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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSunrise - Chapter 51. The Conjurer
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Sunrise - Chapter 51. The Conjurer Post by :best4you Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :2372

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Sunrise - Chapter 51. The Conjurer

CHAPTER LI. THE CONJURER

There was no mistaking the fact that Calabressa had come armed with ample authority from the Council, and yet it was with a strange reluctance that Brand forced himself to answer the questions that Calabressa proceeded to put to him. He had already accepted his doom. The bitterness of it was over. He would rather have let the past be forgotten altogether, and himself go forward blindly to the appointed end. Why those needless explanations and admissions?

Moreover, Calabressa's questions, which had been thought over during long railway journeys, were exceedingly crafty. They touched here and there on certain small points, as if he were building up for himself a story. But at last Brand said, by way of protest,

"Look here, Calabressa. I see you are empowered to ask me any questions you like--and I am quite willing to answer--about the business of the Council. But really, don't you see, I would rather not speak of private matters. What can the Council want to know about Natalie Lind? Leave her out of it, like a good fellow."

"Oh yes, my dear Monsieur Brand," said Calabressa, with a smile, "leave her out of it, truly, when she has gone to the Council; when the Council have said, 'Child, you have not appealed to us for nothing;' when it is through her that I have travelled all through the cold and wet, and am now sitting here. Remember this, my friend, that the beautiful Natalushka is now a--what do you call it?--a _ward_" (Calabressa put this word in English into the midst of his odd French), "and a _ward of a sufficiently powerful court, I can assure you, monsieur! Therefore, I say, I cannot leave the beautiful child out. She is of importance to me; why am I here otherwise? Be considerate, my friend; it is not impertinence; it is not curiosity."

Then he proceeded with his task; getting, in a roundabout, cunning, shrewd way, at a pretty fair version of what had occurred. And he was exceedingly circumspect. He endeavored, by all sorts of circumlocutions, to hide from Brand the real drift of his inquiry. He would betray suspicion of no one. His manner was calm, patient, almost indifferent. All this time Brand's thoughts were far away. He was speaking to Calabressa, but he was thinking of Naples.

But when they came to Brand's brief description of what took place in Lisle Street on the night of the casting of the lot, Calabressa became greatly excited, though he strove to appear perfectly calm.

"You are sure," he said, quickly, "that was precisely what happened?"

"As far as I know," said Brand, carelessly. "But why go into it? If I do not complain, why should any one else?"

"Did I say that any one complained?" observed the astute Calabressa.

"Then why should any one wish to interfere? I am satisfied. You do not mean to say, Calabressa, that any one over there thinks that I am anxious to back out of what I have undertaken--that I am going down on my knees and begging to be let off? Well, at all events, Natalie does not think that," he added, as if it did not matter much what any other thought.

Calabressa was silent; but his eyes were eager and bright, and he was quickly tapping the palm of his left hand with the forefinger of the right. Then he regarded Brand with a sharp, inquisitive look. Then he jumped to his feet.

"Good-night, my friend," he said, hurriedly.

But Brand rose also, and sought to detain him.

"No, no, my good Calabressa, you are not going yet; you have kept me talking for your amusement; now it is your turn. You have not yet told me about Natalie and her mother."

"They are well--they are indeed well, I assure you," said Calabressa, uneasily. He was clearly anxious to get away. By this time he had got hold of his cloak and swung it round his shoulders.

"Calabressa, sit down, and tell me something about Natalie. What made her undertake such a journey? Is she troubled? Is she sad? I thought her life was full of interest now, her mother being with her."

Calabressa had got his cap, and had opened the door.

"Another time, dear Monsieur Brand, I will sit down and tell you all about the beautiful, brave child, and my old friend her mother. Yes, yes--another time--to-morrow--next day. At present one is overwhelmed with affairs, do you see?"

So saying, he forced Brand to shake hands with him, and went out, shutting the door behind him.

But no sooner had he got into the street than the eager, talkative, impulsive nature of the man, so long confined, broke loose. He took no heed that it was raining hard. He walked fast; he talked aloud to himself in his native tongue, in broken interjectional phrases; occasionally he made use of violent gestures, which were not lessened in their effect by the swaying cape of his cloak.

"Ah, those English--those English!" he was excitedly saying--"such children!--blue, clear eyes that see nothing--the devil! why should they meddle in such affairs? To play at such a game!--fool's mate; scholar's mate; asses and idiots' mate--they have scarcely got a pawn out, and they are wondering what they will do, when whizz! along comes the queen, and she and the bishop have finished all the fine combinations before they were ever begun! And you, you others, imps of hell, to play that old foolish game again! But take care, my friends, take care; there is one watching you, one waiting for you, who does not speak, but who strikes! Ah, it is a pretty game; you, you sullen brute; you, you fop and dandy; but when you are sitting silent round the board, behold a dagger flashes down and quivers into the wood! No wonder your eyes burn! you do not know whence it has come? But the steel-blade quivers; is it a warning?"

