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The Market-Place By Harold Frederic Characters: 25320

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:08


THE experiences of the breakfast room were very agreeable indeed. Thorpe found himself the only man present, and, after the first few minutes of embarrassment at this discovery, it filled him with surprised delight to note how perfectly he was at his ease. He could never have imagined himself seated with four ladies at a table-three of them, moreover, ladies of title-and doing it all so well.

For one thing, the ladies themselves had a morning manner, so to speak, which differed widely from the impressions he had had of their deportment the previous evening. They seemed now to be as simple and fresh and natural as the unadorned frocks they wore. They listened with an air of good-fellowship to him when he spoke; they smiled at the right places; they acted as if they liked him, and were glad of his company.

The satisfied conviction that he was talking well, and behaving well, accompanied him in his progress through the meal. His confession at the outset of his great hunger, and of the sinister apprehensions which had assailed him in his loitering walk about the place, proved a most fortuitous beginning; after that, they were ready to regard everything he said as amusing.

"Oh, when we're by ourselves," the kindly little old hostess explained to him, "my daughter and I breakfast always at nine. That was our hour yesterday morning, for example. But when my son is here, then it's farewell to regularity. We put breakfast back till ten, then, as a kind of compromise between our own early habits and his lack of any sort of habits. Why we do it I couldn't say-because he never comes down in any event. He sleeps so well at Hadlow-and you know in town he sleeps very ill indeed-and so we don't dream of complaining. We're only too glad-for his sake."

"And Balder," commented the sister, "he's as bad the other way. He gets up at some unearthly hour, and has his tea and a sandwich from the still-room, and goes off with his rod or his gun or the dogs, and we never see him till luncheon."

"I've been on the point of asking so many times," Miss Madden interposed-"is Balder a family name, or is it after the Viking in Matthew Arnold's poem?"

"It was his father's choice," Lady Plowden made answer. "I think the Viking explanation is the right one-it certainly isn't in either family. I can't say that it attracted me much-at first, you know."

"Oh, but it fits him so splendidly," said Lady Cressage. "He looks the part, as they say. I always thought it was the best of all the soldier names-and you have only to look at him to see that he was predestined for a soldier from his cradle."

"I wish the Sandhurst people would have a good long look at him, then," put in the mother with earnestness underlying the jest of her tone. "The poor boy will never pass those exams in the world. It IS ridiculous, as his father always said. If there ever was a man who was made for a soldier, it's Balder. He's a gentleman, and he's connected by tradition with the Army, and he's mad about everything military-and surely he's as clever as anybody else at everything except that wretched matter of books, and even there it's only a defect of memory-and yet that suffices to prevent his serving his Queen. And all over England there are young gentlemen like that-the very pick of the hunting-fields, strong and brave as lions, fit to lead men anywhere, the very men England wants to have fighting her battles-and they can't get places in the Army because-what was it Balder came to grief over last time?-because they can't remember whether it's Ispahan or Teheran that's the capital of Persia.

"They are the fine old sort that would go and capture both places at the point of the bayonet-and find out their names afterward-but it seems that's not what the Army wants nowadays. What is desired now is superior clerks, and secretaries and professors of languages-and much good they will do us when the time of trouble comes!"

"Then you think the purchase-system was better?" asked the American lady. "It always seemed to me that that must have worked so curiously."

"Prefer it?" said Lady Plowden. "A thousand times yes! My husband made one of the best speeches in the debate on it-one do I say?-first and last he must have made a dozen of them. If anything could have kept the House of Lords firm, in the face of the wretched Radical outcry, it would have been those speeches. He pointed out all the evils that would follow the change. You might have called it prophetic-the way he foresaw what would happen to Balder-or not Balder in particular, of course, but that whole class of young gentlemen.

"As he said, you have only to ask yourself what kind of people the lower classes naturally look up to and obey and follow. Will they be ordered about by a man simply because he knows Greek and Latin and Hebrew? Do they respect the village schoolmaster, for example, on account of his learning? Not in the very slightest! On the contrary, they regard him with the greatest contempt. The man they will serve is the man whose birth gives him the right to command them, or else the man with money in his pockets to make it worth their while. These two are the only leaders they understand. And if that's true here in England, in times of peace, among our own people, how much truer must it be of our soldiers, away from England, in a time of war?"

