From the front portico, one could look through the vestibule, the atrium, the aviary, and on into the peristyle, where among vine branches and lemon boughs, the vista was closed by a flight of stone steps with carved cedar balustrade, leading up to the flat roof, where it sometimes pleased the mistress to take her tea, or watch the sunset. In selecting and ordering designs for the furniture, a strict adherence to archaic types had been observed; hence the couches, divans, chairs, and tables, the pottery and bric-a-brac, the mirrors and draperies, were severely classic.
An expensive whim certainly, far exceeding the original estimate of its cost; and Miss Patty bewailed the "wicked extravagance of squandering money that would have built a handsome church, and supported for life two missionaries in mid-China"; but Judge Dent encouraged and approved, reviving his classical studies to facilitate the successful accomplishment of the scheme. When the structure was completed and Leo declared herself perfectly satisfied with the result, it was her uncle who had proposed to celebrate her twenty-fourth birthday by a mask-ball in which every costume should be classic, distinctively Roman or Greek; and where the mulsum dispensed to the guests should be mixed in a genuine Cratera.
To this brilliant fete, one cloudless June night, friends from distant States were invited; and fragrant with the breath of its glowing roses, the occasion became memorable, embalmed forever in Leo's happy heart, because then and there, beside the fountain in the peristyle, she had pledged her hand and faith to Mr. Dunbar.
Sitting to-day in front of the library window, whence she had looped back the crimson curtains, to admit the November sunshine, Leo was absorbed in reading the description of the private Ambar-valia celebrated by Marius at "White Nights". Under the spell of the Apostle of Culture, whose golden precept: "BE PERFECT IN REGARD TO WHAT IS HERE AND NOW," had appealed powerfully to her earnest exalted nature, she failed to observe the signals of her pet ring-doves cooing on the ledge outside. Finally their importunate tapping on the glass arrested her attention, and she raised the sash and scattered a handful of rice and millet seed; whereupon a cloud of dainty wings swept down, and into the library, hovering around her sunny head, and pecking the food from her open palms. One dove seemed particularly attracted by the glitter of the diamond in her engagement ring, and perched on her wrist, made repeated attempts to dislodge the jewel from its crown setting. Playfully she shook it off several times, and amused by its pertinacity, finally closed her hands over it, and rubbed her soft cheek against the delicate silvery plumage.
"No, no, you saucy scamp! I can't afford to feed you on diamonds from my sacred ring! Did you get your greedy nature from some sable Dodonean ancestress? If we had lived three thousand years ago, I might be superstitious, and construe your freak into an oracular protest against my engagement. Feathered augurs survive their shrines. Clear out! you heretic!"
As she tossed it into the garden and closed the window, the portiere of the library was drawn aside, and her maid approached, followed by a female figure draped in a shawl and wearing a lofty turban.
"Miss Leo, Aunt Dyce wants to see you on some particular business."
"Howdy do, Aunt Dyce? It is a long time since you paid us a visit. Justine, push up a chair for her, and then open the cages and let the birds out for an hour. What is the matter, Aunt Dyce, you look troubled? Sit down, and tell me your tribulations."
"Yes, Miss Leo, I am in deep waters; up to my chin in trouble, and my heart is dragging me down; for it's heavier 'an a bushel of lead. You don't remember your own ma, do you?"
"I wish I did; but I was only five months old when I lost her."
"Well, if she was living to-day, she would stretch her two hands and pull me out of muddy waves; and that's why I have come to you. You see, Miss Marcia and my young Mistiss, Miss Ellice, was bosom friends, playmates, and like sisters. They named their dolls after one another, and many a time your ma brought her wax doll to our house, for me to dress it just like Miss Ellice's, 'cause I was the seamstus in our family, and I always humored the childun about their doll clothes. They had their candy pullins, and their birthday frolics, and their shetlan' ponies no bigger 'an dogs, and, oh Lord! what blessed happy times them was! Now, your ma's in glory, and you is the richest belle in the State; and my poor young mistiss is in the worst puggatory, the one that comes before death; and her child, her daughter that oughter be living in style at 'Elm Bluff', like you are here, where is she? Where is she? Flung down among vilyans and mallyfactors, and the very off-scourings of creation, in the penitenchery! Tears to me like, if old mistiss is as high-headed and proud as she was in this world, her speerit would tear down the walls and set her grandchild free. When I saw that beautiful young thing beating her white hands agin the iron bars, it went to my heart like a carving knife, and—"
Dyce burst into tears, and covered her face with her apron, Leo patted her shoulder softly, and essayed to comfort her.
"Don't cry so bitterly; try to be hopeful. It is very, very sad, but if she is innocent, her stay in prison will be short."
"There ain't no 'ifs'—when it comes to 'cusing my mistiss' child of stealing and murdering. Suppose the sheriff was to light down here this minute, and grab you up and tell folks 'spectable witnesses swore you broke open your Uncle Mitchell's safe, and brained him with a handi'on? Would you think it friendly for people to say, if she didn't they will soon turn her aloose? Would that be any warm poultice to your hurt feelin's? It's the stinging shame and the awful, disgrace of being 'spicioned, that you never would forgive."
"Yes, it is very dreadful, and I pity the poor girl; but it seems that appearances are all against her, and I fear she will find it difficult to explain some circumstances."
"If your ma was here to-day, she wouldn't say that. When she was a friend, she was stone deaf and mole blind to every evil report agin them she loved. Miss Marcia would go straight to that jail, and put her arms 'round Miss Ellice's child, and stand by her till her last breath; and the more she was pussecuted, the closer she would stick. Miss Leo, you must take your ma's place, you must heir her friendship just like you do her other property. I have come to you, 'cause I am going away to New York, and can't feel easy 'till you promise me you will do what you can. Miss Ellice is laying at the pint of death, and her poor child is so deestracted about her needing comforts, that I tole her I'de go on an' nuss her ma for her, 'till she was sot free and could hurry back. I dreampt last night that ole mistiss called me and Bedney, and said 'Take good care of Ellice'; and I got right out of bed and packed my trunk. I'm just from the penitenchery, and that poor tormented child don't know me, don't know nothing. Trouble have run her plum crazy, and what with brain fever and them lie-yers, God only knows what's to become of her. Handi'ons ain't the only godforsaken things folks are murdered with. Miss Leo, promise me you will go to see her while I am gone, and 'tend to it that she has good nussing."
"I will do what is possible for her comfort; and as it will be an expensive journey to you, I will also help you to pay your passage to New York. How much money—"
"I don't want your money, Miss Leo. Bedney and me never is beholdin' to nobody for money. We was too sharp to drap our savings in the 'Freedman's Bank', 'cause we 'spicioned the bottom was not soddered tight, and Marster's britches' pocket was a good enough bank for us. We don't need to beg, borrow, nor steal. As I tole you, I was the seamstress, and just before Miss Ellice run away from the school, ole mistiss had a fine lot of bran-new clothes made ready for her when she come home to be a young lady. She never did come home, and when ole mistiss died I jist tuck them new clothes I had made, and packed 'em in a wooden chist, and kept 'em hid away; 'cause I was determed nobody but Miss Ellice should wear 'em. I've hid 'em twenty-three years, and now I've had 'em done up, and one-half I tuck to that jail, for that poor young thing, and the rest of 'em I'm gwine to carry to Miss Ellice. They shan't need money nor clothes; for Bedney and me has got too much famly pride to let outsiders do for our own folks; but Miss Leo, you can do what nobody else in this wide world can. I ain't a gwine to walk the devil 'round the stump, and you mustn't take no 'fence when I jumps plum to the pint. Mars Lennox is huntin' down Miss Ellice's child like a hungry hound runs a rabbit, and I want you to call him off. If he thinks half as much of you as he oughter, you can stop him. Oh, Miss Leo, for God's sake—call him off—muzzle him!"
Leo rose haughtily, and a quick flush fired her cheek; but as she looked at the old woman's quivering mouth and streaming eyes, compassion arrested her displeasure.
"Aunt Dyce, there are some things with which ladies should not meddle; and I cannot interfere with any gentleman's business affairs."
"Oh, honey! if Miss Marcia was living, she wouldn't say that! She would just put her arm round Miss Beryl and tell Mars Lennox: 'If you help to hang my friend's child, you shan't marry my daughter!' Your ma had pluck enuff to stop him. Mark what I say; that poor child is innercent, and the Lord will clear up everything some day, and then He will require the blood of them that condemned the innercent. Suppos'n appearances are agin her? Wasn't appearances all agin Joseph's bruthren when the money and the silver cup was found in their bags, and them afleein home? And if the 'Gyptian lie-yers could have got their claws on that case, don't you know they would have proved them innercent boys guilty, and a hung em? Oh, I am afeerd of Mars Lennox, for he favors his pa mightily; he has got the keenest scent of all the pack; and he went up yonder, and 'cused, and 'bused, and browbeat and aggervated and tormented that poor, helpless young creetur,'till she fell down in a dead faint on the jail floor; and sence then, the Doctor says her mind is done clean gone. Don't get mad with me, Miss Leo; I am bound to clare my conscience, and now I have done all I could, I am gwine to leave my poor young mistiss' child in God's hands, and in yourn, Miss Leo; and when I come back, you must gim'me an account of your stewudship. You are enuff like Miss Marcia, not to shirk your duty; and as you do, by that pussecuted child, I pray the Lord to do by you."
She seized Leo's hand, kissed it, and left the room.
