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NOBODY'S MAN

by

E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM

1921







NOBODY'S MAN

CHAPTER I

Andrew Tallente stepped out of the quaint little train on to the
flower-bedecked platform of this Devonshire hamlet amongst the hills, to
receive a surprise so immeasurable that for a moment he could do nothing
but gaze silently at the tall, ungainly figure whose unpleasant smile
betrayed the fact that this meeting was not altogether accidental so far
as he was concerned.

"Miller!" he exclaimed, a little aimlessly.

"Why not?" was the almost challenging reply. "You are not the only
great statesman who needs to step off the treadmill now and then."

There was a certain quiet contempt in Tallente's uplifted eyebrows. The
contrast between the two men, momentarily isolated on the little
platform, was striking and extreme. Tallente had the bearing, the voice
and the manner which were his by heritage, education and natural
culture. Miller, who was the son of a postman in a small Scotch town,
an exhibitioner so far as regards his education, and a mimic where
social gifts were concerned, had all the aggressive bumptiousness of the
successful man who has wit enough to perceive his shortcomings. In his
ill-chosen tourist clothes, untidy collar and badly arranged tie, he
presented a contrast to his companion of which he seemed, in a way,
bitterly conscious.

"You are staying near here?" Tallente enquired civilly.

"Over near Lynton. Dartrey has a cottage there. I came down
yesterday."

"Surely you were in Hellesfield the day before yesterday?"

Miller smiled ill-naturedly.

"I was," he admitted, "and I flatter myself that I was able to make the
speech which settled your chances in that direction."

Tallente permitted a slight note of scorn to creep into his tone.

"It was not your eloquence," he said, "or your arguments, which brought
failure upon me. It was partly your lies and partly your tactics."

An unwholesome flush rose in the other's face.

"Lies?" he repeated, a little truculently.

Tallente looked him up and down. The station master was approaching
now, the whistle had blown, their conversation was at an end.

"I said lies," Tallente observed, "most advisedly." The train was
already on the move, and the departing passenger was compelled to step
hurriedly into a carriage. Tallente, waited upon by the obsequious
station master, strolled across the line to where his car was waiting.
It was not until his arrival there that he realised that Miller had
offered him no explanation as to his presence on the platform of this
tiny wayside station.

"Did you notice the person with whom I was talking?" he asked the
station master.

"A tall, thin gentleman in knickerbockers? Yes, sir," the man replied.

"Part of your description is correct," Tallente remarked drily. "Do you
know what he was doing here?"

"Been down to your house, I believe, sir. He arrived by the early train
this morning and asked the way to the Manor."

"To my house?" Tallente repeated incredulously.

"It was the Manor he asked for, sir," the station master assured his
questioner. "Begging your pardon, sir, is it true that he was Miller,
the Socialist M.P.?"

"True enough," was the brief reply. "What of it?"

The man coughed as he deposited the dispatch box which he had been
carrying on the seat of the waiting car.

"They think a lot of him down in these parts, sir," he observed, a
little apologetically.

Tallente made no answer to the station master's last speech and merely
waved his hand a little mechanically as the car drove off. His mind was
already busy with the problem suggested by Miller's appearance in these
parts. For the first few minutes of his drive he was back again in the
turmoil which he had left. Then with a little shrug of the shoulders he
abandoned this new enigma. Its solution must be close at hand.

Arrived at the edge of the dusty, white strip of road along which he had
travelled over the moors from the station, Tallente leaned forward and
watched the unfolding panorama below with a little start of surprise.
He had passed through acres of yellowing gorse, of purple heather and
mossy turf, fragrant with the aromatic perfume of sun-baked herbiage.
In the distance, the moorland reared itself into strange promontories,
out-flung to the sea. On his right, a little farm, with its cluster of
out-buildings, nestled in the bosom of the hills. On either side, the
fields still stretched upward like patchwork to a clear sky, but below,
down into the hollow, blotting out all that might lie beneath, was a
curious sea of rolling white mist, soft and fleecy yet impenetrable.
Tallente, who had seen very little of this newly chosen country home of
his, had the feeling, as the car crept slowly downward, of one about to
plunge into a new life, to penetrate into an unknown world. A man of
extraordinarily sensitive perceptions, leading him often outside the
political world in which he fought the battle of life, he was conscious
of a curious and grim premonition as the car, crawling down the
precipitous hillside, approached and was enveloped in the grey shroud.
The world which a few moments before had seemed so wonderful, the
sunlight, the distant view of the sea, the perfumes of flowers and
shrubs, had all gone. The car was crawling along a rough and stony
road, between hedges dripping with moisture and trees dimly seen like
spectres. At last, about three-quarters of the way down to the sea,
after an abrupt turn, they entered a winding avenue and emerged on to a
terrace. The chauffeur, who had felt the strain of the drive, ran a
little past the front door and pulled up in front of an uncurtained
window. Tallente glanced in, dazzled a little at first by the
unexpected lamplight. Then he understood the premonition which had sat
shivering in his heart during the long descent.


