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   Chapter 29 No.29

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 19429

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

"When you receive this letter, you will have already seen the result. I knew how it would be, but tried to hope because you were hoping. My poll is better than that of the last Liberal candidate, but Hollingford remains a Tory stronghold. Shall I come to see you? I am worn out, utterly exhausted, and can scarcely hold the pen. Perhaps a few days at the sea-side would do me good, but what right have I to idle? If you would like me to come, please wire to Alverholme Rectory. Possibly you would rather I didn't bring my gloom, now you have Len with you and are enjoying yourself. Above all, be quite frank. If you are too disappointed to care to see me, in heaven's name, say so! You needn't fear its effect upon me. I should be glad to have done with the world, but I have duties to discharge. I wish you could have heard my last speech, there were good things in it. You shall see my address of thanks to those who voted for me; I must try to get it widely circulated, for, as you know, it has more than local importance. Breakspeare, good fellow, says that I have a great career before me; I grin, and can't tell him the squalid truth. There are many things I should like to speak about; my brain is feverishly active. I must try to rest; another twenty-four hours of this strain, and the results would be serious. In any case, wire to me-yes or no. If it is no, I shall say 'so be it,' and begin at once to look out for some way of earning bread and cheese. We shall be friends all the same."

Mrs. Woolstan was at Eastbourne. Having read Lashmar's letter, she brooded for a few minutes, then betook herself to the post-office, and telegraphed "Come at once." A few hours later she received a telegram informing her that Lashmar would reach Eastbourne at eleven o'clock on the next morning. At that hour, she waited in her lodgings on the sea-front. A cab drove up; Lashmar was shown into the room.

He looked, indeed, much the worse for his agitations. His hand was hot; he moved languidly, and seemed to be too tired to utter more than a few words.

"Are you alone?"

"Quite. Len is down on the shore, and won't be back till half-past one."

"Would you-mind-if I lay down-on the sofa?"

"Of course not," replied Iris, regarding him anxiously. "You're not ill, I hope?"

He took her hand, and pressed it against his forehead, with the most melancholy of smiles. Having dropped onto the couch, he beckoned Iris to take a chair beside him.

"What can I get for you?" she asked. "You must have some refreshment-"

"Sleep, sleep!" he moaned musically. "If I could but sleep a little!-But I have so much to say. Don't fuss; you know how I hate fuss. No, no, I don't want anything, I assure you. But I haven't slept for a week Give me your hand. How glad I am to see you again! So you still have faith in me? You don't despise me?"

"What nonsense!" said Iris, allowing him to hold her hand against his breast as he lay motionless, his eyes turned to the ceiling. "You must try again, that's all. At Hollingford, it was evidently hopeless."

"Yes. I made a mistake. If I could have stood as a Conservative, I should have carried all before me. It was Lady Ogram's quarrel with Robb which committed me to the other side."

Iris was silent, panting a little as if she suppressed words which had risen to her lips. He turned his head to look at her.

"Of course you understand that party names haven't the least meaning for me. By necessity, I wear a ticket, but it's a matter of total indifference to me what name it bears. My object has nothing to do with party politics. But for Lady Ogram's squabbles, I should at this moment be Member for Hollingford."

"But would it be possible?" asked Iris, with a flutter, "to call yourself a Conservative next time?"

"I have been thinking about that." He spoke absently, his eyes still upwards. "It is pretty certain that the Conservative side gives me more chance. It enrages me to think how I should have triumphed at Hollingford! I could have roused the place to such enthusiasm as it never knew! The great mistake of my life-but what choice had I? Lady Ogram was fatal to me."

He groaned, and let his eyelids droop.

"It is possible that, at the general election, a Liberal constituency may invite me. In that case, of course-" He broke off with a weary wave of the band. "But what's the use of thinking about it? I must look for work. Do you know, I have thoughts of going to New Zealand."

"Oh! That's nonsense!"

"Try to realise my position." He raised himself on his elbow. "After my life of the last few months, will it be very enjoyable to become a subordinate, to work for wages, to sink into obscurity? Does it seem to you natural? Do you think I shall be able to bear it?"

