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    Chapter 5

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    Chapter 5
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    At home he found a party of young friends, who hailed with delight the
    prospect of a revel at the Hall. An hour later, the blithe company
    trooped into the great saloon, where preparations had already been made
    for a dramatic evening.

    Good Sir John was in his element, for he was never so happy as when his
    house was full of young people. Several persons were chosen, and in a
    few moments the curtains were withdrawn from the first of these
    impromptu tableaux. A swarthy, darkly bearded man lay asleep on a tiger
    skin, in the shadow of a tent. Oriental arms and drapery surrounded him;
    an antique silver lamp burned dimly on a table where fruit lay heaped in
    costly dishes, and wine shone redly in half-emptied goblets. Bending
    over the sleeper was a woman robed with barbaric splendor. One hand
    turned back the embroidered sleeve from the arm which held a scimitar;
    one slender foot in a scarlet sandal was visible under the white tunic;
    her purple mantle swept down from snowy shoulders; fillets of gold bound
    her hair, and jewels shone on neck and arms. She was looking over her
    shoulder toward the entrance of the tent, with a steady yet stealthy
    look, so effective that for a moment the spectators held their breath,
    as if they also heard a passing footstep.

    "Who is it?" whispered Lucia, for the face was new to her.

    "Jean Muir," answered Coventry, with an absorbed look.

    "Impossible! She is small and fair," began Lucia, but a hasty "Hush, let
    me look!" from her cousin silenced her.

    Impossible as it seemed, he was right nevertheless; for Jean Muir it
    was. She had darkened her skin, painted her eyebrows, disposed some wild
    black locks over her fair hair, and thrown such an intensity of
    expression into her eyes that they darkened and dilated till they were
    as fierce as any southern eyes that ever flashed. Hatred, the deepest
    and bitterest, was written on her sternly beautiful face, courage glowed
    in her glance, power spoke in the nervous grip of the slender hand that
    held the weapon, and the indomitable will of the woman was
    expressed--even the firm pressure of the little foot half hidden in the
    tiger skin.

    "Oh, isn't she splendid?" cried Bella under her breath.

    "She looks as if she'd use her sword well when the time comes," said
    someone admiringly.

    "Good night to Holofernes; his fate is certain," added another.

    "He is the image of Sydney, with that beard on."

    "Doesn't she look as if she really hated him?"

    "Perhaps she does."

    Coventry uttered the last exclamation, for the two which preceded it
    suggested an explanation of the marvelous change in Jean. It was not all
    art: the intense detestation mingled with a savage joy that the object
    of her hatred was in her power was too perfect to be feigned; and having
    the key to a part of her story, Coventry felt as if he caught a glimpse
    of the truth. It was but a glimpse, however, for the curtain dropped
    before he had half analyzed the significance of that strange face.

    "Horrible! I'm glad it's over," said Lucia coldly.

    "Magnificent! Encore! Encore!" cried Gerald enthusiastically.

    But the scene was over, and no applause could recall the actress. Two or
    three graceful or gay pictures followed, but Jean was in none, and each
    lacked the charm which real talent lends to the simplest part.

    "Coventry, you are wanted," called a voice. And to everyone's surprise,
    Coventry went, though heretofore he had always refused to exert himself
    when handsome actors were in demand.

    "What part am I to spoil?" he asked, as he entered the green room, where
    several excited young gentlemen were costuming and attitudinizing.

    "A fugitive cavalier. Put yourself into this suit, and lose no time
    asking questions. Miss Muir will tell you what to do. She is in the
    tableau, so no one will mind you," said the manager pro tem, throwing a
    rich old suit toward Coventry and resuming the painting of a moustache
    on his own boyish face.

    A gallant cavalier was the result of Gerald's hasty toilet, and when
    he appeared before the ladies a general glance of admiration was
    bestowed upon him.

    "Come along and be placed; Jean is ready on the stage." And Bella ran
    before him, exclaiming to her governess, "Here he is, quite splendid.
    Wasn't he good to do it?"

    Miss Muir, in the charmingly prim and puritanical dress of a Roundhead
    damsel, was arranging some shrubs, but turned suddenly and dropped the
    green branch she held, as her eye met the glittering figure advancing
    toward her.

    "You!" she said with a troubled look, adding low to Bella, "Why did you
    ask _him?_ I begged you not."

