The Salt of the Earth (A Story of Love and Excitement)by Fred M White
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Outside a blackbird was piping madly in the blackthorn, and towards the West a sheaf of flaming violet arrows streamed to the zenith. The hedgerows were touched here and there with tender green. The bonny breath of the South was soft and tender as the fingers of Aphrodite. It was the first real day of Spring, and most people lingered out of doors till the bare branches of the trees melted in the gloaming, and it was possible to see and hear no more, save for the promise of the little black herald singing madly from the blackthorn.
Thus was it outside. Inside the silk blinds were closely drawn, and the heavy tapestry curtains pulled across them as if the inmates of the room were envious of the dying day, and were determined to exclude it. The score or more tiny points of electric flames were scrupulously shaded with pale blue, so that even the most dubious complexion might not suffer. At certain places the lights were grouped in lambent masses, for they lighted the trio of Louis Quatorze card-tables, where twelve people were playing bridge. Now and again the tongues of yellow flame picked out some glittering object against the walls or on the floor, hinting at art treasures, most of them with histories of their own.
On the whole the restful room was more calculated for philosophic reflection than for fierce silent gambling, with indrawn breath, and lip caught sharply between white teeth. The room was deadly still, save for the flutter of the cards as they rippled over the tables. There were cards, too, upon the floor, glistening under the light blue like bizarre patterns to the Oriental carpet. Only two men looked on—one a thin, nervous, ascetic creature, with melancholy grey eyes, and a Vandyck beard. The average man would have had no trouble in guessing than Philip Vanstone was an artist. He had the temperament stamped upon him, both as to his features and his clothes. His companion was built in a larger mould, a clean-shaven man with a hard, straight mouth, and the suggestion of a bull-dog about him. When one glanced at Douglas Denne, one instinctively thought of Rhodes and other pioneers of Empire, who had that marvellous combination of mind, which allies high courage and imagination with the practical attributes that lead to fortune. To a certain extent Denne was a pioneer. He had amassed a huge fortune in foreign lands. He had played his part in painting the map of the world a British red, and, incidentally, he had found time during his Oxford career to win the Newdigate prize and write a volume of poems which had attracted considerable attention. If he had described himself, and why his career had been so phenomenally successful, he would have spoken slightingly, and called himself a pawnbroker with an imagination. Usually he thanked Pinero for that phrase. It saved a great deal of trouble when he found himself in the clutches of the interviewers.
And yet, despite his youth, and his health, and his fortune, he was by no means a happy man. To begin with, he was cursed with a certain demon of introspective analysis. He was bound to bring everything under the microscope, including his own soul, and the soul of his fellow men. He refused to believe in the genuine disinterested action. He put it down to temperament. It gave pleasure to the wide-minded man to do good and kind things; therefore, it could not be accounted as righteousness—it was merely a selfish method of enjoyment. Everything that happened in life, every mood and impulse of his own and of other people came under Denne's mental scalping knife, so that to him the beauty of the pearl was never anything but the poetic secretion of the oyster. Denne would have given much to have been able to change places with Phil Vanstone, the penniless artist.
He wasn't playing himself; in fact, he rarely touched a card. Playing for sovereigns was poor sport to a man who had been moved to stake an Empire upon the throw of a dice. He had come to Adela Burton's cottage at Maidenhead purely to please his companion, but was more or less scornfully amused, because Adela Burton was one of the apostles of the Simple Life. Perhaps that was why she was playing cards with a more or less notorious set of men and women, who had motored down from town that same morning, seeking the pure delights of the pink, March day. Denne watched the cards flashing across the table, heedless of the play of emotions in the rich brown Rembrandt shadows. He was as near to enjoying himself now as ever he had been in his cynical life. Presently, by a curious coincidence, the three rubbers finished simultaneously, and the players sat back in their Chippendale chairs. It was characteristic of Adela Burton's cottage, and, incidentally, of herself, that all the furniture was Chippendale, unless it happened to date back to the period of Louis Quatorze.
"Are you going to play any more?" Denne asked.
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