"O, hush, Ned! You give me the shivers. My heart yearns toward that beautiful young creature, and I believe she is as innocent as my baby. It is a burning shame to send her here, unless there is no doubt of her guilt. Judge Dent is too shrewd an old fox to be baited with chaff, and I am satisfied from what he told you, that he believes her statement. There is nothing I would not do to comfort her, but I would rather have my ears boxed than witness her suffering. The day I carried to her a change of clothes, until her own could be washed, and sewed up her dress sleeve. I did nothing but cry. I could not help it, when she moaned and wrung her hands, and said her mother's heart would break. I have heard all my life that justice is blind; I have learned to believe it, for it stumbles, and gropes, and lays iron claws on the wrong person. As for the lawyers? They are fit pilots: and the courts are little better than blind man's buff. Don't stand chewing your mustache, Ned. Tell me what you want me to do, while baby is asleep. She has a vexatious habit of taking cat naps."
"Little woman, I turn over the case to you. Just let your heart loose, and follow it."
"If I do, will you endorse me?"
"Till the stars fall."
"Can you stay here awhile?"
"Yes, if you will tell Jarvis where he can find me."
"Mind you, Ned, you are not to interfere with me?"
"No—I swear I won't. Hurry up, or there will be much music in this bleating fold; and you know I am as utterly useless with a crying child, as a one-armed man in a concert of fiddlers."
The cell assigned to the new prisoner was in the centre of a line, which rose tier above tier, like the compartments in a pigeon house, or the sombre caves hewn out of rock-ribbed cliffs, in some lonely Laura. Iron stairways conducted the unfortunates to these stone cages, where the dim cold light filtered through the iron lattice-work of the upper part of the door, made a perpetual crepuscular atmosphere within. The bare floor, walls, and low ceiling were spotlessly clean and white; and an iron cot with heavy brown blankets spread smoothly and a wooden bench in one corner, constituted the furniture. Scrupulous neatness reigned everywhere, but the air was burdened with the odor of carbolic acid, and even at mid-day was chill as the breath of a tomb. Where the doors were thrown open, they resembled the yawning jaws of rifled graves; and when closed, the woful inmates peering through the black lattice seemed an incarnation of Dante's hideous Caina tenants.
When Mrs. Singleton stopped in front of No. 19, and looked through the grating, Beryl was standing at the extremity of the cell, with her face turned to the wall, and her hands clasping the back of her neck. The ceiling was so low she could have touched it, had she lifted her arms, and she appeared to have retreated as far in the gloomy den as the barriers allowed. Thinking that perhaps the girl was praying, the warden's wife waited some minutes, but no sound greeted her; and so motionless was the figure, that it might have been only an alto rilievo carved on the wall. Pushing the door open, Mrs. Singleton entered, and deposited on the iron bed a waiter covered with a snowy napkin. At the sound, Beryl turned, and her arms fell to her side, but she shrank back against the wall, as if solitude were her only solace, and human intrusion an added torture.
Mrs. Singleton took both hands, and held them firmly:
"Do you believe it right to commit suicide?"
"I believe in everything but human justice, and Divine mercy."
"Your conscience tells you that—"
"Am I allowed a conscience? What ghastly mockery! Thieves and murderers are not fit tenements for conscience, and I—I—am accused of stealing, and of bloodshed. Justice! What a horrible sham! We—her victims—who adored the beneficent and incorruptible attribute of God Himself—we are undeceived, when Justice—the harpy—tears our hearts out with her hideous, foul, defiling claws."
She spoke through set teeth, and a spasm of shuddering shook her from head to feet.
"Listen to me. Suspicion is one thing, proof something very different. You are accused, but not convicted, and—"
"I shall be. Justice must be appeased, and I am the most convenient and available victim. An awful crime has been committed, and outraged law, screaming for vengeance, pounces like a hungry hawk on an innocent and unsuspecting prey. Does she spare the victim because it quivers, and dies hard?"
"Hush! You must not despair. I believe in your innocence; I believe every word you uttered that day was true, and I believe that our merciful God will protect you. Put yourself in His hands, and His mercy will save, for 'it endureth forever.'"
"I don't ask mercy! I claim justice—from God and man. The wicked grovel, and beg for mercy; but innocence lays hold upon the very throne of God, and clutches His sword, and demands justice!"
"I understand how you feel, and I do not wonder; but for your own sake, in order to keep your mind clear and strong for your vindication, you certainly ought to take care of your health. Starvation is the surest leech for depleting soul and body. Do you want to die here in prison, leaving your name tarnished, and smirched with suspicion of crime, when you can live to proclaim your innocence to the world? Remember that even if you care nothing for your life, you owe something to your mother. You have two chances yet; the Grand Jury may not find a true bill—"
"Yes, that tiger-eyed lawyer will see that they do. He knows that the law is a cunning net for the feet of the innocent and the unwary. He set his snare dexterously, and will not fail to watch it."
"You mean Mr. Dunbar? Yes, you certainly have cause to dread him; but even if you should be indicted, you have twelve human hearts full of compassion to appeal to—and I can't think it possible a jury of sane men could look at you and condemn you. You must fight for your life; and what is far more to you than life, you must fight for your good name, for your character. Suspicion is not proof of crime, and there is no taint on you yet; for sin alone stains, and if you will only be brave and clear yourself as I know you can, what a grand triumph it will be. If you starve yourself you seal your doom. An empty stomach will do you more harm than the Grand Jury and all the lawyers; for it utterly upsets your nerves, and makes your brain whirl like a top. For three days and nights you have not tasted food: now just to please me, since I have taken so much trouble, sit down here by me, and eat what I have brought. I know you would rather not; I know you don't want it; but, my dear child, take it like any other dose, which will strengthen you for your battle. It is very fine to rant about heroism, but starvation is the best factory for turning out cowards: and even the courage of old Caesar would have had the 'dwindles,' if he had been stinted in his rations."
She removed the napkin, and displayed a tempting luncheon, served in pretty, gilt-banded white china. What a contrast it presented, to the steaming tin platter and dull tin quart cups carried daily to the adjoining cell?
Beryl laid her hand on Mrs. Singleton's shoulder, and her mouth trembled.
"I thank you, sincerely, for your sympathy—and for your confidence; and to show my appreciation of your kindness, I wish I could eat that dainty luncheon; but I think it would strangle me—I have such a ceaseless aching here, in my throat. I feel as if I should stifle."
"See here! I brought you some sweet rich milk in my little boy's cup. He was my first-born, and I lost him. This was his christening present from my mother. It is very precious, very sacred to me. If you will only drink what is in it, I shall be satisfied. Don't slight my angel baby's cup. That would hurt me."
She raised the pretty "Bo-Peep" silver cup to the prisoner's lips, and seeing the kind hazel eyes swimming in tears, Beryl stooped her head and drank the milk.
The warden's wife lifted the cup, looked wistfully at it, and kissed the name engraved on the metal:
"You know now I must think you pure and worthy. I have given you the strongest possible proof; for only the good could be allowed to touch what my dead boy's lips have consecrated. Now come out with me, and get some pure fresh air."
Beryl shrank back.
"These close walls seem a friendly shelter from the horrible faces that cluster outside. You can form no idea how I dread contact with the vile creatures, whose crimes have brought them here for expiation. The thought of breathing the same atmosphere pollutes me. I think the loathsomeness of perdition must consist in association with the depraved and wicked. Not the undying flames would affright me, but the doom of eternal companionship with outcast criminals. No! No! I would sooner freeze here, than wander in the sunshine with those hideous wretches I saw the day I was thrust among them."
"Trust me, and I will expose you to nothing unpleasant. Take your hat and shawl; I shall not bring you back here. There is time enough for cells when you have been convicted and sentenced; and please God, you shall never stay in this one again. Come."
"Stay, madam. What is your purpose? I have been so hunted down, I am growing suspicious of the appearance of kindness. What are you going to do?"
Mrs. Singleton took her hand and pressed it gently.
"I am going to trust, and help, and love you, if you will let me; and for the present, I intend to keep you in a room adjoining mine, where you will have no fear of wicked neighbors."
"That will be merciful indeed. May God bless you for the thought."
Down iron staircases, and through dim corridors bordered with dark cells, gloomy as the lairs of wild beasts whom the besotted inmates resembled, the two women walked; and once, when a clank of chains and a hoarse human cry broke the dismal silence, Beryl clutched her companion's arm, and her teeth chattered with horror.
"Yes, it is awful! That poor woman is the saddest case we have. She waylaid and stabbed her husband to death, and poisoned his mother. We think she is really insane, and as she is dangerous at times, it is necessary to keep her chained, until arrangements can be made to remove her to the insane asylum."
"I don't wonder she is mad! People cannot dwell here and retain their reason; and madness is a mercy that blesses them with forgetfulness."
Beryl shivered, and her eyes glittered with an unnatural and ominous brilliance.
The warden's wife paused before a large door with solid iron panels, and rang a bell. Some one on the other side asked:
"What is the order? Who rang?"
"Mrs. Singleton; I want to get into the chapel. Let me out, Jasper."
The door swung slowly back, and the guard touched his hat respectfully.