    "He is the only handsome man here, and the best actor if he likes. He
    won't play usually, so make the most of him." And Bella was off to
    finish powdering her hair for "The Marriage à la Mode."

    "I was sent for and I came. Do you prefer some other person?" asked
    Coventry, at a loss to understand the half-anxious, half-eager
    expression of the face under the little cap.

    It changed to one of mingled annoyance and resignation as she said, "It
    is too late. Please kneel here, half behind the shrubs; put down your
    hat, and--allow me--you are too elegant for a fugitive."

    As he knelt before her, she disheveled his hair, pulled his lace collar
    awry, threw away his gloves and sword, and half untied the cloak that
    hung about his shoulders.

    "That is better; your paleness is excellent--nay, don't spoil it. We are
    to represent the picture which hangs in the Hall. I need tell you no
    more. Now, Roundheads, place yourselves, and then ring up the curtain."

    With a smile, Coventry obeyed her; for the picture was of two lovers,
    the young cavalier kneeling, with his arm around the waist of the girl,
    who tries to hide him with her little mantle, and presses his head to
    her bosom in an ecstasy of fear, as she glances back at the approaching
    pursuers. Jean hesitated an instant and shrank a little as his hand
    touched her; she blushed deeply, and her eyes fell before his. Then, as
    the bell rang, she threw herself into her part with sudden spirit. One
    arm half covered him with her cloak, the other pillowed his head on the
    muslin kerchief folded over her bosom, and she looked backward with such
    terror in her eyes that more than one chivalrous young spectator longed
    to hurry to the rescue. It lasted but a moment; yet in that moment
    Coventry experienced another new sensation. Many women had smiled on
    him, but he had remained heart-whole, cool, and careless, quite
    unconscious of the power which a woman possesses and knows how to use,
    for the weal or woe of man. Now, as he knelt there with a soft arm about
    him, a slender waist yielding to his touch, and a maiden heart throbbing
    against his cheek, for the first time in his life he felt the
    indescribable spell of womanhood, and looked the ardent lover to
    perfection. Just as his face assumed this new and most becoming aspect,
    the curtain dropped, and clamorous encores recalled him to the fact that
    Miss Muir was trying to escape from his hold, which had grown painful in
    its unconscious pressure. He sprang up, half bewildered, and looking as
    he had never looked before.

    "Again! Again!" called Sir John. And the young men who played the
    Roundheads, eager to share in the applause begged for a repetition in
    new attitudes.

    "A rustle has betrayed you, we have fired and shot the brave girl, and
    she lies dying, you know. That will be effective; try it, Miss Muir,"
    said one. And with a long breath, Jean complied.

    The curtain went up, showing the lover still on his knees, unmindful of
    the captors who clutched him by the shoulder, for at his feet the girl
    lay dying. Her head was on his breast, now, her eyes looked full into
    his, no longer wild with fear, but eloquent with the love which even
    death could not conquer. The power of those tender eyes thrilled
    Coventry with a strange delight, and set his heart beating as rapidly as
    hers had done. She felt his hands tremble, saw the color flash into his
    cheek, knew that she had touched him at last, and when she rose it was
    with a sense of triumph which she found it hard to conceal. Others
    thought it fine acting; Coventry tried to believe so; but Lucia set her
    teeth, and, as the curtain fell on that second picture, she left her
    place to hurry behind the scenes, bent on putting an end to such
    dangerous play. Several actors were complimenting the mimic lovers. Jean
    took it merrily, but Coventry, in spite of himself, betrayed that he was
    excited by something deeper than mere gratified vanity.

    As Lucia appeared, his manner changed to its usual indifference; but he
    could not quench the unwonted fire of his eyes, or keep all trace of
    emotion out of his face, and she saw this with a sharp pang.

    "I have come to offer my help. You must be tired, Miss Muir. Can I
    relieve you?" said Lucia hastily.

    "Yes, thank you. I shall be very glad to leave the rest to you, and
    enjoy them from the front."

    So with a sweet smile Jean tripped away, and to Lucia's dismay
    Coventry followed.

    "I want you, Gerald; please stay," she cried.

    "I've done my part--no more tragedy for me tonight." And he was gone
    before she could entreat or command.

