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   Chapter 13 No.13

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 26018

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


A few days later, Lashmar found on his breakfast table a copy of the Hollingford Express, blue-pencilled at an editorial paragraph which he read with interest. The leaded lines announced that Hollingford Liberalism was at length waking up, that a campaign was being quietly but vigorously organised, and that a meeting of active politicians would shortly be held for the purpose of confirming a candidature which had already met with approval in influential circles. The same post brought a letter from Mr. Breakspeare, "Will you," asked the editor, "name a convenient date for meeting your friends and supporters? Say, about the 20th of this month. I am working up enthusiasm. We shall take the public room at the Saracen's Head. Admission to be by invitation card. I write to Lady Ogram, and no doubt you will consult with her."

This looked like business. Dyce reflected rather nervously that he would have to make a speech-a practical speech; he must define his political attitude; philosophical generalities would not serve in the public room at the Saracen's Head. Well, he had a fortnight to think about it. And here was an excuse for calling on Lady Ogram, of which he would avail himself at once.

In the afternoon he went to Bunting's Hotel, but Lady Ogram was not at home. He inquired for Miss Bride, and was presently led up to the private drawing-room, where Constance sat writing. As they shook hands, their eyes scarcely met.

"Can you spare me a few minutes?" asked the visitor. "There's something here I wanted to show Lady Ogram; but I shall be still more glad to talk it over with you."

Constance took the newspaper and Breakspeare's note. As she read, her firm-set lips relaxed a little. She handed the papers back with a nod.

"Has Lady Ogram heard?" Dyce asked.

"Yes; she had a letter this morning, and I have answered it. She was pleased So far, so good. You have had Mrs. Toplady's card for the evening of the 13th?"

"I have."

"One of the Liberal whips will be there-an opportunity for you."

Every time he saw her, Constance seemed to be drier and more laconic. Their intercourse promised to illustrate to the full his professed ideal of relation between man and woman in friendship; every note of difference in sex would soon be eliminated, if indeed that point were not already attained.

"Won't you sit down?" asked Miss Bride, carelessly; for Dyce had thrown hat and stick aside, and was moving about with his hands in his pockets.

"But you're busy."

"Not particularly."

"How is our friend?"

"Lady Ogram? Pretty well, I think, but overtaxing herself. I don't think she'll be able to stay here long. It certainly wouldn't be wise."

"Of course it's on her niece's account. By the bye-" Dyce paused before Constance's chair-"where has this niece sprung from? You told me she hadn't a relative in the world."

"So she believed. Miss Tomalin is a recent discovery-the fruit of Mr. Kerchever's researches."

"Ah! That's rather amusing. Lucky, I imagine, that she is such a presentable person. She might have been-"

He checked himself significantly, and Constance allowed an absent smile to pass over her face.

"I'm afraid," Dyce continued, "this change won't be quite pleasant to you?"

"To me? It makes no difference-none whatever. Will you please sit down? I dislike to talk with anyone who keeps fidgeting about."

One might have detected more than discomfort in Miss Bride's look and voice. A sudden flash of something very like anger shone in her eyes; but they were bent and veiled.

"Let us talk about Hollingford," said Lashmar, drawing up a chair. "It begins to look as if things were really in train. Of course, I shall go down to talk to them. Will you help me in putting my programme together?"

"Isn't that already done?"

"Why, no. What do I care about their party questions? I'm sure your advice would be valuable. Could you find time to jot down a few ideas?"

"If you think it any use, certainly. I can't promise to do it this evening; we have people to dine."

Lashmar was secretly offended that Lady Ogram should give a dinner-party in which he had no place.

"Anyone coming that I know?" he asked, off-hand.

"Let me see. Yes, there's Mrs. Toplady-and Lord Dymchurch-"

Dyce exclaimed:

"What an extraordinary thing! Dymchurch, who never went anywhere, seems all at once to be living in the thick of the world. The other day, I found him at Mrs. Toplady's, drinking tea. Was it there he came to know Lady Ogram?"

"Yes." Constance smiled. "Lady Ogram, you remember, much wished to meet him."

"And he dines here? I can't understand it."

"You are not very complimentary;" said Constance, with dry amusement.

"You know what I mean. I shouldn't have thought Lady Ogram would have had much attraction for him."

Miss Bride laughed, a laugh of all but genuine gaiety.

"Hadn't we better talk about your programme?" she resumed, in an altered voice, as though her humour had suddenly improved; "I should take counsel with Mr. Breakspeare, if I were you. I fancy he likes to be consulted, and his activity will be none the less for it."

