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   Chapter 24 No.24

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 16679

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


"Ask him to come-. No! Stay!"

Lady Ogram stood up, not without difficulty. She took a step or two forwards, as if trying whether she had the strength to walk. Then she looked at her two companions, who had both risen.

"Constance, give me your arm. I will go downstairs."

They left the room, May slowly following and watching them with anxiety she vainly endeavoured to disguise. The descent was slow. Constance held firmly the bony arm which clung to her own, and felt it quiver at every step. Just before they reached the bottom, Lady Ogram ordered the servant who came after them to pass before and conduct Mr. Lashmar into the library. At the foot of the stairs, she paused; on her forehead stood little points of sweat, and her lips betrayed the painful effort with which she continued to stand upright.

"May"-she looked into the girl's face-"if I don't come when the luncheon bell rings, you will excuse me to Sir William and Lady Amys, and take my place at table."

Slowly she walked on, still supported by Constance, to the library door. When it was opened, and she saw Lashmar awaiting her within (he had passed into the library by the inner door which communicated with the drawing-room), she spoke of her companion.

"Thank you, Constance. If I don't come, sit down with the others. I hope your meal will not be disturbed, but I may have to send for you."

"Lady Ogram-"

Constance began in a low, nervous voice. She was looking at Lashmar, who, with an air of constraint, moved towards them.

"What is it?"

"Will you let me speak to you for a moment before-"

"No!"

With this stern monosyllable, Lady Ogram dismissed her, entered the room, and closed the door.

Then her face changed. A smile, which was more than half a grin of pain, responded to Lashmar's effusive salutation; but she spoke not a word, and, when she had sunk into the nearest chair, her eyes, from beneath drooping lids, searched the man's countenance.

"Sit down," were her first words.

Lashmar, convinced that Constance Bride had sought to avenge herself, tried to screw up his courage. He looked very serious; he sat stiffly; he kept his eye upon Lady Ogram's.

"Well, what have you to tell me?" she asked, with a deliberation more disconcerting than impatience would have been.

"Everything goes on pretty well-"

"Does it? I'm glad you think so."

"What do you allude to, Lady Ogram?" Lashmar inquired with grave respectfulness.

"What do you?"

"I was speaking of things at Hollingford."

"And I was thinking of things at Rivenoak."

Lashmar's brain worked feverishly. What did she know? If Constance had betrayed him, assuredly May also must have been put to the question, and with what result? He was spared long conjecture.

"Let us understand each other," said the autocrat, who seemed to be recovering strength as the need arose. "I hear that you want to break off with Constance Bride. She is no bride for you. Is that the case?"

"I am sorry to say it is the truth, Lady Ogram."

Having uttered these words, Dyce felt the heroic mood begin to stir in him. He had no alternative now, and would prove himself equal to the great occasion.

"You want to marry someone else?"

"I'm sure you will recognise," Lashmar replied, in his academic tone, "that I am doing my best to act honourably, and without giving any unnecessary pain. Under certain circumstances, a man is not entirely master of himself-"

There sounded the luncheon bell. It rang a vague hope to Lashmar, whose voice dropped.

"Are you hungry?" asked the hostess, with impatience.

"Not particularly, thank you."

"Then I think we had better get our little talk over and done with. We shan't keep the others waiting."

Dyce accepted this as a good omen. "Our little talk!" He had not dreamt of such urbanity. Here was the result of courage and honesty. Evidently his bearing had made a good impression upon the old despot. He began to look cheerful.

"Nothing could please me better."

"Go on, then," said Lady Ogram, drily. "You were saying-"

"I wish to use complete frankness with you," Dyce resumed. "As I think you know, I always prefer the simple, natural way of looking at things. So, for instance, in my relations with women I have always aimed at fair and candid behaviour; I have tried to treat women as they themselves, justly enough, wish to be treated, without affectation, without insincerity. Constance knew my views, and she approved them. When our friendship developed into an engagement of marriage, we both of us regarded the step in a purely reasonable light; we did not try to deceive ourselves, and, less still, to deceive each other. But a man cannot always gauge his nature. To use the common phrase, I did not think I should ever fall in love; yet that happened to me, suddenly, unmistakably. What course had I to follow? Obviously I must act on my own principles; I must be straightforward, simple, candid. As soon as my mind was made up, I came to Constance."

He broke off, observed the listener's face, and added with an insinuating smile:

"There was the other course-what is called the unselfish, the heroic. Unfortunately, heroism of that kind is only another name for deliberate falsehood, in word and deed, and I confess I hadn't the courage for it. Unselfishness which means calculated deception seems to me by no means admirable. It was not an easy thing to go to Constance, and tell her what I had to tell; but I know that she herself would much prefer it to the sham-noble alternative. And I am equally sure, Lady Ogram, what your own view will be of the choice that lay before me."