    There was no help for it; she must stay and do her duty, or expose her
    jealousy to the quick eyes about her. For a time she bore it; but the
    sight of her cousin leaning over the chair she had left and chatting
    with the governess, who now filled it, grew unbearable, and she
    dispatched a little girl with a message to Miss Muir.

    "Please, Miss Beaufort wants you for Queen Bess, as you are the only
    lady with red hair. Will you come?" whispered the child, quite
    unconscious of any hidden sting in her words.

    "Yes, dear, willingly though I'm not stately enough for Her Majesty, nor
    handsome enough," said Jean, rising with an untroubled face, though she
    resented the feminine insult.

    "Do you want an Essex? I'm all dressed for it," said Coventry, following
    to the door with a wistful look.

    "No, Miss Beaufort said _you_ were not to come. She doesn't want you
    both together," said the child decidedly.

    Jean gave him a significant look, shrugged her shoulders, and went away
    smiling her odd smile, while Coventry paced up and down the hall in a
    curious state of unrest, which made him forgetful of everything till the
    young people came gaily out to supper.

    "Come, bonny Prince Charlie, take me down, and play the lover as
    charmingly as you did an hour ago. I never thought you had so much
    warmth in you," said Bella, taking his arm and drawing him on
    against his will.

    "Don't be foolish, child. Where is--Lucia?"

    Why he checked Jean's name on his lips and substituted another's, he
    could not tell; but a sudden shyness in speaking of her possessed him,
    and though he saw her nowhere, he would not ask for her. His cousin came
    down looking lovely in a classical costume; but Gerald scarcely saw her,
    and, when the merriment was at its height, he slipped away to discover
    what had become of Miss Muir.

    Alone in the deserted drawing room he found her, and paused to watch her
    a moment before he spoke; for something in her attitude and face struck
    him. She was leaning wearily back in the great chair which had served
    for a throne. Her royal robes were still unchanged, though the crown was
    off and all her fair hair hung about her shoulders. Excitement and
    exertion made her brilliant, the rich dress became her wonderfully, and
    an air of luxurious indolence changed the meek governess into a charming
    woman. She leaned on the velvet cushions as if she were used to such
    support; she played with the jewels which had crowned her as carelessly
    as if she were born to wear them; her attitude was full of negligent
    grace, and the expression of her face half proud, half pensive, as if
    her thoughts were bittersweet.

    One would know she was wellborn to see her now. Poor girl, what a
    burden a life of dependence must be to a spirit like hers! I wonder
    what she is thinking of so intently. And Coventry indulged in another
    look before he spoke.

    "Shall I bring you some supper, Miss Muir?"

    "Supper!" she ejaculated, with a start. "Who thinks of one's body when
    one's soul is--" She stopped there, knit her brows, and laughed faintly
    as she added, "No, thank you. I want nothing but advice, and that I dare
    not ask of anyone."

    "Why not?"

    "Because I have no right."

    "Everyone has a right to ask help, especially the weak of the strong.
    Can I help you? Believe me, I most heartily offer my poor services."

    "Ah, you forget! This dress, the borrowed splendor of these jewels, the
    freedom of this gay evening, the romance of the part you played, all
    blind you to the reality. For a moment I cease to be a servant, and for
    a moment you treat me as an equal."

    It was true; he _had_ forgotten. That soft, reproachful glance touched
    him, his distrust melted under the new charm, and he answered with real
    feeling in voice and face, "I treat you as an equal because you _are_
    one; and when I offered help, it is not to my sister's governess alone,
    but to Lady Howard's daughter."

    "Who told you that?" she demanded, sitting erect.

    "My uncle. Do not reproach him. It shall go no further, if you forbid
    it. Are you sorry that I know it?"



    "Because I will not be pitied!" And her eyes flashed as she made a
    half-defiant gesture.

    "Then, if I may not pity the hard fate which has befallen an innocent
    life, may I admire the courage which meets adverse fortune so bravely,
    and conquers the world by winning the respect and regard of all who see
    and honor it?"

    Miss Muir averted her face, put up her hand, and answered hastily, "No,
    no, not that! Do not be kind; it destroys the only barrier now left
    between us. Be cold to me as before, forget what I am, and let me go on
    my way, unknown, unpitied, and unloved!"

