But when he had parted from Lind and Molyneux, and got out into the sombre glare of the night-world of London, and when there was no further need for that forced composure, he began more clearly to recognize his position, and his heart grew heavy. This, then, was the end of those visions of loving companionship and constant and sustaining sympathy with which he had dared to fill the future. He had thought little of anything that might be demanded from him so long as he could anticipate Natalie's approval, and be rewarded with a single glance of gratitude from the proud, dark, beautiful eyes. What mattered it to him what became of himself, what circumstances surrounded them, so long as he and she were together? But now a more terrible sacrifice than any he had dreamed of had to be made. The lady of love whom the Pilgrims had sworn to serve was proving herself inexorable indeed:
"—Is she a queen, having great gifts to give? —Yea, these; that whoso hath seen her shall not live Except to serve her sorrowing, with strange pain, Travail and bloodshedding and bitterer tears; And when she bids die he shall surely die. And he shall leave all things under the sky, And go forth naked under sun and rain, And work and wait and watch out all his years."
When Lord Evelyn had asked him whether he was prepared to go to America alone, he had clasped the ring that Natalie had given him, and answered "Yes." But that was as a matter of theory. It was what he might do, in certain possible circumstances. Now that he had to face the reality, and bethink him of the necessity of taking Natalie's hand for the last time, his heart sank within him.
He walked on blindly through the busy streets, seeing nothing around him. His memory was going over the most trivial incidents connected with Natalie, as if every look of hers, every word she had uttered, was now become something inexpressibly precious. Were there not many things he could carry away with him to the land beyond the seas? No distance or time could rob him of the remembrance of that night at the opera—the scent of white rose—her look as she gave him the forget-me-nots. Then the beautiful shining day as they drew near to Dover, and her pride about England, and the loosened curls of hair that blew about her neck. On the very first evening on which he had seen her—she sitting at the table and bending over the zither—her profile touched by the rose-tinted light from the shade of the candle—the low, rich voice, only half heard, singing the old, familiar, tender Lorelei. He felt the very touch of her fingers on his arm when she turned to him with reproving eyes: "Is that the way you answer an appeal for help?" That poor devil of a Kirski—what had become of him? He would find out from Reitzei; and, before leaving England, would take care that something should be done for the luckless outcast. He should have cause to remember all his life-long that Natalie Lind had interfered in his behalf.
Without knowing well how he got there, Brand found himself in Curzon Street. He walked on, perhaps with some vague notion that he might meet Natalie herself, until he arrived at the house. It was quite dark; there was no light in any of the windows; Anneli had not even lit the gas-jet in the narrow hall. He turned away from the door that he felt was now barred against him forever, and walked back to Clarges Street.
Lord Evelyn was out; the man did not know when he would be home again. So Brand turned away from that door also, and resumed his aimless wanderings, busy with those pictures of the past. At length he got down to Buckingham Street, and almost mechanically made his way toward his own rooms.
He had reached his door, however, when he heard some one speaking within.
"I might have known," he said to himself. "That is so like Evelyn."
It was indeed Lord Evelyn, who was chatting familiarly with old Waters. But the moment Brand entered he ceased, and a look of anxiety, and even alarm, appeared instantly on the fine, sensitive, expressive face.
"What is the matter, Brand? Are you ill?"
"No," said the other, dropping into a chair; "only tired—and worried, perhaps. Waters, get me a biscuit and a glass of sherry. Now, when I think of it, I ought to feel tired—I have eaten nothing since eight o'clock this morning."
Lord Evelyn jumped to his feet.
"Come off at once, Brand. We will go up to the Strand and get you something to eat. Gracious goodness, it is nearly ten o'clock!"
"No, no, never mind. I have something to talk to you about, Evelyn."
"But why on earth had Waters no dinner waiting for you?"
"I did not tell him—I forgot. Never mind; I will have some supper by-and-by. I called on you, Evelyn, about half an hour ago; I might have known you would be here."
Lord Evelyn paused for a second or two, while Waters came in and went out again. Then he said,
"I can tell by your face, Brand, that something has happened."
"Nothing that I had not foreseen."
"Did you consent or refuse?"
"Then, as I knew he would, he suggested that I might as well get ready to start for America as soon as possible."
Brand was speaking in a light and scornful way; but his face was careworn, and his eyes kept turning to the windows and the dark night outside, as if they were looking at something far away.
"About Natalie?" Lord Evelyn asked.
"Oh, he was frank enough. He dropped all those roundabout phrases about the great honor, and so forth. He was quite plain. 'Not to be thought of.'"
Lord Evelyn remained silent for some time.
"I am very sorry, Brand," he said at length; and then he continued with some hesitation—"Do you know—I have been thinking that—that though it's a very extreme thing for a man to give up his fortune—a very extreme thing—I can quite understand how the proposal looked to you very monstrous at first—still, if you put that in the balance as against a man's giving up his native country and the woman whom he is in love with—don't you see—the happiness of people of so much more importance than a sum of money, however large—"
"My dear fellow," said Brand, interrupting him, "there is no such alternative—there never was any such alternative. Do you not think I would rather give up twenty fortunes than have to go and bid good-bye to Natalie? It is not a question of money. I suspected before—I know now—that Lind never meant to let his daughter marry. He would not definitely say no to me while he thought I could be persuaded about this money business; as soon as I refused that, he was frank and explicit enough. I see the whole thing clearly enough now. Well, he has not altogether succeeded."
His eye happened to light on the ring on his finger, and the frown on his face lifted somewhat.
"If I could only forget Lind; if I could forget why it was that I had to go to America, I should think far less of the pain of separation. If I could go to Natalie, and say, 'Look at what we must do, for the sake of something greater than our own wishes and dreams,' then I think I could bid her good-bye without much faltering; but when you know that it is unnecessary—that you are being made the victim of a piece of personal revenge—how can you look forward with any great enthusiasm to the new life that lies before you? That is what troubles me, Evelyn."
"I cannot argue the matter with you," his friend said, looking down, and evidently much troubled himself. "I cannot help remembering that it was I let you in for all this—"
"Don't say that, Evelyn," Brand broke in, quickly. "Do you think I would have it otherwise? Once in America, I shall no doubt forget how I came to go there. I shall have something to do."
"I—I was going to say that—that perhaps you are not quite fair to Lind. You impute motives that may not exist."
Lord Evelyn flushed a little; it was almost as if he were excusing or defending one he had no particular wish to defend; but all the same, with some hesitation, he continued,
"Consider Lind's position. Mind, your reading of his conduct is only pure assumption. It is quite possible that he would be really and extremely surprised if he knew that you fancied he had been allowing personal feelings to sway his decision. But suppose this—suppose he is honestly convinced that you would be of great service in America. He has seen what you can do in the way of patient persuading of people. I know he has plenty around him who can do the risky business—men who have been adventurous all their lives—who would like nothing better than to be commissioned to set up a secret printing-press next door to the Commissary of Police in St. Petersburg. I say he has plenty of people like that; but very few who have persistence and patience enough to do what you have been doing in the north of England. He told me so himself. Very well. Suppose he thinks that what you have been doing this man Molyneux can carry on? Suppose, in short, that, if he had no daughter at all, he would be anxious to send you to the States?"
Brand nodded. There was no harm in letting his friend have his theory.
"Very well. Now suppose that, having this daughter, he would rather not have her marry. He says she is of great service to him; and his wish to have her with him always would probably exaggerate that service, unconsciously to himself, if it were proposed to take her away. That is only natural."
Brand again assented.
"Very well. He discovers that you and she are attached to each other. Probably he does not consider it a very serious affair, so far; but he knows that if you remain in London it would probably become so. Now, Natalie is a girl of firm character; she is very gentle, but she is not a fool. If you remained in London she would probably marry you, whether her father liked it or not, if she thought it was right. He knows that; he knows that the girl is capable of acting on her own judgment. Now put the two things together. Here is this opportune service on which you can be sent. That, according to his view, will be a good thing of itself; it will also effectually prevent a marriage which he thinks would be inexpedient. Don't you see that there may be no personal revenge or malice in the whole affair? He may consider he is acting quite rightly, with regard to the best interests of everybody concerned."
"I am sick of him, Evelyn—of hearing of him—of thinking of him," Brand said, impatiently. "Come, let us talk of something else. I wish the whole business of starting for America were over, and I had only the future to think about."
"That is not likely," said Lord Evelyn, gently. "You cannot cut yourself away from everything like that. There will be some memories."
Waters here appeared with a tray, and speedily placed on the table a lobster, some oysters, and a bottle of Chablis.
"There you are, Evelyn; have some supper."
"Not unless you have some."
So the two friends drew in their chairs.
"I have been thinking," said Lord Evelyn—with a slight flush, for he was telling a lie—"I have been thinking for some time back I should like to go to America for a year or two. There are some political phases I should like to study."
Brand looked at him.
"You never thought of it before to-night. But it is like you to think of it now."
"Oh, I assure you," said the other, hastily, "there are points of great interest in the political life of America that one could only properly study on the spot—hearing the various opinions, don't you know—and seeing how the things practically work. I should have gone long before now, but that I dreaded the passage across. When do you go?"
"It is not settled yet."
"What line shall you go by?"
"I don't know."
Lord Evelyn paused for a moment; then he said,
"I'll go with you, Brand."
Well, he had not the heart even to protest; for he thoroughly understood the generous friendship that had prompted such an offer. He might remonstrate afterward; now he would not. On the contrary, he began to speak of his experience of the various lines; of the delight of the voyage to any one not abnormally sensitive to sea-sickness; of the humors of the bagmen; of the occupations and amusements on board; of dolphins, fog-horns, icebergs, rope-quoits, grass-widows, and the chances of poker. It was all a holiday excursion, then? The two friends lit their cigars and went back to their arm-chairs. The tired and haggard look on George Brand's face had for the moment been banished.
