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The Market-Place By Harold Frederic Characters: 26331

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:08

IN Charing Cross station, the next afternoon, Mr. Thorpe discovered by the big clock overhead that he had arrived fully ten minutes too soon. This deviation from his deeply-rooted habit of catching trains at the last possible moment did not take him by surprise. He smiled dryly, aud nodded to the illuminated dial, as if they shared the secret of some quaint novelty. This getting to the station ahead of time was of a piece with what had been happening all day-merely one more token of the general upheaval in the routine of his life.

From early morning he had been acutely conscious of the feeling that his old manners and usages and methods of thought-the thousand familiar things that made up the Thorpe he had been-were becoming strange to him. They fitted him no longer; they began to fall away from him. Now, as he stood here on the bustling platform, it was as if they had all disappeared-been left somewhere behind him outside the station. With the two large bags which the porter was looking after-both of a quite disconcerting freshness of aspect-and the new overcoat and shining hat, he seemed to himself a new kind of being, embarked upon a voyage of discovery in the unknown.

Even his face was new. A sudden and irresistible impulse had led him to the barber-shop in his hotel at the outset; he could not wait till after breakfast to have his beard removed. The result, when he beheld it in the mirror, had not been altogether reassuring. The over-long, thin, tawny moustasche which survived the razor assumed an undue prominence; the jaw and chin, revealed now for the first time in perhaps a dozen years, seemed of a sickly colour, and, in some inexplicable way, misshapen. Many times during the day, at his office, at the restaurant where he lunched, at various outfitters' shops which he had visited, he had pursued the task of getting reconciled to this novel visage in the looking-glass. The little mirrors in the hansom cabs had helped him most in this endeavour. Each returned to him an image so different from all the others-some cadaverous, some bloated, but each with a spontaneous distortion of its own-that it had become possible for him to strike an average tolerable to himself, and to believe in it.

His sister had recognized him upon the instant, when he entered the old book-shop to get the money promised overnight, but in the City his own clerks had not known him at first. There was in this an inspiring implication that he had not so much changed his appearance as revived his youth. The consciousness that he was in reality still a young man spread over his mind afresh, and this time he felt that it was effacing all earlier impressions. Why, when he thought of it, the delight he had had during the day in buying new shirts and handkerchiefs and embroidered braces, in looking over the various stocks of razors, toilet articles, studs and sleeve-links, and the like, and telling the gratified tradesmen to give him the best of everything-this delight had been distinctively boyish. He doubted, indeed, if any mere youth could have risen to the heights of tender satisfaction from which he reflected upon the contents of his portmanteaus. To apprehend their full value one must have been without them for such a weary time! He had this wonderful advantage-that he supplemented the fresh-hearted joy of the youth in nice things, with the adult man's knowledge of how bald existence could be without them. It was worth having lived all those forty obscure and mostly unpleasant years, for this one privilege now of being able to appreciate to the uttermost the touch of double-silk underwear.

It was an undoubted pity that there had not been time to go to a good tailor. The suit he had on was right enough for ordinary purposes, and his evening-clothes were as good as new, but the thought of a costume for shooting harassed his mind. He had brought along with him, for this eventful visit, an old Mexican outfit of yellowish-grey cloth and leather, much the worse for rough wear, but saved from the disreputable by its suggestion of picturesque experiences in a strange and romantic country. At least it had seemed to him, in the morning, when he had packed it, to be secure in this salvation. Uneasy doubts on the subject had soon risen, however, and they had increased in volume and poignancy as his conceptions of a wardrobe expanded in the course of the day's investigations and purchases. He had reached the point now of hoping that it would rain bitterly on the morrow.

It was doubly important to keep a close look-out for Lord Plowden, since he did not know the name of the station they were to book for, and time was getting short. He dwelt with some annoyance upon his oversight in this matter, as his watchful glance ranged from one entrance to another. He would have liked to buy the tickets himself, and have everything in readiness on the arrival of his host. As it was, he could not even tell the porter how his luggage was to be labelled, and there was now less than two minutes! He moved forward briskly, with the thought of intercepting his friend at the front of the station; then halted, and went back, upon the recollection that while he was going out one way, Plowden might come in by the other. The seconds, as they passed now, became severally painful to his nerves. The ringing of a bell somewhere beyond the barrier provoked within him an impulse to tearful profanity.

