It was not easy to find Gerald Huntington

“Ronald, there is something I should like to tell you,” Walter Earle
said to his friend, with a hesitating air, when they found themselves
alone a little while that evening.

Ronald Valchester looked at the handsome face lying on the lace-trimmed
pillow. Despite its pallor it wore a look of triumphant happiness.

“Walter, you need not tell me,” he said, with outward calmness. “I have
heard. Allow me to congratulate you.”

“Thank you,” Walter replied; then he looked at the calm, inscrutable
face.

“Ronald, I hope you do not blame me,” the wounded man went on,
anxiously; “I have always loved her, but I would not have taken her
from you, only you know you never could have married her with your
views of divorce. But as I think differently from you I cannot believe
I am wrong to marry her when I am better, and she is free.”

“I do not blame you in the least,” answered Ronald Valchester. “If I
had known all the time how well you loved her, Walter, I must have
marveled at your persistent efforts to convert me to your own belief
that a legal divorce makes men and women free to marry again.”

“If I could convert you even now,” said Walter, earnestly, “I would
resign her to you the very moment in which she is free.”

“You cannot convert me, Walter,” Ronald answered with a sad smile. “God
only knows what I have suffered through this belief of mine, but I
cannot change it, nor act inconsistently with it. Yet I could not ask
Lina to remain alone all her life because my own views are at variance
with the rest of the world, or a majority of it, at least. I hope that
you may make her very happy.”

“I shall try, certainly,” Walter said, earnestly. “If I recover, and
I feel as if I cannot die now, with this prospect of happiness in the
future, I shall marry Lina as soon as Professor Larue has secured a
divorce for her. I shall take her back to Laurel Hill, and spend my
life in trying to win her heart and make her happy.”

“And I,” said Ronald, with brave composure, “shall marry Violet as soon
as you are well enough to go to church with us. Then we shall make our
home across the sea in sunny Italy.”

Walter Earle rose feebly on his elbow and stared at his friend.

“Marry Violet–marry Violet,” he cried, incredulously.

“Yes–I asked her to-day, and she said she would be my wife.”

“You do not love her?” Walter exclaimed, bewildered.

“Not yet,” the poet confessed, flushing slightly, at Walter’s surprised
gaze.

“Why marry her then?”

“Lina wished me to do so,” Ronald replied, with gentle frankness.

“Lina wished it–I do not understand–explain yourself.”

They looked at each other in silence a moment, then Ronald answered
gravely and gently:

“I will tell you, Walter. Lina had found out a fact which I–foolish
dreamer that I am–had never suspected. Pretty Violet cared for me a
little, and could only be happy as my wife.”

“Dear little Lina; and she asked you to sacrifice yourself for Violet’s
happiness,” said Walter, deeply moved.

“She wished me to marry Violet; perhaps she thought in making another’s
happiness I might find my own,” Ronald answered, in the same gentle
tone.

Walter’s face brightened.

“Who knows but that you will,” he exclaimed. “My sister has loved you
deeply for years, Ronald. God grant that she may win your heart and
make you happy in spite of yourself. How strange! You are to marry
Violet, I am to marry Lina. And yet in this way the tangled web of our
destinies may be straightened out at last.”

After the first day or two of terrible suspense and anxiety, no
one doubted in the least that Walter would recover from his wound.
Happiness had a magical effect upon him. He mended rapidly.

The weeks waned, and the _prima donna’s_ engagement with Manager Verne
was drawing to its close. She refused to renew it, although he offered
her a prince’s ransom for another month. Walter had begged her to
give up a public life, and she had assented wearily and listlessly.
Professor Larue had been shocked and disconcerted at her resolve, but
she had told him for the first time all her sad story, and begged him
to forgive her for disappointing his hopes. The end of it all was that
Professor Larue espoused her cause, heart and soul. In the heat of his
indignation he vowed that he would shoot Gerald Huntington, if he could
find the villain.