For some moments Leo sat, with one finger between the creamy leaves of her favorite book, but the charm was broken; her thoughts wandered far from the stories of Apuleius, and the oration of Aurelius, and after mature deliberation, she put aside the volume and rang the library bell.
"Justine, is Mrs. Graham here?"
"She is coming now; I see the carriage at the gate."
"Do not invite her into Aunt Patty's room, until I have seen her. Tell Andrew to harness Gypsy, and bring my phaeton to the door; and Justine, carry my felt hat, driving gloves and fur jacket to Aunt Patty's room."
Confined to her bed by a severe attack of her chronic foe, inflammatory rheumatism, Miss Dent had sent for her dearest friend and faithful colleague in church work, Mrs. Graham, who came to spend a day and night, and discuss the affairs of the parish.
"Aunt Patty, Mrs. Graham is in the parlor, and as I am well aware you can both cheerfully dispense with my society for the present, I am going into town. Dyce Darrington has been here, and I have promised to go and see that unfortunate girl who is in prison."
"Leo Gordon, you don't mean to tell me that you are going into the penitentiary!"
"It is highly improper for a young lady to visit such places, and I am astonished that you should feel any inclination to see the countenances of the depraved wretches herded there. I totally disapprove of such an incomprehensible freak."
"Then I will hold the scheme in abeyance, until I ask Uncle Mitchell's advice. I shall call at his office, and request him to go with me."
"Don't you know that the Grand Jury brought in a true bill against that young woman? She is indicted for murder, robbery and the destruction of her grandfather's will. Mitchell tells me the evidence is overwhelming against her, and you know he was disposed to defend her at first."
"Yes, Aunty. I am aware that everything looks black for the unfortunate girl; but I learn she is very ill, and as it cannot possibly injure me to endeavor to contribute to her physical comfort. I shall go and sec her, unless Uncle Mitchell refuses his consent to my visit to the prison."
"But, Leo, what do you suppose Mr. Dunbar will think and say, when he hears of this extraordinary procedure?"
"Mr. Dunbar is neither the custodian of my conscience, nor the guardian and dictator of my actions. Good-bye, Aunty dear. Justine, show Mrs. Graham in."
"Mr. Dunbar will never forgive such a step; because, like all other men, no matter how much license he allows himself, he is very exacting and fastidious about the demeanor of his lady-love."
"I shall not ask absolution of Mr. Dunbar, and I hope my womanly intuitions are a safer and more refined guide, than any man's fastidiousness. Remember, Aunt Patty, religion's holiest work consists in ministering to souls steeped in sin. Are we too pure to follow where Christ led the way?"
"Madam, I ordered the prisoner's head shaved. Did you understand my instructions?"
"Why were my orders not obeyed?"
"Because I don't intend you shall make a convict of her, before she has been tried and sentenced. She has the most glorious suit of hair I ever looked at, and I shall save it till the last moment. Doctor Moffat, you need not swear and fume, for I don't allow even my husband to talk ugly to me. You directed a blister put on the back of the neck, as close as possible to the skull; it is there, and it is drawing fast enough to satisfy any reasonable person. I divided the hair into four braids and plaited them, and you can see I have hung up the ends here just loose enough to save any pulling, and yet the hair is out of the way, so that I keep her head cool with this India-rubber ice-bag. I will be responsible for the blister."
Mrs. Singleton spread her arms over the sick girl, as a hen shelters her brood from a swooping hawk.
"But, Susie, the Doctor knows better what is—"
"Hush, Ned. Perhaps he does; but I 'detailed' myself to nurse this case; and I don't propose to surrender all my common sense, and all my womanly judgment, and maternal experience, in order to keep the Doctor in a good humor. I will have my own head shaved before hers shall be touched."
Mr. Singleton discreetly withdrew from the conference, softly closing the door behind him; and Doctor Moffat bent over the thermometer with which he was testing the temperature. When he raised his head, a kindly smile lurked in his deep set eyes:
"I can't afford to quarrel with you, madam; you are too faithful and watchful a nurse. After all, the chances are, that it will ultimately make very little difference; she grows worse so rapidly. I will come in again before bed-time, and meanwhile make no change in the medicine."
The warden's wife replenished the ice in a bowl, whence a tube supplied the cap or bag on the head of the sufferer, and taking a child's apron from her work-basket on the floor, resumed her sewing. After a while, the door opened noiselessly, and glancing up, she saw Mr. Dunbar.
"May I come in?"
"Yes. You need repentance; and this is a good place to begin."
"Is there any change?"
"Only for the worse. No need now to tip-toe; she is beyond being disturbed by noise. I think the first sound she will notice, will be the harps of the angels."
"I trust the case is not so hopeless?"
"Queer heart you must have! You are afraid she will slip through your fingers, and get to heaven without the help of the gallows and the black cap? Death cheats even the lawyers, sometimes, and seems to be snatching at your prey. You don't believe in prayer, and you have no time to waste that way. I do; and I get down here constantly on my knees, and pray to my God to take this poor young thing out of the world now, before you all convict her, and punish her for crimes she never committed."
"Madam, her conviction would grieve me as much as it possibly could you; and unless she can vindicate herself, I earnestly hope she may never recover her consciousness."
The unmistakable sincerity of his tone surprised the little woman, and scanning him keenly as he stood, hat in hand, at the foot of the cot, her heart relented toward him.
"You still consider her guilty?"
"Since my last interview with her, I have arrived at no conclusion. Whether she be innocent or guilty, is known only by her, and her God. All human judgments in such cases are but guesses at the truth. Is she entirely unconscious, or has she lucid intervals?"
"Mr. Dunbar, on your honor as a gentleman, answer me. Are you here hunting evidence on a death-bed? Would you be so diabolical as to use against her any utterances of delirium?" The flash of his eyes reminded her of the peculiar blue flame that leaps from a glowing bed of anthracite coal; and she had her reply before his lips moved.
"Am I a butcher, madam? Your insinuations are so insulting to my manhood, that it is difficult for me to remember my interrogator is a lady; doubly difficult for me to show you the courtesy your sex demands. Sooner than betray the secrets of a sick room, or violate the sanctity of the confidence which that poor girl's condition enjoins, I would cut off my right arm."
"I intend no discourtesy, sir; but my feelings are so deeply enlisted, that I cannot stop to choose and pick phrases, in talking to the person who caused that child to be shut up here. She thinks you are the most vindictive and dangerous enemy she has; and I had no reason to contradict her. Don't be offended, Mr. Dunbar."
He deigned no answer, but the dilation of his thin nostrils, and the stern contraction of his handsome lips, attested his wrath. Mrs. Singleton rose and laid her fingers on his coat sleeve.
"If I felt sure I could trust you—"
"I decline your confidence. Madam, if I could only tell you, that your vile suspicions are too contemptible to merit the indignation they arouse, I should to some extent feel relieved."
"Then having said it, I will let you off without an apology; and wipe the slate, and start fresh. You are sensitive about your honor, and I am determined to find out just how much it is worth. Trusting you as an honorable gentleman, I am going to ask you to do something for me, which may be of service to my patient; and I ask it, because I have unlimited faith in your skill. Find out who 'Ricordo' is."
"Why? I must thoroughly understand the import of whatever I undertake, and if your reasons are too sacred to be communicated to me, you must select some other agent. I do not solicit your confidence, mark you; but I must know all, or nothing."
"The day she was taken so ill, I was undressing her, and she looked at me very strangely, and said she believed she was losing her mind. Then she raised her hands and prayed:
"'Lord, be merciful! Lord, seal my lips! Seal my lips!'
"Since then she has not known me, but several times she cried out 'Ricordo'! Last night she sat up suddenly, and stared at something she seemed to see right before her in the air. She shook her head at first, and said—'Oh, no! it cannot be possible'. Then she clutched at some invisible object, and a look of horror came into her eyes. She struck her palms together, and I never heard such an agonizing cry, 'There is no help! I must believe it—oh Ricordo!—Ricordo—Ricordo'. She fell back and shivered as if she had an ague. I tried to soothe her, and told her she had a bad dream. She kept saying: 'Oh, horrible—it was, it was Ricordo!' Once, early this morning, she pulled me down to her and whispered: 'Don't tell mother—it would break her heart to know it was Ricordo!' She has not spoken distinctly since, though she mutters to herself. Now, Mr. Dunbar, if I did not feel as sure of her innocence as I am of my own, I should never tell you this; but I want your aid to hunt and catch this 'Ricordo', because I am satisfied it will help to clear her."
"Was it not 'Ricardo'?"
"No, sir—it sounded as if spelled with an o not an a—and it was 'Ricordo'."
"Ricardo is a proper name, but I am under the impression that 'Ricordo' is an Italian word that means simply a remembrance, a souvenir, sometimes a warning. I am glad, however, to have the clue, and I will do all I can to discover what connection exists between that word, and the crime. Can you tell me nothing more?"
"Sometimes she seems to be drawing and painting, and talks to her father about pictures; and once she said: 'Hush! hush—mother is ill. She must not know I died, because I promised her I would bear everything. She made me promise'."
At this moment the keen wail of a young child, summoned the warden's wife to her own apartment, and Mr. Dunbar sat down in the rocking-chair beside the iron cot.
In that strange terra incognita, the realm of psychology, are there hidden laws that defy alike the ravages of cerebral disease, and the intuitions of the moral nature; inexorable as the atomic affinities, the molecular attractions that govern crystallization? Is the day dawning, when the phenomena of hypnotism will be analyzed and formulated as accurately as the symbols of chemistry, or the constituents of protoplasm, or the weird chromatics of spectroscopy? Beryl's head, that hitherto had turned restlessly on its pillow, became motionless; the closed eyes opened suddenly, fastened upon the lawyer's; and some inexplicable influence impelled her to stretch out her hand to him.