He had begun to quiver with excitement. As Iris kept silence, he rose to a sitting position, and continued more vehemently.

"Don't you understand that death would be preferable, a thousand times? Imagine me-me at the beck and call of paltry every-day people! Does it seem to you fitting that I should pay by such degradation for one or two trivial errors? How I shall bear it, I don't know; but bear it I must. I keep reminding myself that I am not a free man. If once I could pay my debt-"

"Oh, don't talk about that!" exclaimed Iris, on a note of distress. "What do I care about the money?"

"No, but I care about my honour!" cried Lashmar. "If I had won the election, all would have been different; my career would have begun. Do you know what I should have done in that case? I should have come to you, and have said: 'I am a Member of Parliament. It is to you that I owe this, more than to anyone else. Will you do yet more for me? Will you be my companion in the life upon which I am entering-share all my hopes-help me to conquer?'-That is what I meant to do. But I am beaten, and I can only ask you to have patience with your miserable debtor."

He let his face fall onto the head of the sofa, and shook with emotion. There was a short silence, then Iris, her cheeks flushing, lightly touched his hair. At once he looked up, gazed into her face.

"What! You still believe in me? Enough for that?"

"Yes," replied Iris, her eyes down, and her bosom fluttering. "Enough for that."

"Ah! But be careful-think!" He looked at her with impressive sadness. "Your friends will tell you that you are marrying a penniless adventurer. Have you the courage to face all that kind of thing?"

"I know you better than my friends do," replied Iris, taking in both her own the hand he held to her. "My fear," she added, again dropping her eyes and fluttering, "is that you will some day repent."

"Never! Never! It would be the blackest ingratitude!"

He spoke so fervently that the freckled face became rosy with joy. It was so near to his, that the man in him claimed warmer tribute, and Iris grew rosier still.

"Haven't you always loved me a little?" she whispered.

"If I had only known it!" answered Lashmar, the victor's smile softened with self-reproach. "My ambition has much to answer for. Forgive me, Iris."

"There's something else I must say, dear," she murmured. "After all, I have so little-and there is Len, you know-"

"Why, of course. Do you imagine I should wish to rob him?"

"No, no, no!" she panted. "But it is such a small income, after all. I'm afraid we ought to-to be careful, at first-"

"Of course we must. We shall live as simply as possible. And then, you mustn't suppose that I shall never earn money. It's only waiting for one's opportunity."

A silence fell between them. Lashmar's amorous countenance had an under-note of thoughtfulness; Iris, smiling blissfully, none the less reflected.

"What are you thinking of?" he asked, gently.

"Only how happy I am. I haven't the slightest fear. I know you have great things before you. Of course we must make use of our friends. May I write to Mrs. Toplady, and tell her?"

She spoke without looking at him, and so was spared the interpretation of muscular twitches.

"Certainly. Do you know whether she is still in London?"

"I don't know, but probably not. Don't you think she may be very useful to us? I have always found her very nice and kind, and she knows such hosts of people."

Lashmar had his own thoughts about Mrs. Toplady, but the advantage of her friendship was undeniable. Happily, he had put it out of her power to injure him by any revelations she might make concerning May Tomalin; his avowal to Iris that May had been undisguisedly in love with him would suffice to explain anything she might hear about the tragi-comedy at Rivenoak. Whether the lady of Pont Street could be depended upon for genuine good will, was a question that must remain unsettled until he had seen her again. She had bidden him to call upon her, at all events, and plainly it would be advisable to do so as soon as possible.

"Yes," he answered, reflectively. "She is a person to be reckoned with. It's possible her advice might be worth something in the difficulty about Liberal or Conservative. She is intelligent enough, I think, to understand me on that point. Yes, you might write to her at once. If I were you, I would speak quite frankly. You know her well enough for that, don't you?"

"Frankly? How?"

"Oh, I mean that you might say we have really been fond of each other for a long time-and that-well, that fate has brought us together in spite of everything that kind of thing, you know."

"Yes, yes!" exclaimed Iris. "That's just what I should like to say."

