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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 7
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Nobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 7 Post by :BlueLark Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2121

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Nobody's Man - Book One - Chapter 7

BOOK ONE CHAPTER VII

Luncheon was served in a small room at the back of the house. Through the wide-flung French windows was a vista of terraced walks, the two sunken tennis lawns, a walled garden leading into an orchard, and beyond, the great wood-hung cleft in the hills, on either side of which the pastoral fields, like little squares, stretched away upwards. From here there was no trace of the more barren, unkinder side of the moorland. The succession of rich colours merged at last into the dim, pearly hue where sky and cloud met, in the golden haze of the August heat, a haze more like a sort of transparent filminess than anything which really obscured.

Lady Jane, whose gift of femininity had triumphed even over her farm clothes, seemed to Tallente to convey a curiously mingled impression of restfulness and delicate charm in her cool, white muslin dress, low at the neck, the Paquin-made garment of an Aphrodite. She talked to him with all the charm of an accomplished hostess, and yet with the occasional fascinating reserve of the woman who finds her companion something more than ordinarily sympathetic. The butler served them unattended from the sideboard, but before luncheon was half way through they dispensed with his services.

"I suppose it has occurred to you by this time, Mr. Tallente," she said, as she watched the coffee in a glass machine by her side, "that I am a very unconventional person."

"Whatever you are," he replied, "I am grateful for."

"Cryptic, but with quite a nice sort of sound about it," she observed, smiling. "Tell me honestly, though, aren't you surprised to find me living here quite alone?"

"It seems to me perfectly natural," he answered.

"I live without a chaperon," she went on, "because a chaperon called by that name would bore me terribly. As a matter of fact, though, there is generally some one staying here. I find it easy enough to persuade my friends and some of my relatives that a corner of Exmoor is not half a bad place in the spring and summer. It is through the winter that I am generally avoided."

"I have always had a fancy to spend a winter on Exmoor," he confided.

"It has its compensations," she agreed, "apart, of course, from the hunting."

He felt the desire to speak of more vital things. What did hunting or chaperons more or less matter to the Lady Janes of the world! Already he knew enough of her to be sure that she would have her way in any crisis that might arise. "How much of the year," he asked, "do you actually spend here?"

"As much as I can."

"You are content to be here alone, even in the winter?"

"More contented than I should be anywhere else," she assured him. "There is always plenty to do, useful work, too--things that count."

"London?"

"Bores me terribly," she confessed.

"Foreign travel?"

She nodded more tolerantly.

"I have done a little of it," she said. "I should love to do more, but travel as travel is such an unsatisfying thing. If a place attracts you, you want to imbibe it. Travel leaves you no time to do anything but sniff. Life is so short. One must concentrate or one achieves nothing. I know what the general idea of a stay-at-home is," she went on. "Many of my friends consider me narrow. Perhaps I am. Anyhow, I prefer to lead a complete and, I believe, useful life here, to looking back in later years upon that hotchpotch of lurid sensations, tangled impressions and restless moments that most of them call life."

"You display an amazing amount of philosophy for your years," he ventured, after a little hesitation. "There is one instinct, however, which you seem to ignore."

"What is it, please?"

"Shall I call it the gregarious one, the desire for companionship of young people of your own age?"

She shrugged her shoulders. She had the air of one faintly amused by his diffidence.

"You mean that I ought to be husband hunting," she said. "I quite admit that a husband would be a very wonderful addition to life. I have none of the sentiments of the old maid. On the other hand, I am rather a fatalist. If any man is likely to come my way whom I should care to marry, he is just as likely to find me here as though I tramped the thoroughfares of the world, searching for him. At last!" she went on, in a changed tone, as she poured out his coffee. "I do hope you will find it good. The cigarettes are at your elbow. This is quite one of the moments of life, isn't it?"

He agreed with her emphatically.

"A counsel of perfection," he murmured, as he sniffed the delicate Turkish tobacco. "Tell me some more about yourself?"

She shook her head.

"I am much too selfish a person," she declared, "and nothing that I do or say or am amounts to very much. I want you to let me a little way into your life. Talk either about your soldiering or your politics. You have been a Cabinet Minister and you will be again. Tell me what it feels like to be one of the world's governors?"

"Let us finish talking about you first," he begged. "You spoke quite frankly of a husband. Tell me, have you made up your mind what manner of man he must be?"

"Not in the least. I am content to leave that entirely to fate."

"Bucolic? Intellectual? An artist? A man of affairs?"

She made a little grimace.

"How can I tell? I cannot conceive caring for an ordinary person, but then every woman feels like that. And, you see, if I did care, he wouldn't be ordinary--to me. And so far as I am concerned," she insisted, with a shade of restlessness in her manner, "that finishes the subject. You must please devote yourself to telling me at least some of the things I want to know. What is the use of having one of the world's successful men tete-a-tete, a prisoner to my hospitality, unless I can make him gratify my curiosity?"

