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   Chapter 17 No.17

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 18795

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Pillow-propped at her morning studies, the humourist of Pont Street, as she glanced rapidly over the close-printed pages of a trans-Atlantic monthly, had her eye caught by the word "bio-sociological." Whom had she heard using that sonorous term? It sounded to her with the Oxford accent, and she saw Lashmar. The reading of a few lines in the context seemed to remind her very strongly of Lashmar's philosophic eloquence. She looked closer; found that there was question of a French book of some importance, recently published; and smilingly asked herself whether it could be that Lashmar knew this book. That he was capable of reticence regarding the source of his ideas, she had little doubt; and what would be more amusing than to see "the coming man" convicted of audacious plagiarism? She wished him no harm; none whatever. It delighted her to see a man make his way in the stupid world by superiority of wits, and Dyce Lashmar was a favourite of hers; she had by no means yet done with him. All the same, this chance of entertainment must not be lost.

Having gone down rather earlier than usual, she found Miss Tomalin also studiously engaged, a solid tome open before her.

"My dear May, what waste of time that is! If you would only believe me that all the substance of big books is to be found in little ones! One gets on so much more quickly, and has a much clearer view of things. Why, no end of poor people nowadays make their living by boiling down these monsters to essence. It's really a social duty to make use of their work. Look, for instance, at this article I have just been reading-'Recent Sociological Speculations.' Here the good man gives us all that is important in half a dozen expensive and heavy volumes. Here's all about bio-sociology. Haven't I heard you talk of bio-sociology?"

"But," cried May, "that's Mr. Lashmar's theory! Has he been publishing it?"

"No. Someone else seems to have got hold of the same idea. Perhaps it's like Darwin and Wallace-that kind of thing."

May took the periodical, and read.

"Why, this is astonishing!" she exclaimed. "There's a passage quoted which is exactly like Mr. Lashmar-almost the very words I have heard him use!"

"Yet, you see, it's from a French book. This would certainly interest him. Perhaps he doesn't see the American reviews. Suppose I sent it to Miss Bride? They can read it together, and it will amuse them."

May assented, and the periodical was addressed to Rivenoak.

Friends came to lunch with them. In the afternoon, they made three calls. At dinner some score of persons were Mrs. Toplady's guests. Only as the clock pointed towards midnight did they find an opportunity of returning to the subject of bio-sociology. Mrs. Toplady wished for an intimate chat with her guest, who was soon to leave her; she reclined comfortably in a settee, and looked at the girl, who made a pretty picture in a high-backed chair.

"I hear that Mr. Lashmar leaves Rivenoak to-morrow," she said, referring to a letter that had arrived from Lady Ogram this evening. "I hope he won't be gone when the magazine arrives."

"Indeed? He comes back to-morrow?" said May.

"Not to London. He goes to spend a day or two with his people, it seems. You don't know them?"

"Not at all. I only know that his father is a rural clergyman."

Mrs. Toplady had observed that May's tone in speaking of Lashmar lacked something of its former vivacity. The change had been noticeable since the announcement of the philosopher's betrothal. More than that; the decline of interest was accompanied by a tendency to speak of Lashmar as though pityingly, or perhaps even slightingly; and this it was that manifested itself in May's last remark.

"I don't think it's very common;" Mrs. Toplady let fall, "for the country clergy-or indeed the clergy anywhere-to have brilliant sons."

"It certainly isn't," May agreed. And, after reflecting, she added: "I suppose one may call Mr. Lashmar brilliant?"

Miss Tomalin had continued to profit by her opportunities. Before coming to London, it would have been impossible for her to phrase a thought thus, and so utter it. That easy superciliousness smacked not at all of provincial breeding.

"On the whole, I think so," was Mrs. Toplady's modulated reply. "He has very striking ideas. How odd that somebody else should have hit upon his theory of civilisation! He ought to have written a book, as I told him."

"But suppose," suggested May, with some uneasiness, "that he knew about that French book?"

"Oh, my dear, we can't suppose that! Besides, we haven't read the book. It may really be quite different in its tendency from Mr. Lashmar's view."

