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The Market-Place By Harold Frederic Characters: 23660

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:08

"LOUISA, the long and short of it is this," said Thorpe, half an hour later: "you never did believe in me, as a sister should do."

He was seated alone with this sister, in a small, low, rather dismally-appointed room, half-heartedly lighted by two flickering gasjets. They sat somewhat apart, confronting a fireplace, where only the laid materials for a fire disclosed themselves in the cold grate. Above the mantel hung an enlarged photograph of a scowling old man. Thorpe's gaze recurred automatically at brief intervals to this portrait-which somehow produced the effect upon him of responsibility for the cheerlessness of the room. There were other pictures on the walls of which he was dimly conscious-small, faded, old prints about Dido and AEneas and Agamemnon, which seemed to be coming back to him out of the mists of his childhood.

Vagrant impressions and associations of this childhood strayed with quaint inconsequence across the field of his preoccupied mind. The peculiar odour of the ancient book-shop on the floor below remained like snuff in his nostrils. Somewhere underneath, or in the wainscoting at the side, he could hear the assiduous gnawing of a rat. Was it the same rat, he wondered with a mental grin, that used to keep him awake nights, in one of the rooms next to this, with that same foolish noise, when he was a boy?

"I know you always say that," replied Louisa, impassively.

She was years older than her brother, but, without a trace of artifice or intention, contrived to look the younger of the two. Her thick hair, drawn simply from her temples into a knot behind, was of that palest brown which assimilates grey. Her face, long, plain, masculine in contour and spirit, conveyed no message as to years. Long and spare of figure, she sat upright in her straight-backed chair, with her large, capable hands on her knees.

"I believed in you as much as you'd let me," she went on, indifferently, almost wearily. "But I don't see that it mattered to you whether I did or didn't. You went your own way: you did what you wanted to do. What had I to do with it? I don't suppose I even knew what part of the world you were in more than once in two or three years. How should I know whether you were going to succeed, when I didn't even know what it was you were at? Certainly you hadn't succeeded here in London-but elsewhere you might or you might not-how could I tell? And moreover, I don't feel that I know you very well; you've grown into something very different from the boy Joel that left the shop-it must be twenty years ago. I can only know about you and your affairs what you tell me."

"But my point is," pursued Thorpe, watching her face with a curiously intent glance, "you never said to yourself: 'I KNOW he's going to succeed. I KNOW he'll be a rich man before he dies.'"

She shook her head dispassionately. Her manner expressed fatigued failure to comprehend why he was making so much of this purposeless point.

"No-I don't remember ever having said that to myself," she admitted, listlessly. Then a comment upon his words occurred to her, and she spoke with more animation: "You don't seem to understand, Joel, that what was very important to you, didn't occupy me at all. You were always talking about getting rich; you kept the idea before you of sometime, at a stroke, finding yourself a millionaire. That's been the idea of your life. But what do I know about all that? My work has been to keep a roof over my head-to keep the little business from disappearing altogether. It's been hard enough, I can tell you, these last few years, with the big jobbers cutting the hearts out of the small traders. I had the invalid husband to support for between three and four years-a dead weight on me every week-and then the children to look after, to clothe and educate."

At the last word she hesitated suddenly, and looked at him. "Don't think I'm ungrateful"-she went on, with a troubled effort at a smile-"but I almost wish you'd never sent me that four hundred pounds at all. What it means is that they've had two years at schools where now I shan't be able to keep them any longer. They'll be spoiled for my kind of life-and they won't have a fair chance for any other. I don't know what will become of them."

The profound apprehension in the mother's voice did not dull the gleam in Thorpe's eyes. He even began a smile in the shadows of his unkempt moustache.

"But when I sent that money, for example, two years ago, and over," he persisted, doggedly-"and I told you there'd be more where that came from, and that I stood to pull off the great event-even then, now, you didn't believe in your innermost heart that I knew what I was talking about, did you?"

She frowned with impatience as she turned toward him. "For heaven's sake, Joel," she said, sharply-"you become a bore with that stupid nonsense. I want to be patient with you-I do indeed sympathize with you in your misfortunes-you know that well enough-but you're very tiresome with that eternal harping on what I believed and what I didn't believe. Now, are you going to stop to supper or not?-because if you are I must send the maid out. And there's another thing-would it be of any help to you to bring your things here from the hotel? You can have Alfred's room as well as not-till Christmas, at least."

"Supposing I couldn't get my luggage out of the hotel till I'd settled my bill," suggested Thorpe tentatively, in a muffled voice.

The practical woman reflected for an instant. "I was thinking," she confessed then, "that it might be cheaper to leave your things there, and buy what little you want-I don't imagine, from what I've seen, that your wardrobe is so very valuable-but no, I suppose the bill ought to be paid. Perhaps it can be managed; how much will it be?"

