Darcy Trumbrill danced down the wide steps of Bermondsley Plantation and headed down the path towards the Dark Swamp.
He had first seen her at the Spring Cotillion. Honey-blonde hair falling in cascades over her bare shoulders. Her shapely figure in a pink and white ball gown. Her wide eyes, blue as a summer sky over Mississippi, her sensuous mouth -- all these things and more drew him to her from across the polished dance floor. But for naught. Her beautiful eyes would not meet his. She wouldn't speak more than a few, dismissive words, no matter how much charm he applied. He had gone home frustrated, but not angry -- he could never be angry with Angelina.
But now.... A note had come for him. Heavy, creamy, paper, faintly perfumed, writing in a bold yet feminine hand:
I have known since the moment you approached me of your feelings, and I want you to know that I have feelings for you, also. Come to me at the Lover's Slough in the Dark Swamp tonight. Just follow the path from Bermondsley through the Grove of Despair. When you see me, I trust there will be joy in your heart...
It was signed, simply, "A".
Darcy's boots crunched in the gravel that formed the path. He strode quickly, not wishing to waste a moment until he was with her. He paid no attention to the increased darkness as he followed the path deeper and deeper into the heavy, swampy woods. He did not hear the snapping of twigs nor the sucking splashing noises that might have made a less impetuous person shudder with unnamed threats. His mind and heart only sought Angelina.
Finally the heavy, mossy trees began to thin out. He could see the light of a clearing in the forest ahead. He increased his pace. Then he emerged from the dank forest -- and there she was.
She sat demurely on a bench placed romantically on a grassy rise, under a weeping willow across a sandy patch of flat ground. Wildflowers of all colors surrounded the clearing. Her hair was pulled back, to fall around her slender throat. Her dress was white with pink ribbons. She was beautiful.
"Angelina!" he cried, starting across the flat ground towards her bench. He didn't notice her wide eyes and shaking head. He did wonder, briefly, why she did not rise to run to him. Weren’t her feelings all that he hoped for? Whe--
Suddenly he staggered in his headlong surge towards his beloved. His foot had sunk into the sandy ground to an alarming extent. He took another step to lever himself out, only to have his other foot sink in as well. He staggered, almost falling, and his legs were embedded into the soft ground over the tops of his gleaming black boots. He failed his arms about, trying to stay upright, sinking in even deeper.
"Angelina! What -- “ he looked at her. Strange--she still sat on the bench, not moving to help, the only sign of alarm her wide eyes over her prim, pursed mouth. He extended his hand to her, pleading, sinking even deeper as the quicksand sucked him even further down.
He had sunk until the water and sand were halfway up to his chest when he began to cast about for a means of saving himself. There was nothing — nothing! The banks were too far away, there were no branches floating, the trees were out of his reach -- then he saw -- a rope! Dangling over his head, not far off to the side!
Gathering himself, he moved, slowly, carefully, doing his best not to sink any farther into the treacherous sand. Despite his efforts, he continued to sink, but the rope was only just out of his reach now. A little farther, just a little farther, Don't let me sink any more....
At last! His fingers brushed the rope, setting it swinging. He grasped, missed, grasped again, touched it -- finally he got two fingers on the very end. Gasping, he tugged gently, pulling it towards him, getting another finger, then his hand around the precious rope. With a gasp of joy he pulled the line towards himself. Now only if it would bear his weight...
A strange choking cry attracted his attention. Angelina was standing up, now. Why now, when he had the means to rescue himself?
He got his other hands on the rope and began pulling himself up. But he was only able to pull himself up slightly as the rope came downwards. Angelina cried out again, and he watched as she stood even taller. Then, she went straight up into the air!
At once, Darcy saw. The other end of the rope he held was made into a noose that was around Angelina's neck. As he pulled to save himself, she was hoisted up to hang. Her body rotated at the end of the rope, revealing that her wrists had been tied behind her back. Her fingers fluttered beneath the bindings. Her hoop skirt swung like a bell, her tied together legs the clapper, her high-heeled slippers swinging above the grass. What Darcy had thought was her pursed lips, was a thin, nearly invisible strip of pale silk that had kept her from crying out a warming.
Immediately Darcy eased the rope, lowering Angelina to the ground. She staggered and hopped, trying to remain upright on her tied-together feet. But as he did so, Darcy began sinking into the quicksand once again. Instinctively he pulled the rope -- and Angelina was once again jerked into the air, hanging by her lovely neck, her legs kicking in the air.
"What do you have to say now, you bastard?" a voice mocked.
Off to the side stood a woman. She wore a dark red coat and a black satin riding skirt over gleaming high-heeled boots. A riding whip was in her gloved hand. Her dark eyes mocked him. He remembered her, from the dance. Than she had been wearing a red-and-black lace gown. Her eyes had stared at him then.
"You couldn't be bothered to pay any attention to me or any of the other women at the Cotillion," she continued. "You only had eyes for this little bit of fluff. She's totally brainless, you know -- all blonde hair and blue eyes. Well now you'll have to make up your mind. Are you enough of a gentleman to die yourself so that she can live? Or will you save yourself, only to watch her hang like a criminal while you do? I quite look forward to seeing what the outcome is." The woman’s cruel laughter echoed through the dark swamp.
What to do, he wondered frantically. He could feel his body being drawn even deeper into the quicksand. But he could see lovely Angelina, her head twisted to the side by the noose, arched up on tiptoe as he hung on to the rope that was his salvation. He looked to the red-clad woman for mercy. She had seated herself on another bench a short distance away, and was idly fanning herself. There would be no rescue there, he was sure.
Could he pull himself out before Angelina hanged? He tried—and she was lifted into the air, her body swinging, and her dainty high-heeled pumps flutter-kicking. Could he let go? Try as he might, he couldn’t make his hands let go of the rope.
The woman in red threw back her lovely head and laughed. Her insane laughter echoed through the mossy trees of the Dark Swamp, sending strange creatures slithering down into the black waters.
And there, dear reader, we leave the tableau: A handsome man, chest deep in sucking ooze that will inexorably smother him unless he saves himself; a beautiful belle, dainty hands and feet bound, who will be hanged if he does; and a madwoman in red watching it all. What is going to happen? Will Darcy save himself? Or is he gentleman enough to let go of the rope? And what should be the fate of the beautiful, cruel woman in red?