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   Chapter 8 No.8

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 30376

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

Under the roof at Rivenoak was an attic which no one ever entered. The last person who had done so was Sir Quentin Ogram; on a certain day in eighteen hundred and-something, the baronet locked the door and put key into his pocket, and during the more than forty years since elapsed the room had remained shut. It guarded neither treasure nor dire secret; the hidden contents were merely certain essays in the art of sculpture, sundry shapes in clay and in marble, the work of Sir Quentin himself when a very young man. Only one of these efforts had an abiding interest; it was a marble bust representing a girl, or young woman, of remarkable beauty, the head proudly poised, the eyes disdainfully direct, on the lips a smile which seemed to challenge the world's opinion. Not a refined or nobly suggestive face, but stamped with character, alive with vehement self-consciousness; a face to admire at a distance, not without misgiving as one pictured the flesh and blood original. Young Quentin had made a fine portrait. The model was his mistress, and, soon after the bust was finished, she became his wife.

Naturally, Sir Spencer and Lady Ogram were not bidden to the wedding; in fact, they knew nothing about it until a couple of years after, when, on the birth to him of a son and heir, Quentin took his courage in both hands and went down to Rivenoak to make the confession. He avowed somewhat less than the truth, finding it quite task enough to mitigate the circumstances of Mrs. Ogram's birth and breeding. The exhibition of a portrait paved his way. This superbly handsome creature, adorned as became her present and prospective station, assuredly gave no shock at the first glance. By some freak of fate she had for parents a plumber and a washerwoman-"poor but very honest people," was Quentin's periphrase; their poverty of late considerably relieved by the thoughtful son-in-law, and their honesty perhaps fortified at the same time. Arabella (the beauty's baptismal name) unfortunately had two brothers; sisters, most happily, none. The brothers, however, were of a roaming disposition, and probably would tend to a colonial life; Quentin had counselled it, with persuasions which touched their sense of the fitting. So here was the case stated; Sir Spencer and his lady had but to reflect upon it, with what private conjectures might chance to enter their minds. Quentin was an only child; he had provided already for the continuance of the house; being of mild disposition, the baronet bowed his head to destiny, and, after a moderate interval, Arabella crossed the threshold of Rivenoak.

Of course there were one or two friends of Quentin's who knew all the facts of the case; these comrades he saw no more, having promised his wife never again to acknowledge or hold any intercourse with them. With his bachelor life had ended the artistic aspirations to which he had been wont to declare that he should for ever devote himself; Mrs. Ogram (she had been for a year or two a professional model) objected to that ungentlemanly pursuit with much more vigour and efficacy than the young man's parents, who had merely regretted that Quentin should waste his time and associate with a class of persons not regarded as worthy of much respect. Whether the dismissed cronies would talk or keep silence, who could say? Sir Spencer affected to believe that Arabella, when his son came to know her, was leading the life of a harmless, necessary sempstress, and that only by long entreaty, and under every condition of decorum, had she been induced to sit for her bust to the enthusiastic sculptor. Very touching was the story of how, when the artist became adorer and offered marriage, dear Arabella would not hear of such a thing; how, when her heart began to soften, she one day burst into tears and implored Mr. Ogram to prove his love, not by wildly impossible sacrifice, but simply by sending her to school, so that she might make herself less unworthy to think of him with pathetic devotion, and from a great distance, to the end of her days. To school, in very deed, she had been sent; that is to say, she had all manner of teachers, first in England and then abroad, during the couple of years before the birth of her child; and by this instruction Arabella profited so notably that her language made no glaring contrast with that of the civilised world, and her mind seemed if anything more acute, more circumspective, than women's generally in the sphere to which she was now admitted. Sir Spencer and Lady Ogram did not love her; they made no pretence of doing so; and it may be feared that the lives of both were shortened by chagrin and humiliation. At the age of thirty or so, Quentin succeeded to the baronetcy. In the same year his son died. No other offspring had blessed, or was to bless, the romantic union.