He laughed aloud, but there were still omnibuses and cabs in the street; so he was not heard. Indeed, the people who were on the pavement were hurrying past to get out of the rain, and took no notice of the old albino in the voluminous cloak.

"Natalushka," said he, quite as if he were addressing some one before him, "do you know that I am trudging through the mud of this infernal city all for you? And you, little sybarite, are among the fine ladies of the reading-room at the hotel, and listening to music, and the air all scented around you. Never mind; if only I had a little bird that could fly to you with a message--ah, would you not have pleasant dreams to-night? Did I not tell you to rely on Calabressa? He chatters to you; he tries to amuse you; but he is not always Policinella. No, not always Policinella: sometimes he is silent and cunning; sometimes--what do you think?--he is a conjurer. Oh yes, you are not seen, you are not heard; but when you have them round the board, whirr! comes the gleaming blade and quivers in the wood! You look round; the guilty one shakes with the palsy; his wits go; his startled tongue confesses. Then you laugh; you say, 'That is well done;' you say, 'Were they wrong in giving this affair to Calabressa?'"

Now, whether it was that his rapid walking helped to relieve him of this over-excitement, or whether it was that the soaking rain began to make him uncomfortable, he was much more staid in demeanor when he got up to the little lane in Oxford Street where the Culturverein held its meetings. Of course, he did not knock and demand admission. He stopped some way down the street, on the other side, where he found shelter from the rain in a door-way, and whence he could readily observe any one coming out from the hall of the Verein. Then he succeeded in lighting a cigarette.

It was a miserable business, this waiting in the cold, damp night air; but sometimes he kept thinking of how he would approach Reitzei in the expected interview; and sometimes he thought of Natalie; and again, with his chilled and dripping fingers he would manage to light a cigarette. Again and again the door of the hall was opened, and this or the other figure came out from the glare of the gas into the dark street; but so far no Reitzei. It was now nearly one in the morning.

Finally, about a quarter past one, the last batch of boon companions came out, and the lights within were extinguished. Calabressa followed this gay company, who were laughing and joking despite the rain, for a short way; but it was clear that neither Beratinsky nor Reitzei was among them. Then he turned, and made his way to his own lodgings, where he arrived tired, soaked through, but not apparently disheartened.

Next morning he was up betimes, and at a fairly early hour walked along to Coventry Street, where he took up his station at the east corner of Rupert Street, so that he could see any one going westward, himself unseen. Here he was more successful. He had not been there ten minutes when Reitzei passed. Calabressa hastened after him, overtook him, and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Ah, Calabressa!" said Reitzei, surprised, but in noway disconcerted.

"I wish to speak with you," said Calabressa, himself a little agitated, though he did not show it.

"Certainly; come along. Mr. Lind will arrive soon."

"No, alone. I wish to speak to you alone."

Calabressa looked around. The only place of shelter he saw was a rather shabby restaurant, chiefly used as a supper-room, and at this moment having the appearance of not being yet woke up. Reitzei was in a compliant mood. He suffered himself to be conducted into this place, to the astonishment of one or two unwashed-looking waiters, who were seated and reading the previous evening's papers. Calabressa and Reitzei sat down at one of the small tables; the former ordered some coffee, the latter a bottle of soda-water.

By this time Calabressa had collected himself for the part he was about to play.

"Well, my friend," said he, cheerfully, "what news? When is Europe to hear the fate of the Cardinal?"

"I don't know; I know very little about it," said Reitzei, glancing at him rather suspiciously.

"It is a terrible business," said Calabressa, reflectively, "a decree of the Council. You would think that one so powerful, so well protected, would be able to escape, would you not? But he himself knows better. He knows he is as powerless as you might be, for example, or myself."

"Oh, as for that," said Reitzei, boldly, "he knows he has deserved it: what more? He has had his little fling, now comes the settlement of the score."

"And I hear that our friend Brand is to be the instrument of justice: how strange! He has not been so long with us."

"That is Mr. Lind's affair: it has nothing to do with me," said Reitzei, shortly.

"Well," said Calabressa, toying with his coffee-cup. "I hope I shall never be tempted to do anything that might lead the Council to condemn me. Fancy such a life; every moment expecting some one to step up behind you with a knife or a pistol, and the end sure! I would take Provana's plan. The poor devil; as soon as he heard he had been condemned he could not bear living. He never thought of escape: a few big stones in the pockets of his coat, and over he slips into the Arno. And Mesentskoff: you remember him? His only notion of escape was to give himself up to the police--twenty-five years in the mines. I think Provana's plan was better."

