- CHAPTER VIII "MAN PROPOSES--DEATH INTERPOSES"
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"MAN PROPOSES--DEATH INTERPOSES"
"AND so you had actually forgotten our ride that we were to take this afternoon? That humbles me, Miss Lorna."
Lorna Hilton laughs, her sweet, clear laugh, and her dark eyes are lifted to his face, questioning, doubtful, and with just a shade of troubled wistfulness in their depths.
"I had forgotten, I am afraid, though I seem to recall it quite distinctly now. We were going to--" she stops at a loss, and looking bewildered.
"We are going to Elm Heights," he smiles, "going by the west road, or the east--which?"
"Oh, the east; it is longer, but it is not so steep, and then--it's so pretty."
"True; and we cross the bridge over the little torrent--which is a torrent only when the rains come down and fill it, and we return--how?"
"Why," she glances up, and then instantly away from him, "don't you know that there is no other way back from across the bridge, unless you go down the ravine for miles and miles, or up it, to the Walton Mills, five miles to the north-west? It's a | | 100 strange bit of wild nature, that long, long ravine, running out from the lake, on and on, and higher and higher; and that rustic old bridge! Loyd says it is very old, and that there is talk of replacing it with a modern iron structure. It will be such a pity!"
"A thousand pities! And so we must cross and recross by the old bridge, or miss Elm Heights and the view therefrom?"
They are wheeling side by side, with the ease of skilled and fearless cyclers; the girl, fair and smiling, and so sure of herself, and the trust-worthiness and ready response of her wheel, that her face wears none of that intense look which becomes a permanent scowl with some, a look of dread expectancy with others, and, with most, a fixed mask, with eyes set straight ahead, and every feature too strained and stony to impress the onlooker with a sense of the "freedom of motion," the "exhilaration," and the "absence of all care"--save the one all-pervading care for one's equilibrium--the force and intensity of which thought is registered in the countenance of the average cyclist, and has been graphically christened as "the bicycle face."
The face of Lorna Hilton is not such an one. It is a softly tinted brunette face, which meets the world with the confidence of the care-free, the tenderly led and gently guided; trustful, fearless, with the fearlessness of innocence, and glowing with the brightness of the day, the love of a life that has known no storm-clouds, and the pleasure of swift, secure motion.
If there is the faintest shade, from time to time, | | 101 upon Lorna Hilton's beautiful face, it is a fleeting look of perplexity, of indecision or uncertainty, which comes into it at times even when it smiles, as it lifts itself to meet the gaze of Felix Chetwynde, and, as the talk grows more personal, and his gaze, never for long withdrawn from her face, becomes more intent and mutely "asking," her lovely face, while showing no shade of fear, passes through shades of wonder and reluctance, followed by slow acceptance, which, in its turn, becomes a sort of sweet, unquestioning affirmation of all he says.
And so they go on, around the east path, with its easy slopes and grassy curves, where the fisherman's donkey path, for it began as such, has been worn by many human feet, and finally cleared and made smooth by the willing natives of the village "across the lake," until it has grown to be a sylvan path over which the swift, untiring rival of the noble horse may speed safely under tree shade and by blossoming ways.
Through lofty leafy arches, across bars and lances of sunlight, over tinkling streams on fairy bridges, lately built for just such uses, under boughs that bend low and interlace, they go, pausing here and there. But not for long, for Felix is now the one who hastes, eager to reach the Heights; and so they go on and up until the Heights are in sight, and the rustic bridge is just before them.
Narrow and high, airy and picturesque it stands before them, and a short distance away upon the level ground at the top of the gradual upward slope Felix springs from his wheel, his companion silently following his example.| | 102
"Behold the drawbridge," he cries, with a dramatic flourish of his slim, brown hand, "over which the fair lady of this domain must pass first. Her vassal will follow."
There is a moment of light laughter and playful rebellion on the part of Lorna, then, with smiles on her lips, but the look of half-wondering compliance once more in her eyes, Lorna springs upon her wheel and speeds across, pausing and turning, upon the other side.
"Now, Sir Vassal!"
Felix doffs his cap, salutes with the grace of a cavalier of old, mounts and crosses as the bird flies, as swiftly as silently, and is at her side again.
"Do you know, fair lady, that this bridge is unsafe? I felt it quiver and creak with my weight alone."
Lorna looks startled for a moment, but presently they turn from the bridge to explore the Heights and gaze at the panorama spread out below. The distant meadows and streams to the westward; the wooded valleys stretching south, and the lake-shore gleaming on the east, its curving inner coast dotted here and there with villas, cottages, and cabins; and then suddenly a tinkling bell breaks the stillness, and Lorna looks about her and gives a little cry of alarm.
