The Distributors - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Distributors ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Lord Evelyn and a group of seven like-minded esthetes make up „The Ghosts” a cabal of social arbiters, of whom the mere mention is regarded as a faux pas. They are imbued with almost mystical power in setting tastes and trends and behavior for the members of Society in London in 1908. Desperate for stimulation „The Ghosts” embark on a risky program of wealth redistribution... other peoples wealth. Meanwhile, a spurned aspirant to their club, the American debutante Sophy Van Heldt, seeks revenge against them. Originally published in 1908 as „The Ghosts of Society” this intriguing novel carries the theme of social boredom, ennui, and sensation craving which entranced late Victorian Europe in the pre-war period.

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Liczba stron: 380

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Contents

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

CHAPTER XXIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXXI

CHAPTER XXXII

CHAPTER XXXIII

CHAPTER XXXIV

CHAPTER XXXV

CHAPTER XXXVI

CHAPTER XXXVII

CHAPTER XXXVIII

CHAPTER XXXIX

CHAPTER XL

CHAPTER XLI

CHAPTER XLII

CHAPTER I

THE teacups clattered, a violin from somewhere in the adjoining room seemed to be seeking new notes from impossible heights, a little group of people were talking with all the zest which the desire of a hostess for silence seems alone to provoke. A girl was drawing the attention of her neighbours to something which was taking place a few yards away–a very familiar happening at such gatherings. Their hostess was performing an introduction.

“Look!” the girl exclaimed. “Pamela has her heart’s desire at last. The duchess is presenting Lord Evelyn.”

“Scarcely her heart’s desire, I should imagine,” a man at her elbow remarked. “I have seen them at the same functions many times this season. She could easily have met him at any one of them.”

“I heard Lady Armhurst tell her that she was sending Lord Evelyn to take her down to tea at Armhurst House the other afternoon,” another girl remarked, “and Pamela excused herself–said that she had to leave. She could have met him at any time during the last few months if she had chosen.”

“Nevertheless,” the first girl declared firmly, “I repeat that to-day she has her heart’s desire. Pamela may not know it, but she is a poseuse! She isn’t like the rest of us. If she wants a thing she doesn’t rush at it– she rather avoids it!”

“She is afraid to court disappointment, perhaps,” a man from the edge of the group remarked, “or perhaps she knows that pleasure in life only exists in its foretastes! It is the artistic temperament.”

“I want you all to look at her,” the first girl suddenly remarked. “Is she really so beautiful? If so, can anyone tell me why?”

There was a moment’s silence. Everyone looked across the room.

They saw the disappearing hostess, and they saw the man and the girl whom her careless words had brought into the conventional knowledge of each other. No one looked at the man, for the simple reason that notwithstanding his reputation for extreme exclusiveness, there was no person in London whose face and figure were more familiar to these few people. They looked at the girl. She was tall and slender almost to thinness; her fair hair was parted in the middle and just visible under her black picture hat; her profile was like a delicate etching of Hellier’s; her eyes were soft and large and gray, with the glint of a warmer colour when she smiled or looked interested, as the sun may draw life from the still land.

“She is too thin,” one girl declared, “much too thin. Her clothes are loose enough, and yet she looks like a lath.”

“I am sure that she is delicate,” another declared.

“A complexion like hers will fade in a few years,” a man remarked, dropping his eyeglass. “Sort of girl, you know, who wouldn’t dare to be out for a moment without a parasol. Never catch her on a yacht, for instance!”

The first girl–who was an American and loved the truth–wound up the conversation.

“She is the most beautiful person I ever saw in my life,” she declared. “I cannot see anything about her that is not perfect.”

There was a moment’s silence. Then one of the other girls rose with a little shrug of the shoulders.

“You may be right, Miss Van Heldt,” she said. “And yet I do not believe that she is witch enough to get what she wants from Lord Evelyn. Here is Mr. Mallison. Ask him what he thinks.”

