In the moment that is the happiest

At that sudden and terrible-looking apparition, Jaquelina remained for
a moment perfectly motionless.

Surprise and terror had rendered her for the time perfectly incapable
of speech or motion.

Meanwhile the gleaming black eyes of the man, looking inordinately
large and fierce in his blackened face, were riveted upon her
beautiful, pallid features.

“Miss Meredith, do you not know me?” he asked, breaking the silence at
last, in a low, deep, angry voice.

Jaquelina shivered and started at that intense voice. His name fell
from her lips in a gasp:

“Gerald Huntington!”

“Yes,” he said, bitterly. “Gerald Huntington! I see you have not
forgotten me. My tattered garb, my blackened face are not sufficient to
hide your victim from your keen eyes.”

He held up his hands, that were blackened also, and she shivered as
she saw the heavy handcuffs that were still clasped about his wrists,
though the strong chain that had bound them together was filed in half.

“I have escaped from the prison to which you betrayed me,” he said to
her in a tone of fierce triumph and joy.

In all the terror of that moment Jaquelina felt as though a heavy
weight had been lifted off her heart.

“Before God, I am glad!” she broke out fervently, clasping her small
hands together while her dark eyes sparkled with joy.

But a scowl of withering scorn and unbelief broke over the dark
features of the outlaw, transforming them to the semblance of a demon’s.

Jaquelina was reminded irresistibly of the vivid words in which Byron
had described the Corsair.

“There was a laughing devil in his sneer
That raised emotions of both love and fear,
And where his scowl of hatred darkly fell,
Hope, withering, fled–and mercy sighed farewell.”

“Do not lie to me, Miss Meredith,” exclaimed Gerald Huntington, with
that terrible sneer still curling his closely-shaven lips. “Do not
lie to me in hope of turning aside the shaft of my deadly revenge. I
have sworn to punish you, and I shall keep my vow. You pretend to a
penitence you do not feel; I have not the least doubt that you would be
glad to deliver me up to justice this minute.”

“No, I would not,” replied Jaquelina earnestly. She was getting over
the first shock of her surprise and terror, and her young face looked
brave and almost fearless as she lifted it in the dim light. “I would
not for worlds betray you to your foes again. See how quietly I sit
here without raising my voice, or trying to alarm anyone.”

“That is because you are afraid of me,” he said, mockingly, as he put
his hand in his bosom that she might hear the click of his threatening
weapon. “I am a desperate man, and you know it, Miss Meredith. If you
tried to raise an alarm I should immediately shoot you.”

They looked at each other a moment silently across the narrow strip of
singing water.

A braver heart than little Jaquelina’s might have quailed at his
aspect, the murderous gleam in his eyes might have daunted a heart less
true and pure than hers, but he did not see her tremble as she answered
earnestly:

“I do not intend to raise an alarm, Mr. Huntington. On the contrary,
I am willing, and even anxious, to do you a kindness if it lies in my
power. Is there aught I can do for you? Are you thirsty or hungry? If
so, let me bring you food and drink.”

He stared at her with a muttered curse.

“So you are laying a trap to ensnare me,” he said, roughly. “No, thank
you, fair lady, I am not ready to fall into your power so easily.
Perhaps, now, you would lend me a horse to carry me a few miles
to-night out of danger’s reach, since you are so kindly disposed toward
me,” sneeringly.

The young moon rising over the hills threw a beam upon Jaquelina’s
face, showing it white and troubled and earnest.

“I–have no horse of my own,” she said, hesitatingly. “If I should lend
you one of my uncle’s, might I dare hope that you would turn it loose
after a few miles, and let it come back?”

“No, you might not dare to hope,” he said, mockingly. “I ask no favors
at your hands. It would spoil the sweet flavor of my revenge. I am not
friendless as you suppose. I have a purse of gold in my breast and a
swift horse waiting for me not a mile away from here. I but turned
aside from my way for one look at the fair flower-face that beguiled me
to my ruin. And now that I have seen you, lovely Jaquelina, I am loath
to part from you again; I am tempted to take you away with me, and make
you an outlaw’s cherished and fondly worshiped bride.”

