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"Not later than five, please," Nora called out. "You shall have
muffins, if I can get them."

"She's got her eye on you," the old lady chuckled. "Most dangerous
child in London, they all tell me. You're warned, Andrew."

He smiled as he raised her fingers to his lips.

"Is my danger political or otherwise?" he whispered.

"Otherwise, I should think," was the prompt retort. "You are too
British to change our politics, but thank goodness infidelity is one of
the cosmopolitan virtues. You were never the man to marry a
plaster-cast type of wife, Andrew, for all her millions. I could have
done better for you than that. What's this they are telling me about
Tony Palliser?"

Tallente stiffened a little.

"A good many people seem to be talking about Tony Palliser," he
observed.

"You shouldn't have let your wife make such an idiot of herself with
him - lunching and dining and theatring all the time. And now they say
he has disappeared. Poor little man! What have you done to him,
Andrew?"

Tallente sighed.

"I can see that I shall have to take you into my confidence," he
murmured.

"You needn't tell me a single word, because I shouldn't believe you if
you did. Are you staying here with your wife?"

"No," Tallente answered. "I am back at my old rooms in Charges Street."

The old lady patted him on the arm and dismissed him.

"You see, I've found out all I wanted to know!" she chuckled.



CHAPTER XII

Dartrey had been called unexpectedly to the north, to a great Labour
conference, and Tallente, waiting for his return, promised within the
next forty-eight hours, found himself rather at a loose end. He avoided
the club, where he would have been likely to meet his late political
associates, and spent the morning after his visit to the Prime Minister
strolling around the Park, paying visits to his tailor and hosier, and
lunched by himself a little sadly in a fashionable restaurant. At five
o'clock he found his way to Westminster and discovered Nora Miall's
flat. A busy young person in pince-nez and a long overall, who
announced herself as Miss Miall's secretary, was in the act of showing
out James Miller as he rang the bell. "Any news?" the latter asked,
after Tallente had found it impossible to avoid shaking hands. "I am
waiting for Mr. Dartrey's return. No, there is no particular news that I
know of."

"Dartrey's had to go north for a few days," Miller confided officiously.
"I ought to have gone too, but some one had to stay and look after
things in the House. Rather a nuisance his being called away just now."

Tallente preserved a noncommittal silence. Miller rolled a cigarette
hastily, took up his unwrapped umbrella and an ill-brushed bowler hat.

"Well, I must be going," he concluded. "If there is anything I can do
for you during the chief's absence, look me up, Mr. Tallente. It's all
the same, you know - Dartrey or me - Demos House in Parliament Street, or
the House. You haven't forgotten your way there yet, I expect?"

With which parting shaft Mr. James Miller departed, and the secretary,
Opening the door of Nora's sitting room, ushered Tallente in.

"Mr. Tallente," she announced, with a subdued smile, "fresh from a most
engaging but rather one-sided conversation with Mr. Miller."

Nora was evidently neither attired nor equipped this afternoon for a tea
party at Claridge's. She wore a dark blue princess frock, buttoned
right up to the throat. Her hair was brushed straight back from her
head, revealing a little more completely her finely shaped forehead.
She was seated before a round table covered with papers, and Tallente
fancied, even as he crossed the threshold, that there was an electric
atmosphere in the little apartment, an impression which the smouldering
fire in her eyes, as she glanced up, confirmed. The change in her
expression, however, as she recognised her visitor, was instantaneous.
A delightful smile of welcome chased away the sombreness of her face.

"My dear man," she exclaimed, "come and sit down and help me to forget
that annoying person who has just gone out!"

Tallente smiled.

"Miller is not one of your favorites, then?"

"Isn't he the most impossible person who ever breathed." she replied.
"He was a conscientious objector during the war, a sex fanatic
since - Mr. Dartrey had to use all his influence to keep him out of
prison for writing those scurrulous articles in the Comet - and I think
he is one of the smallest-minded, most untrustworthy persons I ever met.
For some reason or other, Stephen Dartrey believes in him. He has a
wonderful talent for organization and a good deal of influence with the
trades unions. - By the by, it's all right about the muffins."

