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   Chapter 25 No.25

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 25676

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Sir William drew Lashmar aside.

"What brought this about?" he asked. "What has been going on?"

Dyce, whose nerves were in a tremulous state, did not easily command himself to the quiet dignity which the occasion required. He saw that the baronet regarded him with something of suspicion, and the tone in which he was addressed seemed to him too much that of a superior. With an effort of the muscles, he straightened himself and looked his questioner in the face.

"There has been a painful scene, Sir William, between Lady Ogram and her niece. Very much against my will, I was made a witness of it. I knew the danger of such agitation, and did my best to calm Lady Ogram. Miss Tomalin had left the room, and the worst seemed to be over. We were talking quietly, when the blow fell."

"That is all you have to say?"

"I am not sure that I understand you, Sir William," Lashmar replied coldly. Being slightly the taller, he had an advantage in being able to gaze at the baronet's forehead instead of meeting his look. "You would hardly wish me to speak of circumstances which are purely private."

"Certainly not," said the other, and abruptly moved away.

Lady Amys and Constance stood together near the couch on which Lady Ogram was lying. With a glance in that direction, Lashmar walked towards the door, hesitated a moment, went out into the hall. He had no wish to encounter May; just as little did he wish for a private interview with Constance; yet it appeared to him that he was obliged by decorum to remain in or near the house until the doctor's arrival. Presently he went out onto the terrace, and loitered in view of the front windows. That Lady Ogram was dying he felt not the least doubt. Beneath his natural perturbation there stirred a hope.

Nearly an hour passed before Dr. Baldwin's carriage rolled up the drive. Shortly after came another medical man, who had been summoned at the same time. Whilst waiting impatiently for the result of their visits, Lashmar mused on the fact that May Tomalin certainly had not taken her departure; it was not likely now that she would quit the house; perhaps at this moment she was mistress of Rivenoak.

Fatigue compelled him at length to enter, and in the hall he saw Constance. Involuntarily, she half turned from him, but he walked up to her, and spoke in a low voice, asking what the doctors said. Constance replied that she knew nothing.

"Are they still in the library?"

"No. Lady Ogram has been carried upstairs."

"Then I'll go in and wait."

He watched the clock for another half hour, then the door opened, and a servant brought him information that Lady Ogram remained in the same unconscious state.

"I will call this evening to make inquiry," said Lashmar, and thereupon left the house.

Reaching his hotel at Hollingford, he ordered a meal and ate heartily. Then he stepped over to the office of the Express, and made known to Breakspeare the fact of Lady Ogram's illness; they discussed the probabilities with much freedom, Breakspeare remarking how add it would be if Lady Ogram so soon followed her old enemy. At about nine o'clock in the evening, Dyce inquired at Rivenoak lodge: he learnt that there was still no change whatever in the patient's condition; Dr. Baldwin remained in the house. In spite of his anxious thoughts, Dyce slept particularly well. Immediately after breakfast, he drove again to Rivenoak, and had no sooner alighted from the cab than he saw that the blinds were down at the lodge windows. Lady Ogram, he learnt, had died between two and three o'clock.

He dismissed his vehicle, and walked along the roads skirting the wall of the park. Now, indeed, was his life's critical moment. How long must elapse before he could know the contents of Lady Ogram's will? In a very short time he would have need of money; he had been disbursing freely, and could not face the responsibilities of the election, without assurance that his finances would soon be on a satisfactory footing. He thought nervously of Constance Bride, more nervously still of May Tomalin. Constance's position was doubtless secure; she would enter upon the "trust" of which so much had been said; but what was her state of mind with regard to him? Had not the consent to marry him simply been forced from her? May, who was now possessor of a great fortune, might perchance forget yesterday's turmoil, and be willing to renew their tender relations; he felt such a thing to be by no means impossible. Meanwhile, ignorance would keep him in a most perplexing and embarrassing position. The Amyses, who knew nothing of the rupture of his ostensible engagement, would be surprised if he did not call upon Miss Bride, yet it behooved him, for the present, to hold aloof from both the girls, not to compromise his future chances with either of them. The dark possibility that neither one nor the other would come to his relief, he resolutely kept out of mind; that would be sheer ruin, and a certain buoyancy of heart assured him that he had no such catastrophe to fear. Prudence only was required; perhaps in less than a week all his anxieties would be over, for once and all.

He decided to call, this afternoon, upon Lady Amys. The interview would direct his future behaviour.