She leaned forward and touched a passer-by on the arm–a middle-aged man, slight and immaculate, who was not short-sighted, but who walked always with half-closed eyes, as though it were too great trouble to recognise familiar things and people.

“Mr. Mallison,” she exclaimed, “we want you to look at your new recruit, over there talking to Lord Evelyn.”

Herbert Mallison followed her gesture quickly enough. His eyes were wide enough open now. For some reason he seemed to find the girl’s words disconcerting.

“Ah!” he said slowly, “it is Miss Pamela Cliffordson, is it not?”

The girl nodded.

“She has been introduced to Lord Evelyn just now,” she said.

“A friend of mine and hers once told me that Pamela had only one idea in life, and that was to become a ‘Ghost.’ Do you think that Lord Evelyn will be able to resist her?”

Mallison looked at the two for a moment longer before he answered. Then he turned to the girl who had questioned him. Notwithstanding an attempt at lightness, he was unable to conceal the fact that the matter appealed to him seriously.

“I have never considered Lord Evelyn impressionable,” he said slowly, “and our numbers are full!”

Mallison passed on. The girl who had detained him had committed a breach of decorum in alluding to a certain matter, and his tone and stiff farewell bow seemed intended to convey his appreciation of that fact. Sophy Van Heldt leaned forward.

“Do you know,” she declared, “I think that Society of Ghosts, or whatever they call it, is just about the queerest thing I ever knew. Why can’t I get hold of some one to tell me all about it? I’d love to start one over in New York.”

They looked at her as though she had committed sacrilege. No one said a word. The girl continued gaily and unembarrassed.

“There you are, you see!” she declared. “That’s just what I can’t understand. None of you belong to it and yet you seem to think it terrible if one even mentions a thing about it. Mind, if that’s the right attitude, I’d like to be with you, but in my present state of ignorance I can’t. I simply know that seven of the most delightful, the most charming, the cleverest, and most desirable people in every way in your Society here seem to have a sort of little club of their own. They call themselves ‘Ghosts.’ You mayn’t ask them what it is all about. No one knows what they do or why they do it. To mention the matter to one of them is tantamount to social suicide. That’s all very well for you people who’ve been brought up in the fear of it,‘but I think a stranger might ask a few questions without being jumped upon.”

“A stranger may,” a quiet voice answered at her elbow. “Ask on, Miss Van Heldt. I will try and satisfy your curiosity.”

The girl turned suddenly round to find Mr. Mallison standing by her side. She was in no way disconcerted.

“That’s kind of you, Mr. Mallison,” she declared heartily. “I warn you I’m inquisitive.”

“Ask on,” he answered simply. “I promise nothing, but if I can answer you I will.”

“First, then,” the girl said, turning upon him the full artillery of her blue eyes and piquant expression, “what are the qualifications of a would-be ‘Ghost’?”

Mallison answered her readily enough. His expression was changeless, his tone matter-of-fact. The animation of his questioner, designedly provocative, found him absolutely irresponsive.

“Birth, culture, and understanding,” he said. “In the case of your sex, one might add a certain rare reticence and an earnest desire to acquire some interest in life apart from the purely mundane.”

“My!” the girl declared. “That sounds difficult. Well, what do ‘Ghosts’ do, anyway?”

“They devote a certain amount of time,” Mallison answered, “to the cultivation of their secondary selves.”

“One more question,” the girl persisted, making a brave fight against the indefinable antagonism with which she felt herself confronted. “Could I–if I tried–really tried–make myself eligible?” ,

“Never!” Mallison answered coldly. “You have not a single one of the essential qualifications.”

“You’re not over-polite, are you?” the girl remarked, ruffled at last.

Mallison looked at her with the faintest of smiles upon his thin lips.

“You are a newcomer here,” he said, with covert insolence, “and you do not understand. You have asked your questions and I have answered them. Forgive me if I add that no one except a stranger amongst us would have dreamed of exhibiting such curiosity.”

