E-text prepared by MRK
E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
Andrew Tallente stepped out of the quaint little train on to the flower-bedecked platform of this Devonshire hamlet amongst the hills, to receive a surprise so immeasurable that for a moment he could do nothing but gaze silently at the tall, ungainly figure whose unpleasant smile betrayed the fact that this meeting was not altogether accidental so far as he was concerned.
"Miller!" he exclaimed, a little aimlessly.
"Why not?" was the almost challenging reply. "You are not the only great statesman who needs to step off the treadmill now and then."
There was a certain quiet contempt in Tallente's uplifted eyebrows. The contrast between the two men, momentarily isolated on the little platform, was striking and extreme. Tallente had the bearing, the voice and the manner which were his by heritage, education and natural culture. Miller, who was the son of a postman in a small Scotch town, an exhibitioner so far as regards his education, and a mimic where social gifts were concerned, had all the aggressive bumptiousness of the successful man who has wit enough to perceive his shortcomings. In his ill-chosen tourist clothes, untidy collar and badly arranged tie, he presented a contrast to his companion of which he seemed, in a way, bitterly conscious.
"You are staying near here?" Tallente enquired civilly.
"Over near Lynton. Dartrey has a cottage there. I came down yesterday."
"Surely you were in Hellesfield the day before yesterday?"
Miller smiled ill-naturedly.
"I was," he admitted, "and I flatter myself that I was able to make the speech which settled your chances in that direction."
Tallente permitted a slight note of scorn to creep into his tone.
"It was not your eloquence," he said, "or your arguments, which brought failure upon me. It was partly your lies and partly your tactics."
An unwholesome flush rose in the other's face.
"Lies?" he repeated, a little truculently.
Tallente looked him up and down. The station master was approaching now, the whistle had blown, their conversation was at an end.
"I said lies," Tallente observed, "most advisedly." The train was already on the move, and the departing passenger was compelled to step hurriedly into a carriage. Tallente, waited upon by the obsequious station master, strolled across the line to where his car was waiting. It was not until his arrival there that he realised that Miller had offered him no explanation as to his presence on the platform of this tiny wayside station.
"Did you notice the person with whom I was talking?" he asked the station master.
"A tall, thin gentleman in knickerbockers? Yes, sir," the man replied.
"Part of your description is correct," Tallente remarked drily. "Do you know what he was doing here?"
"Been down to your house, I believe, sir. He arrived by the early train this morning and asked the way to the Manor."
"To my house?" Tallente repeated incredulously.
"It was the Manor he asked for, sir," the station master assured his questioner. "Begging your pardon, sir, is it true that he was Miller, the Socialist M.P.?"
"True enough," was the brief reply. "What of it?"
The man coughed as he deposited the dispatch box which he had been carrying on the seat of the waiting car.
"They think a lot of him down in these parts, sir," he observed, a little apologetically.
Tallente made no answer to the station master's last speech and merely waved his hand a little mechanically as the car drove off. His mind was already busy with the problem suggested by Miller's appearance in these parts. For the first few minutes of his drive he was back again in the turmoil which he had left. Then with a little shrug of the shoulders he abandoned this new enigma. Its solution must be close at hand.
Arrived at the edge of the dusty, white strip of road along which he had travelled over the moors from the station, Tallente leaned forward and watched the unfolding panorama below with a little start of surprise. He had passed through acres of yellowing gorse, of purple heather and mossy turf, fragrant with the aromatic perfume of sun-baked herbiage. In the distance, the moorland reared itself into strange promontories, out-flung to the sea. On his right, a little farm, with its cluster of out-buildings, nestled in the bosom of the hills. On either side, the fields still stretched upward like patchwork to a clear sky, but below, down into the hollow, blotting out all that might lie beneath, was a curious sea of rolling white mist, soft and fleecy yet impenetrable. Tallente, who had seen very little of this newly chosen country home of his, had the feeling, as the car crept slowly downward, of one about to plunge into a new life, to penetrate into an unknown world. A man of extraordinarily sensitive perceptions, leading him often outside the political world in which he fought the battle of life, he was conscious of a curious and grim premonition as the car, crawling down the precipitous hillside, approached and was enveloped in the grey shroud. The world which a few moments before had seemed so wonderful, the sunlight, the distant view of the sea, the perfumes of flowers and shrubs, had all gone. The car was crawling along a rough and stony road, between hedges dripping with moisture and trees dimly seen like spectres. At last, about three-quarters of the way down to the sea, after an abrupt turn, they entered a winding avenue and emerged on to a terrace. The chauffeur, who had felt the strain of the drive, ran a little past the front door and pulled up in front of an uncurtained window. Tallente glanced in, dazzled a little at first by the unexpected lamplight. Then he understood the premonition which had sat shivering in his heart during the long descent.
The mist, which had hung like a spectral curtain over the little demesne of Martinhoe Manor, had almost entirely disappeared when, at a few minutes before eight, with all traces of his long journey obliterated, Andrew Tallente stepped out on to the stone-flagged terrace and looked out across the little bay below. The top of the red sandstone cliff opposite was still wreathed with mists, but the sunlight lay upon the tennis lawn, the flower gardens below, and the rocks almost covered by the full, swelling tide. Tall, and looking slimmer than ever in his plain dinner garb, there were some indications of an hour of strange and unexpected suffering in the tired face of the man who gazed out in somewhat dazed fashion at the little panorama which he had been looking forward so eagerly to seeing again. Throughout the long journey down from town, he had felt an unusual and almost boyish enthusiasm for his coming holiday. He had thought of his tennis racquet and fishing rods, wondered about his golf clubs and his guns. Even the unexpected encounter with Miller had done little more than leave an unpleasant taste in his mouth. And then, on his way down from "up over," as the natives called that little strip of moorland overhead, he had vanished into the mist and had come out into another world.
"Andrew! So you are out here? Why did you not come to my room? Surely your train was very punctual?"
Tallente remained for a moment tense and motionless. Then he turned around. The woman who stood upon the threshold of the house, framed with a little cascade of drooping roses, sought for his eyes almost hungrily. He realised how she must be feeling. A dormant vein of cynicism parted his lips as he held her fingers for a moment. His tone and his manner were quite natural.
"We were, I believe, unusually punctual," he admitted. "What an extraordinary mist! Up over there was no sign of it at all."
She shivered. Her eyes were still watching his face, seeking for an answer to her unasked question. Blue eyes they were, which had been beautiful in their day, a little hard and anxious now. She wore a white dress, simple with the simplicity of supreme and expensive art. A rope of pearls was her only ornament. Her hair was somewhat elaborately coiffured, there was a touch of rouge upon her cheeks, and the unscreened evening sunlight was scarcely kind to her rather wan features and carefully arranged complexion. She still had her claims to beauty, however. Tallente admitted that to himself as he stood there appraising her, with a strange and almost impersonal regard,—his wife of thirteen years. She was beautiful, notwithstanding the strained look of anxiety which at that moment disfigured her face, the lurking fear which made her voice sound artificial, the nervousness which every moment made fresh demands upon her self-restraint.
"It came up from the sea," she said. "One moment Tony and I were sitting out under the trees to keep away from the sun, and the next we were driven shivering indoors; It was just like running into a fog bank in the middle of the Atlantic on a hot summer's day."
"I found the difference in temperature amazing," he observed. "I, too, dropped from the sunshine into a strange chill."
She tried to get rid of the subject.
"So you lost your seat," she said. "I am very sorry. Tell me how it happened?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"The Democratic Party made up their mind, for some reason or other, that I shouldn't sit. The Labour Party generally were not thinking of running a candidate. I was to have been returned unopposed, in acknowledgment of my work on the Nationalisation Bill. The Democrats, however, ratted. They put up a man at the last moment, and—well, you know the result—I lost."
"I don't understand English politics," she confessed, "but I thought you were almost a Labour man yourself."
"I am practically," he replied. "I don't know, even now, what made them oppose me."
"What about the future?"
"My plans are not wholly made."
For the first time, an old and passionate ambition prevailed against the thrall of the moment.
"One of the papers this morning," she said eagerly, "suggested that you might be offered a peerage."
"I saw it," he acknowledged. "It was in the Sun. I was once unfortunate enough to be on the committee of a club which blackballed the editor."
Her mouth hardened a little.
"But you haven't forgotten your promise?"
"'Bargain' shall we call it?" he replied. "No, I have not forgotten."
"Tony says you could have a peerage whenever you liked."
"Then I suppose it must be so. Just at present I am not prepared to write 'finis' to my political career."
The butler announced dinner. Tallente offered his arm and they passed through the homely little hall into the dining room beyond. Stella came to a sudden standstill as they crossed the threshold.
"Why is the table laid for two only?" she demanded. "Mr. Palliser is here."
"I was obliged to send Tony away—on important business," Tallente intervened. "He left about an hour ago."
Once more the terror was upon her. The fingers which gripped her napkin trembled. Her eyes, filled with fierce enquiry, were fixed upon her husband's as he took his place in leisurely fashion and glanced at the menu.
