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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNobody's Man - Book Two - Chapter 3
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Nobody's Man - Book Two - Chapter 3 Post by :Bulleke Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2944

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Nobody's Man - Book Two - Chapter 3

BOOK TWO CHAPTER III

Tallente reached the Manor about an hour and a half later, mud-splashed, wet and weary. Robert followed him into the study and mixed him a whisky and soda.

"You've walked all the way back, sir?" he remarked, with a note of protest in his tone.

"They offered me a car," Tallente admitted. "I didn't want it. I came down for fresh air and exercise."

"Two very good things in their way, sir, but easily overdone," was the mild rejoinder. "These hills are terrible unless you're at them all the time."

Tallente drank his whisky and soda almost greedily and felt the benefit of it, although he was still weary. He had walked for five miles in the company of ghosts and their faces had been grey. Perhaps, too, it was the passing of his youth which brought this tiredness to his limbs.

"Robert," he confessed abruptly, "I was a fool to come down here at all."

"It's dreary at this time of the year unless you've time to shoot or hunt, sir. Why not motor to Bath to-morrow? I could wire for rooms, and I could drive you up to London the next day. Motoring's a good way of getting the air, sir, and you won't overtire yourself."

"I'll think of it in the morning," his master promised.

"My wife has found the silver, sir," Robert announced, as he turned to leave the room, "and I managed to get a little fish. That, with some soup, a pheasant, and a fruit tart, we thought--"

"I shall be alone, Robert," Tallente interrupted. "There is no one coming for dinner."

The man's disappointment was barely concealed. He sighed as he took up the tray.

"Very good, sir. Your clothes are all out. I'll turn on the hot water in the bathroom."

Tallente threw off his rain and mud-soaked clothes, bathed, changed and descended to the dining room just as the gong sounded. Robert was in the act of moving the additional place from the little round dining table which he had drawn up closer to the wood fire, but his master stopped him.

"You can let those things be," he directed. "Take away the champagne, though. I shan't want that."

Robert bowed in silent appreciation of his master's humour and began ladling out soup at the sideboard. Tallente's lips were curled a little, partly in self-contempt, with perhaps just a dash of self-pity. It had come to this, then, that he must dine with fancies rather than alone, that this tardily developed streak of sentimentality must be ministered to or would drag him into the depths of dejection. He began to understand the psychology of its late appearance. Stella's artificial companionship had kept his thoughts imprisoned, fettered with the meshes of an instinctive fidelity, and had driven him sedulously to the solace of work and books. Now that it was removed and he was to all practical purposes a free man, they took their own course. His life had suddenly become a natural one, and all that was human in him responded to the possibilities of his solitude, He had had as yet no time to experience the relief, to appreciate his liberty, before he was face to face with this new loneliness. To-night, he thought, as he looked at the empty place and remembered his wistful, almost diffident invitation, the solitude was almost unendurable. If she had only understood how much it meant, surely she would have made some effort, would not have been content with that half-embarrassed, half-doubtful shake of the head! In the darkened room, with the throb of the sea and the crackling of the lop in his ears, and only Robert's silent form for company, he felt a sudden craving for the things of his youth, for another side of life, the restaurants, the bright eyes of women, the whispered words of pleasant sentiment, the perfume shaken into the atmosphere they created, the low music in the background "I beg your pardon, sir," Robert said in his ear, "your soup. Gertrude has taken such pains with the dinner, sir," he added diffidently. "If I might take the liberty of suggesting it, it would be as well if you could eat something." Tallente took up his spoon. Then they both started, they both turned to the window. A light had flashed into the room, a low, purring sound came from outside.

"A car, sir!" Robert exclaimed, his face full of pleasurable anticipation. "If you'll excuse me, I'll answer the door. Might it be the lady, after all, sir?" He hurried out. Tallente rose slowly to his feet. He was listening intently. The thing wasn't possible, he told himself. It wasn't possible! Then he heard a voice in the hall. Robert threw the door open and announced in a tone of triumph--

"Lady Jane Partington, sir."

She came towards him, smiling, self-possessed, but a little interrogative. He had a lightning-like impression of her beautiful shoulders rising from her plain black gown, her delightfully easy walk, the slimness and comeliness and stateliness of her.

"I know that I ought to be ashamed of myself for coming after I had told you I couldn't," she said. "It will serve me right if you've eaten all the dinner, but I do hope you haven't."

"I had only just sat down," he told her, as he and Robert held her chair, "and I think that this is the kindest action you ever performed in your life."

Robert, his face glowing with satisfaction, had become ubiquitous. She had scarcely subsided into her chair before he was offering her a cocktail on a silver tray, serving Tallente with his forgotten glass, at the sideboard ladling out soup, out of the room and in again, bringing back the rejected bottle of champagne.

"You will never believe that I am a sane person again," she laughed. "After you had gone, and all those foolish children had departed, I felt it was quite impossible to sit down and dine alone. I wanted so much to come and I realised how ridiculous it was of me not to have accepted at once. At the last moment I couldn't bear it any longer, so I rushed into the first gown I could find, ordered out my little coupe and here I am."

"The most welcome guest who ever came to a lonely man," he assured her. "A moment ago, Robert was complaining because I was sending my soup away. Now I shall show him what Devon air can do."

