Chapter Twenty-Fourth.
 
    "There's many a slip
     Twixt the cup and the lip."

The Travillas were all invited to Gertrude's wedding; but as it was to be a very grand affair, the invitation was declined because of their recent bereavement.

Mr. Ross had not seen his intended son-in-law, nor did he know how mercenary were Gertrude's motives. He took it for granted that she would not, of her own free will, consent to marry a man who was not at least agreeable to her, though he certainly thought it odd that she should fancy one over forty years older than herself.

He made some inquiries relative to the man's character and circumstances, and learning that he was really very wealthy, and bore a respectable reputation, as the world goes, gave his consent to the match.

The preparations went on; dresses and jewels were ordered from Paris, invitations issued to several hundred guests, and the reception rooms of their city residence refurnished for the occasion; money was poured out without stint to provide the wedding feasts and flowers, rich and rare, for the adornment of the house, and the persons of the girls.

Gertrude did not seem unhappy, but was in a constant state of excitement, and would not allow herself a moment to think.

Ten days before that appointed for the ceremony, the bridegroom arrived in the city, and called upon the family.

Mr. Ross did not like his countenance, and wondered more than ever at his daughter's choice.

He waited till Mr. Larrabee was gone, then sent for her to come to him in the library.

She came, looking surprised and annoyed. "What is it, papa?" she said impatiently. "Please be as brief as you can; because I've a world of things to attend to."

"So many that you have not a moment to spare for the father you are going to leave so soon?" he said a little sadly.

"Oh, don't remind me of that!" she cried, a sudden change coming over her manner. "I can't bear to think of it!" and creeping up to him, she put her arms around his neck, while a tear trembled in her eye.

"Nor I," he said, caressing her; "not even if I knew you were going to be very happy so far away from me; and I fear you are not. Gertrude, do you love that man?"

"Why what a question coming from my practical father!" she said, forcing a laugh. "I am choosing for myself, marrying of my own free will; is not that sufficient?"

"I tell you candidly, Gertrude," he answered, "I do not like Mr. Larrabee's looks. I cannot think it possible that you can love him, and I beg of you if you do not, to draw back even now at this late hour."

"It is too late, papa," she returned, growing cold and hard; "and I do not wish it. Is this all you wanted to say to me?"

"Yes," he said, releasing her with a sigh.

She glided from the room and he spent the next half hour in pacing slowly back and forth with his head bowed upon his breast.

The door bell rang and the servant came in with a card.

Mr. Ross glanced at it, read the name with a look of pleased surprise, and said, "Show the gentleman in here."

The next moment the two were shaking hands and greeting each other as old and valued friends.

"I'm very glad to see you, Gordon!" exclaimed Mr. Ross; "but what happy chance brought you here? Are you not residing somewhere in the West?"

"Yes; in St. Louis; and it is not a happy chance, but a painful duty that has brought me to you to-night."

He spoke hurriedly, as if to be done with an unpleasant task, and Mr. Ross's pulses throbbed at the sudden recollection that Larrabee also was a resident of St. Louis.

He turned a quick, inquiring look upon his friend. "Out with it, man! I'm in no mood to wait, whether it be good news or ill."

Gordon glanced toward the door.

Mr. Ross stepped to it and turned the key; then coming back, seated himself close to his friend with the air of one who is ready for anything.

"Phil, my old chum," said Gordon, clapping him affectionately on the shoulder, "I heard the other day in St. Louis, that Larrabee was about to marry a daughter of yours, and I took the first eastern bound train and traveled night and day to get here in time to put a stop to the thing. I hope I'm not too late."

"What do you know of the man?" asked Mr. Ross steadily and looking Gordon full in the eye, but with a paling cheek.

"Know of him? that he made all his money by gambling; that he is a murderer."

The last word was spoken low and close to the listener's ear.

Mr. Ross started back--horrified--deadly pale.

"Gordon! do you know whereof you affirm?" he asked low and huskily.

"I do; I had the account from one who was an eye-witness of the affair. He is dead now, and I do not suppose it would be possible to prove the thing in a court of justice; but nevertheless I assure you it is true.

"It was thirty years ago, on a Mississippi steamer, running between St. Louis and New Orleans, that the deed was done.

"Larrabee, then a professional black-leg, was aboard, plying his trade. My informant, a man whose veracity I could not doubt, was one of a group of bystanders, who saw him (Larrabee) fleece a young man out of several thousand dollars--all he had in the world--then, enraged by some taunting words from his victim, pull out a pistol and shoot him through the heart, just as they sat there on opposite sides of the gaming table; then with his revolver still in his hand, threatening with terrible oaths and curses, to shoot down any man who should attempt to stop him, he rushed on deck, jumped into the river, swam ashore and disappeared in the woods."

