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E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM

NOTHING EVER HAPPENS AT HOLWELL

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First published in The Story-Teller, December 1916

Snydicated internationally, e.g., in:
The Observer, Adelaide, Australia, 17 March 1917 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-12-08
Produced by Francis Golding and Roy Glashan

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All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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THE young man stepped from the side of his disabled car into the middle of the road. One hand he extended in an arresting gesture, with the other he raised his hat. Nora Burningham had no alternative but to step lightly from her bicycle and listen to what he might have to say.

"I am so sorry to detain you," he began. "You see I am in trouble here. Do you happen to be riding into Holwell?"

Considering that Holwell, a quaint, old-fashioned market town, grey and red-roofed, was clearly visible among the trees barely a mile away, the question seemed a little superfluous. The young man was crafty, however, and he had suddenly discovered that the girl was charming.

"Yes," she replied, "I am on my way there. Has anything happened to your car?"

Considering, further, that the young man was hot and flushed, and that the whole contents of a box of tools were scattered in the road, that question, too, seemed a little superfluous. But she also had made a discovery on her own account. The young man was tall and remarkably good-looking. He had a clear, pleasant voice, with an American accent, which she thought delightful. Young men were scarce in the vicinity of Holwell.

"Something's gone wrong with the carburettor," he declared. "It must be the carburettor, because I've tried everything else. Bad luck, isn't it?"

"Very!"

"Such a jolly little engine, too," he continued. "You wouldn't believe anything could possibly go wrong. Just look inside, won't you? Do!"

The girl hesitated only for a moment. Then she leaned her bicycle against a convenient gate and came over to his side. He watched her with an admiration which he found it difficult to conceal. She wore a white flannel dress cut loose for tennis, white shoes and stockings, and a tennis racket was strapped to the handle of her bicycle. She had soft grey eyes, a quantity of fair hair, and a delightful mouth. He remembered the caricatures he had seen of English girls, and he was momentarily indignant.

"You can see from here," he said. "Don't lean over too far—there's some oil on the bonnet."

They peered together into the mysterious interior. He pointed to a little brass disc.

"That's where the trouble is," he explained confidently. "No, not there—just beyond."

He guided her enquiring finger—and was distinctly slow at releasing it. When at last he did so, she deliberately clasped her hands behind her back.

"If you know exactly where it is broken," she asked, "why don't you mend it?"

"Sheer incapacity," he admitted briskly. "I have only had one or two lessons at driving, and I'm not great at mechanics."

"You ought not to have come out without a chauffeur," she told him.

"Haven't got one yet," he replied. "You see, I only landed at Plymouth to-day, and it suddenly struck me I'd buy a little car and drive up to London. I've never been in England before, and I thought I'd like to see some of the country. It was just great until I struck this trouble."

She moved across the road. He closed the bonnet of his car quickly, and held her bicycle in position for her.

"Do you wish me to send a mechanic out from Holwell?" she asked. "There is a garage close to where I live."

"If you would be so good," he begged. "It's awfully kind of you. He can't very well miss me, can he? But my name is Henry C. Gloucester."

She placed her foot tentatively upon the pedal of her bicycle. He was desperately unwilling to let her go.

"You didn't mention your name, did you?" he asked wistfully.

"I don't think that I did," she answered, smiling. "It is Nora Burningham."

"Nora Burningham," he repeated under his breath. "Thank you. You are sure it won't be out of your way?" he went on. "You do live at Holwell?"

"I do," she admitted. "Haven't I just said so?"

"It seems a very picturesque place," he remarked, glancing down into the valley. "Perhaps—a little small."

She eyed it appraisingly.

"Do you think so? I suppose—after America! Everything there is so large, isn't it?"

"One gets tired of it," he admitted confidentially. "Now I dare say there's lots going on even in a quiet little place like this?"

There was a queer twist to her lips as she placed her foot, firmly this time, upon the pedal of her bicycle. She looked away from him, steadily downwards, at the clustering medley of tree- embowered houses, the one tall chimney, the single line of railway which proclaimed the isolation of the place. There was something almost tragical in her expression, soft and girlish no longer; a gleam of sullen anger, almost vindictiveness, in her eyes.

"Nothing ever happens there," she said, in a low, almost entirely changed tone. "Nothing ever happens at Holwell— nothing!"


