* I am deeply indebted to Olivier Lefevre, who have meticulously read the proof of this e-text.
Lady Ogram's life had been much guided by superstition. No one knew it, or suspected it, for this was among the tokens of her origin which she carefully kept out of sight. Through all the phases of her avowed belief, she remained subject to a private religion of omens and auspices, which frequently influenced her conduct. Thus, she would long ago have brought forth and displayed that marble visage of her beauty in its prime, but for a superstitious fear which withheld her. On the night before Sir Quentin's death, she dreamt that she ascended to the garret, took the bust in her arms, and carried it downstairs. Many years went by, and again she had the same dream; the next day her first serious illness fell upon her, and, remembering the vision, she gave herself up for lost; but the sign this time had less than fatal significance. Now once more, on the Sunday night of the present week, she seemed to enter the locked garret, and to carry away the marble. All Monday she lived in a great dread, but at evening came the news that her arch-enemy was no more, and behold the vision explained!
On Monday night she dreamt not at all, being kept awake by exultation in what had happened and forecast of triumphs soon to be enjoyed. But her thoughts turned constantly to the graven image which she longed to see, and, by a process of reasoning natural to such a mind as hers, she persuaded herself that now was the moment to fulfil her desire. The bust once brought down, she would not again dream of going to seek it, and, consequently, it could not serve again to augur evil. Not without tremors, she executed her resolve, and, the thing once done, her joy was boundless. Looking on that marble face, she seemed to recover something of the strength and spirit it had immortalised. Notwithstanding her restless night, she felt so clear in mind, so well in body, that the forebodings which had perturbed her since her exhausting visit to London were quite dismissed. To-day Lord Dymchurch was coming; to-morrow May's betrothal would be a fact to noise abroad. She would then summon Kerchever, and in the presence of Sir William Amys, the trusty friend sure to outlive her, would complete that last will and testament which was already schemed out. Twice already had she executed a will, the second less than a year ago. When in town, she had sufficiently discussed with her man of law the new situation brought about by her discovery of May Tomalin; but the hope which she connected with Lord Dymchurch bade her postpone awhile the solemn signature. All had come to pass even as she desired, as she resolved it should. To the end she was supreme in her own world.
When her guests arrived -- all travelled from London by the same train -- she received them royally. She had clad herself with unusual magnificence; on the shrivelled parchment of her cheeks shone an audacious bloom; her eyes gleamed as if in them were concentrated all the proud life which still resisted age and malady. Rising from her bowered throne in the drawing-room, she took a step towards Lady Amys, pressed her hand cordially -- not at all feebly -- and welcomed her with affectionate words. The baronet she addressed as "Willy," but with such a dignity of kindness in the familiar name that it was like bestowal of an honour. Towards the peer her bearing was marked with grave courtesy, softening to intimate notes as their conversation progressed. Scarce a touch of senility sounded in her speech; she heard perfectly, indulged in no characteristic brusquerie of phrase, fulfilled every formality proper to the occasion.
Sir William and his wife were the only people of their world who had always seen the lady of Rivenoak in her better aspect; who, whilst appreciating the comedy of her life, regarded her with genuine friendship. They understood the significance of Lord Dymchurch's visit, and, like Mrs. Toplady, though in a much more human spirit, awaited with amusement the successful issue of Lady Ogram's scheme. They saw no harm in it. Dymchurch, it might well be, had fallen in love with the handsome girl, and it was certain that her wealth would be put to much better use in his hands than in those of the ordinary man who weds money. Lady Ogram's deliberate choice of this landless peer assuredly did her credit. She wanted the peerage for her niece; but it would not have been difficult to gratify her ambition in a more brilliant way, had she cared less for the girl's welfare. Society being what it is, they did not see how their energetic old friend could have acted more prudently and kindly.
At dinner there was much pleasant talk. The baronet's vein of humourous criticism flowed freely. Walking through London streets this morning, his eye had caught sight of a couple of posters which held him in meditation.
"One was a huge picture of an ox, and beneath it one read in great letters that sixty thousand bullocks are annually slaughtered for the manufacture of Nokes's beef-tea. The other advertised Stokes's pills, and informed the world, in still bigger lettering, that, every minute of the day, seven of these pills 'reached their destination.' Delightful phrase! 'Reached their destination.' And this, you see, is how we adorn the walls of our cities. It is not only permitted, but favoured. I am quite sure that a plebiscite, if some more civilised alternative were offered, would pronounce in favor of the bullocks and the pills, as much more interesting. Yet to my mind, spoilt by pottering among old pictures, that bit of wall was so monstrous in its hideousness that I stood moon-stricken, and even yet I haven't got over it. I shall dream to-night of myriads of bullocks massacred for beef-tea, and of an endless procession of pills -- reaching their destination. I ask myself, in my foolish theoretic way, what earthly right we have to lay claim to civilisation. How much better it would be always to speak of ourselves as barbarians. We should then, perhaps, make some endeavour to improve. The barbarian who imagines himself on the pinnacle of refinement is in a parlous state -- far more likely to retrograde than to advance."
"There should be a league of landowners," said Miss Tomalin, "pledged to forbid any such horror on their own property."
"I don't know that I have much faith in leagues," returned Sir William. "I am a lost individualist. Let everyone try to civilise himself; depend upon it, it's the best work he can do for the world at large."
"And yet," put in Lord Dymchurch, "the world can't do without apostles. Do you think mere example has ever availed much?"
"Perhaps not. I would say that I don't care. Do you really believe that the world ever will be much more civilised than it is? In successive epochs, there are more or fewer persons of liberal mind -- that's all; the proportion rises and falls. Why should we trouble about it? Let those of us who really dislike the ox and pill placards, keep as much out of sight of them as possible, that's all. It doesn't do to think over much about the problems of life. Nowadays almost everybody seems to feel it a duty to explain the universe, and with strange results. For instance, I read an article last night, a most profound article, altogether too much for my poor head, on the question of right and wrong. Really, I had supposed that I knew the difference between right and wrong; in my blundering way, I had always tried to act on the knowledge. But this writer proves to me that I shall have to begin all over again. 'Morality,' he says, 'depends upon cerebral oxidation.' That's a terrible dictum for a simpleminded man. If I am not cerebrally oxidised, or oxidally cerebrised, in the right degree, it's all over with my hopes of leading a moral life. I'm quite sure that a large number of people are worrying over that article, and asking how they can oxidise if not their own cerebellum, at all events that of their offspring."
"Man and nature," said Lord Dymchurch presently, "have such different views about the good of the world."
"That's," exclaimed the baronet, "is a very striking remark. Let me give you an illustration of its truth. Years ago I had an intimate friend, a wonderfully clever man, who wrote and published a delightful little book. Few such books have ever been written; it was a marvel of delicate thought and of exquisite style. The half-dozen readers who could appreciate it cried aloud that this man had a great future, that his genius was a jewel which the world would for ever prize -- and so on. Well, my friend married, and since then he has written nothing, nor will he ever again. I know people who lament his fate, who declare that marriage was his ruin, and a crime against civilisation. The other day, I called upon him -- not having seen him for ages. I found a rather uncomfortable little house, a pretty, dull little wife, and three beautiful children in the most vigorous health. 'Alas!' said my friend to me in private, 'I try to work, but I can do nothing. I need absolute tranquillity, such as I had when I wrote my book. I try, but domestic life is fatal to me.' Now, what better example of what you say, Lord Dymchurch? To us it seems a misfortune to the world that this man didn't live on in bachelorhood and write more exquisite books. But nature says 'What do I care for his books?' 'Look at his children!' That's what she meant him for, and from Nature's point of view he is a triumphant success."
Dymchurch seemed not only amused, but pleased. He grew thoughtful, and sat smiling to himself whilst others carried on the conversation.
The evening passed. Lady Amys gave the signal of retirement; May and Constance followed; the baronet and the peer chatted for yet a few minutes with their hostess, then bade her good-night. But, just as he was leaving the room, Dymchurch heard Lady Ogram call his name; he stepped back towards her.
"I forgot to tell you," she said, "that Mr. Lashmar will lunch with us the day after to-morrow. Of course he is very busy at Hollingford."
"I shall be glad to see him," replied the other, cordially. "I wish I could help him in any way."
Lady Ogram resumed her seat. She was looking at the marble bust, and Dymchurch, following the direction of her eyes, also regarded it.
"Until this morning," she said, "I hadn't seen that for more than fifty years. I would tell you why -- but I should only send you to sleep."
Her guest begged to hear the story, and sat down to listen. Though the day had been so unusually long and fatiguing, Lady Ogram seemed to feel no effect of it; her eyes were still lustrous she held herself with as much dignity as when the guests arrived. She began a narrative of such clearness and vigour that the listener never thought of doubting its truth; yet the story of her youth as the lady of Rivenoak wished Lord Dymchurch to receive it differed in very important points from that which her memory preserved. Not solely, nor indeed chiefly, on her own account did Arabella thus falsify the past; it was as the ancestress of May Tomalin that she spoke, and on behalf of May's possible children. Dymchurch, looking back into years long before he was born, saw a beautiful maiden of humble birth loyally wooed and wedded by a romantic artist, son of a proud baronet. Of course she became the butt of calumny, which found its chief support in the fact that the young artist had sculptured her portrait, and indiscreetly shown it to friends, before their marriage. Hearing these slanderous rumours, she wished all the work which represented her to be destroyed, and her husband led her to believe that this was done; but on succeeding to the title, and coming to live at Rivenoak, Sir Quentin confessed that he had not been able to destroy that marble bust which was his joy and his pride; he undertook, however, to keep it hidden under lock and key, and only this day, this very day, had it come forth again into the light.
"I am an old, old woman," she said, not without genuine pathos in her utterance. "I have long outlived the few who were my enemies and spoke ill of me, as well as those who knew the truth and held me in respect. I fear no one. I wanted to see how I looked when I was a girl, and I confess I am glad for others to see it, too."
Dymchurch murmured that nothing could be more natural.
"I was almost as good-looking as May, don't you think?" she asked, with a not very successful affectation of diffidence.
"There is a likeness," answered Dymchurch. "But --"
She interrupted his effort to describe the points of difference.
"You very much prefer the other face. That doesn't surprise me and you needn't be afraid to confess it. May is much better-tempered than I was, and she looks it. Did I ever tell you how she is related to me? I call her my niece, but she is really the grand-daughter of my brother, who emigrated to Canada."
Thereupon Lady Ogram sketched a portrait of that brother, depicting him as a fine specimen of the colonising Briton, breezy, sturdy, honest to the core. She traced the history of the Canadian family, which in the direct line had now no representative but May. Of her long search for the Tomalins she did not think it necessary to speak; but, turning hack to her own history, she told of the son she had lost, and how all her affections were now bestowed upon this young girl, who in truth had become to her as a daughter. Then, discreetly, with no undue insistence, she made known her intention to endow May Tomalin with the greater part of her fortune.
"I have lived long enough to know that money is not happiness, but in the right hands it is a great and good thing. I have no fear of the use May will make of it, and you can't know what a pleasure it is to be able to give it to her, to one of my own blood, my own name, instead of leaving it to strangers, as I once feared I must. -- But," she broke off suddenly in a changed voice, "here I keep you listening to my old tales, when you ought to be asleep. Good-night, Lord Dymchurch! To-morrow you must see Rivenoak. Good-night!"
For her, there was again no sleep. The weather had changed; through the open window breathed a cool, sweet air, very refreshing after the high temperature of the last few days; but Lady Ogram in vain closed her eyes and tried to lull her thoughts to rest. It disappointed her that Dymchurch, in reply to her confidences, had spoken no decisive word. Of course he would declare himself on the morrow; he would have every opportunity for private talk with May, and of the issue there could be no serious doubt. But Lady Ogram's nerves were tortured with impatience. In the glimmer of dawn, she wished to rise and walk about, but found herself unequal to the effort. Her head ached; her blood was feverish. Though it was a thing she hated to do, she summoned the attendant who lay in an adjoining room.
At mid-day she was able to descend At the foot of the stairs, she encountered Constance Bride, who stood glancing over a book.
"What are they all doing?" was her first question. And, before Constance could reply, she asked "Where is Lord Dymchurch?"
"I saw him not long ago in the garden."
"No, with Miss Tomalin."
"Why didn't you say so at once? Where are the others? Tell them I am down."
Constance delayed replying for a moment, then said with cold respectfulness:
"You will find Sir William and Lady Amys in the drawing-room."
"I shall find them there, shall I? And what if I don't wish to go into the drawing-room?"
Constance looked into the angry face. In the book she was carrying, a French volume arrived by post this morning, she had found things which troubled her mind and her temper; she was in no mood for submitting to harsh dictatorship. But those blood-shot eyes and shrivelled lips, the hollow temples and drawn cheeks which told of physical suffering, stilled her irritation.
"I will tell them at once, Lady Ogram."
Dymchurch and May Tomalin had strayed from the garden into the park. They were sitting on a bench which encircled a great old tree. For some minutes neither had spoken. Dymchurch held in his hand a last year's leaf, brown, crisp, but still perfect in shape; he smiled dreamily, and, as his eyes wandered to the girl's face, said in a soft undertone:
"How easily one loses oneself in idle thoughts! I was asking myself where this grew -- on which branch, which twig; and it seemed strange to me that by no possibility could anyone discover it."
May had not a very high opinion of her companion's intelligence, but it struck her this morning he was duller than usual. She humoured him, replying with her philosophical air:
"No, indeed! Yet we try to find out how life began, and what the world means."
Dymchurch was pleased. He liked to find her capable of such a reflection. It encouraged the movements of vague tenderness which had begun to justify a purpose formed rather in the mind than in the heart.
"Yes! Amusing, isn't it? But you, I think, don't trouble much about such questions."
"It seems to me waste of time."
She was thinking of Dyce Lashmar, asking herself whether she would meet him, or not, to-morrow morning. Certainly she wished to do so. Lashmar at a distance left her coolly reasonable; she wanted to recover the emotional state of mind which had come about during their stolen interview. With Lord Dymchurch, though his attentions were flattering, she could not for a moment imagine herself touched by romantic feeling.
"So it is," he was saying. "To waste time in that way has always been one of my bad habits. But I am going to get rid of it."
He seemed on the point of adding more significant words. May heard the sound fail in his throat; saw without looking at him -- his sudden embarrassment. When the words came, as surely they would, what was to be her answer? She hoped for inspiration. Why should it be necessary for her to make precise reply? No! She would not. Freedom and the exercise of power were what she wanted. Enough to promise her answer a month, or half a year, hence. If the old lady didn't like it, let her learn patience.
Dymchurch sat bending forward. The dry leaf crackled between his fingers; he was crushing it to powder.
"Who," he asked, "is the lady Miss Bride was speaking of, in connection with the servant's training-school?"
"Mrs. Gallantry. A good, active sort of woman at Hollingford."
"That scheme doesn't interest you much?"
"Not very much, I confess. I quite approve of it. It's just the kind of thing for people like Miss Bride, plodding and practical; no doubt they'll make it very useful. But I have rather lost my keenness for work of that sort. Perhaps I have grown out of it. Of course I wish as much as ever for the good of the lower classes, but I feel that my own work will lie in another direction."
"Tell me what you have in mind," said Dymchurch, meeting her look with soft eyes.
"What I really care about now is the spirit of the educated class. There's such a great deal to be done among people of our own kind. Not of course by direct teaching and preaching, but by personal influence, exercised in all sorts of ways. I should like to set the intellectual tone in my own circle. I should like my house to -- as it were, to radiate light."
The listener could not but smile. Yet his amusement had no tincture of irony. He himself would not have used these phrases, but was not the thought exactly what he had in mind? He, too, felt his inaptitude for the ordinary forms of "social" usefulness; in his desire and his resolve to "do something," he had been imagining just this sort of endeavour, and May's words seemed to make it less vague.
"I quite understand you," he exclaimed, with some fervour. "There's plenty of scope for that sort of influence. You would do your best to oppose the tendencies of vulgar and selfish society. If only in a little circle one could set the fashion of thought, of living for things that are worth while! And I see no impossibility. It has been done before now."
"I'm very glad you like the idea," said May, graciously.
Again -- without looking at him -- she saw his lips shaping words which they could not sound; she saw his troubled, abashed smile, and his uneasy movement which ended in nothing at all.
"We have some fine trees at Rivenoak," fell from her, as her eyes wandered.
"Indeed you have!"
"You like trees, don't you?"
"Very much. When I was a boy, I once saw a great many splendid oaks and beeches cut down, and it made me miserable."
"Where was that?"
"On land that had belonged to my father, and, which, for a year or two, belonged to me."
He spoke with an uneasy smile, again crushing a brown leaf between his fingers. May's silence compelled him to proceed.
"I have no trees now." He tried to laugh. "Only a bit of a farm, which seems to be going out of cultivation."
"But why do you let it do so?"
"It's in the hands of a troublesome tenant. If I had been wise, I should have learnt to farm it myself, years ago. Perhaps I shall still do so."
"That would be interesting," said May. "Tell me about it, will you? It's in Kent, I think?"
The impoverished peer spoke freely of the matter. He had been seeking this opportunity since the beginning of their talk. Yet, before he had ceased, moral discomfort took hold upon him, and his head drooped in shame. The silence which followed -- May was saying to herself that now, now the moment had come did but increase his embarrassment. He wished to speak of his sisters, to hint at their circumstances, but the thing was impossible. In desperation, he broke into some wholly foreign subject, and for this morning, all hope of the decisive step had passed.
