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Sunrise - Chapter 40. A Conclave Post by :ow24160 Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :876

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Sunrise - Chapter 40. A Conclave

CHAPTER XL. A CONCLAVE

Punctual to the moment George Brand arrived in Lisle Street. He was shown into an inner room, where he found Lind seated at a desk, and Reitzei and Beratinsky standing by the fireplace. On an adjacent table where four cups of black coffee, four small glasses, a bottle of brandy, and a box of cigarettes.

Lind rose to receive him, and was very courteous indeed--apologizing for having had to break in on his preparations for leaving, and offering him coffee, cigarettes, and what not. When the new-comer had declined these, Lind resumed his place and begged the others to be seated.

"We will proceed to business at once, gentlemen," said he, speaking in quite an ordinary and matter-of-fact way, "although, I will confess to you, it is not business entirely to my liking. Perhaps I should not say so. This paper, you see, contains my authorization from the Council to summon you and to explain the service they demand: perhaps I should merely obey, and say nothing. But we are friends; we can speak in confidence."

Here Reitzei, who was even more pallid than usual, and whose fingers seemed somewhat shaky, filled one of the small glasses of brandy, and drank it off.

"I do not say that I hesitate," continued Lind--"that I am reluctant, because the service that is required from us--from one of us four--is dangerous--is exceedingly dangerous. No," he said, with a brief smile, "as far as I am myself concerned, I have carried my life in my hands too often to think much about that. And you, gentlemen, considering the obligations you have accepted, I take it that the question of possible harm to yourselves is not likely to interfere with your obedience to the commands of the Council."

"As for me," said Reitzei, eagerly and nervously, "I tell you this, I should like to have something exciting now--I do not care what. I am tired of this work in London; it is slow, regular, like the ticking of a clock. I am for something to stir the blood a little. I say that I am ready for anything."

"As for me," said Beratinsky, curtly, "no one has ever yet called me a coward."

Brand said nothing; but he perceived that this was something unusually serious, and almost unconsciously he closed his right hand that he might feel the clasp of Natalie's ring. There was no need to appeal to his oaths of allegiance.

Lind proceeded, in a graver fashion,

"Yes, I confess that personally I am for avoiding violence, for proceeding according to law. But then the Council would say, perhaps, 'Are there not injuries for which the law gives no redress? Are there not those who are beyond the power of the law? And we, who have given our lives to the redressing of wrongs, to the protection of the poor, to the establishment of the right, are we to stand by and see the moral sense of the community outraged by those in high places, and say no word, and lift no hand?'"

He took up a book that was lying on the table, and opened it at a marked page.

"Yes," he said, "there are occasions on which a man may justly take the law into his own hands; may break the law, and go beyond it, and punish those whom the law has failed to punish; and the moral sense of the world will say, 'Well done!' Did you ever happen to read, Mr. Brand, the letter written by Madame von Maderspach?"

Brand started at the mention of the name: it recalled the first evening on which he had seen Natalie. What strange things had happened since then! He answered that he did not know of Madame von Maderspach's letter.

"By chance I came across it to-day," said Lind, looking at the book. "Listen: 'I was torn from the arms of my husband, from the circle of my children, from the hallowed sanctuary of my home, charged with no offence, allowed no hearing, arraigned before no judge. I, a woman, wife, and mother, was in my own native town, before the people accustomed to treat me with respect, dragged into a square of soldiers, and there scourged with rods. Look, I can write this without dropping dead! But my husband killed himself. Robbed of all other weapons, he shot himself with a pocket-pistol. The people rose, and would have killed those who instigated these horrors, but their lives were saved by the interference of the military.' Very well. Von Maderspach took his own way; he shot himself. But if, instead of doing that, he had taken the law into his own hands, and killed the author of such an outrage, do you think there is a human being in the world who would have blamed him?"

He appealed directly to Brand. Brand answered calmly, but with his face grown rather white, "I think if such a thing were done to--to my wife, I would have a shot at somebody."

Perhaps Lind thought that it was the recital of the wrongs of Madame von Maderspach that had made this man's face grow white, and given him that look about the mouth; but at all events he continued, "Exactly so. I was only seeking to show you that there are occasions on which a man might justly take the law into his own hands. Well, then, some would argue--I don't say so myself, but some would say--that what a man may do justly an association may do justly. What would the quick-spreading civilization of America have done but for the Lynch tribunals? The respectable people said to themselves, 'it is question of life or death. We have to attack those scoundrels at once, or society will be destroyed. We cannot wait for the law: it is powerless.' And so when the president had given his decision, out they went and caught the scoundrels, and strung them up to the nearest tree. You do not call them murderers. John Lynch ought to have a statue in every Western State in America."

