Simple Peter Cradd - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Simple Peter Cradd ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Edward Phillips Oppenheim is considered one of the originators of the thriller genre, his novels also range from spy thrillers to romance, but all have an undertone of intrigue. This novel is one of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s best works and opens with a fantastic description of the boring life of Mr. Peter Cradd, leather merchant, husband, father, slave to his family, stoic self denier, and all-around put upon man in the bowler hat. He is barely able to pay his bills, has a wife who seems him only as a wallet, and two children whose most favorable opinion of him is disappointment. He answers a letter from a lawyer, and finds out that he has inherited a fortune. What he does with it, where he moves, how he educates himself, and whom he loves form the rest of the story?

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Liczba stron: 452

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Contents

PART ONE

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

PART TWO

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

PART THREE

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 XXXIV

CHAPTER XXXV

PART ONE

CHAPTER I

PETER CRADD had waked that morning in a curiously detached frame of mind. His occasional matutinal irritability was not in evidence. He waited patiently until Henry and George, his two sons, had vacated the bathroom, regardless of the fact that by virtue of a common understanding they had no right to enter its sacred precincts until he himself gave the signal. He listened without even a single sarcastic comment to his wife’s long series of complaints against Sarah, their domestic appendage, as the former fussed around the room. It all suddenly seemed to him so insignificant–his wait on the cold oil-cloth with his underclothes and socks upon his arm, the screeching of the gramophone below which always made his head ache before breakfast–Lena, his jazz-mad seventeen-year-old daughter was the culprit–his wife’s monotonous grumbling, which, having disposed of Sarah, passed on to severe strictures upon the tradespeople, regrets that they could not afford this or that, naggings about Henry’s cigarettes and George’s unpunctuality. He watched her covertly as he tied his tie. She had grown much stouter during the last few years, and, without a doubt, her voice had become louder and more peevish. Her hair, which she had once been persuaded by a more frivolous neighbor to have touched up, was now an unpleasant shade of ashen grey, her underclothes seemed cumbrous to him, and to require excessive manipulation–untidy, with strings, garments without lure or mystery. He found himself dreaming for a moment guiltily of the chiffon-strewn windows of a West End shop which he passed most mornings–the waxen figures with their modest yet brazen display. There was one attired in the filmiest of pink crêpe de Chine, leaning a little invitingly forwards, whose eyes seemed sometimes to meet his–a creature of wax–and yet!

“Will you tell me, Peter, what you are sitting there mooning for, with breakfast all but ready, and your bus to catch?” a hard voice suddenly demanded. “I don’t believe you’ve heard a word I’ve been saying.”

Peter Cradd was already on his feet, pulling at the ends of his tie.

“Yes, my dear, I heard–of course I heard,” he assented, trying to reconstruct the sense of that vague tinkle of babbling words. “It was about Padstowe, the butcher. Certainly, if you wish to make a change, go to Jones. Give him a trial, by all means.”

His better half threw him a suspicious glance.

“Wish you’d had common sense enough to say so six months ago,” she grumbled. “You wouldn’t listen to it then, just because this Padstowe was a Mason, or an Odd Fellow, or something.”

“My dear,” Peter Cradd explained, “I like to deal, where I can, with my friends, but one must have the best value. Certainly, with our limited means, one must insist upon the best value! You are quite right there.” Once more, Harriett Cradd looked at her husband long and suspiciously.

“Can’t make out what’s come to you this morning, Peter,” she observed. “You seem–well, gone away from yourself, somehow–seem to be looking – where on earth are you looking, Peter?”

“I really don’t know, my dear,” he assured her hastily. “Fancy on your part–fancy! Ah, the gong! Now for breakfast. Do I smell kippers?”

“You may,” she answered, “but it’s haddock you’re going to have. And just speak to George about getting in so late, will you–Night after night it’s the same thing. That Seddon girl, I’ll bet!”

Mr. Peter Cradd made no reply, but he knew very well that no reproof to any one would pass his lips that morning. He took his place at the end of the ill-laid breakfast table, and although the far-away expression was still in his grey-blue eyes, he saw everything with an unaccustomed and peculiar distinctness. He saw the stains upon the tablecloth, the sticky marmalade pot in which some one had stuck a knife and left it, the butter, an unwholesome-looking mess, already trickling towards the edge of the dish, the mangled remnant of a thin, boney haddock, the succulent parts of which had already been seized upon by the early comers. An indifferently baked tin loaf of unappetising appearance and badly hacked about stood upon a wooden platter, ornamented with ears of corn. A piece of ham, mercilessly dealt with by every member of the family, quivered upon a chipped dish. Opposite to him, his wife dispensed a thin brown liquid from a metal coffeepot, and bemoaned the fact that the milk was turning. His eyes lingered upon her. She was a large woman, of buxom type, in whom prosperity might have developed a certain good nature, but whom long years of comparative poverty had soured into a fault-finding callousness.