"Felix!" she exclaims, "those are Matt Morrow's mules, and two of them are vicious, unsafe when loosed! How has he dared to let them range here again! He was fined for it only last month, the fishermen say."
Very gently, with reassuring words and magnetic | | 103 soothing touch, he leads her to a clump of sheltering brushwood, and, bidding her remain quiet, leaves her there.
"I will drive them down the eastern path," he says. "There is no other way. Morrow should be arrested."
Hastily cutting two great branches from the nearest tree, he goes stealthily around the open space where the animals are browsing, and, coming behind them so that they are between him and the bridge, he utters a loud shout and rushes upon them with the two leafy branches held before and quite concealing him. The creatures, quiet enough at the moment, lift their heads, and, at the sound of the next shout, dash away, and straight toward the weakened bridge.
There is a clatter of hoofs across the frail flooring, which rings hollow and creaks and groans, and then, as the forefeet of the hindmost animal strikes the rocky abutment upon the further side, there is a crashing of timbers, a rattling of stones, and the bridge, which furnished their only way of direct return, is lying in fragments at the bottom of the steep ravine, or hanging in broken lengths from either end; while the solitary central support stands up, skeleton-like and frail, in the middle.
For a moment Felix Chetwynde surveys the ruins, and there is a smile on his face. Then, as Lorna comes out from her ambush and joins him at the edge of the narrow abyss, he turns, and the smile becomes softer, gentler, full of reassurance and good comradeship; and it is in this vein that they talk while he leads her up and down along the edge | | 104 of the ravine, looking down and discussing the possibility of some one coming soon to the bridge whom they may warn, and who will, in turn, bring about their rescue.
"We might go on, it is true," he says, as if he were seriously considering this course. "And if I dare think solely of you--" and here his eyes say what his lips withhold. "But there are, or there may be, others, and the light here is so dim, on both sides, with this picturesque overgrowth of ivy and elder and willows, one must be actually upon the edge before he can see his danger, and then--"
"It would be too late," she shudders; "and it would be horrible!"
"And you will trust yourself to my care for a little while?"
The afternoon sun is high when the two seat themselves upon a fallen log and begin their task of waiting. At first it is of the bicycle that they talk, for both are lovers of the wheel, and Felix amuses Lorna with his whimsical account of Aunt Cassandra's sudden conversion, and of Hope's antipathy to it, and to all its works and ways. He sits beside her as he talks, and his eyes, dark and persuasive, are seldom removed from her face, and as he talks lightly and impersonally for a time she listens more and more intently, and the waiting is forgotten, and the afternoon is drawing to a close.
But if the hour is forgotten by the fair girl, every moment is leaden to Felix Chetwynde as it passes, even while his lips smile, his eyes beam upon her face, and the light words trip so fluently from his | | 105 tongue. For the hour is big with the hazard he has staked upon it. It is his hour of fate, and from it he must wrest a future of wealth, honour, love, and safety, or here, and now, on the very threshold of his career, he must lay down his weapons and go out from this life of care, refinement, cleanliness of thought and living to that other life which he once knew and now loathes.
And there is only one little word, short, simple, easy to speak, which spoken stands to him for honour, wealth, and happiness.
That mystic, wonderful little word! It contains but three letters, and it has ever the same meaning--yet, in speaking it, woman, young and fair and innocent, sets the seal upon a life's happiness or ordains a life's defeat and doom, one or the other it is always, since the beginning.
That Felix Chetwynde possessed a power which few women could gainsay was a fact of which he is fully assured; but to-day he is less self-confident than his wont, for two reasons. The stake is so large, and his heart is threatening to master his head, and he must retain his coolness or risk a failure. And yet how can he be cool when his love for this girl had grown stronger than himself?--for he does love her and her money only makes her the more necessary to him.
The sun is sinking low and is almost ready to disappear--even from the sight of the two perched so high upon Elm Heights, to whom it is visible long after it has hidden itself from the valley below, when the word is spoken which awakes Lorna Hilton from the dreaming, indifferent reverie in | | 106 which time seems as nothing and the charm of her companion's voice to have blotted out all memory, all thought for the present or future.
But a woman's heart is a difficult harp to play upon--one which trembles and thrills under certain touches, and sends forth startled minor chords of alarm and affright when the wrong hand essays the low, tender notes that respond, fully and sweetly, to but one touch.
Felix Chetwynde's wooing, if such it may be called, has been of an unusual sort, and all his words have been, so far, framed to set fears and tremors at rest; and now the sun is setting. He has heard a rustling in the bushes which tells him that, not far away, a light waggonette has been left at his disposal, and the setting sun has warned him that a certain train will leave a railway station, not many miles distant, in less than a hour and a half.
The time of gentle preparation has passed. He must summon all his courage, all his strength, all his will-power, now; and he must--he must repress all the tremors, the fears, and falterings of love, all thoughts of jealousy or possible rivalry.
