E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Nobody's Man online

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"I am a coward," he reflected sadly. "I have asked for this and it has

He stood for a moment perfectly still, with half-closed eyes, seeking
for self-control very much in the fashion of a man who says a prayer to
himself. Then he climbed the last few stairs, rang the bell and held
out both his hands to Nora, who answered it herself.

"Commend my punctuality," he began.

"Why call attention to the one and only masculine virtue?" she replied.
"Let me take your coat."

He straightened his tie in front of the looking-glass and turned to look
at her with something like wonder in his eyes.

"Dear hostess," he exclaimed, "what has come to you?"

"An epoch of vanity," she declared, turning slowly around that he might
appreciate better the clinging folds of her new black gown. "Don't dare
to say that you don't like it, for heaven only knows what it cost me!"

"It isn't only your gown - it's your hair."

"Coiffured," she confided, "by an artist. Not an ordinary hairdresser
at all. He only works for a few of our aristocracy and one or two
leading ladies on the stage. I pulled it half down and built it up
again, but it's an improvement, isn't it?"

"It suits you," he admitted. "But - but your colour!"

"Natural - absolutely natural," she insisted. "You can wet your finger
and try if you like. It's excitement. If you look into the depths of
my wonderful eyes - I have got wonderful eyes, haven't I?"


"You will see that I am suffering from suppressed excitement. To-night
is quite an epoch. To tell you the truth, I am rather nervous about

"Is he here?"

"You shall see him presently," she promised. "Come along."

"Where is Susan?" he asked, as he followed her.

"Gone out. So has my maid. I had a fancy to turn every one else out of
the flat. Your only hot course will be from a chafing-dish. You see, I
am anxious to impress - him - with my culinary skill. I hope you will
like your dinner, but it will be rather a picnic."

Dartrey glanced back at the hall stand. There was no hat or coat there
except his own. He followed Nora into the little study, which was
separated only by a curtain from the dining room.

"I think your idea is excellent," he pronounced. "And you will forgive
me," he added, producing the parcel which he had been carrying under his
arm. "See what I have brought to drink your health and his, even if he
does not know yet the good fortune in store for him."

He set down a bottle of champagne upon the table. She laughed softly.

"You dear man!" she exclaimed. "Fancy your thinking of it! I thought
you scarcely ever touched wine?"

"I am not a crank," he replied. "Sometimes my guests have told me that
I have quite a reasonably good cellar for a man who takes so little
himself. To-night I am going to drink a glass of champagne."

"Pommery!" she exclaimed. "I hope you'll be able to open it."

"That shall be my task," he promised. "You needn't worry about
flippers. I have some in my pocket. And by the by," he added, glancing
at the clock, "where is your other guest? It is ten minutes past eight,
and I can hear your chafing-dish sizzling."

She threw back the curtain and took his arm. The table was laid for
two. He looked at it in bewilderment and then back at her.

"He has disappointed you?"

She smiled up at him.

"He has disappointed me many, many times," she said, "but not to-night."

"I don't - understand," he faltered.

"I think you do," she answered.

He took the chair opposite to hers. The chafing-dish was between them.
He was filled with a curious sense of unreality. It was a little scene,
this, out of a story or a play. It didn't actually concern him. It
wasn't Nora who sat within a few feet of him, bending down over the
chafing-dish and stirring its contents vigorously.

"Of course," she said, "I am perfectly well aware that this is an
anti-climax. I am perfectly well aware, too, that you will have a most
uncomfortable dinner. You won't know what to say to me and you'll be
dying all the time to look in your calendar and see if this is leap
year. But even we working women sometimes," she went on, smiling
bravely up at him, "have whims. I had a whim, Stephen, to let you know
that I am very stupidly fond of you, and although it isn't your fault
and I expect nothing from you except that you do not alter our
friendship, you just stand in the way whenever I think of marrying any

Perhaps because speech seemed so inadequate, Dartrey said nothing. He
sat looking at her with a queer emotion in his soft, studious eyes,
drumming a little on the table with his finger tips, not quite sure what
it meant that his heart was beating like a young man's and a queer
sensation of happiness was stealing through his whole being.

