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Title: The Lady Ermetta; or, The Sleeping Secret. Author: Ernest Favenc (writing as "Dramingo") * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1900011h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2019 Most recent update: January 2019 This eBook was produced by: Ramesh Chakrapani Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Saw throned on a flowery rise, One sitting on a crimson scarf unrolled.
Well, not exactly.
This was a man, and he was sitting in one of the squatter chairs leaning against the slabs, and a curious looking figure he was to see in such a situation. I knew him at once; he was the Genius of Christmas. There he was, holly wreath, white beard, laughing countenance, and all the attributes complete. I said, "Good day, old man—how are you?" for I felt astonishingly bold somehow. He was reading in a large book, the print of which seemed possessed with life, and to be constantly moving and changing; but when I made this remark he raised his head, and gazed at me with "a countenance more in sorrow than in anger," but did not speak.
"I know who you are," I went on; "you're the Genius of Christmas."
"I am," he said.
"And you're going to show me all manner of pictures and scenes of human life, and I shall awake by-and-by and find that it has all been a dream; and I shall be very good and charitable all the rest of my life."
"Not you," said the Spirit; "you couldn't be charitable if you tried."
"Spirit," I said, "that's very hard, why could I not be charitable if I tried?"
"When you couldn't show mercy to a poor old ghost who's been harped upon, and written about, and carolled over,—there, I'll say no more; but man's inhumanity to me makes a Christmas Spirit mourn."
"Spirit," I said, "you mistake, surely, I who esteem and venerate the Christmas season."
"You do, do you? Now, answer me truly, were you not trying to compose a Christmas tale as you lay in that hammock?"
"I confess it, I was."
"And you say you venerate me; pretty veneration I call that, but I'll be revenged. I'll stand it no longer. I'll read Christmas poetry to you for the next three hundred and sixty-five days."
"Spirit, do not judge me unheard; be calm."
"Be calm! Who could be calm under such provocation? Listen! We are seven,—that's Wordsworth isn't it,—never mind, as I said before, we are seven; seven spirits, one for each day in the week. I'm Saturday. When Christmas Day falls on a Saturday, as it does this year, I have to attend to it. Now every leap year one of us has to do double duty, and as next year is a leap year I am told off for the extra day's work; but there is a chance for any of us to get out of this extra work, thus,"—he went on as though quoting from some rule or regulation,—"If a Spirit when in the execution of its duty, can find a place upon earth inhabited by Christian, or supposedly Christian people, where no Christmas Literature is to be found upon Christmas Day, he shall be able to claim exemption from extra duty on leap-year, and the Spirit following him shall do his work."
"Spend your Christmas here," I cried, starting from the hammock. "Search the house from garret to basement (it was only a two-roomed hut), and see if you can find a Christmas magazine or paper."
"That Christmas story," the Spirit sternly replied, "That Christmas story, which shall never see the light, by its mere presence in your idiotic skull has spoilt my chance of a holiday, and I wanted to put Sunday into it"—the long faced sanctimonious hypocrite. "But I will be revenged, revenged!"
"Spirit," I cried, casting myself at its feet and clutching its robe, "have mercy; I am not strong-nerved. I could not bear to be transported to regions of ice and snow, and see poor people kind and generous to one another, and pretty girls playing at blindman's-buff, and all the many signs you would show me—have mercy!"
"Can you ask it knowing that during the whole of the past year I have wandered to and fro seeking for a place wherein to rest on this twenty fifth day of December? I marked this spot, noted the dense stolidity, not to say stupidity, visible in your face, and I said here is a place where I shall be safe; nicely situated in a warm comfortable climate, mails always a month late; here I am secure for my holiday. This morning I took a turn through Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, just to see that everything was going on all right, come here to finish my day quietly and peace fully, in the virtuous frame of mind that a Spirit feels in who has done his duty, and I find, what! That you—a being than whom a generation of apes could not produce a greater fool—have dared to compose a Christmas Story; that you have committed two pages of it to paper, and it is even now lying there in your bedroom. Can you deny it?"
I could only bow my head in guilty assent.
"But vengeance can still be mine—yes, Vengeance! Vengeance!! Vengeance!!!" Here his voice rose to such a shriek that I expected to see the stockman and cook come rushing in to see what was up; but no help came to me, and he raged on.