"But, mamma," the Hon. Winifred intervened, "don't you see how badly that might work nowadays? now that the good families have so little money, and all the fortunes are in the hands of stockjobbing people-and so on? It would be THEIR sons who would buy all the commissions-and I'm sure Balder wouldn't get on at all with that lot."

Lady Plowden answered with decision and great promptness. "You see so little of the world, Winnie dear, that you don't get very clear ideas of its movements. The people who make fortunes in England are every whit as important to its welfare as those who inherit names, and individually I'm sure they are often much more deserving. Every generation sniffs at its nouveaux riches, but by the next they have become merged in the aristocracy. It isn't a new thing in England at all. It has always been that way. Two-thirds of the peerage have their start from a wealthy merchant, or some other person who made a fortune. They are really the back-bone of England. You should keep that always in mind."

"Of course-I see what you mean"-Winnie replied, her dark cheek flushing faintly under the tacit reproof. She had passed her twenty-fifth birthday, but her voice had in it the docile self-repression of a school-girl. She spoke with diffident slowness, her gaze fastened upon her plate. "Of course-my grandfather was a lawyer-and your point is that merchants-and others who make fortunes-would be the same."

"Precisely," said Lady Plowden. "And do tell us, Mr. Thorpe"-she turned toward where he sat at her right and beamed at him over her spectacles, with the air of having been wearied with a conversation in which he bore no part-"is it really true that social discontent is becoming more marked in America, even, than it is with us in England?"

"I'm not an American, you know," he reminded her. "I only know one or two sections of the country-and those only as a stranger. You should ask Miss Madden."

"Me?" said Celia. "Oh, I haven't come up for my examinations yet. I'm like Balder-I'm preparing."

"What I should like Mr. Thorpe to tell us," suggested Lady Cressage, mildly, "is about the flowers in the tropics-in Java, for example, or some of the West Indies. One hears such marvelous tales about them."

"Speaking of flowers," Thorpe suddenly decided to mention the fact; "I met out in one of the greenhouses here this morning, an old acquaintance of mine, the gardener, Gafferson. The last time I saw him, he was running the worst hotel in the world in the worst country in the world-out in British Honduras."

"But he's a wonderful gardener," said Lady Cressage. "He's a magician; he can do what he likes with plants. It's rather a hobby of mine-or used to be-and I never saw his equal."

Thorpe told them about Gafferson, in that forlorn environment on the Belize road, and his success in making them laugh drew him on to other pictures of the droll side of life among the misfits of adventure. The ladies visibly dallied over their tea-cups to listen to him; the charm of having them all to himself, and of holding them in interested entertainment by his discourse-these ladies of supremely refined associations and position-seemed to provide an inspiration of its own. He could hear that his voice was automatically modulating itself to their critical ears. His language was producing itself with as much delicacy of selection as if it came out of a book-and yet preserving the savour of quaint, outlandish idiom which his listeners clearly liked. Upon the instant when Lady Plowden's gathering of skirts, and glance across the table, warned him that they were to rise, he said deliberately to himself that this had been the most enjoyable episode of his whole life.

There were cigar boxes on the fine old oak mantel, out in the hall, and Winnie indicated them to him with the obvious suggestion that he was expected to smoke. He looked her over as he lit his cigar-where she stood spreading her hands above the blaze of the logs, and concluded that she was much nicer upon acquaintance than he had thought. Her slight figure might not be beautiful, but beyond doubt its lines were ladylike. The same extenuating word applied itself in his mind to her thin and swarthy, though distinguished, features. They bore the stamp of caste, and so did the way she looked at one through her eye-glasses, from under those over-heavy black eyebrows, holding her head a little to one side. Though it was easy enough to guess that she had a spirit of her own, her gentle, almost anxious, deference to her mother had shown that she had it under admirable control.

He had read about her in a peerage at his sister's book-shop the previous day. Unfortunately it did not give her age, but that was not so important, after all. She was styled Honourable. She was the daughter of one Viscount and the sister of another. Her grandfather had been an Earl, and the book had shown her to possess a bewildering number of relationships among titled folks. All this was very interesting to him-and somewhat suggestive. Vague, shapeless hints at projects rose in his brain as he looked at her.

