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   Chapter 16 No.16

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 23543

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

For a week after Lady Ogram's return, Dr. Baldwin called daily at Rivenoak. His patient, he said, was suffering from over-exertion; had she listened to his advice, she would never have gone to London; the marvel was that such an imprudence had had no worse results. Lady Ogram herself of course refused to take this view of the matter; she was perfectly well, only a little tired, and, as the hot nights interfered with her sleep just now, she rested during the greater part of the day, seeing Lashmar for half an hour each afternoon in the little drawing-room upstairs. Her friendliness with Dyce had much increased; when he entered the room, she greeted him almost affectionately, and their talk was always of his brilliant future.

"I want to see you safely in Parliament," she said one day. "I can't expect to live till you've made your name; that isn't done so quickly. But I shall see you squash Robb, and that's something."

Of his success at Hollingford she seemed never to entertain a doubt, and Lashmar, though by no means so sanguine, said nothing to discourage her. His eye noted ominous changes in her aspect, and her way of talking, even the sound of her voice, made plain to him that she was very rapidly losing the reserve of force which kept her alive. Constance, who was on friendly terms with the doctor, learnt enough of the true state of things to make her significantly grave after each visit; she and Dyce, naturally, exchanged no remark on the subject.

"What do your parents say?" Lady Ogram asked of Lashmar, during one of their conversations.

"They are delighted. Especially my mother, who has always been very ambitious for me."

"But I mean about your engagement."

Dyce had of course omitted all mention of Constance in his letters to Alverholme.

"They give their approval," he replied, "because they have confidence in my judgment. I fancy," he added with a modest smile, "that their ambition, in this respect, is not altogether satisfied, but-I have said nothing whatever to them about the peculiarity of Constance's position; I didn't feel justified in doing so."

"You may tell them everything," said Lady Ogram, graciously.

She one day received a letter from Mrs. Toplady, which gave her great satisfaction. It seemed to re-establish her vigour of mind and body; she came downstairs, lunched with her young friends, and talked of going to Wales.

"May is enjoying herself greatly; she must stay a little longer. The day before yesterday she was at a garden party at Lady Honeybourne's, where they acted 'As You Like It' in the open air."

"There was mention of it yesterday in the papers," remarked Lashmar.

"Yes, yes; I saw. And May's name among the guests-of course, of course. I notice that Lord Dymchurch was there too."

She ended with a quavering laugh, unexpected and rather uncanny.

"And the much-discussed Mr. Langtoft," put in Constance, after a keen look at the mirthful hippocratic face.

"Langtoft, yes," said Dyce. "I don't quite know what to think of that fellow. There seems to me something not quite genuine about him. What is he doing at Lady Honeybourne's garden party? It looks like tuft-hunting-don't you think, Constance?"

Dyce was secretly annoyed that an idea of his own (that is to say, from his own French philosopher) should be put into practice by someone else before he could assert his claim to it. Very vexatious that Langtoft's activity was dragged into public notice just at this moment.

"I don't at all like the tone of his last letter to you," said Constance. "He writes in a very flippant way, not a bit like a man in earnest."

Not long ago, Miss Bride's opinion of Langtoft would have been quite different. Now, she was disposed to say things that Dyce Lashmar liked to hear. Dyce had remarked the change in her; it flattered him, but caused him at the same time some uneasiness.

Inevitably, they passed much time together. On the journey from London, Constance had asked him whether he would not like to begin cycling. He received the suggestion with careless good-humour. At Rivenoak, Constance returned to it, insisted upon it, and, as he had little to do, Dyce went into Hollingford for lessons; in a week's time he could ride, and, on a brand-new bicycle of the most approved make, accompanied his nominally betrothed about the country ways. Constance evidently enjoyed their rides together. She was much more amiable in her demeanour, more cheerful in mind; she dropped the habit of irony, and talked hopefully of Lashmar's prospects.