It was the day of Robb's funeral, and he had meant to absent himself from Hollingford. He remained in his private sitting-room at the Saracen's Head, wrote many letters, and tried to read. At four o'clock he went out to Rivenoak, only to learn that Lady Amys could receive no one. He left a card. After all, perhaps this was the simplest and best way out of his difficulty.

As he turned away from the door, another cab drove up, and from it alighted Mr. Kerchever. Dyce had no difficulty in recognising Lady Ogram's solicitor, but discretion kept his head averted, and Mr. Kerchever, though observing him, did not speak.

By the post next morning, he received a formal announcement of Lady Ogram's death, with an invitation to attend her funeral. So far, so good. He was now decidedly light-hearted. Both Constance and May, he felt sure, would appreciate his delicacy in holding aloof, in seeking no sort of communication with them. Prudence! Reserve! The decisive day approached.

Meanwhile, having need of sable garb, he had consulted Breakspeare as to the tailor it behooved him to patronise. Unfortunately the only good tailor at Hollingford was a Conservative, who prided himself on having clad the late M. P. for many years. Lashmar of necessity applied to an inferior artist, but in this man, who was summoned to wait upon him at the hotel, he found a zealous politician, whose enthusiasm more than compensated for sartorial defects.

"I have already been canvassing for you, sir," declared the tailor. "I can answer for twenty or thirty votes in my neighbourhood-"

"I am greatly obliged to you, Mr. Bingham," Dyce replied, in his suavest tone. "We have a hard fight before us, but if I find many adherents such as you-"

The tailor went away and declared to all his acquaintances that if they wished their borough to be represented by a gentleman, they had only to vote for the Liberal candidate.

As a matter of policy, Dyce had allowed it to be supposed that he was a man of substantial means. With the members of his committee he talked in a large way whenever pecuniary matters came up. Every day someone dined with him at the hotel, and the little dinners were as good as the Saracen's Head could furnish special wines had been procured for his table. Of course the landlord made such facts commonly known, and the whole establishment bowed low before this important guest. All day long the name of Mr. Lashmar sounded in bar and parlour, in coffee-room and commercial-room. Never had Dyce known such delicious thrills of self-respect as under the roof of this comfortable hostelry. If he were elected, he would retain rooms, in permanence, at the hotel.-Unless, of course, destiny made his home at Rivenoak.

Curiosity as to what was going on at the great house kept him in a feverish state during these days before the funeral. Breakspeare, whom he saw frequently, supposed him to be in constant communication with Rivenoak, and at times hinted a desire for news, but Lashmar's cue was a dignified silence, which seemed to conceal things of high moment. Sir William and Lady Amys he knew to be still in the house of mourning; he presumed that May Tomalin had not gone away, and it taxed his imagination to picture the terms on which she lived with Constance. At the funeral, no doubt, he would see them both; probably would have to exchange words with them-an embarrassing necessity.

Hollingford, of course, was full of gossip about the dead woman. The old, old scandal occupied tongues malicious or charitable. Rivenoak domestics had spread the news of the marble bust, to which some of them attached a superstitious significance; Breakspeare heard, and credited, a rumour that the bust dated from the time when its original led a brilliant, abandoned life in the artist world of London; but naturally he could not speak of this with Lashmar. Highly imaginative stories, too, went about concerning Miss Tomalin, whom everyone assumed to be the heiress of Lady Ogram's wealth. By some undercurrent, no doubt of servant's-hall origin, the name of Lord Dymchurch had come into circulation, and the editor of the Express ventured to inquire of Lashmar whether it was true that Miss Tomalin had rejected an offer of marriage from this peer. Perfectly true, answered Dyce, in his discreet way; and he smiled as one who, if he would, could expatiate on the interesting topic.

He saw Mrs. Gallantry, and from her learnt-without betraying his own ignorance-that callers at Rivenoak were received by Lady Amys, from whom only the barest information concerning Lady Ogram's illness was obtainable. Neither Miss Tomalin nor Miss Bride had been seen by anyone.

The day of the funeral arrived; the hour appointed was half-past two. All the morning rain fell, and about mid-day began a violent thunder storm, which lasted for an hour. Then the sky began to clear, and as Lashmar started for Rivenoak be saw a fine rainbow across great sullen clouds, slowly breaking upon depths of azure. The gates of the park stood wide open, and many carriages were moving up the drive. Afterwards, it became known that no member of the Ogram family had been present on this occasion. Half-a-dozen friends of the deceased came down from London, but the majority of the funeral guests belonged to Hollingford and the immediate neighbourhood. In no sense was it a distinguished gathering; mere curiosity accounted for the presence of nearly all who came.