"Certainly, certainly!" exclaimed Reitzei, reaching over and filling out another glass of brandy with an unsteady hand. He was usually an exceedingly temperate person. "We are all agreed. Justice must be done, whether the law allows or not; I say the quicker the better."

Lind paid no heed to him, but proceeded quietly, "Now I will come more directly to what is required of us by the Council; I have been trying to guess at their view of the question; perhaps I am altogether wrong; but no matter. And I will ask you to imagine yourselves not here in this free country of England, where the law is strong--and not only that, but you have a public opinion that is stronger still--and where it is not possible that a great Churchman should be a man living in open iniquity, and an oppressor and a scoundrel--I will ask you to imagine yourselves living in Italy, let one say in the Papal Territory itself, where the reign of Christ should be, and where the poor should be cared for, if there is Christianity still on the earth. And you are poor, let us say; hardly knowing how to scrape together a handful of food sometimes; and your children ragged and hungry; and you forced from time to time to go to the Monte di Pieta to pawn your small belongings, or else you will die, or you will see your children die before your eyes."

"Ah, yes, yes!" exclaimed Reitzei. "That is the worst of it--to see one's children die! That is worse than one's own hunger."

"And you," continued Lind, quietly, but still with a little more distinctness of emphasis, "you, you poor devils, you see a great dignitary of the Church, a great prince among priests, living in shameless luxury, in violation of every law, human and divine, with the children of his mistresses set up in palaces, himself living on the fat of the land. What law does he not break, this libertine, this usurer? What makes the corn dear, so that you cannot get it for your starving children?--what but this plunderer, this robber, seizing the funds that extremity has dragged from the poor in order to buy up the grain of the States? A pretty speculation! No wonder that you murmur and complain; that you curse him under your breath, that you call him _il cardinale affamatore_. And no wonder, if you happen to belong to a great association that has promised to see justice done, no wonder you come to that association and say, 'Masters, why cannot justice be done now? It is too long to wait for the Millennium. Remove this oppressor from the face of the earth: down with the Starving Cardinal!'"

"Yes, yes, yes!" cried Reitzei, excitedly. Beratinsky sat silent and sullen. Brand, with some strange foreboding of what was coming, still sat with his hand tight closed on Natalie's ring.

"More," continued Lind--and now, if he was acting, it was a rare piece of acting, for wrath and indignation gathered on his brow, and increased the emphasis of his voice--"it is not only your purses, it is not only your poor starved homesteadings that are attacked, it is the honor of your women. Whose sister or daughter is safe? Mr. Brand, one of your English poets has made the poor cry to the rich,

"'Our sons are your slaves by day,
Our daughters your slaves by night.'


But what if some day a poor man--I will tell you his name--his name is De Bedros; he is not a peasant, but a helpless, poor old man--what if this man comes to the great association that I have mentioned and says, wringing his hands, 'My Brothers and Companions, you have sworn to protect the weak and avenge the injured: what is your oath worth if you do not help me now? My daughter, my only daughter, has been taken from me, she has been stolen from my side, shrieking with fear, and I thrown bleeding into the ditch. By whom? By one who is beyond the law; who laughs at the law; who is the law! But you--you will be the avengers. Too long has this monster outraged the name of Christ and insulted the forbearance of his fellow creatures: my Brothers, this is what I demand from your hands--I demand from the SOCIETY OF THE SEVEN STARS--I demand from you, the Council--I demand, my Brothers and Companions, a decree of death against the monster Zaccatelli!'"

"Yes, yes, yes, the decree!" shouted Reitzei, all trembling. "Who could refuse it? Or I myself--"

"Gentlemen," said Lind, calmly, "the decree has been granted. Here is my authority; read it."

He held out the paper first of all to Brand, who took it in both his hands, and forced himself to go over it. But he could not read it very carefully; his heart was beating quickly; he was thinking of a great many things all at once--of Lord Evelyn, of Natalie, of his oaths to the Society, even of his Berkshire home and the beech-woods. He handed on the paper to Reitzei, who was far too much excited to read it at all. Beratinsky merely glanced at it carelessly, and put it back on the table.

"Gentlemen," Lind continued, returning to his unemotional manner, "personally, I consider it just that this man, whom the law cannot or does not choose to reach, should be punished for his long career of cruelty, oppression, and crime, and punished with death! but, as I confessed to you before, I could have wished that that punishment had not been delivered by our hands. We have made great progress in England; and we have been preaching nothing but peace and good-will, and the use of lawful means of amelioration. If this deed is traced to our Society, as it almost certainly will be, it will do us a vast amount of injury here; for the English people will not be able to understand that such a state of affairs as I have described can exist, or that this is the only remedy. As I said to you before, it is with great reluctance that I summoned you here to-night--"

"Why so, Brother Lind?" Reitzei broke in, and again he reached over for the bottle. "We are not cowards, then?"

