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   Chapter 15 THE SNARE OF THE FOWLER

The Redemption of David Corson By Charles Frederic Goss Characters: 15223

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Thinks thou there are no serpents in the world

But those who slide along the grassy sod

And sting the luckless foot that presses them?

There are those who in the path of social life

Do bask their skins in Fortune's sun

And sting the soul." -Joanna Baillie.

That evening's business was one of unprecedented success. Never had the young orator been so brilliant. All the faculties of his mind seemed wrought up to their highest pitch and all its resources under perfect control. The boisterous crowd laughed itself hoarse at his humor, wept itself silly at his pathos, and laid its shekels at his feet.

It is no wonder that such scenes and others like them have generated both satirists and saviors, and that while men like Savonarola have been ready to die for the redemption of such creatures other men, like Juvenal, have sneered.

The three companions returned to the hotel and counted their ill-gotten gains. Pepeeta was sober, David exultant and the doctor hilarious. He pulled out the ends of his long black mustache to their utmost limit, twisted them into ropes, rubbed his hands together, slapped his great thigh and laughed long and loud.

"David, my son," he exclaimed, "you have the touch of Midas; g-g-give us a few years more and we will outrank the fabled Croesus. We shall yet be masters of the world. We shall ride upon its neck as if it w-w-were an ass! How about the old farm life now? Do you want to return to the p-p-plow-tail? Would you rather milk the b-b-brindle cow than the b-b-bedeviled people? This has been a g-g-great night, and I must go and finish it in the c-c-cabin of the Mary Ann with the captain, his mate and the judge. They will know how to appreciate it! Such a t-t-triumph must not be allowed to p-p-pass without a celebration."

He bustled about the room a few moments, kissed his wife, shook hands with David and hastened away.

After he had vanished, David and Pepeeta passed down the long corridor and out upon the balcony of the old Spencer House, to the place appointed for the interview of the judge. The night was bright; a refreshing breeze was blowing up from the river and the frequent intermissions in the gusts of wind that swept over the sleeping city gave the impression that Nature was holding her breath to listen to the tales of love that were being told on city balconies and in country lanes. Under the mysterious influence of the full moon, and of the silence, for the noises of the city had died away, their imaginations were aroused, their emotions quickened, their sensibilities stirred. It seemed impossible that life could be seriously real. Their conceptions of duty and responsibility were sublimated into vague and misty dreams, and the enjoyment of the moment's fleeting pleasures seemed the only reality and end of life.

The two lovers placed their chairs close to the railing and leaning over it looked down into the deserted street or off toward the distant hills swimming like islands on a sea of light, or up to the infinite sky in the immensity of which their individual being seemed to be swallowed up, or down into each other's eyes, in the depths of which they discovered realities which they had never before perceived, and lost sight of those in which they had always believed. For a long time they sat in silence. Afterwards, there came a few whispered interchanges of feeling, as the stillness of a grove is broken by gentle agitations among the leaves, and finally David said,

"Pepeeta, you have long promised to tell me all you knew of your early life; will you do it now?"

"Of what possible interest can it be to you?" she asked.

"It seems to me," he replied, "that I could linger forever over the slightest detail. It is not enough to know what you are. I wish to know how you came to be what you are."

"You must reconcile yourself to ignorance; the origin of my existence is lost in night."

"Did not the doctor discover anything at all from the people in whose possession he found you?"

"Nothing. They kept silence like the grave. He heard from a gypsy in another camp that my parents belonged to a noble family in Spain, and has often said that when he becomes very rich he will go with me to my native land and find them. But I believe, myself, that the veil will never be lifted from the past. I must be content!"

"But you can tell me something of that part of your childhood that you do remember?"

"It is too sad! I do not want to think of anything that happened before I met you. My life began from that moment. Before, I had only dreamed."

He was intoxicated with her beauty and her love; but he carried himself carefully, for he was playing a desperate game and must keep himself under control.

"And do you think," he said, "that having awakened from this dream you can ever fall asleep again?"

"Can the bird ever go back into the shell or the butterfly into the chrysalis? No, no, it is impossible."

"But would you, if you could?"

