One Little Thread of Life - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

One Little Thread of Life ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim



Edward Phillips Oppenheim (1866 1946), an English novelist, was a major and successful writer of genre fiction, particularly thrillers. Among his books are „The Betrayal”, „The Avenger”, „The Double Life of Mr. Alfred Burton”, „The Devil’s Paw”, and „The Evil Shepherd”. Many of Oppenheim’s works appeared as newspaper or magazine serials before they were published in book form. The serial versions of his novels were often syndicated for publication in periodicals in the USA and other English-speaking countries. „One Little Thread of Life” made its first appearance in 1899 in The Weekly Telegraph, Sheffield, England. Mr. Oppenheim can be depended upon to give his plots that turn which is as admirable as it is unexpected, and this is one of the best of his many good and exciting books.

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“IT is,” the man said thoughtfully, “a very great question to solve, and it should be very interesting. I wish that I could focus my thoughts. The more I try to think of eternity, the more I find myself wondering whether that black water will be as cold as it looks and what particular little patch of it I shall strike. It is very annoying!”

There was no one to listen, and the man was only mumbling. Besides, a nasty yellow fog had stolen unexpectedly down, and everyone was anxious to get home. The figures of the passers-by were vague and misty, appearing and vanishing like weird shadows passing across an ill-stretched canvas: the lamps from the crawling cabs shone with a weak and sickly light, every now and then a hoarse shout, followed generally by an oath, discovered two carts with locked wheels, or a cab horse making patient endeavours to step into an omnibus. It was not a night for curiosity or sympathy. If a man chose to loiter in an arm of the bridge and spend his time peering down at the water below–well there was nobody who felt it his special mission to seek out the reason for such Quixotism. As for the policemen, every moment of their time, and every effort of which they were capable, was absorbed in the disentanglement of a much involved traffic. The young man, who looked into the water and speculated dimly as to his approaching departure from the world, was unsuspected and ignored. It was not the fashionable hour for suicides, and the weather was all against it. A glance into his face might, perhaps, have awakened the suspicions of an observant policeman, but the murky, yellow darkness had folded him round, and from where he stood be was only a shadow. There was no one who had any time or inclination to wonder why he was not, like themselves, hastening homewards out of the choking, unwholesome darkness.

Having decided as to the nature of the spring which he would give, and which leg he would raise upon the stone parapet, he waited for a moment or two until the shifting fog below should show him a clear space of black water, beneath which he should find his grave. As a matter of fact, if his mind had not been very firmly made up, he would even now have changed the manner of his death. He was a young man of artistic impulses and instincts, and his notion of floating seawards upon the bosom of the great river, which had inspired so many of those whom he had called his masters, had been considerably chilled by the gloominess of the day, and the rank hideousness of his surroundings. It was distinctly not a pleasant way of terminating existence: but, while he was annoyed with himself for having made such a mistake, he never for a moment contemplated drawing back. He had come here with the express purpose a escaping from a life which he had dually decided to be both profitless and wearisome, and he was by no means the sort of man to be turned from bit purpose. It was not exactly what he had pictured to himself, but, after all, in a few short minutes, what would it matter! He took a last pull at his cigarette, threw it away, and began slowly to draw one leg up the parapet.

Suddenly he paused with a little gesture of annoyance, and looked sharply round. He was not mistaken. It was a man’s breathing which he had heard close at hand–almost by his side. An intruder was sharing the little recess with him–not only that, but an intruder whose purpose was similar to his own. There was no shilly-shallying about this new arrival. He had walked straight into the embrasure, and already one leg was over the parapet. The first-comer promptly seized the remaining one, and pulled its owner back to terra firma.

A pair of black, fierce eyes flashed through the fog–an angry voice, tremulous with a passionate effort to keep it below the hearing of the passers-by, rewarded his interruption with a savage oath.

“What call have you to interfere with me?” the newcomer asked. “What business is it of yours? clear out! Do you hear?”

The man addressed shrugged his shoulders.

“My dear fellow,” he said, “there is no at occasion for you to be violent. I merely wished to point out that I am already in possession of this spot, apparently for the same purpose as yourself. There are seven other recesses on this side of the bridge, and eight on the other; yon are welcome to any of them. This one, however, is engaged.”

A short, hard laugh from the listener. Nevertheless, he bent forward through the fog, and strove to see into the face of his companion.

“And supposing I prefer this particular spot and this particular moment for my purpose,” he said, “what business is it of yours? There are 15 other places for you, too. Go and choose one of them.”

