In a crisis of dire extremity, overborne by adversity, terrified by the realization of human helplessness, we fly to God, and barter by promise all our future, for the boon of temporary succor.
How different, how holy the mood that brings us in tearful gratitude to dedicate our lives to His service, when having abandoned all hope, His healing hand lifts us out of long agony into unexpected rest?
When an ignominious death stared this woman in the face, she had cried to her God: "Though You slay me, yet will I trust You!" and to-night she bowed her head in prayer, thankful that the uplifted hand held no longer a dagger, but had fallen tenderly in benediction.
Far away in the heart of the city, the clock in its granite tower was striking two; yet Beryl knelt at her oriel window, with her arms crossed on the wide sill, and her eyes fixed upon the shimmering sea, where a soft south wind ruffled it into ridges of silver, beneath a full May moon. Beyond those silent waters, hidden in some lonely, snow-girt eyry, where perhaps the muffled thunder of the Pacific responded to the midnight chants of his oratory, dwelt Bertie; and to touch his hand once more, to hear from his own lips that he had made his peace with God, to kiss him good-bye seemed all that was left for accomplishment.
Poor and unknown, she lacked apparently every means requisite for this attainment; but faith, patience, and courage were hers. Daily work for daily wage was the present duty; and in God's good time she would find her brother. How, or when, so expensive and difficult a quest could be successfully prosecuted, disquieted her not; she had learned to labor and to trust; she remembered: "Their strength is to sit still."
The symphony of her life was set in minors, yet subtle and perfect was the harmony that dwelt therein; and because she had sternly shut love out of her lonely heart, she kept votive lights burning ceaselessly on the cold altar of duty. The solitary red rose of happiness that might have brightened and perfumed her thorny path, she had cut off, ere the bud expanded, and offered it as a loyal tribute to broaden the garland that crowned Miss Gordon. At the mandate of conscience, she had unmurmuringly surrendered this precious blossom, but memory was tantalizingly tenacious; and in sorrowful hours of sore temptation, the brave, pure soul came swiftly to the rescue of famishing heart: "What? Is it so hard for us to keep the Ten Commandments? Do we covet our neighbor's lover?"
In the garden of earthly existence, some are ordained to bloom as human plantae tristes, shedding their delicate aroma like the "Pretty-by-nights", only when the glory of the day is done, and twilight shadows coax open their pure hearts.
To-night she seemed cradled in the arms of peace, soothed by an unfaltering trust that whispered:
"Would I could wish my wishes all to rest; And know to wish the wish, that were the best."
While her lips moved in a prayer for Bertie, she fell asleep; like a child at ease, after long paroxysms of pain. When she awoke, the lilacs were swinging their purple thuribles filled with dew, in honor of the new day; a silvery mist, tinged here and there with the pale pink hue of an almond blossom, wavered and curled over the quiet lake, and a robin red-breast, winging his way from the orange and jasmine boughs of the far sweet South, rested on the ivied wall, and poured out his happy heart in a salutatory to the rising sun.
"I fear, my sister, that you have made a great mistake in refusing an offer of marriage, which almost any woman might be proud to accept."
Sister Ruth closed her writing desk, and looked at Beryl over her spectacles.
"Why should you infer that any such proposal has been made to me?"
"Simply because I know all that has occurred, and my cousin writes me that you decline to marry him. If you had intended to remain here and identify yourself with this institution, I could better understand your motives in rejecting a man who offers you wealth, good looks, a stainless reputation, an honored name, and the best possible social position."
"All of which tempt me in no degree. Mr. Brompton is doubtless everything you consider him; lives in a brown stone palace, is an influential and respected citizen, but comparatively, we are strangers. He bought my pictures, took a fleeting fancy to my face, and to my great surprise, indulged in a romantic whim. What does he comprehend of my past? How little he understands the barrier that shuts me out from the lot of most women."
"He is fully acquainted with every detail of your life that has been confided to me, or discovered by the public; and he has studied and admired you ever since you came to dwell among us. In view of your very peculiar history, you must admit that his affection is certainly strong. If you married him, your past would be effectually blotted out."
"I have no desire to blot it out, and though misfortune overshadowed my name, it is the untarnished legacy my father left me, and I hold it very sacred; wrap it as a mantle about me. When suspicion of any form of disgrace falls upon a woman, it is as though some delicate flower had been thrust too close to a scorching fire; and no matter how quickly or how far removed, no matter how heavy the dews that empearl it, how fresh and cool the wind that sweeps over it, how bright the sun that feeds its pulses,—the curled petals are never smoothed, the hot blasts leaves its ineffaceable blight. To me, the thought of marriage comes no more than to one who knows death sits waiting only for the setting of the sun, to claim his own. That phase of life is as inaccessible and uninviting to me, as Antartic circumpolar lands; and even in thought, I have no temptation to explore it. My future and my past are so interblended, that I could as easily tear out my heart and continue to breathe, as attempt to separate them. I have a certain work to do, and its accomplishment bars all other paths."
"Does the nature of that work involve vows of celibacy?"
"Sometimes fate decrees for us, allowing no voluntary vows. How soon the path to my work will open before me, I cannot tell; but the day must come, and like a pilgrim girded, I wait and watch."
"Can you find elsewhere a nobler field of work than surrounds you here?"
"Certainly not, and some dross of selfishness mingles with the motives that will ultimately bear me beyond these hallowing precincts; yet a day may come, when having fulfilled a sacred duty, I shall travel back, praying you to let me live, and work, and die among you."
"My sister, your patient submission, your tireless application, have endeared you to me; and I should grieve to lose you from our little gray band, where your artistic labors have reflected so much credit on the 'Home'."
"Thank you, Sister Ruth; praise from fellow toilers is praise indeed, and the greatest blessing one human being can bestow upon another, I owe to you; the blessing of being helped to procure work, which enables me to help myself. If I leave the 'Anchorage' for a season, it will be on an errand such as Noah's dove went forth from refuge to perform; and when I return with my olive branch, the deluge of my life will have spent its fury, and I shall rest in peace where the ark is anchored."
"Do you imagine that desertion from our ranks will be so readily condoned? Drum-head court martial obtains here."
"Would you call it desertion, if seizing the flag of duty that floats over us here, I forsook the camp only long enough to scout on a dangerous outpost, to fight single-handed a desperate battle! If I fell, the folds of our banner would shroud me; if I conquered, would you not all greet me, when weary and worn I dragged myself back to the ranks? Some day, when I tap at the ark window, you will open your arms and take me in; for then my earthly mission will have ended, and the smoke of the accepted sacrifice will linger in my garments."
"Meantime, to-day's duties demand attention. I have a note from Cyril Brompton requesting that special courtesy be shown by us to his friend, the new Bishop, who is in the city, and who desires to inspect the 'Anchorage'. Cyril declines escorting the party, because he finds it painful to meet you now, and he wishes particularly that you should show your own department. I shall not be able to climb to the third story, while my ankles are so swollen, so I must deputize you to do the honors on your floor. Hold yourself in readiness, if I should send for you, and do not forget to give the Bishop a package of the new prospectus of the art school. That basket of orchids must be delivered before five o'clock. Sister Joanna said you detained her to make a sketch of it."
"I had almost finished when you summoned me. Send her up for the basket in half an hour."
The long studio was deserted, and very quiet on that sultry Saturday afternoon in midsummer, and the drowsy air was laden with fragrance from the pots of white carnations, massed on the iron balcony, upon which the tall, plate glass windows opened to the north. Down the centre of the apartment ran a table covered with oil cloth, and on the walls hung pictures in oil, water-color, crayon, while upon brackets and pedestals were mounted plaster casts, terra cotta heads, a few bronzes, and some hammered brass plaques. In the corners of the room, four marvels of taxidermy contributed brilliant colors mixed on the feathered palettes of a pea-fowl, a scarlet flamingo, a gold and a silver pheasant, all perched on miniature mounds, built of curious specimens of rock, of shells, coral and sphagnum.
The slow, languid swish, swish of the waters stirred by a passing steamer, broke on the cliff beyond the wall; and along the sky line where lake and atmosphere melted insensibly into blue distance, great cumulus copper-colored clouds hooded with salmon-tinted folds, tipped here and there with molten silver, shadowed with pearly hollows, hung entranced by their own image, over the inland sea that gleamed like a mirror.
At the end of the studio, near the open windows, Beryl had placed the plateau basket of orchids on the table; and she stood before an easel, transferring to the surface of a concave brass plaque, the fluted outlines of the scarlet and orange ribbons, the vivid green, purple and golden-brown lips, the rose velvet cups, the tender canary-hued calyxes of the glistening floral mass, whose aroma seemed a panting breath from equatorial jungles. Having secured the strange forms of these vegetable simulacra of the insect world, she replaced the sheathing of tissue paper around the gorgeous mosaic of color; and just then, Sister Joanna threw open the door, and ushered in a party of visitors, consisting of two gentlemen and a lady. One was Mr. Kendall, a member of the Chapter of Trustees.
"Good evening, Sister. Bishop Douglass, of our State, and Miss Gordon, from the South. I have been boasting to them of the perfect success of the 'Anchorage', as an industrial institution. Will you show us some of the work done in this department?"
As on a swiftly revolving wheel, Beryl saw the black eyes and gold-rimmed spectacles of Leighton Douglass; the shield-shaped amethyst ring on his broad, white hand; the slender figure by his side, draped in some soft brown tint of surah silk, the blond hair, the wide, startled hazel eyes of Leo, who made a step forward, then paused irresolute.
The gaze of the visitors was fastened upon the superb form wearing the gray garb of flannel, with snowy fluted frills at the rounded wrists and throat, and a ruffled white muslin mob cap crowning rich waves of bronze hair, that framed a beautiful pale face, whose gray eyes kept always the soft shadow of their long jet lashes.
Only half a minute sufficed to gird Beryl, and with no hint of recognition in her tranquil countenance, she moved forward, opened the drawers, and spread out for inspection various specimens of drawing and painting, in all stages of advancement.
A crimson tide overflowed Leo's cheeks, but accepting the cue of silence, she refrained from any manifestation of previous acquaintance; and bending over the pictures, listened to the grave, sweet voice that briefly, though courteously answered all inquiries concerning the school, hours of classes, tuition fees, remunerative rates paid for designs for carpets, wall papers and decorative upholstering. Unrolling from a wooden cylinder a strip of thick paper, two yards long and twenty inches wide, she displayed an elaborate arabesque pattern done in sepia for a sgraffito frieze, sixteenth century, which had been ordered by the architect of the new "Museum of Art".