"Perhaps I ought to want to; but I cannot."

"And do you think that we can drift on forever as we are going?"

"I do not know. I do not dare to think. I only live from day to day."

"And you still refuse to take your future into your own hands?"

"It is not mine. I must accept what has been appointed."

"And you still believe that some door will be opened through which we may escape?"

"With all my heart."

"I wish I could share your faith."

They ceased to speak, and sat silently gazing into each other's faces, the heart of the woman rent with a conflict between desire and duty, that of the man by a tempest of evil passions. At that moment, a slow and heavy step was heard in the hallway. They looked toward the door, and in the shadows saw a man who contemplated them silently for a moment and then advanced.

David rose to meet him.

"I beg your pardon," he said, feigning embarrassment, "I had an errand with the lady, and hoped I should find her alone."

"You may speak, for the gentleman is the friend of my husband and myself," Pepeeta said.

"I will begin, then," he responded, "by asking if you recognize me?" And at that he stepped out into the moonlight.

Pepeeta gave him a searching glance and exclaimed in surprise, "You are the judge who married me."

He let his head fall upon his breast with well-assumed humility, remained a moment in silence, looked up mournfully and said, "I would to God that I had really married you, for then I should not have been bearing this accursed load of guilt that has been crushing me for months."

At these words, Pepeeta sprang from her seat and stood before him with her hands clasped upon her breast.

"Be quick! go on!" she cried, when she had waited in vain for him to proceed.

"Prepare yourself for a revelation of treachery and dishonor. I can conceal my crime no longer. If I hold my peace the very stones in the street will cry out against me."

"Make haste!" Pepeeta exclaimed, imperatively.

"Madam," continued the strange man, "I have betrayed you."

"You have betrayed me?"

"Yes, I have betrayed you. Do you understand? You are not married to your husband. I deceived you as I was bribed to do. I was not a justice. I had no right to perform that ceremony. It was a solemn farce. Your false lover desired to possess the privileges without assuming the responsibilities of marriage."

These words, spoken slowly, solemnly, and with a simulation of candor which would have deceived her even if she had not desired to believe them, produced the most profound impression upon the mind of Pepeeta. She

approached the judge and cried: "Sir, I beg you in the name of heaven not to trifle with me! Is what you have told me true?"

"Alas, too true."

"If it is true, you will say it before the God in heaven? Raise your right hand!"

Before an appeal so solemn and a soul so pure a man less corrupt would have faltered; but without a moment's hesitation this depraved, remorseless creature did as she commanded.

"I swear it," he said.

"Oh! sir," she cried, "you cannot understand; but this is the happiest moment of my life!"

"Madam?" he exclaimed, interrogatively and with consummate art.

"It is not necessary for you to know why," she answered; "but on my knees I thank you."

He lifted her up. "What can it mean? I implore you to tell me," he said.

"Do not ask me!" she replied. "I cannot tell you now! My heart is too full."

"But does this mean that I have nothing to regret and that you have forgiven me?"

"It does. For it is against God only you have sinned! As for myself, I bless you from the bottom of my heart!"

She gave him her hand. He took it in his own and held it, looking first at her and then at David with an expression of such surprise as to deceive his accomplice scarcely less than his victim. Young, inexperienced, innocent in this sin at least, she stood between them-helpless.

It is one thing for a woman deliberately to renounce her marriage vows to taste the sweets of forbidden pleasure, but quite another for a heart so loyal to duty, to be betrayed into crime by an ingenuity worthy of devils.

Child of misfortune that she was, victim of a series of untoward and fatal circumstances, she had reason all her life to regret her credulity; but never to reproach herself for wrong intentions. Her heart often betrayed her; but her soul was never corrupted. She ought to have been more careful-alas, yes, she ought-but she meant no sin.

Now that the confidence of Pepeeta had been secured, David's part in this drama became comparatively easy.

He listened to the brief conversation in which by a well-constructed chain of fictitious reasonings the judge riveted upon the too eager mind of the child-wife the conclusion that she was free. When this arch villain had concluded his arguments every suspicion had vanished from her soul, and as he rose to depart she took him by the hand and bade him a kindly and almost affectionate farewell. "Do not afflict yourself with this painful memory," she said gently.