The day brought no other opportunity. Towards midnight, Dymchurch sat at the open window of his chamber, glad to be alone, anxious, self-reproachful. To-morrow he must discharge what had become an obvious duty, however difficult it might be.
He had received a long letter from the younger of his sisters. It spoke of the other's ill health, a subject of disquiet for the past month, and went on to discuss a topic which frequently arose in this correspondence the authority of the Church of Rome. A lady who had just been passing a fortnight at the house in Somerset was a Catholic, and Dymchurch suspected her of proselytism; from the tone of the present letter it appeared that her arguments had had considerable success. Though impartial in his judgment of the old faith, Dymchurch felt annoyed and depressed at the thought that one of his sisters, or both, might turn in that direction; he explained their religious unrest by the solitude and monotony of their lives, for which it seemed to him that he himself was largely to blame. Were he to marry May Tomalin, everything would at once, he thought, be changed for the better; his sisters might come forth from their seclusion, mingle with wholesome society, and have done with more or less morbid speculation.
He had gone so far that honour left him no alternative. And he had gone thus far because it pleased him to do a thing which broke utterly with his habits and prejudices, which put him into a position such as he had never foreseen. He was experimenting in life.
May, he told himself, behaved very well. Never for a moment had she worn the air of invitation; a smirk was a thing unknown to her; the fact of his titular dignity she seemed wholly to disregard. Whatever her faults he saw most of them -- she had the great virtue of unaffectedness. Assuredly he liked her; he could not feel certain that even a warmer sentiment had not begun to breathe within him. As for May's willingness to marry him, why, at all events, it appeared a probability. They had some intellectual sympathies, which were likely to increase rather than diminish. And, if the marriage would be for him a great material benefit, he hoped that May also might profit by it.
Lady Ogram desired their union, that was clear. That she should have made choice of him, was not easy to explain, for surely she might have wedded her niece more advantageously. But then, Lady Ogram was no mere intriguer; he thought her, on the whole, a woman of fine character, with certain defects so obvious that they could never be the means of misleading anyone. She was acting, undoubtedly, in what she deemed the best interests of her young relative -- and he could hardly accuse her of having made a mistake.
Pacing the room, he took up a review, opened at a philosophical article, and tried to read.
"Why does man exist? Why does anything exist? Manifestly because the operations of the energies of nature, under the particular group of conditions, compel it, just in the same way that they cause everything else to happen."
He paused, and re-read the passage. Was it satire or burlesque? No, he saw that the writer meant it for a serious contribution to human knowledge. In disgust he flung the periodical aside. This was the kind of stuff that people feed upon nowadays, a result of the craze for quasi-scientific phraseology, for sonorous explanations of the inexplicable. Why does man exist, forsooth! -- To guard his lips against the utterances of foolishness, and to be of what use in the world he may.
Before mid-day on the morrow, he would offer May Tomalin his heart and hand, offer both with glad sincerity, disregarding all else but the fact that to this point had destiny brought him.
He thought of her humble origin, and rejoiced in it. His own family history was an illustration of how a once genuinely noble house might fall into decay if not renewed by alliances with more vigorous blood. May Tomalin had perfect health: she represented generations of hardy, simple folk, their energy of late recruited in the large air of Canada. Why, had he gone forth deliberately to seek the kind of wife best suited to him, he could not have done better than chance had done for him in his indolent shirking existence. If he had children, they might be robust and comely. In May's immediate connections, there was nothing to cause embarrassment; as to her breeding it would compare more than favourably with that of many high-born young ladies whom Society delights to honour. Of such young ladies he had always thought with a peculiar dread. If ever he allowed himself to dream of love and marriage, his mind turned to regions where fashion held no sway, where ambitions were humble. May Tomalin stood between the two worlds, representing a mean which would perchance prove golden.
So determined and courageous was his mood when he fell asleep that it did not permit him long slumbers. A bright sunrise gleaming on a sky which in the night had shed cool showers tempted him to rise much before his usual time. He turned over a volume or two from the shelves in the bedroom, seeking thus to keep his nerves steady and to tune his mind. Presently he thought he would take a stroll before breakfast. It was nearly eight o'clock; servants would be about and the door open. He left his room.
Passing a great window at the end of the corridor, he glanced out upon the garden lying behind the house. Some one was walking there it was no other than May herself. She moved quickly, in the direction of the park; evidently bent on a ramble before her friends were stirring. Better chance could not have befallen him. He went quickly downstairs.
But, when he had made his way to that part of the grounds where May had appeared, she was no longer discoverable. He strode on in what seemed the probable direction, taking, as a matter of fact, the wrong path; it brought him into the park, but at a point whence he looked in vain for the girl's figure. This was vexatious. Should he linger here for her return, or step out at a venture? He strolled vaguely for some minutes, coming at length into a path which promised pleasant things. Perhaps May had gone to the basky hollow yonder. If he missed her, they were sure of meeting after breakfast.
He walked towards the clustered trees.
Piqued by the uneventfulness of the preceding day, May Tomalin stole forth this morning in a decidedly adventurous frame of mind. She scorned danger; she desired excitement. Duplicity on her part was no more than Lord Dymchurch merited after that deliberate neglect of opportunity under the great tree. Of course nothing irrevocable must come to pass; it was the duty of man to commit himself, the privilege of woman to guard an ambiguous freedom. But, within certain limits, she counted on dramatic incidents. A brisk answer to her tap on the door in the park wall made her nerves thrill delightfully. No sooner had she turned the key than the door was impatiently pushed open from without.
"Quick!" sounded Lashmar's voice. I hear wheels on the road. -- Ha! Just in time! It might be someone who would recognise me."
He had grasped May's hand. He was gazing eagerly, amorously into her face. His emotions had matured since the meeting two days ago.
"Tell me all the news," he went on. "Is Dymchurch here?"
"Yes. And the others. You come to lunch to-day, of course? You will see them."
She recovered her hand, though not without a little struggle, which pleased her. For all her academic modernism, May belonged to the class which has primitive traditions, unsophisticated instincts.
"And what has happened?" asked Dyce, advancing as she stepped back. He spoke like one who has a right to the fullest information.
"Happened? Nothing particular. What could have happened?"
"I have been tormenting myself. Of course I know why Dymchurch has come, and so do you. I can't go away in a horrible uncertainty. If I do, I shall betray myself when I come to luncheon, so I give you warning."
"What do you mean!" exclaimed the girl, with an air of dignity surprised.
"Tell me the truth. Has Dymchurch spoken?"
"Many times," answered May; smiling with excessive ingenuousness. "He is not very talkative, but he doesn't keep absolute silence -- I hear that you have been to see Mrs. Gallantry."
"What do I care about Mrs. Gallantry! I've seen no end of people, but all the time I was thinking of you. Yesterday morning, I all but wrote to you."
"All sorts of things. Of course I should have disguised my handwriting in the address."
May avoided his look, and shaped her lips to severity.
"If you had done such a thing -- I should have been greatly displeased. I'm very glad you didn't so far forget yourself."
"So am I, now. Won't you tell me if anything has happened. Won't you put my mind at ease?"
"I can stay only for a few minutes. There's really nothing to tell -- nothing. But you must have plenty of news. How are things going on?"
Lashmar hurriedly told of two or three circumstances which seemed to favour him in the opening campaign. There was now no doubt that Butterworth would be the Conservative candidate, and, on the whole, his name appeared to excite but moderate enthusiasm. He broke off with an impatient gesture.
"I can't talk about that stuff! It's waste of time, whilst I am with you."
"But it interests me very much," said May, who seemed to grow calmer as Dyce yielded to agitation. "Lord Dymchurch says he would gladly help you, if it were in his power. Don't you think he might be of some use?"
"No, I don't. Dymchurch is a dreaming nobody."
"What a strange way to speak of him!" said May, as if slightly offended. "You used to have quite a different opinion."
"Perhaps so. I didn't know him so well. There's nothing whatever in the man, and he'll never do anything as long as he lives. You know that as well as I do."
"I think you are mistaken," May answered, in an absent voice, her look betraying some travail of the mind, as if she were really debating with herself the question of Dymchurch's prospects.
"Do you mean that?" cried Lashmar, with annoyance.
"I certainly shouldn't call him a 'dreaming nobody,'" replied May, in the tone of dignified reproof. "Lord Dymchurch is very thoughtful, and very well-informed, and has very high principles."
"One may admit all that. All I meant was that there is no career before him. Would anyone dream of comparing him, for instance, with me? You needn't smile. You remember the talk we had at Mrs. Toplady's, that evening. I know my own qualities, and see no use in pretending that I don't. -- But what are we talking about! Of course you care nothing for Dymchurch. I know that very well. If you did, you wouldn't be here."
He ended on a little laugh of triumph, and therewith, catching hold of both her hands, he drew her gently forward, looked close into her face, murmured "May! My beautiful May!" In that moment there came the strangest look upon May's countenance, a look of alarm, almost of terror. Her eyes were turned to a spot among the trees, some ten yards away. Dyce, seeing the sudden change of her expression, turned in the direction of her gaze. He was just in time to perceive the back of a retreating figure, which disappeared behind bushes.
"Who was that?" he asked in a startled voice.
May could only whisper.
"It was Lord Dymchurch."
"I thought so. Confound that fellow! What is he doing here at this time of the morning?"
"He saw us," said May, her cheeks burning. "Oh, who could have expected --! He saw us distinctly. I shouldn't wonder if he heard what you were saying Why," she added, angrily, "did you speak so loud?"
"Nonsense! He couldn't hear at that distance."
"But he had been nearer."
"Then the fellow is a sneak! What right has he to steal upon us?"
"He didn't!" cried the girl. "I saw him as he stopped. I saw his face, and how astonished he looked. He turned away instantly."
"Well, what does it matter?" exclaimed Dyce, who was quivering with excitement. "What do I care? What need you care? Haven't we perfect liberty to meet? After all, what does it matter?"
"But you forget," said May, "that he knows of your engagement."
"My engagement! Let him know, and let him think what he likes! My engagement, indeed! Why, I haven't once thought of it since I left London -- not once! There'll have to be an end to this intolerable state of things. Dymchurch isn't likely to tell anyone what he sees; he's a gentleman."
"I must go in at once," cried May, losing her head. "Somebody else may come. Go away, please! Don't stay another minute."
"But it's impossible. We have to come to an understanding. Listen to me, May!"
He grasped her hand, passed his other arm around her. There was resistance, but Dyce used his strength in earnest. The girl's beauty fired him; he became the fervid lover, leaving her no choice between high resentment and frank surrender. Indignation was dying out of May's look. She ceased to struggle, she bent her head to his shoulder.
"Isn't that much better?" he whispered, laughingly. "Isn't that the way out of our difficulties?"
May allowed him to breathe a few more such soothing sentences, then spoke with troubled accent.
"But you don't understand. What must Lord Dymchurch think of me -- believing that you are engaged?"
"I'll tell him the truth. I'll go and tell him at once."
"But still you don't understand. My aunt wants me to marry him."
"I know she does, and know she'll be disappointed," cried Dyce, exultantly.
"But do you suppose that Lord Dymchurch will stay here any longer? He will leave this very morning, I'm sure he will. My aunt will want to know what it means. There'll be dreadful explanations."
"Keep calm, May. If we lose our courage, it's all over with us. We have to deal boldly with Lady Ogram. Remember that she is very old and weak; I'm perfectly sure she can't resist you and me if we speak to her in the proper way -- quietly and reasonably and firmly. We have made up our minds, haven't we? You are mine, dearest May! There's no more doubt about that!"
"Miss Bride will be our deadly enemy," said May, again yielding to his caresses.
"Enemy!" Dyce exclaimed. "Why?"
"Surely you don't need to be told. She dislikes me already (as 1 do her), and now she will hate me. She'll do her best to injure us with Lady Ogram."
"You're mistaken. I have only to see her and talk to her -- as I will, this morning. Before luncheon, she shall be firmly on our side, I promise you! Don't have the least anxiety about her. The only serious difficulty is with Lady Ogram."
"You mean to tell Miss Bride the truth?" exclaimed May. "You mean to tell her what has happened this morning? I forbid you to do so! I forbid you!"
"I didn't mean anything of the kind," replied Lashmar. "To Dymchurch of course I shall speak quite freely: there's no choice. To Miss Bride I shall only say that I want our sham engagement to come to an end, because I am in love with you. The presence of Dymchurch here will be quite enough to explain my sudden action don't you see? I assure you, she must be made our friend, and I can do it."
"If you do, it'll be a miracle," said May, with a face of utter misgiving.
"It would be, perhaps, for any other man. Now, we have no time to lose. I must see Dymchurch immediately. I shall hurry round inside the park wall, and come up to the front of the house, like an ordinary visitor. Election business will account for the early hour, if Lady Ogram hears about it; but she isn't likely to be down before eleven, is she? Don't let us lose any more time, darling. Go back quietly, and let no one see that anything has happened. Don't worry; in a quarter of an hour, Dymchurch shall know that there's not a shadow of blame upon you."
"He won't believe that story. If he does, he'll think it very dishonourable."
Dyce checked the words in amorous fashion, but they conveyed an unpleasant truth, which he turned about in his mind as he hastened towards the interview with Dymchurch. For once in his life, however, he saw a clear course of action before him, indicated alike by interest and by honour. He was roused by supreme impulse and necessity; seeing him as he strode along, you might have supposed him bent on some very high purpose, so gallantly did he hold his head, and so radiant was his visage. There are men capable of viewing themselves as heroes in very unheroic situations, and Lashmar was one of them. Because his business with Dymchurch and with Constance would be distinctly disagreeable, and yet he was facing it without hesitation, his conscience praised him aloud. Nothing less than brilliant issue could be the reward of such noble energy.
Meanwhile, May had begun to retrace her steps through the little wood. She wished to go quickly, but was afraid, if she did so, of overtaking Lord Dymchurch. In her, too, the self-approving mind was active; she applauded herself for having given the preference to love over ambition. With the choice of becoming a peeress, she had bestowed her beauty, intellect, wealth upon a man who had nothing to offer but his hopes. Was not this nobler than any nobility of rank? The sentimentality of a hundred novels surged within her; verses of Browning chanted in her brain. "Love is best!" She walked a heroine of passion. All obstacles would fall before her burning resolve. This was living in high romance!
She passed from among the trees into the open park and there before her stood the man she least wished to see. He had evidently been waiting; he began to move towards her. A score of more or less ingenious lies rose to her tongue, instinctively; but she remembered that deceit was not called for. Lord Dymchurch had raised his hat. He looked very grave, but not at all ill-tempered. May did not offer her hand. After the "good-morning," he walked beside her, and at once began to speak.
"I find I must leave Rivenoak, Miss Tomalin." His voice was low, gentle, not unkind.
"Must you indeed, Lord Dymchurch?"
"I'm afraid I must," he answered quietly.
"I am so sorry. But you will be able to see Lady Ogram?"
"I fear not. I wish to leave almost at once."
They were drawing near to the garden. Dymchurch paused, glanced at his companion with sad eyes, and, his look cast down, again spoke.
"Miss Tomalin, I came here wishing to ask you to be my wife. Only a foolish shyness prevented me from doing so yesterday. This morning, I know that it would be too late. Pray forgive me for speaking of the matter at all. I feel obliged to explain myself. Perhaps I had better make the explanation complete by saying that I saw you go through the garden, and followed in the same direction, hoping for an opportunity of speaking with you alone."
May felt that a man in this position could not well have conducted himself more kindly and delicately. No hint in look or voice that he thought her behaviour extraordinary; he had been defeated by a rival, that was all; his tone begged excuse for unwilling intrusion upon her privacy. But for the hopelessly compromising moment at which he had arrived, probably he would have given her all benefit of the doubt, and in one way or another, would still have prosecuted his wooing. Very nervous and confused, she made what seemed to her an appropriate answer.
"Thank you very much, Lord Dymchurch. I had so hoped we could be friends -- simply friends. Do let me think of you still in that way."
"Will you give me a proof of friendship," said the other, smiling kindly, "by permitting me to tell Lady Ogram, in a note I shall leave for her, that you have declined my offer of marriage?"
This, thought May, was indeed a smoothing of her difficulties. She glanced at the speaker with gratitude.
"You will really do that? How generous of you, Lord Dymchurch!"
"Allow me to leave you now, Miss Tomalin. I must prepare for my journey."
May offered her hand. Dymchurch just perceptibly pressed it, saluted with the gravest politeness, and walked away.
On the terrace before the house, he encountered Lashmar, who came up to him with a glowing countenance.
"I hoped I should find you here. Nothing could be better. Just a moment's talk."
Dyce had thrust out a hand, but as the other appeared not to see it, he drew it back again as naturally as he could. Dymchurch stood waiting in an attitude of cold civility.
"It's rather a delicate matter. Accident has obliged me to speak; otherwise, I shouldn't, of course, have troubled you with my private affairs. I wish to tell you that the engagement which once existed between Miss Bride and myself is at an end."
"I presumed so," was the reply, spoken with unmoved features.
"Also, that Miss Tomalin has for some days been aware of this state of things."
"I took it for granted."
