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- At the Mercy of Tiberius - 30/103 -
your vile suspicions are too contemptible to merit the indignation they arouse, I should to some extent feel relieved."
"Then having said it, I will let you off without an apology; and wipe the slate, and start fresh. You are sensitive about your honor, and I am determined to find out just how much it is worth. Trusting you as an honorable gentleman, I am going to ask you to do something for me, which may be of service to my patient; and I ask it, because I have unlimited faith in your skill. Find out who 'Ricordo' is."
"Why? I must thoroughly understand the import of whatever I undertake, and if your reasons are too sacred to be communicated to me, you must select some other agent. I do not solicit your confidence, mark you; but I must know all, or nothing."
"The day she was taken so ill, I was undressing her, and she looked at me very strangely, and said she believed she was losing her mind. Then she raised her hands and prayed:
"'Lord, be merciful! Lord, seal my lips! Seal my lips!'
"Since then she has not known me, but several times she cried out 'Ricordo'! Last night she sat up suddenly, and stared at something she seemed to see right before her in the air. She shook her head at first, and said--'Oh, no! it cannot be possible'. Then she clutched at some invisible object, and a look of horror came into her eyes. She struck her palms together, and I never heard such an agonizing cry, 'There is no help! I must believe it--oh Ricordo!--Ricordo-- Ricordo'. She fell back and shivered as if she had an ague. I tried to soothe her, and told her she had a bad dream. She kept saying: 'Oh, horrible--it was, it was Ricordo!' Once, early this morning, she pulled me down to her and whispered: 'Don't tell mother--it would break her heart to know it was Ricordo!' She has not spoken distinctly since, though she mutters to herself. Now, Mr. Dunbar, if I did not feel as sure of her innocence as I am of my own, I should never tell you this; but I want your aid to hunt and catch this 'Ricordo', because I am satisfied it will help to clear her."
"Was it not 'Ricardo'?"
"No, sir--it sounded as if spelled with an o not an a--and it was 'Ricordo'."
"Ricardo is a proper name, but I am under the impression that 'Ricordo' is an Italian word that means simply a remembrance, a souvenir, sometimes a warning. I am glad, however, to have the clue, and I will do all I can to discover what connection exists between that word, and the crime. Can you tell me nothing more?"
"Sometimes she seems to be drawing and painting, and talks to her father about pictures; and once she said: 'Hush! hush--mother is ill. She must not know I died, because I promised her I would bear everything. She made me promise'."
At this moment the keen wail of a young child, summoned the warden's wife to her own apartment, and Mr. Dunbar sat down in the rocking- chair beside the iron cot.
In that strange terra incognita, the realm of psychology, are there hidden laws that defy alike the ravages of cerebral disease, and the intuitions of the moral nature; inexorable as the atomic affinities, the molecular attractions that govern crystallization? Is the day dawning, when the phenomena of hypnotism will be analyzed and formulated as accurately as the symbols of chemistry, or the constituents of protoplasm, or the weird chromatics of spectroscopy? Beryl's head, that hitherto had turned restlessly on its pillow, became motionless; the closed eyes opened suddenly, fastened upon the lawyer's; and some inexplicable influence impelled her to stretch out her hand to him.
"Tiberius, you have come for me."
"I have come to ask if you are better to-day."
Her burning fingers closed tightly over his, and the fever flame lent an indescribable splendor to eyes that seemed to penetrate his heart. Bending over her, he gently lifted a shining fold of hair from her white temple, and still clasping her hand, said in a low voice:
"Beryl, do you know me? Are you better?"
"Wait till I finish the sketch from San Michele. After I am hung, you will sell it. The light is so lovely."
Up and down, her right hand moved through the air, making imaginary strokes as on canvas, but her luminous gaze, held by some powerful fascination, never left his. The gray depths had darkened, swallowed by the widening pupils that made them almost black; and as Mr. Dunbar recognized the complete surrender of physical and mental faculties, her helplessness stirred some unknown sea of tenderness in the man's hard, practical, realistic nature.
