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The Market-Place By Harold Frederic Characters: 21662

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:08


THE battle was over, and the victor remained on the field-sitting alone with the hurly-burly of his thoughts.

His triumph was so sweeping and comprehensive as to be somewhat shapeless to the view. He had a sense of fascinated pain when he tried to define to himself what its limits would probably be. Vistas of unchecked, expanding conquest stretched away in every direction. He held at his mercy everything within sight. Indeed, it rested entirely with him to say whether there should be any such thing as mercy at all-and until he chose to utter the restraining word the rout of the vanquished would go on with multiplying terrors and ruin. He could crush and torture and despoil his enemies until he was tired. The responsibility of having to decide when he would stop grinding their faces might come to weigh upon him later on, but he would not give it room in his mind to-night.

A picture of these faces of his victims shaped itself out of the flames in the grate. They were moulded in a family likeness, these phantom visages: they were all Jewish, all malignant, all distorted with fright. They implored him with eyes in which panic asserted itself above rage and cunning. Only here and there did he recall a name with which to label one of these countenances; very few of them raised a memory of individual rancour. The faces were those of men he had seen, no doubt, but their persecution of him had been impersonal; his great revenge was equally so. As he looked, in truth, there was only one face-a composite mask of what he had done battle with, and overthrown, and would trample implacably under foot. He stared with a conqueror's cold frown at it, and gave an abrupt laugh which started harsh echoes in the stillness of the Board Room. Then he shook off the reverie, and got to his feet. He shivered a little at the sudden touch of a chill.

A bottle of brandy, surrounded by glasses, stood on the table where the two least-considered of his lieutenants, the dummy Directors, had left it. He poured a small quantity and sipped it. During the whole eventful day it had not occurred to him before to drink; the taste of the neat liquor seemed on the instant to calm and refresh his brain. With more deliberation, he took a cigar from the broad, floridly-decorated open box beside the bottle, lit it, and blew a long draught of smoke thoughtfully through his nostrils. Then he put his hands in his pockets, looked again into the fire, and sighed a wondering smile. God in heaven! it was actually true!

This man of forty found himself fluttering with a novel exhilaration, which yet was not novel. Upon reflection, he perceived that he felt as if he were a boy again-a boy excited by pleasure. It surprised as much as it delighted him to experience this frank and direct joy of a child. He caught the inkling of an idea that perhaps his years were an illusion. He had latterly been thinking of himself as middle-aged; the grey hairs thickening at his temples had vaguely depressed him. Now all at once he saw that he was not old at all. The buoyancy of veritable youth bubbled in his veins. He began walking up and down the room, regarding new halcyon visions with a sparkling eye. He was no longer conscious of the hated foe beneath his feet; they trod instead elastic upon the clouds.

The sound of someone moving about in the hallway outside, and of trying a door near by, suddenly caught his attention. He stood still and listened with alertness for a surprised instant, then shrugged his shoulders and began moving again. It must be nearly seven o'clock; although the allotment work had kept the clerks later than usual that day, everybody connected with the offices had certainly gone home. He realized that his nerves had played him a trick in giving that alarmed momentary start-and smiled almost tenderly as he remembered how notable and even glorious a warrant those nerves had for their unsettled state. They would be all right after a night's real rest. He would know how to sleep NOW, thank God!

But yes-there was somebody outside-and this time knocking with assurance at the right door, the entrance to the outer office. After a second's consideration, he went into this unlighted outer office, and called out through the opaque glass an enquiry. The sound of his voice, as it analyzed itself in his own ears, seemed unduly peremptory. The answer which came back brought a flash of wonderment to his eyes. He hurriedly unlocked and opened the door.

"I saw the lights in what I made out to be the Board Room," said the newcomer, as he entered. "I assumed it must be you. Hope I don't interrupt anything."

"Nothing could have given me greater pleasure, Lord Plowden," replied the other, leading the way back to the inner apartment. "In fact, I couldn't have asked anything better."

The tone of his voice had a certain anxious note in it not quite in harmony with this declaration. He turned, under the drop-light overhanging the Board-table, and shook hands with his guest, as if to atone for this doubtful accent. "I shake hands with you again," he said, speaking rapidly, "because this afternoon it was what you may call formal; it didn't count. And-my God!-you're the man I owe it all to."

