Jacob’s Ladder - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Jacob’s Ladder ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Jacob’s Ladder begins: Seated at breakfast on that memorable July morning, Jacob Pratt presented all the appearance of a disconsolate man. His little country sitting-room was as neat and tidy as the capable hands of the inimitable Mrs. Harris could make it. His coffee was hot and his eggs were perfectly boiled. Through the open windows stretched a little vista of the many rows of standard roses which had been the joy of his life. Yet blank misery dwelt in the soul of this erstwhile cheerful little man, and the spirit of degradation hung like a gloomy pall over his thoughts and being. Only the day before he had filed his petition in bankruptcy.

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Contents

PROLOGUE

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

PROLOGUE

Seated at breakfast on that memorable July morning, Jacob Pratt presented all the appearance of a disconsolate man. His little country sitting-room was as neat and tidy as the capable hands of the inimitable Mrs. Harris could make it. His coffee was hot and his eggs were perfectly boiled. Through the open windows stretched a little vista of the many rows of standard roses which had been the joy of his life. Yet blank misery dwelt in the soul of this erstwhile cheerful little man, and the spirit of degradation hung like a gloomy pall over his thoughts and being. Only the day before he had filed his petition in bankruptcy.

The usual morning programme was carried out, only, alas! in different fashion. Five and twenty minutes before the departure of the train, Mrs. Harris–but not the Mrs. Harris of customary days–presented herself, bearing his hat and stick. Her cheerful smile had departed. There were traces of something very much like tears in her eyes. She carried a small article in her hand, which she spent most of the time trying to conceal behind her apron.

“You’ll be home at the usual time, sir?” she asked.

“So far as I know, Mrs. Harris,” was the listless reply.

His landlady looked at the practically undisturbed breakfast table and gathered strength of purpose.

“Me and Harris, sir,” she declared, “we offers our respects and we hopes nothing ain’t going to be changed here.”

“You are very good–both of you,” Jacob said, with a weak smile. “For the present I don’t think that I could live cheaper anywhere else, nor, I am sure, as comfortably. I have had quite a decent situation offered me. The only thing is I may be away a little more.”

“That’s good news, sir, anyway,” the woman replied heartily. “I mean to say,” she added, “it’s good news about your staying on here. And me and Harris,” she went on, “having no children, so to speak, and you having paid liberal and regular for the last four years, we seem to have a bit of money we’ve no use for,” she added, producing at last that bulging purse, “and we thought maybe you might do us the honour–”

Jacob took her by the shoulders and shook her.

“For God’s sake, don’t, Mrs. Harris!” he broke in. “If I want it, I’ll come to you. And–God bless you!”

Whereupon he picked up his hat and stick, stepped through the open French window, cut a rose for his buttonhole as usual, and started on his purgatorial walk, making a tremendous effort to look as though nothing had happened.

That walk, alas! surpassed his worst imaginings. Jacob Pratt was a sensitive little man, notwithstanding his rotund body, his fresh complexion and humorous mouth; and all the way from his modest abode to the railway station, he was a prey to fancies which were in some cases, without a doubt, founded upon fact. Mr. Gregson, the manager of the International Stores, at the passing of his discredited customer had certainly retreated from his position on the threshold of his shop, usual at that hour of the morning, and disclosed a morbid but absorbing interest in a tub of margarine. The greengrocer’s wife had looked at him reproachfully from behind a heap of cooking apples, and her response to his diffident greeting was accompanied by a sorrowful wag of the head. The newspaper boy at the entrance to the station had extended his Express almost doubtfully and had clutched with significant caution at the copper coin tendered in exchange for it. The station master had answered his “Good morning” without troubling to turn his head, and the ticket collector had yawned as he moved away from the barrier. Each one of these incidents, trifling though they were in themselves, had been like pinpricks of humiliation to the little man whose geniality had been almost a byword.