"I will read to you, commencing with your own wretched two pages, all the Christmas literature that has been published in the world this season!" Uttering this awful sentence he leaned back in the chair, and glared furiously at me.
"Mercy, mercy," I said faintly.
"No mercy, I know it not; I reckon it will just comfortably occupy us until the end of next year to get through it all."
"Spirit!" I cried, "I have sinned, but I repent; I will be a new man, Christmas shall be to me a season of mourning and desolation; spare me." Its only answer was to open its book and commence reading.
As though its first word was a blow, I fell back spell-bound and motionless, and there I lay whilst the Genius began to read my now detested production of two pages. First he read it in an ordinary colloquial tone, then he gabbled it over, next he sung it, then he tried to chant it. Then he read it in a facetious manner, stopping to laugh every now and then; then he read it in a dismal manner, pretending to cry; then he tried to make blank verse of it, and I tried to stop my ears, but all in vain; over and over again he read the horrid sentences I knew so well, until at last he seemed out of breath, and stopped.
"How do you like it," he said, "will you ever do it again?"
"Never, never," I groaned. He chuckled, and turning again to his book, the pages of which produced anything he liked without his having to turn over the leaves, he inflicted the following story upon me:—
Calm in the serene solemnity of their solitude; grand in the outstretched vastness of their extent, and golden in the Pactolean wealth of their beauty, lie the sands of Plimlivon. But what huge, gloomy object is that, the rugged outlines of which mar the tranquil beauty of their level expanse? Like the fossilised form of some gigantic inhabitant of a world long forgotten, or like a Brobdignagian bandbox labelled, "This side up, with care," stands a mighty isolated rock, and casts upon the otherwise unflecked extent of stainless sand around it, a shadow, weird, gloomy, and mysterious. Why does that rock—that grim, portentous sentinel, challenging the gladsome sunlight, with its ominous "Qui vive," stand there and throw its gruesome shade over sand-grain and pebble that would else be revelling in the glorious radiance of day? Say, why does the shadow of some awful secret crime fall across the otherwise unblotted course of a fair, fresh life, and turn the rich colors of the flowers of life into the sombre hues and tints of death? I know not, gentle reader, but that rock stands there because I intend to use it in the third and last chapter.
"My daughter," said the Marquis of Marborough.
"Yes, my father," replied the Lady Ermetta, who was of a most dutiful disposition, and when she did not say 'No said 'Yes' with undeviating regularity.
"The hour has now arrived when I feel it incumbent on me to reveal to you the secret—the secret upon which hinges your future welfare and happiness, and is also the central point of interest in this story in which we are two of the principal characters. Therefore, arm yourself with fortitude, and prepare to hear it as becomes a heroine."
"Very well, my father," returned the dutiful girl, "but will you kindly tell me exactly what to do."
"Clasp your hands convulsively, lean forwards attentively, and with an expression of anxious horror on your beautiful features, exclaim, 'Speak, speak, my father; I can bear the worst!'"
The Lady Ermetta followed his directions to the eighth part of an affygraffy.
"You know, my child, that in the third and last chapter you are to be married, as becomes a heroine; and you also know that Baron Gadzooks is the bridegroom elect. But you do not know that a dark secret hangs over his birth, a secret which I am now about to reveal, therefore listen attentively."
"I am all ears," said the lovely girl.
"My dearest, that is a most irrational remark; now, really, how can you be all ears?"
The Lady Ermetta blushed to the tips of the articles in question, and muttered something that sounded like a request for her father to go and put his boots on.
"Silence, Ermetta!" said her father sternly, "such conduct is unbecoming in the heroine of a novel. Now, listen to me—The Baron was changed at birth."
"Then Baron Gadzooks—"
"Is somebody else."
"And somebody else?"
"Is the Baron. You now comprehend the situation."
"Not altogether, my father, you have neglected to inform me who somebody else is."
"That, my dear child, is a question that even the author could not answer."
"Then supposing that I marry the Baron, I in fact marry 'somebody else,' and as you say that 'somebody else' is the Baron, why of course my husband will be the Baron."
