The Salt of the Earth - Fred M. White - ebook

The Salt of the Earth ebook

Fred M White

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Newton Moore, the perfect detective, as Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps better. Moore talks about Russian adventures, German spy masters, killer Indian powerful, Balkan intrigues, rifles. Events occur before the outbreak of the First World War. This is another creation of Fred M. White, where espionage is an integral part.

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Liczba stron: 375

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Contents

I. Pandora Waits

II. Pandora Shows Her Hand

III. Tragedy Or Farce?

IV. The Key Of Golconda

V. The Last Guest

VI. Toujours l’audace

VII. The Picture Frame

VIII. Soldiers Of Fortune

IX. In Upper Bohemia

X. The Spell Begins To Work

XI. In Society

XII. “East Is East And West Is West”

XIII. The Man And His Method

XIV. Golden Fetters

XV. The Cup Of Tantalus

XVI. The Weary Round

XVII. A Respite

XVIII. On The Wheel

XIX. After Supper

XX. The Price Of Fortune

XXI. A Friend In Need

XXII. The Edge Of The Cliff

XXIII. An Unsheathed Sword

XXIV. The Desirable Alien

XXV. A Mutual Understanding

XXVI. Golden Youth

XXVII. The Saxon Cup Again

XXVIII. An Expert Opinion

XXIX. A Leaf From The Past

XXX. “Beware Of Entrance To A Quarrel”

XXXI. A Counter-Plot

XXXII. In Ambush

XXXIII. Life’s Fitful Fever

XXXIV. Stress Of Circumstances

XXXV. For Honor’s Sake

XXXVI. So Very Human

XXXVII. “Outrageous Fortune”

XXXVIII. The Lowest Depth

XXXIX. Resurrection

XL. Beyond The Gate

XLI. The Simple Life

I. PANDORA WAITS

Outside a blackbird was piping madly in the blackthorn, and towards the West a sheaf of flaming violet arrows streamed to the zenith. The hedgerows were touched here and there with tender green. The bonny breath of the South was soft and tender as the fingers of Aphrodite. It was the first real day of Spring, and most people lingered out of doors till the bare branches of the trees melted in the gloaming, and it was possible to see and hear no more, save for the promise of the little black herald singing madly from the blackthorn.

Thus was it outside. Inside the silk blinds were closely drawn, and the heavy tapestry curtains pulled across them as if the inmates of the room were envious of the dying day, and were determined to exclude it. The score or more tiny points of electric flames were scrupulously shaded with pale blue, so that even the most dubious complexion might not suffer. At certain places the lights were grouped in lambent masses, for they lighted the trio of Louis Quatorze card-tables, where twelve people were playing bridge. Now and again the tongues of yellow flame picked out some glittering object against the walls or on the floor, hinting at art treasures, most of them with histories of their own.

On the whole the restful room was more calculated for philosophic reflection than for fierce silent gambling, with indrawn breath, and lip caught sharply between white teeth. The room was deadly still, save for the flutter of the cards as they rippled over the tables. There were cards, too, upon the floor, glistening under the light blue like bizarre patterns to the Oriental carpet. Only two men looked on–one a thin, nervous, ascetic creature, with melancholy grey eyes, and a Vandyck beard. The average man would have had no trouble in guessing than Philip Vanstone was an artist. He had the temperament stamped upon him, both as to his features and his clothes. His companion was built in a larger mould, a clean-shaven man with a hard, straight mouth, and the suggestion of a bull-dog about him. When one glanced at Douglas Denne, one instinctively thought of Rhodes and other pioneers of Empire, who had that marvellous combination of mind, which allies high courage and imagination with the practical attributes that lead to fortune. To a certain extent Denne was a pioneer. He had amassed a huge fortune in foreign lands. He had played his part in painting the map of the world a British red, and, incidentally, he had found time during his Oxford career to win the Newdigate prize and write a volume of poems which had attracted considerable attention. If he had described himself, and why his career had been so phenomenally successful, he would have spoken slightingly, and called himself a pawnbroker with an imagination. Usually he thanked Pinero for that phrase. It saved a great deal of trouble when he found himself in the clutches of the interviewers.