The listener made no sort of response to this appeal. "And what had Constance to say to you?" she asked. Lashmar hesitated, his embarrassment half genuine, half feigned.

"Here," he replied, in a thoughtfully suspended voice, "I find myself on very delicate ground. I hardly feel that I should be justified in repeating what passed between us. I hoped you had already heard it. Was it not from Constance that you learnt-?"

"Don't begin to question me," broke in Lady Ogram, with sudden severity. "What I know, and how I know it, is none of your business. You'll have the goodness to tell me whatever I ask you."

Dyce made a gesture of deprecating frankness.

"Personally," he said in a low voice, "I admit your right to be kept fully informed of all that comes to pass in this connection. Will it be enough if I say that Constance accepted my view of what had happened?"

"Did you tell her everything that had happened?" asked Lady Ogram, looking him in the eyes.

"Not in detail," Dyce replied, rather nervously, for he could not with certainty interpret that stern look. "You will understand that-that I was not at liberty-that I had to respect-"

He came near to losing himself between the conflicting suggestions of prudence and hopefulness. At the sight of his confusion, Lady Ogram smiled grimly.

"You mean," she said, in a voice which seemed to croak indulgence, "that you had no right to tell Constance anything about Miss Tomalin?"

Lashmar's courage revived. He suspected that the old autocrat knew everything, that both girls had already gone through the ordeal of a private interview with her, and had yielded up their secrets. If so, plainly the worst was over, and nothing would now serve but sincerity.

"That is what I mean," he answered, quietly and respectfully, admiring his own dignity as he spoke.

"We are beginning to understand each other," said Lady Ogram, the grim smile still on her face. "I don't mind telling you, now, that I have spoken both with Constance and with May."

Lashmar manifested his relief. He moved into an easier posture; his countenance brightened; he said within himself that destiny was hearing him on to glorious things.

"I'm very glad indeed to hear that, Lady Ogram! It ruts my mind at rest."

"I have talked with them both," continued the reassuring voice, which struggled with hoarseness. "That they told me the truth, I have no doubt; both of them know me too well to do anything else. Constance, I understand, had your authority for speaking to me, so her part was easy."

"She has a fine, generous spirit!" exclaimed Dyce, with the glow of genuine enthusiasm.

"Well for you that she has.

As for May, you had put her into a more difficult position."

"I fear so. But I am sure, Lady Ogram, that you dealt with her very kindly."

"Exactly." The smile was very grim indeed, and the voice very hoarse. "But the things I couldn't ask May to tell me, I expect to hear from you. Begin with this morning. You met her, I understand, before you came to the house to see Constance."

Dyce fell straight into the trap. He spoke almost gaily.

"Yes; we met at eight o'clock."

"Of course by appointment."

"Yes, by appointment."

"The best will be for you to begin at the beginning, and tell the story in your own way. I've heard all my niece cared to tell me; now I give you the chance of telling your own tale. All I ask is the truth. Tell me the truth, from point to point."

At the pass he had reached, Lashmar asked nothing better. He was befooled and bedazzled. Every trouble seemed of a sudden to be lifted from his mind. Gratitude to Constance, who had proved so much better than her word, romantic devotion to May, who had so bravely declared her love, filled him with fervours such as he had never known. He saw himself in a resplendent light; his attitude was noble, his head bent with manly modesty, and, when he began to speak, there was something in his voice which he had never yet been able to command, a virile music, to which he listened with delighted appreciation.

"I obey you, Lady Ogram; I obey you frankly and gladly. I must go back to the day of Miss Tomalin's return from London. You will remember I told you that on that day I was in town, and in the afternoon, early, I called at Mrs. Toplady's."

Omitting the fact of his having told May about the relations between Miss Bride and himself, he narrated all else with perfect truth. So pleasant was the sense of veracity, that he dwelt on unimportant particulars, and lengthened out the story in a way which would have made it intolerably tedious to any other hearer. Lady Ogram, however, found it none too long. The smile had died from her face; her lips were compressed, and from time to time her eyes turned upon the speaker with a fierce glare; but Lashmar paid no heed to these trifles. He ended at length with beaming visage, his last sentences having a touch of emotion which greatly pleased him.

"Ring the bell," said Lady Ogram, pointing to the electric button.

Glad to stand up and move, Dyce did her bidding. Only a few moments elapsed before Constance Bride and May Tomalin entered the room.

"Constance, come here," said Lady Ogram. "You"-she glared at May-"stand where I can have a good view of you."

Lashmar had welcomed their entrance with a smile. The voice and manner of the autocrat slightly perturbed him, but he made allowances for her brusque way, and continued to smile at May, who looked pale and frightened.

"Constance, did you know or did you not, that these two had a meeting this morning in the park before Mr. Lashmar came to see you?"

