The Golden Beast - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Golden Beast ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Edward Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) was the earliest writer of spy fiction as understood today, inventing the „rogue male” school of adventure thrillers and writing over 150 novels of all sorts. In „The Golden Beast”, a woman curses her lover’s father, a baron, who had her gamekeeper father hanged. Years afterward, three of the baron’s descendants disappear in a manner that baffles Scotland Yard, appearing they were the victims of that ancient curse. Written in 1925, with a powerful Jewish family as the main characters, there are strong descriptions and anti-Semitic characterizations. The men are greedy, money obsessed, and unattractive. The women are beautiful, alluring, exotic, and immoral.

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Liczba stron: 388

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Contents

BOOK 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

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

BOOK TWO

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER I

Israel, first Baron Honerton, famous in commercial circles as chairman of the directors of Fernham & Company, Ltd., the great wholesale chemists, Lord of the Manor of Honerton Chase, in Norfolk, sat at the head of the long black oak table in the banqueting hall of the ancient and historic mansion which he had bought, as the auctioneer described it, “lock, stock and barrel”, two years ago. One of the shrewdest financiers in England, a multimillionaire, in all the ordinary affairs of life a grim materialist, he was liable at odd moments to strange fits of abstraction, to mental wanderings almost akin to those of the visionary, during which the appearance of the man himself seemed to become transformed. Of his type he was a person of fine presence. He was tall and slim, even to lankiness. He had still a wealth of grey hair, fine, though harshly cut features, overhanging eyebrows, a pitiless mouth, eyes generally keen and hard, but filled at such times as the present with a curious, unearthly light. Even his attire seemed part of the man. He wore conventional dinner clothes, but cut after some ancient and unrecognisable pattern, the waistcoat high, the coat loose and double breasted like a smoking jacket. His collar was of the fashion of a hundred years ago; his black tie little more than a wisp. Yet, although his father had been a small master tailor, and his mother had served in a fish shop, he alone amongst that company had the air of having come to the place which was his in life.

The background and the setting of the feast now in progress were alike perfect. Honerton Chase was one of the show places of the world, and inside as well as out it was architecturally unique. There was nothing of the vandal about Israel Fernham, Lord Honerton. He had, as a matter of fact, a taste for beautiful things at least equal to the last hopelessly bankrupt owner of the great house he had acquired. The sombreness of the walls with their fine oil paintings and occasional choice pieces of armour had remained untouched. The tapestries which covered the north side of the room had even been left unrenovated lest any charm of the old colouring should be lost. The servants who waited were the best trained of their order; the butler had known royal service. Glass, silver and flowers were alike perfect. The guests!–It was his contemplation of the guests, most of them members of his own family, which had sent Israel, Lord Honerton, off into one of those mysterious fits of abstraction. There were three sons of the house and their wives. There were two daughters, both married, with their husbands. There were two Englishmen whose birth and breeding brought them well and aptly within the setting of the picture, but whose reputations were tarnished, and who had spent the best years of their lives slipping from the places which they should have occupied in the social world. Then, there was the youngest son of the house, on whom his father’s eyes had rested longest; a young man only just down from Oxford, dark, clean-shaven, reputedly clever, the sole inheritor of his father’s lean face and deep-set eyes; the sole inheritor it seemed too, in those slowly ticking moments of revelation, of the traditions of his race.

The babel of conversation around him rose and swelled. It was a family party amongst people with whom family meant intimacy, unbounded kindliness, and a decided gift for light conversation of the chaffing order. There was a great deal of champagne being drunk by the women as well as by the men–more than a great deal of noise. Once his father’s eyes strayed towards Cecil’s glass. He, alas, was as the others, the flush already creeping into his cheeks, the gleam in his eyes no longer one of intellect. Some of the men and the women, too, were already smoking cigarettes, although the dinner was only half served. The laughter now and then was uproarious.

Through it all Israel, host of the gathering, sat still in his trancelike mood, his wine glasses empty, a tumbler of water by his side. It was one of many moments of bitterness, when his eyes saw the truth and the judgment of his brain, unbiassed by his affections, spelled out the condemnation of these, his own brood, the children of his blood and bone. They were his sons, but he knew that the hand of luxury and evil living had laid its slur upon them. They all carried too much flesh; their mouths had loosened. Money, wine and pleasure were claiming their own. And the women–there was a vein of idealism in the nature of this man who watched so sorrowfully, a touch of those sterner joys of renunciation handed down to him from the great forefathers of the race from which he sprang–the women filled him with a sense almost of shame. Judith’s shoulders were disgracefully bare, the look in Rebecca’s eyes–“Becky”, as every one called her–as she flirted with the young alien by her side, seemed to speak of modesty cast aside. Leah, once his favourite, was quieter only because she was devoting herself with more absorption to the offerings of her father’s wonderful chef. Her uncovered shoulders were almost colossal, her laughter, when she did pause to join in what had become less a conversation than a stream of chaff, was louder than ever. Alone of all the boisterous company, Rachel, his youngest daughter-in-law, showed occasional signs of shyness and discomfiture.

