window, covered with dust and cobwebs, she sat down with the newly found treasure, first arranging a pile of old bedding as a screen between herself and the door, to preclude all possibility of her whereabouts being discovered.
With fingers trembling with excitement, she undid the fastenings of the heavy cord and slowly lifted the cover, not knowing exactly what she expected or hoped to find, but certain that the key for which she had searched was close at hand.
Within the box lay a large parcel wrapped in a newspaper, worn and yellow with age, and pinned to the parcel was a letter, addressed in a cramped, almost illegible hand:
to be read after my death.”
Lyle recognized the writing,––it was Mrs. Maverick’s, whose educational advantages, though exceedingly limited, were yet superior to those of her husband, in that she could read and write, though she had little idea of the rules of grammar or orthography.
Lyle unpinned the letter and turned it over curiously in her hands for a moment; then she laid it aside, saying to herself:
“I will first see what this package contains, and will probably open that later.”
She lifted the parcel and began removing the paper wrappings, which burst like tissue and dropped in pieces, leaving a mass of fine cambric and dainty laces and embroideries, from which was exhaled a perfume, faint and subtle, and yet which recalled to Lyle so vividly the memories of that long-ago forgotten time, that she seemed like one awakening from a long oblivion to the scenes of a once familiar life. For a moment, she grew faint and dizzy, and, closing her eyes, leaned against the wall for support, while she tried to grasp the vision that seemed just ready to open up before her. But it passed, and with a sigh she opened her eyes, her gaze falling on the contents of the package which had fallen open.
She saw the dress of a little child,––apparently about two years of age,––a marvelous creation of the finest of white linen and the daintiest of embroideries; lying within it was a broad sash of blue silk, neatly folded together, a pair of tiny, blue silk stockings, and little kid shoes of the same delicate shade; but the shoes and sash, as well as the dress, were soiled and blackened as if they had come in contact with charred wood.
The dress and the little undergarments each and all bore the initials “M. L. W.,” and Lyle pondered over them with wondering eyes, while handling with reverent touch these relics of her childhood,––a childhood which she could not recall.
As she unrolled the blue sash, there dropped from within its folds a small, pasteboard box, which she hastily opened, exposing to view a tiny gold locket and chain of rare workmanship and exquisite design. Upon touching a little spring, it opened, and Lyle gave a low cry of delight, for there was revealed the same beautiful face which she had seen in Jack’s cabin,––the face of her mother. For some time she gazed at it through fast-gathering tears, then happening to note the engraving on the inside of the case, opposite to the picture, she held it closer to the light, to discern the delicate characters of the inscription, and read:
“To Marjorie Lyle Washburn,
Lyle Maverick no longer, but Marjorie Lyle Washburn! She repeated the name over and over to herself,––the magic talisman by which she was to find the home and friends she sought!
Kissing the locket reverently, she replaced it in the box, and folding together the little garments, she again took up the letter. She studied it for a moment, then resolutely breaking the seal, began to read its contents. It was slow work, for the writing in many places was so poor as to be nearly illegible, but, with burning cheeks and eyes flashing with indignation at what it revealed, she read it to the end.
In uncouth phrases and illiterate language, and yet with a certain pathos, Mrs. Maverick told the story of the death, years before, while their home was east, in Ohio, of her own little girl between two and three years of age, and her inconsolable sorrow. A few months afterward, Jim had suddenly returned from a neighboring town where he was working, bringing with him a beautiful little girl of the same age as her own, but unusually advanced for her years, whose father and mother he claimed had been killed in a railroad accident, and of whose friends nothing could be learned. His wife had accepted his story in good faith, and welcomed the motherless little one to her own lonely heart. Unknown to Jim, who had charged her to burn them, she had also preserved the garments worn by the little stranger on that day.
But the little one did not take kindly to her new surroundings but cried piteously for her mother, night and day, even refusing food of all kinds, until she was suddenly taken with a strange illness which lasted for many weeks. When she finally recovered, all memory of her former life seemed to have been completely blotted out of her mind, and she no longer called for her mother, except occasionally in her sleep. Very soon after they had come out to the mines, and nothing of any importance occurred until Lyle was about seven years old.
At that time, Jim had suddenly made his appearance at the house one day, appearing both angry and frightened, and had ordered his wife to keep Lyle locked up, on pretext of punishing her, until he gave permission for her release. He would give no explanation, and by his curses and threats compelled her to obey.
That day, a fine-looking, elderly gentleman, who had just arrived from the east to purchase some mining property, came to the house for dinner, and took his meals there for the two days following, during which time, Lyle was not allowed her liberty. Not until nearly a year later did Mrs. Maverick learn that the eastern stranger, whose coming had so terrified Maverick, was Lyle’s grandfather. Jim then confessed that he had taken the child from the wreck where its mother had lost her life, and brought her west with him, knowing whose child she was, and keeping her out of revenge for some wrong which he claimed this man had done him years before.