"Obliged to send Tony away?" she repeated. "I don't understand. He told me that he had several days' work here with you."
"Something intervened," he murmured.
"Why didn't you wire?" she faltered, almost under her breath. "He couldn't have had any time to get ready."
Andrew Tallente looked at his wife across the bowl of floating flowers.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "I didn't think of that. But in any case I did not make up my mind until I arrived that it was necessary for him to go."
There was silence for a time, an unsatisfactory and in some respects an unnatural silence. Tallente trifled with his hors d'oeuvres and was inquisitive about the sauce with which his fish was flavoured. Stella sent away her plate untouched, but drank two glasses of champagne. The light came back to her eyes, she found courage again. After all, she was independent of this man, independent even of his name. She looked across the table at him appraisingly. He was still sufficiently good-looking, lithe of frame and muscular, with features well-cut although a little irregular in outline. Time, however, and anxious work were beginning to leave their marks. His hair was grey at the sides, there were deep lines in his face, he seemed to her fancy to have shrunken a little during the last few years. He had still the languid, high-bred voice which she had always admired so munch, the same coolness of manner and quiet dignity. He was a personable man, but after all he was a failure. His career, so far as she could judge it, was at an end. She was a fool to imagine, even for a moment, that her whole future lay in his keeping.
"Have you any plans?" she asked him presently. "Another constituency?"
He smiled a little wearily. For once he spoke quite naturally.
"The only plan I have formulated at present is to rest for a time," he admitted.
She drank another glass of champagne and felt almost confident. She told him the small events of the sparsely populated neighbourhood, spoke of the lack of water in the trout stream, the improvement in the golf links, the pheasants which a near-by landowner was turning down. They were comparative newcomers and had seen as yet little of their neighbours.
"I was told," she concluded, "that the great lady of the neighbourhood was to have called upon me this afternoon. I waited in but she didn't come."
"And who is that?" he enquired.
"Lady Jane Partington of Woolhanger—a daughter of the Duke of Barminster. Woolhanger was left to her by an old aunt, and they say that she never leaves the place."
"An elderly lady?" he asked, merely with an intent of prolonging a harmless subject of conversation.
"On the contrary, quite young," his wife replied. "She seems to be a sort of bachelor-spinster, who lives out in that lonely place without a chaperon and rules the neighborhood. You ought to make friends with her, Andrew. They say that she is half a Socialist.—By the by, how long are we going to stay down here?"
"We will discuss that presently," he answered.
The service of dinner came to its appointed end. Tallente drank one glass of port alone. Then he rose, left the room by the French windows, passed along the terrace and looked in at the drawing-room, where Stella was lingering over her coffee.
"Will you walk with me as far as the lookout?" he invited. "Your maid can bring you a cloak if you are likely to be cold."
She responded a little ungraciously, but appeared a few minutes later, a filmy shawl of lace covering her bare shoulders. She walked by his side to the end of the terrace, along the curving walk through the plantation, and by the sea wall to the flagged space where some seats and a table had been fixed. Four hundred feet below, the sea was beating against jagged rocks. The moon was late and it was almost dark. She leaned over and he stood by her side.
"Stella," he said, "you asked me at dinner when we were leaving here. You are leaving to-morrow morning by the twelve-thirty train."
"What do you mean?" she demanded, with a sudden sinking of the heart.
"Please do not ask," he replied. "You know and I know. It is not my wish to make public the story of our—disagreement."
She was silent for several moments, looking over into the black gulf below, watching the swirl of the sea, listening to its dull booming against the distant rocks, the shriek of the backward-dragged pebbles. An owl flew out from some secret place in the cliffs and wheeled across the bay. She drew her shawl around her with a little shiver.
"So this is the end," she answered.
"No doubt, in my way," he reflected, "I have been as great a disappointment to you as you to me. You brought me your great wealth, believing that I could use it towards securing just what you desired in the way of social position. Perhaps that might have come but for the war. Now I have become rather a failure."
"There was no necessity for you ever to have gone soldiering," she reminded him a little hardly.
"As you say," he acquiesced. "Still, I went and I do not regret it. I might even remind you that I met with some success."
"Pooh!" she scoffed. "What is the use of a few military distinctions? What are an M.C. and a D.S.O. and a few French and Belgian orders going to do for me? You know I want other things. They told me when I married you," she went on, warming with her own sense of injury, "that you were certain to be Prime Minister. They told me that the Coalition Party couldn't do without you, that you were the only effective link between them and Labour. You had only to play your cards properly and you could have pushed out Horlock whenever you liked. And now see what a mess you have made of things! You have built up Horlock's party for him, he offers you an insignificant post in the Cabinet, and you can't even win your seat in Parliament."
"Your epitome of my later political career has its weak points, but I dare say, from your point of view, you have every reason for complaint," he observed. "Since I have failed to procure for you the position you desire, our parting will have a perfectly natural appearance. Your fortune is unimpaired—you cannot say that I have been extravagant—and I assure you that I shall not regret my return to poverty."
"But you won't be able to live," she said bluntly. "You haven't any income at all."
"Believe me," he answered quietly, "you exaggerate my poverty. In any case, it is not your concern."
She paused. She was a woman of not very keen perceptions, but she realised that if she were to proceed with the offer which was half framed in her mind, the man by her side, with his, to her outlook, distorted sense of honour, would become her enemy. She shrugged her shoulders, and turning towards him, held out her hand.
"It is the end, then," she said. "Well, Andrew, I did my best according to my lights, and I failed. Will you shake hands?"
He shook his head.
"I cannot, Stella. Let us agree to part here. We know all there is to be known of one another, and we shall be able to say good-by without regret."
She drifted slowly away from him. He watched her figure pass in and out among the trees. She was unashamed, perhaps relieved,—probably, he reflected, as he watched her enter the house, already making her plans for a more successful future. He turned away and looked downwards. The darkness seemed, if possible, to have become a little more intense, the moaning of the sea more insistent. Little showers of white spray enlaced the sombre rocks. The owl came back from his mysterious journey, hovered for a moment over the cliff and entered his secret home. Behind him, the lights in the house went out, one by one. Suddenly he felt a grip upon his shoulder, a hot breath upon his cheek. It was Stella, returned dishevelled, her lace scarf streaming behind, her eyes lit with horror. "Andrew!" she cried. "It came over me—just as I entered the house! What have you done with Anthony?"
Tallente's first impressions of Jane Partington were that an exceedingly attractive but somewhat imperious young woman had surprised him in a most undignified position. She had come cantering down the drive on a horse which, by comparison with the Exmoor ponies which every one rode in those parts, had seemed gigantic, and, finding a difficulty in making her presence known, had motioned to him with her whip. He climbed down from the steps where he had been busy fastening up some roses, removed a nail from his mouth and came towards her.
"How is it that I can make no one hear?" she asked. "Do you know if Mrs. Tallente is at home?"
Tallente was in no hurry to reply. He was busy taking in a variety of pleasant impressions. Notwithstanding the severely cut riding habit and the hard little hat, he decided that he had never looked into a more attractively feminine face. For some occult reason, unconnected, he was sure, with the use of any skin food or face cream, this young woman who had the reputation of living out of doors, winter and summer, had a complexion which, notwithstanding its faint shade of tan, would have passed muster for delicacy and clearness in any Mayfair drawing-room. Her eyes were soft and brown, her hair a darker shade of the same colour. Her mouth, for all its firmness, was soft and pleasantly curved. Her tone, though a trifle imperative, was kindly, gracious and full of musical quality. Her figure was moderately slim, but indistinguishable at that moment under her long coat. She possessed a curious air of physical well-being, the well-being of a woman who has found and is enjoying what she seeks in life.
"Won't you tell me why I can make no one hear?" she repeated, still good-naturedly but frowning slightly at his silence.
"Mrs. Tallente is in London," he announced. "She has taken most of the establishment with her."
The visitor fumbled in her side pocket and produced a diminutive ivory case. She withdrew a card and handed it to Tallente, with a glance at his gloved hands.
"Will you give this to the butler?" she begged. "Tell him to tell his mistress that I was sorry not to find her at home."
"The butler," Tallente explained, "has gone for the milk. He shall have the card immediately on his return."
She looked at him for a moment and then smiled.
"Do forgive me," she said. "I believe you are Mr. Tallente?"
He drew off his gloves and shook hands.
"How did you guess that?" he asked.
"From the illustrated papers, of course," she answered. "I have come to the conclusion that you must be a very vain man, I have seen so many pictures of you lately."
"A matter of snapshots," he replied, "for which, as a rule, the victim is not responsible. You should abjure such a journalistic vice as picture papers."
"Why?" she laughed. "They lead to such pleasant surprises. I had been led to believe, for instance, by studying the Daily Mirror, that you were quite an elderly person with a squint."
"I am becoming self-conscious," he confessed. "Won't you come in? There is a boy somewhere about the premises who can look after your horse, and I shall be able to give you some tea as soon as Robert gets back with the milk."
He cooeed to the boy, who came up from one of the lower shelves of garden, and she followed him into the hall. He looked around him for a moment in some perplexity.
