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   Chapter 26 No.26

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 30515

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Dyce walked about the room. Without knowing it, he sang softly to himself. His countenance was radiant.

So, after all, Constance would be his wife. One moment's glimpse of a dread possibility that neither she nor May Tomalin benefited by Lady Ogram's will had sufficed to make him more than contented with the actual issue of his late complications. He had seen himself overwhelmed with disaster, reduced to the alternative of withdrawing into ignominious obscurity or of again seeking aid from Mrs. Woolstan, aid which might or not be granted, and in any case would only enable him to go through with the contest at Hollingford, a useless effort if he had nothing henceforth to live upon. As it was, he saw Constance and seventy thousand pounds, with the prosperous little paper-mill to boot. He did not love Constance, but the feeling of dislike with which he had recently come to regard her had quite passed away. He did not love Constance, but what a capable woman she was!-and what a help she would be to him in his career! Her having detected his philosophic plagiarism seemed to him now rather a good thing than otherwise; it spared him the annoyance of intellectual dishonesty in his domestic life, and put them in a position to discuss freely the political and social views by which he was to stand. After all, Constance was the only woman he knew whose intelligence he really respected. After all, remembering their intimacy long ago at Alverholme, he felt a fitness in this fated sequel. It gave him the pleasant sense of honourable conduct.

He smiled at the thought that he had fancied himself in love with May Tomalin. The girl was a half-educated simpleton, who would only have made him ridiculous. Her anonymous letter pointed to a grave fault of breeding; it would always have been suggestive of disagreeable possibilities. May was thoroughly plebeian in origin, and her resemblance to Lady Ogram might develop in a way it made him shudder to think of. Constance Bride came of gentlefolk, and needed only the favour of circumstances to show herself perfectly at ease in whatever social surroundings. She had a natural dignity, which, now he came to reflect upon it, he had always observed with pleasure. What could have been more difficult than her relations with Lady Ogram? Yet she had always borne herself with graceful independence.

Poor girl! She had gone through a hard time these last four weeks, and no wonder if she broke down under the strain of a situation such as that which ended in Lady Ogram's death. He would make up to her for it all. She should understand him, and rest in perfect confidence. Yes, he would reveal to her his whole heart and mind, so that no doubt of him, no slightest distrust, could ever disturb her peace. Not only did he owe her this complete sincerity; to him it would be no less delightful, no less tranquillising.

He sat down to write a note.

"Dear Constance-" yes, that sufficed. "When can I see you? Let it be as soon as possible. Of course you have understood my silence. Do you stay at Rivenoak a little longer? Let me come to-morrow, if possible."

After a little reflection, he signed himself, "Ever yours, D. L."

Having despatched this by private messenger, he went out and took a walk, choosing the direction away from Rivenoak. As he rambled along an uninteresting road, it occurred to him that he ought to write to Mrs. Woolstan. No need, of course, to say anything about the results of Lady Ogram's decease, but he really owed Iris a letter, just to show that he was not unmindful of her kindness. The foolish little woman had done her best for him; indeed, without her help, where would he have been now? He must pay his debt to her as soon as possible, and it would of course be necessary to speak of the matter to Constance. Not, perhaps, till after their marriage. Well, he would see; he might possibly have an impulse. Happily this was the very last of the unpleasant details he would have to dismiss. The luxury of living without concealment, unembarrassed, and unafraid!

By the bye, how would Constance understand the duties of her trusteeship? What portion of her income would she feel at liberty to set apart for personal uses? In all likelihood, she had spoken of that with Lady Ogram; at their coming interview, she would fully explain her position.

He returned to the hotel, and dined alone. To his disappointment, there came no answer from Rivenoak. Was it possible that Constance had already gone away? Very unlikely, so soon after the funeral. She would reply, no doubt, by post; indeed, there was no hurry, and a little reserve on her part would be quite natural.

Morning brought him the expected letter. "Dear Mr. Lashmar-" Oh, that was nothing; merely the reserve he had anticipated: he liked her the better for it. "I shall be at home all to-morrow, busy with many things. Could you come about three o'clock? Sincerely yours, Constance Bride." What could be in better taste? How else could she write, under the circumstances? His real wooing had not yet begun, and she merely reminded him of that, with all gentleness.