Lashmar had paid his respects to Lady Amys, who received him frigidly, and was looking about for faces that he knew, when a familiar voice spoke at his shoulder; he turned, and saw Mrs. Toplady.

"Have you come down this morning?" he asked, as they shook hands.

"Yesterday. I want to see you, and we had better arrange the meeting now. Where are you staying in Hollingford? An hotel, isn't it?"

She spoke in a low voice. Notwithstanding her decorous gravity, Lashmar saw a ghost of the familiar smile hovering about her lips. He gave his address, and asked at what hour Mrs. Toplady thought of coming.

"Let us say half-past five. There's an up train just before eight, which I must catch."

She nodded, and moved away. Again Lashmar looked about him, and he met the eye of Mr. Kerchever, who came forward with friendly aspect.

"Dreadfully sudden, the end, Mr. Lashmar!"

"Dreadfully so, indeed," Dyce responded, in mortuary tones.

"You were present at the seizure, I understand?"

"I was."

"A good age," remarked the athletic lawyer, with obvious difficulty subduing his wonted breeziness. "The doctor tells me that it was marvellous she lived so long. Wonderful woman! Wonderful!"

And he too moved away, Lashmar gazing after him, and wishing he knew all that was in the legal mind at this moment. But that secret must very soon become common property. Perhaps the contents of Lady Ogram's will would be known at Hollingford this evening.

He searched vainly for Constance and for May. The former he did not see until she crossed the hall to enter one of the carriages; the latter appeared not at all. Had she, then, really left Rivenoak? Sitting in his hired brougham, in dignified solitude, he puzzled anxiously over this question. Happily, he would learn everything from Lady Toplady.

In the little church of Shawe, his eyes wandered as much as his thoughts. Surveying the faces, most of them unknown to him, he noticed that scarcely a person present was paying any attention to the ceremony, or made any attempt to conceal his or her indifference. At one m

oment it vexed him that no look turned with interest in his direction; was he not far and away the most notable of all the people gathered here? A lady and a gentleman sat near him, frequently exchanged audible whispers, and he found that they were debating a trivial domestic matter, with some acerbity of mutual contradiction. He gazed now and then at the black-palled coffin, and found it impossible to realise that there lay the strange, imperious old woman who for several months had been the centre of his thoughts, and to whom he owed so vast a change in his circumstances. He felt no sorrow, yet thought of her with a certain respect, even with a slight sensation of gratitude, which was chiefly due, however, to the fact that she had been so good as to die. Live as long as he might, the countenance and the voice of Lady Ogram would never be less distinct in his memory than they were to-day. He, at all events, had understood and appreciated her. If he became master of Rivenoak, the marble bust should always have an honoured place under that roof.

Dyce saw himself master of Rivenoak. He fell into a delightful dream, and, when the congregation suddenly stirred, he realised with alarm that he had a broad smile on his face.

Rather before the hour she had named, Mrs. Toplady presented herself at the Saracen's Head. Lashmar was impatiently expectant; he did his best to appear gravely thoughtful, and behaved with the ceremonious courtesy which, in his quality of parliamentary candidate, he had of late been cultivating. His visitor, as soon as the door was closed, became quite at her ease.

"Nice little place," she remarked, glancing about the room. "You make this your head-quarters, of course?"

"Yes; I am very comfortable here," Dyce answered, in melodious undertone.

"And all goes well? Your committee at work, and all that?"

"Everything satisfactory, so far. The date is not fixed yet."

"But it'll be all over, no doubt, in time for the partridges," said Mrs. Toplady, scrutinising him with an amused look. "Do you shoot?"

"Why no, Mrs. Toplady. I care very little for sport."

"Like all sensible men. I wanted to hear what you think about Lady Ogram's will."

Lashmar was disconcerted. He had to confess that he knew nothing whatever about the will.

"Indeed? Then I bring you news."

They were interrupted by a waiter who appeared with tea. The visitor graciously accepted a cup.

"Funerals exhaust one so, don't they?" she remarked. "I don't know your opinion, but I think people should be married and buried far more quietly. For my own part, I grieve sincerely for the death of Lady Ogram. It's a great loss to me. I liked her, and I owed her gratitude for very much kindness. But I certainly shouldn't have gone to her funeral, if it hadn't been a social duty. I should have liked to sit quietly at home, thinking about her."