Through an open arcade, where the sunlight streamed, Mrs. Singleton led her companion; then up a short flight of stone steps, and they found themselves in a long room, with an altar railing and pulpit at one end, and rows of wooden benches crossing the floor from wall to wall. Even here, the narrow windows were iron barred, but sunshine and the sweet, pure breath of the outside world entered freely. Within the altar railing, and at the right of the reading desk where a Bible lay, stood a cabinet organ. Leaving the prisoner to walk up and down the aisle, Mrs. Singleton opened the organ, drew out the stops, and after waiting a few moments, began to play.
At first, only a solemn prelude rolled its waves of harmony through the peaceful sunny room, but soon the strains of the beautiful Motet "Cast thy burden on the Lord," swelled like the voice of some divine consoler. Watching the stately figure of the prisoner who wandered to and fro, the warden's wife noticed that like a magnet the music drew her nearer and nearer each time she approached the chancel, and at last she stood with one hand on the railing. The beautiful face, sharpened and drawn by mental agony, was piteously wan save where two scarlet spots burned on her cheeks, and the rigid lips were gray as some granite Statue's, but the eyes glowed with a strange splendor that almost transfigured her countenance.
On and on glided the soft, subtle variations of the Motet, and gradually the strained expression of the shining eyes relaxed, as if the soul of the listener were drifting back from a far-off realm; the white lids quivered, the stern lines of the pale lips unbent. At that moment, the face of her father seemed floating on the sunbeams that gilded the pulpit, and the tones of her mother's voice rang in her ears. The terrible tension of many days and nights of torture gave way suddenly, like a silver thread long taut, which snaps with one last vibration. She raised her hands:
"My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?"
The cry ended in a wail. Into her burning eyes merciful tears rushed, and sinking on her knees she rested against the railing, shaken by a storm of passionate weeping.
Mrs. Singleton felt her own tears falling fast, but she played for a while longer; then stole out of the chapel, and sat down on the steps.
Across the grass plot before the door, burnished pigeons cooed, and trod their stately minuet, their iridescent plumage showing every opaline splendor as the sunlight smote them; and on a buttress of the clock tower, a lonely hedge-sparrow poured his heart out in that peculiarly pathetic threnody which no other feathered throat contributes to the varied volume of bird lays. Poised on the point of an iron spike in the line that bristled along the wall, a mocking bird preened, then spread his wings, soared and finally swept downward, thrilling the air with the bravura of the "tumbling song"; and over the rampart that shut out the world, drifted the refrain of a paean to peace:
"Bob White!" "Peas ripe?" "Not quite!"
In the vast epic of the Cosmos, evoked when the "Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters"—an epic printed in stars on blue abysses of illimitable space; in illuminated type of rose leaf, primrose petal, scarlet berry on the great greenery of field and forest; in the rainbows that glow on tropical humming birds, on Himalayan pheasants, on dying dolphins in purple seas; and in all the riotous carnival of color on Nature's palette, from shifting glory of summer clouds, to the steady fires of red autumn skies—we find no blot, no break, no blurred abortive passages, until man stepped into creation's story. In the material, physical Universe, the divine rhythm flows on, majestic, serene as when the "morning stars sing together" in the choral of praise to Him, unto whom "all seemed good"; but in the moral and spiritual realm evolved by humanity, what hideous pandemonium of discords drowns the heavenly harmony? What grim havoc marks the swath, when the dripping scythe of human sin and crime swings madly, where the lilies of eternal "Peace on earth, good will to man," should lift their silver chalices to meet the smile of God?
A vague conception of this vexing problem, which like a huge carnivorous spectre, flaps its dusky wings along the sky of sociology, now saddened Mrs. Singleton's meditations, as she watched the lengthening shadow cast by the tower upon the court-yard; but she was not addicted to abstract speculation, and the words of her favorite hymn epitomized her thoughts: "Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile."
The brazen clang of the deep-throated bell rang out on the quiet air, and a moment later, the piercing treble of a child's cry made her spring to her feet. She peeped into the chapel all was still.
On tiptoe she passed swiftly down the aisle to the chancel, and saw the figure crouched at the altar, with one arm twined through the railing. For many days and nights the tortured woman had not known an instant of repose; nervous dread had scourged her to the verge of frenzy, but when the flow of long-pent tears partly extinguished the fire in her brain, overtaxed Nature claimed restitution, and the prisoner yielded to overwhelming prostration. Death might be hovering near, but her twin sister sleep intervened, and compassionately laid her poppies on the snowy eyelids.
Stooping close, Mrs. Singleton saw that tears yet hung on the black lashes which swept the flushed cheeks, but the parted lips were at rest, and the deep regularly drawn breath told her that at last the weary soul reposed in the peaceful domain of dreams. Deftly, and softly as thistledown falls, she spread her own shawl over the drooping shoulders, then noiselessly hurried back to the door. Locking it, she took the key, ran across the grass, into the arcade, and up to the great iron barrier, which the guard opened as she approached. With flying feet she neared her own apartments, whence issued the indignant wail of her implacable baby girl. As she opened the door, her husband held the disconsolate child toward her.
"You are in time for your share of the fun; I have had enough and to spare. How you stand this diabolical din day in, day out, passes my comprehension. You had not been gone fifteen minutes when Missy tuned up. I patted and, 'She-e-d' her, but she got her head above cover, squinted around the room, and not finding you, set up a squall that would have scared a wildcat. The more I patted, the worse she screamed, and her feet and hands flew around like a wind-mill. I took her up, and trotted her on my knee, but bless you! she squirmed like an eel, and her little bald head bobbed up and down faster than a di-dapper. Then I walked her, but I would as soon try to swing to a greased snake. She wriggled and bucked, and tied herself up into a bow knot, and yelled—. Oh! a Comanche papoose is a dummy to her. As if I had not hands full, arms full, and ears full, Dick must needs wake up and pitch head foremost out of the cradle, and turn a double summerset before he landed upside down on the floor, whereupon he lifted up his voice, and the concert grew lively. I took him under one arm, so, and laid Missy over my shoulder, and it struck me I would join the chorus in self defence, so I opened with all my might on 'Hold the Fort'; but great Tecumseh! I only insulted them both, and finding my fifth fiddle was nowhere in the fray, I feared Jarvis would hear the howling and ring the alarm bell, so I just sat down. I spread out Dick in a soft place, where he could not bump his brains out, and laying my lady across my lap, I held her down by main force, while she screamed till she was black in the face. If you had not come just when you did, I should have turned gray and cross-eyed. Hello, Missy! If she is not cooing and laughing! Little vixen! Oh! but—'lambs'!—I believe they are! Hereafter tend your own flock; and in preference I will herd young panthers."
He wiped his forehead where the perspiration stood in drops, and watched with amazement the sudden lull in the tempest.
Clasped in her mother's arms, the baby smiled and gurgled, and Dick, drying his eyes on the maternal bosom, showed the exact spot where she must kiss his bruised head.
"Ned, what have you done? This baby's hair is dripping wet, and so is the neck of her dress."
"Serves her right, too. I sprinkled her, that's all."
"Sprinkled her! Have you lost your senses?"
"Shouldn't wonder if I had; people in bedlam are apt to be crazy. Yes, I sprinkled Missy, because she turned so black in the face, I thought she was strangling; and my step-mother always sprinkled me when I had a fit of tantrums. But let me tell you, Missy will never be a zealous Baptist, she doesn't take to water kindly."
"When I want my children step-mothered I will let you know. Give me that towel, and baby's woollen cap hanging on the knob of the bureau. Bless her precious heart! if she does not keep you up all night, with the croup, you may thank your stars."
"Susie, just tell me how you tame them, so that next time—"
"Next time, sir, I shall not trust you. I just love them, and they know it; that is what tames the whole world."
Edward Singleton stooped over his wife, and kissed her rosy cheek.
"Little woman, what luck had you in No. 19?"
"The best I could wish. I have saved that poor girl from brain-fever, I hope."
"How did you manage it?"
"Just simply because I am a flesh and blood woman, and not a blundering, cast-iron man."
"How does she seem now?"
"She has had a good, hearty spell of wholesome crying; no hysterics, mind you, but floods of tears; and now she is sound asleep with her head on the altar railing, in the chapel. I locked her up there, and here is the key. When she wakes, I want her brought up here, put in that room yonder, and left entirely to me, until her trial is over. I never do things half way, Ned, and you need not pucker your eyebrows, for I will be responsible for her. I have put my hand to the plough, and you are not to meddle with the lines, till I finish my furrow."
In one of the "outhouses" which constituted the servants' quarters, in that which common parlance denominated the "back-yard" at "Elm Bluff," an old negro woman sat smoking a pipe.
The room which she had occupied for more than forty years, presented a singular melange of incongruous odds and ends, the flotsam of a long term of service, where the rewards, if intrinsically incommensurate, were none the less invaluable, to the proud recipient. The floor was covered by a faded carpet, once the pride of the great drawing-room, but the velvet pile had disappeared beneath the arched insteps and high heels of lovely belles and haughty beaux, and the scarlet feathers and peacock plumes that originally glowed on the brilliant buff ground, were no longer distinguishable.
An old-fashioned piece of furniture, coeval with diamond shoe-buckles, ruffled shirts and queues, a brass bound mahogany chiffonier, with brass handles and tall brass feet representing cat claws, stood in one corner; and across the top was stretched a rusty purple velvet strip, bordered with tarnished gilt gimp and fringe, a fragment of the cover which belonged to the harp on which General Darrington's grandmother had played.