So, in the afternoon he once more presented himself at Rivenoak, and once more followed the servant into the drawing-room; Constance sat there; she rose as he approached, and silently gave her hand. He thought she looked rather pale; that might be the effect of black attire, which made a noticeable change in her appearance. But a certain dignity of which the visitor was very sensible, a grace of movement and of bearing which seemed new to her, could not be attributed to the dress she wore. In a saddened voice, he hoped that she was well, that she had not suffered from the agitations of the past week; and, with courtesy such as she might have used to anyone, Constance replied that she felt a little tired, not quite herself. They talked for some minutes in this way. Lashmar learnt that the Amyses had returned to London.

"For the present, you stay here?" he said, the interrogative accent only just perceptible.

"For a day or two. My secretaryship goes on, of course. I have a good deal of correspondence to see to."

On his way hither, Lashmar had imagined quite a different meeting; he anticipated an emotional scene, beginning with forced calm on Constance's side, leading OR to reproaches, explanations, and masculine triumph. But Constance was strangely self-possessed, and her mind seemed to be not at all occupied with agitating subjects. Lashmar was puzzled; he felt it wise to imitate her example, to behave as quietly and naturally as possible, taking for granted that she viewed the situation even as he did.

He turned his eyes to the marble bust on its pedestal behind Constance. The note of scorn in its fixed smile caught his attention.

"So that is to stand in the Hospital," he murmured.

"Yes, I believe so," replied Constance, absently, with a glance towards the white face.

"What strange stories it will give rise to, in days to come! She will become a legendary figure. I can hardly believe that I saw and talked with her only a few days ago. Have you the same feeling at all? Doesn't she seem to you more like someone you have read of, than a person you really knew?"

"I understand what you mean," said Constance, smiling thoughtfully. "It's certain one will never again know anyone like her."

"Are all the provisions of her will practicable?"

"Perfectly, I think. She took great trouble to make them so. By the bye, from whom did you get your information?"

It was asked in a disinterested voice, the speaker's look resting for a moment on Lashmar with unembarrassed directness.

"Mrs. Toplady told me about the will."

Dyce paused for a moment, then continued, with an obvious effort indeed, but in an even voice.

"She came to see me, after the funeral. Mrs. Toplady has a persevering curiosity; she wanted to know what had happened, and, I have no doubt, had recourse to me after finding that you were not disposed to talk as freely as she wished. I was able to enlighten her on one point."

"May I ask what point?"

"She began by telling me that Miss Tomalin was at her house. She had heard Miss Tomalin's story, with the result that she supposed me in honour bound to marry that young lady. I explained that this was by no means the case."

"How did you explain it?" asked Constance, still in her disinterested tone.

"By telling the simple truth, that Miss Tomalin had herself cancelled the engagement existing between us."

"I see."

Constance leaned back in her chair. She looked like one who is sitting alone, occupied with tranquil reflection. Dyce allowed a moment to elapse before he again spoke; he was smiling to himself.

"How strange it all is!" he at length resumed, as though starting from a reverie. "This past fortnight seems already as dim and vague to me as the recollection of something that happened long years ago. I never believed myself capable of such follies. Tell me frankly." He leaned towards Constance, gazing at her in an amused, confidential way. "Could you have imagined that I should ever lose my head like that, and run off into such vagaries?"

Constance also smiled, but very faintly. Her eyebrows rose, ever so little. Her lips just moved, but uttered no sound.

"You know me better than anyone else ever did or ever will," he went on. "It is quite possible that you know me better than I know myself. Did you ever foresee such a possibility?"

"I can't say that it astonished me," was the deliberate reply, without any ironic note.

"Well, I am glad of that," said Dyce, with a little sign of relief. "It's much better so. I like to think that you read me with so clear an eye. For years I have studied myself, and I thought I knew how I should act in any given circumstances; yet it was mere illusion. What I regret is that I hadn't talked more to you about such things; you would very likely have put me on my guard. I always felt your power of reading character, it seemed to me that I concealed nothing from you. We were always so frank with each other-yet not frank enough, after all."