"I don't see how it can be, Mrs. Toplady. Judging from those quotations, and the article, it's Mr. Lashmar from beginning to end."

"Then it's a most curious case of coincidence. Poor Mr. Lashmar will naturally be vexed. It's hard upon him, isn't it?"

May did not at once respond. The friend, watching her with the roguish smile, let fall another piece of intelligence.

"I hear that his marriage is to be in the autumn."

"Indeed?" said May, indifferently.

"Between ourselves," pursued the other, "didn't you feel just a little surprised?"

"Surprised?"

"At his choice. Oh, don't misunderstand me. I quite appreciate Miss Bride's cleverness and seriousness. But one couldn't help thinking that a man of Mr. Lashmar's promise-. Perhaps you don't see it in that way?"

"I really think they are rather well suited," said May, again calmly supercilious.

"It may be so. I had almost thought that-how shall I express it?" Mrs. Toplady searched for a moment. "Perhaps Lady Ogram might have made a suggestion, which Mr. Lashmar, for some reason, did not feel able to disregard. He has quite a chivalrous esteem for Lady Ogram, haven't you noticed? I like to see it. That kind of thing is rare nowadays. No doubt he feels reason for gratitude; but how many men does one know who can be truly grateful? That's what I like in Mr. Lashmar; he has character as well as intellect."

"But how do you mean, Mrs. Toplady?" inquired May, losing something of her polish in curiosity. "Why should my aunt have wanted him to marry Miss Bride?"

"Ah, that I don't know. Possibly she thought it, knowing him as she does, really the best thing for him. Possibly-one could make conjectures. But one always can."

May puzzled over the hint, her brow knitted; Mrs. Toplady regarded her with veiled amusement, wondering whether it would really be necessary to use plainer words. The girl was not dull, but perhaps her small experience of life, and her generally naive habit of mind, obscured to her what to the more practised was so obvious.

"Do you mean," said May, diffidently, "that she planned it out of kindness to Miss Bride? Of course I know that she likes Miss Bride very much. Perhaps she thought there would never be a better opportunity."

"It might be so," replied the other, absently.

"Miss Bride is very nice, and very clever," pursued May, sounding the words on the thinnest possible note. "But one didn't think of her as very likely to marry."

"No; it seemed improbable."

There was a pause. As if turning to quite another subject, Mrs. Toplady remarked:

"You will have visitors at Rivenoak next week. Sir William Amys is to be there for a day or two, and Lord Dymchurch-"

"Lord Dymchurch?"

The girl threw off her air of cold concentration, and shone triumphantly.

"Does it surprise you, May?"

"Oh, I hadn't thought of it-I didn't know my aunt had invited him-"

"The wonder is that Lord Dymchurch should have accepted," said Mrs. Toplady, with a very mature archness. "Did he know, by the bye, that you were going down?"

"I fancy he did."

Their eyes met, and May relieved her feelings with a little laugh.

"Then perhaps the wonder ceases. And yet, in another way-" Mrs. Toplady broke off, and added in a lower voice, "Of course you know all about his circumstances?"

"No, in deed I don't. Tell me about him, please."

"But haven't you heard that he is the poorest man in the House of Lords?"

"I had no idea of it," cried May. "How should I have known? Really? He is so poor?"

"I imagine he has barely enough to live upon. The family was ruined long ago."

"But why didn't you tell me? Does my aunt know?" May's voice did not express resentment, nor, indeed, strong feeling of any kind. The revelation seemed merely to surprise her. She was smiling, as if at the amusingly unexpected.

"Lady Ogram certainly knows," said Mrs. Toplady.

"Then of course that's why he does nothing," May exclaimed. "Fancy!" Her provincialism was becoming very marked. "A lord with hardly enough to live upon! But I'm astonished that he seems so cheerful."

"Lord Dymchurch has a very philosophical mind," said the older lady, with gravity humorously exaggerated.

"Yes, I suppose he has. Now I shall understand him better. I'm glad he's going to be at Rivenoak. You know that he asked me to advise him about what he should do. It'll be rather awkward, though. I must get him to tell me the truth."

"You'll probably have no difficulty in that. It's pretty certain that he thinks you know all about him already. If he hadn't, I feel sure he wouldn't go to Rivenoak."