"Nothing in the world," he murmured, "could alter our friendship."

"What you see before you," she went on, "is an oyster stew. The true
hostess, you see, studying her guest's special tastes. It is very
nearly cooked and if you do not pronounce it the most delicious thing
you ever ate in your life, I shall be terribly disappointed."

Dartrey sat as still as a man upon whom some narcotic influence rested,
and his words sounded almost unnatural.

"I am convinced," he assured her, "that I shall be able to gratify you."

"What you get afterwards you see upon the sideboard: cold
partridges - both young birds though - ham, salad of my own mixing, and,
behold! my one outburst of extravagance - strawberries. There is also a
camembert cheese lying in ambush outside because of its strength. I
would suggest that during the three minutes which will ensue before I
serve you with the stew, you open the champagne. You are so dumbfounded
at my audacity that perhaps a little exercise will be good for you."

Dartrey rose to his feet, produced the corkscrew and found the cork
amenable. He filled Nora's glass and his own. Then he leaned over her
and took her hand for a moment. His face was full of kindness and he
was curiously disturbed.

"You are the dearest child on earth, Nora," he said. "I find myself
wishing from the bottom of my heart that it were possible that you could
be - something nearer and dearer to me."

She looked feverishly into his face and pushed him away.

"Go and sit down and don't be absurd," she enjoined. "Try and forget
everything else except that you are going to eat an oyster stew. That
is really the way to take life, isn't it - in cycles - and it doesn't
matter then whether one's happy times are bounded by the coming night or
the coming years. For five minutes, then, a paradise - of oyster stew."

"It is distinctly the best oyster stew I have ever tasted in my life,"
he pronounced a few minutes later.

"It is very good indeed," she assented. "Now your turn comes. Go to
the sideboard and bring me something. Remember that I am hungry and
don't forget the salad. And tell me, incidentally, whether you have
heard anything of a rumour going around about Andrew Tallente?"

He served her and himself and resumed his seat.

"A rumour?" he repeated. "No, I have heard nothing. What sort of a

"A vague but rather persistent one," she replied. "They say that it is
in the power of certain people - to drive him out of political life at
any moment."

Dartrey's smile was sufficiently contemptuous but there was a note of
anxiety in his tone which he could not altogether conceal.

"These canards are very absurd, Nora," he declared. "The politician is
the natural quarry of the blackmailer, but I should think no man of my
acquaintance has lived a more blameless life than Andrew Tallente."

"I will tell you in what form the story came to me," she said. "It was
from a journalist on the staff of one of our great London dailies. The
rumour was that they had been indirectly approached to know if they
would pay a large sum for a story, perfectly printable, but which would
drive Tallente out of political life."

"Do you know the name of the newspaper?" he asked eagerly.

"I was told," Nora answered, "but under the most solemn abjuration of
secrecy. You ought to be able to guess it, though. Then a woman whom I
met in the Lyceum Chub this afternoon asked me outright if there was any
truth in certain rumours about Tallente, so people must be talking about

The cloud lingered on Dartrey's face. He ate and drank in his usual
sparing fashion, silently and apparently wrapped in thought. From the
other side of the pink-shaded lamp which stood in the middle of the
table, Nora watched him with a curious, almost a sardonic sadness in her
clear eyes. An hour ago she had looked at herself in the mirror and had
been startled at what she saw. The lines of her black gown, the most
extravagant purchase of her life, had revealed the beauty of her soft
and shapely figure. Her throat and bosom had seemed so dazzlingly
white, her hair so rich and glossy, her eyes full of the hope, the
softness, almost the anticipatory joy of the woman who has everything to
offer to the one man in her life. She had felt as she had looked:
almost a girl, with music on her lips and joyous things in her heart,
nursing that wonderful gift to her sex, - the hopeless optimism begotten
of love. And her little house of cards had tumbled so quickly to the
ground, the little denouement on which she had counted had fallen so
flat. They two were there alone. The little dinner which she had
planned was as near perfection as possible. The champagne bubbled in
their glasses. The soft light, the solitude, the stillness, - nothing
had failed her, except the man. Stephen sat within a few feet of her,
with furrowed brow and mind absorbed by a possible political problem.