The worst trial of all, however, arrived when Jacob entered the carriage in which he had been accustomed, for six days out of seven, to make his journey to the city. As usual, it was occupied by two men, strangers to him commercially, but with whom he had developed a very pleasant acquaintance; Mr. Stephen Pedlar, the well-known accountant to the trade in which Jacob was interested; Mr. Lionel Groome, whose life was spent in a strenuous endeavour to combine the two avocations of man of fashion and liquid glue manufacturer; and–Mr. Edward Bultiwell, of Bultiwell and Sons, Bermondsey, his former condescending patron and occasional host, now, alas! his largest creditor. The porter, being for the first time unaccountably absent, Jacob was compelled to open the door for himself, thereby rendering his nervous entrance more self-conscious than ever. He found himself confronted and encircled by a solid wall of newspapers, stumbled over an outstretched foot, relapsed into the vacant place and looked helplessly around him. A kind word just then might not have helped the lump in Jacob’s throat, but it would certainly have brought a fortune in later life to any one who had uttered it.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” the newcomer ventured.

There was a muttered response from either side of him,–none from the august figure in the opposite corner. Jacob fingered with tentative wistfulness the very choice rose which he was wearing in his buttonhole. Perhaps he ought not to have plucked and worn it. Perhaps it ought not to have opened its soft, sweet petals for an owner who was dwelling in the Valley of Impecunious Disgrace. Perhaps he ought to have ended there and then the good-natured rivalry of years and offered the cherished blossom to his silent creditor in the corner, in place of the very inferior specimen which adorned the lapel of the great man’s coat. Even in that moment of humiliation, Jacob felt a little thrill of triumph at the thought of Mr. Bultiwell’s three gardeners. It took more than gardeners to grow such a rose as he was wearing. He liked to fancy that it took personal care, personal sympathy, personal love. The sweetest and rarest flowers must have their special atmosphere.

Quite suddenly Mr. Edward Bultiwell laid down his Times and glared across at Jacob. He was a large man, with an ugly red face, a neck which hung over his collar in rolls, and a resonant voice. Directly he began to speak, Jacob began to shiver.

“Pratt,” he said, “am I to understand that the greeting which you offered to the occupants of this carriage, when you entered, was intended to include me?”

“I–I certainly meant it to,” was the tremulous reply.

“Then let me beg that such a liberty be not repeated,” Mr. Bultiwell continued brutally. “I look upon a man who has compounded with his creditors as a person temporarily, at any rate, outside the pale of converse with his fellows on–er–equal terms. I look upon your presence in a first-class carriage, wearing a floral adornment,” Mr. Bultiwell added, with a jealous glance at the very beautiful rose, “which is, to say the least of it, conspicuous, as–er–an impertinence to those who have had the misfortune to suffer from your insolvency.”

The healthy colour faded from Jacob’s cheeks. He had the air of one stricken by a lash–dazed for the moment and bewildered.

“My rose cost me nothing,” he faltered, “and my season ticket doesn’t expire till next month. I must go up to the City. My help is needed–with the books.”

Mr. Bultiwell shook his paper preparatory to disappearing behind it.

“Your presence here may be considered a matter of taste,” he fired off, as a parting shot. “I call it damned bad taste!”

Mr. Jacob Pratt sat like a hurt thing till the train stopped at the next station. Then he stumbled out on to the platform, and, making his way through an unaccountable mist, he climbed somehow or other into a third-class carriage. Richard Dauncey, the melancholy man who lived in the cottage opposite to his, looked up at the newcomer’s entrance, and, for the first time within his recollection, Jacob saw him smile.

“Good morning, Mr. Pratt,” the former said, with a strenuous attempt at cordiality. “If you’ll excuse my saying so, that’s the finest rose I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Richard Dauncey made his fortune by that speech–and Jacob had to swallow very hard and look very fixedly out of the window.

CHAPTER I

Precisely two years later, Jacob Pratt sat once more in his cottage sitting-room, contemplating the remains of a barely tasted breakfast. Before him, read for the fiftieth time, were the wonderful letters, in his brain a most amazing confusion, in his heart an almost hysterical joy. Presently Mrs. Harris brought in his hat and stick.

“You’ll excuse my mentioning it, sir,” she said, looking at the former a little disparagingly, “but, brush though I may, there’s no doing much with this hat of yours. The nap’s fair gone. Maybe you haven’t noticed it, sir, but, with the summer coming on, a straw hat–”

“I’ll buy a straw hat to-day, Mrs. Harris,” Jacob promised.

“And you’ll be home at the usual time for your supper, sir?”

“I–I expect so. I am not quite sure, Mrs. Harris. I shall be home sometime during the day, all right.”

Mrs. Harris shook her head at the sight of the untasted egg.

