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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA People's Man - Chapter 34
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A People's Man - Chapter 34 Post by :mikevecc Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1988

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A People's Man - Chapter 34


About seven miles from London, Selingman gave the signal for the car to pull up. They drew in by the side of the road and they all stood up in their places. Before them, the red glow which hung over the city was almost lurid; strange volumes of smoke were rising to the sky.

"Rioters," Selingman muttered.

Julia looked around with a little shiver. There were no trains running, and a great many of the shops were closed. Some of the people lounging about in the streets had the air of holiday makers. Little bands of men were marching arm in arm, shouting. Occasionally one of them picked up a stone and threw it through a shop window. They had not seen a policeman for miles.

"It is the beginning of the end," Maraton said slowly. "The only pity is that one must see it at all."

Julia pointed down the road.

"What is that?" she asked.

A long, grey-looking line was slowly unwinding itself into the level road. It came into sight like a serpent. It reached as far as the eye could see. From somewhere behind, they heard the sound of music.

"Soldiers," Maraton replied--"marching, too."

They moved the car over to the other side of the road. Presently a mounted officer galloped on ahead and rode up to them.

"Your name and address, please?"

Maraton hesitated.

"Why do you ask for it?" he demanded.

"I am sorry to inform you that your car must be surrendered at once," was the reply. "I hope we shall not inconvenience you very much but those are the general orders. Every motor car is to be commandeered. Sorry for the lady. Give me your name and address, please, at once, the cost price of your car, and how long it has been in your possession?"

Selingman gasped.

"Is the country at war?" he asked. "We have come from South Wales to-day. We heard nothing en route."

"There are no newspapers being issued," the officer told them. "The telegraph is abandoned to the Government, and also the telephone. Even we have no idea what is happening. We are trying to run a few trains through to the north but we have had a couple of hundred men killed already. They are to start again the other side of Romford. In the meantime, I am sorry, but I am bound to take possession of your car at once."

"My name is Selingman."

The officer looked at him curiously.

"Are you Henry Selingman," he enquired--"I mean the fellow who has been writing about Maraton?"

Selingman nodded.

"Then I am afraid I can't say I do feel so sorry to inconvenience you," the officer continued grimly. "Alight at once, if you please--all of you."

"But how are we to get into London?" Selingman protested.

"Walk," the officer replied promptly. "Be thankful if you reach there at all; and keep to the main streets, especially if the lady is going with you.

"Are there no police left?" Maraton demanded.

"We drafted most of them away to the riot centres. Then the train service ceased, too, and they haven't been able to come back. Now we have had an alarm from somewhere--I don't know where and we've got orders to push troops towards the east coast. If you'll take my advice, Mr. Selingman," the officer concluded, "you'll keep your name to yourself for a little time. People who've been associated in any way with Maraton are not too popular just now around here."

Some more officers had ridden up. Two were already in the car. Soon it vanished in a cloud of dust on its way back. Julia, Selingman, Aaron and Maraton were left in the road, along which the soldiers were still marching. They started out to walk. Now and then a motor-car rattled by, full of soldiers, but for the most part the streets were almost empty. No one spoke to them or attempted to molest them in any way. As they drew nearer London, however, the streets became more and more crowded. Men in the middle of the road were addressing little knots of listeners. There was a complete row of shops, the plate-glass windows of which had been knocked in and the contents raided. They pushed steadily onwards. Here and there, little groups of loiterers assumed a threatening aspect. They came across the dead body of a man lying upon the pavement. No one seemed to mind. Very few of the passers-by even glanced at him. Selingman shivered.

"Ghastly!" he muttered. "This reminds me of the first days of the French troubles. How quiet the people keep! They are tired of robbing for money. It is food they want. A sandwich just now would be a dangerous possession."

They reached Algate. There were still no trains running, and nearly all the houses were tightly shuttered.

"Six weeks!" Maraton murmured to himself as he looked around. "Could any one believe that this might happen in six weeks!"

"Why not?" Selingman demanded. "You stop the arteries of life when you stop all communication from centre to centre. It's the most merciful way, after all. Everything will be over the sooner."

They passed down Threadneedle Street, a wilderness with boards nailed up in front of the great bank windows. A little further on there was the usual crowd of people, but they were all hanging about, uncertain what to do. There was no Stock Exchange business being transacted, simply because there were no buyers. At the Mansion House they found a few 'buses running, and managed to board one which was going westwards. It set them down in New Oxford Street, not far from Russell Square. Here there were denser crowds than ever. The entrance to the square itself was almost blocked.

"What's going on here?" Maraton asked a loiterer.

They heard a loud, hoarse yell, repeated several times. The man pointed with his finger.

"They are round. Maraton's house," he answered. "They have broken in all his windows. He's not there or they'd have had him out and flayed him alive."

A brief silence ensued. There seemed something ominous in this message, delivered apparently from one typical of his class, a worker out of work, a pipe in his mouth, a generally aimless air about his movements.

"But forgive me," Selingman remarked, "I am a stranger in this country. I have been told that Maraton is a friend of the people."

The man nodded gloomily.

"There's plenty that calls him so in other parts of the country," he assented. "I belong to a Working Man's Club and what we can't see is what's the bally use of a job like this? He's bitten off more than he can chew--that's what Maraton's done. He's stopped the railways and the coal, and even you can tell what that means, I suppose, sir? Pretty well every factory in the country is shutting down or has shut down. Well, supposing the Government make terms, which they say they can't. The miners and railway men may get a bit more. What about all the rest of us? We're more likely to get a bit less. Then what if the Germans get over here? There's all sorts of rumours about this morning. They say that three-quarters of the fleet is hung up for want of coal. . . . My! Look there, they've fired his house! I wouldn't be in his shoes for something! They say he's hiding up in Northumberland."