AS a matter of fact, Nora Burningham was mistaken. Things did sometimes happen in Holwell. They happened that night in her own house when her father, the manager of the local bank, drew from his waistcoat pocket an envelope containing a little white powder which he had received that morning by post from abroad, and shook it into the whisky and soda which he had just mixed for himself. Then he sat back and looked at the glass with folded arms. He was a simple-minded man, not over-burdened with imagination, and death, as an elementary part of existence, apart from decay, had never appealed to him with its full significance. The curtain was suddenly lifted from before his eyes in that illuminating moment. He peered over the edge of the world, and horror chilled his blood as fear blanched his cheek. The girl was certainly wrong. There is no corner in the world into which tragedy may not sometimes creep. Things were to happen that night even in Holwell.


CHARLES BURNINGHAM sat in a comfortable chair before a well- appointed writing table, looking out into a fragment of charming old-world garden. Through the open French windows floated the music of a waltz, the perfume of flowers, a pleasant murmur of voices, the swish of skirts upon the close-shaven lawn. He looked steadily before him with unseeing eyes—eyes set in a hard, unnatural stare, eyes which for the first time in his life saw the terrible things. No wonder that Nora, when she suddenly appeared in the window before him, uttered a little exclamation of surprise.

"Father, how queer you look! Why, what's the matter?"

He was back again in Holwell, alive! The tumbler was full at his side, the dreadful thing had not as yet happened. He gave a little gasp of relief. Then he did his best to smile.

"A headache," he explained. "It's been coming on all day."

She sat on the arm of his chair. Her fingers caressed his forehead.

"Poor daddy! And I wanted you to come out and dance with me. It's so divine on the lawn, and the music is so tantalizing."

"Who's there?" he asked.

She made a little grimace.

"Teddy aged 14, who hops; Jack, aged 15, who is really rather worse; Dr. Sands, whose wife doesn't like him to dance except with her; and Fred Humphreys, who, thank heavens, has given it up in despair after treading on my feet three times and tearing several inches off my frock. He really is too clumsy to live."

Mr. Burningham sighed—no ordinary sigh. There was tragedy in his eyes as he looked at the girl by his side—prettier and daintier than ever in her simple evening frock.

"It is hard luck, Nora," he muttered; "hard luck to think that you should have to spend all your days here, where there isn't a soul fit to speak to you."

His voice suddenly shook. She passed her arm around his neck.

"Don't be silly, please," she begged. "It isn't your fault that there are no young men in the place, is it? Besides, I don't really mind. Perhaps something will happen even here, some day. I almost had an adventure coming back from the Charlecot's to- day— a most adorable young man in a motor car. He—Oh!"

The door had been suddenly thrown open. A servant's voice was heard making an announcement.

"The gentleman, please, sir!"

Mr. Burningham turned his head at once in the direction of his daughter's intent and startled gaze. A tall and exceedingly broad-shouldered young man was standing just inside the room. He came forward with an air of cheerful confidence.

"Is this Mr. Burningham?" he asked.

"My name is Burningham," was the somewhat doubtful reply.

"I am sorry, but I couldn't get your maid to bring my name up," the young man continued amiably. "Henry C. Gloucester it is. She insisted that you were expecting me, which, of course, was quite impossible, and hustled me along."

"A misunderstanding, without a doubt," Mr. Burningham said slowly. "I am expecting a gentleman here every moment, who is coming by the evening train from London, but you are not he."

"That's so, sure," Henry C. Gloucester admitted, smiling. "I ought to apologize, Mr. Burningham, for being here at all. It's just a little matter of business which I didn't feel like leaving until the morning, although, of course, I know that it's long after hours."

"Business," Mr. Burningham repeated, in a tone which he tried to keep as natural as possible.

The young man nodded. Nora slipped gently from the arm of the chair, and stole out of the window. She did not even glance towards this unexpected visitor, but there was a smile upon her lips as she passed out into the garden. What an extremely resourceful young man!

"Why, sure," Mr. Henry C. Gloucester continued, taking the chair which his host had almost involuntarily indicated. "It won't take more than a minute of your time, sir. My people are in the banking business in New York, and when I decided to come over here for a bit of a racket, they filled me up with a lot of English notes instead of giving me a letter of credit—to save the exchange, I guess. I only landed this morning at Plymouth, and as I am motoring quite alone I thought that I had better make a deposit at the first bank I came to. I should have done it in Plymouth, but I was so anxious to get off that I forgot all about it. I know I've no right to disturb you at this time of night, but the thing sort of got on my mind. I am in a strange place, you see, and strange hotel, and all the rest of it."

Mr. Burningham drew a slip of paper towards him.

"It is unusual," he said, "but, as it happens, the bank premises are open to-night. I will accept your deposit and place it in the safe, what is the amount?"

The young man produced a pocket book from some mysterious part of his anatomy.

