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Hugh Walpole's thrilling adventure novel of the 1920s revolves around Piccadily Circus. Richard Gunn is an ex-soldier in trouble after the end of the Great War. Jobless and starving in Piccadilly Circus, he encounters his nemesis, Leroy Pengelly. From this encounter the secrets of their shared past start to unravel. A novel which combines elements of the horror and supernatural with the puzzle element of the whodunnit - all wrapped up in one unsettling and uncanny whole.
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Above the Dark Circus
© David De Angelis 2017 – all rights reserved
CHAPTER I. THE BARBER
CHAPTER II. SPINDLE-SHANKS IN A DARK GARDEN
CHAPTER III. OSMUND
CHAPTER IV. THE TEA SHOP
CHAPTER V. PENGELLY ON EARTH
CHAPTER VI. PENGELLY IN HEAVEN
CHAPTER VII. EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF A CORPSE
CHAPTER VIII. SHADOW PURSUING
CHAPTER IX. HELEN
CHAPTER X. THE CURATE
CHAPTER XI. THE SANDWICH BAR
CHAPTER XII. AFFIRMERS; DENIERS
CHAPTER XIII. THE PARTY
CHAPTER XIV. FROM THE STARS DOWN
I am aware, I fancy, of most of the dangers of narrative in the first person, but it appears to me that there is no other possible method for this particular story.
Swiftly following though the incidents of it were, and involving a number of persons besides myself in very definite dangers, it is not the incidents that seem to me now, after nearly five years' interval, to be of importance, but rather the implications that lay behind them, and especially the implications in Osmund's purpose.
The chief peril, I suppose, that lurks behind narrative in the first person is that of incredulity. How can anyone remember so clearly and repeat so accurately these conversations? Yes, but one doesn't either remember clearly or repeat accurately. One gives the gist of the thing, the spirit of it rather than the letter. Then, further, as to the scenes that one did not oneself witness. Well, in this present adventure, there is, as will afterwards be clear, only one scene at which I was not myself present, and here my informant is so close to myself that it makes no matter.
For the rest I, and I alone, can give you, as I think, the point of it all, for I, and I alone, should see it from every angle--yes, from that dizzy catastrophe (for it was a catastrophe) under the guttering candles, from that bizarre procession with the loathsome Pengelly, his hat over his eyes, held up under each arm, to that last scene up among the chimney-pots.
This is a pretty portentous beginning. I hadn't intended to start seriously at all, but quite simply with my name and address, so to speak.
My name is Richard Gunn. I was born in the town of Totnes, April 4, 1884. When this adventure began I was standing, naked to the world, save for one half-crown, about five o'clock on a December afternoon, in Piccadilly Circus, wondering what would happen next.
And here I hope you will excuse me for vagueness in the matter of the year. Indeed, I will ask your permission to change the names, not only of persons, but of buildings and addresses in general. Not that it matters very much. There is no one left who can object very strongly, but I like to allow myself that amount of licence. You can trace the places for yourself, if you like. They are all, as you will see, within a stone's throw from one another. The Circus dominated us first and last and all the time, played perhaps a bigger part in the adventure than did any of us individually. I don't know. That's for you afterwards to decide.
As to the year, it was after the war and after Eros was removed from its pedestal. Where Eros had been, I remember, was the point at which I was especially staring as I stood on the edge of the kerb, wondering what would happen next.
I had several alternatives in my mind--one was suicide, another robbery, another something not very far from murder. And yet I was not in myself in any way a desperate character--not, probably, desperate enough. I never have been. I was only very cold, very hungry and very hopeless.
My position was in no ways a peculiar one at that time. Many another soldier shared it.