Then suddenly everything was all right. A smooth-faced, civilly-spoken young man came up, touched his hat, and asked: "Will you kindly show me which is your luggage, sir?"

Thorpe, even while wondering what business of his it was, indicated the glaringly new bags-and then only half repressed a cry of pleasure at discovering that Lord Plowden stood beside him.

"It's all right; my man will look out for your things," said the latter, as they shook hands. "We will go and get our places."

The fat policeman at the gate touched his helmet. A lean, elderly man in a sort of guard's uniform hobbled obsequiously before them down the platform, opened to them a first-class compartment with a low bow and a deprecatory wave of the hand, and then impressively locked the door upon them. "The engine will be the other way, my Lord, after you leave Cannon Street," he remarked through the open window, with earnest deference. "Are there any of your bags that you want in the compartment with you?"

Plowden had nodded to the first remark. He shook his head at the second. The elderly man at this, with still another bow, flapped out a green flag which he had been holding furled behind his back, and extended it at arm's length. The train began slowly to move. Mr. Thorpe reflected to himself that the peerage was by no means so played-out an institution as some people imagined.

"Ho-ho!" the younger man sighed a yawn, as he tossed his hat into the rack above his head. "We shall both be the better for some pure air. London quite does me up. And you-you've been sticking at it months on end, haven't you? You look rather fagged-or at all events you did yesterday. You've smartened yourself so-without your beard-that I can't say I'd notice it to-day. But I take it every sensible person is glad to get away from London."

"Except for an odd Sunday, now and then, I haven't put my nose outside London since I landed here." Thorpe rose as he spoke, to deposit his hat also in the rack. He noted with a kind of chagrin that his companion's was an ordinary low black bowler. "I can tell you, I SHALL be glad of the change. I would have bought the tickets," he went on, giving words at random to the thought which he found fixed on the surface of his mind, "if I'd only known what our station was."

Plowden waved his hand, and the gesture seemed to dismiss the subject. He took a cigar case from his pocket, and offered it to Thorpe.

"It was lucky, my not missing the train altogether," he said, as they lighted their cigars. "I was up late last night-turned out late this morning, been late all day, somehow-couldn't catch up with the clock for the life of me. Your statement to me last night-you know it rather upset me."

The other smiled. "Well, I guess I know something about that feeling myself. Why, I've been buzzing about today like a hen with her head cut off. But it's fun, though, aint it, eh? Just to happen to remember every once in a while, you know, that it's all true! But of course it means a thousand times more to me than it does to you."

The train had come to a stop inside the gloomy, domed cavern of Cannon Street. Many men in silk hats crowded to and fro on the platform, and a number of them shook the handle of the locked door. There was an effect of curses in the sound of their remarks which came through the closed window. Mr. Thorpe could not quite restrain the impulse to grin at them.

"Ah, that's where you mistake," said Plowden, contemplating the mouthful of smoke he slowly blew forth. "My dear man, you can't imagine anybody to whom it would mean more than it does to me-I hope none of those fellows have a key. They're an awful bore on this train. I almost never go by it, for that reason. Ah, thank God we're off!-But as I was saying, this thing makes a greater difference to me than you can think of. I couldn't sleep last night-I give you my word-the thing upset me so. I take it you-you have never had much money before; that is, you know from experience what poverty is?"

Thorpe nodded with eloquent gravity.