"Four thousand pounds," he announced, laying a pile of notes upon the table.

Mr. Burningham's fingers became rigid. Mr. Henry C. Gloucester was occupied in counting the notes, and he did not hear the little choking exclamation which had just escaped from the bank manager's lips.

"There's four thousand four hundred pounds here," he went on, stuffing a little handful of notes into his pocket. "I'll keep the balance to be going on with, and deposit the four thousand. Will you just run those through, Mr. Burningham? I think you'll find them all right."

Mr. Burningham counted the notes mechanically. Then he drew a sheet of paper towards him and made out a deposit note. His client glanced at it and thrust it carelessly into his pocket.

"You had better come in to-morrow morning and exchange that for a proper document," he advised.

The young man scarcely heard him. His eyes were staring out into the blue twilight. The music of a waltz came floating through the window. He turned suddenly to Mr. Burningham.

"Mr. Burningham, sir," he said, "I have told you my name, haven't I? I've just come into a partnership share in the business of the Gloucester Hinton Bank Company. I've a letter of introduction in my pocket to Mr. Childers; the head of your banking firm in London, isn't he? He's an old friend of my uncle's, and we do a lot of business together. Would you like to have a look at it?"

"On no account," Mr. Burningham answered hastily. "I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Gloucester. Is there anything further I can do for you?"

"Just one thing," the young man declared. "I met your daughter this afternoon out in the country. My car had broken down and she brought a message into Holwell for me. May I go out and have this dance with her?"

Mr. Burningham had risen slowly to his feet at the sound of the ringing of the front-door bell. He was already on his way across the room. He looked back and nodded.

"Certainly, Mr. Gloucester—with great pleasure," he said. "My visitor has just arrived or I'd come out and introduce you. You will find my wife there, and the rest of the family."

The young man stepped out upon the lawn with a smile upon his lips.


AN hour passed—one unit out of the sum of hours which go to the making of a lifetime. Henry C. Gloucester had danced—and he danced exceedingly well—on the smooth, firm turf. He had listened to the nightingale, and had been taken through the rose garden to see the river which flowed past the bottom of the garden. He was 25 years old, but of all the hours of his life it was the one in which he had felt the joy of living most intensely, the hour which he remembered the longest. WITHIN the house, Mr. Burningham, in the dimly lit parlour behind the bank, had met a very ominous visitor from London with quiet dignify, and had affected quite successfully not to notice the surprise with which the latter arrived at the result of his investigations. His visitor—an emissary, indeed, from headquarters—had departed to the hotel for the night and was already busy upon the telephone, making his report to London. Mr. Burningham turned out the lights and locked up the bank. Then he came once more to his place in the library and sat by the side of that untouched whisky-and-soda, looking out into the shadows. The terrible hour had come and passed. He was safe—until the young man whose cheerful voice he could hear upon the lawn wanted his money!

Within the room there was no sound save the ticking of a tall clock. From outside came once more the music of a waltz, the rustle of the night wind in the trees, the suddenly gay laughter of the daughter whom he loved. Mr. Burningham sat motionless. The desire to live, to keep his position in the little town, to spare his wife and family this terrible humiliation, was tearing at his heartstrings. He was tortured with thoughts which brought the sweat to his forehead. If only this young man could be made to disappear!

The music stopped. Presently he saw Nora coming across the lawn. Her fingers were still upon the young man's arm. They seemed as though they were walking upon air. The music of her happy voice almost brought the tears to his eyes. They paused before the window.

"Father," Nora exclaimed, "we have had some of the loveliest waltzes. Mr. Gloucester is simply dying for a drink. I am going to give him your whisky-and-soda. It's stood there for so long that I am sure you don't want it."

She leaned forward, and her fingers actually closed upon the tumbler. For one frozen moment Mr. Burningham remained motionless. All the devils in hell seemed to be trying their hardest to tempt him. A murder! Well, why not? It was a sin little greater than suicide. It gave him a chance. The notes would be traced, but they need not be put into circulation. The delay alone would save him. Why not, indeed! There were those whom he loved to be saved as well as himself.

"Take it, Mr. Gloucester, do," she persisted. "I am sure father doesn't really want it."

"He'll have to be quick if he does," the young man laughed. "Say, this is your responsibility, Miss Burningham!"

He raised the glass to his lips. Mr. Burningham's hand shot out suddenly. The tumbler lay upon the carpet, its contents a dripping stain upon the corner of the table and the floor.

"Father!" Nora gasped.

They were both amazed. Mr. Burningham was quite cool.

