Opposite the mouth of the tunnel, and distant perhaps two hundred yards, lay an oval lake, bordered on the right by a valley running southeast, while its northern shore rose abruptly in a parapet of rock, that patient cloistered workmen had cut into broad terraces; and upon which opened rows of cells excavated from the mountain side, and resembling magnified swallow nests, or a huge petrified honeycomb sliced vertically.
A legend so hoary, that "the memory of man runneth not to the contrary", had assigned the outlines of this stone cutting to that dim dawn of primeval tribal life, which left its later traces in the Watch Tower of the Mancos, the Casa del Eco, and the "niche stairway of the Hovenweep".
In the slow deposition of the human strata, cliff dwellers disappeared beneath predatory, nomadic modern savages, who, hunting and fishing in this lonely fastness, had increased its natural fortifications, and made it an impregnable depot of supplies, until Hudson Bay trappers wrenched it from their grasp, and appropriated it as a peltry magazine. To the dynasty of traders had succeeded the spiritual rule of a Jesuit Mission; then miners kindled camp fires in the deserted excavations, as they probed the mountain for ores; and more recently the noiseless feet of a band of holy celibates belonging to an austere Order, went up and down the face of the cliff, with cross and bell and incense exorcising haunting aboriginal spectres; while holy water sprinkled the uncanny, dismal precincts of a circular room hollowed behind and beneath all other apartments, the monumental, sacred Estufa.
At a signal from the monk who had escorted them, Mr. Dunbar lifted Beryl from her saddle, and hand in hand they followed him across the courtyard, mounted a flight of steps cut in the rock, and passed into a low, dim room, where the ceiling was crossed in squares by heavy, red cedar beams. The floor was paved with diamond-shaped slabs of purple slate, the whitewashed wall adorned with colored lithographs of the Passion; and above the cavernous chimney arch, where cedar logs blazed, ran the inscription: "Otiositas inimica est animae."
Noiselessly as the wings of a huge bat, a leathern screen was folded back from the corner of the room, and a venerable man advanced from the gloom.
A fringe of white hair surrounded his head like a laurel chaplet in old statues, and the heavy, straight brows that almost met across the nose, hung as snowflakes over the intensely black eyes as glowing as lamps set in the sockets of an ivory image. Scholarly and magnetic as Abelard, with a certain innate proud poise of the head and shoulders, that ill accorded with the Carlo-Borromeo expression of seraphic serenity and meekness, set like a seal on the large square mouth, he looked a veritable type of the ecclesiastical cenobites who, since the days of Pachomius at Tabennae, have made their hearts altars of the Triple Vows, and girdled the globe with a cable of scholastic mysticism. The pale, shrunken hand he laid on the black serge that covered his breast, was delicate as a woman's, and checkered with knotted lines where the blood crept feebly.
Bowing low, he spoke in a carefully modulated voice, deep and resonant as a bass viol:
"Welcome to such hospitality as our poverty permits. A cipher telegram forwarded from the nearest station, sixty miles hence, prepared us to expect a newly-married woman searching for a man, known to the secular world as Robert Luke Brentano. You claim to be his nearest blood relative?"
"I am his sister. How is he?"
"Alive, but sinking fast; sustained beyond all human calculation by the hope of seeing you. You have not come one moment too soon. The man you seek is only a lay brother here. The rules of our Order forbid the admission of women to the cloister, but in articulo mortis! can I deny him now the confession he wishes to offer you? Our holy ordinances have done their divine work; the last rites of the Church have soothed and consecrated the heart of Brother Luke, and an hour ago, extreme unction was administered. Follow me."
"He knows that I am coming?" asked Beryl, raising her white, tear-drenched face from her husband's shoulder.
"He knows; and holds death back to see you. His self-imposed penance makes him steadfastly refuse the comparative comfort of our meagre infirmary, and it is his wish to die, where he has spent so many nights in penitential prayer. For several days, the paralysis of years has been gradually loosening its fetters, and this morning, the distressing and ghastly distortion of one side of his face almost disappeared. Though his voice is well nigh gone, it returns fitfully, and his strength seems supernatural. Fearing that you might not arrive in time, I have written down his last confession, and here commit it to you."
He placed a roll of paper in her hand, and drawing his cowl over his head, led them up an easy stairway cut in the stone, to a second terrace four feet wide, that projected as a roof beyond the lower tier of cells.
A hundred feet below lay the lakelet, shining as a mirror; to the southeast stretched a valley bounded by buttes crowned with cedar, and in the undulating field, locked from fierce winds, cattle and goats sunned themselves, where in summer time grain waved, fruit ripened, and bees hummed.
From the parapet of a low wall facing west, rose a round tower heavily buttressed, where swung the bell; and through an open arch in the side, under the uplifted cross, the eye swept on and on, over a world of snowy peaks, dark canons, mountain minarets girding the northern horizon; and far, far away a scintillating thread of white fire marked where the Pacific smiled behind the fiords that channelled the rock-ribbed coast.