"I'm afraid not," assented the listener, absently.

"Well, it's an experience; though, as I say, more like a bit of delirium than actual life. Happily, you know all about it; I shall never have to tell you the absurd story. But I mustn't forget that other thing which really did surprise and vex you-my bit of foolish plagiarism. I have so wanted to talk to you about it. You have read the whole book?"

"Very carefully."

"And what do you think of it?" he asked, with an air of keen interest.

"Just what I thought of the large quotations I had heard from you. The theory seems plausible; I should think there is a good deal of truth in it. In any case, it helps one to direct one's life."

"Oh, you feel that? Now there," exclaimed Lashmar, his eye brightening, "is the explanation of what seemed to you very dishonourable behaviour in me. You know me, and you will understand as soon as I hint at the psychology of the thing. When that book fell into my hands, I was seeking eagerly for a theory of the world by which to live. I have had many glimpses of the truth about life-glimpses gained by my own honest thought. This book completed the theory I had been shaping for myself; it brought me mental rest, and a sense of fixed purpose such as I had never known. Its reconciliation of the aristocratic principle with a true socialism was exactly what I had been striving for; it put me at harmony with myself, for you know that I am at the same time Aristocrat and Socialist. Well now, I spoke of the book to my father, and begged him to read it. It was when we met at Alverholme, in the spring, you remember? How long ago does that seem to you? To me, several years. Yes, I had the volume with me, and showed it to my father; sufficient proof that I had no intention of using it dishonestly. But-follow me, I beg-I had so absorbed the theory, so thoroughly made it the directing principle of my mind, that I very soon ceased to think of it as somebody else's work. I completed it with all sorts of new illustrations, confirmations, which had been hanging loose in my memory, and the result was that I one day found myself talking about it as if it had originated with me. If I'm not mistaken, I was talking with Dymchurch-yes, it was Dymchurch. When I had time to reflect, I saw what I had unconsciously done quite unconsciously, believe me. I thought it over, Ought I to let Dymchurch know where I had got my central idea? And I decided at length that I would say nothing."

Constance, leaning back in her chair, listened attentively, with impartial countenance.

"You see why, don't you?" His voice thrilled with earnestness; his eyes shone as if with the very light of truth. "To say calmly: By the bye, I came across that bio-sociological theory in such and such a book, would have been a flagrant injustice to myself. I couldn't ask Dymchurch to listen whilst I elaborately expounded my mental and spiritual history during the past year or two, yet short of that there was no way of making him understand the situation. The thing had become mine; I thought by it, and lived by it; I couldn't bear to speak of it as merely an interesting hypothesis discovered in the course of my reading. At once it would have seemed to me to carry less weight; I should have been thrown back again into uncertainty. This, too, just at the moment when a principle, a conviction, had become no less a practical than a subjective need to me; for-thanks to you-I saw a new hope in life, the possibility of an active career which would give scope to all my energies. Do you follow me? Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly," replied Constance, with a slight inclination of her head. She seemed both to listen and to be absorbed in thought.

"From that moment, I ceased to think of the book. I had as good as forgotten its existence. Though, on the whole, it had done me so great a service, there were many things in it I didn't like, and these would now have annoyed me much more than at the first reading. I should have felt as if the man had got hold of my philosophy, and presented it imperfectly. You will understand now why I was so astonished at your charge of plagiarism. I really didn't know what to say; I couldn't perceive your point of view: I don't remember how I replied, I'm afraid my behaviour seemed only to confirm your suspicion. In very truth, it was the result of genuine surprise. Of course I had only to reflect to see how this discovery must have come upon you, but then it was too late. We were in the thick of extraordinary complications: no hope of quiet and reasonable talk. Since the tragic end, I have worried constantly about that misunderstanding. Is it quite cleared up? We must be frank with each other now or never. Speak your thought as honestly as I have spoken mine."

"I completely understand you," was the meditative reply.

