Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 15

“CLAY, Lad, you’re the one person on earth whom I wished to see!”

“You’ve changed your mind, Nils? You’ll let me tell them the truth?”

“Hush! Speak lower, and be careful. How long have we to talk?”

“Twenty minutes. I wrung a pass at last from Clemens. Thought I could never have persuaded him. You know what a time I had over the last one, and now — so close to the day! Unheard of, the warden said; but I had the pass. They searched me and let me in. If I’d failed it might have been better for you, Nils!”

“Why?”

“If I’d failed, I had meant to confess immediately-”

“Hush, I say! The others there seem inattentive enough, but you can’t gage how closely they are listening. A prison is more than a prison. I’ve learned that. It’s a mesh of devilish traps, set to comb the very soul out of a man and violate its secrecy.”

“Nils, you have suffered too much.”

“Don’t go so white, lad. It was good of you to come and see me again.”

“Nils!”

“I mean it. Don’t you think I understand what this means to you? Have I no imagination? Can’t I put myself in your place? Why, the last time you came it nearly broke my heart to remind you of your duty. But we are men, you and I. When men love they are willing to make their sacrifice.”

“You would not do this for me alone? It is all for Roberta?”

“Can you ask? Why, dear friend, I would never damn you to a lifetime of remorse for a lesser reason. My part is nothing. To die is nothing. We all die. If you could exchange with me, I might not survive you a day — an hour. There are so many doors out beside the one I pass through tomorrow. What’s death? No, boy, it is your part that is hard and I thanked God when I saw your face, because I wished to say a word or so that might make it easier.”

“You are the noblest friend a man ever had. But I came to tell you that — that — have you seen the afternoon papers?”

“No, nor any papers for a week. I’m done with this world and the news of it. I hadn’t supposed, though, that they would devote their precious columns to real gloatings over me till tomorrow. Clay, take my advice and don’t read the papers of June 9.”

“You — haven’t seen — today’s?”

“I say, no! Why? Any special gloatings in them?”

“There is — Nils, you must let me stop this while there is time. I shall go to the Governor-”

“No! No — no — no, and no, again! Clay, have I passed through months of hell to see my reward snatched away at the last instant? There! You see, I make it plain that I’m selfish! To keep her happiness inviolate — to buy happiness for her at the mere price of death — why, that’s a joy that I never believed God would judge me worthy of!”

“You believe in God and His justice? You?”

“Most solemnly — most earnestly — as I never knew Him nor His justice before, Clayton, lad. Why, I’m happy! Do I seem so tragically sad to you?”

“No. But you seem different from any living man. You look like — I have seen the picture of a man with that light on His face.”

“So?”

“He was nailed to a cross. Nils! I am afraid!”

“I said your part was hardest. Hush! The others are listening. We’ve been speaking too loudly. Our time is almost gone, and I haven’t even begun what I wished to say Quick! Make me two promises. You’re the friend I have loved, Clay. I’d stake anything on your word. First, I am buying your life, with all that I have to give. So it’s mine, isn’t it?”

“You — you know!”

“Yes. Straighten up, boy. They are watching us. Your life, then, which is mine, I will and bequeath to — her. And you will never forget. That’s a promise?”

“Y-yes. Nils, I can’t stand this! I have a thing to tell you-”

“Hush! Second, never by word nor look, never, if you can help it, by a thought in her presence, will you betray our secret. A promise?”

“Nils — no — yes! I promise.”

“And you will-”

“Is that the guard coming?

“I fear so. Our last talk is over, Clay. Don’t care too much. Wait — just a minute more, guard. What, five? They are good to me, these last days. Listen, Clay:

“You are the only man in the world to whom I would tell this. This morning — a wonderful dream came to me. I had lain awake all night thinking, and I was tired. After breakfast I lay down again. I lay there on my cot, asleep, but I believed waking. And she came and stood by my head. You know that time when we met at dinner in your house, she didn’t like me very well. And, afterward, in the courtroom, as time passed and they proved their case, she — before the end she dreaded to even look toward me.

“Don’t protest. It’s true. But in this dream that was so much more real than reality she stood there and smiled, Clay — at me! She laid her hand on my forehead. There was a faint light around her. And she leaned and kissed me — on the lips. Waking, I still felt the touch of her lips. So real — real! If she were not living, I would have sworn that her spirit had come to me. And friendly — loving.

“Don’t look so, Clay! I shouldn’t have told you — oh surely you don’t grudge me that kindliness from her — in a dream? There, I knew you too well to think it! All right, guard, he’s coming.

“Clay, goodbye! May your sacrifice measure your happiness, as God knows it does mine. When you think of me, let it be only as a friend — always — forever — here and hereafter! Goodbye!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30