The Postmaster of Market Deignton - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Postmaster of Market Deignton ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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This early work from the „prince of storytellers” E. Phillips Oppenheim published as a novel in 1897. Mr. Norman Scott is a young, hardworking, distinguished physician with a busy practice in London. He is called to visit a patient, Mr. Humphrey Deignton, who suffers from gout and who is murdered later. Dr. Scott is suspected. Two years later, we meet Mr. John Martin, postmaster and chemist in Market Deignton. A lonely, bitter, impoverished man. He is living near the home of Lady Deignton, seeking revenge upon the person who killed Lord Deignton, and ruined his name and career. There are lots of unexpected turns and twists to the adventure of poor John and the local color of the setting is extremely charming.

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Liczba stron: 423

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Contents

INTRODUCTION

I. JOHN MARTIN, POSTMASTER AND CHEMIST

II. A VISITOR

III. WHITE ROSES AND ASHES

IV. COMING THROUGH THE PINES

V. "BONDS OF ROSES AND A YOKE OF SAND"

VI. "I HAVE CLIMBED NEARER OUT OF LONELY HELL"

VII. A NIGHT OF HORROR

VIII. FOR AND AGAINST

IX. A VISIT FROM MADEMOISELLE HORTENSE

X. A WOMAN GREY AND GHOSTLY

XI. THE TEMPTRESS

XII. WAS THINE THE HAND?

XIII. MADEMOISELLE HORTENSE'S ADVERTISEMENT

XIV. AT DUBARRI'S RESTAURANT

XV. A COMPACT SEALED

XVI. WHAT DID HE SEE?

XVII. A WOMAN OF MYSTERIES

XVIII. "YOUR LIFE FOR MY SUFFERINGS"

XIX. A WOMAN'S PITY

XX. AN EPISODE AND ITS NARRATION

XXI. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MRS. MASON

XXII. "— SICK AM I, SICK OF A JEALOUS DREAD"

XXIII. A NIGHT PURSUIT

XXIV. THE WHITE HOUSE

XXV. A RIFT IN THE CLOUDS

XXVI. AN UNSEEN TRAGEDY

XXVII. THE SUN SHINES ON MY HOPES

XXVIII. THE ASHES OF DEAD JOYS

XXIX. IN THE ARMS OF DESPAIR

XXX. "WHOSE GENTLE WILL HAS CHANGED MY FATE"

XXXI. THE END OF JOHN MARTIN, POSTMASTER AND CHEMIST

XXXII. HOPE

XXXIII. LOOKING BACKWARDS

XXXIV. "YOU WILL HAVE NO MERCY NOW?"

XXXV. WHOSE WAS THE FACE?

XXXVI. IS THERE DEATH IN THE CUP?

XXXVII. JOHN RUDD'S LIE

XXXVIII. ESCAPE

XXXIX. ON THE THRESHOLD

XL. THE SECRET OF THE WHITE HOUSE

INTRODUCTION

“If you please, sir!”

“What is it, Morton?”

“There are several patients in the waiting-room, and your appointment with Sir Charles is for half-past one. If any more arrive, I think I had better ask them to come to-morrow.”

“Not to-morrow. Thursday, Morton. I expect to be away all day to-morrow. Dr. Stewart will relieve me, and you must go to him if there is anything special.”

“Very good, sir.”

The assistant withdraws, and the physician returns to his labours. Four more patients in turn occupy that low easy-chair, drawn so that the light from the high windows shall fall as far as possible upon their faces. The physician who listens to the recital of their symptoms, checking them but rarely to ask a few terse questions, sits back in the shadows, his perfectly impassive features and tone thrown into strong relief by the nervousness of the men and women who have come to consult him. In one or two cases he makes a brief examination, and notes the result with a few careless dashes of his pen.

One by one they enter and pass out, unconsciously typifying in their entrances and exits the whole range of human drama. There is one who passes out with a dull pain at the heart-strings and eyes suddenly blurred. No need to ask his sentence! Others find their way out into the street with lightened eyes and hearts suddenly freed from a great load. Their fate or their reprieve is spoken in a few words and in the same tone.

