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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSunrise - Chapter 46. The Beeches
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Sunrise - Chapter 46. The Beeches Post by :ow24160 Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1673

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Sunrise - Chapter 46. The Beeches

CHAPTER XLVI. THE BEECHES

On the same night Lord Evelyn was in Brand's rooms, arguing, expostulating, entreating, all to no purpose. He was astounded at the calmness with which this man appeared to accept the terrible task imposed on him, and at the stoical indifference with which he looked forward to the almost certain sacrifice of his own life.

"You have become a fanatic of fanatics!" he exclaimed, indignantly.

George Brand was staring out of the windows into the dark night, somewhat absently.

"I suppose," he answered, "all the great things that have been done in the world have been founded in fanaticism. All that I can hope for now is that this particular act of the Council may have the good effect they hope from it. They ought to know. They see the sort of people with whom they have to deal. I should have thought, with Lind, that it was unwise--that it would shock, or even terrify; but my opinion is neither here nor there. Further talking is of no use, Evelyn; the thing is settled; what I have to consider now, as regards myself, is how I can best benefit a few people whom I am interested in, and you can help me in that."

"But I appeal to yourself--to your conscience!" Lord Evelyn cried, almost in despair. "You cannot shift the responsibility to them. You are answerable for your own actions. I say you are sacrificing your conscience to your pride. You are saying to yourself, 'Do these foreigners think that I am afraid?'"

"I am not thinking of myself at all," said Brand, simply; "that is all over. When I swore to give myself to this Society--to obey the commands of the Council--then my responsibility ceased. What I have to do is to be faithful to my oath, and to the promise I have made." Almost unconsciously he glanced at the ring that Natalie had given him. "You would not have me skulk back like a coward? You would not have me 'play and not pay?' What I have undertaken to do I will do."

Presently he added,

"There is something you could do, Evelyn. Don't let us talk further of myself: I said before, if a single man drops out of the ranks, what matter?--the army marches on. And what has been concerning me of late is the effect that this act of the Council may have on our thousands of friends throughout this country. Now, Evelyn, when--when the affair comes off, I think you would do a great deal of good by pointing out in the papers what a scoundrel this man Zaccatelli was; how he had merited his punishment, and how it might seem justifiable to the people over there that one should take the law into one's own hands in such an exceptional case. You might do that, Evelyn, for the sake of the Society. The people over here don't know what a ruffian he is, and how he is beyond the ordinary reach of the law, or how the poor people have groaned under his iniquities. Don't seek to justify me; I shall be beyond the reach of excuse or execration by that time; but you might break the shock, don't you see?--you might explain a little--you might intimate to our friends who have joined us here that they had not joined any kind of Camorra association. That troubles me more than anything. I confess to you that I have got quite reconciled to the affair, as far as any sacrifice on my own part is concerned. That bitterness is over; I can even think of Natalie."

The last words were spoken slowly, and in a low voice; his eyes were fixed on the night-world outside. What could his friend say? They talked late into the night; but all his remonstrances and prayers were of no avail as against this clear resolve.

"What is the use of discussion?" was the placid answer. "What would you have me do?--break my oaths--put aside my sacred promise made to Natalie, and give up the Society altogether? My good fellow, let us talk of something less impossible."

And indeed, though he deprecated discussion on this point, he was anxious to talk. The fact was that of late he had come to fear sleep, as the look of his eyes testified. In the daytime, or as long as he could sit up with a companion, he could force himself to think only of the immediate and practical demands of the hour; vain regrets over what might have been--and even occasional uneasy searchings of conscience--he could by an effort of will ignore. He had accepted his fate; he had schooled himself to look forward to it without fear; henceforth there was to be no indecision, no murmur of complaint. But in the night-time--in dreams--the natural craving for life asserted itself; it seemed so sad to bid good-bye forever to those whom he had known and loved; and mostly always it was Natalie herself who stood there, regarding him with streaming eyes, and wringing her hands, and sobbing to him farewell. The morning light, or the first calls in the thoroughfare below, or the shrieking of some railway-whistle on Hungerford Bridge brought an inexpressible relief by banishing these agonizing visions. No matter how soon Waters was astir, he found his master up before him--dressed, and walking up and down the room, or reading some evening newspaper of the previous day. Sometimes Brand occupied himself in getting ready his own breakfast, but he had to explain to Waters that this was not meant as a rebuke--it was merely that, being awake early, he wished for some occupation.

Early on the morning after this last despairing protest on the part of Lord Evelyn, Brand drove up to Paddington Station, on his way to pay a hurried visit to his Buckinghamshire home. Nearly all his affairs had been settled in town; there remained some arrangements to be made in the country. Lord Evelyn was to have joined him in this excursion, but at the last moment had not put in an appearance; so Brand jumped in just as the train was starting, and found himself alone in the carriage.

