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Title: This Little World
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100081h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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This Little World

by

Fred M. White

Published in:
The Australian Town and Country Journal, 5 Nov 1902
The Star, Canterbury, New Zealand, 17 Mar 1903
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



I

It required a good deal to flutter the stately calm of the Hotel Majestic. More than one foreign prince had attempted to do it all and failed, a famous actress periodically bereft of her diamonds had come within distance of success, a defaulting solicitor with over a million of liabilities, fluttered the great hall after dinner one night. But the place was so big, so majestic, the head porter carried his gold lace so superbly; that even South African millionaires slid meekly into the big chairs under the palms and meekly waited for their coffee like ordinary individuals.

But Frank Astley had honestly attracted attention. In the first place he was so young and so big, and so superbly handsome. Young as he was, he had successfully fought De Beers on their own ground, and soundly trounced them. Johann Lupus whispered to Carl Vulpus that he knew for a fact that Astley could compel De Beers to buy him out at any moment for six millions. And the women said that he might have been Bayard up-to-date. General Martinet swore roundly that Astley had been of more sterling use in South Africa than all our generals put together.

But Frank Astley did not appear to be flattered. He sat under a big palm sipping coffee and looking around him as if in search of something. His somewhat sad strong face suggested one who had dropped something precious out of life, without which life itself was rank and bitter to the taste.

The big hall was full of rich people down there for a breath of sea air from Saturday to Monday. Most of the chairs were occupied; the air was pink with the drift of cigarette smoke and fragrant of coffee. In the annexe under the big palms the band was playing something soothing.

Astley's companion was chattering away, Astley listening more or less with contemptuous silence. Rupert May, the well-known journalist, seemed to know everybody, and he was proud to be seen on confidential terms with Astley to-night. Usually, the latter found his chatter amusing. To-night he seemed to put him aside as one waves away a pet monkey. And May was not a discerning individual.

"You seem quiet to-night?" May hazarded.

"I am," said Astley pointedly. "Do you never think, my friend? I have found that kind of thing very useful in my career more than once."

"I dare say," May replied carelessly. "Are you looking for anybody, Astley?"

The searching grey gaze seemed to be more than ever pronounced to-night. It ranged away beyond the purple and gold cluster of electric lights over gleaming silks and satins and glimmering jewels to the banks of palms beyond. And the music was dreamy.

"I have been looking for somebody for years," said Astley.

"Lucky somebody," May laughed. "I hope you've got something to give him."

"I have. When we do meet I shall give him three millions of money."

Even May's interrogative tongue was paralysed for a moment. He scented paragraphs here, long 'specials' of price. But there was something about the droop of Astley's clean-shaven mouth that stopped the flow of questions. Then Astley went on to explain much in the fashion of a man who talks in his sleep. He seemed to be altogether unconscious of May.

May looked disappointed, and the little points of eager flame behind his glasses died out. As a matter of fact, he was deeply interested. All the same, Astley was not going to be led back. May felt like a fisherman when a big trout wriggles over the rim of the landing net.

"I didn't know you were fond of music," he said.

"Love it," Astley muttered. "I once had high aspirations as a composer. I'd give all I've got to stand in Sullivan's shoes. I shouldn't stay here if the music wasn't so good."

"It isn't bad," said May critically. "There's a chap here who's a bit of a marvel on the 'cello. We get solo from him most nights. Perhaps he will oblige this evening."

Astley nodded vaguely. Already his busy mind had passed on to something else. Meanwhile the band was playing dreamily, there was a kaleidoscopic flashing of gems and dresses up and down the big hall. From without came the hollow boom of the sea. The band became frivolous for a time and then stopped. Afterwards there was a thrum of strings and a 'cello began its mournful wail.

"That's the chap," said May. "Clever, isn't he."

Astley nodded. His cigarette, balanced on the edge of his saucer, burnt itself out in one long stream of thin-drawn pink. There was something like pain in his eyes. Presently the music changed. It was as if the melody had been a blow, a physical blow, to Astley.

As the music ceased in one long-drawn wail, Astley half started from his seat. May eyed him curiously. But Astley saw nothing of him, he was carried away six thousand miles over sea, even to the gates of Kimberley. Presently he rose and sauntered to the hall-door, followed by May.

"I'm going out," Astley said. "Wait here till I return."

May expressed his willingness in none too suave a manner. If Astley was going out, he seemed in no hurry to do so. He stood for quite a long time talking to the gilt-resplendent head porter, who was affable to few, and friendly with none. May sat puzzling over the dry bone of the problem until the band played the National Anthem, and straggled wearily out. The man with the 'cello came last, a tall slender man with a dreary handsome face and a sensitive mouth.

"A little gem, that last thing of yours," said May. "Original?"

"Yes sir," the 'celloist replied. "Most of my music is. Glad you liked it, sir."

He passed on with the air of a man weary of most things. There was a stoop in his shoulders that should not have been there in so young a man, the stoop of the failure, A fine, intellectual-looking face, too, May thought. He lighted a fresh cigarette and went down in the direction of the billiard-room, a little puzzled and annoyed.

II

For a long time, Astley stood on the broad marble steps looking out over the sea. It was getting late now, and foot passengers were not many. A broad streaming band of light picked out the pier. Outside some fishing boats were riding on the swell. But all this was lost upon the man standing there. His thoughts were far away. He still had the air of one who is seeking something with a suggestion as to having dubiously found it. He looked broad and strong and prosperous, so wholly self-reliant, and yet he was anxious and nervous as a lover might be who waits for the fiat of his mistress.

