Master of Men - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Master of Men ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim



Victorian Socialist Romance. Enoch Strone is a book-loving rustic loner who lives in a remote hand-built cabin. He works as a mechanical engineer in the industrial town of Gascester. One evening he meets a poor factory girl, Milly, who has been abandoned by her friends during a walk in the woods. On the same day he is accosted by the Reverand Martinghoe who introduces Strone to his beautiful, widowed, wealthy sister Lady Malingcourt. Strone is bewitched by her lovely singing and the seductive manners of the jaded upper class widow.

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UPWARD in long sinuous bends the road wound its way into the heart of the hills. The man, steadily climbing to the summit, changed hands upon the bicycle he was pushing, and wi he sweat from his grimy forehead. It had been a gray morning when he had left, with no promise of this burst of streaming sunshine. Yet the steep hill troubled him but little–he stepped blithely forward with little sign of fatigue. His workman’s clothes, open at the throat, showed him the possessor of a magnificent pair of shoulders; the suggestion of great physical strength was carried out also in his hard, clean-cut features and deep-set, piercing gray eyes. He passed a grove where the ground was blue with budding hyacinths, and he loitered for a moment, leaning upon the saddle of his bicycle, and gazing up the sunlit glade. A line or two of Keats sprang to his lips. As he uttered them a transfiguring change swept across his face, still black in patches, as though from grimy labor. His hard, straight mouth relaxed into a very pleasant curve, a softer light flashed in his steely eyes. He reached a wooden gate at last on his right-hand side, and, pushing it open, skirted a stone wall until he came to a sudden dip in the field, and with its back against a rocky eminence, a tiny cottage built of the stones which lay in heaps about the turf. He leaned his bicycle against the wall, and, taking a key from his pocket, unlocked the door.

“Saturday at last,” he exclaimed aloud. “Thirty-six hours of freedom. Phew!”

He had plunged a basin into the soft-water tank outside and held his head in it for a moment. Then, all dripping, he carried a canful to a hollow bath ingeniously fixed among the rocks against which the cottage was built, and, throwing off his soiled clothes, jumped in. There was no longer any sign of the grease-stained mechanic when he emerged, and, with his towel wrapped lightly around him, stepped into the cottage. He reappeared in a few minutes clad in a gray homespun suit, which showed many signs of wear, a pipe in his mouth, a book in his hand. Leisurely he filled a kettle from the well and thrust it into the centre of the small wood fire, which he had kindled. Then, with a sigh of relief, he threw himself upon the soft, mossy turf. The book lay unheeded by his side. From his high vantage point he looked downward at the wide panorama which stretched to the horizon, faintly and mistily blue. The glorious spring sunshine lay like a quickening fire upon the land.

The tree tops, moving lightly in the west wind, were budding into tender green; the dark pine groves were softened; the patches of rich brown soil, freshly turned by the plow, gleamed as though with promise of the crops to come. Below him the dusty lane along which he had traveled stretched like a narrow white belt, vanishing here and there in the woods and disappearing at times between lichen-stained gray walls. He traced it backward across the silvery brook, back to the quaint village with its clustering gray stone houses, red-tiled roofs, and strange church tower, and watched for a moment the delicate wreaths of smoke curl upward, straight with the promise of fine weather. Farther still he followed it into the flat country past the reservoir, a brilliant streak of scintillating light, back into the heart of the town whence he had come, and which stretched there now in the middle distance a medley of factory chimneys and miles of houses–a great foul blot upon the fair landscape.

He remembered it as he had ridden out an hour or so ago, the outskirts with all their depressing ugliness, a cobbled road, a shabby tramcar with a tired horse creeping along a road where dirty children played weary games and shouted shrilly to one another. A miserable region of smoke-begrimed houses and small shops, an unattractive public house at every corner, round which loafed men with the white faces of tired animals, and women dragging babies and shouting abuse to their more venturesome offspring. With painful distinctness he saw it all–the opened factory gates, the belching out of a slatternly mob of shrieking girls and ribald youths, the streets untidy with the refuse of the greengrocers’ shops, the hot, fetid atmosphere of the low-lying town. He closed his eyes–ah, how swiftly it all vanished! In his ears was the pleasant chirping of many insects, the glorious sunshine lay about him like wine, the west wind made music in the woods, one thrush in particular was singing to him blithely from the thatched roof of his cottage–a single throbbing note against a melodious background of the whole woodful of twittering birds. The man smiled to himself, well pleased.

Then his thoughts in relief slipped away from the present to the little perfumed garden of the vicarage across the hills. He was there in the deepening twilight listening in wonder to the song that floated on the still air. The voice was that of a woman such as Strone had never looked upon before. He closed his eyes with the memory–the night lived again for him as the song grew–and the air seemed suddenly sweet and vibrating with .music. He was strangely, wonderfully thrilled, for that night from the lips of this tired woman of fashion, there had come to him a new wonder in life. His pulses quivered with the memory of it, of the music that died away. As in a dream he saw her again upon the threshold of the French window looking listlessly out at them, her beautiful slim figure softly defined against the rose-shaded background. Every detail of that wonderful moment was stamped upon his mind forever. The gleam of the Reverend Martinghoe’s cigar shone softly in the silence– the eager words of the two men had long since died away, and Strone’s gaze went in thought from the man who had brought him there to the face of Lady Malingcourt who had come out to them in the darkness. With a rich voice that seemed still to hold the last note of her song, she had chided them for their lack of compliments.