The mist, which had hung like a spectral curtain over the little demesne
of Martinhoe Manor, had almost entirely disappeared when, at a few
minutes before eight, with all traces of his long journey obliterated,
Andrew Tallente stepped out on to the stone-flagged terrace and looked
out across the little bay below. The top of the red sandstone cliff
opposite was still wreathed with mists, but the sunlight lay upon the
tennis lawn, the flower gardens below, and the rocks almost covered by
the full, swelling tide. Tall, and looking slimmer than ever in his
plain dinner garb, there were some indications of an hour of strange and
unexpected suffering in the tired face of the man who gazed out in
somewhat dazed fashion at the little panorama which he had been looking
forward so eagerly to seeing again. Throughout the long journey down
from town, he had felt an unusual and almost boyish enthusiasm for his
coming holiday. He had thought of his tennis racquet and fishing rods,
wondered about his golf clubs and his guns. Even the unexpected
encounter with Miller had done little more than leave an unpleasant
taste in his mouth. And then, on his way down from "up over," as the
natives called that little strip of moorland overhead, he had vanished
into the mist and had come out into another world.

"Andrew! So you are out here? Why did you not come to my room? Surely
your train was very punctual?"

Tallente remained for a moment tense and motionless. Then he turned
around. The woman who stood upon the threshold of the house, framed
with a little cascade of drooping roses, sought for his eyes almost
hungrily. He realised how she must be feeling. A dormant vein of
cynicism parted his lips as he held her fingers for a moment. His tone
and his manner were quite natural.

"We were, I believe, unusually punctual," he admitted. "What an
extraordinary mist! Up over there was no sign of it at all."

She shivered. Her eyes were still watching his face, seeking for an
answer to her unasked question. Blue eyes they were, which had been
beautiful in their day, a little hard and anxious now. She wore a white
dress, simple with the simplicity of supreme and expensive art. A rope
of pearls was her only ornament. Her hair was somewhat elaborately
coiffured, there was a touch of rouge upon her cheeks, and the
unscreened evening sunlight was scarcely kind to her rather wan features
and carefully arranged complexion. She still had her claims to beauty,
however. Tallente admitted that to himself as he stood there appraising
her, with a strange and almost impersonal regard, - his wife of thirteen
years. She was beautiful, notwithstanding the strained look of anxiety
which at that moment disfigured her face, the lurking fear which made
her voice sound artificial, the nervousness which every moment made
fresh demands upon her self-restraint.

"It came up from the sea," she said. "One moment Tony and I were
sitting out under the trees to keep away from the sun, and the next we
were driven shivering indoors; It was just like running into a fog bank
in the middle of the Atlantic on a hot summer's day."

"I found the difference in temperature amazing," he observed. "I, too,
dropped from the sunshine into a strange chill."

She tried to get rid of the subject.

"So you lost your seat," she said. "I am very sorry. Tell me how it
happened?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"The Democratic Party made up their mind, for some reason or other, that
I shouldn't sit. The Labour Party generally were not thinking of
running a candidate. I was to have been returned unopposed, in
acknowledgment of my work on the Nationalisation Bill. The Democrats,
however, ratted. They put up a man at the last moment, and - well, you
know the result - I lost."

"I don't understand English politics," she confessed, "but I thought you
were almost a Labour man yourself."

"I am practically," he replied. "I don't know, even now, what made them
oppose me."

"What about the future?"

