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   Chapter 7 No.7

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 20900

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


On his return, Lashmar found a letter from Mrs. Woolstan awaiting him at Upper Woburn Place. The lady wrote in rather an agitated strain; she had to report that Leonard was already packed off to school, the imperious Wrybolt having insisted on sending him away as soon as he had recovered from his cold, on a pretence that the boy ought not to lose any part of the new term. "It is really very hard on me, don't you think? I know nothing whatever about the school, which is a long way off, right away in Devonshire: And it does so grieve me that you couldn't say good-bye to the poor little fellow. He says he shall write to you, and it would be so kind, dear Mr. Lashmar, if you could find a moment to answer him. I know how grateful dear Len would be. But we will talk about these things, for of course you will come and lunch all the same, at least I hope you will. Shall we say Thursday? I am not at all pleased with Mr. Wrybolt's behaviour. Indeed it seems to me very high-handed, very! And I told him very plainly what I thought. You can have no idea how galling is a woman's position left at the mercy of a trustee-a stranger too. And now that I am quite alone in the house-but I know you don't like people who complain. It's all very well for you, you know. Ah! if I had your independence! What I would make of my life!-Till Thursday, then, and don't, please, be bored with my letters."

This Mrs. Woolstan wrote and posted before luncheon. At three o'clock in the afternoon, just when she was preparing to go out, the servant made known to her that Mr. Wrybolt had called. What, Mr. Wrybolt again! With delay which was meant to be impressive, she descended to the drawing-room, and coldly greeted the gentleman of the red neck and heavy eyelids. Mr. Wrybolt's age was about five and forty; he had the well-groomed appearance of a flourishing City man, and presented no sinister physiognomy; one augured in him a disposition to high-feeding and a masculine self-assertiveness. Faces such as his may be observed by the thousand round about the Royal Exchange; they almost invariably suggest degradation, more or less advanced, of a frank and hopeful type of English visage; one perceives the honest, hearty schoolboy, dimmed beneath self-indulgence, soul-hardening calculation, debasing excitement and vulgar routine. Mr. Wrybolt was a widower, without children; his wife, a strenuous sportswoman, had been killed in riding to hounds two or three years ago. This afternoon he showed a front all amiability. He had come, he began by declaring, to let Mrs. Woolstan know that the son of a common friend of theirs had just, on his advice, been sent to the same school as Leonard; the boys would be friends, and make each other feel at home. This news Mrs. Woolstan received with some modification of her aloofness; she was very glad; after all, perhaps it had been a wise thing to send Leonard off with little warning; she would only have made herself miserable in the anticipation of parting with him. That, said Mr. Wrybolt, was exactly what he had himself felt. He was quite sure that in a few days Mrs. Woolstan would see that all was for the best. The fact of the matter was that Len's tutor, though no doubt a very competent man, had been guilty of indiscretion in unsettling the boy's ideas on certain very important subjects. Well, admitted the mother, perhaps it was so; she would say no more; Mr. Wrybolt, as a man of the world, probably knew best. And now-as he was here, she would use the opportunity to speak to him on a subject which had often been in her mind of late. It was a matter of business. As her trustee was aware, she possessed a certain little capital which was entirely at her own disposal. More than once Mr. Wrybolt had spoken to her about it-had been so kind as to express a hope that she managed that part of her affairs wisely, and to offer his services if ever she desired to make any change in her investments. The truth was, that she had thought recently of trying to put out her money to better advantage, and she would like to talk the matter over with him. This they proceeded to do, Mr. Wrybolt all geniality and apt suggestiveness. As the colloquy went on, a certain change appeared in the man's look and voice; he visibly softened, he moved his chair a little nearer, and all at once, before Mrs. Woolstan had had time to reflect upon these symptoms, Wrybolt was holding her hand and making her an offer of marriage.

Never was woman more genuinely surprised. That this prosperous financier, who had already made one advantageous marriage and might probably, if he wished, wed a second fortune-that such a man as Mr. Wrybolt would think of her for his wife, was a thing which had never entered her imagination. She was fluttered, and flattered, and pleased, but not for a moment did she think of accepting him. Her eyes fell, in demurest sadness. Never, never could she marry again; the past was always with her, and the future imposed upon her the most solemn of duties. She lived for the memory of her husband and for the prospects of her child. Naturally, Mr. Wrybolt turned at first an incredulous ear; he urged his suit, simply and directly, with persuasion derived partly from the realm of sentiment, partly from Lombard Street-the latter sounding the more specious. But Mrs. Woolstan betrayed no sign of wavering; in truth, the more Wrybolt pleaded, the firmer she grew in her resolve of refusal. When decency compelled the man to withdraw, he was very warm of countenance and lobster-hued at the back of his neck; an impartial observer would have thought him secretly in a towering rage. His leave-taking was laconic, though he did his best to smile.