The physician whose counsel they have come to seek is, for a young man, marvellously hardened in his profession, but to-day his stoicism is something more than normal. The patients who have come and gone have seemed to him like moving figures in a curious dream. Behind the mask of set-calm features and stern self-repression smoulders a very furnace of unrest.

They are all gone. As the door closes upon the last, he leans back in his chair with a little gesture of relief. It is like the withdrawal of an iron band. The routine of the morning is over; his brain no longer has any need of its enforced labours. His thoughts are his own.

Gradually the physician falls away, and the man steals out. A tinge of colour usurps the studious pallor of his cheeks, and his deep-set eyes are suddenly bright. He has unlocked a drawer, and a letter and a photograph He before him. The letter is from a man, but the photograph is of a woman.

He reads the former before he glances at the latter–reads it slowly and with knitted brows, as though he expects to find in it something more than appears upon the surface. Yet a simpler or more straightforward letter could scarcely have been written.

Deignton Court, Monday,

My dear Norman,–

Mine old enemy has come upon me like a thief in the dark, and unless you can leave town to-morrow, I must needs hand over my carcase to the village practitioner here, which God forbid! Come to-morrow by the three o’clock train, and bring your gun; you must spare just an hour or two on Wednesday to try your luck with my birds. The best of the covers have not been touched yet, and there is not a man here who can shoot a little bit, so you will have it all your own way.

Don’t fail me, there’s a good fellow! You have never been to Deignton, I believe, and I shall enjoy showing it to you.

My lady bids me say that she adds her commands to my request! I will send to meet the three o’clock train, or any other more convenient to you, if you will wire.

Yours in pain,

Humphrey Deignton.

P.S.–It is in the great toe.

The letter is carefully read, and then pushed aside with a sudden gesture of impatience. For a moment he sits irresolute, then, taking a bunch of keys from his pocket, he unlocks the top drawer on the left-hand side of his cabinet, and from underneath a pile of loose papers draws out a small ivory casket, curiously carved and fastened with a silver padlock. His fingers toy nervously with it for a moment, and then the lid flies open, and a curious faint fragrance steals out into the sombre room. The casket is full of letters in the same handwriting. The one on the top, presumably the latest addition to the pile, he takes out and reads. It bears the same date and heading as the note which he has just discarded:

Deignton Court, Monday.

By this post Sir Humphrey, I am thankful to say, is sending for you professionally. You would not believe, my dear Norman, how long these few days have seemed without even a glimpse of you, or any other civilized person. The country at this time of the year is something horrible. Let nothing stand in the way of your coming, I implore you! Never mind if all your best patients die! I, too, shall feel like that unless you come, and I am–well, more than a patient, am I not?

There is nothing to tell you. This place is deadly dull, and I could not hope to make you understand how much I miss–London! Each day, at five, I have thought of you; yesterday I closed my eyes and almost fancied that I heard your horses in the avenue, and your feet upon the stairs. Tomorrow it will be better than that: I shall see you and have you here. Vive to-morrow! Look out for a line from me in your room, if I do not see you immediately upon your arrival.

Always yours,

Cora.

Word for word he reads it through, and the faint flush in his cheeks grows gradually deeper and deeper. At the end he makes a sudden impulsive gesture, as though to crumple it up in his hand and cast it from him–an impulse which seems to die away almost as swiftly as it came. How could he ever have dreamed of such sacrilege! With firm fingers he replaces the letter in the box, and turns the key.

Then, after a moment’s irresolution, he crosses the room and stands before the window, looking out across the large, dingy square, with a curiously absent gleam in his dark eyes. Something in those few feminine sentences written in bold, distinct characters across the daintiest cream paper seems to stand out like fire before him. They force him to realize what he has kept zealously in the background. There is no longer any possibility of concealment, of self-deception. He is face to face now with that fight which, since the world began, men have fought, and, alas! most often lost. His fixed eyes see nothing of the grey, smoke-begrimed sky, or the bare trees which wave their branches before the window. He looks beyond: down, down into the depths of the precipice which yawns before him, the precipice of guilt, of sin, of shame. There are voices in his ears which have been dead for awhile, voices whose counsel has ever been for his good, and which come back to him now laden with many heart-stirring memories. They will be heard; he must perforce listen to them. What is it they are saying? Dishonour, self-abasement, self-contempt! Bad words; an evil state! Yet, how fair she is, and how strong the web which she has woven! As yet the bonds are of gossamer. Some day, the voice whispers, they may be of iron–iron which eats into the soul, and which no human strength can rend apart.