"I wonder whether you would mind coming into my study?" he suggested. "I am here quite alone for the present, and it is the only room I use."
She followed him down a long passage into a small apartment at the extreme end of the house.
"You are like me," she said. "I keep most of my rooms shut up and live in my den. A lonely person needs so much atmosphere."
"Rather a pigsty, isn't it?" he remarked, sweeping a heap of books from a chair. "I am without a secretary just now—in fact," he went on, with a little burst of confidence engendered by her friendly attitude, "we are in a mess altogether."
She laughed softly, leaning back amongst the cushions of the chair and looking around the room, her kindly eyes filled with interest.
"It is a most characteristic mess," she declared. "I am sure an interviewer would give anything for this glimpse into your tastes and habits. Golf clubs, all cleaned up and ready for action; trout rod, newly-waxed at the joints—you must try my stream, there is no water in yours; tennis racquets in a very excellent press—I wonder whether you're too good for a single with me some day? Typewriter—rather dusty. I don't believe that you can use it."
"I can't," he admitted. "I have been writing my letters by hand for the last two days."
"Men are helpless creatures! Fancy a great politician unable to write his own letters! What has become of your secretary?"
Tallente threw some books to the floor and seated himself in the vacant easy-chair.
"I shall begin to think," he said, a little querulously, "that you don't read the newspapers. My secretary, according to that portion of the Press which guarantees to provide full value for the smallest copper coin, has 'disappeared'."
"Really?" she exclaimed. "He or she?"
"He—the Honourable Anthony Palliser by name, son of Stobart Palliser, who was at Eton with me."
"I expect I know his mother. What exactly do you mean by 'disappeared'?"
Tallente was looking out of the window. A slight hardness had crept into his tone and manner. He had the air of one reciting a story.
"The young man and I differed last Tuesday night," he said. "In the language of the novelists, he walked out into the night and disappeared. Only an hour before dinner, too. Nothing has been heard of him since."
"What a fatuous thing to do!" she remarked. "Shall you have to get another secretary?"
"Presently," he assented. "Just for the moment I am rather enjoying doing nothing."
She leaned back amongst the cushions of her chair and looked across at him with interest, an interest which presently drifted into sympathy. Even the lightness of his tone could not mask the inwritten weariness of the man, the tired droop of the mouth, and the lacklustre eyes.
"Do you know," she said, "I have never been more intrigued than when I heard you were really coming down here. Last summer I was in Scotland—in fact I have been away every time the Manor has been open. I am so anxious to know whether you like this part of the world."
"I like it so much," he replied, "that I feel like settling here for the rest of my life."
She shook her head.
"You will never be able to do that," she said, "at least not for many years. The country will need so much of your time. But it is delightful to think that you may come here for your holidays."
"If you read the newspapers," he remarked, a little grimly, "you might not be so sure that the country is clamouring for my services."
She waved away his speech with a little gesture of contempt.
"Rubbish! Your defeat at Hellesfield was a matter of political jobbery. Any one could see through that. Horlock ought never to have sent you there. He ought to have found you a perfectly safe seat, and of course he will have to do it."
He shook his head.
"I am not so sure. Horlock resents my defeat almost as though it were a personal matter. Besides, it is an age of young men, Lady Jane."
"Young men!" she scoffed. "But you are young."
"Am I?" he answered, a little sadly. "I am not feeling it just now. Besides, there is something wrong about my enthusiasms. They are becoming altogether too pastoral. I am rather thinking of taking up the cultivation of roses and of making a terraced garden down to the sea. Do you know anything about gardening, Lady Jane?"
"Of course I do," she answered, a little impatiently. "A very excellent hobby it is for women and dreamers and elderly men. There is plenty of time for you to take up such a pursuit when you have finished your work."
"Fifteen thousand intelligent voters have just done their best to tell me that it is already finished," he sighed.
She made a little grimace.
"Am I going to be disappointed in you, I wonder?" she asked. "I don't think so. You surely wouldn't let a little affair like one election drive you out of public life? It was so obvious that you were made the victim for Horlock's growing unpopularity in the country. Haven't you realised that yourself—or perhaps you don't care to talk about these things to an ignoramus such as I am?"
"Please don't believe that," he begged hastily. "I think yours is really the common-sense view of the matter. Only," he went on, "I have always represented, amongst the coalitionists, the moderate Socialist, the views of those men who recognise the power and force of the coming democracy, and desire to have legislation attuned to it. Yet it was the Democratic vote which upset me at Hellesfield."
"That was entirely a matter of faction," she persisted. "That horrible person Miller was sent down there, for some reason or other, to make trouble. I believe if the election had been delayed another week, and you had been able to make two more speeches like you did at the Corn Exchange, you would have got in."
He looked at her in some surprise.
"That is exactly what I thought myself," he agreed. "How on earth do you come to know all these things?"
"I take an interest in your career," she said, smiling at him, "and I hate to see you so dejected without cause."
He felt a little thrill at her words. A queer new sense of companionship stirred in his pulses. The bitterness of his suppressed disappointment was suddenly soothed. There was something of the excitement of the discoverer, too, in these new sensations. It seemed to him that he was finding something which had been choked out of his life and which was yet a real and natural part of it.
"You will make an awful nuisance of me if you don't mind," he warned her. "If you encourage me like this, you will develop the most juvenile of all failings—you will make me want to talk about myself. I am beginning to feel terribly egotistical already."
She leaned a little towards him. Her mouth was soft with sweet and feminine tenderness, her eyes warm with kindness.
"That is just what I hoped I might succeed in doing," she declared. "I have been interested in your career ever since I had the faintest idea of what politics meant. You could not give me a greater happiness than to talk to me—about yourself."
Very soon tea was brought in. The homely service of the meal, and Robert's plain clothes, seemed to demand some sort of explanation. It was she who provided the opening.
"Will your wife be long away?" she enquired.
Tallente looked at his guest thoughtfully. She was pouring out tea from an ordinary brown earthenware pot with an air of complete absorption in her task. The friendliness of her seemed somehow to warm the atmosphere of the room, even as her sympathy had stolen into the frozen places of his life. For the moment he ignored her question. His eyes appraised her critically, reminiscently. There was something vaguely familiar in the frank sweetness of her tone and manner.
"I am going to make the most idiotically commonplace remark," he said. "I cannot believe that this is the first time we have met."
"It isn't," she replied, helping herself to strawberry
"Are you in earnest?" he asked, puzzled.
"Do you mean that I have spoken to you?"
"Not only that but you have made me a present."
He searched the recesses of his memory in vain. She smiled at his perplexity and began to count on her fingers.
"Let me see," she said, "exactly fourteen years ago you arrived in Paris from London on a confidential mission to a certain person."
"To Lord Peters!" he exclaimed.
"You had half an hour to spare after you had finished your business, and you begged to see the young people. Maggie Peters was always a friend of yours. You came into the morning-room and I was there."
"Yes! I was at school in Paris, and I was spending my half-holiday with Maggie."
"The little brown girl!" he murmured. "I never heard your name, and when I sent the chocolates I had to send them to 'the young lady in brown.' Of course I remember! But your hair was down your back, you had freckles, and you were as silent as a mouse."
"You see how much better my memory is than yours," she laughed.
"I am not so sure," he objected. "You took me for the gardener just now."
"Not when you came down the steps," she protested, "and besides, it is your own fault for wearing such atrociously old clothes."
"They shall be given away to-morrow," he promised.
"I should think so," she replied. "And you might part with the battered straw hat you were wearing, at the same time."
"It shall be done," he promised meekly.
She became reminiscent.
"We were all so interested in you in those days. Lord Peters told us, after you were gone, that some day you would be Prime Minister."
"I am afraid," he sighed, "that I have disappointed most of my friends."
"You have disappointed no one," she assured him firmly. "You will disappoint no one. You are the one person in politics who has kept a steadfast course, and if you have lost ground a little in the country, and slipped out of people's political appreciation during the last decade, don't we all know why? Every one of your friends—and your wife, of course," she put in hastily, "must be proud that you have lost ground. There isn't another man in the country who gave up a great political career to learn his drill in a cadet corps, who actually served in the trenches through the most terrible battles of the war, and came out of it a Brigadier-General with all your distinctions."
He felt his heart suddenly swell. No one had ever spoken to him like this. The newspapers had been complimentary for a day and had accepted the verdict of circumstances the next. His wife had simply been the reflex of other people's opinion and the trend of events.
"You make me feel," he told her earnestly, "almost for the first time, that after all it was worth while."
The slight unsteadiness of his tone at first surprised, then brought her almost to the point of confusion. Their eyes met—a startled glance on her part, merely to assure herself that he was in earnest—and afterwards there was a moment's embarrassment. She accepted a cigarette and went back to her easy-chair.
"You did not answer the question I asked you a few minutes ago," she reminded him. "When is your wife returning?"
The shadow was back on his face.
"Lady Jane," he said, "if it were not that we are old friends, dating from that box of chocolates, remember, I might have felt that I must make you some sort of a formal reply. But as it is, I shall tell you the truth. My wife is not coming hack."
