SHE MUST KEEP THE SECRET
by Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
No telling how long Annette might have lain undiscovered in the rose arbor had not Letty Green, as she went up the steps of the great house, heard the sound of the fatal pistol shot.
Cullen, the manservant, had come out on the steps looking after her, for he was sweet on the pert little maid, and as she returned he accosted her with some smiling pleasantry, to which she was about to give a coquettish answer, when the sudden boom of the pistol shot made her jump almost half a yard high, while she clapped her hands over her ears, shrieking:
“Ouch! what was that?”
“Somebody shooting at ye, maybe,” returned the man, whose firmer nerves made him receive the shock more coolly; and he continued: “Come to my arms, honey, and let me protect you.”
She repulsed him with a coquettish fling, and they both turned and looked in the direction of the arbor, from whence the sound had proceeded.
But the thick shrubberies that dotted the grounds hid from sight the figure of the jealous lover running madly from the scene of the crime he had committed in the height of unreasoning passion.
Suddenly Letty Green grew very pale, and clutched at Cullen for actual support, whispering in awestruck tones:
“Cullen, I’m that nervous I can hardly stand on my feet! I—I—have such an awful sus-suspicion! Suppose that pretty young girl has shot herself in the arbor because her lover’s run away?”
“Let us go and see,” he replied, pulling her hand through his arm, for she was really trembling very much. Thus, arm in arm, he very loverlike, she pretending to pull away from him, and protesting that she daren’t look, they proceeded to the arbor, where they found Annette lying like one dead, outstretched on the ground, with a thin stream of blood pouring from her breast, staining her light silk gown and creamy laces with a gory crimson.
“I said so—I told you so! She’s gone and killed herself!” whimpered Letty, clinging to him[Pg 69] for sympathy, the tears welling into her keen black eyes.
“She’s dead, sure enough, I’m afraid,” returned Cullen, jumping to conclusions without examination. Then he cast a glance upon the ground, adding: “But I don’t see the weapon as she done it with.”
They began to search about, but uselessly. It could not be discovered; and the man said then, pityingly:
“She didn’t do it herself; some one else fired that shot. But who could have had the heart to hurt that pretty, young girl?”
“Yes—who could?” echoed Letty, with a sob; and she began to stroke Annette’s little hands, as they lay limply by her sides.
Then she gave a quick start of surprise.
“Why, her dear little hands are warm yet, and, oh, see—see, Cullen! she ain’t quite dead, for her heart beats a little. Just feel,” and she moved his hand over the girl’s side. “Run, run,” she added, “for a doctor—quick! and I’ll stay till you come back!”
Nothing loath, Cullen set off at full speed, and Letty remained crouching beside the unconscious[Pg 70] girl, stroking her hands, her hair, and the soft folds of her shimmering silk gown with soft, pitying touches.
But suddenly a covetous look gleamed in her eyes, and her hand slid furtively along the silken folds till it was lost to sight. Letty had remembered the little netted purse from which Annette had generously given her a silver piece.
She withdrew her hand furtively, having captured a purse and a letter. The letter, she saw, was addressed to Dallas Bain.
Slipping both into her pocket, Letty murmured:
“Poor thing! That’s why she wanted his address so bad, to send him this letter. Well, I’ll find it out, if I can, and mail it to him. I’ll do her that good turn, poor, pretty little girl! though I don’t believe that my mistress would like it if she knew, for I fancy she is sweet on Mr. Bain herself.”
Cullen had been so fortunate as to find a doctor driving past the gate, and both now appeared on the scene, much to Letty’s joy, for she was a tender-hearted girl, despite her faults of cupidity and deceitfulness.
The physician made a hasty examination, and[Pg 71] discovered that Annette’s wound was not serious, after all. The bullet had been diverted from its course by her stays, and had inflicted a painful but not dangerous wound. He extracted it very easily just before she groaned and recovered consciousness, staring in alarm at the strange faces bending over her as she lay on the ground.
“There, you will do nicely now,” said the kind old doctor, who had already stanched the flow of blood, and he added: “My coupé is at the gate, and I will just take you home to your mother before she gets frightened to death with some awful report that you are murdered.”