Before the war I had held for many years a job as land agent in my own county of Devon. Joining up in 1914 I had trusted to a six months' conflict and the resumption of my job again, but Harry Carden, my employer and close personal friend, was dead, and his estate sold, long before the fighting was over. I had saved during the war a sufficiency, and in 1918 had invested it, with a brother-officer, in a pair of charabancs. The charabancs failed--we had not perhaps precisely the right talent for charabancs. I was, after that, secretary to an impatient peeress, secretary to a night club, companion to a deaf and dumb gentleman, assistant in Mr. Swell-in-the-head's Stores and seller-inordinary for Fletcher's Patent Fountain Pens. Whatever I touched failed; whatever touched me crumbled to ruin--so here I was on this December afternoon in the year such-and-such, with exactly one half-crown in my pocket, no food in my belly and the bitterest cold in my entrails.
I had, I fancy, no grudge against anybody or anything, not even myself. I did not find that any of this was my own fault or anyone else's. I blamed neither God nor my fellow-men.
I only wondered what I would do with my last half-crown. Anyone who has been acutely hungry knows how odd a state of fantasy that condition provides. I was not quite sane, nor did I see the rest of the world quite sanely as I stood at that particular moment, staring at the scaffolding that, guarding the fine new Tube-To-Be, pierced upwards into the London pea-soup sky and the shadowy casual flakes of falling snow.
I was a little cracked, to be honest. I had had nothing to eat since yesterday midday. I had left my lodging very early that morning, without waiting for my breakfast, and that because I knew that I should be unable to pay Mrs. Greene for it. On the preceding evening I had settled my weekly bill, smiled into Mrs. Greene's kindly, bulging countenance (she had a face just like a large bath-bun), and then, in the sinister silence of my room, examining my resources, found that I had exactly half a crown.
I had been, I must tell you, for the last month, searching every nook and cranny of London for a job. I am aware that it is a commonplace of comfortable and easily circumstanced people to say that any man who really wants a job can find one. I assure them that this is not so. It was not so nearly five years ago, and still less is it so to-day. I had submitted during that month to every sort of indignity. I had approached (hating myself and them) certain old friends, and I do not know which was the more horrible, their consciousness of their unhappy discomfort at being asked or my consciousness of their consciousness.
I was determined that I would neither borrow nor receive the gift of money without some sort of work offered in return. But the trouble was that nobody wanted my work-I was ready to do anything, yes, anything at all, clean the steps, clean the floors, black the shoes, but there was already a multitude of eager persons performing these offices. I was not alone in asking the question at this time--how was it that a war which slaughtered millions of human beings left the world a great deal fuller than it had found it?
What I was not in the least prepared for was the vile and greasy, patronizing, indifferent complacency of Mr. Bilgewater, the founder-and-head of the great Bilgewater Stores in Mannequin Street. He had announced that he was anxious to assist officers who were out of a job, and I secured an interview with him. I can see him still, sitting, a bloated, gray-haired, swollen-with-self-satisfaction spider, inside his fine money-coining web, looking across his shiny desk at me and asking me how a man of my age dared to come and waste his precious time by expecting a job from him. I gently hinted . . . but I won't go on. Even after this passage of time my hand trembles when I think of him. I can only hope that one day Saint Peter, who must be on the whole a just soul and quite free of snobbery, gives him, before he admits him through the Golden Gates, a piece of his mind.
This little incident cured me of supplicating. I swore that I would beg no more. Suicide, robbery or murder, they seemed to my starving belly and hot, fiery head, that was bursting with fantastic visions, no impossible alternatives. I had been walking about all day, and yet I was not weary. I was sustained by a sort of glow, a fire fanned and decorated by hunger, a sense of injustice, a sort of exultation, because now, at this desperate moment, I really felt myself to be touching the very heart of life,--and a lot of indignant self-pride.
I had no possessions in the world save some clothes in a drawer at Mrs. Greene's, the garments I was wearing, and Lockhart's edition of Motteux's Don Quixote, four volumes of which were at Mrs. Greene's and one, the first, in my hand. That book I possessed owing to an act of mad extravagance four days earlier. I had seen the volumes in a second-hand bookshop, moderately priced, and had incontinently gone in and purchased them, thereby ridding myself of twenty-one shillings out of twenty-five, the most unreasonable act possibly of all my life.
