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The Market-Place By Harold Frederic Characters: 24545

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:08


FOR the next two hours, Thorpe's thoughts were almost wholly occupied with various phases of the large subject of domestic service. He seemed suddenly to have been transported to some region populated exclusively by clean-shaven men in brown livery. One of these was holding a spirited horse outside the station, and when Lord Plowden had taken the reins, and Thorpe had gathered the rugs about his knees and feet, this menial silently associated himself with the young man who had accompanied them from town, on the back seat of the trap. With these people so close behind him, Thorpe felt that any intimate conversation was out of the question. Indeed, talk of any sort was not invited; the big horse burst forth with high, sprawling strides upon a career through the twilight, once the main road was reached, which it taxed all Plowden's energies to regulate. He kept up a continual murmuring monologue to the animal-"So-so-quiet, my pet,-so-so-easy, my beauty--so-so"-and his wrists and gloved hands were visibly under a tremendous tension of strain, as they held their own against the rigid arched neck and mouth of steel. Thorpe kept a grip on the side of the trap, and had only a modified pleasure in the drive. The road along which they sped seemed, in the gathering dusk, uncomfortably narrow, and he speculated a good deal as to how frightened the two mutes behind him must be. But silence was such a law of their life that, though he strained his ears, he could not so much as hear them sigh or gasp.

It seemed but a very few minutes before they turned off, with but the most fleeting diminution of pace, upon a private road, which speedily developed into an avenue of trees, quite dark and apparently narrower than ever. Down this they raced precipitately, and then, coming out all at once upon an open space, swung smartly round the crescent of a gravel road, and halted before what seemed to be the door of a greenhouse. Thorpe, as he stood up in the trap, got an uncertain, general idea of a low, pale-coloured mansion in the background, with lights showing behind curtains in several widely separated windows; what he had taken to be a conservatory revealed itself now to be a glass gallery, built along the front of the central portion of this house.

A profusion of hospitable lights-tall wax-candles in brackets among the vines against the trellised wall-gave to this outlying entrance what the stranger felt to be a delightful effect. Its smooth tiled floor, comfortably bestrewn with rugs, was on a level with the path outside. There were low easy-chairs here, and a little wicker table bearing books and a lady's work-basket. Further on, giant chrysanthemum blooms were massed beneath the clusters of pale plumbago-flowers on the trellis. Directly in front, across the dozen feet of this glazed vestibule, the broad doorway of the house proper stood open-with warm lights glowing richly upon dark woods in the luxurious obscurity within.

What Thorpe noted most of all, however, was the servants who seemed to swarm everywhere. The two who had alighted from the trap had contrived somehow mysteriously to multiply themselves in the darkness. All at once there were a number of young men-at the horse's head, at the back and sides of the trap, at the first doorway, and the second, and beyond-each presenting such a smooth-faced, pallid, brown-clad replica of all the others that Thorpe knew he should never be able to tell them apart.

Lord Plowden paused for a moment under the candle-light to look at his watch. "We did it in a bit over eight minutes," he remarked, with obvious satisfaction. "With four people and heavy roads that's not so bad-not so bad. But come inside."

They moved forward through the wide doorway into an apartment the like of which Thorpe had not seen before. It was a large, square room, with a big staircase at the end, which separated and went off to right and left, half-way up its visible course. Its floor was of inlaid woods, old and uneven from long use, and carpeted here and there by the skins of tigers and leopards. There were many other suggestions of the chase about the room: riding boots, whips, spurs, and some stands of archaic weapons caught the eye at various points; the heads of foxes and deer peeped out on the blackened panels of the walls, from among clusters of hooks crowded with coats, hats, and mackintoshes. At the right, where a fire glowed and blazed under a huge open chimney-place, there were low chairs and divans drawn up to mark off a space for orderly domestic occupation. The irregularity of every thing outside-the great table in the centre of the hall strewn with an incongruous litter of caps, books, flasks, newspapers, gloves, tobacco-pouches; the shoes, slippers, and leggings scattered under the benches at the sides-all this self-renewing disorder of a careless household struck Thorpe with a profound surprise. It was like nothing so much as a Mexican ranch-and to find it in the ancestral home of an English nobleman, filled to overflowing with servants, amazed him.

