"Will you let me have the care of it? Take it, and keep it up in my cell?"
"I shall be only too thankful, if you will lift the load from my shoulders."
"Tell the steward to bring me a cup of warm, sweetened milk and a cracker. The poor little lamb must be almost famished."
Through an open window streamed the radiance of a daffodil sky, flecked with curling plumes of drifting fire, and the glory fell like a benediction on the iron cot, where lay the body of the early dead; a small, slight, blond girl wearing prematurely the crown of maternity, whose thorns had torn and stained the smooth brow of mere childhood. The half-opened eyes, fixed in their filmy blue glaze, seemed a prayer for the pretty infant, whose head, a glistening tangle of yellow curls, was nestled down against the bare white throat of the rigid mother; while the dimpled hands pulled fretfully at the blood-spattered gown, that was buttoned across the breast.
As clusters of wild snowy violets springing up in the midst of mud and mire, in a noxious swamp, look doubly pure and sweet because of fetid surroundings,—so this blossom of the slums, this human bud, with petals of innocence folded close in the calyx of babyhood, seemed supremely and pathetically fair, as she stood leaning against the cot, the little rosy feet on tip-toe, pressing toward her mother; tears on the pink velvet of the round cheeks, on the golden lashes beneath the big blue eyes that grew purplish behind the mist.
The Macedonia of suffering humanity lies always within a stone's throw; and the "cry for help" had found speedy response in more than one benevolent heart.
A gray-haired widow from the "Sheltering Arms," to which Sister Serena belonged, and a Sister of Charity from the hospital in X—-, were already ministering tenderly in the crowded ward; and both had essayed to coax away the little figure clutching her mother's gown; but the flaring white cap of one, and the flapping black drapery of the other, frightened the trembling child.
Into the group stole Beryl; followed closely by the yellow cat, which had become her shadow. Kneeling beside the baby, she kissed it softly, took one of the hands, patted her own cheek with it, and lifted the cat to the mattress, where it began to purr. The silky shock of yellow curls was lifted, the wide eyes stared wonderingly first at Beryl's face bending near, then at the cat; and by degrees, the lovely waif suffered an arm to draw her farther and farther, while her rose-red mouth parted in a smile, that showed six little teeth, and with one hand fastened in the cat's fur, she was finally lifted and borne away; Beryl's soft cheek nestled against hers, the bronzed head bent down to the yellow ringlets; one arm holding the baby and the cat, while the other white hand closed warmly over the child's bare, cold, dimpled feet.
Fair and flowery as in the idyllic dawn when Theocritus sang its pafatoral charms, was that sunny Sicilian land where, one May morning, Leo Gordon wandered with a gay party in quest of historic sites, which the slow silting of the stream of time had not obliterated. Viewed from the heights of Achradina, whence all the vestiges of magnificence and luxury have vanished, and only the hideous monument of "man's inhumanity to man" remains, what a vast panorama stretched far as the horizon on every side.
To the north, girding the fire-furrowed plain of Catania where olive, lemon, oleander and orange springing out of black lava, mingled hues like paints on an ebony palette—rose vast, lonely, purple at base, snowy at summit, brooding Etna; dozing in the soft, sweet springtime, with red, wrathful eyes veiled by a silvery haze. An unlimited expanse of crinkling blue sea, shot like Persian silk with gleams of gold, and laced here and there with foam scallops, bounded the east; smiling treacherously above the ghastly wreck sepultured in its coral crypts, that might have told of the crash of triremes, the flames of sinking galleys, which twenty-two centuries ago lit the bloody waves that closed over slaughtered hosts.
Westward lay green, wimpling vales, studded with laurel, arched with vine-draped pergolas, dotted widi flocks, dimpled with reedy marshes where red oxen browsed; and beyond the pale pink flush of almond groves—
"A smoke of blue olives, a vision of towers."
Bucolic paradise of Battus and Bombyce, of Corydon and Daphnis, may it please the hierophants of Sanskrit lore, of derivative Aryan philology, of iconoclastic euhemerism, to spare us yet awhile the lovely myths that dance across the asphodel meads of sunny Sicily.
On the verge of the parapet of the Latomia, where the breath of the sirocco, the gnawing tooth of time, and the slow ravelling of rain had serrated the ledge, stood Leo, gazing into the dizzying depths of the charnel house that swarmed with the ghosts of nine thousand men, who once were huddled within its stony embrace.
As if pitying nature had striven to appease the manes of the unburied dead, a pall of luxuriant ivy and glossy acanthus covered the bottom and sides of the quarry, one hundred feet below; but out of the dust of centuries stared the rayless eyes of corpses, and the gaunt despairing faces seemed still uplifted, now in invocation, anon in imprecation to the overarching sky, where blistering suns mocked them by day, and glittering moons and silver stars paused in their westward march through dewy night, to tell them tantalizing tales of how musically Aegean wavelets broke against the marbles at Piraeus; how loud the nightingales sang in the plane and poplar groves at home; how the white glory of the Parthenon smiled down on violet-crowned Athens, where their wives and children thronged the temples, in sacrificial rites to insure their safety.
In crevices of the perpendicular walls lush creepers tapestried the gray stone, and far down, out of the mould of the subterranean dungeon, sprang slim lemon trees snowed over with fragrant bloom, clumps of oleander waving banners of vivid rose, and golden-green pomegranate bushes, where scarlet flakes glowed like the wings of tropical birds.
"Well, is the game worth the candle? After voyaging thousands of miles, do you feel repaid; or down there, in the heart of the desolation, do you see only the grinning mask of jeering disappointment, which generally follows American realists into the dusty haunts of Old World idealism?"
As she spoke, Alma Cutting stepped back under the cool canopy of a spreading fig-tree, and fanned herself with a tuft of papyrus leaves. She was a tall, handsome woman, pronouncedly brunette in type, with large black eyes whose customary indolent indifference of expression did not entirely veil the fires "banked" under the velvet iris; and a square, firm mouth, around whose full crimson lips lurked a certain haughtiness, that despite the curb of good breeding, bordered at times closely upon insolence. Thirty years had tripped over this dark head, where the hair, innocent of crimp or curl, hung in a straight jet fringe low on her wide forehead; and though no lines marred the smooth, health-tinted skin, she was perceptibly "sun burnt by the glare of life," and the dew of youth had vanished before the vampire lips of ennui.
"Disappointed? Certainly not; and I were exacting and unreasonable indeed, if I did not feel abundantly repaid. Alma, since the days when I pored over Thucydides, Plutarch, Rollin and Grote, this spot has beckoned to my imagination with all the uplifted hands of the nine thousand captives; and the longing of years is to-day completely gratified."
"Am I unusually stupid, or are you rapt, beyond the realm of reason and mid-day common sense? Pray what is the fascination? It is neither so vast, nor so picturesque as the Colosseum. There, one expects to hear the roar of the beasts springing on their human prey; the ring of steel on steel, when the gladiators have bowed like dancing-masters to the bloated old bald-headed Neros and Vespasians; and you fancy that you smell the fountains of perfume that toss their spray from tier to tier; and see the rainbow of the silk awning flapping overhead. Better than all, you imagine you can watch the ravishing toilettes of the Faustinas, and Fulvias and Messalinas who flirt with the handsome, straight-nosed beaux so immensely classical in their togas; and when their thunder-browed husbands unexpectedly step in behind, it is so easy to conjecture the sudden change of theme, as they spread their fans to cover the message just written on their ivory tablets, and straightway fall to clawing the characters of all the Cornelias, and Calpurnias, and Octavias and Julia Domnas, and other respectable wives! All that I quite enjoyed because I understood. Eight years' campaigning in New York, and London and Paris would teach even an idiot that nineteenth century 'best society' can lift you so close to the naughtiness of the golden Roman era, that one only has to strain a very little on tip-toe, to feel at one's ease with the jeunesse doree of dead ages. Here—what do you find in a huge stone well sunk into the bowels of the earth? About as enticing as a plunge into a dry cistern, suddenly unroofed? If spectres we must hunt, do let them be festive, like those Faust danced with on the Brocken!"
"You should be ashamed, Alma! Miss Gordon is the very soul of courteous toleration, or she would resent the teasing goad of your Philistinism," cried the brother, Rivers Cutting, who in his new style yachting suit of blue cloth appeared veritably the jaunty genius of fashionable modernity, confronting the ghost of antiquity.
"You forget, Rivers, some of the sage dicta you brought back from the 'Summer School of Philosophy', when you followed your last Boston flame to Concord, where she went poaching on the sacred preserves of the 'Illuminati,' hunting a new sensation. 'We must be as courteous to human beings as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light.' Now being Leo's very sincere friend, and knowing that the supreme moment of her facial triumph is when, like a startled fawn, she opens her eyes wide in horrified amazement at some inconceivable heresy, do you suppose I am so recreant to loyalty as to fail in providing her occasionally with the necessary Gorgon, ethical or archaeolegical, as surroundings warrant?
"History was never the fetich of my girlhood, and that quartette of dry-as-dust worthies whom Leo carries around in leash, as other women carry pugs and poodles, came near giving me meningitis in my tender years. My first governess, a Puritan spinster, full of zeal, and conscientiously bent on earning her wages, by exercising my brains to their utmost capacity, undertook to introduce me to all the highly immoral personages and practices that made the Punic Wars famous. By way of making Imilco a lifelong acquaintance, she illustrated the siege of Agrigentum by a huge, hideous image of Phalaris' 'Brazen Bull,' drawn with chalk on the school-room blackboard.