It was not easy to find Gerald Huntington, however. Professor Larue
speedily found that out for himself. As the next best thing, he set
himself to work to secure a divorce for his beloved ward. He found
it even easier than he had expected. That bond forged by fraud and
violence, was held of little account in the eyes of the law. The day
came speedily when Professor Larue and his lawyer came smiling into the
_prima donna’s_ presence to congratulate her and tell her that she was
free.

She was free! Walter Earle had convalesced so fast that he was well
enough to go to church now, and he pressed for an early marriage.
Jaquelina yielded hesitatingly, and the happy day was named for one
week after. Wednesday was to behold her last triumphant appearance upon
the stage. Thursday she was to breathe the solemn vows that would make
her the wife of Walter Earle. Ronald Valchester and his mother had
returned to Richmond. The date of his return to New York and the time
for his marriage were unfixed as yet, though Mrs. Valchester and Violet
secretly hoped it would not be long delayed.

It was Wednesday night. Madame Dolores stood bowing before the eager,
admiring throng that greeted her farewell appearance. Some of her
romantic story had been noised abroad. It was rumored that the morrow
would behold her a bride, and there were not a few who envied the
fortunate bride-groom.

Walter Earle and his sister occupied a private box as usual. He looked
pale and thin still, but very handsome and happy, and his blue eyes
dwelt adoringly on the brilliant beauty of his promised bride. Violet,
sitting beside him in rich and costly attire, had never looked more
lovely.

“How perfectly beautiful Lina looks to-night,” she whispered to her
brother. “To look at her now, she does not seem like the Lina Meredith
of five years ago. Do you remember how tanned and bashful and shabby
she was then? To-night she is the most beautiful woman I ever saw, and
her jewels are worth a fortune. I never saw such magnificent diamonds.”

Then the curtain rose and the glorious voice of Madame Dolores filled
the vast theater with entrancing melody. They turned their attention to
the stage again.

It seemed to the _prima donna’s_ admirers that she sang and acted more
splendidly than ever that night. They looked and listened in rapt,
spell-bound admiration, dreading for the moment to arrive when that
heavy curtain should fall between her and the public forever.

There was one scene, perhaps the most interesting and thrilling of the
whole opera, where the heroine knelt weeping and praying at the feet of
a cruel and relentless husband. Madame Dolores was always grand in this
scene. The whole audience leaned forward now, breathless and eager, as
the curtain rose upon this favorite part of the opera.

The scene was laid in a dim, Moorish garden in the shadow of a ruined
temple, bathed in the mystic beams of moonlight. Before the broken
archway a tall, dark, haughty man stood with folded arms looking
down at the suppliant kneeling on the ground, her loose, white robe
dishevelled, her dark hair broken from its fillets of gold, and flowing
in careless tresses around her, half hiding her slender form in its
luxuriant veil. At a little distance stood a lovely little siren who
had lured the fickle man from his rightful love and duty. His eyes were
fixed on her, not on his sorrowful, pleading wife.

At that moment, when the attention of the whole vast throng was
concentrated in intense silence upon the scene, there suddenly broke
through the back of the stage a vast and terrible sheet of flame that
lighted the whole scene with a crimson, deadly glare. A tumultuous
shriek of horror and despair rose from the throng, and the actors
rushed wildly forward toward the footlights in a frenzied effort at
escape. The _prima donna’s_ foot became entangled in her flowing robe,
she swayed and fell forward across the footlights that instantly licked
the soft folds of her dress into a winding sheet of flame.

There ensued a panic that baffled description. One impulse moved the
whole excited, shrieking throng–they surged forward madly toward the
doors and windows, bent on escape.

They were like maniacs for the time. The weak fell down beneath the
feet of the strong, and were heedlessly trampled, while groans and
cries, sometimes mixed with curses, divided the shuddering air.

Violet Earle had shrieked and fainted in the arms of her half-maddened
brother. There was not one to avert the awful fate of her who a single
moment before had held every heart enchained by the power of her beauty
and genius.

Yes, there was one–one only, it seemed. In an instant after the
terrible flames had wrapped their fiery tongues around the slender form
of the _prima donna_ a man sprang over the footlights upon the stage
at one rapid bound from the parquette floor.

