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   Chapter 20 No.20

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 24895

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

May awoke very early next morning. It was broad daylight, however, and she hastened to look at her watch. Reassured as to the time, her next thought regarded the weather; she stepped to the window, and saw with vexation a rainy sky. An hour later, she again lifted the blind to look forth. No sun was shining, but rain had ceased. She began to dress.

At a quarter to eight, equipped for walking, she quietly left her room and tripped down stairs. A housemaid met her in the hall; she asked whether the front door was unlocked, and the servant went before to open for her. Following a path which led to the rear of the house, she was soon out in the park; in some ten minutes she passed the old summer-house among the trees, and, with quickened pace, came to the door which led into the Wapham Road. Before using her key, she tapped lightly on the wood; from without there sounded immediately an answering knock. Then she opened.

"Do you know?" asked Lashmar, eagerly, as he gave his hand, forgetting the formal salute.

"Yes. We had the news after dinner. Mr. Breakspeare sent a message."

"He lived for about an hour. I came on to Hollingford late, and have passed the night at the Saracen's Head. It's to be understood, of course, that I got the news in town just in time for the last train."

Whilst exchanging rapid sentences, they stood, one within, one outside, the park wall. May held the door as if uncertain what to do next.

"You can spare me a few minutes?" said Dyce, glancing this way and that along the public way.

"Come in. I didn't bring my bicycle, as it's so wet."

"Of course not. You needn't be anxious. Nobody comes this way."

He closed the door. May was looking behind her into the frees and bushes, which hid them from the park The sky had begun to brighten; a breeze shook drops from the shining leafage.

"How does Lady Ogram take the news?" Lashmar inquired, trying to speak with his wonted calm, but betraying a good deal of nervousness.

"I haven't seen her. She was in her room when it came."

"I shouldn't wonder if she's sorry. She had set her mind on our beating Robb at the poll. No one seems to know who will stand for the Conservatives. I saw Breakspeare after midnight; he was in the wildest excitement. He thinks it's good for us."

"Of course you'll see Lady Ogram to-day?"

"I shall come at lunch-time. That'll be best, won't it?"

May nodded. Her eyes kept turning in the direction of the house.

"How very kind of you to have come out so early!" said Dyce. "All night I've been reproaching myself for giving you the trouble, and when I saw the rain I didn't think for a moment you would be here. I'm delighted to be able to talk to you before seeing anyone else. Don't you think this event has happened very luckily? Whether I am elected or not, it'll be easier for me to get out of my false position."

"Why? How?"

"In this way. During the excitement of the election, I shall find opportunities of speaking more freely with Lady Ogram, and who knows but I may bring her to see that the plan she made for me was not altogether to my advantage? Miss Bride, of course, will speak, whenever she has a chance, in the same sense-"

"Are you sure of that?" asked May, casting a furtive glance at him. She was boring the path with the point of her slim umbrella.

"Do you feel any doubt?" asked Dyce in turn.

"I really can't judge. It's such a very curious situation-and," she added, "Miss Bride is so peculiar."

"Peculiar?-I understand. You don't find her very communicative. But I'm sure you'll make allowance for the difficulty of-"

"Oh, I make all allowances," interrupted May, with her smile of superiority. "And of course Miss Bride's affairs don't in the least concern me."

"Except I hope in so far as they concern me."

Dyce spoke with insinuating humour. Both hands resting on his umbrella handle, he held himself very upright, and looked May steadily in the face. She, as though challenged, straightened herself and met his look.

"I should be sorry to see your career spoilt," she said, with rather excessive dignity. "But you will admit that you have acted, to say the least, imprudently."

"It looks so. You think I should have had more courage. But you will see that it's not too late."

Speaking, he watched her face. He saw her lips twitch, and her eyes stray.

"You know," he pursued, "that I aim high."

Her look fell.

"But no man can do without help. The strong man is he who knows how to choose his helper, and at the right moment. I am at a crisis of my life, and-it is to you that I turn."

"I of course feel that to be a great compliment, Mr. Lashmar," said May, recovering her grand air. "I promise you to do what I can. But you mustn't count on me for impossibilities."

"I count on nothing that isn't easy for you-with your character, your influence."

"Thank you, again. My first piece of advice to you is to win the election."

