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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 1
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Nobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 1 Post by :BlueLark Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2295

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Nobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 1


Andrew Tallente stepped out of the quaint little train on to the flower-bedecked platform of this Devonshire hamlet amongst the hills, to receive a surprise so immeasurable that for a moment he could do nothing but gaze silently at the tall, ungainly figure whose unpleasant smile betrayed the fact that this meeting was not altogether accidental so far as he was concerned.

"Miller!" he exclaimed, a little aimlessly.

"Why not?" was the almost challenging reply. "You are not the only great statesman who needs to step off the treadmill now and then."

There was a certain quiet contempt in Tallente's uplifted eyebrows. The contrast between the two men, momentarily isolated on the little platform, was striking and extreme. Tallente had the bearing, the voice and the manner which were his by heritage, education and natural culture. Miller, who was the son of a postman in a small Scotch town, an exhibitioner so far as regards his education, and a mimic where social gifts were concerned, had all the aggressive bumptiousness of the successful man who has wit enough to perceive his shortcomings. In his ill-chosen tourist clothes, untidy collar and badly arranged tie, he presented a contrast to his companion of which he seemed, in a way, bitterly conscious.

"You are staying near here?" Tallente enquired civilly.

"Over near Lynton. Dartrey has a cottage there. I came down yesterday."

"Surely you were in Hellesfield the day before yesterday?"

Miller smiled ill-naturedly.

"I was," he admitted, "and I flatter myself that I was able to make the speech which settled your chances in that direction."

Tallente permitted a slight note of scorn to creep into his tone.

"It was not your eloquence," he said, "or your arguments, which brought failure upon me. It was partly your lies and partly your tactics."

An unwholesome flush rose in the other's face.

"Lies?" he repeated, a little truculently.

Tallente looked him up and down. The station master was approaching now, the whistle had blown, their conversation was at an end.

"I said lies," Tallente observed, "most advisedly." The train was already on the move, and the departing passenger was compelled to step hurriedly into a carriage. Tallente, waited upon by the obsequious station master, strolled across the line to where his car was waiting. It was not until his arrival there that he realised that Miller had offered him no explanation as to his presence on the platform of this tiny wayside station.

"Did you notice the person with whom I was talking?" he asked the station master.

"A tall, thin gentleman in knickerbockers? Yes, sir," the man replied.

"Part of your description is correct," Tallente remarked drily. "Do you know what he was doing here?"

"Been down to your house, I believe, sir. He arrived by the early train this morning and asked the way to the Manor."

"To my house?" Tallente repeated incredulously.

"It was the Manor he asked for, sir," the station master assured his questioner. "Begging your pardon, sir, is it true that he was Miller, the Socialist M.P.?"

"True enough," was the brief reply. "What of it?"

The man coughed as he deposited the dispatch box which he had been carrying on the seat of the waiting car.

"They think a lot of him down in these parts, sir," he observed, a little apologetically.

Tallente made no answer to the station master's last speech and merely waved his hand a little mechanically as the car drove off. His mind was already busy with the problem suggested by Miller's appearance in these parts. For the first few minutes of his drive he was back again in the turmoil which he had left. Then with a little shrug of the shoulders he abandoned this new enigma. Its solution must be close at hand.