It is so simple, and yet so terrible. The avenues of history since the world began are thronged with ghostly warnings. And he, too, this tall, stern young physician, he too is in the toils; and the chains which as yet have been roses, are beginning to savour of the metal. It is within his power to cast them off or to rivet them for ever, to seal them with the signet of his own dishonour, or to burst them aside and see no more the woman whose light hand has forged them. He is at the parting of the ways, and the voices in his ears will make themselves heard. To see her no more! Yes; he could do it, he is strong enough. There is fibre enough in his being to make the strain no impossibility. Only it seems to him, as he gazes out into the grey twilight of the early afternoon, that if he should do so, if he should pluck out this evil flower and cast it away, much, if not all, that is sweet to him in life must be rooted up also. It is like choosing to live for ever in the deep shadows where the sunlight may never fall. And, after all, why should he? Right and wrong, honour and dishonour, what are they but abstract states, the creation of an arbitrary code of laws? What will he be the better for following their dictates? His, at any rate, will be the loss. Whose will be the profit?

He raises himself with a conscious effort from the slough of metaphysics in which he had seemed disposed to wander. For awhile his mind moves in a healthier groove. From outside people now and then glance curiously in at the tall figure standing so rigidly before the high window. But he is at no time conscious of their notice. To him it is as though he were for the time removed from the ordinary channels of life, and rendered unconscious of its incidents. He is developing his part in that silent drama in which she and he are the solitary figures. In those few minutes of bitter and uncertain mind, it seems to him that he is shaping the fortunes of two lives.

What is it that helps him to come to that stern, sweeping decision, which from the moment even of its conception seems to remove him so far from all his past life? Is it ambition, self-respect, honour? Or is it that what has seemed love to him is, after all, counterfeit, a thing of sham, to which he has been the more subject from the hard, practical side of his professional life? It is a question which then, at any rate, he does not ask himself. But when at last he is disturbed by the sound of his waiting horses pawing the ground outside in the street, his decision is finally taken. The coffer lies empty upon his table, and its contents are a little mass of fluttering ashes upon the grate.

A few minutes afterwards he is being whirled westwards on an errand of life or death. Then follows the routine work at the hospitals, where the nurses whisper his name respectfully, and the patients follow him with their eyes and half raise themselves to look at him as he passes down the broad avenue between them. Finally, when his work is over, he is driven rapidly to Waterloo, barely in time to catch the train for Market Deignton.

*     *

*

It is dawn when he returns. The square is empty, and the tall, grey houses are gaunt and lifeless. He crosses the street and unlocks the door unnoticed. Even the policeman dozing at the corner has not seen him, and his step in the hall and on the stairs is too light to wake the servants sleeping at the back of the house. Perhaps it is as well. There is a lead-coloured shade in his face, and dark lines under his eyes which he may not wish to be made the gossip of servants’ tongues. He is in need of sleep and quiet, and he goes softly to his bedroom. Strange events have happened within these last few hours, stranger events even than he knows of.

There is not a soul to warn him. All London is sleeping, unconscious of the trembling wires which are flashing terrible messages over their housetops–news which will soon become the theme for millions of men’s tongues. The last sensation is eight days old. Away with it! It is dull and stale in comparison with this morning’s news. Already the great machinery is whirling the story on to the morning papers. In a few hours they will be in the hands of the hordes of City men on the railroads, the ‘buses, and in the streets. Is there none to warn you, Norman Scott? It is your name there in print which men and women are handling lightly, your fair fame and honour–ay, and more than that–which the world is beginning to smirch and daub with gruesome colours! See, the sun is steadily rising higher in the heavens; the morning is growing apace; the clamour of men’s tongues is becoming louder and louder. The sunlight lies across the rush matting of your bed-chamber; it is stealing up the counterpane to your wan face. Awake, Norman Scott, awake! Every hour of sleep adds to your peril. Awake, and find yourself–if not famous, at least notorious!