He had caught up a heavy camel’s-hair shawl, dropped by a lady in her
hurried flight. Rushing forward, utterly heedless of the advancing
flames that scorched his face and his hair, he threw the heavy shawl
over the blazing form and smothered out the fire. Then, lifting
the senseless girl in his arms, he made his way with the greatest
difficulty to a door and forced his way through the striving mass of
human beings out upon the thronged pavement.

The _prima donna’s_ carriage was waiting on the pavement, and Professor
Larue, who had come with it a minute before, was darting frantically up
and down ceaselessly around the doors of the doomed building.

Afterward Professor Larue told how a tall man with a face so blackened
with fire and soot as to be quite unrecognizable, had put Jaquelina
into his arms and fallen fainting on the pavement.

Someone had attended to him–he could not tell who–for he had been so
distracted with grief and horror over the tragic fate of his ward he
had not waited to see, but all inquiry afterward failed to discover the
rescuer of the _prima donna_. No one had recognized him, no one knew
where he went, or whence he came.

Professor Larue in the gratitude of his heart wished to discover him
and reward him generously, but his persistent inquiries through the
personal column of the _Herald_ elicited no reply. The man was modest
as well as brave. He did not wish to be known.

Walter Earle had had a most terrible time getting his unconscious
sister out of the building; his heart was distracted with grief
over the tragic fate which had overtaken his darling. But for the
encumbrance of his sister he would have rushed out in an attempt to
reach Jaquelina through that struggling mass of maddened humanity. But
Violet lay like an inert, helpless burden on his hands. It was only by
superhuman efforts that he ever reached the outer world with her. Then
when he had put her in a carriage, taken her home, and had seen her
revive, he drove rapidly back to the theater.

They told him there that a stranger had leaped upon the burning stage
and smothered the flames that enveloped the _prima donna_.

“She was saved from that terrible holocaust of flame, then,” Walter
cried out, almost wild with the joy of the tidings.

But no one could tell him whether Madame Dolores was living or not. Her
rescuer had carried her out of the burning building and placed her in
the arms of Professor Larue. He had carried her away, and no one knew
anything further as yet. Walter drove to the hotel where the professor
and his wife were staying with their ward. He sent up his card and the
professor came down to him.

They looked at each other silently a moment, then Walter breathed
“Lina?” through white lips that could scarcely utter that simple name.

Professor Larue shook his head sadly.

“Do not tell me she is dead!” Walter exclaimed, in an agony of fear and
dread.

“She lives,” the professor answered, “if a mere wavering breath may be
called living. But she is horribly, horribly burned, and her sufferings
are fearful. Half a dozen doctors are with her this moment. They will
save her life if it is possible to accomplish it.”

“Thank God, she lives,” Walter exclaimed, and hurried away to carry the
welcome news to Violet, while the almost heart-broken old professor
hurried back to that quiet chamber where the angels of life and death
were striving together over Jaquelina Meredith’s scorched and writhing
frame.

So the _prima donna’s_ bridal day dawned dark and gloomy, and overcast,
and Jaquelina lay upon her couch of pain, swathed from head to foot in
bandages of linen, while the breath of life wavered unevenly between
the pallid, parted lips, and every gasp was one of almost unendurable
anguish.

And the morning papers which chronicled the particulars of the great
fire, told the public that Madam Dolores would live, but she had been
so horribly burned, even to her face and hands, that her beauty would
be marred and ruined forever. The physicians were of the opinion that
her exquisite voice would be destroyed also. She would be a perfect
physical wreck.

“I do not believe it!” Walter Earle cried out in passionate unbelief,
and he went to the physicians and asked them for the truth. They were
very sorry for him, but they confirmed the newspaper reports. They
believed that Madame Dolores would carry those terrible scars on her
face to the grave, and they did not think it possible that she would
ever sing again.

“I would rather she had died than lose all her charms!” Walter cried to
his own heart, in a perfect fever of regret and despair, and he went to
the hotel and begged Mrs. Larue to let him see Jaquelina if but for a
moment.