"I'm afraid you think my brother has odd notions of entertaining his guests," she remarked to him, over her shoulder. The other ladies had not joined them.

"Oh, I'm all right," he protested cordially. "I should hate to have him put himself out in the slightest." Upon consideration he added: "I suppose he has given up the idea of shooting to-day."

"I think not," she answered." The keeper was about this morning, that is-and he doesn't often come unless they are to go out with the guns. I suppose you are very fond of shooting."

"Well-I've done some-in my time," Thorpe replied, cautiously. It did not seem necessary to explain that he had yet to fire his first gun on English soil. "It's a good many years," he went on, "since I had the time and opportunity to do much at it. I think the last shooting I did was alligators. You hit 'em in the eye, you know. But what kind of a hand I shall make of it with a shot-gun, I haven't the least idea. Is the shooting round I here pretty good?"

"I don't think it's anything remarkable. Plowden says my brother Balder kills all the birds off every season. Balder's by way of being a crack-shot, you know. There are some pheasants, though. We saw them flying when we were out this morning."

Thorpe wondered if it would be possible to consult her upon the question of apparel. Clearly, he ought to make some difference in his garb, yet the mental vision of him-self in those old Mexican clothes revealed itself now as ridiculously impossible. He must have been out of his mind to have conceived anything so preposterous as rigging himself out, among these polished people, like a cow-puncher down on his luck.

"I wonder when your brother will expect to start," he began, uneasily. "Perhaps I ought to go and get ready."

"Ah, here comes his man," remarked the sister. A round-faced, smooth-mannered youngster-whom Thorpe discovered to be wearing cord-breeches and leather leggings as he descended the stairs-advanced toward him and prefaced his message by the invariable salutation. "His Lordship will be down, sir, in ten minutes-and he hopes you'll be ready, sir," the valet sa

id.

"Send Pangbourn to this gentleman's room," Miss Winnie bade him, and with a gesture of comprehensive submission he went away.

The calm readiness with which she had provided a solution for his difficulties impressed Thorpe greatly. It would never have occurred to him that Pangbourn was the answer to the problem of his clothes, yet how obvious it had been to her. These old families did something more than fill their houses with servants; they mastered the art of making these servants an integral part of the machinery of existence. Fancy having a man to do all your thinking about clothes for you, and then dress you, into the bargain. Oh, it was all splendid.

"It seems that we're going shooting," Thorpe found himself explaining, a few moments later in his bedroom, to the attentive Pangbourn. He decided to throw himself with frankness upon the domestic's resourceful good-feeling. "I haven't brought anything for shooting at all. Somehow I got the idea we were going to do rough riding instead-and so I fetched along some old Mexican riding-clothes that make me feel more at home in the saddle than anything else would. You know how fond a man gets of old, loose things like that. But about this shooting-I want you to fix me out. What do I need? Just some breeches and leggings, eh? You can manage them for me, can't you?"

Pangbourn could and did-and it was upon his advice that the Mexican jacket was utilized to complete the out-fit. Its shape was beyond doubt uncommon, but it had big pockets, and it looked like business. Thorpe, as he glanced up and down his image in the tall mirror of the wardrobe, felt that he must kill a large number of birds to justify the effect of pitiless proficiency which this jacket lent to his appearance.

"We will find a cap below, sir," Pangbourn announced, with serenity, and Thorpe, who had been tentatively fingering the big, flaring sombrero, thrust it back upon its peg as if it had proved too hot to handle.

Downstairs in the hall there was more waiting to be done, and there was nobody now to bear him company. He lit another cigar, tried on various caps till he found a leathern one to suit him, and then dawdled about the room and the adjoining conservatory for what seemed to him more than half an hour. This phase of the aristocratic routine, he felt, did not commend itself so warmly to him as did some others. Everybody else, however, seemed to regard it as so wholly a matter of course that Plowden should do as he liked, that he forbore formulating a complaint even to himself.

