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Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 28074

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Lady Ogram's life had been much guided by superstition. No one knew it, or suspected it, for this was among the tokens of her origin which she carefully kept out of sight. Through all the phases of her avowed belief, she remained subject to a private religion of omens and auspices, which frequently influenced her conduct. Thus, she would long ago have brought forth and displayed that marble visage of her beauty in its prime, but for a superstitious fear which withheld her. On the night before Sir Quentin's death, she dreamt that she ascended to the garret, took the bust in her arms, and carried it downstairs. Many years went by, and again she had the same dream; the next day her first serious illness fell upon her, and, remembering the vision, she gave herself up for lost; but the sign this time had less than fatal significance. Now once more, on the Sunday night of the present week, she seemed to enter the locked garret, and to carry away the marble. All Monday she lived in a great dread, but at evening came the news that her arch-enemy was no more, and behold the vision explained!

On Monday night she dreamt not at all, being kept awake by exultation in what had happened and forecast of triumphs soon to be enjoyed. But her thoughts turned constantly to the graven image which she longed to see, and, by a process of reasoning natural to such a mind as hers, she persuaded herself that now was the moment to fulfil her desire. The bust once brought down, she would not again dream of going to seek it, and, consequently, it could not serve again to augur evil. Not without tremors, she executed her resolve, and, the thing once done, her joy was boundless. Looking on that marble face, she seemed to recover something of the strength and spirit it had immortalised. Notwithstanding her restless night, she felt so clear in mind, so well in body, that the forebodings which had perturbed her since her exhausting visit to London were quite dismissed. To-day Lord Dymchurch was coming; to-morrow May's betrothal would be a fact to noise abroad. She would then summon Kerchever, and in the presence of Sir William Amys, the trusty friend sure to outlive her, would complete that last will and testament which was already schemed out. Twice already had she executed a will, the second less than a year ago. When in town, she had sufficiently discussed with her man of law the new situation brought about by her discovery of May Tomalin; but the hope which she connected with Lord Dymchurch bade her postpone awhile the solemn signature. All had come to pass even as she desired, as she resolved it should. To the end she was supreme in her own world.

When her guests arrived-all travelled from London by the same train-she received them royally. She had clad herself with unusual magnificence; on the shrivelled parchment of her cheeks shone an audacious bloom; her eyes gleamed as if in them were concentrated all the proud life which still resisted age and malady. Rising from her bowered throne in the drawing-room, she took a step towards Lady Amys, pressed her hand cordially-not at all feebly-and welcomed her with affectionate words. The baronet she addressed as "Willy," but with such a dignity of kindness in the familiar name that it was like bestowal of an honour. Towards the peer her bearing was marked with grave courtesy, softening to intimate notes as their conversation progressed. Scarce a touch of senility sounded in her speech; she heard perfectly, indulged in no characteristic brusquerie of phrase, fulfilled every formality proper to the occasion.

Sir William and his wife were the only people of their world who had always seen the lady of Rivenoak in her better aspect; who, whilst appreciating the comedy of her life, regarded her with genuine friendship. They understood the significance of Lord Dymchurch's visit, and, like Mrs. Toplady, though in a much more human spirit, awaited with amusement the successful issue of Lady Ogram's scheme. They saw no harm in it. Dymchurch, it might well be, had fallen in love with the handsome girl, and it was certain that her wealth would be put to much better use in his hands than in those of the ordinary man who weds money. Lady Ogram's deliberate choice of this landless peer assuredly did her credit. She wanted the peerage for her niece; but it would not have been difficult to gratify her ambition in a more brilliant way, had she cared less for the girl's welfare. Society being what it is, they did not see how their energetic old friend could have acted more prudently and kindly.

At dinner there was much pleasant talk. The baronet's vein of humourous criticism flowed freely. Walking through London streets this morning, his eye had caught sight of a couple of posters which held him in meditation.

"One was a huge picture of an ox, and beneath it one read in great letters that sixty thousand bullocks are annually slaughtered for the manufacture of Nokes's beef-tea. The other advertised Stokes's pills, and informed the world, in still bigger lettering, that, every minute of the day, seven of these pills 'reached their destination.' Delightful phrase! 'Reached their destination.' And this, you see, is how we adorn the walls of our cities. It is not only permitted, but favoured. I am quite sure that a plebiscite, if some more civilised alternative were offered, would pronounce in favor of the bullocks and the pills, as much more interesting. Yet to my mind, spoilt by pottering among old pictures, that bit of wall was so monstrous in its hideousness that I stood moon-stricken, and even yet I haven't got over it. I shall dream to-night of myriads of bullocks massacred for beef-tea, and of an endless procession of pills-reaching their destination. I ask myself, in my foolish theoretic way, what earthly right we have to lay claim to civilisation. How much better it would be always to speak of ourselves as barbarians. We should then, perhaps, make some endeavour to improve. The barbarian who imagines himself on the pinnacle of refinement is in a parlous state-far more likely to retrograde than to advance."

