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The Market-Place By Harold Frederic Characters: 25149

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:08


THORPE'S life-long habit of early rising brought him downstairs next morning before anybody else in the house, apparently, was astir. At all events, he saw no one in either the hall or the glass vestibule, as he wandered about. Both doors were wide open, however, to the mild, damp morning air. He found on one of the racks a cap that was less uncomfortable than the others, and sauntered forth to look about him.

His nerves were by no means in so serene a state as his reason told him they ought to be. The disquieting impression of bad dreams hung about him. The waking hour-always an evil time for him in these latter days of anxiety-had been this morning a peculiarly depressing affair. It had seemed to him, in the first minutes of reviving consciousness, that he was a hopelessly ruined and discredited man; the illusion of disaster had been, indeed, so complete and vivid that, even now, more than an hour later, he had not shaken off its effects.

He applied his mental energies, as he strolled along the gravel paths, to the task of reassuring himself. There were still elements of chance in the game, of course, but it was easy enough, here in the daylight, to demonstrate that they had been cut down to a minimum-that it was nonsense to borrow trouble about them. He reviewed the situation in painstaking detail, and at every point it was all right, or as nearly all right as any human business could be. He scolded himself sharply for this foolish susceptibility to the intimidation of nightmares. "Look at Plowden!" he bade his dolorous spirit. "See how easy he takes things."

It was undeniable that Lord Plowden took things very easily indeed. He had talked with eloquence and feeling about the miseries and humiliations of a peerage inadequately endowed with money, but no traces of his sufferings were visible to Thorpe's observant eye. The nobleman himself looked the very image of contented prosperity-handsome, buoyant, light-hearted, and, withal, the best-groomed man in London. And this ancestral home of his-or of his mother's, since he seemed to insist upon the distinction-where were its signs of a stinted income? The place was overrun with servants. There was a horse which covered a distance of something like two miles in eight minutes. Inside and out, Hadlow House suggested nothing but assured plenty. Yet its master told the most unvarying tales of poverty, and no doubt they were in one sense true. What he wished to fix his mind upon, and to draw strength for himself from, was the gay courage with which these Plowdens behaved as if they were rich.

The grounds at the front of the house, hemmed in by high hedges and trees from what seemed to be a public road beyond, were fairly spacious, but the sleek decorum of their arrangement, while it pleased him, was scarcely interesting. He liked better to study the house itself, which in the daylight revealed itself as his ideal of what a historic English country-house of the minor class should be.

There had been a period in his youth when architecture had attracted him greatly as offering a congenial and lucrative career. Not much remained to him now of the classifications and phraseology which he had gone to the trouble of memorizing, in that far-off time, but he still looked at buildings with a kind of professional consciousness. Hadlow House said intelligible things to him, and he was pleased with himself for understanding them. It was not new in any part, apparently, but there was nothing pretentious in its antiquity. It had never been a castle, or a fortified residence. No violent alteration in habits or needs distinguished its present occupants from its original builders. It had been planned and reared as a home for gentle people, at some not-too-remote date when it was already possible for gentle people to have homes, without fighting to defend them. One could fancy that its calm and infinitely comfortable history had never been ruffled from that day to this. He recalled having heard it mentioned the previous evening that the house stood upon the site of an old monastery. No doubt that accounted for its being built in a hollow, with the ground-floor on the absolute level of the earth outside. The monks had always chosen these low-lying sheltered spots for their cloisters. Why should they have done so? he wondered-and then came to a sudden mental stop, absorbed in a somewhat surprised contemplation of a new version of himself. He was becoming literary, historical, bookish! His mind had begun to throw open again, to abstract thoughts and musings, its long-closed doors. He had read and dreamed so much as a lad, in the old book-shop! For many years that boyhood of eager concern in the printed page had seemed to him to belong to somebody else. Now, all at once, it came back to him as his own possession; he felt that he could take up books again where he had dropped them, perhaps even with the old rapt, intent zest.