The glances that he cast about him, however, were impassive enough. His mind was charged with the ceaseless responsibility of being astonished at nothing. A man took his hat, and helped him off with his coat. Another moved toward the staircase with his two bags.

"If you will follow Pangbourn," said his host, indicating this second domestic, "he will look after you. You would like to go up and change now, wouldn't you? There's a fire in your room."

Thus dismissed, he went up the stairs in the wake of his portmanteaus, taking the turning to the left, and then proceeding by a long, low passage, round more than one corner, to what he conceived to be a wing of the house. The servant ushered him into a room-and, in despite of himself, he sighed with pleasure at the sight of it. The prettiest and most charming of rooms it seemed to him to be-spacious and quaintly rambling in shape, with a delicately-figured chintz repeating the dainty effects of the walls upon the curtains and carpet and bed-hangings and chair-covers, and with a bright fire in the grate throwing its warm, cozy glow over everything. He looked at the pictures on the walls, at the photographs and little ornaments on the writing desk, and the high posts and silken coverlet of the big bed, and, secure in the averted face of the servant, smiled richly to himself.

This servant, kneeling, had unstrapped and opened the new bags. Thorpe looked to see him quit the room, this task accomplished, and was conscious of something like dismay at the discovery that he intended to unpack them as well. Pangbourn began gravely to unwrap one paper parcel after another and to assort their contents in little heaps on the sofa beside him. He did it deftly, imperturbably, as if all the gentlemen he had ever seen carried their belongings in packages done up by tradesmen.

Thorpe's impulse to bid him desist framed itself in words on the tip of his tongue-but he did not utter these words. After circling idly, hands in pockets, about the man and the bags for a little time, he invented something which it seemed better for him to say.

"I don't know what you'll be able to make of those things," he remarked, casually. "My man has been buying them today-and I don't know what he mayn't have forgotten. My whole outfit of that sort of thing went astray or was stolen at some station or other-the first part of the week-I think it must have been Leeds."

"Yes, sir," said Pangbourn, without emotion. "They're very careless, sir."

He went on impassively, shaking out the black garments and spreading them on the bed, laying out a shirt and tie beside them, and arranging the razors, strop, and brushes on the dressing-table. He seemed to foresee everything-for there was not an instant's hesitation in the clock-like assiduity of his movements, as he bestowed handkerchiefs, in one drawer, socks in another, hung pyjamas before the fire, and set the patent-leather pumps against the fender. Even the old Mexican shooting-suit seemed in no way to disconcert him. He drew forth its constituent elements as with a practised hand; when he had hung them up, sombrero and all, in the wardrobe against the wall, they had the trick of making that venerable oaken receptacle look as if it had been fashioned expressly for them.

Thorpe's earlier uneasiness quite lost itself in his admiration for Pangbourn's resourceful dexterity. The delighted thought that now he would be needing a man like this for himself crossed his mind. Conceivably he might even get this identical Pangbourn-treasure though he were. Money could command everything on this broad globe-and why not Pangbourn? He tentatively felt of the coins in his pocket, as it became apparent that the man's task was nearing completion-and then frowned at himself for forgetting that these things were always reserved for the end of a visit.

"Will you dress now, sir?" asked Pangbourn. His soft, distinct enunciation conveyed the suggestion of centuries of training.

"Eh?" said Thorpe, finding himself for the moment behind the other's thought.

"Shall you require me any further, sir?" the man reframed the question, deferentially.

"Oh! Oh-no," replied Thorpe. "No-I'll get along all right."

Left to himself, he began hurriedly the task of shaving and dressing. The candles on either side of the thick, bevelled swinging mirror presented a somewhat embarrassing contrast to the electric light he was used to-but upon second thought he preferred this restrained aristocratic glimmer.

