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   Chapter 18 No.18

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 20684

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


"At last," declared Mrs. Lashmar, "it really looks as if Dyce was going to do something. I've just been writing to Lady Susan, and I have let her see unmistakably what I think of her friendship. But I'm very glad Dyce isn't indebted to her, for a more unendurable woman, when she thinks she has done anyone a kindness, doesn't exist. If she gets a place for a servant-girl, all the world is told of it, and she expects you to revere her saintly benevolence. I am very glad that she never did anything for Dyce. Indeed, I always felt that she was very little use. I doubt whether she has the slightest influence with respectable people."

It was just after breakfast, and the day promised to be the hottest of the year. The vicar, heavy-laden man, had sat down in his study to worry over parish accounts. When the door opened to admit his wife, he quivered with annoyance. Mrs. Lashmar had a genius for the malapropos. During breakfast, when her talk would have mattered little, she had kept silence; now that her husband particularly wished to be alone with his anxieties, she entered with an air forboding long discourse.

"Twenty-three pounds, four shillings and sixpence," muttered the vicar, as he passed a handkerchief over his moist forehead. "Dear me! how close it is! Twenty-three-"

"If Dyce is elected," pursued the lady, "we must celebrate the occasion in some really striking way. Of course there must be a dinner for all our poor-"

"What I want to know," interrupted Mr. Lashmar, with mild irritableness, "is, how he proposes to meet his expenses, and what he is going to live upon. If he is still looking to me-I hope you haven't encouraged him in any hope of that kind?"

"Of course not. In my last letter I expressly reminded him that our affairs were getting into a lamentable muddle. Of course, if I had had the management of them, this wouldn't have come about.-Do you know what I have been thinking? It might be an advantage to Dyce if you made friends with the clergy at Hollingford. Couldn't you go over one day, and call on the rector. I see he's a Cambridge man, but-"

"Really," cried Mr. Lashmar, half-distraught, "I must beg you to let me get this work done in quietness. By some extraordinary error-"

A knock sounded at the door, followed by a man's voice.

"May I come in?"

"There you are!" Mrs. Lashmar exclaimed. "It's Dyce himself. Come in! Come in! Why, who could have thought you would get here so early!"

"I chose the early train for the sake of coolness," answered Dyce, who shook hands with his parents. "The weather is simply tropical. And two days ago we were shivering. What is there to drink, mother?"

Mrs. Lashmar took her son to the dining-room, and, whilst he was refreshing himself, talked of the career before him. Her sanguine mind saw him already at Westminster, and on the way to high distinction.

"There's just one thing I'm anxious about," she said, sinking her voice. "You know the state of your father's affairs. It happens most unfortunately, just when a little help would be so important to you. For years I have foreseen it, Dyce. Again and again I have urged prudence; but you know your father, the most generous of men, but a mere child in matters of business. I feared; but it was only the other day that I discovered the real state of things. I shouldn't be at all surprised, Dyce, if some day we have to look to you for succour."

"Don't worry," answered her son. "Things'll come right, I think. Just go on as prudently as you can, for the present. Is father really in a hobble?"

"My dear, he doesn't know where to turn for a five-pound note!"

Dyce was sincerely troubled. He seldom thought of his parents; none the less they represented his only true affection, and he became uncomfortable at the prospect of disaster befalling their latter years.

"Well, well, don't bother about it, more than you can help. Things are going pretty well with me, I fancy."

"So I supposed, Dyce. But your father is afraid-you know how he looks on the dark side of everything-lest you should be incurring liabilities. I have told him that that was never your habit."

"Of course not," said Dyce, confidently. "You may be sure that I haven't taken such serious steps without seeing my way clear before me."

"I knew it! I have always had the fullest faith in you. And, Dyce, how you are improving in looks! You must go to a photographer again-"

"I've just been sitting at Hollingford. The local people wanted it, you know. But I'll send you one from London presently."

"And you assure me that there is no money difficulty?" asked Mrs. Lashmar, with inquisitive eyes.

"None whatever. The fact of the matter is that I am standing to please Lady Ogram, and of course-" He waved an explanatory hand. "Things are not finally arranged yet, but all will be smooth."

His smile made dignified deprecation of undue insistence on trivial detail.