Behold Arabella, erst of Camden Town, installed as mistress of a house in Mayfair and reigning over Rivenoak. Inevitably, legends were rife about her; where the exact truth was not known, people believed worse. Her circle of society was but a narrow one; but for two classes of well-dressed people, the unscrupulous snobs and the cheerily indifferent, her drawing-room would have been painfully bare. Some families knew her because Sir Quentin was one of the richest men in his county; certain persons accepted her invitations because she was not exactly like other hostesses, and could talk in rather an amusing way. The years went on; scandal lost its verdure; Lady Ogram was accepted as a queer woman with a queer history, a rather vulgar eccentric, whose caprices and enterprises afforded agreeable matter for gossip. No one had ever ventured to assail her post-matrimonial reputation; she was fiercely virtuous, and would hold no terms with any woman not wholly above reproach. It had to be admitted that she bore herself with increasing dignity; moreover, that she showed a disposition to use her means and influence for what are called good ends. Towards the year 1870 the name of Lady Ogram began to be mentioned with respect.

Then her husband died. Sir Quentin had doubtless fallen short of entire happiness; before middle-age he was a taciturn, washed-out sort of man, with a look of timid anxiety. Perchance he regretted the visions of his youth, the dreams of glory in marble. When he became master of Rivenoak, and gave up his London house, Arabella wished him to destroy all his sculpture, that no evidence might remain of the relations which had at first existed between them, no visible relic of the time which she refused to remember. Sir Quentin pleaded against this condemnation, and obtained a compromise. The fine bust, and a few other of his best things, were to be transferred to Rivenoak, and there kept under lock and key. Often had the baronet felt that he would like to look at the achievements of his hopeful time, but he never summoned courage to mount to the attic. His years went by in a mouldering inactivity. Once or twice he escaped alone to the Continent, and wandered for weeks about the Italian sculpture-galleries, living in the sunny, ardent past; he came back nerve-shaken and low in health. His death was sudden-'failure of the heart's action,' said doctors, in their indisputable phrase-and Lady Ogram shut herself up for a time that she might not have the trouble of grieving before witnesses.

The baronet had behaved very generously to her in his last will and testament. Certain sums went to kinsfolk, to charities, to servants; his land and the bulk of his personal estate became Lady Ogram's own. She was a most capable and energetic woman of affairs; by her counsel, Sir Quentin had increased his wealth, and doubtless it seemed to him that no one had so good a right as she to enjoy its possession. The sacrifice he had made for her, though he knew it a blight upon his life, did but increase the power exercised over him by his arbitrary spouse; he never ceased to feel a certain pride in her, pride in the beauty of her face and form, pride in the mental and moral vigour which made her so striking an exception to the rule that low-born English girls cannot rise above their native condition. Arabella's family had given him no trouble; holding it a duty to abandon them, she never saw parents or brothers after her marriage, and never spoke of them. Though violent of temper, she had never made her husband suffer from this characteristic; to be sure, Sir Quentin was from the first, submissive, and rarely gave her occasion for displeasure. Over the baronet's grave in the little churchyard of Shawe she raised a costly monument. Its sole inscription was the name of the deceased, with the dates of his birth and death; Lady Ogram knew not, indeed, what else to add.

Fully another ten years elapsed before the widow's health showed any sign of failing. It was whilst passing a winter in Cornwall, that she suffered a slight paralytic attack, speedily, in appearance, overcome, but the beginning of steady decline. Her intellectual activity had seemed to increase as time went on. Outgrowing various phases of orthodox religious zeal, outgrowing an unreasoned conservatism in political and social views, she took up all manner of novel causes, and made Rivenoak a place of pilgrimage for the apostles of revolution. Yet the few persons who enjoyed close acquaintance with her knew that, at heart, she still nourished the pride of her Tank, and that she had little if any genuine sympathy with democratic principles. Only a moral restlessness, a perhaps half-conscious lack of adaptation to her circumstances, accounted for the antinomianism which took hold upon her. Local politics found her commonly on the Conservative side, and, as certain indiscreet inquirers found to their cost, it was perilous to seek Lady Ogram's reasons for this course. But there came at length a schism between her and the Hollingford Tories: it dated from the initial stage of her great quarrel with their representative Mr. Robb.

