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   Chapter 8 THE COMING OF MR. BERDENSTEIN

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 14261

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


There are days marked in our lives with white stones. We can never forget them. Recollections, a very easy effort of memory, seem to bring back even in some measure the very thrill, the same pulsations and emotions, as were kindled into life by certain never-to-be-forgotten happenings. Time cannot weaken them. Whilst we have life the memory of them is eternal. And there are other days against the memory of which we have dropped a black stone. We shrink from anything which may recall them. No sacrifice would seem too great if only we could set the seal of oblivion upon those few hated hours. We school ourselves to close our eyes, and turn our heads away from anything which might in any manner recall them to us. Yet we are powerless. Ghosts of them steal light-footed, detested and uninvited guests, across our fairest moments; the chill of winter shakes us on the most brilliant of midsummer days; the color steals from our cheeks, and our blood runs to water. We are at the mercy of those touches of icy reminiscence. There is no escape from them. There never will be any escape. The Sunday which followed my father's visit to London is one of those hideous memories. In the calendar of my life it is marked with the blackest of black stones. I only pray that such another day as that may never find its way into my life.

The morning passed much as usual. My father had scarcely spoken to us on the previous evening. In reply to our half eager, half frightened questions, he admitted that he had been ill. He would not hear of a doctor. His malady, he told us, was one which he himself perfectly understood. He would be better in a few days. He ate and drank sparingly, and then retired at once to his room. We heard him drag himself wearily up the stairs, and Alice burst into tears, and I myself felt a lump in my throat. Yet what could we do? He would not have us near him. The only invalid's privilege which he permitted himself was a fire in his bedroom, and this he asked for immediately he entered the house, although the night was close and oppressive, and he had come in with beads of perspiration standing out upon his white forehead.

In the morning he preached an old sermon, preached it with weary lips and wholly nonchalant manner. His pallid face and lustreless eyes became objects of remark amongst the meagre congregation. I could hear people whispering to one another when the service was over. Lady Naselton spoke to me of it with concern as we passed down the aisle.

"I am sorry to see your father looking so dreadfully ill dear," she remarked. "I am particularly sorry to-day. Come outside, and I will tell you why."

We passed out together into the sunlit air, fresh and vigorous after the dull vault-like gloom of the little church, with its ivy-hung windows. Lady Naselton held my arm.

"My dear," she said, "the Bishop is lunching with us to-day, and staying all night. I have spoken to him about your father. He remembers him quite well, and he is coming to service this evening on purpose to hear him preach."

"The Bishop," I repeated, vaguely. "Do you mean our Bishop? The Bishop of Exchester?"

"Yea. I am not supposed, of course, to say anything about it, as his visit has nothing whatever to do with diocesan affairs, but I should be disappointed if your father did not make an impression upon him."

She looked around to be sure that no one was listening. It was quite a needless precaution.

"You see, dear, I happen to know that there are two vacant stalls at the cathedral, and the Bishop wants a preacher badly. It is owing to what I have told him about your father that he is coming over to-day. I do hope that he will be at his best this evening."

"I am afraid that there is very little chance of it," I answered, blankly. "He is really very ill. He will not admit it, but you can see for yourself."

"He must make an effort," Lady Naselton said, firmly. "Will you tell him this from me? Say that we shall all be there, and if only he can make a good impression-well, it is the chance of a lifetime. Of course, we shall all be terribly sorry to lose you, but Exchester is not very far off, and we really could not expect to keep a man with your father's gifts very long. Try and rouse him up, won't you? Goodbye, dear."

She drove off, and I waited at the vestry door for my father. He came out with half-closed eyes, and seemed scarcely to see me. I walked by his side, and repeated what Lady Naselton had told me. Contrary to my expectations, the news was sufficient to rouse him from his apathy.

"The Bishop here to-night!" he repeated, thoughtfully. "You are quite sure that there is no mistake? It is the Bishop of Exchester?"