The bundle of newspapers he had with him did not seem to interest him much. He was more than ever puzzled to account for the continued silence of Natalie. Each morning he had been confidently expecting to hear from her--to have some explanation of her sudden departure--but as the days went by, and no message of any sort arrived, his wonder became merged in anxiety. It seemed so strange that she should thus absent herself, when she had been counting on each day on which she might see him as if it were some gracious gift from Heaven.

All that he was certain of in the matter was that Lind knew no more than himself as to where Natalie had gone. One afternoon, going out from his rooms into Buckingham Street, he caught sight of Beratinsky loitering about farther up the little thoroughfare, about the corner of John Street. Beratinsky's back was turned to him, and so he took advantage of the moment to open the gate, for which he had a private key, leading down to the old York Gate; from thence he made his way round by Villiers Street, whence he could get a better view of the little black-a-vised Pole's proceedings.

He speedily convinced himself that Beratinsky, though occasionally he walked along in the direction of Adam Street, and though sometimes he would leisurely stroll up to the Strand, was in reality keeping an eye on Buckingham Street and he had not the least doubt that he himself was the object of this surveillance. He laughed to himself. Had these wise people in Lisle Street, then, discovering that Natalie's mother was in London, arrived at the conclusion that she and her daughter had taken refuge in so very open a place of shelter? When Beratinsky was least expecting any such encounter, Brand went up and tapped him on the shoulder.

"How do you do, Mr. Beratinsky?" said he, when the other wheeled round. "This is not the most agreeable place for a stroll. Why do you not go down to the Embankment Gardens?"

Beratinsky was angry and confused, but did not quite lose his self-command.

"I am waiting for some one," he said, curtly.

"Or to find out about some one? Well, I will save you some trouble. Lind wishes to know where his wife and daughter are, I imagine."

"Is that unnatural?"

"I suppose not. I heard he had been down to Hans Place, where Madame Lind was staying."

"You knew, then?" the other said, quickly.

"Oh yes, I knew. Now, if you will be frank with me, I may be of some assistance to you. Lind does not know where his wife and daughter are?"

"You know he does not."

"And you--perhaps you fancied that one or other might be sending a message to me--might call, perhaps--or even that I might have got them rooms for the time being?"

The Englishman's penetrating gray eyes were difficult to avoid.

"You appear to know a good deal, Mr. Brand," Beratinsky said, somewhat sulkily. "Perhaps you can tell me where they are now?"

"I can tell you where they are not, and that is in London."

The other looked surprised, then suspicious.

"Oh, believe me or not, as you please: I only wish to save you trouble. I tell you that, to the best of my belief, Miss Lind and her mother are not in London, nor in this country even."

"How do you know?"

"Pardon me; you are going too far. I only tell you what I believe. In return, as I have saved you some trouble, I shall expect you to let me know if you hear anything about them. Is that too much to ask?"

"Then you really don't know where they are?" Beratinsky said, with a quick glance.

"I do not; but they have left London--that I know."

"I am very much obliged to you," said the other, more humbly. "I wish you good evening, Mr. Brand."

"Stay a moment. Can you tell me what Yacov Kirski's address is? I have something to arrange with him before I leave England."

He took out his note-book, and put down the address that Beratinsky gave him. Then the latter moved away, taking off his hat politely, but not shaking hands.

Brand was amused rather than surprised at this little adventure; but when day after day passed, and no tidings came from Natalie, he grew alarmed. Each morning he was certain there would be a letter; each morning the postman rung the bell below, and Waters would tumble down the stairs at breakneck speed, but not a word from Natalie or her mother.

At the little Buckinghamshire station at which he stopped he found a dog-cart waiting to convey him to Hill Beeches; and speedily he was driving away through the country he knew so well, now somewhat desolate in the faded tints of the waning of the year; and perhaps, as he drew near to the red and white house on the hill, he began to reproach himself that he had not made the place more his home. Though the grounds and shrubberies were neat and trim enough, there was a neglected look about the house itself. When he entered, his footsteps rung hollow on the uncarpeted floors. Chintz covered the furniture; muslin smothered the chandeliers; everything seemed to be locked up and put away. And this comely woman of sixty or so who came forward to meet him--a smiling, gracious dame, with silvery-white hair, and peach-like cheeks, and the most winning little laugh--was not her first word some hint to the young master that he had been a long time away, and how the neighbors were many a time asking her when a young mistress was coming to the Beeches, to keep the place as it used to be kept in the olden days?