And yet, despite his youth, and his health, and his fortune, he was by no means a happy man. To begin with, he was cursed with a certain demon of introspective analysis. He was bound to bring everything under the microscope, including his own soul, and the soul of his fellow men. He refused to believe in the genuine disinterested action. He put it down to temperament. It gave pleasure to the wide-minded man to do good and kind things; therefore, it could not be accounted as righteousness–it was merely a selfish method of enjoyment. Everything that happened in life, every mood and impulse of his own and of other people came under Denne’s mental scalping knife, so that to him the beauty of the pearl was never anything but the poetic secretion of the oyster. Denne would have given much to have been able to change places with Phil Vanstone, the penniless artist.

He wasn’t playing himself; in fact, he rarely touched a card. Playing for sovereigns was poor sport to a man who had been moved to stake an Empire upon the throw of a dice. He had come to Adela Burton’s cottage at Maidenhead purely to please his companion, but was more or less scornfully amused, because Adela Burton was one of the apostles of the Simple Life. Perhaps that was why she was playing cards with a more or less notorious set of men and women, who had motored down from town that same morning, seeking the pure delights of the pink, March day. Denne watched the cards flashing across the table, heedless of the play of emotions in the rich brown Rembrandt shadows. He was as near to enjoying himself now as ever he had been in his cynical life. Presently, by a curious coincidence, the three rubbers finished simultaneously, and the players sat back in their Chippendale chairs. It was characteristic of Adela Burton’s cottage, and, incidentally, of herself, that all the furniture was Chippendale, unless it happened to date back to the period of Louis Quatorze.

“Are you going to play any more?” Denne asked.

The hostess rose from her seat and came round to the speaker’s side. She was very simply and plainly dressed in homespun material with a suggestion of heather blue in it, which no doubt, was one of the notes in the melody of the Simple Life. But it had cost sixty guineas in Paris all the same, as any woman who studied the fashion papers would have known at a glance.

“I will play no more this evening,” Adela said gaily. “In fact, I wonder at my temerity in playing at all today. For before I sleep to-night the great secret will be disclosed. Do you know that before long I shall come into my mysterious fortune?”

Denne congratulated his hostess gravely. He was studying and criticising her now in his own merciless fashion, but, outwardly, there was little with which he could find fault. To begin with, there was no other woman of his acquaintance who had gone through two rapid seasons in London without some sign that the bloom was off the peach, and the dew dry on the flower. Adela Burton’s complexion was as pure and fresh now as when she first startled society with her original methods and almost archaic extravagance. In some strange way she had retained all the innocent look of youth though there was wisdom and laughter in her unfathomable eyes, which were like green lakes under budding chestnut trees in the calm of a still May evening. Such wonderful eyes they were, with all the knowledge of the ages in them, and yet clear and innocent as those of a little child. For the rest, she was rather small, though she was not without a dominating something, which it was impossible to express in words, and yet which could be left like darkness. Two years before Adela Burton had hardly been heard of. Now she went everywhere until the time had come when she led fashion instead of following it. This is the rare attribute of the gods, and is given only to great Society ladies and inventive milliners.

Probably Adela Burton had been the first to grasp the picturesqueness and poetical advertisements to be derived from the cult of the Simple Life. Her cottage at Maidenhead consisted merely of a hall, sitting-room, bedroom, and bath-room, together with a tiny kitchen, where she did for herself. The humble necessary charwoman came every morning to scrub and scour, and, besides that, when at Maidenhead Adela Burton lived entirely alone. One had to look to the graphic writers of society papers adequately to describe the personality and menage of a woman like Adela Burton, for they were beyond the scope and intellect of the ordinary novelist. Possibly no living woman had contributed so much to the income of the paragraphists who make their living by describing the toilettes and eke the pots and pans of ladies of fashion.

“I am sure I congratulate you,” Denne said, in his same grave way. “Let me see, what is the amount of this fabulous fortune? One authority, I understand, puts it at five millions.”

“I haven’t the exclusive knowledge of these favored journalists,” Adela laughed. “But I shall deem Providence open to criticism if it is less than a million. Famous Samuel Burton could not leave his adopted daughter less than that. Now have you ever read of a more delightful romance outside the pages of a halfpenny paper? Here am I, taken from a humble sphere at a comparatively early age, and educated to the purple. I am not allowed to know what relation Mr. Burton is to me. All I know is that I get certain remittances from a New York firm of lawyers, who always warn me not to ask unnecessary questions. Ever since I was seventeen I have practically had as much money as I have cared to ask for. Now the trust has expired, and by the mail which comes in to-day I am to learn all about it. Possibly I am to have the happiness of seeing my benefactor, and thanking him in person. I rather gather that he is coming here this evening, and that is why I am not to have the happiness of winning any more of my friends’ money. Now, answer me a question, Mr. Denne. Why do I always win at bridge? It makes not the slightest difference to me whether I lose or not–”

“My dear young lady,” Denne said in a monotonous voice, with all the expression squeezed out of it, “you have answered your own question. And after that gentle hint you gave me just now, it is time Vanstone and myself were moving. May I be permitted again to offer you my sincere congratulations in advance?”

