The next day the river was dragged

When Walter Earle parted from Jaquelina at the lawn gates, he went back
to the house with two distinct thoughts in his mind. One was a feeling
of indignation and surprise against Ronald Valchester. He was amazed
at learning that his friend was an unbeliever in divorces. He firmly
resolved to give Ronald a lecture on the subject, when he should be
sufficiently recovered to argue the case. His second thought, which he
could not help entertaining, was, that since affairs had taken this
peculiar turn, there was some hope still for himself.

“After the divorce is granted, I will do my utmost to re-unite them,”
he said, still loyal to Ronald and Lina in spite of his love for her;
“and then if I fail of converting Ronald, I will woo little Lina for
myself. Ronald could not accuse me of disloyalty to him in that case.”

He could not help feeling that Ronald Valchester’s defection must place
his own suit in a better light before Jaquelina’s eyes. The divorce
from the outlaw was only a question of time, Walter thought. They
could not fail to grant it. Indeed, it seemed to Walter that it could
scarcely be viewed as a marriage at all. Jaquelina once freed from its
fetters, she could not help feeling a little indignant at Valchester’s
view of the case, and, once over the smart of her pain, it seemed to
Walter that his own loyal love could not fail to find favor in her eyes.

“And then–who knows?” mused Walter. “Jaquelina once out of his reach,
and by his own decision, too, the heart of Valchester may, in time,
turn to Violet. Poor little Violet! She has borne her pain bravely, but
I am certain that she has not got over it yet.”

In spite of his sympathy for the sadly and strangely parted lovers,
Walter could not repress a glow of satisfaction at the thought that,
after all, his own happiness and that of his sister might be secured
by the strange events that had seemed so deplorable at first. Yet he
resolved that he would first do all he could to change Valchester’s
opinion of divorces.

He went back to the sick-room and found his friend very ill and weak.
The doctor warned him there must be no talking–his patient could not
bear to be excited. He lay back upon the pillow, his handsome face
pale as marble, the long, dark lashes lying motionless on his cheek,
yet they knew that he was not asleep, only spent and exhausted by the
tempest of emotion that had passed over him. His mother sat quietly
by the bed-side, looking pale and sad, and heart-broken in the gray
morning light. She had telegraphed for General Valchester, and looked
anxiously for his arrival at any hour of the day.

As the day wore on, the wound developed a dangerous phase. Fever and
delirium set in; Ronald’s pale face grew scarlet, his dim eyes bright
with fever fires. He tossed restlessly on his pillows, and babbled
ceaselessly of his loved Lina, interspersing his flighty murmurs with
poetical quotations. “Hiawatha’s Wooing” seemed to linger in his mind
like a pleasant dream. He would murmur over and over:

“Pleasant was the journey homeward:
All the birds sang loud and sweetly.”

And again:

“Over wide and rushing rivers
In his arms he bore the maiden.”

At noon General Valchester arrived. He had a brief, private interview
with Dr. Leslie; then they telegraphed for a celebrated Richmond
physician.

The brooding shadows of the death-angel’s wing hung dark and heavy over
Laurel Hill.

In the rainy, dreary sunset Charlie Meredith drove over in his buggy.

“I would have come sooner,” he said, “but I have been to town to
consult a lawyer for my niece. So when I got home and wife told me Lina
had never got back, I thought I’d drive over and inquire after Mr.
Valchester, and fetch her home if she’d a mind to go.”

Mr. Earle, to whom he was talking, looked at him with a start of
surprise.

“I am sorry to say that Mr. Valchester is in a very critical
condition,” he replied. “After his father came up at noon to-day he
immediately telegraphed for a physician from Richmond.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” said Mr. Meredith. “Perhaps, then, my niece
will not be ready to go home yet?”

And again Mr. Earle looked surprised.

“Miss Meredith went home at daylight this morning,” he answered.

“Eh–what? I don’t think I understand you,” said Charlie Meredith.