"Ah well, sir, you know how the people do talk," she said, with an apologetic smile. "And there was Mrs. Diggles, sir, that is at the Checkers, sir, and she was speaking only the other day, as it might be, about the old oak cupboard, that you remember, sir, and she was saying, 'Well, I wouldn't give that cupboard to Mahster Brand, though he offered me twenty pound for it years ago--twenty pound, not a farthing less. My vather he gave me that cupboard when I was married, and ten shillings was what he paid for it: and then there was twenty-five shillings paid for putting that cupboard to rights. And then the wet day that Mahster Brand was out shooting, and the Checkers that crowded that I had to ask him and the other gentleman to go into my own room, and what does he say but, "Mrs. Diggles, I will give you twenty pound for that cupboard of yourn, once you knock off the feet and the curly bit on the top." Law, how the gentle-folk do know about sech things: that was exactly what my vather he paid the twenty-five shillings for. But how could I give him my cupboard for twenty pound when I had promised it to my nephew? When I'm taken, that cupboard my nephew shall have.' Well, sir, the people do say that Mrs. Diggles and her nephew have had a quarrel; and this was what she was saying to me--begging your pardon, sir--only the other day, as it might be; says she, 'Mrs. Alleyne, this is what I will do: when your young mahster brings home a wife to the Beeches, I will make his lady a wedding-present of that cupboard of mine--that I will, if so be as she is not too proud to accept it from one in my 'umble station. It will be a wedding-present, and the sooner the better,' says she--begging of your pardon, sir."

"It is very kind of her, Mrs. Alleyne. Now let me have the keys, if you please; I have one or two things to see to, and I will not detain you now."

She handed him the keys and accepted her dismissal gratefully, for she was anxious to get off and see about luncheon. Then Brand proceeded to stroll quietly, and perhaps even sadly, through the empty and resounding rooms that had for him many memories.

It was a rambling, old-fashioned, oddly-built house, that had been added on to by successive generations, according to their needs, without much reference to the original design. It had come into the possession of the Brands of Darlington by marriage: George Brand's grandfather having married a certain Lady Mary Heaton, the last representative of an old and famous family. And these lonely rooms that he now walked through--remarking here and there what prominence had been given by his mother to the many trophies of the chase that he himself had sent home from various parts of the world--were hung chiefly with portraits, whose costumes ranged from the stiff frill and peaked waist of Elizabeth to the low neck and ringleted hair of Victoria. But there was in an inner room which he entered another collection of portraits that seemed to have a peculiar fascination for him--a series of miniatures of various members of the Heaton and Brand families, reaching down even to himself, for the last that was added had been taken when he was a lad, to send to his mother, then lying dangerously ill at Cannes. There was her own portrait, too--that of a delicate-looking woman with large, lustrous, soft eyes and wan cheeks, who had that peculiar tenderness and sweetness of expression that frequently accompanies consumption. He sat looking at these various portraits a long time, wondering now and again what this or that one may have suffered or rejoiced in; but more than all he lingered over the last, as if to bid those beautiful tender eyes a final farewell.

He was startled by the sound of some vehicle rattling over the gravel outside; then he heard some one come walking through the echoing rooms. Instantly, he scarcely knew why he shut down the lid of the case in front of him.

"Missed the train by just a second," Lord Evelyn said, coming into the room; "I am awfully sorry."

"It doesn't matter," Brand answered; "but I am glad you have come. I have everything squared up in London, I think; there only remains to settle a few things down here."

He spoke in quite a matter-of-fact way--so much so that his friend forgot to utter any further and unavailing protest.

"You know I am supposed to be going away abroad for a long time," he continued. "You must take my place, Evelyn, in a sort of way, and I will introduce you to-day to the people you must look after. There is a grandson of my mother's nurse, for example: I promised to do something for him when he completed his apprenticeship; and two old ladies who have seen better days--they are not supposed to accept any help, but you can make wonderful discoveries about the value of their old china, and carry it off to Bond Street. I will leave you plenty of funds; before my nephew comes into the place there will be sufficient for him and to spare. But as for yourself, Evelyn, I want you to take some little souvenir--how about this?"

He went and fetched a curious old silver drinking-cup, set round the lip and down the handle with uncut rubies and sapphires.

"I don't like the notion of the thing at all," Lord Evelyn said, rather gloomily; but it was not the cup that he was refusing thus ungraciously.

"After a time people will give me up for lost; and I have left you ample power to give any one you can think of some little present, don't you know, as a memento--whatever strikes your own fancy. I want Natalie to have that Louis XV. table over there--people rather admire the inlaid work on it, and the devices inside are endless. However, we will make out a list of these things afterward. Will you drive me down to the village now? I want you to see my pensioners."

"All right--if you like," Lord Evelyn said; though his heart was not in the work.

He walked out of this little room and made his way to the front-door, fancying that Brand would immediately follow. But Brand returned to that room, and opened the case of miniatures. Then he took from his pocket a little parcel, and unrolled it: it was a portrait of Natalie--a photograph on porcelain, most delicately colored, and surrounded with an antique silver frame. He gazed for a minute or two at the beautiful face, and somehow the eyes seemed sad to him. Then he placed the little portrait--which itself looked like a miniature--next the miniature of his mother, and shut the case and locked it.

"I beg your pardon, Evelyn, for keeping you waiting," he said, at the front-door. "Will you particularly remember this--that none of the portraits here are to be disturbed on any account whatever?"

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