The Modern Prometheus - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Modern Prometheus ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim



Sir Francis Kernham has returned from 10 years in the colonies where he has made a fortune. He is looking for Marcia, the struggling young actress who shared his misery in a Chelsea boardinghouse. He searches everywhere for her, fearful of what she may have become, only to discover by chance that she has also elevated herself and is now the Princess Hohenmahn, married to an elderly debauched member of royalty. Will they now find love and happiness together, or has time and truth forged bonds of a different sort? The fate of these characters is strictly Victorian. The novella gives an interesting picture of late Victorian society, the role of wealth and art, and the state of society in London just prior to the arrival of the automobile, and struggle for women’s rights.

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Liczba stron: 129

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A MAN stalwart, tall, distinguished, slowly descended the steps of the Metropole Hotel and turned his face westward. The doorkeeper, who had bowed low at his exit, raised his whistle to his lips.

“Hansom, sir?”

The man shook his head.

“No thanks! I prefer to walk!” he said, shortly.

His clothes were perfectly correct, and his carriage was commanding, but amongst Londoners it is always easy enough to mark the stranger. His cheeks were bronzed with the heat of a tropical sun, and his bushy black beard, carefully trimmed though it was, suggested at once the colonial. As he walked slowly up Northumberland Avenue, he glanced frequently around him. Once or twice he made a brief inquiry of a policeman. Yet he had the air of one who revisits a locality perfectly familiar to him at some time or other during his life.

The month was May, and the sky was blue, dotted here and there with fragments of fleecy broken clouds. The waters in the fountains at Trafalgar Square glittered like little specks of molten silver in the clear sunlight. The air was soft and warm. At every corner women were selling great bunches of yellow primroses and fragrant violets. One, more energetic than the rest, planted herself in his way, holding out a bunch of the purple blossoms so that their sweetness forced itself upon him.

“Sweet violets, sir? Only tuppence a bunch! ‘Ave a bunch? ‘Ave a buttonhole, sir?”

He stopped short and stood in the middle of the pavement while she fastened them deftly in the buttonhole of his immaculate frock coat. When she had finished he dropped something in her palm, at which she started, and, being by chance honest, called after him. He only waved his hand.

“It is quite right,” he said. “I have not smelt English violets for ten years. You are welcome.”

His eyebrows contracted slightly at her shrill volley of excited thanks, and he passed on a little more rapidly. The girl, with the instincts of her class, tested the little piece of gold between her white teeth. There was no doubt about it. It was perfectly good. She commenced to discuss her good fortune volubly with her fellow-sellers until a neighbouring policeman separated and moved them on.

Meanwhile the man to whom the perfume of English violets had seemed so sweet a thing passed along Pall Mall and into Piccadilly. Here his leisurely walk became a saunter. Everything he saw seemed to interest him. He looked into the faces of the passers-by as though they were the faces of a people from whom he had drifted apart, and with whom he found it no ordinary pleasure to be once more in touch. The shops, too, attracted him, especially the art and picture shops, before every one of which he lingered. London was full–full of the keen, throbbing vitality of her best season, and the whirl and bustle of it all seemed to possess a distinct and curious fascination for him. He was evidently only an onlooker at present, yet in his strangeness there was no touch of gaucherie. He moved like a man accustomed to rule and to be obeyed. Even in the thoroughfare, whose pavements are pressed every day during certain halcyon months by the footsteps of the most distinguished-looking men in Europe, his presence attracted some attention. He had the air of being somebody. His face, with its clean-cut features, its firm mouth and dark bright eyes, was the face of a ruler. Even the deep bronze of his cheeks was, in its way, becoming. A good many people wondered who he was.

With perfect unconsciousness of sundry turned heads, he pursued his leisurely way, until he came to a standstill before the massive front of one of the great clubs. He asked a question of a passer-by, and slowly mounted the broad steps. The glass doors flew open before him. He came to a standstill upon the marble and mosaic tiles of a luxurious circular hall. An elderly man in quiet livery came forward in answer to his interrogative glance around. He produced a letter and a card from his pocket.

“Is the secretary of the club, Colonel Welland, in?” he inquired.

The steward shook his head.

“He is not in at present, sir. We expect him here about four o’clock today. Can I give him any message, sir?”

“You can give him this note and card. I will call again, perhaps this afternoon, or to-morrow.”

He was turning away when the man glanced at the card. An instant change took place in his manner. Before he had been quietly civil, now he was deeply respectful. The alteration was subtle but significant.

“I beg your pardon, sir. I have special instructions about you in case you should arrive during Colonel Welland’s absence. He desired me to say that he would have called upon you, but you did not mention your hotel.”

“It is of no consequence.”

“Colonel Welland sent me out to make inquiries, sir, but I could not find you. You are a visiting member here for as long as you choose, sir. Will you allow me to show you over the club?”

The visitor took off his hat.