    Her voice faltered and failed as the last word was uttered, and she bent
    her face upon her hand. Something jarred upon Coventry in this speech,
    and moved him to say, almost rudely, "You need have no fears for me.
    Lucia will tell you what an iceberg I am."

    "Then Lucia would tell me wrong. I have the fatal power of reading
    character; I know you better than she does, and I see--" There she
    stopped abruptly.

    "What? Tell me and prove your skill," he said eagerly.

    Turning, she fixed her eyes on him with a penetrating power that made
    him shrink as she said slowly, "Under the ice I see fire, and warn you
    to beware lest it prove a volcano."

    For a moment he sat dumb, wondering at the insight of the girl; for she
    was the first to discover the hidden warmth of a nature too proud to
    confess its tender impulses, or the ambitions that slept till some
    potent voice awoke them. The blunt, almost stern manner in which she
    warned him away from her only made her more attractive; for there was no
    conceit or arrogance in it, only a foreboding fear emboldened by past
    suffering to be frank. Suddenly he spoke impetuously:

    "You are right! I am not what I seem, and my indolent indifference is
    but the mask under which I conceal my real self. I could be as
    passionate, as energetic and aspiring as Ned, if I had any aim in
    life. I have none, and so I am what you once called me, a thing to
    pity and despise."

    "I never said that!" cried Jean indignantly.

    "Not in those words, perhaps; but you looked it and thought it, though
    you phrased it more mildly. I deserved it, but I shall deserve it no
    longer. I am beginning to wake from my disgraceful idleness, and long
    for some work that shall make a man of me. Why do you go? I annoy you
    with my confessions. Pardon me. They are the first I ever made; they
    shall be the last."

    "No, oh no! I am too much honored by your confidence; but is it wise, is
    it loyal to tell _me_ your hopes and aims? Has not Miss Beaufort the
    first right to be your confidante?"

    Coventry drew back, looking intensely annoyed, for the name recalled
    much that he would gladly have forgotten in the novel excitement of the
    hour. Lucia's love, Edward's parting words, his own reserve so strangely
    thrown aside, so difficult to resume. What he would have said was
    checked by the sight of a half-open letter which fell from Jean's dress
    as she moved away. Mechanically he took it up to return it, and, as he
    did so, he recognized Sydney's handwriting. Jean snatched it from him,
    turning pale to the lips as she cried, "Did you read it? What did you
    see? Tell me, tell me, on your honor!"

    "On my honor, I saw nothing but this single sentence, 'By the love I
    bear you, believe what I say.' No more, as I am a gentleman. I know the
    hand, I guess the purport of the letter, and as a friend of Sydney, I
    earnestly desire to help you, if I can. Is this the matter upon which
    you want advice?"


    "Then let me give it?"

    "You cannot, without knowing all, and it is so hard to tell!"

    "Let me guess it, and spare you the pain of telling. May I?" And
    Coventry waited eagerly for her reply, for the spell was still upon him.

    Holding the letter fast, she beckoned him to follow, and glided before
    him to a secluded little nook, half boudoir, half conservatory. There
    she paused, stood an instant as if in doubt, then looked up at him with
    confiding eyes and said decidedly, "I will do it; for, strange as it may
    seem, you are the only person to whom I _can_ speak. You know Sydney,
    you have discovered that I am an equal, you have offered your help. I
    accept it; but oh, do not think me unwomanly! Remember how alone I am,
    how young, and how much I rely upon your sincerity, your sympathy!"

    "Speak freely. I am indeed your friend." And Coventry sat down beside
    her, forgetful of everything but the soft-eyed girl who confided in him
    so entirely.

    Speaking rapidly, Jean went on, "You know that Sydney loved me, that I
    refused him and went away. But you do not know that his importunities
    nearly drove me wild, that he threatened to rob me of my only treasure,
    my good name, and that, in desperation, I tried to kill myself. Yes,
    mad, wicked as it was, I did long to end the life which was, at best, a
    burden, and under his persecution had become a torment. You are shocked,
    yet what I say is the living truth. Lady Sydney will confirm it, the
    nurses at the hospital will confess that it was not a fever which
    brought me there; and here, though the external wound is healed, my
    heart still aches and burns with the shame and indignation which only a
    proud woman can feel."