"How the deuce is that?" said the Marquis; "let's see. If you marry the Baron—but you can't marry the Baron, because he's not the Baron—he was changed at birth."
"He's somebody else."
"Then, as he is not the Baron, somebody else is the Baron."
"Well, yes, I suppose so."
"Then, again, if I marry Gadzooks, I marry 'somebody else,' and somebody else, you say, papa, is the Baron," said the Lady Ermetta, triumphantly. "Come now," she added rather maliciously, "I think you are a little irrational now."
"Really Ermetta, you will look at the matter from only one point of view; don't you see that he's not the right somebody else. There are any amount of somebodies else; but let me tell you all about it. This important secret came out in a conversation that was overheard to pass between two servants. One was the nurse of the then infant Gadzooks, the other was a fellow servant. The nurse was heard to make the following remark about her youthful charge:—'The blessed dear was a layin in my arms as quiet as a lamb, and smiling like a cherrup, when he changed all of a sudden, and has been that cross and frakshus ever since that I ain't had a minnit's peace with him.' The person who overheard this startling disclosure was a devoted friend of the family; he acted with decision and promptitude. The servants were first got rid of—one was strangled, the other hung. He then took the secret, hushed it into a sound sleep, wrapped it carefully in tissue paper, and put it into a box."
"Then where is the danger to come from?"
"Here lies the danger. When that devoted friend put the secret into the box he made a fatal mistake—he put it into the wrong box, and the secret might awake and find itself."
"In the wrong box! How truly awful."
"It is indeed; it might awake at the very moment of your marriage, and forbid the ceremony to proceed. There's no knowing to what lengths a secret that's been kept asleep, in the wrong box for many years might proceed when once awakened."
The Lady Ermetta sobbed deeply. "I can never give up Gadzooks," she said, "I have never seen him, for he has not been introduced personally into this story yet, but I feel that he has my poor heart."
"Restrain your feelings, my child; picture to yourself what would be the result if the secret should awake after your marriage, and announce to an astonished world that you had married somebody else; why you might almost be tried for bigamy."
"Have you the secret, my lord?"
"I have; the two boxes are in my study, but calm your agitation, for you know that Squire Hardpuller will soon be here, and should you bring yourself to think of giving up Gadzooks, why, he is rich, and I do not object to the idea of having him for a son-in-law." So saying, the Marquis left Ermetta to her tears and lamentations.
Now that she was alone, Lady Ermetta gave full vent to her grief. "I can never give him up," she murmured, between her convulsive sobs; "I feel that he is entwined around the very tendrils of my existence. We were to have been married in the third chapter, and now—this is the second, and we are to be separated. And what separates us? A secret! A secret that sleeps. Sleeps, why should it awake, why should it not die:" and uttering these last words in the strange hissing tone used by people who have determined on perpetrating some crime, Ermetta raised her head and stared into vacancy, with a cold hard look stealing over her sweet face.
The tears soon ceased to flow, her hands clenched themselves tightly, and she who might but just now have stood for a statue of the weeping daughter of Tantalus, was transformed into Lady Macbeth, demanding the daggers.
Muttering sternly, "It shall be so," she left the apartment with a step befitting a representative of that strong-minded woman.
Let us watch her as she enters her father's study, where the light falls but dimly through the deep-set windows, as though winking at the deed about to be done. Watch her as she kneels before two quaintly carved ebony boxes, and applies her ear to the keyhole of each in turn. Watch her as the look of gratification steals over her face on detecting, in one, a low but perfectly distinct and regular respiration, the ghost of a feeble snore. Watch her as she applies the key to the lock, lifts the lid, and takes out the secret—takes it out gently and carefully, with the tender touch of a woman, so as not to disturb the slumber that has lasted now so long. Watch her, the guilty thing, as she starts at hearing the sound of voices in the hall, and, concealing the secret in her pocket, passes from the room to hasten to receive her expected visitor. As yet the deed is not done. As yet she can gaze out of those clear blue eyes with a soul unstained by actual murder. But how long will her innocence last; even now as she stands by the window in the morning room where she intends to receive her would-be suitor, the weird, wild look that must have been ever on the faces of the Di Medici and Brinvilliers is visible. She has deposited the secret (still asleep) on a chair, and she abides her time.