"What's the news from Breakspeare?" she inquired, as they were pedalling softly along an easy road one afternoon, Dyce having spent the morning in Hollingford.

"Oh, he's a prancing optimist," Dyce replied. "He sees everything rose-colour-or pretends to, I'm not quite sure which. If Dobbin the grocer meets him in the street, and says he's going to vote Liberal at next election, Breakspeare sings the Paean."

"I notice that you seem rather doubtful, lately," said Constance, her eyes upon him.

"Well, you know, there is a good deal of doubt. It depends so much on what happens between now and the dissolution."

He entered into political detail, showing the forces arrayed against him, dwelling on the in-grained Toryism of Hollingford, or, as he called it, the burgesses' Robbish mind.

"There's no use, is there, in blinking facts?"

"Of course not. It's what I never do, as I think you are aware. We must remember that to contest the seat is something. It makes you known. If you don't win, you will wait for the next chance-not necessarily here."

Dyce had observed that the pronoun "we" was rather frequently on Constance's lips. She was identifying their interests.

"True," he admitted. "Look at that magnificent sycamore!"

"Yes; but I shouldn't have known it was a sycamore. How is it you know trees so well?"

"That's my father's doing," replied Dyce. "He used to teach me them when I was a youngster."

"Mine was thinking more about social statistics. I knew the number of paupers in London before I had learnt to distinguish between an ash and an oak. Do you ever hear from your father?"

"Now and then," said Lashmar, his machine wobbling a little, for he had not yet perfect command of it, and fell into some peril if his thoughts strayed. "They want me to run over to Alverholme presently. Perhaps I may go next week."

Constance was silent. They wheeled on, without speaking, for some minutes. Then Dyce asked:

"How long does Lady Ogram wish me to stay here?"

"I don't quite know. Are you in any hurry to get away?"

"Not at all. Only, if I'm soon going back to London, I should take Alverholme on the journey. Would you probe our friend for me?"

"I'll try."

At this time, they were both reading a book of Nietzsche. That philosopher had only just fallen into their hands, though of course they had heard much of him. Lashmar found the matter considerably to his taste, though he ridiculed the form. Nietzsche's individualism was, up to a certain point, in full harmony with the tone of his mind; he enjoyed this frank contempt of the average man, persuaded that his own place was on the seat of the lofty, and that disdain of the humdrum, in life or in speculation, had always been his strong point. To be sure, he counted himself Nietzsche's superior as a moralist; as a thinker, he imagined himself much more scientific. But, having regard to his circumstances and his hopes, this glorification of unscrupulous strength came opportunely. Refining away its grosser aspects, Dyce took the philosophy to heart-much more sincerely than he had taken to himself the humanitarian bio-sociology on which he sought to build his reputation.

And Constance, for her part, was hardly less interested in Nietzsche. She, too, secretly liked this insistence on the right of the strong, for she felt herself one of them. She, too, for all her occupation with social reform, was at core a thorough individualist, desiring far less the general good than her own attainment of celebrity as a public benefactress. Nietzsche spoke to her instincts, as he does to those of a multitude of men and women, hungry for fame, avid of popular applause. But she, like Lashmar, criticised her philosopher from a moral height. She did not own to herself the intimacy of his appeal to her.

"He'll do a great deal of harm in the world," she said, this same afternoon, as Dyce and she drank tea together. "The jingo impulse, and all sorts of forces making for animalism, will get strength from him, directly or indirectly. It's the negation of all we are working for, you and I."

"Of course it is," Dyce replied, in a voice of conviction. "We have to fight against him." He added, after a pause, "There is a truth in him, of course; but it's one of those truths which are dangerous to the generality of men."

Constance assented, with a certain vagueness.

"Of course. And he delivers his message so brutally."