“I am very much obliged to Colonel Welland,” he remarked. “I may as well have some lunch here then. I won’t trouble you to show me over just now. Another time will do.”

“Just as you please, sir,” the steward answered. “The luncheon room is this way, if you will be so good as to follow me, sir.”

The steward opened a door leading into a room of magnificent proportions and appointments, where several men were lunching at small tables. If he had expected the newcomer to be impressed, he was disappointed. He glanced around and made his way to a round table near a window.

“By the by, are there any letters for me?” he inquired of the steward, who still lingered by his side.

The man smiled.

“I believe so, sir,” he answered, and disappeared. In a few minutes he was back again, staggering beneath the weight of a huge paper-basket. The newcomer laid down his knife and fork and looked at its contents aghast.

“Do you mean to say that all that lot is for me?” he exclaimed, with knitted brows. “There must be some mistake.”

The steward bowed and thought not.

“There is another basket which holds as many again, sir,” he announced, with the ghost of a polite smile still upon his lips. “I could not have carried it in myself. The bottom would have come out.”

The man sat back in his chair with his hands stuck in his waistcoat pockets and looked up from the basket to the steward’s face. Evidently he was speaking the truth, and as to this mass of correspondence being intended for him, there could be no doubt about it. Francis Kernham, Esq., was staring up at him from a hundred different envelopes in a hundred different handwritings–envelopes square and long, perfumed and commercial, type-written, and traced in the most delicate of feminine characters. A good many men and women in very different stations of life seemed to have something to say to Mr. Francis Kernham.

“I do not understand it,” he said, simply. “I do not know half a dozen people in London.”

The man smiled openly.

“Possibly not, sir, but all London knows you, sir,” he remarked.

“Ridiculous! And how the deuce did all London know that I was coming to the Wanderer’s Club?” the newcomer protested.

“Three or four of the society papers have announced the fact, sir,” the man answered. “It was in The World last week. The next morning we had over a hundred letters for you. You will find that quite half of them are begging letters and circulars, sir.”

“And the remainder?”

“The remainder are probably invitations, sir.”

“But I told you just now that I did not know any one in London.”

The steward smiled again, a gentle, deprecating smile.

“That makes no difference at all, sir. You are famous. If you have only just arrived, perhaps you have not seen the papers lately. There has been a good deal written about you, sir, the last few days.”

Mr. Francis Kernham leaned forward and recommenced his lunch. Evidently this was a phase of his home-coming which presented itself to him now for the first time.

“Take them away,” he said, shortly; “they interfere with my appetite. I will arrange for a secretary, or something.”

The steward withdrew with his burden, and the man who had become famous continued his lunch. It was a meal almost severely simple, but with his cheese he ordered a pint of the best Burgundy upon the wine list. He remained for some time sipping it and gazing meditatively out of the window. At last he rose, paid his bill, and walked slowly out into the streets again.

Almost opposite was Hyde Park Corner, already alive with a brilliant stream of the fashionable world. But he turned away from the park, and set his face southwards. This time he asked no questions. He found his way as though by instinct. A change had come over him. He walked no longer as a stranger, sauntering along the highways of a great city, fairly curious, master of his time, indifferent as to his destination. The alertness of his wandering gaze, and the good-humoured smile upon his curving lips, had alike vanished. He walked now like a man dwelling in the past, yet having a fixed destination to which his feet bore him only too slowly. The lines of his face had relaxed. His soft, bright eyes had become the eyes of a dreamer. He had turned the key of a chamber in his thoughts across the portals of which the dust of many years lay thick and undisturbed. A storehouse of old memories had escaped from long confinement; they were thronging around him, they glided along by his side through the crowded streets, they whispered in his ear, caught at his heartstrings, and floated before his eyes. Ah, well! the hand of repression had lain heavy upon him all these years. It was lifted now. Of his own free will he was yielding himself up a willing victim to memories poignant enough still and touched with an inimitable sadness. Yet this was one of the luxuries which he had promised himself at the very crown of his success.

He came to a standstill before a dark, gloomy house in the purlieus of Chelsea. His feet had led him there unerringly, without hesitation or uncertainty. He looked up at the windows. The old legend was still on hand, “Apartments to let.” He stretched out his hand and rang the bell.

A girl with a pale sallow face and untidy gown answered it. He looked at her searchingly. She, at any rate, was not familiar.

“Does Mrs. Seely live here still?” he asked.

The girl shook her head.

“Never heard of her. Is she a lodger?”

“She used to let the apartments here,” he answered. “It was a long time ago. I daresay that she has left now.”

“I guess so,” the girl answered. “We’ve lived here seven years. Our name’s Patchett. Did you wish for apartments?” she asked, doubtfully. His appearance was not quite the appearance of a man seeking lodgings in the back streets of Chelsea.

“If you have the room I want, I might take it–for a short time,” he answered.

Her face brightened.

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