"Not at all?" she exclaimed.
"To me, never," he answered. "We have separated."
"I am so very sorry," she said, after a moment's startled silence. "I am afraid that I asked a tactless question, but how could I know?"
"There was nothing tactless about it," he assured her. "It makes it much easier for me to tell you. I married my wife thirteen years ago because I believed that her wealth would help me in my career. She married me because she was an American with ambitions, anxious to find a definite place in English society. She has been disappointed in me. Other circumstances have now presented themselves. I have discovered that my wife's affections are bestowed elsewhere. To be perfectly honest, the discovery was a relief to me."
"So that is why you are living down here like this?" she murmured.
"Precisely! The one thing for which I am grateful," he went on, "is that I always refused to let my wife take a big country house. I insisted upon an unpretentious place for the times when I could rest. I think that I shall settle down here altogether. I can just afford to live here if I shoot plenty of rabbits, and if Robert's rheumatism is not too bad for him to look after the vegetable garden."
"Of course you are talking nonsense," she pronounced, a little curtly.
"You must go back to your work," she insisted.
"Keep this place for your holiday moments, certainly, but for the rest, to talk of settling down here is simply wicked."
"What is my work?" he asked. "I tell you frankly that I do not know where I belong. A very intelligent constituency, stuffed up to the throat with schoolboard education, has determined that it would prefer a representative who has changed his politics already four times. I seem to be nobody's man. Horlock at heart is frightened of me, because he is convinced that I am not sound, and he has only tried to make use of me as a sop to democracy. The Whigs hate me like poison, hate me even worse than Horlock. If I were in Parliament, I should not know which Party to support. I think I shall devote my time to roses."
"And between September and May?"
"I shall hibernate and think about them."
"Of course," she said, with the air of one humoring a child, "you are not in earnest. You have just been through a very painful experience and you are suffering from it. As for the rest, you are talking nonsense."
"Explain, please," he begged.
"You said just now that you did not know where your place was," she continued. "You called yourself nobody's man. Why, the most ignorant person who thinks about things could tell you where you belong. Even I could tell you."
"Please do," he invited.
She rose to her feet.
"Walk round the garden with me," she begged, brushing the cigarette ash from her skirt. "You know what a terrible out-of-door person I am. This room seems to me close. I want to smell the sea from one of those wonderful lookouts of yours."
He walked with her along one of the lower paths, deliberately avoiding the upper lookouts. They came presently to a grass-grown pier. She stood at the end, her firm, capable fingers clenching the stone wall, her eyes looking seaward.
"I will tell you where you belong," she said. "In your heart you must know it, but you are suffering from that reaction which comes from failure to those people who are not used to failure. You belong to the head of things. You should hold up your right, hand, and the party you should lead should form itself about you. No, don't interrupt me," she went on. "You and all of us know that the country is in a bad way. She is feeling all the evils of a too-great prosperity, thrust upon her after a period of suffering. You can see the dangers ahead—I learnt them first from you in the pages of the reviews, when after the war you foretold the exact position in which we find ourselves to-day. Industrial wealth means the building up of a new democracy. The democracy already exists but it is unrepresented, because those people who should form its bulwark and its strength are attached to various factions of what is called the Labour Party. They don't know themselves yet. No Rienzi has arisen to hold up the looking-glass. If some one does not teach them to find themselves, there will be trouble. Mind, I am only repeating what you have told others."
"It is all true," he agreed.
"Then can't you see," she continued eagerly, "what party it is to which you ought to attach yourself—the party which has broken up now into half a dozen factions? They are all misnamed but that is no matter. You should stand for Parliament as a Labour or a Socialist candidate, because you understand what the people want and what they ought to have. You should draw up a new and final programme."
"You are a wonderful person," he said with conviction, "but like all people who are clear-sighted and who have imagination, you are also a theorist. I believe your idea is the true one, but to stand for Parliament as a Labour member you have to belong to one of the acknowledged factions to be sure of any support at all. An independent member can count his votes by the capful."
"That is the old system," she pointed out firmly. "It is for you to introduce a new one. If necessary, you must stoop to political cunning. You should make use of those very factions until you are strong enough to stand by yourself. Through their enmity amongst themselves, one of them would come to your side, anyway. But I should like to see you discard all old parliamentary methods. I should like to see you speak to the heart of the man who is going to record his vote."
"It is a slow matter to win votes in units," he reminded her.
"But it is the real way," she insisted. "Voting by party and government by party will soon come to an end. It must. All that it needs is a strong man with a definite programme of his own, to attack the whole principle."
He looked away from the sea towards the woman by his side. The wind was blowing in her face, blowing back little strands of her tightly coiled hair, blowing back her coat and skirt, outlining her figure with soft and graceful distinction. She was young, healthy and splendid, full of all the enthusiasm of her age. He sighed a little bitterly.
"All that you say," he reminded her, "should have been said to me by the little brown girl in Paris, years ago. I am too old now for great tasks."
She turned towards him with the pitying yet pleasant air of one who would correct a child.
"You are forty-nine years old and three months," she said.
"How on earth did you know that?" he demanded.
"A valuable little red book called 'Who's Who.' You see, it is no use your trying to pose as a Methuselah. For a politician you are a young man. You have time and strength for the greatest of all tasks. Find some other excuse, sir, if you talk of laying down the sword and picking up the shuttle."
He looked back seawards. His eyes were following the flight of a seagull, wheeling in the sunlight.
"I suppose you are right," he acknowledged. "No man is too old for work."
"I beg your pardon, sir."
They turned abruptly around. They had been so engrossed that they had not noticed the sound of footsteps. Robert, a little out of breath, was standing at attention. There was a disturbed look in his face, a tremor in his voice.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he repeated, "there is—some one here to see you."
"Some one?" Tallente repeated impatiently.
Robert leaned a little forward. The effort at lowering his voice only made his hoarse whisper sound more agitated.
"A police inspector, sir, from Barnstaple, is waiting in the study."
Mr Inspector Gillian of Barnstaple had no idea of denying his profession. He had travelled over in a specially hired motor-car, and he was wearing his best uniform. He rose to his feet at Tallente's entrance and saluted a little ponderously.
"Mr. Andrew Tallente, sir?" he enquired.
Tallente silently admitted his identity, waved the inspector back to his seat—the one high-backed and uncomfortable chair in the room—and took an easy-chair himself.
"I have come over, sir," the man continued, "according to instructions received by telephone from Scotland Yard. My business is to ask you a few questions concerning the disappearance of the Honourable Anthony Palliser, who was, I am given to understand, your secretary."
"Dear me!" Tallente exclaimed. "I had no idea that the young man's temporary absence from polite society would be turned into a melodramatic disappearance."
The inspector took mental note of the levity in Tallente's tone, and disapproved.
"The Honourable Anthony Palliser disappeared from here, sir, on Tuesday night last, the night of your return from London," he said. "I have come to ask you certain questions with reference to that disappearance."
"Go ahead," Tallente begged. "Care to smoke a cigar?"
"Not whilst on duty, thank you, sir," was the dignified reply.
"You will forgive my cigarette," Tallente observed, lighting one. "Now you can go ahead as fast as you like."
"Question number one is this, sir. I wish to know whether Mr. Palliser's abrupt departure from the Manor was due to any disagreement with you?"
"In a sense I suppose it was," the other acknowledged. "I turned him out of the house."
The inspector did not attempt to conceal his gratification. He made a voluminous note in his pocketbook.
"Am I to conclude, then, that there was a quarrel?" he enquired.
"I do not quarrel with people to whom I pay a salary," Tallente replied.
"When you say that you turned him out of the house, that rather implies a quarrel, doesn't it? It might even imply—blows."
"You can put your own construction upon it," was the cool reply.
"Had you any idea where the honourable Anthony Palliser was going to?"
"I suggested the devil," Tallente confided blandly. "I expect he will get there some time. I put up with him because I knew his father, but he is not a young man to make a fuss about."
The inspector was a little staggered.
"I am to conclude, then," he said, "that you were dissatisfied with his work as your secretary?"
"Absolutely," was the firm reply. "You have no idea what a mess he was liable to make of things if he was left alone."
The inspector coughed.
"Mr. Tallente, sir," he said, "my instructions are to ask you to disclose the nature of your displeasure, if any, with the Honourable Mr. Anthony Palliser. In plain words, Scotland Yard desires to know why he was turned away from his place at a moment's notice."
"I suppose it is the duty of Scotland Yard to be inquisitive in cases of this sort," Tallente observed. "You can report to them the whole of the valuable information with which I have already furnished you, and you can add that I absolutely refuse to give any information respecting the—er—difference of opinion between the young man and myself."
The inspector did not conceal his dissatisfaction.
"I shall ask, you, sir," he said with dignity, "to reconsider that decision. Remember that it is the police who ask, and in cases of this sort they have special privileges."
"As soon as any criminal case arises from Anthony Palliser's disappearance," Tallente pointed out, "you will be in a position to ask me questions from a different standpoint. For the present I have given you just as much information as I feel inclined to. Shall we leave it at that?"