"A bit of your favorite Florentine facade," said the Bishop, addressing his cousin, and peering closely at the scroll work.
"In this corner of the world, one scarcely expects a glimpse of Andrea Feltrini," answered Leo, avoiding the necessity of looking at Beryl, by glancing at Mr. Kendall.
"What are your sources of information?" inquired Bishop Douglass.
"We have a carefully selected collection of engravings, and a few good sketches and cartoons; moreover, some of our Sisterhood have been in Italy."
In attempting to roll the strip, it slipped from her fingers. Both women stooped to catch it, and their hands met. Looking into Leo's eyes, Beryl whispered: "See me alone." Then she rewound the paper, restored its oil silk cover, and shut the drawer.
"Do you find that the demand for purely ornamental work renders this department self-sustaining?" asked Leighton Douglass.
"I think the experience of the 'Anchorage' justifies that belief; especially since the popularization of so-called 'Decorative Art', which projects the useful into the realm of the beautiful; and by lending the grace of ornament to the strictly utilitarian, dims the old line of demarcation."
"We are particularly interested in acquiring accurate knowledge on this subject, because Miss Gordon hopes to establish a similar institution near her home in the South; where so many of our countrywomen, rendered destitute in consequence of the late war, need training which will enable them to do faithful remunerative work, without compromising their feminine refinement. While in Europe she inspected various industrial organizations; saw Kaiserswerth, and the Training Schools for Nurses, even the Swedish 'Naas Slojd', and her visit here is solely to verify the flattering accounts she has received of the success of the eclectic system of the 'Anchorage'. The South is so rich in fine materials that appear to offer a premium for carving, that we wish to investigate this branch of 'decorative' labor, and hope you can help us by some practical suggestions."
"Within the past twelve months, we have commenced the experiment of wood work; make all the utensils we need, and one of our patrons secured for us some models from the school you mentioned near Gothenburg. As yet we have received only two orders; one for a base in walnut for a baptismal font; the other an oak triptych frame for a choir in a Minnesota church. The carving is a distinct branch, that does not belong to my department; but if you will knock at the arched door on the right hand side of the hall, Sister Katrina, who has charge of that work, will take pleasure in exhibiting the process. Mr. Kendall knows the 'Anchorage' so well, he needs no guide to the work-rooms. Permit me to offer you some copies of our new prospectus, and also a photograph of this building, as a slight souvenir of your visit here."
She fitted papers and picture into a square envelope stamped with an anchor in red ink, and handing it to Miss Gordon, walked to the door and opened it. On the threshold Leo turned, and looked intently into her face:
"Are you sufficiently at leisure to allow me a little further conversation this afternoon; or shall I call again?"
"I am entirely at your service, and shall gladly furnish any information you may desire. Our matron has placed my time at your disposal."
"Mr. Kendall, if you will kindly accompany the Bishop to the wood-carving room, I can remain here a little while, to ask Sister some questions, which would scarcely interest you gentlemen. I will join you there, very soon. Leighton, please get an estimate of the cost of the necessary outfit, and talk with Mr. Kendall concerning the feasibility of sending one of our women here for a year."
Closing the door, Beryl put out both hands, and took Leo's. She stood a moment, holding them in a tight clasp.
"Thank you, for considerately withholding a recognition that would have embarrassed me. I hoped that the habit of our Order would in some degree disguise me, yet, at a glance you knew me."
"Shall I infer that your history is unknown here?"
"Sister Ruth, our Matron, is thoroughly acquainted with my past life, but she kindly respects my sorrows, and deems it unnecessary to publish the details among the Sisterhood. Do you know me so little, that you imagine I am capable of abusing the confidence of the head of an establishment which mercifully shelters an outcast?"
She stepped back, and motioned her visitor to a seat near the balcony.
"I should be very reluctant to ascribe any unworthy motive to you; therefore I fail to understand why you desire to preserve your incognito, especially since the signal vindication of your innocence. The news of the extraordinary discovery of the picture on the glass, and of your complete acquittal, even of suspicion, gave me so much pleasure that I should have written you my hearty congratulations, had I been able to obtain your address."
"I felt assured you would rejoice with me; and because I hold your good opinion so valuable, let me say that my happiness in the unexpected vindication of my character was enhanced by the proud consciousness that in your estimation I needed none. When the blackness of an intolerable shame overshadowed me, you groped your way to the dungeon, and held out your hands in confidence and sympathy. All the world suspected; you trusted me. You offered your noble name as bond, and made a place for me at your own sacred hearthstone. Do you think I can ever forget the blessedness of the balm that your faith in me poured into my crushed, despairing heart? Do you doubt that no sun sets, without seeing me on my knees, praying God's blessing of perfect happiness for you? What would I not do—what would I not suffer—to secure your peace, and to prove my gratitude?"
Her voice vibrated like the silver string of a deep violon-cello, and Leo, gazing up into the misty splendor of the beautiful sad eyes, ceased to wonder at the fascination which she had exerted over Mr. Dunbar. Unintentionally this woman's face had marred her life; had unwittingly stolen her lover's heart; yet she believed no treachery sullied the pure perfection of the soft red lips, and Leo's generous nature rose above the narrow limits of ordinary feminine jealousy. Had she doubted for an instant the theory that Beryl was heroically suffering the penalty of a crime, in order to screen her guilty lover, some suspicion of the truth might have dawned upon her.
"Suppose I intend to put your gratitude to the test? You have exaggerated the debt which you acknowledge; are you prepared to cancel it? If I say to you, because I believed in you, trusted you, will you repay me now, by granting a favor which I shall ask?"
"I think Miss Gordon could express no wish that I would not gladly execute, in order to promote her happiness."
"Will you come back to X——and help me to establish a home for women, who are destitute alike of money and of family ties? When you preside over it I shall be haunted by no fears of failure. Once, I gave you my sympathy; now, when I need help, will you give me yours?"
Beryl shivered, and looked wonderingly at her companion. Was she indeed so unsuspicious of the quicksand on which stood the fair temple of her hopes in marriage?
"O, Miss Gordon! That is the one thing, in all the world, that for your sake as well as mine, I could never do. No, no; impossible."
"Why, not for my sake, since I desire it so earnestly?"
A bright flush had risen in Leo's cheeks, and she threw back her small head challengingly.
For a moment Beryl wavered. Could she bear to wound that proud spirit?
"Go back to X——? To X——! It would be a renewal of my martyrdom, and I should only be a stumbling block in the scheme you contemplate. You do not understand, perhaps; but believe me, I prove my gratitude by refusing your kind offer."
"I think I understand; and if I am willing to run the risk, what then?"
"Do not ask me the impossible. The very atmosphere of X——would numb me, destroy all capability of usefulness, by reviving harrowing memories."
"Had not every shadow of suspicion vanished, and the entire community manifested delight in your triumphant innocence, I should never have suggested a return to the scene of your sufferings. Certainly, I cannot press the payment of a debt, which you volunteered to cancel; but I am sorry your refuse to oblige me."
There was a starry sparkle in the soft hazel eyes, and an involuntary and unconscious hardening of her lips, as Leo rose.
"It is hard, Miss Gordon, to be always misunderstood; but sometimes duty points to lines that subject us to harsh and bitter censure. I bear ever a heavy burden; do not increase my load by condemning me as ungrateful, God knows, you hold a warm and a holy place in my heart, and your happiness is more to me than my own; yet the one thing you ask, my conscience forbids."
"How long have you been here?"
"It will be two years to-morrow since I entered these peaceful walls."
"Then your probation ends, and you become permanently a Sister of the 'Anchorage'?"
"Not yet. I have been permitted to earn my daily bread here, upon conditions somewhat at variance with the regulations that usually govern the institution. I have not applied for admission to permanent membership, because my stay is contingent upon circumstances, which may call me hence to-morrow; which may never arise to beckon me away. Sister Ruth generously allows me the latitude of choice; not for my own sake, but for that of a friend, whose influence secured my admission. After a while, when I have finished my work, I hope to come back; to spend the residue of my earthly days, and to die here, a faithful Umilta Sister of the 'Anchorage', which opened its arms when I was a needy and desolate waif."
"The peace of your new life is certainly reflected in your face. Patience has had its perfect work; and that 'peace that passeth all understanding' is the reward granted you."
Leo held out her hand, and Beryl took it between both hers.
"Dear Miss Gordon, grapes yield no wine until they are crushed, trampled, bereft of bloom, of rounded symmetry, of beautiful color; but the Lord of the Vineyard is entitled to His own. I was a very proud, self-reliant girl, impatient of poverty, daringly ambitious; and what I deemed a cruel fate, threw me into the vat, to be trodden under foot. It may be, that when the ferment ends, and time mellows all, the purple wine of my bruised and broken life may be accounted worthy the seal of a sacramental sacrifice. I have ceased to question, to struggle, to plan. Like a blind child, fearing to stumble into ruin, I stand, and stretch out my hands to Him, who has led me safely through deep waters, along frightful gorges. Each day brings its work, which I strive worthily to accomplish; but my aim is to lay my heart, mind, soul, my stubborn will, all in God's hands. You think peace the summum bonum? Sometimes we obtain it by an ignominious surrender, when we should possess it by conquest. 'Peace of mind is a beautiful and heavenly thing; but even peace of mind may become an idol; and there is perhaps no idol to which women bow down more passionately.' For this reason, I am waiting for the drum beat of duty, and my march may begin at any moment. I asked to see you alone, in order to beg that you will increase my debt of obligations, by promising to reveal to no one the place of my retreat. Accident has betrayed to you that which I am anxious to keep secret; and I trust you will tell no one where you met me."
"Why should you hide, as though you were a culprit? You have been so completely exonerated from the imputation of guilt which once hung over you, that you owe it to yourself to front the gaze of the world fearlessly. What have you to dread?"
"The failure of something, which, though its accomplishment costs me very dear, I shall not relax my efforts to promote. I am trying to be loyal to my duty, even when the command is to strangle my own weak heart. You do not, cannot understand. God grant you never will. There are reasons why it is best for me to live in strict seclusion, for the present. Those reasons I can explain neither to you, nor to any other human being; and yet, I ask you to respect them, and to keep my secret. You trusted me in the terrible exigencies of the past; and you must trust me now, for—oh! God knows—I do indeed deserve your confidence."