"Tiberius, you have come for me."
"I have come to ask if you are better to-day."
Her burning fingers closed tightly over his, and the fever flame lent an indescribable splendor to eyes that seemed to penetrate his heart. Bending over her, he gently lifted a shining fold of hair from her white temple, and still clasping her hand, said in a low voice:
"Beryl, do you know me? Are you better?"
"Wait till I finish the sketch from San Michele. After I am hung, you will sell it. The light is so lovely."
Up and down, her right hand moved through the air, making imaginary strokes as on canvas, but her luminous gaze, held by some powerful fascination, never left his. The gray depths had darkened, swallowed by the widening pupils that made them almost black; and as Mr. Dunbar recognized the complete surrender of physical and mental faculties, her helplessness stirred some unknown sea of tenderness in the man's hard, practical, realistic nature.
Phlegmatic rather than emotional, and wholly secretive, he had accustomed himself to regard romantic ideality, and susceptibility to sentimentality as a species of intellectual anaemia; holding himself always thoroughly in hand, when subjected to the softening influences that now and then invaded professional existence, and melted the conventional selfish crust over the hearts of his colleagues, as the warm lips and balmy breath of equatorial currents kiss away the jagged ledges of drifting icebergs. In his laborious life, that which is ordinarily denominated "love" had been so insignificant a factor, that he had never computed its potentiality; much less realized its tremendous importance in solving the problem of his social, financial, and professional success. Beauty had not allured, nor grace enthralled his fancy; and his betrothal was a mere incident in the quiet tenor of business routine, a necessary means for the accomplishment of a cherished plan.
To-day, while those hot slender fingers clung to his, and he leaned over the pillow, watching his victim, a rising tide surged, rolled up from some unexplored ocean of strange sensations, and its devouring waves threatened to demolish and engulf the stately structure pride and ambition had combined to rear. A brilliant alliance that insured great wealth, that promised a secure stepping-stone to political preferment, was apparently a substantial bulwark against the swelling billows of an unaccountable whim; yet he was impotent to resist the yearning tenderness which impelled him to forget all else, in one determined effort to rescue and shelter the life he had been the chief agent in imperilling. Clear eyed, keen witted, he did not for an instant deceive himself; and he knew that neither compassion for misfortune, nor yet a chivalrous remorse for having consigned a helpless woman to a dungeon, explained this new emotion that threatened to dominate all others.
Cool reason assured him that under existing entanglements, the girl's speedy death would prove the most felicitous solution of this devouring riddle, which so unexpectedly crossed his smooth path; then what meant the vehement protest of his throbbing heart, the passionate longing to snatch her from disease, and disgrace, and keep her safe forever in the close cordon of his arms?
The door was cautiously opened and closed, and noiselessly as a phantom, Leo Gordon stood within the room. One swift survey enabled her to grasp all the details. The small, comfortless, dismal apartment, the barred narrow window, the bare floor, the low iron cot in one corner, with its beautiful burden; the watching attitude of the man, who for years had possessed her heart. Resting one elbow on his knee, his chin leaned on his left hand, but the light fell full on his handsome face, and she started, marvelled at the expression of the brilliant eyes fixed upon the sufferer; eyes suffused and eloquent with tenderness, never before seen in their cold sparkling depths.
Mighty indeed must be the compassion, evocative of that intense yearning look in his usually guarded, irresponsive countenance. A painfully humiliating sense of her own personal incompetence to arouse the feeling, so legibly printed on her lover's features, jarred upon Leo's heart like a twanging dissonance breaking the harmonious flow of minor chords; but a noble pity strangled this jealous thrill, and she softly approached the cot.
The rustle of her dress attracted his attention, and glancing up, he saw his betrothed at his side. One might have counted ten, while they silently regarded each other; and as if conscious of having unmasked some disloyalty, scarcely yet acknowledged to himself, haughty defiance hardened and darkened his face. Involuntarily his hold on Beryl's fingers tightened.
"Prison wards are not proper fields for the cultivation and display of Miss Gordon's amateur kid glove charity. I hope, at least, it was a species of exaggerated high-flown sentimentality, rather than mere feminine curiosity that tempted you to precincts revolting to the delicacy and refinement with which my imagination invested you."
"My motives I shall not submit to the crucible of your criticism; and a little reflection will probably suggest to you, that perhaps you are unduly enlarging the limits, and prematurely exercising the rights of anticipated censorship. There are blunders that trench closely upon the borders of crime, and if professional zeal has betrayed you into the commission of a great wrong upon an innocent woman, it is a sacred duty to your victim, as well as my privilege as your betrothed, to alleviate her suffering as much as possible, and to repair the injury for which you are responsible. When human life and reputation are at stake, hypercritical fastidiousness is less pardonable than the deplorable mistake that endangers both."
"And if I have not blundered; and she be guilty?"
"Then your presence here, can only be explained by motives so malignant and contemptible, that I blush to ascribe them to you."
"If I am morbidly sensitive about your line of conduct you should understand and pardon my jealous espionage."
"If I, realizing that you are act infallible, entertain a nervous dread that unintentionally you may have inflicted an irreparable wrong, you at least should not feel offended, because I am sensitive as regards reflections upon your honor as a gentleman, and your astuteness as a lawyer."
Her fair face had flushed; his grew pale.
"Leo, is this to be our first quarrel?"
"If so, you are entitled to the role of protagonist."
He put out his left hand, and took hers, while his right was closely clasping one that lay upon the chintz coverlid.
What strange obliquity of vision, what inscrutable perversity possessed him, he asked himself, as he looked up at the slight elegant figure, clad in costly camel's-hair garments, with Russian sables wrapped about her delicate throat, with a long drifting plume casting flickering shadows over her sweet flowerlike face; the attractive embodiment of patrician birth and environment of riches, and all that the world values most—then down at the human epitome of wretchedness, represented by a bronze-crowned head, with singularly magnetic eyes, crimsoned cheeks, and a perfect mouth, whose glowing, fever-rouged lips were curved in a shadowy smile, as she muttered incoherently of incidents, connected with the life of a poverty-stricken adventuress? Was friendly fate flying danger signals by arranging and accentuating this vivid contrast, in order to recall his vagrant wits, to cement his wavering allegiance?
He was a brave man, but he shivered slightly, as he confronted his own insurgent and defiant heart; and involuntarily, his fingers dropped Leo's, and his right hand tightened on the hot palm throbbing against it.
On that dark tossing main, where delirium drove Beryl's consciousness to and fro like a rudderless wreck, did some mysterious communion of spirits survive? Did some subtle mesmeric current telegraph her soul, that her foul wrongs were at last avenged? Whatever the cause, certainly a strangely clear, musical laugh broke suddenly from her lovely lips, mingled with a triumphant "Che sara, sara!" The heavy lids slowly drooped, the head turned wearily away.
Smothering a long drawn sigh, which his pride throttled, Mr. Dunbar rose and stood beside his fiancee.
"You have been feeling her pulse, how is the fever?" asked Leo.
"About as high as it can mount. The pulse is frightfully rapid. I did not even attempt to count it."
"Mrs. Singleton tells me she is entirely unconscious—recognizes no one."
"At times, I think she has partly lucid glimpses; for instance, a little while ago she called me 'Tiberius', the same appellation she unaccountably bestowed on me the day of her preliminary examination. Evidently she associates me with every cruel, brutal monster, and even in delirium maintains her aversion."
Miss Gordon's hand stole into his, pressing it gently in mute attestation of sympathy. After a moment, she said in a low tone:
"She is very beautiful. What a noble, pure face? How exquisitely turned her white throat, and wrists, and hands."
He merely inclined his head in assent.
"It seems a profanation to connect the idea of crime with so lovely and refined a woman. Lennox?"
He turned, and looked into her brown eyes, which were misty with tears.
"Well, my dear Leo, what is burdening your generous heart?"
"Do you, can you, believe her guilty? Her whole appearance is a powerful protest."
"Appearances are sometimes fatally false. I think you told me, that the purest and loveliest face, guileless as an angel's, that you saw in Europe, was a portrait of Vittoria Accoramboni; yet she was veritably the 'White Devil', 'beautiful as the leprosy, dazzling as the lightning'. Do I believe her guilty? From any other lips than yours, I should evade the question; but I proudly acknowledge your right to an expression of my opinion, when—"
"I withdraw the question, because I arrogate no 'rights'. I merely desire the privilege of sympathizing, if possible, with your views; of sharing your anxiety in a matter involving such vital consequences. Privilege is the gift of affection; right, the stern allotment of law. Tell me nothing now; I shall value much more the privilege of receiving your confidence unsolicited."
He took both her hands, drew her close to him, and looked steadily down into her frank tender eyes.
"Thank you, my dear Leo. Only your own noble self could so delicately seek to relieve me from a painful embarrassment; but our relations invest you with both rights and privileges, which for my sake at least, I prefer you should exercise. You must allow me to conclude my sentence; you are entitled to my opinion—when matured. As far as I am capable of judging, the evidence against her is—overwhelmingly condemnatory. I thought so before her arrest; believed it when her preliminary examination ended, and subsequent incidents strengthen and confirm that opinion; yet a theory has dawned upon me, that may possibly lighten her culpability. I need not tell you, that I feel acutely the responsibility of having brought her here for trial, and especially of her present pitiable condition, which causes me sleepless nights. If she should live, I shall make some investigation in a distant quarter, which may to some extent exculpate her, by proving her an accessory instead of principal. My—generous Leo, you shall be the first to whom I confide my solution—when attained. I am sorely puzzled, and harassed by conflicting conjectures; and you must be patient with me, if I appear negligent or indifferent to the privileges of that lovely shrine where my homage is due."