She rang the bell and ordered tea. Tallente glanced for a moment about
the room. The four walls were lined with well-filled bookcases, but the
mural decorations consisted - except for one wonderful nude figure, copy
of a well-known Rodin - of statistical charts and shaded maps. There
were only two signs of feminine occupation: an immense bowl of red
roses, rising with strange effect from the sea of manuscript, pamphlets,
and volumes of reference, and a wide, luxurious couch, drawn up to the
window, through which the tops of a little clump of lime trees were just
visible. As she turned back to him, he noticed with more complete
appreciation the lines of her ample but graceful figure, the more
remarkable because she was neither tall nor slim.

"So that was your wife at Claridge's yesterday afternoon?" she remarked,
a little abruptly.

He assented in silence. Her eyes sought his speculatively.

"I know that Lady Clanarton is a terrible gossip," she went on. "Was
she telling me the truth when she said that your married life was not an
entire success?"

"She was telling you the truth," Tallente admitted.

"I like to know everything," she suggested quietly. "You must remember
that we shall probably become intimates."

"I did my wife the injustice of marrying her for money," Tallente
explained. "She married me because she thought that I could provide her
with a social position such as she desired. Our marriage was a double
failure. I found no opportunity of making use of her money, and she was
discontented with the value she received for it. We have within the
last few days agreed to separate. Now you know everything," he added,
with a little smile, "and curiously enough, considering the brevity of
our acquaintance, you know it before anybody else in the world except
one person."

She smiled.

"I like to know everything about the people I am interested in," she
admitted. "Besides, your story sounds so quaint. It seems to belong,
somehow or other, to the days of Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen. I
suppose that is because I always feel that I am living a little way in
the future."

Tea was brought in, and a place cleared for the tray upon a crowded
table. Afterwards she lit a cigarette and threw herself upon the
lounge.

"Turn your chair around towards me," she invited. "This is the hour I
like best of any during the day. Do you see what a beautiful view I
have of the Houses of Parliament? And there across the river, behind
that mist, the cesspool begins. Sometimes I lie here and think. I see
right into Bermondsey and Rotherhithe and all those places and think out
the lives of the people as they are being lived. Then I look through
those wonderful windows there - how they glitter in the sunshine, don't
they! - and I think I hear the men speak whom they have sent to plead
their cause. Some Demosthenes from Tower Hill exhausts himself with
phrase-making, shouts himself into a perspiration, drawing lurid,
pictures of hideous and apparent wrongs, and a hundred or so
well-dressed legislators whisper behind the palms of their hands, make
their plans for the evening and trot into their appointed lobbies like
sheep when the division bell rings. It is the most tragical epitome of
inadequacy the world has ever known."

"Have you Democrats any fresh inspiration, then?" he asked.

"Of course we have," she rapped out sharply. "It isn't like you to ask
such a question. The principles for which we stand never existed
before, except academically. No party has ever been able to preach them
within the realm of practical politics, because no party has been
comprehensive enough. The Labour Party, as it was understood ten years
ago, was a pitiful conglomeration of selfish atoms without the faintest
idea of coordination. It is for the souls of the people we stand, we
Democrats, whether they belong to trades unions or not, whether they
till the fields or sweat in the factories, whether they bend over a desk
or go back and forth across the sea, whether they live in small houses
or large, whether they belong to the respectable middle classes whom the
after-the-war legislation did its best to break, or to the class of
actual manual laborers."

"I don't see what place a man like Miller has in your scheme of things,"
he observed, a little restlessly.

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Miller is a limpet," she said. "He has posed as a man of brains for
half a generation. His only real cleverness is an unerring but selfish
capacity for attaching himself to the right cause. We can't ignore him.
He has a following. On the other hand, he does not represent our
principles any more than Pitt would if he were still alive."

"What will be your position really as regards the two main sections of
the Labour Party?" he asked. "We are absorbing the best of them, day by
day," she answered quickly. "What is left of either will be merely the
scum. The people will come to us. Their discarded leaders can crawl
back to obscurity. The people may follow false gods for a very long
time, but they have the knack of recognising the truth when it is shown
them."

"You have the gift of conviction," he said thoughtfully.