Lady Ogram, who was on the lookout in these latter years for struggling merit or talent which she could assist, interested herself in the son of a poor woman of Shawe, a boy who had won a scholarship at Hollingford School, and seemed full of promise. Being about sixteen, the lad had a great desire to enter a bank, and Lady Ogram put his case before the senior partner in the chief Hollingford banking-house, who was no other than Mr. Robb himself. Thus recommended, the boy soon had his wish; he was admitted to a clerkship. But less than six months proved him so unsuitable a member of the establishment that he received notice of dismissal. Not till after this step had been taken did Lady Ogram hear of it. She was indignant at what seemed to her a lack of courtesy; she made inquiries, persuaded herself that her protege had been harshly dealt with, and wrote a very pungent letter to the head of the firm. Mr. Robb did not himself reply, and the grave arguments urged by his subordinate served nothing to mitigate Lady Ogram's wrath. Insult had been added to injury; her ladyship straightway withdrew an account she kept at the bank, and dispatched to the M. P. a second letter, so forcible in its wording that it received no answer at all.

Never half-hearted in her quarrels, Lady Ogram made known to all her acquaintances in the neighbourhood the opinion she had of Mr. Robb, and was in no wise discouraged when it came to her ears that the banker M. P. spoke of taking legal proceedings against her. It happened that Mr. Robb about this time addressed an important meeting of his constituents. His speech was not brilliant, and Lady Ogram made great fun of the newspaper report. He reminded her, she said, of a specially stupid organ-grinder, grinding all out of time the vulgarest and most threadbare tunes. Henceforth, applying the name of a character in Dickens, she spoke of Hollingford's representative as Robb the Grinder; which, when Mr. Robb heard of it, as of course he did very soon, by no means sweetened his disposition towards "the termagant of Rivenoak"-a phrase he was supposed to have himself invented. "I'll grind her!" remarked the honourable gentleman, in the bosom of his family, and before long he found his opportunity. In the next parliamentary recess, he again spoke at Hollingford, this time at a festal meeting of the Conservative Club, where the gentility of town and district was well represented. His subject was the British Aristocracy, its glories in the past, its honours in the present, and the services it would render in a future dark with revolutionary menace. The only passage which had any particular meaning, or to which anyone listened, ran pretty much thus:

"Ladies and gentleman-ha-hum-we pride ourselves on the fact that-ha-our Aristocracy is recruited from the choice representatives of the middle class-hum. The successful in every-that is to say in all the respectable branches of activity-ha-see before them the possibility, I would say the glorious possibility, of taking a seat in that illustrious Upper Chamber, which is the balance of our free Constitution. May the day never come, ladies and gentlemen, when-ha-the ranks of our nobility suffer an intrusion of the unworthy-hum. And I would extend this remark to the order below that of peers, to the hereditary dignity which often rewards-ha-distinguished merit. May those simple titles, so pleasant-hum-to our ears, whether applied, I say, to man or woman-ha-hum-ha-never be degraded by ignoble bearers, by the low born-ha-by the tainted in repute-ha-in short by any of those unfit, whether man or woman-ha-hum-who, like vile weeds, are thrown up to the surface by the, shall I say, deluge of democracy."

Every hearer saw the application of this, and Lady Ogram had not long to wait before she read it in print. Her temper that day was not mild. She had occasion to controvert a friend, a Conservative lady, on some little point of fact in an innocent gossip, and that lady never again turned her steps to Rivenoak.

But worse was to come. Rarely had Lady Ogram any trouble with her domestics; she chose them very carefully, and kept them for a long time; they feared her, but respected her power of ruling, the rarest gift in women of whatever rank. Now it befell that the maid in personal attendance upon her left to be married, and in her engagement of a successor Lady Ogram (perhaps because of her turbid state of mind just now) was less circumspect than usual; she did not ascertain, for instance, that the handmaid had a sister attached in like capacity to the person of Mrs. Robb, nor did she note certain indications of a temper far too closely resembling her own. Before many days had passed, mistress and attendant found themselves on cool terms, and from this to the extremity of warmth was a step as fatally easy as that from the sublime to the ridiculous. Lady Ogram gave an order; it was imperfectly obeyed. Lady Ogram, her eyes blazing with wrath, demanded an explanation of this neglect; met with inadequate excuses, she thundered and lightened. Any ordinary domestic would have been terror-stricken, but this handmaid echoed storm

with storm; she fronted the lady of Rivenoak as no one had ever dared to do. The baronet's widow, losing all command of herself, caught up the nearest missile-a little ivory-framed hand-mirror and hurled it at her antagonist, who was struck full on the forehead and staggered.

