* I am deeply indebted to Olivier Lefevre, who have meticulously read the proof of this e-text.
It was a week after the departure of Dyce Lashmar. Lady Ogram had lived in agitation, a state which she knew to be the worst possible for her health. Several times she had taken long drives to call upon acquaintances, a habit suspended during the past twelvemonth; it exhausted her, but she affected to believe that the air and movement did her good, and met with an outbreak of still more dangerous choler the remonstrances which her secretary at length ventured to make. On the day following this characteristic scene, Constance was at work in the library, when the door opened, and Lady Ogram came in. Walking unsteadily, a grim smile on her parchment visage, she advanced and stood before the writing-table.
"I made a fool of myself yesterday," sounded in a hollow voice, of tremulous intonation. "Is it enough for me to say so?"
"Much more than I like to hear you say, Lady Ogram," answered Constance, hastening to place a chair for her. "I have been afraid that something had happened which troubled you."
"Nothing at all. The contrary. Look at that photo, and tell me what you think of it."
It was the portrait of a girl with features finely outlined, but rather weak in expression; a face pleasant to look upon, and at the first glance possessing a quality of distinction, which tended however to fade as the eye searched for its constituents, and to lose itself in an ordinary prettiness.
"I was going to say," began Constance, "that it seemed to remind me of --"
"Well? Of what?"
"Of your own portrait in the dining-room. Yes, I think there is a resemblance, though far-away."
Lady Ogram smiled with pleasure. The portrait referred to was a painting made of her soon after her marriage, when she was in the prime of her beauty; not good as a work of art, and doing much less than justice to the full-blooded vigour of the woman as she then lived, but still a picture that drew the eye and touched the fancy.
"No doubt you are right. This girl is a grand-niece of mine, my brother's son's daughter. I only heard of her a week ago. She is coming to see me."
Constance now understood the significance of Mr. Kerchever's visit, and the feverish state of mind in which Lady Ogram had since been living. She felt no touch of sympathetic emotion, but smiled as if the announcement greatly interested her; and in a sense it did.
"I can quite understand your impatience to see her."
"Yes, but one shouldn't make a fool of oneself. An old fool's worse than a young one. Don't think I build my hopes on the girl. I wrote to her, and she has written to me -- not a bad sort of letter; but I know nothing about her, except that she has been well enough educated to pass an examination at London University. That means something, I suppose, doesn't it?"
"Certainly it does," answered Constance, noting a pathetic self-subdual in the old lady's look and tone. "For a girl, it means a good deal."
"You think so?" The bony hands were restless and tremulous; the dark eyes glistened. "It isn't quite ordinary, is it? But then, of course, it tells nothing about her character. She is coming to stay for a day or two coming on Saturday. If I don't like her, no harm's done. Back she goes to her people, that's all -- her mother's family -- I know nothing about them, and care less. At all events, she looks endurable -- don't you think?"
"Much more than that," said Constance. "A very nice girl, I should imagine."
"Ha! You mean that? -- Of course you do, or you wouldn't say it. But then, if she's only a 'nice girl' -- pooh! She ought to be more than that. What's the use of a photograph? Every photo ever taken of me made me look a simpering idiot."
This was by no means true, but Lady Ogram had always been a bad sitter to the camera, and had destroyed most of its results. The oil painting in the dining-room she regarded with a moderate complacency. Many a time during the latter years of withering and enfeeblement her memory had turned to that shining head in marble, which was hidden away amid half a century's dust under the roof at Rivenoak. There, and there only, survived the glory of her youth, when not the face alone, but all her faultless body made the artist's rapture.
"Well," she said, abruptly, "you'll see the girl. Her name is May Tomalin. You're not obliged to like her. You're not obliged to tell me what you think of her. Most likely I shan't ask you. -- By the bye, I had a letter from Dyce Lashmar this morning."
"Indeed?" said the other, with a careless smile.
"I like his way of writing. It's straight-forward and sharp-cut, like his talk. A man who means what he says, and knows how to say it; that's a great deal nowadays."
Constance assented with all good-humour to Lady Ogram's praise.
"You must answer him for me," the old lady continued. "No need, of course, to show me what you write; just put it into a letter of your own."
"I hardly think I shall be writing to Mr. Lashmar," said Miss Bride, very quietly.
"Do you mean that?"
Their eyes met' and Constance bore the other's gaze without flinching.
"We are not such great friends, Lady Ogram. You will remember I told you that I knew him but slightly."
"All right. It has nothing to do with me, whether you're friends or not. You can answer as my secretary, I suppose?"
And Lady Ogram, with her uncertain, yet not undignified, footfall, went straightway from the room. There was a suspicion of needless sound as the door closed behind her.
Constance sat for a minute or two in a very rigid attitude, displeasure manifest on her lips. She did not find it easy to get to work again, and when the time came for her bicycle ride, she was in no mind for it, but preferred to sit over a book. At luncheon Lady Ogram inclined to silence. Later in the day, however, they met on the ordinary terms of mutual understanding, and Constance, after speaking of other things, asked whether she should write Lady Ogram's reply to Mr. Lashmar.
"Mr. Lashmar? Oh, I have written to him myself," said the old lady, as if speaking of a matter without importance.
Three days went by, and it was Saturday. Lady Ogram came down earlier than usual this morning, but did not know how to occupy herself; she fretted at the rainy sky which kept her within doors; she tried to talk with her secretary of an important correspondence they had in hand (it related to a projected society for the invigoration of village life), but her thoughts were too obviously wandering. Since that dialogue in the library, not a word regarding Miss Tomalin had escaped her; all at once she said:
"My niece is due here at four this afternoon. I want you to be with me when she comes into the room. You won't forget that?"
Never before had Constance seen the old autocrat suffering from nervousness; it was doubtful whether anyone at any time had enjoyed the privilege. Strange to say, this abnormal state of things did not irritate Lady Ogram's temper; she was remarkably mild, and for once in her life seemed to feel it no indignity to stand in need of moral support. Long before the time for Miss Tomalin's arrival, she established herself on her throne amid the drawing-room verdure. Constance tried to calm her by reading aloud, but this the old lady soon found unendurable.
"I wonder whether the train will be late?" she said. "No doubt it will; did you ever know a train punctual? It may be half an hour late. The railways are scandalously managed. They ought to be taken over by the government."
"I don't think that would improve matters," said the secretary, glad of a discussion to relieve the tedium. She too was growing nervous.
"Nonsense! Of course it would."
Constance launched into argument, and talked for talking's sake. She knew that her companion was not listening.
"It's four o'clock," exclaimed Lady Ogram presently. "There may be an accident with the brougham. Leggatt sometimes drives very carelessly --" no more prudent coachman existed -- "and the state of the roads about here is perfectly scandalous" -- they were as good roads as any in England. "What noise was that?"
"I heard nothing."
"I've often noticed that you are decidedly dull of hearing. Has it always been so? You ought to consult a what are the men called who see to one's ears?"
Lady Ogram was growing less amiable, and with much ado Constance restrained herself from a tart reply. Three minutes more, and the atmosphere of the room would have become dangerously electric. But before two minutes had elapsed, the door opened, and a colourless domestic voice announced:
There entered very much the kind of figure that Constance had expected to see; a young lady something above the middle height, passably, not well, dressed, moving quickly and not ungracefully, but with perceptible lack of that self-possession which is the social testimonial. She wore a new travelling costume, fawn-coloured, with a slightly inappropriate hat (too trimmy), and brown shoes which over-asserted themselves. Her collar was of the upright sort, just turned down at the corners; her tie, an ill-made little bow of red. About her neck hung a pair of eye-g]asses; at her wrist were attached a silver pencil-case and a miniature ivory paper-knife. The face corresponded fairly well with its photographic presentment so long studied by Lady Ogram, and so well remembered by Constance Bride; its colour somewhat heightened and the features mobile under nervous stress, it offered a more noticeable resemblance to that ancestral portrait in the dining-room.
Lady Ogram had risen; she took a tremulous step or two from the throne, and spoke in a voice much more senile than its wont.
"I am glad to see you, May -- glad to see you! This is my friend and secretary, Miss Bride, whom I mentioned to you."
Constance and the new-comer bowed, hesitated, shook hands. Miss Tomalin had not yet spoken; she was smiling timidly, and casting quick glances about the room.
"You had an easy journey, I hope," said Miss Bride, aware that the old lady was sinking breathless and feeble into her chair.
"Oh, it was nothing at all."
Miss Tomalin's utterance was not markedly provincial, but distinct from that of the London drawing-room; the educated speech of the ubiquitous middle-class, with a note of individuality which promised to command itself better in a few minutes. The voice was pleasantly clear.
"You had no difficulty in finding the carriage?" said Lady Ogram, speaking with obvious effort.
"Oh, none whatever, thank you! So kind of you to send it for me."
"I wanted to see you for a moment, as soon as you arrived. Now they shall take you to your room. Come down again as soon as you like; we will have tea."
"Thank you; that will be very nice."
Miss Tomalin stood up, looked at the plants and flowers about her, and added in a voice already more courageous:
"What a charming room! Green is so good for the eyes."
"Are your eyes weak?" inquired Lady Ogram, anxiously.
"Oh, not really weak," was the rapid answer (Miss Tomalin spoke more quickly as she gained confidence), "I use glasses when I am studying or at the piano, but they're not actually necessary. Still, I have been advised to be careful. Of course I read a great deal."
There was a spontaneity, a youthful vivacity, in her manner, which saved it from the charge of conceit; she spoke with a naive earnestness pleasantly relieved by the smile in her grey eyes and by something in the pose of her head which suggested a latent modesty.
"I know you are a great student," said Lady Ogram, regarding her amiably. "But run and take off your hat, and come back to tea."
She and Constance sat together, silent. They did not exchange glances.
"Well?" sounded at length from the throne, a tentative monosyllable.
Constance looked up. She saw that Lady Ogram was satisfied, happy.
"I'm glad Miss Tomalin was so punctual," was all she could find to say.
"So am I. But we were talking about your deafness: you must have it seen to. Young people nowadays! They can't hear, they can't see, they have no teeth --"
"Miss Tomalin, I noticed, has excellent teeth."
"She takes after me in that. Her eyes, too, are good enough, but she has worn them out already. She'll have to stop that reading; I am not going to have her blind at thirty. She didn't seem to be deaf, did she?"
"No more than I am, Lady Ogram."
"You are not deaf? Then why did you say you were?"
"It was you, not I, that said so," answered Constance, with a laugh.
"And what do you think of her?" asked Lady Ogram sharply.
"I think her interesting," was Miss Bride's reply, the word bearing a sense to her own thought not quite identical with that which it conveyed to the hearer.
"So do I. She's very young, but none the worse for that. You think her interesting. So do I."
Constance noticed that Lady Ogram's talk to-day had more of the characteristics of old age than ordinarily, as though, in her great satisfaction, the mind relaxed and the tongue inclined to babble. Though May was absent less than a quarter of an hour, the old lady waxed impatient.
"I hope she isn't a looking-glass girl. But no, that doesn't seem likely. Of course young people must think a little about dress -- Oh, here she comes at last."
Miss Tomalin had made no change of dress, beyond laying aside her hat and jacket. One saw now that she had plenty of light brown hair, naturally crisp and easily lending itself to effective arrangement; it was coiled and plaited on the top of her head, and rippled airily above her temples. The eyebrows were darker of hue, and accentuated the most expressive part of her physiognomy, for when she smiled it was much more the eyes than the lips which drew attention.
"Come and sit here, May," said Lady Ogram, indicating a chair near the throne. "You're not tired? You don't easily get tired, I hope?"
"Oh, not very easily. Of course I make a point of physical exercise; it is a part of rational education."
"Do you cycle?" asked Constance.
"Indeed I do! The day before yesterday I rode thirty miles. Not scorching, you know; that's weak-minded."
Lady Ogram seemed to be reflecting as to whether she was glad or not that her relative rode the bicycle. She asked whether May had brought her machine.
"No," was the airy reply, "I'm not a slave to it."
The other nodded approval, and watched May as she manipulated a tea-cup. Talk ran on trivialities for a while; the new-comer still cast curious glances about the room, and at moments stole a quick observation of her companions. She was not entirely at ease; self-consciousness appeared in a furtive change of attitude from time to time; it might have been remarked, too, that she kept a guard upon her phrasing and even her pronunciation, emphasising certain words with a sort of academic pedantry. Perhaps it was this which caused Lady Ogram to ask at length whether she still worked for examinations.
"No, I have quite given that up," May replied, with an air of well-weighed finality. "I found that it led to one-sidedness -- to narrow aims. It's all very well when one is very young. I shouldn't like to restrict my study in that way now. The problems of modern life are so full of interest. There are so many books that it is a duty to read, a positive duty. And one finds so much practical work."
"What sort of work?"
"In the social direction. I take a great interest in the condition of the poor."
"Really?" exclaimed Lady Ogram. "What do you do?"
"We have a little society for extending civilisation among the ignorant and the neglected. Just now we are trying to teach them how to make use of the free library, to direct their choice of books. I must tell you that a favourite study of mine is Old English, and I'm sure it would be so good if our working classes could be brought to read Chaucer and Langland and Wycliffe and so on. One can't expect them to study foreign languages, but these old writers would serve them for a philological training, which has such an excellent effect on the mind. I know a family -- shockingly poor living, four of them, in two rooms -- who have promised me to give an hour every Sunday to 'Piers the Plowman' -- I have made them a present of the little Clarendon Press edition, which has excellent notes Presently, I shall set them a little examination paper -- very simple, of course."
Miss Bride's countenance was a study of subdued expression. Lady Ogram -- who probably had never heard of 'Piers the Plowman' -- glanced inquiringly at her secretary, and seemed to suspend judgment.
"We, too, take a good deal of interest in that kind of thing," she remarked. "I see that we shall understand each other. Do your relatives, Mr. and Mrs. Rooke, work with you?"
"They haven't quite the same point of view," said Miss Tomalin, smiling indulgently. "I'm afraid they represent rather the old way of thinking about the poor -- the common-sense way, they call it; it means, as far as I can see, not thinking much about the poor at all. Of course I try to make them understand that this is neglect of duty. We have no right whatever to live in enjoyment of our privileges and pay no heed to those less fortunate. Every educated person is really a missionary, whose duty it is to go forth and spread the light. I feel it so strongly that I could not, simply could not, be satisfied to pursue my own culture; it seems to me the worst kind of selfishness. The other day I went, on the business of our society, into a dreadfully poor home, where the people, I'm sure, often suffer from hunger. I couldn't give money -- for one thing, I have very little, and then it's so demoralising, and one never knows whether the people will be offended -- but I sat down and told the poor woman all about the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, and you can't think how interested she was, and how grateful! It quite brightened the day for her. One felt one had done some good."
There was silence. Lady Ogram looked admiringly at the girl. If anyone else had talked to her in this way, no vehemence of language would have sufficed to express her scorn; but in May Tomalin such ideals seemed to her a very amiable trait. She was anxious to see everything May said or did in a favourable light.
"Have you tried the effect of music?" asked Constance, gravely, when Miss Tomalin chanced to regard her.
"Oh, we haven't forgotten that. Next winter we hope to give a few concerts in a schoolroom. Of course it must be really good music; we shan't have anything of a popular kind -- at least, we shan't if my view prevails. It isn't our object to amuse people; it would be really humiliating to play and sing the kind of things the ignorant poor like. We want to train their intelligence. Some of our friends say it will be absurd to give them classical music, which will weary and discontent them. But they must be made to understand that their weariness and discontent is wrong. We have to show them how bad and poor their taste is, that they may strive to develop a higher and nobler. I, for one, shall utterly decline to have anything to do with the concerts if the programme doesn't consist exclusively of the really great, Bach and Beethoven and so on. Don't you agree with me?"
"In principle," replied Lady Ogram, "certainly. We shall have lots of things to talk about, I see."
"I delight in talk about serious things!" cried May.
But Lady Ogram's physical strength was not equal to the excitement she had gone through. Long before dinner-time her voice failed, and she had no choice but to withdraw into privacy, leaving Constance Bride to play the hostess. Alone with a companion of not much more than her own age, Miss Tomalin manifested relief; she began to move about, looking at things with frank curiosity, and talking in a more girlish way. The evening was cloudy, and did not tempt forth, but May asked whether they could not walk a little in the garden.
"This is a beautiful place! I shall enjoy myself here tremendously! And it's all so unexpected. Of course you know, Miss Bride, that I had never heard of Lady Ogram until a few days ago?"
"Yes, I have heard the story."
"Do let us get our hats and run out. I want to see everything."
They went into the garden, and May, whilst delighting in all she saw, asked a multitude of questions about her great-aunt. It was only in the intellectual domain that she evinced pretentiousness and grew grandiloquent; talking of her private affairs, she was very direct and simple, with no inclination to unhealthy ways of thought. She spoke of her birth in Canada, and her childish recollections of that country.
"I used to be rather sorry that we had come back to England, for the truth is I don't much care for Northampton, and I have never been quite comfortable with my relatives there. But now, of course, everything is different. It seems a great pity that I should have had such a relative as Lady Ogram and known nothing about it doesn't it? Strange how the branches of a family lose sight of each other? Can you tell me Lady Ogram's age?"
Constance replied that it was not far from eighty.
"Really, I should have taken her for older still. She seems very nice; I think I shall like her. I wonder whether she will ask me often to Rivenoak? Do you know whether she means to?"
When she came down after dressing for dinner, Constance found Miss Tomalin in the dining-room, standing before her great-aunt's portrait.
"Surely that isn't -- can that be Lady Ogram?" exclaimed the girl.
"Yes; more than fifty years ago."
"Do you know, I think she was rather like me!"
Constance smiled, and said that there was certainly a family resemblance. It appeared more strongly in the girl's face attired as she now was, her neck at liberty from the white linen collar, and her features cast into relief by a dress of dark material. Having felt a little apprehensive about the young lady's evening garb, Constance was surprised to find that it erred, if anything, on the side of simplicity. Though, for several reasons, not at all predisposed to like Miss Tomalin, she began to feel her prejudice waning, and by the end of dinner they were conversing in a very friendly tone. May chatted of her friends at Northampton, and several times mentioned a Mr. Yabsley, whom it was evident she held in much esteem. Mr. Yabsley, it appeared, was the originator of the society for civilising the ignorant poor; Mr. Yabsley lectured on very large subjects, and gave readings from very serious authors; Mr. Yabsley believed in the glorious destinies of the human race, especially of that branch of it known as Anglo-Saxon.
"He is an elderly gentleman?" asked Constance, with a half-smile of mischief.
"Old! Oh dear, no! Mr. Yabsley is only about thirty -- not quite that, I think."
And May suddenly turned to talk of Browning, whom she felt it a "positive duty" to know from end to end. Had Miss Bride really mastered "Sordello?"
"I never tried to," Constance answered. "Why should I worry about unintelligible stuff that would give me no pleasure even if I could understand it?"
"Oh! Oh! Don't speak like that!" cried the other, distressfully. "I'm sure you don't mean it!"
"I care very little for poetry of any kind," said Constance, in all sincerity.
"Oh, how I grieve to hear that! -- But then, of course we all have our special interests. Yours is science, I know. I've worked a good deal at science; of course one can't possibly neglect it; it's a simple duty to make oneself as many-sided as possible, don't you think? Just now, I'm giving half an hour before breakfast every day to Huxley's book on the Crayfish. Mr. Yabsley suggested it to me. Not long ago he was in correspondence with Huxley about something -- I don't quite know what but he takes a great interest in Evolution. Of course you know that volume on the Crayfish?"
"I'm afraid I don't. You arrange your day, I see, very methodically."
"Oh, without method nothing can be done. Of course I have a time-table. I try to put in a great many things, but I'm sure it's no use sitting down to any study for less than half an hour -- do you think so? At present I can only give half an hour to Herbert Spencer -- I think I shall have to cut out my folk-lore to make more time for him. Yet folk-lore is so fascinating! Of course you delight in it?"
"I never had time for it at all," replied Constance.
"Just now I'm quite excited about ghost-worship. Mr. Yabsley doesn't think it is sufficient to explain the origin of religious ideas."
"Mr. Yabsley," remarked Constance, "has pronounced opinions on most things?"
"Oh, he is very wide, indeed. Very wide, and very thorough. There's no end to the examinations he has passed. He's thinking of taking the D. Litt at London; it's awfully stiff, you know."
When they parted, about eleven o'clock, Miss Tomalin went upstairs humming a passage from a Beethoven sonata. She declared herself enchanted with her room, and hoped she might wake early, to make the coming day all the longer.
At ten next morning, Constance was summoned to the upstairs room where Lady Ogram sometimes sat when neither so unwell as to stay in bed nor quite well enough to come down. A bad night had left the old lady with a ghastly visage, but she smiled with grim contentment as her secretary entered.
"Come, I want you to tell me what you talked about. Where is she now? What is she doing?"
"Miss Tomalin is in the library, rejoicing among the books."
"She is very intellectual," said Lady Ogram. "I never knew anyone so keen about knowledge. But what did you talk about last night?"
"Of very many things. Canada and Northampton, religion and crayfish, Huxley and -- Yabsley."
"Yabsley? Who's Yabsley?"
"A gentleman of Northampton, a man of light and leading, a great friend of Miss Tomalin's."
"An old man, I suppose?" asked Lady Ogram, sharply.
"Not quite thirty."
"But married? Of course married?"
"I didn't ask; but, I fancy, not."
Lady Ogram flushed, and fell into extreme agitation. Why had she not been told about this Yabsley? Why had not that idiot Kerchever made inquiries and heard about him? This very morning she would write him a severe letter. What, May was engaged? To a man called Yabsley? Constance, as soon as interposition was possible, protested against this over-hasty view of the matter. She did not for a moment think that May was engaged, and, after all, Mr. Yabsley might even be married.
"Then why," cried Lady Ogram, furiously, "did you begin by terrifying me? Did you do it on purpose? If I thought so, I would send you packing about your business this moment!"
Constance, who had not yet taken a seat, drew back a few steps. Her face darkened. With hands clasped behind her, she regarded the raging old autocrat coldly and sternly.
"If you wish it, Lady Ogram, I am quite ready to go."
Their eyes encountered. Lady Ogram was quivering, mumbling, gasping; her look fell.
"Sit down," she said imperatively.
"I am afraid," was Miss Bride's reply, "we had better not talk whilst you are feeling so unwell."
"Sit down, I tell you! I wasn't unwell at all, till you made me so. Who is this Yabsley? Some low shopkeeper? Some paltry clerk?"
The old lady knew very well that Constance Bride would never tremble before her. It was this proudly independent spirit, unyielding as her own, and stronger still in that it never lost self-command, which had so established the clergyman's daughter in her respect and confidence. Yet the domineering instinct now and then prompted her to outrage a dignity she admired, and her invariable defeat was a new satisfaction when she calmly looked back upon it.
"You mustn't mind me," she said presently, when Constance had quietly refused to make conjectures about the subject under dissuasion. "Isn't it natural enough that I should be upset when I hear such news as this? I wanted to have a talk with May this morning, but now --"
She broke off, and hung her head gloomily.
"In your position," said Constance, "I should find out by a simple inquiry whether Miss Tomalin is engaged or likely to be. She will answer, I am sure, readily enough. She doesn't seem to be at all reticent."
"Of course I shall do so; thank you for the advice, all the same. Would you mind bringing her up here? If you prefer it, I will ring."
Scrupulousness of this kind always followed when Lady Ogram had behaved ill to her secretary. The smile with which Constance responded was a ratification of peace. In a few minutes the old lady and May were chatting together, alone, and without difficulty the great doubt was solved.
"I'm thinking of going to London for a week or two --" thus Lady Ogram approached the point -- "and I should rather like to take you with me."
"It's very kind of you," said May, with joy in her eyes.
"But I want to know whether you are quite independent. Is there anyone -- beside Mr. and Mrs. Rooke that you would have to consult about it?"
"No one whatever. You know that I am long since of age, Lady Ogram."
"If you like, call me your aunt. It's simpler, you know."
"Certainly I will. I am quite free, aunt."
"Good. I may take it for granted, then, that you have formed no ties of any kind?"
May shook her head, smiling as though at a thought which the words suggested, a thought not unpleasing, but not at all difficult to dismiss. Thereupon Lady Ogram began to talk freely of her projects.
"I shall go up to town in a fortnight -- at the end of this month. Of course you must have some things, dresses and so on. I'll see to that. Before we leave Rivenoak, I should like you to meet a few people, my friends at Hollingford particularly, but in a very quiet way; I shall ask them to lunch with us, most likely. Shall you want to go back to Hollingford before leaving for London?"
"Oh, it isn't at all necessary," answered May, with srightliest readiness. "I haven't brought many things with me, but I could send --"
"As for clothing, don't trouble; that's my affair. Then we'll settle that you stay on with me for the present. And now tell me, how do you like Miss Bride?"
"Oh, very much indeed! I'm sure we shall soon quite understand each other."
"I'm glad to hear that. I hope you will. I may say that I have a very high opinion indeed of Miss Bride, and that there's no one in whom I put more confidence."
"Will she go to London with us?"
"Certainly, I couldn't get on without her help."
May was relieved. The prospect of living alone with her great-aunt, even in London, had mingled a little uneasiness with her joyful anticipation. Now she abandoned herself to high spirits, and talked until Lady Ogram began to have a headache. For an hour before luncheon they drove out together, May still gossiping, her aged relative now and then attentive, but for the most part drowsily musing.
That afternoon, when an hour or two of sleep had somewhat restored her, Lady Ogram sketched several letters for her secretary to write. Pausing at length, she looked at Miss Bride, and, for the first time, addressed her by her personal name.
The other responded with a pleased and gratified smile.
"From Mr. Lashmar's talk of him, what sort of idea have you formed of Lord Dymchurch?"
"Rather a vague one, I'm afraid. I have heard him only casually mentioned."
"But Mr. Lashmar has a high opinion of him? He thinks him a man of good principles?"
"Undoubtedly. A very honourable man."
"So I hear from other sources," said Lady Ogram. "It's probably true. I should rather like to know Lord Dymchurch. He would be an interesting man to know, don't you think?"
As not infrequently happened, their eyes met in a mute interchange of thought.
"Interesting -- yes," replied Constance, slowly. And she added, pressing the nib of her pen on her finger-nail, "They say he doesn't marry just because he is poor and honourable."
"It's possible," Lady Ogram rejoined, and, after a moment's reflection, said in an absent voice that the day's correspondence was finished.