"If you felt less keenly the distressing circumstances surrounding you, I should deeply regret my misplaced confidence in your character; and certainly you must acquit me of the selfishness that could desire to engross your attention at this juncture."
Desirous of relieving him of all apprehension relative to a possible misconstruction of his motives and conduct, she left one hand in his, and laid the other with a caressing touch on his arm; an unprecedented demonstration, which at any other time would have surprised and charmed him.
"Ah, what a melancholy sight! So much delicate refined beauty, in this horrible lair of human beasts! Lennox, let us hope that the mercy of God will call her speedily to His own bar of justice, before she suffers the torture and degradation of trial, by earthly tribunals."
She felt the slight shudder that crept over him, the sudden start with which he dropped her hand, and bent once more over the cot.
"God forbid she should die now, leaving the burden of her murder on my soul!"
His countenance was averted, but the ferver of his adjuration filled her with a vague sense of painful foreboding.
"Is it friendly to desire the preservation of a life, whose probable goal seems the gallows, or perpetual imprisonment? Poor girl! In the choice of awful alternatives, death would come here as an angel of mercy."
Leo took Beryl's hand in hers, and tears filled her eyes as she noted the symmetry of the snowy fingers, the delicate arch of the black brows, the exceeding beauty of the waving outline where the rich mahogany-hued hair touched the forehead and temples, that gleamed like polished marble.
"Is it friendly to wish an innocent girl to go down into her grave, leaving a name stained for all time by suspicion, if not absolute conviction of a horrible crime?"
Mr. Dunbar spoke through set teeth, and Leo's astonishment at the expression of his countenance, delayed an answer, which was prevented by the entrance of Mrs. Singleton.
"Miss Gordon, your uncle wishes to know whether you are ready to go home; as he has an engagement that calls him away?"
Did Leo imagine the look of relief that seemed to brighten Mr. Dunbar's face, as he said promptly:
"With your permission, I will see you safely down stairs, and commit you to Judge Dent's care."
Standing beside the cot, she watched Mrs. Singleton measure the medicine from a vial into a small glass. When the warden's wife knelt down, and putting one arm under the pillow elevated it slightly, while she held the glass to the girl's lips, Beryl attempted to push it aside.
"Take it for me, dear child; it will make you sleep, and ease your pain."
The beautiful eyes regarded her wistfully, then wandered to the face of the lawyer and rested, spellbound.
"Here, swallow this. It is not bad to take."
Mrs. Singleton patted her cheek and again essayed to administer the draught, but without success.
"Let me try."
Mr. Dunbar took the glass, but as he bent down, the girl began to shiver as though smitten with a mortal chill. She writhed away, put out her shuddering hands to ward it off; and starting up, her eyes filled with a look of indescribable horror and loathing, as she cried out:
"Ricordo! Oh, mother—it is Ricordo! I see, it! Father—it was my Pegli handkerchief!—with the fuchsias you drew! Father—ask Christ to pity me!"
She sank back quivering with dread, pitiable to contemplate; but after a few moments her hands sought each other, and her trembling lips moved evidently in prayer, though the petition was inaudible. Mrs. Singleton sponged her forehead with iced water, and by degrees the convulsive shivering became less violent. The wise nurse began in a subdued tone to sing slowly, "Nearer my God to Thee," and after a little while, the sufferer grew still, the heavy lids lifted once or twice, then closed, and the laboring brain seized on some new vision in the world of fevered dreams.
Mrs. Singleton took the medicine from the attorney, and put it aside.
"Sleep is her best physic. When these nervous shivers come on, I find a hymn chanted, soothes her as it does one of my babies. Poor child! she makes my heart ache so sometimes, that I want to scream the pain away. How people with any human nature left in them, can look at her and listen to her pitiful cries to her dead father, and her dying mother, and her far-off God, and then believe that her poor beautiful hands could shed blood, passes my comprehension; and all such ought to go on four feet, and browse like other brutes. I am poor, but I vow before the Lord, that I would not stand in your shoes, Mr. Dunbar, for all the gold in the Government vaults, and all the diamonds in Brazil."
Tears were dripping on the costly furs about Leo's neck, as she moved closer to the attorney, and linked her arm in his:
"Mr. Dunbar, we will detain my uncle no longer. Mrs. Singleton has told me, that one of her children is ill, had a spasm last night; and since maternal duties are most imperative, it is impossible for her to give undivided attention to this poor sufferer. If you will kindly take me down stairs, I will call at the 'Sheltering Arms', and secure the services of one of the 'Sisters' who is an experienced nurse. This will relieve Mrs. Singleton, and we shall all feel assured that our poor girl has careful and tender watching, and every comfort that anxious sympathy can provide."
It was midnight in November, keenly cold, but windless; and in the purplish sky, the wintry crown of stars burned with silvery lustre, unlike the golden glow of constellations throbbing in sultry summer, and their white fires sparkled, flared as if blown by interstellar storms. The large family of Lazarus huddled over dying embers on darkening hearths, and shivered under scanty shreds of covering; but the house of Dives was alight with the soft radiance of wax candles, fragrant with the warm aroma of multitudinous exotics, and brimming with waves of riotous music, on which merry-hearted favorites of fashion swam in measured mazes. The "reception" given by Judge Parkman to the Governor and his staff, on the occasion of a review of State troops at X—, was at its height; and several counties had been skimmed for the creme de la creme of most desirable representatives of wit, wealth and beauty.
Miss Gordon had arrived unusually late, and as she entered the room, leaning on her uncle's arm, she noticed that Mr. Dunbar was the centre of a distinguished group standing under the chandelier. He was gently fanning his hostess, who stood beside the Governor, and evidently he was narrating some spicy incident, or uttering some pungent witticism, whereat all laughed heartily. The light fell full on his fine figure, which rose above all surrounding personages, and was faultlessly apparelled in evening dress; and Leo's heart filled with tender pride, at the consciousness that he was all her own. The exigencies of etiquette prevented for more than an hour any nearer approach, but when Mr. Dunbar had rendered "Caesar's things" to social Caesar, and paid tribute of bows, smiles, compliments and persiflage into the coffer of custom, he made his way through the throng, to the spot where his betrothed stood resting after her third dance.
"Will Miss Gordon grant me a promenade in lieu of the dance, which misfortunes conspired to prevent me from securing earlier in the evening?"
He drew her hand under his arm, and his eyes ran with proprietorial freedom over the details of her costume, pale blue satin, creamy foam of white lace, soft sheen of large pearls, and bouquet of exquisite half blown La France roses.
Since their betrothal, he had claimed the privilege of sending the flowers she wore, on special occasions, and she had invariably expressed her appreciation through the dainty lips of a boutonniere arranged by her own fingers. Now while he recognized the roses resting on her corsage, her eyes dwelt on her favorite double lilac violets, nestling in the buttonhole of his coat.
"You were very late to-night. I loitered in ambush about the precincts of the dressing-room, hoping for the pleasure of conducting you down-stairs; but 'the best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft aglee', and I became the luckless prey of similar tactics. That marauding Tomyris, Mrs. Halsey, sallied out at the head of her column of daughters, espied me lurking behind the portiere, and proclaiming her embarras de richesse, 'paid me the compliment' of consigning one fair campaigner, Miss Eloise Hermione, to my care. Fancy the strain on courtesy, as I accepted my 'quite unexpected good fortune'!"
He spoke with a nervous rapidity, at variance with his usual imperturbable deliberateness of manner, and she thought she had never seen his eyes so restless and brilliant.
"I was unusually late, owing to the fact that the Governor and staff dined with Uncle Mitchell, and they lingered so long over their cigars and wine, that I was delayed in the drawing-room, waiting for them; consequently was very late in changing my dress. We were sorry you were prevented from joining us. Uncle pronounced the dinner a perfect success; and certainly Governor Glenbeigh was in his happiest mood, and particularly agreeable."
"Given his hostess, and entourage, could he possibly have been less? Rumor's hundred tongues wag with the announcement, that his Excellency is no longer inconsolable for his wife's death; and desires to testify to the happiness of conjugal relations, by a renewal of the sweet bondage; a curiously subtile compliment to the deceased. If I may be pardoned the enormity of the heresy, I think Shakspeare blundered supremely, when he gave Iago's soul to a man. Diabolical cunning, shrewd malevolence pure and simple, armed with myriads of stings for hypodermic incisions that poison a man's blood, should be appropriately costumed in a moss-green velvet robe, should wear frizzled bangs as yellow as yonder bouquet of Marechal Neils, so suggestive of the warning flag flying over pest-houses!"
"It is very evident you are not equally generous in surrendering the amiability of Timon, along with the depravity of Iago, to the arsenal of feminine weapons. What corroding mildew of discontent has fallen from Mrs. Parkman's velvet dress, and rusted the bright blade of your chivalry?"
"The very breath of Iago, filling my ears and firing my heart with the architectural details of her coveted 'castle in Spain.' Glenbeigh is her cousin. The ladder of his preferment is set up before my eyes, and his Excellency springs up the rounds, from Governor to Senatorship, thence to a place in the Cabinet, certainly to an important foreign embassy; where, in the eternal fitness of things, somebody, somebody with tender brown eyes like a thrush's, and the voice of a siren, and the red lips of Hebe—will be invited to reign as l'ambassadrice! If I am not as mad with jealous despair as Othello, attribute my escape either to a sublime faith in your adorable constancy and incorruptibility, or to my own colossal vanity, fatuous beyond absolution."