I nodded assent.

"So Lady Naselton assured me. I have heard her say more than once that they knew him very well indeed. She is most anxious that you should do your very best. It seems that there are two stalls vacant at the cathedral."

The light flashed into his eyes for a moment, and then died out.

"If only it had been a week ago," he said. "I have other things in my mind now. I am not in the mood to prepare anything worth listening to."

"Those other things, father," I said, softly. "Are we to remain wholly ignorant of them? If there is any trouble to be faced, we are ready to take our share."

He shook his head, and a wan smile flickered for a moment upon his pale lips. He looked at me not unkindly.

"It may come, Kate," he said, softly. "Till then, be patient and ask no questions."

We had reached the house, and I said no more. Directly after luncheon, at which he ate scarcely anything, he went into his study. We hoped, Alice and I, that he had gone to work. But in less than half an hour he came out. I met him in the hall.

"My hat and stick, Kate," he said. "I am going for a walk."

His manner forbade questions, but as he was leaving the house an impulse came to me.

"May I come with you, father?" I asked. "I was going for a walk too."

He hesitated for a moment, and seemed about to refuse. What made him change his mind I could never tell. But he did change it.

"Yes, you can come," he said, shortly. "I am starting now, though. I cannot wait for a moment."

"I am quite ready," I answered, taking my hat and gloves from the stand. So we passed out of the house together.

At the gate he paused for a moment, and I thought that he was going to take the road which led to the Yellow House and Deville Court. Apparently he changed his mind, however.

"We will take the footpath to Bromilow Downs," he said. "I have never been there."

We turned our backs upon the more familiar places, and walked slowly along the country which led to the Downs. We neither of us spoke a word for some time. Once or twice I glanced towards him with concern. He was moving with uncertain steps, and every now and then he pressed his hand to his side. Physically, I could see that he was scarcely equal to the exertion of walking. It was mental disquiet which had brought him out. His eyes were dry and bright, and there was a hectic flush upon his cheeks. As we passed from

the lane out on to the open Downs, he drew a little breath and removed his hat. The autumn wind swept through his hair, and blew open his coat. He took in a long breath of it. "This is good," he said, softly. "Let us rest here."

We sat upon the trunk of a fallen pine tree on the verge of the common. Far away on the hillside rose the red chimneys of Naselton Hall. I looked at them, and of a sudden the desire to tell my father what I knew of that man's presence there grew stronger and stronger. After all it was his right to know. It was best to tell him.

"Father," I said, "I have something to say to you. It is something which I think you ought to know."

He looked away from vacancy into my face. Something in my manner seemed to attract him. He frowned, and answered me sharply.

"What is it, child? Only mind that it is not a question."

"It is not a question." I said. "It is something that I want to tell you. Perhaps I ought to have told you before. One afternoon last week I was at Lady Naselton's for tea. I met a man there-half a foreigner he seemed to me. He had lately returned from South America. His name was Berdenstein."

He heard me in perfect silence. He did not utter a single exclamation. Only I saw his head sink, and a curious marble rigidity settle down upon his features, chasing away all expression. In the silence which followed before I spoke again I could hear his breathing sharp and low, almost like the panting of an animal in pain.

"Don't think that I have been spying on you, father," I begged. "It all came about so naturally. I gave you your letters the morning that you went away, and I could not help seeing that one of them was from South America. On the envelope was written: 'In London about the 15th.' Well, as you left for London at once, I considered that you went to meet that person, whoever it was. Then at Lady Naselton's this man stared at me so, and he told me that he came from South America. Some instinct seemed to suggest to me that this was the man who had written that letter. I talked to him for awhile, and I was sure of it."

Then my father spoke. He was like a man who had received a stroke. His voice seemed to come from a great distance. His eyes were fixed upon that break in the trees on the distant hillside beyond which was Naselton Hall.

"So near," he said, softly-"so very near! How did he come here? Was it chance?"