"Oh, you mustn't go as far as that-even in the absence of witnesses," replied Lord Plowden, lightly. "I'll take off my coat for a few minutes," he went on, very much at his ease. "It's hot in here. It's by the merest chance I happened to be detained in the City-and I saw your lights, and this afternoon we had no opportunity whatever for a quiet talk. No-I won't drink anything before dinner, but I'll light a cigar. I want to say to you, Thorpe," he concluded, as he seated himself "that I think what you've done is very wonderful. The Marquis thinks so too-but I shouldn't like to swear that he understands much about it."

The implication that the speaker did understand remained in the air like a tangible object. Thorpe took a chair, and the two men exchanged a silent, intent look. Their faces, dusky red on the side of the glow from the fire, pallid where the electric light fell slantwise upon them from above, had for a moment a mysterious something in common. Then the tension of the glance was relaxed-and on the instant no two men in London looked less alike.

Lord Plowden was familiarly spoken of as a handsome man. Thorpe had even heard him called the handsomest man in England-though this seemed in all likelihood an exaggeration. But handsome he undoubtedly was-tall without suggesting the thought of height to the observer, erect yet graceful, powerfully built, while preserving the effect of slenderness. His face in repose had the outline of the more youthful guardsman-type-regular, finely-cut, impassive to hardness. When he talked, or followed with interest the talk of others, it revealed almost an excess of animation. Then one noted the flashing subtlety of his glance, the swift facility of his smile and comprehending brows, and saw that it was not the guardsman face at all. His skin was fresh-hued, and there was a shade of warm brown in his small, well-ordered moustasche, but his hair, wavy and worn longer than the fashion, seemed black. There were perceptible veins of grey in it, though he had only entered his thirty-fifth year. He was dressed habitually with the utmost possible care.

The contrast between this personage and the older man confronting him was abrupt. Thorpe was also tall, but of a burly and slouching figure. His face, shrouded in a high-growing, dust-coloured beard, invited no attention. One seemed always to have known this face-thick-featured, immobile, undistinguished. Its accessories for the time being were even more than ordinarily unimpressive. Both hair and beard were ragged with neglect. His commonplace, dark clothes looked as if he had slept in them. The hands resting on his big knees were coarse in shape, and roughened, and ill-kept.

"I couldn't have asked anything better than your dropping in," he repeated now, speaking with a drag, as of caution, on his words. "Witnesses or no witnesses, I'm anxious to have you understand that I realize what I owe to you."

"I only wish it were a great deal more than it is," replied the other, with a frank smile.

"Oh, it'll mount up to considerable, as it stands," said Thorpe.

He could hear that there was a kind of reservation in his voice; the suspicion that his companion detected it embarrassed him. He found himself in the position of fencing with a man to whom all his feelings impelled him to be perfectly open. He paused, and was awkwardly conscious of constraint in the silence which ensued. "You are very kind to put it in that way," said Lord Plowden, at last. He seemed also to be finding words for his thoughts with a certain difficulty. He turned his cigar round in his white fingers meditatively. "I gather that your success has been complete-as complete as you yourself could have desired. I congratulate you with all my heart."

"No-don't say my success-say our success," put in Thorpe.

"But, my dear man," the other corrected him, "my interest, compared with yours, is hardly more than nominal. I'm a Director, of course, and I'm not displeased that my few shares should be worth something instead of nothing, but--"

Thorpe lifted one of his heavy hands. "That isn't my view of the thing at all. To be frank, I was turning over in my mind, just awhile ago, before you came in, some way of arranging all that on a different footing. If you'll trust it to me, I think you'll find it's all right."

Something in the form of this remark seemed to restore to Lord Plowden his accustomed fluency of speech.

"I came here to say precisely that thing," he began-"that I do trust it to you. We have never had any very definite talk on the subject-and pray don't think that I want to go into details now. I'd much rather not, in fact. But what I do want to say to you is this: I believe in you. I feel sure that you are going to go far, as the saying is. Well, I want to tie myself to your star. Do you see what I mean? You are going to be a power in finance. You are going to be able to make and unmake men as you choose. I should be very much obliged indeed if you would make me."

Thorpe regarded the handsome and titled man of fashion with what seemed to the other a lethargic gaze. In truth, his mind was toiling with strenuous activity to master, in all its bearings, the significance of what had been said. This habit of the abstracted and lack-lustre eye, the while he was hard at work thinking, was a fortuitous asset which he had never up to that time learned that he possessed. Unconsciously, he dampened the spirits of his companion.

"Don't imagine I'm trying to force myself upon you," Lord Plowden said, growing cool

in the face of this slow stare. "I'm asking nothing at all. I had the impulse to come and say to you that you are a great man, and that you've done a great thing-and done it, moreover, in a very great way."