The inspector appeared to have become hard of hearing. He did not attempt to rise from his chair.
"Being your private secretary, sir," he said, "the Honourable Anthony Palliser would no doubt have access to your private papers?"
"Naturally," Tallente conceded.
"There might be amongst them papers of importance, papers whose possession by parties in the other camp of politics—"
"Stop!" Tallente interrupted. "Inspector Gillan, you are an astute man. Excuse me."
He crossed the room and, with a key which he took from a chain attached to his trouser button, opened a small but powerful safe fitted into the wall. He opened it confidently enough, gazed inside and remained for a moment transfixed. Then he took up a few little packets of papers, glanced them through and replaced them. He still stood there, dangling the key in his hard. The inspector watched him curiously.
"Anything missing, sir?" he asked.
Tallente swung the door to and came back to his chair.
"Yes!" he admitted.
"Can I make a note of the nature of the loss, sir?" the man asked, moistening his pencil.
"A political paper of some personal consequence," Tallente replied. "Its absence disquiets me. It also confirms my belief that Palliser is lying doggo for a time."
"A hint as to the contents of the missing paper would be very acceptable, sir," Inspector Gillian begged.
Tallente shook his head.
"For the present," he decided, "I can only repeat what I said a few moments ago—I have given you just as much information as I feel inclined to."
The inspector rose to his feet.
"My report will not be wholly satisfactory to Scotland Yard, sir," he declared.
"My experience of the estimable body is that they take a lot of satisfying," Tallente replied. "Will you take anything before you go, Inspector?"
"Nothing whatever, thank you, sir. At the risk of annoying you, I am bound to ask this question. Will you tell me whether anything in the nature of blows passed between you and the Honourable Anthony Palliser, previous to his leaving your house?"
"I will not even satisfy your curiosity to that extent," Tallente answered.
"It will be my duty, sir," the inspector said ponderously, "to examine some of your servants."
"Scotland Yard can do that for themselves," Tallente observed. "My wife and the greater part of the domestic staff left here for London a week ago."
The representative of the law saluted solemnly.
"I am sorry that you have not felt inclined to treat me with more confidence in this matter, Mr. Tallente," he said.
He took his leave then. Tallente heard him conversing for some time with Robert and saw him in the garden, interviewing the small boy. Afterwards, he climbed into his car and drove away. Tallente opened his safe and once more let the little array of folded papers slip through his hands. Then he rang the bell for Robert, who presently appeared.
"The inspector has quite finished with you?" his master asked.
Robert was a portly man, a little unhealthy in colour and a little short of breath. He had been gassed in the war and his nerves were not what they had been. It was obvious, as he stood on the other side of the table, that he was trembling.
"Quite, sir. He was enquiring about Mr. Palliser."
His master nodded.
"I am afraid he will find it a little difficult to obtain any information round here," he remarked. "There are certain things connected with that young man which may throw a new light upon his disappearance."
"Indeed, sir?" Robert murmured.
Tallente glanced towards the safe.
"Robert," he confided, "I have been robbed."
The man started a little.
"Indeed, sir?" he replied. "Nothing very valuable, I hope?"
"I have been robbed of papers," Tallente said quietly, "which in the wrong hands might ruin me. Mr. Palliser had a key to that safe. Have you ever seen it open?"
"When did Mr. Palliser arrive here?"
"On the evening train of the Monday, sir, that you arrived by on the Tuesday."
"Tell me, did he receive any visitors at all on the Tuesday?"
"There was a man came over from a house near Lynton, sir, said his name was Miller."
"Have you any idea what he wanted?"
"No certain idea, sir," Robert replied doubtfully. "Now I come to think of it, though, it seemed as though he had come to make Mr. Palliser some sort of an offer. After I had let him out, he came back and said something to Mr. Palliser about three thousand pounds, and Mr. Palliser said he would let him know. I got the idea, somehow or other, that the transaction, whatever it might have been, was to be concluded on Tuesday night."
"Why didn't you tell me this before, Robert?" his master enquired.
"Other things drove it out of my mind, sir," the man confessed. "I didn't look upon it as of much consequence. I thought it was something to do with Mr. Palliser's private affairs."
Tallente glanced at the safe.
"I saw this man Miller at the station," he said, "when I arrived."
"That would be on his way back from here, sir," Robert acquiesced. "I gathered that he was coming back again after dinner in a car."
"Did you hear a car at all that night?"
"I rather fancied I did," the man asserted. "I didn't take particular notice, though."
"I am very much afraid, Robert," he said, "that wherever Mr. Palliser is, those papers are."
"Very good, sir," he said, in a low tone.
"Any speculations as to that young man's whereabouts," Tallente continued thoughtfully, "must necessarily be a matter of pure guesswork, but supposing, Robert, he should have wandered in that mist the wrong way—turned to the left, for instance, outside this window, instead of to the right—he might very easily have fallen over the cliff."
"The walk is very unsafe in the dark, sir," Robert acquiesced, looking down at the carpet.
"It was not my intention," Tallente remarked thoughtfully, "to kill the young man. A brawl in front of the windows was impossible, so I took him with me to the lookout. I suppose he was tactless and I lost my temper. I struck him on the chin and he went backwards, through that piece of rotten paling, you know, Robert—"
"I know, sir," the man interrupted, with a little moan. "Please don't!"
Tallente shrugged his shoulders.
"I took him at no disadvantage," he said coolly. "He knew how to use the gloves and he was twenty years younger than I. However, there it is. Backwards he went, all legs and arms and shrieks. And with him went the papers he had stolen.—At twelve o'clock to-night, Robert, I must go down after him."
"It's impossible, sir! It's a sheer precipice for four hundred feet!"
"Nothing of the sort," was the cool reply. "There are heaps of ledges and little clumps of pines and yews. All that you will have to do is to pull up the rope when I am ready. You can fasten it to a tree when I go down."
"It's not worth it, sir," the man protested anxiously. "No one will ever find the body down there."
"Send the boy home to stay with his parents to-night," Tallente continued. "Your wife, I suppose, can be trusted?"
"She is living up at the garage, sir," Robert answered. "Besides, she is deaf. I'll tell her that I am sleeping in the house to-night as you are not very well. And forgive me, sir—her ladyship left a message. She hoped you would lunch with her to-morrow."
Tallente strolled out again in a few minutes, curiously impatient of the restraint of walls, and clambered up the precipitous field at the back of the Manor. Far up the winding road which led back into the world, a motor-car was crawling on its way up over. He watched it through a pair of field glasses. Leaning back in the tonneau with folded arms, as though solemnly digesting a problem, was Inspector Gillian. Tallente closed the glasses with a little snap and smiled.
"The Bucket type," he murmured to himself, "very much the Bucket type."
The moon that night seemed to be indulging in strange vagaries, now dimly visible behind a mist of thin grey vapour, now wholly obscured behind jagged masses of black cloud, and occasionally shining brilliantly from a little patch of clear sky. Tallente waited for one of the latter moments before he finally tested the rope which was wound around the strongest of the young pine trees and stepped over the rustic wooden paling at the edge of the lookout He stood there balanced between earth and sky, until Robert, who watched him, shivered. "There is nothing to fear," his master said coolly. "Remember, I am an old hand at mountain climbing, Robert. All the same, if anything should happen, you'd better say that we fancied we heard a cry from down below and I went to see what it was. You understand?"
Tallente took a step into what seemed to be Eternity. The rope cut into his hands for the first three or four yards, as the red sand crumbled away beneath his feet, and he was obliged to grip for his life. Presently he gained a little ledge, from which a single yew tree was growing, and paused for breath.
"Are you all right, sir?" Robert called out from above.
"Quite," was the confident answer. "I shall be off again in a minute."
Tallente's head had been the wonder even of members of the Alpine Club, years ago in Switzerland. He found himself now in this strangest of all positions, absolutely steady and unmoved. Sheer below him, dark, rushing waves broke upon the rocks, sending showers of glittering spray upwards. Above, the little lookout with its rustic paling seemed almost more than directly overhead. The few stars and the fugitive moon seemed somehow set in a different sky. He felt a new kinship with a great gull who came floating by. He had become himself a creature of the wild places. Presently he began once more to let himself down, hand over hand, to where the next little clump of trees showed a chance of a precarious foothold. The rope chafed his fingers but he remained absolutely steady. Once he trusted for a moment to a yew tree, growing out of a fissure in the rock, which came out by the roots and went hurtling down into space. From overhead he heard Robert's terrified cry. The rope stood the strain of his sudden clutch, however, and all was well. A little lower down, holding on with one hand, he took his torch from his pocket and examined the surface of the cliff. Nothing apparently had been disturbed, nor was there any sign of any heavy body having been dashed through the undergrowth. Soon he went on again, and, working a little to the left, stood for a moment upon a green, turf-covered crag, a tiny plateau covered with the refuse of seagulls and a few stunted trees, from amongst which a startled hawk rose with a wild cry. He waited here until the moon shone once more and he could see the little strip of shingle below. Nowhere could he find any trace of the thing he sought.