It was no excuse that Don Quixote was my favourite book in the world and Lockhart's my favourite edition. It was a piece of fantastic extravagance, and how could I tell at the time that it was to play so important a part in the wildest sequence of events so shortly afterwards?
In any case, I was holding this, the first volume of the five, in my hand, as I stood there staring at the scaffolding, and I remember quite clearly putting the volume, with its handsome old rose-red cover and crimson leather label, under my overcoat that it might not have damage from the falling snow.
For the rest my clothes were decent; and as I was myself broadly made, ruddy in colour, short and sturdy of build, none of the many who jostled by and around me had, I am sure, the slightest notion of the especial straits that I was in.
The point that I was at this moment debating was the destination of my final half-crown.
When you have only one half-crown left in the world it is astonishing the number of things you can do with it, but on this particular occasion it was quite definitely a choice between two--should it be spent on a meal or a hair-cut? For nearly a month I had not had my hair cut, and this, I imagine, from some sense of its extravagance. It would, in fact, have been cheap at almost any price, for if there is a thing in this world that makes me feel myself a dirty degenerate swine, it is the creeping of long hair about my neck.
The great question was--would half a crown do it, for a shampoo must be included? Was a shampoo enough? You may say that such a hesitation between a meal and a hair-cut was, for a starving man, an impossibility. I can only tell you that I did so hesitate, and that this same hesitation altered not my own life only, but the lives of many others.
I considered the meal. Could I have enough for half a crown? Or would I not, once I had started, be driven by my appetite into a whale of a meal and then be arrested for nonpayment?
On the other hand, would not the cool and cleanliness about my neck, the freshness of the shampoo . . . ? My whole body trembled as I felt the firm hands of the barber pressing into my scalp, the soft foamy luxury of the soap, the touch of the cold water after the hot. . . . Two rival sensuousnesses--my last, perhaps. Or my first--which way was I to go?
I have said that hunger had made me a little fantastic. It was not the real world that I saw when I looked up and around me. Or was it? Who knows?
I looked up and across the Circus, and the first things that I saw were the green and red lights dancing on walls of the buildings opposite me. These stars of green and red flashed and twinkled, vanished, returned, flashed and twinkled again. There was still in the air a dim gray shadow of departing day, so that these recurrent stars had a particular unreality about them that gave them, in a queer way, an especial urgency for myself. They seemed to be inviting me to something.
High on the wall on the farther side of the avenue was a goblet of gold that rose slowly, tilted itself awkwardly, and then ejected some liquid with an air of quite ridiculous selfsatisfaction.
The reflection of its gold and crimson shone dully in the dead windows behind me--the reflection was sulky and vengeful, as though the windows were angry and sullen at the use to which they were being put. Not only did these lights seem to have some especial personal meaning for me, but also for the people who were passing on every side of me. The Circus was only moderately crowded, but I noticed that everyone was clinging to the pavement as though a step forward meant ruin.
In my own excited state this did not seem at all unnatural. Because the day had not quite departed the centre of the Circus was sinking into a dusk that resembled to my heated gaze the gray waters of a pool, and I had the fancy that the omnibuses charging up the hill from the Mall, circling round from Piccadilly, were uncouth and barbarous monsters plunging to the pool for a savage drink.
'Well for us all,' something said, 'that we cling to this pavement. There's danger at every step.'
So the monsters panted to the pool and, under the twinkling and derisive lights that flashed so meaninglessly now against empty space as the evening darkened, drank their fill.
Then, looking about me, I noticed people. I noticed first the fat shapeless beggar of the especially blind eyes who, with his shiny tin cup and the board across his chest, had just this moment arrived and stationed himself quite close to me against the wall. He, too, seemed to have a peculiar meaning for me. (What an empty stomach can do to your imagination if you only give it rope enough!)
I had seen him arrive, led by a little shabby woman in a black hat and with black cotton gloves on her hands. The moment she had stationed him against the wall she gave his board a twitch and without a word left him, shuffling off into the crowd. There he stood, gazing with piercing blind intentness at the twinkling stars of red and green.