Though Mrs. Toplady seldom rose much before midday, it was not the mere luxury of repose that kept her in her chamber. As a rule, she awoke from refreshing sleep at eight o'clock. A touch on the electric button near her hand summoned a maid, who appeared with tea, the morning's post, and a mass of printed matter: newspapers, reviews, magazines, volumes, which had arrived by various channels since noon on the previous day. Apparatus of perfected ingenuity, speedily attached to the bed, enabled her to read or write in any position that she found easiest. First of all she went through her letters, always numerous, never disquieting -- for Mrs. Toplady had no personal attachments which could for a moment disturb her pulse, and her financial security stood on the firmest attainable basis. Such letters as demanded a reply, she answered at once, and with brevity which in her hands had become an art. Appeals for money, public or private, she carefully considered, responding with a cheque only when she saw some distinct advantage -- such as prestige or influence -- to be gained by the pecuniary sacrifice. Another touch on the button, and there entered a graceful woman of discreet visage, with whom Mrs. Toplady held colloquy for half an hour; in that time a vast variety of concerns, personal, domestic, mundane, was discussed and set in order. Left to herself again, Mrs. Toplady took up the newspapers; thence she passed to the bulkier periodicals; lastly, to literature in volume. Her manner of reading betokened the quick-witted woman who sees at a glance the thing she cares for, and refuses to spend a moment on anything not immediately attractive. People marvelled at the extent of her acquaintance with current writing; in truth, she never read a book, but skimmed the pages just sufficiently for her amusement and her social credit. In the world of laborious idleness, Mrs. Toplady had a repute for erudition; she was often spoken of as a studious and learned woman; and this estimate of herself she inclined to accept. Having daily opportunity of observing the fathomless ignorance of polite persons, she made it her pride to keep abreast with the day's culture. Genuine curiosity, too, supplied her with a motive, for she had a certain thin, supple, restless intelligence, which took wide surveys of superficial life, and was ever seeking matter for mirth or disdain in the doings of men.
Her first marriage was for love. It cost her seven years of poverty and wretchedness; it cost her, moreover, all the ideals of her youth, and made her a scheming cynic. Having, by natural power and great good fortune, got the world at her feet, she both enjoyed and despised what seemed to her to have been won so easily. The softer emotions were allowed no place in her nature; by careful self-discipline, she had enabled herself wholly to disregard the unhappy side of life, to pass without the least twinge of sympathy all human sorrows and pains. If reminded of them against her will, she hardened herself with the bitter memory of her early years, when, as she said, she had suffered quite enough for one lifetime. The habit of her mind was to regard existence as an entertaining spectacle. She had a most comfortable seat, and flattered herself that few people could appreciate so well as she the comedy going on before her. When she found an opportunity for intervention; when, with little or no trouble to herself, she could rearrange a scene or prepare a novel situation; so much the better was she pleased, and all the more disdain did she feel for the fussy, pompous mortals who were so easily manipulated.
At present she had her eyes upon a personage who amused her considerably. He answered to the name of Dyce Lashmar, and fell under the general description of charlatan. Not for a moment had Mrs. Toplady been in doubt as to this classification; but Dyce Lashmar was not quite an ordinary charlatan, and seemed to be worth the observing. She meant to know him thoroughly, to understand what he really aimed at -- whether he harboured merely a gross design on Lady Ogram's wealth, or in truth believed himself strong enough to win a place among those grave comedians who rule the world. He was a very young man; he had not altogether got rid of youth's ingenuousness; if his ideas were his own (she doubted it) he had evidently a certain mental equipment, which would aid him -- up to a certain point; in every case, he excelled in intellectual plausibility. Perhaps he might get into Parliament; for the amusement of the thing, she would try to help him in that direction. On returning from Rivenoak, she had at once begun to spread rumours of a Coming man, a new light in the political world, that it behooved one to keep an eye on. So seldom did Mrs. Toplady risk her reputation by rash prophecy, that those who heard of Mr. Lashmar were disposed to take him with all seriousness. Certain of Mrs. Toplady's intimates begged, and were promised, the privilege of meeting him. To that end, a ceremonious evening was appointed in Pont Street.
Meanwhile, Lashmar had called, and met with a very gracious reception. He was bidden to luncheon on a day in the same week. On arriving, he found with surprise that he was the sole guest.
"I wanted to have a real talk with you," said the hostess, as she received him in her magnificent drawing-room. "I have been thinking a great deal about things you said at Rivenoak."
Her fire of glances perceived that the young man, though agreeably touched and full of expectancy, was to a certain extent on his guard. He, too, no doubt, had power of reading faces, of discerning motives. She did not desire him to be too facile a victim of cajolery; it would take from the interest she felt in his ambitions. At table, they talked at first of bio-sociology, Mrs. Toplady, with the adroitness which distinguished her, seeming thoroughly to grasp a subject of which she knew nothing, and which, if she had tried to think about it, would have bored her unspeakably. But she soon diverged to things personal, spoke of people whom she wished Lashmar to meet, and asked whether a date she had in mind would suit his convenience.
"I think you know Lord Dymchurch?"
"Very well," answered Dyce, blandly.
"I should like to meet him I have heard he is most interesting."
"He certainly is," said Lashmar, "but no man is so hard to get hold of. I never ventured to try to take him anywhere; he very much dislikes meeting strangers."
"Tell me about him, will you?"
Dyce could speak only of Lord Dymchurch's personal and mental characteristics; of his circumstances he knew nothing more than could be gathered from rumour.
"Let me make a suggestion," said Mrs. Toplady, with a flatteringly intimate air. "Suppose you give a quiet little dinner to a few of your friends, say at one of the restaurants. Don't you think Lord Dymchurch might be willing to come? If I may propose myself --" The roguish smile was lost in a radiant archness. "Half a dozen of us just to talk over the political situation."
Lashmar looked delighted. In reality he was seized with anxious thought as to whom he could invite for such an important occasion. As is commonly the case with men of great self-esteem and modest resources, he had made friends with the poorer and less ambitious of his acquaintances, and these were not the sort of people to present either to Mrs. Toplady or to Lord Dymchurch. However, he knew a man pretty well placed in the Home Office. He knew also --
"Would you like to ask our friend Mrs. Woolstan?" let fall the hostess, shooting one swift glance at his busy forehead.
"Yes -- certainly --"
"She's charming," pursued Mrs. Toplady, with her kindest air, "and I'm sure your views interest her."
"Mrs. Woolstan spoke of them?"
"Oh, yes! She called here, as I told you, the day before I went down to Rivenoak, and, as we were talking, I happened to mention where I was going. 'Oh then,' she said, 'you'll see my friend Mr. Lashmar!' 'I told her that Lady Ogram had specially asked me to meet you.' Of course it delighted me to hear that you knew each other so well. I have always thought Mrs. Woolstan a very clever little woman. And she looks at things from such a high point of view -- a thorough idealist. Do let us have her. -- Then, if I might propose another guest --?"
She paused, as if afraid of presuming on Lashmar's good-nature.
"Pray do! I couldn't possibly have a better adviser."
Dyce was trying to strike his note of easy comradeship, but found it very difficult. Mrs. Toplady had so vast an advantage of him in manner, in social resources, and, for all her amiability, must needs regard him from a higher ground.
"It's very nice of you to say that," she resumed; "I was thinking of Mr. Roach, the Member for Belper. You don't happen to know him? Oh, that doesn't matter. He's delightful; about your own age, I think. Come and meet him here at five o'clock on Sunday; have a talk and then send him your invitation. He, too, is a thorough idealist; you're sure to like him."
Before Lashmar left the house, all the details of this little dinner were neatly settled, the only point necessarily left uncertain being whether Lord Dymchurch could be counted upon. Of course Mrs. Toplady had dictated everything, even to the choice of restaurant and the very room that was to be engaged; Lashmar would have the pleasure of ordering the dinner, and of paying the bill. He thanked his stars again for Mrs. Woolstan's cheque.
On the strength of that same cheque, he had quitted his rooms near St. Pancras Church, and was now lodging, with more dignity, but doubtful advantage as to comfort, in Devonshire Street, Portland Place. The address, he felt, sounded tolerably well. Only in the vaguest way had he troubled to compute his annual outlay on this new basis. He was become an adventurer, and in common self-respect must cultivate the true adventurous spirit. Once or twice he half reproached himself for not striking out yet more boldly into the currents of ambition, for it was plain that a twelvemonth must see him either made or ruined, and probably everything depended on the quality of his courage. Now, he began to wonder whether Mrs. Toplady's favour would be likely to manifest itself in any still more practical way; but of this his reflection offered him no assurance. The probability was that in Lady Ogram lay his only reasonable hope. On the spur of such feeling, he addressed a letter to Rivenoak, giving an account of his luncheon in Pont Street, and thanking the old autocrat more fervently than he yet had done for all her good offices.
Since his return from Rivenoak, he had not met Lord Dymchurch. He might of course write his invitation, but he fancied that it would have more chance of being accepted if he urged it orally, and, as he could not call upon the peer (whose private address, in books of reference, was merely the house in Somerset), he haunted the club with the hope of encountering him. On the second day fortune was propitious. Lord Dymchurch sat in his usual corner of the library, and, on Lashmar's approach, smiled his wonted greeting. After preliminary gossip, Dyce commanded himself to courageous utterance.
"I have been asked to come forward as Liberal candidate for a little borough in the Midlands -- Hollingford. It's a Tory seat, and I don't know whether I shall stand any chance, but local people want to fight it, and they seem to think that I may be the man for them."
As he spoke, he felt that he wore an expression new to his visage, a sort of smile which his lips had not the habit of framing. Quite unconsciously, indeed, he had reproduced the smile of Mrs. Toplady; its ironic good-humour seemed to put him at ease, and to heighten his personal effectiveness.
"Hollingford?" Lord Dymchurch reflected. "I know the place by name only."
He looked at Lashmar with a new interest. Constantly worrying about his own inactive life, and what he deemed his culpable supineness as a citizen, the pinched peer envied any man to whom the Lower House offered its large possibilities.
"The idea is quite novel to me," Lashmar continued. "You know something of my views -- my cast of mind; do you think I should do well to go in for practical politics?"
"I think any man does well who goes in for anything practical," was Lord Dymchurch's answer. "Stand, by all means, and I wish you success. Parliament isn't overcrowded with men of original views."
"That's very kind of you. -- I don't want to presume upon your good-nature, but I wonder whether I could persuade you to dine with me, to meet a few friends of mine who are so good as to interest themselves in this matter? Quite an informal little dinner; one or two ladies -- the Member for Belper -- a Home Office man people who see things rather in my own way --"
He added place and date; then, with Mrs. Toplady's smile still on his lips, awaited the response. That Lord Dymchurch would much have preferred to excuse himself was visible enough in the pleasant, open countenance, little apt for dissembling; but no less evident was the amiability which made it difficult for him to refuse a favour, and which, in this instance, allied itself with something like a sense of duty. Lord Dymchurch had been considerably impressed by Lashmar's talk; the bio-sociological theory and all its consequences applied alike to his reason and his imagination; he had mused over this new philosophy, and the opportunity of being ever so little helpful to such a man as its originator should, he felt, be regarded as a privilege. That he could not altogether "take to" Lashmar was nothing to the point. How often had he rebuked himself for his incrustation of prejudices, social and personal, which interfered between him and the living, progressing world! Fie upon his finical spirit, which dwelt so vulgarly on a man's trivial defects!
"With pleasure," he replied; and, as if feeling it insufficient, he added, "with great pleasure!"
Dyce's lips forgot Mrs. Toplady; he smiled his own smile of genial satisfaction, and, as his way was when pleased, broke into effusive talk. He told of Lady Ogram, of the political situation at Hollingford, of editor Breakspeare, of the cantankerous Robb, and to all this Lord Dymchurch willingly lent ear.
"I should uncommonly like you to go down with me some day. You might find it amusing. Lady Ogram is, undeniably, a very remarkable woman."
Immediately after this conversation, Lashmar wrote off to Mrs. Toplady, half-a-dozen exultant lines, announcing his success No more wavering, he said to himself. Fate was on his side. He had but to disregard all paltry obstacles, and go straight on.
Yet one obstacle, and that not altogether paltry, continually haunted his mind. He could not forget Lady Ogram's obvious intention that he should marry Constance Bride; and such a marriage was altogether out of harmony with his ambition. If it brought him money -- that is to say, a substantial fortune -- he might be content to accept it, but it could not be more than a compromise; he aimed at a very different sort of alliance. Moreover, he knew nothing of Lady Ogram's real intentions with regard to Constance; her mysterious phrases merely perplexed and annoyed him as often as he thought of them. To marry Constance without a substantial fortune -- that were disaster indeed! And what if Lady Ogram's favour depended upon it?
But he had his little dinner to think of. He wrote to Mrs. Woolstan, who, by return of post, blithely accepted his invitation, begging him, at the same time, to come and see her before then, if he could possibly spare an hour. Dyce threw the letter aside impatiently. On Sunday he was in Pont Street, where he met the Parliamentary Mr. Roach, a young man fairly answering to Mrs. Toplady's description; an idealist of a mild type, whose favourite talk was of "altruism," and who, whilst affecting close attention to what other people said, was always absorbed in his own thoughts. Before Lashmar had been many minutes in the drawing-room, there entered Mrs. Woolstan, and she soon found an occasion for brief exchange of words with him.
"Why haven't you been to see me yet?"
"I'm so terribly busy. Of course I ought to have come. I thought of to-morrow -- but now that we've met here, and are going to dine on the 27th --"
"Oh, I know you must be busy!" conceded Iris, with panting emphasis and gladness. "How splendidly everything's going! But I want to hear about it all, you know. Your letter about Rivenoak only made me eager to know more --"
"We'll have an afternoon presently. Ask Mrs. Toplady to introduce Mr. Roach -- he dines with us on the 27th."
To make sure of the M. P., Lashmar invited him verbally, and received a dreamy acceptance -- so dreamy that he resolved to send a note, to remind Mr. Roach of the engagement.
"So you are to be one of us, at Mr. Lashmar's dinner," said the hostess to Mrs. Woolstan. "A delightful evening -- won't it be!"
And she watched the eager little face with eyes which read its every line remorselessly: her smile more pitiless in ironic mischief even than of wont.
On the morning of May the 28th, Lashmar wrote a full letter to Rivenoak. It told of a dinner successful beyond his hopes. Mrs. Toplady had surpassed herself in brilliant graciousness; Lord Dymchurch had broken through his reserve, and talked remarkably -- most remarkably. "As for the host, why, he did what in him lay, and Mrs. Toplady was good enough to remark, as he handed her into her carriage, 'A few more dinners such as this, and all London will want to know the --' I won't finish her sentence. Joking apart, I think my friends enjoyed themselves, and they were certainly very encouraging with regard to our project."
At the same hour, Mrs. Toplady, propped with pillows, was also writing to Rivenoak.
"It came off very well indeed, and I see that we must take serious account of Mr. Lashmar. You know that, of course, and I didn't doubt your judgment, but intellectual distinction doesn't always go together with the qualities necessary to a political career. Beyond a doubt, he is our coming man! And now let me know when to expect you in London. I look forward to the delight of seeing you, and of making the acquaintance of your niece, who must be very interesting. How lucky you are to have discovered at the same time two such brilliant young people! By the bye, I have not mentioned Miss Tomalin to any one; it occurred to me that silence in this matter was perhaps discretion. If I have been needlessly reticent, pray say so. Of course at a word from you, I can speak to the right people, but possibly you had rather nothing at all were said until the young lady has been seen. Myself, I see no reason whatever for explanations."
As she closed this letter, Mrs. Toplady's smile all but became a chuckle. Nothing had so much amused her for a twelvemonth past.
Lashmar had no reply from Rivenoak. This silence disappointed him. Ten days having elapsed, he thought of writing again, but there arrived a letter addressed in Miss Bride's hand, the contents a few lines in tremulous but bold character, signed "A. Ogram." He was invited to lunch, on the next day but one, at Bunting's Hotel, Albemarle Street.
This same afternoon, having nothing to do, he went to call upon Mrs. Woolstan. It was his second visit since the restaurant dinner, and Iris showed herself very grateful for his condescension. She regarded him anxiously; made inquiries about his health; was he not working too hard? His eyes looked rather heavy, as if he studied too late at night. Dyce, assuming the Toplady smile, admitted that he might have been rather over-zealous at his constitutional history of late; concession to practicality had led him to take up that subject. In his thoughts, he reproached himself for a freak of the previous evening, a little outbreak of folly, of no grave importance, which had doubtless resulted from the exciting tenor of his life recently. On the whole, it might serve a useful purpose, reminding him to be on guard against certain weaknesses of his temperament, likely to be fostered by ease and liberty.
"Lady Ogram is in town," he announced. "I lunch with her to-morrow."
The news agitated Mrs. Woolstan.
"Will she be alone?"
"I suppose so -- except for her secretary, who of course is always with her."
Iris desired to know all about the secretary, and Lashmar described a neutral-tinted, pen-wielding young woman, much interested in social reform.
"Perhaps I shall come to know Lady Ogram," said Iris, modestly. "I may meet her at Mrs. Toplady's. That would be delightful! I should be able to follow everything much better."
"To be sure," was the rather dry response. "But I shall be surprised if the old lady stays long, or sees many people. Her health is of the shakiest, and London life would be a dangerous experiment, I should say. I don't at all know why she's coming, unless it is to see doctors."
"Oh, I do hope she'll be careful," panted Iris. "What a terrible thing it would be if she died suddenly -- terrible for you, I mean. She ought to have some one to look well after her, indeed she ought. I wish" -- this with a laugh -- "she would take me as companion. Oh, wouldn't I have a care of her precious health!"
When he drove to Bunting's Hotel, he had no thought of seeing anyone but Lady Ogram and Constance; the possibility that there might be other guests at luncheon did not enter his mind. Conducted to a private drawing-room on the first floor, he became aware, as the door opened, of a handsome girl in animated conversation with his two friends; she seemed so very much at home that he experienced a little shock, as of the unaccountable, the disconcerting, and his eyes with difficulty turned from this new face to that of the venerable hostess. Here again a surprise awaited him; Lady Ogram looked so much younger than when he took leave of her at Rivenoak, that he marvelled at the transformation. Notwithstanding her appearance she spoke in a strained, feeble voice, often indistinct; one noticed, too, that she was harder of hearing. Having pressed his hand -- a very faint pressure, though meant for cordial -- Lady Ogram turned a look upon the bright young lady near her, and said, with a wheezy emphasis:
"Let me introduce you to my niece, Miss Tomalin."
Never had Lashmar known her so ceremonious; never had she appeared so observant of his demeanor during the social formality. Overcome with astonishment at what he heard, he bowed stiffly, but submissively. The autocrat watched him with severe eyes, and only when his salute was accomplished did the muscles of her visage again relax. Mechanically, he turned to bow in the same way to Miss Bride, but she at once offered her hand with a friendly, "'low do you do?"
"My niece, Miss Tomalin." Where on earth did this niece spring from? Everybody understood that Lady Ogram was alone in the world. Constance had expressly affirmed it -- yet here was she smiling in the most natural way possible, as if nieces abounded at Rivenoak. Dyce managed to talk, but he heard not a word from his own lips, and his eyes, fixed on Lady Ogram's features, noted the indubitable fact that her complexion was artificial. This astounding old woman, at the age of four score, had begun to paint? So confused was Dyce's state of mind. that, on perceiving the truth of the matter, he all but uttered an exclamation. Perhaps only Miss Tomalin's voice arrested him.
"My aunt has told me all about your new Socialism, Mr. Lashmar. You can't think how it has put my mind at rest! One has so felt that one ought to be a Socialist, and yet there were so many things one couldn't accept. It's delightful to see everything reconciled -- all one wants to keep and all the new things that must come!"
May had been developing. She spoke with a confidence which, on softer notes, emulated that of her aged relative; she carried her head with a conscious stateliness which might have been -- perhaps was -- deliberately studied after the portrait in the Rivenoak dining-room. Harmonious with this change was that in her attire; fashion had done its best to transform the aspiring young provincial into a metropolitan Grace; the result being that Miss Tomalin seemed to have grown in stature, to exhibit a more notable symmetry, so that she filled more space in the observer's eye than heretofore. For all that, she looked no older; her self-assertion, though more elaborate, was not a bit more impressive, and the phrases she used, the turn of her sentences, the colour of her speech, very little resembled anything that would have fallen from a damsel bred in the modish world. Her affectation was shot through with spontaneity; her impertinence had a juvenile seriousness which made it much more amusing than offensive; and a feminine charm in her, striving to prevail over incongruous elements, made clear appeal to the instincts of the other sex.
"That is very encouraging," was Lashmar's reply. "If only one's thoughts can be of any help to others --"
"What time is it?" broke in Lady Ogram. "Why doesn't that man come? What business has he to keep us waiting?"
"It's only just half-past one," said Miss Bride.
"Then he ought to be here." She turned to Lashmar. "I'm expecting a friend you've heard of -- Sir William Amys. How long are we to sit here waiting for him, I wonder?"
"What do you think of Herbert Spencer, Mr. Lashmar?" inquired May.
Dyce's reply was rendered doubly unnecessary by the opening of the door, and the announcement of the awaited guest.
"Willy! Willy!" cried Lady Ogram, with indulgent reproof. "You always used to be so punctual."
The gentleman thus familiarly addressed had grey hair and walked with a stoop in the shoulders. His age was sixty, but he looked rather older. Lady Ogram, who had known him as a boy, still saw him in that light. His pleasant face, full of sagacity and good-humour, wore a gently deprecating smile as he stepped forward, and whether intentionally or not -- he smoothed with one hand his long, grizzled beard.
"This is military!" he exclaimed. "Are not a few minutes' grace granted to a man of peace, when he comes to eat your salt? -- And how are you, my dear lady? How are you?"
"Never was better in my life, Willy!" shrilled Lady Ogram, her voice slipping out of control in her excitement. "Do you know who this is?"
"I could make a guess. The face speaks for itself."
"Ha! You see the likeness! -- May, shake hands with Sir William, and make friends with him; he and I knew each other a lifetime before you were born. -- And this is Mr. Lashmar, our future Member for Hollingford."
"If the voters are as kind to me as Lady Ogram," said Dyce, laughing.
The baronet gave his hand, and regarded the young man with shrewd observation. Sir William had no part in public life, and was not predisposed in favour of parliamentary ambitions; he lived quietly in a London suburb, knowing only a few congenial people, occupying himself with the history of art, on which he was something of an authority. His father had been a friend of Sir Quentin Ogram; and thus arose his early familiarity with the lady of Rivenoak.
They went to table in an adjoining room, and for a few minutes there was talk between the hostess and Sir William about common acquaintances. Lashmar, the while, kept turning his look towards Miss Tomalin. With his astonishment had begun to mingle feelings of interest and attraction. He compared Miss Tomalin's personal appearance with that of Constance Bride, and at once so hardened towards the latter that he could not bring his eyes to regard her again. At the same time he perceived, with gratification, that Lady Ogram's niece was not heedless of his presence; once at least their looks come to the encounter, with quick self-recovery on the young lady's part, and a conscious smile. Dyce began to think her very good-looking indeed. Sir William's remark recurred to him, and he saw an undeniable resemblance in the girl's features to those of Lady Ogram's early portrait. He grew nervously desirous to know something about her.
Presently conversation directed itself towards the subject with which Lashmar was connected. Sir William appeared by no means eager to discuss political or social themes, but May Tomalin could not rest till they were brought forward, and her aunt, who seemed to have no desire but to please her and put her into prominence, helped them on.
"Are you going to stand as a Socialist?" asked the baronet of Lashmar, with some surprise, when May's talk had sufficiently confused him.
Dyce quietly explained (a shadow of the Toplady smile about his lips) that his Socialism was not Social-democracy.
"For my own part," declared Sir William, "I want to hear a little more of men, and a little less of government. That we're moving into Socialism of one kind or another is plain enough, and it goes against the grain with me. I'm afraid we're losing our vigour as individuals. It's all very well to be a good citizen, but it's more important, don't you think, to be a man?"
"I quite see your point, Sir William," said Lashmar, his eyes brightening as they always did when he found his opportunity for borrowed argument and learning. "Clearly there's an excess to be avoided; individuality mustn't be lost sight of. But I can make absolutely no distinction between the terms Man and Citizen. To my mind they are synonymous, for Man only came into being when he ceased to be animal by developing the idea of citizenship. In my view, the source of all our troubles is found in that commonly accepted duality. He didn't exist in the progressive ancient world. The dualism of Man and State began with the decline of Græco-Roman civilisation, and was perpetuated by the teaching of Christianity. The philosophy of Epicurus and of Zeno an utter detachment from the business of mankind -- prepared the way for the spirit of the Gospels. So, at length, we get our notion of Church and State -- a separation ruinous to religion and making impossible anything like perfection in politics; it has thoroughly rooted in people's minds that fatal distinction between Man as a responsible soul and Man as a member of society. Our work is to restore the old monism. Very, very slowly, mankind is working towards it. A revolution greater than any of those commonly spoken of -- so wide and deep that it isn't easily taken in even by students of history -- a revolution which is the only hope of civilisation, has been going on since the close of the thirteenth century. We are just beginning to be dimly conscious of it. Perhaps in another century it will form the principle of Liberalism."
The baronet heard all this with some surprise; he had not been prepared for such solidity of doctrine from Lady Ogram's candidate, and at the luncheon table. As for May Tomalin, she had listened delightedly. Her lips savoured the words "dualism" and "monism" of which she resolved to make brave use in her own argumentative displays. The first to speak was Constance.
"We are getting on very quickly," she said, in her driest and most practical tone, "towards one ideal of Socialism. Look at the way in which municipalities are beginning to undertake, and sometimes monopolise, work which used to be left to private enterprize. Before long we shall have local authorities engaged in banking, pawnbroking, coal-supplying, tailoring, estate agency, printing -- all these, and other undertakings, are already proposed."
May cast a glance of good-natured envy at the speaker. How she wished she could display such acquaintance with public life. But the information was stored for future use.
"Why, there you are!" exclaimed the baronet. "That's just what I'm afraid of. It's the beginning of tyranny. It'll mean the bad work of a monopoly, instead of the good to be had by free competition. You favour this kind of thing, Mr. Lashmar?"
"In so far as it signifies growth of the ideas of citizenship, and of association. But it interests me much less than purely educational questions. Whatever influence I may gain will be used towards a thorough reconstruction of our system of popular schooling. I believe nothing serious can be done until we have a truly civic education for the masses of the people."
This was the outcome of Lashmar's resolve to be practical, whilst adhering to his philosophy. He knew that it sounded well, this demand for educational reform; however vague in reality, it gave the ordinary hearer a quasi-intelligible phrase to remember and repeat. Sir William Amys was not proof against the plausibility of such words: he admitted that one might do worse than devote oneself to that question; popular schooling, heaven knew, being much in need of common-sense reform. Dyce tactfully pressed his advantage. He ridiculed the extravagance of educationalism run mad, its waste of public money, the harm it does from a social point of view; and, the longer he spoke, the better pleased was Sir William to hear him. Their hostess, silent and closely attentive, smiled with satisfaction. Constance, meanwhile, noted the countenance of May Tomalin, which exhibited the same kind of pleased approval. -- Only a day or two ago, May, speaking on this subject, had expressed views diametrically opposite.
After luncheon, Lady Ogram held Lashmar in talk, whilst the two young ladies conversed with the baronet apart. Dyce had hoped for a little gossip with Miss Tomalin, but no chance offered; discretion bade him take leave before Sir William had given sign of rising.
"I don't know how long we shall be in town," said Lady Ogram, who did not seek to detain him, "but of course we shall see you again. We shall generally be at home at five o'clock."
He had hoped for a more definite and a more cordial invitation. Issuing into Albemarle Street, he looked vaguely about him, and wondered how he should get through the rest of the afternoon. A dull sky hastened the failure of his spirits; when, in a few minutes, rain began to fall, he walked on under his umbrella, thoroughly cheerless and objectless. Then it struck him that he would go presently to Pont Street; Mrs. Toplady might help him to solve the mystery of Lady Ogram's niece.
