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   Chapter 19 No.19

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 24953

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


"There's a letter for you, Dyce; forwarded from Rivenoak, I see."

It lay beside his plate on the breakfast table, and Dyce eyed it with curiosity. The backward-sloping hand was quite unknown to him. He tapped at an egg, and still scrutinised the writing on the envelope; it was Constance who had crossed out the Rivenoak address, and had written beside it "The Vicarage, Alverholme."

"Have you slept well?" asked his mother, who treated him with much more consideration than at his last visit.

"Very well indeed," he replied mechanically, taking up his letter and cutting it open with a table-knife.

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

Dyce stared at the oracular message, written in capitals on a sheet of paper which contained nothing else. He again examined the envelope, but the post-mark in no way helped him. He glanced at his mother, and, finding her eye upon him, folded the sheet carelessly. He glanced at his father, who had just laid down a letter which evidently worried him. The meal passed with very little conversation. Dyce puzzled over the anonymous counsel so mysteriously conveyed to him, and presently went apart to muse unobserved.

He thought of Iris Woolstan. Of course a woman had done this thing, and Iris he could well believe capable of it. But what did she mean? Did she really imagine that, but for lack of courage, he would have made suit to her? Did she really regard herself as socially his superior? There was no telling. Women had the oddest notions on such subjects, and perhaps the fact of his engaging himself to Constance Bride, a mere secretary, struck her as deplorable. "Aim higher." The exhortation was amusing enough. One would have supposed it came at least from some great heiress-

He stopped in his pacing about the garden. An heiress?-May Tomalin?

Shaking of the head dismissed this fancy. Miss Tomalin was a matter-of-fact young person; he could not see her doing such a thing as this. And yet-and yet-when he remembered their last talk, was it not conceivable that he had made a deeper impression upon her than, in his modesty, he allowed himself to suppose? Had she not spoken, with a certain enthusiasm, of working on his behalf at Hollingford? The disturbing event which immediately followed had put Miss Tomalin into the distance; his mind had busied itself continuously with surmises as to the nature of the benefit he might expect if he married Constance. After all, Lady Ogram's niece might have had recourse to this expedient. She, at all events, knew that he was staying at Rivenoak, and might easily not have heard on what day he would leave. Or, perhaps, knowing that he left yesterday, she had calculated that the letter would reach him before his departure; it had possibly been delivered at Rivenoak by the mid-day post.

Amusing, the thought that Constance had herself re-addressed this communication!

Another possibility occurred to him. What if the writer were indeed Iris Woolstan, and her motive quite disinterested? What if she did not allude to herself at all, but was really pained at the thought of his making an insignificant marriage, when, by waiting a little, he was sure to win a wife suitable to his ambition? Of this, too, Iris might well be capable. Her last letter to him had had some dignity, and, all things considered, she had always shown herself a devoted, unexacting friend. It seemed more likely, it seemed much more likely, than the other conjecture.

Nevertheless, suppose Miss Tomalin had taken this romantic step? The supposition involved such weighty issues that he liked to harbour it, to play with it. He pictured himself calling in Pont Street; he entered the drawing-room, and his eyes fell at once upon Miss Tomalin, in whose manner he remarked something unusual a constraint, a nervousness. Saluting, he looked her fixedly in the face; she could not meet his regard; she blushed a little-

Why, it was very easy to determine whether or not she had sent that letter. In the case of Iris Woolstan, observation would have no certain results, for she must needs meet him with embarrassment. But Miss Tomalin would be superhuman if she did not somehow betray a nervous conscience.

Dyce strode into the house. His father and mother stood talking at the foot of the stairs, the vicar ready to go out.

"I must leave you at once," he exclaimed, looking at his watch. "Something I had forgotten-an engagement absurdly dropt out of mind. I must catch the next train-10.14, isn't it?"

Mrs. Lashmar sang out protest, but, on being assured that the engagement was political, urged him to make haste. The vicar all but silently pressed his hand, and with head bent, walked away.

He just caught the train. It would bring him to town by mid-day, in comfortable time to lunch and adorn himself before the permissible hour of calling in Pont Street. Rapid movement excited his imagination; he clung now to the hypothesis which at first seemed untenable; he built hopes upon it. Could he win a confession from May Tomalin, why should it be hopeless to sway the mind of Lady Ogram? If that were deemed impossible, they had but to wait. Lady Ogram would not live till the autumn. To be sure, she looked better since her return to Rivenoak, but she was frail, oh very frail, and sure to go off at a moment's notice. As for Constance-oh, Constance!

