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The Market-Place By Harold Frederic Characters: 23586

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:08

THORPE found the Duke of Glastonbury a much more interesting person to watch and to talk with, both during the dinner Saturday evening and later, than he had anticipated.

He was young, and slight of frame, and not at all imposing in stature, but he bore himself with a certain shy courtliness of carriage which had a distinction of its own. His face, with its little black moustache and large dark eyes, was fine upon examination, but in some elusively foreign way. There lingered a foreign note, too, in the way he talked. His speech was English enough to the ear, it was true, but it was the considered English of a book, and its phrases had a deftness which was hardly native. He looked, if not a sad young man, then one conscious always of sufficient reasons for sadness, but one came, after a time, to see that the mood beneath was not melancholy. It had even its sprightly side, which shone out irregularly in his glance and talk, from a sober mean of amiable weariness.

Thorpe knew his extraordinary story-that of a poor tutor, earning his living in ignorance of the fact that he had a birthright of any sort, who had been miraculously translated into the heir, not only to an ancient title but to vast collateral wealth. He had been born and reared in France, and it was there that the heralds of this stupendous change in his affairs had found him out. There was a good deal more to the story, including numerous unsavoury legends about people now many years dead, and it was impossible to observe the young Duke and not seem to perceive signs that he was still nervously conscious of these legends. The story of his wife-a serene, grey-eyed, rather silent young person, with a pale face of some beauty, and with much purity and intellect-was strange enough to match. She also had earned her own living, as a private secretary or type-writing girl, or something of the sort, and her husband had deliberately chosen her after he had come into his title. One might study her very closely, however, and catch no hint that these facts in any degree disconcerted her.

Thorpe studied her a good deal, in a furtive way, with a curiosity born of his knowledge that the Duke had preferred her, when he might have married his widowed cousin, who was now Thorpe's own wife. How he had come to know this, he could never have told. He had breathed it in, somehow, with the gossip-laden atmosphere of that one London season of his. It was patent enough, too, that his wife-his Edith-had not only liked this ducal youngster very much, but still entertained toward him a considerable affection. She had never dissembled this feeling, and it visibly informed her glance and manner now, at her own table, when she turned to speak with him, where he sat at her right hand. Thorpe had never dreamed of thinking ill of his wife's friendship, even when her indifference to what he thought had been most taken for granted. Now that this was all changed, and the amazing new glory of a lover had enveloped him, he had a distinct delight in watching the myriad charming phases of her kind manner, half-sisterly, half-motherly, toward the grave-faced young man. It was all a part of the delicious change which these past few days had wrought in her, this warm and supple softness of mien, of eye and smile and voice.

But how the Duke, if really he had had a chance to marry Edith, could have taken the type-writer instead, baffled speculation. Thorpe gave more attention to this problem, during dinner, than he did to the conversation of the table. His exchange of sporadic remarks with the young Duchess beside him was indeed an openly perfunctory affair, which left him abundant leisure to contemplate her profile in silence, while she turned to listen to the general talk, of which Miss Madden and the Hon. Winifred Plowden bore the chief burden. The talk of these ladies interested him but indifferently, though the frequent laughter suggested that it was amusing. He looked from his wife to the Duchess and back again, in ever-recurring surprise that the coronet had been carried past Edith. And once he looked a long time at his wife and the Duke, and formulated the theory that she must have refused him. No doubt that was why she had been sympathetically fond of him ever since, and was being so nice to him now. Yes-clearly that was it. He felt upon this that he also liked the Duke very much.

It was by no means so apparent that the Duke liked him. Both he and his Duchess, indeed, were scrupulously and even deferentially polite, but there was a painstaking effect about it, which, seemingly, they lacked the art altogether to conceal. It seemed to Thorpe that the other guests unconsciously took their cue from this august couple, and all exposed somewhat the effort their civility to him involved. At another time the suspicion of this would have stung him. He had only to glance across the table to where his wife sat now, and it was all right. What other people thought of him-how other people liked or disliked him-was of no earthly importance. Whenever he chose to exert himself, he could compel from them the behaviour that he desired. It was their dull inability to read character which prompted them to regard him as merely a rich outsider who had married Edith Cressage. He viewed with a comfortable tolerance this infirmity of theirs. When the time came, if he wanted to do so, he could awaken them to their delusion as by forked lightning and the burst of thunder.