Confound Lady Ogram's niece! Her appearance could not have been more inopportune. The old woman was obviously quite taken up with her, and, as likely as not, would lose all her interest in politics. Here was the explanation of her not having answered his last long letter. Confound Miss -- what was her foolish name? -- Tomalin!
And yet -- and yet -- there glimmered another aspect of the matter. Suppose Miss Tomalin followed her aunt's example, and saw in him a coming man, and seriously interested herself in his fortunes? Then, indeed, she would be by no means a superfluous young person; for who could say to what such interest might lead? Miss Tomalin would be her aunt's heiress, or so one might reasonably suppose. And she was a very pretty girl, as well as intelligent.
Could it be that the real course of his destiny was only just beginning to reveal itself?
By this time, he felt better. To pass an hour, he went into his club, read the papers, and looked, vainly, for Lord Dymchurch.
Greatly to his surprise, he found the world-shunning nobleman in Mrs. Toplady's drawing-room; the hostess and he alone together -- it was early -- and seeming to have been engaged in rather intimate talk.
"Oh, this is nice!" exclaimed Mrs. Toplady. "What have you to tell us?"
"Little of interest, I'm afraid -- except that I have lunched to-day with Lady Ogram and made the acquaintance of her niece."
"We were speaking of her," said the hostess, with very pronounced mischief at the corner of her lips, and eyes excessively gracious.
"You know Miss Tomalin?" Lashmar inquired, rather abruptly, of Lord Dymchurch.
"I have met her once," was the colourless reply.
Dyce wished to ask where and when, but of course could not. He resented this advantage of Lord Dymchurch.
"She is very clever," the hostess was saying, "and quite charming. A Canadian, you know, by birth. Such a fresh way of looking at things; so bright and --"
Other callers were announced. Lord Dymchurch looked his desire to escape, but sat on. You would have thought him a man with a troubled conscience.
A few days later, Lashmar found on his breakfast table a copy of the Hollingford Express, blue-pencilled at an editorial paragraph which. he read with interest. The leaded lines announced that Hollingford Liberalism was at length waking up, that a campaign was being quietly but vigorously organised, and that a meeting of active politicians would shortly be held for the purpose of confirming a candidature which had already met with approval in influential circles. The same post brought a letter from Mr. Breakspeare, "Will you," asked the editor, "name a convenient date for meeting your friends and supporters? Say, about the 20th of this month. I am working up enthusiasm. We shall take the public room at the Saracen's Head. Admission to be by invitation card. I write to Lady Ogram, and no doubt you will consult with her."
This looked like business. Dyce reflected rather nervously that he would have to make a speech -- a practical speech; he must define his political attitude; philosophical generalities would not serve in the public room at the Saracen's Head. Well, he had a fortnight to think about it. And here was an excuse for calling on Lady Ogram, of which he would avail himself at once.
In the afternoon he went to Bunting's Hotel, but Lady Ogram was not at home. He inquired for Miss Bride, and was presently led up to the private drawing-room, where Constance sat writing. As they shook hands, their eyes scarcely met.
"Can you spare me a few minutes?" asked the visitor. "There's something here I wanted to show Lady Ogram; but I shall be still more glad to talk it over with you."
Constance took the newspaper and Breakspeare's note. As she read, her firm-set lips relaxed a little. She handed the papers back with a nod.
"Has Lady Ogram heard?" Dyce asked.
"Yes; she had a letter this morning, and I have answered it. She was pleased So far, so good. You have had Mrs. Toplady's card for the evening of the 13th?"
"One of the Liberal whips will be there -- an opportunity for you."
Every time he saw her, Constance seemed to be drier and more laconic. Their intercourse promised to illustrate to the full his professed ideal of relation between man and woman in friendship; every note of difference in sex would soon be eliminated, if indeed that point were not already attained.
"Won't you sit down?" asked Miss Bride, carelessly; for Dyce had thrown hat and stick aside, and was moving about with his hands in his pockets.
"But you're busy."
"How is our friend?"
"Lady Ogram? Pretty well, I think, but overtaxing herself. I don't think she'll be able to stay here long. It certainly wouldn't be wise."
"Of course it's on her niece's account. By the bye --" Dyce paused before Constance's chair -- "where has this niece sprung from? You told me she hadn't a relative in the world."
"So she believed. Miss Tomalin is a recent discovery -- the fruit of Mr. Kerchever's researches."
"Ah! That's rather amusing. Lucky, I imagine, that she is such a presentable person. She might have been --"
He checked himself significantly, and Constance allowed an absent smile to pass over her face.
"I'm afraid," Dyce continued, "this change won't be quite pleasant to you?"
"To me? It makes no difference -- none whatever. Will you please sit down? I dislike to talk with anyone who keeps fidgeting about."
One might have detected more than discomfort in Miss Bride's look and voice. A sudden flash of something very like anger shone in her eyes; but they were bent and veiled.
"Let us talk about Hollingford," said Lashmar, drawing up a chair. "It begins to look as if things were really in train. Of course, I shall go down to talk to them. Will you help me in putting my programme together?"
"Isn't that already done?"
"Why, no. What do I care about their party questions? I'm sure your advice would be valuable. Could you find time to jot down a few ideas?"
"If you think it any use, certainly. I can't promise to do it this evening; we have people to dine."
Lashmar was secretly offended that Lady Ogram should give a dinner-party in which he had no place.
"Anyone coming that I know?" he asked, off-hand.
"Let me see. Yes, there's Mrs. Toplady -- and Lord Dymchurch --"
"What an extraordinary thing! Dymchurch, who never went anywhere, seems all at once to be living in the thick of the world. The other day, I found him at Mrs. Toplady's, drinking tea. Was it there he came to know Lady Ogram?"
"Yes." Constance smiled. "Lady Ogram, you remember, much wished to meet him."
"And he dines here? I can't understand it."
"You are not very complimentary;" said Constance, with dry amusement.
"You know what I mean. I shouldn't have thought Lady Ogram would have had much attraction for him."
Miss Bride laughed, a laugh of all but genuine gaiety.
"Hadn't we better talk about your programme?" she resumed, in an altered voice, as though her humour had suddenly improved; "I should take counsel with Mr. Breakspeare, if I were you. I fancy he likes to be consulted, and his activity will be none the less for it."
Lashmar could not easily fix his thoughts on political tactics. He talked impatiently, all the time absorbed in another subject; and at the first pause he took his leave.
Decidedly it offended him that he was left out from this evening's dinner-party. A suspicion, too, had broken upon his mind which he found very distasteful and perturbing. Lady Ogram must have particular reasons for thus cultivating Lord Dymchurch's acquaintance; conjecturing what they might be, he perceived how he had allowed himself to shape visions and dream dreams during the last day or two. It was foolish, as he now saw plainly enough; in ambition, one must discern the probable, and steady one's course thereby. All at once, he felt a strong dislike of Lord Dymchurch, and even a certain contempt. The man was not what he had thought him.
Crossing the street at Piccadilly Circus, he ran before a hansom, and from the hansom was waved a hand, a voice in the same moment calling out his name. As a result of his stopping, be was very nearly run over by another cab; he escaped to the pavement; the hansom pulled up beside him, and he shook hands with Mrs. Woolstan.
"Are you going anywhere?" she asked, her eyes very wide as they gazed at him.
"Nowhere in particular."
"Then do come with me, will you? I have to buy a present for Len's birthday, and I should be so glad of your help in choosing it."
Dyce jumped into the vehicle, and, as his habit was, at once surveyed himself in the little looking-glass conveniently placed for that purpose. The inspection never gratified him, and to-day less than usual. Turning to his companion, he asked:
"Does everybody look ugly in a hansom mirror?"
"What a question! I'm sure I can't tell you."
Iris had coloured a little. Her eyes involuntarily sought the slip of glass at her side of the seat, and the face she saw was assuredly not a flattering likeness. With brow knitted, she stared out into the street, and presently asked:
"Have you seen Lady Ogram?"
"I thought you told me that she would have no one with her but her secretary? Why did you say that?"
"Because I didn't know that she had a newly-discovered niece. It seems that you have heard of it. Perhaps you have met her?"
"Not yet; Mrs. Toplady told me."
"And you take it for granted that I had deliberately concealed the niece from you?" said Lashmar, with an amused air. "Pray, why should I have done so?"
"No, no, I thought nothing of the kind," replied Mrs. Woolstan, in a conciliating tone. "Indeed I didn't! It's only that I felt vexed not to have heard the story from you first. I thought you would have told it me as soon as possible -- such an interesting thing as that."
Lashmar declared that he had only known of Miss Tomalin's existence for a day or two, and had only heard the explanation of her appearance this very day. His companion asked for a description of the young lady, and he gave one remarkable for splenetic exaggeration.
"You must have seen her in a hansom looking-glass," said Iris, smiling askance at him. "Mrs. Toplady's picture is very different. And the same applies to Miss Bride; I formed an idea of her from what you told me which doesn't answer at all to that given me by Mrs. Toplady."
"Mrs. Toplady," replied Dyce, his lips reminiscent of Pont Street, "inclines to idealism, I have found. It's an amiable weakness, but one has to be on one's guard against it. Did she say anything about Lord Dymchurch?"
Dyce seemed to reflect; then spoke as if confidentially.
"I suspect there is a little conspiracy against the noble lord. From certain things that I have observed and heard, I think it probable that Lady Ogram wants to capture Dymchurch for her niece."
A light shone upon the listener's countenance, and she panted eager exclamations.
"Really? You think so? But I understood that he was so poor. How is it possible?"
"Yes. Dymchurch is poor, I believe, but he is a lord. Lady Ogram is not poor, and I fancy she would like above all things to end her life as aunt-in-law (if there be such a thing) of a peer. Her weakness, as we know, has always been for the aristocracy. She's a strong-minded woman in most things. I am quite sure she prides herself on belonging by birth to the lower class, and she knows that most aristocrats are imbeciles; for all that, she won't rest till she has found her niece a titled husband. This is my private conviction; take it for what it is worth."
"But," cried Iris, satisfaction still shining on her face, "do you think there's the least chance that Lord Dymchurch will be caught?"
"A week ago, I should have laughed at the suggestion. Now, I don't feel at all sure of his safety. He goes about to meet the girl. He's dining at their hotel to-night."
"You take a great interest in it," said Mrs. Woolstan, her voice faltering a little.
"Because I am so surprised and disappointed about Dymchurch. I thought better of him. I took him for a philosopher."
"But Mrs. Toplady says the girl is charming, and very clever."
"That's a matter of opinion. Doesn't Mrs. Toplady strike you as something of a busybody -- a glorified busybody, of course?"
"Oh, I like her! And she speaks very nicely of you."
"I'm much obliged. But, after all, why should she speak otherwise than nicely of me?"
Whilst Iris was meditating an answer to this question, the cab pulled up at a great shop. They alighted; the driver was bidden to wait; and along the alleys of the gleaming bazaar they sought a present suitable for Leonard Woolstan. To Lashmar it was a scarcely tolerable ennui; he had even more than the average man's hatred of shopping, and feminine indecision whipped him to contemptuous irritation. To give himself something to do, he looked about for a purchase on his own account, and, having made it, told Iris that this was a present from him to his former pupil.
"Oh, how kind of you!" exclaimed the mother, regarding him tenderly. "How very kind of you! Len will be delighted, poor boy."
They left the shop, and stood by the hansom.
"Where are you going to now?" asked Iris.
"Home, to work. I have to address a meeting at Hollingford on the 20th, and I must think out a sufficiency of harmless nonsense."
"Really? A public meeting already? Couldn't I come and hear you?"
Dyce explained the nature of the gathering.
"But I shall see you before then," he added, helping her to enter the cab. "By the bye, don't be indiscreet with reference to what we spoke of just now."
"Why of course not," answered Iris, her eyes fixed on his face as he drew back carelessly saluting.
Though Lashmar had elaborated his story concerning Lord Dymchurch on the spur of the moment, he now thoroughly believed it himself, and the result was a restlessness of mind which no conviction of its utter absurdity could overcome. In vain did he remember that Lady Ogram had settled his destiny so far as the matter lay in her hands, and that to displease the choleric old autocrat would be to overthrow in a moment the edifice of hope reared by her aid. The image of May Tomalin was constantly before his mind. Not that he felt himself sentimentally drawn to her; but she represented an opportunity which it annoyed him to feel that he would not, if he chose, be permitted to grasp. Miss Tomalin by no means satisfied his aspiration in the matter of marriage, whatever wealth she might have to bestow; he had always pictured a very lofty type of woman indeed, a being superb in every attribute when dreaming of his future spouse. But he enjoyed the sense of power, and was exasperated by a suggestion that any man could have a natural advantage over him. To this characteristic he owed the influence with women which had carried him so far, for there is nothing that better stands a man in his relations with the other sex than settled egoism serving restless ambition. This combination of qualities which all but every woman worship. Mrs. Toplady herself, she of the ironic smile and cynic intelligence, felt it a magnetic property in Dyce Lashmar's otherwise not very impressive person. On that account did she watch his pranks with so indulgent an eye, and give herself trouble to enlarge the scope of his entertaining activity. She knew, however, that the man was not cast in heroic mould; that he was capable of scruples, inclined to indolence; that he did not, after all, sufficiently believe in himself to go very far in the subjugation of others. Therefore she had never entertained the thought of seriously devoting herself to his cause, but was content to play with it until something more piquant should claim her attention.
Mrs. Toplady had always wished for the coming of the very hero, the man without fear, without qualm, who should put our finicking civilisation under his feet. Her god was a compound of the blood-reeking conqueror and the diplomatist supreme in guile. For such a man she would have poured out her safe-invested treasure, enough rewarded with a nod of half-disdainful recognition. It vexed her to think that she might pass away before the appearance of that new actor on the human stage; his entrance was all but due, she felt assured. Ah! the world would be much more amusing presently, and she meanwhile was growing old.
Her drawing-rooms on the evening of June 13th were crowded with representatives of Society. Lashmar arrived about ten o'clock, and his hostess had soon introduced him to two or three persons of political note, with each of whom be exchanged phrases of such appalling banality that he had much ado not to laugh in his interlocutor's face. The swelling current moved him along; he could only watch countenances and listen to dialogues as foolish as those in which he had taken part; a dizzying babblement filled the air, heavy with confusion of perfumes. Presently, having circled his way back towards the stair-head, he caught sight of Lord Dymchurch, who had newly entered; their eyes met, but Dymchurch, who wore a very absent look, gave no sign of recognition. Dyce pressed forward.
"I hoped I might meet you here," he said.
The other started, smiled nervously, and spoke in a confused way.
"I thought it likely. Of course you know a great many of these people?"
"Oh, a few. I had rather meet them anywhere than in such a crowd, though."
"Wonderful, isn't it?" murmured Dymchurch, with a comical distress in his eyebrows. "Wonderful!"
Good-naturedly nodding, he moved away, and was lost to sight. Dyce, holding his place near the entrance, perceived at length another face that he knew -- that of a lady with whom he had recently dined at this house; in her company came Constance Bride and May Tomalin. He all but bounded to meet them. Constance looked well in a garb more ornate than Lashmar had yet seen her wearing; May, glowing with self-satisfaction, made a brilliant appearance. Their chaperon spoke with him; he learned that Lady Ogram did not feel quite equal to an occasion such as this, and had stayed at home. Miss Tomalin, eager to join in the talk, pressed before Constance.
"Have you got your speech ready, Mr. Lashmar?" she asked, with sprightly condescension.
"Quite. How sorry I am that you won't be able to enjoy that masterpiece of eloquence!"
"Oh, but it will be reported. It must be reported, of course."
The chaperon interposed, presenting to Miss Tomalin a gentleman who seemed very desirous of that honour, and Dyce stifled his annoyance in saying apart to Constance
"What barbarism this is! One might as well try to converse in the middle of the street at Charing Cross."
"Certainly. But people don't come to converse," was the answer.
"You enjoy this kind of thing, I fancy?"
"I don't find it disagreeable."
The chaperon and Miss Tomalin were moving away; May cast a look at Lashmar, but he was unconscious of it. Constance turned to follow her companions, and Dyce stood alone again.
Half an hour later, the circling currents to which he surrendered himself brought him before a row of chairs, where sat the three ladies and, by the side of Miss Tomalin, Lord Dymchurch. May, flushed and bright-eyed, was talking at a great rate; she seemed to be laying down the law in some matter, and Dymchurch, respectfully bent towards her, listened with a thoughtful smile. Dyce approached, and spoke to Constance. A few moments afterwards, Lord Dymchurch rose, bowed, and withdrew; whereupon Lashmar asked Miss Tomalin's permission to take the vacant chair. It was granted rather absently; for the girl's eyes had furtively followed her late companion as he moved away, and she seemed more disposed to reflect than to begin a new conversation. This passed, however; soon she was talking politics with an air of omniscience which Lashmar could only envy.
"May I take you down to the supper-room?" he asked presently.
The chaperon and Miss Bride were engaged in conversation with a man who stood behind them.
"Yes, let us go," said May, rising. "I'm thirsty."
She spoke a word to the lady responsible for her, and swept off with Lashmar.
"How delightful it is,". Dyce exclaimed, "to gather such a lot of interesting people!"
"Isn't it!" May responded. "One feels really alive here. You would hardly believe --" she gave him a confidential look -- "that this is my first season in London."
"Indeed it isn't easy to believe," said Dyce, in the tone of compliment.
"I always thought of a London season," pursued May, "as mere frivolity. Of course there is a great deal of that. But here one sees only cultured and serious people; it makes one feel how much hope there is for the world, in spite of everything. The common Socialists talk dreadful nonsense about Society; of course it's mere ignorance."
"To be sure," Lashmar assented, with inward mirth. "Their views are inevitably so narrow. -- How long do you stay in town?"
"I'm afraid my aunt's health will oblige me to return to Rivenoak very soon. She has been seeing doctors. I don't know what they tell her, but I notice that she isn't quite herself this last day or two."
"Wonderful old lady, isn't she?" Dyce exclaimed.
"Oh, wonderful! You have known her for a long time, haven't you?"
"No, not very long. But we have talked so much, and agree so well in our views, that I think of her as quite an old friend. -- What can I get you? Do you like iced coffee?"
Dyce seated her, and tended upon her as though no such thing as a "method" with women had ever entered his mind. His demeanour was lamentably old-fashioned. What it lacked in natural grace, Miss Tomalin was not critical enough to perceive.
"How nice it will be," she suddenly remarked, "when you are in Parliament! Of course you will invite us to tea on the terrace, and all that kind of thing."
"I'm sure I hope I shall have the chance. My election is by no means a certainty, you know. The Tories are very strong at Hollingford."
"Oh, but we're all going to work for you. When we get back to Rivenoak, I shall begin a serious campaign. I could never live without some serious work of the social kind, and I look upon it as a great opportunity for civilising people. They must be taught that it is morally wrong to vote for such a man as Robb, and an absolute duty of citizenship to vote for you. How I shall enjoy it!"
"You are very kind!"
"Oh, don't think of it in that way!" exclaimed Miss Tomalin. "I have always thought more of principles than of persons. It isn't in my nature to take anything up unless I feel an absolute conviction that it is for the world's good. At Northampton I often offended people I liked by what they called my obstinacy when a principle was at stake. I don't want to praise myself, but I really can say that it is my nature to be earnest and thorough and disinterested."
"Of that I am quite sure," said Lashmar, fervently.
"And -- to let me tell you -- it is such a pleasure to feel that my opportunities will be so much greater than formerly." May was growing very intimate, but still kept her air of dignity, with its touch of condescension. "At Northampton, you know, I hadn't very much scope; now it will be different. What an important thing social position is! What power for good it gives one!"
"Provided," put in her companion, "that one belongs to nature's aristocracy."
"Well -- yes -- I suppose one must have the presumption to lay claim to that," returned May, with a little laugh.
"Say, rather, the honesty, the simple courage. Self-depreciation," added Dyce, "I have always regarded as a proof of littleness. People really called to do something never lose confidence in themselves, and have no false modesty about expressing it."
"I'm sure that's very true. I heard once that someone at Northampton had called me conceited, and you can't think what a shock it gave me. I sat down, there and then, and asked myself whether I really was conceited, and my conscience assured me I was nothing of the kind. I settled it with myself, once for all. Since then, I have never cared what people said about me."
"That's admirable!" murmured Dyce.
"I am sure," went on the girl, with a grave archness, "that you too have known such an experience."
"To tell the truth, I have," the philosopher admitted, bending his head a little.
"I felt certain that you could understand me, or I should never have ventured to tell you such a thing. -- There is Miss Bride!"
Constance had taken a seat not far from them, and the man who had been talking with her upstairs was offering her refreshments. Presently, she caught Miss Tomalin's eye, and smiled; a minute or two after, she and her companion came forward to join the other pair, and all re-ascended to the drawing-rooms together. When he had restored his charge to her chaperon, Lashmar took the hint of discretion and retired into the throng. There amid, he encountered Iris Woolstan, her eyes wide in search.
"So you are here!" she exclaimed, with immediate change of countenance. "I despaired of ever seeing you. What a crush!"
"Horrible, isn't it. I've had enough; I must breathe the air."
"Oh, stay a few minutes. I know so few people. Are Lady Ogram and her niece here?"
"Lady Ogram, I think not. I caught a glimpse of Miss Tomalin somewhere or other, sternly chaperoned."
He lied gaily, for the talk with May had put him into a thoroughly blithe humour.
"I should so like to see her," said Iris. "Don't you think you could point her out, if we went about a little."
"Let us look for her by all means. Have you been to the supper-room? She may be there."
They turned to move slowly towards the staircase. Before reaching the door, they were met by Mrs. Toplady, at her side the gentleman who had been Miss Bride's companion downstairs.
"How fortunate!" exclaimed the hostess to Mrs. Woolstan. "I so want you to know Miss Tomalin, and Mr. Rossendale can take us to her."
Iris voiced her delight, and looked at Lashmar, inviting him to come too. But Dyce stood rigid, an unnatural smile on his features; then he drew back, turned, and was lost to view.
Five minutes later, he quitted the house. It was raining lightly. Whilst he looked upward to give the cabman his address, drops fell upon his face, and he found their coolness pleasant.
During the ride home, he indulged a limitless wrath against Iris Woolstan. That busybody had spoilt his evening, had thrown disturbance into his mind just when it was enjoying the cheeriest hopes. As likely as not she would learn that he had had a long talk with May Tomalin, and, seeing the girl, she would put her own interpretation on the fib he had told her. What a nuisance it was to have to do with these feminine creatures, all fuss and impulsiveness and sentimentality! It would not surprise him in the least if she made a scene about this evening. Already, the other day, her tone when she accused him of giving her a false idea of Lady Ogram's niece proved the possibility of nonsensical trouble. The thing was a gross absurdity. Had he not, from the very beginning of their friendship, been careful to adopt a tone as uncompromising as man could use? Had he not applied to her his "method" in all its rigour? What right had she to worry him with idiotic jealousies? Could anyone have behaved more honourably than he throughout their intercourse? Why, the average man --
His debt? What had that to do with the matter? The very fact of his accepting a loan of money from her emphasised the dry nature of their relations. That money must quickly be repaid, or he would have no peace. The woman began to presume upon his indebtedness, he saw that clearly. Her tone had been different, ever since.
Deuce take the silly creature! She had made him thoroughly uncomfortable. What it was to have delicate sensibilities!
Having an imperious will and an intelligence merely practical, it was natural for Lady Ogram to imagine that, even as she imposed her authority on others in outward things, so had she sway over their minds; what she willed that others should think, that, she took for granted, they thought. Seeing herself as an entirely beneficent potentate; unable to distinguish for a moment between her arbitrary impulses and the well-meaning motives which often directed her; she assumed as perfectly natural that all within her sphere of action must regard her with grateful submissiveness. So, for example, having decided that a marriage between Dyce Lashmar and Constance Bride would be a very good thing for both, and purposing large generosity towards them when it should have come about, she found it very difficult to conceive that either of her young friends could take any other view of the matter. When observation obliged her to doubt the correctness of her first impressions, she grew only the more determined that things should be as she wished. Since the coming of May Tomalin, a new reason -- or rather, emotion -- fortified her resolve; seeing a possibility, even a likelihood, that May and Lashmar might attract each other, and having very definite views with regard to her niece, she was impatient for a declared betrothal of Constance and the aspiring politician. Their mutual aloofness irritated her more than she allowed to be seen, and the moment approached when she could no longer endure such playing with her serious purposes.
She knew that she had committed an imprudence in coming to London and entering, however moderately, into the excitements of the season. A day or two sufficed to prove the danger she was incurring; but she refused to take count of symptoms. With a weakness which did not lack its pathos, she had, for the first time in her life, put what she called "a touch of colour" onto her cheeks, and the result so pleased her that she all but forgot the artificiality of this late bloom; each morning, when her maid had performed the office, she viewed herself with satisfaction, and was even heard to remark that London evidently did her good. Lady Ogram tried to believe that even age and disease were amenable to her control.
She consulted doctors -- for the form; behaving with cold civility during their visit, and scornfully satirising them when they were gone. None the less did she entertain friends at luncheon or dinner, and often talked to them as if years of activity and enjoyment lay before her. "Wonderful old lady!" was the remark of most who left her presence; but some exchanged glances and let fall ominous words.
On the evening when May and Constance were at the crush in Pont Street, she would not go to bed, but lay on a couch in her chamber, occasionally dozing, more often wide awake and quivering with the agitation of her mind. It was one o'clock when the girls returned, but she had given orders that Miss Tomalin should at once come to see her, and May, flushed, resplendent, entered the dimly-lighted room.
"Well, have you enjoyed yourself?"
The voice was a shock to May's ears. After those to which she had been listening, it sounded sepulchral.
"Very much indeed. A delightful time!"
No token of affection had a place in their greeting. The old autocrat could not bring herself to offer, or ask for, tenderness; but in her eyes, always expressive of admiration when she looked at May, might have been read something like hunger of the heart.
"Sit down, my dear." Even this form of address was exceptional. "Tell me all about it. Who was there?"
"Hundreds of people! I can't remember half of those I was introduced to. Lord Dymchurch --"
"Ha! Lord Dymchurch came? And you had a talk with him?"
"Oh, yes. I find he takes a great interest in Old English, and we talked about Chaucer and so on for a long time. He isn't quite so well up in it as I am; I put him right on one or two points, and he seemed quite grateful. He's very nice, isn't he? There's something so quiet and good-natured about him. I thought perhaps he would have offered to take me down to supper, but he didn't. Perhaps he didn't think of it; I fancy he's rather absentminded."
Lady Ogram knitted her brows.
"Who did go down with you?" she asked.
"Oh, Mr. Lashmar. He was very amusing. Then I talked with --"
"Wait a minute. Did you only have one talk with Lord Dymchurch?"
"Only one. He doesn't care for 'At Homes.' Mrs. Toplady says he hardly ever goes anywhere, and she fancies" -- May laughed lightly -- "that he came to-night only because I was going to be there. Do you think it likely, aunt?"
"Why, I don't think it impossible," replied Lady Ogram, in a tone of relief. "I have known more unlikely things. And suppose it were true?"
"Oh, it's very complimentary, of course."
The old eyes dwelt upon the young face, and with a puzzled expression. Notwithstanding her own character, it was difficult for Lady Ogram to imagine that the girl seriously regarded herself as superior to Lord Dymchurch.