At last, this nobleman's valet descended the stairs once more. "His Lordship will be down very shortly now, sir," he declared-"and will you be good enough to come into the gun-room, sir, and see the keeper?"

Thorpe followed him through a doorway under the staircase-the existence of which he had not suspected-into a bare-looking apartment fitted like a pantry with shelves. After the semi-gloom of the hall, it was almost glaringly lighted. The windows and another door opened, he saw, upon a court connected with the stable-yard. By this entrance, no doubt, had come the keeper, a small, brown-faced, brown-clothed man of mature years, with the strap of a pouch over his shoulder, who stood looking at the contents of the shelves. He mechanically saluted Thorpe in turn, and then resumed his occupation. There were numerous gun cases on the lower shelf, and many boxes and bags above.

"Did his Lordship say what gun?" the keeper demanded of the valet. He had a bright-eyed, intent glance, and his tone conveyed a sense of some broad, impersonal, out-of-doors disdain for liveried house-men.

The valet, standing behind Thorpe, shrugged his shoulders and eloquently shook his head.

"Do you like an 'ammerless, sir?" the keeper turned to Thorpe.

To his intense humiliation, Thorpe could not make out the meaning of the query. "Oh, anything'll do for me," he said, awkwardly smiling. "It's years since I've shot-I daresay one gun'll be quite the same as another to me."

He felt the knowing bright eyes of the keeper taking all his measurements as a sportsman. "You'd do best with 'B,' sir, I fancy," the functionary decided at last, and his way of saying it gave Thorpe the notion that "B" must be the weapon that was reserved for school-boys. He watched the operation of putting the gun together, and then took it, and laid it over his arm, and followed the valet out into the hall again, in dignified silence. To the keeper's remark-"Mr. Balder has its mate with him today, sir," he gave only a restrained nod.

There were even now whole minutes to wait before Lord Plowden appeared. He came down the stairs then with the brisk, rather impatient air of a busy man whose plans are embarrassed by the unpunctuality of others. He was fully attired, hob-nailed shoes, leggings, leather coat and cap, gloves, scarf round his throat and all-and he behaved as if there was not a minute to lose. He had barely time to shake perfunctorily the hand Thorpe offered him, and utter an absent-minded "How are you this morning?"

To the valet, who hurried forward to open the outer door, bearing his master's gun and a camp-stool, he said reproachfully, "We are very late today, Barnes." They went out, and began striding down the avenue of trees at such a pace that the keeper and his following of small boys and dogs, who joined them near the road, were forced into a trot to keep up with it.

Thorpe had fancied, somehow, that a day's shooting would afford exceptional opportunities for quiet and intimate talk with his host, but he perceived very soon that this was not to be the case. They walked together for half a mile, it is true, along a rural bye-road first and then across some fields, but the party was close at their heels, and Plowden walked so fast that conversation of any sort, save an occasional remark about the birds and the covers between him and the keeper, was impracticable. The Hon. Balder suddenly turned up in the landscape, leaning against a gate set in a hedgerow, and their course was deflected toward him, but even when they came up to him, the expedition seemed to gain nothing of a social character. The few curt words that were exchanged, as they halted here to distribute cartridges and hold brief consultation, bore exclusively upon the subject in hand.

The keeper assumed now an authority which Thorpe, breathing heavily over the unwonted exercise and hoping for nothing so much as that they would henceforth take things easy, thought intolerable. He was amazed that the two brothers should take without cavil the arbitrary orders of this elderly peasant. He bade Lord Plowden proceed to a certain point in one direction, and that nobleman, followed by his valet with the gun and the stool, set meekly off without a word. Balder, with equal docility, vaulted the gate, and moved away down the lane at the bidding of the keeper. Neither of them had intervened to mitigate the destiny of their guest, or displayed any interest as to what was going to become of him.

Thorpe said to himself that he did not like this-and though afterward, when he had also climbed the gate and taken up his station under a clump of trees at the autocrat's behest, he strove to soothe his ruffled feelings by the argument that it was probably the absolutely correct deportment for a shooting party, his mind remained unconvinced. Moreover, in parting from him, the keeper had dropped a blunt injunction about firing up or down the lane, the tone even more than the matter of which nettled him.