She raised the hand folded in her own, and bowed her head upon it.
"You have my promise. Without your permission, I will mention our meeting to no one. I trust you; and perhaps if you would trust me, I might render you some aid."
"The day may come, when I can find it compatible with duty to tell you the secret of my life. In future years, when you are a happy wife, I shall by God's help be able to seek you and your husband, and thank you both for many kindnesses. I pray that you may be as happy as you deserve."
There was no tremor in the voice that answered quickly.
"If you refer to Mr. Dunbar, you have been led astray by the gossip in X——. Once, there seemed a probability that our lives might be united; but long ago, we found that ardent friendship could not take the place of love; and rather more than three years have passed since we have even seen each other."
With a startled movement Beryl dropped her companion's fingers, and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Oh! do not tell me that you have broken your engagement!"
The two looked steadily at each other, and while Leo's proud face gave no hint of pain or embarrassment, Beryl's blanched, quivered.
"How did you know that any engagement ever existed?"
"All X——knew it. Mrs. Singleton and Sister Serena told me."
"I dissolved that engagement before I went to Europe."
"Then you rashly wrecked your beautiful future. Why did you cast him off? He would have made you happy; he is worthy, I think, even of you."
"Yes, he is worthy, I believe, of any woman whom he may really love; but my happiness is not in his keeping, and my future holds, I trust, something much brighter than our marriage would hate proved to me."
"You have thrown away the substance for the shadow. Before it is too late, reconsider your decision; give him an opportunity to reinstate himself in your affection. You have both been so kind to me, that I have hoped you would find life long happiness in each other."
"Dismiss that delusion. His path and mine diverge more and more, and we no longer dwell in the same State. He has inherited a large amount of property in Louisiana, and now lives in New Orleans; hence you can readily perceive how far apart the currents of our lives have drifted. I rejoice in my freedom; and he, I suspect, is not inconsolable for my loss."
Through Beryl's whirling brain darted the recollection of a rumor, that Leighton Douglass was suitor for his cousin's hand; and that Miss Dent favored the alliance. Was the solution of Miss Gordon's cold, calm indifference to be found in the presence and devotion of the Bishop? Could he have supplanted Mr. Dunbar in her affection? Had the world swung from its moorings? What meant the light that broke upon her, as if the walls of heaven had fallen, and let all the glory out?
After a moment she said, solemnly:
"I pray God to overrule all earthly things, for your welfare, for your heart's truest happiness; and for the realization of your dearest hopes. When my mission has been accomplished, and duty lifts her seal from my lips, I may try to see you once more, and explain the necessity that forced me to seek seclusion."
"I believe I understand; and I trust your reward will not be delayed. You and I can lean with confidence upon the wisdom and the mercy of the God we worship; but each must serve out His appointed time of bondage in the Egypt of suffering, in the famine of the desert; and must drink at Marah, before the blessing of the manna, the grapes of Eshcol, the roses of Sharon. If ever you should need an earthly friend, remember me; and if all other refuge fail you, my home can be always yours."
Hand in hand they walked to the door, and Leo pitied the future of this woman, whose lover was a wandering outlaw, with a price set upon his head; and beneath her gray flannel habit, Beryl's heart was torn with conflicting emotions, as she watched the placid, proud face, that showed no vestige of the storm of disappointment which had stranded her sweetest hope in life.
"Good-bye, Beryl; God keep you in His tender care."
"Good-bye, dear Miss Gordon. I will pray for your happiness, so long as I live."
She stooped, drew Leo's hands to her face, pressed her trembling lips twice upon them; then turned quickly, and locked herself in the studio.
Is it true, that "Orestes and Pylades have no sisters?"
A Persian proverb tells us: "A stone that is fit for the wall is not left in the way." Strong artistic aspirations will plough through arid sands, leap across bottomless chasms, toil over bristling obstacles, climb bald, freezing crags to reach that shining plateau, where "beauty pitches her tents", and the Ideal beckons. Favorable environment is the steaming atmosphere that fosters, forces and develops germs which might not survive the struggle against adverse influences, in uncongenial habitat; but nature moulds some types that attain perfection through perpetual elementary warfare which hardens the fibre, and strengthens the hold; as in those invincible algx towering in the stormy straits of Tierra del Fuego, swept from Antartic homes toward the equator,—defying the fierce flail of surf that pulverizes rock, "Breed is stronger than pasture; and no matter how savage a stepmother the circumstances of life may prove, the inherited psychological strain will sometimes dominate, and triumph." According to the Talmud: "A myrtle, even in a desert, remains a myrtle".
From her tenth year, Beryl had begun to build her castle in the Spain of Art; daubed its walls with wonderful frescoes, filled its echoing corridors with heroic men and lovely women of the classic ages; and through its mullioned windows looked into an enchanted land, clothed with that witching "light that never was on sea or land". When all else on earth was sombre and dun-hued, sunlight and moonlight still gilded those magical towers. In darkest nights, through hissing rain and hurtling hail, she caught the glitter of its starry vanes smiling through murkiness, and above the wail and sob of the storms that had swept over the waste places of her youth, she heard the divine melodies which the immortal harper, Hope, played always in the marvellous palace of the Muses.
In early girlhood she had followed her father into the solemn mysteries of Greek Tragedy; and in that vast white temple dedicated to the inexorable Fates, where predestined victims moved like marble images to their immolation, her own plastic nature had been moulded in unison with the classic cult. Among the throng of Attic types, an immortal statue of filial devotion and sisterly love had attracted her irresistibly, and to Antigone she rendered the homage of a boundless admiration, an unwavering fealty.
Intellectually, humanity cleaves to idolatry; and each of us worships in the Pantheon, where our favorite divinities in literature crowd the niches. To become a skilful artist, and paint the portrait of Antigone, vas the ambition that had shaped and colored Beryl's young dreams, long ere she suspected that a mournful parallelism in fate would consign her to a living tomb more intolerable than that devised by Theban Creon.
Our grandest pictures, statues, poems, are not the canvas, the marble, the bronze, and the gilded vellum, that the world handles, criticises, weighs, buys and sells, accepts with praise, or rejects with anathema. Invisible and inviolate, imagination, keeps our best, our ideals, locked in the cerebrum cells of "gray matter", which we are pleased to call our workshop.
What art gallery, what library can rival the sublime and beautiful images that crowd the creased and folded labyrinth of the human brain; as far beyond the ken and analysis of the biologist's microscope, as some remote nebulae shining in blue gulfs of interstellar space, that no telescopic Jense can ever discover, even as a faint blur of silvery mist upon the black velvet vault that suns and planets spangle?
In some degree, Beryl's artistic dream had been realized; and the study of years slowly flowered into a large painting, which represented Antigone standing beside the heap of dust, strewn reverently to sepulchre the form dimly outlined at her feet. The sullen red sunset of a tempestuous day flared from the horizon, across a desolate plain; showed the city walls in the background, the hungry vultures poised high above the dead, the marauding dogs crouched in the wind-swept sand, watching their banquet, decreed by the king. The dust had been scattered from a black vase that bore on its front, in a circular medallion, the lurid head of grinning Hecate; and the last rite to appease the unquiet manes was performed by the uplifted right arm that poured libations from a burnished brass urn, held aloft over the pall of earth that denned the figure beneath. The left hand was stretched, not heavenward, but shieldingly over the mound, and in the beautiful, stern face bent a little downward in invocation of the infernal gods, one read sublime self-surrender, grief for Oedipus, regret for Hasmon, farewell to life,—mingled with exultant consciousness that a successful sacrifice had been accomplished for Polynices, and that the spirit of the brother rested in peace.
The soul of the artist seemed to look triumphantly through the solemn, purplish blue eyes of the young martyr, and Beryl knew that her own heart beat under the pamted folds of the diploidion; that she had epitomized in a symbolic picture, the history of her own joyless youth.
The canvas had been framed and hung at the art exhibition of the new "Museum", opened in September; and only the "U" traced in one corner beneath an anchor, indicated that it was the work of the Umilta Sisters' "Anchorage".
The public peered, puzzled, shook its sapient head, shrugged its authoritative shoulders, and sundry criticisms crept into the journals; but the prophet was judged in "his own country"; and home work, according to universal canons, rarely finds favor among home awarding committees, whose dulness its uncomprehended excellence affronts.
One censured vehemently the masonry of the city wall; another deplored pathetically the "defective foreshortening of a dog's shoulders"; the picture "lacked depth of tone"; the "coloring was too bizarre", the "tints too neutral".
Like chemicals tested in a laboratory, or like Pharaoh's lean kine, each objection devoured the preceding one; and unanimity of blame assaulted only one salient point on the entire canvas: the red sandals of the Greek girl—upon which outraged good taste fell with pitiless fury.
Undismayed, Beryl withdrew her picture, erased the ciphers in the corner, and shipped it to New York to Doctor Grantlin, who had recently returned from Europe; requesting him to place it at a picture dealer's on Broadway, and to withhold the name of its birth-place.
Two weeks later, a popular journal published an elaborate description of "A painting supposed to have been obtained abroad by a New York collector, who merited congratulation upon possession of a masterpiece, which recalled the marvellous technique of Gerome, the atmosphere of Jules Breton, the rich, mellow coloring, and especially the scrupulous fidelity of archaic detail, which characterized Alma Tadema; and was conspicuously manifest in the red shoes so distinctively typical of Theban women".
Mr. Kendall caused this article to be copied into the leading newspaper of his own city; and the first mail, thereafter, carried to New York an offer of eight hundred dollars for the painting, from the President of the "Museum" Directors, who had been so shocked by the unknown significance of the "red shoes". After a few days, it was generally known, but mentioned with bated breath, that the "Antigone" had been bought by a wealthy Philadelphian, who paid for it two thousand dollars, and hung it in his gallery, where Fortunys, Madrazos, and Diazs ornamented the walls.