He had completed his toilet, and was standing at the bay-window, with his shoulder holding back the edge of the curtain, looking out upon the darkened lawn and wondering whether he ought to go downstairs or wait for someone to summon him, when he heard a knock at his door. Before he could answer, the door opened, and he made out in the candle-and firelight that it was Lord Plowden who had come in. He stepped forward to meet his host who, clad now in evening-clothes, was smoking a cigarette.

"Have they looked after you all right?" said Plowden, nonchalantly. "Have a cigarette before we go down? Light it by the candle. They never will keep matches in a bedroom."

He seated himself in an easy-chair before the fire, as he spoke, and stretched out his shining slippers toward the grate. "I thought I'd tell you before we went down"-he went on, as Thorpe, with an elbow on the mantel, looked down at his handsome head-"my sister has a couple of ladies visiting her. One of them I think you know. Do you remember on shipboard a Miss Madden-an American, you know-very tall and fine, with bright red hair-rather remarkable hair it was?"

"I remember the lady," said Thorpe, upon reflection, "but we didn't meet." He could not wholly divest his tone of the hint that in those days it by no means followed that because he saw ladies it was open to him to know them.

Lord Plowden smiled a little. "Oh, you'll like her. She's great fun-if she's in the mood. My mother and sister-I had them call on her in London last spring-and they took a great fancy to her. She's got no end of money, you know-at least a million and a half-dollars, unfortunately. Her parents were Irish-her father made his pile in the waggon business, I believe-but she's as American as if they'd crossed over in-what was it, the 'Sunflower'?-no, the 'Mayflower.' Marvelous country for assimilation, that America is! You remember what I told you-it's put such a mark on you that I should never have dreamt you were English."

Thorpe observed his companion, through a blue haze of smoke, in silence. This insistence upon the un-English nature of the effect he produced was not altogether grateful to his ears.

"The other one," continued Plowden, "is Lady Cressage. You'll be interested in her-because a few years ago she was supposed to be the most beautiful woman in London. She married a shocking bounder-he would have been Duke of Glastonbury, though, if he had lived-but he was drowned, and she was left poor as a church mouse. Oh! by the way!" he started up, with a gleam of aroused interest on his face-"it didn't in the least occur to me. Why, she's a daughter of our Gener

al Kervick. How did he get on the Board, by the way? Where did you pick him up?"

Thorpe bent his brows in puzzled lines. "Why, you introduced me to him yourself, didn't you?" he asked, slowly.

Plowden seemed unaffectedly surprised at the suggestion, as he turned it over in his mind. "By George! I think you're right," he said. "I'd quite forgotten it. Of course I did. Let me see-oh yes, I reconstruct it readily enough now. Poor old chappie-he needs all he can get. He was bothering her about money-that was it, I remember now-but what an idiot I was to forget it. But what I was saying-there's no one else but my mother and sister, and my brother Balder. He's a youngster-twenty or thereabouts-and he purports to be reading for his exams for the Army. If they opened his head, though, I doubt if they'd find anything but cricket and football, unless it might be a bit of golf. Well-that's the party. I thought you might like to have a notion of them in advance. If you've finished your cigarette"-he threw his own into the grate, and rose as he spoke-"we may as well be moving along. By the way," he concluded, as they walked toward the door, "I've an idea that we won't say anything, just at the moment, about our great coup. I should like to keep it as a little surprise-for my mother and sister, you know."

Some two hours later, Thorpe found the leisure and the restored equanimity needful for a dispassionate survey of his surroundings. He had become temporarily detached from the group over by the fireplace in the big drawing-room and was for the first time that evening very much at his ease. It was all much simpler, upon experiment, than he had feared. He stood now in a corner of the ornate apartment, whither he had wandered in examining the pictures on the walls, and contemplated with serenity the five people whom he had left behind him. He was conscious of the conviction that when he rejoined them, it would be on a new footing of assured equality. He knew now the exact measure of everything.