The square bedstead was a marvel in size and massiveness, and the heavy mahogany posts nearly black with age, and carved like the twisted strands of a rope, supported a tester lined with turkey-red pleatings, held in the centre by the talons of a gilt spread-eagle. So tall was the bed, that three steps were required to ascend it, and the space thus left between the mahogany and the floor, was hidden by a valance of white dimity, garnished with wide cotton fringe. Over this spacious place of repose, a patchwork quilt of the "rising sun" pattern displayed its gaudy rays, resembling some sprawling octopus, rather than the face of Phoebus.
The contents of a wide mantel board flounced with fringed dimity, (venerable prototype of macrame and Arrasene lambrequins), would have filled with covetousness the soul of the bric-a-brac devotee; and graced the counters of Sypher.
There were burnished brass candle-sticks, with extinguishers in the shape of prancing griffins, and snuffers of the same metal, fashioned after the similitude of some strange and presumably extinct saurian; and a Dresden china shepherdess, whose shattered crook had long since disappeared, peeped coquettishly through the engraved crystal of a tall candle shade at the bloated features of a mandarin, on a tea-pot with a cracked spout—that some Darrington, stung by the gad-fly of travel, had brought to the homestead from Nanking. A rich blue glass vase poised on the back of a bronze swan, which had lost one wing and part of its bill in the combat with time, hinted at the rainbow splendors of its native Prague, and bewailed the captivity that degraded its ultra-marine depths into a receptacle for cut tobacco.
The walls, ceiled with curled pine planks, were covered with a motley array of pasted and tacked pictures; some engraved, many colored, and ranging in comprehensiveness of designs, from Bible scenes cut from magazines, to "riots" in illustrated papers; and even the garish glory of circus and theatre posters.
In one corner stood an oak spinning-wheel, more than centenarian in age, fallen into hopeless desuetude, but gay with the strings of scarlet pepper pods hung up to dry, and twined among its silent spokes. On a trivet provided with lizard feet that threatened to crawl away, rested a copper kettle bereft of its top, once the idol of three generations of Darringtons, to whom it had liberally dispensed "hot water tea," in the blessed dead and embalmed era of nursery rule and parental power; now eschewed with its despised use, and packed to the brim with medicinal "yarbs," bone-set, horse mint, life everlasting, and snake-root.
In front of the fire which roared and crackled in the cavernous chimney, "Mam' Dyce" rocked slowly, enjoying her clay pipe, and meditatively gazing up at an engraved portrait of "Our First President," suspended on the wall. It was appropriately framed in black, and where the cord that held it was twined around a hook, a bow and streamers of very brown and rusty crape fluttered, when a draught entered the apartment.
Obese in form, and glossy black in complexion, "Mam' Dyce" retained in old age the scrupulous neatness which had characterized her youth, when promoted to the post of seamstress and ladies' maid, she had ruled the servants' realm at "Elm Bluff" with a sway as autocratic as that of Catherine over the Muscovites. Her black calico dress, donned as mourning for her master, was relieved by a white apron tied about the ample waist; a snowy handkerchief was crossed over the vast bosom, and a checked white and black turban skilfully wound in intricate folds around her gray head, terminated in a peculiar knot, which was the pride of her toilet. A beautiful spotted pointer dog with ears like brown satin, was lying asleep near the fire, but suddenly he lifted his head, rose, stretched himself and went to the door. A moment later it opened, and the whilom major-domo, Abednego, came in; put his stick in one corner, hung his hat on a wooden peg, and approached the fireplace.
"Well, ole man; you know I tole you so."
"You wimmen would ruther say that, than eat pound cake. Supposin' you did tell me, what's the upshot?"
"That gimlet-eyed weasel is snuffing round you and me; but we won't turn out to be spring chickens, ready picked."
"Which is to signify that Miss Angerline smells a mouse? Don't talk parables, Dyce. What's she done now?"
"She is hankering after that hankchiff. 'Pears to me, if she only went on four legs 'sted of two, she would sell high for a bloodhound."
"Great Nebuckadanzer! How did she find out?"
"Don't ax me; ax the witches what she has in cahoot. I always tole you, she had the eyes of a cunjor, and she has sarched it out. Says she saw you when you found it; which ain't true. Eavesdrapping is her trade; she was fotch up on it, and her ears fit a key-hole, like a bung plugs a barrel. She has eavesdrapped that hankchiff chat of our'n somehow. Wuss than that, Bedney, she sot thar this evening and faced me down, that I was hiding something else; that I picked up something on the floor and hid it in my bosom, after the crowner's inquess. Sez I: 'Well, Miss Angerline, you had better sarch me and be done with it, if you are the judge, and the jury, and the crowner, and the law, and have got the job to run this case.' Sez she, a-squinting them venomous eyes of her'n, till they looked like knitting needles red hot: 'I leave the sarching to be done by the cunstable—when you are 'rested and handcuffed for 'betting of murder.' Then my dander riz. Sez I, 'Crack your whip and go ahead! You know how, seeing you is the offspring of a Yankee overseer, what my marster, Gin'l Darrington, had 'rested for beating one of our wimen, on our 'Bend' plantation. You and your pa is as much alike, as two shrivelled cow peas out'en one pod. Fetch your cunstable, and help yourselves.'"
Dyce rose, knocked the ashes out of her pipe, and stood like a dusky image of an Ethiopian Bellona.
"Drat your servigerous tongue! Now the fat's in the fire, to be sho! Ever since I tuck you for better for wuss, I have been trying to larn you 'screshun! and I might as well 'a wasted my time picking a banjo for a dead jackass tu dance by; for you have got no more 'screshun than old Eve had, in confabulating with the old adversary! Why couldn't you temperlize? Sassing that white 'oman, is a aggervating mistake."
Under ordinary circumstances, Bedney and Dyce prided themselves on the purity of their diction, and they usually abstained from plantation dialect; but when embarrassed, frightened or excited, they invariably relapsed into the lingo of the "Quarters."
"Hush! What's that? A screech owull! Bedney, turn your pocket."
With marvellous swiftness she plunged her hand into her dress pocket, and turned it wrong side out, scattering the contents—thimble, thread, two "scalybarks," and some "ground peas" over the floor. Then stooping, she slipped off one shoe, turned it upside down, and hung it thus on a horseshoe fastened to the mantel board.
"Just lem'me know when you have appinted to hold your sarching, and I will make it convenient to have bizness consarning that bunch of horgs and cattle, I am raising on shares in the 'Bend' plantation: and you can have your sarching frolic," said Bedney, too angry to heed the superstitious rites.
Dyce made a warning gesture, and listened intently.
"I am a-thinking you will be chief cook and bottle-washer at that sarching, for the appintment is at hand. Don't you hear Pilot baying the cunstable?"
She sank into her rocking-chair, picked up a gray yarn sock, and began to knit unconcernedly; but in a significant tone, she added, nodding her head:
"Hold your own hand, Bedney; don't be pestered about mine. I'll hoe my row; you 'tend to yourn."
Then she leaned back, plying her knitting needles, and began to chant: "Who will be the leader when the Bridegroom comes?"
Hearing the knock on the door, her voice swelled louder, and Bedney, the picture of perplexity, stood filling his pipe, when the bolt was turned, and a gentleman holding a whip and wearing a long overcoat entered the room.
"Good evening, Bedney. Are you and Dyce holding a camp meeting all by yourselves? I hallooed at the gate till your dog threatened to devour me, and I had to scare him off with my buggy whip."
"Why, how'dy, Mars Alfred? I am mighty glad to see you! Seems like old times, to shake hands with you in my cabin. Lem'me take off your overcoat, sir, and gim'me your hat, and make yourself comfortable, here by the jam of the chimbly."
"No, Bedney, I can't spare the time, and I only want a little business matter settled before I get back to town to my office. Thank you, Dyce, this is an old-time rocker sure enough. It is a regular 'Sleepy Hollow.'"
Mr. Churchill pushed back his hat, and held his gloved hand toward the fire.
"Bedney, I want to see that handkerchief you found in your master's room, the day after he was murdered."
"What hankchuf, Marse Alfred? I done tole everything I know, to the Crowner's inquess."
"I dare say you did; but something was found afterward. I want to see it."
"Who has been villifying of me? You have knowed me ever since you was knee-high to a duck, and I—."
"Nobody has vilified you, but Miss Dobbs saw you examining something, which she says you pushed up your coat sleeve. She thinks it was a handkerchief, but it may have been valuables. Now it is my duty, as District Solicitor, to discover and prosecute the person who killed your master, and you ought to render me every possible assistance. Any unwillingness to give your testimony, or surrender the articles found, will cast suspicion on you, and I should be sorry to have you arrested."