"I shall do my best. If I am beaten in this, I shall win another; you are aware of that. Are you easily discouraged? I think not."

He smiled at her with admiration. That it was genuine, May easily perceived; how much, or how little, it implied, she did not care to ask. These two, alike incapable of romantic passion, children of a time which subdues everything to interest, which fosters vanity and chills the heart, began to imagine that they were drawn to each other by all the ardours of youth. Their minds remarkably lucid, reviewing the situation with coolest perspicuity, calculating each on the other's recognised weaknesses, and holding themselves absolutely free if contingency demanded freedom, they indulged, up to a certain point, the primitive impulse, and would fain have discovered in it a motive of the soul. May, who had formed her opinion as to Miss Bride's real attitude regarding Lashmar, took a keen pleasure in the treacherous part she was playing; she remembered the conversation last evening in the carriage, and soothed her wounded self-esteem. Dyce, gratified by yet another proof of his power over womankind, felt that in this case he had something to be really proud of; Miss Tomalin's beauty and her prospects spoke to the world at large. She was in love with him, and he detected in himself a reciprocal emotion. Interesting and agreeable state of things!

May, instead of directly answering his last question, allowed her eyes to meet his for a second. Then she said:

"Some people are coming to us this afternoon."

"To stay? Who are they?"

"Sir William and Lady Amys-and Lord Dymchurch-"

"Dymchurch! Lady Ogram has invited him?"

"He would hardly come to stay without being invited," said May, archly. "But I thought you most likely knew. Didn't Lady Ogram mention it to you?"

"Not a word," answered Dyce. "No doubt she had a reason for saying nothing. You, possibly, could suggest it?"

His face had changed. There was cold annoyance in his look and in his voice.

"It must have been mere accident," said May.

"That it certainly wasn't. How long will Dymchurch stay?"

"I have no idea, Mr. Lashmar.-I must leave you. Many thanks for taking so much trouble to bring me the news."

She held out her hand. Dyce took and detained it.

"I am going to stay on at Hollingford," he said, "at the hotel. I shall run up to town this evening, but be back to-morrow. At lunchtime to-day I shall see you, but of course that doesn't count; we shan't be able to talk, Wednesday, to-morrow; on Thursday morning meet me here again, will you?"

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Mr. Lashmar," she answered with self-possession; trying, unobtrusively, to withdraw her hand.

"I beg you to! Indeed, you must."

He tried the power of a smile meant to be at once virile and tender, but May was steadily drawing away her hand; he had not the courage to hold it forcibly.

"We shall find other opportunities of talking about the things that interest us," she said, moving a step back.

"It surprises me that you came this morning!" Dyce exclaimed, with a touch of sarcasm.

"Then," May answered loftily, "you will be spared a second surprise."

She turned and left him. Dyce, after watching for a moment her graceful figure, strode in pursuit. They were near the summer-house.

"You are forgetting," he said, "that you have left the key in the door."

May uttered an exclamation of alarm.

"How foolish of me! Thank you so much!"

"I fear I must give you the trouble of walking back, to let me out."

"Why, of course."

They returned to the door, and Dyce again took the offered hand.

"I shall be here at eight on Thursday," he said. "Unless it rains. In that case, on the first fine morning."

"I don't promise to meet you."

"I will come without a promise."

"As you like," said May, slowly closing the door upon him. "But don't prepare for yourself another surprise."

She regained the house, having met no one but a gardener. Within, she encountered no one at all. Safe in her room, she reflected on the morning's adventure, and told herself that it had been, in a double sense, decidedly dangerous. Were Constance Bride or Lady Ogram to know of this clandestine rendezvous, what a storm would break! On that account alone she would have been glad of what she had done. But she was glad, also, of Lashmar's significant behaviour and language. He perceived, undoubtedly, that the anonymous letter came from her, and, be the upshot what it might, their romantic intimacy gave life a new zest. May flattered herself that she knew the tremours of amorous emotion. "If I liked, I could be really, really in love!" This was delightful experience; this was living! Dangerous, yes; for how did she mean to comport herself in the all but certain event of her receiving an offer of marriage from Lord Dymchurch? Mrs. Toplady was right; Lady Ogram had resolved upon this marriage, and would it be safe to thwart that strong-willed old woman? Moreover, the thought was very tempting. A peeress! Could she reasonably look for such another chance, if this were lost? Was she prepared to sacrifice it for the sake of Dyce Lashmar, and the emotional joys he represented?