Of course Mrs. Woolstan soon sat down to write him a letter, in which she begged him to believe how grateful she was, how much honoured by his proposal and how deeply distressed at not being able to accept it. Surely this would make no difference between them? Of course they would be friends as ever-nay, more than ever? She could never forget his nobly generous impulse. But let him reflect on her broken life, her immutable sadness; he would understand how much she would have wronged such a man as he in taking advantage of that moment's heroic weakness. To this effusive epistle came speedily a brief response. Of course all was as before, wrote Wrybolt. He was wholly at her service, and would do anything she wished in the matter of her money. By all means let her send him full particulars in writing, and he would lose no time; the yield of her capital might probably be doubled.

Mrs. Woolstan, after all, went no further in that business. She had her own reasons for continuing to think constantly of it, but for the present felt she would prefer not to trouble Mr. Wrybolt. Impatiently she looked forward to Thursday and the coming of Dyce Lashmar.

He came, with a countenance of dubious import. He was neither merry nor sad, neither talkative nor taciturn. At one moment his face seemed to radiate hope; the next, he appeared to fall under a shadow of solicitude. When his hostess talked of her son, he plainly gave no heed; his replies were mechanical. When she asked him for an account of what he had been doing down in the country, he answered with broken scraps of uninteresting information. Thus passed the quarter of an hour before luncheon, and part of luncheon itself; but at length Dyce recovered his more natural demeanour. Choosing a moment when the parlour-maid was out of the room, he leaned towards Mrs. Woolstan, and said, with the smile of easy comradeship:

"I have a great deal to tell you."

"I'm so glad!" exclaimed Iris, who had been sinking into a disheartened silence. "I began to fear nothing interesting had happened."

"Have patience. Presently."

After that, the meal was quickly finished; they passed into the drawing-room, and took comfortable chairs on either side of the hearth. May had brought cold, clammy weather; a sky of billowing grey and frequent gusts against the window made it pleasant here by this bright fireside. Lashmar stretched his legs, smiled at the gimcracks shelved and niched above the mantelpiece, and began talking. His description of Lady Ogram was amusing, but not disrespectful; he depicted her as an old autocrat of vigorous mind and original character, a woman to be taken quite seriously, and well worth having for a friend, though friendship with her would not be found easy by ordinary people.

"As luck would have it, I began by saying something which might have given her mortal offence." He related the incident of the paper-mill. "Nothing could have been better. She must be sickened with toadyism, and I could see she found my way a refreshing contrast. It made clear to her at once that I met her in a perfectly independent spirit. If we didn't like each other, good-bye, and no harm done. But, as it proved, we got on very well indeed. In a fortnight's time I am to go down and stay at Rivenoak."

"Really? In a fortnight? She must have taken to you wonderfully."

"My ideas interested the old lay as I thought perhaps they might. She's very keen on political and social science. It happens, too, that she's looking about for a Liberal candidate to contest Hollingford at the next election."

Dyce added this information in a very quiet, matter-of-fact voice, his eyes turned to the fire. Upon his hearer they produced no less an effect than he anticipated.

"A Liberal candidate!" echoed Iris, a-quiver with joyous excitement. "She wants you to go into Parliament!"

"I fancy she has that idea. Don't make a fuss about it; there's nothing startling in the suggestion. It was probably her reason for inviting me to Rivenoak."

"Oh, this is splendid-splendid!"

"Have the goodness to be quiet," said Dyce. "It isn't a thing to scream about, but to talk over quietly and sensibly. I thought you had got out of that habit."

"I'm very sorry. Don't be cross. Tell me more about it. Who is the present member?"

Dyce gave an account of the state of politics at Hollingford, sketching the character of Mr. Robb on the lines suggested by Breakspeare. As she listened, Mrs. Woolstan had much ado to preserve outward calm; she was flushed with delight; words of enthusiasm trembled on her lips.

"When will the election be?" she asked in the first pause.

"Certainly not this year. Possibly not even next There's plenty of time."