"Perhaps it's more than a compliment," she said, in rather a mumbling voice; and she added, with an effort to speak distinctly, "I suppose you didn't tire him with that talk about Old English?"
"Tire him?" May exclaimed. "Way, he was delighted!"
"But he seems to have been satisfied with the one talk."
"Oh, he went away because Mr. Lashmar came up, that was all. He's very modest; perhaps he thought he oughtn't to prevent me from talking to other people."
Lady Ogram looked annoyed and worried.
"If I were you, May, I shouldn't talk about Old English next time you see Lord Dymchurch. Men don't care to find themselves at school in a drawing-room."
"I assure you, aunt, that is not my only subject of conversation," replied May, amused and dignified. "And I'm perfectly certain that it was just the thing for Lord Dymchurch. He has a serious mind, and I like him to know that mine is the same."
"That's all right, of course. I dare say you know best what pleases him. And I think it very probable indeed, May, that he went to Pont Street just in the hope of meeting you."
May smiled, and seemed to take the thing as very natural; whereupon Lady Ogram again looked puzzled.
"Well, go to bed, May. I'm very glad Lord Dymchurch was there; very glad. Go to bed, and sleep as late as you like. I'm glad you've enjoyed yourself, and I'm very glad Lord Dymchurch was there -- very."
The voice had become so senile, so indistinct, that May could hardly catch what it said. She lightly kissed her aunt's cheek -- a ceremony that passed between them only when decorum seemed to demand it -- and left the room.
On the following morning, Dyce Lashmar received a telegram, couched thus:
"Please call at Bunting's Hotel at 3 this afternoon."
In order to respond to this summons, he had to break an engagement; but he did it willingly. Around the hotel in Albemarle Street circled all his thoughts, and he desired nothing more than to direct his steps thither. Arriving with perfect punctuality, he was shown into Lady Ogram's drawing-room, and found Lady Ogram alone. Artificial complexion notwithstanding, the stern old visage wore to-day a look as of nature all but spent. At Lashmar's entrance, his hostess did not move; sunk together in her chair, head drooping forward, she viewed him from under her eyebrows: even to give her hand when he stood before her seemed almost too great an effort, and the shrivelled lips scarce made audible her bidding that he should be seated.
"You are well, I hope?" said Dyce, feeling uncomfortable, but affecting to see nothing unusual in the face before him.
Lady Ogram nodded, impatiently. There was a moment's silence; then, turning her gaze upon him, she said abruptly, in a harsh croak:
"What are you waiting for?"
Lashmar felt a cold touch along his spine. He thought the ghastly old woman had lost her senses, that she was either mad or delirious. Yet her gaze had nothing wild; on the contrary, it searched him with all the wonted keenness.
"Waiting -- ? I'm afraid I don't understand --"
"Why haven't you done what you know I wish?" pursued the untuneful voice, now better controlled. "I'm speaking of Constance Bride."
Relieved on one side, Dyce fell into trouble on the other.
"To tell you the truth, Lady Ogram," he answered, with his air of utmost candour, "I have found no encouragement to take the step of which you are thinking. I'm afraid I know only too well what the result would be."
"You know nothing about it."
Lady Ogram moved. As always, a hint of opposition increased her force. She was suffering acute physical pain, which appeared in every line of her face, and in the rigid muscles of her arms as she supported herself on the arms of the chair.
"Answer me this," she went on -- and her utterance had something which told of those far-off days before education and refined society had softened her tongue. "Will you see Miss Bride this afternoon, and make her an offer of marriage? Are you willing? Just answer me yes or no."
Dyce replied mechanically and smiled as he replied.
"I am quite willing, Lady Ogram. I only wish I could feel assured that Miss Bride --"
He was rudely interrupted.
"Don't talk, but listen to me." For a moment the lips went on moving, yet gave no sound; then words came again. "I've told you once already about Constance, what I think of her, and what I intend for her. I needn't go over all that again. As for you, I think I've given proof that I wish you well. I was led to it at first because I saw that Constance liked you; now I wish you well for your own sake, and you may trust me to do what I can to help you on. But till a man a married, no one can say what he'll make of his life. You've plenty of brains, more than most men, but I don't think you've got too much of what I call backbone. If you make a fool of yourself -- as most men do -- in marriage, it's all up with you. I want to see you safe. Go where you will, you'll find no better wife, better in every way for you, than Constance Bride. You want a woman with plenty of common sense as well as uncommon ability; the kind of woman that'll keep you going steadily -- up -- up! Do you understand me?"
The effort with which she spoke was terrible. Her face began to shine with moisture, and her mouth seemed to be parched. Lashmar must have been of much sterner stuff for these vehement and rough-cut sentences to make no impression upon him; he was held by the dark, fierce eye, and felt in his heart that he had heard truths.
"And mind this," continued Lady Ogram, leaning towards him. "Constance's marriage alters nothing in what I had planned for her before I knew you. She'll have her duties quite apart from your interests and all you aim at. I know her; I'm not afraid to trust her, even when she's married. She's honest -- and that's what can be said of few women. This morning I had a talk with her. She knows, now, the responsibility I want her to undertake, and she isn't afraid of it. I said nothing to her about you; not a word: but, when you speak to her, she'll understand what was in my mind. So let us get things settled, and have no more bother about it. On Saturday" -- it was three days hence -- "I go back to Rivenoak; I've enough of London; I want to be quiet. You are to come down with us. You've business at Hollingford on the 20th, and you ought to see more of the Hollingford people."
Whatever Lady Ogram had proposed (or rather dictated) Dyce would have agreed to. He was under the authority of her eye and voice. The prospect of being down at Rivenoak, and there, of necessity, living in daily communication with May Tomalin, helped him to disregard the other features of his position. He gave a cheerful assent.
"Now go away for half an hour," said Lady Ogram. "Then come back, and ask for Miss Bride, and you'll find her here."
She was at the end of her strength, and could barely make the last words audible. Dyce pressed her hand silently, and withdrew.
After the imposed interval, he returned from a ramble in Piccadilly, where he had seen nothing, and was conducted again to the drawing-room. There Constance sat reading. She was perfectly calm, entirely herself, and, as Lashmar entered, she looked up with the usual smile.
"Have you been out this afternoon?" he began by asking.
"You went on business of Lady Ogram's?"
Dyce gave no answer. He laid aside his hat and stick, sat down not far from Constance, and looked at her steadily.
"I have something rather odd to say to you. As we are both rational persons, I shall talk quite freely, and explain to you exactly the position in which I find myself. It's a queer position, to say the least. When I was at Rivenoak, on the last day of my visit, Lady Ogram had a confidential talk with me; your name came prominently into it, and I went away with certain vague impressions which have kept me, ever since, in a good deal of uneasiness. This afternoon, I have had another private conversation with Lady Ogram. Again your name had a prominent part in it, and this time there was no vagueness whatever in the communication made to me. I was bidden, in plain terms, to make you an offer of marriage."
Constance drooped her eyes, but gave no other sign of disturbance.
"Now," resumed Dyce, leaning forward with hands clasped between his knees, "before I say anything more about this matter as it concerns you, I had better tell you what I think about our friend. I feel pretty sure that she has a very short time to live; it wouldn't surprise me if it were a question of days, but in any case I am convinced she won't live for a month. What is your opinion?"
"I fancy you are right," answered the other, gravely.
"If so, this rather grotesque situation becomes more manageable. It is fortunate that you and I know each other so well, and have the habit of straightforward speech. I may assume, no doubt, that, from the very first, our friendship was misinterpreted by Lady Ogram; reasonable relations between man and woman are so very rare, and, in this case, the observer was no very acute psychologist. I feel sure she is actuated by the kindest motives; but what seems to her my inexplicable delay has been too much for her temper, and at last there was nothing for it but to deal roundly with me. One may suspect, too, that she feels she has not much time to spare. Having made up her mind that we are to marry, she wants to see the thing settled. Looking at it philosophically, I suppose one may admit that her views and her behaviour are intelligible. Meanwhile, you and I find ourselves in a very awkward position. We must talk it over -- don't you think? -- quite simply, and decide what is best to do."
Constance listened, her eyes conning the carpet. There was silence for a minute, then she spoke.
"What did Lady Ogram tell you about me?"
"She repeated in vague terms something she had already said at Rivenoak. It seems that you are to undertake some great responsibility -- to receive some proof of her confidence which will affect all the rest of your life. More than that I don't know, but I understand that there has been a conversation between you, in which everything was fully explained."
Constance nodded. After a moment's reflection she raised her eyes to Lashmar's, and intently regarded him; her expression was one of anxiety severely controlled.
"You shall know what that responsibility is," she said, with a just perceptible tremor in her voice. "Lady Ogram, like a good many other people nowadays, has more money than she knows what to do with. For many years, I think, she has been troubled by a feeling that a woman rich as she ought to make some extraordinary use of her riches -- ought to set an example, in short, to the wealthy world. But she never could discover the best way of doing this. She has an independent mind, and likes to strike out ways for herself. Ordinary Charities didn't satisfy her; to tell the truth, she wanted not only to do substantial good, but to do it in a way which should perpetuate her name -- cause her to be more talked about after her death than she has been in her lifetime. Time went on, and she still could hit upon nothing brilliant; all she had decided was to build and endow a great hospital at Hollingford, to be called by her name, and this, for several reasons, she kept postponing. Then came her acquaintance with me -- you know the story. She was troubling about the decay of the village, and trying to hit on remedies. Well, I had the good luck to suggest the paper-mill, and it was a success, and Lady Ogram at once had a great opinion of me. From that day -- she tells me -- the thought grew in her mind that, instead of devoting all her wealth, by will, to definite purposes, she would leave a certain portion of it to me, to be used by me for purposes of public good. I, in short" -- Constance smiled nervously -- "was to be sole and uncontrolled trustee of a great fund, which would be used, after her death, just as it might have been had she gone on living. The idea is rather fine, it seems to me; it could only have originated in a mind capable of very generous thought, generous in every sense of the word. It implied remarkable confidence, such as few people, especially few women, are capable of. It strikes me as rather pathetic, too -- the feeling that she would continue to live in another being, not a mere inheritor of her money, but a true representative of her mind, thinking and acting as she would do, always consulting her memory, desiring her approval. Do you see what I mean?"
"Of course I do," answered Dyce, meditatively. "Yes, it's fine. It increases my respect for our friend."
"I have always respected her," said Constance, "and I am sorry now that I did not respect her more. Often she has irritated me, and in bad temper I have spoken thoughtlessly. I remember that letter I wrote you, before you first came to Rivenoak; it was silly, and, I'm afraid, rather vulgar."
"Nothing of the kind," interposed Lashmar. "It was very clever. You couldn't be vulgar if you tried."
"Have you the letter still?"
"Of course I have."
"Then do me the kindness to destroy it -- will you?"
"If you wish."
"I do, seriously. Burn the thing, as soon as you get home."
They avoided each-other's look, and there was a rather long pause.
"I'll go on with my story," said Constance, in a voice still under studious control. "All this happened when Lady Ogram thought she had no living relative. One fine day, Mr. Kerchever came down with news of Miss Tomalin, and straightway the world was altered. Lady Ogram had a natural heiress, and one in whom she delighted. Everything had to be reconsidered. The great hospital became a dream. She wanted May Tomalin to be rich, very rich, to marry brilliantly. I have always suspected that Lady Ogram looked upon her life as a sort of revenge on the aristocratic class for the poverty and ignorance of her own people; did anything of the kind ever occur to you?"
"Was her family really mean?"
"Everyone says so. Mrs. Gallantry tells me that our illustrious M. P. has made laborious searches, hoping to prove something scandalous. Of course she tells it as a proof of Mr. Robb's unscrupulous hatred of Lady Ogram. I daresay the truth is that she came of a low class. At all events, Miss Tomalin, who represents the family in a progressive stage, is to establish its glory for ever. One understands. It's very human."
Lashmar wore the Toplady smile.
"It never occurred to our friend," he said, "that her niece might undertake the great trust instead of you?"
"She has spoken to me quite frankly about that. The trust cannot be so great as it would have been, but it remains with me. Miss Tomalin, it may be hoped, will play not quite an ordinary part in the fashionable world; she has ideas of her own, and" -- the voice was modulated -- "some faith in herself. But my position is different, and perhaps my mind. Lady Ogram assures me that her faith in me, and her hopes, have suffered no change. For one thing, the mill is to become my property. Then --"
She hesitated, and her eyes passed over the listener's face. Lashmar was very attentive.
"There's no need to go into details," she added quickly. "Lady Ogram told me everything, saying she felt that the time had come for doing so. And I accepted the trust."
"Without knowing, however," said Dyce, "the not unimportant condition which her mind attached to it."
"There was no condition, expressed or reserved."
Constance's tone had become hard again. Her eyes were averted, her lips set in their firmest lines.
"Are you quite sure of that?"
"Quite," was the decisive reply.
"How do you reconcile that with what has passed today between Lady Ogram and me?"
"It was between Lady Ogram and you," said Constance, subduing her voice.
"I see. You mean that I alone am concerned; that your position will in no case be affected?"
"Yes, I mean that," answered Constance, quietly.
Lashmar thought for a moment, then moved on his chair, and spoke in a low tone, which seemed addressed to his hearer's sympathy.
"Perhaps you are right. Probably you are. But there is one thing of which I feel every assurance. If it becomes plain that her project must come to nothing, Lady Ogram's interest in me is at an end. I may say good-bye to Hollingford."
"You are mistaken," replied Constance, in a voice almost of indifference.
"Well, the question will soon be decided." Lashmar seemed to submit himself to the inevitable. "I shall write to Lady Ogram, telling her the result of our conversation. We shall see how she takes it."
He moved as if about to rise, but only turned his chair slightly aside. Constance was regarding him from under her brows. She spoke in her most businesslike tone.
"It was this that you came to tell me?"
"Why, no. It wasn't that at all."
"What had you in mind, then?"
"I was going to ask if you would marry me -- or rather, if you would promise to -- or rather, if you would make believe to marry me. I thought that, under the circumstances, it was a justifiable thing to do, for I fancied your future, as well as mine, was at stake. Seeing our friend's condition, it appeared to me that a formal engagement between us would be a kindness to her, and involve no serious consequences for us. But the case is altered. You being secure against Lady Ogram's displeasure, I have, of course, no right to ask you to take a part in such a proceeding -- which naturally you would feel to be unworthy of you. All I have to do is to thank you for your efforts on my behalf. Who knows? I may hold my own at Hollingford. But at Rivenoak it's all over with me."
He stood up, and assumed an attitude of resigned dignity, smiling to himself. But Constance kept her seat, her eyes on the ground.
"I believe you were going down on Saturday?" she said.
"So it was arranged. Well, I mustn't stay --"
Constance rose, and he offered his hand.
"Between us, it makes no difference, I hope?" said Dyce, with an emphasised effort of cheeriness. "Unless you think me a paltry fellow, ready to do anything to get on?"
"I don't think that," replied Constance, quietly.
"But you feel that what I was going to ask would have been rather a severe test of friendship?"
"Under the circumstances, I could have pardoned you."
"But you wouldn't have got beyond forgiveness?"
Constance smiled coldly, her look wandering.
"How can I tell?"
"But -- oh, never mind! Good-bye, for the present."
He pressed her hand again, and turned away. Before he had reached the door, Constance's voice arrested him.
"Mr. Lashmar --"
He looked at her as if with disinterested inquiry.
"Think well before you take any irreparable step. It would be a pity."
Dyce moved towards her again.
"Why, what choice have I? The position is impossible. If you hadn't said those unlucky words about being so sure --"
"I don't see that they make the slightest difference," answered Constance, her eyebrows raised. "If you had intended a genuine offer of marriage -- yes, perhaps. But as all you meant was to ask me to save the situation, with no harm to anybody, and the certainty of giving great pleasure to our friend --"
"You see it in that light?" cried Lashmar, flinging away his hat. "You really think I should be justified? You are not offended?"
"I credit myself with a certain measure of common sense," answered Constance.
"Then you will allow me to tell Lady Ogram that there is an engagement?"
"You may tell her so, if you like."
He seized her hand, and pressed his lips upon it. But, scarce had he done so, when Constance drew it brusquely away.
"There is no need to play our comedy in private," she said, with cold reproof. "And I hope that at all times you will use the discretion that is owing to me."
"If I don't, I shall deserve to fall into worse difficulties than ever," cried Lashmar.
"As, for instance, to find yourself under the necessity of making your mock contract a real one -- which would be sufficiently tragic."
Constance spoke with a laugh, and thereupon, before Dyce could make any rejoinder, walked from the room.
The philosopher stood embarrassed. "What did she mean by that?" he asked himself. He had never felt on very solid ground in his dealings with Constance; had never felt sure in his reading of her character, his interpretation of her ways and looks and speeches. An odd thing that he should have been betrayed by his sense of triumphant diplomacy into that foolish excess. And he remembered that it was the second such indiscretion, though this time, happily, not so compromising as his youthful extravagance at Alverholme.
What if Lady Ogram, feeling that her end drew near, called for their speedy marriage? Was it the thought of such possibility that had supplied Constance with her sharp-edged jest? If she could laugh, the risk did not seem to her very dreadful. And to him?
He could not make up his mind on the point.
Lord Dymchurch was at a critical moment of his life.
Discontent, the malady of the age, had taken hold upon him. No ignoble form of the disease; for his mind, naturally in accord with generous thoughts, repelled every suggestion which he recognised as of unworthy origin, and no man saw more clearly how much there was of vanity and of evil in the unrest which rules our time. He was possessed by that turbid idealism which, in the tumult of a day without conscious guidance, is the peril of gentle souls. Looking out upon the world, he seemed to himself to be the one idle man in a toiling and aspiring multitude; for, however astray the energy of most, activity was visible on every side, and in activity -- so he told himself -- lay man's only hope. He alone did nothing. Wearing his title like a fool's cap, he mooned in by-paths which had become a maze. Was it not the foolish title that bemused and disabled him? Without it, would he not long ago have gone to work like other men, and had his part in the onward struggle? Discontented with himself, ill at ease in his social position, reproachfully minded towards the ancestors who had ruined him, he fell into that most dangerous mood of the cultured and conscientious man, a feverish inclination for practical experiment in life.
His age was two and thirty. A decade ago he had dreamt of distinguishing himself in the Chamber of Peers; why should poverty bar the way of intellect and zeal? Experience taught him that, though money might not be indispensable to such a career as he imagined, the lack of it was on]y to be supplied by powers such as he certainly did not possess. Abashed at the thought of his presumption he withdrew altogether from the seat to which his birth entitled him, and at the same time ceased to appear in Society. He had the temper of a student, and among his books he soon found consolation for the first disappointments of youth. Study, however, led him by degrees to all the questions rife in the world about him; with the inevitable result that his maturer thought turned back upon things he fancied himself to have outgrown. His time had been wasted. At thirty-two all he had clearly learnt was a regret for vanished years.
He resisted as a temptation the philosophic quietism which had been his strength and his pride. From the pages of Marcus Aurelius, which he had almost by heart, one passage only was allowed to dwell with him: "When thou art hard to be stirred up and awaked out of thy sleep, admonish thyself and call to mind that to perform actions tending to the common good is that which thine own proper constitution, and that which the nature of man, do require." Morning and night, the question with him became, what could he do in the cause of civilisation? And about this time it chanced that he made the acquaintance of Dyce Lashmar. He listened, presently, to the bio-sociological theory of human life, believing it to be Lashmar's own, and finding in it a great deal that was not only intellectually fruitful, but strong in appeal to his sympathies. Here he saw the reconciliation of his aristocratic prejudices -- which he had little hope of ever overcoming -- with the humanitarian emotion and conviction which were also a natural part of his being. All this did but contribute to his disquiet. No longer occupied with definite studies, he often felt time heavy on his hands, and saw himself more obnoxious than ever to the charge of idleness. Lashmar, though possibly his ambition had some alloy of self-seeking, gave an example of intellect applied to the world's behoof; especially did his views on education, developed in a recent talk at the club, strike Dymchurch as commendable and likely to have influence. He asked nothing better than an opportunity of devoting himself to a movement for educational reform. The abstract now disgusted him well nigh as much as the too grossly actual. Thus, chancing to open Shelley, he found with surprise that the poet of his adolescence not merely left him cold, but seemed verbose and tedious.
Some anxiety about his private affairs aided this mental tendency. Some time ago, he had been appealed to by the tenant of his Kentish farm for a reduction of rent, which, on consideration of the facts submitted to him, he felt unable to refuse. The farmer was now dead, and it was not without trouble that the land had been leased again on the same reduced terms; moreover, the new tenant seemed to be a not very satisfactory man, and Dymchurch had to consider the possibility that this part of his small income might become uncertain, or fail him altogether. Now and then he entertained the thought of studying agriculture, living upon his farm, and earning bread in the sweat of his brow; but a little talk with practical men showed him all the difficulties of such an undertaking. So far as his own day-to-day life was concerned, he felt small need of money; but it constantly worried him to think of his sisters down in Somerset, their best years going by, not indeed in actual want, but with so little of the brightness or hope natural to ladies of their birth. They did not appear unhappy; like him, they had a preference for the tranquil mode of life; none the less, he saw how different everything would have been with them but for their narrow means, and, after each visit to the silent meadow-circled house, he came away reproaching himself for his inertness.
The invitation to Lashmar's restaurant-dinner annoyed him a little, for casual company was by no means to his taste; when it was over, he felt glad that he had come, and more than ever fretted in spirit about his personal insignificance, his uselessness in the scheme of things. He was growing to hate the meaningless symbol which distinguished him from ordinary men; the sight of an envelope addressed to him stirred his spleen, for it looked like deliberate mockery. How if he cast away this empty lordship? Might it not be the breaking down of a barrier between him and real life? In doing so, what duty would he renounce? Who cared a snap of the fingers whether he signed himself "Dymchurch" or "Walter Fallowfield?" It was long enough since the barony of Dymchurch had justified its existence by any public service, and, as most people knew, its private record had small dignity. The likelihood was that he would never marry, and, unless either of his sisters did so, every day a more improbable thing, the title might fall into happy oblivion. What, in deed, did such titles mean nowadays? They were a silly anachronism, absurdly in contradiction with that scientific teaching which rules our lives. Lashmar, of course, was right in his demand for a new aristocracy to oust the old, an aristocracy of nature, of the born leaders of men. It might be that he had some claim to a humble position in that spiritual hierarchy, and perhaps the one manifest way to make proof of it was by flinging aside his tinsel privilege -- an example, a precedent, to the like-minded of his caste.
Mrs. Toplady had begged him to come and see her. Mrs. Toplady, vaguely known to him by name, would, but a short time ago, have turned him to flight; having talked with her at the restaurant, he inclined to think her a very intelligent and bright-witted woman, the kind of woman who did a service to Society by keeping it in touch with modern ideas. After a little uneasy hesitation, he betook himself to Pont Street. Next, he accepted an invitation to dine there, and found himself in the company of an old Lady Ogram, of whom he had never heard, and a girl with an odd name, her niece, who rather amused him. Calling presently in Pont Street, to discharge his obligation of ceremony, he found Mrs. Toplady alone, and heard from her, in easy, half-confidential chat, a great deal about Lady Ogram and Miss Tomalin, information such as he would never himself have sought, but which, set off by his hostess's pleasant manner, entertained and somewhat interested him. For the young lady and her aged relative shone in no common light as Mrs. Toplady exhibited them. The baronet's widow became one of the most remarkable women of her time, all the more remarkable because of lowly origin; Miss Tomalin, heiress of a great fortune, had pure colonial blood in her veins, yet pursued with delightful zeal the finest culture of an old civilisation. As Mrs. Toplady talked thus, the door opened to admit -- Mr. Lashmar, and there was an end of confidences for that day.
So far, Dymchurch had yielded without much reflection to the friendly pressure which brought him among strangers and disturbed his habits of seclusion. These dinners and afternoon calls had no importance; very soon he would be going down into Somerset, where it might be hoped that he would think out the problems which worried him, and arrive at some clear decision about the future. But when he found himself, reluctantly, yet as it seemed inevitably, setting forth to Mrs. Toplady's "At Home," the reasonable man in him grew restive. Why was he guilty of this weakness? Years had passed since he did anything so foolish as to leave home towards the middle of the night for the purpose of hustling amid a crowd of unknown people in staircases and drawing-rooms. He saw himself as the victim of sudden fatuity, own brother to the longest-eared of fashion's worshippers. Assuredly this should be the last of his concessions.
Inwardly pishing and pshawing, he drifted about the rooms till brought up beside Miss Tomalin. Then his mood changed. This girl, with her queer mixture of naiveté and conceit and examination-room pedantry, decidedly amused him. Was she a type of the young Canadian? He knew nothing of her life at Northampton, and thought she had come over from Canada only a year or two ago. Yes, she amused him. By contrast with the drawing-room young lady, of whom he had always been afraid, she seemed to have originality of character, spontaneity of talk. Of course her learning was not exactly profound; the quality of her mind left something to be desired; her breeding fell short of what is demanded by the fastidious; but there was something healthy and genuine about her, which made these deficiencies a matter for indulgence rather than for censure. And then, she was by no means ill-looking. Once or twice he caught an aspect of her features which had a certain impressiveness; with nature cast in a more serious mould, she might have become a really beautiful woman.
Just as he had found courage to turn the talk in a personal direction, with an inquiry about Canadian life, he saw the approach of Dyce Lashmar. A glance at Miss Tomalin showed him that she had perceived the young politician, who was looking with manifest interest at her. Abruptly he rose. He had thought of asking the girl to let him take her to the supper-room, but at the sight of Lashmar he did not hesitate for a moment about retreating. And at once he quitted the house.
Dymchurch had never inclined to tender experiences; his life so far was without romance. Women more often amused than interested him; his humorous disposition found play among their lighter characteristics, and on the other hand -- natural complement of humour -- he felt a certain awe of the mysterious in their being. Except his own sisters, whom, naturally enough, he regarded as quite exceptional persons, he had never been on terms of intimacy with any woman of the educated world. Regarding marriage as impracticable -- for he had always shrunk from the thought of accepting money with a wife -- he gave as little heed as possible to the other sex, tried to leave it altogether out of account in his musings and reasonings upon existence. Frankly he said to himself that he knew nothing about women, and that he was just as likely to be wrong as right in any theory he might form about their place in the world, their dues, their possibilities. By temper, he leaned to the old way of regarding them; women militant, women in the public eye, were on the whole unpleasing to him. But he was satisfied with an occasional laugh at these extravagances, and heard with tolerable patience anyone who pleaded the cause of female emancipation. In brief, women lay beyond the circle of his interests.
The explanation of his abrupt withdrawal on Lashmar's appearance was, simply, that he all at once imagined a private understanding between his political friend and Miss Tomalin. The possibility had not hitherto occurred to him: he had given too little thought to Lady Ogram's niece. Now, of a sudden, it flashed upon him that Lashmar was seeking the girl in marriage, perhaps had already won her favour. The thought that Lashmar might perchance regard him as a rival pricked his pride; not for a moment could he rest under that misconstruction. He left the field clear, and drew breath like a man who has shaken off an embarrassment.
