The Marriage of Meldrum Strange - Talbot Mundy - ebook

The Marriage of Meldrum Strange ebook

Talbot Mundy

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This is an immoral story. Ommony Cottwolves is inaccurate in the report. The report is incorrect. They say that the press is saying this, and with it it can be learned that Maddrum String is a billionaire with brains, but without a heart; that his heart, if he has it, is made of iron sheets; that his stomach is of bronze, and the feet of clay; that his friendship is imaginary, but his enmity is a bitter and terrible truth; that he lacks repentance, but he has crazy ambitions; and that his superficial external resemblance to General Ulysses Grant was manifestly devised by Satan to bring the memory of this gallant soldier to bad weather.

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Liczba stron: 252

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Contents

I. “WELL MET!”

II. “I’M THINKING”

III. “PERHAPS A HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW”

IV. AS ESTHER TO AKAZUERUS

V. SHEEP’S BONES AND NO STRYCHNINE!

VI. “C.O. TO Z.P. Z.P. TO C.O.”

VII. KEY TO DESTINY!

VIII. “AND NOW FOR THE REALLY DIFFICULT PART!”

IX. “TIGER!”

X. “UP TO YOU, SIR!”

XI. “WHO EATS CROW, EH? WAIT AND SEE!”

XII. “IS EVERYTHING READY?”

XIII- —“AH-H-H!”

XIV. CHULLUNDER GHOSE PRAYS TO ALL THE GODS

I. “WELL MET!”

This is an immoral story. It proves without intending to that the best of us are weak, and the worst have elements of decency that overwhelm them when the gods get ready; none of which, of course, is orthodox. But orthodoxy is missing from the calculations of those Powers that rule us–“whatever gods there be” as Swinburne calls them.

Cottswold Ommony is incorruptible according to report. Report is wrong. They say–the Press particularly says it and infers it, nearly every morning–that Meldrum Strange is a billionaire with brains but no heart; that his heart, if he has one, is made of iron filings; that his belly is of brass, and his feet of clay; that his friendship is imaginary, but his enmity a bitter and appalling truth; that he lacks remorse, but has insane ambition; and that his superficial outward resemblance to General Ulysses Grant was devised by Satan expressly to bring the memory of that gallant soldier into disrepute.

Unexplainably in the circumstances, Meldrum Strange has friends, and Cottswold Ommony has enemies. We, who view all life accurately, classing this man as a hero, that man as a villain, may wonder; but the fact is so. Ommony stands for nearly all the things that Meldrum Strange objects to, including the heresy that more than enough is much; Strange never had enough, and loves power of money, which Ommony despises, like the rest of us he has to bow to it quite often. Ommony approves of individual liberty whereas Strange believes that all men should be beaten into ploughshares for uplifting use by their betters. They met, and there was no explosion, which is the most remarkable circumstance; but much else happened.

Charlie Wear began it. Charley stepped from a first-class compartment (it was labelled first-class) on the single-track branch of the Bombay and Southern Railway that winds among hills and trees until it makes a short cut through the forest where Ommony lives at intervals and is almost king.

Charley smiled at the naked legs of a porter nearly twice as large as himself, and sent up word on the back of a calling card that he had come, and would Mr. Ommony care to see him. So Ommony, who cares about everything interesting under the sun, sent the tonga. Less than an hour later Charley jumped off the back seat of that prehistoric vehicle, pitched his valise on to the lower step of the verandah (having not got used yet to being waited on) and is aware of Ommony taking his time about rising from a chair under the stags’ antlers on the verandah. Three dogs came down and made instant friends with Charley, while a fourth took guard.

“Well met,” said Ommony. “Come up.”

So Charley climbed the seven steps, shook hands, and sat in a canvas chair, while an enormous staghound sniffed him over carefully and Ommony filled a pipe.

“You like it here?” asked Charley.

“I’ve liked it for twenty years,” said Ommony, observing that Charley stroked the staghound’s ears without waiting for introductions–a thing very few strangers dare attempt. “Have you had breakfast?”

“Forgotten what it ‘ud feel like! Ate dead goat yesterday afternoon at a junction restaurant.”

Ommony sent for the butler, gave orders, and turned to his guest again.

“You’ve come to stay, of course?”

“If that’s agreeable. You got my letter?”

“Yes, but you didn’t say much. Tell me who you are.”

“Nobody important. Strange hired me to travel with him, but I haven’t seen him in two weeks. He sends me ahead. Time he gets to a place I’m miles away.”

“I begin to understand,” said Ommony without changing his expression. “You’re here in advance of Meldrum Strange to–”

“Dope you out? Lord, no! I did that coming up the steps. You’re O.K.”

“Thanks,” said Ommony, without a trace of sarcasm, and sat still, smoking, looking at his guest.

