During the long hours of the night which followed, Jay Gardiner dared not trust himself to sleep for a single instant, so great was his horror of the rodents that scampered in droves across the damp floor of the cellar in which he was a prisoner.
He felt that his brain must soon give way, and that Jasper Wilde would have his desire--he would soon be driven to insanity.
He thought of Bernardine, who was waiting for him to return to her, and he groaned aloud in the bitterness of his anguish, in the agony of his awful despair.
The manacles cut into his flesh, for his wrists had swollen as he lay there, and the burning thirst was becoming maddening.
"Great God in Heaven! how long--ah, how long, will this torture last?" he cried.
In the midst of his anguish, he heard footsteps; but not those for which he longed so ardently. A moment later, and Jasper Wilde stood before him.
"Now let me tell you what my revenge upon the beautiful Bernardine will be for preferring you to myself. I shall marry her--she dare not refuse when I have her here--that I warrant you. As I said before, I shall marry the dainty Bernardine, the cold, beautiful, haughty Bernardine, and then I shall force her to go behind the bar, and the beauty of her face will draw custom from far and near.
"Nothing could be so revolting to her as this. It will crush her, it will kill her, and I, whose love for her has turned into hate--yes, deepest, deadly hate--will stand by and watch her, and laugh at her. Ha! ha! ha!"
With a fury born of madness, Doctor Gardiner wrenched himself free from the chains that bound him, and with one flying leap was upon his enemy and had hurled him to the floor, his hand clutching Wilde's throat.
"It shall be death to one or other of us!" he panted, hoarsely.
But he had not reckoned that in his weak condition he was no match for Jasper Wilde, who for the moment was taken aback by the suddenness of the attack.
That the encounter would have ended in certain death to Jay Gardiner, in his exhausted state, was quite apparent to Jasper Wilde; but in that moment fate intervened to save him. Hardly had the two men come together in that desperate death-struggle, ere the startling cry of "Fire!" rang through the building.
Jasper Wilde realized what that meant. There was but one exit from the cellar, and if he did not get out of it in a moment's time, he would be caught like a rat in a trap. Gathering himself together, he wrenched himself free from the doctor's grasp, and hurling him to the floor with a fearful blow planted directly between the eyes, sprung over the threshold.
Wilde paused a single instant to shout back:
"I leave you to your fate, my handsome doctor! Ha! ha! ha!"
But fate did not intend Jay Gardiner to die just then, even though he sunk back upon the flags with an awful groan and fully realized the horror of the situation.
That groan saved him. A fireman heard it, and in less time than it takes to tell it, a brawny, heroic fellow sprung through the iron door-way, which Wilde in his mad haste had not taken time to close.
A moment more, and the fireman had carried his burden up through the flames, and out into the pure air.
The fresh air revived the young doctor, as nothing else could have done.
"Give me your name and address," he said, faintly, to the fireman. "You shall hear from me again;" and the man good-naturedly complied, and then turned back the next instant to his duty.
In the excitement, he forgot to ask whose life it was he had saved.
The fire proved to be a fearful holocaust. Canal Street had never known a conflagration that equaled it.
Doctor Gardiner made superhuman efforts to enter the tenement-house, to save the life of the old basket-maker--Bernardine's hapless father--who stood paralyzed, incapable of action, at an upper window. But no human being could breast that sea of flame; and with a cry of horror, the young doctor saw the tenement collapse, and David Moore was buried in the ruins.
He had forfeited his life for the brandy he had taken just a little while before, which utterly unfitted him to make an effort to get out of the building.
Jay Gardiner, sick at heart, turned away with a groan. He must go to Bernardine at once; but, Heaven help her! how could he break the news of her great loss to her?
As he was deliberating on what course to pursue, a hand was suddenly laid on his shoulder, and a voice said, lustily:
"By all that is wonderful, I can scarcely believe my eyes, Jay Gardiner, that this is you! I expected you were at this moment hundred of miles away from New York. But, heavens! how ill you look! Your clothes are covered with dust. What can be the matter with you, Jay?"
Turning suddenly at the sound of the familiar voice, Doctor Gardiner found himself face to face with the young physician who took charge of his office while he was away.
"Come with me; you shall not tell me now, nor talk. Come to the office, and let me fix up something for you, or you will have a spell of sickness."
And without waiting to heed Jay Gardiner's expostulations--that he must go somewhere else first--he called a passing cab, and hustled him into it.
Owing to his splendid physique, he felt quite as good as new the next morning, save for the pain in his head, where he had fallen upon the stone flagging of the wine cellar.
Without any more loss of time than was absolutely necessary, he set out for the old nurse's house, at which he had left Bernardine two days before. He had half expected to find her ill, and he was not a little surprised when she came to the door in answer to his summons.
"Mrs. Gray is out," she said, "and I saw you coming, Doctor Gardiner, and oh, I could not get here quick enough to see you and thank you for what you have done for me--risked your own life to save a worthless one like mine."
"Hush, hush, Bernardine! You must not say that!" he cried, seizing her little hands.
He drew her into the plain little sitting-room, seated her, then turned from her abruptly and commenced pacing up and down the room, his features working convulsively.
It was by the greatest effort he had restrained himself from clasping her in his arms. Only Heaven knew how great was the effort.
"Why did you attempt to drown yourself, Bernardine?" he asked, at length. "Tell me the truth."
