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   Chapter 5 No.5

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 28086

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

So next morning he packed his bag, drove to Euston, and by mid-day was at Hollingford. The town, hitherto known to him only by name, had little charm of situation or feature, but Dyce, on his way to a hotel, looked about him with lively interest, and persuaded himself that the main streets had a brisk progressive air; he imagined Liberalism in many faces, and noted cheerfully the publishing office of a Liberal newspaper. If his interview with Lady Ogram proved encouraging, he would stay here over the next day, and give himself time to make acquaintance with the borough.

At his hotel, he made inquiry about the way to Rivenoak, a name respectfully received. Lady Ogram's estate was distant some two miles and a half from the edge of the town; it lay hard by the village of Shawe, which was on the highroad to-places wherewith Dyce had no concern. Thus informed, he ordered his luncheon, and requested that a fly might be ready at three o'clock to convey him to Rivenoak. When that hour arrived, he had studied the local directory, carefully looked over the town and county newspapers, and held a little talk with his landlord, who happened to be a political malcontent, cautiously critical of Mr. Robb. Dyce accepted the fact as of good augury. It was long since he had felt so lighthearted and sanguine.

Through an unpleasant quarter, devoted to manufactures, his vehicle bore him out of Hollingford, and then along a flat, uninteresting road, whence at moments he had glimpses of the river Holling, as it flowed between level fields. Presently the country became more agreeable; on one hand it rose gently to wooded slopes, on the other opened a prospect over a breezy common, yellow with gorse. At the village named Shawe, the river was crossed by a fine old bridge, which harmonised well with grey cottages and an ancient low-towered church; but the charm of all this had been lamentably injured by the recent construction of a large paper-mill, as ugly as mill can be, on what was once a delightful meadow by the waterside. Dyce eyed the blot resentfully; but he had begun to think of his attitude and language at the meeting with Lady Ogram, and the gates of Rivenoak quickly engaged his attention.

The drive wound through a pleasant little park, less extensive, perhaps, than the visitor had preconceived it, and circled in front of a plain Georgian mansion, which, again, caused some disappointment. Dyce had learnt from the directory that the house was not very old, but it was spoken of as "stately;" the edifice before him he would rather have described as "commodious." He caught a glimpse of beautiful gardens, and had no time to criticise any more, for the fly stopped and the moment of his adventure was at hand. When he had mechanically paid and dismissed the driver, the folding doors stood open before him; a man-servant, with back at the reverent angle, on hearing his name at once begged him to enter. Considerably more nervous than he would have thought likely, and proportionately annoyed with himself, Dyce passed through a bare, lofty hall, then through a long library, and was ushered into a room so largely constructed of glass, and containing so much verdure, that at first glance it seemed to be a conservatory. It was, however, a drawing-room, converted to this purpose after having served, during the late Baronet's lifetime, for such masculine delights as billiards and smoking. Here, as soon as his vision focussed itself, Dyce became aware of three ladies and a gentleman, seated amid a little bower of plants and shrubs. The hostess was easily distinguished. In a very high-backed chair, made rather throne-like by the embroidery and gilding upon it, sat a meagre lady clad in black silk, with a silvery grey shawl about her shoulders, and an other of the same kind across her knees. She had the aspect of extreme age and of out-worn health; the skin of her face was like shrivelled parchment; her hands were mere skin and bone; she sat as though on the point of sinking across the arm of her chair for very feebleness. But in the whitish-yellow visage shone a pair of eyes which had by no means lost their vitality; so keen were they, so darkly lustrous, that to meet them was to forget every other peculiarity of Lady Ogram's person. Regarding the eyes alone, one seemed to have the vision of a handsome countenance, with proud lips, and carelessly defiant smile. The illusion was aided by a crown of hair such as no woman of Lady Ogram's age ever did, or possibly could, possess in her own right; hair of magnificent abundance, of rich auburn hue, plaited and rolled into an elaborate coiffure.