The whim came to him, and expanded swiftly into a determination, to contrive some intimate talk forthwith with the Duke. The young man seemed both clever and sensible, and in a way impressionable as well. Thorpe thought that he would probably have some interesting things to say, but still more he thought of him as a likely listener. It would be the easier to detach him from the company, since the occasion was one of studied informality. The Duke did not go about in society, in the ordinary sense of the word, and he would not have come to High Thorpe to meet a large party. He was here as a kinsman and friend of his hostess for a quiet week; and the few other guests fitted readily enough into the picture of a family gathering. The spirit of domesticity had indeed so obviously descended upon the little group in the drawing-room, an hour or so after dinner, that Thorpe felt it quite the natural thing to put his arm through that of the Duke and lead him off to his personal smoking-room. He even published his intention by audibly bidding the Hon. Balder Plowden to remain with the ladies.

When the two had seated themselves in soft, low easy-chairs, and the host had noted with pleasure that his guest had no effeminate qualms in the matter of large rich cigars, a brief silence ensued.

"I am very anxious to get your views on a certain subject," Thorpe was inspired to begin, bluntly pushing preliminaries aside. "If a man of fortune wishes to do genuine good with his money, here in England, how should he best go about it?"

The Duke looked up at his questioner, with a sudden flash of surprise on his dark, mobile face. He hesitated a moment, and smiled a little. "You ask of me the sum of human wisdom," he said. "It is the hardest of all problems; no one solves it."

Thorpe nodded his big head comprehendingly. "That's all the more reason why it ought to be solved," he declared, with slow emphasis.

The other expressed by look and tone an augmented consciousness of the unexpected. "I did not know," he remarked cautiously, "that this was a matter in which you were specially concerned. It pleases me very much to hear it. Even if the solution does not come, it is well to have as many as possible turning the problem over in their minds."

"Oh, but I'm going to solve it!" Thorpe told him, with round confidence.

The Duke pulled contemplatively at his cigar for a little. "Do not think me a cynic," he began at last. "You are a man of affairs; you have made your own way; you should be even more free from illusions than I am. If you tell me that these good things can be done, I am the last one to dispute you. But I have seen near at hand experiments of exceptional importance, on a very grand scale, and the result does not encourage me. I come to doubt indeed if money has any such power in these affairs as we think it has-for that matter, if it has any power at all. The shifting of money can always disorganize what is going on at the moment-change it about and alter it in many ways-but its effect is only temporary. As soon as the pressure is released, the human atoms rearrange themselves as they were before, and the old conditions return. I think the only force which really makes any permanent difference is character-and yet about even that I am not sure. The best man I have ever known-and in many respects the ablest-devoted untold energy and labour, and much money, too, to the service of a few thousand people in Somerset, on land of his own, upon a theory wonderfully elaborated and worked out. Perhaps you have heard of Emanuel Torr and his colony, his System?"

Thorpe shook his head.

"He had worked tremendously for years at it. He fell ill and went away-and in a day all the results of his labours and outlay were flat on the ground. The property is mine now, and it is farmed and managed again in the ordinary way, and really the people there seem already to have forgotten that they had a prophet among them. The marvelous character of the man-you look in vain for any sign of an impress that it left upon them. I never go there. I cannot bear those people. I have sometimes the feeling that if it were feasible I should like to oppress them in some way-to hurt them."

"Oh! 'the people' are hogs, right enough," Thorpe commented genially, "but they ARE 'the people,' and they're the only tools we've got to work with to make the world go round."

"But if you leave the world alone," objected the Duke, "it goes round of itself. And if you don't leave it alone, it goes round just the same, without any reference whatever to your exertions. Some few men are always cleverer or noisier or more restless than the others, and their activity produces certain deviations and peculiarities in their generation. The record of these-generally a very faulty and foolish record-we call history. We say of these movements in the past that some of them were good and some were bad. Our sons very likely will differ totally from us about which were good and which were bad; quite possibly, in turn, their sons may agree with us. I do not see that it matters. We cannot treat anything as final-except that the world goes round. We appear out of the darkness at one edge of it; we are carried across and pitched off into the darkness at the other edge of it. We are certain about nothing else."

"Except that some of us have to pay for our ride, and others don't," put in Thorpe. The tone in which he spoke made his meaning so clear that his Grace sat up.

"Ah, you think we do not pay?" he queried, his countenance brightening with the animation of debate. "My dear sir, we pay more than anyone else. Our fares are graduated, just as our death-duties are. No doubt there are some idle and stupid, thick-skinned rich fellows, who escape the ticket-collector. But for each of them there are a thousand idle poor fellows who do the same. You, for example, are a man of large wealth. I, for my sins, carry upon my back the burden of a prodigious fortune. Could we not go out now, and walk down the road to your nearest village, and find in the pub, there a dozen day-labourers happier than we are? Why-it is Saturday night. Then I will not say a dozen, but as many as the tap will hold. It is not the beer alone that makes them happy. Do not think

that. It is the ability to rest untroubled, the sense that till Monday they have no more responsibility than a tree-toad. Does the coming of Sunday make that difference to you or to me? When night comes, does it mean to us that we are to sleep off into oblivion all we have done that day, and begin life afresh next morning? No-o! We are the tired people; the load is never lifted from our backs. Ah, do we not pay indeed!"