He pressed her arm closer to his side, and covered with one hand the gloved fingers resting on his sleeve; then added:
"You must permit me to congratulate you upon your beautiful toilette to-night. The harmony of the dress, and the grace of the wearer leave nothing to be desired. Although debarred the pleasure of dining with you, I had hoped to enter, at least, with the coffee, but the freight train upon which I returned, was delayed; and I had no choice but to await your arrival here."
He indulged so rarely in verbal compliments, that she flushed with profound gratification at flip fervor of his tone.
"I am glad you like my dress, to which your roses lend the loveliest garniture. I was not aware that X—could furnish at this season such superb La France buds. Where did you find them?"
"They travelled several hundred miles, for the privilege of nestling against my Leo's heart."
Spartan thieves are not the only heroic sufferers who smile and make no moan, clasping close the hidden fangs ravening on their vitals.
"As you mentioned in your note that very important business had called you unexpectedly away, I hope your mission proved both pleasant and successful."
A shadow drifted over his countenance, like that cast by some summer cloud long becalmed, which sets sail before a sudden gust.
"Only a modicum of success to counterbalance the disagreeable features of a journey in a freight train caboose."
"Why do you hazard that dangerous schedule, instead of waiting for the passenger express?"
"Business exigencies narrow the limits of choice; moreover, had I waited for the express, I should have missed the coveted pleasure of this meeting with you. The rosy glamour of happy anticipation conquers even the discomfort of a freight caboose."
Did she suspect that some sullen undercurrent of intense feeling drove these eddying foam bells of flattery into the stream of conversation; or was her reply merely a chance ricochet shot, more accurately effective than direct fire?
"This afternoon I had a note from Sister Serena, asking for a few articles conducive to the comfort of a sick room; and I really cannot determine whether we should feel regret, or relief at the tidings that that unfortunate girl—can scarcely—"
"Spare me the Egyptian mummy at my feast! The memento mori when I would fain forget. Let me inhale the perfume of your roses, without hearing that possibly a worm battens on their petals. Will you ride with me tomorrow afternoon?"
"I am sorry that an engagement to dine will prevent, as the afternoons are so short."
"Are you going to the Percy's?"
"Yes. Will you not be there?"
"Too bad! I have just declined attending that dinner, because I had planned the horseback ride. Formerly fate seemed to smile upon me; now she shows herself a scowling capricious beldam. I have lost this evening, waiting to see you, and now, I must steal away unnoticed; because of an important matter which admits of no delay. Have you promised to dance with Mayfield? Here he comes. Good-night, my dear Leo, expect to see me at 'The Lilacs' at the earliest possible moment."
Unobserved he made his escape, and hurried away. At a livery stable he stopped to order his horse saddled, and brought to his door, and a few moments later, stood before the grate in his law office, where the red glow of the coals had paled under ashy veils. From the letter-rack over the mantel, he took a note containing only a line:
"She has reached the crisis. We have no hope." "SINGLETON."
In the hot embers, it smoked, shrivelled, disappeared; and the attorney crossed his arms over his chest to crush back the heavy sigh struggling for escape. The long overcoat buttoned from throat to knee, enhanced his height, and upon his stern, handsome features had settled an expression of sorrowful perplexity; while his keen eyes showed the feverish restlessness that, despite his efforts, betrayed heartache. Above the heads of the gay throng he had just left, he had seen all that evening a slender white hand beckoning to him from the bars of a dungeon; and dominating the music of the ball room, the laughter of its dancers, had risen the desperate, accusing cry:
"You have ruined my life!"
Was it true, that his hand had dashed a foul blot of shame upon the fall pure page of a girl's existence, and written there the fatal finis? If she died, could he escape the moral responsibility of having been her murderer? Amid the ebb and flow of conflicting emotions, one grim fact stared at him with sardonic significance. If he had ruined her life, retribution promptly exacted a costly forfeit; and his happiness was destined to share her grave.
He neither analyzed nor understood the nature of the strange fascination which he had ineffectually striven to resist; and he ground his teeth, and clinched his hands with impotent rage, under the stinging and humiliating consciousness that his unfortunate victim had grappled his heart to hers, and would hold it forever in bondage. No other woman had ever stirred the latent and unsuspected depths of his tenderness; but at the touch of her hand, the flood burst forth, sweeping aside every barrier of selfish interest, defying the ramparts of worldly pride. Guilty or innocent, he loved her; and the wretchedness he had inflicted, was recoiling swiftly upon himself.
Unbuttoning his overcoat, he took from an inside pocket, the torn half of a large envelope, and unlocking the drawer of his desk, hunted for a similar fragment. Spreading them out before him, he fitted the zigzag edges with great nicety, and there lay the well-known superscription: "Last Will and Testament of Robert Luke Darrington." One corner of the last found bit was brown and mud-stained, but the handwriting was in perfect preservation. As he stooped to put it all back in a secret drawer, something fell on the floor. He picked up the dainty boutonniere of pale sweet violets, and looked at it, while a frown darkened his countenance, as though he recognized some plenipotentiary pleading for fealty to a sacred compact.
"Poor Leo! how little she suspects disloyalty. How infinite is her trust, and what a besotted ingrate I am!"
He tossed the accusing flowers into the grate, took his riding-whip and went down to the door, where his horse was champing the bit, and pawing with impatience. Along the deserted streets, out of the sleeping town, he rode toward the long stone bridge that spanned the winding river. When he had reached the centre, his horse darted aside, because of the sudden leap of a black cat from the coping of the nearest pier, whence she sped on, keeping just ahead of him. The spectral sickle of a waning moon hung on the edge of the sky, and up and down the banks of the stream floated phantoms of silvery mist, here covering the water with impalpable wreaths, and there drifting away to enable Andromeda to print her starry image on the glassy surface.
Behind stretched the city, marked by lines of gas lamps; in front rose the hill clothed with forests; and frowning down upon the rider, the huge shadow of the dismal dungeon crouched like a stealthy beast ready to spring upon him. Dark as the deeds of its inmates, the mass of stone blotted the sky, save in one corner, where a solitary light shone through iron lattice work. Was it a beacon of hope, or did the rays fall on features cold under the kiss of death?
Spurring his horse up the rocky hill, Mr. Dunbar was greeted by the baying of two bloodhounds within the enclosure; and soon after, Mr. Singleton conducted him up the steps leading to the room where Beryl had been placed.
"She is alive; that is all. The doctor said she could not last till midnight, but it is now half-past one; and my wife has never lost hope. She has sent the nurse off to get some sleep, and you will find Susie in charge."
The hazel eyes of the gaoler's wife were humid with tears, as she glanced up at the attorney, and motioned him to the low chair she vacated.
"I knew you would come, and when I heard you gallop across the bridge, I sent Sister Serena off to bed. There is nothing to be done now, but watch and pray. If she ever wakes in this world she will be rational, and she will get well. The nurse thinks she will pass away in this stupor; but I have faith that she will not die, until she clears her name."
Nature makes some women experts in the fine art of interpreting countenance and character, and by a mysterious and unerring divination, Mrs. Singleton knew that her visitor desired no companion in his vigils; hence, after flitting about the room for a few moments, she added:
"If you will sit here a while, I can look after my babies. Should any change occur, tap at my door; I shall not be long away."
What a melancholy change in the sleeper, during the few days of his absence; how much thinner the hollow cheek, how sunken the closed eyes; how indescribably sharpened the outlines of each feature. The face which had formerly suggested some marble statue, had now the finer tracery as of an exquisite cameo; and oblivion of all earthly ills had set there the seal of a perfect peace. She lay so motionless, with her hands on her breast, that Mr. Dunbar bent his head close to hers, to listen to her respiration; but no sound was audible, and when his ear touched her lips, their coldness sent a shiver of horror through his stalwart frame. Pure as the satin folds of an annunciation lily pearled with dew, was the smooth girlish brow, where exhaustion hung heavy drops; and about her temples the damp hair clung in glossy rings, framing the pallid, deathlike face.
At her wrist, the fluttering thread eluded his grasp, and kneeling beside the cot, he laid his head down on her breast, dreading to find no pulsation; but slow and faint, he felt the tired heart beat feebly against his cheek; and tears of joy, that reason could neither explain nor justify, welled up and filled his eyes. Leaning his head on her pillow, he took one hand between both his, and watched the profound sleep that seemed indeed twin sister of death.
Softened by distance came the deep mellow sound of the city clock striking two. Down among the willows fringing the river bank, some lonely water-fowl uttered its plaintive cry, whereat the bloodhounds bayed hoarsely; then velvet-sandalled silence laid her soothing touch upon the world, and softly took all nature into her restful arms.
In the searching communion which he held with his own heart, during that solemn watch, Mr. Dunbar thrust aside all quibbles and disguises, and accepted as unalterable, two conclusions.
She was innocent of crime, and he loved her; but she knew who had committed the murder, and would suffer rather than betray the criminal. The conjecture that she was shielding a lover, was accompanied by so keen a pang of jealous pain, that it allowed him no room to doubt the nature or intensity of the feeling which she had inspired.
In her wan loveliness, she seemed as stainless as a frozen snowdrop, and while his covetous gaze dwelt upon her he felt that he could lay her in her coffin now, with less suffering, than see her live to give her brave heart to any other man. To lift her spotless and untrampled from the mire of foul suspicion, where his hand had hurled her, was the supreme task to which he proposed to devote his energies; but selfishness was the sharpest spur; she must be his, only his, otherwise he would prefer to see her in the arms of death.