"Horrible, horrible!" groaned Mr. Ross, hiding his face in his hands. "And this murderer, this fiend in human form, would have married my daughter!" he cried, starting up in strong excitement. "Why was he suffered to escape? Where is he now?"

"The whole thing passed so quickly, my informant said, that every one seemed stunned, paralyzed with horror and fright till the scoundrel had made good his escape; beside there were several others of the same stamp on board--desperate fellows, probably belonging to the same gang--who were evidently ready to make common cause with the ruffian.

"That part of our country was, you know, in those days, infested with desperadoes and outlaws."

"Yes, yes; but what is to be done now? I shall of course send a note to Larrabee, at his hotel, telling him that all is at an end between him and Gertrude, forbidding him the house, and intimating that the sooner he leaves the vicinity the better. But--Gordon, I can never thank you sufficiently for this kindness; will you add to it by keeping the thing to yourself for the present? I wouldn't for the world have the story get into the papers."

"Certainly, Ross!" returned his friend, grasping his hand in adieu. "I understand how you feel. There is but one person beside ourselves, who knows my errand here, and I can answer for his silence."

"Who is it?"

"Mr. Hogg, a friend of your wife and daughters."

The news brought by Mr. Gordon sent both Gertrude and her mother into violent hysterics, and Mr. Ross and an old nurse who had been in the family for years, had their hands full for the rest of the night. It was a sore wound to the pride of both mother and daughter.

"The scoundrel! the wretch! the villain!" cried Gertrude. "I can never hold up my head again; everybody will be talking about me, and those envious Miss Petitts and their mother will say, 'It's just good enough for her; serves her right for being so proud of the grand match she was going to make.' Oh dear, oh dear! why couldn't that Gordon have staid away and held his tongue!"

"Gertrude!" exclaimed her father, in anger and astonishment, "is this your gratitude to him for saving you from being the wife of a gambler and murderer? You might well be thankful to him and to a Higher Power, for your happy escape."

"Yes, of course," said Lucy. "But what are we to do? the invitations are all out. Oh dear, dear, was there ever such a wretched piece of business! Phil, it's real good in you not to reproach me."

"'Twould be useless now," he sighed, "and I think the reproaches of your own conscience must be sufficient. Not that I would put all the blame on you, though. A full share of it belongs to me."

By morning both ladies had recovered some degree of calmness, but Gertrude obstinately refused to leave her room, or to see any one who might call, even her most intimate friend.

"Tell them I'm sick," she said, "it'll be true enough, for I have an awful headache."

It was to her mother who had been urging her to come down to breakfast, that she was speaking.

"Well, I shall send up a cup of tea," said Mrs. Ross. "But, what is this?" as the maid entered with a note. "It's directed to you, Gertrude."

"From him, I presume," Gertrude said, as the girl went out and closed the door. "Throw it into the fire, mother, or no; I'll send it back unopened."

"It is not his hand," said Mrs. Ross, closely scrutinizing the address.

"Then give it to me, please;" and almost snatching it from her mother's hand, Gertrude tore it open, and glanced hastily over its contents.

"Yes, I'll see him! he'll be here directly; and I must look my best!" she exclaimed, jumping up and beginning to take down her crimps.

"See him? Gertrude, are you mad? Your father will never allow it."

"Mr. Hogg, mother."

"Oh!"

They exchanged glances and smiles. Mrs. Ross hurried down to breakfast, not to keep her husband waiting, and Gertrude presently followed in handsome morning toilet, and in apparently quite gay spirits; a trifle pale, but only enough so to make her interesting, her mother said.

Mr. Ross and Philip, Jr., had already gone away to their place of business, Sophie and the younger boys to school, and only Mrs. Ross and Kate were left, the latter of whom had little to say, but regarded her sister with a sort of contemptuous pity.

Gertrude had scarcely finished her meal, when the door-bell rang, and she was summoned to the drawing-room to receive her visitor.

The wedding came off at the appointed time. There was a change of bridegrooms, that was all; and few could decide whether the invitations had been a ruse, so far as he was concerned--or if that were not so, how the change had been brought about.

In a long letter to Violet Travilla, Kate Ross gave the details of the whole affair.

A strange, sad story it seemed to Vi and her sister. They could not in the least understand how Gertrude could feel or act as she had done, and feared she would find, as Kate expressed it, "even a gold lined sty, but a hard bed to lie in, with no love to soften it."

"Still," they said to each other, "it was better, a thousand times better, than marrying that dreadful Mr. Larrabee."

For Kate had assured them Mr. Hogg was "an honest, honorable man, and not ill-tempered; only an intolerable bore--so stupid and uninteresting."