She thought of novels and poems. Browning was much in her mind. She saw herself as the heroine of psychological drama. How interesting! How thrilling! During her life at Northampton, she had dreamed of such things, with no expectation of their ever befalling her. Truly, she was fortune's favourite. Destiny had raised her to the sphere where her powers and sensibilities would have full play.

So it was with radiant face that she appeared at the breakfast table. Constance and she shook hands as usual; with everyday words. It seemed to her that she saw disquiet in the secretary's countenance-after all, what was Miss Bride but a salaried secretary? Lashmar's betrothed might well suffer uneasiness, under the circumstances; she, it was obvious, did not regard the engagement as a mere pretence. No, no; Constance Bride was ambitious, and thought it a great thing to marry a man with a parliamentary career before him. She was of a domineering, jealous nature, and it would exasperate her to feel that Lashmar merely used her for his temporary purposes. Noble self-sacrifice, indeed! Lashmar himself did not believe that. Best of all things, at this moment, May would have liked to make known her power over Lashmar, and to say, "Of course, dear Miss Bride, he is nothing whatever to me. In my position, you understand-"

There had been a few moments' silence, when Constance asked:

"Do you ever hear of Mr. Yabsley?"

Was the woman a thought-reader? At that instant May had been thinking-the first time for weeks, perhaps-of her Admirable Crichton in the old Northampton days, and reflecting with gratification on the vast change which had come upon her life and her mind since she followed Mr. Yabsley's spiritual direction. Startled, she gazed at the speaker.

"How odd that you should have remembered his name!"

"Not at all. I heard it so often when you first came here."

"Did you?" said May, pretending to be amused. "Mr. Yabsley is a remarkable man, and I value his friendship. You remind me that I really ought to write to him."

Constance seemed to lose all her interest in the matter, and spoke of something trivial.

In the course of the morning there happened a singular thing.

Lady Ogram rose earlier

than usual. Before leaving her room, she read in the Hollingford Express all about the sudden death of Mr. Robb. The event had kept her awake all night. Though on the one side a disappointment, for of late she had counted upon Robb's defeat at the next election as an all but certain thing, the fact that she had outlived her enemy, that he lay, as it were, at her feet, powerless ever again to speak an insulting word, aroused all the primitive instincts of her nature. With the exultation of a savage she gloated over the image of Robb stricken to the ground. Through the hours of darkness, she now and then sang to herself, and the melodies were those she had known when a girl, or a child, common songs of the street. It was her chant of victory and revenge.

Having risen, she went into the drawing-room on the same floor as her bedchamber, and summoned two menservants. After her first serious illness, she had for a time been carried up and down stairs in a chair made for that purpose; she now bade her attendants fetch the chair, and convey her to the top story of the house. It was done. In her hand she had a key, and with this she unlocked the door of that room which had been closed for half a century. Having stood alone within the garret for a few minutes, she called to the men, who, on entering, looked with curiosity at dust-covered forms in clay and in marble. Their mistress pointed to a bust which stood on a wooden pedestal some three feet high.

"You are to clean that. Bring water and soap. I will wait here whilst you do it."

The task was quickly performed; the marble shone once more, and its pedestal of lustrous black looked little the worse for long seclusion. Lady Ogram sat with her eyes fixed upon the work of art, and for a minute or two neither moved nor spoke.

"Who is that?" she inquired suddenly, indicating the head, and turning her look upon the two men.

"I think it is yourself, my lady," answered the bolder of the two.

Lady Ogram smiled. That use of the present tense was agreeable to her.

"You are to take it down to the green drawing-room. Carry me there, first, and I will show you where to place it."

Arrived at the ground-floor, she quitted her chair and walked into the drawing-room with step which was almost firm. Here, among the flowers and leafage, sat May Tomalin, who, surprised at her aunt's early appearance, rose forward with an exclamation of pleasure.

"How well you look this morning, aunt!"

"I'm glad you think so, my dear," was the pleased and dignified reply. "Be so kind, May, as to go into the library, and wait there until I send for you."