"A wonderful beast it certainly was; that taurus with head lowered, tail lashing the air, one hoof pawing savagely, worthy representative of all the horrors it typified, and which she explained with maddening perspicuity. That night, when papa tore himself away from the club room at one o'clock, and met mamma on the doorstep—just coming home from a supper at Delmonico's after an opera party—they were ascending the stairs, when frantic cries drove from her ears the echoes of 'Traviata's' witching strain. Thinking only a conflagration would justify the din, papa threw up the hall sash and shouted 'fire!' and the police sounded the alarm, and all pandemonium broke loose. Investigation discovered me, wriggled half way down to the foot of my bed, buried under the blankets, and shrieking 'Perillus' Bull! I am roasting in the Brass Bull!' Being not very ardent disciples of Clio, my solicitous parents failed to understand the nightmare; hence cracked ice was folded over my head (mid-winter), and the family physician ordered a mustard plaster half a yard long, down my spine. I vividly remember Imilco, and the bovine fury pawing the blackboard; but of the three Punic Wars, then and there tabooed, I recall only the brass monster at Agrigentum. Leo, when we reach Girgenti, the remaining Mecca of your historic hopes, some time to-morrow, you will understand why, instead of climbing to the temples of the cliff, I shall lock the door of our cabin, and drown the bellowing of the beast in Daudet's new book."
"I wish, indeed I do, that you had staid there to-day, instead of coming ashore to dampen all our ardor and enthusiasm by your constant thin drizzle of scorn. One should suppose that in this idyllic region, some ray of poetic warmth must melt your frigid, scoffing soul. Daudet suits my sister far better than Theocritus," answered her brother, fastening a sprig of orange blossom in his button hole.
Pushing back her sailor hat, Alma looked obliquely at him from beneath her drooping lids.
"Try me. Perhaps infection haunts the air. Spare us the Greek, come down from your Yale and Harvard heights to the level of my ignorance, and warble for me in English some of your Sicilian lark's melodies. At least I have heard of Amaryllis and Simaetha."
Mr. Cutting shook his head.
"What—? Ashamed of your bucolic hobby! No wonder—since after all it's only a goat. I dare you, brother mine, to produce me a Theocritan fragment."
"Take the consequences of your rash levity; though I have a dawning suspicion some 'Imp of the Perverse' has coached you for the occasion."
He stroked his mustache, pondered a moment, then struck an attitude, and declaimed:
"I go a serenading to Amaryllis; what time my flocks browse on the mountains, and Tityrus drives them. Tityrus beloved of me in the highest degree, feed my flocks and lead them to the fountain, etc."
Mimicking his tone exactly, Alma finished the line:
"And mind, Tityrus, that tawny Libyan he-goat lest he butt thee!' Come, Rivers; free translation is allowable, considering surroundings, but not garbling; and every time you know you substituted flocks for goats. Proceed, and do not insult your pet author with emendations."
With his hat on the back of his head, and his thumbs in the armholes of his vest, Mr. Cutting resumed:
"Sweet Amaryllis! though by death defiled, Thee shall I ne'er forget; dear to my heart As are my frisking goats, thou did'st depart. To what a lot—was I, unhappy, born!"
Again the mocking voice responded:
"But see! yon calves devour The olive branches. Pelt them off I pray.
"Confound the calves! 'St—! you white-skin thief—away!' Thanks, no more at present. Doubtless it sounds very fine in Greek, because then, I could not possibly understand that it is the melody and the rhythmic dance of bleating calves, and capering goats. Here come the stragglers laden with plunder. Oh, papa! Do give me those exquisite acacia clusters."
"My dear, I have ordered luncheon spread down there, in that strange garden. It is the queerest place imaginable; and looking up, the effect is quite indescribable."
"Have you had the skulls polished for drinking cups, and printed the menus on cross-bones? What shocking taste to add insult to injury by spreading all our wealth of canned dainties on the very stones where sit the ghosts of those who perished from hunger and thirst! Eminently Dantesque, but the sacrilege appalls Leo. She would sooner attend an oyster supper, or a clam-bake in the Catacombs, or—" bowing to a young Englishman standing near, "lead a German in the Poets' corner of Westminster Abbey. My dear girl, under which flag do you fight? Athenian, Roman, Carthagenian, Syracusan?
"The child of a man who fell in defence of his own fireside, could scarcely fail to sympathize with the holy cause of the invaded; yet here, in view of the horrors inflicted upon the captives, one almost leans to Athens. It seems to me the most enduring monument of Syracusan glory survives in the eloquent protest of Nicolaus against her cruelty; especially when we recollect that it came from one who, of all others, had most to forgive. Old, decrepit, unable to walk, the venerable sorrow-laden man whose only children, two sons, had died fighting to save Syracuse—was carried on a litter into the midst of the shouting thousands, who were drunk with the wine of victory. 'Behold an unhappy father, who has most cause to detest the Athenians, the authors of this war, the murderers of my children! But I am less sensible of my private afflictions than of the honor of my country, when I see it ready to expose itself to eternal infamy by violating the law of nations, and dishonoring our victory by barbarous cruelty. What! Will you tarnish your glory, and have all the world say that a nation who first dedicated a temple in their city, to Clemency, found none in yours? Triumphs and victories do not give immortal glory to a city; but the use of moderation in the greatest prosperity, the exercise of mercy toward a vanquished enemy, the fear of offending the gods by a haughty and insolent pride.' What a theme for Dore or Munkacsy?"
"Thank you ever so much, Miss Gordon, for brushing away the library dust from that historic cameo. I had so utterly forgotten it lay in the musty tomes, that it has all the charm of a curio." Mr. Cutting took off his hat, and bowed.
"Acknowledgments are due rather to my cousin, Dr. Douglass, who called my attention to the passage. The best of all things good abide with him; and out of his overflowing store, he shares with the needy. Only last night he reminded me of an illustration of the vanitas vanitatum of human fame and national gratitude, to be found over yonder in the necropolis. Less than a hundred and forty years after his death, Archimedes was so completely forgotten by the city he had immortalized, that Syracuse denied he was buried on her soil; and a foreigner had the honor of clearing away rubbish and brambles, in order to show the grave to his own countrymen."
Leighton Douglass handed to his cousin a bunch of the delicate lilac blossoms of acanthus, tied with a wisp of some ribbon-like grass, and taking off his spectacles, replied:
"Leo unduly exalts my memory at the expense of her own; and we have all levied heavily on her fund of topographical accuracy."
"If I travel much longer with two such learned and philosophical scholars, I shall inevitably degenerate into an intellectual Dodder," yawned Alma.
"Into a what?" asked her father.
"A Dodder, sir. Pray, papa, be more considerate than to force Doctor Douglass to believe that instead of listening to the sermon he preached us last year, you either slept ignominiously throughout its delivery, or else allowed your unregenerate thoughts to dwell on those devices of Lucifer, 'puts,' 'calls, 'spreads,' 'corners, 'spots' and 'futures'. Of course you remember that he believes in evolution? There was a time, even in my extremely recent day, when that word was more frightful to the orthodox than a ton of nitro-glycerine; was to the elect, a fouler abomination even than opera bouffe and the can can. But 'the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns', and now it appears that the immortal soul of us must be evolved, somewhat in the same fashion as protoplasm, and unless we fight for 'survival' elsewhere, we shall not be numbered among the spirited 'fittest', but degenerate into parasites, dodders, backsliders. So, drawing nutriment from the Doctor's historic brains, and from Leo's, I fall back into worse than a dodder, a torpid violator of the Law of Work, a hopeless Sacculina! Doctor Douglass, it was the bravest hour of your life when you stood up in—church pulpit, and told us the scientists whom we were wont to regard as more dreadful than the cannibals and Calmucks, are only a devoted sect of truth seekers, preaching from older texts, and drawing nearer and nearer to the kingdom of Heaven. To throw that ethical bomb, required more courage than Balaklava."
"Mine was merely a feeble attempt to follow out the analogical reasoning of one of the most original and scientific thinkers of our day in Great Britain; but the fact that you recall so correctly the line of argument in a sermon delivered more than a year ago, is certainly complimentary assurance of at least approximate success in my effort."
"After all, I am sorry I humored Leo's whim, and persuaded papa to bring us here."
"Why, my dear? We are enjoying it immensely," said her father.
"Because Syracuse has proved my 'crumpled rose leaf', by destroying the prestige of the 'Cleopatra'. Hitherto, I deemed our yacht quite the most complete and gorgeous floating palace since the days of its highly improper namesake's marauding sails on the Cydnus."
"And so she is; there is nothing afloat comparable to her in speed, appointments, comfort and beauty," interrupted Mr. Cutting.
"Poor papa! How he bristles at the bare suggestion of rivalry. Be comforted, sir, in the knowledge that at least we shall not be run down by a phantom cruiser. It is very humiliating to American pride—after winning the international prizes, and boasting so inordinately, to find out that we are only about—how many centuries, Leo?—twenty-five centuries behind Syracuse in building pleasure crafts. Think of a superb cabin with staterooms containing beds (not bunks) for one hundred and twenty guests, and the floors all covered with agates and other precious stones, that formed a mosaic copy of the Iliad! If you wished to emphasize a discussion on connubial devotion, behold! there on your right, Andromache and Hector; if one's husband objected to a harmless flirtation, lo! on the left, Agamemnon and Briseis; and to point the moral of 'pretty is, as pretty does'—how very convenient to indicate with the tip of your satin slipper, the demure figure of Helen standing on the walls, to watch the duel between Menelaus and Paris! Fancy the consolation a person of my indolent Sacculina temperament might have derived from the untimely fate of Cassandra, oppressed with knowledge in advance of her day and generation! There was the gymnasium for the beaux; and for the belles bona fide gardens, with walks and arbors covered with ivy and flowering vines whose roots rested in great stone vessels filled with earth. Imagine the boudoir and bathrooms paved with precious stones, encrusted with carved ivory and statues—"
"Pooh! Alma. That rigmarole is not in the guide books. Come, Dixon is waving his handkerchief down there, as a signal that luncheon is ready."