"That, no doubt, increases its chance of acceptance. The weak, who don't know how else to assert, themselves, tend naturally to brutality. Carlyle taught pretty much the same thing, at bottom; but his humour and his puritanism made the effect different. Besides, the time wasn't ripe then for the doctrine of irresponsible force; religion hadn't utterly perished in the masses of men, as it has now. Given a world without religious faith, in full social revolution, with possibilities of wealth and power dangled before every man's eyes-what can you expect but the prevalences of a more or less ferocious egoism? We, who are not egoists"-he looked into his companion's eyes-"yet are conscious of unusual strength, may, it seems to me, avail ourselves of the truth in Nietzsche, which, after all, is very much the same as my own theory of the selection of the fit for rule. The difference is, that we wish to use our power for the common good, whilst Nietzsche's teaching results in a return to sheer barbarism, the weak trampled because of their weakness."

Constance approved. Yes, their aim, undoubtedly, was the common good, and, whilst keeping this in view, they need not, perhaps, be over-fastidious as to the means they employed. She had for years regarded herself as at war with society, in the narrow sense of the word; its creeds, great or small, had no validity for her; she had striven for what she deemed her rights, the rights of a woman born with intellect and will and imagination, yet condemned by poverty to rank among subordinates. The struggle appeared to have brought her within view of triumph, and was it not to herself, her natural powers and qualities, that she owed all? At this moment she felt her right to pursue any object which seemed to her desirable. What was good for her, was good for the world at large.

The next morning they started at the usual hour for their ride, but the sky was cloudy, and, as they were leaving the park, spots of rain fell. It was not by the lodge gates that they usually set forth; more convenient for their purpose was a postern in the wall which enclosed the greater part of Rivenoak; the approach to it was from the back of the house, across a paddock, and through a birch copse, where stood an old summer-house, now rarely entered. Constance, with her own key, had just unlocked the door in the wall; she paused and glanced cloudward.

"I think it'll be a shower," said Lashmar. "Suppose we shelter in the summer-house."

They did so, and stood talking under the roof of mossy tiles.

"What have you worked at this morning?" asked Constance.

"Nothing particular. I've been thinking."

"I wish you would try to tell me how you worked out your bio-sociology. You must have had a

great deal of trouble to get together your scientific proofs and illustrations."

"A good deal, of course," answered Dyce modestly. "I had read for years, all sorts of scientific and historical books."

"I rather wonder you didn't write a book of your own. Evidently you have all the material for one. Don't you think it might be well?"

"We have spoken of that, you know," was Dyce's careless reply. "I prefer oral teaching."

"Still, a solid book, such a one as you could easily write, would do you a great deal of good. Do think about it, will you?"

Her voice had an unusual quality; it was persuasive, and almost gentle. In speaking, she looked at him with eyes of unfamiliar expressiveness, and all the lines of her face had softened.

"Of course if you really think-" began Lashmar, affecting to ponder the matter.

"I should so like you to do it," Constance pursued, still with the markedly feminine accent, which she certainly did not assume. "Will you-to please me?"

Her eyes fell before the other's quick, startled look. There was a silence; rain pattered on the tiles.

"I'll think about it," Dyce replied at length, moving and speaking uneasily. "It's raining quite hard, you know," he added, moving into the doorway. "The roads will be no good after this."

"No. We had better go in," said Constance, with sudden return to dry, curt speech.

It was evident that, in his anomalous situation, Lashmar's method with women could not have fair play. He was in no small degree beholden to Constance, and her odd behaviour of late kept him in mind of his obligation. Doubtless, he thought, she intended that; and his annoyance at what he considered a lack of generosity outweighed the satisfaction his vanity might have found in her new manner towards him. That manner, especially this morning, reminded him of six years ago. Was Constance capable of exacting payment of a debt which she imagined him to have incurred at Alverholme? Women think queerly, and are no less unaccountable in their procedure.