"Well-but you"-the other began, and then paused. "What I mean is," he resumed, "you were never, at any rate, responsible to anybody but yourself. If you had only a sovereign a day, or a sovereign a week, for that matter, you could accommodate yourself to the requirements of the situation. I don't mean that you would enjoy it any more than I should-but at least it was open to you to do it, without attracting much attention. But with me placed in my ridiculous position-poverty has been the most unbearable torture one can imagine. You see, there is no way in which I can earn a penny. I had to leave the Army when I was twenty-three-the other fellows all had plenty of money to spend, and it was impossible for me to drag along with a title and an empty pocket. I daresay that I ought to have stuck to it, because it isn't nearly so bad now, but twelve years ago it was too cruel for any youngster who had any pride about him-and, of course, my father having made rather a name in the Army, that made it so much harder for me. And after that, what was there? Of course, the bar and medicine and engineering and those things were out of the question, in those days at least. The Church?-that was more so still. I had a try at politics-but you need money there as much as anywhere else-money or big family connections. I voted in practically every division for four years, and I made the rottenest speeches you ever heard of at Primrose League meetings in small places, and after all that the best thing the whips could offer me was a billet in India at four hundred a year, and even that you took in depreciated rupees. When I tried to talk about something at home, they practically laughed in my face. I had no leverage upon them whatever. They didn't care in the least whether I came up and voted or stopped at home. Their majority was ten to one just the same-yes, twenty to one. So that door was shut in my face. I've never been inside the House since-except once to show it to an American lady last summer-but when I do go again I rather fancy"-he stopped for an instant, and nodded his handsome head significantly-"I rather fancy I shall turn up on the other side."

"I'm a Liberal myself, in English politics," interposed Thorpe.

Plowden seemed not to perceive the connection. They had left London Bridge behind, and he put his feet up on the cushions, and leant back comfortably. "Of course there was the City," he went on, speaking diagonally across to his companion, between leisurely intervals of absorption in his cigar. "There have been some directors' fees, no doubt, and once or twice I've come very near to what promised to be a big thing-but I never quite pulled it off. Really, without capital what can one do?-I'm curious to know-did you bring much ready money with you to England?"

"Between six and seven thousand pounds."

"And if it's a fair question-how much of it have you got left?"

Thorpe had some momentary doubts as to whether this was a fair question, but he smothered them under the smile with which he felt impelled to answer the twinkle in Plowden's eyes. "Oh, less than a hundred," he said, and laughed aloud.

Plowden also laughed. "By George, that's fine!" he cried. "It's splendid. There's drama in it. I felt it was like that, you know. Something told me it was your last cartridge that rang the bell. It was that that made me come to you as I did-and tell you that you were a great man, and that I wanted to enlist under you. Ah, that kind of courage is so rare! When a man has it, he can stand the world on its head." "But I was plumb scared, all the while, myself," Thorpe protested,

genially. "Courage? I could feel it running out of my boots."

"Ah, yes, but that's the great thing," insisted the other. "You didn't look as if you were frightened. From all one could see, your nerve was sublime. And nothing else matters-it was sublime."

"Curious-that thing happened to me once before," commented Thorpe, with ruminating slowness. "It was out on the plains, years ago, and I was in pretty hard luck, and was making my way alone from Tucson north, and some cowboys held me up, and were going to make kindling wood of me, they being under the impression that I was a horse-thief they were looking after. There was five or six minutes there when my life wasn't worth a last year's bird's-nest-and I tell you, sir, I was the scaredest man that ever drew the breath of life. And then something happened to be said that put the matter right-they saw I was the wrong man-and then-why then they couldn't be polite enough to me. They half emptied their flasks down my throat, and they rode with me all the way to the next town, and there they wanted to buy everything liquid in the place for me. But what I was speaking of-do you know, those fellows got a tremendous notion of my nerve. It wasn't so much that they told me so, but they told others about it. They really thought I was game to the core-when in reality, as I tell you, I was in the deadliest funk you ever heard of."

"That's just it," said Plowden, "the part of you which was engaged in making mental notes of the occasion thought you were frightened; we will say that it was itself frightened. But the other part of you, the part that was transacting business, so to speak-that wasn't in the least alarmed. I fancy all born commanders are built like that. Did you ever see General Grant?"

Thorpe shook his head.

"What reminded me of him-there is an account in his Memoirs of how he felt when he first was given a command, at the beginning of the Civil War. He was looking about for the enemy, who was known to be in the vicinity, and the nearer he got to where this enemy probably was, the more he got timid and unnerved, he says, until it seemed as if cowardice were getting complete mastery of him. And then suddenly it occurred to him that very likely the enemy was just as afraid of him as he was of the enemy, and that moment his bravery all returned to him. He went in and gave the other man a terrible thrashing. It doesn't apply to your case, particularly-but I fancy that all really brave men have those inner convictions of weakness, even while they are behaving like lions. Those must have been extraordinarily interesting experiences of yours-on the plains. I wish I could have seen something of that part of America when I was there last year. Unfortunately, it didn't come my way."