But by-and-by he said, rather absently,
"I suppose, hereafter, Natalie and you will have many a talk over what has happened. And you will go there just as usual, and spend the evening, and hear her read, or listen to her singing with the zither. It seems strange. Perhaps she will be able to forget altogether—to cut this unhappy episode out of her life, as it were." Then he added, as if speaking to himself, "No, she is not likely to forget."
Lord Evelyn looked up.
"In the mean time, does she know about your going?"
"I presume not—not yet. But I must see her and tell her unless, indeed, Lind should try to prevent that too. He might lay injunctions on her that she was not to see me again."
"That is true," his friend said. "He might command. But the question is whether she would obey. I have known Natalie Lind longer than you have. She is capable of thinking and acting for herself."
Nothing further was said on this point; they proceeded to talk of other matters. It was perhaps a quarter of an hour afterward—close on eleven o'clock—that Waters knocked at the door and then came into the room.
"A letter for you, sir."
A quick glance at the envelope startled him.
"How did you get it?" he said instantly.
"A girl brought it, sir, in a cab. She is gone again. There was no answer, she said."
Waters withdrew. Brand hastily opened the letter, and read the following lines, written in pencil, apparently with a trembling hand:
"Dearest,—I spent this evening with Madame Potecki. My father came for me, and on the way home has told me something of what has occurred. It was for the purpose of telling me that you and I must not meet again—never, never. My own, I cannot allow you to pass a single night, or a single hour, thinking such a thing possible. Have I not promised to you? When it is your wish to see me, come to me: I am yours. Good-night, and Heaven guard you!
George Brand turned to his friend.
"This," said he; but his lip trembled, and he stopped for a second. Then he continued: "This is a message from her, Evelyn. And I know what poor old Calabressa would say of it, if he were here. He would say: 'This is what might have been expected from the daughter of Natalie Berezolyi!'"
"She knows, then?"
"Yes," said he, still looking at the hastily written lines in pencil, "and it is as you imagined. Her father has told her we must not see each other again, and she has refused to be bound by any such injunction. I rather fancy she thinks he must have conveyed the same intimation to me; at all events, she has written at once to assure me that she will not break her promise to me. It was kindly meant; was it not? I wish Anneli had waited for a second."
He folded up the letter and put it in his pocket-book: it was one more treasure he should carry with him to America. But when, later on, Evelyn had left, he took it out again, and re-read again and again the irregular, hurried, pencilled lines, and thought of the proud, quick, generous spirit that had prompted them. And was she still awake and thinking? And could her heart hear, through the silence of the night, the message of love and gratitude that he sent her? "Good-night, and Heaven guard you!" It had been a troubled and harassing day for him; but this tender good-night message came in at the close of it like a strain of sweet music that he would carry with him into the land of dreams.
The next morning Natalie was sitting alone in the little dining-room, dressed ready to go out. Perhaps she had been crying a little by herself; but at all events, when she heard the sound of some one being admitted at the front-door and coming into the passage, she rose, with a flush of pleasure and relief appearing on her pale and saddened face. It was Madame Potecki.
"Ah, it is so good of you to come early," said Natalie to her friend, with a kind of forced cheerfulness. "Shall we start at once? I have been thinking and thinking myself into a state of misery; and what is the use of that?"
"Let me look at you," said the prompt little music mistress, taking both her hands, and regarding her with her clear, shrewd blue eyes. "No; you are not looking well. The walk will do you good, my dear. Come away, then."
But Natalie paused in the passage, with some appearance of embarrassment. Anneli was standing by the door.
"Remember this, Anneli; if any one calls and wishes to see me—and particularly wishes to see me—you will not say, 'My mistress is gone out;' you will say, 'My mistress is gone to the South Kensington Museum with Madame Potecki.' Do you understand that, Anneli?"
"Yes, Fraulein; certainly."
Then they left, going by way of the Park. And the morning was fresh and bright; the energetic little Polish lady was more talkative and cheerful than ever; the girl with her had only to listen, with as much appearance of interest as was possible, considering that her thoughts were so apt to wonder away elsewhither.
"My dear, what a lovely morning for us to go and look at my treasures! The other day I was saying to myself, 'There is my adopted daughter Natalie, and I have not a farthing to leave her. What is the use of adopting a child if you have nothing to leave her? Then I said to myself, 'Never mind; I will teach her my theory of living; that will make her richer than a hundred legacies will do.' Dear, dear! that was all the legacy my poor husband left to me."
She passed her hand over her eyes.
"Don't you ever marry a man who has anything to do with politics, my child. Many a time my poor Potecki used to say to me, 'My angel, cultivate contentment; you may have to live on it some day.'"
"And you have taken his advice, madame; you are very content."
"Why? Because I have my theory. They think that I am poor. It is poor Madame Potecki, who earns her solitary supper by 'One, two, three, four; one, two, three, four;' who has not a treasure in the world—except a young Hungarian lady, who is almost a daughter to her. Well, well; but you know my way of thinking, my dear, you laugh at it; I know you do. You say, 'That mad little Madame Potecki.' But some day I will convince you."
"I am willing to be taught now, madame—seriously. Is it not wise to be content?"
"I am more than content, my dear; I am proud, I am vain. When I think of all the treasures that belong to the public, and to me as one of the public—the Turner landscapes in the National Gallery; the books and statues in the British Museum; the bronzes and china and jewellery at South Kensington—do you not think, my dear, that I am thankful I have no paltry little collection in my own house that I should be ashamed of? Then look at the care that is taken of them. I have no risk. I am not disheartened for a day because a servant has broken my best piece of Nankin blue. I have no trouble and no thought; it is only when I have a little holiday that I say to myself, 'Well, shall I go and see my Rembrandts? Or shall I look over my cases of Etruscan rings? Or shall I go and feast my eyes on the bleu de roi of a piece of jewelled Sevres?' Oh, my love!"
She clasped her hands in ecstasy. Her volubility had outrun itself and got choked.
"I will show you three vases," said she, presently, in almost a solemn way—"I will show you three vases, in white and brown crackle, and put all the color in the whole of my collection to shame. My dear, I have never seen in the world anything so lovely—the soft cream-white ground, the rich brown decoration—the beautiful, bold, graceful shape; and they only cost sixty pounds!—sixty pounds for three, and they are worth a kingdom! Why—But really, my dear Natalie, you walk too fast. I feel as if I were being marched off to prison!"
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" said the girl, laughing. "I am always forgetting; and papa scolds me often enough for it."
"Have you heard what I told you about those priceless vases in the South Kensington?"
"I am most anxious to see them, I assure you."
"My blue-and-white," Madame Potecki continued, seriously, "I am afraid is not always of the best. There are plenty of good pieces, it is true; but they are not the finest feature of the collection. Oh! the Benares brocades—I had forgotten them. Ah, my dear, these will make you open your eyes!"
"But don't you get bewildered, madame, with having to think of so many possessions?" said Natalie, respectfully.
"No," said the other, in a matter-of-fact way; "I take them one by one. I pay a morning call here, a morning call there, when I have no appointments, just to see that everything is going on well."
Presently she said,
"Ah, well, my dear, we are poor weak creatures. Here and there, in my wanderings I have met things that I almost coveted; but see what an impossible, monstrous collection they would make! Let me think, now. The Raphael at Dresden; two Titian portraits in the Louvre; the Venus of Milo—not the Medici one at all; I would not take it; I swear I would not accept it, that trivial little creature with the yellow skin!"
"My dear friend, the heavens will fall on you!" her companion exclaimed.
"Wait a moment," said the little music-mistress, reflectively. "I have not completed my collection. There is a Holy Family of Botticelli's—I forget where I saw it. And the bust of the Empress Messalina in the Uffizi: did you ever notice it, Natalie?"
"Do not forget it when you are in Florence again. You won't believe any of the stories about her when you see the beautiful refined face; only don't forget to remark how flat the top of her head is. Well, where are we, my dear? The bronze head of the goddess in the Castellani collection: I would have that; and the fighting Temeraire. Will these do? But then, my dear, even if one had all these things, see what a monstrous collection they would make. What should I do with them in my lodgings, even if I had room? No; I must be content with what I have."
By this time they had got down into South Kensington and were drawing near one of Madame Potecki's great treasure houses.
"Then, you see, my dear Natalie," she continued, "my ownership of these beautiful things we are going to see is not selfish. It can be multiplied indefinitely. You may have it too; any one may have it, and all without the least anxiety!"
"That is very pleasant also," said the girl, who was paying less heed now. The forced cheerfulness that had marked her manner at starting had in great measure left her. Her look was absent; she blindly followed her guide through the little wicket, and into the hushed large hall.
The silence was grateful to her; there was scarcely any one in the place. While Madame Potecki busied herself with some catalogue or other, the girl turned aside into a recess, to look at a cast of the effigy on the tomb of Queen Eleanor of Castile. A tombstone stills the air around it. Even this gilt plaster figure was impressive; it had the repose of the dead.
But she had not been standing there for a couple of seconds when she heard a well-known voice behind her.
She knew. There was neither surprise nor shamefacedness in her look when she turned and saw George Brand before her. Her eyes were as fearless as ever when they met his; and they were glad, too, with a sudden joy; and she said, quickly,
"Ah, I thought you would come. I told Anneli."
"It was kind of you—and brave—to let me come to see you."
"Kind?" she said. "How could I do otherwise?"
"But you are looking tired, Natalie."
"I did not sleep much last night. I was thinking."
The tears started to her eyes; she impatiently brushed them aside.
"I know what you were thinking. That is why I came so early to see you. You were blaming yourself for what has happened. That is not right. You are not to blame at all. Do you think I gave you that promise for nothing?"
"You were always like that," she said in a low voice. "Very generous and unselfish. Yes, I—I—was miserable; I thought if you had never known me—"
"If I had never known you! You think that would be a desirable thing for me!—"
But at this moment the hurried, anxious, half-whispered conversation had to cease, for Madame Potecki came up. Nor was she surprised to find Mr. Brand there. On the contrary, she said that her time was limited, and that she could not expect other people to care for old porcelain as much as she did; and if Mr. Brand would take her dear daughter Natalie to see some pictures in the rooms up-stairs, she would come and find her out by-and-by.