"I thoroughly agree with you," replied Dyce, absently. "You came down yesterday?"

"In the evening.-You know that Miss Tomalin is at my house?"

"I had no idea of it."

"Yes. She arrived the day before yesterday. She left Rivenoak as soon as she knew about Lady Ogram's will. I'm very glad indeed that she came to me; it was a great mark of confidence. Under the circumstances, she could hardly remain here."

"The circumstances-?"

"Lady Ogram's will does not mention her."

Lashmar felt a spasm in his breast. The expression of his features was so very significant that Mrs. Toplady's smile threatened to become a laugh.

"It's rather startling, isn't it?" she continued. "The will was made t year ago. Lady Ogram didn't mean it to stand. When she was in town, she talked over her affairs with her solicitor; a new will was to be made, by which Miss Tomalin would have come into possession of Rivenoak, and of a great deal of money. You can probably guess why she put off executing it. She hoped her niece's marriage-settlement would come first. But the old will remains, and is valid."

"Will you tell me its provisions?" asked Lashmar, deliberately.

"In confidence. It won't be made public till the executors-Sir William Amys and Mr. Kerchever-have proved it. I never knew a more public-spirited will. Hollingford gets a hospital, to be called the Lady Ogram; very generously endowed. Rivenoak is to be sold, and the proceeds to form a fund for a lot of Lady Ogram Scholarships. A working-girl's home is to be founded in Camden Town (it seems she was born there), and to be called Lady Ogram House. A lady named Mrs. Gallantry, here at Hollingford, becomes trustee for a considerable sum to be used in founding a training school for domestic servants-to be named the Lady Ogram. Then there's a long list of minor charitable bequests. All the servants are most liberally treated, and a few friends in humble circumstances receive annuities. There is not much fear of Lady Ogram being forgotten just yet, is there?"

"No, indeed," said Lashmar, with studious control of his voice. "And"-he paused a moment-"is that all?"

"Let me see-Oh, I was forgetting. Some money is left to Miss Bride; not to her absolutely, but in trust for certain purposes not specified."

Mrs. Toplady's smile had never been more eloquent of mischievous pleasure. She was watching Lashmar as one watches a comedian on the stage, without the least disguise of her amusement.

"I had heard something of that," said Dyce, the tension of whose feelings began to show itself in a flush under the eyes. "Can you tell me-"

"Oh," broke in the other, "I've forgotten a detail that will interest you. In the entrance hall of the Lady Ogram Hospital is to be preserved that beautiful bust which you have seen at the Rivenoak. By the bye, there are odd stories about it. I hear that it was brought out of concealment only the day before her death."

"Yes. I know nothing more about it. With regard to Miss Bride's trusteeship-"

"Oh, and I forgot that Hollingford is to have a fine market-hall, on condition that the street leading to it is called Arabella Street-her name, you know."

"Oh, indeed!" murmured Dyce, and became mute.

Mrs. Toplady amused herself for a moment with observation of the play of his muscles. She finished her tea.

"I'll have another cup, if you please.-Oh yes, we were speaking of Miss Bride. Naturally, that interests you. An odd bequest, isn't it? She is spoken of as a trustee, but evidently the disposal of the money is quite at her own discretion. If I remember, there are words to the effect that Lady Ogram wishes Miss Bride to use this money just as she herself would have done, for the purposes in which they were both particularly interested. By the bye, it isn't money only; Miss Bride becomes owner of the paper-mill at the village by Rivenoak."

"I had heard of this," said Lashmar, with a brusque movement as though he felt cramp in his leg. He had begun to look cheerful. "I knew all about Lady Ogram's intentions. You don't remember," he added carelessly, "the amount of the bequest?"

"Mr. Kerchever tells me it represents about seventy thousand pounds."

Lashmar involuntarily heaved a sigh. Mrs. Toplady watched him over the rim of her teacup, the hand which held it shaking a little with subdued mirth.

"As you say," he observed, "it's a most remarkable will. But it seems rather too bad that the poor lady's real wishes should be totally neglected."

"Indeed it does. I have been wondering what Miss Bride will think about it. Of course I couldn't speak to her on the subject. One almost feels as if she ought at all events to give half that money to Miss Tomalin, considering the terms on which she receives it."