With a low cry of sudden fear and alarm, Jaquelina sprang up and turned
to flee.

But her enemy was too swift for her. At a single bound he cleared the
brook, and before she had run a dozen rods he caught her arm in a grasp
of steel.

She turned toward him with a white imploring face and frightened eyes.

“Let me go,” she panted, with failing breath. “I cannot go with you, I
cannot be your wife!”

He laughed scornfully.

“You shall go free,” he said. “Do not be frightened–the time for my
revenge is not yet. I shall only dash the cup of joy from your lips
when it is so full that a rose-leaf will cause it to overflow. I am
going now; but remember this truth, my fair enemy, I am not powerless.
I am only biding my time. In the moment that is the happiest of your
whole life I shall take my revenge!”

He threw her wrathfully from him, and in a moment had disappeared
from sight and hearing. Jaquelina lay half-stunned a moment in the
long, dewy grass where she had fallen, her heart thrilling with a dumb,
prescient fear and dread.

“In the moment that is the happiest of your whole life I will take my
revenge,” Gerald Huntington had said, and those words had strangely
recalled the words of her lover’s letter.

“In the moment when you give yourself to me–the happiest moment of my
life!” Ronald Valchester had written; and Jaquelina shivered with a
nameless dread and terror, for she knew that that moment would be the
happiest one of her whole life also.

“Oh, Ronald–Ronald!”

“Lina, my little darling!” and Ronald Valchester drew his betrothed
into his arms, and pressed a score of fond kisses on the dewy, crimson
lips.

It was the day before the wedding, and though Jaquelina had been
expecting him all the morning, he had taken her by surprise at last.

After dinner she had gone out into the orchard and sat down beneath her
favorite tree, feeling certain that Ronald would seek her there first.
But after watching for him vainly for awhile, she fell into a dreamy
revery in which he came unseen and unheard at last.

He sat down beside her, letting his arm remain about the slender waist,
and with the beauty and silence of nature all about them, they talked
of their happiness in meeting again, and of the coming morrow, when
they should be united to part no more.

“It seems too blissful to be true,” Jaquelina murmured wistfully,
looking up in her lover’s happy face. “Oh, Ronald, if anything should
happen?”

“What could happen, Lina?” said Ronald Valchester, laughing at her
fears. “I hope you are not growing nervous and fanciful, little one.”

Then he suddenly saw that the bright rose-flush that had come into
her face when she met him was dying out, and leaving her pale and
wistful-looking.

“Lina, you do not look quite so well as usual,” he said, anxiously.
“You are paler than I ever saw you, and your eyes have a startled
expression now and then. It seems to me that you are slightly nervous.
Are you not well?”

“I am perfectly well,” she replied, quickly; but his attention once
awakened, he could not help seeing that there was a slight and subtle
change in her.

She would start and look around at the rustle of the falling leaves
that began to strew the orchard with a carpeting of scarlet and russet
and gold. Every time the great mellow globes of winter apples would
fall into the grass, she would look up quickly, with something like
fear in her eyes. It was plain to be seen, as Ronald Valchester had
said, that she was nervous.

As his gaze dwelt on her, full of tender solicitude, she was tempted
to tell him of that night, two weeks ago, when she had been so startled
and frightened by the sudden appearance and menacing words of Gerald
Huntington. A haunting dread and terror had possessed her ever since.

She waked at night from startling dreams, in which the lowering gaze
and the clanking irons of the escaped prisoner were so terribly real
that she could scarcely persuade herself that it had only been a vision
of her slumber.

Her nights were restless, her days were filled with dread. She was
afraid to dwell too much on her love and her happiness. She remembered
that the outlaw had said he would take his revenge in the moment that
was the happiest of her life.