He passed on with a stiff little bow. Sophy Van Heldt turned round to the others with scarlet cheeks.

“Well, of all the rude old men!” she exclaimed. “Did you ever hear anything like that?”

She scarcely found the sympathy she expected. Everyone seemed to avoid accepting her appeal as personal. Her best friend, a young diplomat, drew her a little to one side.

“It’s a queer sort of institution that you’ve run up against, Miss Van Heldt,” he remarked confidentially. “I can understand how you feel about it, of course, but to us who know ‘em all, and that sort of thing, it’s got to be considered a kind of bad form to ask any questions or show any curiosity about the ‘Ghosts.’ I don’t suppose for a moment that they do anything except read ‘Omar Khayyam’ and talk esoteric rubbish. All the same, it’s got to be a sort of shibboleth with us to think they’re very wonderful and to let ‘em alone. See?”

“No, I do not see!” the young woman answered frankly. “I do not see why that old stick should look at me as though I were a kitchen maid out in my mistress’ clothes, because I asked a few simple questions.”

The young man was in despair.

“I don’t suppose I can make you understand,” he said. “It’s one of those things like not turning your trousers up, or wearing a ready-made tie. The unprepared mind cannot appreciate the enormity of such things. I can only say that not one of us would have dared to have asked such questions. It would have seemed to us just as bad form as to ask a man who was dining you how much he gave for his champagne.”

“Well, you’re a queer lot,” Miss Van Heldt remarked, with a resigned sigh. “I’ll never find my way about in such a fog.”

“Come and look for an ice,” the young man suggested suddenly, with a brilliant inspiration.

“I’m not sure that I want any more freezing,” the girl remarked, placing her hand willingly upon his arm. “I’ll be glad to come, all the same, though.”

They passed down the room together, but as they reached the main entrance they were confronted with a little stir, and every one drew back to leave a clear passage into the room. The girl’s fingers tightened upon his arm.

“Do tell me what is going to happen,” she whispered. “Another of our absurd conventions,” he answered, smiling.

“The gentleman who enters must be treated as royalty, although he comes from a very far-off country. We must stand still while he passes. You see even the duke is playing usher in his own household.”

“Who is it?” she whispered once more.

He signed to her to be silent for a moment. Tall and dignified, dressed in a costume which was a strange admixture of the picturesqueness of the East and the requirements of Western conventions, there came into the room the ruler of one of those countries whose curiosity as to Western civilisation had only recently been aroused, and whose visits, though so desirable as a matter of policy, are for a time particularly embarrassing to those who from necessity become their hosts. The Sultan of Dureskan boasted a descent longer even than that of the duke, who walked by his side. His subjects were numbered by the millions, his wealth was boundless, his good will almost a necessity. His appearance was impressive enough. He wore a plain black frock coat, covered with ribbons and ablaze with such marvellous jewels that a little wave of half-uttered wonder escaped from the lips of the women who bent forward to look at him. Upon his head was a small blue cap, crowned with an aigrette of diamonds.

The man’s appearance, if one found time to look at his features, was sufficiently forbidding. His mouth was coarse and cruel. His eyes were set too close together. His features seemed to reflect the long centuries of unbridled power and natural cruelty which lay behind him. Nevertheless, he carried himself with the dignity of a born ruler of men as he passed across the great reception room thronged with people, whose costumes, whose manners, even whose speech was strange to him. He carried himself with all that amazing self- possession which seems to be the peculiar heritage of people from Eastern countries.

Sophy Van Heldt looked away from his disappearing figure and turned toward her companion.

“What a marvellous person!” she exclaimed. “Do tell me who he is.”

“He is called the Sultan of Dureskan,” the young diplomat answered, “and he is the ruler of a State which lies close up against some of our Eastern possessions. I only wish,” he added, “that those fellows would stay at home. My chief has been in a fever since the day he landed. Take my advice, and if anyone offers to present you to him, don’t have anything to do with him. It’s an impossibility to teach the beast manners!”

The girl laughed softly.

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