The other shook his head gently.

“Come,” he said, “you are neglecting the fundamental principles of equity. Possession is nine points of the law. I found this spot first, and I claim it. You may just as well go quietly. I Shall not permit you to carry out your intention from here. I am not going to share a yard or two of Thames mud with a complete stranger.”

Again the hard, cold laugh–the attempt to peer through the impenetrable pall.

“Upon my word, you’re a cool hand. Never mind. You’ll find that I can be obstinate, too. I’m going over from here, and nowhere else.”

The young man shrugged his shoulders, and drew a little nearer to his companion. He had no intention of being taken by surprise.

“Better choose another place,” he said. “If you try it here I shall stop you and give you in charge.”

“I reckon I can tire you out,” was the prompt reply.

“If you are going to try it, you will pardon me if I smoke,” the first-comer said. “A fog like this gets in the throat, and makes me generally uncomfortable. May I offer you a cigarette?”


“Well, don’t get cross about it. Here goes for a light. How oddly things turn out. A few moments ago I was thinking what a pity it was that such excellent cigarettes should be spoilt–the water so soon gets through everything, you know–and here I am, smoking once more. Better be amiable, my friend, and move on to the next recess. I shall last out as long as my cigarettes, and by that time the fog will have lifted, and people will he thinking us lunatics.”

There was only a growl for an answer. The young man sighed gently, and watched the smoke from his cigarette vanish in a wreath of mist. All the time he kept one eye fixed carefully upon his companion.

“You will pardon my making the remark,” he continued, after a few moments’ pause, “but you do not seem to me to be in at all a proper frame of mind for the carrying out of your purpose. One should leave this world, providing the passage from it is to be voluntary, in a perfectly calm and equitable state. There should be no excitement, nor any undue dejection. You will forgive my being personal, I am sure, but I cannot help thinking that you had better wait for a little while and endeavor to cultivate a more suitable condition. Might I suggest that you take a little stroll down and endeavor to make a calm selection of one of the other recesses...No you don’t! If you are foolish and struggle, we shall hare a policeman here.”

A sudden, swift effort on the part of the listening man had been promptly and successfully frustrated. The two men stood so close now that the hot breath of one fell upon the other’s cheek.

“Who the devil are you?” asked the latest comer, fiercely.

“My name is Eric Driscoll,” was the suave reply. “You can call me Driscoll, if you will. And yours?”

“Richard Hobson–though what business it is of yours, or why I tell you, I don’t know. I’ve stood about here like a fool long enough. I’ll move on. You shall have your way; I’ll take the next recess.”

The man who had called himself Driscoll laid his hand upon the other’s sleeve. “Come, come,” he said, “don’t be in such a hurry. The fog is getting thicker–any time will do for our little affair. I had to light this cigarette because of you. Stay with me while I finish It. I declare I shall feel quite lonely when you are gone.”

The latest comer assented without seeming to assent. He remained where he was, sullen, morbid, fierce. His clothes were shabby, and his coat, buttoned up to his neck, betrayed the lack of a collar. He was apparently still young, but his face was hardened and lined as though prematurely. He looked Driscoll up and down and sneered.

“You’re humbugging me,” he said. “Yon never meant to go over.”

Driscoll shrugged his shoulders.

“But for your arrival, my friend,” he said, “I should have gone over, as you call it, several minutes ago.”

Hobson remained incredulous.

“You’re not hard up,” he said. “Your clothes would pawn for a fiver.”

Driscoll smiled softly. Amongst a peculiarly exclusive set he had earned the reputation of being a well turned-out man. This new testimony to his appearance amused him.

“You are quite right,” he said. “I am not hard up. I have, in fact, plenty of money. What has that to do with it?”

Hobson was taken aback. His answer was not a ready one.

“Well–everything, I should think. Unless you’ve committed a murder, and stand a chance of being nabbed for it, I can’t think of any other reason for a man to commit suicide.”

Driscoll looked at him for a moment as a man looks at a creature beyond the pale of his comprehension. Then he sighed, and flicked the ash of his cigarette on to the pavement.

“My friend,” he said, “you are, I perceive, a materialist.”

“Materialist be –-!” was the rough answer. “I’ve had nothing to eat for two days!”

Driscoll regarded him in honest and blank amazement.

“Nothing to eat for two days!” he repeated.

“Not a scrap,” was the answer. “It’s all over now, so I don’t mind telling you. Yesterday it would have sounded like begging. To-night–between you and me–It’s only a curious fact.”

Driscoll lit another cigarette.

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