“Your niece went home at daylight this morning,” Mr. Earle repeated.

The farmer’s healthy brown skin turned pale. He looked dazed.

“Mr. Earle, you must be mistaken,” he said. “Lina has never been home
to-day. She walked over here yesterday afternoon, and she has not been
at home since.”

“She certainly left Laurel Hill early this morning,” Mr. Earle said,
perplexed. “Walter walked with her to the lawn gates. He wished to
drive her over in the phaeton, but she declined, so he told me, and
insisted on going home alone. I sincerely trust that no harm has
befallen little Lina.”

Mr. Meredith looked grave and a good deal troubled.

“Is it not strange she should have started home so soon in the morning?
I cannot understand it.”

Walter came out just then. He grew pale when they told him that
Jaquelina had never come home that day. He remembered what a hopeless
despair had looked at him from the dark eyes and the fair young face
when they parted.

“And yet I never dreamed of anything wrong,” he said to himself, with
a pang of pain at his heart. “Oh, why did I let her go alone? I should
have known better from the look on her face.”

He said aloud, more cheerfully than he felt:

“Perhaps she grew weary and stopped in at some of the neighbors to
rest. I will go with you to inquire, Mr. Meredith.”

“I shall be glad of your company,” said the farmer. “I think it is very
likely you have hit on the truth, Walter. She must have grown tired and
stopped in at some of the neighbors.”

“And you may, perhaps, find her already at home when you reach there,”
said Mr. Earle, who thought that his son’s idea was the correct one.

But Walter was not so sanguine. He got into the buggy and drove away
with Mr. Meredith, but he was not surprised when one neighbor after
another declared that Jaquelina had not been seen by any one of them
that day.

All inquiry and all search failed to unravel the mystery of her
disappearance. No one had seen her since she turned away from Walter
Earle at the lawn gates that morning, and when he remembered the look
upon her face that moment he shuddered and thought of the river.

He told Mr. Meredith of his fears.

The next day the river was dragged, but to no avail. Jaquelina had
vanished as utterly as if the solid earth had opened beneath her feet
and received her into its bosom.

Many believed that Gerald Huntington had carried her off again, and a
party was organized to explore the woods in the hope of discovering the
cave which Jaquelina had described to them as the rendezvous of the
outlaws.

It was decided that Ronald Valchester should not hear of Jaquelina’s
strange disappearance. Already he lay at death’s door, and the
physicians declared that another shock of any kind would utterly
destroy his frail hold on life.

As consciousness returned to him they avoided all mention of that once
familiar name in the sick-room; yet they knew many a time, by the look
in the beautiful, dark-gray eyes, that he was thinking of the girl he
had loved so well and lost so sadly.

Sometimes they wondered why he never spoke of her. They did not know
how Ronald and Lina had parted–how sorrowfully he had said to her,
even as he held the small hands tightly in his own, and looked at her
with a soul’s despair stamped on his death white face:

“Lina, this is the last time I must hold your hands, or even look into
your face while Gerald Huntington lives. You are legally his, and I
have never believed in divorce. If the law were to free you, I should
still hold you bound to him by a higher power than man’s law. So you
understand, dear, it is best we should separate wholly, never, perhaps,
to look on each other’s faces again. I pray God that I may die, and
so pass from this life that but a little while ago was so fair and
tempting in my eyes, and that is now but an empty desert. For you, my
sweet, lost love, may God bless you, and give us both the strength to
bear the heavy cross of sorrow!”

And Jaquelina, remembering Doctor Leslie’s words that he must not be
excited or contradicted in any way, had bowed her head, and answered
meekly:

“It must be so if you will it thus, Ronald. God give us both the
patience to bear it.”

And with those words, and one last, lingering look at the beloved face,
Jaquelina had kissed his hands, and gone away, but she had not let
him see that look on her face that the others had seen–that hopeless
despair and pain that it frightened Walter Earle to remember.