So the night waned; and twice, when the warden's wife stole to the door, he lilted his head and waved her back. When the clock in the tower struck four, he felt a slight quiver in the fingers lying within his palm, and Beryl's face turned on the pillow, bringing her head against his shoulder. Was it the magnet of his touch drawing her unconsciously toward him, or merely the renewal of strength, attested already by the quickened throb of the pulse that beat under his clasp? By degrees her breathing became audible to his strained ear, and once a sigh, such as escapes a tired child, told that nature was rallying her physical forces, and that the tide was turning. Treacherous to his plighted troth, and to the trusting woman whom he had assiduously wooed and won, he yielded to the hungry yearning that possessed him, and suddenly pressed his lips to Beryl's beautiful mouth. Under that fervent touch, consciousness came back, and the lids lifted, the dull eyes looked into his with drowsy wonder. Stepping swiftly to the door which stood ajar, he met Mrs. Singleton, and put his hand on her shoulder.
"She is awake, and will soon be fully conscious, but perfect quiet is the only safeguard against relapse. When she remembers, leave her as much alone as possible, and answer no questions."
Holding her baby on her breast, Mrs. Singleton whispered:
"Put out the lamp, so that she can see nothing to remind her."
As he took his hat, and put his hand on the lamp, he looked back at the cot, and saw the solemn eyes fixed upon him. He extinguished the light, and passed into the room where Susie Singleton stood waiting.
"She will not know Sister Serena, and for a day or two I will keep out of sight when she is awake. Mr. Dunbar, God has done His part, now see that you do yours. Have you found out who 'Ricordo' is?"
"Certainly, it is a thing; not a person. As yet the word has given no aid."
"Then you have discovered nothing new during your absence?"
"Yes, I have found the missing half of the envelope which contained General Darrington's will; but ask me no questions at present. For her sake, I must work quietly. Send me a note at twelve o'clock, that I may know her exact condition, and the opinion of the doctor. Has nothing been heard from Dyce?"
"As far as I know, not a syllable."
They shook hands, and once more Mr. Dunbar sprang into his saddle. Overhead the constellations glowed like crown jewels on black velvet, but along the eastern horizon, where the morning-star burned, the sky had blanched; and the air was keen with the additional iciness that always precedes the dawn. Earth was powdered with rime, waiting to kindle into diamonds when the sun smote its flower crystals, and the soft banners of white fog trailed around the gray arches and mossy piers of the old bridge. At a quick gallop Mr. Dunbar crossed the river, passed through the heart of the city, and slackened his pace only when he found himself opposite the cemetery, on the road leading to "Elm Bluff." As the iron gate closed behind him, he walked his horse, up the long avenue, and when he fastened him to the metal ring in the ancient poplar, which stood sentinel before the deserted House, the deep orange glow that paves the way for coming suns, had dyed all the sky, blotting out the stars; and the new day smiled upon a sleeping world. The peacock perched upon the balustrade of the terrace greeted him vociferously, and after some moments his repeated knock was answered by the cautious opening of the front door, and Bedney's gray head peered out.
"Lord—Mars Lennox! Is it you? What next? 'Pears to me, there's nothing left to happen; but howsomever, if ther's more to come, tell us what's to pay now?"
"Bedney, I want you to help me in a little matter, where your services may be very valuable; and as it concerns your old master's family, I am sure you will gladly enter into my plan—"
"Bless your soul, Mars Lennox, you are too good a lieyer to be shore of anything, but the undertaker and the tax collector. I am so old and broke down in sperrits, that you will s'cuse me from undertaking of any jobs, where I should be obleeged to pull one foot out'en the grave before I could start. I ain't ekal to hard work now, and like the rest of wore-out stock, I am only worth my grabs in old fields."
Sniffing danger, Bedney warily resolved to decline all overtures, by taking refuge in his decrepitude; but the attorney's steady prolonged gaze disconcerted him.
"You have no interest, then, in discovering the wretch who murdered your master? That is rather suspicious."
"What ain't 'spicious to you, Mars Lennox? It comes as natchal to you to 'spicion folks, as to eat or sleep, and it's your trade. You believe I know something that I haven't tole; but I swear I done give up everything to Mars Alfred; and if my heart was turned inside out, and scraped with a fine-tooth comb, it wouldn't be no cleaner than what it is. I know if I was lying you would ketch me, and I should own up quick; 'cause your match doesn't go about in human flesh; but all the lancets and all the doctors can't git no blood out'en a turnup."
"You are quite willing, then, to see General Darrington's granddaughter suffer for the crime?"
"'Fore Gord! Mars Lennox, you don't tote fair! 'Pears to me you are riding two horses. Which side is you on?"
"Always on the side of justice and truth, and it is to help your poor young mistress that I came to see you; but it seems you are too superannuated to stretch out your hand and save her."
"Ain't you aiming to prove she killed old marster? That's what you sot out to do; and tarrapin's claws are slippery, compared to your grip, when you take holt."
The old negro stood with his white head thrown back, and unfeigned perplexity printed on his wrinkled features, while he scanned the swart face, where a heavy frown gathered.
"I set out this morning to find a faithful, old family servant, whose devotion has never before been questioned; but evidently I have wasted my confidence as well as my time. Where is Dyce? She is worth a hundred superannuated cowards."
"Don't call no names, Mars Lennox. If there's one mean thing I nachally despises as a stunnin' insult, it's being named white-livered; and my Confederate record is jest as good as if I wore three gilt stars on my coat collar. You might say I was a liar and a thief, and maybe I would take it as a joke; but don't call Bedney Darrington no coward! It bruises my feelins mor'n I'le stand. Lem'me tell you the Gord's truth; argufying with lie-yers is wuss than shootin' at di-dappers, and that is sport I don't hanker after. I ain't spry enuff to keep up with the devil, when you are whipping him around the stump; and I ain't such a forsaken idjut as to jump in the dark. Tell me straight out what you want me to do. Tote fair, Mars Lennox."
"I am about to offer a reward of two hundred and fifty dollars, and I thought I would allow you privately the opportunity of securing the money, before I made it public. Where is Dyce?"
"You might as well ax the man in the moon. The only satisfaction she gin me when she left home, was—she was gwine to New York to hunt for Miss Ellie. I tole her she was heading for a wild goose chase, and her answer signified she was leaving all of them fowls behind. If she was here, she'd be only a 'clean chip in your homny pot'; for she wouldn't never touch your job with a forty-foot pole, and what's more, she'd tie my hands. I ain't afeard of my ole 'oman, but I respects her too high to cross her; and if ever you git married, you will find it's a mighty good rule to 'let sleeping dogs lay'. Who do you expect me to ketch for two hundred and fifty dollars?"
"A lame negro man, about medium size, who was seen carrying a bundle on the end of a stick, and who was hanging about the railroad station on the night of General Darrington's death. He probably lives on some plantation south of town, as he was travelling in that direction, after the severe storm that night. I want him, not because he had any connection with your master's murder, but to obtain from him a description of a strange white man, whom he directed to the railroad water-tank. If you can discover that lame negro, and bring him to my office, I will pay you two hundred and fifty dollars, and give him a new suit of clothes. The only hope for General Darrington's granddaughter is in putting that man on the witness stand, to corroborate her statement of a conversation which she heard. This is Wednesday. I will give you until Saturday noon to report. If you do not succeed I shall then advertise. If you wish to save Miss Brentano, help me to find that man."
He swung himself into the saddle, and rode away, leaving Bedney staring after him, in pitiable dubiety as to his own line of duty.
"Wimmen are as hard to live peaceable with as a hatful of hornets, but the'r brains works spryer even than the'r tongues; and they do think as much faster 'an a man, as a express train beats er eight ox-team. Dyce is the safest sign-post! If she was only here now, I couldn't botch things, for she sees clare through a mill-stone, and she'd shove me the right way. If I go a huntin', I may flounder into a steel trap; if I stand still, wuss may happen. Mars Lennox is too much for me. I wouldn't trust him no further 'n I would a fat possum. I am afeard of his oily tongue. He sot out to hang that poor young gal, and now he is willing to pay two hundred and fifty dollars to show the court he was a idjut and a slanderer! I ain't gwine to set down on no such spring gun as that! Dyce ought to be here. When Mars Lennox turns summersets in the court, before the judge, I don't want to belong to his circus—but, oh Lord! If I could only find out which side he raily is on?"
During the early stages of her convalescence, Beryl, though perfectly rational, asked no questions, made no reference to her gloomy surroundings and maintained a calm, but mournful taciturnity, very puzzling to Mrs. Singleton, who ascribed it at first to mental prostration, which rendered her comparatively obtuse; but ere long, a different solution presented itself, and she marvelled at the silence with which a desperate battle was fought. With returning consciousness, the prisoner had grasped the grievous burden of her fate, unflinchingly lifted and bound it upon her shoulders; and though she reeled and bent under it, made no moan, indulged no regret, uttered no invective.
One cold dismal day, when not a rift was visible in the leaden sky, and a slanting gray veil of sleety rain darkened the air and pelted the dumb, shivering earth, Beryl sat on the side of her cot, with her feet resting on the round of a chair, and her hands clasped at the back of her head. Her eyes remarkably large from the bluish circles illness had worn beneath them, were fixed in a strained, unwinking, far-away gaze upon the window, where black railing showed the outside world as through some grim St. Lawrence's gridiron.