A thin clergyman, with an eager countenance, hesitated beside me, looked as though he would speak, and moved away. Two women, very gay and hustling, ranged at my side. 'Well,' said one over my head to the other, 'cheerio.'
'Cheerio,' said the other. The first one waited a moment, then said again:
'Cheerio,' said the other. The first one vanished, the second one looked right through me as though I were not there. I felt suddenly dead, dead and buried. No, I was not dead. I was conscious of my beastly hair, hot and uncomfortable against my neck.
'It shall be a hair-cut,' I decided. Then my belly called out, 'Steak and kidney.' The golden bottle cocked itself up against the dark, scorned me, and ejected its liquid. Something inside me said: 'See what the book says!' So I took Quixoteout from under my coat and opened it.
'The knight was yet asleep, when the curate came attended by the barber, and desired his niece to let him have the key of the room where her uncle kept his books, the author of his woes. . . .'
The barber! There was an omen for you! The fates had decided. I moved forward to my destiny.
These details must seem to you of excessive unimportance, and I can well understand your disbelief in my memory of them, but it is precisely these things that one does remember forever and ever amen, even to the rather worn, semi-shiny buttons on the eager clergyman's coat.
After a moment's hesitation I pushed forward across the waters of the Circus, escaped narrowly two charging monsters that seemed to snort fire and smoke at me as they passed, and arrived on dry land on the spot where Eros once was. Here I drew breath. My legs were trembling under me. I felt faint with a gripping pain like a harsh-taloned hand laid at my entrails. Once more (and, as it happened, for the last time) I hesitated. Did I yield to the temptation of the hair-cut I must, afterwards, either finish things once and for all or commit crime for a meal. I faced, I think, in that bitter instant the ultimate degradation. I was ready to do anything for a meal, sell my soul, my body (one often enough involving the other) to anybody for anything. A moral world? It had ceased to exist for me, and in its room there was this strangely beautiful evil place, shot with coloured lights that broke and flashed and trembled across the sky above my head, while at my feet there were these strange sluggish waters, iridescent, cleft by monsters, bordered by walls of grim gray stone. Out of them there stepped to my side a slim horrible creature in a shining top-hat, a black overcoat, with a white camellia in its buttonhole.
'Good-evening,' it said.
'Good-evening,' I replied.
'There's more snow coming,' it continued.
'Probably,' I answered.
'Going my way?' it asked. I nearly answered that I was if it would provide me with a meal. Its face was very white under its shiny hat. It had long hands in white gloves. I hesitated and was saved, for, looking up, I saw the golden goblet raise itself and illuminate with its light the neighbouring windows. On these were inscribed in big black letters, 'Gentlemen's and Ladies' Hairdressers--Manicure--Massage.'
'Coming my way?' it said again. It had dead eyes and wide hungry nostrils to its nose.
'I think not,' I answered, and pushed out into the stream again.
And even now the guiding finger had not finished with me. I had landed, panting a little, as though I had run a long way, at the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue. There was now but a short step across to the other side of the street; facing me was the corner of the Trafalgar Theatre, and above it on the second floor the high windows of the big hairdresser's establishment. I was about to take that step when someone jogged my elbow. I heard a thick, rather drunken voice say: 'A fat lot of use God would be in this place,' and, turning, saw above me, swinging over the heads of the crowd, a long pole and on the end of it a placard with the words: 'Thou God seest Me.'
This pole was carried by an old gaunt man with a long straggling gray beard and a shabby coat that fell to his heels. He was shuffling along bearing his banner on high, and as he jostled me I noticed that he was feeling with his spare hand in his pocket for food.
There were some crumbs on his beard. So above the crowd the message floated. Very few gazed up to it, but it passed on serenely, confidently secure in its terrible truth. Its effect upon me was that, looking up to it, I saw above my head and over the sweetshop behind me a small window with 'Hairdresser--Shaving--Massage' upon it. The window was surrounded with fantasy. Not far away from it were three timepieces which, with bland naked faces, warned the crowd beneath them of its swift passage towards remorseless eternity, and all around the timepieces and the barber's window were the dancing stars of red and green that I had seen from the farther bank of the pool.