Before this singular figure, Dyce Lashmar paused and bowed. Pale, breathing uneasily, he supported the scrutiny of those dark eyes for what seemed to him a minute or two of most uncomfortable time. Then, with the faintest of welcoming smiles, Lady Ogram-who had slowly straightened herself-spoke in a voice which startled the hearer, so much louder and firmer was it than he had expected.

"I am glad to see you, Mr. Lashmar. Pray sit down."

Without paying any attention to the rest of the company, Dyce obeyed. His feeling was that he had somehow been admitted to the presence of a sovereign, and that any initiative on his own part would be utterly out of place. Never in his life had he felt so little and so subdued.

"You have come from town this morning?" pursued his hostess, still closely examining him.

"This morning, yes."

Lady Ogram turned to the lady sitting near her right hand, and said abruptly:

"I don't agree with you at all. I should like to see as many women doctors as men. Doctoring is mostly humbug, and if women were attended by women there'd be a good deal less of that. Miss Bride has studied medicine, and a very good doctor she would have made."

Dyce turned towards Constance, of whose proximity he had been aware, though he had scarcely looked at her, and, as she bent her head smiling, he rose and bowed. The lady whom their hostess had addressed-she was middle-aged, very comely and good-humoured of countenance, and very plainly attired-replied to the blunt remarks in an easy, pleasant tone.

"I should have no doubt whatever of Miss Bride's competence. But-"

Lady Ogram interrupted her, seeming not to have heard what she said.

"Let me introduce to you Mr. Dyce Lashmar, who has thought a good deal more about this kind of thing than either you or me. Mrs. Gallantry, Mr. Gallantry."

Again Dyce stood up. Mr. Gallantry, a tall, loose-limbed, thinly thatched gentleman, put on a pair of glasses to inspect him, and did so with an air of extreme interest, as though profoundly gratified by the meeting. Seldom breaking silence himself, he lent the most flattering attention to anyone who spoke, his brows knitted in the resolve to grasp and assimilate whatever wisdom was uttered:

"Did you walk out from Hollingford?" asked Lady Ogram, who again had her eyes fixed on the visitor.

"No, I drove, as I didn't know the way."

"You'd have done much better to walk. Couldn't you ask the way? You look as if you didn't take enough exercise. Driving, one never sees anything. When I'm in new places, I always walk. Miss Bride and I are going to Wales this summer, and we shall walk a great deal. Do you know Brecknock? Few people do, but they tell me it's very fine. Perhaps you are one of the people who always go abroad? I prefer my own country. What did you think of the way from Hollingford?"

To this question she seemed to expect an answer, and Dyce, who was beginning to command himself, met her gaze steadily as he spoke.

"There's very little to see till you come to Shawe. It's a pretty village-or rather, it was, before someone built that hideous paper-mill."

Scarcely had he uttered the words when he became aware of a change in Lady Ogram's look. The gleam of her eyes intensified; deeper wrinkles carved themselves on her forehead, and all at once two rows of perfect teeth shone between the pink edges of her shrivelled lips.

"Hideous paper-mill, eh?" she exclaimed, on a half-laughing note of peculiar harshness, "I suppose you don't know that I built it?"

A shock went through Dyce's blood. He sat with his eyes fixed on Lady Ogram's, powerless to stir or to avert his gaze. Then the courage of despair suddenly possessed him.

"If I had known that," he said, with much deliberation, "I should have kept the thought to myself. But I'm afraid there's no denying that the mill spoils the village."

"The mill is the making of the village," said Lady Ogram, emphatically.

"In one sense, very likely. I spoke only of the picturesqueness of the place."

"I know you did. And what's the good of picturesqueness to people who have to earn their living? Is that your way of looking at things? Would you like to keep villages pretty, and see the people go to the dogs?"

"Not at all. I'm quite of the other way of thinking, Lady Ogram. It was by mere accident that I made that unlucky remark. If anyone with me had said such a thing, it's more than likely I should have replied with your view of the matter. You must remember that this district is quite strange to me. Will you tell me something about it? I am sure you had excellent reasons for building the mill; be so kind as to explain them to me."

