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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 6
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Nobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 6 Post by :BlueLark Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :684

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Nobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 6

BOOK ONE CHAPTER VI

At noon the next day, Tallente, nervously as well as physically exhausted with the long climb from the Manor, turned aside from the straight, dusty road and seated himself upon a lichen-covered boulder. He threw his cap on the ground, filled and lighted an old briar pipe, and gazed with a queer mixture of feelings across the moorland to where Woolhanger spread itself, a queer medley of dwelling house and farm buildings, strangely situated at the far end of the table-land he was crossing, where the moor leaned down to a great hollow in the hills. The open stretch of common which lay between him and his destination had none of the charm of the surrounding country. It was like a dark spot set in the midst of the rolling splendours of the moorland proper. There were boulders of rock of unknown age, dark patches of peat land, where even in midsummer the mud oozed up at the lightest footfall, pools and sedgy places, the home and sometimes the breeding place of the melancholy snipe. Of colour there was singularly little. The heather bushes were stunted, their roots blackened as though with fire, and even the yellow of the gorse shone with a dimmer lustre. But in the distance, a flaming carpet of orange and purple stretched almost to the summit of the brown hills of kindlier soil, and farther round, westwards, richly cultivated fields, from which the labourers seemed to hang like insects in the air, rolled away almost to the clouds.

Tallente looked at them a little wearily, impressed with the allegorical significance of his position. It seemed to him that he was in the land to which he belonged, the barren land of desolation and failure. The triumphs of the past failed for a moment to thrill his pulses. The memory of his well-lived and successful life brought him not an atom of consolation. The present was all that mattered, and the present had brought him to the gates of failure.--After all, what did a man work for, he wondered? What was the end and aim of it all? Life at Martinhoe Manor, with a faithful but terrified manservant, bookshelves ready to afford him the phantasmal satisfaction of another man's thoughts, sea and winds, beauties of landscape and colour, to bring him to the threshold of an epicurean pleasure which needed yet that one pulsating link with humanity to yield the full meed of joy and content. It all came back to the old story of man's weakness, he thought, as he rose to his feet, his teeth almost savagely clenching his pipe. He had become a conqueror of circumstances only to become a victim of the primitive needs of life.

At about a quarter of a mile from the house, the road branched away to the left to disappear suddenly over the edge of a drop of many hundreds of feet. Tallente passed through a plain white gate, down an avenue of dwarfed oaks, to emerge into an unexpectedly green meadow, cloven through the middle with a straight white avenue. Through another gate he passed into a drive which led through flaming banks of rhododendrons, now a little past their full glory, to the front of the house, a long and amplified building which, by reason of many additions, had become an abode of some pretensions. A manservant answered his ring at once and led him into a cool, white stone hall, the walls of which were hung from floor to ceiling with hunting and sporting trophies.

"Her ladyship is still at the farm, sir," the man announced. "She said if you came before she returned would you care to step round?"

Tallente signified his assent and was led through the house, across a more extensive garden, from which a marvellous view of the valley and the climbing slopes behind held him spellbound, by the side of a small, quaintly shaped church, to a circular group of buildings of considerable extent. The man conducted him to the front of a white-plastered cottage covered with roses, and knocked at the door.

"This is her ladyship's office, sir," he announced.

Lady Jane's invitation to enter was clear and friendly. Tallente found her seated behind a desk, talking to a tall man in riding clothes, who swung around to eye the newcomer with a curiosity which seemed somehow not altogether friendly. Lady Jane held out her hand and smiled delightfully.

"Do come in, Mr. Tallente," she begged. "I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. Now you will believe, won't you, that I am not altogether an idler in life? This is my agent, Mr. Segerson--Mr. Tallente."

Lionel Segerson held out his hand. He was a tall, well-built young Devonian, sunburnt, with fair curly hair, a somewhat obstinate type of countenance, and dressed in the dandified fashion of the sporting farmer.

"Glad to know you, Mr. Tallente," he said, in a tone which lacked enthusiasm. "I hope you're going to stay down in these parts for a time?"

Tallente made only a monosyllabic reply, and Lady Jane, with a little gesture of apology, continued her conversation with Segerson.

"I should like you," she directed, "to see James Crockford for yourself. Try and explain my views to him--you know them quite well. I want him to own his land. You can tell him that within the last two years I have sold eleven farms to their tenants, and no one could say that I have not done so on easy terms. But I need further convincing that Crocker is in earnest about the matter, and that he will really work to make his farm a success. In five good years he has only saved a matter of four hundred pounds, although his rental has been almost insignificant. That is the worst showing of any of the tenants on the estate, and though if I had more confidence in him I would sell on a mortgage, I don't feel inclined to until he has shown that he can do better. Tell him that he can have the farm for two thousand pounds, but he must bring me eight hundred in cash and it must not be borrowed money. That ought to satisfy him. He must know quite well that I could get three thousand pounds for it in the open market."