Denne and his companion stepped out through the crystal glass porch, heavy with the scent of tropical flowers, and gay with pink and yellow orchids, into the sweetness of the air. The former drew a long, deep breath of relief. For the moment the poetic side of his nature was uppermost.

“What a night!” he murmured. “How wholesome and pleasant after the heated atmosphere we have just left! I declare that blackbird yonder is scolding us. Well, he certainly has the best of the argument. My dear fellow, ‘Idalian Aphrodite Beautiful’ certainly has the popular approval. She would take the pries hands down in a beauty show, though, after all, Aurora has the dainty and more spiritual beauty of the two. Vanstone, tell me candidly, why did you bring me here?”

Denne literally thrust the question at his companion. There was a sudden and searching change in his manner.

“Oh, I’ll be candid,” Vanstone laughed, a trifle awkwardly. “It is no use trying to deceive you, I know. I want you to do your best to save that woman from herself. She is young, beautiful, and capable of the most generous impulses, and yet, with a soul and mind and body like hers, she is frittering away life amongst those chattering magpies.”

“Making souffles instead of substantial soup,” Denne laughed. “Oh, my dear chap, you are quite wrong. What a travesty it all is. Here is a three-roomed cottage, furnished with the loot of a score of palaces, a sitting room almost Ouidaesque in its luxuriance, a five-hundred pound freehold, with a couple of thousands spent on the electric light, a kitchen to cook porridge and poach eggs designed by an Eschoffler, and costing the income of an ambassador. Fancy the simple life in Paris frocks, and pap served up in Charles II. porringers! The whole thing appeals irresistibly to one’s sense of humor. And, don’t forget, that this enchantress is going to marry Mark Callader. Any woman who would stoop to marry Callader is absolutely beyond mortal aid. Nothing but conversion to the Salvation Army would meet a case like this.”

“That is why I want you to interfere,” Vanstone said eagerly. “We all know what Callader is. He has the instincts of a Squire Western, and the mind of a pugilist. I am certain that man would knock a woman about, especially if she were his wife. He would be far happier tied up to a fifth-rate variety artist. You can help me if you like, and I am going to make a personal favor of it. I am not a bit in love with the girl myself. Besides, she wouldn’t look at me if I were. But I honestly believe if you took Adela Burton away from her surroundings, she is capable of becoming a good woman. I know you believe in nothing, but at any rate, I’ll ask you to give me the credit of good intentions.”

“I’ll try,” Denne said sardonically. “If there is one man I know more than another who is given to self-sacrifice you are that foolish and slightly idiotic person. Still, you might have asked me to help an honest woman.”

Vanstone stared at his companion in astonishment.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he stammered.

“I mean exactly what I say,” Denne replied in matter-of-fact tones. “Your paragon amongst women plays bridge with people who can’t afford to lose. The whole thing disgusts me. Stare as you please; if you will come to a dinner party I am giving, I shall be able–but there–what does it matter? And yet perhaps–”

II. PANDORA SHOWS HER HAND

At last all the guests were gone, the frivolous silken rustles had died away, the mass of inane femininity had departed. Nothing remained but a subtle suggestion of effete perfumes, and the acrid insinuation of tobacco smoke. The flowers were struggling now to come into their kingdom. A cluster of narcissus in an old Ming bowl began to assert itself. With an impatient sigh Adela pulled back the curtains, and flung open the long French windows leading to the lawn. She stood drinking in the fragrance of the evening. The breath of the spring night touched her cheek caressingly. The blackbird in retrospective mood was still whistling softly on his porch. It was practically dark, and a sense of desolation swept over Adela as she turned back into the room again.

“What a fool I am!” she soliloquised. “All the more so, because I am not devoid of intellect like most of the people who have just left. I wonder what they would say if they knew, if they realised that I have actually come to the end of my tether, and have not a five-pound note in the world to call my own. I wonder if this is the end of it? Perhaps the funds are exhausted, for it is scarcely likely that those American people would have written intimating that it was useless to apply to them for further money, and that, in future, Mr. Burton would communicate with me himself. Is it possible that some rich crank has been playing a joke upon me? No, that is hardly credible. I don’t think that any man, however rich, would keep up a joke, which, from first to last, has cost him a hundred thousand pounds. I have not long to wait. I shall soon know my fate.”