"I prefer to wait here. Alma, bring me some anemones, and a sprig of ivy from the circular garden, when you come back," said Leo.
Doctor Douglass drew closer, and asked:
"Will you let me stay also, and enjoy with you the wonderful charm of this opalescent air, this beautiful cincturing sea?"
"I would rather be alone. Solitude is a luxury rarely allowed on a yacht cruise; and I want a few quiet moments. By day, poor Aunt Patty has so much to tell me; at night, Alma is a chattering owl."
There are hours when the ghost of a happy past, from which we have persistently fled, constrains us to give audience; and Leo surrendered herself to memories that brought a very mournful shadow into her brave brown eyes. Thirteen months had passed since her departure from X—-and despite changing scenes and novel incidents, she could not escape the haunting face that met her on mountains, was mirrored in every sea; the brilliant mesmeric face set in its frame of crisp black locks, with dark blue eyes whose intense lustre had the cold, hard gleam of jewels. Sleeping or waking, always that dear, powerful face daring her to forget.
When Doctor Douglass and Miss Patty joined the yacht party at Palermo, the former had brought a letter and a package, which sorely tested Leo's strength of will. Leaning to-day against the twisted body of an old olive tree, she opened and read once more, the final message.
"When Leighton places this sheet in your hands, the year of release which I could not refuse you, will have expired. Once your noble heart was wholly mine; and the proudest moment of my life was, and will be, that in which you promised to be my wife. All that you ever were, you shall always remain to me; and if you can confide your happiness to my keeping, I will never betray the sacred trust. Life has grown sombre to me, during the past eighteen months; and the only companionship that I can hope to cheer it, you alone can bring me. I have not willingly or intentionally forfeited your confidence; but that I have suffered, I shall not deny. If you love me, as in days gone by, our future rests once more in your hands; and you must renew the pledges that at your request I surrendered. In behalf of our past, I beg that you will retain the ring, hallowed forever by the touch of your hand; and its acceptance will typify, if not a renewal of our engagement, at least the perpetuity of a sacred friendship. Awaiting your final decision, I am, my dear Leo,
"Yours as of yore, LENNOX."
All that she had ever been; no more. The graceful, well-bred heiress whom he admired, who commanded his profoundest respect, whom he had known from his boyhood, and who of all others he had desired should preside over his home and wear his name; but not the woman who reigned in his heart; whose touch had lighted the glowing tenderness that so transfigured his countenance, as she saw it that day, bending over a sick convict in a penitentiary.
He offered her formal allegiance, and that pale phantom of affection grounded in reverence, which is to the ardent love that a true woman demands in exchange for her own, as—
"Moonlight unto sunlight; and as water unto wine."
She knew that he was no willing victim of a fascination, which had audaciously deranged his carefully mapped campaign of life; that he would have set his heel on his own insurgent heart, had it been possible; and she honored him for the stern integrity that forbade his affectation of a warmth of feeling which she was now conscious she had never evoked.
Accepting the theory that the young convict was sustained and animated by her devotion to a guilty lover, Leo fully understood that Lennox, even were he mad enough to sacrifice his pride, could indulge no expectation of ever winning the love of the prisoner; and despite her efforts to regard their rupture as final, she had faintly hoped that he would cross the ocean, and in person urge a renewal of the betrothal. The test of absence had proved as effectual as she intended it should be, and his letter proclaimed the humiliating fact, that while honor inspired him to hold out his wrists for conjugal manacles, honor equally constrained him to spare her the wrong and insult of insincere professions of tenderness.
Had she found it possible to condemn him as unworthy, it would have diminished the pain of surrendering the brightest hope of her life; for contempt is the balm a lofty soul offers a bruised heart, but she was just, even in her anguish; and that when barbed the arrow, was the mortifying consciousness that compassion for her was the strongest motive which dictated the carefully phrased letter. She was far too proud to parley with the temptation to accept the shadow in lieu of the substance; and twenty-four hours after the arrival of the final appeal, her answer was speeding with wings of steam across the ocean.
"My heart overflows with gratitude for all the affectionate interest, the kind solicitude, the innumerable thoughtful attentions you have so indefatigably shown to Aunt Patty, in the sad complication of misfortunes that so suddenly overwhelmed her; and I feel the inadequacy of any attempt to express my thanks. Your letter can only rivet more indissolubly the links of an affectionate friendship that must always bind you and me; but the future can hold no renewal of pledges which I feel assured would conduce neither to your happiness, nor to mine. Let us embalm the past and bury it tenderly; raising no mound to trip our friendly feet in years to come. The serenity of our future might be marred by retrospective gleams of the beautiful ring that once enclosed two lives; hence, I have ordered the diamonds reset in the form of a four-leaved clover, which will be sent to dear Kittie as an auspicious omen.
"With undiminished esteem, and unshaken confidence, and with a prayer for your happiness, which will always be dear to me, I remain,
"Your sincerely attached friend,
The majority of men, and a large class of women, bury their dead, and straightway begin assiduously the cultivation of all that promises oblivion; but Leo's nature was deeper, more intense; and while she made no audible moan, and shed no tears, she accepted the fact that earthly existence had lost its coveted crown, and that her aching heart was the dark grave of a beautiful hope that could know no resurrection. To-day she asked herself: "What shall I do with my life?"
Upon the warm air, sweet with the breath of lemon flowers, floated the peculiar, jeering, yet subdued and musical laughter, which told that Alma had flown straight at some luckless quarry. She held in one hand a cluster of crimson anemones, and purple stars of periwinkle, and walking between two English gentlemen, whose yacht, the "Albatross", lay anchored close to the "Cleopatra" in the harbor below, slowly approached Leo, saying:
"Don't stone your prophets. Especially one hedged about with the triple sanctity of Brasenose! 'Consider that thy marbles are but the earth's callosities, thy gold and silver its faeces; thy silken robe but a worm's bedding; and thy purple an unclean fish.' That is one sugar-coated pill that I administer to my humility now and then to keep it healthy. Hear him again;—'sitting on the marble bench of one of the exhedrea on the edge of the Appian Way, close to the fragrant borders of a rose farm': 'So it is, with the philosophers; all alike are in search of happiness, what kind of thing it is. It is pleasure, it is virtue; what not? All philosophers, so to speak, are but fighting about the ass' shadow. I saw one who poured water into a mortar, and ground it with all his might with a pestle of iron, fancying he did a thing useful; but it remained water only, none the less.' Stoicism, hedonism, the gospel of 'Sweetness and Light'; what is it, may I ask, that your aesthetic priests furnish, to feed immortal British souls? Knee breeches, sun flowers, niello, cretonne, Nanking bowls, lily dados? To us it savors sorrowfully of that which one of your prophets foreshadowed, 'Despair, baying as the poet heard her, in the ruins of old Rome'."
"Beg pardon, Miss Cutting; but you quite surprise me. The tone of many American papers and magazines led us to suppose, really, that the rosy dawn of Culture was beginning to flush the night of Philistinism brooding over your Western world."
"Believe it not. Primeval gloom, raw realism so weigh upon our apathetic souls, that we rub our eyes and stare at sight of your aesthetic catechism: 'Harmony, but no system; instinct, but no logic; eternal growth and no maturity; everlasting movement, and nothing attained; infinite possibilities of everything; the becoming all things, the being nothing.' We have too much Philistine honesty to pretend that we understand that, but like other ambitious parrots we can commit to memory. One of your seers tells us that: 'Renaissance art will make our lives like what seems one of the loveliest things in nature, the iridescent film on the face of stagnant water!' Now it will require at least a decade, to train us to appreciate the subtile symphonies of ditch slime. An English friend compassionating my American stupidity, essayed to initiate me in the cult of 'culture', and gave me a leaf to study, from the latter-day gospel. I learned it after a time, as I did the multiplication table. 'Culture steps in, and points out the grossness of untempered belief. It tells us the beauty of picturesque untruth; the grotesqueness of unmannerly conviction; truth and error have kissed each other in a sweet, serener sphere; this becomes that, and that is something else. The harmonious, the suave, the well bred waft the bright particular being into a peculiar and reserved parterre of paradise, where bloom at once the graces of Panthism, the simplicity of Deism, and the pathos of Catholicism; where he can sip elegances and spiritualities from flowerets of every faith!' Fancy my crass ignorance, when I assure you that I actually laughed over that verbal syllabub, thinking it intended as a famous bit of satire."
"Then it is pathetically true that reverence for the Renaissance has not crossed the Atlantic?" asked one of the "Albatross" party, who with his sketch book half open, was surreptitiously making an "impressionist" view of Leo's profile, as she stood listening to Alma's persiflage, and mechanically arranging her lilac acanthus blossoms.