Yet she shrank from telling Ronald Valchester the truth. She had
noticed that he seemed to dislike the mention of Gerald Huntington. He
had never praised her as others did for capturing the outlaw. He had
never even told her whether he thought she had acted right or wrong
in the matter. She decided that she would not tell him. She had never
told anyone of her adventure that night, though the whole country
was excited over the second, and this time successful, escape of the
prisoner.

“My mother came with me,” he said, after a little. “She was fatigued
with travel, and did not feel like calling on you to-day, but to-morrow
I shall bring her to see you. She claims the privilege of dressing the
bride.”

The lovely color came surging up into Jaquelina’s pale cheeks at her
lover’s words.

“Oh! you do not know how I dread the ordeal of to-morrow night,” she
whispered to him. “All the country people will be crowded into the
little church, and–only think–I must walk up the aisle before them
all to be–married!”

Ronald Valchester laughed at her pretty bashfulness.

“To-morrow night will be a slight ordeal to what you will have to
encounter in the way of people when I take you home to Richmond,” he
replied. “I have never told you yet, my darling, that we are very
wealthy. I was pleased to think that you loved me for myself alone. But
the truth is, Lina, my father is a millionaire, and you will enter the
highest rank of society when you become my bride. After we have been
married awhile, and you have learned something of the world, I shall
take you with me on a tour to Europe. Shall you like that, my dearest?”

“Very much,” Lina replied, delightedly.

He did not tell her that his father, the proud General Valchester, was
both grieved and disappointed that his handsome son, whom half the
_belles_ of Richmond were sighing for, had chosen to marry an obscure
and simple little country girl.

His gentle mother, too, was distressed over it, but she had allowed
her darling son to persuade her that his betrothed was the fairest
and most lovable girl on earth, and she had come with Ronald to the
wedding, determined, for the sake of her son, to make the most of her
daughter-in-law.

She was staying with the Earles by express invitation and Violet was
especially charming and affectionate to Ronald Valchester’s mother–so
much so, indeed, that stately old Mrs. Valchester unbent from her quiet
dignity enough to say, frankly:

“It is a wonder to me, Miss Earle, that my Ronald could have strayed
any further than Laurel Hill to make his choice. If Miss Meredith is
any more charming and lovely than you she must be a wonderful girl.”

A peculiar expression came over Violet’s pale, fair face. She turned
her head away and looked out of the window silently a moment, but when
she looked back her face wore a careless smile.

“Many thanks for your compliment, Mrs. Valchester,” she replied. “Lina
is very pretty, I assure you. She has a gipsyish kind of beauty.”

“Is she dark?” asked Mrs. Valchester, and Violet replied:

“She has a brown skin and dark eyes, and her hair is a kind of
chestnut, but rather sunburned, I think. You see she is always out in
the wind and sun.”

“I am rather sorry she is a brunette,” said Mrs. Valchester, looking at
Violet’s lily-white beauty. “I always admired blondes the most. But,”
hopefully, “my son tells me she is a beautiful singer.”

“Yes, she has a good voice,” admitted Violet. “It is loud and clear,
yet almost totally uncultivated. She has had only a few months’
tuition, you know. But, of course, after she–is–married, Mr.
Valchester will secure a teacher for her in all those branches in which
she is deficient.”

“Of course,” said Ronald Valchester’s mother, but in her heart she
winced at the idea of a daughter-in-law who would require teachers
after she was married. What would her fashionable and exclusive set say
to such a wife for her only son of whom she was so proud?

“Ronald told me that Miss Meredith is quite fresh from
boarding-school,” she said faintly, after a moment.

“Oh! yes, she had _one_ year at Staunton,” said Violet, carelessly, yet
enjoying to the utmost the anxiety she had awakened in the mind of the
proud old lady. “Of course you know, dear Mrs. Valchester, that _one_
year would not be sufficient to give the polish requisite for such
society as your son’s wife will mingle in. You will have to give Lina
the benefit of your own knowledge, of course. I am quite sure she will
do her best to appear to an advantage. She has always made the very
most of her few opportunities.”

