The Treasure House of Martin Hews - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Treasure House of Martin Hews ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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A best-selling author of novels, short stories, magazine articles, translations, and plays, Oppenheim published over 150 books. He is considered one of the originators of the thriller genre, his novels also range from spy thrillers to romance, but all have an undertone of intrigue. The tiny kingdom of Theos is surrounded by Eastern European powers in this 1902 novel of politics, war, and romance. Russia and Turkey are plotting to take over the peaceful and rural country. A short lived Republic has been treacherously betrayed by communist elements. The country turns to its exiled King, Ughtred of Tyrnaus, a prince who has been a soldier in Britain for 20 years. The prince is convinced by Baron Nicholas of Reist to return to Theos and be crowned. Continuous action, changing alliances, loyalty and betrayal are all in play.

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Liczba stron: 519

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Contents

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

CHAPTER XXIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXXI

CHAPTER XXXII

CHAPTER XXXIII

CHAPTER XXXIV

CHAPTER XXXV

CHAPTER XXXVI

CHAPTER XXXVII

CHAPTER XXXVIII

CHAPTER XXXIX

CHAPTER XL

CHAPTER XLI

CHAPTER 1

In a fit of utter dejection, I stopped in the middle of the long cinder path, and looked miserably around me. It was, perhaps without exception, the ugliest landscape upon which I had ever gazed–a flat and swampy region, ignored, apparently, by the agriculturist and scorned by even the most optimistic of builders. There were evidences here and there of calamitous speculative enterprise–a deserted brickyard, overrun with weedy grass, a one-storied factory which showed no signs of ever having been occupied, and every window of which was broken. For the most part, however, the land was a wilderness, with here and there an isolated and squalid-looking cottage. The fields, the grass of which seemed to lack any shade of colour or breath of vitality, were separated by dykes in which black, unwholesome water stood stagnant. A few cows seemed oppressed by ruminating gloom. There were no trees, no birds save occasional flocks of inflying seagulls, great patches of sedgy, irreclaimable land, stretching to the river banks. In the far distance, upon the other side of the unseen waterway, were factory chimneys, gaunt and stark, looming through the misty sky. For sound, in this dreary waste, there was only the screech of a passing locomotive from the branch line by which I had completed my journey the distant hooting of a steamer, or the melancholy call of ‘the drifting gulls. There came upon me, as I lingered there, a strong inclination to turn around, retrace my steps to the station, with its draughty shed for a booking office, sit down upon that solitary, decrepit bench, and, abandoning my enterprise, wait for the train which would take me back to the warmth and humanity of a great city. Then my hand stole into my trousers pocket, the coins jingled through my fingers–ninepence-halfpenny, and an oblong piece of cardboard-my return third-class ticket to London. I remembered that this completed the total of my worldly possessions, and off I started again down that hideous cinder track, facing what had seemed to me, from the first moment it had loomed up before me, the ‘grimmest, the ugliest, the most fearsome building I had ever seen or conceived.

It reminded me of one of those unnatural nightmares, the earliest sign of incipient lunacy, when one’s brain fails, and the ordinary buildings of some fancied city suddenly assume gigantic unnatural proportions, a hundred times the size of any possible effort of human hands. There was no doubt, however, as to the reality of this architectural abortion, and, as I stepped over the stile into the road, and caught a fuller view of it rising from perfectly flat lands, arrogant, overmastering in its bare, assertive ugliness, an unpleasant conviction stole in upon me. I stopped the only human being I had seen since I had left the station–a road-mender, plodding slowly through the mud.

“Can you tell me what that building or institution is?” I asked him.

He turned a rheumaticky neck, and followed my pointing finger.

“That be Breezeley Mansion, sir,” he replied.

With that he had had enough of me, and went on his way, and I, struggling with my fit of nervous aversion, pushed on until I stood almost under the shadow of this monstrosity of brick and stone. There was no lodge, no wall to protect it from the road, no garden. There it stood, a great building which age seemed only to have rendered more hideous, straight fronted, with rows of uninviting windows, and at the two ends round towers, with huge windows. It was big enough for a prison, or an asylum, and unpleasing enough for either. That it should be the dwelling-place of any sane man seemed to me incredible, and yet in my pocket reposed a letter addressed to “Martin Hews, Esq., Breezeley Mansion,” and that letter, together with ninepence half-penny, was my last resource against starvation.

I trod the granite avenue, pressed the electric bell, and received my first shock. The door was opened even before my finger had released the knob. A butler, who would not have disgraced a Grosvenor Square mansion, opened it, and leaned forward with an air of benevolent enquiry.

“I have come down from London to see Mr. Hews,” I explained. “I have a letter of introduction to him.”