Nora made coffee at the table, but they drank it seated in great easy
chairs drawn up to the fire. She passed him silently a box of his
favourite brand of cigarettes. Perhaps that evidence of her
forethought, the mute resignation of her restrained conversation with
its attempted note of cheerfulness forced its way through the chinks of
his unnatural armour. His whole face suddenly softened. He leaned
across and took her fingers into his.

"Dear Nora," he sighed, "what a brute I must seem to you and how
difficult it is for me to try and tell you all that is in my heart!"

"All tasks that are worth attempting are difficult," she murmured.
"Please go on."

"They are such simple things that I feel," he began, "simple and yet
contradictory. I should miss you more out of my life than any other
person. I shall resent from my very soul the man who takes you from me.
And yet I know what life is, dear. I know how inexorable are its
decrees. You have a fancy for me, born of kindness and sympathy,
because you know that I am a little lonely. In our thoughts, too, we
live so much in the same world. That is just one of the ironies of
life, Nora. Our thoughts can move linked together through all the
flowery and beautiful places of the world, but our bodies - alas, dear!
Do you know how old I really am?"

"I know how young you are," she answered, with a little choke in her

"I am fifty-four years old," he went on. "I am in the last lap of
physical well-being, even though my mind should continue to flourish.
And you are - how much younger! I dare not think."

"Idiot!" she exclaimed. "At fifty-four you are better and stronger than
half the men of forty."

"I have good health," he admitted, "but no constitution or manner of
living is of any account against the years. In six years' time I shall
be sixty years old."

She leaned a little towards him. Now once more the light was coming
back into her eyes. If that was the only thing with him!

"In twelve years' time from now," she said, "I, too, shall turn over a
chapter, the chapter of my youth. What is time but a relative thing?
Who shall measure your six years against my twelve? The years that
count in the life of a man or a woman are the measure of their

She glided from her chair and sank on her knees beside him. Her lips
pleaded. He took her gently, far too gently, into his arms.

"Dear Nora," he begged, "be kind to me. It is for your sake. I know
what love should mean for you, what it must mean for every sweet woman.
You see only the present. It is my hard task to look into the future
for you."

"Can't you understand," she whispered feverishly, "that I would rather
have that six years of your life, and its aftermath, than an eternity
with any other man? Bend down your head, Stephen."

Her hands were clasped around his neck, her lips forced his. For a
moment they remained so, while the room swam around her and her heart
throbbed like a mad thing. Then she slowly unlocked her arms and drew
away. As though unconscious of what she was doing, she found herself
rubbing her lips softly with her handkerchief. She threw herself back
in her chair a little recklessly.

"Very well, Stephen," she said, "you know your heart best. Drink your
coffee and I'll be sensible again directly."

To his horror she was shaken with sobs. He would have consoled her, but
she motioned him away.

"Dear Stephen," she pleaded, "I am sorry - to be such a fool - but this
thing has lived with me a long time, and - would you go away? It would
be kindest."

He rose to his feet, hesitated for one moment of agony, then crossed the
room with a farewell glance at the sad little feast. He closed the door
softly behind him, descended the stairs and stood for a moment in the
entrance hall, looking out upon the street. A cheerless, drizzling rain
was falling. The streets were wet and swept with a cold wind. He
looked up and down, thought out the way to his club and shivered,
thought out in misery the way back to Chelsea, the turning of his
latch-key, the darkened rooms. The house opposite was brilliantly lit
up. They seemed to be dancing there and the music of violins floated
out into the darkness. Even as he stood there, he felt the bands of
self-control weaken about him. A vision of the cold, grey days ahead
terrified him. He was pitting his brain against his heart. Lives had
been wrecked in that fashion. Philosophy, as the years creep on, is but
a dour consolation. He saw himself with the jewel of life in his hand,
prepared to cast it away. He turned around and ran up the stone steps,
light-hearted and eager as a boy. Nora heard the door open and raised
her head. On the threshold stood Stephen, transformed, rejuvenated, the
lover shining out of his eyes, the look in his face for which she had
prayed. He came towards her, speechless save for one little cry that
ended like a sob in his throat, took her into his arms tenderly but
fiercely, held her to him while the unsuspected passion of his lips
brought paradise into the room.