I. JOHN MARTIN, POSTMASTER AND CHEMIST

It is market-day in the little county town which has become my temporary abode. Out in the cobble-paved, straggling square are half a dozen stalls laden with prints and calicoes, cheap hats, fruit, picture-books, legs of mutton, sides of beef, and many other such uninteresting articles. There seems to be plenty of everything except customers, and they are scarcely expected yet. The housewives of the place are still busy with their weekend’s cleaning, and their lords and masters are away toiling on the land. Later, when the day’s work is over and the oil-lamps are lit, they will come out together to make their little purchases, dressed most likely in their Sunday clothes, and washed to a degree of shininess which, until I came to Market Deignton, I should have thought incredible.

At present most of the stall-holders are engaged displaying their goods, the larger portion of which, by the by, are carried out from the little shops which front the market-place. Strangers are not much fancied at this sleepy, old-world town. It is my friend Mr. Holmes, the linen-draper, who is hanging up a row of felt hats above that wonderful pile of calicoes and cheap sateens, and my worthy friend Mr. Smith, the greengrocer, is likewise engaged in transferring his stock of cabbages, potatoes, and apples to the stall in front of his shop.

Butchering seems to be a more regular business, for Mr. Mann and his stalwart apprentice woke me Tip in the grey hours of the morning, flinging down great joints of beef and mutton upon his deal counter, and two hours ago he was sitting on his stool with last week’s Chronicle in his hand, prepared for anything that might turn up in the shape of stray custom. He is a harmless-looking old man, notwithstanding his blue smock and the shining steel which hangs by his side, but he is an inveterate gossip, as I have cause to know.

At the north end of the market-place there are half a dozen pens, from which arises a continual baaing, varying in key, but uniform in monotony. Things up there are a shade more lively. Mr. Foulds, the agent to the Deignton estate, has just ridden in, and with his riding-whip in his hand is looking over the stock of sheep. A couple of farmers stand by his side, and one or two villainous-looking cattle-drovers are listening to the words of the county oracle at a respectful distance. So far as I can judge, his remarks are disparaging in tone and uncomplimentary to the sheep generally. I may be wrong, of course; I only go by the fact that Farmer Harrison has taken off his broad-brimmed hat, and is scratching his head, a little habit he has when bereft of words or when things go wrong. I had an idea, when those sheep went by as I sat at breakfast this morning, that they were a weedy lot. Not that I know anything about sheep; drugs and postage stamps are my articles of merchandise; that is to say, I hold the proud position of village postmaster and chemist.

Across the market-place from my shop-door to the gateway of the Deignton Arms Inn is exactly ninety-two yards. The view is obstructed a little by a barn-like building of grey stone, built in early days for a market-house, but used now as a storehouse for corn and a repository for the market stalls and pens. However, by going to the extreme corner of my sitting-room window and peering over the wire blind, I can just see the sign. A little corn business is done here to-day, and at twelve o’clock there will be a farmers’ dinner, which my neighbours, Mr. Mann and Mr. Holmes, sometimes attend. Mr. Foulds will take the chair, and towards the close of the repast he will order in a bottle of wine, and various healths will be drunk. At the risk of being thought unsociable, I have hitherto declined to take my chair there, but to-day I have half made up my mind to go. We shall see.

I have said that I am the village postmaster and chemist of Market Deignton; let me add a few more brief remarks concerning myself. First, as to my person. I am tall, although my shoulders have a most unbecoming stoop. I have a red-brown beard streaked with grey, and I wear large and disfiguring glasses. Personally, that disposes of me. I have been at Market Deignton about six months, and I can read men and their ways sufficiently well to tell you exactly in what esteem I am held amongst the village folk. I am considered odd, and blamed a little for my retiring ways; but, on the whole, I have been labelled “harmless,” and I do not think that I am disliked. Of my skill in medicine people have an exaggerated idea, and of my book-learning they speak with unmerited respect. They would prefer a gossip in my place, but, having me, they are good-humouredly inclined to make the best of it. I have a housekeeper, Mrs. Mason by name, who comes in to clean and to get my meals; I have also an assistant, David Holmes, the linen-draper’s second son. They neither of them sleep in the house, and, save for them, I dwell alone.

One word more. I have spoken of Market Deignton as a village, and of its people as village folk. I beg its pardon. It is a town. Henceforth I hope to style it correctly.