She stopped to gather up the cards which lay on the floor, like the gaudy parti-colored leaves of an autumn forest, and placed them methodically away. She emptied the ash trays, and sprinkled the sitting-room with sanitas so that the flowers in the Prinus jars began to pick up their heads, and the whole atmosphere became sweeter. It was so dark that the purple shadows beyond the French windows were almost menacing. With a shiver of apprehension, Adela closed the shutters and pulled down the blind again. It seemed to her fancy that she heard a footstep on the gravel. With a smile at her cowardice she put the fear from her. As she stood waiting vaguely for something to happen, as one does in moments of nervous tension, she imagined she could hear the bathroom window raised gently and closed again. It came upon her with overpowering force that it was half a mile to the nearest house, that she was alone, and that there was booty enough here to keep a score of burglars in afluence for the rest of their natural lives. Instinctively she walked across the room to where the telephone receiver hung. She had her hand upon it when something touched her arm. All her combative instincts were awake. She was ready for real, palpitating danger. It was only the intangible that frightened her. Her eyes gleamed with anger.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

The intruder made no reply for a moment. He pressed his hands to his sides. The panting of his breath filled up the silence of the room. He might have been some fugitive seeking sanctuary. But for a moment his limbs failed him, and he staggered to his fall. There was time for Adela to gaze at him from under her long purple lashes. She had it in her to study him calmly and critically.

Evidently this was no creature to be afraid of. In age he was about sixty, with a mass of white hair, and grey moustache that dropped over the corners of his lips. His face was handsome in its way, though seared and lined. He gave an apprehensive glance over his shoulder which told its own tale. For the rest, he might have been a broken down derelict cast off from some cavalry regiment. He certainly had the air of a man who had seen service–a man who would be at home amongst refined surroundings. His eyes were blue, small eyes, that told of cunning and wickedness, eyes that spoilt what otherwise might have been a benevolent face. He was dressed with some attempt at smartness, though his grey frock-coat was faded and discolored, his patent leather boots were down at heel. Adela knew the type. Doubtless this had been a man of clubs in his time, a man to whom the topography of the West End was as an open book.

Beyond question, this man had come to beg and whine, to plead some pitiful tale, more or less true, and in her indolent way Adela was already feeling in her pocket. A deal of promiscuous charity has its origin in indolence rather than generosity. The man seemed to realise what was passing through the girl’s mind, for he raised his hand protestingly. It was a long, slim hand, and Adela saw that the nails were pink and filbert-shaped. She saw, too, what puzzled, and, at the same time, alarmed her. The hard, sly cunning had died from the intruder’s blue eyes. His whole face had changed its expression to one of deepest interest, and almost filial affection. Adela would have found it hard to express her feelings at that moment. Disappointment and fear and horror were uppermost.

“What are you doing here?” she repeated.

“They followed me,” the man gasped, as a curious dry hard cough seemed to choke him. “They nearly had me outside the station. I was an accursed fool to come back again. I might have known that I was not forgotten. There are a score of men in England to-day who would go a long way to put a spoke in the ‘Colonel’s’ wheel. And now, my dear, how are you? Ha! There is no need to ask that question. If ever I saw anyone with the true air about her, you are she, ruffling it with the very best of them, too. Oh, bless you. I have read all about it in the papers. Laugh, well, I should think so. But, you see–”

A fit of coughing choked the speaker’s utterance again. He pressed a dingy handkerchief to his lips, and Adela saw a faint smear of red upon it. She was standing opposite the speaker, breathing quickly and rapidly herself, and unable to overcome a feeling of evil.

“Once more, what do you want?” she demanded. “From what you say, you are flying from justice.”

“That is so,” the man replied coolly. “I thought you would enjoy the joke, and so you will when you have heard it. How like your mother you are, to be sure!”

Like her mother! The words seemed to be tangled and twisted in Adela’s brain, just as a physical pain starts at the touch of a raw and bleeding nerve. Had this degraded wretch known her mother, the mother she did not remember herself, whom she naturally thought of as someone exalted and beautiful? Yet he spoke of her as though they had been on the most familiar terms.

“Did you know her, then?”

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