Why should journeying abroad to render "Caesar's things" to foreign Caesars, demand such total bankruptcy that we must needs repudiate the just debts of home creditors, whose chimneys smoke just beyond the fence that divides us? De mortuis nil nisi bonum is a traditional and sacred duty to departed workers; but does it exhaust human charity, or require contemptuous crusade against equally honest, living toilers? Are antiquity and foreign birthplace imperatively essential factors in the award of praise for even faithful and noble work? We lament the caustic moroseness of embittered Schopenhauer, brooding savagely over his failure to secure contemporaneous recognition; yet after all, did he malign his race, or his age, when, in answer to the inquiry where he desired to be buried, he scornfully exclaimed: "No matter where; posterity will find me."
It was on the 26th of October, a week subsequent to the receipt of the letter which contained the check sent in payment for the picture, that Beryl sat down on the stone sill of her oriel window, to rest in the seclusion of her room, after the labors of the day.
It was the anniversary of her ill-starred visit to X——, and melancholy memories had greeted her at dawn, clung to her skirts, chanted their dismal refrain, and renewed the pain which time had in some degree dulled. Four years ago she had felt her mother's feverish lips on hers, in a parting kiss, and four years ago to-day the sun of her girlhood had passed suddenly into total eclipse. Since then, moving in a semi-twilight, suffering had prematurely aged her, and she had schooled herself to expect no star, save that of duty, to burn along her lonely path. To-day, she thought of the pride her picture would have aroused in her devoted father; of the comforts the money would have purchased for her invalid mother; of the pleasure, success as an artist would have brought to her own ambitious soul, if only it had not come so many years too late. What crown could fame bring to one, dwelling always in the chill shadow of a terrible shame? The glory of noble renown could never gild a name that had answered at the convicts' roll call; a name which, at any moment, Bertie's arrest might drag back to the disgrace of established felony.
Of all mocking fiends, the arch torturer is that hand which draws aside the black curtain of grim actuality, and shows us the wonderful realm of "might have been", where lost hopes blossom eternally, and the witchery of hallowed illusions is never dispelled.
Wearily Beryl closed her eyes, as though the white lids availed to shut out visions, tantalizing as the dream of bubbling springs, and palm-fringed isles of dewy verdure, to the delirious traveller dying of thirst, in the furnace blasts of mid-desert.
If she had defied her mother's wishes, and refused to go to X—? How different the world would seem to her; but, what was a world worth, that had never known Mr. Dunbar?
Over burning ploughshares she had walked to meet one destined to stir to its depths the slumbering sea of her tenderest love; and to forego the pain, would she relinquish the recompense?
During the months that elapsed after Leo's visit to the "Anchorage", Beryl had surrendered her heart to the great happiness of dwelling, unrebuked by conscience, upon the precious assurance that the love of the man whom she had so persistently defied and shunned, was irrevocably hers. The sharpest pain that can horrow womanhood, springs from the contemplation of the superior right of another to the object of her affection; and though honor coerces submission to the just claims of a rival, renunciation of the beloved entails pangs that no anaesthetic has power to quiet.
After the long struggle to aid Miss Gordon's accepted lover in keeping his vows of loyalty, the discovery of his freedom, and the belief that Bishop Douglass had supplanted him in the affection of her generous benefactress, had brought to Beryl an exquisite release; sweet as the spicy breath of the tropics wafted suddenly to some stranded, frozen Arctic voyager. Heroic and patient, keeping her numb face steadfastly turned to the pole star of duty, where the compass of conscience pointed—was the floe ice on which she had been wrecked, drifting slowly, imperceptibly, yet surely down to the purple warmth of the Gulf Stream, dotted with swelling sails of rescue? Like oceanic streams meeting, running side by side, freighted with cold for the equatorial caldrons, with heat for the poles, are not the divinely appointed currents of mercy and of affliction, God's agents of compensation, to equalize the destinies of humanity?
We rail at Fate as triple monsters; but sometimes it happens, that the veil of inscrutability floats aside, for an instant, and we catch a glimpse of the radiant smile of an infinite love.
Hope had set in Beryl's sky, but a tender afterglow held off the coming night, when she thought of the face that had bent so yearningly above her, of the passionate voice and the thrilling touch that were now her most precious memories. The pearl which Miss Gordon had cast away as worthless, the discarded convict might surely, without sin, claim as her own for ever. To-day an intense longing to see him once more, to hear from his lips praise of her "Antigone", disturbed the tranquillity that was spreading its robes of minever over a stony path; but she put aside the temptation.
To the Sisterhood of the "Anchorage" she had given one-half the proceeds of the picture sale; and the remainder would enable her at last to renew the search for her unhappy brother. So vague were the topographical lines furnished by the English tourist, that prosecuting her quest in the remote wilderness of mountains, which wore their crown of snow, seemed a reckless waste of hope, time and money; nevertheless, she must make the attempt. She knew that a gigantic railway system was crawling like an anaconda under rocky ranges, over foaming rivers, stretching its sinuous steel trail from Bay of Chaleur to Georgia Gulf; with termini that saw the sun rise from the Atlantic Ocean, and watched its setting in the red glory of the far Pacific; and perhaps steam shovels, and iron tight-ropes might furnish her facilities on her long journey.
Winter would soon overtake her, and in the inhospitable region where her brother had been surprised at his prayers, how could a lonely woman travel without protection? Doubt, apprehension flitted as ill-boding birds of night, flapping dusky wings to hide the signal beacon, which love and duty swung to and fro; yet the yearning to see her brother's face again, dwarfed all barriers, and she trusted God's guidance.
On a chair near her, lay, on this afternoon, a map which for many days she had been studying; and opening it once more, she ran a finger along the dotted lines, mentally debating whether it would be best to go by rail to Ottawa, by water to Sault St. Marie, whence the new railway could be easily reached, or whether the most direct route would be via St. Paul to Winnepeg. When she left the "Anchorage", her destination must remain a secret; hence she could ask no counsel. In view of approaching cold weather, economy of time seemed imperative; and she resolved to buy a railway ticket to Fargo, where she could elude suspicion, should the threatened invisible detective "shadow" her; and whence another Pacific highway offered egress to western wilds. With this definite conclusion she closed the map, and a moment later, some one knocked at her door.
She went forward, and met Sister Katrina, a robust dame of forty years, blond as Gerda; with the "light of the glowworm's tails" in her golden-lashed violet eyes, and the "ruby spots of the cowslip's leaves" on her full, frank lips.
"Will you sit a while with me? There is still a half hour, before your evening work begins in the carving shop. Come in."
"I am sorry I have not time now, to indulge myself in such luxury as a chat with you always proves. I came to beg the loan of your India ink copy of the marble screens at Agra; which I have an idea would be very effective done in cherry, for the panels under the new bookcases we are designing for the library."
"The copy is up stairs in the studio; but I shall be glad to get it for you."
"No; with your permission I can help myself, and I am going up there now, for some red chalk. I know exactly where to find the picture, because I was examining it two days ago. What think you of my idea?"
"I am afraid you will find cherry too dark. A lighter wood, I think, would be better adapted to the exceeding delicacy of the design."
"Wait till I cut out a sample scroll, and we will talk it over. Sister Ruth asked me to hand to you this paper, which contains a very complimentary notice of your lovely picture. I read it as I came up, and congratulate you on all the fine things said. You scarcely know how proud we feel of our Sister's work. Thanks for the use of the drawing."
She smiled, nodded and closed the door; and when her bright cheery countenance vanished, it seemed as though a film of cloud had drifted across the sun.
Beryl went back to a low chair in front of the window, and opened the paper, which chanced to be the New York "Herald." Unfolding it to hunt the designated article, her glance fell accidentally upon the personal column. Her heart leaped, then almost ceased beating, as she read:
"Important. Bertie will meet Gigina in the Museum at Niagara Falls, Canada side, any day during the last week in October."
Two years and a half had almost gone by since she inserted the advertisement, to which this was evidently a reply. Long ago she had ceased to expect any tidings through this channel; but the seed sown in faith, watered by tears, and guarded by continual prayer had stirred to life; blossomed in the sunshine of God's pitying smile, and after weary waiting, the ripe fruit fell at her feet. How fair and smooth, rosy and fragrant it appeared to her famishing heart? How opportune the guiding hand that pointed her way, when cross roads baffled her. Two days later, she would have been journeying away from the coveted goal. Now the tide of battle was turning. Had the stars rolled back on their courses to rescue Sisera?
How long the happy woman sat there, exulting in the mellowness of the perfect fruit of patience, she never knew.
Day died slowly; the vivid crimson and dazzling gold that fired the West were reflected in the tranquil bosom of the lake, faded into the tender pale rose of the sacred lotus, into the exquisite tints that gild the outer petals of a daffodil, the heart of buttercups; and then, robed in faintest violet powdered with silvery dust, the vast pinions of Crepuscule spread over sky and water, fanning into full flame the glittering sparks of planets and constellations that lighted the chariot course of the coming moon.
Across the sleeping lake hurried a north wind, on its long journey to blow open the snowy camellias folded close in the heart of the South, and under his winged sandals the waters crimped, rippled, swelled into wavelets that played their minor adagio in nature's nocturn, as their foam fingers fell on the pebbles that fringed the beach. From the deck of a schooner anchored off shore, floated the deep voice of a man singing Schubert's "Ave Maria"; and far, far away over the weird waste of waters, where a buoy marked a sunken wreck, its red beacon burned like the eye of Polyphemus, crouching in darkness, watching to surprise Galatea.
The penetrating chill of the night air aroused Beryl from her profound trance; and lighting the gas over her dressing table, she re-read the magical words that had transformed her narrow world. This was Monday the 26th, and next Saturday was the limit of the proposed interview. One day must suffice for necessary preparation, and starting by early morning express on Wednesday, she would arrive in time to keep the tryst that involved so much. She cut out the notice that was merely a sentence in the page of social hieroglyphics, where no key fitted more than one paragraph, and forgetting the criticism on her picture, she went swiftly down stairs.
The members of the Sisterhood were at supper, and she waited at the refectory door for an opportunity to meet the matron.
On the platform raised in the centre of the long room, sat the reader for the day, Sister Agatha; a plump, florid young woman, with bright black eyes, and a voice sweet and strong as the flute stop of an organ. The selection that evening had been from "Agate Windows" and "Ice Morsels", and the closing words were:
"Alpine flowers are warmed by snow; the summer beauty of our hills, and the autumn fertility of our valleys, have been caused by the cold embrace of the glacier; and so, by the chill of trial and sorrow, are the outlines of Christian character moulded and beautified. And we, who recognize the loving kindness as well as the power of God in what may seem the harsher and more forbidding agencies of nature, ought not to be weary and faint in our minds, if over our own warm human life, the same kind pitying Hand should sometimes cause His snow of disappointment to fall like wool, and cast forth His ice of adversity like morsels; knowing that even by these unlikely means, shall ultimately be given to us also, as to nature, the beauty of Sharon, and the peace of Carmel!"
