THE SPIDER’S WEB
by Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
Mrs. Fleming was not looking straight at Annette when she asked her question, or she would have seen a deep crimson mount to the young girl’s brow as she answered evasively:
“I do not remember any young man at Gull Beach who wore glasses.”
“Perhaps it was only my fancy that I had seen him before,” Mrs. Fleming answered carelessly, dismissing the subject—in which, indeed, she took but little interest, her anxious fears being centered on the alarming rencounter of Daisie with the Cullens.
She was terrified at the thought of her finding out at this late day the wicked part she had played in estranging her from Dallas Bain.
And yet she knew that it was possible, and even highly probable, that Daisie might become acquainted with her treachery at no distant day.
It had taken a large bribe—no less a price than enough money to marry on and set up housekeeping[Pg 246] in New York—to induce Cullen and Letty to carry out the hasty plot she had formed on the night when Royall’s accident had made it possible to summon Daisie to his side and keep her there. Mrs. Fleming had paid the pair a thousand dollars; but she did not regret it, seeing that such success had crowned her efforts.
She had succeeded in parting Daisie and Dallas—a glorious triumph for a woman who loved the latter as madly as she did, and she did not despair of meeting him at some future time and winning him yet.
In the meantime, it was part of her policy to make friends with Daisie, and, after overcoming the girl’s first natural resentment over the part she had played in marrying her to Royall, she found it easy to do. Poor Daisie was so sad and lonely with her wounded heart, in the midst of her new splendor of wealth and place, that she could not repulse any offered kindness.
So an intimacy, if not a real friendship, grew up between the pair, and she was loath to have it broken off now by the risk that confronted her in the attitude of her whilom maid and her rapacious husband.
Spoiled by the taste of wealth, the pair had begun a system of blackmail that threatened to bankrupt the lady if permitted to continue.
In vain she offered to take both of them back into her employ and pay the most liberal wages; they had grown too high and mighty to work, and intended to be furnished with ample means to pursue a life of idleness and luxury.
They threatened to betray the whole thing to Daisie unless she complied with their insistent demands.
After a stormy scene this morning with Letty, in which she had been remorselessly mulcted of several hundred dollars, it was most embarrassing to find that Daisie had just met the pair outside, and that only her payment of the money had prevented the injured girl from finding out the whole truth.
She knew that Letty would return ere long for more money, and that her persecution would never cease while the pair lived.
“Oh, I wish they would drop dead this day! I wish the trolley cars would run them down and kill both the wretches!” she thought vindictively.
She was thoroughly frightened and angry, too,[Pg 248] at having to lose so much money, and she took a sudden resolution to confess everything to Royall, and get his advice.
After all, Royall had profited more than she had by the successful plot. He had won Daisie for his wife, but she had lost Dallas Bain, for whom she had dared and risked so much. Almost seven months had flown, and she had never heard of him again since he had left Gull Beach in the gray dawn, driven away by her cruel scheming. He might be dead and buried, for all she knew.
And for all her beauty and pride and wealth, no one need have envied Lutie Fleming, she was secretly so unhappy over the aching pain of her wild and hopeless love.
True, the meeting last night with Lord Werter had turned her thoughts in his direction; but she did not really suspect his identity with the man she loved, despite the wonderful likeness. It was no wonder, for she had been accustomed to think of Dallas as poor and obscure, tutored thereto by Royall Sherwood.
But the fact remained that she could have found consolation very quickly with Lord Werter, had she been given the chance; but Annette[Pg 249] Janowitz appeared to her in the light of a dangerous rival.
So her mood of to-day was certainly not a pleasant one, and the temptation came to her to seek consolation in her troubles by sharing them with her Cousin Royall. It was only fair that he should bear his part, especially in paying the price of the deception, since he had profited by it more than she had done.
So when the girls told her what a bright, sunny day it was, and how the warm sun had melted away all the snow in the streets, and begged her to go wheeling with them, she readily consented, saying she would like to go and see Royall about some tiresome business.
Donning her becoming bicycle suit, the pretty blonde joined them on their pleasant spin, and they remained out for something over an hour, when an increasing chilliness in the air warned them that the treacherous spring weather was not to be depended on for long.
“Let us go home,” said Daisie; and the others were very willing.
They had had many such pleasant trips together last fall, but this one stayed in their memory[Pg 250] ever afterward. They remembered it so well, because it seemed like the calm before the storm, like the last bright gleam of day before the gloom of night.
“Lutie, you may stay and talk to Royall while I go upstairs to change my dress,” said Daisie, when they had gone in to see her husband, and found him very bright and animated, listening to his companion’s spicy reading of some political news.
Mrs. Fleming beamed on Reed Raymond presently with her kindest smile, and observed:
“If you have been cooped up here all day with Royall, you had better go out for a stroll and some fresh air while I amuse him.”
He thanked her, and went, deciding that he would call on Lord Werter and tell him how well he was succeeding in his mission.
Mrs. Fleming chatted on indifferent subjects a while longer, then cautiously led up to the subject nearest her heart, and presently blurted it all out to her silent, startled listener.