"I thought I remembered your saying you'd been West."

Plowden smiled. "I'm afraid I did think it was West at the time. But since my return I've been warned that I mustn't call Chicago West. That was as far as I went. I had some business there, or thought I had. When my father died, that was in 1884, we found among his papers a lot of bonds of some corporation purporting to be chartered by the State of Illinois. Our solicitors wrote several letters, but they could find out nothing about them, and there the matter rested. Finally, last year, when I decided to make the trip, I recollected these old bonds, and took them with me. I thought they might at least pay my expenses. But it wasn't the least good. Nobody knew anything about them. It seems they related to something that was burned up in the Great Fire-either that, or had disappeared before that time. That fire seems to have operated like the Deluge-it cancelled everything that had happened previously. My unhappy father had a genius for that kind of investment. I shall have great pleasure in showing you tomorrow, a very picturesque and comprehensive collection of Confederate Bonds. Their face value is, as I remember it, eighty thousand dollars-that is, sixteen thousand pounds. I would entertain with joy an offer of sixteen shillings for the lot. My dear father bought them-I should not be surprised to learn that he bought them at a premium. If they ever touched a premium for a day, that is certainly the day that he would have hit upon to buy. Oh, it was too rare! Too inspired! He left nearly a hundred thousand pounds' worth of paper-that is, on its face-upon which the solicitors realized, I think it was thirteen hundred pounds. It's hard to imagine how he got them-but there were actually bonds among them issued by Kossuth's Hungarian Republic in 1848. Well-now you can see the kind of inheritance I came into, and I have a brother and sister more or less to look after, too."

Thorpe had been listening to these details with an almost exaggerated expression of sympathy upon his face. The voice in which he spoke now betrayed, however, a certain note of incredulity.

"Yes, I see that well enough," he remarked. "But what I don't perhaps quite understand-well, this is it. You have this place of yours in the country, and preserve game and so on-but of course I see what you mean. It's what you've been saying. What another man would think a comfortable living, is poverty to a man in your position."

"Oh, the place," said Plowden. "It isn't mine at all. I could never have kept it up. It belongs to my mother. It was her father's place; it has been in their family for hundreds of years. Her father, I daresay you know, was the last Earl of Hever. The title died with him. He left three daughters, who inherited his estates, and my mother, being the eldest, got the Kentish properties. Of course Hadlow House will come to me eventually, but it is hers during her lifetime. I may speak of it as my place, but that is merely a facon de parler; it isn't necessary to explain to everybody that it's my mother's. It's my home, and that's enough. It's a dear old place. I can't tell you how glad I am that you're going to see it."

"I'm very glad, too," said the other, with unaffected sincerity.

"All the ambitions I have in the world," the nobleman went on, sitting upright now, and speaking with a confidential seriousness, "centre round Hadlow. That is the part of me that I'm keen about. The Plowdens are things of yesterday. My grandfather, the Chancellor, began in a very small way, and was never anything more than a clever lawyer, with a loud voice and a hard heart, and a talent for money-making and politics. He got a peerage and he left a fortune. My father, for all he was a soldier, had a mild voice and a soft heart. He gave a certain military distinction to the peerage, but he played hell-and-tommy with the fortune. And then I come: I can't be either a Chancellor or a General, and I haven't a penny to bless myself with. You can't think of a more idiotic box for a man to be in. But now-thanks to you-there comes this prospect of an immense change. If I have money at my back-at once everything is different with me. People will remember then promptly enough that I am a Hadlow, as well as a Plowden. I will make the party whips remember it, too. It won't be a Secretary's billet in India at four hundred a year that they'll offer me, but a Governorship at six thousand-that is, if I wish to leave England at all. And we'll see which set of whips are to have the honour of offering me anything. But all that is in the air. It's enough, for the moment, to realize that things have really come my way. And about that-about the success of the affair-I suppose there can be no question whatever?"

"Not the slightest," Thorpe assured him. "Rubber Consols can go up to any figure we choose to name."

Lord Plowden proffered the cigar case again, and once more helped himself after he had given his companion a light. Then he threw himself back against the cushions, with a long sigh of content. "I'm not going to say another word about myself," he announced, pleasantly. "I've had more than my legitimate innings. You mustn't think that I forget for a moment the reverse of the medal. You're doing wonderful things for me. I only wish it were clearer to me what the wonderful things are that I can do for you."