On the way home he saw how natural it was that such a man as Lashmar should woo Miss Tomalin. He might be a little too good for her; yet there was no knowing. That half grim, half grotesque Lady Ogram had evidently taken Lashmar under her wing, and probably would make no objection to the alliance; perhaps she had even projected it. Utterly without idle self-consciousness, Dymchurch had perceived no special significance in Mrs. Toplady's social advances to him. The sense of poverty was so persistent in his mind that he had never seen himself as a possible object of matrimonial intrigue; nor had he ever come in contact with a social rank where such designs must have been forced on his notice. Well, his "season" was over; he laughed as he looked back upon it. When Lashmar and Miss Tomalin were married, he might or might not see something of them. The man had ideas: it remained to be proved whether his strength was equal to his ambitions.
A few days later, Dymchurch heard that one of his sisters was not very well. She had caught a cold, and could not shake it off. This decided him to plan a summer holiday. He wrote and asked whether the girls would go with him to a certain quiet spot high in the Alps, and how soon they could leave home. The answer came that they would prefer not to go away until the middle of July, as a friend was about to visit them, whom they hoped to keep for two or three weeks. Disappointed at the delay, Dymchurch tried to settle down to his books; but books had lost their savour. He was consumed by dreary indolence.
Then came a note from Mrs. Toplady. He knew the writing, and opened the envelope with a petulant grimace, muttering "No, no, no!"
"Dear Lord Dymchurch," wrote his correspondent, "I wonder whether you are going to the performance of 'As You Like It' at Lady Honeybourne's on the 24th? It promises to be very good. If only they have fine weather, the play will be a real delight in that exquisite Surrey woodland. I do so hope we may meet you there. By we I mean Miss Tomalin and myself. Lady Ogram has gone back into the country, her health being unequal to London strain, and her niece stays with me for a little. You have heard, no doubt, of the engagement of Mr. Lashmar and Miss Bride. I knew it was coming. They are admirably suited to each other. To-day Mr. Lashmar gives his address at Hollingford, and I hope for good news tomorrow --"
The reader hung suspended at this point. Miss Bride? Who was Miss Bride? Oh, the lady whom he had seen once or twice with Lady Ogram; her secretary, had he not heard? Why, then he was altogether wrong in his conjecture about Lashmar and Miss Tomalin. He smiled at the error, characteristic of such an acute observer of social life!
He had received a card of invitation to Lady Honeybourne's, but had by no means thought of going down into Surrey to see an amateur open-air performance of "As You Like It." After all, was it not a way of passing an afternoon? And would not Miss Tomalin's running comment have a piquancy all its own? She would have "got up" the play, would be prepared with various readings, with philological and archæological illustrations. Dymchurch smiled again as he thought of it, and already was half decided to go.
A copy of the Hollingford Express, posted, no doubt, by Lashmar, informed him that the private meeting of Liberals at the Saracen's Head had resulted in acceptance of his friend's candidature. There was a long report of Lashmar's speech, which he read critically, and not without envy. Whether he came to be elected or not, Lashmar was doing something; he knew the joy of activity, of putting out his strength, of moving others by the energy of his mind. This morning, his Highgate lodgings seemed to Dymchurch, a very cave in the wilderness. The comforts and the graceful things amid which he lived had bat all meaning; unless, indeed, they symbolised a dilettante decadence of which he ought to be heartily ashamed. He ran over the contents of the provincial newspaper, and in every column found something that rebuked him. These municipal proceedings, what zeal and capability they implied! Was it not better, a thousand times, to be excited about the scheme for paving "Burgess Lane" than to sit here amid books and pictures, and do nothing at all but smoke one's favourite mixture? The world hummed about him with industry, with triumphant effort; and he alone of all men could put his hand to nothing.
His thought somehow turned upon Miss Tomalin. What was it that he found so piquant in that half-educated, indifferently-bred girl? Might it not be that she represented an order of Society with which he had no acquaintance, that vague multitude between the refined middle class and the rude toilers, which, as he knew theoretically, played such an important part in modern civilisation? Among these people, energy was naked, motives were direct. There the strength and the desires of the people became vocal; they must be studied, if one wished to know the trend of things. Had he not seen it remarked somewhere that from this class sprang nearly all the younger representatives of literature and art, the poets, novelists, journalists of to-day; all the vigorous young workers in science? Lashmar, he felt sure, was but one remove from it. That busy and aspiring multitude would furnish, most likely, by far the greater part of the spiritual aristocracy for which our world was waiting.
From this point of view, the girl had a new interest. She was destined, perhaps, to be the mother of some great man. He hoped she would not marry foolishly; the wealth she must soon inherit hardly favoured her chances in this respect; doubtless she would be surrounded by unprincipled money-hunters. On the whole, it seemed rather a pity that Lashmar had not chosen and won her; there would have been a fitness, one felt, in that alliance. At the same time, Lashmar's selection of an undowered mate spoke well for him. For it was to be presumed that Lady Ogram's secretary had no very brilliant prospects. Certainly she did not make much impression at the first glance; one would take her for a sensible, thoughtful woman, nothing more.
After a lapse of twenty-four hours, he replied to Mrs. Toplady. Yes, if the weather were not too discouraging, he hoped to be at Lady Honeybourne's. He added that the fact of Lashmar's engagement had come as news to him.
So, after all, his "season" was not yet over. But perhaps kind Jupiter would send rain, and make the murdering of Shakespeare an impossibility. Now and then he tapped his barometer, which for some days had hovered about "change," the sky meanwhile being clouded. On the eve of Midsummer Day there was every sign of unseasonable weather. Dymchurch told himself, with a certain persistency, that he was glad.
Yet the morrow broke fair, and at mid-day was steadily bright. Throughout the morning, Dymchurch held himself at remorseless study, and was rewarded by the approval of his conscience; whence, perhaps, the cheerfulness of resignation with which he made ready to keep his engagement at the Surrey house. With a half smile on his meditative face, he went out into the sunshine. He was thinking of Rosalind in Arden.
Lord Honeybourne and he had been schoolfellows; they were together at Oxford, but not in the same set, for Dymchurch read, and the other ostentatiously idled. What was the use of exerting oneself in any way -- asked the Hon. L. F. T. Medwin-Burton -- when a man had only an income of four or five thousand in prospect, fruit of a wretchedly encumbered estate which every year depreciated? Having left the University without a degree -- his only notable performance a very amusing speech at the Union, proposing the abolition of the House of Lords -- he allied himself with young Sir Evan Hungerford in a journalistic enterprise, and for a year or two the bi-monthly Skylark supplied matter for public mirth, not without occasional scandal. Then came his succession to the title, and Viscount Honeybourne, as the papers made known, presently set forth on travel which was to cover all British territory. He came back with an American wife, an incalculable fortune, and much knowledge of Greater Britain; moreover he had gained a serious spirit, and henceforth devoted himself to Colonial affairs. His young wife -- she was seventeen at the time of her marriage -- straightway took a conspicuous place in English Society, her note being intellectual and social earnestness.
The play was to begin at three o'clock. Arriving half an hour before, Dymchurch found his hostess in the open- air theatre, beset with managerial cares, whilst her company, already dressed for their parts, sat together under the greenwood tree, and a few guests strayed about the grass. He had met Lady Honeybourne only once, and that a couple of years ago; with difficulty they recognised each other. Lord Honeybourne, she told him, had hoped to be here, but the missing of a steamer (he had run over, just for a day or two, to Jamaica) would make him too late.
"You know Miss Tomalin?" the lady added with a bright smile. "She has been lunching with me, and we are great friends. I wish I had known her sooner; she would have had a part. There she is, talking with Miss Dolbey. -- Yes, of course we have had to cut the play down. It's shocking, but there was no choice."
Dymchurch got away from this chatter, and stood aside. Then Miss Tomalin's radiant glance discovered him; she broke from the lady with whom she was conversing, and stepped in his direction with a look of frank pleasure.
"How do you do, Lord Dymchurch! I came early, to lunch with Lady Honeybourne and some of her actors. We have been getting on together splendidly. Let us settle our places. Mrs. Toplady may be a little late; we must keep a chair for her. Which do you prefer? -- Isn't it admirably managed? This big tree will give shade all the time. Suppose we take these chairs? Of course we needn't sit down at once. Put your cane across two, and I'll tie my handkerchief on the third. There! Now we're safe. -- Did you ever see an open-air play before? Charming idea, isn't it? You don't know Lady Honeybourne very well, I think? Oh, she's very bright, and has lots of ideas. I think we shall be real friends. She must come down to Rivenoak in August."
"I'm sorry," interposed Dymchurch, as soon as there came a pause, "that Lady Ogram had to leave town so soon."
"Oh, it was too much for her. I advised her very seriously, as soon as she began to feel exhausted, not to stay another day. Indeed, I couldn't have allowed it; I'm convinced it was dangerous, in her state of health. I hear from her that she is already much better. Rivenoak is such a delightfully quiet place, and such excellent air. Did you see a report of Mr. Lashmar's speech? Rather good, I thought. Perhaps just a little too vague: the fault I hoped he would avoid. But of course it's very difficult to adapt oneself all at once to electioneering necessities. Mr. Lashmar is theoretical; of course that is his strong point."
Dymchurch listened with an air of respectful, though smiling, attention. The girl amused him more than ever. Really, she had such a pleasant voice that her limitless flow of words might well be pardoned, even enjoyed.
"Lady Honeybourne and I have been talking about the condition of the poor. She has capital ideas, but not much experience. Of course I am able to speak with some authority: I saw so much of the poor at Northampton."
Once or twice Dymchurch had heard mention of Northampton in May's talk, but his extreme discretion had withheld him from putting a question on the subject. Catching his look, she saw inquiry in it.
"You know that I lived at Northampton, before I made my home at Rivenoak? Oh, I thought that I had told you all about that."
Acting on her aunt's counsel, approved by Mrs. Toplady, May was careful not to let it be perceived by casual acquaintances that, until a month ago, she had been an absolute stranger to her titled relative. At the same time, it was necessary to avoid any appearance of mystery, and people were given to understand that she had passed some years with her family in the midland town.
"And what work did you take part in?" asked her companion.
"It was a scheme of my own, mainly educational. I'll tell you all about it, when we have time. What a lot of people all at once! Ah, it's the 2.40 train that brings them. You came by the one before? There's Mrs. Toplady; so she isn't late, after all."
The audience began to seat itself. A string-band, under a marquee aside from the plot of smooth turf which represented the stage, began to discourse old English music; on this subject, as soon as they were seated side by side, Dymchurch had the full benefit of May's recently acquired learning. How quick the girl was in gathering any kind of information! And how intelligently she gave it forth! Babble as she might, one could never (thought the amused peer) detect a note of vulgarity; at worst, there was excess of ingenuousness; a fault, after all, in the right direction. She was very young, and had little experience of Society; in a year or two these surface blemishes would be polished away. The important thing was that she did sincerely care for things of the mind, and had a mind to apply to them.
He sat on Miss Tomalin's right hand; on her left was Mrs. Toplady. The humourist of Pont Street, as she listened to the talk beside her, smiled very roguishly indeed. Seldom had anything so surprised and entertained her as the progress of intimacy between May and Lord Dymchurch But she was vexed, as well as puzzled, by Lashmar's recent step, which seemed to deprive the comedy of an element on which she had counted. Perhaps not, however; it might he that the real complication was only just beginning.
"As You Like It," was timed for a couple of hours, intervals included. Miss Tomalin did not fail to whisper her neighbours at every noteworthy omission from the text, and once or twice she was moved to a pained protest. Her criticism of the actors was indulgent; she felt the value of her praise, but was equally aware of the weight of her censure. So the sunny afternoon went by. Here and there a spectator nodded drowsily; others conversed under their breath -- not of the bard of Avon. The air was full of that insect humming which is nature's music at high summer-tide.
Upon the final applause followed welcome refreshment. A table laden with dainties gleamed upon the sward. Dymchurch looked after his ladies; but the elder of them soon wandered off amid the friendly throng, and May, who ate and drank with enjoyment, was able to give her companion the promised description of her activity at Northampton. The listener smiled and smiled; had much ado, indeed, not to exhibit open gaiety; but ever and again his eyes rested on the girl's countenance, and its animation so pleased him that he saw even in her absurdities a spirit of good.
"You never did any work of that sort?" inquired May, regarding him from a good-natured height.
"Never, I'm sorry to say."
"But don't you sometimes feel as if it were a duty?"
"I often feel I ought to do something," answered Dymchurch, in a graver voice. "But whether I could be of any use among the poor, is doubtful."
"No, I hardly think you could," said May, reflectively. "Your social position doesn't allow of that. Of course you help to make laws, which is more important."
"If I really did so; but I don't. I have no more part in law-making than you have."
"But, why not?" asked May, gazing at him in surprise. "Surely that is a duty about which you can have no doubt."
"I neglect all duties," he answered.
"How strange! Is it your principle? You are not an Anarchist, Lord Dymchurch?"
"Practically, I fancy that's just what I am. Theoretically, no. Suppose," he added, with his pleasantest smile, "you advise me as to what use I can make of my life."
The man was speaking without control of his tongue. He had sunk into a limp passivity; in part, it might be, the result of the drowsily humming air; in part, a sort of hypnotism due to May's talk and the feminine perfume which breathed from her. He understood the idleness of what fell from his lips, but it pleased him to be idle. Therewithal -- strange contradiction -- he was trying to persuade himself that, more likely than not, this chattering girl had it in her power to make him an active, useful man, to draw him out of his mouldy hermitage and set him in the world's broad daylight. The analogy of Lord Honeybourne came into his mind; Lord Honeybourne, whose marriage had been the turning-point of his career, and whose wife, in many respects, bore a resemblance to May Tomalin.
"I shall have to think very seriously about it," May was replying. "But nothing could interest me more. You don't feel at all inclined for public life?"
Their dialogue was interrupted by the hostess, who came forward with a gentleman she wished to present to Miss Tomalin. Hearing the name -- Mr. Langtoft --Dymchurch regarded him with curiosity, and, moving aside with Lady Honeybourne as she withdrew, he inquired whether this was the Mr. Langtoft.
"It is," the hostess answered. "Do you take an interest in his work? Would you like to know him?"
Dymchurch declined the introduction for the present, but he was glad to have seen the man, just now frequently spoken of in newspapers, much lauded, and vehemently attacked. A wealthy manufacturer, practically lord of a swarming township in Lancashire, Mr. Langtoft was trying to get into his own hands the education of all the lower-class children growing up around his mill chimneys. He disapproved of the board-school; he looked with still less favour on the schools of the clergy; and, regardless of expense, was establishing schools of his own, where what he called "civic instruction" was gratuitously imparted. The idea closely resembled that which Dyce Lashmar had borrowed from his French sociologist, and Dyce had lately been in correspondence with Mr. Langtoft. Lashmar's name, indeed, was now passing between the reformer and Miss Tomalin.
"His work," said Dymchurch to himself. "Yes, everybody has his work -- except me."
And the impulse to experiment in life grew so strong with him, that he had to go apart under the trees, and pace nervously about; idle talk being no longer endurable.
The gathering began to thin. He had noted the train by which he would return to London, and a glance at his watch told him that he must start if he would reach the station in time. Moving towards the group of people about the hostess, he encountered Mrs. Toplady.
"Have you a cab?" she asked. "If not, there's plenty of room in ours."
Dymchurch would have liked to refuse, but hesitation undid him. Face to face with Mrs. Toplady and May, he drove to the station, and, as was inevitable, performed the rest of the journey in their company. The afternoon had tired him; alone, he would have closed his eyes, and tried to shut out the kaleidoscopic sensation which resulted from theatrical costumes, brilliant illustrations of the feminine mode, blue sky and sunny glades; but May Tomalin was as fresh as if new-risen, and still talked, talked. Enthusiastic in admiration of Lady Honeybourne, she heard with much interest that Dymchurch's acquaintance with the Viscount went back to Harrow days.
"That's what I envy you," she exclaimed, "your public school and University education! They make us feel our inferiority, and it isn't fair."
Admission of inferiority was so unexpected a thing on Miss Tomalin's lips, that her interlocutor glanced at her. Mrs. Toplady, in her corner of the railway carriage, seemed to be smiling over a newspaper article.
"The feeling must be very transitory," said Dymchurch, with humorous arch of brows.
"Oh, it doesn't trouble me very often. I know I should have done just as much as men do, if I had had the chance."
"Considerably more, no doubt, than either Honeybourne or I."
"You have never really put out your strength, I'm afraid, Lord Dymchurch," said May, regarding him with her candid smile. "Never in anything -- have you?"
"No," he responded, in a like tone. "A trifler -- always a trifler!"
"But if you know it --"
Something in his look made her pause. She looked out of the window, before adding:
" Still, I don't think it's quite true. The first time I saw you, I felt you were very serious, and that you had thought much. You rather overawed me."
Dymchurch laughed. In her corner, Mrs. Toplady still found matter for ironic smiling as she rustled over the evening journal; and the train swept on towards London.
For a week after Lady Ogram's return, Dr. Baldwin called daily at Rivenoak. His patient, he said, was suffering from over-exertion; had she listened to his advice, she would never have gone to London; the marvel was that such an imprudence had had no worse results. Lady Ogram herself of course refused to take this view of the matter; she was perfectly well, only a little tired, and, as the hot nights interfered with her sleep just now, she rested during the greater part of the day, seeing Lashmar for half an hour each afternoon in the little drawing-room upstairs. Her friendliness with Dyce had much increased; when be entered the room, she greeted him almost affectionately, and their talk was always of his brilliant future.
"I want to see you safely in Parliament," she said one day. "I can't expect to live till you've made your name; that isn't done so quickly. But I shall see you squash Robb, and that's something."
Of his success at Hollingford she seemed never to entertain a doubt, and Lashmar, though by no means so sanguine, said nothing to discourage her. His eye noted ominous changes in her aspect, and her way of talking, even the sound of her voice, made plain to him that she was very rapidly losing the reserve of force which kept her alive. Constance, who was on friendly terms with the doctor, learnt enough of the true state of things to make her significantly grave after each visit; she and Dyce, naturally, exchanged no remark on the subject.
"What do your parents say?" Lady Ogram asked of Lashmar, during one of their conversations.
"They are delighted. Especially my mother, who has always been very ambitious for me."
"But I mean about your engagement."
Dyce had of course omitted all mention of Constance in his letters to Alverholme.
"They give their approval," he replied, "because they have confidence in my judgment. I fancy," he added with a modest smile, "that their ambition, in this respect, is not altogether satisfied, but -- I have said nothing whatever to them about the peculiarity of Constance's position; I didn't feel justified in doing so."
"You may tell them everything," said Lady Ogram, graciously.
She one day received a letter from Mrs. Toplady, which gave her great satisfaction. It seemed to re-establish her vigour of mind and body; she came downstairs, lunched with her young friends, and talked of going to Wales.
"May is enjoying herself greatly; she must stay a little longer. The day before yesterday she was at a garden party at Lady Honeybourne's, where they acted 'As You Like It' in the open air."
"There was mention of it yesterday in the papers," remarked Lashmar.
"Yes, yes; I saw. And May's name among the guests -- of course, of course. I notice that Lord Dymchurch was there too."
She ended with a quavering laugh, unexpected and rather uncanny.
"And the much-discussed Mr. Langtoft," put in Constance, after a keen look at the mirthful hippocratic face.
"Langtoft, yes," said Dyce. "I don't quite know what to think of that fellow. There seems to me something not quite genuine about him. What is he doing at Lady Honeybourne's garden party? It looks like tuft-hunting -- don't you think, Constance?"
Dyce was secretly annoyed that an idea of his own (that is to say, from his own French philosopher) should be put into practice by someone else before he could assert his claim to it. Very vexatious that Langtoft's activity was dragged into public notice just at this moment.
"I don't at all like the tone of his last letter to you," said Constance. "He writes in a very flippant way, not a bit like a man in earnest."
Not long ago, Miss Bride's opinion of Langtoft would have been quite different. Now, she was disposed to say things that Dyce Lashmar liked to hear. Dyce had remarked the change in her; it flattered him, but caused him at the same time some uneasiness.
Inevitably, they passed much time together. On the journey from London, Constance had asked him whether he would not like to begin cycling. He received the suggestion with careless good-humour. At Rivenoak, Constance returned to it, insisted upon it, and, as he had little to do, Dyce went into Hollingford for lessons; in a week's time he could ride, and, on a brand-new bicycle of the most approved make, accompanied his nominally betrothed about the country ways. Constance evidently enjoyed their rides together. She was much more amiable in her demeanour, more cheerful in mind; she dropped the habit of irony, and talked hopefully of Lashmar's prospects.
"What's the news from Breakspeare?" she inquired, as they were pedalling softly along an easy road one afternoon, Dyce having spent the morning in Hollingford.
"Oh, he's a prancing optimist," Dyce replied. "He sees everything rose-colour -- or pretends to, I'm not quite sure which. If Dobbin the grocer meets him in the street, and says he's going to vote Liberal at next election, Breakspeare sings the Pæan."
"I notice that you seem rather doubtful, lately," said Constance, her eyes upon him.
"Well, you know, there is a good deal of doubt. It depends so much on what happens between now and the dissolution."
He entered into political detail, showing the forces arrayed against him, dwelling on the in-grained Toryism of Hollingford, or, as he called it, the burgesses' Robbish mind.
"There's no use, is there, in blinking facts?"
"Of course not. It's what I never do, as I think you are aware. We must remember that to contest the seat is something. It makes you known. If you don't win, you will wait for the next chance -- not necessarily here."
Dyce had observed that the pronoun "we" was rather frequently on Constance's lips. She was identifying their interests.
"True," he admitted. "Look at that magnificent sycamore!"
"Yes; but I shouldn't have known it was a sycamore. How is it you know trees so well?"
"That's my father's doing," replied Dyce. "He used to teach me them when I was a youngster."
"Mine was thinking more about social statistics. I knew the number of paupers in London before I had learnt to distinguish between an ash and an oak. Do you ever hear from your father?"
"Now and then," said Lashmar, his machine wobbling a little, for he had not yet perfect command of it, and fell into some peril if his thoughts strayed. "They want me to run over to Alverholme presently. Perhaps I may go next week."
Constance was silent. They wheeled on, without speaking, for some minutes. Then Dyce asked:
"How long does Lady Ogram wish me to stay here?"
"I don't quite know. Are you in any hurry to get away?"
"Not at all. Only, if I'm soon going back to London, I should take Alverholme on the journey. Would you probe our friend for me?"
At this time, they were both reading a book of Nietzsche. That philosopher had only just fallen into their hands, though of course they had heard much of him. Lashmar found the matter considerably to his taste, though he ridiculed the form. Nietzsche's individualism was, up to a certain point, in full harmony with the tone of his mind; he enjoyed this frank contempt of the average man, persuaded that his own place was on the seat of the lofty, and that disdain of the humdrum, in life or in speculation, had always been his strong point. To be sure, he counted himself Nietzsche's superior as a moralist; as a thinker, he imagined himself much more scientific. But, having regard to his circumstances and his hopes, this glorification of unscrupulous strength came opportunely. Refining away its grosser aspects, Dyce took the philosophy to heart -- much more sincerely than he had taken to himself the humanitarian bio-sociology on which he sought to build his reputation.
And Constance, for her part, was hardly less interested in Nietzsche. She, too, secretly liked this insistence on the right of the strong, for she felt herself one of them. She, too, for all her occupation with social reform, was at core a thorough individualist, desiring far less the general good than her own attainment of celebrity as a public benefactress. Nietzsche spoke to her instincts, as he does to those of a multitude of men and women, hungry for fame, avid of popular applause. But she, like Lashmar, criticised her philosopher from a moral height. She did not own to herself the intimacy of his appeal to her.
"He'll do a great deal of harm in the world," she said, this same afternoon, as Dyce and she drank tea together. "The jingo impulse, and all sorts of forces making for animalism, will get strength from him, directly or indirectly. It's the negation of all we are working for, you and I."
Of course it is," Dyce replied, in a voice of conviction. "We have to fight against him." He added, after a pause, "There is a truth in him, of course; but it's one of those truths which are dangerous to the generality of men."
Constance assented, with a certain vagueness.
"Of course. And he delivers his message so brutally."
"That, no doubt, increases its chance of acceptance. The weak, who don't know how else to assert, themselves, tend naturally to brutality. Carlyle taught pretty much the same thing, at bottom; but his humour and his puritanism made the effect different. Besides, the time wasn't ripe then for the doctrine of irresponsible force; religion hadn't utterly perished in the masses of men, as it has now. Given a world without religious faith, in full social revolution, with possibilities of wealth and power dangled before every man's eyes -- what can you expect but the prevalences of a more or less ferocious egoism? We, who are not egoists" -- he looked into his companion's eyes -- "yet are conscious of unusual strength, may, it seems to me, avail ourselves of the truth in Nietzsche, which, after all, is very much the same as my own theory of the selection of the fit for rule. The difference is, that we wish to use our power for the common good, whilst Nietzsche's teaching results in a return to sheer barbarism, the weak trampled because of their weakness."
Constance approved. Yes, their aim, undoubtedly, was the common good, and, whilst keeping this in view, they need not, perhaps, be over-fastidious as to the means they employed. She had for years regarded herself as at war with society, in the narrow sense of the word; its creeds, great or small, had no validity for her; she had striven for what she deemed her rights, the rights of a woman born with intellect and will and imagination, yet condemned by poverty to rank among subordinates. The struggle appeared to have brought her within view of triumph, and was it not to herself, her natural powers and qualities, that she owed all? At this moment she felt her right to pursue any object which seemed to her desirable. What was good for her, was good for the world at large.
The next morning they started at the usual hour for their ride, but the sky was cloudy, and, as they were leaving the park, spots of rain fell. It was not by the lodge gates that they usually set forth; more convenient for their purpose was a postern in the wall which enclosed the greater part of Rivenoak; the approach to it was from the back of the house, across a paddock, and through a birch copse, where stood an old summer-house, now rarely entered. Constance, with her own key, had just unlocked the door in the wall; she paused and glanced cloudward.
"I think it'll be a shower," said Lashmar. "Suppose we shelter in the summer-house."
They did so, and stood talking under the roof of mossy tiles.
"What have you worked at this morning?" asked Constance.
"Nothing particular. I've been thinking."
"I wish you would try to tell me how you worked out your bio-sociology. You must have had a great deal of trouble to get together your scientific proofs and illustrations."
"A good deal, of course," answered Dye., modestly. "I had read for years, all sorts of scientific and historical books."
"I rather wonder you didn't write a book of your own. Evidently you have all the material for one. Don't you think it might be well?"
"We have spoken of that, you know," was Dyce's careless reply. "I prefer oral teaching."
"Still, a solid book, such a one as you could easily write, would do you a great deal of good. Do think about it, will you?"
Her voice had an unusual quality; it was persuasive, and almost gentle. In speaking, she looked at him with eyes of unfamiliar expressiveness, and all the lines of her face had softened.
"Of course if you really think --" began Lashmar, affecting to ponder the matter.
"I should so like you to do it," Constance pursued, still with the markedly feminine accent, which she certainly did not assume. " Will you -- to please me?"
Her eyes fell before the other's quick, startled look. There was a silence; rain pattered on the tiles.
"I'll think about it," Dyce replied at length, moving and speaking uneasily. "It's raining quite hard, you know," he added, moving into the doorway. "The roads will be no good after this."
"No. We had better go in," said Constance, with sudden return to dry, curt speech.