The champagne was excellent, and the dinner over which Gertrude had taken so much care was after all thoroughly appreciated. Tallente, suddenly and unexpectedly light-hearted, felt a keen desire to entertain his welcome guest, and remembered his former successes as a raconteur. They pushed politics and all personal matters far away. He dug up reminiscences of his class in foreign capitals, when he had first entered the Diplomatic Service, betrayed his intimate knowledge of the Florence which they both loved, of Paris, where she had studied and which he had seen under so many aspects,--Paris, the home of beauty and fashion before the war; torn with anguish and horror during its earlier stages; grim, steadfast and sombre in the clays of Verdun; wildly, madly exultant when wreathed and decorated with victory. There were so many things to talk about for two people of agile brains come together late in life. They had moved into the study and Lady Jane was sealed in his favourite easy-chair, sipping her coffee and some wonderful green chartreuse, before a single personal note had crept into the flow of their conversation.

"It can't be that I am in Devonshire," she said. "I never realised how much like a succession of pictures conversation can be. You seem to remind me so much of things which I have kept locked away just because I have had no one to share them with."

"You are in Devonshire all right," he answered, smiling. "You will realise it when you turn out of my avenue and face the hills. You see, you've dropped down from the fairyland of 'up over' to the nesting place of the owls and the gulls."

"Nine hundred feet," she murmured. "Thank heavens for my forty horsepower engine! I want to see the sea break against your rocks," she went on, as she took the cigarette which he passed her. "There used to be a little path through your plantation to a place where you look sheer down. Don't you remember, you took me there the first time I came to see you, in August, and I have never forgotten it."

He rang the bell for her coat. The night, though windy and dark, was warm. Stars shone out from unexpected places, pencil-like streaks of inky-black clouds stretched menacingly across the sky. The wind came down from the moors above with a dull boom which seemed echoed by the waves beating against the giant rocks. The beads of the bare trees among which they passed were bent this way and that, and the few remaining leaves rustled in vain resistance, or, yielding to the irresistible gusts, sailed for a moment towards the skies, to be dashed down into the ever-growing carpet. The path was narrow and they walked in single file, but at the bend he drew level with her, walking on the seaward side and guiding her with his fingers upon her arm. Presently they reached the little circular space where rustic seats had been placed, and leaned over a grey stone wall.

There was nothing of the midsummer charm about the scene to-night. Sheer below them the sea, driven by tide and wind, rushed upon the huge masses of rock or beat direct upon the cave-indented cliffs. The spray leapt high into the air, to be caught up by the wind in whirlpools, little ghostly flecks, luminous one moment and gone forever the next. Far away across the pitchy waters they could see at regular intervals a line of white where the breakers came rushing in, here and there the agitated lights of passing steamers; opposite, the twin flares on the Welsh coast, and every sixty seconds the swinging white illumination from the Lynmouth Lighthouse, shining up from behind the headland. Jane slipped one hand through his arm and stood there, breathless, rapturously watchful. "This is wonderful," she murmured. "It is the one thing we have always lacked at Woolhanger. We get the booming of the wind--wonderful it is, too, like the hollow thunder of guns or the quick passing of an underground army--but we miss this. I feel, somehow, as though I knew now why it tears past us, uprooting the very trees that stand in its way. It rushes to the sea. What a meeting!" Her hand tightened upon his arm as a great wave broke direct upon the cliff below and a torrent of wind, rushing through the trees and downwards, caught the spray and scattered it around them and high over their heads.

"We humans," he whispered, "are taught our lesson."

"Do we need it?" she asked, with sudden fierceness. "Do you believe that because some mysterious power imposes restraint upon us, the passion isn't there all the while?"

She was suddenly in his arms, the warm wind shrieking about them, the darkness thick and soft as a mantle. Only he saw the anguished happiness in her eyes as they closed beneath his kisses.

"One moment out of life," she faltered, "one moment!"

Another great wave shook the ground beneath them, but she had drawn away. She struggled for breath. Then once more her hand was thrust through his arm. He knew so well that his hour was over and he submitted.

"Back, please," she whispered, "back through the plantation--quietly."

An almost supernatural instinct divined and acceded to her desire for silence. So they walked slowly back towards the long, low house whose faint lights flickered through the trees. She leaned a little upon him, the hand which she had passed through his arm was clasped in his. Only the wind spoke. When at last they were en the terraces she drew a long breath.

"Dear friend," she said softly, "see how I trust you. I leave in your keeping the most precious few minutes of my life."

"This is to be the end, then?" he faltered.

"It is not we who have decided that," she answered. "It is just what must be. You go to a very difficult life, a very splendid one. I have my smaller task. Don't unfit me for it. We will each do our best."

Her servant was waiting by the car. His figure loomed up through the darkness. "You will come into the house for a few minutes?" he begged hoarsely. She shook her head.

"Why? Our farewells have been spoken. I leave you--so."

The man had disappeared behind the bonnet of the car. She grasped his hand with both of hers and brushed it lightly with her lips. Then she gilded away. A moment later he was listening to her polite speeches as she leaned out of the coupe. "My dinner was too wonderful," she said. "Do make my compliments to that dear Robert and his wife. Good luck to you, and don't rob us poor landowners of every penny we possess in life."

The car was gone in the midst of his vague little response. He watched the lights go flashing up the hillside, crawling around the hairpin corners, up until it seemed that they had reached the black clouds and were climbing into the heavens. Then he turned back into the house. The world was still a place for dreams.

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BOOK TWO CHAPTER IVTallente sat in the morning train, on his way to town, and on the other side of the bare ridge at which he gazed so earnestly Lady Jane and Segerson had brought their horses to a standstill half way along a rude cart track which led up to a farmhouse tucked away in the valley. "This is where James Crockford's land commences," Segerson remarked, riding up to his companion's side. "Look around you. I think you will admit that I have not exaggerated." She frowned thoughtfully. On every side were evidences of poor farming and neglect. The untrimmed
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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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