In vain his wife urged to have the child returned to her rightful home; he threatened her life if she ever breathed the secret to any living soul. A sense of guilt made her unhappy for a time, but as years passed she grew more indifferent to it, and as she saw, more and more, how utterly unlike any of her own family Lyle was growing, she no longer cared for her as she had done, though she tried to treat her kindly. Jim’s hatred of Lyle seemed to increase with every year, until his wife sometimes feared that he would resort to personal violence.
As she found her own health and strength failing she began to reflect upon the terrible position in which Lyle would find herself in case of her own death, left alone with Maverick and his two sons, and to save her from such a fate, she had resolved to write this letter, acquainting Lyle with her own history so far as she was able to give it.
At the close she begged Lyle not to think too harshly of her or consider that she was altogether to blame in this matter, and expressed the wish that she might some day find her own friends from whom she had been taken.
It would be impossible to describe Lyle’s emotions as she finished the perusal of this strange letter; joy that she had finally found the evidence she sought, and an intense longing to see those from whom she had been so cruelly separated all these years, mingled with a fearful apprehension lest this knowledge might have come too late, when those whose affection she would claim, might have already passed beyond the limits of finite, human love, into the love infinite and eternal. And deep in her heart burned indignation, fierce and strong, against the one who had wrought all this wretchedness,––carrying additional sorrow to a home already bereaved, robbing her of the love that was rightfully hers and of the dower of a happy childhood which could never be restored,––all to gratify his cowardly revenge!
In the midst of these reflections, Lyle suddenly recalled the promise she had given Jack that he should be the first to learn of her success. It was now time for him to be at the cabin and she would have an opportunity to see him before the return of the others to the house. Accordingly, she restored the empty box to its hiding place, and having concealed the most of its contents in her own room, started forth on her joyful errand, taking with her the tiny locket and the letter.
As she approached the cabin she saw Jack sitting with Rex in the door-way and knew that he was alone. Jack, to whom her face was an open book, read the tidings which she had brought before they had exchanged a word. He rose to meet her, and looking into her radiant face, he said in gentle tones and with a grave smile:
“You have good news! Have you found what you hoped to find?”
“I have,” she replied, “and you who have shared all my troubles must be the first sharer of my joy.”
Together they entered the cabin, and seated in the little, familiar room, Lyle told the story of her discovery, and opening the locket, placed it in Jack’s hands.
For a moment he gazed silently at the little trinket, then he said in low tones, as if half to himself, “It is she, and you are her child, as I have always believed,” then added, “I rejoice with you, Lyle, I am glad for your sake.”
But even as he spoke, Lyle, notwithstanding the exuberance of her own joy, could not fail to observe in his face indications of poignant pain, as he looked at the lovely pictured face, and as she repeated the name inscribed opposite.
“Jack!” she suddenly exclaimed, “have I made you suffer by my thoughtlessness? Forgive me!”
“No, my dear,” he answered tenderly, “you have caused me no pain; if I suffer, it is on account of bitter memories of which you as yet know nothing, and I pray you may never know. What letter have you there?”
Lyle read the letter, Jack silently pacing up and down the room, listening, with a look of intense indignation deepening on his face, until she had finished.
“It is as I have suspected all these years,” he said, “the dastardly villain! the scoundrel! Thank God, it is not yet too late, there are those who can and will right the wrong, so far as it is possible to right it.”
At Lyle’s request, they compared the picture with the photograph in Jack’s possession; they were one and the same, except that the latter had been taken a few years earlier.
“Jack,” said Lyle earnestly, “can you tell me anything about my relatives? Are my grandparents living? and had my parents brothers or sisters?”
“I have learned quite recently that your grandparents are still living,” Jack answered slowly, after a pause, “as to the others I cannot say; even of your own mother I can trust myself to say but very little, it is too painful!”
“What would you advise me to do now?” Lyle asked wistfully, but with slight hesitation. “What would be the best course for me to take?”
With an expression unlike anything she had ever seen on his face, and a depth of pathos in his voice she had never heard, he replied very tenderly:
“I can no longer advise you, my dear Lyle; take these proofs which you have found to Everard Houston; he can advise you now far better than I; show them to him, my dear, and you will have no further need of counsel or help from me, much as I wish it were in my power to give both.”
“To Mr. Houston?” Lyle had risen in her surprise, and stood regarding Jack with tearful, perplexed astonishment; there was a hidden significance in his words which as yet she could not fathom. “I do not understand you, Jack; why do you speak as though you could no more be to me the friend and counselor that you have been?”
