Curate and Fiend - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Curate and Fiend ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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It was a brilliant good Saturday morning before the harvest, and the large market and curves of the streets in Norwich proceed with a continuous crowd of farmers, livestock, dealers, county ladies with opinions that are adhering to shopping. Frantsinin on the London Street is filled up quickly: a very nice sight for worshiping a small owner who is standing in the upper corner of the room, managing his midridon’s operations, rubbing his hands and smiling, kindly begging each beginner. Without a doubt, he is keen to see this market day come up a little more than once a week, and that every Saturday was as wonderful as today.

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Contents

I. MY UNCLE'S TENANTS.

II. GLITKA.

III. A SCENE AT THE HERMITAGE.

IV. COUNT VOLTKAR'S SERVANT.

V. WHO IS COUNT VOLTKAR?

VI. EARTH OR HADES.

VII. PLOTTING

VIII. THE BALL AT THE GREEK EMBASSY.

IX. SHIPWRECKED

X. HORS DE COMBAT

XI. FRIEND OR FOE

XII. JEAN DUPONT IN A FRIGHT

XIII. AT THE RUSSIAN EMBASSY

XIV. "IF YOU MEET HIM, KILL HIM!"

XV. AT THE GOLDEN CRESCENT

XVI. THE ELOPEMENT

XVII. A DANGEROUS WEDDING TOUR

XVIII. STRANGE VISITORS AT GORLESTONE PARK

XIX. I LOSE GLITKA

XX. COUNT VOLTKAR NOT AT HOME

XXII. DUPONT ON VOLTKAR'S TRACK

XXIII. PÈRE MICHAEL GOSSIPS

XXIV. A MEETING IN THE BOULEVARDS

XXV. A FRENCH DEVICE

XXVI. MY UNEXPIATED SIN

INTRODUCTION.

IT was a brilliantly fine Saturday morning just before harvest time, and the spacious market-place and crooked streets of Norwich are streaming with a continuous crowd of farmers, cattle-dealers of horsey appearance, county ladies with their thoughts bent on shopping, and a very fair sprinkling of typical Norfolk squires. Luncheon-time is at hand, and already the restaurant of Mons. Francini in London Street is filling fast: a sight very pleasant to the eyes of the bowing little proprietor, who stands in the top corner of the room directing the operations of his myrmidons, rubbing his hands, and smiling an urbane smile of welcome to each newcomer. It would not require the art of a thought-reader to divine what is passing in his mind, Without doubt he is fervently wishing that market-day came a little oftener than once a week, and that every Saturday were as fine as to-day.

Still again the swing doors are pushed open, and a young man, evidently a stranger to the place, enters. He stands still for a moment, leisurely taking off his gloves, and looking around for a vacant seat. Crowded though the room is, there is still one table at which an elderly grey-haired man sits eating his lunch in solitary silence. Without any hesitation the young man makes his way towards the table, and seats himself opposite its other occupant, resigning his hat and stick to a waiter. The latter [sic] returns his good-morning, but seems disinclined for conversation. The stranger, while he awaits the return of the waiter, to whom he has given his orders, has nothing better to do, therefore, than to lean back in his chair and watch the people thronging in. Presently something strikes him as curious. Notwithstanding the crush and although fresh tables have been dragged out and rapidly arranged, everyone avoids the table at which he is sitting, and at which there is still room for two more. While he is wondering at this strange circumstance, his vis-à-vis calls for his bill, settles it, bows courteously to him, and walks towards the door. Before he has reached the door the young man, who remains at the table, calls a waiter to him.

“Who is that gentleman?” he inquires, curiously.

The waiter appears surprised at the question.

“You’re a stranger in the city, I suppose, sir,” he remarks. “That gentleman is Sir Basil Gorleston of Gorleston Hall.You’ve heard of him, no doubt.”

The young man shakes his head. The waiter regards him pityingly.

Dear me, sir, you must come from a very long way off, surely, not to have heard of him. They do say,” he continued, dropping his voice almost to a whisper, “that in his younger days he was the wickedest young man that ever lived. Anyhow, he’s got a fearful bad name, and though it all happened many years ago, there’s nobody as’ll speak to him even now.”

“What did he do?” asks the young man, much interested.

The waiter pulls a longer face than ever, and drops his voice lower still.

“Well, he’s been tried for murder once and convicted, and they say as he murdered his wife, too, because she ran away from him. He was a clergyman and all when he was a young man, only he was of course what they call unfrocked when he began those goings on. They say as–coming, sir,” and the waiter’s interesting narrative was brought to a close.

I am Sir Basil Gorleston, Bart., and it is my own story which I am about to tell.