"So that," Dyce continued, in a stumbling way, "you won't retain any disagreeable impression from this morning's incident? I am very glad indeed to have been able to see you at once. It puts an end to a natural uneasiness on both sides."
"I am obliged to you," said Dymchurch.
With a bow and a look past his interlocutor, he turned to enter the house.
As soon as he had disappeared, Lashmar followed, and rang the door bell. Of the servant who came, he asked whether Miss Bride was down yet. The domestic went to inquire. Waiting in the hall, Dyce heard a footstep behind him; he turned and saw May, who, with features discomposed, just met his eyes and hurried away up the staircase. When the servant returned, it was with a request that Mr. Lashmar would step into the library. There, in a few minutes, Constance joined him.
"You are early!" she exclaimed. "No bad news, I hope?"
"No. But I want a little quiet talk with you. Of course it's absurd to come at this hour. You know I lunch here to-day, and I couldn't have gone through with it without seeing you in private. I'm in a queer state of mind; very much upset; in fact, I never felt such need of a true friend to consult."
Constance kept her eyes fixed upon him. She had been up for a couple of hours, reading in the French book which had reached her yesterday. The same volume had occupied her till long after midnight. Her face showed the effects of over-study.
"Tell me all about it," she said, with voice subdued to the note of intimacy, and look in which there shone an indulgent kindliness.
"You have often said that you wished me well, that you desired to help me in my career."
"Have I not done more than say it?" returned the other, softly.
"Indeed you have! Few women would have been capable of such self-sacrifice on a friend's behalf. You know the law of human nature; we always make old kindness a reason for demanding new. Again I am come to ask your help, and again it involves heroism on your part."
The listener's face grew troubled; her lips lost their suavity. Lashmar's eyes fell before her look.
"I feel ashamed," he went on, with an uneasy movement of his hands. "It's too bad to expect so much of you. You have more pride than most people, yet I behave to you as if you didn't know the meaning of the word. Do, I beg, believe me when I say that I am downright ashamed, and that I hardly know how to tell you what has happened."
Constance did not open her lips; they were sternly compressed.
"I want you," Dyce continued, "first of all to consent to the termination of our formal engagement. Of course," he hastened to add, "that step in itself is nothing to you. Indeed, you will be rather glad of it than otherwise; it relieves you from an annoying and embarrassing situation, which only your great good-nature induced you to accept. But I ask more than that. I want it to be understood that our engagement had ended when I last left Rivenoak. Can you consent to this? Will you bear me out when I break the news to Lady Ogram?"
"You propose to do that yourself?" asked Constance, with frigid sarcasm.
"Yes, I shall do it myself. I am alone responsible for what has happened, and I must face the consequences."
"Up to a certain point, you mean," remarked the same pungent voice.
"It's true, I ask your help in that one particular."
"You say that something has happened. Is it within my privilege to ask what, or must I be content to know nothing more?"
"Constance, don't speak like that?" pleaded Dyce. "Be generous to the end! Haven't I behaved very frankly all along? Haven't we talked with perfect openness of all I did? Don't spoil it all, now at the critical moment of my career. Be yourself, generous and large-minded!"
"Give me the opportunity," she answered, with an acid smile. "Tell what you have to tell."
"But this is not like yourself," he remonstrated. "It's a new spirit. I have never known you like this."
Constance moved her foot, and spoke sharply.
"Say what you have to say, and never mind anything else."
Lashmar bent his brows.
"After all, Constance, I am a perfectly free man. If you are annoyed because I wish to put an end to what you yourself recognise as a mere pretence, it's very unreasonable, and quite unworthy of you."
"You are right," answered the other, with sudden change to ostentatious indifference. "It's time the farce stopped. I, for one, have had enough of it. If you like, I will tell Lady Ogram myself, this morning."
"No!" exclaimed Dyce, with decision. "That I certainly do not wish. Are you resolved, all at once, to do me as much harm as you can?"
"Not at all, I thought I should relieve you of a disagreeable business."
"If you really mean that, I am very grateful. I wanted to tell you everything, and talk it over, and see what you thought best to be done. But of course I shouldn't dream of forcing my confidence upon you. It's a delicate matter and only because we were such intimate friends." --
"If you will have done with all this preamble," Constance interrupted, with forced calm, "and tell me what there is to be told, I am quite willing to listen."
"Well, I will do so. It's this. I am in love with May Tomalin, and I want to marry her."
Their eyes met, Dyce was smiling, an uneasy, abashed smile. Constance wore an expression of cold curiosity, and spoke in a corresponding voice.
"Have you asked her to do so?"
"Not yet," Lashmar replied.
For a moment, Constance gazed at him; then she said, quietly:
"I don't believe you."
"That's rather emphatic," cried Dyce, affecting a laugh.
"It conveys my meaning. I don't believe you, for several reasons. One of them is --" She broke off, and rose from her chair. "Please wait; I will be back in a moment."
Lashmar sat looking about the room. He began to be aware that he had not breakfasted, -- a physical uneasiness added to the various forms of disquiet from which his mind was suffering. When Constance re-entered, he saw she had a book in her hand, a book which by its outward appearance he at once recognised.
"Do you know this?" she asked, holding the volume to him. "I received it yesterday, and have already gone through most of it. I find it very interesting."
"Ah, I know it quite well," Dyce answered, fingering the pages. "A most suggestive book. But -- what has it to do with our present conversation?"
Constance viewed him wonderingly. If he felt at all disconcerted, nothing of the kind appeared in his face, which wore, indeed, a look of genuine puzzlement.
"Have you so poor an opinion of my intelligence?" she asked, with subdued anger. "Do you suppose me incapable of perceiving that all the political and social views you have been living upon were taken directly from this book? I admire your audacity. Few educated men, nowadays, would have ventured on so bold a -- we call it plagiarism."
Dyce stared at her.
"You are severe," he exclaimed, on the note of deprecation. "Views I have been 'living upon?' It's quite possible that now and then something I had read there chanced to come into my talk; but who gives chapter and verse for every conversational allusion? You astound me. I see that, so far from wishing me well, you have somehow come to regard me with positive ill-feeling. How has it come about, Constance?"
"You dare to talk to me in this way!" cried Constance, passionately. "You dare to treat me as an imbecile! This is going too far! If you had shown ever so little shame I would have thrown the book aside, and never again have spoken of it. But to insult me by supposing that force of impudence can overcome the testimony of my own reason! Very well. The question shall be decided by others. All who have heard you expatiate on your -- your 'bio-sociological' theory shall be made acquainted with this French writer, and form their own opinion as to your originality."
Lashmar drew himself up.
"By all means." His voice was perfectly controlled. "I have my doubts whether you will persuade anyone to read it -- people don't take very eagerly to philosophical works in a foreign language -- and I think it very unlikely that anyone but yourself has troubled to keep in mind the theories and arguments which you are so kind as to say I stole. What's more, will it be very dignified behaviour to go about proclaiming that you have quarrelled with me, and that you are bent on giving me a had character? Isn't it likely to cause a smile?"
As she listened, Constance shook with passion.
"Are you so utterly base," she cried, "as to stand there and deny the truth of what I say?"
"I never argue with anyone in a rage. Why such a thing as this -- a purely intellectual matter -- a question for quiet reasoning -- should infuriate you, I am at a loss to understand. We had better talk no more for the present. I must hope for another opportunity."
He moved as though to withdraw, but by no means with the intention of doing so, for he durst not have left Constance in this mood of violent hostility. Her outbreak had astonished him; he knew not of what she might be capable. There flashed through his mind the easy assurance he had given to May -- that Constance Bride should be persuaded to friendly offices on their behalf, and he had much ado to disguise his consternation. For a moment he thought of flattering her pride by unconditional surrender, by submissive appeal, but to that he could not bring himself. Her discovery, her contempt and menaces, had deeply offended him; the indeterminate and shifting sentiments with which he had regarded her crystallised into dislike -- that hard dislike which commonly results, whether in man or woman, from trifling with sacred relations. That Constance had been -- perhaps still was tenderly disposed to him, served merely to heighten his repugnance. To stand in fear of this woman was a more humiliating and exasperating sensation than he had ever known.
"Do as you think fit," he added in a stern voice, pausing at a little distance. "It is indifferent to me. In any case, Lady Ogram will soon know how things stand, and the result must be what it will. I have chosen my course."
Constance was regarding him steadily. Her wrath had Leased to flare, but it glowed through her countenance.
"You mean," she said, "that just at the critical moment of your career you are bent on doing the rashest thing you possibly could? And you ask me to believe that you are acting in this way before you even know whether you have a chance of gaining anything by it?"
"It had occurred to me," Lashmar replied, "that, when you understood the state of things, you might be willing to exert yourself to help me. But that was before I learnt that you regarded me with contempt, if not with hatred. How the change has come about in you, I am unable to understand. I have behaved to you with perfect frankness --"
"When, for instance, you wished me to admire you as a sociologist?"
"It's incredible," cried Dyce, "that you should harp on that paltry matter! Who, in our time, is an original thinker? Ideas are in the air. Every man uses his mind -- if he has any -- on any suggestion which recommends itself to him. If it were worth while, I could point out most important differences between the bio-sociological theory as matured by me and its crude presentment in that book you have got hold of. -- By the bye, how did it come into your hands?"
After an instant's reflection, Constance told him of Mrs. Toplady's letter and the American magazine.
"And," he asked, "does Mrs. Toplady regard me as a contemptible plagiarist?"
"It is probable that she has formed conclusions."
Lashmar's eyes fell. He saw that Constance was watching him. In the turmoil of his feelings all he could do was to jerk out an impatient laugh.
"It's no use," he exclaimed. "You and I have come to a deadlock. We no longer understand each other. I thought you were the kind of woman whom a man can treat as his equal, without fear of ridiculous misconceptions and hysterical scenes. One more disillusion!"
"Don't you think?" asked Constance, with a bitter smile, "that you are preparing a good many others for yourself?"
"Of course I know what you mean. There are certain things it wouldn't be easy to discuss with you at any time; you can't expect me to speak of them at present. Suppose it an illusion. I came to you, in all honesty, to tell you what had happened. I thought of you as my friend, as one who cared about my happiness."
"Why this morning?"
"For the reason I began by explaining. I have to come here to lunch."
"Would it surprise you, when you do come, to be met with the news that Lord Dymchurch has proposed to Miss Tomalin and been accepted?"
"Indeed," Dyce answered, smiling, "it would surprise me very much."
"Which is as much as to say that I was right, just now, in refusing to believe you. Do you know," Constance added, with fresh acerbity, "that you cut a very poor figure? As a diplomatist, you will not go very far. As an ordinary politician, I doubt whether you can make your way with such inadequate substitutes for common honesty. Perhaps you do represent the coming man. In that case, we must look anxiously for the coming woman, to keep the world from collapse. -- Be so good, now, as to answer a plain question. You will do so, simply because you know that I have but to speak half-a-dozen words to Lady Ogram, and you would be spared the trouble of coming here to lunch. What is your scheme? If I had been so pliant as you expected, what would you have asked of me?"
"Merely to use your influence with Lady Ogram when she is vexed by learning that May Tomalin is not to marry Dymchurch. What could be simpler and more straightforward? Scheme there is none. I have done with that kind of thing. I wish to marry this girl, for her own sake, but if I can keep Lady Ogram's good-will at the same time, I suppose there's nothing very base in wishing to do so?"
"You speak of 'vexation.' Do you really imagine that that word will describe Lady Ogram's state of mind if she learns that Lord Dymchurch is rejected?"
"Of course there will be a scene. We can't help that. We must face it, and hope in Lady Ogram's commonsense."
"Answer another question. How do you know that May Tomalin will refuse Lord Dymchurch?"
"I had better refuse to answer. You talk much of honour. If you know what it means, you will accept my refusal as the only thing possible under the circumstances."
Constance stood in hesitation. It seemed as if she might concede this point, but at the critical moment jealous wrath again seized her, extinguishing the better motive.
"You will answer my question. You will tell me what has passed."
She glared at him, and it was Lashmar's turn to betray indecision.
"You are at my mercy," Constance exclaimed, "and you will do as I bid you."
Lashmar yielded to exasperation.
"I have enough of this," he cried angrily. "Go and do as you please! Take your silly feminine revenge, and much good may it do you! I have no more time to waste."
He caught up his hat, and left the room.
Passing the foot of the staircase, he saw someone descending. It was May. Involuntarily he stopped; the girl's gesture of alarm, bidding him be off, was disregarded. He waved to her, and she joined him.
"I've seen them both. It's all right. Keep up your courage!"
"Go! Go!" whispered May in fright. "Someone will see us."
He pressed her hand, smiled like a general in the thick of battle, and hurried away. Scarcely had he vanished through the portal, when Constance, issuing from the library, encountered Miss Tomalin. May uttered an unnaturally suave "good-morning!" The other looked her in the eye, and said in a voice of satisfaction:
"Mr. Lashmar has just been here. Didn't you see him?"
"Mr. Lashmar? -- No."
Gazing full at the confused face, Constance smiled, and passed on.
At the door of the breakfast-room, Miss Bride was approached by Lady Ogram's maid, who in an undertone informed her that Dr. Baldwin had been sent for. Lady Ogram had passed a very bad night, but did not wish it to be made known to her guests, whom she hoped to meet at luncheon. Of the possibility of this, the maid declared herself very doubtful; she did not think the doctor would allow her mistress to get up.
"Let me know when the doctor is leaving," said Constance. "I should like to see him."
Sir William and his wife breakfasted with the two young ladies. Lord Dymchurch did not appear. When the others had left the room, Constance asked a servant if his lordship was down yet, and learnt that he had this morning gone away, leaving a note for Lady Ogram. At the same moment, word was brought to Miss Bride that Dr. Baldwin waited in the library. Constance replied that she would see him. Then, turning to the other attendant, she asked whether Lord Dymchurch's note had been delivered to Lady Ogram. It lay, she learnt, with the rest of the morning's letters, which the maid had not yet taken up. Thereupon Constance sought and found it, and carried it with her as she entered the library.
"How do you find your patient, doctor?" she inquired, in her usual tone.
"Quite unfit to get up to-day, though I fear she is determined to do so," replied Dr. Baldwin. "Wonderful, the influence of her mind upon her physical state. I found her alarmingly weak, but, as usual, she insisted on hearing the news of the town, and something I was able to tell her acted with more restorative force than any drug in the pharmacopæia."
"What was that?"
"Mr. Robb's will. I hear on good authority that he leaves not a penny to our hospital. Lady Ogram was delighted. It makes the field clear for her. She declares that she will buy the site on Burgess Hill immediately. The will is dated fifteen years ago, they say; no doubt he meant to make another."
"That, I am sure, was a cordial," exclaimed Constance. "Impossible for Mr. Robb to have done Lady Ogram a greater kindness."
After a few more inquiries concerning the patient, she let the doctor take his leave. Then she stood looking at the outside of Lord Dymchurch's letter, and wondering what might be its contents. Beyond a doubt, they were of an explosive nature. Whatever his excuse, Lord Dymchurch's abrupt departure would enrage Lady Ogram. Had he been refused by May? Or had something come to pass which made it impossible for him to offer marriage something connected with Lashmar's early visit this morning? That he had intended a proposal, Constance could not doubt. Meanwhile, she felt glad of the outbreak in prospect; her mood desired tumultuous circumstances. What part she herself would play in to-day's drama, she had not vet decided; that must largely depend upon events. Her future was involved in the conflict of passions and designs which would soon be at its height. How much it would have helped her could she have read through the envelope now in her hand!
There came a knock to the door. Lady Ogram wished to speak with Miss Bride.
It was the rarest thing for the secretary to be summoned to her ladyship's bedroom. In the ante-chamber, the maid encountered her.
"My lady means to get up," whispered this discreet attendant. "She thinks herself very much better, but I am sure she is very ill indeed. I know the signs. The doctor forbade her to move, but I durstn't oppose her."
"Does she know that Lord Dymchurch has gone?" asked Constance.
"No, miss. I thought it better to say nothing just yet. Everything excites her so."
"You were very wise. Keep silence about it until Lady Ogram leaves her room."
"My lady has just asked for her letters, miss."
"Bring up those that have come by post. I will deliver the other myself."
Constance entered the bedroom. With cheeks already touched into ghastly semblance of warm life, with her surprising hair provisionally rolled into a diadem, the old autocrat lay against upright pillows. At sight of Constance, she raised her skeleton hand, and uttered a croak of triumph.
"Do you know the news?" followed in scarce articulate utterance. "Robb's will! Nothing to the hospital -- not a penny for town charities."
Constance affected equal rejoicing, for she knew how the singular old philanthropist had loathed the thought that Hollingford's new hospital might bear Robb's name instead of her own.
"But I beg you not to excite yourself," she added. "Try to think quietly --"
"Mind your own business!" broke in the thick voice, whilst the dark eyes flashed with exultation. "I want to know about Lord Dymchurch. What are the plans for this morning?"
"I don't think they are settled yet. It's still early."
"How is May?"
"Quite well, I think."
"I shall be down at mid-day, if not before. Tell Lord Dymchurch that."
The morning's correspondence was brought in. Lady Ogram glanced over her letters, and bade Constance reply to two or three of them. She gave, also, many instructions as to matters which had been occupying her lately; her mind was abnormally active and lucid; at times her speech became so rapid that it was unintelligible.