The Reverend Martinghoe had only laughed as he looked up at his sister, but Strone the mechanic, the laborer from Gascester, who had penetrated these precincts only on the older man’s kindness, had moved from out the shadows and with a few murmured words had ridden away as in a dream. . . .

A carriage grated on the road beyond. Strone opened his eyes and saw a brougham and pair leisurely ascending the hill; he watched it with surprise for it was a rough road and seldom used. It drew level with him, and he became aware of a brilliant vision, a Bond Street toilet, a woman fair and listless, leisurely extending a daintily shod foot to the step of the suddenly checked carriage. He was astonished to find himself the possessor of emotions more fierce and vivid than any he had ever imagined. He was suddenly shy and awkward.

She stepped across the road and held out a gray-gloved hand.

“How do you do, Mr. Strone? Are we really anywhere near this wonderful cottage of yours?” He pointed to where the smoke crept up behind the hillock.

“You are very near, indeed, Lady Malingcourt,” he said.

She paused, suddenly embarrassed. How stupid the man was, standing there like an owl.

“I am curious to see the outside,” she said. “I cannot imagine what a home-made house looks like. It reminds one so much of the picture books of our youth. Can I see it from the other side of the field without climbing anything?”

Strone threw open the gate, and she passed through, her gray skirt trailing with a silken rustle across the short, green turf. She looked at him sideways languidly–how stupid the man was.

“I have been paying calls,” she said; “–a dreary ordeal in the country. People expect you to play croquet or smell flowers, and have tea out of doors. So extraordinary. Life seems made up of people who live in London and have houses in the country, and people who live in the country and have houses in London. Such a wonderful difference, isn’t there?”

“I suppose so,” he answered.

Then there was a short silence. It was an event, this, so bewildering, so unexpected, that Strone was unable to recover himself. A new shyness held him speechless. Lady Malingcourt, who was wondering now if she rightly understood it, did nothing to help him.

Of the wonderful hour that followed Strone had a rather confused impression. Little by little his tongue became loosened, he initiated her into the mysteries of that very simple place his hermitage, and all unknown to himself, to that rather complex thing the man. She enthused over the one and affected to ignore the other, while with rare subtlety she threw into their talk a salt-like impetus in regard to his work that stung.

“I must go,” she said at last rising. “Remember that John is bringing me to have tea with you next Sunday. I have promised to take him to Lingford Grange to dine to-night.”

The man at her side stopped suddenly.

“Will you sing to them there?” he asked.

She did not answer at once. She was studying the picturesque incongruity of Strone with his surroundings, the contrast between his marvelous attire and his easy, fluent speech. Neither flustered nor assertive, he was unconscious of his quiet, strong mastery; encouraged to talk he talked; when opportunity came he was silent. She was filled with admiration of the man, the genius, the mechanic inventor who, his brother had told her, was to make a name that would live; and there stole to this blase woman under the glancing sunlight a strange new feeling which she defined as interest.

“Why? You will not be there surely?”

He ignored the insolence of her question.

“If you mean that I shall not be one of Colonel Drevenhill’s guests–certainly not,” he rejoined. “Nevertheless if you are asked to sing, I hope that you will.”

He watched the carriage until it was out of sight.

All the rest of the afternoon he lay on the warm turf above the cottage smoking fiercely, and reading Heine. Then a gate slammed. The book slipped from his fingers. He sat up, listening, his heart beating thickly, his eyes ablaze. It was a woman who came into sight, but a woman in an ill-hanging skirt, pushing a cheap bicycle, a woman hot and dusty with riding. He ground his heel upon his feeling of sickly disappointment. This was better for him. He rose and went to meet her–took the bicycle; did his best to seem pleased.

“I didn’t know whether I oughter come again so soon,” she began doubtfully, watching him with anxious eyes.

“I am glad to see you,” he said. “Have you come for more books? See, I will put the kettle on.”

He took it to the well and filled it, made up the fire, and reached down some things from the cupboard. She watched him, drawing her gloves through her hand, anxious that he should notice her new hat. He looked at her furtively now and then, wondering whether white muslins and pink roses would have the power to transform her into a creature of that feminine world of which it seemed to him that there could be but one real habitant. Her thick stuff gown, her untidy skirt, and pitifully cheap little hat–he looked them all over mercilessly.

She felt vaguely that her appearance displeased him, yet he had seemed glad to see her. She made up her mind to believe he was glad. It had been so miserable a week–every morning she had woke up in her stuffy little room with only this thought to cheer her–that she was one day nearer Saturday. Much scheming–even a harmless little fib had gone to the buying of the new hat. She had earned it fairly enough. A record week’s wages, a dizzy head, fingers and hands sore with labor. But her reward had come. She threw herself upon the turf by his side.

They talked very little. The birds were singing and the west wind blowing through the tree tops. Below them a wade stretch of country, blue-carpeted woods, brown and furrowed fields, fields green with sprouting corn. The girl spoke timidly of the books she had read; he listened, blowing out dense clouds of tobacco smoke. She talked, and every now and then she sighed.

“It is so beautiful here,” she murmured. “If only there was no going back.”

He was silent. His eyes were fixed upon the tall chimneys and smoky clouds which hung over the city. The girl was picking grass and throwing it away. Her hand met his, sought his touch –and Strone, so unused to anything of the sort, was embarrassed, and clumsily removed it. She rose up at once.

“You don’t want me here any longer,” she said. “I’m off.”

He stopped her.

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