Arrived at the edge of the dusty, white strip of road along which he had travelled over the moors from the station, Tallente leaned forward and watched the unfolding panorama below with a little start of surprise. He had passed through acres of yellowing gorse, of purple heather and mossy turf, fragrant with the aromatic perfume of sun-baked herbiage. In the distance, the moorland reared itself into strange promontories, out-flung to the sea. On his right, a little farm, with its cluster of out-buildings, nestled in the bosom of the hills. On either side, the fields still stretched upward like patchwork to a clear sky, but below, down into the hollow, blotting out all that might lie beneath, was a curious sea of rolling white mist, soft and fleecy yet impenetrable. Tallente, who had seen very little of this newly chosen country home of his, had the feeling, as the car crept slowly downward, of one about to plunge into a new life, to penetrate into an unknown world. A man of extraordinarily sensitive perceptions, leading him often outside the political world in which he fought the battle of life, he was conscious of a curious and grim premonition as the car, crawling down the precipitous hillside, approached and was enveloped in the grey shroud. The world which a few moments before had seemed so wonderful, the sunlight, the distant view of the sea, the perfumes of flowers and shrubs, had all gone. The car was crawling along a rough and stony road, between hedges dripping with moisture and trees dimly seen like spectres. At last, about three-quarters of the way down to the sea, after an abrupt turn, they entered a winding avenue and emerged on to a terrace. The chauffeur, who had felt the strain of the drive, ran a little past the front door and pulled up in front of an uncurtained window. Tallente glanced in, dazzled a little at first by the unexpected lamplight. Then he understood the premonition which had sat shivering in his heart during the long descent.

The mist, which had hung like a spectral curtain over the little demesne of Martinhoe Manor, had almost entirely disappeared when, at a few minutes before eight, with all traces of his long journey obliterated, Andrew Tallente stepped out on to the stone-flagged terrace and looked out across the little bay below. The top of the red sandstone cliff opposite was still wreathed with mists, but the sunlight lay upon the tennis lawn, the flower gardens below, and the rocks almost covered by the full, swelling tide. Tall, and looking slimmer than ever in his plain dinner garb, there were some indications of an hour of strange and unexpected suffering in the tired face of the man who gazed out in somewhat dazed fashion at the little panorama which he had been looking forward so eagerly to seeing again. Throughout the long journey down from town, he had felt an unusual and almost boyish enthusiasm for his coming holiday. He had thought of his tennis racquet and fishing rods, wondered about his golf clubs and his guns. Even the unexpected encounter with Miller had done little more than leave an unpleasant taste in his mouth. And then, on his way down from "up over," as the natives called that little strip of moorland overhead, he had vanished into the mist and had come out into another world.

"Andrew! So you are out here? Why did you not come to my room? Surely your train was very punctual?"

Tallente remained for a moment tense and motionless. Then he turned around. The woman who stood upon the threshold of the house, framed with a little cascade of drooping roses, sought for his eyes almost hungrily. He realised how she must be feeling. A dormant vein of cynicism parted his lips as he held her fingers for a moment. His tone and his manner were quite natural.

"We were, I believe, unusually punctual," he admitted. "What an extraordinary mist! Up over there was no sign of it at all."

She shivered. Her eyes were still watching his face, seeking for an answer to her unasked question. Blue eyes they were, which had been beautiful in their day, a little hard and anxious now. She wore a white dress, simple with the simplicity of supreme and expensive art. A rope of pearls was her only ornament. Her hair was somewhat elaborately coiffured, there was a touch of rouge upon her cheeks, and the unscreened evening sunlight was scarcely kind to her rather wan features and carefully arranged complexion. She still had her claims to beauty, however. Tallente admitted that to himself as he stood there appraising her, with a strange and almost impersonal regard,--his wife of thirteen years. She was beautiful, notwithstanding the strained look of anxiety which at that moment disfigured her face, the lurking fear which made her voice sound artificial, the nervousness which every moment made fresh demands upon her self-restraint.

"It came up from the sea," she said. "One moment Tony and I were sitting out under the trees to keep away from the sun, and the next we were driven shivering indoors; It was just like running into a fog bank in the middle of the Atlantic on a hot summer's day."

"I found the difference in temperature amazing," he observed. "I, too, dropped from the sunshine into a strange chill."

She tried to get rid of the subject.

"So you lost your seat," she said. "I am very sorry. Tell me how it happened?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"The Democratic Party made up their mind, for some reason or other, that I shouldn't sit. The Labour Party generally were not thinking of running a candidate. I was to have been returned unopposed, in acknowledgment of my work on the Nationalisation Bill. The Democrats, however, ratted. They put up a man at the last moment, and--well, you know the result--I lost."