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Our cause speaks, not I," she declared. "Every word I utter is a waste
of breath, a task of supererogation. You can't associate with Stephen
Dartrey for a month without realising for yourself what our party means
and stands for. So - enough. I didn't ask you here to undertake any
missionary work. I asked you, as a matter of fact, for my own pleasure.
Take another cigarette and pass me one, please. And here's another
cushion," she added, throwing it to him. "You look as though you needed
it." He settled down more comfortably. He had the pleasant feeling of
being completely at his ease.

"So far as entertaining you is concerned," he confessed, "I fear I am
likely to be a failure. I am beginning to feel like a constant note of
interrogation. There is so much I want to know."

"Proceed, then. I am resigned," she said with a smile. "About
yourself. I just knew of you as the writer of one or two articles in
the reviews. Why have I never heard more of you?"

"One reason," she confided, "is because I am so painfully young. I
haven't had time yet to become a wonderful woman. You see, I have the
tremendous advantage of not having known the world except from
underneath a pigtail, while the war was on. I was able to bring to
these new conditions an absolutely unbiassed understanding."

"But what was your upbringing?" he asked. "Your father, for instance?"

"Is this going to be a pill for you?" she enquired, with slightly
wrinkled forehead. "He was professor of English at Dresden University.
We were all living there when the war broke out, but he was such a
favourite that they let us go to Paris. He died there, the week after
peace was declared. My mother still lives at Versailles. She was
governess to Lady Clanarton's grandchildren, hence my presence yesterday
in those aristocratic circles."

"And you live here alone?"

"With my secretary - the fuzzyhaired young person who was just getting
rid of Mr. Miller for me when you arrived. We are a terribly advanced
couple, in our ideas, but we lead a thoroughly reputable life. I
sometimes think," she went on, with a sigh, "that all one's tendencies
towards the unusual can be got rid of in opinions. Susan, for
instance - that is my secretary's name - pronounces herself unblushingly
in favour of free love, but I don't think she has ever allowed a man to
kiss her in her life."

"Your own opinions?" he asked curiously. "I suppose they, too, are a
little revolutionary, so far as regards our social laws?"

"I dare not even define them," she acknowledged, "they are so entirely
negative. Somehow or other, I can't help thinking that the present
system will die out through the sheer absurdity of it. We really shan't
need a crusade against the marriage laws. The whole system is
committing suicide as fast as it can."

"How old are you?" he asked.

"Twenty-four," she answered promptly.

"And supposing you fell in love - taking it for granted that you have not
done so already - should you marry?"

Her eyes rested upon his, a little narrowed, curiously and pleasantly
reflective. All the time the corners of her sensitive mouth twitched a
little.

"To tell you the truth," she confided, with a somewhat evasive air, "I
have been so busy thinking out life for other people that I have never
stopped to apply its general principles to myself."

"You are a sophist," he declared.

"I have not your remarkable insight," she laughed mockingly.



CHAPTER XIII

"How this came about I don't even quite know," Tallente remarked, an
hour or so later, as he laid down the menu and smiled across the corner
table in the little Soho restaurant at his two companions.

"I can tell you exactly," Nora declared. "You are in town for a few
days only, and I want to see as much of you as I can; Susan here is
deserting me at nine o'clock to go to a musical comedy; I particularly
wanted a sole Georges, and I knew, if Susan and I came here alone, a
person whom we neither of us like would come and share our table.
Therefore, I made artless enquiries as to your engagements for the
evening. When I found that you proposed to dine alone in some hidden
place rather than run the risk of meeting any of your political
acquaintances at the club, I went in for a little mental suggestion."

"I see," he murmured. "Then my invitation wasn't a spontaneous one?"

"Not at all," she agreed. "I put the idea into your head."

"And now that we are here, are you going to stretch me on the rack and
delve for my opinions on all sorts of subjects? is Miss Susan there
going to take them down in shorthand on her cuff and you make a report
to Dartrey when he comes back to-morrow?"

She laughed at him from underneath her close-fitting, becoming little
hat. She was biting an olive with firm white teeth.

"After hours," she reassured him. "Susan and I are going to talk a
little nonsense after the day's work. You may join in if you can unbend
so far. We shall probably eat more than is good for us - I had a cup of
coffee for lunch - and if you decide to be magnificent and offer us wine,
we shall drink it and talk more nonsense than ever."