Somewhere in the apartment, a bell tapped. All rose, and each head in the gray ranks bowed, while "thanks" were offered; then amid a subdued murmur of conversation, the Sisterhood filed out, gathered in groups, separated for various duties.
"Sister Ruth, may I see you alone?" asked Beryl, touching her arm in the hall.
"This is the night for the examination of accounts, of last week's expenses, and I shall be busy with Sister Elena, our book-keeper; moreover, I promised to look over the linen closet of the Infirmary, with Sister Consuelo, whose demands are like those of the daughter of the horse-leech. Is your business urgent?"
"Yes; but I will not detain you more than ten minutes."
"Very well, come to my cabinet."
The place designated was a pigeon box in size, and adjoined the reception room on the first floor. Two desks packed with papers, three chairs and a picture of Elijah and the ravens, constituted the furniture. The matron brightened the light, seated herself and looked at her companion.
"Well. What can I do for you? Why, Sister? Something has happened; your face is all aglow, your eyes are great stars."
"Yes; a heavy burden I have long borne is slipping from my heart, and after the pressure it rebounds. I have told you that my stay here was contingent on events which I could not control; that at any moment I might consider it incumbent upon me to go away into the world; therefore, I could bind myself by no compact to remain permanently in the 'Anchorage'. The time has come; the drum taps, I must march away."
"And you are so glad to leave us?" said the matron, gazing in wonder at the radiant face, usually so impassive and cold with its locked lips, and grave, sad, downcast eyes.
"No, glad only in the occasion that calls me; regretting that duty separates me temporarily from the Sisterhood, who so mercifully opened their arms, when I had no spot in all the wide world where I could lay my head, but the sod on my mother's grave. This blessed haven is for those whose first duty in life summons them nowhere beyond its walls. If conscience bade you leave these peaceful and hallowed halls, for work far more difficult, would you hesitate to obey? It is safer and less arduous to keep step with the main army; but some must perish on picket duty, and is the choice ours, when an order details us?"
"Who signed your order?"
Sister Ruth took off her spectacles, and bent closer, with a keenness of scrutiny, that was unflatteringly suspicious.
"My dear mother."
"I understood that you had been an orphan for years?"
"Yes, for four wretched, lonely and terrible years; but no tomb is deep enough to shut in the voice that uttered our mother's last wishes; and all time cannot hush the sound of the command, cannot hide the beloved hand that pointed to the path she asked us to follow. When my mother kissed me good-bye, she blessed me, because of a promise I gave her; and Heaven means to me the place where I can look into her sainted face, and tell her 'Hold me close to your tender heart, for oh! I have indeed kept my word. Your little girl obeyed your last command.'" Her voice trembled, and she passed one hand over her eyes for an instant.
"Sister Ruth, the opportunity has arrived, and I go to execute the last clause of a sacred order. When I shall have finished my mission, I shall want to come back home. Oh! you see? I call it home. For where else can I ever have a home, till I join my father and mother? If I should come back and ask you to take me for the remainder of my life, as a sister worker, will you let me die with the 'anchor' on my breast? I shall be as worthy of your confidence then, as I am now."
"Where are you going?"
"I hoped that you would not ask me, because I cannot tell you now. Will you not trust me?"
"Your extremely cautious reticence makes it difficult; and I have always known that some distressing mystery brought you here."
"Confidence that defies suspicious appearances is precious indeed; but confidence that crumbles like Jericho's walls at the blast of Joshua's trumpets, is as worthless a sham as a cable whose strands part at the first taut strain. Sister Ruth, there are reasons why I go away alone, to an unknown destination; and I am about to tax your trust yet more severely, when I tell you that I need the disguise of the 'Umilta' uniform. I ask your permission to wear it during my absence."
The matron shook her head.
"Surely, Sister Ruth, you cannot think it possible that I should bring discredit upon this dear gray flannel, which I hold as sacred as priestly vestments?"
She laid her cheek against her own shoulder, with a caressing motion, and passed her fingers softly across her sleeve.
"My young sister, to some extent I am responsible for those who wear the 'Umilta' gray. If I allowed you to carry our badge under such peculiar circumstances beyond the limits of my supervision, I should hazard too much; should deserve the severity of the censure I most certainly should receive, if any disaster brought reproach upon our spotless record as an institution. It was not designed as a disguise in which to masquerade for unknown purposes."
Beryl put up both hands, pressing her pretty white cap close to her ears; and her lips trembled, as was their wont, when she was wounded.
"Do not discrown me. My father's Beryl will never sully your pure record; and it would be as impossible for me to disgrace your uniform, as defile my mother's shroud. Grant me the protection of this consecrated garb."
"No. The 'Anchorage' must remain as heretofore, like Caesar's wife."
"Although I have lived here so long, how little you know me."
"Very true, my Sister; therefore, as custodian of the interests of our little community, I must not put them in jeopardy. When do you expect to take your departure?"
"Wednesday, at 6 A.M., on the express for New York."
"Have you received letters?"
"No, Sister. Doctor Grantlin is the only person who writes to me, and as his letters are always addressed to your care, I receive them from your hands."
"How long do you propose to stay in New York?"
"I am not going to New York, and I know not how long I may be detained; but I desire to return without needless delay."
"Then you want your money."
"Give me to-morrow five hundred dollars, and keep the remainder until I come, or until you hear from me. Please say that I have gone on a journey to fulfil a pledge made years ago; and try not to show the Sisters that you have no confidence in me. That—would rob my home-coming of half its pleasure. If any unforeseen accident should keep me away, should cut short a life which has overflowed with great sorrow, then retain the money and the pictures I leave behind; and believe that I died, as I have lived, not unworthy of all thy kindness and true charity this dear sacred 'Anchorage' has shown to me. Sister Elena is impatient; I hear her walking up and down the floor. While I am absent, Sister Katrina, and especially Sister Anice, can take my place in the Art School; and all my orders were finished last week, except the mirror for Mrs. St. Clair. She wished it framed in scarlet bignonias, and as the painting is more than half done, Sister Anice can easily complete it. I will not detain you longer. Good-night, Sister Ruth."
No sleep visited Beryl, and as she lay at two o'clock, watching the shimmer of the moonlight reflected from the tossing waves upon the panes of her wide window, where the tangled mesh of quivering rays coiled, uncoiled, glided hither and yon like golden serpents, she heard the click of the key, and the turning of the knob in a door, which opened from the alcove into an adjoining room. That apartment was reserved as a guest chamber; had been unoccupied for months; and puzzled by the sound, Beryl sat up in her bed and listened. The blue folds of the drapery hanging over the alcove arch, were drawn aside, and Sister Ruth, wrapped in a trailing dressing-gown, held up a small lamp and peered cautiously around.
"What is the matter, Sister?"
"Did I frighten you? I came this way rather than knock at the other door, because Sister Frances is on watch to-night; and though she is a dear good soul, she is afflicted with an undue share of the feminine frailty, curiosity, and I prefer that no one should canvass my unseasonable visit to you. Do not get up."
She put the brass lamp on a chair, and sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Our conversation has disquieted me, and I cannot sleep. Long ago, for my own sake, I made a rule by which to govern my judgment of my fellow beings; and it amounts to this: where I cannot be sure of evil in others, I give them the benefit of the doubt, and sincerely endeavor to think the best. I have watched you very closely. There is much that I cannot understand; much that it appears strange you should hesitate to explain; yet in these years I have had no cause to question your truthfulness, and that is the basis of all human worth. We profess to live here as one family, as sisters, holding each other in love, charity and trust; yet in searching myself to-night, I fear I have gone astray. I have pondered and prayed over this matter, and my heart yearns toward you. I feel as I fancy a mother might, who had too hastily slapped the face of her child; and, my sister, I have come to say, forgive me, if I too harshly refused your request, if I wounded you."
She held out her hand, but Beryl did not see it; she had covered her face, and unable to speak she leaned forward and laid her head on the matron's lap. Gently the thin fingers stroked the shining hair, until they were drawn down and pressed to the girl's lips.
"Again, I asked myself, whether my decision had not been inspired by an overweening pride in the public estimation of our home; rather than by an unselfish regard for the welfare and peace of mind of one of its members? What will the world think of us, must be subordinated to, what is the best for my young sister, whose cross it is my duty to lighten? I cannot bear to give you up; and I shall, I will trust you. Wear the 'gray' armor, and remember, if any blot stain it, you will bring disgrace upon a holy cause; you will be the first to stain the Umilta uniform; and I shall be blamed, for reposing confidence in one who betrayed us to public scorn. My Sister Beryl, I give you 'the gray'. God grant it may shelter you from harm, and bring you home to fill my place with honor, when I have passed into the eternal Anchorage."
Over the region of the great lakes, her favorite haunt, hung the enchanted stillness, the misty glamour of the purple-cloaked witch—Indian Summer; whose sorcery veiled the dazzling face of the sun, and changed the silver lustre of Selene into the vast, solemn red blot that stared wonderingly at its own weird image in the glassy waters.
Wrapped in that soft, sweet haze, which like the eider down of charity smooths all roughness, rounds all angles, the world of shore and lake presented a magical panorama of towns and villages, herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, spires of churches, masts of vessels,—all flashing past the open window of the car, where Beryl sat, watching the shadows lengthen as the long train thundered eastward, and the tree dials marked the hour record on the golden brown stubble fields.
When the goal is in sight, do we dwell on the hazard, the strained muscles, the blistered feet, and the fierce thirst the long race-course cost us? Who know that they are weary and spent, while the prize brightens, nears as they stretch panting to grasp it?
The certainty of meeting her brother, the anticipation of all that she felt assured he would promise concerning his future, when he learned the severity of the ordeal which she had endured in his behalf, blotted out the costliness of the accomplishment. Like that glorious violet haze of Indian Summer, which was drawing its opalescent drapery along the vanishing iron railway track blackened with cinders, and softly shrouding the grim outlines of wreck, that told where a vessel had foundered on the lake in the early autumn gale, an overruling Providence seemed shedding peace even upon her troubled past. In the swift flash of the divine fire that sanctified the accepted sacrifice, she was too dazzled to remember the moan of the slaughtered victim, the agony of the death struggle; and now, her thoughts spanned the gulf of time, and painted the eternal reunion of the broken and dishonored family group.