The girl mused, smiling self-consciously.

"I had better tell you the truth, Mrs.

Toplady," were her next words, in a burst of confidence. "I think Lord Dymchurch is very nice-as a friend. But only as a friend."

"Thank you for your confidence, May. Do you know that I suspected something of the kind."

"I want to be friends with him," pursued May, impulsively. "I shall get him to tell me all about himself, and we shall see what he can do. Of course there mustn't be any misunderstanding."

Mrs. Toplady had not been prepared for this tranquil reasonableness. May was either more primitive, or much more sophisticated, than she had supposed. Her interest waxed keener.

"Between ourselves, my dear," she remarked, "that is exactly what I should have anticipated. You are very young, and the world is at your feet. Of money you have no need, and, if Lord Dymchurch had had the good fortune to please you-. But you are ambitious. I quite understand; trust me. Poor Dymchurch will never do anything. He is merely a bookish man. But, whilst we are talking of it, there's no harm in telling you that your aunt doesn't quite see the matter with our eyes. For some reason-I don't know exactly what it is-Lady Ogram is very favourable to poor Lord Dymchurch."

"I have noticed that," said May, quietly. "Of course it makes no difference."

"You think not?" asked Mrs. Toplady, beginning to be genuinely impressed by this young woman's self-confidence.

"I mean that my aunt couldn't do more than suggest," May answered, slightly throwing back her head. "I have only to let her know how I think about anything."

"You are sure of that?" asked the other, sweetly.

"Oh, quite!"

May's smile was ineffable. The woman of the world, the humourist and cynic, saw it with admiration.

"Ah, that puts my mind at ease!" murmured Mrs. Toplady. "To tell the truth, I have been worrying a little. Sometimes elderly people are so very tenacious of their ideas. Of course Lady Ogram has nothing but your good at heart."

"Of course!" exclaimed the girl.

"Shall I confess to you that I almost fancied this might be the explanation of Miss Bride's engagement?"

"Miss Bride-? How?"

"I only tell you for your amusement. It occurred to me that, having set her heart on a scheme which had reference to Lord Dymchurch, your aunt was perhaps a little uneasy with respect to a much more brilliant and conspicuous man. Had that been so-it's all the merest supposition-she might have desired to see the brilliant and dangerous man made harmless-put out of the way."

A gleam of sudden perception illumined the girl's face. For a moment wonder seemed tending to mirth; but it took another turn, and became naive displeasure.

"You think so?" broke from her, impetuously. "You really think that's why she wanted them to be engaged?"

"It's only what I had fancied, my dear-"

"But I shouldn't wonder if you were right! Indeed, I shouldn't! Now that you put it in that way-. I remember that my aunt didn't care for me to see much of Mr. Lashmar. It amused me, because, to tell you the truth, Mrs. Toplady, I should never have thought of Mr. Lashmar as anything but a friend. I feel quite sure I shouldn't."

"I quite understand that," replied the listener, the corners of her lips very eloquent.

"Such a thing had never entered my mind," pursued May, volubly and with emphasis. "Never!"

"It may have entered someone else's mind, though," interposed Mrs. Toplady, again maturely arch.

"Oh, do you think so!" exclaimed the girl, with manifest pleasure. "I'm sure I hope not. But, Mrs. Toplady, how could my aunt oblige such a man as Mr. Lashmar to engage himself against his will?"

"You must remember, May, that, for the moment at all events, Mr. Lashmar's prospects seem to depend a good deal on Lady Ogram's good will. She has a great deal of local influence. And then-by the bye, is Mr. Lashmar quite easy in his circumstances?"

"I really don't know," May answered, with an anxious fold in her forehead "Surely he, too, isn't quite poor?"

"I hardly think he is wealthy. Isn't it just possible that something may depend upon the marriage-?"

Mrs. Toplady's voice died away in a considerate vagueness. But May was not at all disposed to leave the matter nebulous.

"If he is really poor," she said, in a clear-cut tone, "it's quite natural that he should want to marry someone who can help him. But why didn't he choose someone really suitable?"

"Poor Mr. Lashmar!" sighed the other, humorously. "If he had no encouragement, my dear May!"