"I shall not need to afflict myself," he replied; "my memory will afflict me, for I am as guilty as if the result had been what I expected; and if in the coming years you find a moment now and then in which you can lift up a prayer for a man who has forfeited his claim to mercy, I beg you to devote it to him who from the depths of his heart wishes you joy. Good-bye."

With many assurances of her pardon, Pepeeta followed him to the door and bade him farewell.

When she returned to David her face was luminous with happiness, and although he had begun already to experience a reaction and to suffer remorse for his successful infamy, it was only like a drop of poison in the ocean of his joy.

"Did I not tell you that all would be well?" she cried, approaching him and extending both her hands. "But how sudden and how strange it is. It is too good to be true. I cannot realize that I am free. I am like a little bird that hops about its cage, peeps through the door which its mistress' hand has opened, and knows not what to think. It wishes to go; but it is frightened. What shall it do, David? Tell it! Shall it fly?"

"I also am too bewildered to act and almost too bewildered to think," he said with unaffected excitement and anxiety, for now that the time and opportunity for him to take so momentous a step had come, his heart failed him. It was only with the most violent effort and under a most pressing necessity that he pulled himself together and continued,

"The little bird must fly, and its mate must fly with it. There are too few hours before daylight and we must not lose a single one. But are you sure that you are quite ready? Is your mind made up? Will you go with me trustfully? Will you accept whatever the future has in store?"

She took him in her strong young arms, printed her first kiss upon his lips, and said: "I will go with you to the ends of the earth! I will go with you through water and through fire! The future cannot bring me anything from which I shall shrink, if it lets us meet it hand in hand!"

Silently and swiftly they gathered together the few necessities of a sudden journey, stole out of the quiet building and hurried away to a livery stable. In a few moments they were rattling down the rough cobble-stone pavement to the river. The ferryman, who had been retained for this very purpose, pretended to be asleep. They aroused him, drove onto the platform of his primitive craft and floated out upon the stream. As the boat swung clear of the shore they heard music issuing from the cabin windows of a steamer under whose stern they were passing. It was the "Mary Ann." They listened. The music ceased for a moment and a deep voice called out "B-b-bravo! Another song!"

They recognized it instantly, and Pepeeta pressed close to the side of her lover.

"You hear it for the last time," he whispered.

"Thank God," she said.

That name uttered in the darkness of the night startled him. The idea that he had cast a shuttle of crime into the great loom upon which the fabric of his life was being woven, took complete possession of his mind. With unerring prescience, he saw that it began to be entangled in the mysterious meshes. A consciousness that he was no longer the master but the victim of his destiny seized him and he shuddered. Pepeeta perceived the shudder through the arm which embraced her.

"You are cold, my love," she said.

"My joy has made me tremble," he replied.

She pressed the hand which was holding hers and looked up into his face with ineffable love.

The swift current seized the boat, twisting it hither and thither till it seemed to the now trembling fugitive a symbol of the stream of tendencies upon which he had launched the frail bark containing their united lives.

"I wonder if I am strong enough to stem it?" he asked himself.

Pepeeta continued to press his hand and that gentle sign of love revived his drooping courage. Perhaps there is no other act so full of reassuring power as the pressure of a human hand. Neither a glance from the eye nor a word from the lips can equal it. The fainting pilgrim, the departing friend, the discouraged toiler, the returning prodigal welcome it beyond all other symbols of helpfulness or love, and the dying saint who leans the hardest on the "rod and the staff of God" as he goes down into the dark valley finds a comfort scarcely less sweet in the warm clasp of a human hand. Just as the courage of this daring navigator of the sea of crime had been restored by this signal of his loved one's trust, the boat grated on the beach.

"Can we find a minister who will marry us at this time of night?" David said to the ferryman, although he had been careful to ask this question before.

"Two blocks south and three east, second door on the right hand side," he answered laconically, as he received the fare.

Such adventurers passed often through his hands and their ways were nothing new.

The fugitives drove hurriedly to the designated house, knocked at the door, were admitted and in a few moments the final act which sealed their fate had been performed.

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