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   Chapter 27 No.27

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 24824

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

Lashmar walked hack to Hollingford, and reached the hotel without any consciousness of the road by which he had come. He felt as tired as if he had been walking all day. When he had dropped into an easy chair, he let his arms hang, and, with head drooping forward, stared at his feet stretched out before him: the posture suggested a man half overcome with drink.

He had a private meeting to attend to-night. Should he attend it or not? His situation had become farcical. Was it not his plain duty to withdraw at once from the political contest, that a serious candidate might as soon as possible take his place? Where could he discern even the glimmer of a hope in this sudden darkness? His heart was heavy and cold.

He went through the business of the evening, talking automatically, seeing and hearing as in a dream. He had no longer the slightest faith in his electioneering prospects, and wondered how he could ever have been sanguine about them. Of course the Conservative would win. Breakspeare knew it; every member of the committee knew it; they pretended to hope because the contest amused and occupied them. No Liberal had a chance at Hollingford. To-morrow he would throw the thing up, and disappear. Never in his life had he passed such a miserable night. At each waking from hag-ridden slumbers, the blackest despondency beset him; once or twice his tortured brain even glanced towards suicide; temptation lurking in the assurance that, by destroying himself, he would become, for a few days at all events, the subject of universal interest. He found no encouragement even in the thought of Iris Woolstan. Not only had he deeply offended her by his engagement to Constance Bride, but almost certainly she would hear from her friend Mrs. Toplady the whole truth of his disaster, which put him beyond hope of pardon. He owed her money; with what face, even if she did not know the worst, could he go to her and ask for another loan? In vain did he remember the many proofs he had received of Mrs. Woolstan's devotion; since the interview with Constance, all belief in himself was at an end. He had thought his eloquence, his personal magnetism, irresistible; Constance had shown him the extent of his delusion. If he saw Iris, the result would be the same.

At moments, so profound was his feeling of insignificance that he hid his face even from the darkness, and groaned.

Not only had he lost faith in himself; there remained to him no conviction, no trust, no hope of any kind. Intellectually, morally, he had no support; shams, insincerities, downright dishonesties, had clothed him about, and these were now all stripped away, leaving the thing he called his soul to quiver in shamed nakedness. He knew nothing; he believed nothing. But death still made him fearful.

With the first gleam of daylight, he flung himself out of his hot, uncomfortable bed, and hastened to be a clothed mortal once more. He felt better as soon as he had dressed himself and opened the window. The night with its terrible hauntings was a thing gone by.

At breakfast he thought fixedly of Iris Woolstan. Perhaps Iris had not seen Mrs. Toplady yet. Perhaps, at heart, she was not so utterly estranged from him as he feared; something of his old power over her might even now be recovered. It was the resource of desperation; he must try it.

The waiter's usual respect seemed, this morning, covert mockery. The viands had no savour; only the draught of coffee that soothed his throat was good. He had a headache, and a tremor of the nerves. In any case, it would have been impossible to get through the day in the usual manner, and his relief when he found himself at the railway station was almost a return of good spirits.

On reaching London, he made straight for West Hampstead. As he approached Mrs. Woolstan's house, his heart beat violently. Without even a glance at the windows, he rang the visitor's bell. It sounded distinctly, but there came no response. He rang again, and again listened to the far-off tinkling. Only then did he perceive that the blinds at the lower windows were drawn. The house was vacant.

Paralysed for a moment, he stared about, as if in search of someone who could give him information. Then, with sweat on his forehead, he stepped up to the next door, and asked if anything was known of Mrs. Woolstan; he learnt only that she had been absent for about ten days; where she was, the servant with whom he spoke could not tell him. Were the other neighbours likely to know?-he asked. Encouraged by a bare possibility, he inquired at the house beyond; but in vain.

Fate was against him. He might as well go home and write a letter to his committee at Hollingford.

Stay, could he not remember the school to which Leonard Woolstan had been sent? Yes it was noted in his pocket-book; for he had promised to write to the boy.