Thorpe musingly rose to his feet, and strolled over to her chair. With his thick hands on his sister's shoulders he stooped and kissed her on the forehead.

"You believe in me now, anyway, eh, Lou?" he said, as he straightened himself behind her.

The unaccustomed caress-so different in character from the perfunctory salute with which he had greeted her on his arrival from foreign parts, six months before-brought a flush of pleased surprise to her plain face. Then a kind of bewilderment crept into the abstracted gaze she was bending upon the fireless grate. Something extraordinary, unaccountable, was in the manner of her brother. She recalled that, in truth, he was more than half a stranger to her. How could she tell what wild, uncanny second nature had not grown up in him under those outlandish tropical skies? He had just told her that his ruin was absolute-overwhelming-yet there had been a covert smile in the recesses of his glance. Even now, she half felt, half heard, a chuckle from him, there as he stood behind her!

The swift thought that disaster had shaken his brain loomed up and possessed her. She flung herself out of the chair, and, wheeling, seized its back and drew it between them as she faced him. It was with a stare of frank dismay that she beheld him grinning at her.

"What"-she began, stammering-"What is the matter, Joel?"

He permitted himself the luxury of smiling blankly at her for a further moment. Then he tossed his head, and laughed abruptly.

"Sit down, old girl," he adjured her. "Try and hold yourself together, now-to hear some different kind of news. I've been playing it rather low down on you, for a fact. Instead of my being smashed, it's the other way about."

She continued to confront him, with a nervous clasp upon the chair-back. Her breathing troubled her as she regarded him, and tried to take in the meaning of his words.

"Do you mean-you've been lying to me about-about your Company?" she asked, confusedly.

"No-no-not at all," he replied, now all genial heartiness. "No-what I told you was gospel truth-but I was taking a rise out of you all the same." He seemed so unaffectedly pleased by his achievement in kindly duplicity that she forced an awkward smile to her lips.

"I don't understand in the least," she said, striving to remember what he had told her. "What you said was that the public had entirely failed to come in-that there weren't enough applications for shares to pay flotation expenses-those were your own words. Of course, I don't pretend to understand these City matters-but it IS the case, isn't it, that if people don't subscribe for the shares of a new company, then the company is a failure?"

"Yes, that may be said to be the case-as a general rule," he nodded at her, still beaming.

"Well, then-of course-I don't understand," she owned.

"I don't know as you'll understand it much more when I've explained it to you," he said, seating himself, and motioning her to the other chair. "But yes, of course you will. You're a business woman. You know what figures mean. And really the whole thing is as simple as A B C. You remember that I told you--"

"But are you going to stop to supper? I must send Annie out before the shops close."

"Supper? No-I couldn't eat anything. I'm too worked up for that. I'll get something at the hotel before I go to bed, if I feel like it. But say!"-the thought suddenly struck him-"if you want to come out with me, I'll blow you off to the swaggerest dinner in London. What d'ye say?"

She shook her head. "I shall have some bread and cheese and beer at nine. That's my rule, you know. I don't like to break it. I'm always queer next day if I do. But now make haste and tell me-you're really not broken then? You have really come out well?"

For answer he rose, and drew himself to his full height, and spread his bulky shoulders backward. His grey-blue eyes looked down upon her with a triumphant glow.

"Broken?" he echoed her word, with emphasis. "My dear Louisa, I'm not the sort that gets broken. I break other people. Oh, God, how I shall break them!"

He began pacing up and down on the narrow rug before the fender, excitedly telling his story to her. Sometimes he threw the words over his shoulder; again he held her absorbed gaze with his. He took his hands often from his pockets, to illustrate or enforce by gestures the meaning of his speech-and then she found it peculiarly difficult to realize that he was her brother.

Much of the narrative, rambling and disconnected, with which he prefaced this story of the day, was vaguely familiar to her. He sketched now for her in summary, and with the sonorous voice of one deeply impressed with the dramatic values of his declamation, the chronicle of his wanderings in strange lands-and these he had frequently told her about before. Soon she perceived, however, that he was stringing them together on a new thread. One after another, these experiences of his, as he related them, turned upon the obstacles and fatal pitfalls which treachery and malice had put in his path. He seemed, by his account, to have been a hundred times almost within touch of the goal. In China, in the Dutch Indies, in those remoter parts of Australia which were a waterless waste when he knew them and might have owned them, and now were yielding fabulous millions to fellows who had tricked and swindled him-everywhere he had missed by just a hair's breadth the golden consummation. In the Western hemisphere the tale repeated itself. There had been times in the Argentine, in Brazil just before the Empire fell, in Colorado when the Silver boom was on, in British Columbia when the first rumours of rich ore were whispered about-many times when fortune seemed veritably within his grasp. But someone had always played him false. There was never a friendship for him which could withstand the temptation of profitable treason.