"Oh, that'll be all right," said the other, rather vaguely.

"Perhaps it's a little early for you to have mapped out in your mind just what you want to do," Plowden reflected aloud. "Of course it has come suddenly upon you-just as it has upon me. There are things in plenty that we've dreamed of doing, while the power to do them was a long way off. It doesn't at all follow that these are the things we shall proceed to do, when the power is actually in our hands. But have you any plans at all? Do you fancy going into Parliament, for example?"

"Yes," answered Thorpe, meditatively. "I think I should like to go into Parliament. But that would be some way ahead. I guess I've got my plans worked out a trifle more than you think. They may not be very definite, as regards details, but their main direction I know well enough. I'm going to be an English country gentleman."

Lord Plowden visibly winced a little at this announcement. He seemed annoyed at the consciousness that he had done so, turning abruptly first to stare out of the window, then shifting his position on the seat, and at last stealing an uneasy glance toward his companion. Apparently his tongue was at a loss for an appropriate comment.

Thorpe had lost none of these unwilling tokens of embarrassment. Plowden saw that at once, but it relieved even more than it surprised him to see also that Thorpe appeared not to mind. The older man, indeed, smiled in good-natured if somewhat ironical comprehension of the dumb-show.

"Oh, that'll be all right, too," he said, with the evident intention of reassurance. "I can do it right enough, so far as the big things are concerned. It'll be in the little things that I'll want some steering."

"I've already told you-you may command me to the utmost of my power," the other declared. Upon reflection, he was disposed to be ashamed of himself. His nerves and facial muscles had been guilty of an unpardonable lapse into snobbishness-and toward a man, too, who had been capable of behaviour more distinguished in its courtesy and generosity than any he had encountered in all the "upper circles" put together. He recalled all at once, moreover, that Thorpe's "h's" were perfect-aud, for some occult reason, this completed his confusion.

"My dear fellow"-he began again, confronting with verbal awkwardness the other's quizzical smile-"don't think I doubt anything about you. I know well enough that you can do anything-be anything-you like."

Thorpe laughed softly.

"I don't think you know, though, that I'm a public-school man," he said.

Plowden lifted his brows in unfeigned surprise. "No-I didn't know that," he admitted, frankly.

"Yes, I'm a Paul's Pigeon," Thorpe went on, "as they called them in my day. That's gone out now, I'm told, since they've moved to the big buildings in Hammersmith. I did very well at school, too; came out in the first fourteen. But my father wouldn't carry the thing any further. He insisted on my going into the shop when I left St. Paul's and learning the book-business. He had precisely the same kind of dynastic idea, you know, that you fellows have. His father and his grand-father had been booksellers, and he was going to hand on the tradition to me, and my son after me. That was his idea. And he thought that Paul's would help this-but that Oxford would kill it.

"Of course, he was right there-but he was wrong in supposing there was a bookseller in me. I liked the books well enough, mind you-but damn the people that came to buy them, I couldn't stand it. You stood two hours watching to see that men didn't put volumes in their pockets, and at the end of that time you'd made a profit of ninepence. While you were doing up the parcel, some fellow walked off with a book worth eighteen-pence. It was too slow for me. I didn't hit it off with the old man, either. We didn't precisely quarrel, but I went off on my own hook. I hung about London for some years, trying this thing and that. Once I started a book-shop of my own-but I did no good here. Finally I turned it up altogether, and went to Australia. That was in 1882. I've been in almost every quarter of the globe since; I've known what it was to be shipwrecked in a monsoon, and I've lain down in a desert not expecting to get up again, with my belt tightened to its last hole for hunger-but I can't remember that I ever wished myself back in my father's book-shop."

Plowden's fine eyes sparkled his appreciation of the other's mood. He was silent for a moment, then lifted his head as if something had occurred to him. "You were speaking of the plan that you should succeed to your father's business-and your son after you-you're not married, are you?"

Thorpe slowly shook his head.

"Our station is the next," said the younger man. "It's a drive of something under two miles. You'd better light another cigar." He added, as if upon a casual afterthought: "We can both of us think of marrying now."

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