Lashmar could not easily fix his thoughts on political tactics. He talked impatiently, all the time absorbed in another subject; and at the first pause he took his leave.

Decidedly it offended him that he was left out from this evening's dinner-party. A suspicion, too, had broken upon his mind which he found very distasteful and perturbing. Lady Ogram must have particular reasons for thus cultivating Lord Dymchurch's acquaintance; conjecturing what they might be, he perceived how he had allowed himself to shape visions and dream dreams during the last day or two. It was foolish, as he now saw plainly enough; in ambition, one must discern the probable, and steady one's course thereby. All at once, he felt a strong dislike of Lord Dymchurch, and even a certain contempt. The man was not what he had thought him.

Crossing the street at Piccadilly Circus, he ran before a hansom, and from the hansom was waved a hand, a voice in the same moment calling out his name. As a result of his stopping, he was very nearly run over by another cab; he escaped to the pavement; the hansom pulled up beside him, and he shook hands with Mrs. Woolstan.

"Are you going anywhere?" she asked, her eyes very wide as they gazed at him.

"Nowhere in particular."

"Then do come with me, will you? I have to buy a present for Len's birthday, and I should be so glad of your help in choosing it."

Dyce jumped into the vehicle, and, as his habit was, at once surveyed himself in the little looking-glass conveniently placed for that purpose. The inspection never gratified him, and to-day less than usual. Turning to his companion, he asked:

"Does everybody look ugly in a hansom mirror?"

"What a question! I'm sure I can't tell you."

Iris had coloured a little. Her eyes involuntarily sought the slip of glass at her side of the seat, and the face she saw was assuredly not a flattering likeness. With brow knitted, she stared out into the street, and presently asked:

"Have you seen Lady Ogram?"

"Yes."

"I thought you told me that she would have no one with her but her secretary? Why did you say that?"

"Because I didn't know that she bed a newly-discovered niece. It seems that you have heard of it. Perhaps you have met her?"

"Not yet; Mrs. Toplady told me."

"And you take it for granted that I had deliberately concealed the niece from you?" said Lashmar, with an amused air. "Pray, why should I have done so?"

"No, no, I thought nothing of the kind," replied Mrs. Woolstan, in a conciliating tone. "Indeed I didn't! It's only that I felt vexed not to have heard the story from you first. I thought you would have told it me as soon as possible-such an interesting thing as that."

Lashmar declared that he had only known of Miss Tomalin's existence for a day or two, and had only heard the explanation of her appearance this very day. His companion asked for a description of the young lady, and he gave one remarkable for splenetic exaggeration.

"You must have seen her in a hansom looking-glass," said Iris, smiling askance at him. "Mrs. Toplady's picture is very different. And the same applies to Miss Bride; I formed an idea of her from what you told me which doesn't answer at all to that given me by Mrs. Toplady."

"Mrs. Toplady," replied Dyce, his lips reminiscent of Pont Street, "inclines to idealism, I have found. It's an amiable weakness, but one has to be on one's guard against it. Did she say anything about Lord Dymchurch?"

"Nothing. Why?"

Dyce seemed to reflect; then spoke as if confidentially.

"I suspect there is a little conspiracy against the noble lord. From certain things that I have observed and heard, I think it probable that Lady Ogram wants to capture Dymchurch for her niece."

A light shone upon the listener's countenance, and she panted eager exclamations.

"Really? You think so? But I understood that he was so poor. How is it possible?"

"Yes. Dymchurch is poor, I believe, but he is a lord. Lady Ogram is not poor, and I fancy she would like above all things to end her life as aunt-in-law (if there be such a thing) of a peer. Her weakness, as we know, has always been for the aristocracy. She's a strong-minded woman in most things. I am quite sure she prides herself on belonging by birth to the lower class, and she knows that most aristocrats are imbeciles; for all that, she won't rest till she has found her niece a titled husband. This is my private conviction; take it for what it is worth."

"But," cried Iris, satisfaction still shining on her face, "do you think there's the least chance that Lord Dymchurch will be caught?"

"A week ago, I should have laughed at the suggestion. Now, I don't feel at all sure of his safety. He goes about to meet the girl. He's dining at their hotel to-night."

"You take a great interest in it," said Mrs. Woolstan, her voice faltering a little.

"Because I am so surprised and disappointed about Dymchurch. I thought better of him. I took him for a philosopher."

"But Mrs. Toplady says the girl is charming, and very clever."