In that still, cold and brilliant atmosphere, how dazzling the snow blink, how sharp the outline of projected shadows, how close the bending heavens seemed; but to the yearning soul of Beryl, the silent, solemn sublimity of the mighty panorama made no appeal.
Through slowly dripping tears she saw only the spectral flitting of her mother's sad face, as in their last interview she had committed the soul of the son to the guardianship of the daughter.
The monk paused, and pointed to the third cell from the spot where he stood.
"It is but a step farther. Yonder, where the skull is set over the entrance."
"I will wait here," said Mr. Dunbar, relinquishing with a tight pressure, his wife's cold hand.
"No, come. Are we not one?"
She hurried along the terrace, and reached the low open doorway fronting the South, where the sunshine streamed in like God's smile of forgiveness.
On the stone floor was a straw pallet covered with coarse brown blankets, whereon, half propped by one elbow, with head against the gray rocky wall, lay the emaciated wreck of a man, whose pallid face might have been mistaken for that of a corpse, but for the superhuman splendor of the wide, deep brown eyes.
Beryl sprang into the cave-like recess, and fell on her knees. She snatched him to her heart, laid his head on her shoulder.
"Bertie! My darling! my darling!—"
He tried to raise one arm to her neck, but it fell back. She lifted it, held it close, and face to face with her lips on his, she broke into passionate sobbing, rocking herself to and fro, in the tempest of grief.
"Give me, give—me—air—" He struggled for breath, which her tight clasp denied him; and for some minutes he panted, while Mr. Dunbar fanned him with his hat. Then the heaving chest grew more quiet, and after a moment, his eyes lighted with a happy smile as they fastened on Beryl's face, bent over him.
"Gigina, sweet, faithful sister, it is almost heaven to see you once more. God is good, even to me."
"If I could have found you sooner! All these dreadful years I have lived at God's feet—with one prayer: let me help my Bertie, let me see my brother's face," moaned Beryl, pressing her lips to the clammy, fleshless hand she held against her throat.
"I was too unworthy. I dreaded your pure eyes, and mother's, as I would an accusing angel's. I did not know, then, that mother was already one of the Beatified. I know now, that neither life nor death, nor sin nor shame, nor the brand of disgrace can change mother's love; for I see her to-day, smiling at the door, beckoning me to follow where the sun shines forever. My sainted mother."
"Her last breath was a blessing for you. See, Bertie! this was her wedding ring. Her final message was, 'Give this to my darling!' Be comforted, dear Bertie, she loved you even to the end—supremely. You were her idol in death as in life. Our father's ring was the most sacred relic she owned, and she left it to you."
She attempted to place the gold band on one of his fingers, but he closed that hand, and the dark eyes so like his mother's, were for an instant dimmed by tears.
"Keep it; no sin of theft soils your hands. You can wear it without a blush. You never robbed an old man of his gold. That was my crime, I am a thief."
"Our God sees you have repented bitterly; and He has pardoned your sins for His dear Son's sake. Tell me, Bertie, have you made your eternal salvation sure? Are you, in your soul, at peace with God?"
"At perfect peace. I want to die, because now I am no longer afraid to meet Him, who forgives even thieves. Gigi, wait a little—"
He seemed to make a desperate effort to rally his strength, and the thin, fine nostril flared, in the battle for breath.
"There has been a terrible mistake, and they made you suffer for what they imagined happened. When I found I had only a few months to live, I wrote to Father Beckx, whom I had known in Montreal, and asked him to tell mother where I was. I never knew till he went to X—-and wrote us about the trial, that you were suspected and punished for a crime that was never committed. I thought you and mother were safe in New York, all those years, and I knew that you would be sure to take care of her. I have it all written down—and I can't tell you now—but I want to look straight into your dear eyes—my brave sister, my loving sister—and let you learn first from me—the reward you have won—your Bertie is not a murderer. I did take the money from the vault which was wide open, when first I saw it. I did steal and destroy the will, which I thought unjustly robbed us all of our right to the Darrington estate, but that was my sole offence. I am a thief, before God and man, but there is no more stain of blood on my hands than on yours. General Darrington was not murdered. He died by the hand of God alone—"
A bluish shadow settled around his parted lips, and he panted.
Mr. Dunbar raised him, fanned him, rested his head more comfortably against his sister's shoulder; and again he looked intently into her eyes, as though his soul, plumed for departure, must right itself in the presence of hers, before the final flight.