The listeners to this dialogue betrayed approval of the young man's demeanour. Constance Bride, who had looked very grave indeed, allowed her features to relax; Mrs. Gallantry smiled a smile of conciliation, and her husband drew a sigh as if supremely edified.

Lady Ogram glanced at her secretary.

"Miss Bride, let him know my 'excellent reasons,' will you?"

"For a long time," began Constance, in clear, balanced tones, "the village of Shawe has been anything but prosperous. It was agricultural, of course, and farming about here isn't what is used to be; there's a great deal of grass and not much tillage. The folk had to look abroad for a living; several of the cottages stood empty; the families that remained were being demoralised by poverty; they wouldn't take the work that offered in the fields, and preferred to scrape up a living in the streets of Hollingford, if they didn't try their hand at a little burglary and so on. Lady Ogram saw what was going on, and thought it over, and hit upon the idea of the paper-mill. Of course most of the Shawe cottagers were no good for such employment, but some of the young people got taken on, and there was work in prospect for children growing up, and in any case, the character of the village was saved. Decent families came to the deserted houses, and things in general looked up."

"Extremely interesting," murmured Mr. Gallantry, as though he heard all this for the first time, and was deeply impressed by it.

"Very interesting indeed," said Lashmar, with his frankest air. "I hope I may be allowed to go over the mill; I should like nothing better."

"You shall go over it as often as you like," said Lady Ogram, with a grin. "But Miss Bride has more to tell you."

Constance looked inquiringly.

"Statistics?" she asked, when Lady Ogram paid no heed to her look.

"Don't be stupid. Tell him what I think about villages altogether."

"Yes, I should very much like to hear that," said Dyce, whose confidence was gaining ground.

"Lady Ogram doesn't like the draining of the country population into towns; she thinks it a harmful movement, with bad results on social and political life, on national life from every point of view This seems to her to be the great question of the day. How to keep up village life?-in face of the fact that English agriculture seems to be doomed. At Shawe, as Lady Ogram thinks, and we all do, a step has been taken in the right direction. Lots of the young people who are now working here in wholesome surroundings would by this time have been lost in the slums of London or Liverpool or Birmingham. Of course, as a mill-owner, she has made sacrifices; she hasn't gone about the business with only immediate profit in view; children and girls have been taught what they wouldn't have learnt but for Lady Ogram's kindness."

"Admirable!" murmured Mr. Gallantry. "True philanthropy, and true patriotism!"

"Beyond a doubt," agreed Dyce. "Lady Ogram deserves well of her country."

"There's just one way," remarked Mrs. Gallantry, "in which, it seems to me, she could have deserved better. Don't be angry with me, Lady Ogram; you know I profit by your example in saying just what I think. Now, if, instead of a mill, you had built a training institution for domestic service-"

"Bah!" broke in the hostess. "How you harp on that idea! Haven't you any other?"

"One or two more, I assure you," replied Mrs. Gallantry, with the utmost good-humour. "But I particularly want to interest you in this one. It's better that girls should work in a mill in the country than go to swell the population of slums; I grant you that. But how much better still for them to work in private houses, following their natural calling, busy with the duties of domestic life. They're getting to hate that as much as their menfolk hate agricultural labour; and what could be a worse symptom or a greater danger?"

"Pray," cried Lady Ogram, in her grating voice, "how would a servants' school have helped the village?"

"Not so quickly, perhaps, but in time. With your means and influence, Lady Ogram, you might have started an institution which would be the model of its kind for all England. Every female child in Shawe would have had a prospect before her, and the village would have attracted decent poor families, who might somehow have been helped to support themselves-"

Lady Ogram waved her hand contemptuously.

