Gleanings - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Gleanings ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

The clamour of crushing boughs and howling wind sank every now and then into insignificance before the roaring of deep-throated guns, whose red fire flashed out across what seemed to be a bottomless abyss. Below, the army of the Turks decimated in numbers, yet still a host, within the walls of Crersa, the defenders of an oppressed and brave country making their last stand in their ancient stronghold.

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Contents

VOLUME ONE

A COMMONPLACE JEST

THE GREAT FORTUNA MINE

THE HUNDREDTH NIGHT

THE LITTLE GREY LADY

THE TWO AMBASSADORS

JOHN GARLAND—THE DELIVERER

THE MONEY-SPIDER

FALSE GODS

THE THREE THIEVES

THE ILL-LAID SCHEME OF MR. AMBROSE WEARE

THE SUBJECTION OF LOUISE

THE TURNING WHEEL

THE SOVEREIGN IN THE GUTTER

MR. HARDROW’S SECRETARY

VOLUME TWO

THE PRINCE OF CRERSA

THE RESTLESS TRAVELLER

ONE LUCKLESS HOUR

QUITS

THE DESERTER

THE OUTCAST

THE PERFIDY OF HENRY MIDGELY

AS FAR AS THEY HAD GOT

THE GIRL FROM MANCHESTER

THE EXPERIMENT OF STEPHEN GLASK, IRONMONGER

THE ROAD TO LIBERTY

A LESSON TO LIONEL CUTTS

VOLUME ONE

A COMMONPLACE JEST

THE hoarse striking of a distant clock broke in upon his meditations. Nine o’clock! His day of slavery had commenced. He laid down the book upon the wooden stall before which it was his custom to linger for a minute or two most mornings. Something had lodged in his throat; it might have been a sob! He had been so absorbed that he had forgotten where he stood, whither he was bound, it all came back to him with such grim yet facile insistence. London Bridge Station, disgorging its crowd of suburban business men, the heavy atmosphere of Bermondsey down the steps below– Bermondsey, with its nauseous odors, its smoke-stained warehouses, in one of which his own stool was awaiting him. It was disillusion, complete, entire–a veritable mud bath after the breath of roses.

For this book had spoken of very different things. It had spoken of heather-crowned hills, of gorse bushes yellow with sprinkled gold, of a west wind, fragrant, melodious in the pines; of flower-wreathed hedges and blossoming trees; of the song of birds and the glad murmuring of insects.

A dull flush stained his sallow cheeks. For once he lost his stoop and stood almost upright. It was the one moment of inspiration which seems to be the heritage even of the very meanest creature who ever walks the earth. The spirit of rebellion leaped up in him like a flame. His way lay, as it had ever done, down those fateful steps. Nine o’clock had struck, and 9 o’clock was his hour. He ignored it. He crossed the station yard and entered the booking hall.

*     *

*

“Then you won’t tell me?”

“Won’t tell you what?”

“Why you come here, in those clothes, and with no luggage. You must have some friends in Lidford.”

He shook his head. “I never heard of the place before,” he assured her. “I picked the name out from the time-table. It sounded like the country, and it was a long way off.”

She looked at him with incredulity plainly written in her sedate, beautiful face. “Of course,” she murmured, making a pretence at rising, “if you don’t want to tell me–”

“Please don’t go!” he interrupted, in alarm. “It is the truth, really! I know no one here. I only wanted to get away.”

“To get away,” she repeated, thoughtfully. “Do you mean that you have been doing something wrong?”

“Something wrong!” He repeated the words vaguely, with his eyes fixed upon her all the time. She had risen and was looking at him seriously. Her eyes were blue–such a wonderful blue, like the sky which he had been watching lazily all the afternoon, lying on his back in the deep cool grass; and her hair–ah! there was nothing which he had seen so beautiful as that! Then, warmed by her obvious gravity, he hastened to reassure her.

“No,” he declared, “I have done nothing wrong. I have run away from my work, that is all. I read in a book this morning of the country, of the, sunshine, and the wind, and the birds, and–all this.” He waved his arm aimlessly about. “I had to come–I couldn’t help it.”

“You have come from London–here?” she exclaimed.

“Yes!”

“And your luggage?”

“I brought none.”

“And your hat?”

“I threw it away. It was a very old, shiny hat, with ink on the bare places. What would have thought of me wandering about the fields in such a thing? It is bad enough as I am.”

He glanced disparagingly down at his shabby black clothes and dark trousers, frayed at the ends, but carefully pressed and cleaned. She shook her head. She was a little bewildered.

“I am sure that your clothes are very nice.” she said, “and you were wrong to throw away your hat. What are you going to do without one?”

“I have no idea,” he answered. “But, then, I have no Idea what I am going to do with myself, so it really doesn’t matter, does it?”

“I think.” she said, deliberately, “that you are the very queerest person I ever met. Do go on talking to me! Tell me some more about–yourself.”

“There is nothing interesting to tell,” he assured her, a little wearily. “I would rather listen to you. Tell me some more about the birds.”