The charm of femininity had passed; there was nothing left even to light the dim fires of memory–a human being, perhaps, no more–unwieldy of form, graceless, sexless. By her side was George, pallid and pimply, with sleek, overbrushed hair, shirt of violent design, reading a newspaper propped up in front of him–not the cricket news, but a serial, with strong sex appeal. Next to him sat Lena, undressed, after the style of the moment, good-looking in her way, but with a complexion which suggested that her cleanliness was more a matter of powder than of soap and water. She had finished her breakfast and was studying herself, lipstick in hand, with the aid of a small mirror. Opposite was Henry, a sullen-faced youth of his mother’s type. He was still eating, noisily, greedily, yet with a certain supercilious distaste of his food, expressed more by gesture than facially. This was his family–the family of Peter Cradd, leather-trades salesman, yet a man who in his youth had trifled with fancies.

“You will have to give me a little money this morning, Peter,” his wife said firmly. “The milkman is sure to ask for it, and the baker was quite rude yesterday.”

Mr. Cradd came to himself with a little start. He had been watching a faint beam of early spring sunshine lying upon the worn carpet.

“The milkman and baker, my dear,” he repeated; “certainly. Not a large amount, I hope.”

“Twenty-six shillings the two,” was the glum reply, “but if you can spare a little more–”

“I say. Dad,” George intervened, “couldn’t I join the Tennis Club? I believe I could get in just now. It’s only a guinea.”

“I’m afraid that guinea will have to come out of your own pocket,” his father regretted. “Just at present, business is bad. As soon as it improves, I’ll see what I can do.”

Henry pushed on one side a catalogue of motor bicycles which he had been studying.

“I’m the only chap in our office who hasn’t got a motor bike,” he grumbled. “I could get the best one on the road if I had five pounds down.”

“I could join the Golf Club,” Mr. Cradd sighed, “if I had the money to pay the entrance fee. What about you, Lena? What are your particular wants for the moment?”

The girl put her lipstick away deliberately.

“Well, if I had any,” she said, “it doesn’t seem to me that I should stand much chance. Not here, at any rate.”

Peter Cradd’s face momentarily hardened. Then came a merciful diversion. It was the sound which brings expectation or fear into the hearts of many millions of people every morning–the click of a letter box, the dropping in of some letters, the falling upon the hard floor of one or two envelopes. George was the nearest to the door, and he hurried out. He returned with a little packet in his hand.

“Not much good to any one, I should think,” he declared, distributing them. “Another catalogue of motor bicycles for you, Henry–can’t think how you have the cheek to write and ask for them. Bills for you, Lena– two of them. Bills for you, Mother, or circulars. Nothing for yours truly. Bills or circulars for you. Dad, and one letter. What a post!”

Lena dealt promptly with her correspondence, and pushed away the results with a little grimace. Her mother followed suit. Mr. Cradd ascertained the fact that he was indebted to Padstowe, the butcher, for three pounds seventeen and sixpence, and gathered from a hand-written and underlined intimation at the foot of the bill that the money would be acceptable. He was also reminded of the fact that even a coal merchant to whom one owed such a trifle as six pounds and sixpence sometimes requires payment, whilst the third envelope contained a circular recommending the purchase of a very superior stove. There was also the announcement of a garage to be opened in the next street, and one of those letters, the type of which Mr. Cradd knew too well from the outside. From the expensive stationery, the typewritten address, the embossed initials on the back of the envelope, he knew at once that it was from a lawyer, and the probable nature of its contents had been a nightmare for many days.

He looked around the room a little helplessly. This was life! This was what he had come to at forty-six years of age! He was unable to pay his bills. Desperately though he worked, he was behind, and getting farther behind all the time. Bills littered the table. The money for the milkman and the baker would leave him without a shilling for his lunch, and into his pocket he had dropped–a leaden weight, it felt to him–that grimmer threat which had been hanging over him for days. Then his eyes roved back to the beam of sunlight which had found a certain spot in the carpet and seemed determined to stay there. Somewhere out in the country, where men had little gardens and met their bills, the crocuses must be coming out, and, in the fields beyond, shy violets under the hedges. A sudden mental sickness seized strange hold on him. He looked at the soiled and untidy table. He looked at his unlovely family. His eyes left them all and followed that slanting ray of sunlight out of the window. He began to laugh. It was a gentle, mirthless effort, but, after all, it was a laugh. He leaned back in his chair, and through his lips still came that uncanny sound. Into it seemed to be gathered the repressed bitterness and cynicism of his unlived life. It was the cry of a soul in purgatory up to the blue skies of heaven. They all stared at him.