I. MY UNCLE’S TENANTS.

THERE was nothing in the manner of my birth, my position or my behaviour which pointed to anything extraordinary in connection with my life up to October 2nd, 18–, on which date I reached my 25th year. I was an orphan, but not a destitute one, and was educated and generally looked after by my uncle, Sir Henry Gorleston, Bart., of Gorleston Hall, Norfolk. I did nothing particular at school, but excelled more in the cricket field than in the class-room. At twenty years of age I matriculated, and went up to Oxford, and at the end of my first term I had as yet formed no idea as to what profession I should embrace–if any. From my father I inherited as small property, which would bring me in ´nearly four hundred a year, and, presumably at any rate, I was my uncles’s heir, he having neither children nor wife. The Gorleston rent-roll exceeded my slender income by twenty times, and as my uncle had made no secret of his firm intention never to marry, it seemed to me that I could do not better than to keep my terms in a leisurely manner, and then settle down to the life of a country-gentleman. My uncle, however, was of a different mind. During the first long vacation, which I spent at Gorleston Hall, he sounded me as to my views for the future. found that I had formed none, and then, after a long tirade against the follies and evils of idleness, expressed his strong wish that I should enter the Church. At first I combatted his suggestion with vigour, but when I realised that he was in earnest, I paused to think about it. The Gorleston living was a rich one, the rectory and neighbourhood all that could be desired, and moreover my uncle was so eager about the matter that it behoved me to give it my very serious consideration. I was obliged to confess that I had not the slightest spontaneous inclination to enter the Church, but then on the other hand, it was perhaps to be preferred to any other profession. inasmuch as it involved the least amount of study, both in preparation and following-out. I had no desire to thwart his wishes, and eventually I yielded.

After three years of study I went in for my examination and passed fairly well. In August 18– I was ordained, and in September of the same year I went down to Gorleston Hall for a six-months’ holiday before I sought a curacy.

Up to this time I suppose my nature must have been in an undeveloped state, for I was somewhat phlegmatic in disposition, of even temperament, and fond of a quiet life in the country. I had no strong affections to restrain, or passions to subdue. If circumstances, or rather a circumstance, had not transpired which completely altered the current of my life, I should no doubt have made a very fair, easy-going country parson. Such, however, was not to be my lot.

My uncle was a man with a hobby. He was an enthusiastic naturalist, a taste which I did not share in the least, and he had the good sense not to force it upon me. He was not fond of my company, and I humoured his whim.

Accordingly, on October 1st my sole companion as I sallied out with my gun under my arm and a couple of setters at my heels was Heggs, the head gamekeeper. Nevertheless, we had capital sport, and I enjoyed the day exceedingly. I remember it even now. It was the last day of my former life. Five miles from home I paused on a hillock to watch the sunset. It had been a magnificent day for out-door exercise, the air sharp and bracing, and the sun not too warm. All around me the sky was as clear as a bell, save in the west, where gorgeous masses of long brilliant streaks of many-coloured clouds seemed piled together in startling but magnificent contrast. I rested my gun and watched until the descending shades of the evening seemed to draw out from the sky its varied tints and replace them with a dull monotonous grey. Then I lit a cigar and turned to follow Heggs, who was plodding along half a mile in front.

I had not gone half a dozen paces before I started, and stopped short. Face to face with me, ascending the hillock, was a girl in a loose open jacket, short skirt, and carrying her hat in her hand as if to let the breeze play havoc with her luxuriant hair. My first glance showed me this–my next that she was by far the most beautiful woman I had ever seen or dreamed of. Beautiful! Bah! The word seems empty and expressionless when I think of her. She was a revelation to me. I had never seen or imagined anything so perfectly lovely. If I were a poet or an artist I might dwell on her divine form, the exquisite grace of her carriage, or the enchanting beauty of her face. But I am not, and I will be silent. My pen could never describe her, far less could in account for the extraordinary influence which from that moment she has always had over men. My life dates from that day.

She confronted me and explained that she had lost her way. Would I be so good an direct to the village of Gorleston. I raised my cap and offered my escort–our ways were the same–and after the merest shadow of hesitation she turned and walked by my side,

I was silent, almost tongue-tied. I walked along, drinking in the fascination of her marvellous beauty, indisposed to talk, and was not doubt an extremely stupid companion. When we were about half a mile from Gorleston she stopped suddenly.

“Ah! There is the footpath. I know my way now.”

“That’s not the nearest way to Gorleston,” I objected. The thought that in a minute or two at the latest we must part chilled me.