From time to time the warden's wife glanced from her sewing toward the motionless figure, reluctant to obtrude upon her revery, yet equally loath to leave her a prey to melancholy musing. After a while, she saw the black lashes quiver, and fall upon the waxen cheeks, then, as she watched, great tears glittered, rolled slowly, dripped softly, but there was no sigh, no sound of sobs. Leaning closer, she laid her arm across the girl's knee.
"What is it, dearie? Tell me."
There was no immediate reply; when Beryl spoke, her voice was calm, low and measured, as in one where all the springs of youth, hope, and energy are irreparably broken.
"Every Gethsemane has its strengthening Angels. The agony of the Garden brought them to Christ. I thank God, mine did not fail me. If they had not come, I think I could never have borne this last misery that earth can inflict upon me. My mother is dead."
"Why distress yourself with sad forebodings? Weakness makes you despondent, but you must try to hope for the best; and I dare say in a few days, you will have good news from your mother."
"I shook hands with Hope, and in her place sits the only companion who will abide with me during the darkness that is coming on—Patience, pale-browed, meek-eyed, sad-lipped Patience. If I can only keep my hold upon her skirts, till the end. To me, no good news can ever come. As long as mother lived, I had an incentive to struggle; now I am alone, and they who thirst for my blood are welcome to take it speedily. I know my mother is dead; I have seen her."
"Wake up, child. Your brain is weak yet and full of queer delirious visions, and when you doze, realities and dreams are all jumbled together. You have a deal too much sense to harbor any crazy spiritual crankiness. Take your wine, and lie down. You have sat up too long, and tired yourself."
"No. I have wanted to tell you for several days, because you have been so good, and I have heard you praying here at night that God would be merciful to me; but I waited until I had strength to be calm. I have lain here day after day, and night after night, face to face with desolation and despair, and now I have grown accustomed to the horror. I know that in this world there is no escape, no help, no hope; so—the worst is over. When you consent to fate, and stretch out your arms to meet death, there is no more terror, only waiting, weary waiting. I am not superstitious, and unfortunately I am not one of the victims of dementia, whose spectral woes are born of disordered brains. I am sadly sane; and what I am about to tell you is no figment of feverish fancy. I do not know how long I have been sick, but one night great peace and ease came suddenly upon me. I swung in some soft tender arms, close to the gates of Release, and the iron bars melted away, and my soul was borne toward the wonderful light; but suddenly a shock, a strange thrill ran through me, and the bars rose again, and the light faded. Then all at once my father and my mother stood beside me, bent over me. Father said: 'Courage, my daughter, courage! Bear your cross a little longer,' My mother wept, and said, 'My good little girl. So faithful, so true. I died in peace, trusting your promise. For my sake can you endure till the end?' They faded away; and sorrow sat down once more, clutching my heart; and death, the Angel who keeps the key of the Gate of Release, turned his back upon me. I had almost escaped; I was close to the other world, and I was conscious. I saw my mother's spirit; it was no delirious fancy. I know that she is dead. Even in the world of the released, she grieves over the awful consequences of my obedience to her wishes. Mortal agony of body and soul brings us so near to the borderland, that we have glimpses; and those we love, lean across the boundary line and compassionate us. So my Gethsemane called down the one strengthening Angel of all the heavenly hosts, who had most power to comfort my heart, and gird me for my fate, my father, my noble father. God, in pity, sent him to exhort me to bear my cross bravely."
The low solemn voice ceased, and in the silence that followed, only the dull patter of the rain, and the persistent purring of a kitten curled up on the cot were audible. Mrs. Singleton finished the buttonhole in Dick's apron, and threaded her needle.
"If it comforts you at all to believe that, I have no right to say anything."
"You think, however, that I am the victim of some hallucination?"
"Not even that. I think you had a very vivid dream, and being exhausted, you mistook a feverish vision for a real apparition. I can't believe your mother is dead, because if such were the case, Dyce would have returned at once, and told us."
"Dyce has a kind heart, and shrinks from bringing me the sad news; for she knows my cup was already full. I know that my mother is dead. Time will show you that I make no mistake. The veil was lifted, and I saw beyond."
"Maybe so; may be not. I am stubborn in my opinions, and I never could think it possible for flesh to commune with spirits. Don't let us talk about anything that disturbs you, until you regain your strength. Why will you not try a little of this port wine? Miss Gordon brought it yesterday, and insisted I should give it to you, three times a day. It is very old and mellow. Look at things practically. God kept you alive for some wise purpose, and since you are obliged to face trouble, is it not better to arm yourself with all the physical vigor possible? Drink this, and lie down."
As Beryl mechanically drained the glass and handed it back, Mrs. Singleton added:
"I believe I told you, Miss Gordon is Mr. Dunbar's sweetheart. Their engagement is no secret, and he is a lucky man; for she is as good as she is pretty, and as sweet as she is rich. She has shown such a tender interest in you, and manifests so much sympathy, that I am sure she will influence him in your favor, and I feel so encouraged about your future."
A shadowy smile crossed the girl's wan face,
"Invest no hope in my future; for escape is as impossible for me, as for that innocent victim foreordained to entangle his horns in the thicket on Mount Moriah. He could have fled from the sacrificial fire, and from Abraham's uplifted knife, back to dewy green pastures poppy-starred, back to some cool dell where Syrian oleanders flushed the shade, as easily as I can defy these walls, loosen the chain of fate, elude my awful doom."
"It is because you are not yet yourself, that you take such a despairing view of matters. After a while, things will look very different, and you are too plucky to surrender your life without a brave fight. A great change has come over Mr. Dunbar, and there is no telling what he cannot do, when he sets to work. If ever a lawyer's heart has been gnawed by remorse, it is his. He and Miss Gordon together can pull you out of the bog, and I believe they will."
"Mr. Dunbar's professional reputation is more precious in his sight than a poor girl's life; moreover, even if he desired to undo his work, he could not. I am beyond human succor. Fate nails me to a cross, but God consents; so I make no struggle, for behind fate stands God—and my father."
Wearily she leaned back on her pillows, and turned her face to the wall. Mrs. Singleton drew the blankets over her, folded her own shawl about the shoulders, and smoothing away the hair, kissed her on the temple; then stole into the adjoining room, where her children slept.
Before the fire that leaped and crackled in the wide chimney, and leaning forward to rest her turbaned head against the mantelpiece, while she spread her hands toward the blaze, stood a much muffled figure.
Mrs. Singleton had left the door ajar, and the old woman turned and pointed to it, laying one finger on her lips; but the warning came too late.
"Hush! I don't want her to know I am here. Your husband told me she was sitting up, and in her right mind, but too weak to stand any more trouble. I wish I could run away, and never see her again, for when I go in there, I feel like I was carrying a knife to cut the heart out of a fawn, what the hounds had barely left life in. I can't bear the thought of having to tell her—"
Dyce covered her face with her shawl, to stifle her sobs, and her large frame shook. Mrs. Singleton whispered:
"Tell me quick. What is it."
"Miss Ellie is dead. I got there three days after she was buried."
The warden's wife sank into a chair, and drew the weeping negro into one beside her.
"Do you know exactly what time she died?"
"Yes—I had it all put down in black and white. She died on Tuesday night, just as the clock struck two; and the hospital nurse says—Lord, amercy, Miss Susan! are you going to faint? You have turned ashy!"
As Mrs. Singleton's thoughts recurred to the fact that it was at that hour that Beryl lay in the stupor of the crisis, from which she awoke perfectly conscious, and recalled the dream that the sick girl held as a vision, she felt a vague but bewildering dread seize her faculties, in defiance of cool reason, and scoffing scepticism.
"Go on, Dyce. I felt a little sick. Tell me—"
She paused and listened to an unusual and inexplicable noise issuing from the next room; the harsh sound of something scraping the bare floor.
"You must pick your time to break this misery to that poor young thing. I can't do it. I would run a mile sooner than face her with the news, that her ma is dead; and I have grieved and cried, till I feel like my brains had been put in a pot and biled. The Lord knows His bizness, of course; yes, of course He knows the best to do; but 'pears to me, His mercy hid its face behind His wrath, when He saw fit to let that poor innercent young creetur in there get well, after her ma was laid in the grave. It will be a harder heart than mine what can stand by, and tell her she is motherless."
"There is no need to tell her. She knows it."
"How? Did she get the letter the Doctor said he wrote?"
"No. She thinks her mother—"
The noise explained itself. Too feeble to walk alone, Beryl had pushed a chair before her, until she reached the door, and now stood grasping it, swaying to and fro, as she endeavored to steady herself. One hand held at her throat the black shawl, whose loosened folds fell like a mourning mantle to her feet, the other clutched the door, against the edge of which she leaned for support.
"Dyce, I have known for some days that I have no mother in this world. I have seen her. Your kind heart dreads giving me pain, but nothing can hurt me now. I cannot suffer any more, because I am bruised and beaten to numbness. I want to see you alone; I want to know everything."
At sight of her, the old woman darted forward and caught the tall, wasted, tottering form in her strong arms. Lifting her as though she had been a child, she bore her back to her small bleak room, laid her softly on her cot, then knelt down, and burst into a fit of passionate crying.
As if to shut out some torturing vision, Beryl clasped her hands over her eyes, and when she spoke, her voice was very unsteady:
"Did you see mother alive?"