Reitzei became a little uneasy, or perhaps only impatient.

"Well, Calabressa," he said, "one must be getting along to one's affairs--"

"Oh yes, yes, truly," Calabressa said. "I only wished to know a little more about the Cardinal. You see he cannot give himself up like Mesentskoff, though he might confess to a hundred worse things than the Russian ever did. Provana--well, you know the Society has always been inexorable with regard to its own officers: and rightly, too, Reitzei, is it not so? If one finds malversation of justice among those in a high grade, should not the punishment be exemplary? The higher the power, the higher the responsibility. You, for example, are much too shrewd a man to risk your life by taking any advantage of your position as one of the officers--"

"I don't understand you, Calabressa," the other said, somewhat hotly.

"I only meant to say," Calabressa observed, carelessly, "that the punishment for malversation of justice on the part of an officer is so terrible, so swift, and so sure, that no one but a madman would think of running the risk--"

"Yes, but what has that to do with me?" Reitzei said, angrily.

"Nothing, my dear friend, nothing," said Calabressa, soothingly. "But now, about this selection of Mr. Brand--"

Reitzei turned rather pale for a second; but said instantly, and with apparent anger,

"I tell you that is none of my business. That is Mr. Lind's business. What have I to do with it?"

"Do not be so impatient, my friend," said Calabressa, looking at his coffee. "We will say that, as usual, there was a ballot. All quite fair. No man wishes to avoid his duty. It is the simplest thing in the world to mark one of your pieces of paper with a red mark: whoever receives the marked paper undertakes the commission. All is quite fair, I say. Only you know, I dare say, the common, the pitiful trick of the conjurer who throws a pack of cards on the table, backs up. You take one, look at it privately, return it, and the cards are shuffled. Without lifting the cards at all he tells you that the one you selected was the eight of diamonds: why? It is no miracle: all the cards are eight of diamonds; though you, you poor innocent, do not know that. It is a wretched trick," added Calabressa, coolly.

Reitzei drank off the remainder of his soda-water at a gulp. He stared at Calabressa in silence, afraid to speak.

"My dear friend Reitzei," said Calabressa, at length raising his eyes and fixing them on his companion, "you could not be so insane as to play any trick like that?--having four pieces of paper, for example, all marked red, the marks under the paper? You would not enter into any such conspiracy, for you know, friend Reitzei, that the punishment is--death!"

The man had turned a ghastly gray-green color. He was apparently choking with thirst, though he had just finished the soda-water. He could not speak.

Calabressa calmly waited for him; but in his heart he was saying exultingly, "_Ha! the dagger quivers in the board: his eyes are starting from his head; is it Calabressa or Cagliostro that has paralyzed him?_"

At length the wretched creature opposite him gasped out,

"Beratinsky--"

But he could say no more. He motioned to a waiter to bring him some soda-water.

"Yes, Beratinsky?" said Calabressa, calmly regarding the livid face.

"--has betrayed us!" he said, with trembling lips. In fact, there was no fight in him at all, no angry repudiation; he was helpless with this sudden bewilderment of fear.

"Not quite," said Calabressa; and he now spoke in a low, eager voice. "It is for you to save yourself by forestalling him. It is your one chance; otherwise the decree; and good-bye to this world for you! See--look at this card--I say it is your only chance, friend Reitzei--for I am empowered by the Council to promise you, or Beratinsky, or any one, a free pardon on confession. Oh, I assure you the truth is clear: has not one eyes? You, poor devil, you cannot speak: shall I go to Beratinsky and see whether he can speak?"

"What must I do--what must I do?" the other gasped, in abject terror. Calabressa, regarding this exhibition of cowardice, could not help wondering how Lind had allowed such a creature to associate with him.

Then Calabressa, sure of victory, began to breathe more freely. He assumed a lofty air.

"Trust in me, friend Reitzei. I will instruct you. If you can persuade the Council of the truth of your story, I promise you they will absolve you from the operations of a certain Clause which you know of. Meanwhile you will come to my lodgings and write a line to Lind, excusing yourself for the day; then this evening I dare say it will be convenient for you to start for Naples. Oh, I assure you, you owe me thanks: you did not know the danger you were in; hereafter you will say, 'Well, it was no other than Calabressa who pulled me out of that quagmire.'"

A few minutes thereafter Calabressa was in a telegraph-office, and this was the message he despatched:

* * * * *

"Colonna, London: to Bartolotti, Vicolo Isotta, No. 15, Naples. Ridotto will arrive immediately, colors down. Send orders for Luigi and Bassano to follow."

* * * * *

"It is a bold stroke," he was saying to himself, as he left the office, "but I have run some risks in my time. What is one more or less?"

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