He sought the nearest post-office, and dispatched a telegram to Leonard; "Please let me know immediately your mother's present address." The reply was to be sent to his rooms in Devonshire Street, and thither he straightway betook himself, hoping that in an hour or so he would have news. An extempore lunch was put before him; never had he satisfied his hunger with less gusto. Time went on; the afternoon brought him no telegram. At seven o'clock he lay on his sofa, exhausted by nervous strain, anticipating a hideous night. Again his thoughts had turned to suicide. It would be easier to obtain poison here than at Hollingford. Laudanum? Death under laudanum must be very easy, mere falling asleep in a sort of intoxication. But he must leave behind him something in writing, something which would excite attention when it appeared in all the newspapers. Addressed to the coroner? No; to his committee. He would hint to them of a tragic story, of noble powers and ambitions frustrated by the sordid difficulties of life. The very truth, let malice say what it would. At his age, with his brain and heart, to perish thus for want of a little money! As he dwelt on the infinite pathos of the thing, tears welled to his eyes, trickled over his cheek-

Of a sudden, he started up, and shouted "Come in!" Yes, it was a telegram; he took it from the servant's hand with an exclamation of joy. Leonard informed him that Mrs. Woolstan was staying at Gorleston, near Yarmouth, her address "Sunrise Terrace." He clutched at a railway guide. Too late to get to Yarmouth to-night, but that did not matter. "Sunrise Terrace!" In his sorry state of mind, a name of such good omen brought him infinite comfort. He rushed out of the house, and walked at a great rate, impelled by the joy of feeling himself alive once more. Sunrise! Iris Woolstan would save him. Already he warmed with gratitude to her: he thought of her with a tender kindness. She might be richer than he supposed; at all events, she was in circumstances which would allow him to live independently. And was she not just the kind of woman Constance Bride had advised him to marry? Advice given in scorn, but, his conscience told him, thoroughly sound. A nice, gentle, sufficiently intelligent little woman. Pity that there was the boy; but he would always be at school. Suppose she had only four or five hundred a year? Oh, probably more than that, seeing that she could economise such substantial sums. He was saved; the sun would rise for him, literally and in metaphor.

A rainy morning saw him at Liverpool Street. The squalid roofs of north-east London dripped miserably under a leaden sky. Not till the train reached the borders of Suffolk did a glint of sun fall upon meadow and stream; thence onwards the heavens brightened; the risen clouds gleamed above a shining shore. Lashmar did not love this part of England, and he wondered why Mrs. Woolstan had chosen such a retreat, but in the lightness of his heart he saw only pleasant things. Arrived at Yarmouth, he jumped into a cab, and was driven along the dull, flat road which leads to Gorleston. Odour of the brine made amends for miles of lodgings, for breaks laden with boisterous trippers, for tram cars and piano-organs. Here at length was Sunrise Terrace, a little row of plain houses on the top of the cliff, with sea-horizon vast before it, and soft green meadow-land far as one could see behind. Bidding his driver wait, Lashmar knocked at the door, and stood tremulous. It was half-past twelve; Iris might or might not have returned from her morning walk; he prepared for a brief disappointment. But worse awaited him. Mrs. Woolstan, he learnt, would not be at home for the mid-day meal; she was with friends who had a house at Gorleston.

"Where is the house?" he asked, impatiently, stamping as if his feet were cold.

The woman pointed his way.

"Who are the people? What is their name?"

He heard it, but it conveyed nothing to him. After a moment's reflection, he decided to go to the hotel, and there write a note. Whilst he was having lunch, the reply came, a dry missive, saying that, if he would call at three o'clock, Mrs. Woolstan would have much pleasure in presenting him to her friends the Barkers, with whom she was spending the day.

Lashmar fumed, but obeyed the invitation. In a garden on the edge of the cliff, he found half a dozen persons; an elderly man who looked like a retired tradesman, his wife, of suitable appearance, their son, their two daughters, and Iris Woolstan. Loud and mirthful talk was going on; his arrival interrupted it only for a moment.

"So glad to see you!" was Mrs. Woolstan's friendly, but not cordial, greeting. "I didn't know you ever came to the east coast."

Introductions were carelessly made; he seated himself on a camp-stool by one of the young ladies, and dropped a few insignificant remarks. No one paid much attention to him.

"Seventy-five runs!" exclaimed Mrs. Woolstan, addressing herself as though with keen interest to the son of the family, a high-coloured, large-limbed young man of about Lashmar's age. "That was splendid! But you did better still against East Croydon, didn't you?"