"You know how it was done!" The wondering exclamation forced itself from Thorpe's unready lips. He bent forward a little, and took a new visual hold, as it were, of his companion's countenance.

Lord Plowden smiled. "Did you think I was such a hopeless duffer, then?" he rejoined.

For answer, Thorpe leant back in his chair, crossed his legs, and patted his knee contentedly. All at once his face had lightened; a genial speculation returned to his grey eyes.

"Well, I was in a curious position about you, you see," he began to explain. The relief with which he spoke was palpable. "I could not for the life of me make up my mind whether to tell you about it or not. Let's see-this is Thursday; did I see you Tuesday? At any rate, the scheme didn't dawn on me myself until toward evening Tuesday. But yesterday, of course, I could have told you-and again this afternoon-but, as I say, I couldn't make up my mind. Once I had it on the tip of my tongue-but somehow I didn't. And you-you never gave me a hint that you saw what was going on."

Again Lord Plowden smiled. "I voted with you," he put in softly.

Thorpe laughed, and relit his cigar. "Well, I couldn't have asked anything better than this," he declared once again. "It beats all the rest put together, to my mind."

"Perhaps I don't quite follow your meaning," commented the other tentatively.

"Why man," Thorpe explained, hesitating a little in his choice of words, but speaking with evident fervour; "I was more anxious about you-and the way you'd take it-than about anything else. I give you my word I was. I couldn't tell at all how you'd feel about the thing. You might think that it was all right, and then again you might round on me-or no, I don't mean quite that-but you might say it wasn't good enough for you, and wash your hands of the whole affair. And I can't tell you what a relief it is to find that you-that you're satisfied. Now I can go ahead."

"Ah, yes-ahead," said the younger man, thoughtfully. "Do you mind telling me-you see I'm quite in the dark as to details-how much further ahead we are likely to go? I comprehend the general nature of our advance-but how far off is the goal you have in sight?"

"God knows!" answered Thorpe, with a rising thrill of excitement in his voice. "I don't give it any limit. I don't see why we should stop at all. We've got them in such a position that-why, good heavens! we can squeeze them to death, crush them like quartz." He chuckled grimly at the suggestion of his simile. "We'll get more ounces to the ton out of our crushings than they ever heard of on the Rand, too."

"Might I ask," interposed the other, "who may 'they' be?"

Thorpe hesitated, and knitted his brows in the effort to remember names. "Oh, there are a lot of them," he said, vaguely. "I think I told you of the way that Kaffir crowd pretended to think well of me, and let me believe they were going to take me up, and then, because I wouldn't give them everything-the very shirt off my back-turned and put their knife into me. I don't know them apart, hardly-they've all got names like Rhine wines-but I know the gang as a whole, and if I don't lift the roof clean off their particular synagogue, then my name is mud."

Lord Plowden smiled. "I've always the greatest difficulty to remember that you are an Englishman-a Londoner born," he declared pleasantly. "You don't talk in the least like one. On shipboard I made sure you were an American-a very characteristic one, I thought-of some curious Western variety, you know. I never was more surprised in my life than when you told me, the other day, that you only left England a few years ago."

"Oh, hardly a 'few years'; more like fifteen," Thorpe corrected him. He studied his companion's face with slow deliberation.

"I'm going to say something that you mustn't take amiss," he remarked, after a little pause. "If you'd known that I was an Englishman, when we first met, there on the steamer, I kind o' suspect that you and I'd never have got much beyond a nodding acquaintance-and even that mostly on my side. I don't mean that I intended to conceal anything-that is, not specially-but I've often thought since that it was a mighty good thing I did. Now isn't that true-that if you had taken me for one of your own countrymen you'd have given me the cold shoulder?"

"I dare say there's a good deal in what you say," the other admitted, gently enough, but without contrition. "Things naturally shape themselves that way, rather, you know. If they didn't, why then the whole position would become difficult. But you are an American, to all intents and purposes."

"Oh, no-I never took any step towards getting naturalized," Thorpe protested. "I always intended to come back here. Or no, I won't say that-because most of the time I was dog-poor-and this isn't the place for a poor man. But I always said to myself that if ever I pulled it off-if I ever found my self a rich man-THEN I'd come piking across the Atlantic as fast as triple-expansion engines would carry me."

The young man smiled again, with a whimsical gleam in his eye. "And you ARE a rich man, now," he observed, after a momentary pause.

"We are both rich men," replied Thorpe, gravely.