"My plans are not wholly made."

For the first time, an old and passionate ambition prevailed against the
thrall of the moment.

"One of the papers this morning," she said eagerly, "suggested that you
might be offered a peerage."

"I saw it," he acknowledged. "It was in the Sun. I was once
unfortunate enough to be on the committee of a club which blackballed
the editor."

Her mouth hardened a little.

"But you haven't forgotten your promise?"

"'Bargain' shall we call it?" he replied. "No, I have not forgotten."

"Tony says you could have a peerage whenever you liked."

"Then I suppose it must be so. Just at present I am not prepared to
write 'finis' to my political career."

The butler announced dinner. Tallente offered his arm and they passed
through the homely little hall into the dining room beyond. Stella came
to a sudden standstill as they crossed the threshold.

"Why is the table laid for two only?" she demanded. "Mr. Palliser is
here."

"I was obliged to send Tony away - on important business," Tallente
intervened. "He left about an hour ago."

Once more the terror was upon her. The fingers which gripped her napkin
trembled. Her eyes, filled with fierce enquiry, were fixed upon her
husband's as he took his place in leisurely fashion and glanced at the
menu.

"Obliged to send Tony away?" she repeated. "I don't understand. He
told me that he had several days' work here with you."

"Something intervened," he murmured.

"Why didn't you wire?" she faltered, almost under her breath. "He
couldn't have had any time to get ready."

Andrew Tallente looked at his wife across the bowl of floating flowers.

"Ah!" he exclaimed. "I didn't think of that. But in any case I did not
make up my mind until I arrived that it was necessary for him to go."

There was silence for a time, an unsatisfactory and in some respects an
unnatural silence. Tallente trifled with his _hors d'oeuvres_ and was
inquisitive about the sauce with which his fish was flavoured. Stella
sent away her plate untouched, but drank two glasses of champagne. The
light came back to her eyes, she found courage again. After all, she
was independent of this man, independent even of his name. She looked
across the table at him appraisingly. He was still sufficiently
good-looking, lithe of frame and muscular, with features well-cut
although a little irregular in outline. Time, however, and anxious work
were beginning to leave their marks. His hair was grey at the sides,
there were deep lines in his face, he seemed to her fancy to have
shrunken a little during the last few years. He had still the languid,
high-bred voice which she had always admired so munch, the same coolness
of manner and quiet dignity. He was a personable man, but after all he
was a failure. His career, so far as she could judge it, was at an end.
She was a fool to imagine, even for a moment, that her whole future lay
in his keeping.

"Have you any plans?" she asked him presently. "Another constituency?"

He smiled a little wearily. For once he spoke quite naturally.

"The only plan I have formulated at present is to rest for a time," he
admitted.

She drank another glass of champagne and felt almost confident. She
told him the small events of the sparsely populated neighbourhood, spoke
of the lack of water in the trout stream, the improvement in the golf
links, the pheasants which a near-by landowner was turning down. They
were comparative newcomers and had seen as yet little of their
neighbours.

"I was told," she concluded, "that the great lady of the neighbourhood
was to have called upon me this afternoon. I waited in but she didn't
come."

"And who is that?" he enquired.

"Lady Jane Partington of Woolhanger - a daughter of the Duke of
Barminster. Woolhanger was left to her by an old aunt, and they say
that she never leaves the place."

"An elderly lady?" he asked, merely with an intent of prolonging a
harmless subject of conversation.

"On the contrary, quite young," his wife replied. "She seems to be a
sort of bachelor-spinster, who lives out in that lonely place without a
chaperon and rules the neighborhood. You ought to make friends with
her, Andrew. They say that she is half a Socialist. - By the by, how
long are we going to stay down here?"

"We will discuss that presently," he answered.

The service of dinner came to its appointed end. Tallente drank one
glass of port alone. Then he rose, left the room by the French windows,
passed along the terrace and looked in at the drawing-room, where Stella
was lingering over her coffee.

"Will you walk with me as far as the lookout?" he invited. "Your maid
can bring you a cloak if you are likely to be cold."