Why should I cross the road when there was a barber's shop here at my elbow? Moreover, there was something in the window of the sweetshop that tore at my guts with a frightful agony.
It was not sugar that my hunger really needed, but nevertheless the sight of those piledup heaps, the marzipan, the crystallized fruit, the huge cake with a pagoda in pink and red icing, the chocolates, the slabs of cocoanut cream. . . . One clutch of the hand, one sweep of the arm, down those heaps would come, I would tear the pagoda. . . . I had sense enough left me to pass swiftly by the shop and climb the few dark twisting stairs to the glass door with 'W. Jacoby, Hairdresser' inscribed upon it. A little more temptation, a very little more. . . . I pushed that door back as though I were fleeing from the devil.
So dark and grubby a little room was it that, after a glance at it, I almost retired. After all, if this hair-cut were to be the last grand and independent action of my life I might as well have a good one. But the sense that if I passed by that sweet-shop again I might yield, at this second time, to my craving temptations held me. No, I dared not risk it. So I walked forward.
It was a bizarre enough room. The blinds were not down, and I was still pursued by the golden goblet, which was now, from the opposite side of the street, almost on a level with me, and as the flash of its shining liquid came and went the lights struck the room where I was, vanished, and struck again as though they were fingers of some illuminated hand hunting on this dusty floor for some treasure. For dusty it was. I have seldom seen a more neglected place, and the scrubby little barber was as neglected as his den. There were three basins with their mirrors stuck against the wall. On the other side of the room were some chairs, and here two men were waiting.
The barber himself was misshapen, his dusty head sunk between his shoulders, and on his countenance as surly an expression as I had ever seen on any human face. He had a large walrus moustache, and the ends of this he was frequently snapping at.
He said nothing to me when I came in, and I sat down on one of two empty chairs.
I was now quite light-headed with hunger, weariness and a sense of rebellion against all human beings. What had I ever done that I should have been brought to this pass? I was no worse than my fellows, better indeed than a great many of them. I turned round on the little amiable apple-faced man who was sitting next to me and chuckling over the innocuous pages of Punch. For twopence I could have caught him by the neck and swung him to and fro, demanding of him why he and his fellows had treated me so unjustly. But he took my gaze for amiability.
'That's a good one,' he said, grinning and handing me the Punch. It was at this point, I think, that my past began to mingle inextricably with my present--as though, if you like, my past knew that in another quarter of an hour it was going to concern me very actively and that it might as well prepare me for that. Never mind the scenes that I saw-a door half opened, a mirror framing a face of rage and vengeance, a mean, spindleshanked little man stealing down a garden path, eyes, the most beautiful in the world to me, telling me of a trust and affection for which I had never dared to hope . . . sad, wasted, ironical pictures, crowding into the room on the recurring, reflected impulses of that golden flashing light.
The door opened, and a sailor came in. He was a big, red-faced fellow in sailor's kit, a somewhat rare sight in the West End, and he carried a sailor's bundle. It was at once evident that he was pleasantly drunk. He rolled a little in his walk and greeted us all with the most cheerful of smiles. He lumbered to the chair next to mine and sat down heavily upon it.
The barber glanced at him with exceeding disfavour. He looked about him with beaming interest, whistled loudly, snapped his fingers, smacked his bulging thighs.
At last, looking at the three of us who were waiting, he said huskily:
'Wonder if you gents would mind. I know you're first . . . don't want to presume, but it's only a shave I want and I'm going to Newcastle. First time 'ome for three years, 'aven't seen the kids for three years, gentlemen, and if I miss the six-thirty . . . 'E can give me a quick shave and if 'e don't I'll wring 'is bleeding neck.'