"Fore Gord, Marse Alfred, I—"
"Own up, husband. You did find a hankchef. You see, Marse Alfred, we helped to raise that poor young gal's mother; and Bedney and me was 'votedly attached to our young Mistiss, Miss Ellie, and we thought ole Marster was too hard on her, when she run off with the furrin fiddler; so when this awful 'fliction fell upon us and everybody was cusing Miss Ellie's child of killing her own grandpa, we couldn't believe no such onlikely yarn, and Bedney and me has done swore our vow, we will stand by that poor young creetur, for her ma's sake; for our young mistiss was good to us, and our heart strings was 'rapped round her. We does not intend, if we can help it, to lend a hand in jailing Miss Ellie's child, and so, after the Crowner had 'liceted all the facts as he said, and the verdict was made up, Bedney and me didn't feel no crampings in our conscience, about holding our tongues. Another reason why we wanted to lay low in this hiere bizness, was that we didn't hanker after sitting on the anxious seats of witnesses in the court-house; and being called ongodly thieves, and perjured liars, and turned wrong side out by the lie-yers, and told our livers was white, and our hearts blacker than our skins. Marse Alfred, Bedney and me are scared of that court; what you call the law, cuts curous contarabims sometimes, and when the broad axe of jestice hits, there is no telling whar the chips will fly; it's wuss than hull-gull, or pitching heads and tails. You are a lie-yer, Marse Alfred, and you know how it is yourself; and I beg your pardon, sir, for slighting the perfession; but when I was a little gal, I got my scare of lie-yers, and it has stuck to me like a kuckleburrow. One Christmas eve jest before ole Marster got married, he had a egg-nog party; and a lot of gentlemen was standing 'round the table in the dining-room. One of 'em was ole Mr. Dunbar, Marse Lennox' father, and he axed ole Marster if he had saved that game rooster for him, as he promised, Marster told him he was very sorry, but some rogue had done gone and burnt some sulphur the week before in his henhouse, and bagged that 'dentical rooster. Presently Mr. Dunbar axed if Marster would let him have one of the blue hen's roosters, if he would catch the rogue for him before midnight. Of course Marster said he would. Mr. Dunbar (Marse Lennox' pa), he was practicing law then, had a pot full of smut on the bottom, turned upside down on the dining-room flo', and he and Marster went out to the hen-'ouse and got a dominicker rooster and shoved him under the pot. Then they rung the bell, and called every darkey on the place into the dining-room, and made us stand in a line. I was a little gal then, only so high, but I followed my daddy in the house, and I never shall disremember that night, 'cause it broke up our home preachment. Mr. Dunbar made a speech, and the upshot of it was, that every darkey was to walk past the pot and rub his finger in the smut; and he swore a solemn oath, that when the pusson that stole that fine game rooster, touched the pot, the dominicker rooster would crow. As Marster called our names, we every one marched out and rubbed the pot, and when all of us had tried, the rooster hadn't crowed. Mr. Dunbar said there was some mistake somewhere, and he made us step up and show hands, and make prints on his hankcher; and lo, and behold! one darkey had not touched the pot; his forefinger was clean; so Mr. Dunbar says, 'Luke, here is your thief?' and shore 'nuff, it was our preacher, and he owned up. I never forgot that trick, and from that day 'till now, I have been more scared of a lie-yer, than I am of a mad dog. They is the only perfession that the Bible is agin, for you know they jawed our Lord hisself, and he said, 'Woe! woe! to you lie-yers.' Now, Marse Alfred, if you have made up your mind you are gwine to have that hankcher, it will be bound to come; for if it was tied to a millstone and drapped in the sea, you lie-yers would float it into court; so Bedney, jest perduce what you found."
"That is right, Dyce; I am glad your opinion of my profession has forced you to such a sensible conclusion. Come, Bedney, no balking now."
Perplexed by Dyce's tactics, Bedney stood irresolute, with his half-filled pipe slipping from his fingers; and he stared at his wife for a few seconds, hoping that some cue would be furnished.
"Bedney, there's no use in being cantankerous. If you won't perduce it, I will."
Plunging her hand into the blue glass bowl, she pushed aside the tobacco, and extracted a key; then crossed the room, lifted the valance of the patriarchal bed, and dragged out a small, old-fashioned hair trunk, ornamented with stars and diamonds of brass tack heads. Drawing it across the floor, she sat down near Mr. Churchill, and bending over, unlocked and opened it. After removing many articles of clothing, and sundry heirlooms, she lifted from the bottom a bundle, which she laid on her lap, and edging her chair closer to the Solicitor, proceeded to unfold the contents. The outside covering was a richly embroidered Canton crape shawl, originally white, now yellow as old ivory; but when this was unwrapped, there appeared only an ordinary sized brown gourd, with a long and singularly curved handle, as crooked as a ram's horn. Bending one of her knitting needles into a hook, Dyce deftly inserted it in the neck, where it joined the bowl, and after manoeuvring a few seconds, laid down the needle, and with the aid of her thumb and forefinger slowly drew out a long roll, tightly wrapped with thread. Unwinding it, she shook the roll, and a small, gray object, about two inches long, dropped into her lap. Mr. Churchill sat leaning a little forward, as if intent on Dyce's movements, but his elbow rested on the arm of the rocking chair, and holding his hand up to screen his face from the blaze of the fire, he was closely watching Bedney. When Dyce shook out and held up a faded, dingy blue silk handkerchief, the lawyer noted a sudden twinkle in the old man's eyes, but no other feature moved, and he stooped to take a coal of fire from the hearth.
"There is the hankchuf that Bedney found. But mebbe you don't know what this is, that I wrapped up in it, to bring us good luck?"
She spread the handkerchief over his knee, and held up the small gray furry object, which had fallen from its folds.
"Rabbit's foot? Let me see; yes, that is the genuine left hind foot. I know all about it, because when my regiment was ordered to the front, my old colored Mammy—Ma'm Judy—who nursed me, sewed one just like that, inside the lining of my coat skirt. But, Dyce, that rabbit's foot was not worth a button; for the very first battle I was in, a cannon ball killed my horse under me, and carried away my coat tail—rabbit's foot and all. Don't pin your faith to left hind feet, they are fatal frauds. You are positive, this is the handkerchief Bedney found? It smells of asafoetida and camphor, and looks like it had recently been tied around somebody's sore throat."
"Marse Alfred, I will swear on a stack of Bibles high as the 'Piscopal church steeple, that Bedney Darrington gim'me that same blue hankcher, and he said he found it. I wasn't with him when he found it, but I hardly think he would 'a stole a' old rag like that. I have perduced it! now if you want to sarch behind it, you must tackle Bedney."
She resumed her knitting and her lips closed like the spring of a steel trap.
"Dyce, I haven't heard the rooster crow yet. Somebody has fought shy of the pot. See here, I am in earnest now, and I will give you both a friendly word of warning. Your actions are so suspicious, that unless you produce the real article you found, I shall be obliged to send you to jail, and try you for the murder. How do I know that you and Bedney are not the guilty parties, instead of General Darrington's granddaughter? This soiled rag will impose neither upon me, nor upon the court, and I give you five minutes to put into my possession the real genuine handkerchief. I shall know it when I see it, because it is white, with red spots on the border."
"Paddle your own 'dug out,' Bedney, and show your s'creshun. If Marse Alfred wants to set the red-eyed hounds of the Law on an innocent 'oman, let him blow his horn."
She knitted assiduously, and looked composedly at her husband, whose lower jaw had suddenly fallen, while his eyelids blinked nervously, as though attacked by St. Vitus' dance.
"Only five minutes, Bedney."
Mr. Churchill took out his watch, and held it open.
"You see, Marse Alfred, I—"
"I don't see anything but an infernal fraud you two have planned. Only three minutes more. There is a constable waiting at the gate, and if he can not persuade you to—"
"Bedney, step and fetch him in, and let Marse Alfred see the sarching job done up all right."
"No, I don't hunt foxes that way. Instead of searching this cabin, we will just march you both instanter out of these comfortable quarters, and let you try how soft the beds are, at the 'State boarding-house.' You will sleep cold on iron bunks, and miss your feathers and your crazy quilts. Time's up."
He closed his watch, with a snap, and rose as he returned it to his pocket.
"Hold on, Marse Alfred! My head ain't hard enough to run it plum into a wolf's jaws. I ain't 'sponsible for nobody's acts but my own, and if Dyce have committed a pius fraud, in this here hank'cher bizness, to screen Miss Ellie's child, why, you see yourself, I had no hand in it. I did find that blue 'rag,' as you seen fit to call it, but it was nigh on to twenty years ago, when I pulled it out of the breast pocket of a dead Yankee officer, we found lying across a cannon, what my old Marster's regiment captured at the battle of Manassas. I gin it to my wife as a screw-veneer o' the war and she have treasured it accordin'. You are a married man yourself, Marse Alfred, and you are obleedged to know that wedlock is such a tight partnership, that it is an awfully resky thing for a man to so much as bat his eyes, or squint 'em, toward the west, when the wife of his bosom has set her'n to the east. I have always 'lowed Dyce her head, 'pecially in jokes like that one she was playing on you just now, 'cause St. John the Baptist said a man must forsake father and mother and cleave unto his wife; but conjugular harness is one thing, and the law is another, and I don't hanker after forsaking my pine-knot fire, and feather bed, to cleave unto jail bars, and handcuffs. I see you are tired of Dyce's jokes, and you mean bizzness; and I don't intend to consume no more of your valuable solicitous time. Dyce, fetch me that plank bottom cher to stand on."
"Fetch it yourself. Paddling your own canoe, means headin' for the mill dam."
Bedney hastened to procure the designated chair, which he mounted in front of the mantel piece, and thence reaching up to the portrait of President Lincoln, took it carefully down from the hook. With the blade of his pocket-knife, he loosened some tacks which secured the thin pine slats at the back of the picture, and removed them. He took everything from the frame, and blank dismay seized him, when the desired object was nowhere visible.