"He struck me with the andiron, and broke my wrist here—then before I ever touched him—as he raised it to assault me the second time—there came an awful blinding glare—the world was wrapped in a blue fire—and God struck us both down. When I became conscious, my senses were all stunned, but after a while I knew I was lying on the floor, with a cold hand resting like lead on my face. I got up; the figure didn't move, and I supposed that like myself he was stunned by the shock. As I passed a mirror on my way to the window—I saw myself—for the lamp was burning bright. God had branded me a thief. Do you see here—drawn—paralyzed, oh, Gina! All these years I have worn the dark streak, and one eye was blind, one ear stone deaf. I was a walking shadow of my own sin; horrible to look upon—and I fled to avoid the gaze of my race. Somewhere, in Illinois I think, I heard two men on a train speak of a large reward offered for the recovery of Gen'l Darrington's will, which had been stolen by one of his heirs, whom the police were hunting. I was branded—and on my breast here was printed the face of the dead man—for he had torn my shirt open as he seized me with one hand, and struck me with the other. I hid in mines, crossed the plains, secreted myself in a bee ranche. Then the Canadian railroad was partly built, and I joined the grading party and worked—until the curse of my sin was more than I could bear. I heard of the holy Brothers here, made my last journey, confessed my theft, and entered on my penance. Gina, General Darrington was killed instantly by the lightning."
As the burden Beryl had long borne slipped suddenly from her heart, the joy of release from blood-stain was so unexpected, so intense, that her face blanched to a deadly pallor, and the glad eyes she lifted to her husband's shone as those of an angel.
"Bertie—Bertie—" Words failed her. She could only kiss the wasted cold hands that were innocent of bloodshed.
After some moments, the dying man said almost in a whisper:
"I never knew you were punished for my sin, until it was too late to save you, but God's witness cleared your pure name. The lightning that scorched me, printed its testimony to set you free. My sister—my sister—God will surely recompense your faithful—" The voice died in a quivering gurgle.
"I have my reward, dear Bertie. Oh, how much more than I deserve! I have you in my arms, innocent of murder, thank God! thank God! I have the blessed absurance that your pardoned soul goes to meet mother's in Eternal Peace; and to secure that, I would have willingly died an ignominious death. It was through the fiery flames of prison, and trial and convict shame, that God led me to the most precious crown any woman ever wore, my husband's confidence and love. Only behind dungeon bars could I have won my husband's heart, which holds for me the whole wide world of earthly peace and hope. For your sin, you have suffered. Its consequences to others from the destruction of the will, have been averted by the prompt transfer of all the property which Gen'l Darrington left, to his chosen heir Prince. Pecuniarily no one was injured by your act. Dear Bertie—Bertie, are you listening?"
He smiled but made no answer, and his eyes had a strained and exultant expression. After a long silence, he cried huskily:
"The curse is taken away—out of my blinded eye I see—Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi—"
A slight spasm shook him, and feeling his cheek grow colder, Beryl threw off the fur cloak, and folded it closely around the wasted body which leaned heavily against her. The sunny short rings of hair clung to his sunken, blue veined temples, where cold drops gathered; and a gray seal was set about the wan lips that writhed in the fight for breath.
"Bertie, kiss me—tell me you are not afraid."
She fancied he nestled his face closer, but the wide eyes were fixed on the golden light that was fading fast across the narrow doorway.
Pressing her quivering lips to his, she sobbed:
"Tell mother, her little girl was faithful—"
Another spasm shook the form, and after a little while, the eyes closed; the panting ceased, and the tired breath was drawn in long, shuddering sighs.
Mr. Dunbar beckoned to the cowled form who, rosary in hand, paced the terrace, and the two laid the dying man back on his pallet of straw.
Fainter grew the slow breath, and the voice of the monk rolled through the silence, like the tremolo swell of an organ:
"Delicta juventutis, et ignorantias ejus, quoesumus, ne memineris, Domine; sed secundum magnam misericordiam tuam memor esto illius in gloria claritatis tuoe."
On the stone floor Beryl knelt, with her brother's icy hand clasped against her cheek, and as she watched, the twitching of the muscles ceased, the lips so long distorted, took on their old curves of beauty. A marble pallor blanched the dark stain of the branded cheek, and the Bertie of innocent youth came slowly out of the long eclipse.
Death, God's most tender angel, laid her divine lips upon the scars of sin, that vanished at her touch; drew her white fingers across the lines and shadows of suffering time, and leaving the halo of eternal peace upon the frozen features, gave back to Beryl her beautiful Bertie of old.
The sun was setting; and far away the ice domes and minarets of immemorial mountains took on the burnished similitude of the New Jerusalem, which only the exiled saw from lonely Patmos.
Lennox Dunbar lifted his wife from the form of the sleeper, whose ransomed soul had entered early into Rest; and folded her tenderly to the heart that henceforth was her refuge from all earthly woes.
At midnight, the brooding silence of the snow-hooded solitude was broken by the tolling of the monastery bell; and while all the mountain echoes responded to the slow knell for the departed soul, there rose from the chapel under the cliffs, the solemn chant of the monks for their dead:
"Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis."
"Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them."