"Oh-ho!" ejaculated Thorpe. He had been listening with growing astonishment to the other's confession. He was still surprised as he spoke, but a note of satisfaction mounted into his voice as he went on. "You are unhappy, too! You are a young man, in excellent health; you have the wife you want; you understand good tobacco; you have a son. That is a great deal-but my God! think what else you've got. You're the Duke of Glastonbury-one of the oldest titles in England. You're one of the richest men in the country-the richest in the old peerage, at any rate, I'm told. And YOU'RE not happy!"

The other smiled. "Ah, the terms and forms survive," he said, with a kind of pedagogic affability, "after the substance has disappeared. The nobleman, the prince, was a great person in the times when he monopolized wealth. It enabled him to monopolize almost everything else that was pleasant or superb. He had the arts and the books and the musicians and the silks and velvets, and the bath-tubs-everything that made existence gorgeous-all to himself. He had war to amuse himself with, and the seven deadly sins. The barriers are down now. Everything which used to be exclusively the nobleman's is now within everybody's reach, including the sins. And it is not only that others have levelled up to him; they have levelled him down. He cannot dress now more expensively than other people. Gambling used to be recognized as one of his normal relaxations, but now, the higher his rank, the more sharply he is scolded for it. Naturally he does not know what to do with himself. As an institution, he descends from a period when the only imaginable use for wealth was to be magnificent with it. But now in this business age, where the recognized use of wealth is to make more wealth, he is so much out of place that he has even forgotten how to be magnificent. There are some illustrated articles in one of the magazines, giving photographs of the great historic country-houses of England. You should see the pictures of the interiors. The furniture and decorations are precisely what a Brixton dressmaker would buy, if she suddenly came into some money."

"All the same," Thorpe stuck to his point, "you are not happy."

The Duke frowned faintly, as if at the other's persistency. Then he shrugged his shoulders and answered in a lighter tone. "It hardly amounts to that, I think. I confess that there are alleviations to my lot. In the opinion of the world I am one of its most fortunate citizens-and it is not for me to say that the world is altogether wrong. The chief point is-I don't know if you will quite follow me-there are limits to what position and fortune can give a man. And so easily they may deprive him of pleasures which poorer men enjoy! I may be wrong, but it seems impossible to me that any rich man who has acres of gardens and vineries and glass can get up the same affection for it all that the cottager will have for his little flower-plot, that he tends with his own hands. One seems outside the realities of life-a mere spectator at the show."

"Ah, but why not DO things?" Thorpe demanded of him. "Why merely stand, as you say, and look on?"

The other leant his head back again. "Pray what do you recommend?" he asked almost listlessly.

"Why-politics, for example."

The Duke nodded, with an air of according to the suggestion a certain respect. "Unhappily I am too much of a foreigner," he commented. "I know Englishmen and their affairs too imperfectly. Sometime-perhaps."

"And philanthropic work-you don't care about that," pursued the other.

"Oh-we go not so far as that," said his Grace, with a deprecatory wave of the hands. "My wife finds many interests in it, only she would not like to have you call it philanthropical. She is London-born, and it is a great pleasure to her to be of assistance to poorer young women in London, who have so little done for them by the community, and can do so little for themselves. I am much less skeptical about that particular work, I may tell you, than about philanthropy in general. In fact, I am quite clear that it is doing good. At least it is doing a kindness, and that is a pleasant occupation. We are really not so idle as one might think. We work at it a good deal, my wife and I."

"So am I London-born," Thorpe remarked, with a certain irrelevancy. After a moment's pause he turned a sharply enquiring glance upon his guest. "This thing that you're doing in London-does it give you any 'pull' there?" "Pull?" repeated the other helplessly.

"If there was something you wanted the people of London to do, would they do it for you because of what you've been doing for them-or for their girls?"

The Duke looked puzzled for a moment. "But it isn't conceivable that I should want London to do anything-unless it might be to consume its own smoke," he observed.

"Quite so!" said Thorpe, rising bulkily to his feet, but signifying by a gesture that his companion was to remain seated. He puffed at his cigar till its tip gleamed angrily through the smoke about him, and moved a few steps with his hands in his pockets. "That is what I wanted to get at. Now I'm London-born, I've got the town in my blood. The Thorpes have been booksellers there for generations. The old name is over the old shop still. I think I know what Londoners are like; I ought to. It's my belief that they don't want gifts. They'll take 'em, but it isn't what they want. They're a trading people-one of the oldest in the world. Commercial traditions, the merchant's pride-these are bred in their bones. They don't want something for nothing. They like an honest bargain-fair on both sides. 'You help me and I'll help you.' And it's the only way you can do anything worth doing."

