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   Chapter 30 No.30

Our Friend the Charlatan By George Gissing Characters: 14871

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


The wedding was to be a very quiet one. Lashmar would have preferred the civil ceremony, at the table of the registrar, with musty casuals for witnesses; but Iris shrank from this. It must be at a church, and with a few friends looking on, or surely people would gossip. Had he been marrying an heiress, Dyce would have called for pomp and circumstance, with portraits in the fashion papers, and every form of advertisement which society has contrived. As it was, he desired to slink through the inevitable. He was ashamed; he was confounded; and only did not declare it. To the very eve of the wedding-day, his mind ferreted elusive hopes. Had men and gods utterly forsaken him? In solitude, he groaned and gnashed his teeth. And no deliverance came.

Reaction made him at times the fervent lover, and these interludes supported Iris's courage. "Let it once be over!" she kept saying to herself. She trusted in her love and in her womanhood.

"At all events," cried the bridegroom, "we needn't go through the foolery of running away to hide ourselves. It's only waste of money."

But Iris pleaded for the honeymoon. People would think it so strange if they went straight from church to their home at West Hampstead. And would not a few autumn weeks of Devon be delightful? Again he yielded.

The vicar of Alverholme and his wife, when satisfied that Dyce's betrothed was a respectable person, consented to be present at the marriage. Not easily did Mrs. Lashmar digest her bitter disappointment, which came so close upon that of Dyce's defeat at Hollingford; but she was a practical woman, and, in the state of things at Alverholme, six hundred a year seemed to her not altogether to be despised.

"My fear was," she remarked one day to her husband, "that Dyce would be tempted to marry money. I respect him for the choice he has made; it shows character."

The vicar just gave a glance of surprise, but said nothing. Every day made him an older man in look and bearing. His head was turning white. He had begun to mutter to himself as he walked about the parish. Not a man in England who worried more about his own affairs and those of the world.

In an obscure lodging, Dyce awaited the day of destiny. One evening he went to dine at West Hampstead; though he was rather late, Iris had not yet come home, and she had left no message to explain her absence. He waited a quarter of an hour. When at length his betrothed came hurrying into the room, she wore so strange a countenance that Dyce could not but ask what had happened. Nothing, nothing-she declared. It was only that she had been obliged to hurry so, and was out of breath, and-and-. Whereupon she tottered to a chair, death-pale, all but fainting.

"What the devil is the matter with you?" cried Lashmar, whose over-strong nerves could not endure this kind of thing.

His violence had an excellent effect. Iris recovered herself, and came towards him with hands extended.

"It's nothing at all, dearest. I couldn't bear to keep you waiting, and fretted myself into a fever when I saw what time it was. Don't be angry with me, will you?"

Dyce was satisfied. It seemed to him a very natural explanation; a caress put him into his gracious mood.

"After all, you know," he said, "you're a very womanly woman. I think we shall have to give up pretending that you're not."

"But I've given it up long since!" Iris exclaimed, with large eyes. "Didn't you know that?"

"I'm not sure-" he laughed-"that I'm not glad of it."

And they passed a much more tranquil evening than usual. Iris seemed tired; she sat with her head on Dyce's shoulder, thrilling when his lips touched her hair. He had assured her that her hair was beautiful-that he had always admired its hue of the autumn elm-leaf. Her face, too, he was beginning to find pretty, and seldom did he trouble to reflect that she was seven years older than he.

Already he regarded this house as his own. His books had been transferred hither, and many of his other possessions. Very carefully had Iris put out of sight or got rid of, everything which could remind him of her former marriage. Certain things (portraits and the like) which must be preserved for Leonard's sake were locked away in the boy's room. Of course Lashmar had given her no presents; she, on the other hand, had been very busy in furnishing a study which should please him, buying the pictures and ornaments he liked, and many expensive books of which he said that he had need. Into this room Dyce was not allowed to peep; it waited as a surprise for him on the return from the honeymoon. Drawing-room and dining-room he trod as master, and often felt that, after all, a man could be very comfortable here for a year or two. A box of good cigars invited him after dinner. A womanly woman, the little mistress of the house; and, all things considered, he couldn't be sure that he wasn't glad of it.