So they kept the story away from Ronald, even while the unspoken
language of his eyes said plainer than words:

“I am longing to hear something of my poor lost love. Even to hear her
name spoken aloud would be a relief, since it is ever ringing itself in
my brain.”

But no one spoke of her, no one seemed to remember her existence. It
seemed to Ronald that they were cruel to be so forgetful. He had placed
a seal upon his own lips, but he would have trembled with pleasure if
anyone else had even named her name.

Day by day there began to be some slight change in Ronald, faint at
first, but growing more and more noticeable. The doctors began to have
hopes of him.

They thought it more than likely he would pull through safely now. Yet
they owned that there would long be a weakness in that wounded lung,
and they strenuously recommended a sea voyage to him when he should be
sufficiently recovered to undertake it.

“A sea voyage–a winter in Italy,” said Doctor Sanborn, “would build up
your constitution–make a new man of you.”

“And lend new wings to your soaring fancy,” laughed Doctor Leslie, who
had found out that Ronald was a poet. “I should say that beautiful,
dreamy Italy, is the true home of the poetic muse.”

Ronald fell in with the plan at once, the more eagerly that he felt it
would be best to put the whole width of the world between himself and
Jaquelina. It seemed to him that if he were farther away that he must
cease to be tormented by that passionate yearning for the lost one that
haunted him now forever.

But there were weary days of lingering pain and slow convalescence to
be passed over before that sea voyage could be undertaken. The red and
gold of the October leaves blew in drifts across the lawn and in the
wood before he was ever out of his room. Meanwhile his thoughts–in
spite of himself–were ever busy with Jaquelina. He pictured her to
himself many times daily. He wondered how she spent her time; he
wondered if she had gone away to teach as she had meant to do before
their evanescent dream of happiness. That fancy pained him.

It retarded his convalescence. It kept him restless and wakeful at
night. He learned the full meaning of the poet’s plaints:

“When we most need rest, and the perfect sleep,
Some hand will reach from the dark, and keep
The curtains drawn and the pillows tossed
Like a tide of foam, and one will say
At night–Oh, Heaven, that it were day!
And one by night through the misty tears
Will say–Oh, Heaven, the days are years,
And I would to Heaven that the waves were crossed!”

General Valchester had returned home when his son was declared out of
danger, but his wife remained to nurse and tend her darling. She was
growing very impatient to take him home to Richmond.

It was a happy day for Violet Earle when the invalid was at last able
to come down into the drawing-room and rest on the snowy pillows
that she eagerly arranged for him. She had not been admitted to the
sick-room much, but for the few days he would remain with them, she
determined that she would do her best to win him. Jaquelina was out of
the way now, and she had a fair field for her operations.

As she sat near the sunny window with her dainty basket of bright
colored silks and embroideries, Ronald’s eyes could rest on her without
the trouble of turning his head, and he could not help seeing that she
was very fair and beautiful. She had spent a long time at her toilet
that morning, and the result was a very dainty and charming toilet.
A morning dress of pale-blue cashmere, with front facings of shirred
satin, made a perfect foil to her fair skin, blue eyes and golden
hair. A delicate fichu of cream-colored lace was knotted around her
throat and fastened on her breast by a cluster of pale, pink begonias.
The delicate hands, flashing in and out through the bright colors of
the embroidery, were soft and white, and gleaming with jewels. Mrs.
Valchester was charmed with her. She wished very much that her son
would take a fancy to her, since he had lost the girl he loved at first.

But Violet’s presence was more of a pain than a pleasure to Ronald
Valchester. She made him think all the more of Jaquelina. He had seen
them so often together.

“I wish you were well enough to go out and walk in the woods,” she said
to him, lifting her blue eyes a moment to look at him; “you would be
delighted with their autumn beauty. I sent you, yesterday, a little
basket of leaves, the brightest and prettiest I could find. Did mamma
give them to you?”

