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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNobody's Man - Book Two - Chapter 1
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Nobody's Man - Book Two - Chapter 1 Post by :Bulleke Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2727

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Nobody's Man - Book Two - Chapter 1

BOOK TWO CHAPTER I

Tallente found himself possessed of a haunting, almost a morbid feeling that a lifetime had passed since last his car had turned out of the station gates and he had seen the moorland unroll itself before his eyes. There was a new pungency in the autumn air, an unaccustomed scantiness in the herbiage of the moor and the low hedges growing from the top of the stone walls. The glory of the heather had passed, though here and there a clump of brilliant yellow gorse remained. The telegraph posts, leaning away from the wind, seemed somehow scantier; the road stretched between them, lonely and desolate. From a farmhouse in the bosom of the tree-hung hills lights were already twinkling, and when he reached the edge of the moor, and the sea spread itself out almost at his feet, the shapes of the passing steamers, with their long trail of smoke, were blurred and uncertain. Below, his home field, his wall-enclosed patch of kitchen garden, the long, low house itself lay like pieces from a child's play-box stretched out upon the carpet. Only to-night there was no mist. They made their cautious way downwards through the clearest of darkening atmospheres. On the hillsides, as they dropped down, they could hear the music of an occasional sheep bell. Rabbits scurried away from the headlights of the car, an early owl flew hooting over their heads. Tallente, tired with his journey, perhaps a little worn with the excitement of the last two months, found something dark and a little lonely about the unoccupied house, something a little dreary in his solitary dinner and the long evening spent with no company save his books and his pipe. Later on, he lay for long awake, watching the twin lights flash out across the Channel and listening to the melancholy call of the owls as they swept back and forth across the lawn to their secret abodes in the cliffs. When at last he slept, however, he slept soundly. An unlooked-for gleam of sunshine and the dull roar of the incoming tide breaking upon the beach below woke him the next morning long after his usual hour. He bathed, shaved in front of the open window, and breakfasted with an absolute renewal of his fuller interest in life. It was not until he had sent back the car in which he had driven as far as the station, and was swinging on foot across Woolhanger Moor, that he realised fully why he had come, why he had schemed for these two days out of a life packed with multifarious tasks. Then he laughed at himself, heartily yet a little self-consciously. A fool's errand might yet be a pleasant one, even though his immediate surroundings seemed to mock the sound of his mirth. Woolhanger Moor in November was a drear enough sight. There were many patches of black mud and stagnant water, carpets of treacherous-looking green moss, bare clumps of bushes bent all one way by the northwest wind, masses of rock, gaunter and sterner now that their summer covering of creeping shrubs and bracken had lost their foliage. It was indeed the month of desolation. Every scrap of colour seemed to have faded from the dripping wet landscape. Phantasmal clouds of grey mist brooded here and there in the hollows. The distant hills were wreathed in vapour, so that even the green of the pastures was invisible. Every now and then a snipe started up from one of the weedy places with his shrill, mournful cry, and more than once a solitary hawk hovered for a few minutes above his head. The only other sign of life was a black speck in the distance, a speck which came nearer and nearer until he paused to watch it, standing upon a little incline and looking steadily along the rude cart track. The speck grew in size. A person on horseback,--a woman! Soon she swung her horse around as though she recognised him, jumped a little dike to reach him the quicker and reined up her horse by his side, holding one hand down to him. "Mr. Tallente!" she exclaimed. "How wonderful!" He held her hand, looking steadfastly, almost eagerly, up into her flushed face. Her eyes were filled with pleasure. His errand, in those few breathless moments, seemed no longer the errand of a fool.

"I can't realise it, even now," she went on, drawing her hand away at last. "I pictured you at Westminster, in committee rooms and all sorts of places. Aren't you forging weapons to drive us from our homes and portion out our savings?"

"I have left the thunderbolts alone for one short week-end," he answered. "I felt a hunger for this moorland air. London becomes so enveloping." Jane sat upright upon her horse and looked at him with a mocking smile. "How ungallant! I hoped you had come to atone for your neglect."

"Have I neglected you?" he asked quietly, turning and walking by her side.

"Shockingly! You lunched with me on the seventh of August. I see you again on the second of November, and I do believe that I shall have to save you from starvation again."

"It's quite true," he admitted. "I have a sandwich in my pocket, though, in case you were away from home."

"Worse than ever," she sighed. "You didn't even trouble to make enquiries."