He smiled one of his rare, sweet smiles. “Do as I have suggested, dear,––then you will understand; and I shall want to see you for a few moments again to-night, after you have seen him.”
Somewhat reassured by his smile, and yet perplexed by his manner, Lyle left the cabin and slowly returned to the house, everything about her seeming unreal, as though she were walking in a dream.
Miss Gladden was chatting with Morton and Ned Rutherford, and in reply to Lyle’s question whether Mr. Houston had returned, stated that he was in his room, having just come up from the mines.
“Thank you, I will see him just a moment,” Lyle responded, passing into the house.
“You have not heard any bad news, have you?” asked Miss Gladden apprehensively, noting the peculiar expression on Lyle’s face.
“No,” the latter answered with a smile, “it is about nothing regarding himself that I wish to see him, only something concerning myself.”
The door stood open into Houston’s room, and Lyle could see him standing by the table, arranging some papers which he proceeded to sort and tie up in separate parcels.
In response to her light knock he glanced quickly around, and observing her unusual expression, advanced to meet her, thinking, as did Miss Gladden, that possibly she had heard something appertaining to the present situation of affairs at the camp.
“Good evening, Lyle, come in; you look as though you were the bearer of important news of some kind.”
“I have news,” she replied, “though of importance only to myself; I need a little counsel, and was told to come to you.”
“You know, Lyle, I will only be too glad to give you any advice, or render any assistance within my power.”
“Thank you,” she answered, at the same time producing the little box and the letter. “Leslie has probably told you of the manner in which I learned that the proofs as to my true parentage and my own identity existed within this house, and of my search for them since that time.”
Houston bowed in assent.
“To-day,” she continued, “my search proved successful, in so far as that I have discovered my own name, and also the proofs that I was stolen by that villain, Maverick, in a spirit of retaliation and revenge; but I have as yet no knowledge as to who or where my friends may be. Naturally, I took these proofs to Jack, and asked his advice as to the best course to pursue, and he has sent me to you.”
“I am more than glad to hear this, my dear Lyle,” responded Houston cordially; “I have always felt a great interest in you, and it will give me much pleasure if I can assist you in finding your friends, and I shall appreciate it highly if Jack has intrusted me with this responsibility.”
Taking the locket from the box, Lyle handed it, unopen, to Houston, saying as she did so, “This is the only clue I have by which to find my friends; it contains my mother’s picture, and my own name,––Marjorie Lyle Washburn.”
“Washburn!” exclaimed Houston in surprise, pausing as he was about to open the locket. “Washburn! Marjorie Washburn! That sounds familiar, both those names occur in my uncle’s family, his wife and his daughter,––ah, I recall it now, that was the name of my cousin’s little daughter. Strange!––what! what is this?” He had opened the locket and was gazing in astonishment at the beautiful face. “This,––this is her picture, the picture of my cousin, Edna Cameron Washburn! What is the meaning of this?” And, unable to say anything further, he looked to Lyle for an explanation.
She, too, was nearly speechless with astonishment. “What did you say was her name?” she stammered.
Houston repeated the name, while a strange light began to dawn in his face.
“She was my mother,” Lyle said simply. She could say nothing more, the walls of the little room seemed to be whirling rapidly about her, and she could see nothing distinctly.
Faintly, as though sounding far in the distance, she heard Houston’s voice as he exclaimed:
“Can it be possible? and yet, you resemble her! Why have I never thought of it before? She had a little daughter Marjorie, whom we always supposed was killed in the wreck in which her own life was lost.”
“And this,” said Lyle, holding out the letter, but speaking with great effort, for the room was growing very dark, and a strange numbness seemed stealing over heart and brain, “this tells that I was stolen from the side of my dead mother who was killed in a wreck––” She could get no farther, and she knew nothing of his reply. A thick darkness seemed to envelop her, fast shutting out all sense even of life itself. There was a sound for an instant like the deafening roar of waters surging about her, and then she seemed sinking down, down into infinite depths, until she lost all consciousness. For the first time in her life she had fainted.
Houston caught her as she was falling, and a moment later the little group outside were startled by his sudden appearance.
“Leslie,” he said, in quick, low tones, “you and Morton come to my room. Lyle has fainted.”
“What is the trouble, Everard?” asked Ned, springing to his feet. “Anything serious?”
“I think not,” was Houston’s reply. “Her fainting was the result of over-excitement. Come into my room, Ned, when she has revived, I think I have made a discovery in which we will all be interested.”