He stood there for quite a long time, until the straggling musicians had passed, even to the 'cello player with the stoop between his shoulders. Most of them went off noisily, the 'cello player turning in the direction of the lawns silently. As he passed, Astley could have touched him on the shoulder.

Instead of that he followed. They came at length to the edge of the lawn looking like velvet, grey green under the rays of the big arc lights. Astley ranged alongside the player, and then he spoke.

"Well, Phil," he said, "so I have found you at last."

He spoke quietly and evenly, but his heart was beating fast. He could hold his own with the keenest cutting tool of them all, but he was nervous as a child now. It was characteristic of the man that none of those emotions showed on his face.

The other turned and faced him with a hoarse cry. There was contempt, scorn, dislike in his eyes, and yet a kind of almost tearful yearning. Here was a man who could bitterly resent an injury, who would brood over it and nurse it for years, and yet a man whose resentment could change to love and pity at one kind pleading word. And it was the face, too, of a man who suffers, the eye of a man who had not too much to eat. All this came to Astley in a flash.

"Why did you and Nell desert me?" he asked.

The musician half turned away, so that Astley could not see the harpstring quiver of his face.

"I saw you in the hotel to-night," he said.

"And you were not going to let me know! Why?"

"Why! Because you are now a fabulously rich man. I have followed your career with interest, because of our old friendship, and because I—I once was fond of you. But you need not be afraid of me, I can do you no possible harm. If I told the world that half your wealth rightly belonged to me, nobody would heed."

"My dear Phil, I have been looking for you for four years to get rid of your share."

Philip now laughed bitterly. Yet he looked strangely moved, and the expression in his eyes was that of a dog who knows no wrong that he has done.

"If I could only believe you," he cried. "Oh, God, if I could only believe you. You were the only friend I ever had, the only friend I ever trusted. If I had twice your wealth at this moment I would gladly cast it aside to see the old Frank back again. To deceive me, to trick me, to rob me as you did was a bitter blow. And I would have given it to you, given it so cheerfully. But that was not your method. But you must needs telegraph me when I was down in Capetown that the De Beers had got the best of the arbitration, and that I was to let Hermann have my share for £1000. Then I sold our share to Hermann, and the next day I heard that De Beers had been utterly routed by you. That scoundrel was your agent, and you tricked me in that way! What did I care for the money?"

"What did you do with the £1000?" Astley asked.

"What matters? I had poor relatives. And Nell and I got away to England at once. But why do I tell you these things; why don't I spite you and go my way? Not that you care, not that you have any kind or feeling, or you would never have stopped me like this."

"And if I told you that all my money was gone?"

"I—I should be glad. No, no, I'm not vindictive. Perhaps the old Astley would come back."

"Phil, thank God the old Astley is here still, look at me."

Nye did so almost mechanically. Strange, he thought, that a man with such a face could play at so sorry a part. Those grey eyes were so steady and clear.

"I am going to tell you something," Astley said. "What you have been saying to-night is new to me. I never sent that telegram. It was a trick on the part of Hermann, who got a confederate to send you that wire from Kimberley. I had one cunningly phrased from Capetown, no doubt designed by the same wily brain. But I was not to be caught like that. And Hermann was found dead outside Kimberley two days later, shot through the heart. Then I came down to Capetown to find that you had vanished. On and off I have been looking for you ever since. Phil, dear Phil, you might have trusted me a little further than that. And Nell—"

"Nell will be the happiest girl in England to-night, Frank."

"And you shall have your money. Half of what I possess belongs to you. And you look as if you hadn't had enough to eat lately. Come along and take me down to Nell. Do you think—"

"My dear old chap, Nell would have forgiven you in any case. I live here."

Nye led the way into a small sitting-room, where a frugal supper was laid out. A tall, fair girl, with the sweetest hair and eyes and mouth, came gaily into the room, and then stopped short as she saw Astley. The colour faded from her cheeks till they were deadly pale.

"Nell," Astley cried. "I have come to ask you to forgive me."

"I am afraid it is out of my power," the girl said, "because—because, Frank, why have you been breaking our hearts all these years?"

She held out her hands with a gush of womanly tenderness that left Astley almost speechless.

He signed to Nye to explain. The genius of the 'cello was vaguely incoherent, but the girl's natural intuition picked out all the more lurid facts. Then gradually a sweeter and tender smile came to her lips as she advanced to Astley. He needed no words from her to tell him that he had found that which was lost.

"Can you ever forgive me, Frank?" she whispered. "And if you knew how I have missed you—"

"I do know, darling," Astley said, as he bent and kissed her. "And these years have not altogether been wasted. If I had only dreamed of this—but let us have all sunshine to-night. We are going to the Majestic, where we can have a private room and a supper fit for plutocrats, like Phil and myself. No more bread and cheese and a sauce of adversity. Put on your hat, Nell, and let me show everybody how proud I am of my future wife. Millionaires are popularly supposed to be most unhappy men. Not all, sweet little Nell, not all."


* * * * *

May came out of the billiard-room and met Astley on the stairs.

"Hullo," he said. "How bright you look. You said you had been in search of something. By your expression, I should say you had found it."

"Yes," Astley said, gravely, "thank God, I have found it."

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THE END

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