"From whom should I? Robert--my servant--his wife, and a boy to help in the garden are all my present staff at the Manor. Robert drives the car and waits on me, and his wife cooks. They are estimable people, but I don't think they are up in local news."

"You were quite safe," she said, looking ahead of her. "I am never away." The tail end of a scat of rain beat on their faces. From the hollow on their left, the wind came booming up.

"I should have thought that for these few months just now," he suggested, "you might have cared for a change."

"I have my work here, such as it is," she answered, a little listlessly. "If I were in town, for instance, I should have nothing to do."

"You would meet people. You must sometimes feel the need of society down here."

"I doubt whether I should meet the people who would interest me," she replied, "and in any case I have my work here. That keeps me occupied."

They turned into the avenue and soon the long front of the house spread itself out before them. Jane, who had been momentarily absorbed, looked down at her companion.

"You are alone at the Manor?" she asked.

"Quite alone."

She became the hostess directly they had passed the portals of the house. She led him across the hall into her little sanctum.

"This is the room," she told him, "in which I never do a stroke of work--sacred to the frivolities alone. I shall send Morton in to see what you will have to drink, while I change my habit. You must have something after that walk. I shan't be long."

For the second time she avoided meeting his eves as she left the room. Tallente stood on the hearth-rug, still looking at the closed door through which she had vanished, puzzled, a little chilled. He gave his order to the attentive butler who presently appeared and who looked at him with covert interest,--the Press had been almost hysterically prodigal of his name during the last few weeks. Then he settled down to wait for her return with an impatience which became almost uncontrollable. It seemed to him, as he paced restlessly about, that this little apartment, which he remembered so well, had in a measure changed, was revealing a different atmosphere, as though in sympathy with some corresponding change in its presiding spirit. There was a huge and well-worn couch, smothered with cushions and suggestive of a comfort almost voluptuous; a large easy-chair, into which he presently sank, of the same character. The wood logs burning in the grate gave out a pleasant sense of warmth. He took more particular note of the volumes in the well-filled bookcases,--volumes of poetry, French novels, with a fair sprinkling of modern English fiction. There was a plaster cast of the Paris Magdalene over the door and one or two fine point etchings, after the style of Heillieu, upon the walls. There was no writing table in the room, nor any signs of industry, but a black oak gate-table was laden with magazines and fashion papers. Against the brown walls, a clump of flaming yellow gorse leaned from a distant corner, its faint almond-like fragrance mingling aromatically with the perfume of burning logs and a great bowl of dried lavender. More than ever it seemed to Tallente that the atmosphere of the room had changed, had become in some subtle way at the same time more enervating and more exciting. It was like a revelation of a hidden side of the woman, who might indeed have had some purpose of her own in leaving him here. He set down his empty glass with the feeling that vermouth was a heavier drink than he had fancied. Then a streak of watery sunshine filtered its way through the plantation and crept across the worn, handsome carpet. He felt a queer exultation at the sound of her footsteps outside. She entered, as she had departed, without directly meeting his earnest gaze.

"I hope you have made yourself at home," she said. "Dear me, how untidy everything is!"

She moved about, altering the furniture a little, making little piles of the magazines, a graceful, elegant figure in her dark velvet house dress, with a thin band of fur at the neck. She turned suddenly around and found him watching her. This time she laughed at him frankly.

"Sit down at once," she ordered, motioning him back to his easy-chair and coming herself to a corner of the lounge. "Remember that you have a great deal to tell me and explain. The newspapers say such queer things. Is it true that I really am entertaining a possible future Prime Minister?"

"I suppose that might be," he answered, a little vaguely, his eyes still fixed upon her. "So this is your room. I like it. And I like--"

"Well, go on, please," she begged.

"I like the softness of your gown, and I like the fur against your throat and neck, and I like those buckles on your shoes, and the way you do your hair."

She laughed, gracefully enough, yet with some return to that note of uneasiness.

"You mustn't turn my head!" she protested. "You, fresh from London, which they tell me is terribly gay just now! I want to understand just what it means, your throwing in your lot with the Democrats. My uncle says, for instance, that you have abandoned respectable politics to become a Tower Hill pedagogue."

"Respectable politics," he replied, "if by that you mean the present government of the country, have been in the wrong hands for so long that people scarcely realise what is undoubtedly the fact--that the country isn't being governed at all. A Government with an Opposition Party almost as powerful as itself, all made up of separate parties which are continually demanding sops, can scarcely progress very far, can it?"