When he returned Lyle was beginning to revive, though unable to speak, and leaving her in the care of Leslie and Morton for a few moments, Houston hastily scanned the letter which Lyle had given him, soon reading enough of its contents here and there to get a correct idea of the whole.
Both Miss Gladden and Morton Rutherford realized that something had transpired out of the usual order of events. Each believed it connected with some discovery relating to Lyle’s early history, but of what nature the discovery might be they had no clue.
As soon as she was able to speak Houston was at her side, and she read in his face the confirmation of the truth which had dawned upon her mind as he had repeated her mother’s name, but which had seemed to her past belief.
“It is really true, and I have not been dreaming?” she asked.
“It is most certainly true, my dear Lyle,” Houston replied, “and I am very glad to find that you, who have seemed to me like a sister from our first acquaintance, will soon be my sister in reality.”
Stooping, he kissed her on the forehead, and then in reply to the glances of astonishment on the part of the others, he said:
“Leslie, I will have to prepare you for a double surprise, and since we four are now members of one family, I can speak here without reserve. When I first won your love, my dear, it was as the salaried clerk of a disreputable mining company. I was old-fashioned enough to wish to win your love with love, to feel assured that you cared for me for my own sake. Lately, you have known that I was the representative of Mr. Cameron, of New York, but you did not know that I was Mr. Cameron’s nephew and adopted son,––his son in all respects, excepting that I have not taken his name.” He paused a moment, and laid his hand affectionately on Lyle’s shoulder. “I now have a pleasant surprise for you both. I wish to introduce you to Marjorie Lyle Washburn, my cousin and my adopted sister.”
With a burst of tears, Miss Gladden knelt beside Lyle, throwing her arms about her neck, while Lyle whispered:
“Dear Leslie, you have been like a sister to me in my poverty and loneliness. I am glad we will not be separated in the life of love and happiness that awaits me. We will be sisters still, more closely united than ever.”
Turning to Morton Rutherford, whose emotion seemed nearly as deep as Miss Gladden’s, Houston said:
“Morton, you remember hearing of my beautiful cousin Edna, and of the sad death of herself and her little daughter, as we always supposed. This is her daughter, and I know that when my uncle and aunt meet her, they will adopt her as their own daughter in her mother’s place.”
It would be impossible to depict the scene that followed, the surprise and delight of Miss Gladden, or the deep joy of Morton Rutherford, but by and by, when they had become more calm, a knock was heard. Houston opened the door, and Ned Rutherford, looking in, was entirely unable to comprehend the scene. Houston held in his hand a small gold locket and a photograph which he seemed to be comparing with each other. Lyle looked very pale, but radiantly happy. Morton was standing near, while Miss Gladden still knelt at her side, her eyes overflowing with tears of joy.
“Come in, Ned,” said Houston cordially. “We want you here to complete the family group.”
Ned looked rather bewildered, as he replied: “I just wanted to inquire for Miss Maverick, to know if she was better.”
“She is much better,” said Houston with a smile, but before he could say anything further, Morton turned toward his brother, saying in gentle, quiet tones, but with a look in his eye which spoke volumes to Ned’s inner consciousness:
“Ned, this is Miss Maverick no longer, but Miss Washburn, the grand-daughter of the Mr. Cameron whom we expect here to-morrow.”
Poor Ned Rutherford! If he had ever laid any claim to dignity and self-possession, they both deserted him now. Utterly bereft of speech, he stood for a moment as if petrified. Then approaching Lyle, he stammered:
“I beg your pardon, Miss,––Miss Washburn, but that is always Mort’s way, to spring anything on me in such a fashion as to knock me out completely. I beg your pardon for appearing so stupid, and I congratulate you on the good news, and extend you my best wishes, Miss–––”
“Oh, call me Lyle,” she interrupted, with a rippling laugh. “I have a right to that name yet.”
“Is that so?” said Ned, with the air of a drowning man clutching at a straw. “Thank you; I’m glad that’s left for a sort of land mark, you know. I’ll call you ‘Lyle’ then, ’till I can get accustomed to the new name,” and he sank in a heap in the nearest chair.
The letter was read, and bitter were the denunciations against Maverick.
“The scoundrel! He ought to be lynched this very night,” said Ned. “That’s the way they do those things out here.”
“Not late years, Ned,” corrected his brother, “and even if they did, that would not be best.”
“It is a question with me,” said Houston, “situated just as we are at present, and with Mr. Cameron expected in a few hours, whether it would be wise to do anything about this until after his arrival.”
“I think not,” said Morton, “under the circumstances, you do not want to arouse the antipathy of any of the miners before Mr. Cameron’s coming, and as Maverick knows nothing of this discovery, he will of course remain here, and Mr. Cameron can advise in this matter as he thinks best.”
And this was the final decision.
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