"Somehow! That's the way with your conservative-reform women. Somehow! Always vague, rambling notions-"

"Conservative-reform!" exclaimed Mrs. Gallantry, showing a little pique, though her face was pleasant as ever. "Surely your own ideas are to a great extent c


"Yes, but there's a liberal supply of common sense in them!" cried the hostess, so delighted to have made a joke that she broke into cackling laughter, and laughed until failure of breath made her gasp and wriggle in her chair, an alarming spectacle. To divert attention, Constance began talking about the mill, describing the good effect it had wrought in certain families. Dyce listened with an air almost as engrossed as that of Mr. Gallantry, and, when his moment came, took up the conversation.

"Mrs. Gallantry's suggestion," he said, "is admirable, and the sooner it's carried out, not merely in one place, but all over England, the better. But I rather think that, in the given circumstances, Lady Ogram took the wisest possible step. We have to look at these questions from the scientific point of view. Our civilisation is concerned, before all things, with the organisation of a directing power; the supreme problem of science, and at the same time the most urgent practical question of the day, is how to secure initiative to those who are born for rule. Anything which serves to impress ordinary minds with a sense of social equilibrium to give them an object lesson in the substitution of leadership for anarchy-must be of immense value. Here was a community falling into wreck, cut loose from the orderly system of things, old duties and obligations forgotten, only hungry rights insisted upon. It was a picture in little of the multitude given over to itself. Into the midst of this chaos, Lady Ogram brings a directing mind, a beneficent spirit of initiative, and the means, the power, of re-establishing order. The villagers have but to look at the old state of things and the new to learn a lesson which the thoughtful among them will apply in a wider sphere. They know that Lady Ogram had no selfish aim, no wish to make profit out of their labour; that she acted purely and simply in the interests of humble folk-and of the world at large. They see willing industry substituted for brutal or miserable indolence; they see a striking example of the principle of association, of solidarity-of perfect balance between the naturally superior and the naturally subordinate."

"Good, very good!" murmured Mr. Gallantry. "Eloquent!"

"I admit the eloquence," said Mrs. Gallantry, smiling at Lashmar with much amiability, "but I really can't see why this lesson couldn't have been just as well taught by the measure that I proposed."

"Let me show you why I think not," replied Dyce, who was now enjoying the sound of his own periods, and felt himself inspired by the general attention. "The idea of domestic service is far too familiar to these rustics to furnish the basis of any new generalisation. They have long ceased to regard it as an honour or an advantage for their girls to go into the house of their social superiors; it seems to them a kind of slavery; what they aim at is a more independent form of wage-earning, and that's why they go off to the great towns, where there are factories and public-houses, work-rooms and shops. To establish here the training institution you speak of would have done many sorts of good, but not, I think, that particular good, of supreme importance, which results from Lady Ogram's activity. In the rustics' eyes, it would be merely a new device for filling up the ranks of cooks and housemaids, to the sole advantage of an upper class. Of course that view is altogether wrong, but it would be held. The paper-mill, being quite a novel enterprise, excites new thoughts. It offers the independence these people desire, and yet it exacts an obvious discipline. It establishes a social group corresponding exactly to the ideal organism which evolution will some day produce: on the one hand ordinary human beings understanding their obligations and receiving their due; on the other, a superior mind, reciprocally fulfilling its duties, and reaping the nobler advantage which consists in a sense of worthy achievement."

"Very striking indeed!" fell from Mr. Gallantry.

"You seem to have made out a fair case, Mr. Lashmar," said his wife, with a good-natured laugh. "I'm not sure that I couldn't debate the point still, but at present I'll be satisfied with your approval of my scheme."

Lady Ogram, sitting more upright against the back of her chair than before her attack of breathlessness, had gazed unwaveringly at the young man throughout his speeches. A grim smile crept over her visage; her lips were pressed together, and her eyes twinkled with subdued satisfaction. She now spoke abruptly.

"Do you remain at Hollingford to-night, Mr. Lashmar?"

"Yes, Lady Ogram."