One more day only before that of the wedding. Dyce had been on the point of asking whether all the business with Wrybolt was satisfactorily settled; but delicacy withheld him. Really, there was nothing to do; Iris's money simply passed into her own hands on the event of her marriage. It would be time enough to talk of such things presently.

They spent nearly all the last day together. Iris was in the extremity of nervousness; she looked as if she had not slept for two or three nights; often she hid her face against Dyce's shoulder, and shook as if sobbing, but no tears followed.

"Do you love me?" she asked, again and again. "Do you really, really love me?"

"But you know I do," Dyce answered, at length irritably. "How many times must I tell you? It's all very well to be womanly, but don't be womanish."

"You're not sorry you're going to marry me?"

"You're getting hysterical, and I can't stand that."

Hysterical she became as soon as Lashmar had left her. One of the two servants, looking into the dressing-room before going to bed, saw her lying, half on the floor, half against the sofa, in a lamentable state. She wailed incoherent phrases.

"I can't help it-too late-I can't, can't help it oh! oh!"

Unobserved, the domestic drew back, and went to gossip with her fellow-servant of this strange incident.

The hours drove on. Lashmar found himself at the church, accompanied by his father, his mother, his old friend the Home Office clerk. They waited the bride's coming; she was five minutes late, ten minutes late; but came at last. With her were two ladies, kinsfolk of hers. Had Iris risen from a sick bed to go through this ceremony, she could not have shown a more disconcerting visage. But she held herself up before the altar. The book was opened; the words of fate were uttered; the golden circlet slipped onto her trembling hand; and Mrs. Dyce Lashmar passed forth upon her husband's arm to the carriage that awaited them.

A week went by. They were staying at Dawlish, and Lashmar, who had quite come round to his wife's opinion on the subject of the honeymoon, cared not how long these days of contented indolence lulled his ambitious soul; at times he was even touched by the devotion which repaid his sacrifice. A certain timidity which clung to Iris, a tremulous solicitude which marked her behaviour to him, became her, he thought, very well indeed. Constance Bride was right; he could not have been thus at his ease with a woman capable of reading his thoughts,

and of criticising them. He talked at large of his prospects, which took a hue from the halcyon sea and sky.

One morning they had strolled along the cliffs, and in a sunny hollow they sat down to rest. Dyce took from his pocket a newspaper he had bought on coming forth.

"Let us see what fools are doing," he said genially.

Iris watched him with uneasy eye. The sight of a newspaper was dreadful to her: yet she always eagerly scanned those that came under her notice. Lying now on the dry turf, she was able to read one page whilst Dyce occupied himself with another. Of a sudden she began to shake; then a half-stifled cry escaped her.

"What is it?" asked her husband, startled.

"Oh, look, Dyce! Look at this!"

She pointed him to a paragraph headed: "Disappearance of a City Man." When Lashmar had read it, he met his wife's anguished look with surprise and misgiving.

"You've had a precious narrow escape. Of course this is nothing to you, now?"

"Oh but I'm afraid it is-I'm afraid it is, Dyce-"

"What do you mean? Didn't you get everything out of his hands?"

"I thought it was safe-I left it till we were back at home-"

Lashmar started to his feet, pale as death.

"What? Then all your money is lost?"

"Oh, surely not? How can it be? We must make inquiries at once-"

"Inquiries? Inquiries enough have been made, you may depend upon it, before this got into the papers. Why, read! The fellow has bolted; the police are after him; he has robbed and swindled right and left. Do you imagine your money has escaped his clutches?"

They stood face to face.

"Dear, don't be angry with me!" sounded from Iris in a choking voice. "I am not to blame-I couldn't help it-oh don't look at me like that, dear husband!"

"But you have been outrageously careless! What right had you to expose us to this danger? Ass that I was ass, ass that I was! I wanted to speak of it, and my cursed delicacy prevented me. What right had you to behave so idiotically?"

He set off at a great speed towards Dawlish. Iris ran after him, caught his arm, clung to him.

"Where are you going? You won't leave me?"

"I'm going to London, of course," was his only reply, as he strode on.

Running by his side, Iris told with broken breath of the offer of marriage she had received from Wrybolt not long ago. She understood now why he wished to marry her; no doubt he already found himself in grave difficulties, and saw this as a chance either of obtaining money, or of concealing a fraud he had already practised at her expense.