“What in the name of goodness has got you, Peter?” his wife demanded.

Peter Cradd made no reply. He was wiping his eyes.

“What’s wrong with your father this morning, I can’t imagine,” Mrs. Cradd continued, looking around at her family for sympathy. “Mooning about upstairs as though he’d lost his senses, and me talking to him all the time, and not a word from his lips but ‘yes, my dear’, and ‘no, my dear.’ And now sitting there laughing like a natural fool! What have you got to laugh at, I should like to know, you or any of us?”

The master of the house was himself again. He rose slowly to his feet.

“I am sorry,” he apologised. “I really don’t know why I laughed. It didn’t seem a very reasonable thing to do, I admit. I am afraid I was rather inattentive too, this morning. You see, it is so much of the same thing all the time, isn’t it–The bills must be dealt with, of course, but they are troublesome.”

“Well, at any rate,” his wife enjoined sternly, “don’t forget to give me that money for the milkman and the baker.”

Peter Cradd produced a worn, leather purse, and handed out two treasury notes, which left him with a threepenny piece and a few coppers. Then he left the room. A few minutes later, attired in a thin grey overcoat, bowler hat inked in several places, carrying an umbrella, although the day looked fine –because he did not possess a walking stick–he looked in at the door for a moment.

“Well, good-bye, all of you,” he said.

“So long. Dad!” Henry rejoined, without looking up from his catalogue.

“I wish you could have managed that guinea,” George grumbled. “It isn’t every one in this street has a chance of joining the Tennis Club. They get more select every season.”

Mr. Cradd made no reply. At that moment he would have found speech, perhaps, a little difficult. He closed the door, walked out, and made his way to the corner of the street where the omnibuses for London Bridge passed. Presently one arrived. He clambered up, having denied himself the luxury of a newspaper, and sat looking restlessly about him. Mr. Joshua Barnes passed in his new motor car, smoking his pipe contentedly and reading the morning paper. A successful man, Barnes! In the same line of business as himself, but a man who had capital, had launched out on his own account, and found it easy, without the incubus of a family, to get on in the world. Sam Bloxom, in a forty-horse-power Renault, swung around the corner and departed westwards –a prosperous-looking bookmaker, attired in conventional tweeds, Homburg hat set at a rakish angle, and smoking a huge cigar. An old admirer of his wife’s, Sam–she had more than once reminded him, in the course of her periodical naggings. Bills were no nightmare to these men. Both had made their fortunes, earned their luxuries, and, younger men than Peter Cradd, were drinking happily of their chosen cup of life. There was Richard Lasson too, a wholesale grocer, strolling out of his handsome house and calling for his customary taxicab. An excellent business, the grocery business, Mr. Cradd reflected. A pity it hadn’t been selected for him, instead of leather. Thirty-two years he had been working, he ruminated, as the bus swayed from side to side and drew up at a crowded corner. Five situations he had held. Two he had left through the failure of his employers, one because he was not pushing enough, one because he was superseded by a younger man, and this last one–well his hold upon it had become a daily struggle. And even if he held it, unless the boys could earn more money quickly, how were they to go on? …

He pushed these thoughts away and tried to plan out the day’s campaign. He made up his mind to go a long way afield, to start in one of the outlying districts of Tottenham. There was some new stock he might take samples of. Perhaps they would not be too heavy to carry if he could find a bus. Then his heart sank again like lead. Changing his position slightly, he became aware of the letter in his pocket. Slowly he drew it out. Well, at some moment or other during the day, he would have to read it. Why not now–Even though he was on the top of a bus, he was almost alone. There was a little sunshine warming him, a pleasant breeze, except when it came gustily around the corners, little flecks of blue sky overhead, no one he knew to watch him. Bravely he tore open the envelope, noticed to his surprise that the name of the solicitors engraven in the left-hand corner of the heavy note-paper was strange to him, and, drawing a little breath, fixed his attention grimly upon the typewritten lines. And this is what he read:–