"Marse Alfred, I swear I tacked that hank'cher in the back of this here portrait, between the pasteboard and the brown paper, only yestiddy; and 'fore Gord! I haint seen it since."
Grasping his wife's shoulder, he shook her, until her tall turban quivered and bent over like the Tower of Pisa, and Mr. Churchill saw that in his unfeigned terror, drops of perspiration broke out on his wrinkled forehead.
"Have you turned idjut, that you want us both to be devoured by the roarin' lion of the Law? My mammy named me Bedney, not Dani-yell, and she had oughter, for Gord knows, you have kept me in a fiery furnace ever since I tuck you for better for wurser, mostly wurser. I want that hank'cher, and you'd better believe—I want it quick. I found it, and I'm gwine to give it up; and you have got no right to jeppardy my life, if you are fool enough to resk your own stiff neck. Gim'me that hank'cher! Fantods is played out. I would ruther play leap frog over a buzz-saw than—than—pester and rile Marse Alfred, and have the cunstable clawing my collar."
"You poor, pitiful, rascally, cowardly creetur! Whar's that oath you done swore, to help 'fend Miss Ellie's child? And you a deacon, high in the church! If I had found that hank'cher, I would hide it, till Gabriel's horn blows; and I would go to jail or to Jericho; and before I would give testimony agin my dear young Mistiss's poor friendless gal, I would chaw my tongue into sassage meat. That's the diffunce between a palavering man full of 'screshun, and a 'oman who means what she says; and will stand by her word, if it rains fire and brimstone. Betrayin' and denying the innercent, has been men's work, ever since the time of Judas and Peter. Now, Marse Alfred, Bedney did tack the hank'cher inside the portrait of President Linkum, 'cause we thought that was the saftest place, but I knowed the house would be sarched, so I jest hid it in a better place. Since he ain't showed no more backbone than a saucer of blue-mange, I shall have to give it up; but if I had found it, you would never set your two eyes on it, while my head is warm."
She stooped, lifted the wide hem of her black calico skirt, and proceeded to pick out the stitches which held it securely. When she had ripped the thread about a quarter of a yard, she raised the edge of the unusually deep hem, and drew out a white handkerchief with a colored border.
Bedney snatched it from her, and handed it to the Solicitor, who leaned close to the fire, and carefully examined it. As he held it up by the corners, his face became very grave and stern, and he sighed.
"This is evidently a lady's handkerchief, and is so important in the case, that I shall keep it until the trial is over. Bedney, come to my office by nine o'clock to-morrow, as the Grand Jury may ask you some questions. Good bye, Dyce, shake hands; for I honor your loyalty to your poor young mistress, and her unfortunate child. You remind me of my own old mammy. Dear good soul, she was as true as steel."
As Mr. Churchill left the house, Bedney accompanied him to the gate. When he returned, the door was locked. In vain he demanded admittance; in vain tried the windows; every entrance was securely barred, and though he heard Dyce moving about within, she deigned no answer to his earnest pleadings, his vehement expostulations, or his fierce threats of summary vengeance. The remainder of that night was spent by Pilot and his irate master in the great hay bin of the "Elm Bluff" stables. When the sun rose next morning, Bedney rushed wrathful as Achilles, to resent his wrongs. The door of his house stood open; a fire glowed on the well swept hearth, where a pot of boiling coffee and a plate of biscuit welcomed him; but Dyce was nowhere visible, and a vigorous search soon convinced him she had left home on some pressing errand.
Two hours later, Mrs. Singleton opened the door of the small room adjoining her own bedchamber, to which she had insisted upon removing the prisoner.
Beryl stood leaning against the barred window, and did not even turn her head.
"Here is a negro woman, begging to see you for a few moments. She says she is an old family servant of General Darrington's."
Standing with her back toward the door, the prisoner put out one hand with a repellent gesture:
"I have surely suffered enough from General Darrington and his friends; and I will see nobody connected with that fatal place, which has been a curse to me."
"Just as you please; but old Auntie here, says she nursed your mother, and on that account wants to see you."
Without waiting for permission, Dyce darted past the warden's wife, into the room, and almost before Beryl was aware of her presence, stood beside her.
"Are you Miss Ellie's daughter?"
Listlessly the girl turned and looked at her, and Dyce threw her arms around her slender waist, and falling on her knees hid her face in Beryl's dress, sobbing passionately. In the violence of her emotion, she rocked back and forth, swaying like a reed in some fierce blast the tall form, to whom she clung.
"Oh, my lovely! my lovely! To think you should be shut up here! To see Miss Ellie's baby jailed, among the off-scourings of the earth! Oh, you beautiful white deer! tracked and tore to pieces by wolves, and hounds, and jackalls! Oh, honey! Just look straight at me, like you was facing your accusers before the bar of God, and tell me you didn't kill your grandpa. Tell me you never dipped your pretty hands in ole Marster's blood."
Tears were streaming down Dyce's cheeks.
"If you knew my mother, how can you think it possible her child could commit an awful crime?"
"Oh, God knows—I don't know what to think! 'Peers to me the world is turned upside down. You see, honey, you are half and half; and while I am perfectly shore of Miss Ellie's half of you, 'cause I can always swear to our side, the Darrington in you, I can't testify about your pa's side; he was a—a—"
"He was as much a gentleman, as my mother was a lady; and I would rather be his daughter, than call a king my father."
"I believe you! There ain't no drop of scrub blood in you, as I can see, and if you ain't thoroughbred, 'pearances are deceitful. I loved your ma; I loved the very ground her little feet trod on. I fed her out of my own plate many a time, 'cause she thought her Mammy's vittils was sweeter than what Mistiss 'lowed her to have; and she have slept in my bosom, and these arms have carried her, and hugged her, and—and—oh, Lord God A'mighty! it most kills me to see you, her own little baby here! In this awful, cussed den of thieves and villi-yans! Oh, honey! for God's sake, just gin me some 'surance you are as pure as you look; just tell me your soul is a lily, like your face."
Beryl stooped, put her hand on the turbaned head, and bending it back, so as to look down into the swimming eyes, answered:
"If I had died when I was a month old, my baby soul would not have faced God any more innocent of crime then, than I am to-day. I had no more to do with taking General Darrington's money and his life, than the archangels in Heaven."
"Bless God! Now I am satisfied. Now I see my way clare. But it sets my blood afire to see you here; it's a burning shame to put my dear young Mistiss' child in this beasts' cage. I can't help thinking of that poor beautiful white deer, what Marster found crippled, down at our 'Bend' Plantation, that some vagabond had shot. Marster fotch it up home, and of all the pitifulist sights!"
Dyce had risen, and covering her face with her white apron, she wept for some minutes.
"Are you not the wife of Bedney, who saved my mother's life, when the barn burned?"
"Yes, honey, I am Mam' Dyce, and if I am spared, I will try to save your'n. That is what has brung me here. You are 'cused of the robb'ry and the murder, and you have denied it in the court; but chile, the lie-yers are aworking day and night fur to hang you, and little is made of much, on your side, and much is spun out of little, on theirn. They are more cunning than foxes, and bloodthirstier than panters, and they no more git tired than the spiders, that spin and piece a web as fast as you break it. Three nights ago, I got down on my knees, and I kissed a little pink morocco slipper what your Ma wore the day when she took her first step from my arm to her own mother's knees, and I swore a solemn oath, if I could help free Miss Ellie's child, I would do it. Now I want to ask you one thing. Did you lose anything that day you come to our house, and had the talk with old Marster?"
"Nothing, but my peace and happiness."
"Are you shore you didn't drap your hank'cher?"
"Yes, I am sure I did not, because I wrapped it around some chrysanthemums I gathered as I went away."
"Well, a lady's hank'cher was found in Marster's room, and it did smell of chloryform. Bedney picked it up, and we said nothing and laid low, and hid the thing; but that Godforsaken and predestinated sinner, Miss Angeline, kept sarching and eavesdrapping, and set the lie-yers on the scent, and they have 'strained Bedney on peril of jailing him, to perduce it. When it got into their claws, and I thought it might belonk to you, my teeth chattered, and I felt like the back of my frock was a ice-warehouse. Now, honey, can you testify before God and man, that hank'cher ain't yourn?"
"I certainly can. I had only three handkerchiefs with me when I left home, and I have them still. Here is one, the other two lie yonder. But that handkerchief is worth everything; because it must belong to the vile wretch who committed the crime, and it will help to prove my innocence. Where is it?"
"The Grand Jury is setting on it."
Here Dyce looked cautiously around, and tip-toed to the door; finding it ajar, closed it, then stole back. Putting her lips close to Beryl's ear, she whispered:
"Did you lose a sleeve button?"
"No. I did not wear any."
"Thank God! I feel like all the bricks in the court-house was lifted off my heart, and flung away. I was in fear and trimbling about that button, 'cause I picked it up, just under the aidge of the rug, where ole Marster fell, when he got his death blow; and as sure as the coming of the Judgment Day, it was drapped by the pusson who killed him. I was so afeared it might belonk to you, that I have been on the anxious seat ever since I found it; and I concluded the safest way was to bring it here to you. I am scared to keep it at home, 'cause them yelping wolves as wears the sheepskins of Justice, are on my tracks. I would never give it up, if I was chopped to mince meat; but Bedney ain't got no more than enuff backbone for half of a man, and the lie-yers discomfrizzle him so, I could not trust him, when it comes to the scratch. Now that button is worth a heap, and I am precious careful of it. Look here."