At his lodgings he found unimportant letters. Every letter would have seemed unimportant, compared with that he carried in his pocket. Roach, M. P., invited him to dine. The man at the Home Office wanted him to go to a smoking concert. Lady Susan Harrop sent a beggarly card for an evening ten days hence. Like the woman's impudence! And yet, as it had been posted since her receipt of his mother's recent letter, it proved that Lady Susan had a sense of his growing dignity, which was good in its way. He smiled at a recollection of the time when a seat at those people's table had seemed a desirable and agitating thing.

Before half-past three he found himself walking in Sloane Street. After consulting his watch several times in the course of a few minutes, he decided that, early as it was, he would go on at once to Mrs. Toplady's. Was he not privileged? Moreover, light rain began to fall, with muttering of thunder: he must seek shelter.

At a door in Pont Street stood two vehicles, a brougham and a cab. Was it at Mrs. Toplady's? Yes, so it proved; and, just as Dyce went up to the house, the door opened. Out came a servant, carrying luggage; behind the servant came Mrs. Toplady, and, behind her, Miss Tomalin. Hat in hand, Lashmar faced the familiar smile, at this moment undisguisedly mischievous.

"Mr. Lashmar!" exclaimed the lady, in high good humour. "We are just going to St. Pancras. Miss Tomalin leaves me to-day.-Why, it is raining! Can't we take you with us? Yes, yes, come into the carriage, and we'll drop you where you like."

Lashmar's eye was on the heiress. She said nothing as she shook hands, and, unless he mistook, there was a tremour about her lips, her eyelids, an unwonted suggestion of shyness in her bearing. The ladies being seated, he took his place opposite to them, and again perused Miss Tomalin's countenance. Decidedly, she was unlike herself; manifestly, she avoided his look. Mrs. Toplady talked away, in the gayest spirits; and the rain came down heavily, and thunder rolled. Half the distance to St. Pancras was covered before May had uttered anything more than a trivial word or two. Of a sudden she addressed Lashmar, as if about to speak of something serious.

"You left all well at Rivenoak?"

"Quite well."

"When did you come away?"

"Early yesterday morning," Dyce replied.

May's eyebrows twitched; her look fell.

"I went to Alverholme," Dyce continued, "to see my people."

May turned her eyes to the window. Uneasiness appeared in her face. "She wants to know"-said Dyce to himself-"whether I have received that letter."

"Do you stay in town?" inquired Mrs. Toplady.

"For a week or two, I think." He added, carelessly, "A letter this morning, forwarded from Rivenoak, brought me back."

May made a nervous movement, and at once exclaimed:

"I suppose your correspondence is enormous, Mr. Lashmar?"

"Enormous-why no. But interesting, especially of late."

"Of course-a public man-"

Impossible to get assurance. The signs he noticed might mean nothing at all; on the other hand, they were perhaps decisive. More about the letter of this morning he durst not say, lest, if this girl had really written it, she should think him lacking in delicacy, in discretion.

"Very kind of you, to come to me at once," said Mrs. Toplady. "Is there good news of the campaign? Come and see me to-morrow, can you? This afternoon I have an engagement. I shall only just have time to see Miss Tomalin safe in the railway carriage."

Dyce made no request to be set down. After this remark of Mrs. Toplady's, a project formed itself in his mind. When the carriage entered Euston Road, rain was still falling.

"This'll do good," he remarked. "The country wants it."

His thoughts returned to the morning, a week ago, when Constance and he had been balked of their ride by a heavy shower. He saw the summer-house among the trees; he saw Constance's face, and heard her accents.

They reached the station. As a matter of course, Dyce accompanied his friends on to the platform, where the train was already standing. Miss Tomalin selected her scat. There was leave-taking. Dyce walked away with Mrs. Toplady, who suddenly became hurried.

"I shall only just have time," she said, looking at the clock. "I'm afraid my direction-northward-would only take you more out of your way."