"That's a matter of opinion. Doesn't Mrs. Toplady strike you as something of a busybody-a glorified busybody, of course?"

"Oh, I like her! And she speaks very nicely of you."

"I'm much obliged. But, after all, why should she speak otherwise than nicely of me?"

Whilst Iris was meditating an answer to this question, the cab pulled up at a great shop. They alighted; the driver was bidden to wait; and along the alleys of the gleaming bazaar they sought a present suitable for Leonard Woolstan. To Lashmar it was a scarcely tolerable ennui; he had even more than the average man's hatred of shopping, and feminine indecision whipped him to contemptuous irritation. To give himself something to do, he looked about for a purchase on his own account, and, having made it, told Iris that this was a present from him to his former pupil.

"Oh, how kind of you!" exclaimed the mother, regarding him tenderly. "How very kind of you! Len will be delighted, poor boy."

They left the shop, and stood by the hansom.

"Where are you going to now?" asked Iris.

"Home, to work. I have to address a meeting at Hollingford on the 20th, and I must think out a sufficiency of harmless nonsense."

"Really? A public meeting already? Couldn't I come and hear you?"

Dyce explained the nature of the gathering.

"But I shall see you before then," he added, helping her to enter the cab. "By the bye, don't be indiscreet with reference to what we spoke of just now."

"Why of course not," answered Iris, her eyes fixed on his face as he drew back carelessly saluting.

Though Lashmar had elaborated his story concerning Lord Dymchurch on the spur of the moment, he now thoroughly believed it himself, and the result was a restlessness of mind which no conviction of its utter absurdity could overcome. In vain did he remember that Lady Ogram had settled his destiny so far as the matter lay in her hands, and that to displease the choleric old autocrat would be to overthrow in a moment the edifice of hope reared by her aid. The image of May Tomalin was constantly before his mind. Not that he felt himself sentimentally drawn to her; but she represented an opportunity which it annoyed him to feel that he would not, if he chose, be permitted to grasp. Miss Tomalin by no means satisfied his aspiration in the matter of marriage, whatever wealth she might have to bestow; he had always pictured a very lofty type of woman indeed, a being superb in every attribute when dreaming of his future spouse. But he enjoyed the sense of power, and was exasperated by a suggestion that any man could have a natural advantage over him. To this characteristic he owed the influence with women which had carried him so far, for there is nothing that better stands a

man in his relations with the other sex than settled egoism serving restless ambition. This combination of qualities which all but every woman worship. Mrs. Toplady herself, she of the ironic smile and cynic intelligence, felt it a magnetic property in Dyce Lashmar's otherwise not very impressive person. On that account did she watch his pranks with so indulgent an eye, and give herself trouble to enlarge the scope of his entertaining activity. She knew, however, that the man was not cast in heroic mould; that he was capable of scruples, inclined to indolence; that he did not, after all, sufficiently believe in himself to go very far in the subjugation of others. Therefore she had never entertained the thought of seriously devoting herself to his cause, but was content to play with it until something more piquant should claim her attention.

Mrs. Toplady had always wished for the coming of the very hero, the man without fear, without qualm, who should put our finicking civilisation under his feet. Her god was a compound of the blood-reeking conqueror and the diplomatist supreme in guile. For such a man she would have poured out her safe-invested treasure, enough rewarded with a nod of half-disdainful recognition. It vexed her to think that she might pass away before the appearance of that new actor on the human stage; his entrance was all but due, she felt assured. Ah! the world would be much more amusing presently, and she meanwhile was growing old.

Her drawing-rooms on the evening of June 13th were crowded with representatives of Society. Lashmar arrived about ten o'clock, and his hostess had soon introduced him to two or three persons of political note, with each of whom he exchanged phrases of such appalling banality that he had much ado not to laugh in his interlocutor's face. The swelling current moved him along; he could only watch countenances and listen to dialogues as foolish as those in which he had taken part; a dizzying babblement filled the air, heavy with confusion of perfumes. Presently, having circled his way back towards the stair-head, he caught sight of Lord Dymchurch, who had newly entered; their eyes met, but Dymchurch, who wore a very absent look, gave no sign of recognition. Dyce pressed forward.

"I hoped I might meet you here," he said.

The other started, smiled nervously, and spoke in a confused way.

"I thought it likely. Of course you know a great many of these people?"

"Oh, a few. I had rather meet them anywhere than in such a crowd, though."