From these comforting reflections she was aroused by a piercing cry that made her spring forward, and scan the crowd of human faces collected close to the rails, at a small town where the cars had halted.
On a side track in front of her window, was a train which had just dashed in from Buffalo, and amid the surging mass of jeering spectators, two officers stepped down from the platform, each with a hand on the arm of a man, who was heavily handcuffed. At the sight, a white-haired, withered woman leaning from a carriage and staring with horror-haunted eyes, had screamed, and was falling back insensible.
"That is his mother. Poor thing, why did they let her come? He is her only boy," said a man to his comrade, who stood near Beryl's seat.
"What is the matter?" asked a gentleman, sitting immediately in front of her.
"Two of our officers winged a bird, who thought it was safe flying over yonder, with the lake between him and the county jail. Canada is handy hunting-ground, when the game happens to be runaway thieves; and we have bagged one. He was the cashier of our Savings Bank, and not satisfied with tampering with the books, and forcing balances, he finally robbed the vault of a lot of gold, and flew across the line. His wife met him at St. Catherine's, and he met the iron bracelets he was dodging."
The train moved on, and once more Beryl heard the howling of the wolves, that she had hoped were left forever behind; that now seemed in full cry bearing down upon their prey. Should she return to the "Anchorage", and advertise Bertie's danger? So vague were her ideas relative to the limits of extradition, that she had regarded Canada as a city of refuge; considered its protection of United States' criminal fugitives as efficacious, as meeting a Vestal Priestess on the way to his execution, proved in rescuing a Roman malefactor from the penalty of violated law; but this shred of comfort had parted, when most she required its aid.
"Yes, I understand extradition provisions have been arranged, which are bound to have a wholesome effect; especially in this section, where it is so easy to slip across the lakes any dark night. I am told nearly all felonies will be embraced now—from murder to burglary—and that Her Majesty's Secretaries are more willing to aid our officers, than was the case a few years ago, when no end of quibbling tied up justice."
The gentlemen on the seat in front of her, moved away to the smoking car; and the woman in gray listened to the creak and whirr of the wheel of torturing dread, upon which some malignant fate once more bound her. Bertie had been safe in his mountain fastness, until her ill-starred advertisement coaxed him within reach of the police Briareus. Could she discern the hand of merciful warning in this fortuitous meeting with a captured culprit; which so vividly recalled the maddening incidents of her return to X—-, when the sheriff had hurried her from the car? A sickening terror seized her, and along the expanse of pearly mist that united earth and sky, in tke snowy fringe of ripples breaking their teeth on the shelving beach, she seemed to read the doom of her stratagem written in words of menace:
"Go where you may, but I give you fair warning you cannot escape me; and the day on which you meet that guilty vagabond, you betray him to the scouts of justice."
Far away, among the orange groves of Louisiana, would he forget his threat, or fail to execute it? On and on darted the train; people laughed and talked; a tired baby swayed from side to side on the nurse's knees, crooned herself to sleep; and a canary in a cage covered with pink net, broke suddenly into a spasm of trills and roulades.
It was almost four o'clock when the dull roar of Niagara set the air a tremble, and the few remaining passengers left the train. The little town was unusually quiet and deserted, the tide of summer travel having ebbed; and not until the crystal fingers of the ice fairy had built her wonderful Giralda out of foam and spray, would that of Winter tourists begin to flow.
Leaving her trunk at the "baggage room" of the station, Beryl engaged a carriage driver to take her to the Suspension Bridge. Drawing her gray bonnet and veil as far as possible over her face, she paid the toll, and noticed that the keeper peered curiously at her, and muttered something in an undertone to a man wearing a uniform, who turned and stared at her.
She hurried away along that iron mesh swinging high in air like a vast spider web, spun from shore to shore across the swirling, snarling caldron of hissing waters. Was the officer the wary spider watching her movements, waiting to slip down the metal snare, and devour her hopes? Her heart beats sounded as the heavy thuds of a drum; the rush of dire forebodings drowned even the roar of the Falls, and the magnificence of the spectacle vanished before the awful realization of the danger to which she had invited Bertie.
The bridge was deserted; no human being was visible; and now and then she glanced back over her shoulder, dreading she knew not what form of pursuit. At last her flying feet touched British soil, but she knew now, that neither Bezer nor yet Shechcm lay before her; and no sign-post rose to welcome her, with the "Refuge—Refuge"—the water and the bread appointed of old, for spent fugitives. Canada was an ambush that, despite all caution, might betray her. Against the last rail of the bridge she leaned, tried to steady her nerves; and put up one passionate prayer:
"Turn not Thy face from me, O my God! in this last hour! Guide me aright. Overrule all my mistakes, and save my repentant brother."
On the wide gallery of the "Clifton House" stood a gardener engaged in removing the flower baskets that hung between the columns; and as he paused in his work, to observe the quaint gray figure below, she asked, in a voice that was strained beyond its customary sweetness:
"Please direct me to the Museum."
"Follow the street along the cliff, and you can't miss it. Behind those trees yonder, on the right hand side. To the best of my belief, it is shut up this week."
Turning south, she walked more leisurely, lest undue haste should excite suspicion; and all the solemn sublimity of the scene confronted her. The green crescent of the Horseshoe blanched to foam, as it leaped to the stony gulf below, the wreaths of mist floating up, gilded by the sunshine; the maddened rush of the tossing, frothing, whirling rapids seething like melted gold as the western radiance smote the bubbling surface; the scarlet flakes of foliage clinging to the trees on Goat Island, and far above, on the wooded height beyond, the picturesque outlines of the Convent, lifting its belfry against the azure sky. As doomed swimmers lost in those rapids, swept head downward to destruction, nearing the last wild plunge catch the glimmer of that consecrated tower held aloft, so to Beryl's eyes it now seemed a symbol of comfort; and faith once more girded her.
A woman wearing a blue plaid handkerchief tied over her head and knotted under her chin, and carrying a basket of red apples on one arm, while with the other she led a lowing cow along the dusty road, paused at a signal, in front of the gray clad stranger.
"Which is the Museum?"
"Yonder, where the goats are huddled."
The building was closed, but in those days a garden lay to the north of it; and a small gate that gave admittance to seats and flowers connected with the Museum, now stood open.
The walks were strewn with pale yellow poplar leaves, and bordered with belated pink hollyhocks, and crimson chrysanthemums blighted by frost, shivering in their death chill; and from a neighboring willow stripped of curtaining foliage, a lonely bird piped its plaintive threnody, for the loss of one summer's mate. At the extremity of the little garden, under shelter of an ancient, gnarled tree, that screened a semicircular seat from the observation of those passing on the street, Beryl sat down to rest; to collect her thoughts.
In the solitude, she threw back her veil, leaned her head against the trunk of the tree where wan lichens made a pearly cushion, and shut her eyes. The afternoon was wearing away; a keen wind shook the bare boughs; only the ceaseless, unchanging chant of waters rose from the vast throat of nature, invoking its God.
She heard no footsteps; but some strange current attacked her veins, thrilled along her nerves, strung as taut as the wires of a harp, and starting up she became aware that a man was standing on the clover sward close to her. A dark brown overcoat, a broad brimmed, soft wool hat, drawn as a mask down to the bridge of the nose, and a bare hand covering the mouth, was all she saw.
Stretching out her arms, she sprang to meet him:
"O Bertie! At last! At last!"
The figure drew back slightly, lifted his hat; and where she had expected to see her brother's golden curls, the crisp, black locks of Mr. Dunbar met her gaze.
She staggered, and sank back on the bench; the realization of Bertie's peril throttling the joy that leaped up in her heart, at sight of the beloved features.
"I am here. I come as promptly to fulfil my promise as you to keep your tryst. Do you understand me so little, that you doubted my word?"
Her bonnet had slipped back, and as all the chastened beauty of her face framed in the dainty cap, became fully exposed, a heavy sigh escaped him, and he set his teeth, like one nerved to endure torture.
For months he had nourished the germ of a generous purpose, had tried to accustom himself to the idea of ultimately surrendering her; but in her presence, a certain bitter fury swept away the wretched figment, and he remembered only how fair, how holy, how dear she was to him. Once more the cry of his famishing heart was: "Death may part us. I swear no man's arms ever shall."
"Why waylay and torment me? Have I not suffered enough at your hands? Between me and mine not even you can come."
"Take care! For your sake I am here, hoping to spare you some pangs; to allow you at least an opportunity to see him—"
"What have you done? Don't tell me I am too late. Where is he? Oh! where—where is he?"
She had sprung up, and her hands closed around his arm, shaking it in the desperation of her dread; while her voice quivered under the strain of a conjecture that Bertie had already been arrested.
"Where is your chivalrous, courageous, unselfish, devoted lover? To ascertain exactly where he skulks, is my mission to Canada; for I thought I had schooled myself to bear the pain of—"
"What do you mean? What have you done with my Bertie? Oh—"
She threw herself suddenly on her knees, held up her hands, and a wailing cry broke the stillness:
"Save him, Mr. Dunbar! You will break my heart if you bring ruin upon his dear head. He is all I have on earth, he is my own brother! My brother! my brother!"
The blood ebbed from his face; the haughty mouth twitched in a sudden spasm, and he put his hand over his eyes.
Could she adopt this ruse to thwart pursuit of the man whom she idolized? For half a moment he stood, with whitened lips; then stooped, took the face of the kneeling woman in his palms, and scanned it.
"My brother. Do you understand at last, why I must save him? Why you must help me to screen him from ruin?"
"Great God! After all, what a blind fool I have been!"
He raised her, placed her on the bench; sat down and leaned his head on his hand. To Beryl, the silence that followed was an excruciating torture, beyond even her power of endurance.
"Do not keep me in suspense. Where is Bertie? Let me see him, if he is here."
"He is not here. It was to assist you in finding him, that I enticed you here."
"You enticed me?"
"I put the advertisement in the 'Herald', knowing that if you chanced to see it, all the legions of Satan could not keep you away. I have been here since Sunday, waiting and watching. I was obliged to see you, for your own sake, as well as to satisfy my longing to look once more into your face; and I felt assured the magnetic name of 'Bertie' would draw you here swiftly."