Dyce saw her to the brougham, watched it drive off. There remained three minutes before the departure of Miss Tomalin's train. He turned back into the station; he walked rapidly, and on the platform almost collided with a heavy old gentleman whom an official was piloting to a carriage. This warm-faced, pompous-looking person he well knew by sight. Another moment, and he stood on the step of the compartment where May had her place. At sight of him, she half rose.

"What is it? Have I forgotten something?"

The compartment was full. Impossible to speak before these listening people. In ready response to his embarrassed look, May alighted.

"I'm so sorry to have troubled you," said Dyce, with laughing contrition. "I thought it might amuse you to know that Mr. Robb is in the train!"

"Really? How I should have liked to be in the same carriage. Perhaps I should have heard the creature talk. Oh, and this compartment is so full, so hot! Is it impossible to find a better?"

Dyce rushed at a passing guard. He learnt that, if Miss Tomalin were willing to change half way on her journey, she could travel at ease; only the through carriages for Hollingford were packed. To this May at once consented. Dyce seized her dressing-bag, her umbrella; they sped to another part of the train, and sprang, both of them, into an empty first-class.

"This is delightful!" cried the girl. "I am so much obliged to you!"

"Tickets, please."

"Shown already," replied May. "Change of carriage."

The door was slammed, locked. The whistle sounded.

"But we're starting!" May exclaimed. "Quick! Jump out, Mr. Lashmar!"

Dyce sat still, smiling calmly.

"It's too late, I'm afraid I mustn't try to escape by the window."

"Oh, and you have sacrificed yourself just to make me more comfortable! How inconvenient it will be for you! What a waste of time!"

"Not at all. The best thing that could have happened."

"Well, we have papers at all events." May handed him one. "Pray don't feel obliged to talk."

"As it happens, I very much wish to talk. Queer thing that I should owe my opportunity to Robb. I shall never again feel altogether hostile to that man. I wish you had seen him. He looked apoplectic. This weather must try him severely."

"You never spoke to him, I suppose?" asked May.

"I never had that honour. Glimpses only of the great man have been vouchsafed to me. Once seen, he is never forgotten. To-day he looks alarmingly apoplectic."

"But really, Mr. Lashmar," said the girl, settling herself in her corner, "I do feel ashamed to have given you this useless journey-and just when you are so busy."

She was pretty in her travelling costume. Could Lashmar have compared he

r appearance to-day with that she had presented on her first arrival at Rivenoak, he would have marvelled at the change wrought by luxurious circumstance. No eye-glasses now; no little paper-cutter hanging at her girdle. Called upon to resume the Northampton garb, May would have been horrified. The brown shoes which she had purchased expressly for her visit to Lady Ogram would have seemed impossibly large and coarse. Exquisite were her lavender gloves. Such details of attire, formerly regarded with some contempt, had now an importance for her. She had come to regard dress as one of the serious concerns of life.

"I went to Pont Street this afternoon," said Dyce, "with a wish that by some chance I might see you alone. It was Very unlikely, but it has come to pass."

May exhibited a slight surprise, and by an imperceptible movement put a little more dignity into her attitude.

"What did you wish to speak about?" she asked, with an air meant to be strikingly natural.

"Don't let me startle you; it was about my engagement to Miss Bride."

This time, Dyce felt he could not be mistaken. She was confused; he saw colour mounting on her neck; the surprise she tried to convey in smiling was too obviously feigned.

"Isn't that rather an odd subject of conversation?"

"It seems so, but wait till you have heard what I have to say. It is on Miss Bride's account that I speak. You are her friend, and I feel that, in mere justice to her, I ought to tell you a very strange story. It is greatly to her honour. She couldn't tell you the truth herself, and of course you will not be able to let her know that you know it. But it will save you from possible misunderstanding of her, enable you to judge her fairly."

May hardly disguised her curiosity. It absorbed her self-consciousness, and she looked the speaker straight in the face.

"To come to the point at once," pursued Lashmar, "our engagement is not a genuine one. Miss Bride has not really consented to marry me. She only consents to have it thought that she has done so. And very generous, very noble, it is of her."

"What a strange thing!" the girl exclaimed, as ingenuously as she had ever spoken in her life.

"Isn't it! I can explain in a word or two. Lady Ogram wished us to marry; it was a favourite project of hers. She spoke to me about it-putting me in a very difficult position, for I felt sure that Miss Bride had no such regard for me as your aunt supposed. I postponed, delayed as much as possible, and the result was that Lady Ogram began to take my behaviour ill. The worst of it was, her annoyance had a bad effect on her health. I think you know that Lady Ogram cannot bear contradiction."