"Made my century, there," answered Mr. Barker, jerking out a leg in self-satisfaction.

"How conceited you're making him, Mrs. Woolstan!" cried one of his sisters, with a shrill laugh. "It's a rule in this house to put the stopper on Jim when he begins to talk about cricket. If we didn't, there'd be no living with him."

"Are you a cricketer, Mr.-Mr. Lasher?" asked materfamilias, eyeing the visitor curiously.

"It's a long time since I played," was the reply, uttered with scarcely veiled contempt.

Mrs. Woolstan talked on in the highest spirits, exhibiting her intimacy with the Barker household, and her sympathy with their concerns. Lashmar waited for her to question him about Hollingford, to give him an opportunity of revealing his importance; but her thoughts seemed never to turn in that direction. As soon as a movement in the company enabled him to rise, he stepped up to her, and said in a voice audible to those standing by:

"I want to speak to you about Leonard. Shall you be at home this evening?"

Iris gave him a startled look.

"You haven't bad news of Len?"

"Oh no; nothing of the kind."

"Can you call at six o'clock?"

He looked into her eyes, and nodded.

"What do you say to a boat, Mrs. Woolstan?" shouted Barker the son.

This suggestion was acclaimed, and Lashmar was urged to join the party, but he gladly seized this chance of escape. Wandering along the grassy edge of the cliffs, he presently descried the Barkers and their friend putting forth in two little boats. The sight exasperated him. He strode gloomily on, ever and again turning his head to watch the boats, and struggling against the fears that once more assailed him.

In a hollow of dry sand, where the cliffs broke, he flung himself down, and lay still for an hour or two. Below him, on the edge of the tide, children were playing; he watched them sullenly. Lashmar disliked children; the sound of their voices was disagreeable to him. He wondered whether he would ever have children of his own, and heartily hoped not.

Six o'clock seemed very long in coming. But at length he found himself at Sunrise Terrace again, and was admitted to an ordinary lodging-house parlour, where, with tea on the table, Mrs. Woolstan awaited him. The sea air had evidently done her good; she looked younger and prettier t

han when Dyce last saw her, and the tea-gown she wore became her well.

"How did you know where I was?" she began by asking, rather distantly.

Lashmar told her in detail.

"But why were you so anxious to see me?-Sugar, I think?"

"It's a long story," he replied, looking t her from under his eyebrows, "and I don't much care or telling it in a place like' this, where all we say can be heard by anyone on the other side of the door."

Iris was watching his countenance. The cold politeness with which she had received him had become a very transparent mask; beneath it showed eager curiosity and trembling hope.

"We can go out, if you like," she said.

"And most likely meet those singular friends of yours. Who on earth are they?"

"Very nice people," replied Mrs. Woolstan, holding up her head.

"They are intolerably vulgar, and you must be aware of it. I felt ashamed to see you among them. What are you doing at a place like this? Why have you shut up your house?"

"Really," exclaimed Iris, with a flutter, "that is my business."

Lashmar's nervous irritation was at once subdued. He looked timidly at the indignant face, let his eyes fall, and murmured an apology.

"I've been going through strange things, and I'm not quite master of myself. The night before last"-his voice sunk to a hollow note-"I very nearly took poison."

"What do you mean? Poison?"

Mrs. Woolstan's eyes widened in horror. Lashmar regarded her with a smile of intense melancholy.

"One thing only kept me from it. I remembered that I was in your debt, and I felt it would be too cowardly."

"What has happened?-Come and sit near the window; no one could hear us talking here. I have been expecting to read of your election. Is it something to do with Lady Ogram's death? I have wanted so much to know about that, and how it affected you."

A few questions gave Dyce the comfortable assurance that Iris had not seen Mrs. Toplady for a long time. Trouble with servants, she said, coming after a slight illness, had decided her to quit her house for the rest of the summer, and the Barkers persuaded her to come to Gorleston. When Leonard left school for his holidays, she meant to go with him to some nice place.

"But do tell me what you mean by those dreadful words? And why have you come to see me?"

She was her old self, the Iris Woolstan on whom first of all Lashmar had tried his "method," who had so devoutly believed in him and given such substantial proof of her faith. The man felt his power, and began to recover self-respect.