"Not at all, dear madame," said Natalie, with some slight flush. "No. We will go with you to see the three wonderful vases."
So they went, and saw the three crackle vases, and many another piece of porcelain and enamel and bronze; but always the clever little Polish woman took care that she should be at some other case, so that she could not overhear what these two had to say to each other. And they had plenty to say.
"Why, Natalie, where is your courage? What is the going to America? It cannot be for ever and ever."
"But even then," she said, in a low, hesitating voice. "If you were never to see me again, you would blame me for it all. You would regret."
"How can I regret that my life was made beautiful to me, if only for a time? It was worth nothing to me before. And you are forgetting all about the ring, and my promise to you."
This light way of talking did not at all deceive her. What had been torturing her all the night long was the fancy, the suspicion, that her father was sending her lover to America, not solely with a view to the work he should have to undertake there, but to insure a permanent separation between herself and him. That was the cruel bit of it. And she more than ever admired the manliness of this man, because he would make no complaint to her. He had uttered no word of protest, for fear of wounding her. He did not mention her father to her at all; but merely treated this project of going to America as if it were a part of his duty that had to be cheerfully accepted.
"After I have once said good-bye to you Natalie" said he, "it will not be so bad for me. I shall have my work."
"When do you go?" she asked, with rather a white face.
"I don't know yet. It may be a matter of days. You will let me see you again, my darling—soon?"
"I shall be here every morning, if you wish it" she answered.
"To-morrow, at eleven. Anneli will come with me. I should have waited in on the hope of seeing you this morning; but it was an old engagement with Madame Potecki. Ah, how good she is! Do you see how she pretends to be interested in those things?"
"I will send her a present of some old china before I leave England," said Brand.
"No, no," said Natalie, with a faint smile appearing on the sad face. "It would destroy her theory. She does not care for anything at home so long as she possesses these public treasures. She is very content. Indeed, she earns enough to be charitable. She has many poor dependents."
By-and-by Madame Potecki, with great evident reluctance, confessed that she had to return, as one of her pupils would be at her house by half-past twelve. But would not Mr. Brand take her dear adopted child to see some of the pictures? It was a pity that she should be dragged away, and so forth.
But Natalie promptly put an end to these suggestions by saying that she would prefer to return with Madame Potecki; and, it being now past twelve, as soon as they got outside she engaged a cab. George Brand saw them off, and then returned into the building. He wished to look again at the objects she had looked at, to recollect every word she had uttered; to recall the very tones in which she had spoken. And this place was so hushed and quiet.
Meanwhile, as the occupants of the cab were journeying northward, Natalie took occasion to say to her companion, with something of a heightened color,
"You must not imagine, dear madame, that I expected to see Mr. Brand at the Museum when I promised to go with you."
"But what if you had expected, my child?" said the good-natured music-mistress. "What harm is there?"
"But this morning I did expect him to come, and that is why I left the message with Anneli," continued the girl. "Because, do you know, madame, he is going to America; and when he goes I may not see him for many years."
"My child!" the demonstrative little woman exclaimed, catching hold of the girl's hand.
But Natalie was not inclined to be sympathetic at this moment.
"Now I wish you, dear Madame Potecki," she continued in a firm voice, "to do me a favor. I would rather not speak to my father about Mr. Brand. I wish you to tell him for me that so long as Mr. Brand remains in England I shall continue to see him; and that as I do not choose he should come to my father's house, I shall see him as I saw him this morning."
"My love, my love, what a frightful duty! Is it necessary?"
"It is necessary that my father should know, certainly."
"But what responsibility!"
"You have no responsibility whatever. Anneli will go with me. All that I ask of you, dear Madame Potecki, is to take the message to my father. You will; will you not?"
"More than that I will do for you," said the little woman, boldly. "I see there is unhappiness; you are suffering, my child. Well, I will plunge into it; I will see your father: this cannot be allowed. It is a dangerous thing to interfere—who knows better than I? But to sit near you is to be inspired; to touch your hand is to gain the courage of a giant. Yes, I will speak to your father; all shall be put right."
The girl scarcely heard her.
"There is another thing I would ask of you," she said, slowly and wistfully, "but not here. May I come to you when the lesson is over?"
"At two: yes."
So it was that Natalie called on her friend shortly after two o'clock and was shown into the little parlor. She was rather pale. She sat down at one side of the table.
"I wished to ask your advice, dear Madame Potecki," she said, in a low voice, and with her eyes down. "Now you must suppose a case. You must suppose that—that two people love each other—better—better than anything else in the world, and that they are ready to sacrifice a great deal for each other. Well, the man is ordered away! it is a banishment from his own country, perhaps forever; and he is very brave about it, and will not complain. Now you must suppose that the girl is very miserable about his going away, and blames herself; and perhaps—perhaps wishes—to do something to show she understands his nobleness—his devotion; and she would do anything in the world, Madame Potecki—to prove her love to him—"
"But, child, child, why do you tremble so?"
"I wish you to tell me, Madame Potecki—I wish you to tell me—whether—you would consider it unwomanly—unmaidenly—for her to go and say to him, 'You are too brave and unselfish to ask me to go with you. Now I offer myself to you. If you must go, why not I—your wife?"
Madame Potecki started up in great alarm.
"Natalie, what do you mean?"
"I only—wished to—to ask—what you would think."
She was very pale, and her lips were tremulous; but she did not break down. Madame Potecki was apparently far more agitated than she was.
"My child, my child, I am afraid you are on the brink of some wild thing!"
"Is that that I have repeated to you what a girl ought to do?" Natalie said, almost calmly. "Do you think it is what my mother would have done, Madame Potecki? They have told me she was a brave woman."
IN A GARDEN AT POSILIPO.
"—Prends mon coeur, me dit-elle, Oui, mais a la chapelle, Sois mon petit.... —Plait-il Ton petit? —Sois mon petit mari!"
—It was Calabressa who was gayly humming to himself; and it was well that he could amuse himself with his chansons and his cigarettes, for his friend Edwards was proving anything but an attentive companion. The tall, near-sighted, blond-faced man from the British Museum was far too much engrossed by the scene around him. They were walking along the quays at Naples; and it so happened that at this moment all the picturesque squalor and lazy life of the place were lit up by the glare reflected from a wild and stormy sunset. The tall, pink-fronted houses; the mules and oxen with their brazen yokes and tinkling bells; the fruit-sellers, and fish-sellers, and water-carriers, in costumes of many hues; the mendicant friars with their cloak and hood of russet-brown; the priests black and clean-shaven; the groups of women, swarthy of face, with head-dresses of red or yellow, clustered round the stalls; the children, in rags of brown, and scarlet, and olive-green, lying about the pavement as if artists had posed them there—all these formed a picture which was almost bewildering in its richness of color, and was no doubt rendered all the more brilliant because of the powerful contrast with the dark and driven sea. For the waters out there were racing in before a stiff breeze, and springing high on the fortresses and rocks; and the clouds overhead were seething and twisting, with many a sudden flash of orange; and then, far away beyond all this color and motion and change, rose the vast and gloomy bulk of Vesuvius, overshadowed and thunderous, as if the mountain were charged with a coming storm.
Calabressa grew impatient, despite his careless song.
"—Me seras tu fidele.... —Comme une tourterelle. —Eh bieu, ca va.... Ca va! —Ca me va! —Comme ca, ca me va!
—Diable, Monsieur Edouarts! You are very silent. You do not know where we are going, perhaps?"
Edwards started, as if he were waking from a reverie.
"Oh yes, Signor Calabressa," said he, "I am not likely to forget that. Perhaps I think more seriously about it than you. To you it is nothing. But I cannot forget, you see, that you and I are practically conniving at a murder."
"Hush, hush, my dear friend!" said Calabressa, glancing round. "Be discreet! And what a foolish phrase, too! You—you whose business is merely to translate; to preach; to educate a poor devil of a Russian—what have you to do with it? And to speak of murder! Bah! You do not understand the difference, then, between killing a man as an act of private anger and revenge, and executing a man for crimes against society? My good friend Edouarts, you have lived all your life among books, but you have not learned any logic—no!"
Edwards was not inclined to go into any abstract argument
"I will do what I have been appointed to do," he said, curtly; "but that cannot prevent my wishing that it had not to be done at all."
"And who knows?" said Calabressa, lightly. "Perhaps, if you are so fearful about your small share, your very little share—it is no more than that of the garcon who helps one on with his coat: is he accessary, too, if a rogue has to be punished?—is he responsible for the sentence, also, if he brushes the boots of the judge?—or the servant of the court who sweeps out the room, is he guilty if there is a miscarriage of justice? No, no; my dear friend Edouarts, do not alarm yourself. Then, I was saying, perhaps it may not be necessary, after all. You perceived, my friend, that when the proposal of his eminence the Cardinal was mentioned, the Secretary Granaglia smiled, and I, thoughtless, laughed. You perceived it, did you not?"
By this time they were in the Chiaja, beyond the Villa Reale; and there were fewer people about. Calabressa stopped and confronted his companion. For the purposes of greater emphasis, he rested his right elbow in the palm of his left hand, while his forefinger was at the point of his nose.
"What?" said he, in this striking attitude, "what if we were both fools—ha? The Secretary Granaglia and myself—what if we were both fools?"
Calabressa abandoned his pose, linked his arm within that of his companion, and walked on with him.
"Come, I will implant something in your mind. I will throw out a fancy; it may take root and flourish; if not, who is the worse? Now, if the Council were really to entertain that proposal of Zaccatelli?"
He regarded his friend Edouarts.