It was evident that, in his anomalous situation, Lashmar's method with women could not have fair play. He was in no small degree beholden to Constance, and her odd behaviour of late kept him in mind of his obligation. Doubtless, he thought, she intended that; and his annoyance at what he considered a lack of generosity outweighed the satisfaction his vanity might have found in her new manner towards him. That manner, especially this morning, reminded him of six years ago. Was Constance capable of exacting payment of a debt which she imagined him to have incurred at Alverholme? Women think queerly, and are no less unaccountable in their procedure.
His curiosity busied itself with the vaguely indicated compact between Constance and Lady Ogram, but no word on the subject, not even a distant allusion to it, ever fell from his nominally betrothed, and the old lady herself, however amiable, spoke not at all of the things he desired to know. Was it not grossly unjust to him? Until he clearly understood Constance's future position, how could he decide upon his course with regard to her? Conceivably, the proposed marriage might carry advantages which it behooved him to examine with all care; conceivably also, it might at a given moment be his sole rescue from embarrassment or worse. Meanwhile, ignorance of the essential factors of the problem put him at a grave disadvantage. Constance was playing a game (so Dyce saw it) with all the cards visible before her, and, to such a profound observer as he, it was not unnatural to suppose that she played for something worth the while. Curiously enough, Dyce did not presume to believe that he himself, his person, his mind, his probable career, were gain sufficient. A singular modesty ruled his meditations at this juncture.
Other things were happening which interfered with the confident calm essential to his comfort. Since the vexatious little incident at Mrs. Toplady's, he had not seen Iris Woolstan. On the eve of his departure for Rivenoak, he wrote to her, a friendly letter in the usual strain, just to acquaint her with his movements, and to this letter there came no reply. It was unlikely that Iris's answer had somehow failed to reach him; of course she would address to Rivenoak. No doubt she had discovered his little deception, and took it ill. Iris was quite absurd enough to feel jealousy, and to show it. Of all the women he knew, she had the most essentially feminine character. Fortunately she was as weak as foolish; at any time, he could get the upper hand of her in a private interview. But his sensibility made him restless in the thought that she was accusing him of ingratitude -- perhaps of behaviour unworthy a gentleman. Yes, there was the true sting. Dyce Lashmar prided himself on his intellectual lucidity, but still more on his possession of the instincts, of the mental and moral tone, which are called gentlemanly. It really hurt him to think that anyone could plausibly assail his claims in this respect.
When he had been a week at Rivenoak, he again wrote to Mrs. Woolstan. Of her failure to answer his last letter, he said nothing. She had of course received the Hollingford Express, with the report of his speech on the 20th. How did she like it? Could she suggest any improvement? She knew that he valued her opinion. "Write," he concluded, "as soon as you have leisure. I shall be here, I think, for another week or so. By the bye, I have taken to cycling, and I fancy it will be physically good for me."
To this communication, Mrs. Woolstan replied She began with a few formal commendations of his speech. "You are so kind as to ask if I can suggest any way in which it could have been improved, but of course I know that that is only a polite phrase. I should not venture to criticise anything of yours now, even if I had the presumption to think that I was capable of saying anything worth your attention. I am sure you need no advice from me, nor from anyone else, now that you have the advantage of Miss Bride's counsels. I regret very much that I have so slight an acquaintance with that lady, but Mrs. Toplady tells me that she is admirably suited to be your companion, and to encourage and help you in your career. I shall have the pleasure of watching you from a distance, and of sincerely wishing you happiness as well as success."
The formal style of this letter, so different from Iris's ordinary effusions, made sufficient proof of the mood in which it was written. Dyce bit his lips over it. He had foreseen that Mrs. Woolstan would hear of his engagement, but had hoped it would not be just yet. There was for the present no help; in her eyes he stood condemned of something more than indelicacy. Fortunately, she was not the kind of woman -- he felt sure -- to be led into any vulgar retaliation. All he could do was to write a very brief note, in which he expressed a hope of seeing her very soon. "I shall have much to tell you," he added, and tried to think that Iris would accept this as a significant promise.
After all, were not man and woman, disguise the fact as one might, condemned by nature to mutual hostility? Useless to attempt rational methods with beings to whom reason was fundamentally repugnant. Dyce fell from mortification into anger, and cursed the poverty which forbade him to act in full accordance with his ideal of conduct.
He had spent nearly a fortnight at Rivenoak, when Lady Ogram, now seemingly restored to her ordinary health, summoned him at eleven in the morning to the green drawing-room.
"I hope I didn't disturb your work," she began, kindly. "As you are leaving so soon --" Dyce had said nothing whatever about departure -- "I should like to have a quiet word with you, whilst Constance is in the town. All goes well at Hollingford, doesn't it?"
"Very well indeed, I think. Breakspeare gets more hopeful every day."
Lady Ogram nodded and smiled. Then a fit of abstraction came upon her; she mused for several minutes, Dyce respectfully awaiting her next words.
"What are your own wishes about the date?"
Imagining that she referred to the election, and that this was merely another example of failing intelligence, Dyce answered that, for his own part, he was ready at any time; if a dissolution --
"Pooh!" Lady Ogram interrupted, "I'm talking about your marriage."
"Ah! Yes -- yes. I haven't asked Constance --"
"Suppose we say the end of October? You could get away for a month or two."
"One thing is troubling me, Lady Ogram," said Dyce, in tone of graceful hesitancy. "I feel that it will be a very ill return for all your kindness to rob you of Constance's help and society, which you prize so."
The keen old eyes were fixed upon him.
"Do you think I am going to live for ever?" sounded abruptly and harshly, though, it was evident, with no harsh intention.
"I'm sure I hope --"
"Well, we won't talk about it. I must do without Constance, that's all. You'll of course have a house in London, but both of you will often be down here. It's understood. About the end of October. Time enough to make arrangements. I'll settle it with Constance. So to-morrow morning you leave us, on a visit to your parents. I suppose you'll spend a couple of days there?"
In his confused mind, Dyce could only fix the thought that Constance had evidently told Lady Ogram of his intention to go to Alverholme. It was plain that those two held very intimate colloquies.
"A couple of days," he murmured in reply.
"Good. Of course you'll write to me when you're in town again."
At luncheon, Lady Ogram talked of Lashmar's departure. Constance, he felt sure, already knew about it. Really, he was treated with somewhat scant ceremony. An obstinate mood fell upon him; he resolved that he would say not a word to Constance of what had passed this morning. If she wished to speak of the proposed date of their marriage, let her broach the subject herself. Through the meal he was taciturn.
Miss Bride and he dined alone together that evening. They had not met since mid-day. Dyce was still disinclined for talk; Constance, on the other hand, fell into a cheerful vein of chat, and seemed not at all to notice her companion's lack of amiability.
"I shall go by the 8.27," said Dyce, abruptly, towards the end of the meal.
"Yes, that's your best train. You'll be at Alverholme before ten o'clock."
After dinner, they sat together for scarcely a quarter of an hour, Constance talking of politics. Dyce absolutely silent. Then Miss Bride rose, and offered her hand.
She spoke so pleasantly, and looked so kindly, that Lashmar for a moment felt ashamed of himself. He pressed her hand, and endeavoured to speak cordially.
"Shall I hear from you?" Constance asked, trying to meet his eyes.
"Why, of course, very soon."
"Thank you. I shall be very glad."
Thus they parted. And Dyce, for a couple of hours, sat smoking and brooding.
On the morrow, at luncheon, Lady Ogram mentioned to Constance that May Tomalin would arrive on the following afternoon. She added, presently, that Lord Dymchurch had accepted an invitation to Rivenoak for a day or two in the ensuing week.
That morning, the post had brought Constance a letter and a packet. The letter was from Mrs. Toplady, who wrote thus:
"Dear Miss Bride,
"This morning I came across an article in an American magazine which it struck me would interest you. The subject is: 'Recent Sociological Speculations.' It reviews several books, among them one by a French author which seems to be very interesting. When I showed the article to Miss Tomalin, she agreed with me that there seemed a striking resemblance between the theories of this French sociologist and those which Mr. Lashmar has independently formed. Probably Mr. Lashmar would like to see the book. In any case, you and he will, I am sure, be interested in reading this article together.
"To my great regret, Miss Tomalin -- or May, as I have come to call her -- leaves me the day after to-morrow. But the advantage is yours at Rivenoak. Please give my love to dear Lady Ogram, who I hope is now quite well again. With kindest regards.
Constance had read the article in question, and, immediately after doing so, had dispatched an order to London for the French sociological work therein discussed.
Pillow-propped at her morning studies, the humourist of Pont Street, as she glanced rapidly over the close-printed pages of a trans-Atlantic monthly, had her eye caught by the word "bio-sociological." Whom had she heard using that sonorous term? It sounded to her with the Oxford accent, and she saw Lashmar. The reading of a few lines in the context seemed to remind her very strongly of Lashmar's philosophic eloquence. She looked closer; found that there was question of a French book of some importance, recently published; and smilingly asked herself whether it could be that Lashmar knew this book. That he was capable of reticence regarding the source of his ideas, she had little doubt; and what would be more amusing than to see "the coming man" convicted of audacious plagiarism? She wished him no harm; none whatever. It delighted her to see a man make his way in the stupid world by superiority of wits, and Dyce Lashmar was a favourite of hers; she had by no means yet done with him. All the same, this chance of entertainment must not be lost.
Having gone down rather earlier than usual, she found Miss Tomalin also studiously engaged, a solid tome open before her.
"My dear May, what waste of time that is! If you would only believe me that all the substance of big books is to be found in little ones! One gets on so much more quickly, and has a much clearer view of things. Why, no end of poor people nowadays make their living by boiling down these monsters to essence. It's really a social duty to make use of their work. Look, for instance, at this article I have just been reading -- 'Recent Sociological Speculations.' Here the good man gives us all that is important in half a dozen expensive and heavy volumes. Here's all about bio-sociology. Haven't I heard you talk of bio-sociology?"
"But," cried May, "that's Mr. Lashmar's theory! Has he been publishing it?"
"No. Someone else seems to have got hold of the same idea. Perhaps it's like Darwin and Wallace -- that kind of thing."
May took the periodical, and read.
"Why, this is astonishing!" she exclaimed. "There's a passage quoted which is exactly like Mr. Lashmar -- almost the very words I have heard him use!"
"Yet, you see, it's from a French book. This would certainly interest him. Perhaps he doesn't see the American reviews. Suppose I sent it to Miss Bride? They can read it together, and it will amuse them."
May assented, and the periodical was addressed to Rivenoak.
Friends came to lunch with them. In the afternoon, they made three calls. At dinner some score of persons were Mrs. Toplady's guests. Only as the clock pointed towards midnight did they find an opportunity of returning to the subject of bio-sociology. Mrs. Toplady wished for an intimate chat with her guest, who was soon to leave her; she reclined comfortably in a settee, and looked at the girl, who made a pretty picture in a high-backed chair.
"I hear that Mr. Lashmar leaves Rivenoak to-morrow," she said, referring to a letter that had arrived from Lady Ogram this evening. "I hope he won't be gone when the magazine arrives."
"Indeed? He comes back to-morrow?" said May.
"Not to London. He goes to spend a day or two with his people, it seems. You don't know them?"
"Not at all. I only know that his father is a rural clergyman."
Mrs. Toplady had observed that May's tone in speaking of Lashmar lacked something of its former vivacity. The change had been noticeable since the announcement of the philosopher's betrothal. More than that; the decline of interest was accompanied by a tendency to speak of Lashmar as though pityingly, or perhaps even slighting]y; and this it was that manifested itself in May's last remark.
"I don't think it's very common;" Mrs. Toplady let fall, "for the country clergy -- or indeed the clergy anywhere -- to have brilliant sons."
"It certainly isn't," May agreed. And, after reflecting, she added: "I suppose one may call Mr. Lashmar brilliant?"
Miss Tomalin had continued to profit by her opportunities. Before coming to London, it would have been impossible for her to phrase a thought thus, and so utter it. That easy superciliousness smacked not at all of provincial breeding.
"On the whole, I think so," was Mrs. Toplady's modulated reply. "He has very striking ideas. How odd that somebody else should have hit upon his theory of civilisation! He ought to have written a book, as I told him."
"But suppose," suggested May, with some uneasiness, "that he knew about that French book?"
"Oh, my dear, we can't suppose that! Besides, we haven't read the book. It may really be quite different in its tendency from Mr. Lashmar's view."
"I don't see how it can be, Mrs. Toplady. Judging from those quotations, and the article, it's Mr. Lashmar from beginning to end."
"Then it's a most curious case of coincidence. Poor Mr. Lashmar will naturally be vexed. It's hard upon him, isn't it?"
May did not at once respond. The friend, watching her with the roguish smile, let fall another piece of intelligence.
"I hear that his marriage is to be in the autumn."
"Indeed?" said May, indifferently.
"Between ourselves," pursued the other, "didn't you feel just a little surprised?"
"At his choice. Oh, don't misunderstand me. I quite appreciate Miss Bride's cleverness and seriousness. But one couldn't help thinking that a man of Mr. Lashmar's promise --. Perhaps you don't see it in that way?"
"I really think they are rather well suited," said May, again calmly supercilious.
"It may be so. I had almost thought that -- how shall I express it?" Mrs. Toplady searched for a moment. "Perhaps Lady Ogram might have made a suggestion, which Mr. Lashmar, for some reason, did not feel able to disregard. He has quite a chivalrous esteem for Lady Ogram, haven't you noticed? I like to see it. That kind of thing is rare nowadays. No doubt he feels reason for gratitude; but how many men does one know who can be truly grateful? That's what I like in Mr. Lashmar; he has character as well as intellect."
"But how do you mean, Mrs. Toplady?" inquired May, losing something of her polish in curiosity. "Why should my aunt have wanted him to marry Miss Bride?"
"Ah, that I don't know. Possibly she thought it, knowing him as she does, really the best thing for him. Possibly -- one could make conjectures. But one always can."
May puzzled over the hint, her brow knitted; Mrs. Toplady regarded her with veiled amusement, wondering whether it would really be necessary to use plainer words. The girl was not dull, but perhaps her small experience of life, and her generally naive habit of mind, obscured to her what to the more practised was so obvious.
"Do you mean," said May, diffidently, "that she planned it out of kindness to Miss Bride? Of course I know that she likes Miss Bride very much. Perhaps she thought there would never be a better opportunity."
"It might be so," replied the other, absently.
"Miss Bride is very nice, and very clever," pursued May, sounding the words on the thinnest possible note. "But one didn't think of her as very likely to marry."
"No; it seemed improbable."
There was a pause. As if turning to quite another subject, Mrs. Toplady remarked:
"You will have visitors at Rivenoak next week. Sir William Amys is to be there for a day or two, and Lord Dymchurch --"
The girl threw off her air of cold concentration, and shone triumphantly.
"Does it surprise you, May?"
"Oh, I hadn't thought of it -- I didn't know my aunt had invited him --"
"The wonder is that Lord Dymchurch should have accepted," said Mrs. Toplady, with a very mature archness. "Did he know, by the bye, that you were going down?"
"I fancy he did."
Their eyes met, and May relieved her feelings with a little laugh.
"Then perhaps the wonder ceases. And yet, in another way--" Mrs. Toplady broke off, and added in a lower voice, "Of course you know all about his circumstances?"
"No, in deed I don't. Tell me about him, please."
"But haven't you heard that he is the poorest man in the House of Lords?"
"I had no idea of it," cried May. "How should I have known? Really? He is so poor?"
"I imagine he has barely enough to live upon. The family was ruined long ago."
"But why didn't you tell me? Does my aunt know?"
May's voice did not express resentment, nor, indeed, strong feeling of any kind. The revelation seemed merely to surprise her. She was smiling, as if at the amusingly unexpected.
"Lady Ogram certainly knows," said Mrs. Toplady.
"Then of course that's why he does nothing," May exclaimed. "Fancy!" Her provincialism was becoming very marked. "A lord with hardly enough to live upon! But I'm astonished that he seems so cheerful."
"Lord Dymchurch has a very philosophical mind," said the older lady, with gravity humorously exaggerated.
"Yes, I suppose he has. Now I shall understand him better. I'm glad he's going to be at Rivenoak. You know that he asked me to advise him about what he should do. It'll be rather awkward, though. I must get him to tell me the truth."
"You'll probably have no difficulty in that. It's pretty certain that he thinks you know all about him already. If he hadn't, I feel sure he wouldn't go to Rivenoak."
The girl mused, smiling self-consciously.
"I had better tell you the truth, Mrs. Toplady," were her next words, in a burst of confidence. "I think Lord Dymchurch is very nice -- as a friend. But only as a friend."
"Thank you for your confidence, May. Do you know that I suspected something of the kind."
"I want to be friends with him," pursued May, impulsively. "I shall get him to tell me all about himself, and we shall see what he can do. Of course there mustn't be any misunderstanding."
Mrs. Toplady had not been prepared for this tranquil reasonableness. May was either more primitive, or much more sophisticated, than she had supposed. Her interest waxed keener.
"Between ourselves, my dear," she remarked, "that is exactly what I should have anticipated. You are very young, and the world is at your feet. Of money you have no need, and, if Lord Dymchurch had had the good fortune to please you --. But you are ambitious. I quite understand; trust me. Poor Dymchurch will never do anything. He is merely a bookish man. But, whilst we are talking of it, there's no harm in telling you that your aunt doesn't quite see the matter with our eyes. For some reason -- I don't know exactly what it is -- Lady Ogram is very favourable to poor Lord Dymchurch."
"I have noticed that," said May, quietly. "Of course it makes no difference."
"You think not?" asked Mrs. Toplady, beginning to be genuinely impressed by this young woman's self-confidence.
"I mean that my aunt couldn't do more than suggest," May answered, slightly throwing back her head. "I have only to let her know how I think about anything."
"You are sure of that?" asked the other, sweetly.
May's smile was ineffable. The woman of the world, the humourist and cynic, saw it with admiration.
"Ah, that puts my mind at ease!" murmured Mrs. Toplady. "To tell the truth, I have been worrying a little. Sometimes elderly people are so very tenacious of their ideas. Of course Lady Ogram has nothing but your good at heart."
"Of course!" exclaimed the girl.
"Shall I confess to you that I almost fancied this might be the explanation of Miss Bride's engagement?"
"Miss Bride --? How?"
"I only tell you for your amusement. It occurred to me that, having set her heart on a scheme which had reference to Lord Dymchurch, your aunt was perhaps a little uneasy with respect to a much more brilliant and conspicuous man. Had that been so -- it's all the merest supposition -- she might have desired to see the brilliant and dangerous man made harmless -- put out of the way."
A gleam of sudden perception illumined the girl's face. For a moment wonder seemed tending to mirth; but it took another turn, and became naive displeasure.
"You think so?" broke from her, impetuously. "You really think that's why she wanted them to be engaged?"
"It's only what I had fancied, my dear --"
"But I shouldn't wonder if you were right! Indeed, I shouldn't! Now that you put it in that way --. I remember that my aunt didn't care for me to see much of Mr. Lashmar. It amused me, because, to tell you the truth, Mrs. Toplady, I should never have thought of Mr. Lashmar as anything but a friend. I feel quite sure I shouldn't."
"I quite understand that," replied the listener, the corners of her lips very eloquent.
"Such a thing had never entered my mind," pursued May, volubly and with emphasis. "Never!"
"It may have entered someone else's mind, though," interposed Mrs. Toplady, again maturely arch.
"Oh, do you think so!" exclaimed the girl, with manifest pleasure. "I'm sure I hope not. But, Mrs. Toplady, how could my aunt oblige such a man as Mr. Lashmar to engage himself against his will?"
"You must remember, May, that, for the moment at all events, Mr. Lashmar's prospects seem to depend a good deal on Lady Ogram's good will. She has a great deal of local influence. And then -- by the bye, is Mr. Lashmar quite easy in his circumstances?"
"I really don't know," May answered, with an anxious fold in her forehead "Surely he, too, isn't quite poor?"
"I hardly think he is wealthy. Isn't it just possible that something may depend upon the marriage --?"
Mrs. Toplady's voice died away in a considerate vagueness. But May was not at all disposed to leave the matter nebulous.
"If he is really poor," she said, in a clear-cut tone, "it's quite natural that he should want to marry someone who can help him. But why didn't he choose someone really suitable?"
"Poor Mr. Lashmar!" sighed the other, humorously. "If he had no encouragement, my dear May!"
"But he didn't wait to see whether he had any or not!"
"What if he had very good reason for knowing that lady Ogram would never, never, never consent to -- something we needn't specify?"
"But," May ejaculated, "surely he needn't take it for granted that my aunt would never change her mind. If it's as you say, how foolishly he must have behaved! It doesn't concern me in the least. You see I can speak quite calmly about it. I'm only sorry and astonished that he should be going to marry -- well, after all, we must agree that Miss Bride isn't quite an ideal for him, however one looks at it. Of course it's nothing to me. If it had been, I think I should feel more offended than sorry."
"That he had taken for granted that I had no will of my own, and no influence with my aunt."
"It seems rather faint-hearted, I admit."
The dialogue lasted but a few minutes longer. May repeated once or twice that she had no personal interest in Lashmar's fortunes, but her utterance grew mechanical, and she was evidently withdrawing into her thoughts. As a clock in the room told softly the first hour of the morning, Mrs. Toplady rose; she spoke a few words about her engagements for the day which had nominally begun, then kissed her friend on the cheek.
"Don't think any more of it, May. It mustn't interfere with your sleep."
"That indeed it won't, Mrs. Toplady!" replied the girl, with a musically mocking laugh.
Appearances notwithstanding, May told the truth when she declared that she had never thought of marrying Lashmar. This, however, did not necessarily involve an indifference to Lashmar's homage. That the coming man should make his court to her, she saw as a natural and agreeable thing; that he should recognise her intellectual powers, and submit to her personal charm, was only what she had hoped and expected from the first. After their conversation in the supper-room, she counted him a conquest, and looked forward with no little interest to the development of this romance. Its sudden termination astonished and mortified her. Had Lashmar turned away to make some brilliant alliance, her pique would have endured only for a moment; Lord Dymchurch's approach would have more than compensated the commoner's retirement. But that she should merely have amused his idle moments, whilst his serious thoughts were fixed on Constance Bride, was an injury not easy to pardon. For she disliked Miss Bride, and she knew the sentiment was mutual.
Seeing the situation in the new light shed by Mrs. Toplady's ingenious conjectures, her sense of injury was mitigated; the indignant feeling that remained she directed chiefly against Lady Ogram, who seemed inclined to dispose of her in such a summary way. Constance, naturally, she disliked more than ever, but Lashmar she viewed with something of compassion, as a victim of circumstances. Were those circumstances irresistible? Was there not even now a possibility of defeating them? -- not with a view to taking Miss Bride's place, but for the pleasure of asserting herself against a plot, and reassuring her rightful position as arbitress of destinies. Lady Ogram was a kind old woman, but decidedly despotic, and she had gone too far. If indeed Lashmar were acting in helpless obedience to her, it would be the merest justice to make an attempt at rescuing him and restoring his liberty.
Not without moral significance was the facial likeness between Lady Ogram in her youth and May Tomalin. One who had seen the girl as she sat to-night in her bedroom, brooding deeply, without the least inclination for repose, must have been struck by a new vigour in the lines of her countenance. Thus -- though with more of obstinate purpose -- had Arabella Tomalin been wont to look at moments of crisis in her adventurous youth.
The clock was pointing to two, when May rose from the velvet-seated chair, and went to the little writing-table which stood in another part of the room. She took a plain sheet of note-paper, and, with a hand far from steady, began, not writing, but printing, certain words, in large, ill-formed capitals.
"HAVE MORE COURAGE. AIM HIGHER. IT IS NOT TOO LATE."
At this achievement she gazed smilingly. The ink having dried, she folded the paper, and put it into an envelope, which she closed. Then her face indicated a new effort. She could think of only one way of disguising her hand in cursive -- the common device of sloping it backwards. This she attempted. The result failing to please her, she tried again on a second envelope, and this time with success; the writing looked masculine, and in no respect suggested its true authorship. She had addressed the letter to Dyce Lashmar, Esq., at Rivenoak.
Nine o'clock next morning saw her out of doors. In Sloane Street she found a hansom, and was driven rap idly eastward. Before ten she sat in her own room again, glowing with satisfaction.
"At last," declared Mrs. Lashmar, "it really looks as if Dyce was going to do something. I've just been writing to Lady Susan, and I have let her see unmistakably what I think of her friendship. But I'm very glad Dyce isn't indebted to her, for a more unendurable woman, when she thinks she has done anyone a kindness, doesn't exist. If she gets a place for a servant-girl, all the world is told of it, and she expects you to revere her saintly benevolence. I am very glad that she never did anything for Dyce. Indeed, I always felt that she was very little use. I doubt whether she has the slightest influence with respectable people."
It was just after breakfast, and the day promised to be the hottest of the year. The vicar, heavy-laden man, had sat down in his study to worry over parish accounts. When the door opened to admit his wife, he quivered with annoyance. Mrs. Lashmar had a genius for the malapropos. During breakfast, when her talk would have mattered little, she had kept silence; now that her husband particularly wished to be alone with his anxieties, she entered with an air forboding long discourse.
"Twenty-three pounds, four shillings and sixpence," muttered the vicar, as he passed a handkerchief over his moist forehead. "Dear me! how close it is! Twenty-three --"
"If Dyce is elected," pursued the lady, "we must celebrate the occasion in some really striking way. Of course there must be a dinner for all our poor --"
"What I want to know," interrupted Mr. Lashmar, with mild irritableness, "is, how he proposes to meet his expenses, and what he is going to live upon. If he is still looking to me -- I hope you haven't encouraged him in any hope of that kind?"
"Of course not. In my last letter I expressly reminded him that our affairs were getting into a lamentable muddle. Of course, if I had had the management of them, this wouldn't have come about. -- Do you know what I have been thinking? It might be an advantage to Dyce if you made friends with the clergy at Hollingford. Couldn't you go over one day, and call on the rector. I see he's a Cambridge man, but --"
"Really," cried Mr. Lashmar, half-distraught, "I must beg you to let me get this work done in quietness. By some extraordinary error --"
A knock sounded at the door, followed by a man's voice.
"May I come in?"
"There you are! " Mrs. Lashmar exclaimed. "It's Dyce himself. Come in! Come in! Why, who could have thought you would get here so early!"
"I chose the early train for the sake of coolness," answered Dyce, who shook hands with his parents. "The weather is simply tropical. And two days ago we were shivering. What is there to drink, mother?"
Mrs. Lashmar took her son to the dining-room, and, whilst he was refreshing himself, talked of the career before him. Her sanguine mind saw him already at Westminster, and on the way to high distinction.
"There's just one thing I'm anxious about," she said, sinking her voice. "You know the state of your father's affairs. It happens most unfortunately, just when a little help would be so important to you. For years I have foreseen it, Dyce. Again and again I have urged prudence; but you know your father, the most generous of men, but a mere child in matters of business. I feared; but it was only the other day that I discovered the real state of things. I shouldn't be at all surprised, Dyce, if some day we have to look to you for succour."
"Don't worry," answered her son. "Things'll come right, I think. Just go on as prudently as you can, for the present. Is father really in a hobble?"
"My dear, he doesn't know where to turn for a five-pound note!"