They resembled each other as much as a terrier does a grizzly. Ommony’s short beard disguises the kindest mouth and the firmest chin in Asia. His shoulders have stood up under responsibility for so long that the stamp of that is on them permanently. He is staunchly built, muscled up, and is exactly in the prime of life–an age that varies with individuals.

Charley Wear, on the other hand, with no more than five feet seven to boast of, and not much more than a hundred pounds of it, shows twenty-three years and weasel alertness on a clean-shaven face. You can’t tell what his hand holds, but you know he has played worse ones, and at the first glance you would trust him with your shirt. He looks like a man who has been hit hard, but who invariably won in the last round, if not sooner; nervous, keen, amused, aware of the world’s rough edges, and as hard to beat as a royal flush. His steely grey eyes looked straight into Ommony’s dark ones, and each in their own way betrayed absorbing interest.

“Strange heard of you from the gang,” said Charley. “Say this for him he has the best string ever. Picks ‘em. Knows the trick. James Schuyler Grim’s a pippin. Jeff Ramsden, half-a-ton of he-man, right end up; bet your back teeth on him. Athelstan King–Englishman, but not half-bad–used to be major in the army, but wears no monocle. Says, ‘Haw, dontcherknow,’ like the rest of ‘em, but I’ll say he’s a scrapper if scars mean anything. Olive skin, burnt on from outside. Been to places.”

Ommony smiled.

“You know him?”

“Years. He’s my friend.”

“You’re lucky. Strange hired him over the cable and sent Jeff sliding like an elephant on ice to deed him up. Strange keeps you busy–pays good, and has his money’s worth. Jeff’s sweated off about two hundred, but there’s lots left. Grim and King got past the sweating stage before Strange hired ‘em, so they don’t show it much, but they kind o’ know they’ve made the team.”

“What is Meldrum Strange doing?” asked Ommony.

“Bits of everything. Reorganizing the universe mostly. They say his roll grows faster than he can peel it off; and he’s sore with his brother man–thinks we’re crashing down to the kyoodles–”

“Which?”

“Dogs. Wants to stop it, and has it all figured out, I guess. He started a kind of detective bureau in New York with branches everywhere, and they tell me it went good until he started sleuthing in the U.S. We have legislators over there, the same as everywhere; but there’s more of ‘em, and more pork. Strange has his; so he looks back at the barrel and gets disgusted–goes bald-headed after corruption in politics, and siks the gang on. Inside three weeks he’s foul of the Senate, House o’ Representatives, Treasury, and every state legislature in the Union. Foul of all the labour unions, most o’ the newspapers, half the courts, and all the banks. They crucified him good between ‘em, some just for the fun of it, a few because they were scared, and the rest because they didn’t see why Meldrum Strange’s millions gave him any right to call names.”

“I take it you joined him after this?”

“You bet. I wanted to see the world, but all I’d got was the ambition and an imported camera. I’ve been studying that for seven years, and I’ve learned a little–not much, you understand, but more than some of ‘em. A picture concern I was working for went fluey, so I thought I’d pick a fat one next time. Strange looked good to me.”

“But what would he do with a camera-man?” asked Ommony.

“That’s it! He hates ‘em. When a man gets money he’s always crazy on some point or other. Strange ‘ud rather get shaved than have his picture taken, and he’s worn foliage since he was old enough to smoke cigars. A man in his office told me Strange was all fed up and going to travel. I began to figure on it.”

“It sounds like a difficult sum,” said Ommony.

“No. Just like any other sum. You’ve got to know the formula; then it all works out. None of the papers had Strange’s picture. They were crazy to get it, but he was careful. There’s an alley behind the office, and he can step out of the backdoor into a limousine, and straight home. He doesn’t golf. He likes yachting, but the crew’s hand-picked, and he stays below as long as there’s chance to snap him. Simply nothing doing; but I’m set on making the long trip, and down to borrowing by that time–mighty near taking a job, and praying like a priest to Lady Luck. She shows up at the very last minute.”

“Always!” said Ommony, nodding.

“Female, naturally. The papers never did have Strange in a mix-up with a woman. There was a rumour one time, but Strange has teeth and they were afraid he’d soak them for libel. Couldn’t prove a thing; had to be satisfied antagonizing the woman vote by calling him a misogynist–which they did, till further orders.

“I was down to house-to-house canvassing. But I’d a pull with two or three hotel detectives, so I specialized on new arrivals, calling on ‘em–camera with me. Funny lights are my long suit. Named a big figure, and agreed to shade it for the privilege of–all that hokum. That’s how I met Zelmira.”

“Sounds Italian,” said Ommony. “Come in to breakfast.”