The barber turned and gave him a look of saturnine murder but said no word. We all at once meekly agreed that the sailor should have the next turn. This elated him greatly. He walked about the room whistling and lumbering from article to article, examining everything, the almanac, with a pink-cheeked girl holding a bunch of roses, the advertisements of hair restorer and shaving soap. He stopped before the pink-cheeked girl and said, lurching:
'She's my fancy!'
The young man upon whom the barber had been operating, his job concluded, rose and went for his hat and coat. The sailor immediately plopped into his place and stared very gravely into the mirror, feeling his cheek for pimples. Then, suddenly remembering, rose heavily, crossed the floor, and with the greatest care and reverence placed his bundle on the chair where he had been waiting, then returned to the seat of ceremony.
The barber approached him with looks of surly disgust. I thought he would refuse to shave him, but he said nothing, only stropped his razor furiously. Then he lathered half the sailor's face, paused, and, shaving-brush in one hand, with the other took the sailor's bundle from the chair and dropped it on the floor. The sailor said nothing to this but, when his face was completely lathered, gave the barber a wave of the hand as though to say 'Just wait a moment,' got up, crossed the floor and lifted his bundle on to the seat again. No one uttered a word, but we three spectators sat in our seats watching this drama with absorbed attention.
The barber shaved with great care half the sailor's face, then gently moved back and placed the bundle on the floor, the sailor watching his action with grave intensity in the mirror. When the razor had passed once completely over his countenance he again motioned politely to the barber with his hand, rose and replaced his bundle on the chair. The barber lathered his face again, then once more crossed to the bundle, but on this occasion threw it violently onto the floor. Still no word was spoken. Yet again the sailor replaced it. Yet again the barber threw it down.
The air was now breathless with suspense. The sailor rose, seeming now to be twice his former bulk.
''Ow much?' he asked gravely, feeling in his deep, wide pocket.
'Threepence,' said the barber. The sailor, after some fumbling, found his pennies and delivered them, then, with a husky, 'Take that for your bloody cheek,' drove his fist full into the barber's face. The barber crumpled and fell.
Instantly there was pandemonium. The little apple-faced man who had been reading his Punch so amiably was changed into a demon of fury and rage. He flung himself onto the sailor. The other observer, a long thin fellow, rushed shouting to the door. The barber, surprisingly alive, raised himself onto his knees and bit the sailor's thigh. The sailor himself rolled about, shouting and waving his arms; chairs tumbled over, bottles fell with a crash, two men came in and joined the fray.
The door was open; my eyes were upon it. Someone peered in, looked about him, and cautiously stepped into the room.
One glance was enough for me. My heart thundered in my ears, the room swam before me. The sight of that mean-faced, spindle-shanked, narrow-eyed little man was the ghost of all my past, the link with everything that should have been my future, the link that, for more than fourteen years, I had been seeking.
Mr. Leroy Pattison Pengelly.
It will be remembered that when Sancho Panza told his master the story of the beautiful shepherdess Toralva, Don Quixote could not count the number of goats carried by the fisherman across the stream in his boat.
Quoth Sancho: 'How many goats are got over already?'
'Nay, how the devil can I tell?' replied Don Quixote.
'There it is!' quoth Sancho, 'did not I bid you keep count? On my word, the tale is at an end, and now you may go whistle for the rest.'
'Ridiculous,' cried Don Quixote. 'Pray thee, is there no going on with the story unless I know exactly how many goats are wafted over?'
'No, marry is there not,' quoth Sancho, 'for as soon as you answered that you could not tell, the rest of the story quite and clean slipped out of my head; and in troth it is a thousand pities, for it was a special one.'
'So then,' cried Don Quixote, 'the story's ended?'
'Ay, marry is it,' quoth Sancho. 'It is no more to be fetched to life than my dead mother.'
The time has come for me too, before my story can move a step forward, to number my goats. The trouble is not so much in my numbering them as in selecting the best ones for my purpose. There are so many, and they all seem to be conveyed over in the fisherman's boat together.