Violet talked so kindly and patronizingly that Mrs. Valchester did not
suspect the hidden malice that lurked in her words, yet she began to
feel vaguely uncomfortable. Her placid conviction that her gifted son
could not have made a bad choice began to give place to anxiety.

“I am very anxious to see Miss Meredith,” she said. “I wish I had felt
well enough to drive over to Meredith farm with Ronald to-day. Tell me,
Miss Earle, do you think my son has chosen a wife who is likely to do
credit to his judgment?”

“I really should not like to express an opinion,” replied the girl,
with an appearance of the greatest frankness. “It is always very
difficult to decide such a question. Lina Meredith is certainly
unformed and a little rustic at present. But these are defects which
time and the mingling in good society will certainly amend, you know.”

“Do you believe that she is in love with my son?” asked the old lady,
anxiously, and feeling to herself that a genuine affection felt for
Ronald by the girl of his choice would condone a multitude of faults.

“I could not tell you,” replied Violet. “I have never heard her express
an opinion concerning him. Of course his wealth would be a great
temptation to a girl in her position, but no one has a right to judge
that she accepted him for that. It must be that she loved him, Mrs.
Valchester. One reared so rudely and plainly as poor Lina has been,
could not really form an idea of the great advantages wealth would
bring her.”

Every innocent seeming word had a barbed point for the heart of the
proud mother. Violet talked to her some time about Jaquelina.

She appeared very frank and open, but she made Mrs. Valchester
understand very plainly by skillful innuendoes that she was by no
means on terms of intimate association with her son’s betrothed, and
that their acquaintance had simply consisted of a series of kindly,
patronizing acts on her part.

Ronald Valchester, whiling away the sunny afternoon by the side of
his betrothed, little dreamed with what subtle art Violet Earle was
implanting a prejudice in his mother’s mind against his darling.

He was fastidious, and harder to please than most men, but even his
exacting taste could find few things in Jaquelina that he would have
cared to change.

She was naturally refined, graceful and polished, and her beauty was so
remarkable that even in her simple print dress and white ruffled apron,
Ronald thought her lovelier than any satin and jewel-bedecked _belle_
he had ever met in society.

“Lina, sing to me,” he said, when the sunset glow began to crimson the
west. “I have longed to hear you sing so often while I was away from
you.”

She smiled, and turned her face to watch the setting sun as she began
to sing.

Ronald thought there was nothing on earth so fair as that face, with
the parted crimson lips, and the wonderful light that always came upon
it when she sang.

“‘When dawn awakes the eastern skies,
And wooing zephyrs kiss the sea,
In vain I sigh for those dark eyes
That should have ope’d in love to me.
But they have looked on me their last,
Time’s darkling wave they cheer no more,
Which now in sadness rushes past
To break upon an unknown shore.'”

“Lina, hush,” he said, impulsively, when she had sung that first
verse. “That is too sad a song. Choose something gayer and more suited
to our bridal eve.”

“I do not know any gay songs, Ronald,” she replied, with some of the
sadness of the song yet lingering on her face.

“That is strange,” he said. “Did you learn nothing bright and lively at
school, Lina?”

“No, I do not believe I did,” she answered, musingly. “It seems to me
that I always chose songs with a touch of sadness in them. Somehow I
liked them best.”

But after a minute’s thought she sang lightly:

“‘Here, take my heart–’twill be safe in thy keeping
While I go wand’ring o’er land and o’er sea:
Smiling or sorrowing, waking or weeping,
What need I care, so my heart is with thee?

“‘If, in the race we are destined to run, love,
They who have light hearts the happiest be,
Then happier still must be they who have none, love,
And that will be my case when mine is with thee.'”

“Do you like that one any better, Ronald?” she said, with a smile, when
she had finished.

“It is a pretty song,” he said, “but, do you know, Lina, you keep
selecting songs that hint of separation and sorrow; I do not like to
hear you. Darling, do you begin to realize that after to-morrow we
shall be separated no more ‘until death us do part?'”

He took both her small hands in his as he asked the question.