"Yes, I will tell you," sobbed Bernardine, piteously. "I did it because I did not wish to become Jasper Wilde's bride."
"But why were you driven to such a step?" he persisted. "Surely you could have said 'No,' and that would have been sufficient."
For a moment she hesitated, then she flung herself, sobbing piteously, on her knees at his feet.
"If I tell you all, will you pledge yourself to keep my secret, and my father's secret, come what may?" she cried, wringing her hands.
"Yes," he replied, solemnly. "I shall never divulge what you tell me. You can speak freely, Bernardine."
And Bernardine did speak freely. She told him all without reserve--of the sword Jasper Wilde held over her head because of her poor father, whom he could send to the gallows, although he was an innocent man, if she refused to marry him.
Jay Gardiner listened to every word with intense interest.
"While I have been here I have been thinking--thinking," she sobbed. "Oh, it was cruel of me to try to avoid my duty to poor father. I must go back and--and marry Jasper Wilde, to save poor papa, who must now be half-crazed by my disappearance."
Doctor Gardiner clasped her little hands still closer. The time had come when he must break the awful news to her that her father was no longer in Jasper Wilde's power; that he had passed beyond all fear of him, all fear of punishment at the hand of man.
"Are you strong enough to bear a great shock, Bernardine?" he whispered, involuntarily gathering the slender figure to him.
The girl grew pale as death.
"Is it something about father? Has anything happened to him?" she faltered, catching her breath.
He nodded his head; then slowly, very gently, he told her of the fire, and that he had seen her father perish--that he was now forever beyond Jasper Wilde's power.
Poor Bernardine listened like one turned to stone: then, without a word or a cry, fell at his feet in a faint.
At that opportune moment the old nurse returned.
Doctor Gardiner soon restored her to consciousness; but it made his heart bleed to witness her intense grief. She begged him to take her to the ruins, and with great reluctance he consented.
Ordering a cab at the nearest stand, he placed her in it, and took a seat by her side, feeling a vague uneasiness, a consciousness that this ride should never have been taken.
She was trembling like a leaf. What could he do but place his strong arm about her? In that moment, in the happiness of being near her, he forgot that he was in honor bound to another, and that other Sally Pendleton, whom he was so soon to lead to the altar to make his wife.
The girl he loved with all the strength of his heart was so near to him--ah, Heaven! so dangerously near--the breath from her lips was wafted to him with each passing breeze, and seemed to steal his very senses from him.
Oh, if he could but indulge in one moment of happiness--could clasp her in his arms but a single moment, and kiss those trembling lips just once, he would be willing to pay for it by a whole life-time of sorrow, he told himself.
Ah! why must he refuse himself so resolutely this one draught of pleasure that fate had cast in his way?
He hesitated, and we all know what happens to the man who hesitates--he is lost.
At this moment Bernardine turned to him, sobbing piteously:
"Oh, what shall I do, Doctor Gardiner? Father's death leaves me all alone in the world--all alone, with no one to love me!"
In an instant he forgot prudence, restraint; he only knew that his heart, ay, his very soul, flowed out to her in a torrent so intense no human will could have restrained it.
Almost before he was aware of it, his arms were about her, straining her to his madly beating heart, his passionate kisses falling thrillingly upon her beautiful hair and the sweet, tender lips, while he cried, hoarsely:
"You shall never say that again, beautiful Bernardine! I love you--yes, I love you with all my heart and soul! Oh, darling! answer me--do you care for me?"
The girl recoiled from him with a low, wailing sob. The words of the fashionably attired young girl who had called upon her so mysteriously on that never-to-be-forgotten day, and taunted her with--"He is deceiving you, girl! Doctor Gardiner may talk to you of love, but he will never--never speak to you of marriage. Mark my words!"--were ringing like a death-knell in her ears.
"Oh, Bernardine!" he cried, throwing prudence to the winds, forgetting in that moment everything save his mad love for her--"oh, my darling! you are not alone in the world! I love you! Marry me, Bernardine, and save me from the future spreading out darkly before me--marry me within the hour--now; Don't refuse me. We are near a church now. The rector lives next door. We will alight here, and in five minutes you will be all my own to comfort, to care for, to protect and idolize, to worship as I would an angel from Heaven!"
He scarcely waited for her to consent. He stopped the coach, and fairly lifted her from the vehicle in his strong arms.
"Oh, Doctor Gardiner, is it for the best?" she cried, clinging to him with death-cold hands. "Are you sure you want me?"
The answer that he gave her, as he bent his fair, handsome head, must have satisfied her. Loving him as she did, how could she say him nay?
They entered the parsonage, and when they emerged from it, ten minutes later, Bernardine was Jay Gardiner's wedded wife.
And that was the beginning of the tragedy.
"I shall not take you to the scene of the fire just now, my darling," he decided. "The sight would be too much for you. In a day or two, when you have become more reconciled to your great loss, I will take you there."
"You know best, Doctor Gardiner," she sobbed, as they re-entered the vehicle. "I will do whatever you think is best."
"Where to, sir?" asked the driver, touching his cap.
"We will go to Central Park," he answered; then turning to Bernardine, he added: "When we reach there, we will alight and dismiss this man. We will sit down on one of the benches, talk matters over, and decide what is best to be done--where you would like to go for your wedding-trip; but, my love, my sweetheart, my life, you must not call me 'Doctor Gardiner.' To you, from this time on, I am Jay, your own fond husband!"