The man smiled at me reassuringly.

“That is quite all right, sir. Will you come this way?”

He led me across a hall which, in those confused moments, seemed to me like the anteroom of a palace, motioned me to enter a small, automatic lift, followed me in, and closed the gates. We shot up some three stories, after which he again took charge of me, ushered me down a corridor where my feet fell soundlessly upon the thickly piled carpet, and at its farther end touched the knob of a bell. We heard its gentle tinkling in the room, and almost immediately, without any visible agency, the door of an apartment almost as spacious as a museum swung open.

“The gentleman you were expecting, sir,” the butler announced, leading the way towards a distant corner–and forthwith took his leave.

I advanced a few steps farther, and stood staring like the clumsiest of rustics. Before me, seated at a large rosewood writing-table, upon which were several telephone receivers, a row of ivory push bells, and various other unusual-looking instruments, was the man whom I had come to visit. My first impression of him was that he was seated–but at that moment I could not be sure of anything definite as regards his posture. He was enclosed in what seemed to be an amazing sort of bath-chair, the front of which was hidden in the knee hole of the desk so that only the upper part of his body was visible. The effect he produced upon me, during those first few minutes, remains to this day an indescribable thing. One would have expected, from an afflicted person, a certain delicacy of expression and outline, the pallor which is nearly always associated with every sort of suffering. The man before me was of an entirely different type. His face was inclined to be round in shape. He had colour upon his cheeks which at first seemed to me as though it must be unnatural. His brown eyes were curiously prominent, almost beady. He had carefully trimmed, bushy eyebrows of a lighter shade, and a mass of brown hair, arranged with such absolute perfection that from the first I suspected it to be a wig. His mouth was by far his most attractive feature. It had a delicacy of its own, and a sensitiveness almost childish. He was dressed with meticulous care, in dark clothes, his folded satin tie of deep purple, fastened by a pin with a quaint foreign stone. When I tried afterwards to reconstruct in my mind his personality, from amongst a haze of tangled impressions, I could think of nothing but the curving mouth and prominent eyes which seemed never to leave my face.

“You are Major Owston?” he asked, looking across at me. “That is my name, sir,” I answered.

“What sort of employment do you want?”

“Any sort in the world which will keep me from starvation.” He scrutinised me thoughtfully, raised his hand and pointed to a chair. I sat down, and would have moved it a little nearer to his desk, but found to my amazement that it was screwed to the floor, and that underneath the seat was a maze of wire and tubes. I found also that it faced the great window through which the light was streaming in.

“You will forgive the peculiarity of the chair,” my host begged. “I have visitors of many sorts, and I like sometimes to know exactly how far they are away from me. It would perhaps amuse you–”

He broke off, amid touched one of a line of ivory knobs on the right-hand side of his desk. I felt a sudden tingling in my arms and legs. If the room had been on fire I could not have moved from my place. He chuckled softly, touched another knob, and everything was again normal. He rubbed his hands together with positively childish delight.

“One of my little devices,” he explained, with a curious touch of vanity in his tone. “I am a helpless person, you see, and I must defend myself…So you want any sort of employment, Henry Owston? Are there any limitations to that somewhat daring statement?”

“None that I can think of,” I assured him.

He eyed me critically.

“You are not over-scrupulous, then?”

“Not in a general way. I don’t want to get into trouble. I have been in prison once. That was quite enough for me.”

“In England?”

“No, in France.”

“Ah, I remember,” he murmured, nodding his head reflectively. “It was at Marseilles, was it not? That affair with a French Artillery Officer. You have a violent temper, I imagine.”

I looked at him in astonishment. Not even Leonard Joyce, my friend who had given me the letter of introduction, knew of that episode in my life to which Martin Hews had alluded.

“If I have,” I told him, after a moment’s deliberation, “it is very seldom roused, and there is generally sufficient provocation.” He eyed me appraisingly.

“You are how tall, Major Owston?” he enquired.

I was a little surprised, but I answered him at once.

“Six feet three and a half, sir.”

“Magnificently developed around the shoulders,” he went on, moving his head a little sideways. “A trifle underfed, I should say, by the look of you. I have need of strong men, Major Owston, both for my own protection, and to carry on my business.”

“I am not a weakling,” I assured him.