To return to Saturday morning, the point at which I have chosen to take up this narrative. My sitting-room is not behind the shop, but alongside it, fronting the street, and from behind its wire blind I can see across the whole of the market-place. At a quarter past eleven precisely I am standing up with my hands in my pocket, looking out and lazily wondering whether Mr. Foulds will buy those sheep after all. I am not particularly interested in the matter, and my speculation is of the very mildest order. I am simply standing there and using my thoughts in that manner because I have for the moment nothing better to do with them or with myself.

Suddenly I see signs of a commotion. Something is about to happen. The quiet dullness of the long autumn morning is going to receive a fillip. Mr. Foulds and his farmer friends hold their hats in their hands, and the cattle-drovers are looking hopelessly about for some further means to express their abject humility. Mr. Holmes is out on the pavement with a pen behind his ear, and there are a score of feminine heads thrust out from the upper-storey windows of the quaint grey stone houses which fringe the market. The children are all running towards the north end of the square, and the heads are all–mine included–turned that way. Ah! this is something worth seeing. No wonder every one has stopped to look. An open carriage–a barouche, I think it is called–with a pair of magnificent dark bay horses, and a coat of arms upon the panel, servants all in mourning, and the horses with black rosettes. What can it be, I wonder? A lady inside alone–a lady dressed in half-mourning, leaning back amongst the cushions, and smiling graciously upon the little group of bare-headed men gathered around the sheep-pen. The carriage stops for a moment whilst Mr. Foulds, hat in hand, says a word or two and then falls back. Who can it be? How foolish I am! The carriage has turned in at the gateway of the Deignton Arms now, and I have seen nothing of her face because of this absurd ridiculous dimness of the eyes and unsteadiness. What is the matter with you, John Martin? Bah! I must be a little bilious, or out of sorts, somehow. David shall prescribe for me. David shall give me a draught. Now I think of it, I had very little sleep last night. David shall certainly make me up a draught. I will go and tell him.

I ought to be in the shop attending to business, but here I am at the window again, wasting my time. It seems to have an odd sort of attraction for me today. I know that Mr. Jones will not feel the same confidence in that cough medicine now that I have left David to mix it, and I know that there is a telegram lying upon my desk winch I ought to despatch. And yet here I am, with my hands in my pocket, and without the shadow of an excuse for my laziness. There is not even the excuse of there being anything to see. The carriage with its prancing horses and solitary occupant has disappeared. Mr. Foulds and the farmers seem to have come to terms, for they have left off prodding those miserable sheep about at last, and have turned away towards the inn. I wonder who that woman was inside the carriage? I wonder–Oh, my God!

I call myself a strong man; but my cheeks are pale, and that beat of the heart is scarcely normal. My fingers are clutching at the window-sill, and my eyes–unspectacled, too!–are riveted upon that tall figure picking her way across the cobbled market place straight–straight, by all that is horrible, by all that is bewildering!–to my shop.

It is over. Just a passing spasm. The weather has been a little trying lately, and I need exercise. My spectacles are on again, and my cheeks are regaining their usual colour. The attack was very brief. I am composed enough to study and admire the lady who seems about to honour my establishment with a visit.

She is no ordinary woman, this. See how regular, almost classical, are her cleanly-cut features, so regular and so pale her cheeks that her face would be cold save for the soft mobile mouth and grey-green eyes. See how she carries herself, too. She is an aristocrat, and she shows it. Watch the poise of her head, and the gracious but amply condescending smile with which she acknowledges the bows and bobs and courtesies which obtrude themselves upon her. She is close to the pavement now, and is raising her skirt with a slight graceful movement as she steps up on to the flags. By the by, is she so very young after all? I am inclined to think not. See that line across the forehead, and level with her lips. She is older than she seems, but she is beautiful. Not a girl’s beauty by any means–too sad, too mature, too listless. But I am mad to linger here, staring at this woman like a moon-struck youth. What is her beauty to me? What concern can it be of mine? Far more to the purpose is it that she is on the point of entering my shop, and I do not think that I should care about waiting upon her. David shall have the pleasure. David will gape at her, and he will be very nervous, but no doubt he will be able to retain enough of his wits to find out what she wants.

I fling open the door separating my sitting-room from the shop.

“David!”

“Yes, sir.”

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