Dear Sir,

We beg to announce ourselves as the London agents of Messrs. Treavor, Heaton & Co., Solicitors of Christchurch, New Zealand. We understand from the firm in question that you are sole residuary legatee of the late Mr. William John Cradd, merchant farmer and sheep dealer of New Zealand. We should he glad if you would give us a call at your earliest convenience. It transpires that the estate is very much larger than friends in Christchurch had anticipated, and they desire immediate instructions and authority to deal with the stock in hand. Our Mr. Spearmain will make a point of remaining in his office the whole of Thursday morning, and we beg that you will take this opportunity of seeing him. Faithfully yours,

SPEARMAIN, ARMITAGE and SPEARMAIN

Mr. Cradd leaned back in his seat and laughed softly. He had a pleasant habit of laughing in the face of any great emergency, when his brain failed to respond entirely to the stress of circumstances. He had once nearly been turned out from witnessing a melodrama on this account, and he had earned grave disapproval from a friend’s wife when at a funeral this strange travesty of mirth had come instead of tears. Such a letter, to him–Peter Cradd–to whom no one had ever given or lent a sixpenny bit in their lives! What an absurdity! What a trick of his brain! He looked steadily ahead of him. Then he was conscious of a hot, wet ball of paper in his hand. He opened out the letter and read it again. But it was there, in black and white, word for word. He gripped at the side of the omnibus. The conductor, who knew him well, leaned over in passing.

“Not feeling quite yourself this morning, sir?” he asked. Mr. Cradd held out his hand.

“Would you mind shaking hands with me,” he begged. “I want to feel sure that I am here.”

The omnibus conductor obliged, with a grin.

“If it were evening now, instead of morning, sir,” he said, “I might think you’d had the odd one. However, I hope it’s a bit of luck, and not bad news.”

He passed on. Mr. Cradd descended as usual at London Bridge. He was in the act of hailing the bus which crossed the bridge and set him down in Bermondsey when he felt the sudden pressure of a great determination. He crossed the road to a telephone booth and rang up the firm.

“Guv’nor come yet, William?” he asked the warehouseman.

“Not yet, Mr. Cradd. You’ll have to hop along though, if you want to get in ahead of him. Dicksons’ have returned all those samples.”

Mr. Cradd sighed. A deal with Dickson Brothers had been the great hope for the day. He pushed the thought away, however.

“William,” he said, “will you tell the guv’nor if he gets there before me, that I have been obliged to make a call in the City. I’ll come along presently. And you might look out several lots of samples from all that new American stock. I shall go down to Tomlinson’s later on.”

“Right-o!” was the bluff reply. “And look here, Mr. Cradd–you don’t mind from me, I know–just take my tip–don’t make it too late. The guv’nor’s raggy– very raggy. Dropped a hint last night about new blood wanted in the selling line.”

“Thank you, William,” Mr. Cradd replied. “I won’t forget.”

He hung up the telephone receiver, and, taking another bus, made his way to the dignified purlieus of Lincoln’s Inn. At the hour of half-past nine, he was received there with some surprise, but the mention of his name produced attentions which embarrassed him. He was installed in the room of an absent partner, provided with a supply of newspapers, and begged to make himself comfortable until Mr. Spearmain arrived. The door was closed softly upon him by a deferential clerk. Mr. Cradd looked out of the window. There was one particular tree which took his fancy–a lime tree, showing signs of blossoming. He watched the leaves bent backwards and forwards by the wind. Then he looked round the room–a stately, dignified office–glanced at the papers which had been placed by his side, and which contained new matter for him as he had decided to save his penny that morning! He took up the Times and found it all blurred. He wiped his eyes, discovered a hole in his handkerchief, and tied a knot around it for purposes of concealment, had another try at a newspaper, and was discovered there studying blankly unseen pages about a quarter of an hour later by a very pompous and dignified gentleman in morning clothes, with a red rose in his buttonhole, a carefully arranged cravat, grey moustache and side whiskers, and an encouraging smile.

“Mr. Cradd, I am told,” he said.

Peter Cradd rose to his feet.

“That is my name, sir,” he acknowledged.

Mr. Spearmain approached and shook hands. To shake hands with Mr. Spearmain was always a ceremony.

“There is no mistake, I trust,” he said. “You are Mr. Peter Cradd, born in Stevenage in the County of Hertfordshire in 18–?”

“That is quite correct,” was the nervous response. “I have my birth certificate at home.”

“You had a cousin William John Cradd?”

“That’s so. Three years younger than I,” Mr. Cradd replied. “He went out to Australia twenty-five years ago and moved to New Zealand. I often wish I’d done the same thing.”

Mr. Spearmain smiled.

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