Although with no knowledge of it at the time, it was the last of these embittered periods of clear-sightedness in which Israel, Lord Honerton, was ever to indulge. He pursued his train of thought to its unhappy end. He looked back to his youth of poverty, remembered those days of cleaner fasting, the days when purely family joys sufficed, when the reading in the Synagogue brought a living message to these others as well as to him. He felt the passing of all that was picturesque and spiritual in life. They had gone–his four millions remained!

A servant entered the room and whispered to the butler who presently crossed to the other side of the table and leaned over Cecil.

“John Heggs, the keeper, is here, sir. He wondered whether he could have a few words with you.”

The young man received the message curiously. He turned sharply around and there was a gleam in his eyes almost of apprehension.

“Heggs!” he repeated. “What the devil does he want?”

“I understand, sir,” the butler explained, “that he was anxious to discuss the order in which the coverts should be taken to-morrow.”

Cecil’s face cleared. It was a particular vanity of his to direct the shooting on the days when others besides the house party were invited. He nodded acquiescence.

“I’ll come out at once,” he assented. “Quite right of Heggs! I wanted to see him about the long spinneys before he sent the beaters out in the morning.”

He rose to his feet.

“You’ll excuse me, Dad,” he continued, quickly, as he passed his father’s place. “We ought to have a topping day to-morrow. They’ll be tame enough for even Rudolph to hit–that is, if we can get them to fly at all.”

There were roars of laughter and a volley of chaffing reminiscences. The two strangers exchanged glances. Under cover of it all Cecil left the room, and strolled across the great hall, out towards the back quarters, preceded by one of the footmen.

“Heggs is in the far room, sir,” the man told him, “not the ordinary gun room.”

“What the mischief’s he doing there?” Cecil demanded irritably and with a momentary return of that first impulse of uneasiness.

“There’s a map of the estate there, sir,” the servant reminded him. “He was studying it when I left. I think his idea is to have three partridge drives after lunch.”

Cecil pursued his way down the stone-flagged passage. The room which he presently entered was in a wing almost cut off from the rest of the house–a large apartment with stone floor, deal table and plastered walls, used many years ago as a dairy. Heggs the keeper was studying a map which hung upon the wall, a blackthorn switch in his hand. He turned round at Cecil’s entrance, and touched the place where his hat, which reposed upon the table, would have been.

“You wanted to see me, Heggs?” the young man asked.

“I wanted a word or two with you, sir.”

“Hurry up, then. I’m in the middle of dinner. I should like the birds––”

“We’ll talk about that presently,” Heggs interrupted.

Cecil, son of Israel, Lord Honerton, stared at the speaker in amazement–amazement which turned almost in a second to fear. Heggs was a man of over sixty years of age without much physique, but he had the hard clean complexion and bright eyes of the careful liver. His hair was grey, his expression, as a rule, entirely benevolent. He was a very ordinary product of the soil, a man who loved his glass of beer, his friends, his occupation, and was supposed to know more about the hand rearing of birds and the ways of vermin than any keeper in Norfolk. It was plain, however, at this moment, that he was thinking of other things. What those things were Cecil Fernham probably knew. At any rate he made a quick movement towards the door and, finding it frustrated, opened his mouth. With surprising quickness it was covered by Heggs’ horny hand.

“You know what I’m here for,” the latter said. “You can guess what I’m going to do. If you hadn’t come to-night I should have done it to-morrow in front of all your friends. If I had a son I’d have let you two have it out. But he’s in Australia. You can squeal if you like. They won’t hear you, and if they interrupt before I’ve finished, you’ll get the rest another day.”

Cecil Fernham struggled and did his best to call for help. Neither proceeding availed him very much. With the first fierce plunge his beautifully laundered white shirt was ripped from the studs, and his collar torn. Presently graver things happened. Heggs was a kindly man and humane where his fellow creatures were concerned, but he was cruel to vermin. The affair would probably have been brought to its natural conclusion–Cecil Fernham would have spent a fortnight in his room, owing to some regrettable accident, and Heggs would have accepted one of the many other places always open to him–but for a slight and untoward incident. A scullery maid passing down the passage heard something of what was happening. She rushed, breathless, into the kitchen. There was a stampede of servants along the passageway and Heggs heard them coming. The thought that he was to be robbed of one single blow, baulked of one single second of the punishment he was dealing out, for a moment maddened him. As the door was being opened, he lifted the half-insensible body of the young man whom he had been castigating, a grim and unpleasing sight, held it over his head as he might have done the carcase of a fox, shook him and flung him on to the floor, which was unfortunately of stone. Then he turned to the door, passed through the little throng of servants, not one of whom showed the least desire to stop him, and out through a back exit into the park.