    She paused and sat with kindling eyes, glowing cheeks, and both hands
    pressed to her heaving bosom, as if the old insult roused her spirit
    anew. Coventry said not a word, for surprise, anger, incredulity, and
    admiration mingled so confusedly in his mind that he forgot to speak,
    and Jean went on, "That wild act of mine convinced him of my indomitable
    dislike. He went away, and I believed that this stormy love of his would
    be cured by absence. It is not, and I live in daily fear of fresh
    entreaties, renewed persecution. His mother promised not to betray where
    I had gone, but he found me out and wrote to me. The letter I asked you
    to take to Lady Sydney was a reply to his, imploring him to leave me in
    peace. You failed to deliver it, and I was glad, for I thought silence
    might quench hope. All in vain; this is a more passionate appeal than
    ever, and he vows he will never desist from his endeavors till I give
    another man the right to protect me. I _can_ do this--I am sorely
    tempted to do it, but I rebel against the cruelty. I love my freedom, I
    have no wish to marry at this man's bidding. What can I do? How cart I
    free myself? Be my friend, and help me!"

    Tears streamed down her cheeks, sobs choked her words, and she clasped
    her hands imploringly as she turned toward the young man in all the
    abandonment of sorrow, fear, and supplication. Coventry found it hard to
    meet those eloquent eyes and answer calmly, for he had no experience in
    such scenes and knew not how to play his part. It is this absurd dress
    and that romantic nonsense which makes me feel so unlike myself, he
    thought, quite unconscious of the dangerous power which the dusky room,
    the midsummer warmth and fragrance, the memory of the "romantic
    nonsense," and, most of all, the presence of a beautiful, afflicted
    woman had over him. His usual self-possession deserted him, and he could
    only echo the words which had made the strongest impression upon him:

    "You _can_ do this, you are tempted to do it. Is Ned the man who can
    protect you?"

    "No" was the soft reply.

    "Who then?"

    "Do not ask me. A good and honorable man; one who loves me well, and
    would devote his life to me; one whom once it would have been happiness
    to marry, but now--"

    There her voice ended in a sigh, and all her fair hair fell down about
    her face, hiding it in a shining veil.

    "Why not now? This is a sure and speedy way of ending your distress. Is
    it impossible?"

    In spite of himself, Gerald leaned nearer, took one of the little hands
    in his, and pressed it as he spoke, urgently, compassionately, nay,
    almost tenderly. From behind the veil came a heavy sigh, and the brief
    answer, "It is impossible."

    "Why, Jean?"

    She flung her hair back with a sudden gesture, drew away her hand, and
    answered, almost fiercely, "Because I do not love him! Why do you
    torment me with such questions? I tell you I am in a sore strait and
    cannot see my way. Shall I deceive the good man, and secure peace at the
    price of liberty and truth? Or shall I defy Sydney and lead a life of
    dread? If he menaced my life, I should not fear; but he menaces that
    which is dearer than life--my good name. A look, a word can tarnish it;
    a scornful smile, a significant shrug can do me more harm than any blow;
    for I am a woman--friendless, poor, and at the mercy of his tongue. Ah,
    better to have died, and so have been saved the bitter pain that has
    come now!"

    She sprang up, clasped her hands over her head, and paced despairingly
    through the little room, not weeping, but wearing an expression more
    tragical than tears. Still feeling as if he had suddenly stepped into a
    romance, yet finding a keen pleasure in the part assigned him, Coventry
    threw himself into it with spirit, and heartily did his best to console
    the poor girl who needed help so much. Going to her, he said as
    impetuously as Ned ever did, "Miss Muir--nay, I will say Jean, if that
    will comfort you--listen, and rest assured that no harm shall touch you
    if I can ward it off. You are needlessly alarmed. Indignant you may well
    be, but, upon my life, I think you wrong Sydney. He is violent, I know,
    but he is too honorable a man to injure you by a light word, an unjust
    act. He did but threaten, hoping to soften you. Let me see him, or write
    to him. He is my friend; he will listen to me. Of that I am sure."

    "Be sure of nothing. When a man like Sydney loves and is thwarted in his
    love, nothing can control his headstrong will. Promise me you will not
    see or write to him. Much as I fear and despise him, I will submit,
    rather than any harm should befall you--or your brother. You promise me,
    Mr. Coventry?"

    He hesitated. She clung to his arm with unfeigned solicitude in her
    eager, pleading face, and he could not resist it.

