Envoy Extraordinary - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Envoy Extraordinary ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Ronald, Count Matsertser, was a world traveler and amateur. After several years of travel, he returns to his Norfolian estates, which deals with hunting, research and espionage in Africa and Asia. His treasures are huge, but his heart is empty. One night, a mysterious mercenary attacks him directly behind the gate of his estate.

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Liczba stron: 402

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

CHAPTER XXIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXXI

CHAPTER XXXII

CHAPTER XXXIII

CHAPTER I

Through the windy darkness of the late winter evening, along a muddy country lane which was little better than a cart track with a high hedge on one side and a wood on the other, a man, half shuffling, half running, was making such progress as was possible over the sodden slippery surface. What appearance he might have presented when he had started upon his wild expedition it was impossible to say, for he was covered now with mud from head to foot, a driving rain beating in his face. His dark coat was soaked, his collar and tie simply pulp. He was hatless and his black hair, streaked with grey, was plastered about his face. He ran not as an athlete but with long, uneven strides, and he was evidently completely out of condition for such an exploit. He was breathing heavily. The drops of sweat were mingled with the rain which was pouring down his cheeks. He seemed unable to keep a straight course and he blundered from one side of the narrow way to the other, scratching his face against the hedge only to recoil and slip about in the low wire-protected ditch on the other side. His physical strength was already exhausted, but he continued to stumble on as though inspired with some desperate sense of urgency. The only parts of him which seemed still alive were his eyes, and in their fixed stare there was all the dogged fear of a man seeking to escape from something worse than death.

In the midst of the wall of darkness which he seemed to have set himself to penetrate, his staggering progress came suddenly to an end. He crashed into a gate, swayed for a moment and, recovering himself, clutched its topmost bar with both hands. His neck was strained forward. He made a gurgling little noise in his throat. In front of him, less than a mile away, was the goal towards which he was stumbling, a sinister yet somehow enthralling sight: upon the opposite hillside there stretched the outline of a house large enough to be called a mansion, a building which from end to end and along both of its spreading irregular wings, seemed flaming with lights. It was like a palace of fire blazing out of a well of black chaotic gloom.

The man began to climb the gate. In his state of over-exhaustion the effort was an act of madness. He pulled himself up to the topmost bar but his attempt to slither down on the other side was disastrous. He fell on his face into a field of roots, rolled over on his side and passed after one faint struggle into unconsciousness.

Some uneasy and convulsive gesture seemed to have crept into the spirit of that black, windy night. From the heights of the winding mountain road, flaming as it seemed from the bosom of the low drifting clouds, the far-reaching headlights of an automobile driven at a furious speed pierced with long stabs of illumination the shrouded spaces. The driver, as he swung round the last corner, passing the muddy lane along which the pedestrian had come to grief and making swaying progress towards the small harbour, was conscious, through the fury of the night, of two curious phenomena. The first was that long blazing panorama of lights from the mansion inland, the other was the rise to incredible heights and the subsequent fall to the level of the dark water of the single lamp at the masthead of some craft making gallant entrance into the tiny harbour. The quay was lined with a thin crowd of oil-skinned fishermen shouting instructions to the unseen crew. One of them, with a coil of rope around his arm, found his passage momentarily blocked by the long car with its flaming headlights. He stared at it and the dark outline of its driver in amazement.

“You’re ower near the deep water, mister,” he shouted. “There be a great tide to-night and it be still rising. You’n best back the car.”

The indistinguishable figure at the wheel was prompt to realise his danger and did as he was bidden.

“Thanks,” he called out. “Is that a boat coming in?”

“It be surely a craft of some sort, mister. She be past the beam of the lighthouse and we ain’t none of us seen her properly yet.”

The driver of the car pointed inland to the flaring windows.

“What’s the trouble there?” he asked.

“They be the lights of the Great House,” the man answered. “She might seem to be afire but she ain’t. ’Tis a whim of her ladyship’s to have them blazing on wild nights. ’Tis a landmark from the sea and a guide for they upon the road and they do say it’s to-night his lordship is expected home. Be you careful with that long car of yours when you turn up at the jetty.”

Inch by inch the man at the wheel backed his car, a swift road to eternity in the tumbled mass of black waters upon one side, a low grey wall upon the other. Arrived safely in the small cobbled square before the inn, he came to a standstill and pushed on his hand brake. He stood up deliberately, a tall, slim figure, and looked back towards the harbour. A sturdy little ketch of about fifty tons, with a few yards of canvas still taut, was making a valiant effort to enter the small inner pool. At the end of the pier one of the local fishermen was holding a lantern high above his head while he shouted advice. The light swung round and the automobilist gave vent to a sudden exclamation. Gripping the wheel, holding the ketch up against the wind with almost Herculean strength, was the huge figure of a man, bare-headed and without oilskins, with the face and figure of a Viking. The low throb of the engine and the man’s gigantic strength were pitted against the tearing wind. Inch by inch the entrance to the pool seemed to grow narrower. Suddenly there was a roar of orders from the figure at the wheel. The anchor was thrown overboard, coiled-up masses of rope were hung down on the lee side of the ketch. The fall of the anchor seemed to have been perfectly timed. The man at the wheel had triumphed. He brought her up with barely a tremor against the guardian fenders of hemp which hung from the quay. To the sound of lusty cheers she was roped in by the little crowd of willing helpers. The huge figure at the helm shouted a few last orders to them, then he leaned forward to the other side of the cockpit and the throbbing of the engine died away.

The automobilist resumed his seat at the sound of that low throaty cheering. He himself had the same impulse as had stirred the group of fishermen and villagers, yet although he was not a person of undue sensibility, he felt a sudden chill when he thought of that moment when the lantern had flashed its unexpected light upon the gigantic figure of the man who was fighting the wind and the storm, a figure for a sculptor, a magnificent representation of the triumph of brute force over the raging elements. But the face–if ever a more modern Epstein had been fired with a sudden ambition to create a new type of Satan, there was his study ready at hand–the man who had fought the storm.