*     *

*

John Heggs conformed to type up to a certain point, and at a certain juncture in the psychological tree departed from it. On reaching home, he presented very much the appearance of a man who has got through a disagreeable piece of business and means to forget it. He completed a task upon which he had been engaged earlier in the day–cleaning a couple of guns which had been sent down for that purpose from the house. Afterwards he poured himself out a tumbler of beer, glanced into the kitchen to see that the woman, who came in to look after him since the days of his widowerhood, had prepared his breakfast, and finally filled a pipe, found the local paper, and sat down in his easy-chair to await events. He was on the point of retiring for the night, when the long expected knock at the door came. In response to the invitation to enter, his old friend and companion, P. C. Choppin, the local policeman, crossed the threshold. Choppin, who had been disturbed in the act of going to bed, was wearing his official trousers, but an old tweed coat and a hat. The gravity of his manner, however, atoned for any irregularities of toilet. He closed the door firmly behind him and there was an ominous jangle in his coat pocket in which he was feeling.

“This is a very bad job, Mr. Heggs,” he said gloomily.

Heggs folded up his paper and rose to his feet.

“It’s none so terrible, Choppin,” was the undisturbed reply. “I’ve just gi’en one of them young varmints up at the house sum’at that he deserved. I’m willing to go to jail for it, though, if it’s their wish.”

It is doubtful whether this was not the moment of P. C. Choppin’s life. He realised that it had fallen to him to convey the fell tidings. He was not an ill-natured man but he was carried away by the enormity of his news.

“You’ve broke his neck, Heggs,” he announced solemnly. “He’s dead! He were stone dead when they picked him up!”

Heggs looked a little dazed.

“I didn’t go for to do that,” he muttered, half to himself.

Choppin shook his head mournfully.

“You ma’un put ‘em up, John Heggs,” he said. “I hurried here before the Sergeant from Fakenham, who be on the way. I thought you’d rather it were a friend.”

The handcuffs clicked on Heggs’ wrists. For the first time in his life P. C. Choppin had arrested a murderer.

*     *

*

John Heggs, notwithstanding a strong recommendation to mercy, was hanged by the neck until he was dead, and Israel, Baron Honerton, sat outside Norwich jail in his automobile and listened to the tolling of the bell as one who hears music. As he gave the word to drive off he found himself surrounded by a small but hostile crowd. It was a matter of common report in the City that but for his tireless efforts the jury’s recommendation to mercy would have had due effect. They had heard, these people, of his frequent visits to the Home Secretary. There were rumours that he had threatened a withdrawal from the political party to which his entire adherence had been given, if any measure of leniency were shown to the condemned man. They closed in upon him now menacingly and the words they shouted were not pleasant to hear. Yet, for the first time since his son’s death, Israel smiled. He let down the window of his automobile and looked out into the driving rain.

“Is there any one who wishes to speak to me?” he asked.

There was a volley of catcalls and abuse, sounding oddly enough against the background of that slowly tolling bell, but no single person accepted the challenge. Israel was on the point of giving his chauffeur orders to drive on when a girl came from the edge of the crowd and approached the automobile. She was young, good-looking in a somewhat quiet manner, neatly, even fashionably dressed. She advanced to the side of the automobile and looked in at its occupant.

“Are you Cecil’s father?” she enquired.

“I am,” he assented.

She pointed to the jail.

“He was my father,” she said.

Israel scrutinised her from underneath his heavy grey eyebrows and there was neither interest nor pity in his face.

“It is you loose-living women,” he declared, “who bring death in amongst us. Do you realise that it is for the gratification of your lust that I have lost my son and you your father?”

She answered him quite calmly. She was obviously a person of education. She was, also, undoubtedly possessed of a rare gift of restraint.

“What about your son?” she asked. “He was my first lover.”

“That may be so or it may not,” he rejoined. “A wanton has no knowledge of the truth. Are you here to beg from me?”

For the first time she showed some sign of emotion. Her eyes were lit with anger.

“Money! Money! That is all you and your breed think of!” she exclaimed passionately. “You buy your pleasures, your wives, and you would buy your way into heaven if there were such a place. It is perhaps as well that your son died. He would have grown like the rest of you.”

“He bought you, I suppose,” Israel remarked.

She took off her glove deliberately, removed a small platinum ring from her finger and threw it into the bottom of the car.

“That is the only present I ever had from your son,” she announced–“the only one of value I was ever willing to receive from him.”

“What do you want from me?” he demanded abruptly.

The bell had ceased to toll. The crowd of people were slowly dispersing. One or two policemen had put in a casual appearance. There was still every now and then, however, a menacing shout, and once a stone struck the back of the car. A brewer’s dray, passing, spattered her with mud. She waited until it had gone before she tried to speak.

“I came to remind you of what you already know,” she said. “Of you two men–you and my father–it is you who are the murderer, not he. My father has died at your hands a shameful death. I found him reading the Old Testament when I paid him my farewell visit. He was reading your code–‘Life for life, eye for eye.’ Something like that, isn’t it?”

“Well?”

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