He comes. The door opens, and Squire Hardpuller is announced. She greets him with a winning smile that makes his heart bound again; poor man, he little thinks that she is bent upon making him accessory to her deed of death. Skillfully she backs him on to the chair of doom. Blandly she bids him be seated. Cordially she welcomes him. Will he look behind him? Will he apologise, and remove the innocent secret slumbering upon the seat of the chair? No, Ermetta, your eyes have him spell bound. What man could look away when you smilingly desired him to take a seat? You have—alas! for beauty, for youth, for guileless innocence, and sweet simplicity—you have made a murderer of him. He is a heavy man, and he sits down on the secret. It is done, and fiends may chuckle ha! ha! Now to keep him there.
Squire Hardpuller was a sporting character; he had been introduced into a great many novels, and was always looked upon as a great bore by the other characters, on account of his endless stories of horses, dogs, runs, and other sporting anecdotes. In the present case nobody could have answered Ermetta's purpose better; once fairly started upon his favorite and only topics, he prosed on contentedly for over two hours; then, blushing to find that his visit had trespassed on her time to such a length, he rose and made his adieux. She beamed on him to the last with her siren-like smile, and then, when he had gone, the re-action set in, and she who had listened unmoved for two mortal hours to a lot of sporting anecdotes, quailed before a dead secret. But such is human nature. She went to the chair in which he had sat; she lifted up the tissue paper containing the secret; with one white hand she held it to her ear, and with the other held her breath.
Not a sound, not the faintest suspicion of sound was to be heard. For nearly ten minutes did that high-bred resolute girl strain every nerve tighter than wire in a sheep-fence, but all was still. The secret, then, was dead. For a moment the rush of feeling overpowered her, then curiosity came to her aid; she would open the paper and see the secret. She had never seen a secret; she had often heard one. Nay, she had read a book called the "Dead Secret;" now she held one in her hand, she would see it.
She was about to unfold the covering of tissue paper, when a shadow fell across her, and somebody knocked at the window. She looked up startled. The car of a balloon was dangling in front of the glass, and seated in it was her father. She went to the window and opened it.
"Come, my child," he said, "the third chapter is at hand, and we must be at the appointed place. Step in." Putting her hand on the sill, Ermetta sprang lightly into the car of the balloon, which immediately commenced to ascend. She at once communicated the important event that had just taken place to her father, and carrying them with it the balloon soon became a mere speck in the blue regions of the infinite.
But a close observer, one of unequalled vision, might have detected a small minute object come fluttering down from the empyreal vastness. Down it descended, gyrating hither and thither, the sport of every wandering zephyr. They tossed it mockingly about, played with it, then let it fall lower and lower, until the broad bosom of the pitying earth received and sheltered it. It was the corpse of the poor murdered secret. And the shadow of the rock, on the sands of Plimlivon, is darker, and deeper than ever.
Baron Gadzooks was walking up and down on the sands of Plimlivon. He looked out to sea, and tapped his teeth with the top of his pencil; in his hand he held a note-book. He was composing a poem. Presently he commenced to read it over.
Exsuffolating memory, get thee hence, Nor seek to melodise the scathful past; When rampant Ruin, drunk at my expense, Rose, and the empty bottle at me cast.
"That's rather good," he said, thoughtfully; "the simile in the last line particularly, the empty bottle, stands for the dregs of life."
That rounded throat, that wealth of tumbled hair: That mouth so rose-like, kissable, and tender, She'd glue to mine, as if she didn't care If suffocation should ensue and end her.
"Hem! that ought to fetch her," he went on; "quite in the modern style; now for some thing hot and strong."
Must I forget all these; if so, then let me Be chained within a sea of fire volcanic.
"What will rhyme with 'let me?' Let's see. Wet me, pet me, bet me, get me, net me;" and the Baron cast his eyes upwards, for inspiration, and caught sight of a speck in the canopy of heaven overhead that made him shout "Ball-o-o-n!" Then suddenly remembering that he was one of the principal characters in a novel, and as such bound to act with propriety, he blushed, sat down, and commenced to pick his teeth with one of his gilt spurs. On second thought, however, he started up again, frowned fiercely, and in deep tragedy tones said:—"Ha! ha! they come." Then he picked up a telescope that had been left behind by a party of excursionists, because they knew that it would be wanted for my plot, and, applying it to his eye, gazed at the rapidly increasing speck.
