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- At the Mercy of Tiberius - 101/103 -
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.
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