She shook her head impatiently.

“What is your name, please?” she asked.

“Stephen Marwood,” he answered. “I am an orphan, and a clerk in a warehouse. I get twenty-five shillings a week, and I add up figures and make out invoices from 9 till 6 in a cellar, with the gas burning all the time. I live in a long, ugly street, surrounded by miles of other streets. I am just one of a million. I work and I sleep, and I work again, and all the time my lungs are choked with fog and smoke and bad smells.”

“It doesn’t sound nice,” she admitted.

“It isn’t!” he assured her.

“And yet.” she added, with a little, wistful sigh, “it is London.”

“It is certainly London,” he declared. “It might as well be hell.”

She looked at him wonderingly. After all, he must be a little mad.

“And where,” she asked, reverting once more to the practical, “are you going to sleep?”

“I don’t know.” he answered, dreamily, “and I don’t care, if only I can smell this honeysuckle all night.”

“And your tea and supper?” she asked, scornfully. “Will the scent of the honeysuckle satisfy your hunger as well?”

He closed his eyes for a moment. Removed from all distractions, he was forced to admit that he was hungry. “I shall go down to the inn.” he decided. “I suppose there is an inn here. But you?”

She pointed downward to where the gray smoke rose in a straight, thin line from a red-tiled cottage. “There is no inn,” she told him. “but my aunt will get you some tea, if you like. We often have parties.”

“We will have it together, then?” he begged, eagerly.

“Perhaps,” she answered, laughing.

*     *

*

A month afterward they met almost in the same place.

“Let us climb to the top and watch the reapers,” he begged. “There is a field on the other side where the poppies are all in clusters, like specks of blood in a waving, yellow sea. I was watching them all this morning. By to-morrow they will be gone. The men seem to creep like insects, but all the time the grain falls.”

She sighed. She was dressed in black. She looked thin and there were tears in her eyes. But more wonderful still was the change in him. He carried himself like a man; a healthy tan bad burnt his cheeks, his eyes were bright with health. Even his voice had acquired a new firmnesss. The drudge was no more. The yoke of his servitude was cast aside. To-morrow he might starve. His small savings, in fact, were almost spent. To-day, at least, he was a man.

“What strange fancies you have!” she declared. “The farmers hate the poppies, and these overgrown hedges which you admire so much ought all to be cut down and trimmed.”

He laughed. “Give me the honeysuckle and the creepers,” he declared. “I have seen enough of the ugly and the useful to last me all my life. Come, it is only a few steps further. Give me your hand.”

Breathless, they reached the summit of the hill and the shelter of the little grove of pine trees. She sat down with her back to the trunk of one of them. He threw himself by her side. Below them the slumbering landscape, warm and mellow in the afternoon sunshine, and in their faces th« west wind.

“I believe in heaven,” he murmured. “I have found it.”

A delight, almost a fervor, was in his eyes as they wandered on and on to where the limits of his vision ended in a faint blue mist. She looked at him as one who seeks to read a book written in a strange language.

“I do not understand,” she said. “It is beautiful here. I know, because everyone says so, and it is pleasant to sit and watch it all for a while. But I have sat here all my life, and I am weary of it.”

“Weary!” he repeated, in amazement. “Weary of this country, of this life!”

“Sick to death of it!” she answered, with a vigor which was almost bluntness. “Who can sit and look at one picture all their lives, however beautiful? The fields and the hedges change only from winter to summer, from summer to winter. And the people change never.”

He pointed to the little graveyard away in the valley. “It is not true,” he declared. “They have their joys and their sorrows also. There was merriment enough at the harvest home the other day, and the whole village wept over that last little mound in the churchyard.”

She shook her head impatiently. A strand or two of her hair was loosened; the sun flecked it with gold. He realized then that she was beautiful. She sat there like a self-enthroned goddess.

“The people are all very dull and very ignorant,” she said. “Their lives are narrow; they sleep and they eat, and they die–but they do not live. They never live.”

He was alarmed. “Go on,” he said, in a low tone. “You, have something in your mind?”

“It is true,” she admitted. “While aunt was alive, I was a prisoner. Now, I am free. I want to escape.”

“Escape–from here?” he murmured. “Why, this is Paradise!”

She laughed softly, but with her mirth was mingled a subtle note of mockery.

“You are a very foolish person.” she said, “you do not know what ambition is. I do not want to sit upon the bank all my life.”

“There are many who drown,” he murmured.

“I will take the risk,” she answered.

All the joy and freshness seemed to fade away from his face. Something of the old haggard despair came back to him. This was the end, then, of all his dreams.

“Yesterday,” he said, in a low tone, “I walked to Market Deeping. I got a situation with Sheppards’, the auctioneers, and Mrs. Green, in the village, has promised me a room.”

Her lips curled a little. “If it satisfies you–” she began.

He interrupted her. “Don’t mock me!” he cried, roughly. “Nothing satisfies me if you go away. You know that.”

“That is foolish,” she said, “for I am most surely going away.”

“To–London?”

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