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At the Mercy of Tiberius by Augusta Evans Wilson

Part 11 out of 11

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and in the pause, the guide made the sign of the cross, and Mr.
Dunbar instinctively took off his hat.

"Six hours' steady climbing is a severe tax. Are you very tired?" he
whispered, laying his arm around Beryl's waist, and lifting his
brilliant eyes eloquent with an infinite tenderness.

With one hand on his shoulder as he stood beside her, she leaned
down until her lips touched the black hair tossed back from his
forehead.

"After waiting so many terrible years, what are a few more hours of
suspense? Since I have you, can I ever again feel tired?"

Behind them lay a dark undulating line, where oak and cedar had made
their last stand on the upward march; nearer, the spectral ranks of
stunted firs showed the outposts of forest advance; and a few feet
from the narrow path, a perpendicular cliff formed one wall of a
deep canon, where a glittering ribbon of water hurried to leap into
the Pacific, ere pursuing Winter arrested and bound it with icy
manacles to its stony bed. To the north dazzling white peaks cut
strange solemn shapes, like silver cameos on a ground of indigo sky;
and overhead, burnished lines of snow geese printed their glittering
triangles on the paler blue of the zenith, as the winged host dipped
southward.

The monk moved on, and after a while his companions perceived that
the way descended rapidly until they reached the face of a rock that
rose straight and smooth as a wall of human masonry, and apparently
barred further progress. Taking from his bosom the twisted section
of a polished horn, only a finger's length, the cowled figure raised
it to his lips, and blew three whistles, that ended in a rising
inflection which waked all the wolfish pack of mountain echoes into
fitful barking. Two moments later, an answering signal seemed to
issue from the invisible jaws of Hades; a wild, quivering sepulchral
cry, as of a monster half throttled. Twenty feet beyond the spot
where the party had halted, a steep descent led them to a shelving
canon, once the bed of a broad mountain torrent, whose course some
seismic upheaval had diverted to other channels. Following for a few
yards the sinuous stony way, worn here and there into smooth
circular cavities like miniature wells, by the eddying of the
ancient current and the grinding of pebbles, the travellers turned a
sharp angle, and found themselves at the mouth of Tartarus.

The force of the stream had originally cut a low arch in its egress,
which human needs and ingenuity had broadened, heightened and closed
by heavy iron bars, slipped into stone slots. Behind this gateway
glimmered a faint light that brightened into a red star; and soon, a
figure clad in the long, black monastic gown, and bearing a huge
torch of blazing pitch pine, emerged from the bowels of the earth.
There was the rattle of a chain, the creak of a pulley, and the bars
were lowered.

So vividly did the scene recall that black, stormy night in
February, when Mr. Dunbar had seen the lantern of the gaoler flash
through the penitentiary gates closing on the young convict, that he
drew his breath now through clinched teeth, and quickly laid his
hand upon that of his wife, which grasped the bridle resting upon
the neck of her mule. Silently the procession filed in, and with
little delay the torch bearer replaced the bars, advanced to the
head of the column, and with long, swift strides led the way down a
wide tunnel. Between the monks no salutation was exchanged; and only
the ringing tramp of the horses' feet on the stone pavement, jarred
the profound stillness. The lurid glare of the torch danced on the
rocky vault, and the shadows projected by men and beasts were
gigantic and grotesque. Very soon a gray twilight stole to meet
them; an arch of light like a window opening into heaven brightened,
glared, and the party emerged into a courtyard that seemed an
entrance to some vast amphitheatre.

Opposite the mouth of the tunnel, and distant perhaps two hundred
yards, lay an oval lake, bordered on the right by a valley running
southeast, while its northern shore rose abruptly in a parapet of
rock, that patient cloistered workmen had cut into broad terraces;
and upon which opened rows of cells excavated from the mountain
side, and resembling magnified swallow nests, or a huge petrified
honeycomb sliced vertically.

A legend so hoary, that "the memory of man runneth not to the
contrary", had assigned the outlines of this stone cutting to that
dim dawn of primeval tribal life, which left its later traces in the
Watch Tower of the Mancos, the Casa del Eco, and the "niche stairway
of the Hovenweep".

In the slow deposition of the human strata, cliff dwellers
disappeared beneath predatory, nomadic modern savages, who, hunting
and fishing in this lonely fastness, had increased its natural
fortifications, and made it an impregnable depot of supplies, until
Hudson Bay trappers wrenched it from their grasp, and appropriated
it as a peltry magazine. To the dynasty of traders had succeeded the
spiritual rule of a Jesuit Mission; then miners kindled camp fires
in the deserted excavations, as they probed the mountain for ores;
and more recently the noiseless feet of a band of holy celibates
belonging to an austere Order, went up and down the face of the
cliff, with cross and bell and incense exorcising haunting
aboriginal spectres; while holy water sprinkled the uncanny, dismal
precincts of a circular room hollowed behind and beneath all other
apartments, the monumental, sacred Estufa.