"I was sure you would! To some people, such an explanation would be useless; Mrs. Toplady, for instance. I should be sorry to have to justify myself by psychological reasoning to Mrs. Toplady. And, remember, Mrs. Toplady re

presents the world. A wise man does not try to explain himself to the world; enough if, by exceptional good luck, there is one person to whom he can confidently talk of his struggles and his purposes. Don't suppose, however, that I lay claim to any great wisdom; after the last fortnight, that would be rather laughable. But I am capable of benefiting by experience, and very few men can truly say as much. It is on the practical side that I have hitherto been most deficient. I see my way to correcting that fault. Nothing could be better for me, just now, than electioneering work. It will take me out of myself, and give a rest to the speculative side of my mind. Don't you agree with me?"

"Quite."

"There's another thing I must make clear to you," Dyce pursued, now swimming delightedly on the flood of his own eloquence. "For a long time I seriously doubted whether I was fit for a political career. My ambition always tended that way, but my conscience went against it. I used to regard politics with a good deal of contempt. You remember our old talks, at Alverholme?"

Constance nodded.

"In one respect, I am still of the same opinion. Most men who go in for a parliamentary career regard it either as a business by which they and their friends are to profit, or as an easy way of gratifying their personal vanity, and social ambitions. That, of course, is why we are so far from ideal government. I used to think that the man in earnest should hold aloof from Parliament, and work in more hopeful ways-by literature, for instance. But I see now that the fact of the degradation of Parliament is the very reason why a man thinking as I do should try to get into the House of Commons. If all serious minds hold aloof, what will the government of the country sink to? The House of Commons is becoming in the worst sense democratic; it represents, above all, newly acquired wealth, and wealth which has no sense of its responsibilities. The representative system can only be restored to dignity and usefulness by the growth of a new Liberalism. What I understand by that, you already know. One of its principles-that which for the present must be most insisted upon-is the right use of money. Irresponsible riches threaten to ruin our civilisation. What we have first of all to do is to form the nucleus of a party which represents money as a civilising, instead of a corrupting, power."

He looked into Constance's eyes, and she, smiling as if at a distant object, met his look steadily.

"I have been working out this thought," he continued, with vigorous accent. "I see it now as my guiding principle in the narrower sense-the line along which I must pursue the greater ends. The possession of money commonly says very little for a man's moral and intellectual worth, but there is the minority of well-to-do people who have the will to use their means rightly, if only they knew how. This minority must be organised. It must attract intellect and moral force from every social rank. Money must be used against money, and in this struggle it is not the big battalions which will prevail. Personally I care very little for wealth, as I think you know. I have no expensive tastes; I can live without luxuries. Oh, I like to be comfortable, and to be free from anxiety; who doesn't? But I never felt the impulse to strive to enrich myself. On the other hand, money as a civilising force has great value in my eyes. Without it, one can work indeed, but with what slow results? It is time to be up and doing. We must organise our party, get our new Liberalism to work.-In this also, do you agree with me?"

"It is certain," Constance replied, "that the right use of money is one of the great questions of our day."

"I know how much you have thought of it," said Dyce. Then, after a short pause, he added in his frankest tone, "And it concerns you especially."

"It does."

"Do you feel," he softened his voice to respectful intimacy, "that, in devoting yourself to this cause, you will be faithful to the trusts you have accepted?"

Constance answered deliberately.

"It depends upon what you understand by devoting myself. Beyond a doubt, Lady Ogram would have approved the idea as you put it."

"And would she not have given me her confidence as its representative?" asked Dyce, smiling.

"Up to a certain point. Lady Ogram desired, for instance, to bear the expenses of your contest at Hollingford, and I should like to carry out her wish in the matter."

A misgiving began to trouble Lashmar's sanguine mood. He searched his companion's face; it seemed to him to have grown more emphatic in expression; there was a certain hardness about the lips which he had not yet observed. Still, Constance looked friendly, and her eyes supported his glance.

"Thank you," he murmured, with some feeling. "And, if, by chance, I should be beaten? You wouldn't lose courage? We must remember-"

"You have asked me many questions," Constance interrupted quietly. "Let me use the privilege of frankness which we grant each other, and ask you one in turn. Your private means are sufficient for the career upon which you are entering?"