The period that I must recover is a short one--only six weeks--and the place is definite enough. I will call it Howlett Hall--a name sufficiently near to the reality--and closing my eyes can see again those dark, squat buildings, the beautiful Park running to the sea's very edge, the Devon sea with the red cliffs, the mild lisp of the waves on the shingle in that summer weather, the cooing of the doves in the trees that were scattered on the edge of the shaven lawn, old red-faced Harry Carden calling to his dogs, all the easy, lazy social life of that wealthy carefree world before the war.
And into that easy, normal world stepped, one summer afternoon, the three figures of my drama. Looking back, it seems queer enough, although at the time it was nothing, that these three should have all come into my life on the same day, almost at the same moment--John Osmund, Leroy Pengelly--and Helen Cameron. . . .
Pengelly was the first. I was Harry Carden's land agent, and we were, had been for several years, the greatest friends. Had he lived it would have been another story for me. Of course he was years older than I; our relationship was almost that of father and son--dear Harry with his oaths and tempers and stubbornness and charity and secret shy kindnesses and love of women, dogs and every earthly kind of sport!
Simple! It seems impossible that there should be anyone alive in this complicated world of to-day so guileless.
Well, at about three o'clock of that hot, shimmering afternoon we walked down to the beach to see about some nets that Carden had ordered from a fisherman, saw two nets, watched for a little the sea swell lazily in over the hot dry pebbles, breaking, like the outstretching paw of a sleepy cat, across the rising ridge; then turned back through the little village.
Outside the one and only pub there was standing a man. I noticed him because I knew every soul in the village, and this was a new face to me. When we had struck up through the Park gates Harry said:
'So Pengelly's back again.' He said it, I remember, in a tone that roused my interest, for he disliked so few of his fellow-beings that the grating displeasure in his voice was sufficiently remarkable.
I asked who Pengelly might be. Now here I perceive the danger of melodrama. Pengelly is, I suppose, the villain of this piece, if any villain there be, although it is possibly one of the small values of this story that it contains neither villain nor hero. I should like to be fair to Pengelly, especially in consideration of later events, but, however fair one may try to be, one cannot escape his nastiness. It exuded from him always and everywhere. Harry was the most generous-minded of men, but at once, when he spoke of Pengelly, a sort of disgusting atmosphere crept about us, the air seemed to darken, the warmth of the sun to grow less kindly.
There are one or two people in the world who darken the air, not so much by anything they do as by what simply, of themselves, and possibly quite without their own fault, they are. Not that Pengelly stopped at mere existence, he was quite an active personality until--but what happened to him comes later.
Carden did not say much about Pengelly just then--only that he was the nastiest, meanest, most abject little scoundrel born of woman, that he had come to the village some five years ago, agent, he declared, for some kind of photographic firm, that he had a wife whom he bullied, that he was never seen by anyone to do any work, but simply slouched around the place. Many things were suspected of him, very little proved. Then a girl in the village had a baby of which he was supposed to be the father, his wife died suddenly, and he vanished--to the great relief of everyone. And yet the unexpected thing was, Carden added, that he had a kind of fascination for some people. Even Carden himself had felt it. He was very glib in his talk, had plenty of stories to tell, had travelled, apparently, and his conceit and self-confidence were boundless.
'I hope he's not come back to stay,' said Carden, and a kind of depression fell between us. I am even fanciful enough to imagine that life was never quite the same careless, happy thing for either of us after the moment when we saw Pengelly leaning his scarecrow of a body up against the wall of the Farmer's Boy, his hands in his pockets, and his bony, ugly head thrust forward in that snake-like, piercing way that was so characteristic of him.
That was to be, however, an eventful afternoon for me, and the second new encounter that it brought me quickly knocked the first out of my head.
When we reached the house and stretched ourselves out in chairs on the lawn with a good cool drink at our elbow, Harry told me that people were coming to tea. Borlass and his stout lady and imbecile daughter, for three--and two others.
'John Osmund,' said Harry, 'and the lady who is to marry him.'
'And who may John Osmund be?' I asked him.