"But," objected Dyce, "that wouldn't be fulfilling the conditions of the bequest, which, I happen to know, were very specific. Really, it's a most unfortunate thing that Lady Ogram died so suddenly, most unfortunate. What a serious injustice is done to that poor girl!"

"After all, Mr. Lashmar," fell sweetly from the other's lips, "her position might be worse."

"How? Has she an income of her own?"

"Oh, a trifling annuity, not worth mentioning. But I didn't speak of that. I meant that, happily, her future is in the hands of an honourable man. It would have been sad indeed if she had owed this calamity to the intrigues of a mere fortune-hunter. As it is, a girl of her spirit and intelligence will very soon forget the disappointment. Indeed, it is much more on another's account than on her own that she grieves over what has happened."

Lashmar was perusing the floor. Slowly he raised his eyes, until they met Mrs. Toplady's. The two looked steadily at each other.

"Are you speaking of me?" Dyce inquired, in a low voice.

"Of whom else could I be speaking, Mr. Lashmar?"

"Then Miss Tomalin has taken you entirely into her confidence?"

"Entirely, I am happy to say. I am sure you won't be displeased. It goes without saying that she does not know I am having this conversation with you."

"I think, Mrs. Toplady," said Dyce, with deliberation, "that you had better tell me, if you will, exactly what you have heard from Miss Tomalin. We shall be more sure of understanding each other."

"That's easily done. She told me of your railway journey together, of your subsequent meetings, of what happened with Lord Dymchurch, and, last of all, what happened with Lady Ogram."

"Probably," said Dyce, "not all that happened with Lady Ogram. Did she mention that, instead of remaining loyal to me, as I was all through to her, she did her best to injure me with Lady Ogram by betraying a secret I had entrusted to her?"

"I know what you refer to. Yes, she told me, of that unfortunate incident, and spoke of it with deep regret. The poor girl simply lost her head; for a moment she could think of nothing but self-preservation. Put yourself in her place. She saw utter ruin before her, and was driven almost crazy. I can assure you that she was not responsible for that piece of disloyalty. I am afraid not many girls would have been more heroic in such a terrible situation. You, a philosopher, must take account of human weakness."

"I hope I can do that," said Lashmar, with a liberal air. "Under other circumstances, I should hardly have mentioned the thing. But it convinced me at the time that Miss Tomalin had deceived herself as to her feeling for me, and now that everything is necessarily at an end between us, I prefer to see it still in the same light, for it assures me that she has suffered no injury at my hands."

"But, pray, why should everything be necessarily at an end?"

"For two or three reasons, Mrs. Toplady. One will suffice. After Miss Tomalin had left the room, Lady Ogram insisted on my making offer of immediate marriage to Miss Bride. Being plainly released from the other obligation, I did so-and Miss Bride gave her consent."

Mrs. Toplady arched her eyebrows, and rippled a pleasant laugh.

"Ah! That, of course, May could not know. I may presume that, this time, the engagement is serious?"

"Undoubtedly," Lashmar replied, grave yet bland.

"Then I can only ask you to pardon my interference."

"Not at all. You have shown great kindness, and, under other circumstances, we should not have differed for a moment as to the course it behooved me to follow."

Dyce had never heard himself speak so magnanimously; he smiled with pleasure, and continued in a peculiarly suave voice.

"I am sure Miss Tomalin will find in you a steadfast friend."

"I shall do what I can for her, of course," was the rather dry answer. "At the same time, I hold to my view of Miss Bride's responsibility. The girl has really nothing to live upon; a miserable hundred a year; all very well when she belonged to the family at Northampton, but useless now she is adrift. To tell you the truth, I shall wait with no little curiosity for Miss Bride's-and your-decision."

"Need I say that Miss Bride will be absolutely free to take any step she likes?"

"How could I doubt it?" exclaimed the lady, with her most expressive smile. "Do you allow me to make known the-the renewal of your engagement?"

"Certainly," Dyce answered, beaming upon her.

Mrs. Toplady rose.

"I am so happy to have been the first to bring you the news. But it a little surprises me that you had not learnt it already from Miss Bride, who knew all about the will two days ago."

"Why should it surprise you?" said Lashmar, gently, as he took her hand. "Naturally I have kept away from Rivenoak, supposing Miss Tomalin to be still there; and Miss Bride was not likely to be in haste to communicate a piece of news which, strictly speaking, hardly concerns me at all."

"Be sure you come to see me when you are in town," were Mrs. Toplady's last words.

And her eyes twinkled with appreciation of Lashmar's demeanour.

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