"You shall pay for this, you old hag," shrieked the injured woman. "I'll pull you up before the Hollingford magistrates, and I'll tell them where you got your manners. I know now that it's true, what Mrs. Robb told my sister, that you began life as a"-Saxon monosyllable-"on London streets!"

Some minutes later, a servant sent to Lady Ogram's room by the retreating combatant found her mistress lying unconscious. For a day or two the lady of Rivenoak was thought to be near her end; but the struggle prolonged itself, hope was seen, and in three months' time the patient went about her garden and park in a bath chair. Doctors opined that she would never walk again; yet, before six months were out, Lady Ogram was down in Cornwall, taking the air very much as of old. But her aspect had greatly changed; her body had shrunk, her face had become that of an old, old woman. Then it was that she renewed her falling locks, and appeared all at once with the magnificent crown of auburn hair which was henceforth to astonish beholders.

More than ten years had now elapsed since that serious illness. Lady Ogram's age was seventy-nine. Medical science declared her a marvel, and prudently held it possible that she might live to ninety.

What to do with her great possessions had long been a harassing subject of thought with Lady Ogram. She wished to use them for some praiseworthy purpose, which, at the same time, would perpetuate her memory. More than twenty years ago she had instructed her solicitor to set on foot an inquiry for surviving members of her own family. The name was Tomalin. Search had gone on with more or less persistence, and Tomalins had come to light, but in no case could a clear connection be established with the genealogical tree, which so far as Arabella had knowledge of it, rooted in the person of John Tomalin of Hackney, her grandfather, by trade a cabinet-maker, deceased somewhere about 1840. Since her illness, Lady Ogram had fallen into the habit of brooding over the days long gone by. She revived the memory of her home in Camden Town, of her life as a not-ill-cared-for child, of her experiences in a West-end workroom, her temptations, multiplied as she grew to the age of independence, her contempt of girls who "went wrong," these domestic quarrels and miseries which led to her breaking away and becoming an artists' model. How remote it all was! Had she not lived through it in a prior existence, with rebirth to the life of luxury and command which alone seemed natural to her? All but sixty years had passed since she said good-bye for ever to Camden Town, and for thirty years at least, the greater part of her married life, she had scarce turned a thought in that direction. Long ago her father and mother were dead; she knew of it only from the solicitor, Mr. Kerchever, who, after the death of Sir Quentin, gave her a full account of the baronet's pecuniary relations with the Tomalin household. No blackmailing had ever been practised; the plumber and his wife were content with what they received, (Arabella felt a satisfaction in remembering that of her own accord she had asked her husband to do something for them, when she might very well have disregarded them altogether,) and the two brothers, who were supposed to have left England, had never been heard of again. The failure to discover anyone named Tomalin whom she could regard as of her own blood was now a disappointment to Lady Ogram; sometimes she even fretted about it. Mr. Kerchever had it in charge to renew the inquiry, to use every possible means, and spare no outlay. The old woman yearned for kinsfolk, as the younger sometimes do for offspring of their own.

The engagement of Constance Bride as resident secretary resulted no doubt from this craving in the old lady's mind for human affection. Perhaps she felt that she had behaved with less than justice to the girl's father; moreover, Constance as a little child had greatly won her liking, and in the young woman she perceived a capability, an independence, which strongly appealed to her. Thus far they had got on very well together, and Lady Ogram began to think that she had found in Constance what she had long been looking for-one of her own sex equal to the burden of a great responsibility and actuated by motives pure enough to make her worthy of a high privilege.