"Now go and get to work," she said at length, coming to an abrupt close. "You've enough to occupy you all the morning."
Constance had paid little attention to these commands, and, on returning to the library, she made no haste to begin upon her secretarial duties. For more than an hour she sat brooding. Only as a relief to her thoughts did she at length begin to write letters. It was shortly before mid-day when again there came a summons from Lady Ogram; obeying it, Constance took Lord Dymchurch's letter in her hand.
Lady Ogram had risen. She was in the little drawing-room upstairs, reclining upon a sofa; the effort of walking thus far had exhausted her.
"I hear that Mr. Lashmar has called this morning," she began, half raising herself, but at once sinking back again. "What did he come about? Can't he come to lunch?"
"Yes, he will be here at one o'clock," Constance replied.
"Then why did he come? It was before nine. What had he to say?"
"He wanted to speak to me in private."
"Oh, I suppose that's privileged," returned the autocrat, smiling. "What have you got there? Something just come?"
"It's a note for you from Lord Dymchurch."
"From Lord Dymchurch? Give it me at once, then. Where is he? Why couldn't he wait till I came down?"
She tore the envelope with weak trembling hands. Constance watched her as she read. Of a sudden, the shrunk, feeble figure sprang upright, and stood as though supported by the vigorous muscles of youth.
"Do you know what this contains?" sounded a clear, hard voice, strangely unlike that which had just been speaking.
"I have no idea."
"But you knew that he had left?"
"Yes, I knew. I kept it from you till now, because I feared you were not well enough to bear the agitation."
"And who," cried the other fiercely, "gave you authority to detain letters addressed to me? What have you to do with my health? When did Lord Dymchurch leave?"
"Whilst we were at breakfast," Constance answered, with a great effort at self-command. "He saw nobody."
"Then you lied to me when you came up before?"
"I think, Lady Ogram," said Constance, standing rigid and with white face, "you might give me credit for good intentions. It was nothing to me whether you heard this news then or later; but I knew that you had passed a sleepless night, and that the doctor had been sent for."
"You knew -- you knew! " cried the listener, with savage scorn. "Did you know why Lord Dymchurch had gone?"
"I took it for granted that -- it had something to do with Miss Tomalin."
"Answer me in plain words, without a lie, and without shiftiness. Do you know that Lord Dymchurch has proposed to May, and been refused?"
"I did not know it."
"You suspected as much."
"I thought it possible. But the business was none of mine, and I gave very little heed to it."
Lady Ogram had begun to totter. She let herself sink upon the sofa, and re-read the letter that shook in her hand.
"He says he has a sister ill. Did you hear anything of that?"
"Nothing at all."
The autocrat stared for a moment, as though trying to read Constance's thoughts; then she waved her hand.
"Go back to your work. Stay in the library till you hear from me again."
Constance quivered with the impulse to make indignant reply, but prudence prevailed. She bent her head to conceal wrathful features, and in silence went from the room.
Five minutes later, May Tomalin entered by the awful door. She knew what was before her, and had braced her nerves, but at the first sight of Lady Ogram a sinking heart drew all the blood from her checks. Encountering the bloodshot glare from those fleshless eye-caverns, she began to babble a "Good-morning, aunt!" But the words failed, and her frightened simper, meant for a smile, passed into mere blankness of visage.
"Come here, May. Is it true that you have refused Lord Dymchurch?"
The voice was less terrifying than her aunt's countenance had led her to expect. She was able to recover her wits sufficiently to make the reply she had spent all the morning in preparing.
"Refused him? I didn't mean that. He must have misunderstood me."
"What did you mean, then?"
"I hardly knew what Lord Dymchurch meant," answered May, trying to look playfully modest.
"Let us have no nonsense," sounded in stern accents. "Lord Dymchurch writes me a letter, saying distinctly that he has proposed to you, and that you have refused him, and then he goes off without a word to anyone. Did you know he was leaving this morning?"
"Certainly not," answered the girl, with a bold plunge into mendacity. "I expected to see him at breakfast. Then I was told he was gone. I don't understand it at all."
From the moment of entering the room, she had put away all thought of truthfulness. This, plainly, was no time for it. As soon as possible, she would let Dyce Lashmar know that they must feign and temporise: the policy of courage looked all very well from a distance, but was quite another thing in the presence of the mistress of Rivenoak enraged. Lashmar must caution Constance, who seemingly (much to May's surprise) had submitted to his dictation at this juncture. For a time, nothing could be done beyond cloaking what had really happened, and soothing Lady Ogram's wrath with apparent submission.
"When did you see him last?" pursued the questioner.
"This morning, before breakfast, for a few minutes in the garden."
Better to be veracious so far, thought May. She might otherwise fall into self-contradiction.
"Was it an appointment?"
"No. By chance. I never thought of meeting him."
"And what did he say to you? Tell me his words."
"I couldn't possibly recall them," said May, who had seated herself, and was becoming all but calm. "Lord Dymchurch has a very vague way of talking. He rambles from one subject to another."
"But didn't he say anything at all about marriage?" cried Lady Ogram, in exasperation.
"He spoke of his position and his prospects. Perhaps he hoped I should understand -- but it was all so vague."
"Why, then, the man is a scoundrel! He never proposed to you at all, and he runs away leaving a lying letter behind him. Yet I should never have thought that of Lord Dymchurch."
She fixed her eyes on May, and added fiercely:
"Are you telling me the truth?"
The girl bridled, staring straight before her with indignant evasiveness of look.
"My dear aunt! How can you ask me such a question? Of course I may have misunderstood Lord Dymchurch, but, if it hadn't been for what you have once or twice said to me, I really shouldn't ever have supposed that he meant anything. He talks in such a rambling way --"
She grew voluble. Lady Ogram listened awhile, then cut her short.
"Very well. There has been some queer sort of mistake, that's plain. I should like to know what Lord Dymchurch means. Why couldn't he see me, like an honest man? It's very extraordinary, this running away before breakfast, saying good-bye to nobody."
She mused stormily, her eye ever and again turning upon the girl.
"Look here, May; do you think Constance knows anything about it?"
"I really can't say -- I don't see how --"
"It was she that brought me his letter. Do you think he spoke to her?"
"About me?" exclaimed May, uneasily. "Oh! I don't think so -- I never noticed that they were friendly."
"Ring the bell."
Constance Bride was sent for. Some moments passed; Lady Ogram stamped impatiently. She ordered May to ring again, and demanded why Miss Bride kept her waiting. Considerably more than five minutes had elapsed before the figure of the secretary appeared: her face wore an expression of proud indifference, and at the sight of May's subdued, timid air, she smiled coldly.
"Why have you been so long?" cried Lady Ogram.
"I came as soon as I could," was the clear reply.
"Now listen to me, Constance," broke vehemently from the bloodless lips. "I'll have no nonsense! You understand that? I'll not be played with. Deceive me, or treat me in any way unbecomingly, and you shall remember it the longest day you live. I want to know whether Lord Dymchurch said anything to you to explain his sudden departure?"
"To me? Certainly not."
"Now mind! I'll get at the truth of this. You know me! May says that Lord Dymchurch never proposed to her at all. What do you make of that?"
Constance glanced at Miss Tomalin, whose eyes fell. Again she smiled.
"It's very strange," she answered, with a certain air of sympathy. "That's really all I can say. It's impossible to have any opinion about such a personal matter, which doesn't in the least concern me."
"Please remember, aunt," put in May, "that I only said I didn't understand Lord Dymchurch in that sense."
"Are you a fool, girl!" screeched the autocrat, violently. "I never thought you so, and if he had said anything that was meant for an offer of marriage, you would have understood it quickly enough. Either you're telling me the truth, or you're lying. Either he proposed to you, or he didn't."
May caught the look of Constance turned upon her; it suggested amusement, and this touched her feelings far more deeply than the old lady's strong language.
"I am obliged to remind you, aunt," she said, her cheek flushing, "that I have no experience of -- of this kind of thing. If I made a mistake, I think it's excusable. I see that Miss Bride thinks it funny, but she has the advantage of me in age, and in -- in several other ways."
Even whilst speaking, May knew that she committed an imprudence; she remembered all that depended upon Constance's disposition towards her. And indeed, she could not have spoken more unwisely. In the inflamed state of Constance's pride, a feminine slap such as this sent such a tingling along her nerves that she quivered visibly. It flashed into her mind that Dyce Lashmar had all but certainly talked of her to May -- with significant look and tone, whatever his words. How much had he told her? Lady Ogram's voice was again heard.
"Well, that's true. You're only a child, and perhaps you said something which sounded as you didn't mean it."
Constance was gazing at the speaker. Her lips moved, as if in a nervously ineffectual effort to say something.
"Miss Bride can go back to her work again," said Lady Ogram, as if dismissing a servant.
May smiled, openly and disdainfully. She could not resist the pleasure of showing her superiority. The smile had not died away, when Constance spoke.
"I will ask your permission to stay for a few minutes longer, Lady Ogram. As Miss Tomalin has so satisfactorily explained her part in this unfortunate affair, I think I had better use this opportunity for making known to you something which concerns her, and which, I am sure, will interest you very much. It won't take me long -- if you feel able to listen."
"What is it?" asked the autocrat, sharply.
"You are aware that Mr. Lashmar called very early this morning. He came, as I said, on private business. He had something of importance to tell me, and he asked my help in a great difficulty."
"Something about the election?"
"It had nothing whatever to do with that. I'll put it in the fewest possible words, not to waste your time and my own. Mr. Lashmar began by saying that if I didn't mind, he would be glad to be released from his engagement to me."
"Pray don't let there be any misunderstanding -- this time," said Constance, whose grave irony was perhaps somewhat too fine for the intelligence of either of her hearers. "Mr. Lashmar behaved like a man of honour, and I quite approve of the way in which he expressed himself. His words would have been perfectly intelligible -- even to Miss Tomalin. Admitting his right to withdraw from the engagement if he had conscientious objections to it, I ventured to ask Mr. Lashmar whether there was any particular reason for his wish to be released. He paid me the compliment of perfect frankness. His reason was, that he wished to marry someone else."
"And who is that?" came hoarsely from Lady Ogram.
May had lost her natural colour. She could not take her eyes from the speaker; her lips were parted, her forehead was wrinkled into a strange expression of frightened animosity. Until the utterance of her name, she had hoped against hope that Constance did not intend the worst. For the first time in her life, she felt herself struck without pity, and the mere fact of such stern enmity affected her with no less surprise than dread. She would have continued staring at Constance, had not an alarming sound, a sort of moaning snarl, such as might proceed from some suddenly wounded beast, caused her to turn towards her aunt. The inarticulate sound was followed by words painfully forced out.
"Go on -- what else? -- go on, I tell you!"
The speaker's breath came with difficulty. She was bent forward, her eyes starting, her scraggy throat working as if in anguish. Constance had stepped nearer to her.
"Are you ill, Lady Ogram? Shall I call for help?"
"Go on! Go on, I tell you!" was the hoarse reply. "I hadn't thought of that. I see, now. What next did he say?"
"Mr. Lashmar," pursued Constance, in a voice somewhat less under control, "did me the honour to say that he felt sure I had only his interests and his happiness at heart. He knew that there might be considerable difficulties in his way, even after it had been made known that he was free to turn his attention to Miss Tomalin, and he was so good as to request my assistance. It had occurred to him that I might be able to present his case in a favourable light to you, Lady Ogram. Naturally, I was anxious to do my best. Perhaps this is hardly the moment to pursue the subject. Enough for the present to have made known Mr. Lashmar's state of mind."
Lady Ogram seemed to have overcome her physical anguish. She sat upright once more, and, looking at May, asked in a voice only just above a whisper:
"What have you to say to this?"
"What can I say," exclaimed the girl, with high-voiced vehemence. "I know nothing about it. Of course it's easy enough to believe that Mr. Lashmar wants to get out of his engagement to Miss Bride." She laughed scornfully. "He --"
She stopped, checking in her throat words which she suddenly remembered would be fatal to the attitude she had assumed.
"Go on!" cried Lady Ogram. "He -- what?"
"I was only going to say that Mr. Lashmar might easily have thought that he had made a mistake. Well, that's my opinion; if it isn't pleasant to Miss Bride, I can't help it. I tell the truth, that's all."
"And that I will have!" said her aunt, with new self-command. "The very last word of it, mind you! Constance, why are you standing all this time? Sit down here, on this chair. Now I want you to repeat what you have told me. First of all, at what o'clock did this happen?"
"At about half-past eight this morning."
Had it been possible, Constance would have rolled oblivion over all she had spoken. Already she found her vengeance a poor, savourless thing; she felt that it belittled her. The fire of her wrath burnt low, and seemed like to smoulder out under self-contempt. She spoke in a dull, mechanical voice, and gazed at vacancy.
"May," Lady Ogram resumed, "when did you get up this morning?
"At about -- oh, about half-past seven, I think."
"Did you go out before breakfast?"
"I have told you that I did, aunt. I saw Lord Dymchurch in the garden."
"I remember," said her aunt, with a lowering, suspicious look. "And you saw Mr. Lashmar as he was coming to the house?"
"No. I didn't see him at all."
"How was that? If you were in the garden?"
May glibly explained that her encounter with Lord Dymchurch took place not before, but behind, the house. She had a spot of red on each cheek; her ears were scarlet; she sat with clenched hands, and stared at the lower part of her aunt's face.
"Constance," pursued the questioner, whose eyes had become small and keen as her utterance grew more sober, "tell it me all over again. It's worth hearing twice. He began --?"
The other obeyed, reciting her story in a curt, lifeless way, so that it sounded less significant than before.
"And you promised to help him?" asked Lady Ogram, who repeatedly glanced at May.
"No, I didn't. I lost my temper, and said I don't know what foolish things."
This was self-punishment, but it, too, sounded idle in her ears as soon as she had spoken.
"But you consented to release him?"
"Now, look at me. Have you told me all he said?"
"Look at me! If I find that you are keeping any secret --! I shall know everything, you understand that. I won't sleep till I know everything that has been going on. Deceive me, if you dare!"
"I am not deceiving you," answered Constance, wearily. "You have heard all I know."
"Now, then, for what you suspect," said Lady Ogram, leaning towards her. "Turn your mind inside out. Tell me what you think!"
"That is soon done. I suspect -- indeed, I believe that Mr. Lashmar's behaviour is that of a man with an over-excited mind. He thinks everything is within his reach, and everything permitted to him. I believe he spoke to me quite honestly, thinking I might somehow plead his cause with you."
"That isn't what I want. Do you suspect that he had any hopes to go upon?"
"I care so little about it," answered Constance, "that I can't form any conjecture. All I can say is, that such a man would be quite capable of great illusions -- of believing anything that flattered his vanity."
Lady Ogram was dissatisfied. She kept a brief silence, with her eyes on May's countenance.
"Ring the bell," were her next words.
Constance rose and obeyed. A servant entered.
"When Mr. Lashmar arrives," said Lady Ogram, "you will bring him at once to me here."
"Mr. Lashmar has just arrived, my lady."
"Ask him to come --. No! Stay!"
Lady Ogram stood up, not without difficulty. She took a step or two forwards, as if trying whether she had the strength to walk. Then she looked at her two companions, who had both risen.
"Constance, give me your arm. I will go downstairs."
They left the room, May slowly following and watching them with anxiety she vainly endeavoured to disguise. The descent was slow. Constance held firmly the bony arm which clung to her own, and felt it quiver at every step. Just before they reached the bottom, Lady Ogram ordered the servant who came after them to pass before and conduct Mr. Lashmar into the library. At the foot of the stairs, she paused; on her forehead stood little points of sweat, and her lips betrayed the painful effort with which she continued to stand upright.
"May" -- she looked into the girl's face -- "if I don't come when the luncheon bell rings, you will excuse me to Sir William and Lady Amys, and take my place at table."
Slowly she walked on, still supported by Constance, to the library door. When it was opened, and she saw Lashmar awaiting her within (he had passed into the library by the inner door which communicated with the drawing-room), she spoke of her companion.
"Thank you, Constance. If I don't come, sit down with the others. I hope your meal will not be disturbed, but I may have to send for you."
"Lady Ogram --"
Constance began in a low, nervous voice. She was looking at Lashmar, who, with an air of constraint, moved towards them.
"What is it?"
"Will you let me speak to you for a moment before --"
With this stern monosyllable, Lady Ogram dismissed her, entered the room, and closed the door.
Then her face changed. A smile, which was more than half a grin of pain, responded to Lashmar's effusive salutation; but she spoke not a word, and, when she had sunk into the nearest chair, her eyes, from beneath drooping lids, searched the man's countenance.
"Sit down," were her first words.
Lashmar, convinced that Constance Bride had sought to avenge herself, tried to screw up his courage. He looked very serious; he sat stiffly; he kept his eye upon Lady Ogram's.
"Well, what have you to tell me?" she asked, with a deliberation more disconcerting than impatience would have been.
"Everything goes on pretty well --"
"Does it? I'm glad you think so."
"What do you allude to, Lady Ogram?" Lashmar inquired with grave respectfulness.
"What do you?"
"I was speaking of things at Hollingford."
"And I was thinking of things at Rivenoak."
Lashmar's brain worked feverishly. What did she know? If Constance had betrayed him, assuredly May also must have been put to the question, and with what result? He was spared long conjecture.