"Devoted British colporteurs have philanthropically scattered a few art primers and tracts, and there is a possibility that in the near future, our people may search the maps for Orvieto, and the dictionaries for Campo Santo, to compass the mysteries of the 'Triumph of Death', and of 'Symmetria Prisca'. Some of us have even heard of 'Aucassin et Nicolette', and of 'Nencia da Barberino', picking salad in her garden; and I am almost sure a Vassar girl once spoke to me of Delia Quercia's Ilaria; but with all my national pride, candor compels me to admit that it is a 'far cry' to the day when we can devoutly fall on our knees before the bronze Devil of Giovanni da Bologna. Aesthetic paupers, we sit on the lowest bench at the foot of the class, in your Dame's Art School, to learn the alphabet of the wonderful Renaissance; and in our chastened and reverent mood, it almost takes our breath away when your high-priestess unrolls the last pronunciamento, and tells us her startling story of 'Euphorion!' Why? Ah!—don't you know? The Puritan leaven of prudery, and the stern, stolid, phlegmatic decorum of Knickerbockerdom mingle in that consummate flower of the nineteenth century occident, the 'American Girl', who pales and flushes at sight of the carnival of the undraped—in English art and literature. Here, Leo, take your anemones; red, are they not, as the blood once chilled down yonder, in that huge stone kennel? Dr. Douglass has the ivy root; and he and I have concluded, that after all, Syracuse was not more cruel here in the Latomia, than some States in America, where convicts are leased to mining companies, and kept quarrying coal, without even the sweet consolation of staring up at this magical blue sky. We leave hideous moral and physical leprosy at home, and come here to shed dilettante tears over classic tatters twenty-five centuries old! O immortal and ubiquitous Tartufe!"
As Leo walked with her cousin toward the spot, where the "Cleopatra" rose and fell on the crest of waves racing before Libeccio, she suddenly laid her hand on his arm.
"Leighton, I have decided to leave the yacht at Venice and take Aunt Patty to Udine for rest and quiet. When summer is over, I shall be ready to make arrangements for the journey to Syria and Egypt, and you must complete your church mission to England in time to accompany us to Jerusalem."
"Is this your itinerary, or Aunt Patty's?"
"She has set her heart upon it; and it will be agreeable to me."
Is it true that in abstract valuation, "the bird in hand, is worth two in the bush?"
We stand beneath a loaded apricot tree, and would give all the bushel within reach, for one crimson satin globe pendent on the extreme tip of the most inaccessible bough; and the largest, luscious, richest colored orange always glows defiantly, high up, close to the body of the tree, hedged away from our eager grasp by its impenetrable chevaux de frise of bristling thorns. The wonderful water lily we covet is smiling on its green cushion of leaves just beyond the danger line, where death lurks; the rhododendron flame that burned brightest amid surrounding floral fires, and lured us, springs from the crevice of some beetling precipice, waving a challenge over fatal chasms that bar possession; and with fretful dissatisfaction we repine, because the colors of the feathered captives in our gilt cages are so dull, so faded in comparison with their brothers, flashing wings of scarlet, and breasts of vivid blue high in the sunlight of God's free air.
The gold and silver dust that powder velvet butterflies, tarnish at a touch, stain the fingers that clutch them; and the dewy bloom on purple and amber grape clusters, never survives the handling of the vintager.
Leaning back in the revolving chair in front of his office desk, Mr. Dunbar slowly tore into strips a number of notes and letters, and suffered the fragments to fall into a waste basket somewhat faded, yet much too elegant to harmonize with its surroundings.
When Leo quilted the lining of ruby silk and knotted the ribbons that tied it to the wicker lace work, love pelted her cheek with roses, and happy hope sang so loud in her ear, that she could not have divined the cruel fact that she was preparing the dainty coffin, destined to receive the mutilated remains of a betrothal, that typified supreme earthly happiness to her. One by one dropped the shreds of Leo's last message from Palermo, like torn crumpled petals of a once beloved and sacred flower; and the faint, delicate perfume that clung to the fragments, was one which Mr. Dunbar recognized as characteristic of the library at the "Lilacs". The contents of the farewell note had in no degree surprised him; for though fully persuaded that her heart was irrevocably pledged to the past, he was equally sure that only the ardor he scorned to feign, would avail to melt the wall of ice her outraged pride had built between them. There were times when he deplored bitterly the loss of her companionship; at others he exulted in the consciousness of perfect freedom to indulge an overmastering love, amenable to no chastisement by violated loyalty. He had scrupulously endeavored, by careful employment of forms of deference, to spare his betrothed as far as possible, the stinging humiliation and anguish which every woman suffers, when the man whom she loves shows her that she fills only a subordinate and insignificant place in his affection; and yet, while her nobler nature commanded his homage, and the brilliancy of the alliance seems to jeer at his blind fatuity, his heart throbbed and yearned with an intolerable longing for one upon whom the world had set the seal of an ineradicable disgrace.
Nature and education had made him a coldly calculating man, jealous of his honor, but immersed in schemes for his own aggrandizement, and superbly invulnerable to the blandishments of sentimentality; hence his amazement, when the deep and engrossing love of his life burned away that selfishness which was citadel of his affections. Because his infatuation had cost him so much, that was alluring alike to vanity, pride, and ambition, a fierce hunger for revenge possessed him; and herein differs the nature of the love of men and women; the one can sacrifice itself for the happiness of the beloved; the other will crucify its darling to appease jealous pangs in view of happiness it can neither inspire nor share.
"Good morning, Churchill. Come in. Glad to see you. Sit down."
"When did you get back, Lennox?"
"Well, what luck?"
"A rather leaky promise. Kneading slag or cold pig iron into Bessemer steel would be about as easy as pounding the law of evidence into the Governor's brains. I emphasized the moral weight of the petition, by calling his attention to the signatures of the judge, jury, prosecuting counsel and especially of Prince, who presumably has most to forgive. The memorial of the inspectors, warden and physician was appended, and constituted a eulogy upon the behavior and character of the prisoner; especially the heroic service rendered by her during the recent fatal epidemic. Human nature is an infernally vexing bundle of paradoxes, and when a man throws his conscience in your teeth, what then? The argument from which I hoped most, proved a Greek horse, and well-nigh wrought ruin. When I dwelt upon the fact that the prisoner had voluntarily conveyed to Prince all right and title to the fortune, which was supposed to have tempted her to commit the crime, he bristled like a Skye terrier, and grandiloquently assured me he valued his 'prerogative as something too sacred to be prostituted to nepotism!' Prince being his cousin, a readiness to exercise Executive clemency by pardoning the prisoner, might be construed into a species of bargain and sale; and his Excellency could not condone a crime merely because the culprit had relinquished a fortune to his relative. Braying an ordinary fool in a mortar is an unpromising job; but an extraordinary official leatherhead, PLUS thin-skinned conscience, and religious scruples, requires the upper and nether mill stone. You know, Churchill, it is tough work to straighten a crooked ramrod."
"I see; a case of moral curvature of the spine. When he was inaugurated last December, I chanced to be at the Capital, and heard two old codgers from the piney woods felicitating the State upon having a Governor, 'Fit to tie to; honest as the day is long, and walks so straight, he is powerful swaybacked.' Dunbar, did he refuse outright?"
"He holds the matter in abeyance for maturer deliberation; but promises that, unless he sees cogent reasons to the contrary, he may grant a pardon when eighteen months of the sentence have expired. That will be the last week in August, and almost two years since she was thrown into prison. I should have made application to his predecessor, Glenbeigh, had I not been so confident of overtaking the man who killed Gen'l Darrington; but the clue that promised so much merely led me astray. I went with the detective down into the mines, and found the man, who certainly had a hideous facial deformity, but he was gray as a badger, and moreover proved an ALIBI, having been sick with small-pox in the county pest-house on the night of the murder. It is a tedious hunt, but I will not be balked of my game. I will collar that wretch some day, and meantime I will get the pardon."
"I hope so; for I shall never feel easy until that poor girl is set free. The more I hear of her deportment and character, especially of the religious influence she seems to be exerting through some Bible readings she holds among the female convicts, the more painfully am I oppressed with the conviction that we all committed a sad blunder, and narrowly escaped hanging an innocent woman."
"Speak for yourself. I disclaim complicity in the disgraceful wrong of the conviction."
"Well, I confess I would rather stand in your place than mine; especially since my wife's brother Garland was called in as consulting physician, last month at the penitentiary. He has so stirred her sympathies for the woman whom he pronounces a paragon of all the virtues and graces, that I begin to fidget now at the sound of the prisoner's name, and can hardly look my wife straight in the face. When I go up to court next week, I will call on the Governor, and add a personal appeal to the one I have already signed. According to the evidence, she is guilty; but when justice is vindicated, one can afford to listen to the dictates of pity. Now, Dunbar, let me congratulate you on your recent good luck. We hear wonderful accounts of your new fortune."
"Rumor always magnifies such matters; still it is true that I have inherited a handsome estate." "Does your sister share equally?"
"A very liberal legacy was left to her, but you are aware that I was named for my mother's brother, Randall Lennox, and he has for many years regarded me as his heir; hence, gave me the bulk of the property."
"It is rather strange that he never married. I recall him as a very distinguished looking man."
"He had a love affair very early in life, while at college, with the daughter of his Greek professor. Surreptitiously he took her to drive one afternoon, and the horse became frightened, ran away and killed the girl. He was a peculiar man, and seems never to have swerved from his allegiance to her memory."