Their talk grew calmly practical; the last half hour of it was concerned with pecuniary detail. Her eye on the clock-for Leonard was sure to enter very s

oon-Mrs. Woolstan gave a full account of her income, enumerating the securities which were in the hands of her trustee, Mr. Wrybolt, and those which she had under her own control. In the event of her re-marriage, Mr. Wrybolt's responsibility came to an end, a circumstance very pleasing to Lashmar. When the schoolboy interrupted them, their conversation was by no means finished. After a cheerful lunch, they resumed it on the sea-shore, Leonard being sent off to amuse himself as he would. By tea-time, it had been agreed that Lashmar should at once give up his expensive London rooms, and come down to Eastbourne, to recruit his health and enjoy Iris's society, until Leonard went back to school. The house at West Hampstead should be their home for the first twelvemonth; by that time they would see how things were going, and be able to make plans. Early in the evening, Lashmar took a train for town.

At his lodgings he found several letters; two of them were important. Constance Bride's handwriting indicated the envelope to be first torn open. She wrote concisely and with her usual clearness. The ill news from Hollingford had been a grief to her, but it was very satisfactory to see that Lashmar had reduced the Conservative majority. "You have gained some very useful experience, which I hope you may before long have an opportunity of using. Please send me a statement of the election expenses as soon as you can; you remember the understanding between us in that matter. I am soon leaving England for a few weeks, but a letter directed as above will always reach me." The address referred to was that of a well-known Society for Social Reform in the west of London.

His hand tremulous with the anger which this curt epistle had excited, Lashmar broke an envelope on the flap of which was printed in red letters the Pont Street address so familiar to him. Mrs. Toplady wrote more at length; she took the trouble to express her disappointment at the result of the Hollingford election in courteously rounded terms-"Our dear old friend of Rivenoak would have found some apt phrase to describe such a man as Butterworth. Wasn't she good at that kind of thing! How I have laughed to hear her talk of the late lamented Robb! You have the satisfaction of knowing that you got more votes than any Liberal has done at Hollingford for many years so the papers tell me. In fact, you have made a very good start indeed, and I am sure the eye of the party will be on you."

Lashmar glowed. He had not expected such words from Mrs. Toplady. After all, Iris had given him good advice. Who knew but this woman might be more useful to him than Lady Ogram had been?

"Do you care for news of Miss Tomalin?" the latter continued. "After spending two or three days with me, she grew restless, and took rooms for herself. I am afraid, to tell you the truth, that she is a little disappointing; it is perhaps quite as well that a certain romantic affair which was confided to me came to nothing. A week after she left my house, I received a very stiff (not to say impertinent) letter, in which the young lady informed me that she was about to marry a Mr. Yabsley of Northampton, a man (to quote her words) 'of the highest powers and with a brilliant future already assured to him.' This seemed to me, I confess, a little sudden, but at least it had the merit of being amusing. Perhaps I may venture to hope that you are already quite consoled? Remember me, I beg, to Miss Bride. Are you likely to be in this part of the world during the holidays? If anywhere near, do come and see me, and we will talk about that striking philosophical theory of yours."

Lashmar bit his lip. All at once he saw Mrs. Toplady's smile, and it troubled him. None the less did he ponder her letter, re-reading it several times. Presently he mused with uneasiness on the fact that Iris might even now be writing to Mrs. Toplady. Would her interest in him-she seemed indeed to be genuinely interested survive the announcement that, after all, he was not going to marry Constance Bride, but had declined upon an insignificant little widow with a few hundreds a year? Was not this upshot of his adventures too beggarly? Had Mrs. Toplady been within easy reach, he would have gone to see her; but she wrote from the north of Scotland. He could only await the result of Iris's letter.

To the news concerning May Tomalin, he gave scarcely a thought. Mr. Yabsley, of Northampton!

Exceeding weariness sank him for a few hours in sleep; but before dawn he was tossing again on the waves of miserable doubt. Why had he not waited a little before going to see Iris? If only he had received this letter of Mrs. Toplady in time, it would have checked him-or so he thought. Was it the malice of fate which had ordained that, on his way to Eastbourne, he should not have troubled to look in at his lodgings? How many such wretched accidents he could recall! Was he, instead of being fortune's favourite, simply a poor devil hunted by ill luck, doomed to lose every chance? Why not he as well as another? Such men abound.