"Let us understand each other," said the autocrat, who seemed to be recovering strength as the need arose. "I hear that you want to break off with Constance Bride. She is no bride for you. Is that the case?"
"I am sorry to say it is the truth, Lady Ogram."
Having uttered these words, Dyce felt the heroic mood begin to stir in him. He had no alternative now, and would prove himself equal to the great occasion.
"You want to marry someone else?"
"I'm sure you will recognise," Lashmar replied, in his academic tone, "that I am doing my best to act honourably, and without giving any unnecessary pain. Under certain circumstances, a man is not entirely master of himself --"
There sounded the luncheon bell. It rang a vague hope to Lashmar, whose voice dropped.
"Are you hungry?" asked the hostess, with impatience.
"Not particularly, thank you."
"Then I think we had better get our little talk over and done with. We shan't keep the others waiting."
Dyce accepted this as a good omen. "Our little talk!" He had not dreamt of such urbanity. Here was the result of courage and honesty. Evidently his bearing had made a good impression upon the old despot. He began to look cheerful.
"Nothing could please me better."
"Go on, then," said Lady Ogram, drily. "You were saying --"
"I wish to use complete frankness with you," Dyce resumed. "As I think you know, I always prefer the simple, natural way of looking at things. So, for instance, in my relations with women I have always aimed at fair and candid behaviour; I have tried to treat women as they themselves, justly enough, wish to be treated, without affectation, without insincerity. Constance knew my views, and she approved them. When our friendship developed into an engagement of marriage, we both of us regarded the step in a purely reasonable light; we did not try to deceive ourselves, and, less still, to deceive each other. But a man cannot always gauge his nature. To use the common phrase, I did not think I should ever fall in love; yet that happened to me, suddenly, unmistakably. What course had I to follow? Obviously I must act on my own principles; I must be straightforward, simple, candid. As soon as my mind was made up, I came to Constance."
He broke off, observed the listener's face, and added with an insinuating smile:
"There was the other course -- what is called the unselfish, the heroic. Unfortunately, heroism of that kind is only another name for deliberate falsehood, in word and deed, and I confess I hadn't the courage for it. Unselfishness which means calculated deception seems to me by no means admirable. It was not an easy thing to go to Constance, and tell her what I had to tell; but I know that she herself would much prefer it to the sham-noble alternative. And I am equally sure, Lady Ogram, what your own view will be of the choice that lay before me."
The listener made no sort of response to this appeal.
"And what had Constance to say to you?" she asked.
Lashmar hesitated, his embarrassment half genuine, half feigned.
"Here," he replied, in a thoughtfully suspended voice, "I find myself on very delicate ground. I hardly feel that I should be justified in repeating what passed between us. I hoped you had already heard it. Was it not from Constance that you learnt --?"
"Don't begin to question me," broke in Lady Ogram, with sudden severity. "What I know, and how I know it, is none of your business. You'll have the goodness to tell me whatever I ask you."
Dyce made a gesture of deprecating frankness.
"Personally," he said in a low voice, "I admit your right to be kept fully informed of all that comes to pass in this connection. Will it be enough if I say that Constance accepted my view of what had happened?"
"Did you tell her everything that had happened?" asked Lady Ogram, looking him in the eyes.
"Not in detail," Dyce replied, rather nervously, for he could not with certainty interpret that stern look. "You will understand that -- that I was not at liberty -- that I had to respect --"
He came near to losing himself between the conflicting suggestions of prudence and hopefulness. At the sight of his confusion, Lady Ogram smiled grimly.
"You mean," she said, in a voice which seemed to croak indulgence, "that you had no right to tell Constance anything about Miss Tomalin?"
Lashmar's courage revived. He suspected that the old autocrat knew everything, that both girls had already gone through the ordeal of a private interview with her, and had yielded up their secrets. If so, plainly the worst was over, and nothing would now serve but sincerity.
"That is what I mean," he answered, quietly and respectfully, admiring his own dignity as he spoke.
"We are beginning to understand each other," said Lady Ogram, the grim smile still on her face. "I don't mind telling you, now, that I have spoken both with Constance and with May."
Lashmar manifested his relief. He moved into an easier posture; his countenance brightened; he said within himself that destiny was hearing him on to glorious things.
"I'm very glad indeed to hear that, Lady Ogram! It puts my mind at rest."
"I have talked with them both," continued the reassuring voice, which struggled with hoarseness. "That they told me the truth, I have no doubt; both of them know me too well to do anything else. Constance, I understand, had your authority for speaking to me, so her part was easy."
"She has a fine, generous spirit!" exclaimed Dyce, with the glow of genuine enthusiasm.
"Well for you that she has. As for May, you had put her into a more difficult position."
"I fear so. But I am sure, Lady Ogram, that you dealt with her very kindly."
"Exactly." The smile was very grim indeed, and the voice very hoarse. "But the things I couldn't ask May to tell me, I expect to hear from you. Begin with this morning. You met her, I understand, before you came to the house to see Constance."
Dyce fell straight into the trap. He spoke almost gaily.
"Yes; we met at eight o'clock."
"Of course by appointment."
"Yes, by appointment."
"The best will be for you to begin at the beginning, and tell the story in your own way. I've heard all my niece cared to tell me; now I give you the chance of telling your own tale. All I ask is the truth. Tell me the truth, from point to point."
At the pass he had reached, Lashmar asked nothing better. He was befooled and bedazzled. Every trouble seemed of a sudden to be lifted from his mind. Gratitude to Constance, who had proved so much better than her word, romantic devotion to May, who had so bravely declared her love, filled him with fervours such as he had never known. He saw himself in a resplendent light; his attitude was noble, his head bent with manly modesty, and, when he began to speak, there was something in his voice which he had never yet been able to command, a virile music, to which he listened with delighted appreciation.
"I obey you, Lady Ogram; I obey you frankly and gladly. I must go back to the day of Miss Tomalin's return from London. You will remember I told you that on that day I was in town, and in the afternoon, early, I called at Mrs. Toplady's."
Omitting the fact of his having told May about the relations between Miss Bride and himself, he narrated all else with perfect truth. So pleasant was the sense of veracity, that he dwelt on unimportant particulars, and lengthened out the story in a way which would have made it intolerably tedious to any other hearer. Lady Ogram, however, found it none too long. The smile had died from her face; her lips were compressed, and from time to time her eyes turned upon the speaker with a fierce glare; but Lashmar paid no heed to these trifles. He ended at length with beaming visage, his last sentences having a touch of emotion which greatly pleased him.
"Ring the bell," said Lady Ogram, pointing to the electric button.
Glad to stand up and move, Dyce did her bidding. Only a few moments elapsed before Constance Bride and May Tomalin entered the room.
"Constance, come here," said Lady Ogram. "You" -- she glared at May -- "stand where I can have a good view of you."
Lashmar had welcomed their entrance with a smile. The voice and manner of the autocrat slightly perturbed him, but he made allowances for her brusque way, and continued to smile at May, who looked pale and frightened.
"Constance, did you know or did you not, that these two had a meeting this morning in the park before Mr. Lashmar came to see you?"
"No, I knew nothing of that," answered Miss Bride, coldly.
"And did you know that they had met before, at the same place and time, and that they came from town together by the same train, and that there was a regular understanding between them to deceive you and me?"
"I knew nothing of all this."
"Look at her!" exclaimed Lady Ogram, pointing at the terrified girl. "This is her gratitude; this is her honesty. She has lied to me in every word she spoke! Lord Dymchurch offered her marriage, and she tried to make me believe that he hadn't done so at all, that he was a dishonourable shuffler --"
"Aunt!" cried May, stepping hurriedly forward. "He did not offer me marriage! I'll tell you everything. Lord Dymchurch saw me by chance this morning -- Mr. Lashmar and me -- saw us together in the park; and he understood, and spoke to me about it, and said that the only thing he could do was to tell you I had refused him --"
"Oh, that's it, is it?" broke in the hoarse voice, all but inarticulate with fury. "Then he too is a liar; that makes one more."
Lashmar stood in bewilderment. He caught May's eye, and saw that he had nothing but hostility to expect from her.
"There is the greatest of all!" cried the girl, with violent gesture. "He has told you all about me, but has he told you all about himself?"
"Lady Ogram," said Dyce, in a tone of offended dignity, "you should remember by what means you obtained my confidence. You told me that Miss Tomalin had already confessed everything to you. I naturally believed you incapable of falsehood --"
"Being yourself such a man of honour!" Lady Ogram interrupted, with savage scorn. "Constance, you are the only one who has not told me lies, and you have been shamefully treated --"
"You think she has told you no lies?" interrupted May, her voice at the high pitch of exasperation. "Wait a moment. This man has told you that he came down from London in the train with me; but did he tell you what he talked about? The first thing he disclosed to me was that the engagement between him and Miss Bride was a mere pretence. Finding you wished them to marry, they took counsel together, and plotted to keep you in good humour by pretending to be engaged. This he told me himself."
Lady Ogram turned upon Lashmar, who met her eyes with defiance.
"You believe that?" he asked, in a quietly contemptuous tone.
She turned to Constance, whose face showed much the same expression.
"Is that true?"
"I shall answer no charge brought by Miss Tomalin," was the cold reply.
"And you are right." Lady Ogram faced to May. "I give you half an hour to pack your luggage and leave the house! Be off!"
The girl burst into a hysterical laugh, and ran from the room. For some moments, Lady Ogram sat looking towards the door; then, sinking together in exhaustion, she let her eyes move from one to the other of the two faces before her. Lashmar and Constance had exchanged no look; they stood in sullen attitudes, hands behind them, staring at vacancy.
"I have something to say to you." The voice that broke the silence was so faint as to be but just audible. "Come nearer."
The two approached.
"That girl has gone. She is nothing to me, and nothing to you. Constance, are you willing to marry Mr. Lashmar?"
There came no reply.
"Do you hear?" whispered Lady Ogram, with a painful effort to speak louder. "Answer me."
"How can you expect me to be willing to marry him?" exclaimed Constance, in whom a violent struggle was going on. Her cheeks were flushed, and tears of humiliation stood in her eyes.
"You!" Lady Ogram addressed Lashmar. "Will you marry her?"
"How is it possible, Lady Ogram," replied Dyce, in an agony of nervousness, "to answer such a question under these circumstances?"
"But you shall answer!" sounded in a choked sort of scream. "I give you the choice, both of you. Either you are married in three days from now, or you go about your business, like that lying girl. You can get a license, and be married at once. Which is it to be? I give you three days, not an hour more."
Lashmar had turned very pale. He looked at his partner in the dilemma.
"Constance," fell from his lips, "will you marry me?"
There came an answer which he could just hear, but which was inaudible to Lady Ogram.
"Speak, girl! Yes or no!" croaked their tormentor.
"She has consented," said Dyce.
"Then be off and get the license! Don't lose a minute. I suppose you'll have to go to London for it? -- Constance, give me your arm. I must excuse myself to my guests."
Constance bent to her, and Lady Ogram, clutching at the offered arm, endeavoured to rise It was in vain; she had not the strength to stand.
"Mr. Lashmar!" She spoke in a thick mumble, staring with wild eyes. "Come -- other side --"
She was drooping, falling. Lashmar had only just time to catch and support her.
"What is it?" he asked, staring at Constance as he supported the helpless form. "Has she fainted?"
"Lay her down, and I'll get help."
A moment, and Sir William Amys came hastening into the room; he was followed by his wife and two or three servants. Lady Ogram gave no sign of life, but the baronet found that her pulse was still beating. Silent, still, with half-closed eyes, the old autocrat of Rivenoak lay stretched upon a sofa awaiting the arrival of Dr. Baldwin.
Sir William drew Lashmar aside.
"What brought this about?" he asked. "What has been going on?"
Dyce, whose nerves were in a tremulous state, did not easily command himself to the quiet dignity which the occasion required. He saw that the baronet regarded him with something of suspicion, and the tone in which he was addressed seemed to him too much that of a superior. With an effort of the muscles, he straightened himself and looked his questioner in the face.
"There has been a painful scene, Sir William, between Lady Ogram and her niece. Very much against my will, I was made a witness of it. I knew the danger of such agitation, and did my best to calm Lady Ogram. Miss Tomalin had left the room, and the worst seemed to be over. We were talking quietly, when the blow fell."
"That is all you have to say?"
"I am not sure that I understand you, Sir William," Lashmar replied coldly. Being slightly the taller, he had an advantage in being able to gaze at the baronet's forehead instead of meeting his look. "You would hardly wish me to speak of circumstances which are purely private."
"Certainly not," said the other, and abruptly moved away.
Lady Amys and Constance stood together near the couch on which Lady Ogram was lying. With a glance in that direction, Lashmar walked towards the door, hesitated a moment, went out into the hall. He had no wish to encounter May; just as little did he wish for a private interview with Constance; yet it appeared to him that he was obliged by decorum to remain in or near the house until the doctor's arrival. Presently he went out onto the terrace, and loitered in view of the front windows. That Lady Ogram was dying he felt not the least doubt. Beneath his natural perturbation there stirred a hope.
Nearly an hour passed before Dr. Baldwin's carriage rolled up the drive. Shortly after came another medical man, who had been summoned at the same time. Whilst waiting impatiently for the result of their visits, Lashmar mused on the fact that May Tomalin certainly had not taken her departure; it was not likely now that she would quit the house; perhaps at this moment she was mistress of Rivenoak.
Fatigue compelled him at length to enter, and in the hall he saw Constance. Involuntarily, she half turned from him, but he walked up to her, and spoke in a low voice, asking what the doctors said. Constance replied that she knew nothing.
"Are they still in the library?"
"No. Lady Ogram has been carried upstairs."
"Then I'll go in and wait."
He watched the clock for another half hour, then the door opened, and a servant brought him information that Lady Ogram remained in the same unconscious state.
"I will call this evening to make inquiry," said Lashmar, and thereupon left the house.
Reaching his hotel at Hollingford, he ordered a meal and ate heartily. Then he stepped over to the office of the Express, and made known to Breakspeare the fact of Lady Ogram's illness; they discussed the probabilities with much freedom, Breakspeare remarking how odd it would be if Lady Ogram so soon followed her old enemy. At about nine o'clock in the evening, Dyce inquired at Rivenoak lodge: he learnt that there was still no change whatever in the patient's condition; Dr. Baldwin remained in the house. In spite of his anxious thoughts, Dyce slept particularly well. Immediately after breakfast, he drove again to Rivenoak, and had no sooner alighted from the cab than he saw that the blinds were down at the lodge windows. Lady Ogram, he learnt, had died between two and three o'clock.
He dismissed his vehicle, and walked along the roads skirting the wall of the park. Now, indeed, was his life's critical moment. How long must elapse before he could know the contents of Lady Ogram's will? In a very short time he would have need of money; he had been disbursing freely, and could not face the responsibilities of the election, without assurance that his finances would soon be on a satisfactory footing. He thought nervously of Constance Bride, more nervously still of May Tomalin. Constance's position was doubtless secure; she would enter upon the "trust" of which so much had been said; but what was her state of mind with regard to him? Had not the consent to marry him simply been forced from her? May, who was now possessor of a great fortune, might perchance forget yesterday's turmoil, and be willing to renew their tender relations; he felt such a thing to be by no means impossible. Meanwhile, ignorance would keep him in a most perplexing and embarrassing position. The Amyses, who knew nothing of the rupture of his ostensible engagement, would be surprised if he did not call upon Miss Bride, yet it behooved him, for the present, to hold aloof from both the girls, not to compromise his future chances with either of them. The dark possibility that neither one nor the other would come to his relief, he resolutely kept out of mind; that would be sheer ruin, and a certain buoyancy of heart assured him that he had no such catastrophe to fear. Prudence only was required; perhaps in less than a week all his anxieties would be over, for once and all.
He decided to call, this afternoon, upon Lady Amys. The interview would direct his future behaviour.
It was the day of Robb's funeral, and he had meant to absent himself from Hollingford. He remained in his private sitting-room at the Saracen's Head, wrote many letters, and tried to read. At four o'clock he went out to Rivenoak, only to learn that Lady Amys could receive no one. He left a card. After all, perhaps this was the simplest and best way out of his difficulty.
As he turned away from the door, another cab drove up, and from it alighted Mr. Kerchever. Dyce had no difficulty in recognising Lady Ogram's solicitor, but discretion kept his head averted, and Mr. Kerchever, though observing him, did not speak.
By the post next morning, he received a formal announcement of Lady Ogram's death, with an invitation to attend her funeral. So far, so good. He was now decidedly light-hearted. Both Constance and May, he felt sure, would appreciate his delicacy in holding aloof, in seeking no sort of communication with them. Prudence! Reserve! The decisive day approached.
Meanwhile, having need of sable garb, he had consulted Breakspeare as to the tailor it behooved him to patronise. Unfortunately the only good tailor at Hollingford was a Conservative, who prided himself on having clad the late M. P. for many years. Lashmar of necessity applied to an inferior artist, but in this man, who was summoned to wait upon him at the hotel, he found a zealous politician, whose enthusiasm more than compensated for sartorial defects.