“Yes, but I think she forgot to tell me you had sent them,” he replied.
“Thank you for thinking of me so kindly. They were very beautiful. I
enjoyed looking at them very much.”

Violet pushed back the lace curtains that he might look out at the
distant hills with their vivid coloring of scarlet and gold, blent with
the dark green of holly and cedar and evergreen.

The autumn sunshine lay over all the scene, brightening it with its
mellow light, and adding new beauty to the prospect. Ronald gazed on it
long and unweariedly, and he could not help seeing pretty Violet, too,
for she sat between him and the window with the golden light shining on
her sunny hair.

“How beautiful it all is,” Ronald said, with a passing gleam of
enthusiasm. “The light is so soft and clear, the air so sweet, and
those distant mountains look so blue and beautiful. It seems to me that
Italy can scarcely be lovelier than my own native land.”

Violet folded her white hands on her work, and looked at him earnestly.

“Oh, Mr. Valchester, I want you to promise me one thing!” she exclaimed.

He looked at her in some surprise.

“What can it be?” he inquired, rather gravely.

“Only this,” she said, “that you will write to Walter every week while
you are gone, and describe all the beauties of art and nature which you
encounter in your travels. I do so love Italy, and long to see it, and
if you describe it in your letters, graphically, as I know you will do,
it will be almost like seeing it myself, for I will insist on reading
all Walter’s letters.”

“I did not know you were so fond of the beauties of nature, Miss
Earle,” he replied in some surprise, and the color rose in her fair
cheeks.

“I am very fond of nature,” she replied, “but you have not promised me
yet that you will write to my brother as I said.”

“Of course I shall write to Walter,” he said, “but I cannot promise
that my letters will be very interesting. Perhaps you would prefer to
hear me describe my travels when I return.”

“Oh, yes, that would be delightful!” Violet cried, all smiles and
pleasure. “So then you promise me to come to Laurel Hill when you
return, and describe Italy to me?”

“Oh, yes, I will come,” he replied, carelessly. “But I dare say you
will be married and gone to a home of your own before that time.”

“Oh! no indeed!” she cried out quickly. “If you stay ten years you will
find me at Laurel Hill when you return.”

“It will be quite a wonder if he does, then,” said Mrs. Valchester, who
had entered and overheard the last remarks. “It is not likely that the
young men of Virginia will allow such a pretty girl to remain at Laurel
Hill ten years longer!”

Violet laughed and blushed, and protested that she would never marry;
but Ronald agreed with his mother that it was quite unlikely she should
remain an old maid. She was exceedingly pretty for such a fate.

Ronald Valchester grew very tired of the _role_ of invalid. His mother
and Mrs. Earle and Violet all vied in attentions to him. They were
always arranging his pillows, bringing him flowers, and “fussing
over him,” as Walter laughingly termed it. The young man was growing
exceedingly impatient. He declared that he was well enough to go back
to Richmond, and Doctor Leslie at last agreed with him. So they decided
one day to start the next day for home.

In the meantime Ronald had enjoyed a few rides in Mrs. Earle’s
pretty little phaeton with Walter or Violet as his companion. The
cool, bracing air of autumn made him feel stronger and better. Mrs.
Valchester thought she would soon have him well when once she had taken
him home with her.

“Violet,” she said, the afternoon of the day on which they were to
leave that night, “Walter is going down to Richmond with us. I wish you
would go also. Cannot you go, dear?”

Violet looked up with a deep flush of pleasure crimsoning her cheeks.

“If mamma is willing, I can see no reason to prevent,” she said, her
heart beating high at the thought, for she had been grieving over the
thoughts of the near departure of the man she loved so vainly.

“You must ask your papa, love,” replied Mrs. Earle, with placid
unconsciousness.

“Papa and Walter are going over to the town,” said Violet, unable to
conceal her disappointment. “They are on some odious law business, and
if I wait for their return it is quite likely I shall not have time to
pack my trunk–so you will have to excuse me, Mrs. Valchester.”