"There should be a league of landowners," said Miss Tomalin, "pledged to forbid any such horror on their own property."

"I don't know that I have much faith in leagues," returned Sir William. "I am a lost individualist. Let everyone try to civilise himself; depend upon it, it's the best work he can do for the world at large."

"And yet," put in Lord Dymchurch, "the world can't do without apostles. Do you think mere example has ever availed much?"

"Perhaps not. I would say that I don't care. Do you really believe that the world ever will be much more civilised than it is? In successive epochs, there are more or fewer persons of liberal mind-that's all; the proportion rises and falls. Why should we trouble about it? Let those of us who really dislike the ox and pill placards, keep as much out of sight of them as possible, that's all. It doesn't do to think over much about the problems of life. Nowadays almost everybody seems to feel it a duty to explain the universe, and with strange results. For instance, I read an article last night, a most profound article, altogether too much for my poor head, on the question of right and wrong. Really, I had supposed that I knew the difference between right and wrong; in my blundering way, I had always tried to act on the knowledge. But this writer proves to me that I shall have to begin all over again. 'Morality,' he says, 'depends upon cerebral oxidation.' That's a terrible dictum for a simpleminded man. If I am not cerebrally oxidised, or oxidally cerebrised, in the right degree, it's all over with my hopes of leading a moral life. I'm quite sure that a large number of people are worrying over that article, and asking how they can oxidise if not their own cerebellum, at all events that of their offspring."

"Man and nature," said Lord Dymchurch presently, "have such different views about the good of the world."

"That," exclaimed the baronet, "is a very striking remark. Let me give you an illustration of its truth. Years ago I had an intimate friend, a wonderfully clever man, who wrote and published a delightful little book. Few such books have ever been written; it was a marvel of delicate thought and of exquisite style. The half-dozen readers who could appreciate it cried aloud that this man had a great future, that his genius was a jewel which the world would for ever prize-and so on. Well, my friend married, and since then he has written nothing, nor will he ever again. I know people who lament his fate, who declare that marriage was his ruin, and a crime against civilisation. The other day, I called upon him-not having seen him for ages. I found a rather uncomfortable little house, a pretty, dull little wife, and three beautiful children in the most vigorous health. 'Alas!' said my friend to me in private, 'I try to work, but I can do nothing. I need absolute tranquillity, such as I had when I wrote my book. I try, but domestic life is fatal to me.' Now, what better example of what you say, Lord Dymchurch? To us it seems a misfortune to the world that this man didn't live on in bachelorhood and write more exquisite books. But nature says 'What do I care for his books?' 'Look at his children!' That's what she meant him for, and from Nature's point of view he is a triumphant success."

Dymchurch seemed not only amused, but pleased. He grew thoughtful, and sat smiling to himself whilst others carried on the conversation.

The evening passed. Lady Amys gave the signal of retirement; May and Constance followed; the baronet and the peer chatted for yet a few minutes with their hostess, then bade her good-night. But, just as he was leaving the room, Dymchurch heard Lady Ogram call his name; he stepped back towards her.

"I forgot to tell you," she said, "that Mr. Lashmar will lunch with us the day after to-morrow. Of course he is very busy at Hollingford."

"I shall be glad to see him," replied the other, cordially. "I wish I could help him in any way."

Lady Ogram resumed her seat. She was looking at the marble bust, and Dymchurch, following the direction of her eyes, also regarded it.

"Until this morning," she said, "I hadn't seen that for more than fifty years. I would tell you why-but I should only send you to sleep."

Her guest begged to hear the story, and sat down to listen. Though the day had been so unusually long and fatiguing, Lady Ogram seemed to feel no effect of it; her eyes were still lustrous she held herself with as much dignity as when the guests arrived. She began a narrative of such clearness and vigour that the listener never thought of doubting its truth; yet the story of her youth as the lady of Rivenoak wished Lord Dymchurch to receive it differed in very important points from that which her memory preserved. Not solely, nor indeed chiefly, on her own account did Arabella thus falsify the past; it was as the ancestress of May Tomalin that she spoke, and on behalf of May's possible children. Dymchurch, looking back into years long before he was born, saw a beautiful maiden of humble birth loyally wooed and wedded by a romantic artist, son of a proud baronet. Of course she became the butt of calumny, which found its chief support in the fact that the young artist had sculptured her portrait, and indiscreetly shown it to friends, before their marriage. Hearing these slanderous rumours, she wished all the work which represented her to be destroyed, and her husband led her to believe that this was done; but on succeeding to the title, and coming to live at Rivenoak, Sir Quentin confessed that he had not been able to destroy that marble bust which was his joy and his pride; he undertook, however, to keep it hidden under lock and key, and only this day, this very day, had it come forth again into the light.