"I have already been canvassing for you, sir," declared the tailor. "I can answer for twenty or thirty votes in my neighbourhood --"
"I am greatly obliged to you, Mr. Bingham," Dyce replied, in his suavest tone. "We have a hard fight before us, but if I find many adherents such as you --"
The tailor went away and declared to all his acquaintances that if they wished their borough to be represented by a gentleman, they had only to vote for the Liberal candidate.
As a matter of policy, Dyce had allowed it to be supposed that he was a man of substantial means. With the members of his committee he talked in a large way whenever pecuniary matters came up. Every day someone dined with him at the hotel, and the little dinners were as good as the Saracen's Head could furnish special wines had been procured for his table. Of course the landlord made such facts commonly known, and the whole establishment bowed low before this important guest. All day long the name of Mr. Lashmar sounded in bar and parlour, in coffee-room and commercial-room. Never had Dyce known such delicious thrills of self-respect as under the roof of this comfortable hostelry. If he were elected, he would retain rooms, in permanence, at the hotel. -- Unless, of course, destiny made his home at Rivenoak.
Curiosity as to what was going on at the great house kept him in a feverish state during these days before the funeral. Breakspeare, whom he saw frequently, supposed him to be in constant communication with Rivenoak, and at times hinted a desire for news, but Lashmar's cue was a dignified silence, which seemed to conceal things of high moment. Sir William and Lady Amys he knew to be still in the house of mourning; he presumed that May Tomalin had not gone away, and it taxed his imagination to picture the terms on which she lived with Constance. At the funeral, no doubt, he would see them both; probably would have to exchange words with them -- an embarrassing necessity.
Hollingford, of course, was full of gossip about the dead woman. The old, old scandal occupied tongues malicious or charitable. Rivenoak domestics had spread the news of the marble bust, to which some of them attached a superstitious significance; Breakspeare heard, and credited, a rumour that the bust dated from the time when its original led a brilliant, abandoned life in the artist world of London; but naturally he could not speak of this with Lashmar. Highly imaginative stories, too, went about concerning Miss Tomalin, whom everyone assumed to be the heiress of Lady Ogram's wealth. By some undercurrent, no doubt of servant's-hall origin, the name of Lord Dymchurch had come into circulation, and the editor of the Express ventured to inquire of Lashmar whether it was true that Miss Tomalin had rejected an offer of marriage from this peer. Perfectly true, answered Dyce, in his discreet way; and he smiled as one who, if he would, could expatiate on the interesting topic.
He saw Mrs. Gallantry, and from her learnt -- without betraying his own ignorance -- that callers at Rivenoak were received by Lady Amys, from whom only the barest information concerning Lady Ogram's illness was obtainable. Neither Miss Tomalin nor Miss Bride had been seen by anyone.
The day of the funeral arrived; the hour appointed was half-past two. All the morning rain fell, and about mid-day began a violent thunder storm, which lasted for an hour. Then the sky began to clear, and as Lashmar started for Rivenoak be saw a fine rainbow across great sullen clouds, slowly breaking upon depths of azure. The gates of the park stood wide open, and many carriages were moving up the drive. Afterwards, it became known that no member of the Ogram family had been present on this occasion. Half-a-dozen friends of the deceased came down from London, but the majority of the funeral guests belonged to Hollingford and the immediate neighbourhood. In no sense was it a distinguished gathering; mere curiosity accounted for the presence of nearly all who came.
Lashmar had paid his respects to Lady Amys, who received him frigidly, and was looking about for faces that he knew, when a familiar voice spoke at his shoulder; he turned, and saw Mrs. Toplady.
"Have you come down this morning?" he asked, as they shook hands.
"Yesterday. I want to see you, and we had better arrange the meeting now. Where are you staying in Hollingford? An hotel, isn't it?"
She spoke in a low voice. Notwithstanding her decorous gravity, Lashmar saw a ghost of the familiar smile hovering about her lips. He gave his address, and asked at what hour Mrs. Toplady thought of coming.
"Let us say half-past five. There's an up train just before eight, which I must catch."
She nodded, and moved away. Again Lashmar looked about him, and he met the eye of Mr. Kerchever, who came forward with friendly aspect.
"Dreadfully sudden, the end, Mr. Lashmar!"
"Dreadfully so, indeed," Dyce responded, in mortuary tones.
"You were present at the seizure, I understand?"
"A good age," remarked the athletic lawyer, with obvious difficulty subduing his wonted breeziness. "The doctor tells me that it was marvellous she lived so long. Wonderful woman! Wonderful!"
And he too moved away, Lashmar gazing after him, and wishing he knew all that was in the legal mind at this moment. But that secret must very soon become common property. Perhaps the contents of Lady Ogram's will would be known at Hollingford this evening.
He searched vainly for Constance and for May. The former he did not see until she crossed the hall to enter one of the carriages; the latter appeared not at all. Had she, then, really left Rivenoak? Sitting in his hired brougham, in dignified solitude, he puzzled anxiously over this question. Happily, he would learn everything from Lady Toplady.
In the little church of Shawe, his eyes wandered as much as his thoughts. Surveying the faces, most of them unknown to him, he noticed that scarcely a person present was paying any attention to the ceremony, or made any attempt to conceal his or her indifference. At one moment it vexed him that no look turned with interest in his direction; was he not far and away the most notable of all the people gathered here? A lady and a gentleman sat near him, frequently exchanged audible whispers, and he found that they were debating a trivial domestic matter, with some acerbity of mutual contradiction. He gazed now and then at the black-palled coffin, and found it impossible to realise that there lay the strange, imperious old woman who for several months had been the centre of his thoughts, and to whom he owed so vast a change in his circumstances. He felt no sorrow, yet thought of her with a certain respect, even with a slight sensation of gratitude, which was chiefly due, however, to the fact that she had been so good as to die. Live as long as he might, the countenance and the voice of Lady Ogram would never be less distinct in his memory than they were to-day. He, at all events, had understood and appreciated her. If he became master of Rivenoak, the marble bust should always have an honoured place under that roof.
Dyce saw himself master of Rivenoak. He fell into a delightful dream, and, when the congregation suddenly stirred, he realised with alarm that he had a broad smile on his face.
Rather before the hour she had named, Mrs. Toplady presented herself at the Saracen's Head. Lashmar was impatiently expectant; he did his best to appear gravely thoughtful, and behaved with the ceremonious courtesy which, in his quality of parliamentary candidate, he had of late been cultivating. His visitor, as soon as the door was closed, became quite at her ease.
"Nice little place," she remarked, glancing about the room. "You make this your head-quarters, of course?"
"Yes; I am very comfortable here," Dyce answered, in melodious undertone.
"And all goes well? Your committee at work, and all that?"
"Everything satisfactory, so far. The date is not fixed yet."
"But it'll be all over, no doubt, in time for the partridges," said Mrs. Toplady, scrutinising him with an amused look. "Do you shoot?"
"Why no, Mrs. Toplady. I care very little for sport."
"Like all sensible men. I wanted to hear what you think about Lady Ogram's will."
Lashmar was disconcerted. He had to confess that he knew nothing whatever about the will.
"Indeed? Then I bring you news."
They were interrupted by a waiter who appeared with tea. The visitor graciously accepted a cup.
"Funerals exhaust one so, don't they?" she remarked. "I don't know your opinion, but I think people should be married and buried far more quietly. For my own part, I grieve sincerely for the death of Lady Ogram. It's a great loss to me. I liked her, and I owed her gratitude for very much kindness. But I certainly shouldn't have gone to her funeral, if it hadn't been a social duty. I should have liked to sit quietly at home, thinking about her."
"I thoroughly agree with you," replied Dyce, absently. "You came down yesterday?"
"In the evening. -- You know that Miss Tomalin is at my house?"
"I had no idea of it."
"Yes. She arrived the day before yesterday. She left Rivenoak as soon as she knew about Lady Ogram's will. I'm very glad indeed that she came to me; it was a great mark of confidence. Under the circumstances, she could hardly remain here."
"The circumstances --?"
"Lady Ogram's will does not mention her."
Lashmar felt a spasm in his breast. The expression of his features was so very significant that Mrs. Toplady's smile threatened to become a laugh.
"It's rather startling, isn't it?" she continued. "The will was made a year ago. Lady Ogram didn't mean it to stand. When she was in town, she talked over her affairs with her solicitor; a new will was to be made, by which Miss Tomalin would have come into possession of Rivenoak, and of a great deal of money. You can probably guess why she put off executing it. She hoped her niece's marriage-settlement would come first. But the old will remains, and is valid."
"Will you tell me its provisions?" asked Lashmar, deliberately.
"In confidence. It won't be made public till the executors -- Sir William Amys and Mr. Kerchever -- have proved it. I never knew a more public-spirited will. Hollingford gets a hospital, to be called the Lady Ogram; very generously endowed. Rivenoak is to be sold, and the proceeds to form a fund for a lot of Lady Ogram Scholarships. A working-girl's home is to be founded in Camden Town (it seems she was born there), and to be called Lady Ogram House. A lady named Mrs. Gallantry, here at Hollingford, becomes trustee for a considerable sum to be used in founding a training school for domestic servants -- to be named the Lady Ogram. Then there's a long list of minor charitable bequests. All the servants are most liberally treated, and a few friends in humble circumstances receive annuities. There is not much fear of Lady Ogram being forgotten just yet, is there?"
"No, indeed," said Lashmar, with studious control of his voice. "And" -- he paused a moment -- "is that all?"
"Let me see -- Oh, I was forgetting. Some money is left to Miss Bride; not to her absolutely, but in trust for certain purposes not specified."
Mrs. Toplady's smile had never been more eloquent of mischievous pleasure. She was watching Lashmar as one watches a comedian on the stage, without the least disguise of her amusement.
"I had heard something of that," said Dyce, the tension of whose feelings began to show itself in a flush under the eyes. "Can you tell me --"
"Oh," broke in the other, "I've forgotten a detail that will interest you. In the entrance hall of the Lady Ogram Hospital is to be preserved that beautiful bust which you have seen at the Rivenoak. By the bye, there are odd stories about it. I hear that it was brought out of concealment only the day before her death."
"Yes. I know nothing more about it. With regard to Miss Bride's trusteeship --"
"Oh, and I forgot that Hollingford is to have a fine market-hall, on condition that the street leading to it is called Arabella Street -- her name, you know."
"Oh, indeed!" murmured Dyce, and became mute.
Mrs. Toplady amused herself for a moment with observation of the play of his muscles. She finished her tea.
"I'll have another cup, if you please. -- Oh yes, we were speaking of Miss Bride. Naturally, that interests you. An odd bequest, isn't it? She is spoken of as a trustee, but evidently the disposal of the money is quite at her own discretion. If I remember, there are words to the effect that Lady Ogram wishes Miss Bride to use this money just as she herself would have done, for the purposes in which they were both particularly interested. By the bye, it isn't money only; Miss Bride becomes owner of the paper-mill at the village by Rivenoak."
"I had heard of this," said Lashmar, with a brusque movement as though he felt cramp in his leg. He had begun to look cheerful. "I knew all about Lady Ogram's intentions. You don't remember," he added carelessly, "the amount of the bequest?"
"Mr. Kerchever tells me it represents about seventy thousand pounds."
Lashmar involuntarily heaved a sigh. Mrs. Toplady watched him over the rim of her teacup, the hand which held it shaking a little with subdued mirth.
"As you say," he observed, "it's a most remarkable will. But it seems rather too bad that the poor lady's real wishes should be totally neglected."
"Indeed it does. I have been wondering what Miss Bride will think about it. Of course I couldn't speak to her on the subject. One almost feels as if she ought at all events to give half that money to Miss Tomalin, considering the terms on which she receives it."
"But," objected Dyce, "that wouldn't be fulfilling the conditions of the bequest, which, I happen to know, were very specific. Really, it's a most unfortunate thing that Lady Ogram died so suddenly, most unfortunate. What a serious injustice is done to that poor girl!"
"After all, Mr. Lashmar," fell sweetly from the other's lips, "her position might be worse."
"How? Has she an income of her own?"
"Oh, a trifling annuity, not worth mentioning. But I didn't speak of that. I meant that, happily, her future is in the hands of an honourable man. It would have been sad indeed if she had owed this calamity to the intrigues of a mere fortune-hunter. As it is, a girl of her spirit and intelligence will very soon forget the disappointment. Indeed, it is much more on another's account than on her own that she grieves over what has happened."
Lashmar was perusing the floor. Slowly he raised his eyes, until they met Mrs. Toplady's. The two looked steadily at each other.
"Are you speaking of me?" Dyce inquired, in a low voice.
"Of whom else could I be speaking, Mr. Lashmar?"
"Then Miss Tomalin has taken you entirely into her confidence?"
"Entirely, I am happy to say. I am sure you won't be displeased. It goes without saying that she does not know I am having this conversation with you."
"I think, Mrs. Toplady," said Dyce, with deliberation, "that you had better tell me, if you will, exactly what you have heard from Miss Tomalin. We shall be more sure of understanding each other."
"That's easily done. She told me of your railway journey together, of your subsequent meetings, of what happened with Lord Dymchurch, and, last of all, what happened with Lady Ogram."
"Probably," said Dyce, "not all that happened with Lady Ogram. Did she mention that, instead of remaining loyal to me, as I was all through to her, she did her best to injure me with Lady Ogram by betraying a secret I had entrusted to her?"
"I know what you refer to. Yes, she told me, of that unfortunate incident, and spoke of it with deep regret. The poor girl simply lost her head; for a moment she could think of nothing but self-preservation. Put yourself in her place. She saw utter ruin before her, and was driven almost crazy. I can assure you that she was not responsible for that piece of disloyalty. I am afraid not many girls would have been more heroic in such a terrible situation. You, a philosopher, must take account of human. weakness."
"I hope I can do that," said Lashmar, with a liberal air. "Under other circumstances, I should hardly have mentioned the thing. But it convinced me at the time that Miss Tomalin had deceived herself as to her feeling for me, and now that everything is necessarily at an end between us, I prefer to see it still in the same light, for it assures me that she has suffered no injury at my hands."
"But, pray, why should everything be necessarily at an end?"
"For two or three reasons, Mrs. Toplady. One will suffice. After Miss Tomalin had left the room, Lady Ogram insisted on my making offer of immediate marriage to Miss Bride. Being plainly released from the other obligation, I did so -- and Miss Bride gave her consent."
Mrs. Toplady arched her eyebrows, and rippled a pleasant laugh.
"Ah! That, of course, May could not know. I may presume that, this time, the engagement is serious?"
"Undoubtedly," Lashmar replied, grave yet bland.
"Then I can only ask you to pardon my interference."
"Not at all. You have shown great kindness, and, under other circumstances, we should not have differed for a moment as to the course it behooved me to follow."
Dyce had never heard himself speak so magnanimously; he smiled with pleasure, and continued in a peculiarly suave voice.
"I am sure Miss Tomalin will find in you a steadfast friend."
"I shall do. what I can for her, of course," was the rather dry answer. "At the same time, I hold to my view of Miss Bride's responsibility. The girl has really nothing to live upon; a miserable hundred a year; all very well when she belonged to the family at Northampton, but useless now she is adrift. To tell you the truth, I shall wait with no little curiosity for Miss Bride's -- and your -- decision."
"Need I say that Miss Bride will be absolutely free to take any step she likes?"
"How could I doubt it?" exclaimed the lady, with her most expressive smile. "Do you allow me to make known the -- the renewal. of your engagement?"
"Certainly," Dyce answered, beaming upon her.
Mrs. Toplady rose.
"I am so happy to have been the first to bring you the news. But it a little surprises me that you had not learnt it already from Miss Bride, who knew all about the will two days ago."
"Why should it surprise you?" said Lashmar, gently, as he took her hand. "Naturally I have kept away from Rivenoak, supposing Miss Tomalin to be still there; and Miss Bride was not likely to be in haste to communicate a piece of news which, strictly speaking, hardly concerns me at all."
"Be sure you come to see me when you are in town," were Mrs. Toplady's last words.
And her eyes twinkled with appreciation of Lashmar's demeanour.
Dyce walked about the room. Without knowing it, he sang softly to himself. His countenance was radiant.
So, after all, Constance would be his wife. One moment's glimpse of a dread possibility that neither she nor May Tomalin benefited by Lady Ogram's will had sufficed to make him more than contented with the actual issue of his late complications. He had seen himself overwhelmed with disaster, reduced to the alternative of withdrawing into ignominious obscurity or of again seeking aid from Mrs. Woolstan, aid which might or not be granted, and in any case would only enable him to go through with the contest at Hollingford, a useless effort if he had nothing henceforth to live upon. As it was, he saw Constance and seventy thousand pounds, with the prosperous little paper-mill to boot. He did not love Constance, but the feeling of dislike with which he had recently come to regard her had quite passed away. He did not love Constance, but what a capable woman she was! -- and what a help she would be to him in his career! Her having detected his philosophic plagiarism seemed to him now rather a good thing than otherwise; it spared him the annoyance of intellectual dishonesty in his domestic life, and put them in a position to discuss freely the political and social views by which he was to stand. After all, Constance was the only woman he knew whose intelligence he really respected. After all, remembering their intimacy long ago at Alverholme, he felt a fitness in this fated sequel. It gave him the pleasant sense of honourable conduct.