“It is the nearest way to where I want to go, though,” she answered, smiling. “I am extremely obliged to you for your escort. How I should have got over those dreadful gates if you had not been there to open them for me I cannot imagine. Good-bye,” and with a graceful inclination of her head she turned abruptly away, leaving me speechless with my cap in my hand.

When I moved on and resumed my homeward journey a strange depression seemed settling on me. I was not sorry that she was gone–on the contrary, I felt it a relief. It troubled me little that I know neither her name nor her habitation. I had no fear that I should not see her again. On the contrary, I had a strong conviction, a presentiment I suppose it would be called, that henceforth she would become a part of my life.I was glad to be alone for a while, and to breathe freely after those few minutes of vehement but compressed excitement. I walked rapidly, with my cap still in my hand, and my eyes fixed steadily ahead. Every feeling in me was intensified, every dormant passion aroused, and concentrated in a sort of fascinated wonder on the girl with whom I had been walking. Never before had I felt the least attracted by anyone of the opposite sex. Perhaps for that reason the sensations now awakened were the stronger. I suppose the long and the short of it was that I was in love with her. In love! Hateful, hackneyed phrase! It no more describes my feelings towards her than the mere term beautiful can render any adequate idea of her glorious beauty. By the time I had reached the hall I had already commenced to indulge in visions which made me feel as though I were walking on buoyant air straight into heaven.

At our tête-à-tête dinner my uncle unconsciously gave me a piece of information which I greedily devoured. The Hermitage, a cottage residence on the outskirts of the Park, had been suddenly taken by a lady–Mrs. de Carteret, and her daughter.

“I shall want you to go and do the civil to them, Basil,” my uncle remarked. “If there’s anything wants altering or seeing to, remember that I am inclined to be a lenient landlord if they’re likely to stop. I hate to see the place empty.”

I poured myself a glass of wine and drank it off.

“Do you know anything about them?” I asked.

My uncle shook his head. His London agent had let them the place, and they had come down almost with the furniture. He knew nothing but their names.

I was silent, and drank more wine than usual. As soon as I could get away after our invariable game of chess, I pleaded fatigue, and retired. I will not say how I spent the night.

On the morrow I called at the Hermitage, and sent in my card to Mrs. de Carteret. Whilst I waited for her in the drawing-room, two things struck me as somewhat remarkable. A footman had admitted me, and the room into which I had been shown was furnished for its size better than any I had ever been in.

In a short time Mrs. de Carteret entered. She was a woman of medium height, of slight but elegant figure, dazzlingly fair complexion, and good feature. I rose, explained my mission, and proceeded to do my utmost to make myself agreeable. With such women as Mrs. de Carteret conversation was not difficult, She was vivacious, sprightly and intellectual. She had apparently travelled in every European country, and although her English was faultless, I was very soon aware that in tastes and mannerisms at least she was a foreigner.

It was so kind of me to call, she declared effusively, but really the house was quite perfect, and nothing could be done to improve it, and I was a neighbour. Ah! how nice! No, they did not intend to settle here. For herself she detested the country, but–then she paused and did not conclude her explanation, much to my disappointment, for I was curious to know why she had come.

She was a trifle passée, perhaps, and doubtless owed her brilliant complexion in some degree to art, but she was nevertheless a most attractive woman, and a thorough woman of the world. Her toilette for the morning was faultless, although perhaps a little elaborate, and her manner was decidedly the manner of one who wishes to please. I began secretly to congratulate myself on the progress I was making, and after half an hour’s conversation I ventured to ask the question which had been all the time trembling of my lips.

“Your sister is with you, I believe, Mrs. de Carteret? I had the pleasure of directing her yesterday.”

I could not have put my question in a more fortunate manner. I learnt afterwards that Mrs. de Carteret lived in perpetual dread of the young lady in question being taken for her daughter.

“No, Glitka is my daughter,” she explained. “I suppose it was her whom you met yesterday.”

My surprise could not fail to be natural, for it was unaffected. Mrs. de Carteret broke into delicious little peal of laughter, and corrected herself. She had intended to say step-daughter.

I could see that I had made a good impression, and policy bade me to withdraw while things were so satisfactory. Mrs. de Carteret would not hear of it. She was so very dull! I must positively stop and lunch with them, and be introduced to Glitka. The temptation was too strong. I yielded.

Soon she came into the room, graceful, charming and shy. I was introduced to her in due form, and, putting a great restraint upon myself, I refused to let my eyes rest upon her, and concealed the sensations which her presence had aroused within me. She talked very little, so little that Mrs. de Carteret seemed to think it almost necessary to apologise for her.

“Glitka is silent, but she is young–younger than she looks,” she remarked. “Is it not so, ma chérie?”

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