"I know that she doesn't like it," said May, her chin rising a little.

"You, of course, are favoured. You have exceptional influence. But I can assure you that it would have been a very unpleasant thing to have to tell Lady Ogram either that I couldn't take the step she wished, or that Miss Bride rejected me."

"I can believe that," said May indulgently.

"When I saw that she was making herself ill about it, I took the resolve to speak frankly to Miss Bride. The result was-our pretended engagement."

"Was it your suggestion?" inquired the listener.

"Yes, it came from me," Dyce answered, with half real, half affected, embarrassment. "Of course I felt it to be monstrous impudence, but, as some excuse for me, you must remember that Miss Bride and I have known each other for many years, that we were friends almost in childhood. Perhaps I was rather a coward. Perhaps I ought to have told your aunt the truth, and taken the consequences. But Miss Bride, no less than I, felt afraid of them."

"What consequences?"

"We really feared that, in Lady Ogram's state of health-"

He broke off significantly. May dropped her eyes. The train roared through a station.

"But," said May at length, "I understand that you are to be married in October."

"That is Lady Ogram's wish. Of course it's horribly embarrassing. I needn't say that when our engagement is announced as broken off, I shall manage so that all the fault appears to be on my side. But I am hoping-that Lady Ogram may somehow be brought to change her mind. And I even dare to hope that-you will help us to that end."

"I? How could I, possibly?"

"Indeed, I hardly know. But the situation is so awkward, and you are the only person who has really great influence with Lady Ogram-"

There was silence amid the noise of the train. May looked through one window, Dyce through the other.

"In any case," exclaimed Lashmar, "I have discharged what I felt to be a duty. I could not bear to think that you should be living with Miss Bride, and totally misunderstanding her. I wanted you to do justice to her noble self-sacrifice. Of course I have felt ashamed of myself ever since I allowed her to get into such a false position. You, I fear, think worse of me than you did."

He regarded her from under his eyelids, as if timidly. May sat very upright. She did not look displeased; a light in her eyes might have been understood as expressing satisfaction.

"Suppose," she said, looking away, "that October comes, and you haven't been able to-to put an end to this situation?"

"I'm afraid-very much afraid-that we shall have to do so at any cost."

"It's very strange, altogether. An extraordinary state of things."

"You forgive me for talking to you about it?" asked Dyce, leaning respectfully forward.

"I understand why you did. There was no harm in it."

"Do you remember our talk in the supper-room at Mrs. Toplady's?-when we agreed that nothing was more foolish than false modesty. Shall I venture to tell you, now, that, if this marriage came about, it would be something like ruin to my career? You won't misunderstand. I have a great respect, and a great liking, for Miss Bride; but think how all-important it is, this question of marriage for a public man."

"Of course I understand that," May replied.

He enlarged upon the topic, revealing his hopes.

"But I rather thought," said May, "that Miss Bride was just the sort of companion you needed. She is so intelligent and-"

"Very! But do you think she has the qualities which would enable her to take a high position in society? There's no unkindness in touching upon that. Admirable women may fall short of these particular excellencies. A man chooses his wife according to the faith he has in his future?"

"I understand; I quite understand," said May, with a large air. "No; it has to be confessed that Miss Bride-I wonder my aunt didn't think of that."

They turned aside to discuss Lady Ogram, and did so in such detail, with so much mutual satisfaction, that time slipped on insensibly, and, ere they had thought of parting, the train began to slacken down for the junction where Miss Tomalin would have to change carriages.

"How annoying that I shan't be able to see you again!" cried Lashmar.

"But shan't you be coming to Rivenoak?"

"Not for some time, very likely. And when I do-" The train stopped. Dyce helped his companion to alight, and moved along to seek for a place for her in the section which went to Hollingford. Suddenly an alarmed voice from one of the carriage-doors shouted "Guard! Station-master!" People turned in that direction; porters ran; evidently, something serious had happened.

"What's the matter?" asked May, at her companion's side.

"Somebody taken ill, I think," said Dyce, moving towards the door whence the shout had sounded.