Ronald looked across at her from over the top of the book he was
apparently reading. He saw that she was disappointed, though he had no
idea of the reason. He did not dream that Violet loved him. He thought
she was simply like other girls–weary of the monotony of country life,
and longing for the gaiety of the city.

“If you will let me have a horse, Mrs. Earle,” he said, “I will ride
over to the town and hasten the truants back.”

“You are not strong enough to bear horse-back exercise, otherwise I
have no objection,” replied Mrs. Earle.

“I am quite strong enough,” protested Ronald. “You ladies are keeping
me an invalid too long. A mile ride through this pleasant air would
brace me up. I believe it would do me good.”

“Perhaps it would be better to take the phaeton,” suggested Violet, who
saw therein a chance to accompany him.

But Ronald insisted that horse-back exercise would please him best, and
the three ladies yielded the point and allowed him to have his own way.

It was very unwise of Ronald, perhaps, but his passionate hunger to see
Jaquelina again had been mainly instrumental in sending him out that
evening. The perfect silence everyone maintained regarding her, instead
of cooling the fever of his heart added new fires to it. Although his
peculiar views regarding divorce precluded the idea that they should
ever be aught to each other again, he could not cease to love her.

“It is quite impossible I should ever cease to love her,” he said to
himself as he rode along under the interlacing boughs of the trees. “I
long to see her again, to hear her voice, to touch her hand. And yet
I know that I am unwise. But if they had talked to me about her, if
they had even called her name I think I could have borne it better. The
strange silence they keep maddens me with suspense. It is just as if my
lost little Lina were dead.”

He sighed deeply, and the thought came to him that it were better
indeed if she were dead–better than this separation. He wondered if
Lina was as miserable over it as he found himself.

He persuaded himself that it would not be wrong to go and bid Lina a
last farewell, and tell her that he was going away–far away in the
hope of forgetting her. He could not leave the neighborhood without one
more look in the dark eyes that had won his heart. It seemed to him
that one look into the fair young face, one sound of the winning voice
would cool the fever and thirst of his heart.

He turned into the road that led to Meredith farm, and, almost before
he knew it, found himself dismounted and tying the bridle-rein to the
orchard gate. Then he opened the gate and went down the path expecting
every moment to come upon Lina under the trees, reading or dreaming as
of old. His pale face flushed, his heart beat quick, his whole frame
trembled with the pain and pleasure of seeing Jaquelina again.

He walked on full of the thought of the girl he loved so wildly and
came upon an unexpected tableau. Mrs. Meredith was under a tree with a
basket, busily filling it with great red-cheeked winter apples. Little
Dollie, frisking beside her, uttered a cry, and she looked around.

“Oh! Mr. Valchester!” she exclaimed, surprised and embarrassed at his
sudden appearance.

“Good-evening, Mrs. Meredith,” he replied, in equal surprise and
confusion.

“I have come to bid Lina good-bye–I am going home to-night. Can you
tell me where to find her?”

Mrs. Meredith straightened up and looked at him in surprise. She did
not know how carefully they had kept the truth from him.

“My dear sir, I wish I _could_ tell you,” she said, full of a certain
remorseful pity over poor Jaquelina’s fate. “We hain’t never heard a
word since she went away!”

“Went away–where?” asked Ronald Valchester, blankly; then he added at
her look of surprise: “I thought she was at home all the time.”

“Oh! dear me,” cried Mrs. Meredith; “why, she disappeared all of a
sudden, sir, the very day that she left Laurel Hill after visiting you
there. Mr. Walter was the last person that ever saw her. We have never
seen nor heard of her since, and Mr. Meredith’s nigh crazy over it. Did
Mr. Walter never tell you, sir?”

But Ronald Valchester did not stay to answer her. He turned away like
one in a dream and walked back to the gate, mounted his horse, and rode
away as though on an errand of life or death.

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