But he had hung dauntlessly on. He had seen one concession slipping through h

is fingers, only to strain and tighten them for a clutch at another. It did not surprise his hearer-nor indeed did it particularly attract her attention-that there was nowhere in this rapid and comprehensive narrative any allusion to industry of the wage-earning sort. Apparently, he had done no work at all, in the bread-winner's sense of the word. This was so like Joel that it was taken for granted in his sister's mind. All his voyages and adventures and painful enterprises had been informed by the desire of the buccaneer-the passion to reap where others had sown, or, at the worst, to get something for nothing.

The discursive story began to narrow and concentrate itself when at last it reached Mexico. The sister changed her position in her chair, and crossed her knees when Tehuantepec was mentioned. It was from that place that Joel had sent her the amazing remittance over two years ago. Curiously enough, though, it was at this point in his narrative that he now became vague as to details. There were concessions of rubber forests mentioned, and the barter of these for other concessions with money to boot, and varying phases of a chronic trouble about where the true boundary of Guatemala ran-but she failed clearly to understand much about it all. His other schemes and mishaps she had followed readily enough. Somehow when they came to Mexico, however, she saw everything jumbled and distorted, as through a haze. Once or twice she interrupted him to ask questions, but he seemed to attach such slight importance to her comprehending these details that she forbore. Only one fact was it necessary to grasp about the Mexican episode, apparently. When he quitted Tehuantepec, to make his way straight to London, at the beginning of the year, he left behind him a rubber plantation which he desired to sell, and brought with him between six and seven thousand pounds, with which to pay the expenses of selling it. How he had obtained either the plantation or the money did not seem to have made itself understood. No doubt, as his manner indicated when she ventured her enquiries, it was quite irrelevant to the narrative.

In Mexico, his experience had been unique, apparently, in that no villain had appeared on the scene to frustrate his plans. He at least mentioned no one who had wronged him there. When he came to London, however, there were villains and to spare. He moved to the mantel, when he arrived at this stage of the story, and made clear a space for his elbow to rest among the little trinkets and photographs with which it was burdened. He stood still thereafter, looking down at her; his voice took on a harsher note.

Much of this story, also, she knew by heart. This strange, bearded, greyish-haired brother of hers had come very often during the past half-year to the little book-shop, and the widow's home above it, his misshapen handbag full of papers, his heart full of rage, hope, grief, ambition, disgust, confidence-everything but despair. It was true, it had never been quite real to her. He was right in his suggestion that she had never wholly believed in him. She had not been able to take altogether seriously this clumsy, careworn, shabbily-dressed man who talked about millions. It was true that he had sent her four hundred pounds for the education of her son and daughter; it was equally true that he had brought with him to London a sum which any of his ancestors, so far as she knew about them, would have deemed a fortune, and which he treated as merely so much oil, with which to lubricate the machinery of his great enterprise. She had heard, at various times, the embittered details of the disappearance of this money, little by little. Nearly a quarter of it, all told, had been appropriated by a sleek old braggart of a company-promoter, who had cozened Joel into the belief that London could be best approached through him. When at last this wretch was kicked downstairs, the effect had been only to make room for a fresh lot of bloodsuckers. There were so-called advertising agents, so-called journalists, so-called "men of influence in the City,"-a swarm of relentless and voracious harpies, who dragged from him in blackmail nearly the half of what he had left, before he summoned the courage and decision to shut them out.

Worse still, in some ways, were the men into whose hands he stumbled next-a group of City men concerned in the South African market, who impressed him very favourably at the outset. He got to know them by accident, and at the time when he began to comprehend the necessity of securing influential support for his scheme. Everything that he heard and could learn about them testified to the strength of their position in the City. Because they displayed a certain amiability of manner toward him and his project, he allowed himself to make sure of their support. It grew to be a certainty in his mind that they would see him through. He spent a good deal of money in dinners and suppers in their honour, after they had let him understand that this form of propitiation was not unpleasant to them. They chaffed him about some newspaper paragraphs, in which he was described as the "Rubber King," with an affable assumption of amusement, under which he believed that he detected a genuine respect for his abilities.

Finally, when he had danced attendance upon them for the better part of two months, he laid before them, at the coffee-and-cigars stage of a dinner in a private room of the Savoy, the details of his proposition. They were to form a Syndicate to take over his property, and place it upon the market; in consideration of their finding the ready money for this exploitation, they were to have for themselves two-fifths of the shares in the Company ultimately to be floated. They listened to these details, and to his enthusiastic remarks about the project itself, with rather perfunctory patience, but committed themselves that evening to nothing definite. It took him nearly a week thereafter to get an answer from any of them. Then he learned that, if they took the matter up at all, it would be upon the basis of the Syndicate receiving nine-tenths of the shares.