    "I promise; but in return you must promise to let me give what help I
    can; and, Jean, never say again that you are friendless."

    "You are so kind! God bless you for it. But I dare not accept
    your friendship; she will not permit it, and I have no right to
    mar her peace."

    "Who will not permit it?" he demanded hotly.

    "Miss Beaufort."

    "Hang Miss Beaufort!" exclaimed Coventry, with such energy that Jean
    broke into a musical laugh, despite her trouble. He joined in it, and,
    for an instant they stood looking at one another as if the last barrier
    were down, and they were friends indeed. Jean paused suddenly, with the
    smile on her lips, the tears still on her cheek, and made a warning
    gesture. He listened: the sound of feet mingled with calls and laughter
    proved that they were missed and sought.

    "That laugh betrayed us. Stay and meet them. I cannot." And Jean darted
    out upon the lawn. Coventry followed; for the thought of confronting so
    many eyes, so many questions, daunted him, and he fled like a coward.
    The sound of Jean's flying footsteps guided him, and he overtook her
    just as she paused behind a rose thicket to take breath.

    "Fainthearted knight! You should have stayed and covered my retreat.
    Hark! they are coming! Hide! Hide!" she panted, half in fear, half in
    merriment, as the gay pursuers rapidly drew nearer.

    "Kneel down; the moon is coming out and the glitter of your embroidery
    will betray you," whispered Jean, as they cowered behind the roses.

    "Your arms and hair will betray you. 'Come under my plaiddie,' as the
    song says." And Coventry tried to make his velvet cloak cover the white
    shoulders and fair locks.

    "We are acting our parts in reality now. How Bella will enjoy the thing
    when I tell her!" said Jean as the noises died away.

    "Do not tell her," whispered Coventry.

    "And why not?" she asked, looking up into the face so near her own, with
    an artless glance.

    "Can you not guess why?"

    "Ah, you are so proud you cannot bear to be laughed at."

    "It is not that. It is because I do not want you to be annoyed by silly
    tongues; you have enough to pain you without that. I am your friend,
    now, and I do my best to prove it."

    "So kind, so kind! How can I thank you?" murmured Jean. And she
    involuntarily nestled closer under the cloak that sheltered both.

    Neither spoke for a moment, and in the silence the rapid beating of two
    hearts was heard. To drown the sound, Coventry said softly, "Are you

    "No, I like it," she answered, as softly, then added abruptly, "But why
    do we hide? There is nothing to fear. It is late. I must go. You are
    kneeling on my train. Please rise."

    "Why in such haste? This flight and search only adds to the charm of the
    evening. I'll not get up yet. Will you have a rose, Jean?"

    "No, I will not. Let me go, Mr. Coventry, I insist. There has been
    enough of this folly. You forget yourself."

    She spoke imperiously, flung off the cloak, and put him from her. He
    rose at once, saying, like one waking suddenly from a pleasant dream, "I
    do indeed forget myself."

    Here the sound of voices broke on them, nearer than before. Pointing to
    a covered walk that led to the house, he said, in his usually cool, calm
    tone, "Go in that way; I will cover your retreat." And turning, he went
    to meet the merry hunters.

    Half an hour later, when the party broke up, Miss Muir joined them in
    her usual quiet dress, looking paler, meeker, and sadder than usual.
    Coventry saw this, though he neither looked at her nor addressed her.
    Lucia saw it also, and was glad that the dangerous girl had fallen back
    into her proper place again, for she had suffered much that night. She
    appropriated her cousin's arm as they went through the park, but he was
    in one of his taciturn moods, and all her attempts at conversation were
    in vain. Miss Muir walked alone, singing softly to herself as she
    followed in the dusk. Was Gerald so silent because he listened to that
    fitful song? Lucia thought so, and felt her dislike rapidly deepening
    to hatred.

    When the young friends were gone, and the family were exchanging
    good-nights among themselves, Jean was surprised by Coventry's offering
    his hand, for he had never done it before, and whispering, as he held
    it, though Lucia watched him all the while, "I have not given my
    advice, yet."

    "Thanks, I no longer need it. I have decided for myself."

    "May I ask how?"

    "To brave my enemy."

    "Good! But what decided you so suddenly?"

    "The finding of a friend." And with a grateful glance she was gone.
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