"No, I knew nothing of that," answered Miss Bride, coldly.

"And did you know that they had met before, at the same place and time, and that they came from town together by the same train, and that there was a regular understanding between them to deceive you and me?"

"I knew nothing of all this."

"Look at her!" exclaimed Lady Ogram, pointing at the terrified girl. "This is her gratitude; this is her honesty. She has lied to me in every word she spoke! Lord Dymchurch offered her marriage, and she tried to make me believe that he hadn't done so at all, that he was a dishonourable shuffler-"

"Aunt!" cried May, stepping hurriedly forward. "He did not offer me marriage! I'll tell you everything. Lord Dymchurch saw me by chance this morning-Mr. Lashmar and me-saw us together in the park; and he understood, and spoke to me about it, and said that the only thing he could do was to tell you I had refused him-"

"Oh, that's it, is it?" broke in the hoarse voice, all but inarticulate with fury. "Then he too is a liar; that makes one more."

Lashmar stood in bewilderment. He caught May's eye, and saw that he had nothing but hostility to expect from her.

"There is the greatest of all!" cried the girl, with violent gesture. "He has told you all about me, but has he told you all about himself?"

"Lady Ogram," said Dyce, in a tone of offended dignity, "you should remember by what means you obtained my confidence. You told me that Miss Tomalin had already confessed everything to you. I naturally believed you incapable of falsehood-"

"Being yourself such a man of honour!" Lady Ogram interrupted, with savage scorn. "Constance, you are the only one who has not told me lies, and you have been shamefully treated-"

"You think she has told you no lies?" interrupted May, her voice at the high pitch of exasperation. "Wait a moment. This man has told you that he came down from London in the train with me; but did he tell you what he talked about? The first thing he disclosed to me was that the engagement between him and Miss Bride was a mere pretence. Finding you wished them to marry, they took counsel together, and plotted to keep you in good humour by pretending to be engaged. This he told me himself."

Lady Ogram turned upon Lashmar, who met her eyes with defiance.

"You believe that?" he asked, in a quietly contemptuous tone.

She turned to Constance, whose face showed much the same expression.

"Is that true?"

"I shall answer no charge brought by Miss Tomalin," was the cold reply.

"And you are right." Lady Ogram faced to May. "I give you half an hour to pack your luggage and leave the house! Be off!"

The girl burst into a hysterical laugh, and ran from the room. For some moments, Lady Ogram sat looking towards the door; then, sinking together in exhaustion, she let her eyes move from one to the other of the two faces before her. Lashmar and Constance had exchanged no look; they stood in sullen attitudes, hands behind them, staring at vacancy.

"I have something to say to you." The voice that broke the silence was so faint as to be but just audible. "Come nearer."

The two approached.

"That girl has gone. She is nothing to me, and nothing to you. Constance, are you willing to marry Mr. Lashmar?"

There came no reply.

"Do you hear?" whispered Lady Ogram, with a painful effort to speak louder. "Answer me."

"How can you expect me to be willing to marry him?" exclaimed Constance, in whom a violent struggle was going on. Her cheeks were flushed, and tears of humiliation stood in her eyes.

"You!" Lady Ogram addressed Lashmar. "Will you marry her?"

"How is it possible, Lady Ogram," replied Dyce, in an agony of nervousness, "to answer such a question under these circumstances?"

"But you shall answer!" sounded in a choked sort of scream. "I give you the choice, both of you. Either you are married in three days from now, or you go about your business, like that lying girl. You can get a license, and be married at once. Which is it to be? I give you three days, not an hour more."

Lashmar had turned very pale. He looked at his partner in the dilemma.

"Constance," fell from his lips, "will you marry me?"

There came an answer which he could just hear, but which was inaudible to Lady Ogram.

"Speak, girl! Yes or no!" croaked their tormentor.

"She has consented," said Dyce.

"Then be off and get the license! Don't lose a minute. I suppose you'll have to go to London for it?-Constance, give me your arm. I must excuse myself to my guests."

Constance bent to her, and Lady Ogram, clutching at the offered arm, endeavoured to rise It was in vain; she had not the strength to stand.

"Mr. Lashmar!" She spoke in a thick mumble, staring with wild eyes. "Come-other side-"

She was drooping, falling. Lashmar had only just time to catch and support her.

"What is it?" he asked, staring at Constance as he supported the helpless form. "Has she fainted?"

"Lay her down, and I'll get help."

A moment, and Sir William Amys came hastening into the room; he was followed by his wife and two or three servants. Lady Ogram gave no sign of life, but the baronet found that her pulse was still beating. Silent, still, with half-closed eyes, the old autocrat of Rivenoak lay stretched upon a sofa awaiting the arrival of Dr. Baldwin.

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