He called for the wine list.

"I thought we were going to discuss the effect of Grecian philosophy
upon the Roman system of government."

She shook her head.

"You're a long way out," she declared, "Our conversation will skirt the
edges of many subjects. We shall speak of the Russian Ballet, Susan and
I will exchange a few whispered confidences about our admirers, we shall
discuss even one who comes in and goes out, with subtle references to
their clothes and morals, and when you and I are left alone we may even
indulge in the wholesome, sentimental exercise of a little flirtation."

"There you have me," he confessed. "I know a little about everything
else you have mentioned."

"A very good opening." she approved. "Keep it till Susan has gone and
then propose yourself as a disciple. There is only one drawback about
this place," she went on, nodding curtly across the room to Miller. "So
many of our own people come here. Mr. Miller must be pleased to see us
together."

"Why?" Tallente asked. "Is he an admirer?"

Nora's face was almost ludicrously expressive.

"He would like to he," she admitted, "but, thick-skinned though he is, I
have managed to make him understand pretty well how I feel about him.
You'll find him a thorn in your side," she went on reflectively.

"You see, if our party has a fault, it is in a certain lack of system.
We have only a titular chief and no real leader. Miller thinks that
post is his by predestination. Your coming is beginning to worry him
already. It was entirely on your account he paid me that visit this
afternoon."

"To be perfectly frank with you," Tallente sighed, "I should find Miller
a loathsome coadjutor."

"There are drawbacks to everything in life," Nora replied. "Long before
Miller has become anything except a nuisance to you, you will have
realised that the only political party worth considering, during the
next fifty years, at any rate, will be the Democrats. After that, I
shouldn't be at all surprised if the aristocrats didn't engineer a
revolution, especially if we disenfranchise them. - Susan, you have a new
hat on. Tell me at once with whom you are going to Daly's?"

"No one who counts," the girl declared, with a little grimace. "I am
going with my brother and a very sober married friend of his."

"After working hours," Nora confessed, glancing critically at the sole
which had just been tendered for Tallente's examination, "the chief
interest of Susan and myself, as you may have observed, lies in food and
in your sex. I think we must have what some nasty German woman once
called the man-hunger."

"It sounds cannibalistic," Tallente rejoined. "Have I any cause for
alarm?"

"Not so far as I am concerned," Susan assured him. "I have really found
my man, only he doesn't know it yet. I am trying to get it into his
brain by mental suggestion."

"You wouldn't think Susan would be so much luckier than I, would you?"
Nora observed, studying her friend reflectively. "I am really much
better-looking, but I think she must have more taking ways. You needn't
be nervous, Mr. Tallente. You are outside the range of our ambitions.
I shall have to be content with some one in a humbler walk of life."

"Aren't you a little over-modest?" he asked. "You haven't told me much
about the social side of this new era which you propose to inaugurate,
but I imagine that intellect will be the only aristocracy."

"Even then," Norah sighed, "I am lacking in confidence. To tell you the
truth, I am not a great believer in my own sex. I don't see us
occupying a very prominent place in the politics of the next few
decades. The functions of woman were decided for her by nature and a
million years of revolt will never alter them."

Tallente was a little surprised.

"You mean that you don't believe in woman Member of Parliament, doctors
and lawyers, and that sort of thing?"

"In a general way, certainly not," she replied. "Women doctors for
women and children, yes! Lawyers - no! Members of Parliament - certainly
not! Women were made for one thing and to do that properly should take
all the energy they possess."

"You are full of surprises," Tallente declared. "I expected a miracle
of complexity and I find you almost primitive." She laughed. "Then
considering the sort of man you are, I ought to have gone up a lot in
your estimation."

"There are a very few higher notches," he assured her, smiling, "than
the one where you now sit enthroned."

Nora glanced at her wrist watch.

"Susan dear, what time do you have to join your friends?" she asked.

Susan shook her head.

"Nothing doing. I've got my seat. I am going when I've had my dinner
comfortably. There's fried chicken coming and no considerations of
friendship would induce me to hurry away from it."

Nora sighed plaintively.