Visions rose before him of the magnificent library he would gather for himself. And it should be in no wise for show-the gross ostentation of the unlettered parvenu-but a genuine library, which should minister to his own individual culture. The thought took instant hold upon his interest. By that road, his progress to the goal of gentility would be smooth and simple. He seemed not to have reasoned it out to himself in detail before, but now, at all events, he saw his way clearly enough. Why should he be tormented with doubts and misgivings about himself, as if he had come out of the gutter?

Why indeed? He had passed through-and with credit, too-one of the great public schools of England. He had been there on a footing of perfect equality, so far as he saw, with the sons of aristocratic families or of great City potentates. And as to birth, he had behind him three generations at least of scholarly men, men who knew the contents, as well as the commercial value, of the books they handled.

His grandfather had been a man of note in his calling. The tradition of Lord Althorp's confidence in him, and of how he requited it by securing Caxton's "Golden Legend" for the library of that distinguished collector, under the very nose of his hot rival, the Duke of Marlborough, was tenderly cherished as an heirloom in the old shop. And Thorpe's father, too, though no such single achievement crowned his memory, had been the adviser and, as one might say, the friend of many notable writers and patrons of literature. The son of such forbears needed only money to be recognized by everybody as a gentleman.

On his mother's side, now that he thought of it, there was something perhaps better still than a heritage of librarians' craft and tastes. His mother's maiden name was Stormont, and he remembered well enough the solemnity with which she had always alluded to the fact, in the course of domestic discussions. Who the Stormonts were he could not recall that he had ever learned, but his mother had been very clear indeed about their superiority to the usual ruck of people. He would ask his sister whether she knew anything about them. In the meantime there was no denying that Stormont was a fine-sounding name. He reflected that it was his own middle name-and, on the instant, fancy engraved for him a card-plate on which appeared the legend-"Mr. Stormont Thorpe."

It was an inspiration! "Joel" he had not used for so many years that now, after six months' familiarity with it on his sister's lips, he could not get accustomed to it. The colourless and non-committal style of "J. S. Thorpe," under which he had lived so long, had been well enough for the term of his exile-the weary time of obscure toil and suspense. But now, in this sunburst of smiling fortune, when he had achieved the right to a name of distinction-here it was ready to his hand. A fleeting question as to whether he should carry the "J" along as an initial put itself to his mind. He decided vigorously against it. He had always had a prejudice against men who, in the transatlantic phrase, parted either their hair or their names in the middle.

He had made his unheeding way past the house to the beginning of the avenue of trees, which he remembered from the previous evening's drive. To his right, an open space of roadway led off in the direction of the stables. As he hesitated, in momentary doubt which course to take, the sound of hoofs in the avenue caught his ear, and he stood still. In a moment there came into view, round a curve in the leafy distance, two horses with riders, advancing at a brisk canter. Soon he perceived that the riders were ladies; they drew rein as they approached him, and then it was to be seen that they were the pair he had judged to be such close friends last night-Lady Cressage and the daughter of the house.

They smiled and nodded down at him, as he lifted his cap and bowed. Their cheeks were glowing and their eyes sparkling with the exhilaration of their ride. Even the Hon. Winifred looked comely and distinguished in his eyes, under the charm of this heightened vivacity. She seemed to carry herself better in the saddle than she did out of it; the sweep of her habit below the stirrup lent dignity to her figure.

But her companion, whose big chestnut mount was pacing slowly toward the stepping-block-how should he bring within the compass of thought the impressions he had had of her as she passed? There seemed to have been no memory in his mind to prepare him for the beauty of the picture she had made. Slender, erect, exquisitely-tailored, she had gone by like some queen in a pageant, gracious yet unapproachable. He stared after her, mutely bewildered at the effect she produced upon him-until he saw that a groom had run from the stable-yard, and was helping the divinity to dismount. The angry thought that he might have done this himself rose within him-but there followed swiftly enough the answering conviction that he lacked the courage. He did not even advance to proffer his services to the other young lady, while there was still time. The truth was, he admitted ruefully to himself, they unnerved him.