"I hope it is not true that the conditions of the will require you to remove from X—-and settle in New Orleans? We can't afford to lose you from our bar."
"There are no restrictions in my Uncle Lennox's will; the legacy was unconditional; but the obligation of complying with his urgent desire to have me live in New Orleans will probably induce me to make that my future home. For several years he has associated me with him in the conduct of some important suits; and I understand now, that his motive was to introduce me gradually to a new field of professional labor. Not the least valuable of my new possessions is his superb law library, probably the finest in the South. Of course my business will keep me here, for the present, and I have matured no plans."
"Did you reach New Orleans before his death?"
"No, I was in Dakota, and missed a letter designed to acquaint me with his illness. While in Washington on my return, arguing a case before the Supreme Court, a telegram was forwarded from the office here, and I hurried off by the first train, but arrived about ten hours too late. Another grudge I have to settle with that bloody thief, when I unearth him."
"After all, Dunbar, you are a deucedly lucky fellow,—and—Hello! historic Hebrew! Bedney, have you seen a ghost?"
"Yes—Mars Alfred—two of 'em."
Spent with fatigue, panting, with an ashen pallor on his leathery, wrinkled face, the old negro ran in to the office, and leaned heavily against the oak table.
"What is the matter? Positively, you are turning a grayish white. What is the secret of the bleaching? Police after you? Or does the Sheriff want you?"
"Mars Alfred, this ain't no fitten time to crack your on'-Gawdly jokes, for I am scared all but into fits. I started in a brisk walk, but every step I got more and more afeered to look behind, and I struk a fox trot, and now my wind is clean gone."
"What is the trouble? What are you running from?"
"'Fore Gawd, Mars Alfred, sperrits! Sperrits, sir."
"Do you mean that you want a dram to steady your nerves?"
"I'm that frustrated I couldn't say what I want; but I didn't signify bottle and jimmyjohn liquor, I mean sperrits, sir, ghosts what walk, and make the hair rise like wire all over your head. The ole house is hanted shore 'nuff; and I can't stay there. Lem'me tell you, Lord! Mars Alfred, don't laugh! It's the Gawd's truth, ole Marster's sperrit is fighting up yonder in his room with the man what killed him. I seen him, in the broad daylight, and I have cum for you and Mars Lennox to git there, jest as quick as you kin, so you kin see it fur yourselves. I know you won't believe it till you see it; nuther should I, but it's there. The sperrits have cum back, to show my young mistiss' child never killed her grandpa."
Mr. Dunbar rose quickly, handed a glass of water to the old man, and then placed a chair for him.
"Tell me at once what you saw."
"Ole Marster standin' in the flo' close to the vault, with his arm up so—and the handi'on in his own hand—"
"How dare you come here, with this cock-and-bull story? You are either drunk or in your dotage. Your master has been in his grave for eighteen months, and—"
"Oh! to be shore I know'd what you'd say. Cuss me for an idjut; but I swar, Mars Lennox, I am that scared I dasn't to tell you no lie. The proof of the pudden is jest chawin' the bag, an' I want you both to git a carridge quick, and take me up home; and if you don't see what I tell you is thar, you may kick me from the front door clean down to the big gate. The grave is busted wide open, and the dead walks, for I seen him; and I'll sho' him to you. Come on, I want you to see for yourself."
"You imbecile old nincompoop! Go home, and tell Dyce to give you some catnip tea, and tie you to a chair," laughed Mr. Churchill.
"You'll laugh t'other side of your mouth, Mars Alfred, when you see that awful sight up yonder. Ole Marster has come back, to clare the name of his grandchile, for he and his murderer is a wrastling, and it ain't no 'oman, it's a man! A tall, pretty man, with beard on his face."
Mr. Dunbar struck a bell at his side, and a clerk came promptly from the rear room.
"Nesbitt, step over to the livery stable, and order a carriage sent up at once." Turning to Bedney he continued:
"I suppose the gist of all your yarn-spinning is, that you have found a stranger prowling about the place. How did you discover him?"
"Lem'me tell you, as fur as I can, how I cum to see ole Marster. Mr. Prince gin orders that the house should be opened and arred reglar, and he pintedly enjined us to have that room well cleaned and put in order. We had all pintedly gin it a wide berth, and kep' ourselves on t'other side of the house, 'cause all such places is harryfying; but this morning, I thought I would open the outside blind door on the west gallery, and look in through the glass door. I know'd Mr. Prince had stirred round considerable in there, the day before he left, but I didn't know he had drapped the curting what was looped back the last time I was inside. So I went up the steps and clared away a rose vine what was hanging low down from the i'on pillar of the piazzar, and almost screening the door, and I walked up, I did, and looked in. Lord Gawd Amighty! The red curting was down on the inside, and I seen through it, I swar to Gawd I did, sir! I seen clar spang through into that room, and thar stood Marster in his night clothes, jest so—and thar stood that murdering vil'yan close to him, holding the tin box so—and Marster with the handi'on jest daring him to cum on—and—and oh! I am glad to know my Marster was game to the last, died game! Never show'd no white feather while thar was breath in his body. Mars Lennox, I jest drapped on my knees, and I trimbled, and my teeth chattered, and I felt the hair as it riz straight up. I was afeer'd to stay, and I was afeer'd to move; but I shet my eyes and crawled back'ards easy to the aidge of the steps, and then run as fast as I could. I wanted Dyce to see, too, but the poor cretur is so crippled she can't walk, and as she weighs two hundred and twenty pounds, I couldn't tote her; so I tole her what I seen, and she sent me straight to find Mars Alfred fust, and you next. I run to Mars Alfred's office, and he was out, so I kep' on here. I know'd you lie'yers was barking up the wrong tree, and wrongfully pussecutin' that poor young gal; and now the very sperrits have riz up to testify fur her. If you two can face ole Marster's ghost, and tell him you know better than he did who killed him, you've got better pluck and backbone than I give you credit fur."
"What did you eat last night, Bedney? Baked possum, and fried chitterlings? Evidently you have had a heavy nightmare."
Mr. Churchill drew a match across the heel of his boot, and lighted a cigar; looking quizzically at the old man, who was wiping the perspiration from his face.
"There's the carridg, I hear the wheels. Mars Lennox and Mars Alfred, there is one thing I insists on havin'. The law is all lop-sided from fust to last in this here case, and I want it squoze into shape, till t'other side swells out a little. I want the Crowner to go up yonder now, and hold another inquess. He's done sot all wrong on the body, and now let him set on the sperrit if he kin. I'm in plum earnest. The Crowner swore that poor young gal knocked Marster in the head with the handi'on; and yonder stands Marster, ready to brain that man—with that handi'on hilt tight in his own right hand. Now what I wants to know is, WHAR is the 'delectible corpus' what you lieyers argufied over?"
"You doting old humbug! If you decoy us on a wild goose chase I shall feel like cutting one of your ears off!"
"Slit 'em both and welcome, Mars Alfred, if you don't find I'm telling you the Gawd's truth. I feel all tore up, root and branch, and if folks could be scared to death, I should be stretched out this minute on the west piazzar. I had my doubts about ghosts and sperrits, and I lost my religion when I cotch our preacher brandin' one of my dappled crumple-horned hefers with his i'on; but Bedney Darrington is a changed pusson. Come en, let's see which of you will dar to laugh up yonder."
"Are you really bent on humoring this insane or idiotic vagary?" asked Mr. Churchill, as he saw his companion take his hat and prepare to follow the negro, who had left the room.
"His terror is genuine, and his superstitious tale is probably the outer shell of some kernel of fact that may possibly be valuable. In cases of circumstantial evidence, you and I know the importance of looking carefully into the merest trifles. Come with me; you can spare an hour."
Leaving the carriage at the front entrance of the deserted and stately old house, the attorneys crossed the terrace and walked around to the western veranda, preceded by Bedney, who paused at the steps, and waved them to ascend.
"Go up and see for yourselves. I am nigh as I want to git."
The stone floor was strewn with branches of rose vine, and the pruning shears lay open upon them, just as they had fallen from the old man's hand. The sun had passed several degrees below the meridian, and the shadows of the twisted iron columns were aslant eastward, but the glare of light shone on the plate-glass door, which was rounded into an arch at top, and extended within four inches of the surface of the floor, where it fitted into the wooden frame. It was one wide sheet, unbroken into panes, and on the outside dust had collected, and a family of spiders had colonized in the lower corner, spinning their gray lace quite across the base. It was evident that the Venetian blinds had long been closed, and recently opened, as a line of dust and dried drift leaves attested; and behind the glass hung the dull red, plush curtain, almost to the floor.
Both gentlemen pressed forward, and looked in; but saw nothing.
"Hang your head kinder sideways, down so, and look up, Mars Lennox."
Mr. Dunbar changed his position, and after an instant, started back.
"Do you see it, Churchill? No hallucination; it is as plain as print, just like the negative of a photograph."
"Bless my soul! It beats the Chinese jugglers! What a curious thing!"
"Stand back a little; you obstruct the light. Now, how clearly it comes out."
Printed apparently on the plush background, like the images in a camera, were the distinctly outlined and almost life-size figures of two men. Clad in a long gown, with loose sleeves, Gen'l Darrington stood near the hearth, brandishing the brass unicorn in one hand, the other thrown out and clinched; the face rather more than profile, scarcely three-quarters, was wonderfully distinct, and the hair much dishevelled. In front was the second portrait, that of a tall, slender young man who appeared to have suddenly wheeled around from the open vault, turning his countenance fully to view; while he threw up a dark, square object to ward off the impending blow. A soft wool hat pushed back, showed the curling hair about his temples, and the remarkable regularity of his handsome features; while even the plaid pattern of his short coat was clearly discernible.