He smiled at the thought that he had fancied himself in love with May Tomalin. The girl was a half-educated simpleton, who would only have made him ridiculous. Her anonymous letter pointed to a grave fault of breeding; it would always have been suggestive of disagreeable possibilities. May was thoroughly plebeian in origin, and her resemblance to Lady Ogram might develop in a way it made him shudder to think of. Constance Bride came of gentlefolk, and needed only the favour of circumstances to show herself perfectly at ease in whatever social surroundings. She had a natural dignity, which, now he came to reflect upon it, he had always observed with pleasure. What could have been more difficult than her relations with Lady Ogram? Yet she had always borne herself with graceful independence.
Poor girl! She had gone through a hard time these last four weeks, and no wonder if she broke down under the strain of a situation such as that which ended in Lady Ogram's death. He would make up to her for it all. She should understand him, and rest in perfect confidence. Yes, he would reveal to her his whole heart and mind, so that no doubt of him, no slightest distrust, could ever disturb her peace. Not only did he owe her this complete sincerity; to him it would be no less delightful, no less tranquillising.
He sat down to write a note.
"Dear Constance --" yes, that sufficed. "When can I see you? Let it be as soon as possible. Of course you have understood my silence. Do you stay at Rivenoak a little longer? Let me come to-morrow, if possible."
After a little reflection, he signed himself, "Ever yours, D. L."
Having despatched this by private messenger, he went out and took a walk, choosing the direction away from Rivenoak. As he rambled along an uninteresting road, it occurred to him that he ought to write to Mrs. Woolstan. No need, of course, to say anything about the results of Lady Ogram's decease, but he really owed Iris a letter, just to show that he was not unmindful of her kindness. The foolish little woman had done her best for him; indeed, without her help, where would he have been now? He must pay his debt to her as soon as possible, and it would of course be necessary to speak of the matter to Constance. Not, perhaps, till after their marriage. Well, he would see; he might possibly have an impulse. Happily this was the very last of the unpleasant details he would have to dismiss. The luxury of living without concealment, unembarrassed, and unafraid!
By the bye, how would Constance understand the duties of her trusteeship? What portion of her income would she feel at liberty to set apart for personal uses? In all likelihood, she had spoken of that with Lady Ogram; at their coming interview, she would fully explain her position.
He returned to the hotel, and dined alone. To his disappointment, there came no answer from Rivenoak. Was it possible that Constance had already gone away? Very unlikely, so soon after the funeral. She would reply, no doubt, by post; indeed, there was no hurry, and a little reserve on her part would be quite natural.
Morning brought him the expected letter. "Dear Mr. Lashmar --" Oh, that was nothing; merely the reserve he had anticipated: he liked her the better for it. "I shall be at home all to-morrow, busy with many things. Could you come about three o'clock? Sincerely yours, Constance Bride." What could be in better taste? How else could she write, under the circumstances? His real wooing had not yet begun, and she merely reminded him of that, with all gentleness.
So, in the afternoon he once more presented himself at Rivenoak, and once more followed the servant into the drawing-room; Constance sat there; she rose as he approached, and silently gave her hand. He thought she looked rather pale; that might be the effect of black attire, which made a noticeable change in her appearance. But a certain dignity of which the visitor was very sensible, a grace of movement and of bearing which seemed new to her, could not be attributed to the dress she wore. In a saddened voice, he hoped that she was well, that she had not suffered from the agitations of the past week; and, with courtesy such as she might have used to anyone, Constance replied that she felt a little tired, not quite herself. They talked for some minutes in this way. Lashmar learnt that the Amyses had returned to London.
"For the present, you stay here?" he said, the interrogative accent only just perceptible.
"For a day or two. My secretaryship goes on, of course. I have a good deal of correspondence to see to."
On his way hither, Lashmar had imagined quite a different meeting; he anticipated an emotional scene, beginning with forced calm on Constance's side, leading to reproaches, explanations, and masculine triumph. But Constance was strangely self-possessed, and her mind seemed to be not at all occupied with agitating subjects. Lashmar was puzzled; he felt it wise to imitate her example, to behave as quietly and naturally as possible, taking for granted that she viewed the situation even as he did.
He turned his eyes to the marble bust on its pedestal behind Constance. The note of scorn in its fixed smile caught his attention.
"So that is to stand in the Hospital," he murmured.
"Yes, I believe so," replied Constance, absently, with a glance towards the white face.
"What strange stories it will give rise to, in days to come! She will become a legendary figure. I can hardly believe that I saw and talked with her only a few days ago. Have you the same feeling at all? Doesn't she seem to you more like someone you have read of, than a person you really knew?"
"I understand what you mean," said Constance, smiling thoughtfully. "It's certain one will never again know anyone like her."
"Are all the provisions of her will practicable?"
"Perfectly, I think. She took great trouble to make them so. By the bye, from whom did you get your information?"
It was asked in a disinterested voice, the speaker's look resting for a moment on Lashmar with unembarrassed directness.
"Mrs. Toplady told me about the will."
Dyce paused for a moment, then continued, with an obvious effort indeed, but in an even voice.
"She came to see me, after the funeral. Mrs. Toplady has a persevering curiosity; she wanted to know what had happened, and, I have no doubt, had recourse to me after finding that you were not disposed to talk as freely as she wished. I was able to enlighten her on one point."
"May I ask what point?"
"She began by telling me that Miss Tomalin was at her house. She had heard Miss Tomalin's story, with the result that she supposed me in honour bound to marry that young lady. I explained that this was by no means the case."
"How did you explain it?" asked Constance, still in her disinterested tone.
"By telling the simple truth, that Miss Tomalin had herself cancelled the engagement existing between us."
Constance leaned back in her chair. She looked like one who is sitting alone, occupied with tranquil reflection. Dyce allowed a moment to elapse before he again spoke; he was smiling to himself.
"How strange it all is!" he at length resumed, as though starting from a reverie. "This past fortnight seems already as dim and vague to me as the recollection of something that happened long years ago. I never believed myself capable of such follies. Tell me frankly." He leaned towards Constance, gazing at her in an amused, confidential way. "Could you have imagined that I should ever lose my head like that, and run off into such vagaries?"
Constance also smiled, but very faintly. Her eyebrows rose, ever so little. Her lips just moved, but uttered no sound.
"You know me better than anyone else ever did or ever will," he went on. "It is quite possible that you know me better than I know myself. Did you ever foresee such a possibility?"
"I can't say that it astonished me," was the deliberate reply, without any ironic note.
"Well, I am glad of that," said Dyce, with a little sign of relief. "It's much better so. I like to think that you read me with so clear an eye. For years I have studied myself, and I thought I knew how I should act in any given circumstances; yet it was mere illusion. What I regret is that I hadn't talked more to you about such things; you would very likely have put me on my guard. I always felt your power of reading character, it seemed to me that I concealed nothing from you. We were always so frank with each other -- yet not frank enough, after all."
"I'm afraid not," assented the listener, absently.
"Well, it's an experience; though, as I say, more like a bit of delirium than actual life. Happily, you know all about it; I shall never have to tell you the absurd story. But I mustn't forget that other thing which really did surprise and vex you -- my bit of foolish plagiarism. I have so wanted to talk to you about it. You have read the whole book?"
"And what do you think of it?" he asked, with an air of keen interest.
"Just what I thought of the large quotations I had heard from you. The theory seems plausible; I should think there is a good deal of truth in it. In any case, it helps one to direct one's life."
"Oh, you feel that? Now there," exclaimed Lashmar, his eye brightening, "is the explanation of what seemed to you very dishonourable behaviour in me. You know me, and you will understand as soon as I hint at the psychology of the thing. When that book fell into my hands, I was seeking eagerly for a theory of the world by which to live. I have had many glimpses of the truth about life -- glimpses gained by my own honest thought. This book completed the theory I had been shaping for myself; it brought me mental rest, and a sense of fixed purpose such as I had never known. Its reconciliation of the aristocratic principle with a true socialism was exactly what I had been striving for; it put me at harmony with myself, for you know that I am at the same time Aristocrat and Socialist. Well now, I spoke of the book to my father, and begged him to read it. It was when we met at Alverholme, in the spring, you remember? How long ago does that seem to you? To me, several years. Yes, I had the volume with me, and showed it to my father; sufficient proof that I had no intention of using it dishonestly. But -- follow me, I beg -- I had so absorbed the theory, so thoroughly made it the directing principle of my mind, that I very soon ceased to think of it as somebody else's work. I completed it with all sorts of new illustrations, confirmations, which had been hanging loose in my memory, and the result was that I one day found myself talking about it as if it had originated with me. If I'm not mistaken, I was talking with Dymchurch -- yes, it was Dymchurch. When I had time to reflect, I saw what I had unconsciously done quite unconsciously, believe me. I thought it over, Ought I to let Dymchurch know where I had got my central idea? And I decided at length that I would say nothing."
Constance, leaning back in her chair, listened attentively, with impartial countenance.
"You see why, don't you?" His voice thrilled with earnestness; his eyes shone as if with the very light of truth. "To say calmly: By the bye, I came across that bio-sociological theory in such and such a book, would have been a flagrant injustice to myself. I couldn't ask Dymchurch to listen whilst I elaborately expounded my mental and spiritual history during the past year or two, yet short of that there was no way of making him understand the situation. The thing had become mine; I thought by it, and lived by it; I couldn't bear to speak of it as merely an interesting hypothesis discovered in the course of my reading. At once it would have seemed to me to carry less weight; I should have been thrown back again into uncertainty. This, too, just at the moment when a principle, a conviction, had become no less a practical than a subjective need to me; for -- thanks to you -- I saw a new hope in life, the possibility of an active career which would give scope to all my energies. Do you follow me? Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly," replied Constance, with a slight inclination of her head. She seemed both to listen and to be absorbed in thought.
"From that moment, I ceased to think of the book. I had as good as forgotten its existence. Though, on the whole, it had done me so great a service, there were many things in it I didn't like, and these would now have annoyed me much more than at the first reading. I should have felt as if the man had got hold of my philosophy, and presented it imperfectly. You will understand now why I was so astonished at your charge of plagiarism. I really didn't know what to say; I couldn't perceive your point of view: I don't remember how I replied, I'm afraid my behaviour seemed only to confirm your suspicion. In very truth, it was the result of genuine surprise. Of course I had only to reflect to see how this discovery must have come upon you, but then it was too late. We were in the thick of extraordinary complications: no hope of quiet and reasonable talk. Since the tragic end, I have worried constantly about that misunderstanding. Is it quite cleared up? We must be frank with each other now or never. Speak your thought as honestly as I have spoken mine."
"I completely understand you," was the meditative reply.
"I was sure you would! To some people, such an explanation would be useless; Mrs. Toplady, for instance. I should be sorry to have to justify myself by psychological reasoning to Mrs. Toplady. And, remember, Mrs. Toplady represents the world. A wise man does not try to explain himself to the world; enough if, by exceptional good luck, there is one person to whom he can confidently talk of his struggles and his purposes. Don't suppose, however, that I lay claim to any great wisdom; after the last fortnight, that would be rather laughable. But I am capable of benefiting by experience, and very few men can truly say as much. It is on the practical side that I have hitherto been most deficient. I see my way to correcting that fault. Nothing could be better for me, just now, than electioneering work. It will take me out of myself, and give a rest to the speculative side of my mind. Don't you agree with me?"
"There's another thing I must make clear to you," Dyce pursued, now swimming delightedly on the flood of his own eloquence. "For a long time I seriously doubted whether I was fit for a political career. My ambition always tended that way, but my conscience went against it. I used to regard politics with a good deal of contempt. You remember our old talks, at Alverholme?"
"In one respect, I am still of the same opinion. Most men who go in for a parliamentary career regard it either as a business by which they and their friends are to profit, or as an easy way of gratifying their personal vanity, and social ambitions. That, of course, is why we are so far from ideal government. I used to think that the man in earnest should hold aloof from Parliament, and work in more hopeful ways -- by literature, for instance. But I see now that the fact of the degradation of Parliament is the very reason why a man thinking as I do should try to get into the House of Commons. If all serious minds hold aloof, what will the government of the country sink to? The House of Commons is becoming in the worst sense democratic; it represents, above all, newly acquired wealth, and wealth which has no sense of its responsibilities. The representative system can only be restored to dignity and usefulness by the growth of a new Liberalism. What I understand by that, you already know. One of its principles -- that which for the present must be most insisted upon -- is the right use of money. Irresponsible riches threaten to ruin our civilisation. What we have first of all to do is to form the nucleus of a party which represents money as a civilising, instead of a corrupting, power."
He looked into Constance's eyes, and she, smiling as if at a distant object, met his look steadily.
"I have been working out this thought," he continued, with vigorous accent. "I see it now as my guiding principle in the narrower sense -- the line along which I must pursue the greater ends. The possession of money commonly says very little for a man's moral and intellectual worth, but there is the minority of well-to-do people who have the will to use their means rightly, if only they knew how. This minority must be organised. It must attract intellect and moral force from every social rank. Money must be used against money, and in this struggle it is not the big battalions which will prevail. Personally I care very little for wealth, as I think you know. I have no expensive tastes; I can live without luxuries. Oh, I like to be comfortable, and to be free from anxiety; who doesn't? But I never felt the impulse to strive to enrich myself. On the other hand, money as a civilising force has great value in my eyes. Without it, one can. work indeed, but with what slow results? It is time to be up and doing. We must organise our party, get our new Liberalism to work. -- In this also, do you agree with me?"
"It is certain," Constance replied, "that the right use of money is one of the great questions of our day."
"I know how much you have thought of it," said Dyce. Then, after a short pause, he added in his frankest tone, "And it concerns you especially."
"Do you feel," he softened his voice to respectful intimacy, "that, in devoting yourself to this cause, you will be faithful to the trusts you have accepted?"
Constance answered deliberately.
"It depends upon what you understand by devoting myself. Beyond a doubt, Lady Ogram would have approved the idea as you put it."
"And would she not have given me her confidence as its representative?" asked Dyce, smiling.
"Up to a certain point. Lady Ogram desired, for instance, to bear the expenses of your contest at Hollingford, and I should like to carry out her wish in the matter."
A misgiving began to trouble Lashmar's sanguine mood. He searched his companion's face; it seemed to him to have grown more emphatic in expression; there was a certain hardness about the lips which he had not yet observed. Still, Constance looked friendly, and her eyes supported his glance.
"Thank you," he murmured, with some feeling. "And, if, by chance, I should be beaten? You wouldn't lose courage? We must remember --"
"You have asked me many questions," Constance interrupted quietly. "Let me use the privilege of frankness which we grant each other, and ask you one in turn. Your private means are sufficient for the career upon which you are entering?"
"My private means?"
He gazed at her as if he did not understand, the smile fading from his lips.
"Forgive me if you think I am going too far --"
"Not at all!" Dyce exclaimed, eagerly. "It is a question you have a perfect right to ask. But I thought you knew I had no private means."
"No, I wasn't aware of that," Constance replied, in a voice of studious civility. "Then how do you propose --?"
Their eyes encountered. Constance did not for an instant lose her self-command; Lashmar's efforts to be calm only made his embarrassment more obvious.
"I had a small allowance from my father, till lately," he said. "But that has come to an end. It never occurred to me that you misunderstood my position. Surely I have more than once hinted to you how poor I was? I had no intention of misleading you. Lady Ogram certainly knew
"She knew you were not wealthy, but she thought you had a competence. I told her so, when she questioned me. It was a mistake, I see, but a very natural one."
"Does it matter, now?" asked Dyce, his lips again curling amiably.
"I should suppose it mattered much. How shall you live?"
"Let us understand each other. Do you withdraw your consent to Lady Ogram's last wish?"
"That wish, as you see, was founded on a misunderstanding."
"But," exclaimed Lashmar, "you are not speaking seriously?"
"Quite. Lady Ogram certainly never intended the money she had left in trust to me to be used for your private needs. Reflect a moment, and you will see how impossible it would be for me to apply the money in such a way."
"Reflection," said Dyce, with unnatural quietness, "would only increase my astonishment at your ingenuity. It would have been much simpler and better to say at once that you had changed your mind. Can you for a moment expect me to believe that this argument really justifies you in breaking your promise?"
"I assure you," replied Constance, also in a soft undertone, "it is much sounder reasoning than that by which you excuse your philosophical plagiarism."
Lashmar's eyes wandered. They fell upon the marble bust; its disdainful smile seemed to him more pronounced than ever.
"Then," he cried, on an impulse of desperation, "you really mean to take Lady Ogram's money, and to disregard the very condition on which she left it to you?"
"You forget that her will was made before she had heard your name."
He sat in silence, a gloomy resentment lowering on his features. After a glance at him, Constance began to speak in a calm, reasonable voice.
"It is my turn to confess. I, too, seem to myself to have been living in a sort of dream, and my awaking is no less decisive than yours. At your instigation, I behaved dishonestly; I am very much ashamed of the recollection. Happily, I see my way to atone for the follies, and worse, that I committed. I can carry out Lady Ogram's wishes -- the wishes she formed while still in her sound mind -- and to that I shall devote my life."
"Do you intend, then, to apply none of this money to your personal use? Do you mean to earn your own living still?"
"That would defeat Lady Ogram's purpose," was the calm answer. "I shall live where and how it seems good to me, guided always by the intention which I know was in her mind."
Dyce sat with his head bent forward, his hands grasping his knees. After what seemed to be profound reflection, he said gravely:
"This is how you think to-day. I won't be so unjust to you as to take it for your final reply."