He had talked freely enough to them, or rather to the company of which they made part, the previous evening. There had been an hour or more, indeed, before the party broke up, in which he had borne the lion's share of the talk-and they had appeared as frankly entertained as the others. In fact, when he recalled the circle of faces to which he had addressed his monologue of reminiscences-curious experiences and adventures in Java and the Argentine, in Brazil and the Antilles and Mexico and the far West-it was in the face of Lady Cressage that he seemed to discern the most genuine interest.

Why should she frighten him, then, by daylight? The whimsical theory that the wine at dinner had given him a spurious courage occurred to him. He shrugged his shoulders at it, and, with his hands in his pockets, turned toward the stables.

The stable-yard is, from some points of view, the prettiest thing about Hadlow. There is a big, uneven, grass-grown space, in the centre of which, from a slight mound, springs an aged oak of tremendous girth and height. All around this enclosure are buildings of the same pale yellowish brick as the mansion itself, but quaintly differing one from another in design and size. Stables, carriage-houses, kennels, a laundry, a brewery, and half a dozen structures the intention of which is now somewhat uncertain-some flat-topped, some gabled, others with turrets, or massive grouped chimneys, or overhanging timbered upper stories-form round this unkempt, shadowed green a sort of village, with a communal individuality of its own.

A glance shows its feudal relation to, and dependence upon, the great house behind which it nestles; some of the back-kitchens and offices of this great house, indeed, straggle out till they meet and merge themselves into this quadrangle. None the less, it presents to the enquiring gaze a specific character, of as old a growth, one might think, as the oak itself. Here servants have lived, it may be, since man first learned the trick of setting his foot on his brother's neck. Plainly enough, the monks' servants lived and worked here; half the buildings on the side nearest the house belong to their time, and one of them still bears a partially-defaced coat of arms that must have belonged to an Abbot. And when lay lord succeeded cleric, only the garb and vocabulary of servitude were altered in this square. Its population crossed themselves less, and worked mu

ch harder, but they remained in a world of their own, adjacent aud subject to the world of their masters, yet separated from it by oh! such countless and unthinkable distances.

Thorpe sauntered along the side of the stables. He counted three men and a boy who visibly belonged to this department. The dog-cart of the previous evening had been run out upon the brick-pavement which drained the stables, and glistened with expensive smartness now beneath the sponge of one of the hostlers. Under cover, he discerned two other carriages, and there seemed to be at least half a dozen horses. The men who, in the half gloom of the loose-boxes, were busy grooming these animals made a curious whistling noise as they worked. Everybody in the yard touched a forelock to him as he passed.

From this quaint, old-world enclosure he wandered at his leisure, through an open gate in the wall at the back, into the gardens behind the house. There was not much in the way of flowers to look at, but he moved about quite unconscious of any deprivation. A cluster of greenhouses, massed against the southern side of the mansion, attracted his listless fancy, and he walked toward what appeared to be an entrance to them. The door was locked, but he found another further on which opened to his hand. The air was very hot and moist inside, and the place was so filled with broad-leaved, umbrageous tropical plants that he had to stoop to make his way through to the end. The next house had a more tolerable atmosphere, and contained some blossoms to which he gave momentary attention. In the third house, through the glass-door, he could see a man-evidently a gardener-lifting some pots to a shelf overhead.

The thought occurred to him that by entering into conversation with this man, he might indirectly obtain a hint as to the usual breakfast-hour at Hadlow. It was now nearly ten o'clock, and he was getting very hungry. Would they not ring a bell, or sound a gong, or something? he wondered. Perhaps there had been some such summons, and he had not heard it. It might be the intelligent thing for him to return to the house, at all events, and sit in the hall where the servants could see him, in case the meal was in progress.