"You observed, I say, that Granaglia smiled: to him it was ludicrous. I laughed: to me it was farcical—the chatter of a bavard. The Pope become the patron of a secret society! The priests become our friends and allies! Very well, my friend; but listen. The little minds see what is absurd; the great minds are serious. Granaglia is a little devil of courage; but he is narrow; he is practical; he has no imagination. I: what am I?—careless, useless, also a bavard, if you will. But it occurred to me, after all, when I began to think—what a great man, a great mind, might say to this proposal. Take a man like Lind: see what he could make of it! 'Do not laugh at it any more, Calabressa,' said I to myself, 'until you hear the opinion of wiser men than yourself.'"
He gripped Edwards's arm tight.
"Listen. To become the allies of the priests it is not necessary to believe everything the priests say. On the other hand, they need not approve all that we are doing, if only they withdraw their opposition. Do you perceive the possibility now? Do you think of the force of that combination? The multitudes of the Catholics encouraged to join!—the Vatican the friend and ally of the Council of the Seven Stars!"
He spoke the last words in a low voice, but he were a proud look.
"And if this proposal were entertained," said Edwards, meditatively, "of course, they would abandon this other business."
"My good friend," said Calabressa, confidentially, "I know that Lind, who sees things with a large vision, is against it. He consents—as you consent to do your little outside part—against his own opinion. More; if he had been on the Council the decree would never have been granted, though De Bedros and a dozen of his daughters had demanded it. 'Calabressa,' he said to me, 'it will do great mischief in England if it is known that we are connected with it.' Well, you see, all this would be avoided if they closed with the Cardinal's offer."
"You are sanguine, Signor Calabressa," said the other.
"Besides, the thirty thousand lire!"' said Calabressa, eagerly. "Do you know what that is? Ah, you English have always too much money!"
"No doubt," said Edwards, with a smile. "We are all up to the neck in gold."
"Thirty thousand lire a year, and the favor of the Vatican; what fools Granaglia and I were to laugh! But perhaps we will find that the Council were wiser."
They had now got out to Posilipo, and the stormy sunset had waned, leaving the sky overclouded and dusk. Calabressa, having first looked up and down the road, stopped by the side of a high wall, over which projected a number of the broken, gray-green, spiny leaves of the cactus—a hedge at the foot of the terrace above.
"Peste!" said he. "How the devil is one to find it out in the dark?"
"Find what out?"
"My good friend," said he, in a whisper, "you are not able by chance to see a bit of thread—a bit of red thread—tied round one of those big leaves?"
Edwards glanced up.
"Ah, well, we must run the risk. Perhaps by accident there may be a meeting."
They walked on for some time, Calabressa becoming more and more watchful. They paused to let a man driving a wagon and a pair of oxen go by; and then Calabressa, enjoining his companion to remain where he was, went on alone.
The changing sky had opened somewhat overhead, and there was a wan twilight shining through the parted clouds. Edwards, looking after Calabressa, could have fancied that the dark figure had disappeared like a ghost; but the old albino had merely crossed the road, opened the one half of a huge gate, and entered a garden.
It was precisely like the gardens of the other villas along the highway—cut in terraces along the steep side of the hill, with winding pathways, and marble lions here and there, and little groves of orange and olive and fig trees; while on one side the sheer descent was guarded by an enormous cactus hedge. The ground was very unequal: on one small plateau a fountain was playing—the trickling of the water the only sound audible in the silence.
Calabressa took out his pocket-book, and tore a leaf from it.
"The devil!" he muttered to himself. "How is one to write in the dark?"
But he managed to scrawl the word "Barsanti;" then he wrapped the paper round a small pebble and approached the fountain. By putting one foot on the edge of the stone basin beneath he could reach over to the curved top, and there he managed to drop the missive into some aperture concealed under the lip. He stepped back, dried his hand with his handkerchief, and then went down one of the pathways to a lower level of the garden.
Here he easily found the entrance to an ordinary sort of grotto—a narrow cave winding inward and ending in a piece of fancy rockwork down which the water was heard to trickle. But he did not go to the end—he stopped about half-way and listened. There was no sound whatever in the dark, except the plash of the tiny water-fall.
Then there was a heavy grating noise, and in the black wall before him appeared a vertical line of orange light. This sudden gleam was so bewildering to the eyes that Calabressa could not see who it was that come out to him; he only knew that the stranger waited for him to pass on into the outer air.
"It is cooler here. To your business, friend Calabressa."
The moment Calabressa recognized this tall, military-looking man, with the closely cropped bullet-head and long silver-white mustache, he whipped off his cap, and said, anxiously,
"A thousand pardons, Excellency! a thousand pardons! Do I interrupt? May not I see Fossati?"
"It is unnecessary. There is much business to-night. One must breathe the air sometimes."
Calabressa for once had completely lost his sang-froid. He could not speak for stammering.
"I assure you, your Excellency, it is death to me to think that I interrupt you."
"But why did you come, then, my friend? To the point."
"Zaccatelli," the other managed to get out.
"There was a proposal. Some days ago I saw Granaglia."
"Pardon me, Excellency. If I had known, not for worlds would I have called you—"
"Come, come my Calabressa," said the other, good-naturedly. "No more apologies. What is it you have to say?—the proposal made by the Cardinal? Yes; we know about that."
"And it has not been accepted?—the decree remains?"
"You waste your breath, my friend. The decree remains, certainly. We are not children; we do not play. What more, my Calabressa?"
But Calabressa had to collect his thoughts. Then he said, slowly,
"It occurred to me when I was in England—there was a poor devil there who would have thrown away his life in a useless act of revenge—well—"
"Well, you brought him over here," said the other, interrupting him. "Your object? Ah, Lind and you being old comrades; and Lind appearing to you to be in a difficulty. But did Lind approve?"
"Not quite," said Calabressa, still hesitating. "He allowed us to try. He was doubtful himself."
"I should have thought so," said the other, ironically. "No, good Calabressa; we cannot accept the services of a maniac. The night has got dark; I cannot see whether you are surprised. How do we know? The man Kirski has been twice examined—once in Venice, once this morning, when you went down to the Luisa; the reports the same. What! To have a maniac blundering about the gates, attracting every one's notice by his gibberish; then he is arrested with a pistol or a knife in his hand; he talks nonsense about some Madonna; he is frightened into a confession, and we become the laughing-stock of Europe! Impossible, impossible, my Calabressa: where were your wits? No wonder Lind was doubtful—"
"The man is capable of being taught," said Calabressa, humbly.
"We need not waste more breath, my friend. To-night Lind will be reminded why it was necessary that the execution of this decree was intrusted to the English section: he must not send any Russian madman to compromise us."
"Then I must take him back, your Excellency!"
"No; send him back—with the English scholar. You will remain in Naples, Calabressa. There is something stirring that will interest you."
"I am at your service, Excellency."
"Good-night, dear friend."
The figure beside him had disappeared almost before he had time to return the salutation, and he was left to find his way down to the gate, taking care not to run unawares on one of the long cactus spines. He discovered Edwards precisely where he had left him.
"Ah, Monsieur Edouarts, now you may clap your hands—now you may shout an English 'hurrah!' For you, at all events, there is good news."
"That project has been abandoned, then?" said Edwards, eagerly.
"No, no, no!" said Calabressa, loftily; as if he had never entertained such a possibility. "Do you think the Council is to be played with—is to be bribed by so many and so many lire? No, no. Its decree is inviolable."
"Well, then, some stupidities of our Russian friend have saved you: they know everything, these wonderful people: they say, 'No; we will not trust the affair to a madman.' Do you perceive? What you have to do now is to take Kirski back to England."
"And I am not wanted any longer?" said the other, with the same eagerness.
"I presume not. I am. I remain in Naples. For you, you are free. Away to England! I give you my blessing; and to-night—to-night you will give me a bottle of wine."
But presently he added, as they still walked on,
"Friend Edouarts, do you think I should be humiliated because my little plan has been refused? No: it was born of idleness. My freedom was new to me; over in England I had nothing to do. And when Lind objected, I talked him over. Peste, if those fellows of Society had not got at the Russian, all might have been well."
"You will forgive my pointing out," said Edwards, in quite a facetious way, "that all would not have been so well with me, for one. I am very glad to be able to wash my hands of it. You shall have not only one but two bottles of wine with supper, if you please."
"Well, friend Edouarts. I bring you the good news, but I am not the author of it. No; I must confess, I would rather have had my plan carried out. But what matter? One does one's best from time to time—the hours go by—at the end comes sleep, and no one can torment you more."
They walked on for a time in silence. And now before them lay the wonderful sight of Naples ablaze with a dusky yellow radiance in the dark; and far away beyond the most distant golden points, high up in the black deeps of the sky, the constant, motionless, crimson glow of Vesuvius told them where the peaks of the mountain, themselves unseen towered above the sea.
By-and-by they plunged into the great murmuring city.
"You are going back to England, Monsieur Edouarts. You will take Kirski to Mr. Brand, he will be reinstated in his work; Englishmen do not forget their promises. Then I have another little commission for you."
He went into one of the small jeweller's shops, and, after a great deal of haggling—for his purse was not heavy, and he knew the ways of his countrymen—he bought a necklace of pink coral. It was carefully wrapped in wool and put into a box. Then they went outside again.
"You will give this little present, my good friend Edouarts—you will take it, with my compliments, to my beautiful, noble child Natalie; and you will tell her that it did not cost much, but it is only a message—to show her that Calabressa still thinks of her, and loves, her always."
FRIEND AND SWEETHEART.
Madame Potecki was a useful enough adviser in the small and ordinary affairs of every-day life, but face to face with a great emergency she became terrified and helpless.
"My dear, my dear," she kept repeating, in a flurried sort of way, "you must not do anything rash—you must not do anything wild. Oh, my dear, take care! it is so wicked for children to disobey their parents!"
"I am no longer a child, Madame Potecki; I am a woman: I know what seems to me just and unjust; and I only wish to do right." She was now quite calm. She had mastered that involuntary tremulousness of the lips. It was the little Polish lady who was agitated.
"My dear Natalie, I will go to your father. I said I would go—even with your message—though it is a frightful task. But how can I tell him that you have this other project in your mind? Oh, my dear, be cautious! don't do anything you will have to repent of in after-years!"