"Very well. Come here to-morrow morning at eleven, go over the mill, and then lunch with us. My manager shall be ready for you."

"Thank you, very much."

"Miss Bride, give Mr. Lashmar your Report. He might like to look over it."

Mr. and Mrs. Gallantry were rising to take leave, and the hostess did not seek to detain them; she stood up, with some difficulty, exhibiting a figure unexpectedly tall.

"We'll talk over your idea," she said, as she offered her hand to the lady. "There's something in it, but you mustn't worry me about it, you know. I cut up rough when I'm worried."

"Oh, I don't mind a bit!" exclaimed Mrs. Gallantry, gaily.

"But I do," was Lady Ogram's rejoinder, which again made her laugh, with the result that she had to sink back into her chair, waving an impatient adieu as Mr. Gallantry's long, loose figure bowed before her.

Constance Bride had left the room for a moment; she returned with a thin pamphlet in her hand, which, after taking leave of Mr. and Mrs. Gallantry, she silently offered to Lashmar.

"Ah, this is the Report," said Dyce. "Many thanks."

He stood rustling the leaves with an air of much interest. On turning towards his hostess, about to utter some complimentary remark, he saw that Lady Ogram was sitting with her head bent forward and her eyes closed; but for the position of her hands, each grasping an arm of the chair, one would have imagined that she had fallen asleep. Dyce glanced at Constance, who had resumed her seat, and was watching the old lady. A minute passed in complete silence, then Lady Ogram gave a start, recovered herself, and fixed her look upon the visitor.

"How old are you?" she asked, in a voice which had become less distinct, as if through fatigue.

"Seven and twenty, Lady Ogram."

"And your father is a clergyman?"

"My father is vicar of Alverholme, in Northamptonshire."

She added a few short, sharp questions, concerning his family and his education, which Dyce answered succinctly.

"Would you like to see something of Rivenoak? If so, Miss Bride will show you about."

"With pleasure," replied the young man.

"Very well. You lunch with us to-morrow. Be at the mill at eleven o'clock."

She held out her skeleton hand, and Dyce took it respectfully. Then Constance and he withdrew.

"This, as you see, is the library," said his companion, when they had passed into the adjoining room. "The books were mostly collected by Sir Spencer Ogram, father of the late baronet; he bought Rivenoak, and laid out the grounds. That is his portrait-the painter has been forgotten."

Dyce let his eyes wander, but paid Tittle attention to what he saw. His guide was speaking in a dry, uninterested voice, she, too, seeming to have her thoughts elsewhere. They went out into the hall, looked into one or two other rooms, and began to ascend the stairs.

"There's nothing of interest above," said Constance, "except the view from the top of the house. But Lady Ogram would like you to see that, no doubt."

Observing Constance as she went before him, Dyce was struck with a new dignity in her bearing. Notwithstanding her subordinate position at Rivenoak, and the unceremonious way in which Lady Ogram exercised authority over her, Constance showed to more advantage here than on her recent visit to Alverholme; she was more naturally self-possessed, and seemed a freer, happier person. The house garb, though decorous rather than ornamental, became her better than her walking-costume. Her well-shaped head and thoughtful, sensitive, controlled features, had a new value against this background of handsome furniture and all the appointments of wealth. She moved as if breathing the air that suited her.

From the terrace on the roof, their eyes commanded a wide and beautiful prospect, seen at this moment of the year in its brightest array of infinitely varied verdure. Constance, still in an absent tone, pointed out the features of the landscape, naming villages, hills, and great estates. Hollingford, partly under a canopy of smoke, lay low by its winding river, and in that direction Dyce most frequently turned his eyes.

"I felt very much obliged to you," he said, "for your carefully written letter. But wasn't there one rather serious omission?"

Speaking, he looked at Constance with a humorous twinkle of the eye. She smiled.

"Yes, there was. But, after all, it did no harm."

"Perhaps not. I ought to have used more discretion on strange ground. By the bye, do you take an interest in the mill?"