"Tell me one thing," he said, bending towards her. "May I remain your debtor for a little longer? Will it put you to inconvenience?"

"Not at all!" was the impulsive reply. "I told you I didn't want the money. I have more than six hundred pounds a year, and never spend quite all of it."

Lashmar durst not raise his eyes lest a gleam of joy should betray him. He knew now what he had so long desired to know. Six hundred a year; it was enough.

"You are very kind. That relieves me. For two or three days I have been in despair. Yes, you shall hear all about it. I owe you the whole truth, for no one ever understood me as you did, and no one ever gave me such help-of every kind. First of all, about my engagement to Miss Bride. It's at an end. But more than that it wasn't a real engagement at all. We tried to play a comedy, and the end has been tragic."

Iris drew a deep breath of wonder. Her little lips were parted, her little eyebrows made a high arch; she had the face of a child who listens to a strange and half terrifying story.

"Don't you see how it was?" he exclaimed, in a subdued voice of melodious sadness. "Lady Ogram discovered that her niece-you remember May Tomalin? thought rather too well of me. This did not suit her views; she had planned a marriage between May and Lord Dymchurch. You know what her temper was. One day she gave me the choice: either I married Constance Bride, or I never entered her house again. Imagine my position. Think of me, with my ambitions, my pride, and the debt I had incurred to you. Can you blame me much if, seeing that Lady Ogram's life might end any day, I met her tyranny by stratagem. How I longed to tell you the truth! But I felt bound in honour to silence. Constance Bride, my friend and never anything more, agreed to the pretence of an engagement. Wasn't it brave of her? And so things went on, until the day when Dymchurch came down to Rivenoak, and proposed to May. The silly girl refused him. There was a terrible scene, such as I hope never to behold again. May was driven forth from the house, and Lady Ogram, just as she was bidding me take steps for my immediate marriage, fell to the ground unconscious-dying."

He paused impressively. The listener was panting as if she had run a race.

"And the will?" she asked.

"It dates from a year ago. May Tomalin is not mentioned in it. I, of course, have nothing."

Iris gazed at the floor. A little sound as of consternation had passed her lips, but she made no attempt to console the victim of destiny who sat with bowed head before her. After a brief silence, Lashmar told of the will as it concerned Constance Bride, insisting on the fact that she was a mere trustee of the wealth bequeathed to her. With a humorously doleful smile, he spoke of Lady Ogram's promise to defray his election expenses, and added that Miss Bride, in virtue of her trusteeship, would carry out this wish. Another exclamation sounded from the listener, this time one of joy.

"Well, that's something! I suppose the expenses are heavy, aren't they?"

"Oh, not very. But what's the use? Of course I withdraw."

He let his hand fall despondently. Again there was silence.

"And that is why you thought of taking poison?" asked Iris, with a quick glance at his lowering visage.

"Isn't it a good reason? All is over with me. If Lady Ogram had lived to make her new will, I should have been provided for. Now I am penniless and hopeless."

"But, if she had lived, you would have had to marry Miss Bride."

Dyce made a sorrowful gesture.

"No. She would never have consented, even if I could have brought myself to such a sacrifice. In any case, I was doomed."


Iris paused, biting her lip.

"You were going to say?"

"Only-that I suppose you would have been willing to marry that girl, the niece."

"I will answer you frankly." He spoke in the softest tone and his look had a touching candour. "You, better than anyone, know the nature of my ambition. You know it is not merely personal. One doesn't like to talk grandiloquently, but, alone with you, there is no harm in saying that I have a message for our time. We have reached a point in social and political evolution where all the advance of modern life seems to be imperilled by the growing preponderance of the multitude. Our need is of men who are born to guide and rule, and I feel myself one of these. But what can I do as long as I am penniless? And so I answer you frankly: yes, if May Tomalin had inherited Lady Ogram's wealth, I should have felt it my duly to marry her."

Iris listened without a smile. Lashmar had never spoken with a more convincing show of earnestness.

"What is she going to do?" asked the troubled little woman, her eyes cast down.

Dyce told all that he knew of May's position. He was then questioned as to the state of things political at Hollingford: his replies were at once sanguine and disconsolate.

