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- At the Mercy of Tiberius - 20/103 -
She spoke through set teeth, and a spasm of shuddering shook her from head to feet.
"Listen to me. Suspicion is one thing, proof something very different. You are accused, but not convicted, and--"
"I shall be. Justice must be appeased, and I am the most convenient and available victim. An awful crime has been committed, and outraged law, screaming for vengeance, pounces like a hungry hawk on an innocent and unsuspecting prey. Does she spare the victim because it quivers, and dies hard?"
"Hush! You must not despair. I believe in your innocence; I believe every word you uttered that day was true, and I believe that our merciful God will protect you. Put yourself in His hands, and His mercy will save, for 'it endureth forever.'"
"I don't ask mercy! I claim justice--from God and man. The wicked grovel, and beg for mercy; but innocence lays hold upon the very throne of God, and clutches His sword, and demands justice!"
"I understand how you feel, and I do not wonder; but for your own sake, in order to keep your mind clear and strong for your vindication, you certainly ought to take care of your health. Starvation is the surest leech for depleting soul and body. Do you want to die here in prison, leaving your name tarnished, and smirched with suspicion of crime, when you can live to proclaim your innocence to the world? Remember that even if you care nothing for your life, you owe something to your mother. You have two chances yet; the Grand Jury may not find a true bill--"
"Yes, that tiger-eyed lawyer will see that they do. He knows that the law is a cunning net for the feet of the innocent and the unwary. He set his snare dexterously, and will not fail to watch it."
"You mean Mr. Dunbar? Yes, you certainly have cause to dread him; but even if you should be indicted, you have twelve human hearts full of compassion to appeal to--and I can't think it possible a jury of sane men could look at you and condemn you. You must fight for your life; and what is far more to you than life, you must fight for your good name, for your character. Suspicion is not proof of crime, and there is no taint on you yet; for sin alone stains, and if you will only be brave and clear yourself as I know you can, what a grand triumph it will be. If you starve yourself you seal your doom. An empty stomach will do you more harm than the Grand Jury and all the lawyers; for it utterly upsets your nerves, and makes your brain whirl like a top. For three days and nights you have not tasted food: now just to please me, since I have taken so much trouble, sit down here by me, and eat what I have brought. I know you would rather not; I know you don't want it; but, my dear child, take it like any other dose, which will strengthen you for your battle. It is very fine to rant about heroism, but starvation is the best factory for turning out cowards: and even the courage of old Caesar would have had the 'dwindles,' if he had been stinted in his rations."
She removed the napkin, and displayed a tempting luncheon, served in pretty, gilt-banded white china. What a contrast it presented, to the steaming tin platter and dull tin quart cups carried daily to the adjoining cell?
Beryl laid her hand on Mrs. Singleton's shoulder, and her mouth trembled.
"I thank you, sincerely, for your sympathy--and for your confidence; and to show my appreciation of your kindness, I wish I could eat that dainty luncheon; but I think it would strangle me--I have such a ceaseless aching here, in my throat. I feel as if I should stifle."
"See here! I brought you some sweet rich milk in my little boy's cup. He was my first-born, and I lost him. This was his christening present from my mother. It is very precious, very sacred to me. If you will only drink what is in it, I shall be satisfied. Don't slight my angel baby's cup. That would hurt me."
She raised the pretty "Bo-Peep" silver cup to the prisoner's lips, and seeing the kind hazel eyes swimming in tears, Beryl stooped her head and drank the milk.
The warden's wife lifted the cup, looked wistfully at it, and kissed the name engraved on the metal:
"You know now I must think you pure and worthy. I have given you the strongest possible proof; for only the good could be allowed to touch what my dead boy's lips have consecrated. Now come out with me, and get some pure fresh air."
Beryl shrank back.
"These close walls seem a friendly shelter from the horrible faces that cluster outside. You can form no idea how I dread contact with the vile creatures, whose crimes have brought them here for expiation. The thought of breathing the same atmosphere pollutes me. I think the loathsomeness of perdition must consist in association with the depraved and wicked. Not the undying flames would affright me, but the doom of eternal companionship with outcast criminals. No! No! I would sooner freeze here, than wander in the sunshine with those hideous wretches I saw the day I was thrust among them."