The girl turned pale. For a moment, she thought her escapade of this morning had been discovered, and that terrible things were about to happen. Her fright could not escape Lady Ogram's observation.

"What, have I frightened you? Did it remind you of being sent into the corner when you were a little girl?"

She laughed with discordant gaiety.

"Really, for the moment I thought I was being punished," replied May. And she too laughed, a melodious trill.

A quarter of an hour passed. Lady Ogram presented herself at the library door, and saw May reading, whilst Constance Bride sat writing at the table.

"Come, both of you!"

Surprised at the look and tone with which they were summoned, the two followed into the drawing-room, where, guided by Lady Ogram's glance, they became aware of a new ornament. They approached; they gazed; they wondered.

"Who is that?" asked their conductress, turning to Miss Bride.

Constance felt no doubt as to the person whom the bust was supposed to represent, and her disgust at what she thought the shameless flattery practised by the sculptor hardly allowed her to reply.

"Of course," she said, in as even a voice as possible, "it is a portrait of Miss Tomalin."

Lady Ogram's eyes shone; on the point of laughing, she restrained herself, and looked at her niece.

"May, what do you think?"

"Really, aunt, I don't know what to think," answered the girl, in a happy confusion. "If Miss Bride is right-it's very, very kind of you. But how was it done without my sitting?"

This time, the old lady's mirth had its way.

"How, indeed! There's a mystery for you both, my dears!-May, it's true you are like me, but don't let Constance make you conceited. Go near, and look at the date carved on the marble."

"Why, aunt, of course it is you yourself!" exclaimed the girl, her averted face long-drawn in mortification; she saw the smile with which Miss Bride had received this disclosure. "How wonderful!"

"You can hardly believe it?"

Some incredulity might have been excused in one who turned from that superb head, with its insolent youth and beauty, to the painted death-mask grinning there before it. Yet the marble had not flattered, and, looking closely enough, you saw a reminiscence of its contour in the bloodless visage which, since that proud moment, had chronicled the passions of three-score years.

"How stupid not to have understood at once," said May, the epithet privately directed towards Constance.

"It's a magnificent bust!" declared Miss Bride, examining it now with sincere interest. "Who was the sculptor, Lady Ogram?"

"My husband," answered the old lady, with pride. "Sir Quentin had much talent, and this was the best thing he ever did."

"And it has just come into your possession?" asked May.

"No, my dear. But I thought you would like to see it."

An hour later, Dyce Lashmar arrived. He was conducted at once to the drawing-room, where Lady Ogram still sat with May and Constance.

"I expected you," cried the senile voice, on a high note.

"I heard the news at dinner-time yesterday;" said Lashmar. "Just caught the last train, and sat up half the night with Breakspeare."

"I sent you a telegram the first thing this morning," said Lady Ogram. "Had you left Alverholme before it arrived?"

"I was in town," answered Dyce, only now remembering that he had to account for his movements. "A letter called me up yesterday morning."

The old autocrat was in no mood for trifling explanations. She passed the point, and began to ask the news from Hollingford. Who would be the Conservative candidate? They talked, said Dyce, of a stranger to the town, a man named Butterworth, one of Robb's private friends.

"It's Butterworth of the hoardings-Butterworth's jams and pickles, you know. He's made a million out of them, and now thinks of turning his energies to the public service. Robb, it seems, didn't mean to face another election, and of late had privately spoken here and there of Butterworth."

"Jams and pickles!" cried Lady Ogram, with a croaking laugh. "Will the Hollingford Tories stand that?"

"Why not? Robb evidently thought they would, and he knew them. Butterworth is a stout Unionist, I'm told, and if he makes another million he may look for a peerage. Jam has not hitherto been thought so respectable as ale or stout, but that's only a prejudice. Robb's enlightened mind saw the budding aristocrat. Breakspeare is thinking out an article on the deceased champion of aristocratic traditions, to be followed by another on the blazonry of the jam-pot and pickle-jar. We shall have merry reading when decorum releases our friend's pen."

As his eyes stole towards May Tomalin, Dyce perceived the marble bust. He gazed at it in silent surprise. The looks of all were upon him; turning, he met smiles of inquiry.