"Ah!" he muttered, "I see her, there—now she winks; now—yes, she's about to blow her nose. Angelic being! But hold! What's this?"
The noise of horses galloping at top speed had struck upon his listening ear. Nearer they came, and two horsemen appeared tearing along the level sand. And hark! the beat of paddles. Over the surface of the hitherto tenantless deep glided a mighty steamer, with crowded decks, the captain standing on the bridge, and shouting, "Full speed ahead! full speed astern!" alternately. A shrill whistle drew the Baron's attention again inland. A traction engine, dragging a long string of carriages, appeared, full of characters out of all sorts of novels, who had got in for the sake of a ride. Amazement held the Baron dumb, so he said nothing.
Nearer and nearer everything came, everybody cheering and waving another man's hat. At once the occupants of the balloon stepped upon terra firma; the two horsemen, one being Squire Hardpuller, alighted from their panting steeds; the train disgorged its occupants, and the people from the steamer sprang into the sea and waded on shore.
They all approached and surrounded the Baron; they waited for him to speak, but he was silent.
"Read the will," said a tall man who looked like a lawyer.
"I have no will," said the Baron, "or I should not be here."
"Then reveal the secret," said another.
"Unfold the plot," exclaimed a third.
"Open the red box," said a fourth.
"Produce the real heir," said a fifth.
"Bless you, my children," said a sixth.
"Last dying speech and confession," said a seventh.
Then spake the Lady Ermetta: "Baron, papa has consented; the Bishop is ready, and here are the witnesses."
"Hurrah for the witnesses!" shouted everybody.
"Good heavens!" said the astounded Baron, "I know now what you mean. I was only introduced in this chapter; how the deuce am I to know what's been done in the other two chapters?"
"He jibs!" said the Lady Ermetta, "and I have sinned in vain." She would have fainted, but nobody seemed inclined to catch her, so she didn't.
The Marquis then advanced, and in his usual dignified tone said, "Are there any bad characters present?"
Nobody was fool enough to answer yes.
"Then," said the Marquis, turning to the Baron, "I am afraid that you must be the bad character of this story, and if so, Poetical Justice demands that you must be punished."
"This is hard," said the Baron, whose high bred composure did not desert him under these trying circumstances. "I came out here simply because I was informed that I was wanted for the proper completion of the plot, and now I am to be made a scapegoat of."
"There is some show of reason in what you say," said the Marquis; "so one more chance shall be given you."
"Are there any bad characters present?" he again asked in a louder voice. As before, nobody was fool enough to answer yea.
"If there are any bad characters present," he went on, "let them step forward and be hung instead of this innocent nobleman."
At these awful words three bad characters, who had been hiding behind the big rock, waiting for a chance to commit a murder, or some thing of that sort, tried to sneak away unseen.
Squire Hardpuller, who had been anxiously looking out for an opportunity to cry tally-ho! and thereby identify himself as a sporting character, saw them, and immediately cried, "Stole away! yoicks! yoicks! away!"
With one consent the whole assemblage joined in the cry, and rushed in pursuit, with the exception of the Marquis and his daughter.
The Lady Ermetta had big feet and thick ankles, which she was frightened of showing if she ran, and the Marquis thought it beneath his dignity to go out of a walk.
"Ermetta," said the Marquis gravely; "we are flummoxed."
"Perhaps they'll come back," said Ermetta.
"I'm afraid not," said the Marquis, looking after the fast vanishing multitude. He was deceived, however. Nerved by despair, the three bad characters ran well, and now doubled back and came once more to the isolated rock on the sands.
Instantly new life seemed to enter into Ermetta; she whispered something to her father, who shook his head, and said, "too late," but suffered his daughter to lead him behind the rock.
Breathing heavily—with their pursuers, headed by Hardpuller and Gadzooks, close upon their heels—the three bad characters approached;—they passed and made for the sea. As Gadzooks, in hot haste, pressed after them, running close by the fatal rock, a foot clad in a French kid boot, and a very substantial whitestockinged ankle, was thrust forth from behind it, right in front of him; he tripped, he fell; and the next moment the Marquis was holding him down.
