Chapter XV.
 
  A goodly apple rotten at the heart;
  O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

  --SHAKESPEARE'S "MERCHANT OF VENICE."

In mental power, education, good looks, courtly manners, and general information Mr. Egerton was decidedly superior to any of the young men resident in Lansdale; and of this fact no one was better aware than, himself. He did not confine his attentions to Elsie, and soon found himself a prime favorite among the ladies of the town. No female coquette ever coveted the admiration of the other sex more than he, or sought more assiduously to gain it. He carried on numerous small flirtations among the belles of the place, yet paid court to Elsie much oftener than to any one else, using every art of which he was master in the determined effort to win her affection and to make himself necessary to her happiness.

He had read many books and seen much of life, having travelled all over our own country, and visited both Europe and South America; and possessing a retentive memory, fine descriptive powers, a fund of humor, and a decided talent for mimicry, was able, when he chose, to make his conversation exceedingly amusing and interesting, and very instructive. Also, he seemed all that was good and noble, and she soon gave him a very warm place in her regard; much warmer than she herself at first suspected.

According to his own account--and probably it was the truth--Bromly Egerton had had many hair-breadth escapes from sudden and violent death. He was telling of one of these in which he had risked and nearly lost his life from mere love of adventure. Elsie shuddered, and drew a long breath of relief, as the story reached its close.

"Does it frighten you to hear of such things?" he asked, with a smile.

"Yes, it seems to me a dreadful thing to risk the loss of one's life, when there is no good to ourselves or others to be gained by it."

"Ah, if you were a man or boy you would understand that more than half the charm of such adventures lies in the risk."

"But is it right, or wise?"

"A mere matter of taste, or choice, I should say--a long dull life, or a short and lively one."

Elsie's face had grown very grave. "Are those really your sentiments, Mr. Egerton?" she asked, in a pained, disappointed tone. "I had thought better of you."

"I do not understand; have I said anything very dreadful?"

"Is it not a sin to throw away the life which God has given us to be used in His service?"

"Ah, perhaps that may be so; but I had not looked at it in precisely that way. I had only thought of the fact that life in this world is not so very delightful that one need be anxious to continue it for a hundred years. We grow tired of it at times, and are almost ready to throw it away; to use your expression."

"Ah, before doing that we should be very sure of going to a better place."

"But how can we be sure of that, or, indeed, of anything? What is there that we know absolutely, and beyond question? how can I be sure of even my own existence? how do I know that I am what I believe myself to be? There are crazy men who firmly believe themselves kings and princes, or something else quite as far from the truth; and how do I know that I am not as much mistaken as they?"

She gave him a look of grieved surprise, and he laughingly asked, "Well, now, Miss Dinsmore, is there anything of which you really are absolutely certain? or you, Miss King?" as Lottie drew near the log on which the two were seated.

They had taken a long ramble through the woods that morning, and Egerton and Elsie had some ten minutes before sat down here to rest and wait for their companions, who had wandered a little from the path they were pursuing.

"Cogito, ergo sum," she answered gayly, "Also I am sure we have had a very pleasant walk. But isn't it time we were moving toward home?"

"Yes," Elsie answered, consulting her watch.

"That's a pretty little thing," observed Egerton. "May I look at it?" And he held out his hand.

"One of papa's birthday gifts to his petted only daughter," she said, with a smile, as she allowed him to take it. "I value it very highly on that account even more than for its intrinsic worth; though it is an excellent time-keeper."

"It must have cost a pretty penny; the pearls and diamonds alone must be worth quite a sum," he said, turning it about and examining it with eager interest. "I would be careful, Miss Dinsmore, how I let it be known that I carried anything so valuable about me, or wore it into lonely places, such as these woods," he added, as he returned it to her.

"I never come out alone," she said, looking slightly anxious and troubled; "papa laid his commands upon me never to do so; but I shall leave it at home in future."

"Riches bring cares; that's the way I comfort myself in my poverty," remarked Lottie, lightly. "But, Elsie, my dear, don't allow anxious fears to disturb you; we are a very moral people at Lansdale; I never heard of a robbery there yet."