"Trust me, and I will expose you to nothing unpleasant. Take your hat and shawl; I shall not bring you back here. There is time enough for cells when you have been convicted and sentenced; and please God, you shall never stay in this one again. Come."
"Stay, madam. What is your purpose? I have been so hunted down, I am growing suspicious of the appearance of kindness. What are you going to do?"
Mrs. Singleton took her hand and pressed it gently.
"I am going to trust, and help, and love you, if you will let me; and for the present, I intend to keep you in a room adjoining mine, where you will have no fear of wicked neighbors."
"That will be merciful indeed. May God bless you for the thought."
Down iron staircases, and through dim corridors bordered with dark cells, gloomy as the lairs of wild beasts whom the besotted inmates resembled, the two women walked; and once, when a clank of chains and a hoarse human cry broke the dismal silence, Beryl clutched her companion's arm, and her teeth chattered with horror.
"Yes, it is awful! That poor woman is the saddest case we have. She waylaid and stabbed her husband to death, and poisoned his mother. We think she is really insane, and as she is dangerous at times, it is necessary to keep her chained, until arrangements can be made to remove her to the insane asylum."
"I don't wonder she is mad! People cannot dwell here and retain their reason; and madness is a mercy that blesses them with forgetfulness."
Beryl shivered, and her eyes glittered with an unnatural and ominous brilliance.
The warden's wife paused before a large door with solid iron panels, and rang a bell. Some one on the other side asked:
"What is the order? Who rang?"
"Mrs. Singleton; I want to get into the chapel. Let me out, Jasper."
The door swung slowly back, and the guard touched his hat respectfully.
Through an open arcade, where the sunlight streamed, Mrs. Singleton led her companion; then up a short flight of stone steps, and they found themselves in a long room, with an altar railing and pulpit at one end, and rows of wooden benches crossing the floor from wall to wall. Even here, the narrow windows were iron barred, but sunshine and the sweet, pure breath of the outside world entered freely. Within the altar railing, and at the right of the reading desk where a Bible lay, stood a cabinet organ. Leaving the prisoner to walk up and down the aisle, Mrs. Singleton opened the organ, drew out the stops, and after waiting a few moments, began to play.
At first, only a solemn prelude rolled its waves of harmony through the peaceful sunny room, but soon the strains of the beautiful Motet "Cast thy burden on the Lord," swelled like the voice of some divine consoler. Watching the stately figure of the prisoner who wandered to and fro, the warden's wife noticed that like a magnet the music drew her nearer and nearer each time she approached the chancel, and at last she stood with one hand on the railing. The beautiful face, sharpened and drawn by mental agony, was piteously wan save where two scarlet spots burned on her cheeks, and the rigid lips were gray as some granite Statue's, but the eyes glowed with a strange splendor that almost transfigured her countenance.
On and on glided the soft, subtle variations of the Motet, and gradually the strained expression of the shining eyes relaxed, as if the soul of the listener were drifting back from a far-off realm; the white lids quivered, the stern lines of the pale lips unbent. At that moment, the face of her father seemed floating on the sunbeams that gilded the pulpit, and the tones of her mother's voice rang in her ears. The terrible tension of many days and nights of torture gave way suddenly, like a silver thread long taut, which snaps with one last vibration. She raised her hands:
"My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?"
The cry ended in a wail. Into her burning eyes merciful tears rushed, and sinking on her knees she rested against the railing, shaken by a storm of passionate weeping.
Mrs. Singleton felt her own tears falling fast, but she played for a while longer; then stole out of the chapel, and sat down on the steps.
Across the grass plot before the door, burnished pigeons cooed, and trod their stately minuet, their iridescent plumage showing every opaline splendor as the sunlight smote them; and on a buttress of the clock tower, a lonely hedge-sparrow poured his heart out in that peculiarly pathetic threnody which no other feathered throat contributes to the varied volume of bird lays. Poised on the point of an iron spike in the line that bristled along the wall, a mocking bird preened, then spread his wings, soared and finally swept downward, thrilling the air with the bravura of the "tumbling song"; and over the rampart that shut out the world, drifted the refrain of
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