The girl’s eyes dilated in anguish, for at that moment everything returned to her mind, and she remembered that the man she loved more than life—her handsome, blue-eyed Ray—had aimed a murderous bullet at her true heart. She almost wished that she had died, so cruel was the pain of knowing that he was unworthy.
Doctor Bowers saw the gleam of apprehension in her dark eyes, and asked quickly:
“Miss Annette, do you know who gave you this wound?”
She was silent a moment, then faltered:
“How should I know? It—it—must have been a stray shot, for—for—I was alone the moment this girl, here, left me, and—then—suddenly I heard the sharp report of a pistol. The bullet pierced my breast, and—I fell to the ground, and knew no more.”
Doctor Bowers glanced at Letty Green, who answered:
“It must be true what she says, for I was here talking to her alone, and it was barely three minutes later that I heard the pistol as I was coming up the steps, and I thought she had committed suicide; so we ran here quick as lightning, but we saw and heard no intruder.”
“It must have been a stray shot,” corroborated Cullen, strong in his conviction that no one could deliberately harm such a pretty young thing.
The old doctor said no more; but in his heart he did not accept the theory of the stray shot.
Something in Annette’s eyes, so startled, so grieved, like a wounded fawn’s, when he questioned her, had half betrayed to him the secret she was loyally guarding.
“The girl is shielding some one—a jealous lover, maybe—but, after the manner of these self-immolating[Pg 73] women, she will never betray her secret,” he thought testily, as he and Cullen carried her gently to the coupé, so that she could be removed to her home.
Poor little Annette, who had started forth so gayly scarce an hour ago, how different was her home-coming, and what a shock the mother’s heart received when they brought her pale darling in with the gory bloodstains defacing her new silk gown!
“Who has done this dreadful thing?” her mother cried; and Doctor Bowers could only tell her what he had heard:
“It was a stray shot.”
They bore her to her little white bed, and for a week she was very, very ill, the result of shock as much as from her wound. Fever and delirium set in, and sometimes she raved of her lover, Ray, beseeching him to come back to her, but never by the least hint betraying the secret of his terrible crime.
When she began to convalesce it was the same way. Annette gave no hint of having seen Ray Dering, even when her mother questioned her, and told her of his going after her to Sea View.
Her dark eyes assumed a look of plaintive wonder, and she faltered:
“How strange, how very strange, that I did not see Ray! But I suppose he must have been suddenly called away by a telegram. I shall get a letter from him soon explaining everything.”
And she pretended to look anxiously each day for the letter, while at heart she wondered what had become of her jealous lover, and if he had really gone in pursuit of Dallas Bain, believing him a successful rival.
“What if he should find him and kill him?” she shuddered; and it was no wonder that she convalesced so slowly, with such a terrible weight upon her mind.
When Daisie Bell, whose sprain was well now, came to see her, she was shocked at the piteous change in her pale little friend.
“Oh, how I hate the wretch who nearly killed you, even though it was a stray shot!” she exclaimed; but the poor girl could not confess to Daisie Bell that it was through espousing her cause and trying to straighten out her tangled love affair that she had incurred Ray’s jealousy, and caused the shipwreck of her own happiness.
No, she could not speak, for she must keep the secret now for the sake of her cruel lover.
“But not that I love him any more, for I suppose I ought to hate him now, but I should not wish harm to come to him through me,” thought the loyal young heart.
She told Daisie of her cruel disappointment in not finding out the address of Dallas Bain, and said:
“You will find the letter you gave me in the pocket of the gown I wore that day. It is hanging there in my wardrobe.”
But Daisie found the pocket empty.
“It is very strange,” cried Annette. “I am sure the letter was in my pocket with my little netted purse.”
“Never mind, dear, the letter does not matter now,” Daisie returned sadly, for it seemed to her that Dallas was lost to her forever.
She was wretched, too, for, although she had confessed everything to Royall Sherwood, he would not release her from her promise to marry him.
The Strength of Love by Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
Author: Mrs. ALEX. McVEIGH MILLER
Native Language: English