The professor’s wife refused flatly. She said that Lina was far too ill
to see anyone, and that the lightest footstep in the room set her wild
with nervous pain. He must wait. It would be some time–three weeks,
perhaps–before he could be admitted to the room.

Almost distracted with his trouble, the young man returned to Violet
who was still suffering from the effects of her last night’s shock
and excitement. He was surprised to find Ronald Valchester in the
drawing-room with his sister–Ronald, looking pale and ill, with his
right arm carried in a sling.

“Ronald–you here!” he cried. “How glad I am to see you! When did you
arrive?”

“Last night,” said Ronald briefly.

“You changed your mind about coming to my marriage, did you not?”

Ronald smiled and did not reply.

“Oh, Ronald, is it not terrible?” cried Walter. “My poor little Lina.
Her beautiful voice and her beautiful face ruined forever!”

“Her life is spared, at least,” Ronald answered, in a low, grateful
voice.

“If I had been Lina I would rather have died than have lost my voice
and my beauty,” cried Violet. “She will have nothing left to live for
now.”

“She will have Walter’s love,” said Ronald Valchester gravely, and
Violet saw that he was regarding her with a slight air of surprise.

“Oh, yes, I had forgotten that,” she said quickly. “But it is dreadful
for Walter. He is such a beauty-worshiper, and he thought Lina the most
beautiful girl he ever saw.”

Walter changed the conversation quickly by asking Ronald what was
wrong with his arm that he wore it in a sling, and his friend replied
briefly that he had been hurt by a slight accident. That was all the
explanation he volunteered.

The day came when Jaquelina was well enough to sit up in her darkened
chamber again.

Then they sent word to Violet Earle that she might come to see her one
day and Walter the next.

Ronald Valchester had gone back to Richmond on the same day that he had
heard that Jaquelina would live.

Violet had fretted about him continually. She had never been quite well
since the night of the fire. The terrible shock had wakened her nerves,
and her heart. She was anxious to go back to Laurel Hill, but Walter
would not hear of such a thing yet.

“Not until Lina is better,” he urged. “When she is well enough to
travel we will be quietly married, and then we will take her back to
Laurel Hill with us.”

Violet grew very impatient in the weary weeks of waiting. She fancied
she would see Ronald oftener if she were only back in Virginia. He
wrote to her sometimes–simple, friendly notes such as he had written
her from abroad two years before, but he had never asked her to name
the wedding-day yet. She was very glad when they sent her word that
Jaquelina was well enough to receive a visit from her.

“They should have given me the first chance of paying her a visit,”
complained Walter.

He did not know that Jaquelina had purposely planned it so.

She wished that Violet would break to him the news of her changed
appearance before he saw her himself.

Violet went away from that visit to the darkened, invalid chamber
awed and saddened, and a little self-reproachful. She remembered how
bitterly she had used to hate Jaquelina for that dazzling beauty that
had won Ronald Valchester’s heart. Of all that wondrous charm there
remained only a memory now.

“She is an object to pity and sympathize with, but never to admire
again,” she told her brother in the first shock of his disappointment.

Walter’s handsome face grew pale with dread and sorrow.

“You must prepare yourself for a great alteration, Walter,” Violet
continued. “Her face is red and scarred, her hair is all burned off
short, even her long lashes are scorched and spoiled. It will be some
time before anyone can look at her without a shudder. You may love your
wife, Walter, but you can never be proud of her.”

Walter shuddered at her emphatic words.

“Do not tell me any more, Violet,” he groaned. “I cannot bear it. You
only torture me. Let me find it out for myself.”

“If you cannot bear to hear of it I do not know how you will bear the
terrible reality,” retorted Violet.

Walter could not answer her. He longed yet dreaded for the morrow.

The first thing he saw when he was ushered into Jaquelina’s presence
was her portrait hanging against the wall. It had been painted by the
first artist in Italy. A few pale beams of winter sunshine stole in
through the closed curtains and shone on the beautiful pictured face,
touching it with a life-like glow. Then Walter looked away from it and
saw a little figure in a quilted morning-wrapper of dark, gray satin,
huddled into an easy-chair before the fire.