At the end of half an hour's climbing, he reached the end of the rope. The little cove, filled with tumbled rocks and a narrow strip of beach, was still about eighty feet below. The slope here was far less precipitous and there was a foothold in many places amongst the thinly growing firs and dwarfed oaks. Calmly he let go the rope and commenced to scramble. More than once his foot slipped, but he was always in a position to save himself. The time came at last when he stood upon the pebbly beach, surprised to find that his knees were shaking and his breath coming fast. The little place was so enclosed that when he looked upwards it seemed as though he were at the bottom of a pit, as though the stars and the doubtful moon had receded and he was somehow in the bowels of the earth instead of being on the sea level. There were only a few feet of the shingle dry, and a great wave, breaking amongst the huge rocks, drenched him with spray. He proceeded with his task, however, searching methodically amongst the rocks, scanning the pebbly beach with his torch, always amazed that nowhere could he find the slightest trace of what he sought. Finally, drenched to the skin and utterly exhausted, he commenced once more the upward climb. He was an hour reaching the end of the rope. Then he blew the whistle and the rest was easy. Nevertheless, when the paling came into sight and he felt Robert's arms under his shoulders, he reeled over towards the seat and lay there, his clothes caked in red mud, the knees of his knickerbockers cut, blood on his hands and forehead, breathless. Robert forced brandy down his throat, however, and in a moment or two he was himself again.
"A miracle!" he gasped. "There is nothing there."
"There was something dark, I fancied, upon the strip of beach, sir," Robert ventured.
"I thought so too. It was a tarred plank of timber."
"Then the tide must have reached him."
Tallente rose to his feet and looked over.
"The sea alone knows," he said. "For the first time, though, Robert, I feel inclined to agree with the newspapers, who speak of the strange disappearance of the Honourable Antimony Palliser. Could any man go backwards over that palisading, do you think, and save his life?"
Robert shook his head.
"Miracles can't happen, sir," he muttered.
"Nevertheless," Tallente said, a little gloomily, "the sea never keeps what the land gives it. My fate will rest with the tides."
Robert suddenly gripped his master's arm. The moon had disappeared underneath a fragment of cloud and they stood in complete darkness. Both men listened. From one of the paths which led through the grounds from the beach, came the sound of muffled footsteps. A startled owl flew out and wheeled over their heads with a queer little cry.
"Who's that in the grounds, Robert?" Tallente demanded.
"I've no idea, sir," the latter replied, his voice shaking. "The cottage is empty. The boy went home—I saw him start off. There is no one else about the place."
Nevertheless, the footsteps came nearer. By and by, through the trees, came the occasional flash of an electric torch. Robert turned towards the house but Tallente gripped him by the arm.
"Stop here," he muttered. "We couldn't get away. Any one would hear our footsteps along this flinty path. Besides, there is the rope."
"It's someone else searching!" Robert whispered hoarsely.
The light grew nearer and nearer. A little way below, the path branched to the right and the left. To the left it encircled the tennis lawn and led to the Manor or back to the road. The path to the right led to the little lookout upon which the two men were standing. The footsteps for a moment hesitated. Then the light flashed out and approached. Whoever the intruder might be, he was making his way directly towards them. Tallente shrugged his shoulders.
"We must see this through, Robert," he said. "We were in a tighter corner at Ypres, remember. Keep as quiet as you can. Now, then."
Tallente flashed on his own torch.
"Who's there?" he asked sternly.
There was no answer. The torch for a moment remained stationary, then it began again to advance.
"What are you doing in my grounds?" Tallente demanded. "Who are you?"
A shape loomed into distinctness. A bulky man in dark clothes came into sight.
"I am Gillian—Inspector Gillian. What are you doing out here, Mr. Tallente?"
Tallente laughed a little scornfully.
"It seems to me that the boot is on the other leg," he said. "I should like to know what the mischief you mean by wandering around my grounds at this hour of the night without my permission?"
The inspector completed his climb and stood in the little circle of light. He took note of the rope and of Tallente's condition.
"My presence here, sir," the inspector announced, "is connected with the disappearance of the Honourable Anthony Palliser."
"Confidence for confidence," Tallente replied. "So is mine."
The inspector moved to the palisading. The top rail had been broken, as though it had given under the weight of some heavy body. He held up the loose fragment, glanced downwards into the dark gulf and back again to Tallente. "You've been over there," he said. "I have," Tallente admitted. "I've made a search that I don't fancy you'd have tackled yourself. I've been down the cliff to the beach."
"What reason had you for supposing that you might discover Mr. Palliser's body there?" the other asked bluntly.
Tallente sat on the stone seat and lit a cigarette.
"I will take you into my confidence, Mr. Inspector," he said. "This afternoon I strolled round here with a lady caller, just before you came, and I fancied that I heard a faint cry. I took no notice of it at the time, but to-night, after dinner, I wandered out here again, and again I fancied I heard it. It got on my nerves to such an extent that I fetched Robert here, a coil of rope, put on some shoes with spikes and tried to remember that I was an Alpine climber."
"You've been down to the beach and back, sir?" the inspector asked, looking over a little wonderingly.
"Every inch of the way. The last eighty feet or so I had to scramble."
"Did you discover anything, sir?"
"Not a thing. I couldn't even find a broken twig in any of the little clumps of outgrowing trees. There wasn't a sign of the sand having been disturbed anywhere down the face of the cliff, and I shouldn't think a human being had been on that beach during our lifetimes. I have had my night's work for nothing."
"It was just the cry you fancied you heard which made you undertake this expedition?"
The inspector held up the broken rail.
"When was this smashed?" he enquired.
"I have no idea," Tallente answered. "All the woodwork about the place is rotten."
"Doesn't it occur to you, sir, as being an extraordinarily dangerous thing to put it back in exactly the same position as though it were sound?"
"Iniquitous," Tallente agreed.
The inspector made a mental note. Tallente threw the remains of his cigarette into the sea. "I am going to bed now." he said. "Can I offer you any refreshment, Mr. Inspector, or are your investigations not yet complete?"
"I thank you, sir, but I require nothing. I have some men up in the wood there and I shall join them presently. I am staying in the neighborhood."
Tallente pointed to the rope.
"If you would care to search for yourself, Mr. Inspector, we'll help you down."
The man shook his head.
"Scarcely a job for a man of my build, sir. I have a professional climber coming to-morrow. I wish you had informed me of your intention to go down to-night."
"If you had informed me of your intention to remain in the neighborhood, that might have been possible," was the cool reply. The man took the loose wooden rail from its place and held it under his arm. "Walking off with a portion of my fence, eh?" Tallente asked.
The inspector made no direct reply. He turned his torch on to the broken end.
"A clue?" Tallente asked him lightly. The other turned away. "It is not my place, sir," he announced, "to share any discovery I might make with a person who has deliberately refused to assist the law."
"No one has convinced me yet," Tallente replied, "that Palliser's disappearance is a matter in which the law need concern itself." The inspector coughed. "I wish you good night, sir." He disappeared along the narrow path. They listened to his retreating footsteps. Tallente picked up his end of the rope. "I was right," he said, as he led the way back to the house. "Quite the Inspector Bucket type."
At noon the next day, Tallente, nervously as well as physically exhausted with the long climb from the Manor, turned aside from the straight, dusty road and seated himself upon a lichen-covered boulder. He threw his cap on the ground, filled and lighted an old briar pipe, and gazed with a queer mixture of feelings across the moorland to where Woolhanger spread itself, a queer medley of dwelling house and farm buildings, strangely situated at the far end of the table-land he was crossing, where the moor leaned down to a great hollow in the hills. The open stretch of common which lay between him and his destination had none of the charm of the surrounding country. It was like a dark spot set in the midst of the rolling splendours of the moorland proper. There were boulders of rock of unknown age, dark patches of peat land, where even in midsummer the mud oozed up at the lightest footfall, pools and sedgy places, the home and sometimes the breeding place of the melancholy snipe. Of colour there was singularly little. The heather bushes were stunted, their roots blackened as though with fire, and even the yellow of the gorse shone with a dimmer lustre. But in the distance, a flaming carpet of orange and purple stretched almost to the summit of the brown hills of kindlier soil, and farther round, westwards, richly cultivated fields, from which the labourers seemed to hang like insects in the air, rolled away almost to the clouds.
Tallente looked at them a little wearily, impressed with the allegorical significance of his position. It seemed to him that he was in the land to which he belonged, the barren land of desolation and failure. The triumphs of the past failed for a moment to thrill his pulses. The memory of his well-lived and successful life brought him not an atom of consolation. The present was all that mattered, and the present had brought him to the gates of failure.—After all, what did a man work for, he wondered? What was the end and aim of it all? Life at Martinhoe Manor, with a faithful but terrified manservant, bookshelves ready to afford him the phantasmal satisfaction of another man's thoughts, sea and winds, beauties of landscape and colour, to bring him to the threshold of an epicurean pleasure which needed yet that one pulsating link with humanity to yield the full meed of joy and content. It all came back to the old story of man's weakness, he thought, as he rose to his feet, his teeth almost savagely clenching his pipe. He had become a conqueror of circumstances only to become a victim of the primitive needs of life.