"These fellows never take any notice of that," Segerson remarked. "Ungrateful beggars, all of them. I'll tell him what you say, Lady Jane."

"Thank you."

"Anything else?" the young man asked, showing a disposition to linger.

"Nothing, thanks, until to-morrow morning." There was even then a slight unwillingness in his departure, which provoked a smile from Lady Jane as the door closed.

"The young men of to-day are terribly spoilt," she said. "He expected to be asked to lunch."

"I am glad he wasn't," Tallente observed.

She laughed.

"Why not? He is quite a nice young man."

"No doubt," Tallente agreed, without conviction. "However, I hate young men and I want to talk to you."

"Young men are tiresome sometimes," she agreed, rising from her chair.

"And older ones too, I am afraid!"

She closed her desk and he stood watching her. She was wearing an extraordinarily masculine garb--a covert-coating riding costume, with breeches and riding boots concealed under a long coat--but she contrived, somehow, to remain altogether feminine. She stood for a moment looking about her, as though wondering whether there were anything else to be done, a capable figure, attractive because of her earnest self-possession.

"Sarah," she called out.

The sound of a typewriter in an inner room ceased. The door was opened and a girl appeared on the threshold.

"You won't see me again to-day unless you send up for me," her mistress announced. "Let me have the letters to sign before five. Try and get away early, if you can. The car is going in to Lynton. Perhaps you would like the ride?"

"I should enjoy it very much, your ladyship," the girl replied gratefully. "There is really very little to do this afternoon."

"You can bring the letters whenever you like, then," Lady Jane told her, "and let Martin know that you are going in with him."

"You study your people, I see," Tallente remarked, as they strolled together back to the house.

"I try," she assented. "I try to do what I can in my little community here, very much as you, in a far greater way, try to study the people in your political programme. Of course," she went on, "it is far easier for me. The one thing I try to develop amongst them is a genuine, not a false spirit of independence. I want them to lean upon no one. I have no charities in connection with the estate, no soup kitchens or coal at Christmas, or anything of that sort. My theory is that every person is the better for being able to look after himself, and my idea of charity is placing him in a position to be able to do it. I don't want to be their Lady of the Manor and accept their rents and give them a dinner. I try to encourage them to save money and to buy their own farms. The man here who owns his own farm and makes it pay is in a position to lead a thoroughly self-respecting and honourable life. He ought to get what there is to be got out of life, and his children should be yeomen citizens of the best possible type. Of course, all this sort of thing is so much easier in the country. Very often, in the winter nights here, I waste my time trying to think out your greater problems."

"Problems," he observed, "which the good people of Hellesfield have just decided that I am not the man to solve."

"An election counts for nothing," she declared. "The merest whim will lead thousands of voters into the wrong polling booth. Besides, nearly all the papers admit that your defeat was owing to a political intrigue. The very men who should have supported you--who had promised to support you, in fact--went against you at the last moment. That was entirely due to Miller, wasn't it?"

"Miller has been my political bete noir for years," he confessed. "To me he represents the ignominious pacifist, whereas to him I represent the sabre-rattling jingo. I got the best of it while the war was on. To-day it seems to me that he has an undue share of influence in the country."

"Who are the men who really represent what you and I would understand as Labour?" she asked.

"That is too difficult a question to answer offhand," he replied. "Personally, I have come to the conclusion that Labour is unrepresentable--Labour as a cause. There are too many of the people yet who haven't vision."

They passed into the cool, geranium-scented hall. She pointed to an easy-chair by the side of which was set, on a small mahogany table, a silver cocktail shaker and two glasses.

"Please be as comfortable as you can," she begged, "for a quarter of an hour. If you like to wash, a touch of the bell there will bring Morton. I must change my clothes. I had to ride out to one of the outlying farms this morning, and we came back rather quickly."

She moved about the hall as she spoke, putting little things to rights. Then she passed up the circular staircase. At the bend she looked back and caught him watching her. She waved her hand with a little less than her usual frankness. Tallente had forgotten for a moment his whereabouts, his fatigue, his general weariness. He had turned around in his chair and was watching her. She found something in the very intensity of his gaze disturbing, vaguely analogous to certain half-formed thoughts of her own. She called out some light remark, scoffed at herself, and ran lightly out of sight, calling to her maid as she went.

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