II. The Mysterious Lady with the Silver Veil
 

At that moment our hero suddenly became conscious of the fact that a small wicket in a wooden gate near which he stood had been opened, and that the eyes of an otherwise concealed countenance were observing him with the utmost closeness of scrutiny.

He had hardly time to become aware of this observation of his person when the gate itself was opened, and there appeared before him, in the moonlight, the bent and crooked figure of an aged negress. She was clad in a calamanco raiment, and was further adorned with a variety of gaudily colored trimmings, vastly suggestive of the tropical world of which she was an inhabitant. Her woolly head was enveloped, after the fashion of her people, in the folds of a gigantic and flaming red turban constructed of an entire pocket-handkerchief. Her face was pock-pitted to an incredible degree, so that what with this deformity, emphasized by the pouting of her prodigious and shapeless lips, and the rolling of a pair of eyes as yellow as saffron, Jonathan Rugg thought that he had never beheld a figure at once so extraordinary and so repulsive.

It occurred to our hero that here, maybe, was to overtake him such an adventure as that which he had just a moment before been desiring so ardently. Nor was he mistaken; for the negress, first looking this way and then that, with an extremely wary and cunning expression, and apparently having satisfied herself that the street, for the moment, was pretty empty of passers, beckoned to him to draw nearer. When he had approached close enough to her she caught him by the sleeve, and, instantly drawing him into the garden beyond, shut and bolted the gate with a quickness and a silence suggestive of the most extravagant secrecy.

At the same moment a huge negro suddenly appeared from the shadow of the gatepost, and so placed himself between Jonathan and the gate that any attempt to escape would inevitably have entailed a conflict, upon our hero's part, with the sable and giant guardian.

Says the negress, looking very intently at our hero: "Be you afeard, Buckra?"

"Why, no," quothed Jonathan; "for to tell thee the truth, friend, though I am a man of peace, being of that religious order known as the Society of Friends, I am not so weak in person nor so timid in disposition as to warrant me in being afraid of any one. Indeed, were I of a mind to escape, I might, without boasting, declare my belief that I should be able to push my way past even a better man than thy large friend who stands so threateningly in front of yonder gate."

At these words the negress broke into so prodigious a grin that, in the moonlight, it appeared as though the whole lower part of her face had been transformed into shining teeth. "You be a brave Buckra," says she, in her gibbering English. "You come wid Melina, and Melina take you to pretty lady, who want you to eat supper wid her."

Thereupon, and allowing our hero no opportunity to decline this extraordinary invitation, even had he been of a mind to do so, she took him by the hand, and led him toward the large and imposing house which commanded the garden. "Indeed," says Jonathan to himself, as he followed his sable guide--himself followed in turn by the gigantic negro--"indeed, I am like to have my fill of adventure, if anything is to be judged from such a beginning as this."

Nor did the interior sumptuousness of the mansion at all belie the imposing character of its exterior, for, entering by way of an illuminated veranda, and so coming into a brilliantly lighted hallway beyond, Jonathan beheld himself to be surrounded by such a wealth of exquisite and well-appointed tastefulness as it had never before been his good-fortune to behold.

Candles of clarified wax sparkled like stars in chandeliers of crystal. These in turn, catching the illumination, glittered in prismatic fragments with all the varied colors of the rainbow, so that a mellow yet brilliant radiance filled the entire apartment. Polished mirrors of a spotless clearness, framed in golden frames and built into the walls, reflected the waxed floors, the rich Oriental carpets, and the sumptuous paintings that hung against the ivory-tinted paneling, so that in appearance the beauties of the apartment were continued in bewildering vistas upon every side toward which the beholder directed his gaze.

Bidding our hero to be seated, which he did with no small degree of embarrassment and constraint, and upon the extreme edge of the gilt and satin-covered chair, the negress who had been his conductor left him for the time being to his own contemplation.

Almost before he had an opportunity to compose himself into anything more than a part of his ordinary sedateness of demeanor, the silken curtains at the doorway at the other end of the apartment were suddenly divided, and Jonathan beheld before him a female figure displaying the most exquisite contour of mould and of proportion. She was clad entirely in white, and was enveloped from head to foot in the folds of a veil of delicate silver gauze, which, though hiding her countenance from recognition, nevertheless permitted sufficient of her beauties to be discerned to suggest the extreme elegance and loveliness of her lineaments. Advancing toward our hero, and extending to him a tapering hand as white as alabaster, the fingers encircled with a multitude of jewelled rings, she addressed him thus:

"Sir," she said, speaking in accents of the most silvery and musical cadence, "you are no doubt vastly surprised to find yourself thus unexpectedly, and almost as by violence, introduced into the house of one who is such an entire stranger to you as myself. But though I am unknown to you, I must inform you that I am better acquainted with my visitor, for my agents have been observing you ever since you landed this afternoon at the dock, and they have followed you ever since, until a little while ago, when you stopped immediately opposite my garden gate. These agents have observed you with a closeness of scrutiny of which you are doubtless entirely unaware. They have even informed me that, owing doubtless to your extreme interest in your new surroundings, you have not as yet supped. Knowing this, and that you must now be enjoying a very hearty appetite, I have to ask you if you will do me the extreme favor of sitting at table with me at a repast which you will doubtless be surprised to learn has been hastily prepared entirely in your honor."

So saying, and giving Jonathan no time for reply, she offered him her hand, and with the most polite insistence conducted him into an exquisitely appointed dining room adjoining.