Walter went up to his betrothed. He saw that some uncontrollable
impulse had caused her to bury her poor scarred face in her small,
gloved hands. The short, soft, dark hair was hidden beneath a little
cap of fine muslin and lace.

“Lina, my darling,” he cried out in a voice of yearning pain, and she
looked up reluctantly at her lover.

Then Walter saw that even Violet’s words had not prepared him for the
sorrowful reality.

To have saved his life he could not have repressed the groan of
anguish that sight wrung from his lips. He had so loved that bright,
fascinating beauty, he had been so proud of it when she had promised to
be his own. Now at this moment it seemed to him that the girl he had
loved was dead and buried, and this an utter stranger who looked up at
him with that poor scarred face, and those dim and sad, dark eyes.

“Sit down, Mr. Earle,” she said, gently. “It is even worse than you
imagined, is it not?”

“Yes,” he answered, like one dazed, then started, ashamed of his candor.

“Oh! forgive me, Lina,” he cried, “I am talking like a brute.”

He sat down then and tried not to look at the poor face that reminded
him of a blighted flower. But some irresistible fascination drew his
own gaze to meet the wistful eyes that had lost all their brightness
now and were dim and misty with pain and weakness.

“Do I look at all like my old self?” she asked him, and he answered
almost bluntly:

“No.”

In the next breath he went on in a kind of passionate despair:

“Oh, Lina, you were so beautiful, and I loved your beauty so well. It
almost kills me to see how utterly you have lost it.”

“Did you prize my poor beauty so much?” she inquired, with a faint sigh.

She read his answer in the anguished eyes he turned upon her face. She
saw that in losing her peerless beauty she had lost her charm for him.

After a moment she said, gently and gravely:

“The physicians believe that my face is spoiled forever, Walter. They
are not sure but the shock and the illness have ruined my voice, also.
How could you bear to have a wife whom you must always pity for her
misfortunes, but could never worship for her fairness?”

He did not answer, but Jaquelina saw that the words had touched a
tender spot in his heart. He bit his lips beneath his fair mustache,
and an anxious gleam came into his blue eyes.

“I have been looking at my poor marred face in the glass,” she went on,
in her low, sad voice, “and I came to the conclusion that no one could
ever love me any more. It is not fair to hold you to your promise now.
I will give you back your freedom, Walter, if you will accept it from
me.”

“Lina!”

She scarcely understood whether it was relief or reproach that quivered
in his quick exclamation.

“It shall be just as you wish,” she said, quickly. “If you claim my
promise, I am yours. If I have lost your love in losing my beauty, you
are free.”

“Lina, would it pain you if I take you at your word?” he asked in a
low, abashed voice.

“No,” she answered, with gentle frankness.

“You would not despise me?” he asked, anxiously, without looking at her.

“No,” she said again.

He looked at her a moment, half irresolute.

“Do not fear to express your preference,” she said, gently. “Either way
I stand willing to abide by the consequences.”

“Then, Lina, since you are so generous, I will take my freedom,”
he blurted out, looking away from her, very red and ashamed. “I am
unworthy of you, my dear. I see now that it was only your beauty that
held me in thrall. Can you forgive me for being so weak and shallow?”

“I am not angry with you, Mr. Earle,” she replied, gently. “Most men
would have felt the same–would they not?” but in her heart she felt
that there was one, at least, whose fealty would not have faltered.

“Yes, most men would, I think,” he replied, and when he had made Lina
promise that she would still remain his friend, he went away to tell
Violet what had occurred.

“It was a weak and shallow love after all,” she mused, when she was
thus left alone by her recreant lover. “I am glad he has found it out
in time, and I am–oh, so glad that I need not marry Walter Earle.”

And with clasped hands Jaquelina thanked God for the accident which had
deprived her of all her charms and set her free from her engagement,
for she had realized from the first that there could be nothing more
galling in life than the bonds she had forged in her gratitude for
Walter’s brave quarrel with Gerald Huntington.

Yet life looked very long and lonely to the tearful, dark eyes as she
sat there musing. She began to realise that love–beautiful love–had
gone out of her life forever.

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