"You need not tell him, dear Madame Potecki, if you are alarmed," said the girl. "I will tell him myself, when I have come to a decision. So you cannot say what one ought to do in such circumstances? You cannot tell me what my mother, for example, would have done in such a case?"
"Oh, I can; I can, my dear," said the other, eagerly. "At least I can tell you what is best and safest. Is it not for a girl to go by her father's advice—her father's wishes? Then she is safe. Anything else is wild, dangerous. My dear, you are far too impulsive. You do not think of consequences. It is all the affair of the moment with you, and how you can do some one you love a kindness at the instant. Your heart is warm, and you are quick to act. All the more reason, I say, that you should go by some one else's judgment; and who can guide you better than your own father?"
"I know already what my father wishes," said Natalie.
"Then why not go by that, my dear? Be sure it is the safest. Do you think I would take it on me to say otherwise? Ah, my clear child, romance is very beautiful at your age; but one may sacrifice too much for it."
"It is not a question of romance at all," said Natalie, looking down. "It is a question of what it is right that a girl should do, in faithfulness to one whom she loves. But perhaps it is better not to argue it, for one sees so differently at different ages. And I am very grateful to you, dear Madame Potecki, for agreeing to take that message to my father; but I will tell him myself."
She rose. The little woman came instantly and caught her by both hands.
"Is my child going to quarrel with me because I am old and unsympathetic?"
"Oh no; do not think that!" said Natalie, quickly.
"What you say is quite true, my dear; different ages see differently. When I was at your age, perhaps I was as liable as anyone to let my heart get the better of my head. And do I regret it?" The little woman sighed. "Many a time they warned me against marrying one who did not stand well with the authorities. But I—I had my opinions, too; I was a patriot, like the rest. We were all mad with enthusiasm. Ah, the secret meetings in Warsaw!—the pride of them!—we girls would not marry one who was not a patriot. But that is all over now; and here am I an old woman, with nothing left but my old masters, and my china, and my 'One, two, three, four; one, two, three, four.'"
Here a knock outside warned Natalie that she must leave, another pupil, no doubt, having arrived; and so she bade good-bye to her friend, not much enlightened or comforted by her counsel.
That evening Mr. Lind brought Beratinsky home with him to dinner—an unusual circumstance, for at one time Beratinsky had wished to become a suitor for Natalie's hand, and had had that project very promptly knocked on the head by Lind himself. Thereafter he had come but seldom to the house, and never without a distinct invitation. On this evening the two men talked almost exclusively between themselves, and Natalie was not sorry to be allowed to remain an inattentive listener. She was thinking of other things.
When Beratinsky had gone, Lind turned to his daughter, and said to her pleasantly,
"Well, Natalie, what have you been about to-day?"
"First of all," said she, regarding him with those fearless eyes of hers, "I went to South Kensington Museum with Madame Potecki. Mr. Brand was there."
His manner changed instantly.
"By appointment?" he said, sharply.
"No," she answered. "I thought he would call here, and I told Anneli where we had gone."
Lind betrayed no expression of annoyance. He only said, coldly,
"Last night I told you it was my wish that he and you should have no further communication with each other."
"Yes; but is it reasonable, is it fair, is it possible, papa?" she said, forgetting for a moment her forced composure. "Do you think I can forget why he is going away?"
"Apparently you do not know why he is going away," her father said. "He is going to America because his duty commands that he should; because he has work to do there of more importance than sentimental entanglements in this country. He understands himself the necessity of his going."
The girl's cheeks burnt red, and she sat silent. How could she accuse her own father of prevarication? But the crisis was a momentous one.
"You forget, papa," she said at length, in a low voice, "that when you returned from abroad and got Mr. Brand's letter, you came to me. You said that if there was any further question of a—a marriage—between Mr. Brand and myself, you would have to send him to America. I was to be the cause of his banishment."
"I spoke hastily—in anger," her father said, with some impatience. "Quite apart from any such question, Mr. Brand knows that it is of great importance some one like himself should go to Philadelphia; and at the moment I don't see any one who could do as well. Have you anything further to say?"
"No, papa—except good night." She kissed him on the forehead and went away to her own room.
That was a night of wild unrest for Natalie Lind. It was her father himself who had represented to her all that banishment from his native country meant to an Englishman; and in her heart of hearts she believed that it was through her this doom had befallen George Brand. She knew he would not complain. He professed to her that it was only in the discharge of an ordinary duty he was leaving England: others had suffered more for less reason; it was nothing; why should she blame herself? But all the same, through this long, restless, agonizing night she accused herself of having driven him from his country and his friends, of having made an exile of him. And again and again she put before herself the case she had submitted to Madame Potecki; and again and again she asked herself what her own mother would have done, with her lover going away to a strange land.
In the morning, long before it was light, and while as yet she had not slept for a second, she rose, threw a dressing-gown round her, lit the gas, and went to the little escritoire that stood by the window. Her hand was trembling when she sat down to write, but it was not with the cold. There was a proud look on her face. This was what she wrote:
"My lover and husband,—You are going away from your own country, perhaps forever; and I think it is partly through me that all this has happened. What can I do? Only this; that I offer to go with you, if you will take me. I am your wife; why should you go alone?"'
There was no signature. She folded the paper, and placed it in an envelope, and carefully locked it up. Then she put out the light and went back to bed again, and fell into a sound, happy, contented sleep—the untroubled sleep of a child.
Then in the morning how bright and light-hearted she was!
Anneli could not understand this change that had suddenly come over her young mistress. She said little, but there was a happy light on her face; she sung "Du Schwert an meiner Linken" in snatches, as she was dressing her hair; and she presented Anneli with a necklace of Turkish silver coins.
She was down at South Kensington Museum considerably before eleven o'clock. She idly walked Anneli through the various rooms, pointing out to her this and that; and as the little Dresden maid had not been in the Museum before, her eyes were wide open at the sight of such beautiful things. She was shown masses of rich tapestry and cases of Japanese lacquer-work; she was shown collections of ancient jewellery and glass; she went by sunny English landscapes, and was told the story of solemn cartoons. In the midst of it all George Brand appeared; and the little German girl, of her own accord, and quite as deftly as Madame Potecki, devoted herself to the study of some screens of water-colors, just as if she were one of the Royal Academy pupils.
"We have been looking over Madame Potecki's treasures once more," said Natalie. He was struck by the happy brightness of her face.
"Ah, indeed!" said he; and he went and brought a couple of chairs, that together they might regard, if they were so minded, one of those vast cartoons. "Well, I have good news, Natalie. I do not start until a clear week hence. So we shall have six mornings here—six mornings all to ourselves. Do you know what that means to me?"
She took the chair he offered her. She did not look appalled by this intelligence of his early departure.
"It means six more days of happiness: and do you not think I shall look back on them with gratitude? And there is not to be a word said about my going. No; it is understood that we cut off the past and the future for these six days. We are here; we can speak to each other; that is enough."'
"But how can one help thinking of the future?" said she, with a mock mournfulness. "You are going away alone."
"No, not quite alone."
She looked up quickly.
"Why, you know what Evelyn is—the best-hearted of friends," he said to her. "He insists on going over to America with me, and even talks of remaining a year or two. He pretends to be anxious to study American politics."
He could not understand why she laughed—though it was a short, quick, hysterical laugh, very near to tears.
"You remind me of one of Mr. Browning's poems," she said, half in apology. "It is about a man who has a friend and a sweetheart. You don't remember it, perhaps?"
He thought for a moment.
"The fact is," he said, "that when I think of Browning's poems, all along the line of them, there are some of them seem to burn like fire, and I cannot see the others."
"This is a very modest little one," said she. "It is a poor poet starving in a garret; and he tells you he has a friend beyond the sea; and he knows that if he were to fall ill, and to wake up out of his sickness, he would find his friend there, tending him like the gentlest of nurses, even though he got nothing but grumblings about his noisy boots. And the—the poor fellow—"
She paused for a second.
"He goes on to tell about his sweetheart—who has ruined him—to whom he has sacrificed his life and his peace and fame—and what would she do? He says,
"'She —I'll tell you—calmly would decree That I should roast at a slow fire, If that would compass her desire And make her one whom they invite To the famous ball to-morrow night.'
That is—the difference—between a friend and a sweetheart—"
He did not notice that she spoke rather uncertainly, and that her eyes were wet.
"What do you mean, Natalie?"
"That it is a good thing for you that you have a friend. There is one, at all events—who will—who will not let you go away alone."
"My darling!" he said, "what new notion is this you have got into your head? You do not blame yourself for that too? Why, you see, it is a very simple thing for Lord Evelyn, who is an idle man, and has no particular ties binding him, to spend a few months in the States; and when he once finds out that the voyage across is one of the pleasantest holidays a man can take, I have no doubt I shall see him often enough. Now, don't let us talk any more about that—except this one point. Have you promised your father that you will not write to me?"
"Oh no; how could I?"
"And may I write to you?"
"I shall live from week to week expecting your letters," she said simply.
"Then we shall not say another word about it," said he, lightly. "We have six days to be together: no one can rob us of them. Come, shall we go and have a look at the English porcelain that is on this floor? We have whole heaps of old Chelsea and Crown Derby and that kind of thing at the Beeches: I think I must try and run down there before I go, and send you some. What use is it to me?"
"Oh no, I hope you won't do that," she said quickly, as she rose.
"You don't care about it, perhaps?"
She seemed embarrassed for a moment.
"For old china?" she said, after a moment. "Oh yes, I do. But—but—I think you may find something happen that would make it unnecessary—I mean it is very kind of you—but I hope you will not think of sending me any."
"What do you mean? What is about to happen?"
"It is all a mystery and a secret as yet," she said, with a smile. She seemed so much more light-hearted than she had been the day before.