The thought created by her words burned through his mind like a flash of destroying lightning.

"One of the world's successful men," he repeated. "Is that how I seem to you?"

"And to the world," she asserted.

He shook his head sadly.

"I have worked very hard," he said. "I have been very ambitious. A few of my ambitions have been gratified, but the glory of them has passed with attainment. Now I enter upon the last lap and I possess none of the things I started out in life to achieve."

"But how absurd!" she exclaimed. "You are one of our great politicians. You would have to be reckoned with in any regrouping of parties."

"Without even a seat in the House of Commons," he reminded her bitterly. "And again, how can a man be a great politician when there are no politics? The confusion amongst the parties has become chaos, and I for one have not been clear-sighted enough to see my way through."

"Of course, I know vaguely what you mean," she said, "but remember that I am only a newspaper-educated politician. Can't you be a little more explicit?"

He lit another cigarette and smoked restlessly for a moment.

"I'll try and explain, if I can," he went on. "To be a successful politician, from the standard which you or I would aim at, a man needs not only political insight, but he needs to be able to adopt his views to the practical programme of one of the existing parties, or else to be strong enough to form a party of his own. That is where I have come to the cul-de-sac in my career. It was my ambition to guide the working classes of the country into their rightful place in our social scheme, but I have also always been an intensely keen Imperialist, and therefore at daggers drawn with many of the so-called Labour leaders. The consequence has been that for ten years I have been hanging on to the thin edge of nothing, a member of the Coalition Government, a member by sufferance of a hotchpotch party which was created by the combination of the Radicals and the Unionists with the sole idea of seeing the country through its great crisis. All legislation, in the wider sense of the term, had to be shelved while the country was in danger and while it was recovering itself. That time I spent striving to educate the people I wanted to represent, striving to make them see reason, to combat the two elements in their outlook which have been their eternal drawback, the elements of blatant selfishness and greedy ignorance. Well, I failed. That is all there is about it--I failed. No party claims me. I haven't even a seat in the House of Commons. I am nearly fifty years old and I am tired."

"Nearly fifty years old!" she repeated. "But what is that? You have--health, you are strong and well, there is nothing a younger man can do that you cannot. Why do you worry about your age?"

"Perhaps," he admitted, with a faint smile, and an innate compulsion to tell her of the thought which had lurked behind, "because you are so marvelously young."

"Absurd!" she scoffed. "I am twenty-nine years old--practically thirty. That is to say, with the usual twenty years' allowance, you and I are of the same age."

He looked across at her, across the lace-draped table with its bowls of fruit, its richly-cut decanter of wine, its low bowl of roses, its haze of cigarette smoke. She was leaning back in her chair, her head resting upon the fingers of one hand. Her face seemed alive with so many emotions. She was so anxious to console, so interested in her companion, herself, and the moment. He felt something unexpected and irresistible.

"I would to God I could look at it like that!" he exclaimed suddenly.

The words had left his lips before he was conscious that the thought which had lain at the back of them had found expression in his tone and glance. Just at first they produced no other effect in her save that evidenced by the gently upraised eyebrows, the sweetly tolerant smile. And then a sudden cloud, scarcely of discomfiture, certainly not of displeasure, more of unrest, swept across her face. Her eyes no longer met his so clearly and frankly. There was a little mist there and a silence. She was looking away through the windows to the dim, pearly line of blue, the actual horizon of things present. Her pulses were scarcely steady. She was possessed to a full extent of the her qualities of courage, physical and spiritual, yet at that moment she felt a wave of curious fear, the fear of the idealist that she may not be true to herself.

The moment passed and she looked at him with a smile. An innate gift of concealment, the heritage of her sex, came to her rescue, but she felt, somehow or other, as though she had passed through one of the crises of her life--that she could never be quite the same again. She had ceased for those few seconds to be natural.

"What does that wish mean?" she asked. "Do you mean that you would like to agree with me, or would you like to be twenty-nine?"

He too turned his back upon that little pool of emotion, did his best to be natural and easy, to shut out the memory of that flaming moment.

"At twenty-nine," he told her, "I was First Secretary at St. Petersburg. I am afraid that I was rather a dull dog, too. All Russia, even then, was seething, and I was trying to understand. I never did. No one ever understood Russia. The explanation of all that has happened there is simply the eternal duplication of history--a huge class of people, physically omnipotent, conscious of wrongs, unintelligent, and led by false prophets. All revolutions are the same. The purging is too severe, so the good remains undone."

There followed a silence, purposeful on her port, scarcely realised by him. She sought for means of escape, to bring their conversation down to the level where alone safety lay. She moved her chair a little farther back into the scented chamber, as though she found the sunlight too dazzling.