At a signal from the monk who had escorted them, Mr. Dunbar lifted
Beryl from her saddle, and hand in hand they followed him across the
courtyard, mounted a flight of steps cut in the rock, and passed
into a low, dim room, where the ceiling was crossed in squares by
heavy, red cedar beams. The floor was paved with diamond-shaped
slabs of purple slate, the whitewashed wall adorned with colored
lithographs of the Passion; and above the cavernous chimney arch,
where cedar logs blazed, ran the inscription: "Otiositas inimica est
animae."

Noiselessly as the wings of a huge bat, a leathern screen was folded
back from the corner of the room, and a venerable man advanced from
the gloom.

A fringe of white hair surrounded his head like a laurel chaplet in
old statues, and the heavy, straight brows that almost met across
the nose, hung as snowflakes over the intensely black eyes as
glowing as lamps set in the sockets of an ivory image. Scholarly and
magnetic as Abelard, with a certain innate proud poise of the head
and shoulders, that ill accorded with the Carlo-Borromeo expression
of seraphic serenity and meekness, set like a seal on the large
square mouth, he looked a veritable type of the ecclesiastical
cenobites who, since the days of Pachomius at Tabennae, have made
their hearts altars of the Triple Vows, and girdled the globe with a
cable of scholastic mysticism. The pale, shrunken hand he laid on
the black serge that covered his breast, was delicate as a woman's,
and checkered with knotted lines where the blood crept feebly.

Bowing low, he spoke in a carefully modulated voice, deep and
resonant as a bass viol:

"Welcome to such hospitality as our poverty permits. A cipher
telegram forwarded from the nearest station, sixty miles hence,
prepared us to expect a newly-married woman searching for a man,
known to the secular world as Robert Luke Brentano. You claim to be
his nearest blood relative?"

"I am his sister. How is he?"

"Alive, but sinking fast; sustained beyond all human calculation by
the hope of seeing you. You have not come one moment too soon. The
man you seek is only a lay brother here. The rules of our Order
forbid the admission of women to the cloister, but in articulo
mortis! can I deny him now the confession he wishes to offer you?
Our holy ordinances have done their divine work; the last rites of
the Church have soothed and consecrated the heart of Brother Luke,
and an hour ago, extreme unction was administered. Follow me."

"He knows that I am coming?" asked Beryl, raising her white, tear-
drenched face from her husband's shoulder.

"He knows; and holds death back to see you. His self-imposed penance
makes him steadfastly refuse the comparative comfort of our meagre
infirmary, and it is his wish to die, where he has spent so many
nights in penitential prayer. For several days, the paralysis of
years has been gradually loosening its fetters, and this morning,
the distressing and ghastly distortion of one side of his face
almost disappeared. Though his voice is well nigh gone, it returns
fitfully, and his strength seems supernatural. Fearing that you
might not arrive in time, I have written down his last confession,
and here commit it to you."

He placed a roll of paper in her hand, and drawing his cowl over his
head, led them up an easy stairway cut in the stone, to a second
terrace four feet wide, that projected as a roof beyond the lower
tier of cells.

A hundred feet below lay the lakelet, shining as a mirror; to the
southeast stretched a valley bounded by buttes crowned with cedar,
and in the undulating field, locked from fierce winds, cattle and
goats sunned themselves, where in summer time grain waved, fruit
ripened, and bees hummed.

From the parapet of a low wall facing west, rose a round tower
heavily buttressed, where swung the bell; and through an open arch
in the side, under the uplifted cross, the eye swept on and on, over
a world of snowy peaks, dark canons, mountain minarets girding the
northern horizon; and far, far away a scintillating thread of white
fire marked where the Pacific smiled behind the fiords that
channelled the rock-ribbed coast.

In that still, cold and brilliant atmosphere, how dazzling the snow
blink, how sharp the outline of projected shadows, how close the
bending heavens seemed; but to the yearning soul of Beryl, the
silent, solemn sublimity of the mighty panorama made no appeal.

Through slowly dripping tears she saw only the spectral flitting of
her mother's sad face, as in their last interview she had committed
the soul of the son to the guardianship of the daughter.

The monk paused, and pointed to the third cell from the spot where
he stood.

"It is but a step farther. Yonder, where the skull is set over the
entrance."

"I will wait here," said Mr. Dunbar, relinquishing with a tight
pressure, his wife's cold hand.