"Well?" said Lady Ogram, bluntly.

"Who is that? Is it a new work?" he inquired, with diffidence.

"It looks new, doesn't it?"

"I should have thought," said Dyce, reflectively, "that it represented Lady Ogram at about the same age as in the painting."

"Constance," exclaimed the old lady, vastly pleased, "congratulate Mr. Lashmar."

"Then I am right," cried Dyce, encountering Constance's look. "What a fine bit of work! What a magnificent head!"

He moved nearer to it, and continued freely to express his admiration. The resemblance to May Tomalin had struck him, he thought it probable that some sculptor had amused himself by idealising the girl's suggestive features; but at this juncture it seemed to him more prudent, as in any case it would be politic, to affect to see only a revival of Lady Ogram's youth. It startled him to find that his tact had guided him so well.

He continued to behave with all prudence, talking through luncheon chiefly with the hostess, and directing hardly a remark to May, who, on her side, maintained an equal discretion. Afterwards, he saw Lady Ogram in private.

"You mean to stay on at the hotel, no doubt," she said. "Yes, it'll be more convenient for you than if you came here. But look in and let us know how things go on. Let me see, to-morrow is Wednesday; don't come to-morrow. On Thursday I may have something to tell you; yes, come and lunch on Thursday. You understand-on Thursday. And there's something else I may as well say at once; the expenses of the election are my affair."

Dyce began a grateful protest, but was cut short.

"I say that is my affair. We'll talk about it when the fight is over. No petty economies! In a day or two, when things are in order, we must have Breakspeare here. Perhaps you had better go away for the day of Robb's funeral. Yes, don't be seen about on that day. Spare no useful expense; I give you a free hand. Only win; that's all I ask of you. I shan't like it if you're beaten by jams and pickles. And lunch here on Thursday-you understand?"

Dyce had never known the old autocrat so babblingly iterative. Nor had he ever beheld her in such a mood of gaiety, of exultation.

"Go and have a word with Constance," she said at length. "I rather think she's going into the town; if so, you can go together. She's in great spirits. It isn't her way to talk much, but I can see she feels very hopeful. By the bye, I'm expecting Sir William before dinner-Sir William Amys, you know. He may be here still when you come on Thursday."

Why Lady Ogram should be so careful to conceal the fact' that Lord Dymchurch was expected, Dyce found it difficult to understand. But it was clear that Dymchurch had been invited in the hope, perhaps the certainty, that he would propose to May Tomalin. That he was coming at all seemed, indeed, decisive as to his intentions. Plainly, the old schemer had formed this project at the time of her visit to London, and, improbable as the thing would have appeared to any one knowing Dymchurch, she was carrying it successfully through. On the one side; but how about May? Dyce tried to assure himself that, being in love with him, May would vainly be wooed by anyone else. But had she the courage to hold out against her imperious relative? Could she safely do so? The situation was extremely disquieting. He wished it were possible to see May alone, even for a minute. But he did not see her at all, and, as Lady Ogram had suggested, he found himself obliged to return to Hollingford in Constance's company. They drove in the landau. On the way, Dyce made known to his companion Lady Ogram's generous intentions.

"I knew she would do that," said Constance, regarding him with the smile which betrayed her inmost thoughts.

Because of the proximity of their coachman, they talked in subdued tones, their heads close together. To Lashmar this intimacy meant nothing at all; Constance, in his busy thoughts, was as good as non-existent. He had remarked with vexation the aspect of renewed vigour presented by Lady Ogram, and would have spoken of it, but that he felt ashamed to do so.

"Don't you think," asked his companion, "that everything is going wonderfully well with you?"

"It looks so, for the present."

"And, after all, whom have you to thank for it?"

"I don't forget," Dyce replied, wondering whether she alluded to the fact of her having introduced him to the mistress of Rivenoak, or to the terms of their engagement.

"If you win the election, don't you think it would be graceful not only to feel, but to show, a little gratitude?"

She spoke in a voice which once more reminded him of the summer-house on that rainy morning, a voice very unlike her ordinary utterance, soft and playfully appealing.

"Don't be so severe on me," answered Dyce, with a laugh. "I am not all self-interest."

He added what was meant for a reassuring look, and began to talk of electioneering details.

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