"Wonderful, isn't it?" murmured Dymchurch, with a comical distress in his eyebrows. "Wonderful!"

Good-naturedly nodding, he moved away, and was lost to sight. Dyce, holding his place near the entrance, perceived at length another face that he knew-that of a lady with whom he had recently dined at this house; in her company came Constance Bride and May Tomalin. He all but bounded to meet them. Constance looked well in a garb more ornate than Lashmar had yet seen her wearing; May, glowing with self-satisfaction, made a brilliant appearance. Their chaperon spoke with him; he learned that Lady Ogram did not feel quite equal to an occasion such as this, and had stayed at home. Miss Tomalin, eager to join in the talk, pressed before Constance.

"Have you got your speech ready, Mr. Lashmar?" she asked, with sprightly condescension.

"Quite. How sorry I am that you won't be able to enjoy that masterpiece of eloquence!"

"Oh, but it will be reported. It must be reported, of course."

The chaperon interposed, presenting to Miss Tomalin a gentleman who seemed very desirous of that honour, and Dyce stifled his annoyance in saying apart to Constance:

"What barbarism this is! One might as well try to converse in the middle of the street at Charing Cross."

"Certainly. But people don't come to converse," was the answer.

"You enjoy this kind of thing, I fancy?"

"I don't find it disagreeable."

The chaperon and Miss Tomalin were moving away; May cast a look at Lashmar, but he was unconscious of it. Constance turned to follow her companions, and Dyce stood alone again.

Half an hour later, the circling currents to which he surrendered himself brought him before a row of chairs, where sat the three ladies and, by the side of Miss Tomalin, Lord Dymchurch. May, flushed and bright-eyed, was talking at a great rate; she seemed to be laying down the law in some matter, and Dymchurch, respectfully bent towards her, listened with a thoughtful smile. Dyce approached, and spoke to Constance. A few moments afterwards, Lord Dymchurch rose, bowed, and withdrew; whereupon Lashmar asked Miss Tomalin's permission to take the vacant chair. It was granted rather absently; for the girl's eyes had furtively followed her late companion as he moved away, and she seemed more disposed to reflect than to begin a new conversation. This passed, however; soon she was talking politics with an air of omniscience which Lashmar could only envy.

"May I take you down to the supper-room?" he asked presently.

The chaperon and Miss Bride were engaged in conversation with a man who stood behind them.

"Yes, let us go," said May, rising. "I'm thirsty."

She spoke a word to the lady responsible for her, and swept off with Lashmar.

"How delightful it is,". Dyce exclaimed, "to gather such a lot of interesting people!"

"Isn't it!" May responded. "One feels really alive here. You would hardly believe-" she gave him a confidential look-"that this is my first season in London."

"Indeed it isn't easy to believe," said Dyce, in the tone of compliment.

"I always thought of a London season," pursued May, "as mere frivolity. Of course there is a great deal of that. But here one sees only cultured and serious people; it makes one feel how much hope there is for the world, in spite of everything. The common Socialists talk dreadful nonsense about Society; of course it's mere ignorance."

"To be sure," Lashmar assented, with inward mirth. "Their views are inevitably so narrow.-How long do you stay in town?"

"I'm afraid my aunt's health will oblige me to return to Rivenoak very soon. She has been seeing doctors. I don't know what they tell her, but I notice that she isn't quite herself this last day or two."

"Wonderful old lady, isn't she?" Dyce exclaimed.

"Oh, wonderful! You have known her for a long time, haven't you?"

"No, not very long. But we have talked so much, and agree so well in our views, that I think of her as quite an old friend.-What can I get you? Do you like iced coffee?"

Dyce seated her, and tended upon her as though no such thing as a "method" with women had ever entered his mind. His demeanour was lamentably old-fashioned. What it lacked in natural grace, Miss Tomalin was not critical enough to perceive.

"How nice it will be," she suddenly remarked, "when you are in Parliament! Of course you will invite us to tea on the terrace, and all that kind of thing."

"I'm sure I hope I shall have the chance. My election is by no means a certainty, you know. The Tories are very strong at Hollingford."

"Oh, but we're all going to work for you. When we get back to Rivenoak, I shall begin a serious campaign. I could never live without some serious work of the social kind, and I look upon it as a great opportunity for civilising people. They must be taught that it is morally wrong to vote for such a man as Robb, and an absolute duty of citizenship to vote for you. How I shall enjoy it!"

"You are very kind!"