"Oh, honey, I was too late! I was three days too late to see her at all. When I got to New York, and found the Doctor's house, he was not at home; had just gone to Boston a half hour before I rung the bell. His folks couldn't tell me nothin', so I had to wait two days. When I give him your note, he looked dreadful cut up, and tole me Miss Ellie had all the care and 'tention in the world, but nothin' couldn't save her. He said she didn't suffer much, but was 'lirious all the time, until the day before she died, when all of a sudden her mind cleared. Then she axed for you, honey—God bless you, my poor lamb! I hate to harrify your heart. The Doctor comforted her all he could, and tole her bizness of importance had done kept you South. Miss Ellie axed how long she could live; he said only a few hours. She begged him to prop her up, so she could write a few words. He says he held the paper for her, and she wrote a little, and rested; and then she wrote a little mere and fell back speechless. He pat the piece of paper in a invellop and sealed it, and axed her if she wished it given to her daughter Beryl. She couldn't talk then, but she looked at him and nodded her head. That was about four o'clock in the evening of Tuesday. She had a sort of spasm, and went to sleep. At two o'clock, she woke up in Heaven. He said he felt so sorry for you—dear lamb! He wouldn't let them burry her where most was hurried that died in the hospital. He had her laid away in his own lot in some graveyard, where his childun was burried, 'till he could hear from you. He tole me, she was tenderly handled, and everything was done as you would have wanted it; and he cut off some of the beautiful hair—and—"
Dyce smothered her sobs in the bedclothes, but Beryl lay like a stone image.
"Oh, honey! It jest splits my heart in two, to tell you all this—"
"Go on, Dyce."
"The doctor gin me a note to the nuss at the hospital, what 'tended the ward Miss Ellie was in, and I got all her clothes, and packed 'em in a box and brought 'em home. She told me pretty much what the doctor had said, only she was shore your ma spoke jest before she died, and called twice—'Ignace! Ignace!' She said she was beautiful as a angel and her hair was a wonder to all who saw her, it was so long and so lovely. She tole me the doctor hissef put a big bunch of white carnations and tuberoses in her hand, after they put her in the coffin, and she looked like a queen. The doctor wrote you a letter 'splainin' everything, and sent it to the postmaster here. He seemed dreadfull grieved and 'stonished when I tole him how I had left you, and said if he could help you, he would be very glad to do it. I tole him we would pay his bill, as soon as this here trial bizness was over; and he answered: 'Tut—tut; bill indeed! That poor unfortunate girl need never worry over any bill of mine. I did all I could for her mother, but the best of us fail sometimes. Tell that poor child to come and see me, as soon as she gets out of the clutches of those fire-eating devils down South.' Honey, I couldn't be satisfied without seeing for myself, where they had laid my dear young mistiss. I got 'rections from the doctor, and I spent good part of a day huntin' the cemetery, and at last a man in a uniform showed me Doctor Grantlin's lot. Oh, my lamb! That was the first and only comfort I had, when I stood in front of that grand lovely marble potico—with great angels kneeling on the four corners, and knew my dear young mistiss was resting in such a beautiful place. I felt so proud that ole mistiss' chile was among the best people, sleeping with flowers in her hands, in that white marble house! I wanted to be shore there warn't no mistake, and the keeper of the graveyard tole me a lady had been put 'temporary' in the vault, four days before. I had bought a bunch of violets from a flower shop, but I could not get nearer than the door, where some brass rods was stretched like a kind of a net; so I laid my little bunch down on the marble steps, close as I could push it agin the rod; and though I couldn't see my dear young mistiss, maybe—up in heaven—she will know her poor ole mammy did not forgit her, and—"
The old woman cried bitterly, and one thin hand, white as a snowflake, fell upon her bowed head, and softly stroked her black wrinkled face. After some minutes, when the paroxysm of weeping had spent itself, Dyce took the hand, kissed it reverently, and pressed into it a package.
"The doctor tole me to put that into your hands. He said he knew it would be very precious to you, but he felt shore he could trust me to bring it safe. Now, honey, I know you want to be by yourself, when you read your ma's last words. I will go and set in yonder by the fire, till you call me. My heart aches and swells fit to bust, and I can't stan' no more misery jest now, sech as this."
For some moments, Beryl lay motionless, then the intolerable agony clutched her throat with an aching sense of suffocation, and she sat up, with nerveless hands lying on the package in her lap. She was prepared for, expectant of the worst, but the details added keener stings to suffering that had benumbed her. At last, with a shuddering sigh, she broke the seal, and took from folds of tissue paper, a long thick tress of the beautiful black hair. Shaking it out of its satin coil, she held it up, then wrapped it smoothly over her hand, and laid it caressingly against her cheek.
Prison walls melted away; she stood again in the New York attic, and combed, and brushed, and braided those raven locks, and saw the wan face of the beloved invalid, and the jasmine and violets she had pinned at her throat.
What had become of the proud, high-spirited ambitious girl, who laughed at adverse fortune, and forgot poverty in lofty aspirations? How long ago it seemed, since she kissed the dear faded cheek, and knelt for her mother's farewell benediction. Was it the same world? Was she the same Beryl; was the eternal and unchanging God over all, as of yore? She had shattered and ruined the sparkling crystal goblet of her young life, scattering in the dust the golden wine of happy hope, in the effort to serve and comfort that loved sufferer, who, languishing on a hospital cot, had died among strangers; had been shrouded by hirelings. That any other hand than hers had touched her sacred dead, seemed a profanation; and at the thought of the last rites rendered, the loyal child shivered as though some polluting grasp had been laid upon herself. Out of the envelope rolled a broad hoop of reddish gold, her mother's wedding ring; and in zigzag lines across a sheet of paper was written the last message:
"My dear, good little girl, so faithful, so true, my legacy of love is your mother's blessing. You must be comforted to know I am dying in peace, because I trust in your last promise—"
Then a blot, some unintelligible marks, and a space. Lower still, scarcely legible characters were scrawled:
"Tell my darling—to wear my ring as a holy—"
In death as in life, the last word, and the deepest feeling were not for her; the sacred souvenir was left for the hand that had so often stabbed the idolatrous heart, now stilled forever.
In all ages the ninety and nine that go not astray, never feel the caressing touch which the yearning Shepherd lays on the obstinate wanderer, who would not pasture in peace; and from the immemorial dawn of inchoate civilization, prodigals have possessed the open sesame to parental hearts that seemed barred against the more dutiful. By what perverted organon of ethics has it come to pass in sociology, that the badge of favoritism is rarely the guerdon of merit?
To the orphaned, forsaken, disgraced captive, sitting amid the sombre ruins of her life, drinking the bitter lees of the fatal cup a mother's hand had forced to her reluctant lips, there seemed nothing strange in the injustice meted out; for had not the second place in maternal love always been hers? As the great gray eyes darkening behind their tears, like deep lakes under coming rain, read and re-read the blurred lines, the frozen mouth trembled, and Beryl kissed the hair, folded it away in the letter, and pinned both close to her heart. Staggering to her feet, she held up the ring, and said in a broken, half audible voice:
"When I am dead, your darling shall have it; until then lend it to your little girl, as a strengthening amulet. The sight of it will hold me firm, will girdle my soul with fortitude, as it girdles my finger; will set a yet holier seal to the compact whereby I pledged my life, that you might die in peace. If, in the last hour, you had known all my peril, all that my promise entails, would you have released me? Would you have died content knowing that your idol was guarded and safe, behind the cold shield of your little girl's polluted body? The blood in my veins flowed from yours; I slept on your heart, I was the last baby whose lips fed at your bosom. Mother! Mother, if you had known all, could you have seen the load of guilt and shame and woe laid on your innocent child, and bought the life of your first-born, by the sacrifice of a scapegoat? Dear mother, my mother, would you shelter him, and leave your baby to die?"
Slipping the ring on her finger, she kissed it twice. The hot flood of tears overflowed, and she fell on her knees beside the cot, clasping her hands above her bowed head.
"Alone in my desolation! Oh, father! keep close to my soul, and pray that I may have strength to bear my burden, even to the end. My God! My God! sustain me now. Help me to be patient, and when the sacrifice is finished, accept it for Christ's sake, and grant that the soul of my brother may be ransomed, because I die for his sins."
"Well, dear child, what is the trouble? Into what quagmire have your little feet slipped? When you invite me so solemnly to a private conference in this distractingly pretty room, the inference is inevitable that some disaster threatens. Have you overdrawn your bank account?"
Judge Dent leaned back, making himself thoroughly comfortable in a deep easy chair in Leo's luxurious library; and taking his niece's hand, looked up into her grave, sweet face.
"I want you to honor my draft for a large amount. I am about to draw upon your sympathy; can I ever overdraw my account with that royal bank?"
"Upon my sympathy, never; but mark you, this does not commit me to compliance with all your Utopian schemes. If you were raving mad, I should sympathize, but nevertheless I should see that the strait-jacket was brought into requisition. When your generosity train dashes recklessly beyond regulation schedules of safety, I must discharge engineer sympathy, and whistle down the brakes. What new hobby do you intend that I shall ride?"
"I have no intention of sharing that privilege even with you; I merely desire you to inspect the accoutrements, to examine reins, and girth, and stirrup. I lend my hobby to no one, and it is far too mettlesome to 'carry double'. Uncle Mitchell, I feel so unhappy about that poor girl, that I must do something to comfort her, and only one avenue presents itself. I want you to have her brought into court on a writ of Habeas Corpus, and to use your influence with Judge Parkman to grant her bail. I desire to give the amount of bond he may require, because I think it would gratify her, to have this public assurance that she possessed the confidence of her own sex; for nothing so strengthens and soothes a true woman as the sympathy and trust of women."