She took from her pocket two large pods of red pepper, which looked exactly alike, but the end of one had been cut out around the stem, then neatly fitted back, and held in place by some colorless cement. Beckoning Beryl to follow, Dyce went closer to the window, and with the aid of her teeth drew out the stem. Into her palm rolled a circular button of some opaque reddish-brown substance, resembling tortoise shell, and enamelled with gilt bunches of grapes, and inlaid leaves of mother-of-pearl. Across the top, embossed in gilt letters ran the word "Ricordo."
The old woman lifted her open palm, and as Beryl saw the button, a gasping, gurgling sound broke from her. She snatched it, stared at it. Then the Gorgon head slipped through her fingers, she threw herself against the window, shook the iron bar frantically; and one desperate cry seemed to tear its way through her clinched teeth, over her ashy lips:
"Oh, Mother! Mother—Mother! You are nailing me to a cross."
Nowhere in the vast vista of literature is there an episode more exquisitely pathetic than that serene picture of the Grove at Colonus, sacred to the "Semnai Theai;" where the dewy freshness, the floral loveliness, the spicery, and all the warbling witchery of nature pay tribute to the Avenging Goddesses.
Twenty-two centuries have sifted their dust over the immortal figures seated on the marble bench within the precincts consecrated to the Eumenides, but in deathless tenacity, the rich aroma of Sophocles' narcissus, and the soft crocus light linger there still; while from thickets of olive, nightingales break their hearts in song, as thrilling as the melody that smote the ears of doomed and dying Oedipus.
So in all ages, we, born thralls of grief, lift streaming eyes, and chant elegies to stony-hearted Mother-Earth, but her starry orbs shine on, undimmed by sympathetic tears; her smiling lips show only sunshine in their changeless dimples, and her myriad fingers sweeping the keys of the Universal Organ, drown our De Profundis in the rhythmic thunders of her Jubilate. Wailing children of Time, we crouch and tug at the moss-velvet, daisy-sprinkled skirts of the mighty Mater, praying some lullaby from her to soothe our pain; but human woe frets not her sublime serenity, as deaf as desert sphinx, she fronts the future.
Some echo of this maddening mystery sounded in the ears of the lonely woman, who clutched the bars of her dungeon, and stared through its iron lattice, at the peaceful, happy, outside world. At her feet lay X—-, divided by the silvery river, which, here rushed with arrowy swiftness under the gray stone arches of the bridge, and there widened into glassy lakelets, as if weary from the mad plunge over a distant rocky ledge in mid-stream, whence the dull steady roar of the "falls" thrilled the atmosphere, like the "tremolo" in a dim cathedral, where fading daylight dies on painted apse and gilded pipes. As a chessboard the squares of buildings were spread out, defined by wide streets, where humanity and its traffic sped, busy as ants. In a green plot, the sombre facade of the court-house surmounted by an eyeless stone statue of Justice, frowned on the frivolous throng below; and along the verge of the common, marble fingers pointed up to the heaven of blue that bent above "God's Acre"; while now and then, bulbous towers, and glittering steeple vanes, caught the sunshine on their polished crests. Beyond the whole, and bounding the valley filled with a billowy sea of bluish-green pine tops, rose a wooded eminence, wearing still its Persian robe of autumn foliage, and on its brow the colonnade and chimneys of "Elm Bluff" blotted the southern sky, like a threatening phantom.
To-day forest, stream, earth and sky, appeared branded with one fatal word, as if the world's wide page held only "Ricordo! Ricordo!"
Beryl shut her eyes and groaned; but the scene merely shifted to a dell under the shadow of Carrara hills, where olives set "Ricordo" among their silver leaves; and lemons painted "Ricordo" in their pale gold; and scarlet pomegranates and nodding violets, burning anemones and tender green of trailing maiden-hair ferns all blazoned "Ricordo."
The fierce tide of wrath, that indignation and her keen sense of outraged innocence had poured like molten lead through her throbbing arteries, was oozing sluggishly, congealing under the awful spell of that one word "Ricordo." Hitherto, the shame of the suspicion, the degradation of the imprisonment had caught and empaled her thoughts; but by degrees, these became dwarfed by the growing shadow of a possibly ignominious death, which spread its sable pinions along the rosy dawn of her womanhood, and devoured the glorious sun of her high hopes. The freezing gloom was creeping nearer, and to-day she could expect no succor, save by one avenue.
Islam believes that only the cimeter edge of Al Sirat divides Paradise from perdition. Beryl realized that in her peril, she trod an equally narrow snare, over yawning ruin, holding by a single thread of hope that handkerchief. Weak natures shiver and procrastinate, shunning confirmation of their dread; but to this woman had come a frantic longing to see, to grasp, to embrace the worst. She was in a death grapple with appalling fate, and that handkerchief would decide the issue.
Physical exhaustion was following close upon the mental agony that had stretched her on the rack, for so many days and nights. To sit still was impossible, yet in her wandering up and down the narrow room, she reeled, and sometimes staggered against the wall, dizzy from weakness, to which she would not succumb.
Human help was no more possible for her, than for Moses, when he climbed Nebo to die; and alone with her God, the brave soul wrestled. Wearily she leaned against the window bars, twining her hot fingers around them, pressing her forehead to the cold barrier; and everywhere "Ricordo" stabbed her eyes like glowing steel.
The door opened, some words were uttered in an undertone, then the bolt clicked in its socket, and Mr. Dunbar approached the window. Mechanically Beryl glanced over her shoulder, and a shiver crept across her.
"I believe you know me. Dunbar is my name."
He stood at her side, and they looked into each other's eyes, and measured lances. Could this worn, pallid woman, be the same person who in the fresh vigor of her youthful beauty, had suggested to him on the steps of "Elm Bluff," an image of Hygeia? Here insouciante girlhood was dead as Manetho's dynasties, and years seemed to have passed over this auburn head since he saw it last. Human faces are Nature's highest type of etchings, and mental anguish bites deeper than Dutch mordant; heart-ache is the keen needle that traces finest lines.
"Yes, I know you only too well. You are Tiberius."
Her luminous deep eyes held his at bay, and despite his habitual, haughty equipoise, her crisp tone of measureless aversion stung him.
"Sarcasm is an ill-selected arbiter between you and me; and your fate for all time, your future weal or woe is rather a costly shuttlecock to be tossed to and fro in a game of words. I do not come to bandy phrases, and in view of your imminent peril, I cannot quite understand your irony."
"Understand me? You never will. Did the bloodthirsty soul of Tiberius comprehend the stainless innocence of the victims he crushed for pastime on the rocks below Villa Jovis? There is but one arbiter for your hatred, the hang-man, to whom you would so gladly hurry me. Hunting a woman to the gallows is fit sport for men of your type."
Unable to withdraw his gaze from the magnetism of hers, he frowned and bit his lip. Was she feigning madness, or under the terrible nervous strain, did her mind wander?
"Your language is so enigmatical, that I am forced to conclude you resort to this method of defence. The exigencies of professional duty compel me to assume toward you an attitude, as painfully embarrassing to me as it is threatening to you. Because the stern and bitter law of justice sometimes entails keen sorrow upon those who are forced to execute her decrees, is it any less obligatory upon the appointed officers to obey the solemn behests?"
"Justice! Into what a frightful mockery have such as you degraded her worship! No wonder justice fled to the stars. You are the appointed officer of a harpy screaming for the blood of the innocent. How dare you commit your crimes, raise your red hands, in the sacred name of justice? Call yourself the priest of a frantic vengeance, for whom some victim must be provided; and libel no more the attribute of Jehovah."
Scorn curled her lips, and beneath her glowing eyes, his grew restless, as panoplied in conscious innocence she seemed to defy attack.
"You evidently credit me with motives of personal animosity, which would alike disgrace my profession and my manhood. For your sake, rather than my own, I should like to remove this erroneous impression from your mind. If you could only understand—"
She threw up her hand, with an imperious gesture of disdain.
"Save your sophistries; they are wasted here. Why multiply cobwebs? I understand you. If doves have a sixth sense that warns them before they hear the hawk's cry, or discern the shadow of his circling wings, and if mice, dumb in a cat's claws, surmise the exact value of the preliminary caresses, the graceful antics, the fatal fondling of the velvet paw, so we, the prey of legal 'Justice' know instinctively what the swinging of censers, and the chanting of her high priest mean, when he draws near us. I understand you. You intend to hang me if you can."
He drew his breath with a hissing sound, and a dark flush Stained his broad smooth brow.
"On my honor as a gentleman, I came here to-day solely to—"
"Solely to assure yourself of some doubtful link you must weld into your chain; solely to plunge the scalpel of some double-edged question. If there must be an ante mortem examination, we will wait, if you please, for the legal dissection when I am stretched before the jury-box. Until then, you have no right to intrude upon the misery you have brought on an innocent woman."
They stood so near each other, that he could count the fierce throbbing of the artery in her round snowy throat, and see the shadow of her long lashes; and again some electric current flashed from her feverishly bright eyes, burning its way to the secret chambers of his selfish heart, melting the dross that ambition and greed had slowly cemented, and dropping one deathless spark into a deep adytum, of the existence of which he had never even dreamed. Unconsciously he leaned toward her, but she pressed back against the iron bars, and drew her dress aside as if shunning a leper. There was no petulance in the motion, but its significance pricked him, like a dagger point.