"Oh, you are sure to win! How can a wretched old Tory like that stand against you? Go and make friends with everybody. You only need to be known. How I should like to hear you make a speech! Of course I must be there when you do. How does one get to Hollingford? What are the trains?"

"If you leave Euston by the newspaper train to-morrow morning," said Dyce, gravely, "you may be just in time to hear the declaration of the poll.-Meanwhile," he added, "suppose we think for a moment of the trifling fact that my income is nothing a year. How does that affect my chances in a political career, I wonder?"

Mrs. Woolstan's countenance fell.

"Oh-but-it's impossible for that to stand in your way. You said yourself that you didn't seriously trouble about it. Of course you will get an income-somehow. Men who go in for public life always do-don't they?"

She spoke timidly, with downcast eyes, a smile hovering about her lips. Dyce did not look at her. He had thrust his hands into his trouser pockets, and crossed his legs; he smiled frowningly at the fire.

"Does Lady Ogram know your circumstances?" Iris asked, in a lower voice.

"I can't be sure. She may have heard something about them from-my friend. Naturally, I didn't tell her that I was penniless."

"But-if she is bent on having you for a candidate don't you think she will very likely make some suggestion? A wealthy woman-"

The voice failed; the speaker had an abashed air.

"We can't take anything of that kind into account," said Lashmar, with masculine decision. "If any such suggestion were made, I should have to consider it very carefully indeed. As yet I know Lady Ogram very slightly. We may quarrel, you know; it would be the easiest thing in the world. My independence is the first consideration. You mustn't imagine that I clutch at this opportunity. Nothing of the kind. It's an opening, perhaps; but in any case I should have found one before long. I don't even know yet whether Hollingford will suit me. It's a very unimportant borough; I may decide that it would be better to look to one of the large, intelligent constituencies. I'm afraid-" he became rather severe-"you are inclined to weigh my claims to recognition by the fact that I happen to have no money-"

"Oh, Mr. Lashmar! Oh, don't!" exclaimed Iris, in a pained voice. "How can you be so unkind-so unjust!"

"No, no; I merely want to guard myself against misconception. The very freedom with which I speak to you might lead you to misjudge me. If I thought you were ever tempted to regard me as an adventurer-"

"Mr. Lashmar!" cried Iris, almost tearfully. "This is dreadful. How could such a thought enter my mind? Is that your opinion of me?"

"Pray don't be absurd," interposed Dyce, with an impatient gesture. "I detest this shrillness, as I've told you fifty times."

Iris bridled a little.

"I'm sure I wasn't shrill. I spoke in a very ordinary voice. And I don't know why you should attribute such thoughts to me."

Lashmar gave way to nervous irritation.

"What a feminine way of talking! Is it impossible for you to follow a logical train of ideas? I attributed no thought whatever to you. All I said was, that I must take care not to be misunderstood. And I see that I had very good reason; you have a fatal facility in misconceiving even the simplest things."

Mrs. Woolstan bridled still more. There was a point of colour on her freckled cheeks, her lower lip showed a tooth's pressure.

"After all," she said, "you must remember that I am a woman, and if women don't express themselves quite as men do, I see no great harm in it. I don't think mannishness is a very nice quality. After all, I am myself, and I can't become somebody else, and certainly shouldn't care to, if I could."

Dyce began to laugh forbearingly.

"Come, come," he said, "what's all this wrangling about? Row did it begin? That's the extraordinary thing with women; one gets so easily off the track, and runs one doesn't know where. What was I saying? Oh, simply that I couldn't be sure, yet, whether Hollingford would suit me. Let us keep to the higher plane. It's safer than too familiar detail."

Iris was not to be so easily composed. She remarked a change in her friend since he had ceased to be Leonard's tutor; he seemed to hold her in slighter esteem, a result, no doubt, of the larger prospects opening before him. She was jealous of old Lady Ogram, whose place and wealth gave her such power to shape a man's fortunes. For some time now, Iris had imagined herself an influence in Lashmar's life, had dreamed that her influence might prevail over all other. In marrying, she had sacrificed herself to an illusory hope; but she was now an experienced woman, able to distinguish the phantasmal from the genuine, and of Lashmar's powers there could be no doubt. Her own judgment she saw confirmed by that of Lady Ogram. Sharp would be her pang if the aspiring genius left her aside, passed beyond her with a careless nod. She half accused him of ingratitude.

"I'm not at all sure," she said, rather coldly, "that you think me capable of rising to the higher plane. Perhaps trivial details are more suited to my intelligence."