Had her girlhood fallen into brutal hands, Arabella's native savagery would doubtless have developed strange excesses in the life of a social outlaw. The companionship of Quentin Ogram, a mild idealist, good-naturedly critical of the commonplace, though it often wearied her and irritated her primitive interests, was a civilising influence, the results of which continued to manifest themselves after the baronet's death. On the aesthetic side Arabella profited not at all; to the beautiful she ever presented a hard insensibility, and in later years she ceased even to affect pleasure in the things of nature or art which people generally admired. Her flowery and leafy drawing-room indicated no personal taste; it came of a suggestion by her gardener when she converted to her own use the former smoking-room; finding that people admired and thought it original, she made the arrangement a permanence, anxious only that the plants exhibited should be nicer and finer than those possessed by her neighbours. On the other hand, her moral life had from the first shown capacity of expansion; it held at its service an intellect, of no very fine quality indeed, but acute and energetic. In all practical affairs she was greatly superior to the average woman, adding to woman's meticulous sense of interest and persistent diplomacy a breadth of view found only in exceptional males; this faculty the circumstances of her life richly fostered, and, by anomaly, advancing age enlarged, instead of contracting, the liberality of her spirit. After fifty years told, when ordinary mortals have long since given their measure in heart and brain, Lady Ogram steadily advanced. Solitary possessor of wealth, autocrat over a little world of her own, instead of fossilising in dull dignity, she proved herself receptive of many influences with which the time was fraught. She cast off beliefs-or what she had held as such-and adopted others; she exchanged old prejudices for new forms of zeal; above all, she chose to be in touch with youth and aspiration rather than with disillusioned or retrospective age. Only when failing health shadowed the way before her did she begin to lose that confident carriage of the mind which, together with her profound materialism, had made worry and regret and apprehension things unknown to her. Thus, when old but by no means senile, she learnt that disquiet of conscience, so common in our day, which has nothing to do with spiritual perceptiveness, but comes of habitual concentration on every-day cares and woes, on the life of the world as apart from that of the soul. Through sleepless nights, Lady Ogram brooded over the contrast between her own exaltation and the hopeless level of the swinking multitude. What should she do with her money? The question perturbed her with a sense of responsibility which would have had no meaning for her in earlier years. How could she best use the vast opportunity for good which lay to her hand?

Endless were the projects she formed, rejected, took up again. Vast was the correspondence she held with all manner of representative people, seeking for information, accumulating reports, lectures, argumentative pamphlets, theoretic volumes, in mass altogether beyond her ability to cope with; nowadays, her secretary read and digested and summarised with tireless energy. Lady Ogram had never cared much for reading; she admired Constance's quick intelligence and power of grappling with printed matter. But that she had little faith in the future of her own sex, she would have been tempted to say: "There is the coming woman." Miss Bride's companionship was soon indispensable to her; she had begun to dread the thought of being left alone with her multiplying solicitudes and uncertainties.

Her great resource in these days was her savage hatred of Mr. Robb and his family, and of all in any way adhering to him. Whenever she fixed her mind on that, all wider troubles fled into space, and she was the natural woman of her prime once more. Since making the acquaintance of Dyce Lashmar, she had thought of little but this invigorating theme. At last she had found the man to stand against Robb the Grinder, the man of hope, a political and moral enthusiast who might sweep away the mass of rotten privilege and precedent encumbering the borough of Hollingford. She wrote to all her friends, at Hollingford and throughout the country, making known that the ideal candidate in the Liberal cause had at last been discovered. And presently she sent out invitations to a dinner, on a day a fortnight ahead, which should assemble some dozen of her faithful, to meet and hear the eloquent young philosopher.

Excitement was not good for Lady Ogram's health; the doctors agreed in prescribing tranquillity, and she had so far taken their advice as to live of late in comparative retirement. Her observant companion noticed that the conversations with Lashmar had been followed by signs of great fatigue; an agitated manner, a temper even more uncertain than usual, and physical symptoms which Constance had learnt to look for, proved during the ensuing days that the invalid was threatened with another crisis. Acting on her own responsibility, Constance addressed a note to Dr. Baldwin, who presently, as if making a casual call, dropped in to see his patient. The doctor knew how to comport himself with Lady Ogram. He began by remarking cheerfully how well she looked, and asking whether she had settled the details of her summer holiday. Dull and rather sullen of air, Lady Ogram replied with insignificant brevities; then, as the doctor chatted on about local matters, her interest gradually awoke.