Dyce was sincerely troubled. He seldom thought of his parents; none the less they represented his only true affection, and he became uncomfortable at the prospect of disaster befalling their latter years.
"Well, well, don't bother about it, more than you can help. Things are going pretty well with me, I fancy."
"So I supposed, Dyce. But your father is afraid -- you know how he looks on the dark side of everything -- lest you should be incurring liabilities. I have told him that that was never your habit."
"Of course not," said Dyce, confidently. "You may be sure that I haven't taken such serious steps without seeing my way clear before me."
"I knew it! I have always had the fullest faith in you. And, Dyce, how you are improving in looks! You must go to a photographer again --"
"I've just been sitting at Hollingford. The local people wanted it, you know. But I'll send you one from London presently."
"And you assure me that there is no money difficulty?" asked Mrs. Lashmar, with inquisitive eyes.
"None whatever. The fact of the matter is that I am standing to please Lady Ogram, and of course --" He waved an explanatory hand. "Things are not finally arranged yet, but all will be smooth."
His smile made dignified deprecation of undue insistence on trivial detail.
"I'm delighted to hear it!" exclaimed his mother. "It's just what I had supposed. What could be more natural. Do you think, by the bye, that I ought to go and see Lady Ogram? It might seem to her a right and natural thing. And, from what you tell me of her, I feel sure we should have a good deal in common."
"I've thought of that too," Dyce answered, averting his look. "But wait a little. Just now Lady Ogram isn't at all well; she sees hardly anybody."
"Of course I shall be guided by your advice. A little later, then. And, Dyce, you haven't told me anything about Miss Bride. Is she still with Lady Ogram?"
"Oh yes. Still acting as secretary."
"Of course you don't see much of her?"
"Why, to tell you the truth, we have to see each other a good deal, owing to her duties,"
"Ah, yes, I understand. She writes to dictation, and that kind of thing. Strange that Lady Ogram should have engaged such a very unpleasant young woman. I've seldom known anyone I disliked so much."
"Really? She's of the new school, you know; the result of the emancipation movement." Dyce smiled, as if indulgently. "Lady Ogram thinks a great deal of her, and, I fancy, means to leave her money."
"Gracious! You don't say so!"
Mrs. Lashmar put the subject disdainfully aside, and Dyce was glad to speak of something else.
Throughout the day, the vicar was too busy to hold conversation with his son. But after dinner they sat alone together in the study, Mrs. Lashmar being called forth by some parochial duty. As he puffed at his newly-lighted pipe, Dyce reflected on all that had happened since he last sat here, some three months ago, and thought of what might have been his lot had not fortune dealt so kindly with him. Glancing at his father's face, he noted in it the signs of wearing anxiety; it seemed to him that the vicar looked much older than in the spring, and he was impressed by the pathos of age, which has no hopes to nourish, which can ask no more of life than a quiet ending. He could not imagine himself grey-headed, disillusioned; the effort to do so gave him a thrill of horror. Thereupon he felt reproach of conscience. For all the care and kindness he had received from his father, since the days when he used to come into this very room to show how well he could read a page of some child's story, what return had he made? None whatever in words, and little enough in conduct. All at once, he felt a desire to prove that he was not the insensible egoist his father perhaps thought him.
"I'm afraid you're a good deal worried, father," he began, looking at the paper-covered writing-table.
"I'm putting my affairs in order, Dyce," the vicar replied, running fingers through his beard. "I've been foolish enough to let them get very tangled; let me advise you never to do the same. But it'll all be straight before long. Don't trouble about me; let me hear of your own projects. I heartily wish it were in my power to help you."
"You did that much longer than I ought to have allowed," returned Dyce. "I feel myself to a great extent the cause of your troubles --"
"Nothing of the kind," broke in his father, cheerily. "Troubles be -- excommunicated! This hot weather takes it out of me a little, but I'm very well and not at all discouraged; so don't think it. To tell you the truth, I've been feeling anxious to hear more in detail from you about this Hollingford enterprise. Have you serious hopes?"
"I hardly think I shall be elected the first time," Dyce answered, speaking with entire frankness. "But it'll be experience, and may open the way for me."
"Parliament," mused the vicar, "Parliament! To be sure, we must have Members; it's our way of doing things, of governing the country. And if you really feel apt for that --"
He paused dreamily. Dyce, still under the impulse of softened feelings, spoke as he seldom did, very simply, quietly, sincerely.
"I believe, father, that I am not unfit for it. Politics, it's true, don't interest me very strongly, but I have brains enough to get the necessary knowledge, and I feel that I shall do better work in a prominent position of that kind than if I went on tutoring or took to journalism. As you say, we must have representatives, and I should not be the least capable, or the least honest. I find I can speak fairly well; I find I can inspire people with confidence in me. And, without presumption, I don't think the confidence is misplaced."
"Well, that's something," said the vicar, absently. "But you talk as if politics were a profession one could live by. I don't yet understand --"
"How I'm going to live. Nor do I. I'll tell you that frankly. But Lady Ogram knows my circumstances, and none the less urges me on. It may be taken for granted that she has something in view; and, after giving a good deal of thought to the matter, I see no valid reason why I should refuse any assistance she chooses to offer me. The case would not be without precedent. There is nothing dishonourable --"
Dyce drifted into verbosity. At the beginning, he had lost from sight the impossibility of telling the whole truth about his present position and the prospects on which he counted; he spoke with relief, and would gladly have gone on unbosoming himself. Strong and deeprooted is the instinct of confession. Unable to ease his conscience regarding outward circumstances, he turned at length to the question of his intellectual attitude.
"Do you remember, when I was here last, I spoke to you of a French book I had been reading, a sociological work? As I told you, it had a great influence on my mind. It helped to set my ideas in order. Before then, I had only the vaguest way of thinking about political and social questions. That book supplied me with a scientific principle, which I have since been working out for myself."
"Ha!" interjected the vicar, looking up oddly. "And you really feel in need of a scientific principle?"
"Without it, I should have remained a mere empiric, like the rest of our politicians. I should have judged measures from the narrow, merely practical point of view; or rather, I should pretty certainly have guided myself by some theory in which I only tried to believe."
"So you have now a belief, Dyce? Come, that's a point to have reached. That alone should give you a distinction among the aspiring men of to-day. And what do you believe?"
After drawing a meditative puff or two, Dyce launched into his familiar demonstration. He would very much rather have left it aside; he felt that he was not speaking as one genuinely convinced, and that his father listened without serious interest. But the theory had all to be gone through; he unwound it, like thread off a reel, rather mechanically and heavily towards the end.
"And that's what you are going to live for?" said his father. "That is your faith necessary to salvation?"
"I take it to be the interpretation of human history."
"Perhaps it is; perhaps it is," murmured the vicar, abstractedly. "For my own part," he added, bestirring himself to refill his pipe, "I can still see a guiding light in the older faith. Of course the world has rejected it; I don't seek to delude myself on that point; I shrink with horror from the blasphemy which would have us pretend that our civilisation obeys the spirit of Christ. The world has rejected it. Now as ever, 'despised and rejected of men.' The world, very likely, will do without religion. Yet, Dyce, when I think of the Sermon on the Mount --"
He paused again, holding his pipe in his hand, unlit, and looking before him with wide eyes.
"I respect that as much as anyone can," said Dyce, gravely.
"As much as anyone can -- who doesn't believe it." His father took him up with gentle irony. "I don't expect the impossible. You cannot believe in it; for you were born a post-Darwinian. Well, your religion is temporal; let us take that for granted. You do not deny yourself; you believe that self-assertion to the uttermost is the prime duty."
"Provided that self-assertion be understood aright. I understand it as meaning the exercise of all my civic faculties."
"Which, in your case, are faculties of command, faculties which point you to the upper seat, Dyce. Tom Bullock, my gardener, is equally to assert himself, but with the understanding that his faculties point to the bottom of the table, where the bread is a trifle stale, and butter sometimes lacking. Yes, yes: I understand. Of course you will do your very best for Tom; you would like him to have what the sweet language of our day calls a square meal. But still he must eat below the salt; there you can't help him."
"Because nature itself cannot," explained Dyce. "One wants Tom to acknowledge that, without bitterness, and at the same time to understand that, but for him, his honest work, his clean life, the world couldn't go on at all. If Tom feels that, he is a religious man."
"Ah! I take your point. But, Dyce, I find as a painful matter of fact that Tom Bullock is by no means a religious man. Tom, I have learnt, privately calls himself 'a hagnostic,' and is obliging enough to say among his intimates that, if the truth were told, I myself am the same. Tom has got hold of evolutionary notions, which he illustrates in his daily work. He knows all about natural selection, and the survival of the fittest. Tom ought to be a very apt disciple of your bio-soeiological creed. Unhappily a more selfish mortal doesn't walk the earth. He has been known to send his wife and children supperless to bed, because a festive meeting at a club to which he belongs demanded all the money in his pocket. Tom, you see, feels himself one of the Select; his wife and children, holding an inferior place in great nature's scheme, must be content to hunger now and then, and it's their fault if they don't feel a religious satisfaction in the privilege."
"Why on earth do you employ such a man?" cried Dyce.
"Because, my dear boy, if I did not, no one else would, and Tom's wife and children would have still greater opportunities of proving their disinterested citizenship."
"Speaking seriously again, father, Tom is what he is just because he hasn't received the proper education. Had he been rightly taught, who knows but he would, in fact, have been an apt disciple of the civic religion?"
"I fear me, Dyce, that no amount of civic instruction, or any other instruction, would have affected Tom's ethics. Tom is representative of his age. Come, come; I have every wish to be just to you. A new religion must have time; its leaven must work amid the lump. You, my dear boy, are convinced that the leaven is, though a new sort, a very sound and sufficient yeast; let that be granted. I, unfortunately, cannot believe anything of the kind. To me your method of solution seems a deliberate insistence on the worldly in human nature, sure to have the practical result of making men more and more savagely materialist: I see no hope whatever that you will inspire the world with enthusiasm for a noble civilisation by any theory based on biological teaching. From my point of view, a man becomes noble in spite of the material laws which condition his life, never in consequence of them. If you ask me how and why -- I bow my head and keep silence."
"Can you maintain," asked Dyce, respectfully, "that Christianity is still a civilising power?"
"To all appearances," was the grave answer, "Christianity has failed -- utterly, absolutely, glaringly failed. At this moment, the world, I am convinced, holds more potential barbarism than did the Roman Empire under the Antonines. Wherever I look, I see a monstrous contrast between the professions and the practice, between the assumed and the actual aims, of so-called Christian peoples. Christianity has failed to conquer the human heart."
"It must be very dreadful for you to be convinced of that."
"It is. But more dreadful would be a loss of belief in the Christian spirit. By belief, I don't mean faith in its ultimate triumph; I am not at all sure that I can look forward to that. No; but a persuasion that the Sermon on the Mount is good -- is the best. Once upon a time, multitudes were in that sense Christian. Nowadays, does one man in a thousand give his mind's allegiance (lips and life disregarded) to that ideal of human thought and conduct? Take your newspaper writer, who speaks to and for the million; he simply scorns every Christian precept. How can he but scorn a thing so unpractical? Nay, I notice that he is already throwing off the hypocrisy hitherto thought decent. I read newspaper articles which sneer and scoff at those who venture to remind the world that, after all, it nominally owes allegiance to a Christian ideal. Our prophets begin openly to proclaim that self-interest and the hardest materialism are our only safe guides. Now and then such passages amaze, appal me -- but I am getting used to them. So I am to the same kind of declaration in everyday talk. Men in most respectable coats, sitting at most orderly tables, hold the language of pure barbarism. If you drew one of them aside, and said to him, 'But what about the fruits of the spirit?' -- what sort of look would he give you?"
"I agree entirely," exclaimed Dyce. "And for that very reason I want to work for a new civilising principle."
"If you get into the House, shall you talk there about bio-sociology?"
"Why no," answered Dyce, with a chuckle. "If I were capable of that, I should have very little chance of getting into the House at all, or of doing anything useful anywhere."
"In other words," said his father, still eyeing an unlit pipe, "one must be practical -- eh, Dyce?"
"In the right way."
"Yes, yes: one must be practical, practical. If you know which is the right way, I am very glad, I congratulate you. For my own part, I seek it vainly; I seek it these forty years and more; and it grows clear to me that I should have done much better not to heed that question at all. 'Blessed are the merciful -- blessed are the pure in heart -- blessed are the peacemakers.' It is all strikingly unpractical, Dyce, my boy; you can't, again in to-day's sweet language, 'run' the world on those principles. They are utterly incompatible with business; and business is life."
"But they are not at all incompatible with the civilisation I have in view," Dyce exclaimed.
"I am glad to hear it; very glad. You don't, however, see your way to that civilisation by teaching such axioms."
"No. You have to teach 'Blessed are the civic-minded, for they shall profit by their civism.' It has to be profit, Dyce, profit, profit. Live thus, and you'll get a good deal out of life; live otherwise, and you may get more, but with an unpleasant chance of getting a good deal less."
"But isn't it unfortunately true that Christianity spoke also of rewards?"
"Yes, it is true. The promise was sometimes adapted to the poorer understanding. More often, it was nobler, and by that I take my stand. 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.' The words, you know, had then a meaning. Now they have none. To see God was not a little thing, I imagine, but the vision, probably, brought with it neither purple nor fine linen. -- For curiosity's sake, Dyce, read Matthew v.-vii. before you go to sleep. You'll find the old Bible in your bedroom."
The door was thrown open, and Mrs. Lashmar's voice broke upon the still air of the study.
"Dyce, have you seen to-day's Times? There's a most interesting article on the probable duration of Parliament. Take it up to your room with you, and read it before you sleep."
"There's a letter for you, Dyce; forwarded from Rivenoak, I see."
It lay beside his plate on the breakfast table, and Dyce eyed it with curiosity. The backward-sloping hand was quite unknown to him. He tapped at an egg, and still scrutinised the writing on the envelope; it was Constance who had crossed out the Rivenoak address, and had written beside it "The Vicarage, Alverholme."
"Have you slept well?" asked his mother, who treated him with much more consideration than at his last visit.
"Very well indeed," he replied mechanically, taking up his letter and cutting it open with a table-knife.
"HAVE MORE COURAGE. AIM HIGHER. IT IS NOT TOO LATE."
Dyce stared at the oracular message, written in capitals on a sheet of paper which contained nothing else. He again examined the envelope, but the post-mark in no way helped him. He glanced at his mother, and, finding her eye upon him, folded the sheet carelessly. He glanced at his father, who had just laid down a letter which evidently worried him. The meal passed with very little conversation. Dyce puzzled over the anonymous counsel so mysteriously conveyed to him, and presently went apart to muse unobserved.
He thought of Iris Woolstan. Of course a woman had done this thing, and Iris he could well believe capable of it. But what did she mean? Did she really imagine that, but for lack of courage, he would have made suit to her? Did she really regard herself as socially his superior? There was no telling. Women had the oddest notions on such subjects, and perhaps the fact of his engaging himself to Constance Bride, a mere secretary, struck her as deplorable. "Aim higher." The exhortation was amusing enough. One would have supposed it came at least from some great heiress --
He stopped in his pacing about the garden. An heiress? -- May Tomalin?
Shaking of the head dismissed this fancy. Miss Tomalin was a matter-of-fact young person; he could not see her doing such a thing as this. And yet -- and yet -- when he remembered their last talk, was it not conceivable that he had made a deeper impression upon her than, in his modesty, he allowed himself to suppose? Had she not spoken, with a certain enthusiasm, of working on his behalf at Hollingford? The disturbing event which. immediately followed had put Miss Tomalin into the distance; his mind had busied itself continuously with surmises as to the nature of the benefit he might expect if he married Constance. After all, Lady Ogram's niece might have had recourse to this expedient. She, at all events, knew that he was staying at Rivenoak, and might easily not have heard on what day he would leave. Or, perhaps, knowing that he left yesterday, she had calculated that the letter would reach him before his departure; it had possibly been delivered at Rivenoak by the mid-day post.
Amusing, the thought that Constance had herself re-addressed this communication!
Another possibility occurred to him. What if the writer were indeed Iris Woolstan, and her motive quite disinterested? What if she did not allude to herself at all, but was really pained at the thought of his making an insignificant marriage, when, by waiting a little, he was sure to win a wife suitable to his ambition? Of this, too, Iris might well be capable. Her last letter to him had had some dignity, and, all things considered, she had always shown herself a devoted, unexacting friend. It seemed more likely, it seemed much more likely, than the other conjecture.
Nevertheless, suppose Miss Tomalin had taken this romantic step? The supposition involved such weighty issues that he liked to harbour it, to play with it. He pictured himself calling in Pont Street; he entered the drawing-room, and his eyes fell at once upon Miss Tomalin, in whose manner he remarked something unusual a constraint, a nervousness. Saluting, he looked her fixedly in the face; she could not meet his regard; she blushed a little --
Why, it was very easy to determine whether or not she had sent that letter. In the case of Iris Woolstan, observation would have no certain results, for she must needs meet him with embarrassment. But Miss Tomalin would be superhuman if she did not somehow betray a nervous conscience.
Dyce strode into the house. His father and mother stood talking at the foot of the stairs, the vicar ready to go out.
"I must leave you at once," he exclaimed, looking at his watch. "Something I had forgotten -- an engagement absurdly dropt out of mind. I must catch the next train -- 10.14, isn't it?"
Mrs. Lashmar sang out protest, but, on being assured that the engagement was political, urged him to make haste. The vicar all but silently pressed his hand, and with head bent, walked away.
He just caught the train. It would bring him to town by mid-day, in comfortable time to lunch and adorn himself before the permissible hour of calling in Pont Street. Rapid movement excited his imagination; he clung now to the hypothesis which at first seemed untenable; he built hopes upon it. Could he win a confession from May Tomalin, why should it be hopeless to sway the mind of Lady Ogram? If that were deemed impossible, they had but to wait. Lady Ogram would not live till the autumn. To be sure, she looked better since her return to Rivenoak, but she was frail, oh very frail, and sure to go off at a moment's notice. As for Constance -- oh, Constance!
At his lodgings he found unimportant letters. Every letter would have seemed unimportant, compared with that he carried in his pocket. Roach, M. P., invited him to dine. The man at the Home Office wanted him to go to a smoking concert. Lady Susan Harrop sent a beggarly card for an evening ten days hence. Like the woman's impudence! And yet, as it had been posted since her receipt of his mother's recent letter, it proved that Lady Susan had a sense of his growing dignity, which was good in its way. He smiled at a recollection of the time when a seat at those people's table had seemed a desirable and agitating thing.
Before half-past three he found himself walking in Sloane Street. After consulting his watch several times in the course of a few minutes, he decided that, early as it was, he would go on at once to Mrs. Toplady's. Was he not privileged? Moreover, light rain began to fall, with muttering of thunder: he must seek shelter.
At a door in Pont Street stood two vehicles, a brougham and a cab. Was it at Mrs. Toplady's? Yes, so it proved; and, just as Dyce went up to the house, the door opened. Out came a servant, carrying luggage; behind the servant came Mrs. Toplady, and, behind her, Miss Tomalin. Hat in hand, Lashmar faced the familiar smile, at this moment undisguisedly mischievous.
"Mr. Lashmar!" exclaimed the lady, in high good humour. "We are just going to St. Pancras. Miss Tomalin leaves me to-day. -- Why, it is raining! Can't we take you with us? Yes, yes, come into the carriage, and we'll drop you where you like."
Lashmar's eye was on the heiress. She said nothing as she shook hands, and, unless he mistook, there was a tremour about her lips, her eyelids, an unwonted suggestion of shyness in her bearing. The ladies being seated, he took his place opposite to them, and again perused Miss Tomalin's countenance. Decidedly, she was unlike herself; manifestly, she avoided his look. Mrs. Toplady talked away, in the gayest spirits; and the rain came down heavily, and thunder rolled. Half the distance to St. Pancras was covered before May had uttered anything more than a trivial word or two. Of a sudden she addressed Lashmar, as if about to speak of something serious.
"You left all well at Rivenoak?"
"When did you come away?"
"Early yesterday morning," Dyce replied.
May's eyebrows twitched; her look fell.
"I went to Alverholme," Dyce continued, "to see my people."
May turned her eyes to the window. Uneasiness appeared in her face. "She wants to know" -- said Dyce to himself -- "whether I have received that letter."
"Do you stay in town?" inquired Mrs. Toplady.
"For a week or two, I think." He added, carelessly, "A letter this morning, forwarded from Rivenoak, brought me back."
May made a nervous movement, and at once exclaimed:
"I suppose your correspondence is enormous, Mr. Lashmar?"
"Enormous -- why no. But interesting, especially of late."
"Of course -- a public man --"
Impossible to get assurance. The signs he noticed might mean nothing at all; on the other hand, they were perhaps decisive. More about the letter of this morning he durst not say, lest, if this girl had really written it, she should think him lacking in delicacy, in discretion.
"Very kind of you, to come to me at once," said Mrs. Toplady. "Is there good news of the campaign? Come and see me to-morrow, can you? This afternoon I have an engagement. I shall only just have time to see Miss Tomalin safe in the railway carriage."
Dyce made no request to be set down. After this remark of Mrs. Toplady's, a project formed itself in his mind. When the carriage entered Euston Road, rain was still falling.
"This'll do good," he remarked. "The country wants it."
His thoughts returned to the morning, a week ago, when Constance and he had been balked of their ride by a heavy shower. He saw the summer-house among the trees; he saw Constance's face, and heard her accents.
They reached the station. As a matter of course, Dyce accompanied his friends on to the platform, where the train was already standing. Miss Tomalin selected her seat. There was leave-taking. Dyce walked away with Mrs. Toplady, who suddenly became hurried.
"I shall only just have time," she said, looking at the clock. "I'm afraid my direction -- northward -- would only take you more out of your way."
Dyce saw her to the brougham, watched it drive off. There remained three minutes before the departure of Miss Tomalin's train. He turned back into the station; he walked rapidly, and on the platform almost collided with a heavy old gentleman whom an official was piloting to a carriage. This warm-faced, pompous-looking person he well knew by sight. Another moment, and he stood on the step of the compartment where May had her place. At sight of him, she half rose.
"What is it? Have I forgotten something?"
The compartment was full. Impossible to speak before these listening people. In ready response to his embarrassed look, May alighted.
"I'm so sorry to have troubled you," said Dyce, with laughing contrition. "I thought it might amuse you to know that Mr. Robb is in the train!"
"Really? How I should have liked to be in the same carriage. Perhaps I should have heard the creature talk. Oh, and this compartment is so full, so hot! Is it impossible to find a better?"
Dyce rushed at a passing guard. He learnt that, if Miss Tomalin were willing to change half way on her journey, she could travel at ease; only the through carriages for Hollingford were packed. To this May at once consented. Dyce seized her dressing-bag, her umbrella; they sped to another part of the train, and sprang, both of them, into an empty first-class.
"This is delightful!" cried the girl. "I am so much obliged to you!"
"Shown already," replied May. "Change of carriage."
The door was slammed, locked. The whistle sounded.
"But we're starting!" May exclaimed. "Quick! Jump out, Mr. Lashmar!"
Dyce sat still, smiling calmly.
"It's too late, I'm afraid I mustn't try to escape by the window."
"Oh, and you have sacrificed yourself just to make me more comfortable! How inconvenient it will be for you! What a waste of time!"
"Not at all. The best thing that could have happened."
"Well, we have papers at all events." May handed him one. "Pray don't feel obliged to talk."
"As it happens, I very much wish to talk. Queer thing that I should owe my opportunity to Robb. I shall never again feel altogether hostile to that man. I wish you had seen him. He looked apoplectic. This weather must try him severely."
"You never spoke to him, I suppose?" asked May.
"I never had that honour. Glimpses only of the great man have been vouchsafed to me. Once seen, he is never forgotten. To-day he looks alarmingly apoplectic."
"But really, Mr. Lashmar," said the girl, settling herself in her corner, "I do feel ashamed to have given you this useless journey -- and just when you are so busy."
She was pretty in her travelling costume. Could Lashmar have compared her appearance to-day with that she had presented on her first arrival at Rivenoak, he would have marvelled at the change wrought by luxurious circumstance. No eye-glasses now; no little paper-cutter hanging at her girdle. Called upon to resume the Northampton garb, May would have been horrified. The brown shoes which she had purchased expressly for her visit to Lady Ogram would have seemed impossibly large and coarse. Exquisite were her lavender gloves. Such details of attire, formerly regarded with some contempt, had now an importance for her. She had come to regard dress as one of the serious concerns of life.
"I went to Pont Street this afternoon," said Dyce, "with a wish that by some chance I might see you alone. It was Very unlikely, but it has come to pass."
May exhibited a slight surprise, and by an imperceptible movement put a little more dignity into her attitude.
"What did you wish to speak about?" she asked, with an air meant to be strikingly natural.
"Don't let me startle you; it was about my engagement to Miss Bride."
This time, Dyce felt he could not he mistaken. She was confused; he saw colour mounting on her neck; the surprise she tried to convey in smiling was too obviously feigned.
"Isn't that rather an odd subject of conversation?"
"It seems so, but wait till you have heard what I have to say. It is on Miss Bride's account that I speak. You are her friend, and I feel that, in mere justice to her, I ought to tell you a very strange story. It is greatly to her honour. She couldn't tell you the truth herself, and of course you will not be able to let her know that you know it. But it will save you from possible misunderstanding of her, enable you to judge her fairly."
May hardly disguised her curiosity. It absorbed her self-consciousness, and she looked the speaker straight in the face.
"To come to the point at once," pursued Lashmar, our engagement is not a genuine one. Miss Bride has not really consented to marry me. She only consents to have it thought that she has done so. And very generous, very noble, it is of her."
"What a strange thing!" the girl exclaimed, as ingenuously as she had ever spoken in her life.
"Isn't it! I can explain in a word or two. Lady Ogram wished us to marry; it was a favourite project of hers. She spoke to me about it -- putting me in a very difficult position, for I felt sure that Miss Bride had no such regard for me as your aunt supposed. I postponed, delayed as much as possible, and the result was that Lady Ogram began to take my behaviour ill. The worst of it was, her annoyance had a had effect on her health. I think you know that Lady Ogram cannot bear contradiction."
"I know that she doesn't like it," said May, her chin rising a little.
"You, of course, are favoured. You have exceptional influence. But I can assure you that it would have been a very unpleasant thing to have to tell Lady Ogram either that I couldn't take the step she wished, or that Miss Bride rejected me."
"I can believe that," said May indulgently.
"When I saw that she was making herself ill about it, I took the resolve to speak frankly to Miss Bride. The result was -- our pretended engagement."
"Was it your suggestion?" inquired the listener.
"Yes, it came from me," Dyce answered, with half real, half affected, embarrassment. "Of course I felt it to be monstrous impudence, but, as some excuse for me, you must remember that Miss Bride and I have known each other for many years, that we were friends almost in childhood. Perhaps I was rather a coward. Perhaps I ought to have told your aunt the truth, and taken the consequences. But Miss Bride, no less than I, felt afraid of them."
"We really feared that, in Lady Ogram's state of health --"
He broke off significantly. May dropped her eyes. The train roared through a station.
"But," said May at length, "I understand that you are to be married in October."
"That is Lady Ogram's wish. Of course it's horribly embarrassing. I needn't say that when our engagement is announced as broken off, I shall manage so that all the fault appears to be on my side. But I am hoping -- that Lady Ogram may somehow be brought to change her mind. And I even dare to hope that -- you will help us to that end."