As the attorneys came closer, or stepped back from the door, the images seemed to vary in distinctness, and viewed from two angles they became invisible.
Mr. Churchill stared blankly; Mr. Dunbar's gaze was riveted on the face of the burglar, and he took his underlip between his teeth, as was his habit in suppressing emotion.
"Of course there is some infernal trick about this; but how do you account for it? It is beyond Bedney's sleight of hand," said the District Solicitor.
"I think I understand how it came here. Bedney, go around and open the library door leading into this room, and loop back the curtain for a moment."
"No, sir, Mars Lennox. Forty railroad ingines couldn't pull me in there alive. I wouldn't dar tamper with ole Marster's ghost; not for all the money in the bank. Go yourself; I doesn't budge on no sech bizness as prying and spying amongst the sperrits. It would fling me into a fit."
"You miserable coward. Is the house open? Where is the key of this room?"
"Hanging on the horseshoe under my chimbly board. I'll fetch it and unlock the front door, so you kin git in, and hold your inquess inside."
"Will you go, Churchill, or shall I?"
"What is your idea?"
"To ascertain whether the images are on the glass, as I believe, and if they can be seen without the background. Stand just here—and watch. When I pull back the curtain, tell me the effect."
Some moments later, the red folds shook, swayed aside, the curtain was pushed out of sight on its brass rod. The interior of the apartment came into view, the articles of furniture, the face and figure of Mr. Dunbar.
"Is it still there; do you see it?" shouted the latter.
"No. It vanished with the curtain. Drop it back. There! I see it. Now loop it. Gone again. Must be on the curtain," shouted the Solicitor, peering through the glass at his colleague.
Mr. Dunbar turned a key on the inside, pushed back a bolt, and threw open the door, which swung outward on the veranda. Then he carefully let fall the plush curtain once more.
"Do you see it?"
"No. A blank show. I can't see into the trick. Dunbar, change places with me and satisfy yourself."
The solicitor went inside, and Mr. Dunbar watched from the veranda a repetition of the experiment.
"That will do, Churchill. It is all plain enough now, but you cease to wonder at Bedney's superstitious solution. You understand it perfectly, don't you?"
"No, I'll be hanged if I do! It is the queerest thing I ever saw."
"Do you recollect that there was a violent thunder-storm the night of the murder?"
"Since you mention it, I certainly recall it. Go on."
"All the witnesses testified that next morning this door was closed as usual, but the outside blinds were open, and the red curtain was looped back."
"Yes, I remember all that."
"The images are printed on the glass, and were photographed by a flash of lightning."
"I never heard of such a freak. Don't believe it."
"Nevertheless it is the only possible solution; and I know that several similar instances have been recorded. It is like the negative of a common photograph, brought out by a dark background; and do you notice the figures are invisible at certain angles? It is very evident the storm came up during the altercation that night, and electricity printed the whole scene on this door; stamping the countenance of the murderer, to help the instruments of justice. While the blinds were closed, and the curtain was looped aside, of course this wonderful witness could not testify; but Prince let down the folds just before his departure, and the moment Bedney opened the blinds, there lay the truthful record of the awful crime. Verily, the 'irony of fate!' An overwhelming witness for the defence, only eighteen months too late, to save a pure, beautiful life from degradation and ruin. Well may Bedney ask, 'where is your corpus delicti?' Alfred Churchill, I wish you joy of the verdict, you worked so hard to win."
Turning on his heel Mr. Dunbar walked the length of the veranda, and stood gazing gloomily across the tangled mass of the neglected rose garden, taking no cognizance of the garlands of bloom, seeing everywhere only that lithe elegant figure and Hyperion face of the man who reigned master of Beryl's heart.
The Solicitor leaned one shoulder against the door facing, and with his hands in his pockets, and his brows drawn into a pucker, pondered the new fact, and eyed the strange witness.
After a time, he approached his companion.
"If your hypothesis be correct, and it seems plausible, if science asserts that electricity can photograph,—then certainly I am sorry, sorry enough for all I did in the trial; yet I cannot reproach myself, because I worked conscientiously; and the evidence was conclusive against the girl. The circumstantial coincidences were strong enough to have hung her. We all make mistakes, and no doubt I am responsible for my share; but thank God! reparation can be made! I will take the night train and see the Governor before noon to-morrow. The pardon must come now."
"Pardon! He cannot pardon a crime of which she now stands acquitted. The only pardon possible, she may extend to those who sacrificed her. His Excellency need exercise no prerogative of mercy; his aid is superfluous. Churchill, go in as soon as you can, and send out the Sheriff, with as many of the jurors as you can get together; and ask Judge Parkman to drive out this afternoon, and bring Stafford, the photographer, with him. Tell Doctor Graham I want to see him here, as he is an accomplished electrician. I will stay here and guard this door till all X—-has seen it."
Winged rumor flew through the length and breadth of the town, and before sunset a human stream poured along the road leading to "Elm Bluff", overflowed the green lawn under the ancient poplars, surged across the terrace, and beat against the railing of the piazza. Men, women, children, lawyers, doctors, newspaper reporters, all pressing forward for a glimpse of the mysterious and weird witness, that, in the fulness of time, had arisen to reprove the world for a grievous and cruel wrong.
The hinges had been removed; the door was set up at a certain angle, carefully balanced against the hanging curtain; and there the curious crowd beheld, in a veritable vision of the dead, torn as it were from the darkness and silence of the grave, the secret of that stormy night, when unseen powers had solemnly covenanted in defence of trusting innocence.
On Saturday the regulations of prison discipline reduced the working hours much below the daily quota, and at two o'clock the ringing of the tower bell announced that the busy convicts of the various industrial rooms were allowed leisure during the remainder of the afternoon, to give place to the squad of sweepers and scrubbers, who flooded the floors and scoured the benches.
June heat had followed fast upon the balmy breath of May, and though the air at dawn was still iced with crystal dew, the sun that shone through the open windows of the little chapel, burned fiercely on the unpainted pine seats, the undraped reading-desk of the pulpit, the tarnished gilt pipes of the cabinet organ within the chancel railing.
On one of the front benches sat Iva Le Bougeois, with a pair of crutches resting beside her on the arm of the seat, and her hands folded in her lap. Recovering slowly from the paralysis resulting from diphtheria, she had followed Beryl into the chapel, and listened to the hymns the latter had played and sung. The glossy black head was bent in abject despondency upon her breast, and tears dripped over the smooth olive cheeks, but no sound escaped the trembling mouth, once so red and riotous, now drawn into curves of passionate sorrow; and the topaz gleams that formerly flickered in her sullen hazel eyes were drowned in the gloom of dejection. For her, memory was an angel of wrath, driving her into the hideous Golgotha of the past, where bloody spectres gibbered; the present was a loathsome death in life, the future a nameless torturing horror. Helpless victim of her own outraged conscience, she seemed at times sinking into mental apathy more pitiable than that which had seized her physically; and the only solace possible, she found in the encouraging words uttered by the voice that had prayed for her during that long night of mortal agony, in the gentle pressure of the soft hand that often guided her tottering footsteps.
The organ stops had been pushed back, the musical echoes vibrated no longer; and the bare room, filled with garish sunshine, was so still that the drowsy droning of a bee high up on the dusty sash of the barred window, became monotonously audible.
Within the chancel and to the right of the pulpit, a large reversible blackboard had recently been placed, and on a chair in front of it stood Beryl, engrossed in putting the finishing touches to a sketch which filled the entire board; and oblivious for the moment of Eve Werneth's baby, who, having emptied her bottle of milk, had pulled herself up by the chair, and with the thumb of her right hand in her mouth, was staring up at the picture.
The lesson selected for the Sunday afternoon Bible class, which Beryl had so successfully organized among a few of the female convicts, was the fifteenth chapter of Luke; and at the top of the blackboard was written in large letters: "Rejoice with Me, for I have found My sheep which was lost." She had drawn in the foreground the flock couched in security, rounded up by the collie guard in a grassy meadow; in the distance, overhanging a gorge, was a bald, precipitous crag, behind which a wolf crouched, watching the Shepherd who tenderly bore in his arms the lost wanderer. On the opposite side of the blackboard had been carefully copied the Gospel Hymn beginning:—
"There were ninety and nine that safely lay, In the shelter of the fold, But one was out on the hills away, Far off from the gates of gold—Away on the mountains wild and bare, Away from the tender Shepherd's care."
Mental processes are strangely dualistic, and it not unfrequently happens that while one is consciously intent upon a certain train of thought, some secret cunning current of association sets in vibration the coil of ideas locked in the chambers of memory, and long forgotten images leap forth, startling in their pristine vividness.
Absorbed by the text she was illustrating, the artist insensibly followed lines she deemed imaginary, yet when the sketch was completed, the ensemble suddenly confronted her as a miniature reproduction of a very distant scene, that had gladdened her childish heart in the blessed by-gone. Far away from the beaten track of travel, in a sunny cleft of the Pistoian Apennines, she saw the white fleeces grouped under vast chestnuts, the flash of copper buckets plunged by two peasant women into a gurgling fountain, the curly head of Bertie bowed over the rude stone basin, as he gayly coaxed the bearers to let him drink from the beautiful burnished copper; the rocky terraces cut in the beetling cliffs above, where dark ruby-red oleanders flouted the sky with fragrant banners; and the pathetic face of a vagrant ewe tangled among vines, high on a jagged ledge, bleating for the lamb asleep under the chestnuts down in the dell.