"Anything more been done about the new hospital?" she asked.

"Oh, there are promises, but nothing really important. It'll cost far more money than there seems any chance as yet of getting. We ought to buy that bit of land I told you about on Burgess Hill. The price is high, but it's a perfect situation, and I'm afraid it'll be going to the builders if something isn't soon done."

Lady Ogram would have purchased the site in question long since, for it was her purpose to act decisively in this matter of the much-needed hospital, but it happened that the unspeakable Robb was the man who had first drawn public attention to the suitability of Burgess Hill, and Lady Ogram was little inclined to follow where Robb had led. She hoped to find a yet better site, and, by undertaking at once both purchase of land and construction of the building, with a liberal endowment added, to leave in the lurch all philanthropic rivals. For years she had possessed plans and pictures of "The Lady Ogram Hospital." She cared for no enterprise, however laudable, in which she could only be a sharer; the initiative must be hers, and hers the glory.

Discreetly, Dr. Baldwin worked round to the subject of his patient's health. He hoped she was committing no imprudence in the way of excessive mental exertion. It seemed to him-perhaps he was mistaken-that talk agitated her more than usual. Quiet and repose-quiet and repose.

That afternoon Lady Ogram was obliged to lie down, a necessity she always disliked in the daytime, and for two or three days she kept her room. Constance now and then read to her, but persuaded her to speak as little as possible of exciting subjects. She saw no one but this companion. Of late she had been in the habit of fixing her look upon Constance, as though much occupied with thoughts concerning her. When she felt able to move about again, they sat together one morning on the terrace before the house, and Lady Ogram, after a long inspection of her companion's countenance, asked suddenly:

"Do you often hear from your father?"

"Not often. Once in two months, perhaps."

"I suppose you are not what is called a good daughter?"

Constance found the remark rather embarrassing, for it hit a truth of which she had been uneasily aware.

"Father and I have not much in common," she replied. "I respect him, and I hope he isn't quite without some such feeling for me. But we go such different ways."

"Does he believe what he pretends to?"

"He has never made any pretences at all, Lady Ogram. That's his character, and I try to think that it's mine too."

"Well, well," exclaimed the old lady, "I suppose you're not going to quarrel with me because I ask a simple question? You have a touchy temper, you know. If I had had a temper like yours, I should have very few friends at my age."

Constance averted her eyes, and said gravely:

"I try to correct myself by your example."

"You might do worse. By the bye-if you won't snap my nose off-I suppose your father isn't very well to do?"

"He's very poor. Such men always are."

Lady Ogram lay back and mused. She had no affection for Constance, yet felt more kindly disposed to her than to any other girl or woman she knew. Consciously or not, she had come to feel a likeness between her own mind and that of the clergyman's daughter; she interpreted Constance's thoughts by her own. Indeed, there was a certain resemblance, both mental and moral. In one regard it showed itself strikingly-the contempt for their own sex which was natural to both. As a mere consequence of her birth, Arabella Tomalin had despised and distrusted womanhood; the sentiment is all but universal in low-born girls. Advancing in civilisation, she retained this instinct, and confirmed the habit of mind by results of her experience; having always sought for meanness and incapacity in the female world, she naturally had found a great deal of it. By another way, Constance Bride had arrived at very much the same results; she made no friends among women, and desired none. Lady Ogram and she agreed in their disdain for all "woman" movements; what progress they aimed at concerned the race at large, with merely a slighting glance towards the special circumstances of its sex-burdened moiety. Moreover, the time-worn woman perceived in her young associate a personal ambition which she read by the light of her own past. She divined in Constance a hunger for things at once substantial and brilliant, a smouldering revolt against poverty and dependence. Not for the first time did she remark and study such a disposition; the symptoms were very well known to Lady Ogram; but never before had she met it in combination with genuine ability and other characteristics which she held in esteem.

"Let us talk about our coming man," were her next words.

They talked of Dyce Lashmar.

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