The Hon. Balder Plowden-a tall, heavily-built youth, with enormous shoulders and thick, hard hands, and pale straw-coloured hair and brows and eyelashes-had amiably sauntered beside him, and was elucidating for his benefit now, in slow, halting undertones, some unfathomable mystery connected with the varying attitude of two distinct breeds of terriers toward rats. Across the room, just within reach of the flickering ruddy firelight from the hearth, the American guest, Miss Madden, was seated at the piano, playing some low and rather doleful music. Thorpe bent his head, and assumed an air of attention, but in truth he listened to neither the Honourable Balder nor the piano. His thoughts were concentrated jealously upon his own position in this novel setting. He said to himself that it was all right. Old Lady Plowden had seemed to like him from the start. The genial, if somewhat abstracted, motherliness of her welcome had been, indeed, his sheet anchor throughout the evening. She had not once failed to nod her head and smile and twinkle her little kind eyes through their spectacles at him, whenever by word or look he had addressed her. Nor did his original half-suspicion, that this was her manner to people in general, justify itself upon observation. She was civil, even excessively civil, to the other two guests, but these ladies did not get the same eager and intent smile that he could command. He reasoned it out that Plowden must have said something pleasant to his mother about him-perhaps even to the point of explaining that he was to be the architect of their fortunes-but he did not like to ascribe all her hospitable warmth to that. It was dear to him to believe that she liked him on his own merits-and he did believe it, as his softened glance rested upon her where she sat almost facing him in her padded, wicker chair-small, white-haired, rosy-cheeked, her intelligent face radiating a kind of alert placidity which somehow made him feel at home.

He had not been as much at home with the others. The Honourable Balder, of course, didn't count; nobody paid attention to him, and least of all a busy Rubber King. He gave not much more heed to the American-the tall young woman with the red hair and the million and a half of dollars. She was plainly a visitor like himself, not at all identified with the inner life of the household. He fancied, moreover, that she in no way desired to be thus identified. She seemed to carry herself with a deliberate aloofness underlying her surface amiability. Then he had spoken his few words with her, once or twice, he had got this effect of stony reserve close beneath her smile and smooth words. True, this might mean only that she felt herself out of her element, just as he did-but to him, really it did not matter what she felt. A year ago-why, yes, even a fortnight ago-the golden rumour of millions would have shone round her auburn hair in his eyes like a halo. But all that was changed. Calculated in a solidified currency, her reported fortune shrank to a mere three hundred thousand pounds. It was a respectable sum for a woman to have, no doubt, but it did nothing to quicken the cool indifference with which he considered her.

The two other young women were different. They were seated together on a sofa, so placed as regarded his point of view, that he saw only in part the shadowed profiles of the faces they turned toward the piano. Although it was not visible to him, the posture of their shoulders told him that they were listening to the music each holding the other's hand. This tacit embrace was typical in his mind of the way they hung together, these two young women. It had been forced upon his perceptions all the evening, that this fair-haired, beautiful, rather stately Lady Cressage, and the small, swarthy, round-shouldered daughter of the house, peering through her pince-nez from under unduly thick black brows, formed a party of their own. Their politeness toward him had been as identical in all its little shades of distance and reservation as if they had been governed from a single brain-centre. It would be unfair to them to assume from their manner that they disliked him, or were even unfavourably impressed by him. The finesse of that manner was far too delicate a thing to call into use such rough characterizations. It was rather their action as a unit which piqued his interest. He thought he could see that they united upon a common demeanour toward the American girl, although of course they knew her much better than they knew him. It was not even clear to him that there were not traces of this combination in their tone toward Plowden and the Honourable Balder. The bond between them had twisted in it strands of social exclusiveness, and strands of sex sympathy.