Beratinsky took the bottle from him and put it back on the table.

Reitzei did not resent this interference; he only tried to roll up a cigarette, and did not succeed very well with his trembling fingers.

"You will have seen," said Lind, continuing as if there had been no interruption, "why the Council have demanded this duty of the English section. The lesson would be thrown away altogether--a valuable life belonging to the Society would be lost--if it were supposed that this was an act of private revenge. No; the death of Cardinal Zaccatelli will be a warning that Europe will take to heart. At least," he added, thoughtfully, "I hope it will prove to be so, and I hope it will be unnecessary to repeat the warning."

"You are exceedingly tender-hearted, Brother Lind," said Reitzei. "Do you pity this man, then? Do you think he should flourish his crimes in the face of the world for another twenty, thirty years?"

"It is unnecessary to say what I think," observed Lind, in the same quiet fashion. "It is enough for us that we know our duty. The Council have commanded; we obey."

"Yes; but let us come to the point, Brother Lind," said Beratinsky, in a somewhat surly fashion. "I do not much care what happens to me; yet one wishes to know."

"Gentlemen," said Lind, composedly, "you know that among the ordinances of the Society is one to the effect that no member shall be sent on any duty involving peril to his life without a ballot among at least four persons. As this particular service is one demanding great secrecy and circumspection, I have considered it right to limit the ballot to four--to ourselves, in fact."

There was not a word said.

"That the duty involves peril to life is obvious; it will be a miracle if he who undertakes this affair should escape. As for myself, you will perceive by the paper you have read that I am commissioned by the Council to form the ballot, but not instructed to include myself. I could avoid doing so if I chose, but when I ask my friends to run a risk, I am willing to take the same risk. For the rest, I have been in as dangerous enterprises before."

He leaned over and pulled toward him a sheet of paper. Then he took a pair of scissors and cut the sheet into four pieces; these he proceeded to fold up until they were about the size of a shilling, and identically alike. All the time he was talking.

"Yes, it will be a dangerous business," he said, slowly, "and one requiring great forethought and caution. Then I do not say it is altogether impossible one might escape; though then the warning, the lesson of this act of punishment might not be so effective: they might mistake it for a Camorra affair, though the Cardinal himself already knows otherwise."

He opened a bottle of red ink that stood by.

"The simplest means are sufficient," said he. "This is how we used to settle affairs in '48."

He opened one of the pieces of paper, and put a cross in red on it, which he dried on the blotting-paper. Then he folded it up again, threw the four pieces into a pasteboard box, put down the lid, and shook the box lightly.

"Whoever draws the red cross," he said, almost indifferently, "carries out the command of the Council. Have you anything to say, gentlemen--to suggest?"

"Yes," said Reitzei, boldly.

Lind regarded him.

"What is the use of the ballot?" said the pallid-faced young man. "What if one volunteers? I should myself like to settle the business of the scoundrelly Cardinal."

Lind shook his head.

"Impossible. Calabressa thought of a volunteer; he was mad! There must be a ballot. Come; shall we proceed?"

He opened the box and put it before Beratinsky. Beratinsky took out one of the papers, opened it, glanced at it, crumpled it up, and threw it into the fire.

"It isn't I, at all events," he said.

It was Reitzei next. When he glanced at the paper he had drawn, he crushed it together with an oath, and dashed it on the floor.

"Of course, of course," he exclaimed, "just when I was eager for a bit of active service. So it is you, Brother Lind, or our friend Brand who is to settle the business of the Starving Cardinal."

Calmly, almost as a matter of course, Lind handed the box to George Brand; and he, being a proud man, and in the presence of foreigners, was resolved to show no sign of emotion whatever. When he took out the paper and opened it, and saw his fate there in the red cross, he laid it on the table before him without a word. Then he shut his hand on Natalie's ring.

"Well," said Lind, rather sadly, as he took out the remaining paper without looking at it, and threw aside the box, "I almost regret it, as between you and me. I have less of life to look forward to."

"I would like to ask one question," said Brand, rising: he was perfectly firm.

"Yes?"

"The orders of the Council must be obeyed. I only wish to know whether--when--when this thing comes to be done--I must declare my own name?"

"Not at all--not at all!" Lind said, quickly. "You may use any name you like."

"I am glad of that," he said. Then, with the same proud, impassive firmness, he made an appointment for the next day, got his hat and coat, bade his companions good-night, and went down-stairs into the cold night air. He could not realize as yet all that had happened, but his first quick, instinctive thought had been,

"Ah, not that--not the name that my mother bore!"

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