"Poetical Justice!" he cried. "Poetical Justice!" echoed Ermetta, who limped a little, for the Baron in falling had inadvertently kicked her on the shin, and she didn't like to rub it before so many people.
Everybody halted, glad of a spell, and the bad characters swam out to sea.
"Where's the Bishop?" said the Marquis.
"Here," cried his lordship, coming forward hot and perspiring. "Look sharp, or the end of the chapter will be here," said the Marquis. Gadzooks was dragged to his feet, and held firmly, in spite of his struggles and protestations.
"Quick, or we shall be too late," reiterated the Marquis.
"Never mind, papa, we have got him fast, and I can be married in the Epilogue."
"Nonsense, my child, epilogues are only to tell the reader what he knows already."
The Bishop gabbled over the service—"keep-thee-only-unto-her-as-long-as-ye-both-shall-live?"
"I will!" yelled everybody, drowning the voice of the wretched Gadzooks, who said, "I won't."
Away went the Bishop again, etc, etc.
"I will!" said Ermetta; and she meant it
"Thank goodness!" said the Marquis; "she's off my hands!"
* * *
Years have passed, and the rising tide has washed away the footsteps that were imprinted that morning on the sands of Plimlivon. But that lonely rock still holds its steadfast watch, and the shadow it casts is deeper and darker than ever. But the shadow on the heart of the stricken Gadzooks is deeper and darker still.
Now, during the reading of the latter portion of the foregoing story, a gleam of hope had shot across my brain. As soon, therefore, as the Spirit had finished, I proceeded to put it into practice.
"What do you think of that!" said the Spirit.
"I like it immensely," I replied; "really you can't think what a jolly year I anticipate; it will be all beer and skittles."
The Spirit, I thought, looked slightly crest fallen.
"You've no idea," I went on, "how dull it is up here; and now to have you to read these charming little stories to me—really, old fellow, it will be delightful."
"Don't be so sure of that," he answered. But I fancied that he seemed staggered.
"Now," he said, opening his book again; "for the next, one of the real old sort—'How the King got his own again.'"
"'Twas Christmas Eve, and a bitter cold one to boot. What of that? It but made the crackling log fire seem the warmer and snugger. 'Be-shrew me!' said mine host of the Holly Bush, as he stood with his back to it, warming his portly calves; 'but if sad-colored garments and cropped heads are to be the fashion of the day, we shall scarce know Merry England.'"
He had got thus far before I could well stop him; then I interrupted him as blandly and politely as I could, "Excuse me; one moment. That promises to be a most interesting tale, but you will be tired and hoarse if you go on reading without pause. Now just to give you a spell I'll sing you a song."
"A what!" he said.
"A song—a carol. A Christmas carol."
"You daren't," he said; but the blow had gone home I could see.
"No trouble at all, my dear fellow, just the reverse, and it's one of my own composing too," I added boldly, for I thought that I could see victory ahead. I have no more voice than an alligator with a cold in its head, and scarcely know one tune from another, but without more ado I struck up:—
Come, your hands entwine, for this toast is mine, A health to Christmas bold. Round his head the leaves of the holly shine, In his arms he does earth enfold.
"Patience! Grant me patience," muttered the Spirit; but he seemed to clench his teeth firmly, as if with a determination to sit it out. I went on, and hurled the next verse at him like a boomerang:—
When over the ground he spreads around The snow that he so does love, The robin comes out, and he looks about—
With one wild yell of anguish that made every sheet of iron in the roof ring like a bullock bell, the Spirit of Christmas started from the chair.
"Man! man! You have conquered. I forego my revenge. That robin is too much for me. Live unharmed by me; but," and here his voice softened into a tone of beseeching pathos, "as you have some charity in your disposition, as you may stand in need of consideration and forbearance yourself some day, do not add to the heavy woes of a tortured Spirit by casting your additional stone. Do not ever again attempt to write a Christmas story."
I was deeply touched, there was such a look of heartfelt anguish on his face.
"You promise?" he asked.
"Then, we part friends; but, ah! that robin," and, waving me a parting salute, he stepped out into the glaring sunshine, and passed away.
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