He conceived the idea, after he had mastered his original amazement, that they named these preposterous terms merely because they expected to be beaten down, and he summoned all his good nature and tact for the task of haggling with them. He misunderstood their first show of impatience at this, and persevered in the face of their tacit rebuffs. Then, one day, a couple of them treated him with overt rudeness, and he, astonished out of his caution, replied to them in kind. Suddenly, he could hardly tell why or how, they were all enemies of his. They closed their office doors to him; even their clerks treated him with contemptuous incivility.

This blow to his pride enraged and humiliated him, curiously enough, as no other misadventure of his life had done.

Louisa remembered vividly the description he had given to her, at the time, of this affair. She had hardly understood why it should disturb him so profoundly: to her mind, these men had done nothing so monstrous after all. But to him, their offense swallowed up all the other indignities suffered during the years of his Ishmaelitish wanderings. A sombre lust for vengeance upon them took root in his very soul. He hated nobody else as he hated them. How often she had heard him swear, in solemn vibrating tones, that to the day of his death his most sacred ambition should be their punishment, their abasement in the dust and mire!

And now, all at once, as she looked up at him, where he leant against the mantel, these vagabond memories of hers took point and shape. It was about these very men that he was talking.

"And think of it!" he was saying, impressively. "It's magnificent enough for me to make this great hit-but I don't count it as anything at all by comparison with the fact that I make it at their expense. You remember the fellows I told you about?" he asked abruptly, deferring to the confused look on her face.

"Yes-you make it out of them," she repeated, in an uncertain voice. It occurred to her that she must have been almost asleep. "But did I miss anything? Have you been telling what it is that you have made?"

"No-that you shall have in good time. You don't seem to realize it, Louisa. I can hardly realize it myself. I am actually a very rich man. I can't tell how much I've got-in fact, it can be almost as much as I like-half a million pounds, I suppose, at the start, if I want to make it that much. Yes-it takes the breath away, doesn't it? But best of all-a thousand times best of all-practically every dollar of it comes out of those Kaffir swine-the very men that tried to rob me, and that have been trying to ruin me ever since. I tell you what I wish, Louise-I wish to God there could only be time enough, and I'd take it all in half-sovereigns-two millions of them, or three millions-and just untwist every coin, one by one, out from among their heart-strings. Oh-but it'll be all right as it is. It's enough to make a man feel religious-to think how those thieves are going to suffer."

"Well" she said, slowly after reflection, "it all rather frightens me."

As if the chill in the air of the cheerless room had suddenly accentuated itself, she arose, took a match-box from the mantel, and, stooping, lit the fire.

He looked down at the tall, black-clad figure, bent in stiff awkwardness over the smoking grate, and his eyes softened. Then he took fresh note of the room-the faded, threadbare carpet, the sparse old furniture that had seemed ugly to even his uninformed boyish taste, the dingy walls and begrimed low ceiling-all pathetic symbols of the bleak life to which she had been condemned.

"Frightens you?" he queried, with a kind of jovial tenderness, as she got to her feet; "frightens you, eh? Why, within a month's time, old lady, you'll be riding in the Park in your own carriage, with niggers folding their arms up behind, and you'll be taking it all as easy and as natural as if you'd been born in a barouche."

He added, in response to the enquiry of her lifted brows: "Barouche? That's what we'd call in England a landau."

She stood with a foot upon the fender, her tired, passive face inclined meditatively, her rusty old black gown drawn back by one hand from the snapping sparks. "No," she said, slowly, joyless resignation mingling with pride in her voice. "I was born here over the shop."

"Well, good God! so was I," he commented, lustily. "But that's no reason why I shouldn't wind up in Park Lane-or you either."

She had nothing to say to this, apparently. After a little, she seated herself again, drawing her chair closer to the hearth. "It's years since I've lit this fire before the first of November," she remarked, with the air of defending the action to herself.

"Oh, we're celebrating," he said, rubbing his hands over the reluctant blaze. "Everything goes, tonight!"

Her face, as she looked up at him, betrayed the bewilderment of her mind. "You set out to tell me what it was all about," she reminded him. "You see I'm completely in the dark. I only hear you say that you've made a great fortune. That's all I know. Or perhaps you've told me as much as you care to."

"Why, not at all," he reassured her, pulling his own chair toward him with his foot, and sprawling into it with a grunt of relief. "If you'll draw me a glass of that beer of yours, I'll tell you all about it. It's not a thing for everybody to know, not to be breathed to a human being, for that matter-but you'll enjoy it, and it'll be safe enough with you."

As she rose, and moved toward a door, he called merrily after her: "No more beer when that keg runs dry, you know. Nothing but champagne!"

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