"Well," he said at length, "I have done my best, but fortune is against me. In coming to see you, I discharged what I felt to be a duty. Let me again thank you for your generous kindness. Now I must work, work-"

He stood an image of noble sadness, of magnanimity at issue with cruel fate. Iris glanced timidly at him; her panting showed that she wished to speak, but could not. He offered his hand; Iris took it, but only for an instant.

"I want you to tell me something else," broke from her lips.

"I will tell you anything."

"Are you in love with that girl-Miss Tomalin?"

With sorrowful dignity, he shook his head; with proud self-consciousness, he smiled.

"Nor with Miss Bride?"

"I think of her exactly as if she were a man."

"If I told you that I very much wished you to do something, would you care to do it?"

"Your wish is for me a command," Dyce answered gently. "If it were not, I should be grossly ungrateful."

"Then promise to go through with the election. Your expenses are provided for. If you win, I am sure some way can be found of providing you with an income-I am sure it can!"

"It shall be as you wish," said Lashmar, seeming to speak with a resolute cheerfulness. "I will return to Hollingford by the first train to-morrow."

They talked for a few minutes more. Lashmar mentioned where he was going to pass the night. He promised to resume their long-interrupted correspondence, and to let his friend have frequent reports from Hollingford. Then they shook hands, and parted silently.

After dinner, Dyce strayed shorewards. He walked down to the little harbour, and out on to the jetty. A clouded sky had brought night fast upon sunset; green and red lamps shone from the lighthouse at the jetty head, and the wash of the rising tide sounded in darkness on either hand. Not many people had chosen this spot for their evening walk, but, as he drew near to the lighthouse, he saw the figure of a woman against the grey obscurity; she was watching a steamboat slowly making its way through the harbour mouth. He advanced, and at the sound of his nearing step the figure faced to him. There was just light enough to enable him to recognise Iris.

"You oughtn't to be here alone," he said.

"Oh, why not?" she replied with a laugh. "I'm old enough to take care of myself."

The wind had begun to moan; waves tide-borne against the jetty made a hollow booming, and at moments scattered spray.

"How black it is to-night!" Iris added. "It will rain. There! I felt a spot."

"Only a splash of sea-water, I think," replied Lashmar, standing close beside her.

Both gazed at the dark vast of sea and sky. A pair of ramblers approached them; a young man and a girl, talking loudly the tongue of lower London.

"I know a young lady," sounded in the feminine voice, "as 'as a keeper set with a di'mond and a hamethys-lovely!"

"Come away," said Dyce. "What a hateful place this is! How can you bear to be among such brutes?"

Iris moved on by him, but said nothing.

"I felt ashamed," he added, "to find you with people like the Barkers. Do you mean to say they don't disgust you?"

"They are not so bad as that," Iris weakly protested. "But you mustn't think I regard them as intimate friends. It's only that-I've been rather lonely lately. Len away at school-and several things-"

"Yes, yes, I understand. But they're no company for you. Do get away as soon as possible."

Another couple went by them talking loudly the same vernacular.

"If I put a book down for a day," said the young woman, "I forget all I've read. I've a hawful bad memory for readin'."

"How I loathe that class!" Lashmar exclaimed. "I never came to this part of the coast, because I knew it was defiled by them. For heaven's sake, get away t Go to some place where your ears won't be perpetually outraged. I can't bear to think of leaving you here."

"I'll go as soon as ever I can-I promise you," murmured Iris. "There! It really is beginning to rain. We must walk quickly."

"Will you take my arm?"

She did so, and they hurried on.

"That's the democracy," said Lashmar. "Those are the people for whom we are told that the world exists. They get money, and it gives them power. Meanwhile, the true leaders of mankind, as often as not, struggle through their lives in poverty and neglect."

Iris's voice sounded timidly.

"You would feel it of no use to have just enough for independence?"

"For the present," he replied, "it would be all I ask. But I might just as well ask for ten thousand a year."

The rain was beating upon them. During the ascent to Sunrise Terrace, neither spoke a word. At the door of her lodgings, Iris looked into her companion's face, and said in a tremulous voice:

"I am sure you will be elected! I'm certain of it!"

Dyce laughed, pressed her hand, and, as the door opened, walked away through the storm.

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