"There is no doubt about it, women do lack the sporting instinct," she
lamented. "Now if we'd both been men, and Mr. Tallente a charming
woman, I should have just given you a wink, you would have muttered
something clumsy about an appointment, shuffled off and finished your
dinner elsewhere."

"Our sex isn't capable of such sacrifices," Susan declared, leaning back
to enable the waiter to fill her glass. "There's the champagne, too."

The meal came to a conclusion with scarcely another serious word. Susan
departed in due course, and Tallente called for his bill, a short time
afterwards, with a feeling of absolute reluctance.

"Shall we try and get in at a show somewhere?" he suggested.

She shook her head.

"Not to-night. Four nights a week I go to bed early and this is one of
them. Let's escape, if we can, before Mr. Miller can make his way over
here. I know he'll try and have coffee with us or something."

Tallente was adroit and they left the restaurant just as Miller was
rising to his feet. Nora sprang into the waiting taxi with a little
laugh of triumph and drew her skirts on one side to make room for her
escort. They drove slowly off along the hot and crowded street, with
its long-drawn-out tangle of polyglot shops, foreign-looking restaurants
and delicatessen establishments. Every one who was not feverishly busy
was seated either at the open windows of the second or third floor, or
out on the pavement below. The city seemed to be exuding the soaked-in
heat of the long summer's day. The women who floated by were dressed in
the lightest of muslins; even the plainest of them gained a new charm in
their airy and butterfly-looking costumes. The men walked bareheaded,
waistcoatless, fanning themselves with straw hats. Here and there, as
they turned into Shaftesbury Avenue, an immaculately turned-out young
man in evening dress passed along the baked pavements and dived into one
of the theatres. Notwithstanding the heat, there seemed to be a sort of
voluptuous atmosphere brooding over the crowded streets. The sky over
Piccadilly Circus was almost violet and the luminous, unneeded lamps had
a festive effect. The strain of a long day had passed. It was the
pleasure-seekers alone who thronged the thoroughfares. Tallente turned
and looked into the corner of the cab, to meet a soft, reflective gleam
in Nora's eyes.

"Isn't London wonderful!" she murmured dreamily. "On a night like this
it always seems to me like a great human being whose pulses you can see
heating, beating all the time."

Tallente, a person very little given to self-analysis, never really
understood the impulse which prompted him to lean towards her, the
slightly quickening sense of excitement with which he sought for the
kindness of her eyes. Suddenly he felt his fingers clasped in hers, a
warm, pleasant grasp, yet which somehow or other seemed to have the
effect of a barrier.

"You asked me a question at dinner-time," she said, "winch I did not
answer at the time. You asked me why I disliked James Miller so much."

"Don't tell me unless you like," he begged. "Don't talk about that
sort of person at all just now, unless you want to."

"I must tell you why I dislike him so much," she insisted. "It is
because he once tried to kiss me."

"Was that so terrible a sin?" he asked, a little thickly.

She smiled up at him with the candour of a child.

"To me it was," she acknowledged, "because it was just the casual caress
of a man seeking for a momentary emotion. Sometimes you have
wondered - or you have looked as though you were wondering - what my ideas
about men and women and the future and the marriage laws, and all that
sort of thing really are. Perhaps I haven't altogether made up my mind
myself, but I do know this, because it is part of myself and my life.
The one desire I have is for children - sons for the State, or daughters
who may bear sons. There isn't anything else which it is worth while
for a woman thinking about for a moment. And yet, do you know, I never
actually think of marrying. I never think about whether love is right
or wrong. I simply think that no man shall ever kiss me, or hold me in
his arms, unless it is the man who is sent to me for my desire, and when
he comes, just whoever he may be, or whenever it may be, and whether St.
George's opens its doors to us or whether we go through some tangle of
words at a registry office, or whether neither of these things happens,
I really do not mind. When he comes, he will give me what I want - that
is just all that counts. And until he comes, I shall stay just as I
have been ever since my pigtail went up and my skirts came down."

She gave his hand a final little pressure, patted and released it. He
felt, somehow or other, immeasurably grateful to her, flattered by her
confidence, curiously exalted by her hesitating words. Speech, however,


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Online LibraryE. Phillips OppenheimNobody's Man → online text (page 7 of 19)