"I don't understand English politics," she confessed, "but I thought you were almost a Labour man yourself."

"I am practically," he replied. "I don't know, even now, what made them oppose me."

"What about the future?"

"My plans are not wholly made."

For the first time, an old and passionate ambition prevailed against the thrall of the moment.

"One of the papers this morning," she said eagerly, "suggested that you might be offered a peerage."

"I saw it," he acknowledged. "It was in the Sun. I was once unfortunate enough to be on the committee of a club which blackballed the editor."

Her mouth hardened a little.

"But you haven't forgotten your promise?"

"'Bargain' shall we call it?" he replied. "No, I have not forgotten."

"Tony says you could have a peerage whenever you liked."

"Then I suppose it must be so. Just at present I am not prepared to write 'finis' to my political career."

The butler announced dinner. Tallente offered his arm and they passed through the homely little hall into the dining room beyond. Stella came to a sudden standstill as they crossed the threshold.

"Why is the table laid for two only?" she demanded. "Mr. Palliser is here."

"I was obliged to send Tony away--on important business," Tallente intervened. "He left about an hour ago."

Once more the terror was upon her. The fingers which gripped her napkin trembled. Her eyes, filled with fierce enquiry, were fixed upon her husband's as he took his place in leisurely fashion and glanced at the menu.

"Obliged to send Tony away?" she repeated. "I don't understand. He told me that he had several days' work here with you."

"Something intervened," he murmured.

"Why didn't you wire?" she faltered, almost under her breath. "He couldn't have had any time to get ready."

Andrew Tallente looked at his wife across the bowl of floating flowers.

"Ah!" he exclaimed. "I didn't think of that. But in any case I did not make up my mind until I arrived that it was necessary for him to go."

There was silence for a time, an unsatisfactory and in some respects an unnatural silence. Tallente trifled with his _hors d'oeuvres and was inquisitive about the sauce with which his fish was flavoured. Stella sent away her plate untouched, but drank two glasses of champagne. The light came back to her eyes, she found courage again. After all, she was independent of this man, independent even of his name. She looked across the table at him appraisingly. He was still sufficiently good-looking, lithe of frame and muscular, with features well-cut although a little irregular in outline. Time, however, and anxious work were beginning to leave their marks. His hair was grey at the sides, there were deep lines in his face, he seemed to her fancy to have shrunken a little during the last few years. He had still the languid, high-bred voice which she had always admired so munch, the same coolness of manner and quiet dignity. He was a personable man, but after all he was a failure. His career, so far as she could judge it, was at an end. She was a fool to imagine, even for a moment, that her whole future lay in his keeping.

"Have you any plans?" she asked him presently. "Another constituency?"

He smiled a little wearily. For once he spoke quite naturally.

"The only plan I have formulated at present is to rest for a time," he admitted.

She drank another glass of champagne and felt almost confident. She told him the small events of the sparsely populated neighbourhood, spoke of the lack of water in the trout stream, the improvement in the golf links, the pheasants which a near-by landowner was turning down. They were comparative newcomers and had seen as yet little of their neighbours.

"I was told," she concluded, "that the great lady of the neighbourhood was to have called upon me this afternoon. I waited in but she didn't come."

"And who is that?" he enquired.

"Lady Jane Partington of Woolhanger--a daughter of the Duke of Barminster. Woolhanger was left to her by an old aunt, and they say that she never leaves the place."

"An elderly lady?" he asked, merely with an intent of prolonging a harmless subject of conversation.

"On the contrary, quite young," his wife replied. "She seems to be a sort of bachelor-spinster, who lives out in that lonely place without a chaperon and rules the neighborhood. You ought to make friends with her, Andrew. They say that she is half a Socialist.--By the by, how long are we going to stay down here?"

"We will discuss that presently," he answered.