"You care?" she faltered. "This is not pity?"

He held her to him till she almost swooned. The restraint of so many
years was broken down.

"Must I, after all, be the teacher?" he asked passionately, as their
lips met again. "Must I show you what love is?"


Tallente was seated at breakfast a few mornings later when his wife paid
him an unexpected visit. She responded to his greeting with a cold nod,
refused the coffee which he offered her and the easy-chair which he
pushed forward to the fire.

"I got your letter, Andrew," she said, "in which you proposed to call
upon me this afternoon. I am leaving town. I am on my way back to New
York, as a matter of fact, and I shall have left the hotel by midday, so
you see I have come to visit you instead."

"It is very kind," he answered.

She shrugged her shoulders and looked disparagingly around the plainly
furnished man's sitting room.

"Not much altered here," she remarked. "It looks just as it did when I
used to come to tea with you before we were married."

"The neighbourhood is a conservative one," he replied. "Still, I must
confess that I am glad I never gave the rooms up. I don't think that
nature intended me to dwell in palaces."

"Perhaps not," she agreed, a little insolently. "It is a habit of yours
to think and live parochially. Now what did you want of me, please?"

"There is a scheme on foot," he began, "to bring about my political

"You don't mean to tell me," she exclaimed, with a sudden light in her
eyes, "that you, my well-behaved Andrew, have been playing around? You
are not going to be a corespondent or any-thing of that sort?"

"I used the word 'political,'" he reminded her coldly. "You would not
understand the situation, but its interest and my danger centres round a
certain document which was stolen from my study at Martinhoe on or just
before the day of my arrival from London last August."

"How dull!" she murmured.

"That document," he went on, "was purloined by Anthony Palliser from the
safe in my study. It was either upon him when he disappeared, or he
disposed of it on the afternoon of my arrival to a political opponent of
mine - James Miller."

"I had so hoped there was a lady in the case," she yawned.

"If you will give me your attention for one moment longer," he begged,
"it will be all I ask. I want you to tell me, first of all, whether
James Miller called at the Manor that afternoon and saw Palliser,
whether any one called who might have been helping him, or - "


"Whether you have heard anything of Palliser since his disappearance?"

She looked at him hardly.

"You have brought me here to answer these questions?"

"Pardon me," he reminded her, "your coming was entirely your own idea."

"But why should you expect that I should give you information?" she
demanded. "You refused to give me the thing I wanted more than anything
in life and you have thrown me off like an old glove. If you are
threatened with what you call political ruin, why on earth should I
intervene to prevent it?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"You take a severe and I venture to believe a prejudiced view of the
situation between us," he replied. "I never promised you that I would
make you a peeress. Such a thing never entered into my head. Every
pledge I made to you when we were married, I kept. You cannot say the

"The man's point of view, I suppose," she scoffed. "Well, I'll tell you
what I know, in exchange for a little piece of information from you,
which is - what do you know about Anthony Palliser's disappearance?"

He was silent for several moments. The frown on his forehead deepened.

"Your very question," he observed, "answers one of the queries which
have been troubling me."

"I have no objection to telling you," she said, "that since that night I
have neither seen nor heard of Palliser."

"What happened that night was simple," Tallente explained calmly;
"perhaps you would call it primitive. You left the room. I beckoned
Palliser to follow me outside. The car was still in the avenue and the
servants were taking my luggage in. The spot where we stood on the
terrace, too, was exactly underneath your window. I took him by the arm
and I led him along the little path towards the cliff. When we came to
the open space by the wall, I let him go. I asked him if he had
anything to say. He had nothing. I thrashed him."

"You bully!"

Tallente raised his eyebrows.

"Palliser was twenty years younger than I and of at least equal build
and strength," he said. "It was not my fault that he seemed unable to
defend himself."

"But his disappearance - tell me about that?"

"We were within a few feet of the edge of the cliff. I struck him
harder, Perhaps, than I had intended, and he went over. I stood there
and hooked down, but I could see nothing. I heard the crashing of some
bushes, and after that - silence. I even called out to him, but there
was no reply. Some time later, Robert and I searched the cliff and the
bay below for his body. We discovered nothing."