"Then it was only a snare, that advertisement? Oh! you are cruel!"
"Not to you. It was to promote your peace of mind, by enabling you to meet the man who, I supposed was your lover, that I invited you to this place. Mark you, only to see, never to marry him."
"Where is he?"
"Exactly where, I do not yet know; but very soon you shall learn."
"Is he in peril?"
"Not from arrest at present, by human officers of retributive justice."
"He is not coming here?"
"How did you learn his name?"
"I suspected that the advertisement you published in the "Herald" after leaving X—-, was a clue that would aid me. I clung to it, for I was sure it referred to the man whom I have hunted so persistently."
"You have something to tell me. Be merciful, and end my suspense."
"First, answer one question. Why did you conceal from me the fact that you had a brother? Why did you allow me to suffer from a false theory, that you knew made my life a slow torture?"
He leaned nearer, and under the blue fire of his eager eyes, the blood mounted into her pale cheeks.
"My motive belongs to a past, with which I trust I have done forever; and you have no right to violate its buried ashes."
"I must, and I will have all the truth, cost what it may. Between you and me, no spectre of mystery shall longer stalk. If you had trusted me, and confessed the facts before the trial, you would have muzzled me effectually, and prevented the employment of detectives whom I have hissed on your brother's track. Why did you lead me astray, and confirm my suspicion that you were shielding a lover?"
"I was innocent; but my name, my father's honored name, was in jeopardy of dishonor, and to protect it, I would not undeceive you. Had my brother been convicted, the established guilt would have tarnished forever our only legacy, all that father left to Bertie and to me—his spotless name."
"You are quibbling. Did you shield the family name by enduring the purgatory of seeing your own on the list of penitentiary convicts? You deliberately fastened the odium of the crime upon your father's daughter; and you knew, you understood perfectly, that by strengthening my erroneous supposition, you were lashing me to a pursuit of the person, whom you could have best protected by frankly telling me all. If he is really your brother, what did you expect to accomplish by fostering my belief that he was your lover?"
"Mr. Dunbar, spare me this inquisition. Release me from the rack of suspense. Tell me why you set this snare, baited with Bertie's name?"
"I must first end my own suspense. If you wish to find the man, you tell me is your brother, I will aid you only when you have bared your heart to me. You had some powerful incentive unrevealed. I will know exactly, why you made me suffer all these years, the pangs of a devouring jealousy, keener than a vulture's talons."
With crimson cheeks, and shy, averted eyes, she sat trembling; unconsciously locking and unlocking her fingers. Her head drooped, and the voice was a low flutter:
"If I had told you that the handkerchief was one I gave to my brother, because he fancied the gay border, and that the pipe belonged to my dear father, and if you had known that for more than a year before I went to X—-no tidings from that brother had reached me, would you have kept my secret, when you saw my life laid in the scales held by the jury? Suppose they had condemned me to death? I expected that fate; but knowing the truth, would you have permitted the execution of that sentence?"
"Certainly not; and you understand why I should never have allowed it."
"I knew that in such an emergency I could not trust you."
Five minutes passed, while he silently sought to unravel the web; and Beryl dared not meet his gaze.
"You had some stronger motive, else you would have confessed all, when I started to Dakota. Anxiety for your brother's safety would have unsealed your lips. What actuated you then? I mean to know everything now."
"Miss Gordon was my friend. She showed me kindness which I could never forget."
"Miss Gordon is a very noble woman, kinder to all the world than to herself; but did gratitude to her involve sacrifice of me?"
"You were betrothed. I owed it to her, to keep you loyal to your vows, as far as my power extended. I tried faithfully to guard her happiness, while endeavoring to shield my brother."
"Knowing you had all my heart, you dared not let me learn that the rival existed only in my imagination? loyal soul! Did you deem it a kindness to aid in binding her to an unloving husband? Her womanly instincts saved her from that death in life; and years ago, she set us both free. She wears no willows, let me tell you; and those who should know best, think that before very long she will sail for Europe as wife of Governor Glenbeigh, the newly appointed minister to Z—-, a brilliant position, which she will nobly grace. She will be happier as Glenbeigh's wife than I could possibly have made her; for he loves her as she deserves to be loved. So, for Miss Gordon's sake, you immolated me?"
Only the pathetic piping of the lonely bird made answer.
Like the premonitory thrill that creeps through forest leaves, before the coming burst of a tempest, he seemed to tremble slightly; his tone had a rising ring, and a dark flush stained his swarthy face, deepened the color in his brilliant eyes.
"Oh, my white rose! A wonderful fragrance of hope steals into the air; a light breaks upon my dreary world that makes me giddy! Can it be possible that you—"
He paused, and she covered her face with her hands.
"Beryl, you are the only woman I have ever loved. You came suddenly into my life, as an irresistible incarnation of some fateful witchery that stole and fired my heart, subverted all my plans, made havoc of lifelong hopes, dominated my will, changed my nature; overturned the cool selfishness on the altar of my worship, and set up your own image in a temple, swept, garnished, and sanctified forever by your in-dwelling. You have cost me stinging humiliation, years of regret, of bitter disappointment; and the ceaselessly gnawing pain of a jealous dread that despite my vigilance, another man might some day possess you. I have money, influence, professional success, gratified ambition, and enviable social eminence; I have all but that which a man wants most, the one woman in the great wide world whom he loves truly, loves better than he loves himself; and who holds his heart in the hollow of her hand. I want my beautiful, proud, pure, stately white rose. I want my Beryl. I will have my own."
He had risen, stood before her; took the hands that veiled her countenance, and drew her to her feet.
"You have been loyal to parents, to brother, to friends, to duty; be loyal now to your own heart; answer me truly. What did you mean when you once said, with a mournful pathos I cannot forget: 'We love not always whom we should, or would, were choice permitted us?' You defied me that day, and prayed God to bless your lover; taunted me with words that have made days dreary, nights hideous: 'To whom I have given my whole deep heart, you shall never know.' Did you mean—ah—will you tell me now?"
She bent her head till it almost touched him, but no answer came.
"You will not? I swear you shall; else I shall hope, believe, know beyond all doubt, that during these years, I have not been the only sufferer; and that loyal as was your soul, your rebel heart is as truly mine, as all my deathless love is surely yours."
She tried to withdraw her hands; but his hold tightened, and infinite exultation rang in his voice.
"My darling! My darling—you dare not deny it? I shall wear my white rose to make all the future sweet with a blessed love; but have you no word of assurance for my hungry ears? Is my darling too proud?"
He raised her hands, laid her arms around his neck, and folded very close to his heart, the long coveted prize.
"My Beryl, it was a stubborn battle, but Lennox Dunbar claims his own; and will hold her safe forever. Will you be loyal to your tyrant?"
Was it a white or a crimson rose that hid its lovely petals against his shoulder, and whispered with lips that his kiss had rouged:
"Have I ever been allowed a choice? Was I not foredoomed to be always at the mercy of Tiberius?"
The little garden was growing dusky, the gilded mist waving its spectral banners over the thundering cataract, had whitened as the sun went down behind the wooded crest that barred the western sky line; and the shimmering gold on the heaving, whirling current of the Rapids faded to leaden tints, flecked with foam, as like a maddened suitor, parted by Goat Island from its beloved, it rushed to plunge into the abyss, where the silvery bridal veil shook her signal, and all the roaring gorge filled with purple gloom.
Mr. Dunbar drew his companion's hand under his arm, and led her toward the Clifton House.
"You and I have done with shadows. On the heights yonder, the sun still shines. Up there waits one, who will tell you that which he refuses to divulge to any one else. Ten days ago my agents notified me that a man was searching for Mrs. Brentano and her daughter Beryl in New York; and that he had gone to X—-, where he spent several days in consultation with the Catholic priest. Singleton sent me a telegram, and I reached X—-in time to accompany the stranger back to New York. To me he admits only, that he lives in Montreal; and is the bearer of a message, the import of which, sacred promises prevent him from revealing to any one but Miss Brentano. He is an elderly man, and so wary, no amount of dexterity can circumvent his caution. Very complex and inexplicable motives brought me here; chiefly the longing to see you, to learn your retreat, your mode of existence; and also the intention to exact one condition, before I made it possible for you to find the object of your search. When you had given me your promise not to marry him, it was my purpose to allow you one final meeting; and if you forfeited your compact, the dungeon and the gallows awaited him. Love makes women martyrs; they are the apostles of the gospel of altruism. Love revives in men of my stamp, the primeval and undifferentiated tiger. When I think of all that you have endured, of how nearly I lost you, my snowdrop, do you wonder I shall hasten to set you in the garden of my heart, and shelter your dear head from every chill wind of adversity?"
They had passed through a gate, crossed a lawn, and reached a long, steep flight of steps leading straight up the face of a cliff, to the grounds attached to a villa. With her hand clasped tightly in his, Mr. Dunbar and Beryl slowly mounted the abrupt stairway, and when they gained the elevated terrace, a man who was walking up and down the sward, came quickly forward.
Pressing her fingers tenderly, Mr. Dunbar released her hand.
"When your interview is ended, come to me yonder at the side gate, where I have a carriage to take you over the bridge. Father Beckx, this is Miss Brentano. I leave her in your care."
The sun was sending his last level shafts of light from the edge of the sky, when a man dressed in long black vestments, a raven-haired, raven-eyed, thin lipped and clean shaven personage, with a placid countenance as coldly irresponsive as a stone mask, sat down on the top step of the long stairs, beside the woman in gray, whose eager white face was turned to meet his, in breathless and mute expectancy.
The lingering twilight held at bay slowly marching night; the sunset glory streamed up almost to the zenith in bands of amethyst and faint opaline green, like the far reaching plumes of an archangel's pinions beating the still, crystal air. Later, the vivid orange of the afterglow burned with a transient splendor, as the dying smile of a day that had gone to its eternal grave; and all the West was one vast evening primrose of palest gold sprinkled with star dust, when Beryl went slowly to join the figure pacing restlessly in front of the gate.
Across the grassy lawn he came to meet her. In mute surrender she lifted her arms, laid her proud head, with its bared wealth of burnished bronze hair, down on his shoulder, and wept passionately.