At about a quarter of a mile from the house, the road branched away to the left to disappear suddenly over the edge of a drop of many hundreds of feet. Tallente passed through a plain white gate, down an avenue of dwarfed oaks, to emerge into an unexpectedly green meadow, cloven through the middle with a straight white avenue. Through another gate he passed into a drive which led through flaming banks of rhododendrons, now a little past their full glory, to the front of the house, a long and amplified building which, by reason of many additions, had become an abode of some pretensions. A manservant answered his ring at once and led him into a cool, white stone hall, the walls of which were hung from floor to ceiling with hunting and sporting trophies.
"Her ladyship is still at the farm, sir," the man announced. "She said if you came before she returned would you care to step round?"
Tallente signified his assent and was led through the house, across a more extensive garden, from which a marvellous view of the valley and the climbing slopes behind held him spellbound, by the side of a small, quaintly shaped church, to a circular group of buildings of considerable extent. The man conducted him to the front of a white-plastered cottage covered with roses, and knocked at the door.
"This is her ladyship's office, sir," he announced.
Lady Jane's invitation to enter was clear and friendly. Tallente found her seated behind a desk, talking to a tall man in riding clothes, who swung around to eye the newcomer with a curiosity which seemed somehow not altogether friendly. Lady Jane held out her hand and smiled delightfully.
"Do come in, Mr. Tallente," she begged. "I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. Now you will believe, won't you, that I am not altogether an idler in life? This is my agent, Mr. Segerson—Mr. Tallente."
Lionel Segerson held out his hand. He was a tall, well-built young Devonian, sunburnt, with fair curly hair, a somewhat obstinate type of countenance, and dressed in the dandified fashion of the sporting farmer.
"Glad to know you, Mr. Tallente," he said, in a tone which lacked enthusiasm. "I hope you're going to stay down in these parts for a time?"
Tallente made only a monosyllabic reply, and Lady Jane, with a little gesture of apology, continued her conversation with Segerson.
"I should like you," she directed, "to see James Crockford for yourself. Try and explain my views to him—you know them quite well. I want him to own his land. You can tell him that within the last two years I have sold eleven farms to their tenants, and no one could say that I have not done so on easy terms. But I need further convincing that Crocker is in earnest about the matter, and that he will really work to make his farm a success. In five good years he has only saved a matter of four hundred pounds, although his rental has been almost insignificant. That is the worst showing of any of the tenants on the estate, and though if I had more confidence in him I would sell on a mortgage, I don't feel inclined to until he has shown that he can do better. Tell him that he can have the farm for two thousand pounds, but he must bring me eight hundred in cash and it must not be borrowed money. That ought to satisfy him. He must know quite well that I could get three thousand pounds for it in the open market."
"These fellows never take any notice of that," Segerson remarked. "Ungrateful beggars, all of them. I'll tell him what you say, Lady Jane."
"Anything else?" the young man asked, showing a disposition to linger.
"Nothing, thanks, until to-morrow morning." There was even then a slight unwillingness in his departure, which provoked a smile from Lady Jane as the door closed.
"The young men of to-day are terribly spoilt," she said. "He expected to be asked to lunch."
"I am glad he wasn't," Tallente observed.
"Why not? He is quite a nice young man."
"No doubt," Tallente agreed, without conviction. "However, I hate young men and I want to talk to you."
"Young men are tiresome sometimes," she agreed, rising from her chair.
"And older ones too, I am afraid!"
She closed her desk and he stood watching her. She was wearing an extraordinarily masculine garb—a covert-coating riding costume, with breeches and riding boots concealed under a long coat—but she contrived, somehow, to remain altogether feminine. She stood for a moment looking about her, as though wondering whether there were anything else to be done, a capable figure, attractive because of her earnest self-possession.
"Sarah," she called out.
The sound of a typewriter in an inner room ceased. The door was opened and a girl appeared on the threshold.
"You won't see me again to-day unless you send up for me," her mistress announced. "Let me have the letters to sign before five. Try and get away early, if you can. The car is going in to Lynton. Perhaps you would like the ride?"
"I should enjoy it very much, your ladyship," the girl replied gratefully. "There is really very little to do this afternoon."
"You can bring the letters whenever you like, then," Lady Jane told her, "and let Martin know that you are going in with him."
"You study your people, I see," Tallente remarked, as they strolled together back to the house.
"I try," she assented. "I try to do what I can in my little community here, very much as you, in a far greater way, try to study the people in your political programme. Of course," she went on, "it is far easier for me. The one thing I try to develop amongst them is a genuine, not a false spirit of independence. I want them to lean upon no one. I have no charities in connection with the estate, no soup kitchens or coal at Christmas, or anything of that sort. My theory is that every person is the better for being able to look after himself, and my idea of charity is placing him in a position to be able to do it. I don't want to be their Lady of the Manor and accept their rents and give them a dinner. I try to encourage them to save money and to buy their own farms. The man here who owns his own farm and makes it pay is in a position to lead a thoroughly self-respecting and honourable life. He ought to get what there is to be got out of life, and his children should be yeomen citizens of the best possible type. Of course, all this sort of thing is so much easier in the country. Very often, in the winter nights here, I waste my time trying to think out your greater problems."
"Problems," he observed, "which the good people of Hellesfield have just decided that I am not the man to solve."
"An election counts for nothing," she declared. "The merest whim will lead thousands of voters into the wrong polling booth. Besides, nearly all the papers admit that your defeat was owing to a political intrigue. The very men who should have supported you—who had promised to support you, in fact—went against you at the last moment. That was entirely due to Miller, wasn't it?"
"Miller has been my political bete noir for years," he confessed. "To me he represents the ignominious pacifist, whereas to him I represent the sabre-rattling jingo. I got the best of it while the war was on. To-day it seems to me that he has an undue share of influence in the country."
"Who are the men who really represent what you and I would understand as Labour?" she asked.
"That is too difficult a question to answer offhand," he replied. "Personally, I have come to the conclusion that Labour is unrepresentable—Labour as a cause. There are too many of the people yet who haven't vision."
They passed into the cool, geranium-scented hall. She pointed to an easy-chair by the side of which was set, on a small mahogany table, a silver cocktail shaker and two glasses.
"Please be as comfortable as you can," she begged, "for a quarter of an hour. If you like to wash, a touch of the bell there will bring Morton. I must change my clothes. I had to ride out to one of the outlying farms this morning, and we came back rather quickly."
She moved about the hall as she spoke, putting little things to rights. Then she passed up the circular staircase. At the bend she looked back and caught him watching her. She waved her hand with a little less than her usual frankness. Tallente had forgotten for a moment his whereabouts, his fatigue, his general weariness. He had turned around in his chair and was watching her. She found something in the very intensity of his gaze disturbing, vaguely analogous to certain half-formed thoughts of her own. She called out some light remark, scoffed at herself, and ran lightly out of sight, calling to her maid as she went.
Luncheon was served in a small room at the back of the house. Through the wide-flung French windows was a vista of terraced walks, the two sunken tennis lawns, a walled garden leading into an orchard, and beyond, the great wood-hung cleft in the hills, on either side of which the pastoral fields, like little squares, stretched away upwards. From here there was no trace of the more barren, unkinder side of the moorland. The succession of rich colours merged at last into the dim, pearly hue where sky and cloud met, in the golden haze of the August heat, a haze more like a sort of transparent filminess than anything which really obscured.
Lady Jane, whose gift of femininity had triumphed even over her farm clothes, seemed to Tallente to convey a curiously mingled impression of restfulness and delicate charm in her cool, white muslin dress, low at the neck, the Paquin-made garment of an Aphrodite. She talked to him with all the charm of an accomplished hostess, and yet with the occasional fascinating reserve of the woman who finds her companion something more than ordinarily sympathetic. The butler served them unattended from the sideboard, but before luncheon was half way through they dispensed with his services.
"I suppose it has occurred to you by this time, Mr. Tallente," she said, as she watched the coffee in a glass machine by her side, "that I am a very unconventional person."
"Whatever you are," he replied, "I am grateful for."
"Cryptic, but with quite a nice sort of sound about it," she observed, smiling. "Tell me honestly, though, aren't you surprised to find me living here quite alone?"
"It seems to me perfectly natural," he answered.
"I live without a chaperon," she went on, "because a chaperon called by that name would bore me terribly. As a matter of fact, though, there is generally some one staying here. I find it easy enough to persuade my friends and some of my relatives that a corner of Exmoor is not half a bad place in the spring and summer. It is through the winter that I am generally avoided."
"I have always had a fancy to spend a winter on Exmoor," he confided.
"It has its compensations," she agreed, "apart, of course, from the hunting."
He felt the desire to speak of more vital things. What did hunting or chaperons more or less matter to the Lady Janes of the world! Already he knew enough of her to be sure that she would have her way in any crisis that might arise. "How much of the year," he asked, "do you actually spend here?"
"As much as I can."