It was a shock to him certainly—a greater shock than she had foreboded.
He reeled under it, turning so pale that she was frightened, and exclaimed:
“Oh, Royall, forgive me for telling you! but I could not bear the burden any longer.”
His face was ghastly, but he answered sadly:
“I am not finding fault with you, Lutie; it’s too late for that; and the burden must have been heavy on your conscience as well as your purse. But you must not have that expense any longer.”
“You mean you will help to bear the expense of their extortions—that we cannot put the wretches off?”
“No; we dare not incense them. It is worth the whole of my fortune to keep this thing from Daisie. The Cullens must be paid to keep the secret still. When they come again, draw on me for the amount of their demands; and you must let me reimburse you, Lutie, for all you have spent.”
“You are very generous, Royall.”
“No, only just; for, as you say, I am the only one who profited by your treachery. It won sweet Daisie for me, my peerless wife. Ah, Lutie, you do not dream how madly I love her, and how[Pg 252] I dream of winning her love in return when I get well!”
“She seems to love you now, Royall.”
“No; it is only sweet womanly pity. I would like to cheat my heart with the thought that it is love, but I know better. She does not try to deceive me. It is the tenderness of a sister she lavishes on me. What better could I expect, helpless cripple that I am? But I still have hopes of recovering, Lutie. I am trying every eminent doctor that I can hear of; and when I am restored to health and strength again—you know I was a handsome man once, Lutie—then surely, surely she will give me her heart.”
It was the same hope that had possessed him from the hour that Daisie Bell had first dawned on his vision, in her innocent, girlish beauty—the longing to win her for his own.
To accomplish this he had stooped to every treacherous art that could beguile her from her preference for another. He had succeeded in a fashion; she wore his name and his jewels. She had been tricked into that much by a hideous lie; but the craving of his heart was not yet satisfied. Her love was yet to win.
He looked sadly at Lutie, saying:
“We had better change the subject now. She will be coming down presently, poor, deceived darling!”
Alas! neither one of them had remembered the pretty little alcove divided from the library only by heavy silken curtains, where there was a cozy divan at the pleasure of the indolently inclined.
Daisie had come down long ago—almost immediately after Reed Raymond went out; but the heaviness of heart that had seized on her after meeting the Cullens made her disinclined for conversation just yet. She slipped into the alcove from the hall, and lay down on the divan, thinking she would go in presently, when conversation began to languish between Royall and his cousin.
She did not mean to play the eavesdropper. She had no idea at first that they were speaking of private matters. She was just tired, and her head and her heart both ached. Poor Daisie, and she lay listening dreamily, not caring at all what they were saying.
But suddenly a sentence caught and fixed her attention, because it held the name of Dallas Bain.
She listened, spellbound, her heart beating[Pg 254] wildly in her fair breast, her face growing pale as death.
So she knew at last—Royall Sherwood’s unloving wife—how she had been tricked and cheated out of happiness by that shameless scheming of Lutie Fleming.
Should she stretch out her hand to draw back the curtain and denounce the plotters for the shipwreck of her life—for the lies she had been told when her lover was true as steel?
No, she would not speak now. What could reproaches avail? She had walked into the spider’s web. She could not get free. What need to proclaim her misery to the wretches who had caused it?
She got up, with a corpselike face, and dragged herself out into the hall, thinking that she would go back to her own room and lie down, she felt so strangely ill; but with her foot on the first step she reeled and fell backward to the floor, crushed by the weight of her soul’s despair.
Patrick was just admitting some callers—Mrs. Hill-Dixon and her cousin, Lord Werter—when the sound of the fall drew their attention, and the gentleman rushed to the prostrate form.
He saw her lying there like one dead, his life’s love, and, with a wild rush of tenderness, lifted the beautiful form in his arms, exclaiming:
“Oh, heavens! what shall I do?”
“Just carry her up to her own room, Dallas. Patrick will lead the way,” said Mrs. Hill-Dixon, who had a very practical mind, and saw that Daisie had fainted.
Who could tell what thoughts rushed through his mind as he mounted the stairs with his lovely unconscious burden? The strongest one was a longing to crush her fondly against his breast and fly with her to the uttermost parts of the earth, his beautiful love, of whom he had been so cruelly cheated.
He could not bear to lay her down, when the frightened maid came to his assistance, but his cousin reminded him of the proprieties by gently whispering in his ear:
“Go down, now, and wait in the drawing-room for news.”
He was loath to obey—he longed to rebel, to cry out fiercely:
“I will not go until she opens her blue eyes and[Pg 256] smiles on me, my lost love, of whom I was cheated by cruel lies!”
But at that moment Annette entered and touched his hand warningly, as she exclaimed:
“I am so glad to see you both. But now let us go down and leave Emma to care for Daisie. It is only a simple fainting fit. See, she is already opening her eyes.”
It was true; and as they left the room Dallas could not resist the temptation of looking back. Yes, her eyes followed him with a wistful pain that pierced his heart to its center.
The Strength of Love by Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
Author: Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
Native Language: English