Then, as they walked by those cases, and admired this or that, she would recur to this forth-coming departure of his, despite of him. And she was not at all sad about it. She was curious; that was all. Was there any difficulty in getting a cabin at short notice? It was from Liverpool the big steamers sailed, was it not? And it was a very different thing, she understood, travelling in one of those huge vessels, and crossing the Channel in a little cockle-shell. He would no doubt make many friends on board. Did single ladies ever make the voyage? Could a single lady and her maid get a cabin to themselves? It would not be so very tedious, if one could get plenty of books. And so forth, and so forth. She did not study the Chelsea shepherdesses very closely.
"I'll tell you what I wish you would do, Natalie," said he.
"I will do it," she answered.
"When Lord Evelyn comes back—some day I wish you would take Anneli with you for a holiday—and Evelyn would take you down to have a look over the Beeches. You could be back the same night. I should like you to see my mother's portrait."
She did not answer.
"Will you do that?"
"You will know before long," she said, in a low voice, "why I need not promise that to you. But that, or anything else I am willing to do, if you wish it."
The precious moments sped quickly. And as they walked through the almost empty rooms—how silent these were, with the occasional foot-falls on the tiled floors, and once or twice the distant sounding of a bell outside!—again and again he protested against her saying another word about his going away. What did it matter? Once the pain of parting was over, what then? He had a glad work before him. She must not for a moment think she had anything to do with it. And he could not regret that he had ever met her, when he would have these six mornings of happy intercommunion to think over, when the wide seas separated them?
"Natalie," said he, reproachfully, "do you forget the night you and I heard Fidelio together? And you think I shall regret ever having seen you."
She smiled to herself. Her hand clasped a certain envelope that he could not see.
Then the time came for their seeking out Anneli. But as they were going through the twilight of a corridor she stopped him, and her usually frank eyes were downcast. She took out that envelope.
"Dearest," she said, almost inaudibly, "this is something I wish you to read after Anneli and I am gone. I think you will—you will not misunderstand me. If you think—it is—it is too bold, you will remember that I have—no mother to advise me; and—and you will be kind, and not answer. Then I shall know."
Ten minutes thereafter he was standing alone, in the broad daylight outside, reading the lines she had written early that morning, and in every one of them he read the firm and noble character of the woman he loved. He was almost bewildered by the proud-spirited frankness of her message to him; and involuntarily he thought of the poor devil of a poet in the garret who spoke of his faithful friend and his worthless mistress.
"One is fortunate indeed to have a friend like Evelyn," he said to himself. "But when and has, besides that, the love of a woman like this—then the earth holds something worth living for."
He looked at the brief, proud, pathetic message again—"I am your wife: why should you go alone?" It was Natalie herself speaking in every word.
The more that Madame Potecki thought over the communication made to her by Natalie, the more alarmed she became. Her pupils received but a very mechanical sort of guidance that afternoon. All through the "One, two, three, four; one, two, three, four" she was haunted by an uneasy consciousness that her protest had not been nearly strong enough. The girl had not seemed in the least impressed by her counsel. And suppose this wild project were indeed carried out, might not she, that is, Madame Potecki, be regarded as an accomplice if she remained silent and did not intervene?
On the other hand, although she and Ferdinand Lind were friends of many years standing, she had never quite got over a certain fear of him. She guessed pretty well what underlay that pleasant, plausible exterior of his. And she was not at all sure that, if she went to Mr. Lind and told him that in such and such circumstances his daughter meant to go to America as the wife of George Brand, the first outburst of his anger might not fall on herself. She was an intermeddler. What concern of hers was it? He might even accuse her of having connived at the whole affair, especially during his absence in Philadelphia.
But after all, the little Polish lady was exceedingly fond of this girl; and she resolved to go at all hazards and see whether something could not be done to put matters straight. She would call at the chambers in Lisle Street, and make sure of seeing Mr. Lind alone. She would venture to remind him that his daughter was grown up—a woman, not to be treated as a child. As she had been altogether on the father's side in arguing with Natalie, so she would be altogether on the daughter's side in making these representations to Mr. Lind. Perhaps some happy compromise would result.
She was, however, exceedingly nervous when, on the following afternoon, she called at Lisle Street, and was preceded up-stairs by the stout old German. In the room into which she was shown Reitzei was seated. Reitzei received her very graciously; they were old friends. But although Madame Potecki on ordinary occasions was fond of listening to the sound of her own voice, she seemed now quite incapable of saying anything. Reitzei had been fortunate enough to hear the new barytone sing at a private house on the previous evening; she did not even ask what impression had been produced.
Then Mr. Lind came into the room, and Reitzei left.
"How do you do, Madame Potecki?" said he, somewhat curtly.
She took it that he was offended because she had come on merely private affairs to his place of business; and this did not tend to lessen her embarrassment. However, she made a brave plunge.
"You are surprised," she said, "to find me calling upon you here, are you not? Yes; but I will explain. You see, my dear friend, I wished to see you alone—"
"Yes, yes, Madame Potecki; I understand. What is your news?"
"It is—about Natalie," she managed to say, and then all the methods of beginning that she had studied went clean out of her mind; and she was reduced to an absolute silence.
He did not seem in the least impatient.
"Yes; about Natalie?" he repeated, taking up a paper-knife, and beginning to write imaginary letters on the leather of the desk before him.
"You will say to me, 'Why do you interfere?'" the little woman managed to say at last. "Meddlers do harm; they are not thanked. But then, my dear friend, Natalie is like my own child to me; for her what would I not do?"
Mr. Lind could not fail to see that his visitor was very nervous and agitated: perhaps it was to give her time to compose herself that he said, leisurely,
"Yes, Madame Potecki; I know that you and she are great friends; and it is a good thing that the child should have some one to keep her company; perhaps she is a little too much alone. Well, what do you wish to say about her? You run no risk with me. You will not be misunderstood. I know you are not likely to say anything unkind about Natalie."
"Unkind!" she exclaimed; and now she had recovered herself somewhat. "Who could do that? Oh no, my dear friend; oh no!"
Here was another awkward pause.
"My dear Madame Potecki," said Mr. Lind, with a smile, "shall I speak for you? You do not like to say what you have come to say. Shall I speak for you? This is it, is it not? You have become aware of that entanglement that Natalie has got into. Very well. Perhaps she has told you. Perhaps she has told you also that I have forbidden her to have any communication with—well, let us speak frankly—Mr. Brand. Very well. You go with her to the South Kensington Museum; you meet Mr. Brand there. Naturally you think if that comes to my ears I shall suspect you of having planned the meeting; and you would rather come and assure me that you had nothing to do with it. Is it so?"
"My dear friend," said Madame Potecki, quickly, "I did not come to you about myself at all! What am I? What matters what happens to an old woman like me? It is not about myself, it is about Natalie that I have come to you. Ah, the dear, beautiful child!—how can one see her unhappy, and not try to do something? Why should she be unhappy? She is young, beautiful, loving; my dear friend, do you wonder that she has a sweetheart?—and one who is so worthy of her, too: one who is not selfish, who has courage, who will be kind to her. Then I said to myself, 'Ah, what a pity to have father and daughter opposed to each other!' Why might not one step in and say, 'Come, and be friends. You love each other: do not have this coldness that makes a young heart so miserable!'"
She had talked quickly and eagerly at last; she was trembling with excitement, she had her eyes fixed on his face to catch the first symptom of acquiescence.
But, on the contrary, Mr. Lind remained quite impassive, and he said, coldly,
"This is a different matter altogether, Madame Potecki. I do not blame you for interfering; but I must tell you at once that your interference is not likely to be of much use. You see, there are reasons which I cannot explain to you, but which are very serious, why any proposal of marriage between Mr. Brand and Natalie is not to be entertained for a moment. The thing is quite impossible. Very well. She knows this; she knows that I wish all communication between them to cease; nevertheless, she says she will see him every day until he goes. How can you wonder that she is unhappy? Is it not her own doing?"
"If she was in reality my child, that is not the way I would speak," said the little woman, boldly.
"Unfortunately, my dear Madame Potecki," said Mr. Lind, blandly, "I cannot, as I say, explain to you the reasons which make such a marriage impossible, or you yourself would say it was impossible. Very well, then. If you wish to do a service to your friend Natalie—if you wish to see her less unhappy, you know what advice to give her. A girl who perseveres in wilful disobedience is not likely to be very contented in her mind."
Madame Potecki sat silent and perplexed. This man seemed so firm, so reasonable, so assured, it was apparently hopeless to expect any concession from him. And yet what was the use of her going away merely to repeat the advice she had already given?
"And in any case," he continued, lightly, "it is not an affair for you to be deeply troubled about, my dear Madame Potecki; on the contrary, it is a circumstance of little moment. If Natalie chooses to indulge this sentiment—well, the fate of empires does not hang on it, and in a little while it will be all right. Youth soon recovers from small disappointments; the girl is not morbid or melancholy. Moreover, she has plenty to occupy her mind with: do not fear that she will be permanently unhappy."
All this gave Natalie's friend but scant consolation. She knew something of the girl, she knew it was not a light matter that had made her resolve to share banishment with her lover rather than that he should depart alone.
"Yes, she is acting contrary to my wishes," continued Mr. Lind, who saw that his visitor was anxious and chagrined. "But why should you vex yourself with that, my dear madame?—why, indeed? It is only for a few days. When Mr. Brand leaves for America, then she will settle down to her old ways. This episode of sentiment will soon be forgotten. Do not fear for your friend Natalie; she has a healthy constitution; she is not likely to sigh away her life."
"But you do not understand, Mr. Lind!" Madame Potecki exclaimed suddenly. "You do not understand. When he leaves for America, there is to be an end? No! You are not aware, then, that if he goes to America, Natalie will go also?"
She had spoken quickly, breathlessly, not taking much notice of her words, but she was appalled by the effect they produced. Lind started, as if he had been struck; and for a second, as he regarded her, the eyes set under the heavy brows burnt like coals, and she noticed a curious paleness in his face, especially in the lips. But this lasted only for an instant. When he spoke, he was quite calm, and was apparently considering each word.