Carden told me. John Osmund was a remarkable fellow. One of those men who could do anything if he liked. But he didn't like. And yet you couldn't call him a slacker. He was always doing something and doing it well, but they were odd, unnecessary jobs, jobs that no one else thought of doing.
Where did he come from? Nobody knew. He said that he belonged to some Glebeshire family. Oh, yes, he was a gentleman all right. Extraordinarily handsome fellow and a giant. Must be six foot six at least, and carried himself firmly, as though he had been commanding people all his life.
Funny-tempered chap, though. You never knew what was likely to upset him--went off the rocker at the slightest thing, and when he did lose his temper it was something to see. For the rest he was as sweet as a nut, and his laugh was worth going a mile to hear. But he had odd bees in his bonnet. Couldn't bear this democratic twaddle and yet was always palling up with the fellows out of his own class, not just talking to them, but made real friends of them and didn't mind who saw him with them. It was crowds that he said he hated and the way that everyone cheapened everything. He called it a halfbaked age, and hated it for being that, said he would like to drop bombs on half humanity and leave room for the rest to grow properly. And yet he was the kindesthearted of men, no crank, you understand, only talked of these things when he was roused.
I asked some more questions and discovered that he had been staying for a long time at the Trout Inn at Amberthwaite, a village some five miles in the Exmouth direction. He kept a horse and looked mighty fine riding it.
And the lady? Helen Cameron? She used to come down here often with the Fosters when they rented Onsett. She was an Edinburgh girl. I must have seen her. Three years ago
she was down here, but was only a bit over sixteen, had her hair down. She was nearly twenty now. An orphan, very independent, a delightful girl and fascinated by Osmund.
She had arrived on her own about a month ago, met Osmund and became at once engaged to him. The odd thing, Carden said, was that he didn't think that she was really in love with him. There was no doubt of Osmund's feeling for her, he was simply mad about her, but his will seemed to have overpowered hers, which was saying something, because she was one of the strongest-willed and most independent women in the world. But they were a striking pair, both so good-looking, so unlike other people, so individual and alone. I'd be interested in both of them when I saw them. I felt that I would.
I had no questions to ask about Sir Nevil Borlass and his wife. I knew him well enough-common-place, greedy, self-satisfied, vulgar. He had inherited a fortune from his father and owned a huge place, Pecking, some ten miles distant from Howlett. He wasn't a bad fellow, I suppose, but arrogant, greedy and stupid.
'As a matter of fact,' said Carden, 'I'm sorry I've asked them at the same time as Osmund. Osmund hates them both like poison, and he's no swell at hiding his feelings. You may have the luck to see him in one of his tempers. It's worth seeing.' I did, as it happened, have that luck, and I'm never likely to forget it.
Osmund and his lady walked over from Amberthwaite.
When I saw them standing together on the sun-drenched lawn it was all I could do to restrain an exclamation. There are some people in the world--a few--like that, made, it seems, of different clay from the rest of us.
Osmund would have excited attention anywhere. His height did not seem excessive because he carried himself so magnificently. When I knew him better it was always a trick he had of throwing his head back, a gesture of freedom, of strength, of independence, quite impossible to give any real sense of, that seemed especially his. He was dark and with just that amount of foreignness in his colour that our Celts often have. You would have known him for an Englishman anywhere, though. His smile was delightful, boyish and discerning. His anger--well, I shall have an opportunity of describing that in a moment.
And Helen? If this story has neither hero nor villain, at least it has a heroine. How shall I describe her as she was on that first day? I can remember very little of that first impression. She was slim, tall, dark-haired like Osmund, and I fancy that on that first afternoon I thought her sullen, conceited, fond of her own opinion, a little arrogant.
To tell the truth, I was, I think, on that day so deeply struck by Osmund that I paid little attention to Helen. She certainly paid none at all to me. She had, as I was to learn afterwards, other things just then to think about.
We all sat down together and were very happy. How charming Osmund could be when he liked! He was the most perfectly natural being I have ever known. When he was at his ease and trusted his company he was like a cheery happy-go-lucky boy who hadn't a bother in the world.
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