"I believe I am naturally rather timid," said Elsie, "yet I seldom suffer from fear. I always feel very safe when papa is near to protect me, and our Heavenly Father's care is always about us."

"That reminds me that you have not answered my question," remarked Egerton, switching off the head of a clover-blossom with his cane. "Is the care you speak of one thing of which you feel certain?"

"Yes, and there are others."

"May I ask what?"

She turned her sweet, soft eyes full upon him as she answered in low, clear tones, "'I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.' 'I know that my Redeemer liveth.' 'I know that it shall be well with them that fear God.'"

"You are quoting?"

"Yes, from a book that I know is true. Do you doubt it, Mr. Egerton?"

"Why, Miss Dinsmore, you do not take me for an infidel, surely?"

"No, until to-day I had hoped you were a Christian."

Her eyes were downcast now, and there were tears in her voice as she spoke. He saw he had made a false step and lowered himself in her esteem, yet, remembering his talk with Arthur, he felt certain he could more than retrieve that error. And he grew exultant in the thought of the evident pain the discovery of his unbelief had caused her. "She does care for me; I believe the prize is even now almost within my reach," he said to himself, as they silently pursued their way into the town, no one speaking again until they parted at Miss Stanhope's gate.

Elsie, usually full of innocent mirth and gladness, was very quiet at dinner that day, and Aunt Wealthy, watching her furtively, thought she noticed an unwonted shade of sadness on the fair face.

"What is it, dear?" she asked at length; "something seems to have gone wrong with you."

The young girl replied by repeating the substance of the morning's talk with Mr. Egerton, and expressing her disappointment at the discovery that he was not the Christian man she had taken him to be.

"Perhaps what you have taken in earnest, was but spoken in jest, my child," said Miss Stanhope.

"Ah, auntie, but a Christian surely could not say such things even in jest," she answered, with a little sigh, and a look of sorrowful concern on her face.

Half an hour later, Elsie sat reading in the abode of the vine-covered porch, while her aunt enjoyed her customary after-dinner nap. She presently heard the gate swing to, and the next moment Mr. Egerton was helping himself to a seat by her side.

"I hope I don't intrude, Miss Dinsmore," he began, assuming a slightly embarrassed air.

"Oh, no, not at all," she answered, closing her book; "but aunt is lying down, and--"

"Ah, no matter; I wouldn't have her disturbed for the World; and in fact I am rather glad of the opportunity of seeing you alone. I--I have been thinking a good deal of that talk we had this morning, and--I am really quite shocked at the sentiments I then expressed, though they were spoken more than half in jest. Miss Dinsmore, I am not a Christian, but--but I want to be, and would, if I only knew how; and I've come to you to learn the way; for somehow I seem to feel that you could make the thing plainer to me than any one else. What must I do first?"

Glad tears shone in the soft eyes she lifted to his face as she answered, "'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.' Believe, 'only believe.'"

"But I must do something?"

"'Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.'"

The man was an arrant knave and hypocrite, simulating anxiety about his soul's salvation only for the purpose of ingratiating himself with Elsie; but "the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God," pricked him for the moment, as she wielded it in faith and prayer. What ways, what thoughts were his! Truly they had need to be forsaken if he would hope ever to see that holy city of which we are told "There shall in no wise enter it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie."

For a moment he sat silent and abashed before the gentle, earnest young Christian, feeling her very purity a reproach, and fearing that she must read his hypocrisy and the baseness of his motives in his countenance.

But hers was a most innocent and unsuspicious nature, apt to believe others as true and honest as herself. She went on presently. "It is so beautifully simple and easy,--God's way of saving us poor sinners: it is its very simplicity that so stumbles wise men and women, while little children, in their sweet trustfulness, just taking God at His word, understand it without any difficulty." She spoke in a musing tone, not looking at Egerton at all, but with her eyes fixed meditatingly upon the floor.

He perceived that she had no doubts of his sincerity, and rallying from the thrust she had so unconsciously given him, went on with the role he had laid down for himself.

"I fear I am one of the wise ones you speak of, for I confess I do not see the way yet. Can you not explain it more fully?"

"I will try," she said. "You believe that you are a sinner deserving of God's wrath?"

"Yes."