He did not analyze all this with much closeness in his thoughts, but the impressions of it were distinct enough to him. He rather enjoyed these impressions than otherwise. Women had not often interested him consecutively to any large degree, either in detail or as a whole. He had formulated, among other loose general notions of them, however, the idea that their failure to stand by one another was one of their gravest weaknesses. This proposition rose suddenly now in his mind, and claimed his attention. It became apparent to him, all at once, that his opinions about women would be henceforth invested with a new importance. He had scarcely before in his life worn evening dress in a domestic circle which included ladies-certainly never in the presence of such certificated and hall-marked ladies as these. His future, however, was to be filled with experiences of this nature. Already, after this briefest of ventures into the new life, he found fresh conceptions of the great subject springing up in his thoughts. In this matter of women sticking together, for example-here before his eyes was one of the prettiest instances of it imaginable. As he looked again at the two figures on the sofa, so markedly unlike in outward aspect, yet knit to each other in such a sisterly bond, he found the spectacle really touching.

Lady Cressage had inclined her classic profile even more toward the piano. Thorpe was not stirred at all by the music, but the spirit of it as it was reflected upon this beautiful facial outline-sensitive, high-spirited, somewhat sad withal-appealed to something in him. He moved forward cautiously, noiselessly, a dozen restricted paces, and halted again at the corner of a table. It was a relief that the Honourable Balder, though he followed along, respected now his obvious wish for silence. But neither Balder nor anyone else could guess that the music said less than nothing to his ears-that it was the face that had beckoned him to advance.

Covertly, with momentary assurances that no one observed him, he studied this face and mused upon it. The white candle-light on the shining wall beyond threw everything into a soft, uniform shadow, this side of the thread of dark tracery which outlined forehead and nose and lips and chin. It seemed to him that the eyes were closed, as in reverie; he could not be sure.

So she would have been a Duchess if her husband had lived! He said to himself that he had never seen before, or imagined, a face which belonged so indubitably beneath a tiara of strawberry leaves in diamonds. The pride and grace and composure, yes, and melancholy, of the great lady-they were all there in their supreme expression. And yet-why, she was no great lady at all. She was the daughter of his old General Kervick-the necessitous and haughtily-humble old military gentleman, with the grey moustache and the premature fur coat, who did what he was told on the Board without a question, for a pitiful three hundred a year. Yes-she was his daughter, and she also was poor. Plowden had said so.

Why had Plowden, by the way, been so keen about relieving her from her father's importunities? He must have had it very much at heart, to have invented the roundabout plan of getting the old gentleman a directorship. But no-there was nothing in that. Why, Plowden had even forgotten that it was he who suggested Kervick's name. It would have been his sister, of course, who was evidently such chums with Lady Cressage, who gave him the hint to help the General to something if he could. And when you came to think of it, these aristocrats and military men and so on, had no other notion of making money save by directorships. Clearly, that was the way of it. Plowden had remembered Kervick's name, when the chance arose to give the old boy a leg up, and then had clean forgotten the circumstance. The episode rather increased his liking for Plowden.

He glanced briefly, under the impulse of his thought, to where the peer sat, or rather sprawled, in a big low chair before the fire. He was so nearly recumbent in it, indeed, that there was nothing to be seen of him but an elbow, and two very trim legs extended to the brass fender. Thorpe's gaze reverted automatically to the face of General Kervick's daughter. He wondered if she knew about the Company, and about him, and about his ability to solidify to any extent her father's financial position. Even more, upon reflection, he wondered whether she was very fond of her father; would she be extremely grateful to one who should render him securely comfortable for life? Miss Madden rose from the piano before Thorpe noted that the music had ceased. There came from the others a soft but fervent chorus of exclamations, the sincerity and enthusiasm of which made him a little ashamed. He had evidently been deaf to something that deeply moved the rest. Even Balder made remarks which seemed to be regarded as apposite.

"What IS it?" asked Lady Cressage, with obvious feeling. "I don't know when anything has touched me so much."

"Old Danish songs that I picked up on the quai in Paris for a franc or two," replied Miss Madden. "I arranged and harmonized them-and, oddly enough, the result is rather Keltic, don't you think?"

"We are all of us Kelts in our welcome to music-and musicians-like this," affirmed Lord Plowden, who had scrambled to his feet.

With sudden resolution, Thorpe moved forward and joined the conversation.

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