He caught a glimpse of a man who had sunk upon the floor of the carriage, and was just being lifted onto the seat by other passengers. Pressing nearer, he saw a face hideously congested, with horrible starting eyes. He drew back, and whispered to May:

"It's Robb! Didn't I tell you that he looked apoplectic."

The girl shrank in fear.

"Are you sure?"

"Perfectly. Stand here a minute, and I'll ask how it happened."

From the talk going on he quickly learnt that Mr. Robb, complaining that he felt faint, had risen, just as the train drew into the station, to open the door and descend. Before anyone could help him, he dropped, and his fellow-travellers shouted. Dyce and May watched the conveyance of the obese figure across the platform to a waiting-room.

"I must know the end of this," said Lashmar, his eyes gleaming.

"You wouldn't have gone further, should you?"

"I suppose not-though I had still a great deal to tell you. Quick! We must get your place."

"I could stop for the next train," suggested May.

"Better not, I think. The carriage will be waiting for you at Hollingford. No, better not. I have another idea."

They found a seat. Dyce threw in the dressing-bag, and alighted again.

"There's still a minute or two," he said, keeping May beside him on the platform. "This affair may be tremendously important for me, you know."

"It would mean an election at once," said the girl, excitedly.

"Of course." He approached his face to hers, and added in low, rapid tones, "You know the park gate into the Wapham Road?"

"Yes."

"You have a key. Could you be there at eight tomorrow morning? If it's fine, take your bicycle, as if you were going for a spin before breakfast. Miss Bride never goes out before breakfast, and no one else is likely to pass that way."

"You mean you would be there?"

"If there's anything important to tell-yes. From a quarter to eight. I shall stay here till I know the state of things. If there's recovery, I will go back to town, and wire to-morrow to Lady Ogram that Ii have heard a rumour of Robb's serious illness, asking for information. Do you agree?"

Doors were slamming; porters were shouting. May had only just time to spring into the carriage.

"Yes!" she exclaimed, with her head at the window. Dyce doffed his hat. They smiled at each other, May's visage flushed and agitated, and the train whirled away.

In the carriage awaiting Miss Tomalin at Hollingford station sat Constance Bride.

"A horrible journey!" May exclaimed, taking a seat beside her. "No seat in a through carriage at St. Pancras. Had to change at the junction. Somebody in the train had a fit, or something-no wonder, with such heat! But it's cooler here. Have you had a storm?"

The footman, who had been looking after luggage, stepped up to the carriage door and spoke to Miss Bride. He said there was a rumour in the station that Mr. Robb, travelling by this train, had been seized with apoplexy on the way.

"Mr. Robb!" exclaimed Constance. "Then he was the person you spoke of?"

"I suppose so," May answered. "Queer thing!"

They drove off. Constance gazed straight before her, thinking intently.

"If the attack is fatal," said May, "we shall have an election at once."

"Yes," fell from her companion's lips mechanically.

"Who will be the Conservative candidate?"

"I have no idea," answered Constance, still absorbed in her thoughts.

May cast a glance at her, and discovered emotion in the fixed eyes, the set lips. There was a short silence, then Miss Tomalin spoke as if an amusing thought had struck her.

"You received that American magazine from Mrs. Toplady? Isn't it an odd coincidence-the French book, you know?"

"It didn't seem to me very striking," replied Constance, coldly.

"No? Perhaps not." May became careless. "I hadn't time to read it myself; I only heard what Mrs. Toplady said about it."

"There was a certain resemblance between the Frenchman's phraseology and Mr. Lashmar's," said Constance; "but nothing more. Mr. Lashmar's system isn't easy to grasp. I doubt whether Mrs. Toplady is quite the person to understand it."

"Perhaps not," May smiled, raising her chin. "I must read the article myself."

"Even then," rejoined her companion, in a measured tone, "you will hardly be able to decide as to the resemblance of the two theories."

"Why not?" asked May, sharply.

"Because you have had no opportunity of really studying Mr. Lashmar's views."

"Oh, I assure you he has made them perfectly clear to me-perfectly."

"In outline," said Constance, smiling as one who condescends to a childish understanding.

"Oh no, in detail."

Miss Bride contented herself with a half-absent "Indeed?" and seemed to resume her meditations. Whereupon, May's eyes flashed, and her head assumed its most magnificent pose.

They exchanged not another word on the drive to Rivenoak.

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