THE LAST NIGHT
THE VISIT of Yaquita and her daughter had been like all such visits during the few hours which each day the husband and wife spent together. In the presence of the two beings whom Joam so dearly loved his heart nearly failed him. But the husband—the father—retained his self-command. It was he who comforted the two poor women and inspired them with a little of the hope of which so little now remained to him. They had come with the intention of cheering the prisoner. Alas! far more than he they themselves were in want of cheering! But when they found him still bearing himself unflinchingly in the midst of his terrible trial, they recovered a little of their hope.
Once more had Joam spoken encouraging words to them. His indomitable energy was due not only to the feeling of his innocence, but to his faith in that God, a portion of whose justice yet dwells in the hearts of men. No! Joam Dacosta would never lose his life for the crime of Tijuco!
Hardly ever did he mention the document. Whether it were apocryphal or no, whether it were in the handwriting of Torres or in that of the real perpetrator of the crime, whether it contained or did not contain the longed-for vindication, it was on no such doubtful hypothesis that Joam Dacosta presumed to trust. No; he reckoned on a better argument in his favor, and it was to his long life of toil and honor that he relegated the task of pleading for him.
This evening, then, his wife and daughter, strengthened by the manly words, which thrilled them to the core of their hearts, had left him more confident than they had ever been since his arrest. For the last time the prisoner had embraced them, and with redoubled tenderness. It seemed as though the dénouement was nigh.
Joam Dacosta, after they had left, remained for some time perfectly motionless. His arms rested on a small table and supported his head. Of what was he thinking? Had he at last been convinced that human justice, after failing the first time, would at length pronounce his acquittal?
Yes, he still hoped. With the report of Judge Jarriquez establishing his identity, he knew that his memoir, which he had penned with so much sincerity, would have been sent to Rio Janeiro, and was now in the hands of the chief justice. This memoir, as we know, was the history of his life from his entry into the offices of the diamond arrayal until the very moment when the jangada stopped before Manaos. Joam Dacosta was pondering over his whole career. He again lived his past life from the moment when, as an orphan, he had set foot in Tijuco. There his zeal had raised him high in the offices of the governor-general, into which he had been admitted when still very young. The future smiled on him; he would have filled some important position. Then this sudden catastrophe; the robbery of the diamond convoy, the massacre of the escort, the suspicion directed against him as the only official who could have divulged the secret of the expedition, his arrest, his appearance before the jury, his conviction in spite of all the efforts of his advocate, the last hours spent in the condemned cell at Villa Rica, his escape under conditions which betokened almost superhuman courage, his flight through the northern provinces, his arrival on the Peruvian frontier, and the reception which the starving fugitive had met with from the hospitable fazender Magalhaës.
The prisoner once more passed in review these events, which had so cruelly amrred his life. And then, lost in his thoughts and recollections, he sat, regardless of a peculiar noise on the outer wall of the convent, of the jerkings of a rope hitched on to a bar of his window, and of grating steel as it cut through iron, which ought at once to have attracted the attention of a less absorbed man.
Joam Dacosta continued to live the years of his youth after his arrival in Peru. He again saw the fazender, the clerk, the partner of the old Portuguese, toiling hard for the prosperity of the establishment at Iquitos. Ah! why at the outset had he not told all to his benefactor? He would never have doubted him. It was the only error with which he could reproach himself. Why had he not confessed to him whence he had come, and who he was—above all, at the moment when Magalhaës had place in his hand the hand of the daughter who would never have believed that he was the author of so frightful a crime.
And now the noise outside became loud enough to attract the prisoner’s attention. For an instant Joam raised his head; his eyes sought the window, but with a vacant look, as though he were unconscious, and the next instant his head again sank into his hands. Again he was in thought back at Iquitos.
There the old fazender was dying; before his end he longed for the future of his daughter to be assured, for his partner to be the sole master of the settlement which had grown so prosperous under his management. Should Dacosta have spoken then? Perhaps; but he dared not do it. He again lived the happy days he had spent with Yaquita, and again thought of the birth of his children, again felt the happiness which had its only trouble in the remembrances of Tijuco and the remorse that he had not confessed his terrible secret.
The chain of events was reproduced in Joam’s mind with a clearness and completeness quite remarkable.
And now he was thinking of the day when his daughter’s marriage with Manoel had been decided. Could he allow that union to take place under a false name without acquainting the lad with the mystery of his life? No! And so at the advice of Judge Ribeiro he resolved to come and claim the revision of his sentence, to demand the rehabilitation which was his due! He was starting with his people, and then came the intervention of Torres, the detestable bargain proposed by the scoundrel, the indignant refusal of the father to hand over his daughter to save his honor and his life, and then the denunciation and the arrest!
Suddenly the window flew open with a violent push from without.
Joam started up; the souvenire of the past vanished like a shadow.
Benito leaped into the room; he was in the presence of his father, and the next moment Manoel, tearing down the remaining bars, appeared before him.
Joam Dacosta would have uttered a cry of surprise. Benito left him no time to do so.