His curiosity busied itself with the vaguely indicated compact between Constance and Lady Ogram, but no word on the subject, not even a distant allusion to it, ever fell from his nominally betrothed, and the old lady herself, however amiable, spoke not at all of the things he desired to know. Was it not grossly unjust to him? Until he clearly understood Constance's future position, how could he decide upon his course with regard to her? Conceivably, the proposed marriage might carry advantages which it behooved him to examine with all care; conceivably also, it might at a given moment be his sole rescue from embarrassment or worse. Meanwhile, ignorance of the essential factors of the problem put him at a grave disadvantage. Constance was playing a game (so Dyce saw it) with all the cards visible before her, and, to such a profound observer as he, it was not unnatural to suppose that she played for something worth the while. Curiously enough, Dyce did not presume to believe that he himself, his person, his mind, his probable career, were gain sufficient. A singular modesty ruled his meditations at this juncture.

Other things were happening which interfered with the confident calm essential to his comfort. Since the vexatious little incident at Mrs. Toplady's, he had not seen Iris Woolstan. On the eve of his departure for Rivenoak, he wrote to her, a friendly letter in the usual strain, just to acquaint her with his movements, and to this letter there came no reply. It was unlikely that Iris's answer had somehow failed to reach hi in; of course she would address to Rivenoak. No doubt she had discovered his little deception, and took it ill. Iris was quite absurd enough to feel jealousy, and to show it. Of all the women he knew, she had the most essentially feminine character. Fortunately she was as weak as foolish; at any time, he could get the upper hand of her in a private interview. But his sensibility made him restless in the thought that she was accusing him of ingratitude-perhaps of behaviour unworthy a gentleman. Yes, there was the true sting. Dyce Lashmar prided himself on his intellectual lucidity, but still more on his possession of the instincts, of the mental and moral tone, which are called gentlemanly. It really hurt him to think that anyone could plausibly assail his claims in this respect.

When he had been a week at Rivenoak, he again wrote to Mrs. Woolstan. Of her failure to answer his last letter, he said nothing. She had of course received the Hollingford Express, with the report of his speech on the 20th. How did she like it? Could she suggest any improvement? She knew that he valued her opinion. "Write," he concluded, "as soon as you have leisure. I shall be here, I think, for another week or so. By the bye, I have taken to cycling, and I fancy it will be physically good for me."

To this communication, Mrs. Woolstan replied She began with a few formal commendations of his speech. "You are so kind as to ask if I can suggest any way in which it could have been improved, but of course I know that that is only a polite phrase. I should not venture to criticise anything of yours now, even if I had the presumption to think that I was capable of saying anything worth your attention. I am sure you need no advice from me, nor from anyone else, now that you have the advantage of Miss Bride's counsels. I regret very much that I have so slight an acquaintance with that lady, but Mrs. Toplady tells me that she is admirably suited to be your companion, and to encourage and help you in your career. I shall have the pleasure of watching you from a distance, and of sincerely wishing you happiness as well as success."

The formal style of this letter, so different from Iris's ordinary effusions, made sufficient proof of the mood in which it was written. Dyce bit his lips over it. He had foreseen that Mrs. Woolstan would hear of his engagement, but had hoped it would not be just yet. There was for the present no help; in her eyes he stood condemned of some thing more than indelicacy. Fortunately, she was not the kind of woman-he felt sure-to be led into any vulgar retaliation. All he could do was to write a very brief note, in which he expressed a hope of seeing her very soon. "I shall have much to tell you," he added, and tried to think that Iris would accept this as a significant promise.

After all, were not man and woman, disguise the fact as one might, condemned by nature to mutual hostility? Useless to attempt rational methods with beings to whom reason was fundamentally repugnant. Dyce fell from mortification into anger, and cursed the poverty which forbade him to act in full accordance with his ideal of conduct.

He had spent nearly a fortnight at Rivenoak, when Lady Ogram, now seemingly restored to her ordinary health, summoned him at eleven in the morning to the green drawing-room.

"I hope I didn't disturb your work," she began, kindly. "As you are leaving so soon-" Dyce had said nothing whatever about departure-"I should like to have a quiet word with you, whilst Constance is in the town. All goes well at Hollingford, doesn't it?"