Looking idly through the glass at the gardener, meanwhile, it suddenly dawned upon him that the face and figure were familiar. He stared more intently at the man, casting about in his memory for a clue to his identity. It came to him that the person he had in mind was a fellow named Gafferson, who had kept an impoverished and down-at-the-heels sort of hotel and general store on the road from Belize to Boon Town, in British Honduras. Yes, it undoubtedly was Gafferson. What on earth was he doing here? Thorpe gave but brief consideration to this problem. It was of more immediate importance to recall the circumstances of his contact with the man. He had made Gafferson's poor shanty of an hotel his headquarters for the better part of a month-the base of supplies from which he made numerous prospecting tours into the mountains of the interior. Had he paid his bill on leaving? Yes, there was no doubt about that. He could even recall a certain pity for the unbusiness-like scale of charges, and the lack of perception of opportunity, which characterized the bill in question. He remembered now his impression that Gafferson would never do any good. It would be interesting to know what kind of an impression he, in turn, had produced on his thriftless host. At any rate, there was no good reason why he should not find out. He opened the door and went in.

The gardener barely looked up from his occupation, and drew aside to let the newcomer pass with no sign of a gesture toward his cap. Thorpe halted, and tried to look at the pots on the staging as if he knew about such things.

"What are you doing?" he asked, in the tentative tone of one who is in no need of information, but desires to be affable.

"Drying off the first lot of gloxinias," answered the other. "Some people put 'em on their sides, but I like 'em upright, close to the glass. It stands to reason, if you think about it."

"Why, certainly," said Thorpe, with conviction. In his mind he contrasted the independence of Gafferson's manner with the practised servility of the stable-yard-and thought that he liked it-and then was not so sure. He perceived that there was no recognition of him. The gardener, as further desultory conversation about his work progressed, looked his interlocutor full in the face, but with a placid, sheep-like gaze which seemed to be entirely insensible to variations in the human species.

"How did you ever get back here to England?" Thorpe was emboldened to ask at last. In comment upon the other's stare of puzzled enquiry, he went on: "You're Gafferson, aren't you? I thought so. When I last saw you, you were running a sort of half-way house, t'other side of Belize. That was in '90."

Gafferson-a thick-set, squat man of middle age, with a straggling reddish beard-turned upon him a tranquil but uninformed eye. "I suppose you would have been stopping at Government House," he remarked. "That was in Sir Roger Goldsworthy's time. They used to come out often to see my flowers. And so you remembered my name. I suppose it was because of the Gaffersoniana hybrids. There was a good bit in the papers about them last spring." Thorpe nodded an assent which it seemed better not to put into words. "Well, it beats all," he mused aloud. "Why, man, there's gold in those mountains! You had an inside track on prospecting, placed as you were. And there's cocoa-and some day they'll coin money in rubber, too. All that country's waiting for is better communications. And you were on the spot, and knew all the lay of the land-and yet here you are back in England, getting so much a month for messing about in the mud."

He saw swiftly that his reflections had carried him beyond his earlier limit, and with rapidity decided upon frankness. "No, I wasn't in the Governor's outfit at all. I was looking for gold then-with occasionally an eye on rubber. I stopped at your place. Don't you remember me? My name's Thorpe. I had a beard then. Why, man, you and one of your niggers were with me three or four days once, up on the ridge beyond the Burnt Hills-why, you remember, the nigger was from San Domingo, and he was forever bragging about the San Domingo peppers, and saying those on the mainland hadn't enough strength to make a baby wrinkle his nose, and you found a pepper coming through the swamp, and you tipped me the wink, and you handed that pepper to the nigger, and it damned near killed him. Hell! You must remember that!"

"That would have been the Chavica pertusum," said Gafferson, thoughtfully. He seemed to rouse himself to an interest in the story itself with some difficulty. "Yes-I remember it," he admitted, finally. "I shouldn't have known you though. I'm the worst in the world about remembering people. It seems to be growing on me. I notice that when I go up to London to the shows, I don't remember the men that I had the longest talks with the time before. Once you get wrapped up in your flowers, you've got no room in your head for anything else-that's the way of it."