"My private means?"

He gazed at her as if he did not understand, the smile fading from his lips.

"Forgive me if you think I am going too far-"

"Not at all!" Dyce exclaimed, eagerly. "It is a question you have a perfect right to ask. But I thought you knew I had no private means."

"No, I wasn't aware of that," Constance replied, in a voice of studious civility. "Then how do you propose-?"

Their eyes encountered. Constance did not for an instant lose her self-command; Lashmar's efforts to be calm only made his embarrassment more obvious.

"I had a small allowance from my father till lately," he said. "But that has come to an end. It never occurred to me that you misunderstood my position. Surely I have more than once hinted to you how poor I was? I had no intention of misleading you. Lady Ogram certainly knew--"

"She knew you were not wealthy, but she thought you had a competence. I told her so, when she questioned me. It was a mistake, I see, but a very natural one."

"Does it matter, now?" asked Dyce, his lips again curling amiably.

"I should suppose it mattered much. How shall you live?"

"Let us understand each other. Do you withdraw your consent to Lady Ogram's last wish?"

"That wish, as you see, was founded on a misunderstanding."

"But," exclaimed Lashmar, "you are not speaking seriously?"

"Quite. Lady Ogram certainly never intended the money she had left in trust to me to be used for your private needs. Reflect a moment, and you will see how impossible it would be for me to apply the money in such a way."

"Reflection," said Dyce, with unnatural quietness, "would only increase my astonishment at your ingenuity. It would have been much simpler and better to say at once that you had changed your mind. Can you for a moment expect me to believe that this argument really justifies you in breaking your promise?"

"I assure you," replied Constance, also in a soft undertone, "it is much sounder reasoning than that by which you excuse your philosophical plagiarism."

Lashmar's eyes wandered. They fell upon the marble bust; its disdainful smile seemed to him more pronounced than ever.

"Then," he cried, on an impulse of desperation, "you really mean to take Lady Ogram's money, and to disregard the very condition on which she left it to you?"

"You forget that her will was made before she had heard your name."

He sat in silence, a gloomy resentment lowering on his features. After a glance at him, Constance began to speak in a calm, reasonable voice.

"It is my turn to confess. I, too, seem to myself to have been living in a sort of dream, and my awaking is no less decisive than yours. At your instigation, I behaved dishonestly; I am very much ashamed of the recollection. Happily, I see my way to atone for the follies, and worse, that I committed. I can carry out Lady Ogram's wishes-the wishes she formed while still in her sound mind-and to that I shall devote my life."

"Do you intend, then, to apply none of this money to your personal use? Do you mean to earn your own living still?"

"That would defeat Lady Ogram's purpose," was the calm answer. "I shall live where and how it seems good to me, guided always by the intention which I know was in her mind."

Dyce sat with his head bent forward, his hands grasping his knees. After what seemed to be profound reflection, he said gravely:

"This is how you think to-day. I won't be so unjust to you as to take it for your final reply."

"Yet that's what it is," answered Constance.

"You think so. The sudden possession of wealth has disturbed your mind. If I took you at your word," he spoke with measured accent, "I should be guilty of behaviour much more dishonourable than that of which you accuse me. I can wait." He smiled with a certain severity. "It is my duty to wait until you have recovered your natural way of thinking."

Constance was looking at him, her eyes full of wonder and amusement.

"Thank you," she said. "You are very kind, very considerate. But suppose you reflect for a moment on your theory of the equality of man and woman. Doesn't it suggest an explanation of what you call my disordered state of mind?-Let us use plain words. You want money for your career, and, as the need is pressing, you are willing to take the encumbrance of a wife. I am to feel myself honoured by your acceptance of me, to subject myself entirely to your purposes, to think it a glorious reward if I can aid your ambition. Is there much equality in this arrangement?"

"You put things in the meanest light," protested Lashmar. "What I offer you is a share in all my thoughts, a companionship in whatever I do or become. I have no exaggerated sense of my own powers, but this I know, that, with fair opportunity, I can attain distinction. If I thought of you as in any sense an encumbrance, I shouldn't dream of asking you to marry me; it would defeat the object of my life. I have always seen in you just the kind of woman who would understand me and help me."