"Very well indeed, I think. Breakspeare gets more hopeful every day."

Lady Ogram nodded and smiled. Then a fit of abstraction came upon her; she mused for several minutes, Dyce respectfully awaiting her next words.

"What are your own wishes about the date?"

Imagining that she referred to the election, and that this was merely another example of failing intelligence, Dyce answered that, for his own part, he was ready at any time; if a dissolution-

"Pooh!" Lady Ogram interrupted, "I'm talking about your marriage."

"Ah! Yes-yes. I haven't asked Constance-"

"Suppose we say the end of October? You could get away for a month or two."

"One thing is troubling me, Lady Ogram," said Dyce, in tone of graceful hesitancy. "I feel that it will be a very ill return for all your kindness to rob you of Constance's help and society, which you prize so."

The keen old eyes were fixed upon him.

"Do you think I am going to live for ever?" sounded abruptly and harshly, though, it was evident, with no harsh intention.

"I'm sure I hope-"

"Well, we won't talk about it. I must do without Constance, that's all. You'll of course have a house in London, but both of you will often be down here. It's understood. About the end of October. Time enough to make arrangements. I'll settle it with Constance. So to-morrow morning you leave us, on a visit to your parents. I suppose you'll spend a couple of days there?"

In his confused mind, Dyce could only fix the thought that Constance had evidently told Lady Ogram of his intention to go to Alverholme. It was plain that those two held very intimate colloquies.

"A couple of days," he murmured in reply.

"Good. Of course you'll write to me when you're in town again."

At luncheon, Lady Ogram talked of Lashmar's departure. Constance, he felt sure, already knew about it. Really, he was treated with somewhat scant ceremony. An obstinate mood fell upon him; he resolved that he would say not a word to Constance of what had passed this morning. If she wished to speak of the proposed date of their marriage, let her broach the subject herself. Through the meal he was taciturn.

Miss Bride and he dined alone together that evening. They had not met since mid-day. Dyce was still disinclined for talk; Constance, on the other hand, fell into a cheerful vein of chat, and seemed not at all to notice her companion's lack of amiability.

"I shall go by the 8.27," said Dyce, abruptly, towards the end of the meal.

"Yes, that's your best train. You'll be at Alverholme before ten o'clock."

After dinner, they sat together for scarcely a quarter of an hour, Constance talking of politics. Dyce absolutely silent. Then Miss Bride rose, and offered her hand.

"So, good-bye!"

She spoke so pleasantly, and looked so kindly, that Lashmar for a moment felt ashamed of himself. He pressed her hand, and endeavoured to speak cordially.

"Shall I hear from you?" Constance asked, trying to meet his eyes.

"Why, of course, very soon."

"Thank you. I shall be very glad."

Thus they parted. And Dyce, for a couple of hours, sat smoking and brooding.

On the morrow, at luncheon, Lady Ogram mentioned to Constance that May Tomalin would arrive on the following afternoon. She added, presently, that Lord Dymchurch had accepted an invitation to Rivenoak for a day or two in the ensuing week.

That morning, the post had brought Constance a letter and a packet. The letter was from Mrs. Toplady, who wrote thus:

"Dear Miss Bride,

"This morning I came across an article in an American magazine which it struck me would interest you. The subject is: 'Recent Sociological Speculations.' It reviews several books, among them one by a French author which seems to be very interesting. When I showed the article to Miss Tomalin, she agreed with me that there seemed a striking resemblance between the theories of this French sociologist and those which Mr. Lashmar has independently formed. Probably Mr. Lashmar would like to see the book. In any case, you and he will, I am sure, be interested in reading this article together.

"To my great regret, Miss Tomalin-or May, as I have come to call her-leaves me the day after to-morrow. But the advantage is yours at Rivenoak. Please give my love to dear Lady Ogram, who I hope is now quite well again. With kindest regards.

"Sincerely yours,


Constance had read the article in question, and, immediately after doing so, had dispatched an order to London for the French sociological work therein discussed.

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