"I'm delighted to hear it!" exclaimed his mother. "It's just what I had supposed. What could be more natural. Do you think, by the bye, that I ought to go and see Lady Ogram? It might seem to her a right and natural thing. And, from what you tell me of her, I feel sure we should have a good deal in common."

"I've thought of that too," Dyce answered, averting his look. "But wait a little. Just now Lady Ogram isn't at all well; she sees hardly anybody."

"Of course I shall be guided by your advice. A little later, then. And, Dyce, you haven't told me anything about Miss Bride. Is she still with Lady Ogram?"

"Oh yes. Still acting as secretary."

"Of course you don't see much of her?"

"Why, to tell you the truth, we have to see each other a good deal, owing to her duties."

"Ah, yes, I understand. She writes to dictation, and that kind of thing. Strange that Lady Ogram should have engaged such a very unpleasant young woman. I've seldom known anyone I disliked so much."

"Really? She's of the new school, you know; the result of the emancipation movement." Dyce smiled, as if indulgently. "Lady Ogram thinks a great deal of her, and, I fancy, means to leave her money."

"Gracious! You don't say so!"

Mrs. Lashmar put the subject disdainfully aside, and Dyce was glad to speak of something else.

Throughout the day, the vicar was too busy to hold conversation with his son. But after dinner they sat alone together in the study, Mrs. Lashmar being called forth by some parochial duty. As he puffed at his newly-lighted pipe, Dyce reflected on all that had happened since he last sat here, some three months ago, and thought of what might have been his lot had not fortune dealt so kindly with him. Glancing at his father's face, he noted in it the signs of wearing anxiety; it seemed to him that the vicar looked much older than in the spring, and he was impressed by the pathos of age, which has no hopes to nourish, which can ask no more of life than a quiet ending. He could not imagine himself grey-headed, disillusioned; the effort to do so gave him a thrill of horror. Thereupon he felt reproach of conscience. For all the care and kindness he had received from his father, since the days when he used to come into this very room to show how well he could read a page of some child's story, what return had he made? None whatever in words, and little enough in conduct. All at once, he felt a desire to prove that he was not the insensible egoist his father perhaps thought him.

"I'm afraid you're a good deal worried, father," he began, looking at the paper-covered writing-table.

"I'm putting my affairs in order, Dyce," the vicar replied, running fingers through his beard. "I've been foolish enough to let them get very tangled; let me advise you never to do the same. But it'll all be straight before long. Don't trouble about me; let me hear of your own projects. I heartily wish it were in my power to help you."

"You did that much longer than I ought to have allowed," returned Dyce. "I feel myself to a great extent the cause of your troubles-"

"Nothing of the kind," broke in his father, cheerily. "Troubles be-excommunicated! This hot weather takes it out of me a little, but I'm very well and not at all discouraged; so don't think it. To tell you the truth, I've been feeling anxious to hear more in detail from you about this Hollingford enterprise. Have you serious hopes?"

"I hardly think I shall be elected the first time," Dyce answered, speaking with entire frankness. "But it'll be experience, and may open the way for me."

"Parliament," mused the vicar, "Parliament! To be sure, we must have Members; it's our way of doing things, of governing the country. And if you really feel apt for that-"

He paused dreamily. Dyce, still under the impulse of softened feelings, spoke as he seldom did, very simply, quietly, sincerely.

"I believe, father, that I am not unfit for it. Politics, it's true, don't interest me very strongly, but I have brains enough to get the necessary knowledge, and I feel that I shall do better work in a prominent position of that kind than if I went on tutoring or took to journalism. As you say, we must have representatives, and I should not be the least capable, or the least honest. I find I can speak fairly well; I find I can inspire people with confidence in me. And, without presumption, I don't think the confidence is misplaced."

"Well, that's something," said the vicar, absently. "But you talk as if politics were a profession one could live by. I don't yet understand-"

"How I'm going to live. Nor do I. I'll tell you that frankly. But Lady Ogram knows my circumstances, and none the less urges me on. It may be taken for granted that she has something in view; and, after giving a good deal of thought to the matter, I see no valid reason why I should refuse any assistance she chooses to offer me. The case would not be without precedent. There is nothing dishonourable-"

Dyce drifted into verbosity. At the beginning, he had lost from sight the impossibility of telling the whole truth about his present position and the prospects on which he counted; he spoke with relief, and would gladly have gone on unbosoming himself. Strong and deep-rooted is the instinct of confession. Unable to ease his conscience regarding outward circumstances, he turned at length to the

question of his intellectual attitude.