He held up a dissuading hand, as the other would have spoken. "This is how it seems to me the thing figures itself out: It can't be said that your name on the Board, or the Marquis's either, was of much use so far as the public were concerned. To tell the truth, I saw some time ago that they wouldn't be. Titles on prospectuses are played out in London. I've rather a notion, indeed, that they're apt to do more harm than good-just at present, at least. But all that aside-you are the man who was civil to me at the start, when you knew nothing whatever about my scheme, and you are the man who was good to me later on, when I didn't know where to turn for a friendly word. Very well; here I am! I've made my coup! And I'd be a sweep, wouldn't I? to forget to-day what I was so glad to remember a week ago. But you see, I don't forget! The capital of the Company is 500,000 pounds, all in pound shares. We offered the public only a fifth of them. The other four hundred thousand shares are mine as vendor-and I have ear-marked in my mind one hundred thousand of them to be yours."

Lord Plowden's face paled at the significance of these words. "It is too much-you don't reflect what it is you are saying," he murmured confusedly. "Not a bit of it," the other reassured him. "Everything that I've said goes."

The peer, trembling a little, rose to his feet. "It is a preposterously big reward for the merest act of courtesy," he insisted. "Of course it takes my breath away for joy-and yet I feel I oughtn't to be consenting to it at all. And it has its unpleasant side-it buries me under a mountain of obligation. I don't know what to do or what to say."

"Well, leave the saying and doing to me, then," replied Thorpe, with a gesture before which the other resumed his seat. "Just a word more-and then I suppose we'd better be going. Look at it in this way. Your grandfather was Lord Chancellor of England, and your father was a General in the Crimea. My grandfather kept a small second-hand book-shop, and my father followed him in the business. In one sense, that puts us ten thousand miles apart. But in another sense, we'll say that we like each other, and that there are ways in which we can be of immense use to each other, and that brings us close together. You need money-and here it is for you. I need-what shall I say?-a kind of friendly lead in the matter of establishing myself on the right footing, among the right people-and that's what you can do for me. Mind-I'd prefer to put it all in quite another way; I'd like to say it was all niceness on your part, all gratitude on mine. But if you want to consider it on a business basis-why there you have it also-perfectly plain and clear."

He got up as he finished, and Lord Plowden rose as well. The two men shook hands in silence.

When the latter spoke, it was to say: "Do you know how to open one of those soda-water bottles? I've tried, but I can never get the trick. I think I should like to have a drink-after this."

When they had put down their glasses, and the younger man was getting into his great-coat, Thorpe bestowed the brandy and cigars within a cabinet at the corner of the room, and carefully turned a key upon them.

"If you're going West, let me give you a lift," said Lord Plowden, hat in hand. "I can set you down wherever you like. Unfortunately I've to go out to dinner, and I must race, as it is, to get dressed."

Thorpe shook his head. "No, go along," he bade him. "I've some odds and ends of things to do on the way."

"Then when shall I see you?"-began the other, and halted suddenly with a new thought in his glance. "But what are you doing Saturday?" he asked, in a brisker tone. "It's a dies non here. Come down with me to-morrow evening, to my place in Kent. We will shoot on Saturday, and drive about on Sunday, if you like-and there we can talk at our leisure. Yes, that is what you must do. I have a gun for you. Shall we say, then-Charing Cross at 9:55? Or better still, say 5:15, and we will dine at home."

The elder man pondered his answer-frowning at the problem before him with visible anxiety. "I'm afraid I'd better not come-it's very good of you all the same."

"Nonsense," retorted the other. "My mother will be very glad indeed to see you. There is no one else there-unless, perhaps, my sister has some friend down. We shall make a purely family party."

Thorpe hesitated for only a further second. "All right. Charing Cross, 5:15," he said then, with the grave brevity of one who announces a momentous decision.

He stood still, looking into the fire, for a few moments after his companion had gone. Then, going to a closet at the end of the room, he brought forth his coat and hat; something prompted him to hold them up, and scrutinize them under the bright light of the electric globe. He put them on, then, with a smile, half-scornful, half-amused, playing in his beard.

The touch of a button precipitated darkness upon the Board Room. He made his way out, and downstairs to the street. It was a rainy, windy October night, sloppy underfoot, dripping overhead. At the corner before him, a cabman, motionless under his unshapely covered hat and glistening rubber cape, sat perched aloft on his seat, apparently asleep. Thorpe hailed him, with a peremptory tone, and gave the brusque order, "Strand!" as he clambered into the hansom.

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