"I? How could I, possibly?"
"Indeed, I hardly know. But the situation is so awkward, and you are the only person who has really great influence with Lady Ogram --"
There was silence amid the noise of the train. May looked through one window, Dyce through the other.
"In any case," exclaimed Lashmar, "I have discharged what I felt to be a duty. I could not bear to think that you should be living with Miss Bride, and totally misunderstanding her. I wanted you to do justice to her noble self-sacrifice. Of course I have felt ashamed of myself ever since I allowed her to get into such a false position. You, I fear, think worse of me than you did."
He regarded her from under his eyelids, as if timidly. May sat very upright. She did not look displeased; a light in her eyes might have been understood as expressing satisfaction.
"Suppose," she said, looking away, "that October comes, and you haven't been able to -- to put an end to this situation?"
"I'm afraid -- very much afraid -- that we shall have to do so at any cost."
"It's very strange, altogether. An extraordinary state of things."
"You forgive me for talking to you about it?" asked Dyce, leaning respectfully forward.
"I understand why you did. There was no harm in it."
"Do you remember our talk in the supper-room at Mrs. Toplady's? -- when we agreed that nothing was more foolish than false modesty. Shall I venture to tell you, now, that, if this marriage came about, it would be something like ruin to my career? You won't misunderstand. I have a great respect, and a great liking, for Miss Bride; but think how all-important it is, this question of marriage for a public man."
"Of course I understand that," May replied.
He enlarged upon the topic, revealing his hopes.
"But I rather thought," said May, "that Miss Bride was just the sort of companion you needed. She is so intelligent and --"
"Very! But do you think she has the qualities which would enable her to take a high position in society? There's no unkindness in touching upon that. Admirable women may fall short of these particular excellencies. A man chooses his wife according to the faith he has in his future?"
"I understand; I quite understand," said May, with a large air. "No; it has to be confessed that Miss Bride -- I wonder my aunt didn't think of that."
They turned aside to discuss Lady Ogram, and did so in such detail, with so much mutual satisfaction, that time slipped on insensibly, and, ere they had thought of parting, the train began to slacken down for the junction where Miss Tomalin would have to change carriages.
"How annoying that I shan't be able to see you again!" cried Lashmar.
"But shan't you be coming to Rivenoak?"
"Not for some time, very likely. And when I do --" The train stopped. Dyce helped his companion to alight, and moved along to seek for a place for her in the section which went to Hollingford. Suddenly an alarmed voice from one of the carriage-doors shouted "Guard! Station-master!" People turned in that direction; porters ran; evidently, something serious had happened.
"What's the matter?" asked May, at her companion's side.
"Somebody taken ill, I think," said Dyce, moving towards the door whence the shout had sounded.
He caught a glimpse of a man who had sunk upon the floor of the carriage, and was just being lifted onto the seat by other passengers. Pressing nearer, he saw a face hideously congested, with horrible starting eyes. He drew back, and whispered to May:
"It's Robb! Didn't I tell you that he looked apoplectic."
The girl shrank in fear.
"Are you sure?"
"Perfectly. Stand here a minute, and I'll ask how it happened."
From the talk going on he quickly learnt that Mr. Robb, complaining that he felt faint, had risen, just as the train drew into the station, to open the door and descend. Before anyone could help him, he dropped, and his fellow-travellers shouted. Dyce and May watched the conveyance of the obese figure across the platform to a waiting-room.
"I must know the end of this," said Lashmar, his eyes gleaming.
"You wouldn't have gone further, should you?"
"I suppose not -- though I had still a great deal to tell you. Quick! We must get your place."
"I could stop for the next train," suggested May.
"Better not, I think. The carriage will be waiting for you at Hollingford. No, better not. I have another idea."
They found a seat. Dyce threw in the dressing-bag, and alighted again.
"There's still a minute or two," he said, keeping May beside him on the platform. "This affair may be tremendously important for me, you know."
"It would mean an election at once," said the girl, excitedly.
"Of course." He approached his face to hers, and added in low, rapid tones, "You know the park gate into the Wapham Road?"
"You have a key. Could you be there at eight tomorrow morning? If it's fine, take your bicycle, as if you were going for a spin before breakfast. Miss Bride never goes out before breakfast, and no one else is likely to pass that way."
"You mean you would be there?"
"If there's anything important to tell -- yes. From a quarter to eight. I shall stay here till I know the state of things. If there's recovery, I will go back to town, and wire to-morrow to Lady Ogram that Ii have heard a rumour of Robb's serious illness, asking for information. Do you agree?"
Doors were slamming; porters were shouting. May had only just time to spring into the carriage.
"Yes!" she exclaimed, with her head at the window. Dyce doffed his hat. They smiled at each other, May's visage flushed and agitated, and the train whirled away.
In the carriage awaiting Miss Tomalin at Hollingford station sat Constance Bride.
"A horrible journey!" May exclaimed, taking a seat beside her. "No seat in a through carriage at St. Pancras. Had to change at the junction. Somebody in the train had a fit, or something -- no wonder, with such heat! But it's cooler here. Have you had a storm?"
The footman, who had been looking after luggage, stepped up to the carriage door and spoke to Miss Bride. He said there was a rumour in the station that Mr. Robb, travelling by this train, had been seized with apoplexy on the way.
"Mr. Robb!" exclaimed Constance. "Then he was the person you spoke of?"
"I suppose so," May answered. "Queer thing!"
They drove off. Constance gazed straight before her, thinking intently.
"If the attack is fatal," said May, "we shall have an election at once."
"Yes," fell from her companion's lips mechanically.
"Who will be the Conservative candidate?"
"I have no idea," answered Constance, still absorbed in her thoughts.
May cast a glance at her, and discovered emotion in the fixed eyes, the set lips. There was a short silence, then Miss Tomalin spoke as if an amusing thought had struck her.
"You received that American magazine from Mrs. Toplady? Isn't it an odd coincidence -- the French book, you know?"
"It didn't seem to me very striking," replied Constance, coldly.
"No? Perhaps not." May became careless. "I hadn't time to read it myself; I only heard what Mrs. Toplady said about it."
"There was a certain resemblance between the Frenchman's phraseology and Mr. Lashmar's," said Constance; "but nothing more. Mr. Lashmar's system isn't easy to grasp. I doubt whether Mrs. Toplady is quite the person to understand it."
"Perhaps not," May smiled, raising her chin. "I must read the article myself."
"Even then," rejoined her companion, in a measured tone, "you will hardly be able to decide as to the resemblance of the two theories."
"Why not?" asked May, sharply.
"Because you have had no opportunity of really studying Mr. Lashmar's views."
"Oh, I assure you he has made them perfectly clear to me -- perfectly."
"In outline," said Constance, smiling as one who condescends to a childish understanding.
"Oh no, in detail."
Miss Bride contented herself with a half-absent "Indeed?" and seemed to resume her meditations. Whereupon, May's eyes flashed, and her head assumed its most magnificent pose.
They exchanged not another word on the drive to Rivenoak.
May awoke very early next morning. It was broad daylight, however, and she hastened to look at her watch. Reassured as to the time, her next thought regarded the weather; she stepped to the window, and saw with vexation a rainy sky. An hour later, she again lifted the blind to look forth. No sun was shining, but rain had ceased. She began to dress.
At a quarter to eight, equipped for walking, she quietly left her room and tripped down stairs. A housemaid met her in the hall; she asked whether the front door was unlocked, and the servant went before to open for her. Following a path which led to the rear of the house, she was soon out in the park; in some ten minutes she passed the old summer-house among the trees, and, with quickened pace, came to the door which led into the Wapham Road. Before using her key, she tapped lightly on the wood; from without there sounded immediately an answering knock. Then she opened.
"Do you know?" asked Lashmar, eagerly, as he gave his hand, forgetting the formal salute.
"Yes. We had the news after dinner. Mr. Breakspeare sent a message."
"He lived for about an hour. I came on to Hollingford late, and have passed the night at the Saracen's Head. It's to be understood, of course, that I got the news in town just in time for the last train."
Whilst exchanging rapid sentences, they stood, one within, one outside, the park wall. May held the door as if uncertain what to do next.
"You can spare me a few minutes?" said Dyce, glancing this way and that along the public way.
"Come in. I didn't bring my bicycle, as it's so wet."
"Of course not. You needn't be anxious. Nobody comes this way."
He closed the door. May was looking behind her into the frees and bushes, which hid them from the park The sky had begun to brighten; a breeze shook drops from the shining leafage.
"How does Lady Ogram take the news?" Lashmar inquired, trying to speak with his wonted calm, but betraying a good deal of nervousness.
"I haven't seen her. She was in her room when it came."
"I shouldn't wonder if she's sorry. She had set her mind on our beating Robb at the poll. No one seems to know who will stand for the Conservatives. I saw Breakspeare after midnight; he was in the wildest excitement. He thinks it's good for us."
"Of course you'll see Lady Ogram to-day?"
"I shall come at lunch-time. That'll be best, won't it?"
May nodded. Her eyes kept turning in the direction of the house.
"How very kind of you to have come out so early!" said Dyce. "All night I've been reproaching myself for giving you the trouble, and when I saw the rain I didn't think for a moment you would be here. I'm delighted to be able to talk to you before seeing anyone else. Don't you think this event has happened very luckily? Whether I am elected or not, it'll be easier for me to get out of my false position."
"In this way. During the excitement of the election, I shall find opportunities of speaking more freely with Lady Ogram, and who knows but I may bring her to see that the plan she made for me was not altogether to my advantage? Miss Bride, of course, will speak, whenever she has a chance, in the same sense --"
"Are you sure of that?" asked May, casting a furtive glance at him. She was boring the path with the point of her slim umbrella.
"Do you feel any doubt?" asked Dyce in turn.
"I really can't judge. It's such a very curious situation -- and," she added, "Miss Bride is so peculiar."
"Peculiar? -- I understand. You don't find her very communicative. But I'm sure you'll make allowance for the difficulty of --"
"Oh, I make all allowances," interrupted May, with her smile of superiority. "And of course Miss Bride's affairs don't in the least concern me."
"Except I hope in so far as they concern me."
Dyce spoke with insinuating humour. Both hands resting on his umbrella handle, he held himself very upright, and looked May steadily in the face. She, as though challenged, straightened herself and met his look.
"I should be sorry to see your career spoilt," she said, with rather excessive dignity. "But you will admit that you have acted, to say the least, imprudently."
"It looks so. You think I should have had more courage. But you will see that it's not too late."
Speaking, he watched her face. He saw her lips twitch, and her eyes stray.
"You know," he pursued, "that I aim high."
Her look fell.
"But no man can do without help. The strong man is he who knows how to choose his helper, and at the right moment. I am at a crisis of my life, and -- it is to you that I turn."
"I of course feel that to be a great compliment, Mr. Lashmar," said May, recovering her grand air. "I promise you to do what I can. But you mustn't count on me for impossibilities."
"I count on nothing that isn't easy for you -- with your character, your influence."
"Thank you, again. My first piece of advice to you is to win the election."
"I shall do my best. If I am beaten in this, I shall win another; you are aware of that. Are you easily discouraged? I think not."
He smiled at her with admiration. That it was genuine, May easily perceived; how much, or how little, it implied, she did not care to ask. These two, alike incapable of romantic passion, children of a time which subdues everything to interest, which fosters vanity and chills the heart, began to imagine that they were drawn to each other by all the ardours of youth. Their minds remarkably lucid, reviewing the situation with coolest perspicuity, calculating each on the other's recognised weaknesses, and holding themselves absolutely free if contingency demanded freedom, they indulged, up to a certain point, the primitive impulse, and would fain have discovered in it a motive of the soul. May, who had formed her opinion as to Miss Bride's real attitude regarding Lashmar, took a keen pleasure in the treacherous part she was playing; she remembered the conversation last evening in the carriage, and soothed her wounded self-esteem. Dyce, gratified by yet another proof of his power over womankind, felt that in this case he had something to be really proud of; Miss Tomalin's beauty and her prospects spoke to the world at large. She was in love with him, and he detected in himself a reciprocal emotion. Interesting and agreeable state of things!
May, instead of directly answering his last question, allowed her eyes to meet his for a second. Then she said:
"Some people are coming to us this afternoon."
"To stay? Who are they?"
"Sir William and Lady Amys -- and Lord Dymchurch --"
"Dymchurch! Lady Ogram has invited him?"
"He would hardly come to stay without being invited," said May, archly. "But I thought you most likely knew. Didn't Lady Ogram mention it to you?"
"Not a word," answered Dyce. "No doubt she had a reason for saying nothing. You, possibly, could suggest it?"
His face had changed. There was cold annoyance in his look and in his voice.
"It must have been mere accident," said May.
"That it certainly wasn't. How long will Dymchurch stay?"
"I have no idea, Mr. Lashmar. -- I must leave you. Many thanks for taking so much trouble to bring me the news."
She held out her hand. Dyce took and detained it.
"I am going to stay on at Hollingford," he said, "at the hotel. I shall run up to town this evening, but be back to-morrow. At lunchtime to-day I shall see you, but of course that doesn't count; we shan't be able to talk, Wednesday, to-morrow; on Thursday morning meet me here again, will you?"
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Mr. Lashmar," she answered with self-possession; trying, unobtrusively, to withdraw her hand.
"I beg you to! Indeed, you must."
He tried the power of a smile meant to be at once virile and tender, but May was steadily drawing away her hand; he had not the courage to hold it forcibly.
"We shall find other opportunities of talking about the things that interest us," she said, moving a step back.
"It surprises me that you came this morning!" Dyce exclaimed, with a touch of sarcasm.
"Then," May answered loftily, "you will be spared a second surprise."
She turned and left him. Dyce, after watching for a moment her graceful figure, strode in pursuit. They were near the summer-house.
"You are forgetting," he said, "that you have left the key in the door."
May uttered an exclamation of alarm.
"How foolish of me! Thank you so much!"
"I fear I must give you the trouble of walking back, to let me out."
"Why, of course."
They returned to the door, and Dyce again took the offered hand.
"I shall be here at eight on Thursday," he said. "Unless it rains. In that case, on the first fine morning."
"I don't promise to meet you."
"I will come without a promise."
"As you like," said May, slowly closing the door upon him. "But don't prepare for yourself another surprise."
She regained the house, having met no one but a gardener. Within, she encountered no one at all. Safe in her room, she reflected on the morning's adventure, and told herself that it had been, in a double sense, decidedly dangerous. Were Constance Bride or Lady Ogram to know of this clandestine rendezvous, what a storm would break! On that account alone she would have been glad of what she had done. But she was glad, also, of Lashmar's significant behaviour and language. He perceived, undoubtedly, that the anonymous letter came from her, and, be the upshot what it might, their romantic intimacy gave life a new zest. May flattered herself that she knew the tremours of amorous emotion. "If I liked, I could be really, really in love!" This was delightful experience; this was living! Dangerous, yes; for how did she mean to comport herself in the all but certain event of her receiving an offer of marriage from Lord Dymchurch? Mrs. Toplady was right; Lady Ogram had resolved upon this marriage, and would it be safe to thwart that strong-willed old woman? Moreover, the thought was very tempting. A peeress! Could she reasonably look for such another chance, if this were lost? Was she prepared to sacrifice it for the sake of Dyce Lashmar, and the emotional joys he represented?
She thought of novels and poems. Browning was much in her mind. She saw herself as the heroine of psychological drama. How interesting! How thrilling! During her life at Northampton, she had dreamed of such things, with no expectation of their ever befalling her. Truly, she was fortune's favourite. Destiny had raised her to the sphere where her powers and sensibilities would have full play.
So it was with radiant face that she appeared at the breakfast table. Constance and she shook hands as usual; with everyday words. It seemed to her that she saw disquiet in the secretary's countenance -- after all, what was Miss Bride but a salaried secretary? Lashmar's betrothed might well suffer uneasiness, under the circumstances; she, it was obvious, did not regard the engagement as a mere pretence. No, no; Constance Bride was ambitious, and thought it a great thing to marry a man with a parliamentary career before him. She was of a domineering, jealous nature, and it would exasperate her to feel that Lashmar merely used her for his temporary purposes. Noble self-sacrifice, indeed! Lashmar himself did not believe that. Best of all things, at this moment, May would have liked to make known her power over Lashmar, and to say, "Of course, dear Miss Bride, he is nothing whatever to me. In my position, you understand --"
There had been a few moments' silence, when Constance asked:
"Do you ever hear of Mr. Yabsley?"
Was the woman a thought-reader? At that instant May had been thinking -- the first time for weeks, perhaps -- of her Admirable Crichton in the old Northampton days, and reflecting with gratification on the vast change which had come upon her life and her mind since she followed Mr. Yabsley's spiritual direction. Startled, she gazed at the speaker.
"How odd that you should have remembered his name!"
"Not at all. I heard it so often when you first came here."
"Did you?" said May, pretending to be amused. "Mr. Yabsley is a remarkable man, and I value his friendship. You remind me that I really ought to write to him."
Constance seemed to lose all her interest in the matter, and spoke of something trivial.
In the course of the morning there happened a singular thing.
Lady Ogram rose earlier than usual. Before leaving her room, she read in the Hollingford Express all about the sudden death of Mr. Robb. The event had kept her awake all night. Though on the one side a disappointment, for of late she had counted upon Robb's defeat at the next election as an all but certain thing, the fact that she had outlived her enemy, that he lay, as it were, at her feet, powerless ever again to speak an insulting word, aroused all the primitive instincts of her nature. With the exultation of a savage she gloated over the image of Robb stricken to the ground. Through the hours of darkness, she now and then sang to herself, and the melodies were those she had known when a girl, or a child, common songs of the street. It was her chant of victory and revenge.
Having risen, she went into the drawing-room on the same floor as her bedchamber, and summoned two menservants. After her first serious illness, she had for a time been carried up and down stairs in a chair made for that purpose; she now bade her attendants fetch the chair, and convey her to the top story of the house. It was done. In her hand she had a key, and with this she unlocked the door of that room which had been closed for half a century. Having stood alone within the garret for a few minutes, she called to the men, who, on entering, looked with curiosity at dust-covered forms in clay and in marble. Their mistress pointed to a bust which stood on a wooden pedestal some three feet high.
"You are to clean that. Bring water and soap. I will wait here whilst you do it."
The task was quickly performed; the marble shone once more, and its pedestal of lustrous black looked little the worse for long seclusion. Lady Ogram sat with her eyes fixed upon the work of art, and for a minute or two neither moved nor spoke.
"Who is that?" she inquired suddenly, indicating the head, and turning her look upon the two men.
"I think it is yourself, my lady," answered the bolder of the two.
Lady Ogram smiled. That use of the present tense was agreeable to her.
"You are to take it down to the green drawing-room. Carry me there, first, and I will show you where to place it."
Arrived at the ground-floor, she quitted her chair and walked into the drawing-room with step which was almost firm. Here, among the flowers and leafage, sat May Tomalin, who, surprised at her aunt's early appearance, rose forward with an exclamation of pleasure.
"How well you look this morning, aunt!"
"I'm glad you think so, my dear," was the pleased and dignified reply. "Be so kind, May, as to go into the library, and wait there until I send for you."
The girl turned pale. For a moment, she thought her escapade of this morning had been discovered, and that terrible things were about to happen. Her fright could not escape Lady Ogram's observation.
"What, have I frightened you? Did it remind you of being sent into the corner when you were a little girl?"
She laughed with discordant gaiety.
"Really, for the moment I thought I was being punished," replied May. And she too laughed, a melodious trill.
A quarter of an hour passed. Lady Ogram presented herself at the library door, and saw May reading, whilst Constance Bride sat writing at the table.
"Come, both of you!"
Surprised at the look and tone with which they were summoned, the two followed into the drawing-room, where, guided by Lady Ogram's glance, they became aware of a new ornament. They approached; they gazed; they wondered.
"Who is that?" asked their conductress, turning to Miss Bride.
Constance felt no doubt as to the person whom the bust was supposed to represent, and her disgust at what she thought the shameless flattery practised by the sculptor hardly allowed her to reply.
"Of course," she said, in as even a voice as possible, "it is a portrait of Miss Tomalin."
Lady Ogram's eyes shone; on the point of laughing, she restrained herself, and looked at her niece.
"May, what do you think?"
"Really, aunt, I don't know what to think," answered the girl, in a happy confusion. "If Miss Bride is right -- it's very, very kind of you. But how was it done without my sitting?"
This time, the old lady's mirth had its way.
"How, indeed! There's a mystery for you both, my dears! -- May, it's true you are like me, but don't let Constance make you conceited. Go near, and look at the date carved on the marble."
"Why, aunt, of course it is you yourself! " exclaimed the girl, her averted face long-drawn in mortification; she saw the smile with which Miss Bride had received this disclosure. "How wonderful!"
"You can hardly believe it?"
Some incredulity might have been excused in one who turned from that superb head, with its insolent youth and beauty, to the painted death-mask grinning there before it. Yet the marble had not flattered, and, looking closely enough, you saw a reminiscence of its contour in the bloodless visage which, since that proud moment, had chronicled the passions of three-score years.
"How stupid not to have understood at once," said May, the epithet privately directed towards Constance.
"It's a magnificent bust!" declared Miss Bride, examining it now with sincere interest. "Who was the sculptor, Lady Ogram?"
"My husband," answered the old lady, with pride. "Sir Quentin had much talent, and this was the best thing he ever did."
"And it has just come into your possession?" asked May.
"No, my dear. But I thought you would like to see it."
An hour later, Dyce Lashmar arrived. He was conducted at once to the drawing-room, where Lady Ogram still sat with May and Constance.
"I expected you," cried the senile voice, on a high note.
"I heard the news at dinner-time yesterday;" said Lashmar. "Just caught the last train, and sat up half the night with Breakspeare."
"I sent you a telegram the first thing this morning," said Lady Ogram. "Had you left Alverholme before it arrived?"
"I was in town," answered Dyce, only now remembering that he had to account for his movements. "A letter called me up yesterday morning."
The old autocrat was in no mood for trifling explanations. She passed the point, and began to ask the news from Hollingford. Who would be the Conservative candidate? They talked, said Dyce, of a stranger to the town, a man named Butterworth, one of Robb's private friends.
"It's Butterworth of the hoardings -- Butterworth's jams and pickles, you know. He's made a million out of them, and now thinks of turning his energies to the public service. Robb, it seems, didn't mean to face another election, and of late had privately spoken here and there of Butterworth."
"Jams and pickles!" cried Lady Ogram, with a croaking laugh. "Will the Hollingford Tories stand that?"
"Why not? Robb evidently thought they would, and he knew them. Butterworth is a stout Unionist, I'm told, and if he makes another million he may look for a peerage. Jam has not hitherto been thought so respectable as ale or stout, but that's only a prejudice. Robb's enlightened mind saw the budding aristocrat. Breakspeare is thinking out an article on the deceased champion of aristocratic traditions, to be followed by another on the blazonry of the jam-pot and pickle-jar. We shall have merry reading when decorum releases our friend's pen."
As his eyes stole towards May Tomalin, Dyce perceived the marble bust. He gazed at it in silent surprise. The looks of all were upon him; turning, he met smiles of inquiry.
"Well?" said Lady Ogram, bluntly.
"Who is that? Is it a new work?" he inquired, with diffidence.
"It looks new, doesn't it?"
"I should have thought," said Dyce, reflectively, "that it represented Lady Ogram at about the same age as in the painting."
"Constance," exclaimed the old lady, vastly pleased, "congratulate Mr. Lashmar."
"Then I am right," cried Dyce, encountering Constance's look. "What a fine bit of work! What a magnificent head!"
He moved nearer to it, and continued freely to express his admiration. The resemblance to May Tomalin had struck him, he thought it probable that some sculptor had amused himself by idealising the girl's suggestive features; but at this juncture it seemed to him more prudent, as in any case it would be politic, to affect to see only a revival of Lady Ogram's youth. It startled him to find that his tact had guided him so well.
He continued to behave with all prudence, talking through luncheon chiefly with the hostess, and directing hardly a remark to May, who, on her side, maintained an equal discretion. Afterwards, he saw Lady Ogram in private.
"You mean to stay on at the hotel, no doubt," she said. "Yes, it'll be more convenient for you than if you came here. But look in and let us know how things go on. Let me see, to-morrow is Wednesday; don't come to-morrow. On Thursday I may have something to tell you; yes, come and lunch on Thursday. You understand -- on Thursday. And there's something else I may as well say at once; the expenses of the election are my affair."
Dyce began a grateful protest, but was cut short.
"I say that is my affair. We'll talk about it when the fight is over. No petty economies! In a day or two, when things are in order, we must have Breakspeare here. Perhaps you had better go away for the day of Robb's funeral. Yes, don't be seen about on that day. Spare no useful expense; I give you a free hand. Only win; that's all I ask of you. I shan't like it if you're beaten by jams and pickles. And lunch here on Thursday -- you understand?"
Dyce had never known the old autocrat so babblingly iterative. Nor had he ever beheld her in such a mood of gaiety, of exultation.
"Go and have a word with Constance," she said at length. "I rather think she's going into the town; if so, you can go together. She's in great spirits. It isn't her way to talk much, but I can see she feels very hopeful. By the bye, I'm expecting Sir William before dinner -- Sir William Amys, you know. He may be here still when you come on Thursday."
Why Lady Ogram should be so careful to conceal the fact' that Lord Dymchurch was expected, Dyce found it difficult to understand. But it was clear that Dymchurch had been invited in the hope, perhaps the certainty, that he would propose to May Tomalin. That he was coming at all seemed, indeed, decisive as to his intentions. Plainly, the old schemer had formed this project at the time of her visit to London, and, improbable as the thing would have appeared to any one knowing Dymchurch, she was carrying it successfully through. On the one side; but how about May? Dyce tried to assure himself that, being in love with him, May would vainly be wooed by anyone else. But had she the courage to hold out against her imperious relative? Could she safely do so? The situation was extremely disquieting. He wished it were possible to see May alone, even for a minute. But he did not see her at all, and, as Lady Ogram had suggested, he found himself obliged to return to Hollingford in Constance's company. They drove in the landau. On the way, Dyce made known to his companion Lady Ogram's generous intentions.
"I knew she would do that," said Constance, regarding him with the smile which betrayed her inmost thoughts.
Because of the proximity of their coachman, they talked in subdued tones, their heads close together. To Lashmar this intimacy meant nothing at all; Constance, in his busy thoughts, was as good as non-existent. He had remarked with vexation the aspect of renewed vigour presented by Lady Ogram, and would have spoken of it, but that he felt ashamed to do so.
"Don't you think," asked his companion, "that everything is going wonderfully well with you?"
"It looks so, for the present."
"And, after all, whom have you to thank for it?"
"I don't forget," Dyce replied, wondering whether she alluded to the fact of her having introduced him to the mistress of Rivenoak, or to the terms of their engagement.
"If you win the election, don't you think it would be graceful not only to feel, but to show, a little gratitude?"
She spoke in a voice which once more reminded him of the summer-house on that rainy morning, a voice very unlike her ordinary utterance, soft and playfully appealing.
"Don't be so severe on me," answered Dyce, with a laugh. "I am not all self-interest."
He added what was meant for a reassuring look, and began to talk of electioneering details.
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