"Do you remember, when I was here last, I spoke to you of a French book I had been reading, a sociological work? As I told you, it had a great influence on my mind. It helped to set my ideas in order. Before then, I had only the vaguest way of thinking about political and social questions. That book supplied me with a scientific principle, which I have since been working out for myself."

"Ha!" interjected the vicar, looking up oddly. "And you really feel in need of a scientific principle?"

"Without it, I should have remained a mere empiric, like the rest of our politicians. I should have judged measures from the narrow, merely practical point of view; or rather, I should pretty certainly have guided myself by some theory in which I only tried to believe."

"So you have now a belief, Dyce? Come, that's a point to have reached. That alone should give you a distinction among the aspiring men of to-day. And what do you believe?"

After drawing a meditative puff or two, Dyce launched into his familiar demonstration. He would very much rather have left it aside; he felt that he was not speaking as one genuinely convinced, and that his father listened without serious interest. But the theory had all to be gone through; he unwound it, like thread off a reel, rather mechanically and heavily towards the end.

"And that's what you are going to live for?" said his father. "That is your faith necessary to salvation?"

"I take it to be the interpretation of human history."

"Perhaps it is; perhaps it is," murmured the vicar, abstractedly. "For my own part," he added, bestirring himself to refill his pipe, "I can still see a guiding light in the older faith. Of course the world has rejected it; I don't seek to delude myself on that point; I shrink with horror from the blasphemy which would have us pretend that our civilisation obeys the spirit of Christ. The world has rejected it. Now as ever, 'despised and rejected of men.' The world, very likely, will do without religion. Yet, Dyce, when I think of the Sermon on the Mount-"

He paused again, holding his pipe in his hand, unlit, and looking before him with wide eyes.

"I respect that as much as anyone can," said Dyce, gravely.

"As much as anyone can-who doesn't believe it." His father took him up with gentle irony. "I don't expect the impossible. You cannot believe in it; for you were born a post-Darwinian. Well, your religion is temporal; let us take that for granted. You do not deny yourself; you believe that self-assertion to the uttermost is the prime duty."

"Provided that self-assertion be understood aright. I understand it as meaning the exercise of all my civic faculties."

"Which, in your case, are faculties of command, faculties which point you to the upper seat, Dyce. Tom Bullock, my gardener, is equally to assert himself, but with the understanding that his faculties point to the bottom of the table, where the bread is a trifle stale, and butter sometimes lacking. Yes, yes: I understand. Of course you will do your very best for Tom; you would like him to have what the sweet language of our day calls a square meal. But still he must eat below the salt; there you can't help him."

"Because nature itself cannot," explained Dyce. "One wants Tom to acknowledge that, without bitterness, and at the same time to understand that, but for him, his honest work, his clean life, the world couldn't go on at all. If Tom feels that, he is a religious man."

"Ah! I take your point. But, Dyce, I find as a painful matter of fact that Tom Bullock is by no means a religious man. Tom, I have learnt, privately calls himself 'a hagnostic,' and is obliging enough to say among his intimates that, if the truth were told, I myself am the same. Tom has got hold of evolutionary notions, which he illustrates in his daily work. He knows all about natural selection, and the survival of the fittest. Tom ought to be a very apt disciple of your bio-sociological creed. Unhappily a more selfish mortal doesn't walk the earth. He has been known to send his wife and children supperless to bed, because a festive meeting at a club to which he belongs demanded all the money in his pocket. Tom, you see, feels himself one of the Select; his wife and children, holding an inferior place in great nature's scheme, must be content to hunger now and then, and it's their fault if they don't feel a religious satisfaction in the privilege."

"Why on earth do you employ such a man?" cried Dyce.

"Because, my dear boy, if I did not, no one else would, and Tom's wife and children would have still greater opportunities of proving their disinterested citizenship."

Dyce laughed.

"Speaking seriously again, father, Tom is what he is just because he hasn't received the proper education. Had he been rightly taught, who knows but he would, in fact, have been an apt disciple of the civic religion?"