Thorpe considered him with a ruminating eye. "So this is the sort of thing you really like, eh? You'd rather be doing this, eh? than making your pile in logwood and mahogany out there, or floating a gold mine?" Gafferson answered quite simply: "I wasn't the kind to ever make a pile. I got led into going out there when I was a youngster, and there didn't seem to be any good in trying to get back, but I wasn't making more than a bare living when you were there, and after that I didn't even do that much. It took me a good many years to find out what my real fancy was. I hated my hotel and my store, but I was crazy about my garden. Finally an American gentleman came along one day, and he put up at my place, and he saw that I was as near ruined as they make 'em, and he says to me, 'You're no good to run a hotel, nor yet a store, and this aint your country for a cent. What you're born for is to grow flowers. You can't afford to do it here, because nobody'll pay you for it, but you gather up your seeds and roots and so on, and come along with me to Atlanta, Georgia, and I'll put fat on your bones.'

"That's what he said to me, and I took him at his word, and I was with him two years, and then I thought I'd like to come to England, and since then I've worked my way up here, till now I take a Royal Horticultural medal regular, and there's a clematis with salmon-coloured bars that'll be in the market next spring that's named after my master. And what could I ask more 'n that?"

"Quite right," said Thorpe. "What time do they have breakfast here?"

The gardener's round, phlegmatic, florid countenance had taken on a mild glow of animation during his narrative. It relapsed into lethargy at the advent of this new topic.

"It seems to me they eat at all hours," he said. "But if you want to see his Lordship," he went on, considering, "about noon would be your best time."

"See his Lordship!" repeated Thorpe, with an impatient grin. "Why I'm a guest here in the house. All I want is something to eat."

"A guest," Gafferson repeated in turn, slowly. There was nothing unpleasant in the intonation, and Thorpe's sharp glance failed to detect any trace of offensive intention in his companion's fatuous visage. Yet it seemed to pass between the two men that Gafferson was surprised, and that there were abundant grounds for his surprise.

"Why, yes," said Thorpe, with as much nonchalance as he could summon, "your master is one of my directors. I've taken a fancy to him, and I'm going to make a rich man of him. He was keen about my seeing his place here, and kept urging me to come, and so finally I've got away over Sunday to oblige him. By the way-I shall buy an estate in the country as soon as the right thing offers, and I shall want to set up no end of gardens and greenhouses and all that. I see that I couldn't come to a better man than you for advice. I daresay I'll put the whole arrangement of it in your hands. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Whatever his Lordship agrees to," the gardener replied, sententiously. He turned to the staging, and took up one of the pots.

Thorpe swung on his heel, and moved briskly toward the further door, which he could see opened upon the lawn. He was conscious of annoyance with this moon-faced, dawdling Gafferson, who had been afforded such a splendid chance of profiting by an old acquaintanceship-it might even be called, as things went in Honduras, a friendship-and who had so clumsily failed to rise to the situation. The bitter thought of going back and giving him a half-crown rose in Thorpe's inventive mind, and he paused for an instant, his hand on the door-knob, to think it over. The gratuity would certainly put Gafferson in his place, but then the spirit in which it was offered would be wholly lost on his dull brain. And moreover, was it so certain that he would take it? He had not said "sir" once, and he had talked about medals with the pride of a scientist. The rules were overwhelmingly against a gardener rejecting a tip, of course, but if there was no more than one chance in twenty of it, Thorpe decided that he could not afford the risk.

He quitted the greenhouse with resolution, and directed his steps toward the front of the mansion. As he entered the hall, a remarkably tuneful and resonant chime filled his ears with novel music. He looked and saw that a white-capped, neatly-clad domestic, standing with her back to him beside the newel-post of the stairs, was beating out the tune with two padded sticks upon some strips of metal ranged on a stand of Indian workmanship. The sound was delightful, but even more so was the implication that it betokened breakfast.

With inspiration, he drew forth the half-crown which he had been fingering in his pocket, and gave it to the girl as she turned. "That's the kind of concert I like," he declared, bestowing the patronage of a jovial smile upon her pleased and comely face. "Show me the way to this breakfast that you've been serenading about."

Out in the greenhouse, meanwhile, Gafferson continued to regard blankly the shrivelled, fatty leaves of the plant he had taken up. "Thorpe," he said aloud, as if addressing the tabid gloxinia-"Thorpe-yes-I remember his initials-J. S. Thorpe. Now, who's the man that told me about him? and what was it he told me?"

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