"You are content to be here alone, even in the winter?"
"More contented than I should be anywhere else," she assured him. "There is always plenty to do, useful work, too—things that count."
"Bores me terribly," she confessed.
She nodded more tolerantly.
"I have done a little of it," she said. "I should love to do more, but travel as travel is such an unsatisfying thing. If a place attracts you, you want to imbibe it. Travel leaves you no time to do anything but sniff. Life is so short. One must concentrate or one achieves nothing. I know what the general idea of a stay-at-home is," she went on. "Many of my friends consider me narrow. Perhaps I am. Anyhow, I prefer to lead a complete and, I believe, useful life here, to looking back in later years upon that hotchpotch of lurid sensations, tangled impressions and restless moments that most of them call life."
"You display an amazing amount of philosophy for your years," he ventured, after a little hesitation. "There is one instinct, however, which you seem to ignore."
"What is it, please?"
"Shall I call it the gregarious one, the desire for companionship of young people of your own age?"
She shrugged her shoulders. She had the air of one faintly amused by his diffidence.
"You mean that I ought to be husband hunting," she said. "I quite admit that a husband would be a very wonderful addition to life. I have none of the sentiments of the old maid. On the other hand, I am rather a fatalist. If any man is likely to come my way whom I should care to marry, he is just as likely to find me here as though I tramped the thoroughfares of the world, searching for him. At last!" she went on, in a changed tone, as she poured out his coffee. "I do hope you will find it good. The cigarettes are at your elbow. This is quite one of the moments of life, isn't it?"
He agreed with her emphatically.
"A counsel of perfection," he murmured, as he sniffed the delicate Turkish tobacco. "Tell me some more about yourself?"
She shook her head.
"I am much too selfish a person," she declared, "and nothing that I do or say or am amounts to very much. I want you to let me a little way into your life. Talk either about your soldiering or your politics. You have been a Cabinet Minister and you will be again. Tell me what it feels like to be one of the world's governors?"
"Let us finish talking about you first," he begged. "You spoke quite frankly of a husband. Tell me, have you made up your mind what manner of man he must be?"
"Not in the least. I am content to leave that entirely to fate."
"Bucolic? Intellectual? An artist? A man of affairs?"
She made a little grimace.
"How can I tell? I cannot conceive caring for an ordinary person, but then every woman feels like that. And, you see, if I did care, he wouldn't be ordinary—to me. And so far as I am concerned," she insisted, with a shade of restlessness in her manner, "that finishes the subject. You must please devote yourself to telling me at least some of the things I want to know. What is the use of having one of the world's successful men tete-a-tete, a prisoner to my hospitality, unless I can make him gratify my curiosity?"
The thought created by her words burned through his mind like a flash of destroying lightning.
"One of the world's successful men," he repeated. "Is that how I seem to you?"
"And to the world," she asserted.
He shook his head sadly.
"I have worked very hard," he said. "I have been very ambitious. A few of my ambitions have been gratified, but the glory of them has passed with attainment. Now I enter upon the last lap and I possess none of the things I started out in life to achieve."
"But how absurd!" she exclaimed. "You are one of our great politicians. You would have to be reckoned with in any regrouping of parties."
"Without even a seat in the House of Commons," he reminded her bitterly. "And again, how can a man be a great politician when there are no politics? The confusion amongst the parties has become chaos, and I for one have not been clear-sighted enough to see my way through."
"Of course, I know vaguely what you mean," she said, "but remember that I am only a newspaper-educated politician. Can't you be a little more explicit?"
He lit another cigarette and smoked restlessly for a moment.
"I'll try and explain, if I can," he went on. "To be a successful politician, from the standard which you or I would aim at, a man needs not only political insight, but he needs to be able to adopt his views to the practical programme of one of the existing parties, or else to be strong enough to form a party of his own. That is where I have come to the cul-de-sac in my career. It was my ambition to guide the working classes of the country into their rightful place in our social scheme, but I have also always been an intensely keen Imperialist, and therefore at daggers drawn with many of the so-called Labour leaders. The consequence has been that for ten years I have been hanging on to the thin edge of nothing, a member of the Coalition Government, a member by sufferance of a hotchpotch party which was created by the combination of the Radicals and the Unionists with the sole idea of seeing the country through its great crisis. All legislation, in the wider sense of the term, had to be shelved while the country was in danger and while it was recovering itself. That time I spent striving to educate the people I wanted to represent, striving to make them see reason, to combat the two elements in their outlook which have been their eternal drawback, the elements of blatant selfishness and greedy ignorance. Well, I failed. That is all there is about it—I failed. No party claims me. I haven't even a seat in the House of Commons. I am nearly fifty years old and I am tired."
"Nearly fifty years old!" she repeated. "But what is that? You have—health, you are strong and well, there is nothing a younger man can do that you cannot. Why do you worry about your age?"
"Perhaps," he admitted, with a faint smile, and an innate compulsion to tell her of the thought which had lurked behind, "because you are so marvelously young."
"Absurd!" she scoffed. "I am twenty-nine years old—practically thirty. That is to say, with the usual twenty years' allowance, you and I are of the same age."
He looked across at her, across the lace-draped table with its bowls of fruit, its richly-cut decanter of wine, its low bowl of roses, its haze of cigarette smoke. She was leaning back in her chair, her head resting upon the fingers of one hand. Her face seemed alive with so many emotions. She was so anxious to console, so interested in her companion, herself, and the moment. He felt something unexpected and irresistible.
"I would to God I could look at it like that!" he exclaimed suddenly.
The words had left his lips before he was conscious that the thought which had lain at the back of them had found expression in his tone and glance. Just at first they produced no other effect in her save that evidenced by the gently upraised eyebrows, the sweetly tolerant smile. And then a sudden cloud, scarcely of discomfiture, certainly not of displeasure, more of unrest, swept across her face. Her eyes no longer met his so clearly and frankly. There was a little mist there and a silence. She was looking away through the windows to the dim, pearly line of blue, the actual horizon of things present. Her pulses were scarcely steady. She was possessed to a full extent of the her qualities of courage, physical and spiritual, yet at that moment she felt a wave of curious fear, the fear of the idealist that she may not be true to herself.
The moment passed and she looked at him with a smile. An innate gift of concealment, the heritage of her sex, came to her rescue, but she felt, somehow or other, as though she had passed through one of the crises of her life—that she could never be quite the same again. She had ceased for those few seconds to be natural.
"What does that wish mean?" she asked. "Do you mean that you would like to agree with me, or would you like to be twenty-nine?"
He too turned his back upon that little pool of emotion, did his best to be natural and easy, to shut out the memory of that flaming moment.
"At twenty-nine," he told her, "I was First Secretary at St. Petersburg. I am afraid that I was rather a dull dog, too. All Russia, even then, was seething, and I was trying to understand. I never did. No one ever understood Russia. The explanation of all that has happened there is simply the eternal duplication of history—a huge class of people, physically omnipotent, conscious of wrongs, unintelligent, and led by false prophets. All revolutions are the same. The purging is too severe, so the good remains undone."
There followed a silence, purposeful on her port, scarcely realised by him. She sought for means of escape, to bring their conversation down to the level where alone safety lay. She moved her chair a little farther back into the scented chamber, as though she found the sunlight too dazzling.
"You are like so many of the men who work for us," she said. "You are just a little tired, aren't you? You come down here to rest, and I dig up all the old problems and ask you to vex yourself with them. We must talk about slighter things. You are going to shoot here this season—perhaps hunt, later on?"
"I do not think so," he answered. "I have forgotten what sports mean. I may take a gun out sometimes. There is a little shooting that goes with the Manor, but very few birds, I believe. The last ten years seem to have driven all those things out of one's mind."
"Don't you think that you are inclined to take life a little too earnestly?" she asked. "One should have amusements."
"I may feel the necessity," he replied, "but it is not easy to take up one's earlier pleasures at my time of life."
"Don't think me inquisitive," she went on, "but, as I told you, I have looked you up in one of those wonderful books which tell us everything about everybody. You were a Double Blue at Oxford."
"Racquets and cricket," he assented. "Neither of them much use to me now."
"Racquets would help you with lawn tennis," she said, "but beyond that I find that not a dozen years ago you were a scratch golfer, and you certainly won the amateur championship of Italy."
"It is eleven years since I touched a club," he told her.
"Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself," she declared. "Games are part of an Englishman's life, and when he neglects them altogether there is something wrong. I shall insist upon your taking up lawn tennis again. I have two beautiful courts there, and very seldom any one to play with who has the least idea of the game."
His eyes rested for a moment upon the smoothly shaven lawns.
"So you think that regeneration may come to me through lawn tennis?" he murmured.
"And why not? You are taking yourself far too seriously, you know. How do you expect regeneration to come?"
"Shall I tell you what it is I lack?" he answered suddenly. "Incentive. I think my will has suddenly grown flabby, the ego in me unresponsive. You know the moods in which one asks oneself whether it is worth while, whether anything is worth while. Well, I am there at the crossroads. I think I feel more inclined to look for a seat than to go on."