“You’ll excuse my saying so, sir,” she pronounced severely, “but there’s no good work done on an empty stomach. Times is hard, as we all know, but eggs is cheap.”

“Mrs. Harris,” Jacob reminded her, “it is two years since I left one of your eggs. I left it then because I was miserable. I am leaving it this morning because–I have had good news. I can’t eat. Later on–later on, Mrs. Harris.”

“And a bit of good news is what you deserve, sir,” the latter declared, lingering while he cut his accustomed rose with fingers which trembled strangely.

“Thank you very much, Mrs. Harris,” he said. “When I come back to-night, I’ll tell you all about it.”

Once more, then, two years almost to a day after Mr. Edward Bultiwell, of the great firm of Bultiwell and Sons, had laid down his newspaper and spoken his mind, Jacob was on his way to the station, again wearing a choice rose in his buttonhole. He had found no occasion to change his lodgings, for he had been an economical man who took great care of his possessions even in the days of his prosperity, and his moderate salary as traveller for a Bermondsey firm of merchants brought him in quite enough for his simple needs. He had to some extent lived down his disgrace. The manager of the International Stores nodded to him now, a trifle condescendingly, yet with tacit acknowledgement of the fact that in domestic affairs Jacob was a man of principle who always paid his way. The greengrocer’s wife passed the time of day when not too preoccupied, and the newspaper boy no longer clutched for his penny. Jacob generally met the melancholy man at the corner of the avenue and walked to the station with him. And he still grew roses and worshipped them.

On the way to the station, on this particular morning, he amazed his friend.

“Richard,” he said, “I shall not travel to the City with you to-day. At least I shall not start with you. I shall change carriages at Wendley, as I did once before.”

“The devil!” Richard exclaimed.

They were passing the plate-glass window of a new emporium, and Jacob paused to glance furtively at his reflection. He was an exceedingly neat man, and his care for his clothes and person had survived two years of impecuniosity. Nevertheless, although he passed muster well enough to the casual observer, there were indications in his attire of the inevitable conflict between a desire for adornment and the lack of means to indulge it. His too often pressed trousers were thin at the seams; his linen, though clean, was frayed; there were cracks in his vigorously polished shoes. He looked at himself, and he was suddenly conscious of a most amazing thrill. One of the cherished desires of his life loomed up before him. Even Savile Row was not an impossibility.

At the station he puzzled the booking clerk by presenting himself at the window and demanding a first single to Liverpool Street.

The youth handed him the piece of pasteboard with a wondering glance.

“Your season ain’t up yet, Mr. Pratt.”

“It is not,” Jacob acquiesced, “but this morning I desire to travel to town first-class.”

Whilst he waited for the train, Jacob read again the wonderful letters, folded them up, and was ready, with an air of anticipation, when the little train with its reversed engine came puffing around the curve and brought its few antiquated and smoke-encrusted carriages to a standstill. Everything went as he had hoped. In that familiar first-class carriage, into which he stepped with beating heart, sat Mr. Bultiwell in the farthest corner, with his two satellites, Stephen Pedlar, the accountant, and Lionel Groome. They all stared at him in blank bewilderment as he entered. Mr. Bultiwell, emerging from behind the Times, sat with his mouth open and a black frown upon his forehead.

“Good morning, all,” Jacob remarked affably, as he sprawled in his place and put his legs up on the opposite seat.

He might have dropped a bombshell amongst them with less effect. Every newspaper was lowered, and every one stared at this bold intruder. Then they turned to Mr. Bultiwell. It seemed fittest that he should deal with the matter. Unfortunately, he, too, seemed temporarily bereft of words.

“I seem to have startled you all a bit, what?” Jacob continued, with the air of one thoroughly enjoying the sensation he had produced. “I’ve got my ticket all right. Here you are,” he went on, producing it,–“first-class to Liverpool Street. Thought I’d like to have a look at you all once more. Sorry to see you’re not looking quite your old self, Mr. Bultiwell. Nasty things, these bad debts, eh? Three last week, I noticed. You’ll have to be careful down Bristol way. Things there are pretty dicky.”

“It would be more becoming on your part, sir,” Mr. Bultiwell pronounced furiously, “if you were to hold your tongue about bad debts.”

Jacob snapped his fingers.

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