She lifted her eyes to his, and he saw that they were full of bright,
unshed tears.

“No, Ronald,” she said, in a faint, fluttering voice. “I do not quite
realize my happiness. It seems too bright to be real.”

She shivered slightly as she spoke, and gave a swift, nervous look
around her.

The soft sigh of the evening breeze, the rustling leaves seemed to
whisper threateningly:

“In the moment that is the happiest of your whole life I shall take my
revenge!”

“Lina, I do not believe you are well,” cried Ronald Valchester,
anxiously. “I saw you shivering that moment.”

“The twilight is coming on, and these September evenings are chilly,”
she answered, rising. “Let us go to the house and sit on the porch.
Uncle Charlie will be very glad to see you.”

When they had crossed the purling brook and gone into the little
vine-wreathed porch, Jaquelina felt easier. She was nervous out in the
orchard among the whispering grasses.

She fancied a dark, demoniacal face peering at her behind the trees.

When she crossed the brook it seemed to be singing loudly:

“In the moment that is the happiest of your whole life I shall take my
revenge.”

The shadow of Gerald Huntington’s vengeance was already upon her.

But on Ronald Valchester’s love and happiness there fell no cloud from
the near future.

To his ardent and poetic imagination life lay before him fair and
lovely like a dream of summer.

Mr. Meredith came out and welcomed his niece’s lover cordially, and
after a brief conversation prudently retired into the house to the
companionship of his wife and Dollie.

Mrs. Meredith, persuaded into amiability for once in her life by her
husband, spread a dainty and neat-looking supper upon the table.

The lovers went through the form of eating, and then returned to
the porch again where the air was spicy and sweet with the breath
of late-blooming roses, and the new moon rose over the misty hills,
smiling on these two lovers who were all the world to each other.

“This time to-morrow night you will be my bride,” Ronald said to her
fondly. “Then we will immediately take the train for Richmond. Oh!
Lina, how often I have dreamed of that home-going. Often and often when
I think of taking you with me, I recall the beautiful words in which
Longfellow describes the home going of Hiawatha and his bride. Do you
remember, Lina?”

She repeated a few lines softly:

“Pleasant was the journey homeward,
All the birds sang loud and sweetly
Songs of happiness and heart’s-ease;
Sang the blue-bird, the Owaissa:
‘Happy are you; Hiawatha,
Having such a wife to love you!’
Sang the robin, the Opechee:
‘Happy are you, Minnehaha,
Having such a noble husband!'”

Then Lina’s small hand stole softly into her lover’s. She raised her
dark, passionate eyes to his face, and he read in their starry depths
the deathless love that filled her heart.

“Lina, you do love me very much–do you not?” he said, lovingly.

“Ah, I could not tell you how much,” she murmured. “If I were a poet
like you, Ronald, I might put my tenderness into glowing words. But it
is locked deep within my heart. I think if anything happens to part us
I should die.”

“Nothing _can_ happen to part us, Love,” he answered. “To-morrow night
at this hour you will belong to me wholly, and then your life shall be
all _couleur de rose_. Nothing can come between us after that magic
ring is on your finger. We shall belong to each other, then, in the
solemn, beautiful words of the marriage service, ‘until death us do
part.'”

His happy mood and his loving confidence were infectious.

The girl forgot for awhile the hovering shadow of evil.

She was gay and blithe and happy, looking forward to the morrow with
timid, tremulous joy.

“I shall come for you in a carriage to-morrow evening, myself,” he
said. “Walter Earle has promised to come for mother in his phaeton.
Violet will meet us at the church.”

He kissed her good-night, saying that he would bring his mother
to-morrow.

“My last good-night,” he said, as he held her small hands tightly a
moment, loth to leave her, and smiling at the warm blushes that surged
into her cheeks.

She watched him walking away through the white radiance of the
moonlight, a tall and graceful figure, on which her heart and her eyes
dwelt fondly. She murmured his words with trembling pleasure, “our last
good-night.”

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