"Are you authorized to bring me this message?" he said, slowly.
"Oh no; oh no!" the little woman exclaimed. "I assure you, my dear friend, I came to you because I thought something was about to happen—something that might be prevented. Ah, you don't know how I love that darling child; and to see her unhappy, and resolved, perhaps, to make some great mistake in her life, how could I help interfering?"
"So," continued Lind, apparently weighing every word, "this is what she is bent on! If Brand goes to America, she will go with him?"
"I—I—am afraid so," stammered Madame Potecki. "That is what I gathered from her—though it was only an imaginary case she spoke of. But she was pale, and trembling, and how could I stand by and not do something?"
He did not answer; his lips were firm set. Unconsciously he was pressing the point of the paper-knife into the leather; it snapped in two. He threw the pieces aside, and said, with a sudden lightness of manner,
"Ah, well, my dear madame, you know young people are sometimes very headstrong, and difficult to manage. We must see what can be done in this case. You have not told Natalie you were coming to me?"
"No. She asked me at first; then she said she would tell you herself."
He regarded her for a second.
"There is no reason why you should say you have been here?"
"Perhaps not, perhaps not," Madame Potecki said, doubtfully. "No; there is no necessity. But if one were sure that the dear child were to be made any happier—"
She did not complete the sentence.
"I think you may leave the whole affair in my hands, my dear Madame Potecki," said Lind, in his usual courteous fashion. He spoke, indeed, as if it were a matter of the most trifling importance. "I think I can promise you that Natalie shall not be allowed to imperil the happiness of her life by taking any rash steps. In the mean time, I am your debtor that you have come and told me. It was considerate of you, Madame Potecki; I am obliged to you."
The little woman was practically dismissed. She rose, still doubtful, and hesitated. But what more could she say?
"I am not to tell her, then?" she said.
"If you please, not."
When he had graciously bowed her out, he returned to his seat at the desk; and then the forced courtesy of his manner was abandoned. His brows gathered down; his lips were again firm set; he bent one of the pieces of the paper-knife until that snapped too; and when some one knocked at the door, he answered sharply in German.
It was Gathorne Edwards who entered.
"Well, you have got back?" he said, with but scant civility. "Where is Calabressa?"
The tall, pale, stooping man looked round with some caution.
"There is no one—no one but Reitzei," said Lind, impatiently.
"Calabressa is detained in Naples—the General's orders," said the other, in rather a low voice. "I did not write—I thought it was not safe to put anything on paper; more especially as we discovered that Kirski was being watched."
"No wonder," said Lind, scornfully. "A fool of a madman being taken about by a fool of a mountebank!"
Edwards stared at him. Surely this man, who was usually the most composed, and impenetrable, and suave of men, must have been considerably annoyed thus to give way to a petulant temper.
"But the result, Edwards: well?"
Lind laughed sardonically.
"Who could have doubted? Of course the council do not think that I approved of that mad scheme?"
"At all events, sir," said Edwards, submissively, "you permitted it."
"Permitted it! Yes; to please old Calabressa, who imagines himself a diplomatist. But who could have doubted what the end would be? Well, what further?"
"I understand that a message is on its way to you from the council," said the other, speaking in still lower tones, "giving further instructions. They consider it of great importance that—it—should be done by one of the English section; so that no one may imagine it arises from a private revenge."
Lind was toying with one of the pieces of the broken paper-knife.
"Zaccatelli has had the warning," Edwards continued. "Granaglia took it. The Cardinal is mad with fright—will do anything."
Lind seemed to rouse himself with an effort.
"I beg your pardon, friend Edwards. I did not hear. What were you saying?"
"I was saying that the Cardinal had had the decree announced to him, and is mad with fear, and he will do anything. He offers thirty thousand lire a year; not only that, but he will try to get his Holiness to give his countenance to the Society. Fancy, as Calabressa says, what the world would say to an alliance between the Vatican and the SOCIETY OF THE SEVEN STARS!"
Lind seemed incapable of paying attention to this new visitor, so absorbed was he in his own thoughts. He had again to rouse himself forcibly.
"Yes," he said, "you were saying, friend Edwards, that the Starving Cardinal had become aware of the decree. Yes; well, then?"
"Did you not hear, sir? He thinks there should be an alliance between the Vatican and the Society."
"His Eminence is jocular, considering how near he is to the end of his life," said Lind, absently.
"Further," Edwards continued, "he has sent back the daughter of old De Bedros, who, it seems, first claimed the decree against him; and he is to give her a dowry of ten thousand lire when she marries. But all these promises and proposals do not seem to have weighed much with the council."
Here Edwards stopped. He perceived plainly that Lind—who sat with his brows drawn down, and a sombre look on his face—was not listening to him at all. Presently Lind rose, and said,
"My good Edwards, I have some business of serious importance to attend to at once. Now you will give me the report of your journey some other time. To-night—at nine o'clock?"
"Yes, sir; if that will suit you."
"Can you come to my house in Curzon Street at nine?"
"Very well. I am your debtor. But stay a moment. Of course, I understand from you that nothing that has happened interferes with the decree against our excellent friend the Cardinal?"
"So it appears."
"The Council are not to be bought over by idle promises?"
"Very well. Then you will come to-night at nine; in my little study there will be no interruption; you can give me all the details of your holiday. Ha, my friend Edwards," he added more pleasantly, as he opened the door for his visitor, "would it not be better for you to give up that Museum altogether, and come over to us? Then you would have many a pleasant little trip."
"I suspect the Museum is most likely to give me up," said Edwards, with a laugh, as he descended the narrow twilight stairs.
Then Lind returned to his desk, and sat down. A quarter of an hour afterward, when Reitzei came into the room, he found him still sitting there, without any papers whatsoever before him. The angry glance that Lind directed to him as he entered told him that the master did not wish to be disturbed; so he picked up a book of reference by way of excuse, and retreated into the farther room, leaving Lind once more alone.
This was an October morning, in the waning of the year; and yet so bright and clear and fresh was it, even in the middle of London, that one could have imagined the spring had returned. The world was full of a soft diffused light, from the pale clouds sailing across the blue to the sheets of silver widening out on the broad bosom of the Thames; but here and there the sun caught some shining surface—the lip of a marble fountain, the glass of a lamp on the Embankment, or the harness of some merchant-prince's horses prancing into town—and these were sharp jewel-like gleams amidst the vague general radiance. The air was sweet and clear; the white steam blown from the engines on Hungerford Bridge showed that the wind was westerly. Two lovers walked below, in the Embankment gardens, probably listening but little to the murmur of the great city around them. Surely the spring had come again, and youth and love and hope! The solitary occupant of this chamber that overlooked the gardens and the shining river did not stay to ask why his heart should be so full of gladness, why this beautiful morning should yield him so much delight. He was thinking chiefly that on such a morning Natalie would be abroad soon; she loved the sunlight and the sweet air.
It was far too fine a morning, indeed, to spend in a museum, even with all Madame Potecki's treasures spread out before one. So, instead of going to South Kensington, he went straight up to Curzon Street. Early as he was, he was not too early, for he was leisurely walking along the pavement when, ahead of him, he saw Natalie and her little maid come forth and set out westward. He allowed them to reach the park gates; then he overtook them. Anneli fell a little way behind.
Now, whether it was the brightness of the morning had raised her spirits, or that she had been reasoning herself into a more courageous frame of mind, it was soon very clear that Natalie was not at all so anxious and embarrassed as she had shown herself the day before when they parted.
"There was no letter from you this morning," she said, with a smile, though she did not look up into his face. "Then I have offered myself to you, and am refused?"
"How could I write?" he said. "I tried once or twice, and then I saw I must wait until I could tell you face to face all that I think of your bravery and your goodness. And now that I see you Natalie, it is not a bit better: I can't tell you; I am so happy to be near you, to be beside you, and hear your voice, that I don't think I can say anything at all."
"I am refused, then?" said she, shyly.
"Refused!" he exclaimed. "There are some things one cannot refuse—like the sunshine. But do you know what a terrible sacrifice you are making?"
"It is you, then, who are making no sacrifice at all," she said, reproachfully. "What do I sacrifice more than every girl must sacrifice when she marries? England is not my home as it is your home; we have lived everywhere; I have no childhood's friends to leave, as many a girl has."
"After a little while my father will scarcely miss me; he is too busy."
But presently she added,
"If you had remained in England I should never have been your wife."
"Why?" he said with some surprise.
"I should never have married against my father's wishes," she said, thoughtfully. "No. My promise to you was that I would be your wife, or the wife of no one. I would have kept that promise. But as long as we could have seen each other, and been with each other from time to time, I don't think I could have married against my father's wish. Now it is quite different. Your going to America has changed it all. Ah, my dear friend, you don't know what I suffered one or two nights before I could decide what was right for me to do!"
"I can guess," he said, in a low voice, in answer to that brief sigh of hers.
Then she grew more cheerful in manner.
"But that is all over; and now, am I accepted? I think you are like Naomi: it was only when she saw that Ruth was very determined to go with her that she left off protesting. And I am to consider America as my future home? Well, at all events, one will be able to breathe freely there. It is not a country weighed down with standing armies and conscriptions and fortifications. How could one live in a town like Coblentz, or Metz, or Brest? The poor wretches marching this way and marching that—you watch them from your hotel window—the young men and the middle-aged men—and you know that they would rather be away at their farms, or in their factories, or saw-pits, or engine-houses, working for their wives and children—"
"Natalie," said he, "you are only half a woman: you don't care about military glory."