Across the chasm of years floated the echo of the tinkling bell, that told where cows climbed in search of herbage; the singular rhythmic cadence of the trescone, danced in a neighboring vineyard; the deep, mellow, lingering tones of a monastery bell, rung by hermit hands in a gray tower on a mountain eyry, that looked westward upon the sparkling blue mirror of the Mediterranean.
Then she was twelve years old, dreaming glorious midsummer day-dreams, as she wandered with parents and brother on one of her father's sketching tours through unfrequented nooks; now—?
A petulant cry, emphasized by the baby hand tugging at the hem of her dress skirt, recalled Beryl's attention; and as she looked down at the waif, whom the chaplain had christened "Dovie" on the day of her mother's burial, the little one held up her arms.
"So tired, Dulce? You can't be hungry; you must want your nap. There don't fret, baby girl. I will take you directly."
She stepped down, turned the side of the blackboard that contained the sketch to the wall; lowered the sash which she had raised to admit fresh air, and lifted the child from the floor. Approaching the figure who sat motionless as a statue of woe, she laid a hand on the drooping shoulder.
"Shall I help you down the steps?"
"No, I'll stay here a while. This is the only place where I can get courage enough to pray. Couldn't you leave her—the child—with me? It has been years since I could bear the sight of one. I hated children, because my heart was so black—so bitter; but now, I yearn toward this little thing. I am so starved for the kiss of—of—," she swept her hand across her throat, where a sob stifled her.
"Certainly, if she will stay contentedly. See whether she will come to you."
At sight of the extended arms, the baby shrank closer to Beryl, nestled her head under the girl's chin, and put up her lower lip in ominous protest. With an indescribably mournful gesture of surrender, the childless mother sank back in the corner of the bench.
"I don't wonder she is afraid; she knows—everybody, everything knows I killed my baby—my own boy, who slept for nearly four years on my heart—oh!—"
"Hush—she was frightened by your crying. She is sleepy now, but when she has had her nap, and wakes good-humored, I will fill her bottle, and bring her down to you. Try not to torment yourself by dwelling upon a distressing past, which you cannot undo; but by prayer anchor your soul in God's pardoning mercy. When all the world hoots and stones us, God is our 'sure refuge'."
"That promise is to pure hearts and innocent hands; not to such as I am, steeped to the lips in crime—black, black—"
"No. One said: 'The whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.' Your soul is sick unto death; claim the pledged cure. Yonder I have copied the hymn for to-morrow's lesson. While you sit here, commit it to memory; and the Shepherd will hear your cry."
Glancing back from the chapel door, she saw that the miserable woman had bowed her face in her hands, and with elbows supported on her knees, was swaying back and forth in a storm of passionate sobs.
"O! my beautiful baby, my angel Max, pray for mother now. Max—Max—there is no 'Sweet By and By'—for mother—"
Hurrying from the wail of anguish that no human agency could lighten, Beryl carried the orphan across the yard, and up the stairs leading to the corridor, whence she was allowed egress at will. She noticed casually, signs of suppressed excitement among some of the convicts, who were lounging in groups, enjoying the half holiday, and three or four men stood around the under-warden who was gesticulating vivaciously; but at her approach he lowered his voice, and she lived so far aloof from the jars and gossip of the lower human strata, that the suspicious indications failed to arouse any curiosity.
The southwest angle of the building was exposed fully to the force of the afternoon sun, and the narrow cell was so hot that Beryl opened the door leading into the corridor, in order to create a draught through the opposite window.
The tired child was fretfully drowsy, but with the innate perversity of toddling babyhood, resented and resisted every effort to soothe her to sleep. Refusing to lie across the nurse's lap, the small tyrant clambered up, wrapped her arms about her neck, and finally Beryl rose and walked up and down, humming softly Chopin's dreamy "Berceuse"; while the baby added a crooning accompaniment that grew fainter and intermittent until the blue eyes closed, one arm fell, and the thumb was plunged between the soft full lips.
Warily the nurse laid her down in a cradle, which consisted of an oval basket mounted on roughly fashioned wooden rockers, and drawing it close to the table, Beryl straightened the white cross-barred muslin slip that was too short to cover the rosy dimpled feet; and smoothed the flossy tendrils of yellow hair crumpled around the lovely face.
The Sister of Charity, who, in the darkest hours of the pestilence had shrouded the poor young mother, did not forget the human waif astray in the world; but having secured a home for it in an "asylum," to which she promised it should be removed so soon as all danger of carrying contagion was over, had appointed the ensuing Monday on which to bear it away from the gloomy precincts, where sinless life had dawned in disgrace and degradation. This pretty toy, dowered with an immortal soul, stained by an inherited criminal strain, had appealed to the feminine tenderness in Beryl's nature, and she stood a moment, lost in admiration of the rounded curves and dainty coloring.
"Poor little blossom. Nobody's baby! A lily bud adrift on a dead sea of sin. Dovie—Eve Werneth's child—but you will always be to me Dulce, my pretty clinging Dulce, my velvet-eyed cherub model."
Turning away, she bathed her face and hands, and leaned for a while against the southern window; listening to the exultant song of a red bird hovering near his brooding brown mate, to the soothing murmur of the distant falls, borne in on the wings of the thievish June breeze that had rifled some far-off garden of the aroma of honeysuckle. The current of air had swung the door back, leaving only a hand's breadth of open space, and while she sang to the baby, her own voice had drowned the sound of footsteps in the corridor.
On the whitewashed wall of the cell, a sheet of drawing paper had been tacked, and taking her crayons, Beryl returned to the cradle, changed the position of the child's left hand, and approaching the almost completed sketch on the wall, retouched the outline of the sleeping figure. Now and then she paused in her work, to look down at the golden lashes sweeping the slumber-flushed cheeks, and pondering the mystery of the waif's future, she chanted in a rich contralto voice, the solemn "Reproaches" of Gounod's "Redemption."
"Oh, my vineyard, come tell me why thy grapes are bitter? What have I done, my People? Wherein hast thou been wronged?"
For weeks the elaboration of this sketch had employed every moment which was not demanded for the execution of her allotted daily task in the convict workroom; and knowing that on Monday she would be bereft of her pretty model, she had redoubled her exertions to complete it.
Beside a bier knelt a winged figure, in act of stealing the rigid form, and to the awful yet strangely beautiful face of the messenger of gloom, she had given the streaming hair, the sunken, cavernous but wonderfully radiant eyes of Moritz Retzsch's weird image of Death. A white butterfly fluttered upward, and in mid-air—neither descending nor drifting, but waiting—poised on outspread pinions, hovered the Angel of the Resurrection holding out his hands. Behind and beneath the Destroyer, rolled dense shadows, and all the light in this picture rayed out from the plumes above, and fell like a glory on the baby's face.
Cut off from all congenial companionship, thrown upon her own mental resources, the prisoner had learned to live in an ideal world; and her artistic tastes proved an indestructible heritage of comfort, while memory ministered lavishly with images from the crowded realm of aesthetics. Victorious over the stony limitations of dungeon walls and dungeon discipline, fetterless imagination soared into the kingdom of beauty, and fed her lonely soul, as Syrian ravens fed God's prophet.
Fourteen months had passed since Mr. Dunbar walked away from this cell, after the interview relative to Gen'l Darrington's will; and though his longing to see the prisoner had driven him twice to the entrance of the chapel, whence he heard the marvellously sweet voice, and gazed at the figure before the organ, no word was exchanged.
To-day, with his hand on the bolt of the door, and his heart in his eyes, he leaned against the facing, and through the opening studied the occupant of the cell that held the one treasure which fate had denied him.
The ravages of disease, the blemish of acute physical suffering had vanished; the clear pallor of her complexion, the full white throat, the rounded contour of the graceful form, bespoke complete restoration of all the vital forces; and never had she appeared so incomparably beautiful.
Oppressed by the heat, she had pushed back the hair from her temples, and though hopeless sadness reigned over the profound repose of her features, the expression of her eyes told that the dream of the artist had borne her beyond surrounding ills.
Where the button of her blue homespun dress fastened the collar, she wore a sprig of heliotrope and a cluster of mignonette, from the shallow box in the window-ledge where they grew together.
How long he stood there, surrendering himself to the happiness of watching the woman whom, against his will, he loved with such unreasoning and passionate fervor, Mr. Dunbar never knew; but a sudden recollection of the face printed on the glass, the face, beautiful as fabled Hylas—of the man for whose sake she was willing to die—stung him like an adder's bite; and setting his teeth hard, he rapped upon the door held ajar; then threw it open.
At sight of him, her arm, lifted to the sketch, fell; the crayon slipped from her nerveless fingers, and a glow rich as the heart of some red June rose stained her cheeks.
As he stepped toward her, she leaned against the wall, and swiftly drew the baby's cradle between them. He understood, and for a moment recoiled.
"You barricade yourself as though I were some loathsome monster! Are you afraid of me?"
"What is there left to fear? Have you spared any exertion to accomplish that which you believe would overwhelm me with sorrow?"
"You cannot forgive my rejection of the overtures for a compromise wrung from you by extremity of dread, when I started to Dakota?"
"That rejection freed me from a self-imposed, galling promise; and hence I forgive all, because of the failure of your journey."