"Why didn't you fell me that before?" cried Lashmar, savagely. "What right had you to keep it from me?"

"I ought to have told you. Oh, do forgive me! Don't walk so quickly, Dyce! I haven't the strength to keep up with you.-You know that he hadn't everything-most fortunately not everything-"

With an exclamation of wrathful contempt, the man pursued his way. Iris fell back; she tottered; she sank to her knee upon the grass, moaning, sobbing. Only when he was fifty yards ahead did Dyce pause and look back. Already she was running after him again. He turned, and walked less quickly. At length there was a touch upon his arm.

"Dear-dear-don't you love me?" panted a scarce audible voice.

"Don't be a greater idiot than you have been already," was his fierce reply. "I have to get to London, and look after your business; that's enough to think about just now."

In less than an hour they had taken train. By early evening they reached Paddington Station, whence they set forth to call upon the person whom Iris mentioned as most likely to be able to inform them concerning Wrybolt. It was the athletic Mr. Barker, who dwelt with his parents at Highgate. An interview with this gentleman, who was caught at dinner, put an end to the faint hopes Lashmar had tried to entertain. Wrybolt, said Barker, was not a very interesting criminal; the frauds he had perpetrated were not great enough to make his case sensational; but there could be no shadow of doubt that he had turned his trusteeship to the best account.

"He has nothing but his skin to pay with," added the young City man, "and I wouldn't give much for that. Don't distress yourself, Mrs. Lashmar; I know a lady who is let in worse than you-considerably worse."

The newly-married couple made their way to West Hampstead. The servant who had been left in charge of the house did not conceal her surprise as she admitted them. It was nearly ten o'clock in the evening.

"I suppose we must have something to eat," said Dyce, sullenly.

"You must be very hungry," Iris answered, regarding him like a frightened but affectionate dog that eyes its master. "Jane shall get something at once."

They sat down to such a supper as could be prepared at a moment's notice. By good fortune, a bottle of claret had been found, and, excepting one glass, which his wife thankfully swallowed, Lashmar drank it all. At an ordinary time, this excess would have laid him prostrate; in the present state of his nerves, it did him nothing but good; a healthier hue mantled on his cheeks, and he began to look furtively at Iris with eyes which had lost their evil expression. She, so exhausted that she could scarce support herself on the chair, timidly met these glances, but as yet no word was spoken.

"Why haven't you eaten anything?" asked Dyce at length, breaking the silence with a voice which was almost natural.

"I have, dear."

"Yes, a bit of bread. Come, eat! You'll be ill if you don't."

She tried to obey. Tears began to trickle down her face.

"What's the use of going on like that?" Lashmar exclaimed, petulantly rather than in anger. "You're tired to death. If you really can't eat anything, better go to bed. We shall see how things look in the morning."

Iris rose and came towards him.

"Thank you, dear, for speaking so kindly. I don't deserve it."

"Oh, we won't say anything about that," he replied, with an air of generosity. Then, laughing, "Aren't you going to show me the study?"

"Dyce! I haven't the heart."

She began to weep in earnest.

"Nonsense! Let us go and look at it. I'll carry the lamp."

They left the room, and Iris, struggling with her tears, led the way to the study door. As he entered Dyce gave an exclamation of pleasure. The little room was furnished and adorned very tastefully; hook-shelves, with all Lashmar's own books carefully arranged, and many new volumes added, made a pleasant show; a handsome writing-table and chair seemed to invite to penwork.

"I could have done something here," Dyce remarked, with a nodding of the head.

Iris came nearer. Timidly she laid a hand upon his shoulder; appealingly she gazed into his face.

"Dear"-it was a just audible whisper-"you are so clever-you are so far above ordinary men-"

Lashmar smiled. His arm fell lightly about her waist. "We have still nearly two hundred pounds a year," the whisper continued. "There's Len-but I must take him from school-"

"Pooh! We'll talk about that."

A cry of gratitude escaped her.

"Dyce! How good you are! How bravely you hear it, my own dear husband. I'll do anything, anything! We needn't have a servant. I'll work-I don't care anything if you still love me. Say you still love me!"

He kissed her hair.

"It's certain I don't hate you.-Well, we'll see how things look to-morrow. Who knows? It may be the real beginning of my career!"

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