Dyce had relieved himself of a slight splenetic oppression, and felt that he was behaving boorishly. He brightened and grew cordial, admitted a superfluous sensitiveness, assured his companion that he prized her sympathy, counted seriously upon her advice; in short, was as amiable as he knew how to be. Under his soothing talk, Mrs. Woolstan recovered herself; but she had a preoccupied air.

"If you regard me as a serious friend," she said at length with some embarrassment, "you can easily prove it, and put my mind at ease."

"How?" asked Dyce, with a quick, startled look.

"You have said more than once that a man and woman who were really friends should be just as men are with each other-plain-spoken and straightforward and-and no nonsense."

"That's my principle. I won't have any woman for a friend on other terms."

"Then-here's what I want to say. I'm your friend call me Jack or Harry, if you like-and I see a way in which I can be of use to you. It happens that I have rather more money than I want for my own use. I want to lend you some-until your difficulties are over-just as one man would to another-"

Her speech had become so palpitant that she was stopped by want of breath; a rosy shamefacedness subdued her; trying to brave it out, she achieved only an unconscious archness of eye and lip which made her for the moment oddly, unfamiliarly attractive. Dyce could not take his eyes from her; he experienced a singular emotion.

"That's uncommonly good of you, Iris," he said, with all the directness at his command. "You see, I call you by your name, just to show that I take our friendship seriously. If I could borrow from anyone I would from you. But I don't like the idea. You're a good fellow-" he laughed-"and I thank you heartily."

Iris winced at the "good fellow."

"Why can't you consent to borrow?" she asked, in a note of persistence. "Would you refuse if Lady Ogram made such a suggestion?"

"Oh, Lady Ogram! That would depend entirely-"

"But you must have money from somewhere," Iris urged, her manner becoming practical. "I'm not rich enough to lend very much, but I could help you over a year, perhaps. Wouldn't you rather go back to Rivenoak with a feeling of complete independence?-I see what it is. You don't really mean what you say; you're ashamed to be indebted to a woman. Yes, I can see it in your face."

"Look at the thing impartially," said Dyce, fidgetting in his chair. "How can I be sure that I should ever be able to pay you back? In money matters there is just that difference a man can go to work and earn; a woman generally can't do anything of the kind. That's why it seems unjust to take a woman's money; that's the root of all our delicacy in the matter. Don't trouble about my affairs; I shall pull through the difficult time."

"Yes," exclaimed Iris, "with somebody else's help. And why should it be somebody else? I'm not in such a position that I should be ruined if I lost a few hundred pounds. I have money I can do what I like with. If I want to have the pleasure of helping you, why should you refuse me? You know very well-at least, I hope you do-that I should never have hinted at such a thing if we had been just ordinary acquaintances. We're trying to be more sensible than everyday people. And just when there comes a good chance of putting our views into practice, you draw back, you make conventional excuses. I don't like that! It makes me feel doubtful about your sincerity-Be angry, if you like. I feel inclined to be angry too, and I've the better right!"

Again her panting impulsiveness ended in extinction of voice, again she was rosily self-conscious, though, this time, not exactly shamefaced; and again the young man felt a sort of surprise as he gazed at her.

"In any case," he said, standing up and taking a step or two, "an offer of this kind couldn't be accepted straightaway. All I can say now is that I'm very grateful to you. No one ever gave me such a proof of friendship, that's the simple fact. It's uncommonly good of you, Iris-"

"It's not uncommonly good of you," she broke in, still seated, and her arms crossed. "Do as you like. You said disagreeable things, and I felt hurt, and when I ask you to make amends in a reasonable way-"

"Look here," cried Lashmar, standing before her with his hands in his pockets, "you know perfectly well-perfectly well-that, if I accept this offer, you'll think the worse of me."

Iris started up.

"It isn't true! I shall think the worse of you if you go down to Lady Ogram's house, and act and speak as if you were independent. What sort of face will you have when it comes at last to telling her the truth?"

Dyce seemed to find this a powerful argument. He raised his brows, moved uneasily, and kept silence.

"I shall not think one bit the worse of you," Iris pursued, impetuously. "You make me out, after all, to be a silly, ordinary woman, and it's horribly unjust. If you go away like this, please never come here again. I mean what I say. Never come to see me again!"

Lashmar seemed to hesitate, looked uncomfortable, then stepped back to his chair and sat down.

"That's right;" said Iris, with quiet triumph.

And she, too, resumed her chair.

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