"Oh, don't think of it in that way!" exclaimed Miss Tomalin. "I have always thought more of principles than of persons. It isn't in my nature to take anything up unless I feel an absolute conviction that it is for the world's good. At Northampton I often offended people I liked by what they called my obstinacy when a principle was at stake. I don't want to praise myself, but I really can say that it is my nature to be earnest and thorough and disinterested."

"Of that I am quite sure," said Lashmar, fervently.

"And-to let me tell you-it is such a pleasure to feel that my opportunities will be so much greater than formerly." May was growing very intimate, but still kept her air of dignity, with its touch of condescension. "At Northampton, you know, I hadn't very much scope; now it will be different. What an important thing social position is! What power for good it gives one!"

"Provided," put in her companion, "that one belongs to nature's aristocracy."

"Well-yes-I suppose one must have the presumption to lay claim to that," returned May, with a little laugh.

"Say, rather, the honesty, the simple courage. Self-depreciation," added Dyce, "I have always regarded as a proof of littleness. People really called to do something never lose confidence in themselves, and have no false modesty about expressing it."

"I'm sure that's very true. I heard once that someone at Northampton had called me conceited, and you can't think what a shock it gave me. I sat down, there and then, and asked myself whether I really was conceited, and my conscience assured me I was nothing of the kind. I settled it with myself, once for all. Since then, I have never cared what people said about me."

"That's admirable!" murmured Dyce.

"I am sure," went on the girl, with a grave archness, "that you too have known such an experience."

"To tell the truth, I have," the philosopher admitted, bending his head a little.

"I felt certain that you could understand me, or I should never have ventured to tell you such a thing.-There is Miss Bride!"

Constance had taken a seat not far from them, and the man who had been talking with her upstairs was offering her refreshments. Presently, she caught Miss Tomalin's eye, and smiled; a minute or two after, she and her companion came forward to join the other pair, and all re-ascended to the drawing-rooms together. When he had restored his charge to her chaperon, Lashmar took the hint of discretion and retired into the throng. There amid, he encountered Iris Woolstan, her eyes wide in search.

"So you are here!" she exclaimed, with immediate change of countenance. "I despaired of ever seeing you. What a crush!"

"Horrible, isn't it. I've had enough; I must breathe the air."

"Oh, stay a few minutes. I know so few people. Are Lady Ogram and her niece here?"

"Lady Ogram, I think not. I caught a glimpse of Miss Tomalin somewhere or other, sternly chaperoned."

He lied gaily, for the talk with May had put him into a thoroughly blithe humour.

"I should so like to see her," said Iris. "Don't you think you could point her out, if we went about a little."

"Let us look for her by all means. Have you been to the supper-room? She may be there."

They turned to move slowly towards the staircase. Before reaching the door, they were met by Mrs. Toplady, at her side the gentleman who had been Miss Bride's companion downstairs.

"How fortunate!" exclaimed the hostess to Mrs. Woolstan. "I so want you to know Miss Tomalin, and Mr. Rossendale can take us to her."

Iris voiced her delight, and looked at Lashmar, inviting him to come too. But Dyce stood rigid, an unnatural smile on his features; then he drew back, turned, and was lost to view.

Five minutes later, he quitted the house. It was raining lightly. Whilst he looked upward to give the cabman his address, drops fell upon his face, and he found their coolness pleasant.

During the ride home, he indulged a limitless wrath against Iris Woolstan. That busybody had spoilt his evening, had thrown disturbance into his mind just when it was enjoying the cheeriest hopes. As likely as not she would learn that he had had a long talk with May Tomalin, and, seeing the girl, she would put her own interpretation on the fib he had told her. What a nuisance it was to have to do with these feminine creatures, all fuss and impulsiveness and sentimentality! It would not surprise him in the least if she made a scene about this evening. Already, the other day, her tone when she accused him of giving her a false idea of Lady Ogram's niece proved the possibility of nonsensical trouble. The thing was a gross absurdity. Had he not, from the very beginning of their friendship, been careful to adopt a tone as uncompromising as man could use? Had he not applied to her his "method" in all its rigour? What right had she to worry him with idiotic jealousies? Could anyone have behaved more honourably than he throughout their intercourse? Why, the average man-

His debt? What had that to do with the matter? The very fact of his accepting a loan of money from her emphasised the dry nature of their relations. That money must quickly be repaid, or he would have no peace. The woman began to presume upon his indebtedness, he saw that clearly. Her tone had been different, ever since.

Deuce take the silly creature! She had made him thoroughly uncomfortable. What it was to have delicate sensibilities!

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