"No, come. Are we not one?"

She hurried along the terrace, and reached the low open doorway
fronting the South, where the sunshine streamed in like God's smile
of forgiveness.

On the stone floor was a straw pallet covered with coarse brown
blankets, whereon, half propped by one elbow, with head against the
gray rocky wall, lay the emaciated wreck of a man, whose pallid face
might have been mistaken for that of a corpse, but for the
superhuman splendor of the wide, deep brown eyes.

Beryl sprang into the cave-like recess, and fell on her knees. She
snatched him to her heart, laid his head on her shoulder.

"Bertie! My darling! my darling!--"

He tried to raise one arm to her neck, but it fell back. She lifted
it, held it close, and face to face with her lips on his, she broke
into passionate sobbing, rocking herself to and fro, in the tempest
of grief.

"Give me, give--me--air--" He struggled for breath, which her tight
clasp denied him; and for some minutes he panted, while Mr. Dunbar
fanned him with his hat. Then the heaving chest grew more quiet, and
after a moment, his eyes lighted with a happy smile as they fastened
on Beryl's face, bent over him.

"Gigina, sweet, faithful sister, it is almost heaven to see you once
more. God is good, even to me."

"If I could have found you sooner! All these dreadful years I have
lived at God's feet--with one prayer: let me help my Bertie, let me
see my brother's face," moaned Beryl, pressing her lips to the
clammy, fleshless hand she held against her throat.

"I was too unworthy. I dreaded your pure eyes, and mother's, as I
would an accusing angel's. I did not know, then, that mother was
already one of the Beatified. I know now, that neither life nor
death, nor sin nor shame, nor the brand of disgrace can change
mother's love; for I see her to-day, smiling at the door, beckoning
me to follow where the sun shines forever. My sainted mother."

"Her last breath was a blessing for you. See, Bertie! this was her
wedding ring. Her final message was, 'Give this to my darling!' Be
comforted, dear Bertie, she loved you even to the end--supremely.
You were her idol in death as in life. Our father's ring was the
most sacred relic she owned, and she left it to you."

She attempted to place the gold band on one of his fingers, but he
closed that hand, and the dark eyes so like his mother's, were for
an instant dimmed by tears.

"Keep it; no sin of theft soils your hands. You can wear it without
a blush. You never robbed an old man of his gold. That was my crime,
I am a thief."

"Our God sees you have repented bitterly; and He has pardoned your
sins for His dear Son's sake. Tell me, Bertie, have you made your
eternal salvation sure? Are you, in your soul, at peace with God?"

"At perfect peace. I want to die, because now I am no longer afraid
to meet Him, who forgives even thieves. Gigi, wait a little--"

He seemed to make a desperate effort to rally his strength, and the
thin, fine nostril flared, in the battle for breath.

"There has been a terrible mistake, and they made you suffer for
what they imagined happened. When I found I had only a few months to
live, I wrote to Father Beckx, whom I had known in Montreal, and
asked him to tell mother where I was. I never knew till he went to
X---and wrote us about the trial, that you were suspected and
punished for a crime that was never committed. I thought you and
mother were safe in New York, all those years, and I knew that you
would be sure to take care of her. I have it all written down--and I
can't tell you now--but I want to look straight into your dear eyes-
-my brave sister, my loving sister--and let you learn first from me-
-the reward you have won--your Bertie is not a murderer. I did take
the money from the vault which was wide open, when first I saw it. I
did steal and destroy the will, which I thought unjustly robbed us
all of our right to the Darrington estate, but that was my sole
offence. I am a thief, before God and man, but there is no more
stain of blood on my hands than on yours. General Darrington was not
murdered. He died by the hand of God alone--"

A bluish shadow settled around his parted lips, and he panted.

Mr. Dunbar raised him, fanned him, rested his head more comfortably
against his sister's shoulder; and again he looked intently into her
eyes, as though his soul, plumed for departure, must right itself in
the presence of hers, before the final flight.

"He struck me with the andiron, and broke my wrist here--then before
I ever touched him--as he raised it to assault me the second time--
there came an awful blinding glare--the world was wrapped in a blue
fire--and God struck us both down. When I became conscious, my
senses were all stunned, but after a while I knew I was lying on the
floor, with a cold hand resting like lead on my face. I got up; the
figure didn't move, and I supposed that like myself he was stunned
by the shock. As I passed a mirror on my way to the window--I saw
myself--for the lamp was burning bright. God had branded me a thief.
Do you see here--drawn--paralyzed, oh, Gina! All these years I have
worn the dark streak, and one eye was blind, one ear stone deaf. I
was a walking shadow of my own sin; horrible to look upon--and I
fled to avoid the gaze of my race. Somewhere, in Illinois I think, I
heard two men on a train speak of a large reward offered for the
recovery of Gen'l Darrington's will, which had been stolen by one of
his heirs, whom the police were hunting. I was branded--and on my
breast here was printed the face of the dead man--for he had torn my
shirt open as he seized me with one hand, and struck me with the
other. I hid in mines, crossed the plains, secreted myself in a bee
ranche. Then the Canadian railroad was partly built, and I joined
the grading party and worked--until the curse of my sin was more
than I could bear. I heard of the holy Brothers here, made my last
journey, confessed my theft, and entered on my penance. Gina,
General Darrington was killed instantly by the lightning."