"But the Democrats," she ventured, "are surely only one of these isolated parties?"

"I have formed a different idea of their strength," he answered. "I believe that if a general election took place to-morrow, the Democrats would sweep the country. I believe that we should have the largest working majority any Government has had since the war."

"How terrible!" she murmured, involuntarily truthful.

"Your tame socialism isn't equal to the prospect," he remarked, a little bitterly.

"My tame socialism, as you call it," she replied, "draws the line at seeing the country governed by one class of person only, and that class the one who has the least at stake in it."

"Lady Jane," he said earnestly, "I am glad that I am here to point out to you a colossal mistake from which you and many others are suffering. The Democrats do not represent Labour only."

"The small shopkeepers?" she suggested.

"Nothing of the sort," he replied. "The influence of my party has spread far deeper and further. We number amongst our adherents the majority of the professional classes and the majority of the thinking people amongst the community of moderate means. Why, if you consider the legislation of the last seven or eight years, you will see how they have been driven to embrace some sort of socialism. Nothing so detestable and short-sighted as our financial policy has ever been known in the history of the world. The middle classes, meaning by the middle classes professional men and men of moderate means, bore the chief burden of the war. They submitted to terrible taxation, to many privations, besides the universal gift of their young blood. We won the war and what was the result? The wealth of the country, through ghastly legislation, drifted into the hands of the profiteering classes, the wholesale shopkeepers, the ship owners, the factory owners, the mine owners. The professional man with two thousand a year was able to save a quarter of that before the war. After the war, taxation demanded that quarter and more for income tax, thrust upon him an increased cost of living, cut the ground from beneath his feet. It isn't either of the two extremes--the aristocrat or the labouring man--where you must look for the pulse of a country's prosperity. It is to the classes in between, and, Lady Jane, they are flocking to our camp just as fast as they can, just as fast as the country is heading for ruin under its present Government."

"You are very convincing," she admitted. "Why have you not spoken so plainly in the House?"

"The moment hasn't arrived," Tallente replied. "There will be a General Election before many months have passed and that will be the end of the present fools' paradise at St. Stephen's."

"And then?"

"We shan't abuse our power," he assured her. "What we aim at is a National Party which will consider the interests of every class. That is our reading of the term 'Democrat.' Our programme is not nearly so revolutionary as you are probably led to believe, but we do mean to smooth away, so far as we can from a practical point of view, the inequalities of life. We want to sweep away the last remnants of feudalism."

"Tell me why they were so anxious to gather you into the fold?" she asked.

"I think for this reason," he explained. "Stephen Dartrey is a brilliant writer, a great orator, and an inspired lawmaker. The whole world recognises him as a statesman. It is his name and genius which have made the Democratic Party possible. On the other hand, he is not in the least a politician. He doesn't understand the game as it is played in the House of Commons. He lives above those things. That is why I suppose they wanted me. I have learnt the knack of apt debating and I understand the tricks. Even if ever I become the titular head of the party, Dartrey will remain the soul and spirit of it. If they were not able to lay their hands upon some person like myself, I believe that Miller was supposed to have the next claim, and I should think that Miller is the one man in the world who might disunite the strongest party on earth."

"Disunite it? I should think he would disperse it to the four corners of the world!" she exclaimed.

The butler announced luncheon. She rose to her feet.

"I cannot tell you," he said, with a little sigh of relief, as he held open the door for her, "how thankful I am that I happened to find you alone."

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BOOK TWO CHAPTER IILuncheon was a pleasant, even a luxurious meal, for the Woolhanger chef had come from the ducal household, but it was hedged about with restraints which fretted Tallente and rendered conversation monosyllabic. It was served, too, in the larger dining room the table, reduced to its smallest dimensions, still seemed to place a formidable distance between himself and his hostess. A manservant stood behind Lady Jane's chair, and the butler was in constant attendance at the sideboard. Under such circumstances, conversation became precarious and was confined chiefly to local topics. When they left the room for their
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BOOK ONE CHAPTER XITallente, obeying an urgent telephone message, made his way to Claridge's and sent his card up to his wife. Her maid came down and invited him to her suite, an invitation which he promptly declined. In about a quarter of an hour she descended to the lounge, dressed for the street. She showed no signs of confusion or nervousness at his visit. She was hard and cold and fair, with a fraudulent smile upon her lips, dressed to perfection, her maid hovering in the background with a Pekinese under one arm and a jewel case in her other
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