"I am an old, old woman," she said, not without genuine pathos in her utterance. "I have long outlived the few who were my enemies and spoke ill of me, as well as those who knew the truth and held me in respect. I fear no one. I wanted to see how I looked when I was a girl, and I confess I am glad for others to see it, too."

Dymchurch murmured that nothing could be more natural.

"I was almost as good-looking as May, don't you think?" she asked, with a not very successful affectation of diffidence.

"There is a likeness," answered Dymchurch. "But-"

She interrupted his effort to describe the points of difference.

"You very much prefer the other face. That doesn't surprise me and you needn't be afraid to confess it. May is much better-tempered than I was, and she looks it. Did I ever tell you how she is related to me? I call her my niece, but she is really the grand-daughter of my brother, who emigrated to Canada."

Thereupon Lady Ogram sketched a portrait of that brother, depicting him as a fine specimen of the colonising Briton, breezy, sturdy, honest to the core. She traced the history of the Canadian family, which in the direct line had now no representative but May. Of her long search for the Tomalins she did not think it necessary to speak; but, turning hack to her own history, she told of the son she had lost, and how all her affections were now bestowed upon this young girl, who in truth had become to her as a daughter. Then, discreetly, with no undue insistence, she made known her intention to endow May Tomalin with the greater part of her fortune.

"I have lived long enough to know that money is not happiness, but in the right hands it is a great and good thing. I have no fear of the use May will make of it, and you can't know what a pleasure it is to be able to give it to her, to one of my own blood, my own name, instead of leaving it to strangers, as I once feared I must.-But," she broke off suddenly in a changed voice, "here I keep you listening to my old tales, when you ought to be asleep. Good-night, Lord Dymchurch! To-morrow you

must see Rivenoak. Good-night!"

For her, there was again no sleep. The weather had changed; through the open window breathed a cool, sweet air, very refreshing after the high temperature of the last few days; but Lady Ogram in vain closed her eyes and tried to lull her thoughts to rest. It disappointed her that Dymchurch, in reply to her confidences, had spoken no decisive word. Of course he would declare himself on the morrow; he would have every opportunity for private talk with May, and of the issue there could be no serious doubt. But Lady Ogram's nerves were tortured with impatience. In the glimmer of dawn, she wished to rise and walk about, but found herself unequal to the effort. Her head ached; her blood was feverish. Though it was a thing she hated to do, she summoned the attendant who lay in an adjoining room.

At mid-day she was able to descend At the foot of the stairs, she encountered Constance Bride, who stood glancing over a book.

"What are they all doing?" was her first question. And, before Constance could reply, she asked "Where is Lord Dymchurch?"

"I saw him not long ago in the garden."

"Alone?"

"No, with Miss Tomalin."

"Why didn't you say so at once? Where are the others? Tell them I am down."

Constance delayed replying for a moment, then said with cold respectfulness:

"You will find Sir William and Lady Amys in the drawing-room."

"I shall find them there, shall I? And what if I don't wish to go into the drawing-room?"

Constance looked into the angry face. In the book she was carrying, a French volume arrived by post this morning, she had found things which troubled her mind and her temper; she was in no mood for submitting to harsh dictatorship. But those blood-shot eyes and shrivelled lips, the hollow temples and drawn cheeks which told of physical suffering, stilled her irritation.

"I will tell them at once, Lady Ogram."

Dymchurch and May Tomalin had strayed from the garden into the park. They were sitting on a bench which encircled a great old tree. For some minutes neither had spoken. Dymchurch held in his hand a last year's leaf, brown, crisp, but still perfect in shape; he smiled dreamily, and, as his eyes wandered to the girl's face, said in a soft undertone:

"How easily one loses oneself in idle thoughts! I was asking myself where this grew-on which branch, which twig; and it seemed strange to me that by no possibility could anyone discover it."

May had not a very high opinion of her companion's intelligence, but it struck her this morning he was duller than usual. She humoured him, replying with her philosophical air:

"No, indeed! Yet we try to find out how life began, and what the world means."