"But he didn't wait to see whether he had any or not!"

"What if he had very good reason for knowing that lady Ogram would never, never, never consent to-something we needn't specify?"

"But," May ejaculated, "surely he needn't take it for granted that my aunt would never change her mind. If it's as you say, how foolishly he must have behaved! It doesn't concern me in the least. You see I can speak quite calmly about it. I'm only sorry and astonished that he should be going to marry-well, after all, we must agree that Miss Bride isn't quite an ideal for him, however one looks at it. Of course it's nothing to me. If it had been, I think I should feel more offended than sorry."

"Offended?"

"That he had taken for granted that I had no will of my own, and no influence with my aunt."

"It seems rather faint-hearted, I admit."

The dialogue lasted but a few minutes longer. May repeated once or twice that she had no personal interest in Lashmar's fortunes, but her utterance grew mechanical, and she was evidently withdrawing into her thoughts. As a clock in the room told softly the first hour of the morning, Mrs. Toplady rose; she spoke a few words about her engagements for the day which had nominally begun, then kissed her friend on the cheek.

"Don't think any more of it, May. It mustn't interfere with your sleep."

"That indeed it won't, Mrs. Toplady!" replied the girl, with a musically mocking laugh.

Appearances notwithstanding, May told the truth when she declared that she had never thought of marrying Lashmar. This, however, did not necessarily involve an indifference to Lashmar's homage. That the coming man should make his court to her, she saw as a natural and agreeable thing; that he should recognise her intellectual powers, and submit to her personal charm, was only what she had hoped and expected from the first. After their conversation in the supper-room, she counted him a conquest, and looked forward with no little interest to the development of this romance. Its sudden termination astonished and mortified her. Had Lashmar turned away to make some brilliant alliance, her pique would have endured only for a moment; Lord Dymchurch's approach would have more than compensated the commoner's retirement. But that she should merely have amused his idle moments, whilst his serious thoughts were fixed on Constance Bride, was an injury not easy to pardon. For she disliked Miss Bride, and she knew the sentiment was mutual.

Seeing the situation in the new light shed by Mrs. Toplady's ingenious conjectures, her sense of injury was mitigated; the indignant feeling that remained she directed chiefly against Lady Ogram, who seemed inclined to dispose of her in such a summary way. Constance, naturally, she disliked more than ever, but Lashmar she viewed with something of compassion, as a victim of circumstances. Were those circumstances irresistible? Was there not even now a possibility of defeating them?-not with a view to taking Miss Bride's place, but for the pleasure of asserting herself against a plot, and reassuring her rightful position as arbitress of destinies. Lady Ogram was a kind old woman, but decidedly despotic, and she had gone too far. If indeed Lashmar were acting in helpless obedience to her, it would be the merest justice to make an attempt at rescuing him and restoring his liberty.

Not without moral significance was the facial likeness between Lady Ogram in her youth and May Tomalin. One who had seen the girl as she sat to-night in her bedroom, brooding deeply, without the least inclination for repose, must have been struck by a new vigour in the lines of her countenance. Thus-though with more of obstinate purpose-had Arabella Tomalin been wont to look at moments of crisis in her adventurous youth.

The clock was pointing to two, when May rose from the velvet-seated chair, and went to the little writing-table which stood in another part of the room. She took a plain sheet of note-paper, and, with a hand far from steady, began, not writing, but printing, certain words, in large, ill-formed capitals.

"HAVE MORE COURAGE. AIM HIGHER. IT IS NOT TOO LATE."

At this achievement she gazed smilingly. The ink having dried, she folded the paper, and put it into an envelope, which she closed. Then her face indicated a new effort. She could think of only one way of disguising her hand in cursive-the common device of sloping it backwards. This she attempted. The result failing to please her, she tried again on a second envelope, and this time with success; the writing looked masculine, and in no respect suggested its true authorship. She had addressed the letter to Dyce Lashmar, Esq., at Rivenoak.

Nine o'clock next morning saw her out of doors. In Sloane Street she found a hansom, and was driven rap idly eastward. Before ten she sat in her own room again, glowing with satisfaction.

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