"You have broken His law, and His justice demands your punishment; but Jesus has kept its requirements, and borne its penalty in your stead, and now offers you his righteousness and salvation as a free gift,--'without money and without price.'"

"But what am I to do?"

"Simply take the offered gift."

"But how? I fear I must seem very obtuse, but I really do not comprehend."

"Then ask for the teachings of the Spirit; ask Jesus to give you repentance and faith. 'Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you; for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened."

Elsie's voice was low and pleading, her tones were tremulous with earnest entreaty, the eyes she lifted to his face were half filled with tears; for she felt that the eternal interests of her hearer were trembling in the balance.

He looked at her admiringly, and, lost in the contemplation of her beauty, had almost betrayed himself by his want of interest in what she was saying. But just then Miss Stanhope joined them, and shortly after he took his leave.

From this time Egerton played his part with consummate skill, deceiving Elsie so completely that she had not the slightest doubt of his being an humble, penitent, rejoicing believer; and great were her joy and thankfulness when he told her that she had been the means of leading him to Christ; that her words had made the way plain to him, as he had never been able to see it before. It seemed to her a very tender, strong tie between them, and he appeared to feel it to be so also.

She was not conscious of looking upon him in the light of a lover, but he saw with secret exultation that he was fast winning her heart; he read it in the flushing of her cheek and the brightening of her eye at his approach, and in many other unmistakable signs. He wrote to Arthur that the prize was nearly won; so nearly that he had no doubt of his ultimate success.

"And I'll not be long now about finishing up the job," he continued; "it's such precious hard work to be so good and pious all the time, that I can hardly wait till matters are fully ripe for action. I'm in constant danger of letting the mask slip aside in some unguarded moment, and so undoing the whole thing after the world of trouble it has cost me. It's no joke, I can assure you, for a man of my tastes and habits to lead the sort of life I've led for the last three months, I believe I'd give her up this minute, fortune and all, if the winning of them would lay me under the necessity of continuing it for the rest of my days, or even for any length of time. But once the knot is tied, and the property secured, there'll be an end of this farce. I'll let her know I'm done with cant, will neither talk it nor listen to it."

Arthur Dinsmore's face darkened as he read, and in a sudden burst of fury he tore the letter into fragments, then threw them into the empty grate. He was not yet so hardened as to feel willing to see Elsie in the power of such a heartless wretch, such a villain as he knew Tom Jackson to be. Many times already had he bitterly repented of having told him of her wealth, and helped him to an acquaintance with her. His family pride revolted against the connection, and some latent affection for his niece prompted him to save her from the life of misery that must be hers as the wife of one so utterly devoid of honor or integrity.

Yet Arthur lacked the moral courage to face the disagreeable consequences of a withdrawal from his compact with Jackson, and a confession to his father or Horace of the wretch's designs upon Elsie and his own disgraceful entanglement with him. He concluded to take a middle course. He wrote immediately to Jackson, somewhat haughtily, advising him at once to give up the whole thing.

"You will inevitably fail to accomplish your end," he said. "Elsie will never marry without her father's consent, and that you will find it utterly impossible to gain. Horace is too sharp to be hoodwinked or deceived, even by you. He will ferret out your whole past, lay bare the whole black record of your rascalities and hypocrisies, and forbid his daughter ever again to hold the slightest communication with you. And she will obey if it kills her on the spot."

"There's some comfort in that last reflection," muttered Arthur to himself, as he folded and sealed his epistle; "no danger of the rascal getting into the family."

Two days later, Egerton took this letter from the post-office in Lansdale. He read it with a scowl on his brow. "Ah! I see your game, young man," he muttered with an oath, "but you'll find that you've got hold of the wrong customer. My reply shall be short and sweet, and quite to the point."

It ran thus: "Your warning and advice come too late, my young friend; the mischief is already wrought, and however unworthy your humble servant may be deemed by yourself or others of its members to become connected with the illustrious D---- family, they will find they cannot help themselves; the girl loves me, and believes in me, and I defy all the fathers and relations in creation to keep us apart." Then followed some guarded allusions to various sums of borrowed money, and so-called "debts of honor," and to some compact by which they were to be annulled, accompanied by a threat of exposure if that agreement were not kept to the very letter.