She responded a little ungraciously, but appeared a few minutes later, a
filmy shawl of lace covering her bare shoulders. She walked by his side
to the end of the terrace, along the curving walk through the
plantation, and by the sea wall to the flagged space where some seats
and a table had been fixed. Four hundred feet below, the sea was
beating against jagged rocks. The moon was late and it was almost dark.
She leaned over and he stood by her side.

"Stella," he said, "you asked me at dinner when we were leaving here.
You are leaving to-morrow morning by the twelve-thirty train."

"What do you mean?" she demanded, with a sudden sinking of the heart.

"Please do not ask," he replied. "You know and I know. It is not my
wish to make public the story of our - disagreement."

She was silent for several moments, looking over into the black gulf
below, watching the swirl of the sea, listening to its dull booming
against the distant rocks, the shriek of the backward-dragged pebbles.
An owl flew out from some secret place in the cliffs and wheeled across
the bay. She drew her shawl around her with a little shiver.

"So this is the end," she answered.

"No doubt, in my way," he reflected, "I have been as great a
disappointment to you as you to me. You brought me your great wealth,
believing that I could use it towards securing just what you desired in
the way of social position. Perhaps that might have come but for the
war. Now I have become rather a failure."

"There was no necessity for you ever to have gone soldiering," she
reminded him a little hardly.

"As you say," he acquiesced. "Still, I went and I do not regret it. I
might even remind you that I met with some success."

"Pooh!" she scoffed. "What is the use of a few military distinctions?
What are an M.C. and a D.S.O. and a few French and Belgian orders going
to do for me? You know I want other things. They told me when I
married you," she went on, warming with her own sense of injury, "that
you were certain to be Prime Minister. They told me that the Coalition
Party couldn't do without you, that you were the only effective link
between them and Labour. You had only to play your cards properly and
you could have pushed out Horlock whenever you liked. And now see what
a mess you have made of things! You have built up Horlock's party for
him, he offers you an insignificant post in the Cabinet, and you can't
even win your seat in Parliament."

"Your epitome of my later political career has its weak points, but I
dare say, from your point of view, you have every reason for complaint,"
he observed. "Since I have failed to procure for you the position you
desire, our parting will have a perfectly natural appearance. Your
fortune is unimpaired - you cannot say that I have been extravagant - and
I assure you that I shall not regret my return to poverty."

"But you won't be able to live," she said bluntly. "You haven't any
income at all."

"Believe me," he answered quietly, "you exaggerate my poverty. In any
case, it is not your concern."

"You wouldn't - "

She paused. She was a woman of not very keen perceptions, but she
realised that if she were to proceed with the offer which was half
framed in her mind, the man by her side, with his, to her outlook,
distorted sense of honour, would become her enemy. She shrugged her
shoulders, and turning towards him, held out her hand.

"It is the end, then," she said. "Well, Andrew, I did my best according
to my lights, and I failed. Will you shake hands?"

He shook his head.

"I cannot, Stella. Let us agree to part here. We know all there is to
be known of one another, and we shall be able to say good-by without
regret."

She drifted slowly away from him. He watched her figure pass in and out
among the trees. She was unashamed, perhaps relieved, - probably, he
reflected, as he watched her enter the house, already making her plans
for a more successful future. He turned away and looked downwards. The
darkness seemed, if possible, to have become a little more intense, the
moaning of the sea more insistent. Little showers of white spray
enlaced the sombre rocks. The owl came back from his mysterious
journey, hovered for a moment over the cliff and entered his secret
home. Behind him, the lights in the house went out, one by one.
Suddenly he felt a grip upon his shoulder, a hot breath upon his cheek.
It was Stella, returned dishevelled, her lace scarf streaming behind,
her eyes lit with horror. "Andrew!" she cried. "It came over me - just
as I entered the house! What have you done with Anthony?"



CHAPTER II

Tallente's first impressions of Jane Partington were that an exceedingly
attractive but somewhat imperious young woman had surprised him in a
most undignified position. She had come cantering down the drive on a
horse which, by comparison with the Exmoor ponies which every one rode
in those parts, had seemed gigantic, and, finding a difficulty in making
her presence known, had motioned to him with her whip. He climbed down
from the steps where he had been busy fastening up some roses, removed a
nail from his mouth and came towards her.

"How is it that I can make no one hear?" she asked. "Do you know if
Mrs. Tallente is at home?"