The service of dinner came to its appointed end. Tallente drank one glass of port alone. Then he rose, left the room by the French windows, passed along the terrace and looked in at the drawing-room, where Stella was lingering over her coffee.

"Will you walk with me as far as the lookout?" he invited. "Your maid can bring you a cloak if you are likely to be cold."

She responded a little ungraciously, but appeared a few minutes later, a filmy shawl of lace covering her bare shoulders. She walked by his side to the end of the terrace, along the curving walk through the plantation, and by the sea wall to the flagged space where some seats and a table had been fixed. Four hundred feet below, the sea was beating against jagged rocks. The moon was late and it was almost dark. She leaned over and he stood by her side.

"Stella," he said, "you asked me at dinner when we were leaving here. You are leaving to-morrow morning by the twelve-thirty train."

"What do you mean?" she demanded, with a sudden sinking of the heart.

"Please do not ask," he replied. "You know and I know. It is not my wish to make public the story of our--disagreement."

She was silent for several moments, looking over into the black gulf below, watching the swirl of the sea, listening to its dull booming against the distant rocks, the shriek of the backward-dragged pebbles. An owl flew out from some secret place in the cliffs and wheeled across the bay. She drew her shawl around her with a little shiver.

"So this is the end," she answered.

"No doubt, in my way," he reflected, "I have been as great a disappointment to you as you to me. You brought me your great wealth, believing that I could use it towards securing just what you desired in the way of social position. Perhaps that might have come but for the war. Now I have become rather a failure."

"There was no necessity for you ever to have gone soldiering," she reminded him a little hardly.

"As you say," he acquiesced. "Still, I went and I do not regret it. I might even remind you that I met with some success."

"Pooh!" she scoffed. "What is the use of a few military distinctions? What are an M.C. and a D.S.O. and a few French and Belgian orders going to do for me? You know I want other things. They told me when I married you," she went on, warming with her own sense of injury, "that you were certain to be Prime Minister. They told me that the Coalition Party couldn't do without you, that you were the only effective link between them and Labour. You had only to play your cards properly and you could have pushed out Horlock whenever you liked. And now see what a mess you have made of things! You have built up Horlock's party for him, he offers you an insignificant post in the Cabinet, and you can't even win your seat in Parliament."

"Your epitome of my later political career has its weak points, but I dare say, from your point of view, you have every reason for complaint," he observed. "Since I have failed to procure for you the position you desire, our parting will have a perfectly natural appearance. Your fortune is unimpaired--you cannot say that I have been extravagant--and I assure you that I shall not regret my return to poverty."

"But you won't be able to live," she said bluntly. "You haven't any income at all."

"Believe me," he answered quietly, "you exaggerate my poverty. In any case, it is not your concern."

"You wouldn't--"

She paused. She was a woman of not very keen perceptions, but she realised that if she were to proceed with the offer which was half framed in her mind, the man by her side, with his, to her outlook, distorted sense of honour, would become her enemy. She shrugged her shoulders, and turning towards him, held out her hand.

"It is the end, then," she said. "Well, Andrew, I did my best according to my lights, and I failed. Will you shake hands?"

He shook his head.

"I cannot, Stella. Let us agree to part here. We know all there is to be known of one another, and we shall be able to say good-by without regret."

She drifted slowly away from him. He watched her figure pass in and out among the trees. She was unashamed, perhaps relieved,--probably, he reflected, as he watched her enter the house, already making her plans for a more successful future. He turned away and looked downwards. The darkness seemed, if possible, to have become a little more intense, the moaning of the sea more insistent. Little showers of white spray enlaced the sombre rocks. The owl came back from his mysterious journey, hovered for a moment over the cliff and entered his secret home. Behind him, the lights in the house went out, one by one. Suddenly he felt a grip upon his shoulder, a hot breath upon his cheek. It was Stella, returned dishevelled, her lace scarf streaming behind, her eyes lit with horror. "Andrew!" she cried. "It came over me--just as I entered the house! What have you done with Anthony?"

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