He had not yet taken the irretrievable step. Until he was actually married, a hope remained to him. He might postpone the fatal day; his purse was not yet empty. Why should he be too strict in the report of his election expenses to Constance? Every pound in his pocket meant a prolongation of liberty, a new horizon of the possible-

Two days later he was back again at Eastbourne. He had taken a cheap little lodging, and yielded himself to sea-side indolence. A week passed, then Iris heard from Mrs. Toplady. She did not at once show Lashmar the letter; she awaited a moment when he was lulled by physical comfort into a facile and sanguine humour.

"Mrs. Toplady must have been in a hurry when she wrote this," was her remark, as, with seeming carelessness, she produced the letter. "Of course she has an enormous correspondence. I shall hear again from her, no doubt, before long."

One side only of the note-paper was covered. In formal phrase, the writer said that she was glad to hear of her friend's engagement, and wished her all happiness. Not a word about their future meeting; not an allusion to Lashmar's prospects. If Iris had announced her coming marriage with some poor clerk, Mrs. Toplady could not have written less effusively.

"There's an end of her interest in me," Dyce remarked, with a nervous shrug.

Iris protested, and did her best to put another aspect on the matter, but without success. For twenty-four hours, Lashmar kept away from her; she, offended, tried to disregard his absence, but at length sped to make inquiries, fearful lest he should be driven to despair. At the murky end of a wet evening, they paced the esplanade together.

"You don't love me," said Iris, on a sob.

"It is because I love you," he replied, glooming, "that I can't bear to think of you married to such a luckless fellow as I am."

"Dearest!" she whispered. "Am I ruining you? Do you wish to be free again? Tell me the truth; I think I can bear it."

The next day saw them rambling in sunshine, Lashmar amorous and resigned, Iris flutteringly hopeful. And with such alternations did the holiday go by. When Leonard returned to school, their marriage was fixed for ten days later.

Shortly before leaving Eastbourne, Iris had written to Mr. Wrybolt. Already they had corresponded on the subject of her marriage; this last letter, concerning a point of business which required immediate attention, remained without reply. Puzzled by her trustee's silence, Iris, soon after she reached home, went to see him at his City Office. She learnt that Mr. Wrybolt was out of town, but would certainly return in a day or two.

Again she wrote. Again she waited in vain for a reply. On a dull afternoon near the end of September, as she sat thinking of Lashmar and resolutely seeing him in the glorified aspect dear to her heart and mind, the servant announced Mr. Barker. This was the athletic young man in whose company she had spent some time at Gorleston before Lashmar's coming. His business lay in the City; he knew Mr. Wrybolt, and through him had made Mrs. Woolstan's acquaintance. The face with which he entered the drawing-room portended something more than a friendly chat. Iris had at one time thought that this young man felt disposed to offer her marriage; was that his purpose now, and did it account for his odd look?

"I want to ask you," Mr. Barker began, abruptly, "whether you know anything about Wrybolt? Have you heard from him lately?"

Iris replied that she herself wished to hear of that gentleman, who did not answer her letters, and was said to be out of town.

"That's so, is it?" exclaimed the young man, with a yet stranger look on his face. "You really have no idea where he is?"

"None whatever. And I particularly want to see him."

"So do I," said Mr. Barker, smiling grimly. "So do several people. You'll excuse me, I hope, Mrs. Woolstan. I knew he was a friend of yours, and thought you might perhaps know more about him than we did in the City. I mustn't stay."

Iris stared at him as he rose. A vague alarm began to tremble in her mind.

"You don't mean that anything's wrong?" she panted.

"We'll hope not, but it looks queer."

"Oh!" cried Iris. "He has money of mine. He is my trustee."

"I know that. Please excuse me; I really mustn't stay."

"Oh, but tell me, Mr. Barker!" She clutched at his coat sleeve. "Is my money in danger?"

"I can't say, but you certainly ought to look after it. Get someone to make inquiries at once; that's my advice. I really must go."

He disappeared, leaving Iris motionless in amazement and terror.

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