"It was high tide that night!" she cried. "You know very well that he
must have been drowned!"

"I have answered your question," Tallente replied quietly.

There was a cold fury in her eyes. The veins seemed to stand out on her
clenched, worn hands. She looked at him with all the suppressed passion
of a creature impotent yet fiercely anxious to strike.

"I shall give information," she cried. "You shall be charged with his

Tallente shook his head.

"You will waste your time, Stella," he said. "For one thing, a woman
may not give evidence against her husband. Another thing, there cannot
very well be a charge for murder unsupported by the production of the
body. And for a third thing, I should deny the whole story."

Her fury abated, though the hate in her eyes remained.

"I think," she declared, "that you are the most coldblooded creature I
ever knew."

The irony of the situation gripped at him. He rose suddenly to his
feet, filled with an overwhelming desire to end it.

"Stella," he said, "to me you always seemed, especially during our last
few years together, cold and utterly indifferent. I know now that I was
mistaken. In your way you cared for Palliser. You starved me. My own
fault, you would say? Perhaps. But listen. There is a way into every
man's heart and a way into every woman's, but sometimes that way lies
hidden except to the one right person, and you weren't the right person
for me, and I wasn't the right person for you. Now answer the rest of
my question and let us part."

"Tell me," she asked, with almost insolent irony, "do you believe that
there could ever have been a right person for you?"

"My God, yes!" he answered, with a sudden fire. "I suffer the tortures
of the damned sometimes because I missed my chance! There! I'm telling
you this just so that you shall think a little differently, if you can.
You and I between us have made an infernal mess of things. It was
chiefly my fault. And as regards Palliser - well, I am sorry. Only the
fellow - he may have been lovable to you, but he was a coward and a sneak
to me - and he paid. I am sorry."

She seemed a little dazed.

"You mean to tell me, Andrew," she persisted, "that there is really some
one you care for, care for in the big way - a woman who means as much to
you as your place in Parliament - your ambition?"

"More," he declared vigorously. "There isn't a single thing I have or
ever have had in life which I wouldn't give for the chance - just a
chance - "

"And she cares for you?"

"I think that she would," he answered. "She has been brought up in a
very old-fashioned school. She knows of you."

Stella smiled a little bitterly.

"Well," she said, "I suppose I am a brute, but I am glad to know that
you can suffer. I hope you will suffer; it makes you seem more human
anyhow. But in return for your confidence I will answer the other part
of your question. The man Miller was at the Manor that afternoon.
Palliser confessed to me that he had given him some important document."

"Given him!"

"Well, sold him, then. Tony hadn't got a shilling in the world and he
would never take a halfpenny from me. He had to have money. He told me
about it that night before you came. Miller gave him five thousand
pounds for it - secret service money from one of the branches of his
party. Now you know all about it."

"Yes, I know all about it," Tallente assented, a little bitterly. "You
can take your trip to America without a single regret, Stella. I shall
certainly never be a Cabinet Minister again, much less Prime Minister of
England. Miller can use those papers to my undoing."

She shrugged her shoulders as she turned towards the door.

"You are like the fool," she said, "who tried to build the tower of his
life without cement. All very well for experiments, Andrew, when one is
young and one can rebuild, but you are a little old for that now, aren't
you, and all your brain and all your efforts, and every thought you have
been capable of since the day I met you have been given to that one
thing. You'll find it a little difficult to start all over
again. - Don't - trouble. I know the way down and I have a car waiting.
You must take up golf and make a water garden at Martinhoe. I don't
know whether you deserve that I should wish you good fortune. I can't
make up my mind. But I will - and good-by!"

She left him in the end quite suddenly. He had not even time to open
the door for her. Tallente looked out of the window and watched her
drive away. His feelings were in a curiously numb state. For Stella he
had no feeling whatever. Her confirmation of Palliser's perfidy had
awakened in him no new resentment. Only in a vague way he began to
realise that his forebodings of the last few days were founded upon a
reality. Whether Palliser lived or was dead, it was too late for him to

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Online LibraryE. Phillips OppenheimNobody's Man → online text (page 14 of 19)