"It is the most mean, the most cruel and contemptible thing under the sun!" she said, passionately. "What is the quality that makes a great hero—a great general—nowadays? Courage? Not a bit. It is callousness!—an absolute indifference to the slaughtering of human lives! You sit in your tent—you sit on horseback—miles away from the fighting; and if the poor wretches are being destroyed here or there in too great quantities, if they are ridden down by the horses and torn to pieces by the mitrailleuses, 'Oh, clap on another thousand or two: the place must be taken at all risks.' Yes, indeed; but not much risk to you! For if you fail—if all the thousands of men have been hurled against the stone and lead only to be thrown back crushed and murdered—why, you have fought with great courage—you, the great general, sitting in your saddle miles away; it is you who have shown extraordinary courage!—but numbers were against you: and if you win, you have shown still greater courage; and the audacity of the movement was so and so; and your dogged persistence was so and so; and you get another star for your breast; and all the world sings your praises. And who is to court-martial a great hero for reckless waste of human life? Who is to tell him that he is a cruel-hearted coward? Who is to take him to the fields he has saturated with blood, and compel him to count the corpses; or to take him to the homesteads he has ruined throughout the land, and ask the women and sons and the daughters what they think of this marvellous courage? Oh no; he is away back in the capital—there is a triumphal procession; all we want now is another war-tax—for the peasant must pay with his money as well as with his blood—and another levy of the young men to be taken and killed!"
This was always a sore point with Natalie; and he did not seek to check her enthusiasm with any commonplace and obvious criticisms. When she got into one of these moods of proud indignation, which was not seldom, he loved her all the more. There was something in the ring of her voice that touched him to the heart. Such noble, quick, generous sympathy seemed to him far too beautiful and rare a thing to be met by argument and analysis. When he heard that pathetic tremulousness in her voice, he was ready to believe anything. When he looked at the proud lips and the moistened eyes, what cause that had won such eloquent advocacy would he not have espoused?
"Ah, well, Natalie," said he, "some day the mass of the people of the earth will be brought to see that all that can be put a stop to, if they so choose. They have the power: Zahlen regieren die Welt; and how can one be better employed than in spreading abroad knowledge, and showing the poorer people of the earth how the world might be governed if they would only ally themselves together? It would be more easy to persuade them if we had all of us your voice and your enthusiasm."
"Mine?" she said. "A woman's talking is not likely to be of much use. But," she added, rather hesitatingly, "at least—she can give her sympathy—and her love—to those who are doing the real work."
"And I am going to earn yours, Natalie," said he, cheerfully, "to such a degree as you have never dreamed of, when you and I together are away in the new world. And that reminds me now you must not be frightened; but there is a little difficulty. Of course you thought of nothing, when you wrote those lines, but of doing a kindness; that was like you; your heart speaks quickly. Well—"
He himself seemed somewhat embarrassed.
"You see, Natalie, there would be no difficulty at all if you and I could get married within the next few days."
Her eyes were cast down, and she was silent.
"You don't think it possible you could get your father to consent?" he said, but without much hope.
"Oh no, I think not; I fear not," she said, in a low voice.
"Then you see, Natalie," he continued—and he spoke quite lightly, as if it was merely an affair of a moment—"there would be this little awkwardness: you are not of age; unless you get your father's consent, you cannot marry until you are twenty-one. It is not a long time—"
"I did not think of it," she said, very hurriedly, and even breathlessly. "I only thought it—it seemed hard you should go away alone—and I considered myself already your wife—and I said, 'What ought I to do?' And now—now you will tell me what to do. I do not know—I have no one to ask."
"Do you think," said he, after a pause, "that you would forget me, if you were to remain two years in England while I was in America?"
She regarded him for a moment with those large, true eyes of hers; and she did not answer in words.
"There is another way; but—it is asking too much," he said.
"What is it?" she said, calmly.
"I was thinking," he said, with some hesitation, "that if I could bribe Madame Potecki to leave her music-lessons—and take charge of you—and bring you to America—and you and she might live there until you are twenty-one—but I see it is impossible. It is too selfish. I should not have thought of it. What are two years, Natalie?"
The girl answered nothing; she was thinking deeply. When she next spoke, it was about Lord Evelyn, and of the probability of his crossing to the States, and remaining there for a year or two; and she wanted to know more about the great country beyond the seas, and what was Philadelphia like.
Well, it was not to be expected that these two, so busy with their own affairs, were likely to notice much that was passing around them, as the forenoon sped rapidly away, and Natalie had to think of getting home again. But the little German maid servant was not so engrossed. She was letting her clear, observant blue eyes stray from the pretty young ladies riding in the Row to the people walking under the trees, and from them again to the banks of the Serpentine, where the dogs were barking at the ducks. In doing so she happened to look a little bit behind her; then suddenly she started, and said to herself, 'Herr Je!' But the little maid had her wits about her. She pretended to have seen nothing. Gradually, however, she lessened the distance between herself and her young mistress; then, when she was quite up to her, and walking abreast with her, she said, in a low, quick voice.
"What is it, Anneli?"
George Brand was listening too. He wondered that the girl seemed so excited, and yet spoke low, and kept her eyes fixed on the ground.
"Ah, do not look round, Fraulein!" said she, in the same hurried way. "Do not look round! But it is the lady who gave you the locket. She is walking by the lake. She is watching you."
Natalie did not look round. She turned to her companion, and said, without any agitation whatever,
"Do you remember, dearest? I showed you the locket, and told you about my mysterious visitor. Now Anneli says she is walking by the side of the lake. I may go and speak to her, may I not? Because it was so wicked of Calabressa to say some one had stolen the locket, and wished to restore it after many years. I never had any such locket."
She was talking quite carelessly; it was Brand himself who was most perturbed. He knew well who that stranger must be, if Anneli's sharp eyes had not deceived her.
"No, Natalie," he said, quickly, "you must not go and speak to her; and do not look round, either. Perhaps she does not wish to be seen: perhaps she would go away. Leave it to me, my darling; I will find out all about her for you."
"But it is very strange," said the girl. "I shall begin to be afraid of this emissary of Santa Claus if she continues to be so mysterious; and I do not like mystery: I think, dearest, I must go and speak to her. She can not mean me any harm. She has brought me flowers again and again on my birthday, if it is the same. She gave me the little locket I showed you. Why may not I stop and speak to her?"
"Not now, my darling," he said, putting his hand on her arm. "Let me find out about her first."
"And how are you going to do that? In a few minutes, perhaps, she goes away; and when will you see her again? It is many months since Anneli saw her last; and Anneli sees everything and everybody."
"We will cross the bridge," said he, in a low voice, for he knew not how near the stranger might be, "and walk on to Park Lane. Anneli must tell us how far she follows. If she turns aside anywhere I will bid you good-bye and see where she goes. Do you understand, Natalie?"
She certainly did not understand why he should speak so seriously about it.
"And I am to be marched like a prisoner? I may not turn my head?"
She began to be amused. He scarcely knew what to say to her. At last he said, earnestly,
"Natalie, it is of great importance to you that I should see this lady—that I should try to see her. Do as I bid you, my dearest."
"Then you know who she is?" said Natalie, promptly.
"I have a suspicion, at all events; and—and—something may happen—that you will be glad of."
"What, more mysterious presents?" the girl said, lightly; "more messages from Santa Claus?"
He could not answer her. The consciousness that this might be indeed Natalie's mother who was so near to them; the fear of the possible consequences of any sudden disclosure; the thought that this opportunity might escape him, and he leaving in a few days for America: all these things whirled through his brain in rapid and painful succession. But there was soon to be an end of them. Natalie, still obediently following his instructions, and yet inclined to make light of the whole thing, and himself arrived at the gates of the park; Anneli, as formerly, being somewhat behind. Receiving no intimation from her, they crossed the road to the corner of Great Stanhope Street. But they had not proceeded far when Anneli said,
"Ah, Fraulein, the lady is gone! You may look after her now. See!"
That was enough for George Brand. He had no difficulty in making out the dark figure that Anneli indicated; and he was in no great hurry, for he feared the stranger might discover that she was being followed. But he breathed more freely when he had bidden good-bye to Natalie, and seen her set out for home.
He leisurely walked up Park Lane, keeping an eye from time to time on the figure in black, but not paying too strict attention, lest she should turn suddenly and observe him. In this way he followed her up to Oxford Street; and there, in the more crowded thoroughfare, he lessened the distance between them considerably. He also watched more closely now, and with a strange interest. From the graceful carriage, the beautiful figure, he was almost convinced that that, indeed, was Natalie's mother; and he began to wonder what he would say to her—how he would justify his interference.
The stranger stopped at a door next a shop in the Edgware Road; knocked, waited, and was admitted. Then the door was shut again.
It was obviously a private lodging-house. He took a half-crown in his hand to bribe the maid-servant, and walked boldly up to the door and knocked. It was not a maid-servant who answered, however; it was a man who looked something like an English butler, and yet there was a foreign touch about his dress—probably, Brand thought, the landlord. Brand pulled out a card-case, and pretended to have some difficulty in getting a card from it.
"The lady who came in just now—" he said, still looking at the cards.
"Madame Berezolyi? Yes, sir."
His heart jumped. But he calmly took out a pencil, and wrote on one of the cards, in French, "One who knows your daughter would like to see you."
"Will you be so kind as to take up that card to Madame Berezolyi? I think she will see me. I will wait here till you come down."
The man returned in a couple of minutes.
"Madame Berezolyi will be pleased to see you, sir; will you step this way?"
This beautiful, pale, trembling mother: she stood there, dark against the light of the window; but even in the shadow how singularly like she was to Natalie, in the tall, slender, elegant figure, the proud set of the head, the calm, intellectual brows, and the large, tender, dark eyes, as soft and pathetic as those of a doe—only this woman's face was worn and sad, and her hair was silver-gray.
She was greatly agitated, and for a second or two incapable of speech. But when he began in French to apologize for his intrusion, she eagerly interrupted him.
"Ah, no, no!" she said, in the same tongue. "Do not waste words in apology. You have come to tell me about my child, my Natalie: Heaven bless you for it; it is a great kindness. To-day I saw you walking with her—listening to her voice—ah, how I envied you!—and once or twice I thought of going to her and taking her hand, and saying only one word—'Natalushka!'"
"That would have been a great imprudence," said he gravely. "If you wish to speak to your daughter—"