"Forgive me, Mr. Gloucester," he begged. "The fact is, I had put a sleeping draught into that whisky-and-soda for myself. I wasn't sure how it might agree with you, and I had really forgotten it until you were just on the point of drinking. The whisky-and-soda are on the sideboard there. Let me mix you one."

The young man laughed heartily as they crossed the room, and he held out his hand for the drink.

"Why, that's very thoughtful of you, sir, he declared. "Say, won't you have one with me. I wish you would. I've a word to say to you before I go, if you don't mind?"

Nora had slipped away, back into the violet darkness. Mr. Burningham helped himself to a whisky-and-soda, and drank half of it at a gulp. Then he returned to his place.

"I, too, have a word to say, Mr. Gloucester," he began. "I'll speak first, if you don't mind."

"Whichever is the most agreeable to you, Mr. Burningham," the young man assented, deferentially.

Mr. Burningham looked for a moment out into the gardens, from which there still came occasionally the low sound of cheerful voices. It was an old-fashioned place this, but it had been home to him for something like 20 years. He remembered, as he stood there, how proud he had been when the post had first fallen to his lot: what ecstasies his young wife and he had gone into over the house itself, the gardens, the orchard; what countless economies they had practised in order to keep up the necessary appearances. He heard her voice even as he stood there, so little changed. And this was something like the end of all things. He threw a coin into the air. It was death and dishonour, or life and a fresh start. And sometimes the young are so cruel.

"My word is soon spoken," he continued, firmly. "The visitor whom I was expecting to-night—for whom, indeed, you were mistaken—was an emissary from our headquarters in London, sent down to examine my accounts. If he had come half an hour sooner, he would have found me 3,000 short. As it was, my accounts were in order. I made them correct with your money."

"Gee whiz!" the young man muttered.

His fingers involuntarily sought his waistcoat pocket. Mr. Burningham nodded.

"Quite right," he said. "I did not enter your deposit at all. You have the note there. If you present that within the next few days—any time, in fact, before the first of next month—I am ruined."

The young man's face was very serious.

"Speculation?" he asked softly.

"No, sir," Mr. Burningham replied. "I have never risked a penny in speculation. I advanced the money to a friend on my own responsibility, and against the instructions of the bank, who are unjustly prejudiced against me. I took my risk. Next to my wife and family I love this friend better than anything on earth. His need was extraordinarily urgent. It was all a matter of time with him. There was no other salvation. We come back, though, to the facts. I know that he will pay, but I advanced the money—the bank's money—secretly and without their consent. That is equivalent, from their point of view—from any one's point of view, I suppose—to speculation."

"But couldn't he have got this from anybody else?" the young- man enquired.

"There was no time," Mr. Burningham explained. "It was to pay off a mortgage on some property which has suddenly become very valuable. The bank were the mortgagees."

Mr. Henry C. Gloucester nodded understandingly. Then he drew the deposit note from his pocket and tore it into small pieces.

"I won't draw on you, sir," he announced, "until your pal stumps up. Here's my word on that. Now it's my turn."

Mr. Burningham, so cool a moment before, suddenly reeled upon his feet. Then he subsided into a chair. His heart was beating like a sledge-hammer. The young man was leaning forward, and he had become very much in earnest.

"Mr. Burningham," he said, "I'd like you just to listen to me for a moment. I came into 1,000,000 dollars two months ago, and I made up my mind to celebrate. I drew that 5,000 and I come over here for a racket. I'd got some letters to a gay crowd over in London and Paris, which I tore up an hour or so ago. I'm never going on that racket, sir. I met your daughter on the top of the hill outside the town to-day, and when she got on her bicycle and left me—well that was the moment I tore up all those letters I'd got with me, right away. My mother was a good woman, Mr. Burningham, and I am going to have a good wife. I have found her, and that's the end of it. If you won't consent to- night—well, I shall just step around here until you do. That's all I've got to say, sir."

Mr. Burningham sat quite motionless for a moment. Then he held out his hand a little timidly.

"After all that I have told you?" he faltered, unevenly.

Mr Henry C. Gloucester gave vent to a little exclamation of contempt.

"Skittles!" he exclaimed. "That don't amount to anything."

He gripped the hand of his prospective father-in-law and looked away. Mr. Burningham was gazing over his left shoulder.

"I'll just step out and tell Nora," the young man decided, a little awkwardly.


SHE met him half-way across the lawn. The moon was coming out now behind the elm trees. The nightingale was singing, and a faint wind was stirring among the cedars. Her eyes, as she watched him come, seemed, to grow larger and sweeter than ever. A little smile trembled upon her lips, half enquiring, half shy. He held out his hand and together they passed down towards the river.


THE END