As the burden Beryl had long borne slipped suddenly from her heart,
the joy of release from blood-stain was so unexpected, so intense,
that her face blanched to a deadly pallor, and the glad eyes she
lifted to her husband's shone as those of an angel.

"Bertie--Bertie--" Words failed her. She could only kiss the wasted
cold hands that were innocent of bloodshed.

After some moments, the dying man said almost in a whisper:

"I never knew you were punished for my sin, until it was too late to
save you, but God's witness cleared your pure name. The lightning
that scorched me, printed its testimony to set you free. My sister--
my sister--God will surely recompense your faithful--" The voice
died in a quivering gurgle.

"I have my reward, dear Bertie. Oh, how much more than I deserve! I
have you in my arms, innocent of murder, thank God! thank God! I
have the blessed absurance that your pardoned soul goes to meet
mother's in Eternal Peace; and to secure that, I would have
willingly died an ignominious death. It was through the fiery flames
of prison, and trial and convict shame, that God led me to the most
precious crown any woman ever wore, my husband's confidence and
love. Only behind dungeon bars could I have won my husband's heart,
which holds for me the whole wide world of earthly peace and hope.
For your sin, you have suffered. Its consequences to others from the
destruction of the will, have been averted by the prompt transfer of
all the property which Gen'l Darrington left, to his chosen heir
Prince. Pecuniarily no one was injured by your act. Dear Bertie--
Bertie, are you listening?"

He smiled but made no answer, and his eyes had a strained and
exultant expression. After a long silence, he cried huskily:

"The curse is taken away--out of my blinded eye I see--Agnus Dei qui
tollis peccata mundi--"

A slight spasm shook him, and feeling his cheek grow colder, Beryl
threw off the fur cloak, and folded it closely around the wasted
body which leaned heavily against her. The sunny short rings of hair
clung to his sunken, blue veined temples, where cold drops gathered;
and a gray seal was set about the wan lips that writhed in the fight
for breath.

"Bertie, kiss me--tell me you are not afraid."

She fancied he nestled his face closer, but the wide eyes were fixed
on the golden light that was fading fast across the narrow doorway.

Pressing her quivering lips to his, she sobbed:

"Tell mother, her little girl was faithful--"

Another spasm shook the form, and after a little while, the eyes
closed; the panting ceased, and the tired breath was drawn in long,
shuddering sighs.

Mr. Dunbar beckoned to the cowled form who, rosary in hand, paced
the terrace, and the two laid the dying man back on his pallet of
straw.

Fainter grew the slow breath, and the voice of the monk rolled
through the silence, like the tremolo swell of an organ:

"Delicta juventutis, et ignorantias ejus, quoesumus, ne memineris,
Domine; sed secundum magnam misericordiam tuam memor esto illius in
gloria claritatis tuoe."

On the stone floor Beryl knelt, with her brother's icy hand clasped
against her cheek, and as she watched, the twitching of the muscles
ceased, the lips so long distorted, took on their old curves of
beauty. A marble pallor blanched the dark stain of the branded
cheek, and the Bertie of innocent youth came slowly out of the long
eclipse.

Death, God's most tender angel, laid her divine lips upon the scars
of sin, that vanished at her touch; drew her white fingers across
the lines and shadows of suffering time, and leaving the halo of
eternal peace upon the frozen features, gave back to Beryl her
beautiful Bertie of old.

The sun was setting; and far away the ice domes and minarets of
immemorial mountains took on the burnished similitude of the New
Jerusalem, which only the exiled saw from lonely Patmos.

Lennox Dunbar lifted his wife from the form of the sleeper, whose
ransomed soul had entered early into Rest; and folded her tenderly
to the heart that henceforth was her refuge from all earthly woes.

At midnight, the brooding silence of the snow-hooded solitude was
broken by the tolling of the monastery bell; and while all the
mountain echoes responded to the slow knell for the departed soul,
there rose from the chapel under the cliffs, the solemn chant of the
monks for their dead:

"Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis."

"Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon
them."

THE END.

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