“Father,” he said, “the window grating is down. A rope leads to the ground. A pirogue is waiting for you on the canal not a hundred yards off. Araujo is there ready to take you far away from Manaos, on the other bank of the Amazon where your track will never be discovered. Father, you must escape this very moment! It was the judge’s own suggestion!”
“It must be done!” added Manoel.
“Fly! I!—Fly a second time! Escape again?”
And with crossed arms, and head erect, Joam Dacosta stepped forward.
“Never!” he said, in a voice so firm that Benito and Manoel stood bewildered.
The young men had never thought of a difficulty like this. They had never reckoned on the hindrances to escape coming from the prisoner himself.
Benito advanced to his father, and looking him straight in the face, and taking both his hands in his, not to force him, but to try and convince him, said:
“Never, did you say, father?”
“Father,” said Manoel—“for I also have the right to call you father—listen to us! If we tell you that you ought to fly without losing an instant, it is because if you remain you will be guilty toward others, toward yourself!”
“To remain,” continued Benito, “is to remain to die! The order for execution may come at any moment! If you imagine that the justice of men will nullify a wrong decision, if you think it will rehabilitate you whom it condemned twenty years since, you are mistaken! There is hope no longer! You must escape! Come!”
By an irresistible impulse Benito seized his father and drew him toward the window.
Joam Dacosta struggled from his son’s grasp and recoiled a second time.
“To fly,” he answered, in the tone of a man whose resolution was unalterable, “is to dishonor myself, and you with me! It would be a confession of my guilt! Of my own free will I surrendered myself to my country’s judges, and I will await their decision, whatever that decision may be!”
“But the presumptions on which you trusted are insufficient,” replied Manoel, “and the material proof of your innocence is still wanting! If we tell you that you ought to fly, it is because Judge Jarriquez himself told us so. You have now only this one chance left to escape from death!”
“I will die, then,” said Joam, in a calm voice. “I will die protesting against the decision which condemned me! The first time, a few hours before the execution—I fled! Yes! I was then young. I had all my life before me in which to struggle against man’s injustice! But to save myself now, to begin again the miserable existence of a felon hiding under a false name, whose every effort is required to avoid the pursuit of the police, again to live the life of anxiety which I have led for twenty-three years, and oblige you to share it with me; to wait each day for a denunciation which sooner or later must come, to wait for the claim for extradition which would follow me to a foreign country! Am I to live for that? No! Never!”
“Father,” interrupted Benito, whose mind threatened to give way before such obstinacy, “you shall fly! I will have it so!” And he caught hold of Joam Dacosta, and tried by force to drag him toward the window.
“You wish to drive me mad?”
“My son,” exclaimed Joam Dacosta, “listen to me! Once already I escaped from the prison at Villa Rica, and people believed I fled from well-merited punishment. Yes, they had reason to think so. Well, for the honor of the name which you bear I shall not do so again.”
Benito had fallen on his knees before his father. He held up his hands to him; he begged him:
“But this order, father,” he repeated, “this order which is due to-day—even now—it will contain your sentence of death.”
“The order may come, but my determination will not change. No, my son! Joam Dacosta, guilty, might fly! Joam Dacosta, innocent, will not fly!”
The scene which followed these words was heart-rending. Benito struggled with his father. Manoel, distracted, kept near the window ready to carry off the prisoner—when the door of the room opened.
On the threshold appeared the chief of the police, accompanied by the head warder of the prison and a few soldiers. The chief of the police understood at a glance that an attempt at escape was being made; but he also understood from the prisoner’s attitude that he it was who had no wish to go! He said nothing. The sincerest pity was depicted on his face. Doubtless he also, like Judge Jarriquez, would have liked Dacosta to have escaped.
It was too late!
The chief of the police, who held a paper in his hand, advanced toward the prisoner.
“Before all of you,” said Joam Dacosta, “let me tell you, sir, that it only rested with me to get away, and that I would not do so.”
The chief of the police bowed his head, and then, in a voice which he vainly tried to control”
“Joam Dacosta,” he said, “the order has this moment arrived from the chief justice at Rio Janeiro.”
“Father!” exclaimed Manoel and Benito.
“This order,” asked Joam Dacosta, who had crossed his arms, “this order requires the execution of my sentence?”
“And that will take place?”
Benito threw himself on his father. Again would he have dragged him from his cell, but the soldiers came and drew away the prisoner from his grasp.
At a sign from the chief of the police Benito and Manoel were taken away. An end had to be put to this painful scene, which had already lasted too long.
“Sir,” said the doomed man, “before to-morrow, before the hour of my execution, may I pass a few moments with Padre Passanha, whom I ask you to tell?”
“It will be forbidden.”
“May I see my family, and embrace for a last time my wife and children?”
“You shall see them.”
“Thank you, sir,” answered Joam; “and now keep guard over that window; it will not do for them to take me out of here against my will.”
And then the chief of the police, after a respectful bow, retired with the warder and the soldiers.
The doomed man, who had now but a few hours to live, was left