Dymchurch was pleased. He liked to find her capable of such a reflection. It encouraged the movements of vague tenderness which had begun to justify a purpose formed rather in the mind than in the heart.

"Yes! Amusing, isn't it? But you, I think, don't trouble much about such questions."

"It seems to me waste of time."

She was thinking of Dyce Lashmar, asking herself whether she would meet him, or not, to-morrow morning. Certainly she wished to do so. Lashmar at a distance left her coolly reasonable; she wanted to recover the emotional state of mind which had come about during their stolen interview. With Lord Dymchurch, though his attentions were flattering, she could not for a moment imagine herself touched by romantic feeling.

"So it is," he was saying. "To waste time in that way has always been one of my bad habits. But I am going to get rid of it."

He seemed on the point of adding more significant words. May heard the sound fail in his throat; saw without looking at him-his sudden embarrassment. When the words came, as surely they would, what was to be her answer? She hoped for inspiration. Why should it be necessary for her to make precise reply? No! She would not. Freedom and the exercise of power were what she wanted. Enough to promise her answer a month, or half a year, hence. If the old lady didn't like it, let her learn patience.

Dymchurch sat bending forward. The dry leaf crackled between his fingers; he was crushing it to powder.

"Who," he asked, "is the lady Miss Bride was speaking of, in connection with the servant's training-school?"

"Mrs. Gallantry. A good, active sort of woman at Hollingford."

"That scheme doesn't interest you much?"

"Not very much, I confess. I quite approve of it. It's just the kind of thing for people like Miss Bride, plodding and practical; no doubt they'll make it very useful. But I have rather lost my keenness for work of that sort. Perhaps I have grown out of it. Of course I wish as much as ever for the good of the lower classes, but I feel that my own work will lie in another direction."

"Tell me what you have in mind," said Dymchurch, meeting her look with soft eyes.

"What I really care about now is the spirit of the educated class. There's such a great deal to be done among people of our own kind. Not of course by direct teaching and preaching, but by personal influence, exercised in all sorts of ways. I should like to set the intellectual tone in my own circle. I should like my house to-as it were, to radiate light."

The listener could not but smile. Yet his amusement had no tincture of irony. He himself would not have used these phrases, but was not the thought exactly what he had in mind? He, too, felt his inaptitude for the ordinary forms of "social" usefulness; in his desire and his resolve to "do something," he had been imagining just this sort of endeavour, and May's words seemed to make it less vague.

"I quite understand you," he exclaimed, with some fervour. "There's plenty of scope for that sort of influence. You would do your best to oppose the tendencies of vulgar and selfish society. If only in a little circle one could set the fashion of thought, of living for things that are worth while! And I see no impossibility. It has been done before now."

"I'm very glad you like the idea," said May, graciously. Again-without looking at him-she saw his lips shaping words which they could not sound; she saw his troubled, abashed smile, and his uneasy movement which ended in nothing at all.

"We have some fine trees at Rivenoak," fell from her, as her eyes wandered.

"Indeed you have!"

"You like trees, don't you?"

"Very much. When I was a boy, I once saw a great many splendid oaks and beeches cut down, and it made me miserable."

"Where was that?"

"On land that had belonged to my father, and, which, for a year or two, belonged to me."

He spoke with an uneasy smile, again crushing a brown leaf between his fingers. May's silence compelled him to proceed.

"I have no trees now." He tried to laugh. "Only a bit of a farm, which seems to be going out of cultivation."

"But why do you let it do so?"

"It's in the hands of a troublesome tenant. If I had been wise, I should have learnt to farm it myself, years ago. Perhaps I shall still do so."

"That would be interesting," said May. "Tell me about it, will you? It's in Kent, I think?"

The impoverished peer spoke freely of the matter. He had been seeking this opportunity since the beginning of their talk. Yet, before he had ceased, moral discomfort took hold upon him, and his head drooped in shame. The silence which followed-May was saying to herself that now, now the moment had come did but increase his embarrassment. He wished to speak of his sisters, to hint at their circumstances, but the thing was impossible. In desperation, he broke into some wholly foreign subject, and for this morning, all hope of the decisive step had passed.

The day brought no other opportunity. Towards midnight, Dymchurch sat at the open window of his chamber, glad to be alone, anxious, self-reproachful. To-morrow he must discharge what had become an obvious duty, however difficult it might be.