"I fear me, Dyce, that no amount of civic instruction, or any other instruction, would have affected Tom's ethics. Tom is representative of his age. Come, come; I have every wish to be just to you. A new religion must have time; its leaven must work amid the lump. You, my dear boy, are convinced that the leaven is, though a new sort, a very sound and sufficient yeast; let that be granted. I, unfortunately, cannot believe anything of the kind. To me your method of solution seems a deliberate insistence on the worldly in human nature, sure to have the practical result of making men more and more savagely materialist: I see no hope whatever that you will inspire the world with enthusiasm for a noble civilisation by any theory based on biological teaching. From my point of view, a man becomes noble in spite of the material laws which condition his life, never in consequence of them. If you ask me how and why-I bow my head and keep silence."

"Can you maintain," asked Dyce, respectfully, "that Christianity is still a civilising power?"

"To all appearances," was the grave answer, "Christianity has failed-utterly, absolutely, glaringly failed. At this moment, the world, I am convinced, holds more potential barbarism than did the Roman Empire under the Antonines. Wherever I look, I see a monstrous contrast between the professions and the practice, between the assumed and the actual aims, of so-called Christian peoples. Christianity has failed to conquer the human heart."

"It must be very dreadful for you to be convinced of that."

"It is. But more dreadful would be a loss of belief in the Christian spirit. By belief, I don't mean faith in its ultimate triumph; I am not at all sure that I can look forward to that. No; but a persuasion that the Sermon on the Mount is good-is the best. Once upon a time, multitudes were in that sense Christian. Nowadays, does one man in a thousand give his mind's allegiance (lips and life disregarded) to that ideal of human thought and conduct? Take your newspaper writer, who speaks to and for the million; he simply scorns every Christian precept. How can he but scorn a thing so unpractical? Nay, I notice that he is already throwing off the hypocrisy hitherto thought decent. I read newspaper articles which sneer and scoff at those who venture to remind the world that, after all, it nominally owes allegiance to a Christian ideal. Our prophets begin openly to proclaim that self-interest and the hardest materialism are our only safe guides. Now and then such passages amaze, appal me-but I am getting used to them. So I am to the same kind of declaration in everyday talk. Men in most respectable coats, sitting at most orderly tables, hold the language of pure barbarism. If you drew one of them aside, and said to him, 'But what about the fruits of the spirit?'-what sort of look would he give you?"

"I agree entirely," exclaimed Dyce. "And for that very reason I want to work for a new civilising principle."

"If you get into the House, shall you talk there about bio-sociology?"

"Why no," answered Dyce, with a chuckle. "If I were capable of that, I should have very little chance of getting into the House at all, or of doing anything useful anywhere."

"In other words," said his father, still eyeing an unlit pipe, "one must be practical-eh, Dyce?"

"In the right way."

"Yes, yes: one must be practical, practical. If you know which is the right way, I am very glad, I congratulate you. For my own part, I seek it vainly; I seek it these forty years and more; and it grows clear to me that I should have done much better not to heed that question at all. 'Blessed are the merciful-blessed are the pure in heart-blessed are the peacemakers.' It is all strikingly unpractical, Dyce, my boy; you can't, again in to-day's sweet language, 'run' the world on those principles. They are utterly incompatible with business; and business is life."

"But they are not at all incompatible with the civilisation I have in view," Dyce exclaimed.

"I am glad to hear it; very glad. You don't, however, see your way to that civilisation by teaching such axioms."

"Unfortunately not."

"No. You have to teach 'Blessed are the civic-minded, for they shall profit by their civism.' It has to be profit, Dyce, profit, profit. Live thus, and you'll get a good deal out of life; live otherwise, and you may get more, but with an unpleasant chance of getting a good deal less."

"But isn't it unfortunately true that Christianity spoke also of rewards?"

"Yes, it is true. The promise was sometimes adapted to the poorer understanding. More often, it was nobler, and by that I take my stand. 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.' The words, you know, had then a meaning. Now they have none. To see God was not a little thing, I imagine, but the vision, probably, brought with it neither purple nor fine linen.-For curiosity's sake, Dyce, read Matthew v. to vii. before you go to sleep. You'll find the old Bible in your bedroom."

The door was thrown open, and Mrs. Lashmar's voice broke upon the still air of the study.

"Dyce, have you seen to-day's Times? There's a most interesting article on the probable duration of Parliament. Take it up to your room with you, and read it before you sleep."

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