"Well," said the Duke, passively.

Thorpe halted, and still with the cigar between his teeth, looked down at him.

"I can go into London, and study out the things that are to be done-that need to be done-and divide these into two parts, those that belong to private enterprise and those that ought to be done publicly. And I can say to Londoners-not in so many words, mind you, but in a way the sharper ones will understand: 'Here, you fellows. I'll begin doing out of my own pocket one set of these things, and you in turn must put yourselves at my back, and stand by me, and put me in a position where I can make the Government do this other set of things.' That will appeal to them. A poor man couldn't lead them any distance, because he could always be killed by the cry that he was filling his pockets. They will believe in a man whose ambition is to win an earldom and five thousand a year out of politics, but they will stone to death the man who merely tries to get a few hundreds a year out of it for his wife and children. And a man like you can't do anything in London, because they can't see that there's anything you want in return-and besides, in their hearts, they don't like your class. Don't forget it! This is the city that chopped off the king's head!"

"Ah, but this is also the city," retorted the other, with placid pleasure in his argument, "which decked itself in banners and ribbons to welcome back the son of that same king. And if you think of it, he was rather a quaint thing in sons, too."

"It was the women did that," Thorpe affirmed with readiness. "They get their own way once in a while, when the men are tired out, and they have their little spell of nonsense and monkey-shines, but it never lasts long. Charles II. doesn't matter at all-but take my word for it, his father matters a great deal. There was a Thorpe among the judges who voted to behead him. I am descended in a straight line from him."

His Grace shrugged his slight shoulders again. "It happens that my ancestors had extremely large facilities for doing unpleasant things, and, God knows, they did them-but I don't quite see what that goes to prove, now."

"No, you don't grasp the idea," said Thorpe, resignedly. After a moment's pause he took the cigar from his lips, and straightened himself "All the same," he declared roundly, "I am going to do the trick. London has been waiting for an organizer-a leader-for a hundred years. The right kind of a man, going the right way to work, can stand London on its head, as surely as I can burn this cigar. And I'm going to have a try at it."

"It is very interesting," remarked the Duke, with vagueness. "But-are the ladies waiting for us? And if so, aren't we keeping them up unconscionably?"

As if in comment upon his words, there was the sound of a faint rap at the door. Then it opened, and through the dense blue haze of the room they saw some shadowed forms softly indistinct save where the light from the ceiling outside shone down upon a group of coiffured heads. A noise of mingled coughing and laughter specifically completed the introduction.

"Oh, I'm-it's unendurable in there," spoke the voice of the hostess. "We WERE coming in to smoke with you," she called out through the cloud, "since you wouldn't stop with us."

"Come along!" answered Thorpe, cheerily. He strode to the end of the room and raised a window. From the same corner he turned on some added lights.

Under this more effective illumination, the lady of the house advanced, with Miss Madden and the Hon. Winifred close behind her. "Frank has gone to bed," she explained to the Duke, who had risen. Then she turned to her husband a bright-eyed glance: "You don't mind-our coming?" she asked.

"Mind!" he called out, with robust impressiveness. "Mind!" As if to complete the expression of his meaning, he threw his arm loosely about her, where she stood, and brought her to his side. They remained standing thus, before the fireplace, after the others were all seated.

"Mr. Thorpe has been outlining to me the most wonderful plans," said the Duke, looking from one face to another, with a reserved smile. "It seems that philanthropy fails unless it is combined with very advanced politics. It is a new idea to me-but he certainly states it with vigour. Do you understand it, Edith?"

"Oh, perfectly," replied the wife, smilingly. "I am his first convert. Behold in me the original disciple."

"The worst of that is," commented Thorpe, with radiant joviality, "she would subscribe to any other new doctrine of mine just as readily." He tightened the arm encircling her by a perceptible trifle. "Wouldn't you, sweetheart?" he demanded.

She seemed in nowise embarrassed by these overt endearments. There was indeed the dimmest suggestion in her face and voice of a responsive mood. "Really," she began, with a soft glance, half-deprecation, half-pride, bent upon the others, and with thoughtful deliberation,-"really the important thing is that he should pursue some object-have in view something that he is determined to master. Without that, he is not contented-not at his best. He should have been a soldier. He has a passion for battle in his blood. And now that he sees something he is eager to do-I am very glad. It makes it none the less acceptable that good is to come from it."

"I still maintain," said Miss Madden, interpolating her words through the task of lighting a cigarette, and contriving for them an effect of drollery which appealed to Thorpe most of all-"I shall always insist, just the same, that crime was his true vocation."

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