The man passed on. Maraton was the first to speak.

"Come," he said quietly, "there is nothing here to be discouraged at. We knew very well that for the first few months--years, perhaps--this thing had to be faced. We must get rooms somewhere. I have to meet the railway men to-night. Young Ernshaw rode up from Derby on a motor-cycle to make the appointment. As for you, Selingman," Maraton went on, as they turned back towards New Oxford Street, "why do you stay here? Your coming has been splendid. It has been a joy to have you near. But between ourselves," he added, lowering his voice, "you know what mobs are. Take my advice and get back home for a time. We shall meet again."

Selingman shook his head.

"I helped to light the torch," he declared. "I'll see it burn for a while. I was in Paris through the last riots--a dirty sight it was! You'll pull through this. Maybe we're better apart for a time. But we'll see one another housed first," he added. "I want to know where you all are."

There was no difficulty about shelter of a sort. The private hotels, which were plentiful in the neighbourhood, were half empty, and supplied rooms readily enough, although they were curiously apathetic about the matter. At each one of them the charges for food were enormous. Maraton divided a bundle of notes into half and made Aaron take one portion.

"Look after Julia," he directed, "and I think you'd better keep away from me. A good many of them knew that you were my secretary. Look after your sister. Keep quiet for a time. Wait."

He tore a sheet of paper from his pocket-book, wrote a few lines upon it and twisted it up.

"You will find an address in New York there," he said. "If anything happens to me, go over and present it in person."

Aaron took it almost mechanically. His eyes scarcely for a second had left his master's face.

"Let me stay here," he begged, "if it's only an attic. There may be work to be done. Let me stay, sir. My little bit of life is of no more account to me than a snap of the fingers. Don't send me away. Julia's a woman--they won't hurt her. She can go back to her old rooms. The streets are quite orderly. Let me stay, sir!"

"No one seemed to notice us come in," Julia pleaded. "Let me stay, too. You heard what the porter said--we could choose what rooms we liked. It is safer in this part of London than in the East End, and you know," she added, looking at him steadily, "that if there is trouble to come, I have no fear."

Maraton hesitated. Perhaps they were as well where they were, under shelter. He nodded.

"Very well," he agreed. "There seems to be no one to show us about. We will go and select rooms."

In the hall they passed a man in the livery of the hotel. Maraton enquired the way to the telephone, but he only shook his head.

"Telephone isn't working, sir," he announced, "not to private subscribers, at any rate. They haven't answered a call for two days."

"Are any meals being served in the restaurant?" Maraton asked.

The man shook his head.

"Not regular meals, sir," he replied. "What food we've got is all locked up. You can get something between eight and nine. We close the hotel doors then."

"They tell me I can select any room I like upstairs that isn't occupied," Maraton remarked.

The porter nodded.

"Nearly all the servants have gone," he explained, "so they can't try to run the hotel. Gone out to find food somewhere. They couldn't feed them here."

"Is there wine in the place?" Selingman asked.

"Plenty," the man answered.

"If needs be, then, we will carouse," Selingman declared. "First, a wash. Then I will forage. Leave it to me to forage, you others. I know the tricks. I shall not go away. I shall stay here with you."

They selected rooms--Maraton and Selingman adjoining ones on the first floor; the others higher up. Then Selingman departed on his expedition, and Maraton sat down before the window in the sitting-room. He drew aside the curtain and stared. They had been in the hotel rather less than half an hour, but the autumn twilight had deepened rapidly. Darkness had fallen upon the city--a strange, unredeemed darkness. The street lamps were unlit. It was as though a black hand had been laid upon the place. Only here and there the sky was reddened as though with conflagration. Maraton's head sunk upon his arms. These, indeed, were the days when he would need all his courage. He threw open the window. There was a curious silence without. The roar of traffic had ceased entirely. The only sound was the footfall of the people upon the pavement. He looked down into the street, crowded with little knots of men, one or two of them carrying torches. He watched them stream by. It was the breaking up of the crowd which had gathered together to sack and burn his house.

The door was softly opened and closed again. He turned half around. Through the shadows he saw Julia's pale face as she came swiftly towards him. With a sudden gesture she fell on her knees by his side. Her fingers clasped him, she clung to his arm.

"Ah, I knew that I should find you like this!" she cried. "Don't look down into the street, don't look at those unlit places! Look up to the skies. See, there is a star there already. Nothing up there--nothing which really matters--is altered. This is only the destruction that must come before the dawn. It was you yourself who prophesied it, you yourself who saw it so clearly. Oh, don't be sad because you have pulled down the pillars! It isn't so very long before the morning."

He passed his arm around her and gripped her fingers tightly. So they were sitting when, by and by, Selingman burst into the room.

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CHAPTER XXXVSelingman was once more entirely his old self. He staggered into the room with a tin of biscuits under one arm, and three bottles of hock under the other, all of which he deposited noisily upon the round table in the middle of the room. "I am the prince of caterers," he declared. "I surpass myself. Come out of the shadows, you dreamer. There is work to be done, food to be eaten, wine to be drunk." From his left-hand pocket he produced three candles, which he placed at intervals along the mantelpiece and lit. Then for the first time

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CHAPTER XXXIIISelingman came into the restaurant with a huge rose in his buttonhole and another bunch of flowers--carnations this time--in his hands. He made his way to the little round table where Julia and Aaron were seated. "For you, Miss Julia," he declared, depositing them by her side. "Pin them in the front of your frock. Drink wine to-night. Be gay. Let us see pink, also, in your cheeks. It is a great evening, this. Maraton is here?" "Not yet," Julia answered, smiling. Selingman sat down between them. He gave a lengthy order to a waiter; then he turned abruptly to