“Apparently not,” he assented. “Let me see. Shall I tell you a little mare about yourself? In the Inter-‘Varsity Sports eighteen years ago, you won all the prizes which were worth taking. Later you have thrown the hammer as only the Americans can throw it. You were in the semi-finals of the Amateur Boxing Championship twelve years ago. There was a rumour that it was a gesture ‘of chivalry which prevented your winning. You were supposed to be good enough for County cricket, even for Yorkshire, but the war came, and you developed into a keen soldier. You did a little ‘more than average well–twice mentioned, I believe, and the D.S.O. Afterward you had the usual bad luck of a man who had not settled upon his profession definitely when the war broke out. You left your regiment, and tried soldiering in Morocco with the Spaniards. Then, of course, there was that French affair–rather an unfortunate episode just then. Anything I have forgotten, Major Owston?”

I was speechless. I could think of no living person who could have told me as much as this stranger had done. He watched my surprise with that same smile of absolutely childish gratification.

“Ah well,” he went on, “if I take you into my employ you will realise that it is my business sometimes to know everything. Directly Joyce mentioned your name, I began to set enquiries on foot. By-the-by, did he prepare you for the fact that I was an invalid?”

“He gave me to understand,” I admitted diffidently, “that you were–that you had lost the use of your legs.”

He frowned as though, for some reason; my answer annoyed him.

“I never had any legs,” he explained abruptly. “I am a human freak, Major Owston. I was born without legs. You can see very nearly all there is of me. That is why I sit in the most amazing motor-chair that has ever been designed. My own invention, Major–entirely my own invention.”

I muttered a word of sympathy, which he acknowledged gravely.

“I wonder,” he speculated, “whether I really lose much through not having legs. You shall judge. Sit still. I will give you an exhibition.”

There followed the most extraordinary performance I had ever seen in my life. With the touch of a finger upon the steering wheel of his chair, an engine began to throb, and he glided from behind the desk in a graceful backward curve. He came to a standstill, and then suddenly seemed to flash away from before my eyes. He was across at the other side of the room before I could realise that he had moved, threading his course amongst chairs and tables, skirting the edge of various articles of furniture with the most amazing precision, now and then revolving, running backwards with only a careless turn of the head over his shoulder, never losing that curiously conceited smile, and glancing more than once quickly across at me as though for my approbation. Finally he passed me like a streak and before I could thoroughly collect myself he was seated again opposite to me behind the table. The motor ceased to throb. His eyes sought mine triumphantly. He was evidently wrapped in deep enjoyment of my stupefaction.

“Have you ever seen anything like that?” he demanded.

“Never in my life,” I assured him, as soon as I could find words. “I can’t even now understand how such delicate steering can ever be learned. It’s–it’s miraculous!”

His smile was like the smile of a child whose dolls have been praised, or a mother whose infant has been flattered. It transformed his whole appearance, and it helped me to appreciate the persistence of those small vanities which were woven like a thread through the man’s whole being. Incidentally it gave me confidence. I had no longer any fear about that ninepence-halfpenny in my trousers pocket. He pointed to the window–the great, uncurtained window in the full light of which I sat.

“Go over there,” he ordered. “Follow the road back to London. Tell me if you see anything.”

I obeyed him, and looked searchingly along that soggy, ill-made, muddy thoroughfare, stretching across the marshes bordered by the threadbare hedges, and yawning dykes, to which a lowering mass of mingled mist and smoke hung over the approaches to the city.

“I see the road until it disappears,” I reported. “It is empty.”

He glanced at an electric clock upon the table, and frowned. Then he lifted from its stand one of the telephone receivers by which he was surrounded, and spoke into it so softly that I failed to hear a word he said. Again he turned towards me.

“Your eyes appear to be strong,” he remarked. “How far can you follow the road backwards?”

“Past the station,” I told him, “past what seems to be a sewage farm, across a wooden bridge to what might be a main road beyond.”

“Look again,” he enjoined. “Watch.”

There ensued a brief silence–a silence of perhaps three minutes–during which no sign of human life appeared upon the miserable plain across which I looked. At last, at the far end of the road, there was a speck. I scrutinised it narrowly.

“There is a vehicle–a motor-car–coming,” I announced. “Describe it to me.”

I waited until it came nearer. It was being driven at a great speed, rocking from side to side upon the road, sending up little fountains of water from the holes across which it sped. I turned my head.

“It is a very big car–I should say a Rolls-Royce. It is being driven apparently by a chauffeur. There is another man inside, and I think a girl.”

My new employer–already I felt that I was in his service–nodded shortly.

“Come here,” he directed. “Turn around. Look at that wall.”

He pointed to a strip of oak panelling, not far from the door, and before my eyes, without any visible agency, it parted and slid gently open. Afterwards I knew that he had touched a button under his desk.

“Go in there,” he ordered. “You can listen to all that is said by means of the instrument standing on a bracket upon your right-hand side. There is a look-out hole there too. If I should strike the desk with the flat of my hand twice, I need help. The door will open by means of a button underneath the bracket.”

“I understand,” I assured him.

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