Here stood a table covered with a snow-white cloth, and embellished with silver and crystal ornaments of every description. Having seated herself and having indicated to Jonathan to take the chair opposite to her, the two were presently served with a repast such as our hero had not thought could have existed out of the pages of certain extraordinary Oriental tales which one time had fallen to his lot to read.

This supper (which in itself might successfully have tempted the taste of a Sybarite) was further enhanced by several wines and cordials which, filling the room with the aroma of the sunlit grapes from which they had been expressed, stimulated the appetite, which without them needed no such spur. The lady, who ate but sparingly herself, possessed herself with patience until Jonathan's hunger had been appeased. When, however, she beheld that he weakened in his attacks upon the dessert of sweets with which the banquet was concluded, she addressed him upon the business which was evidently entirely occupying her mind.

"Sir," said she, "you are doubtless aware that every one, whether man or woman, is possessed of an enemy. In my own case I must inform you that I have no less than three who, to compass their ends, would gladly sacrifice my life itself to their purposes. At no time am I safe from their machinations, nor have I any one," cried she, exhibiting a great emotion, "to whom I may turn in my need. It was this that led me to hope to find in you a friend in my perils, for, having observed through my agents that you are not only honest in disposition and strong in person, but that you are possessed of a considerable degree of energy and determination, I am most desirous of imposing upon your good-nature a trust of which you cannot for a moment suspect the magnitude. Tell me, are you willing to assist a poor, defenceless female in her hour of trial?"

"Indeed, friend," quoth Jonathan, with more vivacity than he usually exhibited, with a lenity to which he had heretofore in his lifetime been a stranger--being warmed into such a spirit, doubtless, by the generous wines of which he had partaken--"indeed, friend, if I could but see thy face it would doubtless make my decision in such a matter the more favorable, since I am inclined to think from the little I can behold of it, that thy appearance must be extremely comely to the eye."

"Sir," said the lady, exhibiting some amusement at this unexpected sally, "I am, you must know, as God made me. Sometime, perhaps, I may be very glad to satisfy your curiosity, and exhibit to you my poor countenance such as it is. But now"--and here she reverted to her more serious mood--"I must again put it to you: are you willing to help an unprotected woman in a period of very great danger to herself? Should you decline the assistance which I solicit, my slaves shall conduct you to the gate through which you entered, and suffer you to depart in peace. Should you, upon the other hand, accept the trust, you are to receive no reward therefor, except the gratitude of one who thus appeals to you in her helplessness."

For a few moments Jonathan fell silent, for here, indeed, was he entering into an adventure which infinitely surpassed any anticipation that he could have formed. He was, besides, of a cautious nature, and was entirely disinclined to embark into any affair so obscure and tangled as that in which he now found himself becoming involved.

"Friend," said he, at last, "I may tell thee that thy story has so far moved me as to give me every inclination to help thee in thy difficulties, but I must also inform thee that I am a man of caution, having never before entered into any business of this sort. Therefore, before giving any promise that may bind my future actions, I must, in common wisdom, demand to know what are the conditions that thou hast in mind to impose upon me."

"Indeed, sir," cried the lady, with great vivacity and with more cheerful accents--as though her mind had been relieved of a burden of fear that her companion might at once have declined even a consideration of her request--"indeed, sir, you will find that the trust which I would impose upon you is in appearance no such great matter as my words may have led you to suppose.

"You must know that I am possessed of a little trinket which, in the hands of any one who, like yourself, is a stranger in these parts, would possess no significance, but which while in my keeping is fraught with infinite menace to me."

Hereupon, and having so spoken, she clapped her hands, and an attendant immediately entered, disclosing the person of the same negress who had first introduced Jonathan into the strange adventure in which he now found himself involved. This creature, who appeared still more deformed and repulsive in the brilliantly lighted room than she had in the moonlight, carried in her hands a white napkin, which she handed to her mistress. This being opened, disclosed a small ivory ball of about the bigness of a lime. Nodding to the negress to withdraw, the lady handed him the ivory ball, and Jonathan took it with no small degree of curiosity and examined it carefully. It appeared to be of an exceeding antiquity, and of so deep a yellow as to be almost brown in color. It was covered over with strange figures and characters of an Oriental sort, which appeared to our hero to be of Chinese workmanship.

"I must tell you, sir," said the lady, after she had permitted her guest to examine this for a while in silence, "that though this appears to you to be of little worth, it is yet of extreme value. After all, however, it is nothing but a curiosity that any one who is interested in such matters might possess. What I have to ask you is this: Will you be willing to take this into your charge, to guard it with the utmost care and fidelity--yes, even as the apple of your eye--during your continuance in these parts, and to return it to me in safety the day before your departure. By so doing you will render me a service which you may neither understand nor comprehend, but which shall make me your debtor for my entire life."

By this time Jonathan had pretty well composed his mind for a reply.

"Friend," said he, "such a matter as this is entirely out of my knowledge of business, which is, indeed, that of a clerk in the mercantile profession. Nevertheless, I have every inclination to help thee, though I trust thou mayest have magnified the dangers that beset thee. This appears to me to be a little trifle for such an ado; nevertheless, I will do as thou dost request. I will keep it in safety and will return it to thee upon this day a week hence, by which time I hope to have discharged my cargo and be ready to continue my voyage to Demerara."

At these words the lady, who had been watching him all the time with a most unaccountable eagerness, burst forth into words of such heart-felt gratitude as to entirely overwhelm our hero. When her transports had been somewhat assuaged she permitted him to depart, and the negress conducted him back through the garden, whence she presently showed him through the gate whither he had entered and out into the street.