He had received a long letter from the younger of his sisters. It spoke of the other's ill health, a subject of disquiet for the past month, and went on to discuss a topic which frequently arose in this correspondence the authority of the Church of Rome. A lady who had just been passing a fortnight at the house in Somerset was a Catholic, and Dymchurch suspected her of proselytism; from the tone of the present letter it appeared that her arguments had had considerable success. Though impartial in his judgment of the old faith, Dymchurch felt annoyed and depressed at the thought that one of his sisters, or both, might turn in that direction; he explained their religious unrest by the solitude and monotony of their lives, for which it seemed to him that he himself was largely to blame. Were he to marry May Tomalin, everything would at once, he thought, be changed for the better; his sisters might come forth from their seclusion, mingle with wholesome society, and have done with more or less morbid speculation.

He had gone so far that honour left him no alternative. And he had gone thus far because it pleased him to do a thing which broke utterly with his habits and prejudices, which put him into a position such as he had never foreseen. He was experimenting in life.

May, he told himself, behaved very well. Never for a moment had she worn the air of invitation; a smirk was a thing unknown to her; the fact of his titular dignity she seemed wholly to disregard. Whatever her faults he saw most of them-she had the great virtue of unaffectedness. Assuredly he liked her; he could not feel certain that even a warmer sentiment had not begun to breathe within him. As for May's willingness to marry him, why, at all events, it appeared a probability. They had some intellectual sympathies, which were likely to increase rather than diminish. And, if the marriage would be for him a great material benefit, he hoped that May also might profit by it.

Lady Ogram desired their union, that was clear. That she should have made choice of him, was not easy to explain, for surely she might have wedded her niece more advantageously. But then, Lady Ogram was no mere intriguer; he thought her, on the whole, a woman of fine character, with certain defects so obvious that they could never be the means of misleading anyone. She was acting, undoubtedly, in what she deemed the best interests of her young relative-and he could hardly accuse her of having made a mistake.

Pacing the room, he took up a review, opened at a philosophical article, and tried to read.

"Why does man exist? Why does anything exist? Manifestly because the operations of the energies of nature, under the particular group of conditions, compel it, just in the same way that they cause everything else to happen."

He paused, and re-read the passage. Was it satire or burlesque? No, he saw that the writer meant it for a serious contribution to human knowledge. In disgust he flung the periodical aside. This was the kind of stuff that people feed upon nowadays, a result of the craze for quasi-scientific phraseology, for sonorous explanations of the inexplicable. Why does man exist, forsooth!-To guard his lips against the utterances of foolishness, and to be of what use in the world he may.

Before mid-day on the morrow, he would offer May Tomalin his heart and hand, offer both with glad sincerity, disregarding all else but the fact that to this point had destiny brought him.

He thought of her humble origin, and rejoiced in it. His own family history was an illustration of how a once genuinely noble house might fall into decay if not renewed by alliances with more vigorous blood. May Tomalin had perfect health: she represented generations of hardy, simple folk, their energy of late recruited in the large air of Canada. Why, had he gone forth deliberately to seek the kind of wife best suited to him, he could not have done better than chance had done for him in his indolent shirking existence. If he had children, they might be robust and comely. In May's immediate connections, there was nothing to cause embarrassment; as to her breeding it would compare more than favourably with that of many high-born young ladies whom Society delights to honour. Of such young ladies he had always thought with a peculiar dread. If ever he allowed himself to dream of love and marriage, his mind turned to regions where fashion held no sway, where ambitions were humble. May Tomalin stood between the two worlds, representing a mean which would perchance prove golden.

So determined and courageous was his mood when he fell asleep that it did not permit him long slumbers. A bright sunrise gleaming on a sky which in the night had shed cool showers tempted him to rise much before his usual time. He turned over a volume or two from the shelves in the bedroom, seeking thus to keep his nerves steady and to tune his mind. Presently he thought he would take a stroll before breakfast. It was nearly eight o'clock; servants would be about and the door open. He left his room.

Passing a great window at the end of the corridor, he glanced out upon the garden lying behind the house. Some one was walking there it was no other than May herself. She moved quickly, in the direction of the park; evidently bent on a ramble before her friends were stirring. Better chance could not have befallen him. He went quickly downstairs.

But, when he had made his way to that part of the grounds where May had appeared, she was no longer discoverable. He strode on in what seemed the probable direction, taking, as a matter of fact, the wrong path; it brought him into the park, but at a point whence he looked in vain for the girl's figure. This was vexatious. Should he linger here for her return, or step out at a venture? He strolled vaguely for some minutes, coming at length into a path which promised pleasant things. Perhaps May had gone to the basky hollow yonder. If he missed her, they were sure of meeting after breakfast.

He walked towards the clustered trees.

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