The fair girl beside him is sitting quiescent, half smiling, her eyes half veiled and sheening, her graceful head drooping. In her mind, just now, is no thought of the hour, no real thought of any sort; in fact, she is quiescent, passive, languid.
As she sits thus he takes one unresisting hand in both his own, and holding her gaze with his makes the daring, desperate plunge.
Gently at first, in soft, low tones, assured and | | 107 reassuring, he tells of his love and affirms hers for him, reminds her of sweet words--never spoken--of promises--never given; and she listens, and, save for a faint tremor and an instant of deprecation and affrighted withdrawal quickly soothed, she sits, and by her silence, her acceptance of his statements, his declarations, seems quite in the power of the charmer, quite won.
But to every soul, groping however darkly, held in thrall by never so strong a power, there is given a talisman, a saving grace, which, coming at the moment of deadliest danger, unlocks all that is strongest, and, if heeded and obeyed, is potent to renew, to strengthen for the battle--to save.
It is this saving word which has nerved martyrs to die gloriously, has upheld the banner of faith or freedom, and, at the moment of defeat, has changed the tide of battle and given the world its heroes.
We have read how the bird, charmed to the very jaws of the serpent, has been strengthened to break the spell and soar to safety at the cry of its hungering young. And we know that lives go out in darkness and souls perish all about us because no one knows the open sesame, the voice, the word, the name which is all-potent each to its one soul.
The open sesame came to Lorna Hilton when, rising from a fallen log, and allowing him to lead her away from the place and farther from the wrecked bridge, the chasm and the homeward road on the opposite side, and deeper into the wood, where the now restive horse is tethered--wisdom forsakes Felix Chetwynde.| | 108
Perfect wisdom is given to no man--is wisely withheld, perhaps--and Felix Chetwynde, who has so cleverly, so artfully, played his rôle of serpent, is too full of the lesser human passions to be a perfect Mephisto. He loves the fair girl he is beguiling, and would fain have won her in a better way, if he had not been so hedged about, so menaced, so full of the fears of rivalry--of Terry Glynne.
As he draws her hand beneath his arm to lead her away, secure now of his triumph and of her perfect obedience and acquiescence, suddenly the sense of his victory comes over him, like heady wine, and he stops, turns towards her, and catching both her hands draws her towards him.
"Lorna!" he cries, "my beautiful Lorna! Look at me; closer, closer. Lift your sweet face, and give to me one long, long kiss from those lovely lips that are all mine now! Give to me freely the kiss that Terence Glynne would sue for for half a lifetime and think it cheap if won!"
Slowly--slowly she draws back from him, the look of one suddenly waking from a hateful nightmare dawning in her face, until, wild with rage and fear and desperation, he sees this look growing from inquiry to resistance, and feels the hands become tense and strong beneath his grasp; and now, silently at first, but with fast-growing strength and returning intelligence, she strives to release herself from his frenzied grasp. The horror growing in her face, as, made recklessly daring, he pours out his love, his rage, his desperate determination that nothing now shall separate them.| | 109
"You are mine!" he cries hoarsely; "and mine you shall remain! The power is mine; the way is clear. There can be no going back now! Your way and mine lie together 'for always till death do us part.'"
Fiercer, wilder, more wickedly desperate his words flow on. For the moment he is passion mad. He seizes her in his arms, lifts her from her feet, and dashes into the thick wood toward the right, where the stamping horse is concealed, where the underbrush is thickest, the ravine narrowest and deepest.
As he leaps forward, close now to the edge of the ravine, Lorna wrenches free for a moment the face he is pressing close to his shoulder with one strong hand, and clear and ringing the cry goes sounding through the wood--
"Help! help! help! Loyd--Terence!"
Is there an answering cry, and a rustling of the bushes on the other side? or is it only the echo of her voice? the crackling of the dry twigs, 'neath the madman's flying feet?
Who can tell? All has happened in a moment. Her captor's quick rush, her clear cry, and another sound, sharp and sudden; then the echoes of the cry and the sharp report are blended together, and Felix Chetwynde goes crashing down, with Lorna still held in his relaxing embrace; goes down, so close to the edge of the ravine that the now fully assured girl cries out again, recoils, catches at the nearest shrub, and, lying thus, half out half in the already unconscious arms of Felix Chetwynde, sees, or fancies she sees, a face looking down upon her from the trees--or the clouds--which? Before she | | 110 can decide she swoons utterly, and lies thus, perilously near to the edge still, while a pale-faced and dishevelled young man comes to the opposite side of the ravine, from the shelter of the vine-hung rustic arch of the fallen bridge, and sinks, trembling, to his knees as he gazes across, horror-stricken, at the suddenly fallen dead and the helpless and imperilled living.
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