"He was good to Lady Naselton's son abroad," I answered. "He is very rich, they say."

"Ay, ay!" My father nodded his head slowly. His manner was becoming more natural. Yet there was a look of deadly earnest in his white, set face. To look at him made me almost shudder. Something in his expression was like a premonition of the tragedy to come.

"We shall meet soon, then," he said, thoughtfully. "It may be to-morrow. It may be to-day. Kate, your eyes are younger than mine. Is that a man coming along the road there?-down in the hollow on the other side of the turn. Do you see?"

I stood up by his side. There was a figure in sight, but as yet a long way off.

"It is a man," I said. "He is coming towards us."

We stood there side by side for several minutes. My father was leaning upon my shoulder. The clutch of his fingers seemed to burn their way through my dress into my flesh. It was as though they were tipped with fire. He did not move or speak. He kept his eyes steadfastly fixed upon the bend of the road. Suddenly a slight change flashed into his face. He leaned forward; his upper lip quivered; he shaded his eyes with his hand. I followed his rapt gaze, and in the middle of the dusty white road I could see the man now. Well within sight, I watched him draw nearer and nearer. His carriage was buoyant and un-English, and he carried a cane, with which he snapped off the heads of the thistles growing by the hedge-side. He seemed to be whistling softly to himself, showing all the while those rows of white, glistening teeth unpleasantly prominent against the yellowish tinge of his cheeks. From the first I had scarcely doubted that this was the man of whom we had been talking. The coincidence of his coming never even struck me. It seemed at the time to be a perfectly natural thing.

He came to within a yard or two of us before he appeared to recognize me. Then he took off his hat and made me a sweeping bow. In the middle of it he encountered my father's steady gaze. His hat slipped from his fingers-he stood like a man turned to stone. His black eyes were full of horror; he looked at my father as a man would look at one risen from the dead. And my father returned his gaze with a faint, curious smile parting his thin lips.

"Welcome to England once more, Stephen," my father said, grimly. "You were about to address my daughter. Have you lost your way?"

The man opened his lips twice before he spoke. I could almost fancy that his teeth were chattering. His voice was very low and husky.

"I was going to ask the way to Deville Court," he said. All the time his eyes never left my father's face. For some reason or other they were full of wonder; my father's presence seemed to terrify him.

"The way to Deville Court?" my father repeated. "I am returning in that direction. I will show it to you myself. There are several turns before you get on to the straight road."

My father descended the bank into the road. The stranger muttered something inaudible, which my father ignored.

"We had better start," he said, calmly. "It is rather a long way."

The man whom my father had called Stephen hesitated and drew back.

"The young lady," he suggested, faintly-"she will come with us."

"The young lady has an engagement in another direction," he said, with his eyes fixed on me. "I want you, Kate, to call upon Mr. Charlsworth and tell him to be sure to be at church to-night. You can tell him why it is important."

There was a ring in my father's tone, and a light in the glance which he flashed upon me which forbade any idea of remonstrance. Yet at the thought of leaving those two men together a cold chill seemed to pass through all my veins. Something seemed to tell me that this was no ordinary meeting. The man Berdenstein's look of terror as he had recognized my father was unmistakable. Even now he was afraid to go with him. Yet I was powerless, I dared not disobey. Already the two men were walking side by side. I was left alone, and the farmhouse to which my father had bidden me go lay in altogether a different direction. I stood and watched them pass along the lane together. Then I went on my errand. There was nothing else I could do.

* * *

I reached home in about an hour. Alice met me at the door.

"Has father come in yet?" I asked her, quickly.

She nodded.

"About five minutes ago. The walk seemed to have done him good," she added. "He was quite cheerful, and had a wonderful color. Why, Kate! what have you been doing to yourself? You are as white as a ghost."

"He was alone, I suppose?" I asked, ignoring the question.

"Alone! Of course he was alone. Come in and have some tea at once. You look tired out."

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