"Suppose I have not failed?"
She caught her breath, and the color in her cheeks flickered.
"Had you succeeded, I should not have been allowed so long the comparative mercy of suspense."
"Am I so wantonly cruel, think you, that I gloat over your sufferings as a Modoc at sight of the string of scalps dangling at his pony's neck?"
"When the spirit of revenge is unleashed, Tiberius becomes a law unto himself."
He leaned forward, and his voice was freighted with tenderness that he made no attempt to disguise.
"Once after that long swoon in the court-room, when I held your hand, you looked at me without shrinking, and called me Tiberius. Again, when for hours I sat beside your cot, watching the crisis of your first terrible illness, you opened your eyes and held out your hand, saying: 'Have you come for me, Tiberius?' Why have you told me you were at the mercy of Tiberius?"
Hitherto she had avoided looking at him, and kept her gaze upon the sleeping child, but warned by the tone that made her heart throb, she bravely lifted her eyes.
"When next you write to your betrothed, ask her to go to the Museo Chiaramonti while in Rome, and standing before the crowned Tiberius, she will fancy her future husband welcomes her. Your wife will need no better portrait of you than a copy of that head."
Into his eyes leaped the peculiar glow that can be likened unto nothing but the clear violet flame dancing over a bed of burning anthracite coal, and into his voice an exultant ring:
"Meantime, like my inexorable prototype, 'I hold a wolf by the ears'. Shall I tell you my mission here?"
"As it appears I am indeed always at the mercy of Tiberius, your courtesy savors of sarcasm."
"Oh, my stately white rose! My Rosa Alba, I will see to it, that no polluting hand lays a grasp on you. My errand should entitle me to a more cordial reception, for I bring you good news. Will you lay your hand in mine just once, while I tell you?"
He extended his open palm, but she shook her head and smiled sadly.
"In this world no good news can ever come to me."
"Do you know that recently earnest efforts have been made to induce the Governor to pardon you? That I have just returned from a visit to him?"
"I was not aware of it; but I am grateful for your effort in my behalf."
"I was disappointed. The pardon was not granted. Since then, fate, who frowned so long upon you, has come to your rescue. The truth has been discovered, proclaimed; and I came here this afternoon with an order for your release. For you the prison doors and gates stand open. You are as free as you were that cursed day when first you saw me and robbed my life of peace."
For a moment she looked at him bewildered; then a great dread drove the blood from her lips, and her voice shook.
"What truth has been discovered?"
"The truth that you are innocent has been established to the entire satisfaction of judge and jury, prosecution and Governor, sheriff, warden, and you are free. Not pardoned for that which all the world knows now you never committed; but acquitted without man's help, by the discovery of a fact which removes every shadow of suspicion from your name. You are at liberty, owing no thanks to human mercy; vindicated by a witness subpoenaed by the God of justice, in whom you trusted—even to the end."
"Witness? What witness? You do not mean that you have hunted down—"
She paused, and her white face was piteous with terror, as pushing away the cradle she came close to him.
"I have seen the face of the man who killed Gen'l Darrington."
She threw up her arms, crossing them over her head.
"O, my God! Have I suffered in vain? Shall I be denied the recompense? After all my martyrdom, must I lose the one hope that sustained me?"
Despite the rage which the sight of her suffering woke within his heart, he could not endure to witness it.
"Can you find no comfort in release? No joy in the consciousness of your triumphant vindication?"
"None! If you have robbed me of that which is all I care for on earth, what solace can I find in release? Vindication? What is the opinion of the world to me? Oh! how have I ever wronged you, that you persecute me so vindictively, that you stab the only comfort life can ever hold for me?"
"And you love him so insanely, that to secure his safety, existence here in this moral sty is sweet in comparison with freedom unshared with him? Listen! That belief stirs the worst elements in my nature; it swings the whip of the furies. For your own sake, do not thrust your degrading madness upon my notice. I have labored to liberate you; have subordinated all other aims to this, and now, that I have come to set you free, you repulse and spurn me!"
She was so engrossed by one foreboding, that it was evident she had not even heard him, as moving to the bench in front of the window she sat down, shivering. Her black brows contracted till they met, and the strained expression of her eyes told that she was revolving some possibility of succor.
"Where did you see my—my—?"
"Not in Dakota mines, where I expected to find him."
"Mr. Dunbar." She pointed to the chair at her side.
He shook his head, but approached and stood before her.
"I am waiting to hear you."
"I sent you a telegram, promising information that would have prevented that journey."
"It failed to reach me."
Unconsciously she was wringing her hands as her thoughts whirled.
"I will tell you something now, if you will promise me that no harm shall—"
He laughed scornfully.
"As if I had anything to learn concerning that cowardly villain! Thanks for your confidence, which comes much too late."
"You do not know that—"
"Yes, I know all I want to know; more than you shall ever tell me, and I decline to hear a confession that, in my eyes, defiles you; that would only drive me to harsh denunciation of your foul idol. Moreover, I will not extort by torture what you have withheld so jealously. Do not wring your hands so desperately. You are goaded to confession now, because you believe that I have secured your lover? Take courage, he has not yet been arrested; he is still a wanderer hiding from retribution."
She sprang up, trembling.
"But you said you had seen his face?"
"Yes, and I have come to take you where you can identify that face?"
"Then, he is dead." She covered her face with her hands.
"No, I wish to God he was dead! Sit down. I will not see you suffer such agony. He is safe for the present. If you will try to think of yourself for a moment, and pay me the compliment of listening, I will explain. Do you recollect that during the storm on the night of the murder the lightning was remarkably vivid and severe?"
"Yes; can I ever forget any details of that night? Go on."
"Do you recall the position of the glass door on the west veranda; and also that the crimson drapery or curtain was drawn aside?"
"I recall it distinctly because, while Gen'l Darrington was reading my mother's letter, I looked out through the glass at the chrysanthemums blooming in the garden."
"That door was almost opposite the chimney, and the safe or vault in the wall was very near the fireplace. It appears that when the chloroform failed to stupefy Gen'l Darrington, he got up and seized one of the andirons on the hearth, and attacked the thief who was stealing his money. While they were struggling in front of the vault, a burst of electricity, some peculiarly vivid flash of lightning, sent by fate, by your guardian angel, it may have been by God himself—photographed both men, and the interior of the room on the wide glass panel of that door. Forms, faces, features, even the pattern of the cloth coat, are printed plainly there, for the whole world to study. The murderer and the victim in mortal combat over the tin box. Accident—shall I say Providence—unexpectedly brought this witness to light. The curtain so long looped back, was recently lowered, and when, two days ago, the outside blinds were opened, there lay your complete vindication. Crowds have seen it; the newspaper issued an 'extra', and so general was the rejoicing, that a public demonstration would have been made here at the gaol, had not Churchill and I harangued the people and assured them it would only annoy and embarrass you. So you are free. Free to shake the dust of X—-forever from your feet; and it must comfort your proud soul to know that you do not owe your liberty to the mercy of a community which wronged you. I forbade Singleton to tell you, to allow any premature hint to reach you; for I claimed the privilege of bringing the glad tidings. Last night I spent in that room at 'Elm Bluff', guarding that door; and the vigil was cheered by the picture hope drew, that when I came to-day you would greet me kindly; would lay your dear hands in mine, and tell me that, at least, gratitude would always keep a place for me warm in your noble heart. I have my recompense in the old currency of scorn. It were well for you if you had shown me your hatred less plainly; now I shall indulge less hesitation in following the clue the lightning lays in my grasp. I warn you that your release only expedites his arrest; for you can never pass beyond my surveillance; and the day you hasten to him, seals his fate. Long imprisoned doves, when set free, fly straight to their distant mates; so—take care—lest the hawk overtake both."
Looking up at him, listening almost breathlessly to the tale of a deliverance that involved new peril for Bertie, the color came slowly back to her blanched face, and her parted lips quivered.
"If the picture means anything, it proves that Gen'l Darrington made the assault with the brass andiron, and in the struggle that followed, the man you saw might have killed him in self defence."
"When he is brought to trial in X—he shall never be allowed the benefit of your affectionate supposition. I promise you, that I will annihilate your tenderly devised theory."
He ground his teeth in view of the transparent fact, that she was too intently considering the bearing of the revelation upon the safety of another, to heed the thought of her own escape from bondage.
The little cluster of flowers fastened at her throat had become loosened, and fell unnoticed into her lap. He stooped, picked them up, and straightened them on his palm. When his eyes returned to Beryl, she had bowed her face in her shielding hands.
How little he dreamed that she was silently praying for strength to deny the cry of her own beating heart, and to keep him from making shipwreck of the honor which she supposed was still pledged to Leo! Security for her brother, and unswerving loyalty to the absent woman who had befriended her in the darkest hours of the accusation, were objects difficult to accomplish simultaneously; yet at every hazard she would struggle on. Because she had learned to love so well this man, who was the promised husband of another, conscience made her merciless to her own disloyalty.
Mr. Dunbar laid on the bench a small package sealed in yellow paper.
"Knowing that your detention here has necessarily forfeited all the industrial engagements by which you maintained yourself, before you came South, I have been requested to ask your acceptance of this purse, which contains sufficient money to defray your expenses until you resume your art labors. It is an offering from your twelve jurors."
"No—no. I could never touch it. Tell them for me that I am not vindictive. I know they did the best they could for me, in view of the evidence. Tell them I am grateful for their offer, but I cannot accept it. I—"