Tallente was in no hurry to reply. He was busy taking in a variety of
pleasant impressions. Notwithstanding the severely cut riding habit and
the hard little hat, he decided that he had never looked into a more
attractively feminine face. For some occult reason, unconnected, he was
sure, with the use of any skin food or face cream, this young woman who
had the reputation of living out of doors, winter and summer, had a
complexion which, notwithstanding its faint shade of tan, would have
passed muster for delicacy and clearness in any Mayfair drawing-room.
Her eyes were soft and brown, her hair a darker shade of the same
colour. Her mouth, for all its firmness, was soft and pleasantly
curved. Her tone, though a trifle imperative, was kindly, gracious and
full of musical quality. Her figure was moderately slim, but
indistinguishable at that moment under her long coat. She possessed a
curious air of physical well-being, the well-being of a woman who has
found and is enjoying what she seeks in life.

"Won't you tell me why I can make no one hear?" she repeated, still
good-naturedly but frowning slightly at his silence.

"Mrs. Tallente is in London," he announced. "She has taken most of the
establishment with her."

The visitor fumbled in her side pocket and produced a diminutive ivory
case. She withdrew a card and handed it to Tallente, with a glance at
his gloved hands.

"Will you give this to the butler?" she begged. "Tell him to tell his
mistress that I was sorry not to find her at home."

"The butler," Tallente explained, "has gone for the milk. He shall have
the card immediately on his return."

She looked at him for a moment and then smiled.

"Do forgive me," she said. "I believe you are Mr. Tallente?"

He drew off his gloves and shook hands.

"How did you guess that?" he asked.

"From the illustrated papers, of course," she answered. "I have come to
the conclusion that you must be a very vain man, I have seen so many
pictures of you lately."

"A matter of snapshots," he replied, "for which, as a rule, the victim
is not responsible. You should abjure such a journalistic vice as
picture papers."

"Why?" she laughed. "They lead to such pleasant surprises. I had been
led to believe, for instance, by studying the Daily Mirror, that you
were quite an elderly person with a squint."

"I am becoming self-conscious," he confessed. "Won't you come in?
There is a boy somewhere about the premises who can look after your
horse, and I shall be able to give you some tea as soon as Robert gets
back with the milk."

He cooeed to the boy, who came up from one of the lower shelves of
garden, and she followed him into the hall. He looked around him for a
moment in some perplexity.

"I wonder whether you would mind coming into my study?" he suggested.
"I am here quite alone for the present, and it is the only room I use."

She followed him down a long passage into a small apartment at the
extreme end of the house.

"You are like me," she said. "I keep most of my rooms shut up and live
in my den. A lonely person needs so much atmosphere."

"Rather a pigsty, isn't it?" he remarked, sweeping a heap of books from
a chair. "I am without a secretary just now - in fact," he went on, with
a little burst of confidence engendered by her friendly attitude, "we
are in a mess altogether."

She laughed softly, leaning back amongst the cushions of the chair and
looking around the room, her kindly eyes filled with interest.

"It is a most characteristic mess," she declared. "I am sure an
interviewer would give anything for this glimpse into your tastes and
habits. Golf clubs, all cleaned up and ready for action; trout rod,
newly-waxed at the joints - you must try my stream, there is no water in
yours; tennis racquets in a very excellent press - I wonder whether
you're too good for a single with me some day? Typewriter - rather
dusty. I don't believe that you can use it."

"I can't," he admitted. "I have been writing my letters by hand for the
last two days."

She sighed.

"Men are helpless creatures! Fancy a great politician unable to write
his own letters! What has become of your secretary?"

Tallente threw some books to the floor and seated himself in the vacant
easy-chair.

"I shall begin to think," he said, a little querulously, "that you don't
read the newspapers. My secretary, according to that portion of the
Press which guarantees to provide full value for the smallest copper
coin, has 'disappeared'."

"Really?" she exclaimed. "He or she?"

"He - the Honourable Anthony Palliser by name, son of Stobart Palliser,
who was at Eton with me."

She nodded.

"I expect I know his mother. What exactly do you mean by
'disappeared'?"

Tallente was looking out of the window. A slight hardness had crept
into his tone and manner. He had the air of one reciting a story.


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