"It was the hope of finding you an innocent woman, that must plead my pardon for what you consider an unwarrantable 'intrusion.' Will you believe me, if I swear to you, that I have come as a friend?"
"As a friend to me? No. As a friend to General Darrington and his adopted son Prince? Yes. Oh, Tiberius! Your rosy apples are flavored like those your forefather offered Agrippina."
"Do you regard me as an unscrupulous, calculating villain, who pretending kindness, plots treachery? Do you deliberately offer me this wanton insult?"
His swart face reddened, and the fine lines of his handsome mouth hardened.
She shrank a few inches closer to the window, and compressed her lips.
"If you were a man, I should swiftly resent the affront you have thrust upon me, and suitable redress would be peculiarly sweet and welcome; but you are a defenceless and unfortunate woman, and my hands are tied. I desire to help you; you repulse me and insult my manhood. I will do my painful duty, because it is sternly and inexorably my duty; but, I wish to God, I had never set my eyes on you."
The sudden passionate ring in his voice surprised her, and she looked searchingly at him, wondering into what pitfall it was intended to lure her.
"If you had never set your eyes on me? Ah, would to God I had died ten thousand times before I encountered their evil spell! If you had never set your eyes on me? I should be now, a happy, hopeful girl, with life beckoning me like the rosy Syrian plains that smiled on the desert-weary. The world looked so bright to me that day, when first I smelled the sweet resinous pines, and dreamed of my work, and all the glory of the victory, I knew that I should win over poverty and want. I was so poor in worldly goods, but oh!—Croesus could not have bought my proud hopes! So rich, so overflowing with high hope! As I think of my feelings that day, among the primroses and pine cones, it seems a hundred years ago, and I recall the image of a girl long dead; such a proud girl; so happy in the beautiful world of the art she loved! Then some strange awful curse that had lain in wait, ambushed among the flowers I gathered that last day of my dead existence, fell upon me—I saw you! No wonder I shivered, when you met me. I saw you. Then my sun sickened and went out, and my hopes crumbled, and my youth shrivelled and perished forever; and the wide world is a rayless dungeon, and the girl Beryl is buried so deep, that the Angels of the Resurrection will never find her!—and I?—I am only a withered, disgraced woman, hurled into a den; trampled, branded; with a soul devoured by despairing bitterness, with a broken heart, a brain on fire! If you had drawn a knife across my throat, or sent a bullet through my temples, my spirit might have rested in the Beyond, and I could have forgiven that which hastened me to heaven; but you strangled my hopes, and mutilated my youth, and dishonored my father's name!—You robbed me of my stainless character, and cast me among outlaws and fiends!—Worse yet, oh! blackest of all your crimes!—you have almost throttled my faith in Christ. You have torn away my hold upon the eternal God! You are the curse of my life. You wish you had never set your eyes on me? Take courage, finish your work; the best of me is utterly dead already, and when you have taken my blood, and laid my polluted body in a convict's shallow grave, your enmity will be satiated. Then I, at least, I shall be free from my hideous curse. If there be any comfort left me, it lurks in the knowledge that when you succeed in convicting me, the same world will no longer hold us both."
Was it the fever of disease, or incipient madness that blazed in her eyes, flamed on her cheeks, and lent such thrilling cadence to her pure clear voice? Was she a consummate actress, or had he made a frightful mistake, and goaded an innocent girl to the verge of frenzy? Some occult influence seemed clouding his hitherto infallible perceptions, melting his heart, paralyzing his will. He walked up and down the floor, with his hands clasped behind him, then came close to the prisoner.
"If I have unjustly suspected and persecuted you, may God forgive me! If I have wronged you by suspicion and accusation of a crime which you did not commit, then my atonement shall be your triumphant vindication. I would give a good deal to know that your hands are as pure as they look, and innocent of theft and murder. Tell me—tell me the truth. I will save you, I will give you back all that you have lost, and tenfold more. For God's sake, for your own sake, and for mine, I entreat you to tell me the truth. Did you go back to 'Elm Bluff' that night, after I met you in the pine woods?"
His dark face was close to hers, and his keen blue eyes seemed to probe the recesses of her soul. If she answered, would the steel springs of some trap close upon her?
"I did not go back to 'Elm Bluff.' My hands, my heart, my soul are as free from crime as they were when God sent them into the world. I am innocent—innocent—innocent as any baby only a week old, lying dead in its little coffin. Innocent—but defiled, disgraced; innocent as the Lord Jesus was of the sins for which He died; but you can not save what you have destroyed. You have ruined my life."
He was a strong man, cold, collected, priding himself upon his superb physique, his nerves of steel; but as he watched and listened, he trembled, and the girl's eyes dilated, sparkled through the sudden moisture that so strangely and unexpectedly gathered in his own.
"Then you must prove the truth of your solemn words; and it was this faint hope that induced me to come here to-day. Only one circumstance stands between the Grand Jury and your indictment for murder; and time presses. Now tell me, do you know this?"
He took from his coat pocket a small parcel wrapped in paper, and tore off the covering. Beryl stood faint and dizzy, resting against the window, but erect, on guard and defiant. He shook out and held up a square of fine linen, daintily hem-stitched. Along the border ran graceful arabesques, swelling into scallops and dotted with stars, embroidered in some rich red thread; and in one corner, enclosed in a wreath of exquisitely designed fuchsias, the large, elaborately ornate capitals "B. B." were worked in fadeless scarlet scrolls to match the wreath. Above the drooping flowers, poised the red wings of a descending butterfly. Artistic instincts had outlined, and deft delicate touches filled in, with the glowing embroidery.
Did she know it? Could she ever forget that serene May day when the air was liquid gold, and the Mediterranean molten sapphire, wreathed with pearls, as the wavelets crested; when the rosy oleanders and silvery flakes of orange blossoms floated down upon the ferny cliff, where sitting by her father's side, she had drawn this design, spreading the linen on the back of her father's worn copy of Theocritus? If she lived a thousand years, would it be possible to forget the thin, almost transparent white hand, with its blue veins swollen like cords, which had gently taken the pencil from her fingers, and retouched and rounded the sweep of the curves; the dear wasted hand that she had stooped and kissed, as it corrected her work?
As on the golden background of a cherished Byzantine picture, memory held untarnished every tint and outline of that blessed day, when she and her father had looked for the last time on the sunny sea they loved so well.
Did fell fate hover, even then, in that sparkling perfumed air, and in sinister prescience trace this tangling web of threads, with grim intent to snare her unwary feet?
Savants tell us, that ages ago, in the dim dawn, primeval rain drops made their pattering print, and left it to harden on the stone pages, awaiting decipherment by human eyes and human brains, not yet
"Born of the brainless Nature, Who knew not that which she bore."
Is there an analogous iron chain linking the merest trifles, the frivolous accidents, the apparently worthless coincidences that swell the sum of what we are pleased to call the nobly independent life of the "free-agent" Man? In the matrix of time, do human tears and human blood-drops leave their record, to be conned when Nemesis holds her last assize?
As the handkerchief swayed in the lawyer's grasp, Beryl saw the red "B. B." like a bloody brand. At that instant she felt that the death clutch fastened upon her throat; that fate had cast her adrift, on the black waves of despair. In her reeling brain kaleidoscopic images danced; her father's face, the lateen sail of fishing boats rocking on blue billows, white oxen browsing amid purple iris clusters; she heard her mother's voice, her brother's gay laugh; she smelled the prussic acid fragrance of the vivid oleanders, then over all, like tongues of devouring flames, flickered "Ricordo." "B. B."
In the frenzy of her desperation she sprang forward, seized the arms that held up the fatal handkerchief, and shook the man, as if he had been an infant. Her eyes full of horror, were fixed on the scrap of linen, and a frantic cry rang from her lips.
"Father! Father! There is no hereafter for you and me! Prayer is but the mockery of fools! There is no heaven for the pure, because there is no God! No God!—to hear, to save the innocent who trusted in Him. Oh—no God!"
Mr. Dunbar dropped the handkerchief, and as the irresistible conviction of her guilt rolled back, crushing the hope he had cherished a moment before, a spasm of pain seized his heart, and with a groan that would not be repressed, he covered his eyes to shut out the vision of the despairing woman, whose doom seemed sealed. Her right hand which unconsciously clutched his left shoulder, shivered like an aspen, and he knew that for the moment she was entirely oblivious of his presence; blind to everything but the assurance of her ruin.
After all, he had made no mistake; his keen insight was well nigh infallible; but his triumph was costly. The luscious fruit of professional success left an acrid flavor; the pungent dead sea ashes sifted freely. He set his heel on the embroidered butterfly, and in his heart cursed the hour he had first seen it. His coveted bread was petrifying between his teeth.
The grasp on his shoulder relaxed, the hand fell heavily. When he looked in the face of his victim, he caught his breath at the strange, inexplicable change a few minutes had wrought. Protest and resistance had come to an end. Surrender was printed on every feature. The wild fury of the passionate struggle that convulsed her, had spent itself; and as after a violent wintry tempest the gale subsides, and the snow compassionately shrouds the scene, burning the dead sparrows, the bruised flowers, so submission laid her cold touch on this quivering face, and veiled and froze it.