When he had placed her in the carriage, and held her close to his heart, with his dark cheek resting on hers, where tears still trickled, he whispered:
"How much are you willing to tell me?"
"Only that I must start at once on a long, lonely journey to a desolate retreat, in mountain solitudes; far away in the wilderness of the Northwest. Bertie is there; and I must see him once more."
"How soon do you wish to start?"
"Within the next three days."
"You must wait one week. I cannot go before that time."
"Do you suppose I shall allow you to travel there without me? Do you imagine I shall ever lose sight of you, till the vows are uttered that make you my wife? You cannot see your brother's face, until you have first looked into your husband's. In one week I can arrange to go, to the ends of the earth if you will; but you will meet your brother only when you are Beryl Dunbar."
"No—no! You forget, ah!—You forget. I have worn the penitentiary homespun, and the brand of the convict seared my fair name, scarred all my life. The wounds will heal, but time can never efface the hard lines of the cicatrice; and I could not bear to mar the lustre of your honored name by—"
"Hush!—hush. It is ungenerous in you to wound me so sorely. When I remember the fiery furnace through which my wife walked unscorched, with such sublime and patient heroism, is it possible that I should forget whose rash hand, whose besotted idiocy consigned her to the awful ordeal? Out of the black shadow where I thrust you, sprang the halo that glorifies you. How often, in the silence of my sleepless nights, have I heard the echo of your wild, despairing cry: 'You have ruined my life!' Oh, my darling! If you withhold yourself, if you cast me away, you will indeed ruin mine. If you could realize how I wince at the recollection of your suffering, you would not cruelly remind me of my own accursed work."
"If the soul of my brother be ransomed thereby, I shall thank you, even for all that X—-cost me. The world knows now, that no suspicion clings to me; but, Mr. Dunbar, the disgrace blots forever the dear name I tried to shield; and my vindication only blackens Bertie."
"The world will never know. Your sad secret shall be kept, and my name shall wrap you in ermine, and my love make your future redeem the past. Having found my darling, can I afford to run the risk of losing her? You belong to me, and I will not trust you out of my sight, until the law gives me a husband's claim. The mother of one of my oldest friends is boarding here in Niagara. I will commit you to her care until to-morrow; then some church will furnish an altar where you shall pledge me your loyalty."
"Impossible! To-night a train will take me to Buffalo, where I can catch the express going West. There are reasons why I must make no delay; must hasten back to explain many things to the Matron of the Sisterhood, where I have dwelt so safely and so peacefully since I left X—-."
"Give me the reasons. 'Impossible' ne me dites jamais ce bete de mot!' Give me your reasons."
His arm tightened around her.
"Then you shall not leave me. I will endure no more mysteries."
"Mr. Dunbar, I wear the uniform of a celibate Order of Gray Sisters; and the matron trusted me in an unusual degree, when she consented that I should undertake this journey on a secret mission. I came to Niagara, as I supposed, to keep an appointment with my brother, and I met you. If I lingered one instant here, it might reflect some discredit upon this dear gray garb, which all hold so irreproachable. Sister Ruth trusted me. I cannot, I will not, even in the smallest iota, appear to betray her confidence; and I must go at once, and go as I came—alone. Bid the driver take me to the railway station, and you must remain in the carriage. I can have no escort. Your presence would subject me to criticism, and I will guard the 'gray' that so mercifully guarded me."
"Beryl, are you trying to elude me?"
"I am faithfully trying to keep my compact with Sister Ruth. Here is a card bearing the exact address of the 'Anchorage'. I am going there as quickly as possible, to make speedy arrangements for my long journey West, to that place almost within sound of the Pacific Ocean."
"Put your hand in mine. Promise me before God, that you will not vanish from me; that you will not leave the 'Anchorage' until I come and see you there."
"I promise; but time presses. I must hasten to find Bertie."
"Do you know exactly where to go?"
"Yes. I have minute directions written down."
"Wait until I come. I trust you to keep your promise. Ah! after to-day, I could not bear to lose my 'Rosa Alba.' God make me more worthy of my loyal and beautiful darling. After all, not Alcestis, but Antigone!"
White and still, lay the world of the far Northwest, wrapped in peace as profound as that which reigned in primeval ages; when ancestral Nahuas, dragging their sleds across frozen Behring Straits, or cast amid other drift of the Japanese current upon the strange new Pacific shore, climbed the mountains, and fell on their faces before the sun, whose worshippers have sacrificed in all hemispheres.
If civilization be the analogue of geologic accretion, how tortuous is the trend and dip of the ethnological strata, how abrupt the overlapping of myths. How many aeons divided the totem coyote from the she-wolf of Romulus and Remus? Which is the primitive and parent flame, the sacred fire of Pueblo Estufas, of Greek Prytaneum, of Roman Vesta, of Persian Atish-khudahs? If the Laurentian system be the oldest upheaval of land, and its "dawn animal" the first evolution of life that left fossil footprints, where are all the missing links in ethnology, which would save science that rejects Genesis—the paradox of peopling the oldest known continent by immigration from those incalculably younger?
Winter had lagged, loath to set his snow shoes upon the lingering, diaphanous train of Indian Summer, but December was inexorable, and the livery of ice glittered everywhere in the mid-day sun.
Along a well-worn bridle trail, now slippery as glass, winding around the base of crags, through narrow gorges that almost overarched, leaving a mere skylight of intense blue to mark the way, moved a party of four persons in single file, slowly ascending a steep spiral. In advance, mounted on a black pony, was a cowled monk, whose long, thin profile suggested that of Savonarola; and just behind him rode a Canadian half-breed guide, with the copperish red of aboriginal America on his high cheek bones, and the warm glow of sunny France in his keen black eyes. Guiding his horse with the left hand, his right led the dappled mustang belonging to the third figure; a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing an overcoat that reached to his knees, who walked with his hand on the bridle bit of a white mule, whereon sat a woman, wrapped in silver fox furs from throat to feet. A cap or hood of the same soft, warm material was worn over her head, where a roll of dark auburn hair coiled at the back; and around her white temples clustered rings and tendrils of the glossy bronze locks that contrasted so singularly with the black arch of the brows, and the fringe that darkened the luminous gray eyes.
One month had elapsed since the Umilta Sisters of the "Anchorage", following Sister Ruth, walked in the star-lit dawn of a November day, to a neighboring church, and watched Doctor Grantlin lead down the aisle, a pale, trembling woman whose hand he placed in that of the man, waiting in front of the altar. The Sisterhood had listened to the solemn words of the marriage service, the interchange of vows, and the benediction, while priestly hands were laid tapon two bowed heads.
When the rising sun greeted the husband and wife, they were speeding westward, on the first stage of their long journey.
To-day, the quest would end; and into Beryl's face had crept the wistful yearning that was a reflection of that strange blending of patience and longing, which made her so beautiful in her husband's eyes; so strong in faith, so serene in waiting resignation. Suddenly the monk drew rein, threw up his drooping head, and listened. Clear and sweet as the silvery chime of bells ringing in happy dreams, floated through the crystal air the sound of the Angelus; and fainter and fainter fell the echoes, dying in immeasurable distance. Low bent the shaven head, and through brown, fingers stole the consecrated beads, while with closed eyes the prayers were uttered; and in the pause, the guide made the sign of the cross, and Mr. Dunbar instinctively took off his hat.
"Six hours' steady climbing is a severe tax. Are you very tired?" he whispered, laying his arm around Beryl's waist, and lifting his brilliant eyes eloquent with an infinite tenderness.
With one hand on his shoulder as he stood beside her, she leaned down until her lips touched the black hair tossed back from his forehead.
"After waiting so many terrible years, what are a few more hours of suspense? Since I have you, can I ever again feel tired?"
Behind them lay a dark undulating line, where oak and cedar had made their last stand on the upward march; nearer, the spectral ranks of stunted firs showed the outposts of forest advance; and a few feet from the narrow path, a perpendicular cliff formed one wall of a deep canon, where a glittering ribbon of water hurried to leap into the Pacific, ere pursuing Winter arrested and bound it with icy manacles to its stony bed. To the north dazzling white peaks cut strange solemn shapes, like silver cameos on a ground of indigo sky; and overhead, burnished lines of snow geese printed their glittering triangles on the paler blue of the zenith, as the winged host dipped southward.
The monk moved on, and after a while his companions perceived that the way descended rapidly until they reached the face of a rock that rose straight and smooth as a wall of human masonry, and apparently barred further progress. Taking from his bosom the twisted section of a polished horn, only a finger's length, the cowled figure raised it to his lips, and blew three whistles, that ended in a rising inflection which waked all the wolfish pack of mountain echoes into fitful barking. Two moments later, an answering signal seemed to issue from the invisible jaws of Hades; a wild, quivering sepulchral cry, as of a monster half throttled. Twenty feet beyond the spot where the party had halted, a steep descent led them to a shelving canon, once the bed of a broad mountain torrent, whose course some seismic upheaval had diverted to other channels. Following for a few yards the sinuous stony way, worn here and there into smooth circular cavities like miniature wells, by the eddying of the ancient current and the grinding of pebbles, the travellers turned a sharp angle, and found themselves at the mouth of Tartarus.
The force of the stream had originally cut a low arch in its egress, which human needs and ingenuity had broadened, heightened and closed by heavy iron bars, slipped into stone slots. Behind this gateway glimmered a faint light that brightened into a red star; and soon, a figure clad in the long, black monastic gown, and bearing a huge torch of blazing pitch pine, emerged from the bowels of the earth. There was the rattle of a chain, the creak of a pulley, and the bars were lowered.
So vividly did the scene recall that black, stormy night in February, when Mr. Dunbar had seen the lantern of the gaoler flash through the penitentiary gates closing on the young convict, that he drew his breath now through clinched teeth, and quickly laid his hand upon that of his wife, which grasped the bridle resting upon the neck of her mule. Silently the procession filed in, and with little delay the torch bearer replaced the bars, advanced to the head of the column, and with long, swift strides led the way down a wide tunnel. Between the monks no salutation was exchanged; and only the ringing tramp of the horses' feet on the stone pavement, jarred the profound stillness. The lurid glare of the torch danced on the rocky vault, and the shadows projected by men and beasts were gigantic and grotesque. Very soon a gray twilight stole to meet them; an arch of light like a window opening into heaven brightened, glared, and the party emerged into a courtyard that seemed an entrance to some vast amphitheatre.