"You are like so many of the men who work for us," she said. "You are just a little tired, aren't you? You come down here to rest, and I dig up all the old problems and ask you to vex yourself with them. We must talk about slighter things. You are going to shoot here this season--perhaps hunt, later on?"

"I do not think so," he answered. "I have forgotten what sports mean. I may take a gun out sometimes. There is a little shooting that goes with the Manor, but very few birds, I believe. The last ten years seem to have driven all those things out of one's mind."

"Don't you think that you are inclined to take life a little too earnestly?" she asked. "One should have amusements."

"I may feel the necessity," he replied, "but it is not easy to take up one's earlier pleasures at my time of life."

"Don't think me inquisitive," she went on, "but, as I told you, I have looked you up in one of those wonderful books which tell us everything about everybody. You were a Double Blue at Oxford."

"Racquets and cricket," he assented. "Neither of them much use to me now."

"Racquets would help you with lawn tennis," she said, "but beyond that I find that not a dozen years ago you were a scratch golfer, and you certainly won the amateur championship of Italy."

"It is eleven years since I touched a club," he told her.

"Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself," she declared. "Games are part of an Englishman's life, and when he neglects them altogether there is something wrong. I shall insist upon your taking up lawn tennis again. I have two beautiful courts there, and very seldom any one to play with who has the least idea of the game."

His eyes rested for a moment upon the smoothly shaven lawns.

"So you think that regeneration may come to me through lawn tennis?" he murmured.

"And why not? You are taking yourself far too seriously, you know. How do you expect regeneration to come?"

"Shall I tell you what it is I lack?" he answered suddenly. "Incentive. I think my will has suddenly grown flabby, the ego in me unresponsive. You know the moods in which one asks oneself whether it is worth while, whether anything is worth while. Well, I am there at the crossroads. I think I feel more inclined to look for a seat than to go on."

"The strongest of us need to rest sometimes," she agreed quietly.

He relapsed into a silence so apparently deliberate that she accepted it as a respite for herself also. From the greater seclusion of her shadowy seat, she found herself presently able to watch him unnoticed,--the brooding melancholy of his face, the nervous, unsatisfied mouth, the discontent of his sombre brows. Then, even as she watched, the change in his expression startled her. His eyes were fixed upon the narrow ribbon of road which twisted around the other side of the house and led over the bleaker moors, seawards. The look puzzled her, gave her an uncomfortable feeling. Its note of appreciation seemed to her inexplicable. With a quaint, electrical sympathy, he caught the unspoken question in her eyes and translated it.

"You are beginning to doubt me," he said. "You are wondering if the shadow I carry with me is not something more than the mere depression of a man who has failed."

"You have not failed," she declared, "and I never doubt you, but there was something in your face just then which was strange, something alien to our talk. It was as though you saw something ominous in the distance."

"It is true," he admitted. "In the distance I can see the car I ordered to come and fetch me. There is a passenger--a man in the tonneau. I am wondering who he is."

"Some one to whom your man has given a lift, perhaps," she suggested.

He shook his head.

"I have another feeling--perhaps I should say an apprehension. It is some one who brings news."

"Political or--domestic?"

"Neither," he answered. "I thought that Fate had dealt me out most of her evil tricks when I came down here, a political outcast. She had another one up her sleeve, however. Do you read your morning papers?"

"Every day," she confessed. "Is it a weakness?"

"Not at all."

"You read of the disappearance of the Honourable Anthony Palliser?"

"Of course," she answered. "Besides, you told me about it, did you not, yesterday afternoon? I know one of his sisters quite well, and I was looking forward to seeing something of him down here."

"I was obliged to dismiss him at a moment's notice," Tallente went on. "He betrayed his trust and he has disappeared. That very imposing police inspector who broke up our tete-a-tete yesterday afternoon and I fear shortened your visit came on his account. He was the spokesman for a superior authority in London. They have come to the conclusion that I could, if I chose, throw some light upon his disappearance."

"And could you?"

He rose to his feet.

"You are the one person in the world," he said, "to whom I could tell nothing but the truth. I could."

They both heard the sound of footsteps in the hall. Lady Jane, disturbed by the ominous note in Tallente's voice, rose also to her feet, glancing from him towards the door, filled with some vague, inexplicable apprehension. Tallente showed no fear, but it was plain that he had nerved himself to face evil things. There was something almost ludicrous in this denouement to a situation which to both had seemed filled with almost dramatic possibilities. The door was opened by Parkins, the stout, discreet man servant, ushering in the unkempt, ill-tailored, ungainly figure of James Miller.

"This gentleman," Parkins announced, "wishes to see Mr. Tallente on urgent business."

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BOOK ONE CHAPTER VIAt 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 the moor leaned down to a great hollow in the hills. The open
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