From afar the sound of rushing waters seemed to smite Beryl's ears, to surge nearer, to overflow her brain. She sank suddenly to the floor, clinging with one hand to the window bar, and her auburn head fell forward on the up-lifted arm. Thinking that she had fainted, Mr. Dunbar stooped and raised her face, holding it in his palms. The eyes met his, unflinching but mournful as those of a tormented deer whom the hunters drag from worrying hounds. She writhed, freed herself from his touch; and resting against the window sill, drew a long deep breath.
"You have succeeded in your mission today. You have the only clue you needed. You have no occasion to linger. Now—will you leave me?"
He picked up the handkerchief.
"This is your handkerchief?"
She made no answer. A leaden hand was pressing upon her heart, her brain, her aching eyes.
"You have basely deceived me. You did go back that night, and you left this, to betray you. Saturated with chloroform you laid it over your grandfather's face. Load your soul with no more falsehoods. Confess the deeds of that awful night."
"I did not go back. I never saw 'Elm Bluff' after I met you. I know no more of the chloroform than you do. I have told the truth first and last, and always. I have no confession to make. I am as innocent as you are. Innocent! Innocent! You are going to hang me for a crime I did not commit. When you do, you will murder an innocent woman."
She spoke slowly, solemnly, and at intervals, as if she found it difficult to express her meaning. The passionless tone was that of one, standing where the river of death flowed close to her feet, and her beautiful face shone with the transfiguring light of conscious purity.
"Hold up your hand, and tell me this is not your handkerchief; and I will yet save you."
"It was my handkerchief, but I am innocent. Finish your work."
"How can you expect me to believe your contradictory statements?"
Wearily she turned her head, and looked at him. A strange drowsiness dimmed her vision, thickened her speech.
"I expect nothing from you—but—death."
"Will you explain how your handkerchief chanced to be found on your grandfather's pillow? Trust me, I am trying to believe you. Tell me."
In his eagerness he seized her hand, clasped it tightly, bent over her. She made no reply, and the silky black lashes sank lower, lower till they touched the violet circle suffering had worn under her eyes. Like a lily too heavy for its stem, the glossy head fell upon her breast. Her hot fingers throbbed in his palm, and when he felt her pulse, the rapid bounding tide defied his counting. Kneeling beside her, he laid the head against his shoulder.
"Are you ill? What is the matter? Speak to me."
Her parched lips unclosed, and she muttered with a sigh, like a child falling asleep after long sobbing:
She had fought against fearful odds, with sleepless nights and fasting days sapping her strength; and when the battle ended, though the will was unfaltering, physical exhaustion triumphed, and delirium mercifully took the tortured spirit into her cradling arms.
When Leo Gordon celebrated her twenty-second birthday, Judge Dent, appreciating the importance of familiarizing her with the business details and technicalities of commercial usage, incident to the management of her large estate, had insisted upon terminating his guardianship, and transferring to her all responsibility for the future conduct of her financial affairs. New books were placed in her hands, in which he required her to keep systematically and legibly all her accounts; she drew and signed her own checks, and semi-annually furnished for his inspection a neat balance-sheet.
As adviser, and agent for the collection of dividends and rents, the change or renewal of investments, he maintained only a general supervision, and left her untrammelled the use of her income. As a dangerous innovation upon time-honored customs, which under the ante bellum regime, had kept Southern women as ignorant of practical business routine, as of the origin of the Weddas of Ceylon, Miss Patty bitterly opposed and lamented her brother's decision; dismally predicting that the result must inevitably be the transformation of their refined, delicate, clinging "Southern lady", into that abhorred monster—"a strong-minded independent business woman".
Intensely loyal to the social standard, usages and traditions of an aristocracy, that throughout the South had guarded its patrician ranks with almost Brahmin jealousy, she sternly decried every infringement of caste custom and etiquette. Nature and education had combined to deprive her of any adaptability to the new order of things; and she rejected the idea that "a lady should transact business", with the same contemptuous indignation that would have greeted a proposition to wear "machine-sewed garments", that last resort of impecunious plebeianism. However unwelcome Leo had found this assumption of the grave duties of mature womanhood, she met the responsibility unflinchingly, and gathered very firmly the reins transferred to her fair hands for guidance. Judge Dent and Miss Patty were the last of their family, except the orphan niece who had been left to their care, and as their earthly possessions would ultimately descend to her, she had been reared in the conviction that their house was her only home.
Study and travel, potent factors in the march of progress, had so enlarged the periphery of Leo's intellectual vision, that she frequently startled her prim aunt, by the enunciation of views much too extended and cosmopolitan to fit that haughty dame's Procrustean limits of "Southern ladyhood". Blessed with a discriminating governess and chaperon, who while fostering a genuine love of the beautiful, had endeavored to guard her pupil from straying into any of those fashionable "art crazes", which in their ephemeral exaggeration approach caricatures of aestheticism, Leo became deeply imbued with the spirit of classic literature and art; and grew especially fond of the study of Greek and Roman architecture.
Believing that the similarity of climate in her native State, justified the revival of an archaic style of building, she ardently desired and finally obtained her uncle's consent to the erection (as an addition to the Dent mansion), of a suite of rooms, designed in accordance with her taste, and for her own occupancy. Hampered by no prudential economic considerations, and fearless of criticism as regarded archaeological anachronisms, Leo allowed herself a wide-eyed eclecticism, that resulted in a thoroughly composite structure, eminently satisfactory at least to its fastidious owner. A single story in height, it contained only four rooms, and on a reduced scale resembled the typical house of Pansa, except that the flat roof rose in the center to a dome. Constituting a western wing of the old brick mansion which it adjoined, the entrance fronting north, opened from a portico with clustered columns, into a square vestibule; which led directly to a large, octagonal atrium, surrounded by lofty fluted pillars with foliated capitals that supported the arched and frescoed ceiling. In the centre, a circular impluvium was sunk in the marble paved floor, where in summer a jet of spray sprang from the water on whose surface lily pads floated; and in winter, shelves were inserted, which held blooming pot plants, that were arranged in the form of a pyramid. The dome overarching this, was divided into three sections; the lower frescoed, the one above it filled with Etruscan designs in stained glass; the upper, formed of white ground glass sprinkled with gilt stars representing constellations, was so constructed, that it could be opened outward in panels, and thus admit the fresh air.
On the east side of this atrium, Leo's bed-room connected with that occupied by Miss Patty in the old house; and opposite, on the west, was a large square Pompeian library, with dark red dado, daintily frescoed panels, and richly tinted glowing frieze. At the end of this apartment, and concealed by purple velvet curtains lined with rose silk, an arch opened into a small semi-circular chapel or oratory, lighted by stained glass windows, whose brilliant hues fell on a marble altar upheld by two kneeling figures; and here lay the family Bible of Leo's great-grandfather, Duncan Gordon, with tall bronze candelabra on each side, holding wax candles. At the right of two marble steps that led to the altar, was spread a rug, and upon this stood an ebony reading-desk where a prayer-book rested. Filling a niche in the wall on the left side, the gilded pipes of an organ rose to meet a marble console that supported a Greek cross.
In order to secure an unobstructed vista from the front door, that portion of the building which corresponded to the ancient tablinum, was used merely as an aviary, where handsome brass cages of various shapes showed through their burnished wires snowy cockatoos, gaudy paroquets, green and gold canaries, flaming red and vivid blue birds, and one huge white owl, whose favorite perch when allowed his freedom, was a bronze Pallas on a projecting bracket.
Conspicuous among these, was a peculiar cage made of tortoise shell, ivory and silver wire, which Leo had assigned to a scarlet-crested, crimson-throated Australian cockatoo. Beyond this undraped rear vestibule stretched the peristyle, a parallelogram, surrounded by a lofty colonnade. The centre of this space was adorned by a rockery whence a fountain rose; flower beds of brilliant annuals and coleus encircled it like a mosaic, and the ground was studded with orange and lemon trees, banana and pineapple plants; while at the farther side delicate exotic grape vines were trained from column to column.
In summer this beautiful court was entirely open to the sky, but at the approach of winter a movable framework of iron pillars was erected, which supported a glass roof, that sloped southward, and garnered heat and sunshine. Neither chimneys nor fireplaces were visible, but a hidden furnace thoroughly warmed the entire house, and in each apartment the registers represented braziers of classic design.
Except for the external entrances, doors had been abolished; portieres of plush, satin, and Oriental silk closed all openings in winter; and during long sultry Southern summers were replaced by draperies of lace, and wicker-work screens where growing ivy and smilax trained their cool green leaves, and graceful tendrils. Wooden floors had accompanied the doors to Coventry; and everywhere squares of marble, and lemon and blue tiles showed shimmering surfaces between the costly rugs, and fur robes scattered lavishly about the rooms. Surrounded by a gilded wreath of olive leaves, and incised on an architrave fronting the vestibule, the golden "Salve" greeted visitors; just beneath it, on an antique shaped table of topaz-veined onyx, stood a Vulci black bowl or vase, decorated in vermilion with Bacchanal figures; and this Leo filled in summer with creamy roses, in winter, with camellias. Where the shrines and Lares stood in ancient houses, a square, burnished copper pedestal fashioned like an altar had been placed, and upon it rose from a bed of carved lilies, a copy in white marble of Palmer's "Faith".