"My vanity will grant you that," replied Constance. "But for the moment I want you to inquire whether you are the kind of man who would understand and help me.-You are surprised. That's quite a new way of putting the matter, isn't it? You never saw that as a result of your theory?"

"Stay!" Dyce raised his hand. "I know perfectly well that you are ambitious. If you were not, we should never have become friends. But you must remember that, from my point of view, I am offering you such a chance of gratifying your ambition as you will hardly find again."

"That is to say, the reflection of your glory. As a woman, what more can I ask? You can't think how this amuses me, now that I have come to my senses. Putting aside the question of whether you are likely to win glory at all, have you no suspicion of your delightful arrogance? I should like to know how far your contempt of women really goes. It went far enough, at all events, to make you think that I believed your talk about equality of the sexes. But really, I am not quite such a simpleton. I always knew that you despised women, that you looked upon them as creatures to be made use of. If you ask: why, then, did I endure you for a moment? the answer must be, that I am a woman. You see, Mr. Lashmar, we females of the human species are complex. Some of us think and act very foolishly, and all the time, somewhere in our curious minds, are dolefully aware of our foolishness. You knew that of men; let me assure you that women share the unhappy privilege."

Lashmar was listening with knitted brows. No word came to his lips.

"You interest me," pursued Constance. "I think you are rather a typical man of our time, and it isn't at all impossible that you may become, as you say, distinguished. But, clothed and in my right mind, I don't feel disposed to pay the needful price for the honour of helping you on. You mustn't lose heart; I have little doubt that some other woman will grasp at the opportunity you so kindly wish to reserve for me. But may I venture a word of counsel? Don't let it be a woman who holds the equality theory. I say this in the interest of your peace and happiness. There are plenty of women, still, who like to be despised, and some of them are very nice indeed. They are the only good wives; I feel sure of it. We others-women cursed with brains-are not meant for marriage. We grow in numbers, unfortunately. What will be the end of it, I don't know. Some day you will thank your stars that you did not marry a woman capable of understanding you."

Dyce stood up and took a few steps about the floor, his eyes fixed on the marble bust.

"When can I see you again?" he asked abruptly.

"I shall be going to London in a day or two; I don't think we will meet again-until your circumstances are better. Can you give me any idea of what the election expenses will be?"

"Not yet," Dyce answered, in an undertone. "You are going to London? Will you tell me what you mean to do?"

"To pursue my career."

"Your career?"

"That surprises you, of course. It never occurred to you that I also might have a career in view. Yet I have. Let us enter upon a friendly competition. Five years hence, which of us will be better known?"

"I see," remarked Dyce, his lip curling. "You will use your money to make yourself talked about?"

"Not primarily; but it is very likely that that will result from my work. It offends your sense of what is becoming in a woman?"

"It throws light upon what you have been saying."

"So I meant. You will see, when you think about it, that I am acting strangely like a male creature. We females with minds have a way of doing that. I'll say more, for I really want you to understand me. 'The sudden possession of wealth' has not, as you suppose, turned my head, but it has given my thoughts a most salutary shaking, and made me feel twice the woman that I was. At this moment, I should as soon think of taking a place as kitchen-maid as of becoming any man's wife. I am free, and have power to assert myself-the first desire, let me assure you, of modern woman no less than of modern man. That I shall assert myself for the good of others is a peculiarity of mine, a result of my special abilities; I take no credit for it. Some day we shall meet again, and talk over our experiences; for the present, let us be content with corresponding now and then. You shall have my address as soon as I am settled."

She rose, and Lashmar gazed at her. He saw that she was as little to be moved by an appeal, by an argument, as the marble bust behind her.

"I suppose," he said, "you will appear on platforms?"

"Oh dear no!" Constance replied, with a laugh. "My ambition doesn't take that form. I leave that to you, who are much more eloquent."

"How you have altered!" He kept gazing at her, with a certain awe. "I hardly know you."

"I doubt whether you know me at all. Never mind." She held out her hand. "We may be friends yet when you have come to understand that you are not so very, very much my superior."

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