"A good deal of interest. I think that what you said about it was, on the whole, true-though such an obvious improvisation."

"Improvisation? In one sense, yes; I had to take in the facts of the case very quickly. But you don't mean that you doubt my sincerity?"

"No, no. Of course not."

"Come, Miss Connie, we must understand each other-"

She interrupted him with a look of frank annoyance.

"Will you do me the kindness not to call me by that name? It sounds childish-and I have long outgrown childhood."

"What shall I call you? Miss Bride?"

"It is the usual form of address."

"Good. I was going to say that I should like you to be clear about my position. I have come here, not in the first place with a hope of personal advantage, but to see if I can interest Lady Ogram in certain views which I hold and am trying to get accepted by people of influence. It happened that this affair of the mill gave me a good illustration of the theory I generally have to put in an abstract way. Your word 'improvisation' seems to hint that I shaped my views to the purpose of pleasing Lady Ogram-a plain injustice, as you will see if you remember the letter I wrote you."

Constance was leaning on a parapet, her arms folded.

"I'm sorry you so understood me," she said, though without the accent of penitence, for in truth she seemed quietly amused. "All I meant was that you were admirably quick in seizing an opportunity of beginning your propaganda."

"I don't think you meant only that," remarked Dyce, coolly, looking her in the eyes.

"Is it your habit to contradict so grossly?" asked Constance, with a cold air of surprise.

"I try to make my talk-especially with women as honest as I can. It seems mere justice to them, as well as to myself. And please observe that I did not grossly contradict you. I said that you seemed to me to have another thought in your mind beyond the one you admitted.-Tell me, please; do you exact courtiership from men? I imagined you would rather dislike it."

"You are right; I do."

"Then it's clear that you mustn't be annoyed when I speak in my natural way. I see no reason in the world why one shouldn't talk to a woman-about things in general-exactly as one does to a man. What is called chivalry is simply disguised contempt. If a man bows and honeys to a woman, he does so because he thinks she has such a poor understanding that this kind of thing will flatter and please her. For my own part, I shall never try to please a woman by any other methods than those which would win the regard and friendship of a man."

Constance wore a look of more serious attention.

"If you stick to that," she said, with a frank air, "you will be a man worth knowing."

"I'm very glad to hear you say so. Now that we've cleared the air, we shall get on better together. Let me tell you that, whatever else I may fall short in, I have the virtue of sincerity. You know well enough that I am naturally ambitious, but my ambition has never made me unprincipled. I aim at distinction, because I believe that nature has put it within my reach. I don't regard myself as an average man, because I can't; it would be practising hypocrisy with myself. There is-if you like-the possibility of self-deception. Perhaps I am misled by egregious conceit. Well, it is honest conceit, and, as it tends to my happiness, I don't pray to be delivered from it."

Constance smiled.

"This is very interesting, Mr. Lashmar. But why do you honour me with such confidence?"

"Because I think you and I are capable of understanding each other, which is a rare thing between man and woman. I want you as a supporter of my views, and, if I succeed in that, I hope you will become a supporter of my ambitions."

"What are they, just now?"

"Your letter contained a suggestion; whether you intended it or not, I don't know. Why shouldn't I be the man Lady Ogram is looking for-the future Liberal member for Hollingford?"

His companion gazed at a far point of the landscape.

"That is perhaps not an impossible thing," she said, meditatively. "More unlikely things have come to pass."

"Then it does seem to you unlikely?"

"I think we won't discuss it just now.-You see, from here, the plan of the gardens and the park. Perhaps you would like to walk there a little, before going back to Hollingford?"

This was a dismissal, and Dyce accepted it. They went downstairs together, and in the hall parted, with more friendliness on Constance's side than she had hitherto shown. Dyce did not care to linger in the grounds. He strolled awhile about the village, glancing over the pamphlet with its report of last year's business at the mill, and the local improvements consequent upon it, then returned on foot to Hollingford, where he arrived with an excellent appetite for dinner.

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