“Greek,” said Charley, sitting down in the room where all four walls are draped with tiger-skins, and the only other ornament is a case of rifles in a corner. “Believe me, Zelmira Poulakis is the goods,” he went on between mouthfulls. “She’s a peach–over thirty, for you can’t fool me, but good to look at–and class if I know it. Must have money, too, if her jewellery and clothes are paid for. I got mine in advance, top-figure, and she didn’t try to beat me down a nickel. I exposed a dozen plates, and we got talking.”

Charley poured a whole cup-full of scalding coffee down his throat and signed to the hamal for more. Then he looked at Ommony, with that peculiar camera-man’s eye that sees effects between the shadow and the edge of sunlight.

“She’s like you,” he said suddenly. “You don’t mind what you tell her. I’ve heard since she had a past in Egypt or somewhere. Her husband was a crook, but that cuts no ice now she’s a widow. I fell for her hard, and got telling how I aimed to see the world with Meldrum Strange. She laughed and said she’d rather do that, too, than anything!

“If she’d been real crooked she’d have started in to play me right then, but she didn’t. I was the Weisenheimer. I told her how set I was on getting Meldrum’s picture, and she laughed. She said that ought to be easy enough. I was wondering just how to play the hand when she suddenly got cold feet and said right out that if I tried to blackmail Meldrum she’d never forgive herself for having as much as encouraged me.”

“I was wondering about that, too,” said Ommony. “Is Strange that kind of man?”

“You needn’t let it worry you!” said Charley, putting down his cup.

“All right,” said Ommony. “I apologise. It was your own fault, though. You might have made it clearer that–”

“Well, I made it clear to her; but I had the dickens of a time. She’s sweet on Meldrum or his money–both maybe; and he might do worse, or buy worse, any way you look at it. She swore she had no hold on him, but knew him well enough to ‘phone and invite him to call. So after she’d put me through a questionnaire that ‘ud make Edison look like Easy Street she agreed to tip me off. I went and lay low near the telephone for two days.”

“I should have thought you’d have made the round of newspaper offices,” ventured Ommony.

“No need. I knew what they’d pay, supposing I was fool enough to spill a good thing. I waited until she ‘phoned me, and you bet I was at the private entrance of that hotel an hour ahead of time. He got there half-an-hour ahead of time, and made for the door with a flunkey on each side, but I shot him twice and none of ‘em saw me. Then I waited another hour and Lady Luck came across. Out comes Strange with Madame Zelmira Poulakis on his arm, both of ‘em smiling, and I took one good shot before the flunkeys got wise. They didn’t say a word, but came for me to smash the camera; so I stepped into the hotel, where the detective was a friend of mine, and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it inside there. I guess they said nothing to Meldrum, for fear of their jobs–or if they did, maybe they said they’d smashed the camera.

“Anyway, I didn’t waste any time then. I developed and printed the pictures that night, and believe me, they were good. Next morning I put copies in an envelope with my calling card, and sent ‘em up to Meldrum Strange’s private office, saying I’d wait for an answer. It wasn’t five minutes before he sent for me.

“‘How much d’you want?’ he demanded. He was scornful, and he had his cheque-book on the table. Got to hand it to him; he can eat crow good. I could have taxed him. He was three ways when I pulled out the negatives and broke them–pleased, surprised, and curious to see what card I’d play next.

“So I made no bones about it. I said right out I aimed to travel with him, and all I’d planned for was an interview. So he said, ‘Well, you’ve had your interview, and you’ve smashed your negatives. What if I turn you down now?’ And I said, ‘Go to it. Then I’ll know you’re not the kind of man I want to travel with.’ We hit it off good after that. He hired me at the end of fifteen minutes. I went and told Zelmira, and she let me buy the dinner just to celebrate.

“No glad rags, and no money. Had to do something about it. Sooner than bleat to anybody else I told her, and she was tickled–lent me the price and some over. I paid her out of the first cheque. Strange had me sworn not to say a word about his movements to anyone, so I didn’t drop a hint, although I saw Zelmira pretty often. But she understood; she isn’t like a Greek at all–downy, I dare bet, and up to her eyes in ambition, but on the level. She found out when he was going, and where; maybe she asked him; I don’t know.”

“But what did Strange come to India for?” asked Ommony.

“Open an office, I guess–Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Simla–he aims to be a sort of clearing house for information so’s to trip crooks before they get started–card indexes to beat the encyclopedia–everything in ‘em from a man’s past to what he might do if the game looked good. Poker out of books, I’d call it, but that’s his affair. The funny part is this: he’d come away to give the papers and the public time to calm down and forget him, Zelmira Poulakis included. I know about her, because on the steamer coming out he asked me whether I’d let on to her about his Well, we hadn’t been in Bombay before she puts up at the same hotel!”

“Tagged him, eh?”

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