Phlegmatic rather than emotional, and wholly secretive, he had accustomed himself to regard romantic ideality, and susceptibility to sentimentality as a species of intellectual anaemia; holding himself always thoroughly in hand, when subjected to the softening influences that now and then invaded professional existence, and melted the conventional selfish crust over the hearts of his colleagues, as the warm lips and balmy breath of equatorial currents kiss away the jagged ledges of drifting icebergs. In his laborious life, that which is ordinarily denominated "love" had been so insignificant a factor, that he had never computed its potentiality; much less realized its tremendous importance in solving the problem of his social, financial, and professional success. Beauty had not allured, nor grace enthralled his fancy; and his betrothal was a mere incident in the quiet tenor of business routine, a necessary means for the accomplishment of a cherished plan.
To-day, while those hot slender fingers clung to his, and he leaned over the pillow, watching his victim, a rising tide surged, rolled up from some unexplored ocean of strange sensations, and its devouring waves threatened to demolish and engulf the stately structure pride and ambition had combined to rear. A brilliant alliance that insured great wealth, that promised a secure stepping- stone to political preferment, was apparently a substantial bulwark against the swelling billows of an unaccountable whim; yet he was impotent to resist the yearning tenderness which impelled him to forget all else, in one determined effort to rescue and shelter the life he had been the chief agent in imperilling. Clear eyed, keen witted, he did not for an instant deceive himself; and he knew that neither compassion for misfortune, nor yet a chivalrous remorse for having consigned a helpless woman to a dungeon, explained this new emotion that threatened to dominate all others.
Cool reason assured him that under existing entanglements, the girl's speedy death would prove the most felicitous solution of this devouring riddle, which so unexpectedly crossed his smooth path; then what meant the vehement protest of his throbbing heart, the passionate longing to snatch her from disease, and disgrace, and keep her safe forever in the close cordon of his arms?
The door was cautiously opened and closed, and noiselessly as a phantom, Leo Gordon stood within the room. One swift survey enabled her to grasp all the details. The small, comfortless, dismal apartment, the barred narrow window, the bare floor, the low iron cot in one corner, with its beautiful burden; the watching attitude of the man, who for years had possessed her heart. Resting one elbow on his knee, his chin leaned on his left hand, but the light fell full on his handsome face, and she started, marvelled at the expression of the brilliant eyes fixed upon the sufferer; eyes suffused and eloquent with tenderness, never before seen in their cold sparkling depths.
Mighty indeed must be the compassion, evocative of that intense yearning look in his usually guarded, irresponsive countenance. A painfully humiliating sense of her own personal incompetence to arouse the feeling, so legibly printed on her lover's features, jarred upon Leo's heart like a twanging dissonance breaking the harmonious flow of minor chords; but a noble pity strangled this jealous thrill, and she softly approached the cot.
The rustle of her dress attracted his attention, and glancing up, he saw his betrothed at his side. One might have counted ten, while they silently regarded each other; and as if conscious of having unmasked some disloyalty, scarcely yet acknowledged to himself, haughty defiance hardened and darkened his face. Involuntarily his hold on Beryl's fingers tightened.
"Prison wards are not proper fields for the cultivation and display of Miss Gordon's amateur kid glove charity. I hope, at least, it was a species of exaggerated high-flown sentimentality, rather than mere feminine curiosity that tempted you to precincts revolting to the delicacy and refinement with which my imagination invested you."
"My motives I shall not submit to the crucible of your criticism; and a little reflection will probably suggest to you, that perhaps you are unduly enlarging the limits, and prematurely exercising the rights of anticipated censorship. There are blunders that trench closely upon the borders of crime, and if professional zeal has betrayed you into the commission of a great wrong upon an innocent woman, it is a sacred duty to your victim, as well as my privilege as your betrothed, to alleviate her suffering as much as possible, and to repair the injury for which you are responsible. When human life and reputation are at stake, hypercritical fastidiousness is less pardonable than the deplorable mistake that endangers both."
"And if I have not blundered; and she be guilty?"
"Then your presence here, can only be explained by motives so malignant and contemptible, that I blush to ascribe them to you."
"If I am morbidly sensitive about your line of conduct you should understand and pardon my jealous espionage."
"If I, realizing that you are act infallible, entertain a nervous dread that unintentionally you may have inflicted an irreparable wrong, you at least should not feel offended, because I am sensitive as regards reflections upon your honor as a gentleman, and your astuteness as a lawyer."
Her fair face had flushed; his grew pale.
"Leo, is this to be our first quarrel?"
"If so, you are entitled to the role of protagonist."
He put out his left hand, and took hers, while his right was closely clasping one that lay upon the chintz coverlid.
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