To cap all, when he presently ventured to stroll about a little from the spot on which he had been planted, he caught a glimpse against the skyline of the distant Lord Plowden, comfortably seated on the stool which his valet had been carrying. It seemed to Thorpe at that moment that he had never wanted to sit down so much before in his life-and he turned on his heel in the wet grass with a grunt of displeasure.

This mood vanished utterly a few moments later. The remote sounds had begun to come to him, of boys shouting and dogs barking, in the recesses of the strip of woodland which the lane skirted, and at these he hastened back to his post. It did not seem to him a good place, and when he heard the reports of guns to right and left of him, and nothing came his way, he liked it less than ever; it had become a matter of offended pride with him, however, to relieve the keeper of no atom of the responsibility he had taken upon himself. If Lord Plowden's guest had no sport, the blame for it should rest upon Lord Plowden's over-arrogant keeper. Then a noise of a different character assailed his ears, punctuated as it were by distant boyish cries of "mark!" These cries, and the buzzing sound as of clockwork gone wrong which they accompanied and heralded, became all at once a most urgent affair of his own. He strained his eyes upon the horizon of the thicket-and, as if by instinct, the gun sprang up to adjust its sight to this eager gaze, and followed automatically the thundering course of the big bird, and then, taking thought to itself, leaped ahead of it and fired. Thorpe's first pheasant reeled in the air, described a somersault, and fell like a plummet.

He stirred not a step, but reloaded the barrel with a hand shaking for joy. From where he stood he could see the dead bird; there could never have been a cleaner "kill." In the warming glow of his satisfaction in himself, there kindled a new liking of a different sort for Plowden and Balder. He owed to them, at this belated hour of his life, a novel delight of indescribable charm. There came to him, from the woods, the shrill bucolic voice of the keeper, admonishing a wayward dog. He was conscious of even a certain tenderness for this keeper-and again the cry of "mark!" rose, strenuously addressed to him.

Half an hour later the wood had been cleared, and Thorpe saw the rest of the party assembling by the gate. He did not hurry to join them, but when Lord Plowden appeared he sauntered slowly over, gun over arm, with as indifferent an air as he could simulate. It pleased him tremendously that no one had thought it worth while to approach the rendezvous by way of the spot he had covered. His eye took instant stock of the game carried by two of the boys; their combined prizes were eight birds and a rabbit, and his heart leaped within him at the count.

"Well, Thorpe?" asked Plowden, pleasantly. The smell of gunpowder and the sight of stained feathers had co-operated to brighten and cheer his mood. "I heard you blazing away in great form. Did you get anything?"

Thorpe strove hard to give his voice a careless note. "Let some of the boys run over," he said slowly. "There are nine birds within sight, and there are two or three in the bushes-but they may have got away."

"Gad!" said Balder.

"Magnificent!" was his brother's comment-and Thorpe permitted himself the luxury of a long-drawn, beaming sigh of triumph.

The roseate colouring of this triumph seemed really to tint everything that remained of Thorpe's visit. He set down to it without hesitation the visible augmentation of deference to him among the servants. The temptation was very great to believe that it had affected the ladies of the house as well. He could not say that they were more gracious to him, but certainly they appeared to take him more for granted. In a hundred little ways, he seemed to perceive that he was no longer held mentally at arm's length as a stranger to their caste. Of course, his own restored self-confidence could account for much of this, but he clung to the whimsical conceit that much was also due to the fact that he was the man of the pheasants.

Sunday was bleak and stormy, and no one stirred out of the house. He was alone again with the ladies at breakfast, and during the long day he was much in their company. It was like no other day he had ever imagined to himself.

On the morrow, in the morning train by which he returned alone to town, his mind roved luxuriously among the fragrant memories of that day. He had been so perfectly at home-and in such a home! There were some things which came uppermost again and again-but of them all he dwelt most fixedly upon the recollection of moving about in the greenhouses and conservatories, with that tall, stately, fair Lady Cressage for his guide, and watching her instead of the flowers that she pointed out. Of what she had told him, not a syllable stuck in his mind, but the music of the voice lingered in his ears.

"And she is old Kervick's daughter!" he said to himself more than once.

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