The automobilist released his brakes, pushed his car into low gear and threaded his way towards the dimly visible opening in the chaos of darkness, far above which flamed the lights of the Great House.

Behind that welcoming blaze of illumination, which seemed somehow or other to offer a silent defiance to the fury of the wind-torn night, in her small boudoir, once a consecrated chapel, now the annex to a famous suite of reception rooms, Matilda, Countess of Matresser, sat in a high-backed, luxuriously cushioned chair before a huge fire of cedar and pine logs burning in an open grate. Her hands were folded in front of her, neither book nor any other form of diversion interfering in the steady effort at listening which had absorbed her for the last hour. The spell was suddenly broken. She heard at last the sound for which she had waited. She touched the jade knob of an ornamental bell which stood on the table by her side.

“His lordship has arrived,” she told the footman who entered promptly. “Please let him know that I am awaiting him here.”

The man hurried off. In the hall below there was already a small gathering of servants respectfully greeting the new arrival. The latter, a dark-complexioned, slim young man, who was being relieved of his motoring attire, nodded and turned towards the broad staircase. With his hand already upon the banisters, however, he lingered to ask just one question.

“Any unexpected visitors to-day, Burrows?” he enquired of the butler.

“No one unexpected that I have heard of, your lordship,” the man replied. “Mr. Hennerley is here with Lady Alice, and we are expecting a few people to dinner. Only a very small party.”

“I was not thinking so much about guests,” Matresser admitted. “Mr. Yates is here, I suppose?”

“Certainly, milord. He has been very busy in his room all day.”

“The messenger I was expecting would probably have reported to him.”

“No one has arrived who has asked either for your lordship or for Mr. Yates,” the butler pronounced.

Matresser nodded.

“If anyone should arrive, see that I am informed,” he said. “The weather is bad enough to stop anyone if they were coming by road.”

“I believe, your lordship,” Burrows confided, “that Humphreys would like to see you about to-morrow’s shooting for a minute or two, or he will come up after dinner if that is more convenient.”

“I will see him in the gunroom before I change,” Matresser promised. “No, you need not announce me, Burrows. I am sure her ladyship must have heard the car.”

He mounted the stairs with swift, lithe movements, passed through two very beautiful rooms, one hung with rare tapestry, the other decorated, and since untouched, by a famous Frenchman of the period of Watteau. In a few moments he passed into the Sanctuary Chamber, as it had been called for generations. With a slight gesture, half foreign, perhaps, but entirely natural, he sank on one knee by the side of the woman whose arms were out-stretched towards him and drew her into his embrace.

“Ronald!” she murmured.

“Dearest.”

There were no other words. A moment or two later, still with her fingers upon his cheeks, he leaned a little back.

“You are the most wonderful woman in the world,” he declared as he looked into her deep-set but still brilliant eyes. “Yours is the complexion of a child. You grow more beautiful with the years.”

She laughed softly.

“You will never lose your marvellous gift of flattery, dear Ronald,” she said. “Of course, I love you to say so but what do my looks matter now?”

“You have a family tradition to uphold,” he reminded her. “Every Matresser has married not only a beautiful woman but a woman who has remained beautiful.”

“When are you prepared to carry on the family record?” she asked.

He saw the slight anxiety with which she was regarding him, rose to his feet and touched a bell.

“May I?” he begged. “Just one glass of sherry together, mother, before I go to change. Am I more of a skeleton than ever? It was nothing but a touch of fever which left me long before we passed Gibraltar.”

She shook her head.

“Those lines have bitten a little deeper into your face, my son,” she told him. “Isn’t it time you left off these restless bouts of travelling? Are you not weary of shooting rare animals and discovering hidden cities?”

“Sick to death,” he assured her cheerfully.

He strolled over to the small Chippendale sideboard upon which a servant had set out decanters, a silver bowl of ice and a cocktail shaker.

“I will mix you the latest concoction in the way of apéritifs–straight from Raffles’ Bar at Singapore,” he told her. “I should have liked a lime but lemon must do. . . . There. How’s that?” he asked a moment or two later.

“Delicious. When were you at Singapore, Ronald?”

“A few months ago,” he answered carelessly, “and only for a few hours then. I must tell you all about my travels later on.”

She set down her glass for a moment.

“Do you ever tell anyone in the world all about your travels, Ronald?” she asked.

He looked at her with a faint but discerning smile.

“There are some things I am saving up, of course,” he admitted. “When I am Lord Lieutenant of the County, bobbing about opening charity bazaars, God-blessing the Boy Scouts and that sort of thing, I shall have to write a book. Then I shall have no more secrets. By the by, that reminds me, may I ask Mrs. Howard to have a room prepared for a man who is bringing me down a letter and some papers? It is just an odd job of surveying I did for the Government while I was in Africa and they seem to be rather in a hurry to report upon it. He will be here I expect to-night or to-morrow.”

“Of course,” his mother acquiesced. “He can have one of the bachelor suites, then he will have his own sitting-room. Will he join the house party? There will be only one or two of us–the Dean and his wife, and Stephen and Alice are already here.”

“He would rather shut himself up, I expect.”

Lady Matresser rose to her feet with a sigh. Her maid was standing enquiringly by the portière.

“Would your ladyship prefer that I came a little later?” the young woman suggested.

“Not one second later,” her mistress replied, glancing at the clock. “You must attend me at once, Hortense. This is my son who is just back from abroad. He is always the severest critic of my toilette so we must take care to satisfy him to-night.”

The girl curtsied very slightly.

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