"Yet that's what it is," answered Constance.
"You think so. The sudden possession of wealth has disturbed your mind. If I took you at your word," he spoke with measured accent, "I should be guilty of behaviour much more dishonourable than that of which you accuse me. I can wait." He smiled with a certain severity. "It is my duty to wait until you have recovered your natural way of thinking."
Constance was looking at him, her eyes full of wonder and amusement.
"Thank you," she said. "You are very kind, very considerate. But suppose you reflect for a moment on your theory of the equality of man and woman. Doesn't it suggest an explanation of what you call my disordered state of mind? -- Let us use plain words. You want money for your career, and, as the need is pressing, you are willing to take the encumbrance of a wife. I am to feel myself honoured by your acceptance of me, to subject myself entirely to your purposes, to think it a glorious reward if I can aid your ambition. Is there much equality in this arrangement?"
"You put things in the meanest light," protested Lashmar. "What I offer you is a share in all my thoughts, a companionship in whatever I do or become. I have no exaggerated sense of my own powers, but this I know, that, with fair opportunity, I can attain distinction. If I thought of you as in any sense an encumbrance, I shouldn't dream of asking you to marry me; it would defeat the object of my life. I have always seen in you just the kind of woman who would understand me and help me."
"My vanity will grant you that," replied Constance. "But for the moment I want you to inquire whether you are the kind of man who would understand and help me. -- You are surprised. That's quite a new way of putting the matter, isn't it? You never saw that as a result of your theory?"
"Stay!" Dyce raised his hand. "I know perfectly well that you are ambitious. If you were not, we should never have become friends. But you must remember that, from my point of view, I am offering you such a chance of gratifying your ambition as you will hardly find again."
"That is to say, the reflection of your glory. As a woman, what more can I ask? You can't think how this amuses me, now that I have come to my senses. Putting aside the question of whether you are likely to win glory at all, have you no suspicion of your delightful arrogance? I should like to know how far your contempt of women really goes. It went far enough, at all events, to make you think that I believed your talk about equality of the sexes. But really, I am not quite such a simpleton. I always knew that you despised women, that you looked upon them as creatures to be made use of. If you ask: why, then, did I endure you for a moment? the answer must be, that I am a woman. You see, Mr. Lashmar, we females of the human species are complex. Some of us think and act very foolishly, and all the time, somewhere in our curious minds, are dolefully aware of our foolishness. You knew that of men; let me assure you that women share the unhappy privilege."
Lashmar was listening with knitted brows. No word came to his lips.
"You interest me," pursued Constance. "I think you are rather a typical man of our time, and it isn't at all impossible that you may become, as you say, distinguished. But, clothed and in my right mind, I don't feel disposed to pay the needful price for the honour of helping you on. You mustn't lose heart; I have little doubt that some other woman will grasp at the opportunity you so kindly wish to reserve for me. But may I venture a word of counsel? Don't let it be a woman who holds the equality theory. I say this in the interest of your peace and happiness. There are plenty of women, still, who like to be despised, and some of them are very nice indeed. They are the only good wives; I feel sure of it. We others -- women cursed with brains -- are not meant for marriage. We grow in numbers, unfortunately. What will be the end of it, I don't know. Some day you will thank your stars that you did not marry a woman capable of understanding you."
Dyce stood up and took a few steps about the floor, his eyes fixed on the marble bust.
"When can I see you again?" he asked abruptly.
"I shall be going to London in a day or two; I don't think we will meet again -- until your circumstances are better. Can you give me any idea of what the election expenses will be?"
"Not yet," Dyce answered, in an undertone. "You are going to London? Will you tell me what you mean to do?"
"To pursue my career."
"That surprises you, of course. It never occurred to you that I also might have a career in view. Yet I have. Let us enter upon a friendly competition. Five years hence, which of us will be better known?"
"I see," remarked Dyce, his lip curling. "You will use your money to make yourself talked about?"
"Not primarily; but it is very likely that that will result from my work. It offends your sense of what is becoming in a woman?"
"It throws light upon what you have been saying."
"So I meant. You will see, when you think about it, that I am acting strangely like a male creature. We females with minds have a way of doing that. I'll say more, for I really want you to understand me. 'The sudden possession of wealth' has not, as you suppose, turned my head, but it has given my thoughts a most salutary shaking, and made me feel twice the woman that I was. At this moment, I should as soon think of taking a place as kitchen-maid as of becoming any man's wife. I am free, and have power to assert myself -- the first desire, let me assure you, of modern woman no less than of modem man. That I shall assert myself for the good of others is a peculiarity of mine, a result of my special abilities; I take no credit for it. Some day we shall meet again, and talk over our experiences; for the present, let us be content with corresponding now and then. You shall have my address as soon as I am settled."
She rose, and Lashmar gazed at her. He saw that she was as little to be moved by an appeal, by an argument, as the marble bust behind her.
"I suppose," he said, "you will appear on platforms?"
"Oh dear no!" Constance replied, with a laugh. "My ambition doesn't take that form. I leave that to you, who are much more eloquent."
"How you have altered!" He kept gazing at her, with a certain awe. "I hardly know you."
"I doubt whether you know me at all. Never mind." She held out her hand. "We may be friends yet when you have come to understand that you are not so very, very much my superior."
Lashmar walked hack to Hollingford, and reached the hotel without any consciousness of the road by which he had come. He felt as tired as if he had been walking all day. When he had dropped into an easy chair, he let his arms hang, and, with head drooping forward, stared at his feet stretched out before him: the posture suggested a man half overcome with drink.
He had a private meeting to attend to-night. Should he attend it or not? His situation had become farcical. Was it not his plain duty to withdraw at once from the political contest, that a serious candidate might as soon as possible take his place? Where could he discern even the glimmer of a hope in this sudden darkness? His heart was heavy and cold.
He went through the business of the evening, talking automatically, seeing and hearing as in a dream. He had no longer the slightest faith in his electioneering prospects, and wondered how he could ever have been sanguine about them. Of course the Conservative would win. Breakspeare knew it; every member of the committee knew it; they pretended to hope because the contest amused and occupied them. No Liberal had a chance at Hollingford. To-morrow he would throw the thing up, and disappear. Never in his life had he passed such a miserable night. At each waking from hag-ridden slumbers, the blackest despondency beset him; once or twice his tortured brain even glanced towards suicide; temptation lurking in the assurance that, by destroying himself, he would become, for a few days at all events, the subject of universal interest. He found no encouragement even in the thought of Iris Woolstan. Not only had he deeply offended her by his engagement to Constance Bride, but almost certainly she would hear from her friend Mrs. Toplady the whole truth of his disaster, which put him beyond hope of pardon. He owed her money; with what face, even if she did not know the worst, could he go to her and ask for another loan? In vain did he remember the many proofs he had received of Mrs. Woolstan's devotion; since the interview with Constance, all belief in himself was at an end. He had thought his eloquence, his personal magnetism, irresistible; Constance had shown him the extent of his delusion. If he saw Iris, the result would be the same.
At moments, so profound was his feeling of insignificance that he hid his face even from the darkness, and groaned.
Not only had he lost faith in himself; there remained to him no conviction, no trust, no hope of any kind. Intellectually, morally, he had no support; shams, insincerities, downright dishonesties, had clothed him about, and these were now all stripped away, leaving the thing he called his soul to quiver in shamed nakedness. He knew nothing; he believed nothing. But death still made him fearful.
With the first gleam of daylight, he flung himself out of his hot, uncomfortable bed, and hastened to be a clothed mortal once more. He felt better as soon as he had dressed himself and opened the window. The night with its terrible hauntings was a thing gone by.
At breakfast he thought fixedly of Iris Woolstan. Perhaps Iris had not seen Mrs. Toplady yet. Perhaps, at heart, she was not so utterly estranged from him as he feared; something of his old power over her might even now be recovered. It was the resource of desperation; he must try it.
The waiter's usual respect seemed, this morning, covert mockery. The viands had no savour; only the draught of coffee that soothed his throat was good. He had a headache, and a tremor of the nerves. In any case, it would have been impossible to get through the day in the usual manner, and his relief when he found himself at the railway station was almost a return of good spirits.
On reaching London, he made straight for West Hampstead. As he approached Mrs. Woolstan's house, his heart beat violently. Without even a glance at the windows, he rang the visitor's bell. It sounded distinctly, but there came no response. He rang again, and again listened to the far-off tinkling. Only then did he perceive that the blinds at the lower windows were drawn. The house was vacant.
Paralysed for a moment, he stared about, as if in search of someone who could give him information. Then, with sweat on his forehead, he stepped up to the next door, and asked if anything was known of Mrs. Woolstan; he learnt only that she had been absent for about ten days; where she was, the servant with whom he spoke could not tell him. Were the other neighbours likely to know? -- he asked. Encouraged by a bare possibility, he inquired at the house beyond; but in vain.
Fate was against him. He might as well go home and write a letter to his committee at Hollingford.
Stay, could he not remember the school to which Leonard Woolstan had been sent? Yes it was noted in his pocket-book; for he had promised to write to the boy.
He sought the nearest post-office, and dispatched a telegram to Leonard; "Please let me know immediately your mother's present address." The reply was to be sent to his rooms in Devonshire Street, and thither he straightway betook himself, hoping that in an hour or so he would have news. An extempore lunch was put before him; never had he satisfied his hunger with less gusto. Time went on; the afternoon brought him no telegram. At seven o'clock he lay on his sofa, exhausted by nervous strain, anticipating a hideous night. Again his thoughts had turned to suicide. It would be easier to obtain poison here than at Hollingford. Laudanum? Death under laudanum must be very easy, mere falling asleep in a sort of intoxication. But he must leave behind him something in writing, something which would excite attention when it appeared in all the newspapers. Addressed to the coroner? No; to his committee. He would hint to them of a tragic story, of noble powers and ambitions frustrated by the sordid difficulties of life. The very truth, let malice say what it would. At his age, with his brain and heart, to perish thus for want of a little money! As he dwelt on the infinite pathos of the thing, tears welled to his eyes, trickled over his cheek --
Of a sudden, he started up, and shouted "Come in!" Yes, it was a telegram; he took it from the servant's hand with an exclamation of joy. Leonard informed him that Mrs. Woolstan was staying at Gorleston, near Yarmouth, her address "Sunrise Terrace." He clutched at a railway guide. Too late to get to Yarmouth to-night, but that did not matter. "Sunrise Terrace!" In his sorry state of mind, a name of such good omen brought him infinite comfort. He rushed out of the house, and walked at a great rate, impelled by the joy of feeling himself alive once more. Sunrise! Iris Woolstan would save him. Already he warmed with gratitude to her: he thought of her with a tender kindness. She might be richer than he supposed; at all events, she was in circumstances which would allow him to live independently. And was she not just the kind of woman Constance Bride had advised him to marry? Advice given in scorn, but, his conscience told him, thoroughly sound. A nice, gentle, sufficiently intelligent little woman. Pity that there was the boy; but he would always be at school. Suppose she had only four or five hundred a year? Oh, probably more than that, seeing that she could economise such substantial sums. He was saved; the sun would rise for him, literally and in metaphor.
A rainy morning saw him at Liverpool Street. The squalid roofs of north-east London dripped miserably under a leaden sky. Not till the train reached the borders of Suffolk did a glint of sun fall upon meadow and stream; thence onwards the heavens brightened; the risen clouds gleamed above a shining shore. Lashmar did not love this part of England, and he wondered why Mrs. Woolstan had chosen such a retreat, but in the lightness of his heart he saw only pleasant things. Arrived at Yarmouth, he jumped into a cab, and was driven along the dull, flat road which leads to Gorleston. Odour of the brine made amends for miles of lodgings, for breaks laden with boisterous trippers, for tram cars and piano-organs. Here at length was Sunrise Terrace, a little row of plain houses on the top of the cliff, with sea-horizon vast before it, and soft green meadow-land far as one could see behind. Bidding his driver wait, Lashmar knocked at the door, and stood tremulous. It was half-past twelve; Iris might or might not have returned from her morning walk; he prepared for a brief disappointment. But worse awaited him. Mrs. Woolstan, he learnt, would not be at home for the mid-day meal; she was with friends who had a house at Gorleston.
"Where is the house?" he asked, impatiently, stamping as if his feet were cold.
The woman pointed his way.
"Who are the people? What is their name?"
He heard it, but it conveyed nothing to him. After a moment's reflection, he decided to go to the hotel, and there write a note. Whilst he was having lunch, the reply came, a dry missive, saying that, if he would call at three o'clock, Mrs. Woolstan would have much pleasure in presenting him to her friends the Barkers, with whom she was spending the day.
Lashmar fumed, but obeyed the invitation. In a garden on the edge of the cliff, he found half a dozen persons; an elderly man who looked like a retired tradesman, his wife, of suitable appearance, their son, their two daughters, and Iris Woolstan. Loud and mirthful talk was going on; his arrival interrupted it only for a moment.
"So glad to see you!" was Mrs. Woolstan's friendly, but not cordial, greeting. "I didn't know you ever came to the east coast."
Introductions were carelessly made; he seated himself on a camp-stool by one of the young ladies, and dropped a few insignificant remarks. No one paid much attention to him.
"Seventy-five runs!" exclaimed Mrs. Woolstan, addressing herself as though with keen interest to the son of the family, a high-coloured, large-limbed young man of about Lashmar's age. "That was splendid! But you did better still against East Croydon, didn't you?"
"Made my century, there," answered Mr. Barker, jerking out a leg in self-satisfaction.
"How conceited you're making him, Mrs. Woolstan!" cried one of his sisters, with a shrill laugh. "It's a rule in this house to put the stopper on Jim when he begins to talk about cricket. If we didn't, there'd be no living with him."
"Are you a cricketer, Mr. -- Mr. Lasher?" asked materfamilias, eyeing the visitor curiously.
"It's a long time since I played," was the reply, uttered with scarcely veiled contempt.
Mrs. Woolstan talked on in the highest spirits, exhibiting her intimacy with the Barker household, and her sympathy with their concerns. Lashmar waited for her to question him about Hollingford, to give him an opportunity of revealing his importance; but her thoughts seemed never to turn in that direction. As soon as a movement in the company enabled him to rise, he stepped up to her, and said in a voice audible to those standing by:
"I want to speak to you about Leonard. Shall you be at home this evening?"
Iris gave him a startled look.
"You haven't bad news of Len?"
"Oh no; nothing of the kind."
"Can you call at six o'clock?"
He looked into her eyes, and nodded.
"What do you say to a boat, Mrs. Woolstan?" shouted Barker the son.
This suggestion was acclaimed, and Lashmar was urged to join the party, but he gladly seized this chance of escape. Wandering along the grassy edge of the cliffs, he presently descried the Barkers and their friend putting forth in two little boats. The sight exasperated him. He strode gloomily on, ever and again turning his head to watch the boats, and struggling against the fears that once more assailed him.
In a hollow of dry sand, where the cliffs broke, he flung himself down, and lay still for an hour or two. Below him, on the edge of the tide, children were playing; he watched them sullenly. Lashmar disliked children; the sound of their voices was disagreeable to him. He wondered whether he would ever have children of his own, and heartily hoped not.
Six o'clock seemed very long in coming. But at length he found himself at Sunrise Terrace again, and was admitted to an ordinary lodging-house parlour, where, with tea on the table, Mrs. Woolstan awaited him. The sea air had evidently done her good; she looked younger and prettier than when Dyce last saw her, and the tea-gown she wore became her well.
"How did you know where I was?" she began by asking, rather distantly.
Lashmar told her in detail.
"But why were you so anxious to se me? -- Sugar, I think?"
"It's a long story," he replied, looking t her from under his eyebrows, "and I don't much care or telling it in a place like' this, where all we say can be heard by anyone on the other side of the door."
Iris was watching his countenance. The cold politeness with which she had received him had become a very transparent mask; beneath it showed eager curiosity and trembling hope.
"We can go out, if you like," she said.
"And most likely meet those singular friends of yours. Who on earth are they?"
"Very nice people," replied Mrs. Woolstan, holding up her head.
"They are intolerably vulgar, and you must be aware of it. I felt ashamed to see you among them. What are you doing at a place like this? Why have you shut up your house?"
"Really," exclaimed Iris, with a flutter, "that is my business."
Lashmar's nervous irritation was at once subdued. He looked timidly at the indignant face, let his eyes fall, and murmured an apology.
"I've been going through strange things, and I'm not quite master of myself. The night before last" -- his voice sunk to a hollow note -- "I very nearly took poison."
"What do you mean? Poison?"
Mrs. Woolstan's eyes widened in horror. Lashmar regarded her with a smile of intense melancholy.
"One thing only kept me from it. I remembered that I was in your debt, and I felt it would be too cowardly."
"What has happened? -- Come and sit near the window; no one could hear us talking here. I have been expecting to read of your election. Is it something to do with Lady Ogram's death? I have wanted so much to know about that, and how it affected you."
A few questions gave Dyce the comfortable assurance that Iris had not seen Mrs. Toplady for a long time. Trouble with servants, she said, coming after a slight illness, had decided her to quit her house for the rest of the summer, and the Barkers persuaded her to come to Gorleston. When Leonard left school for his holidays, she meant to go with him to some nice place.
"But do tell me what you mean by those dreadful words? And why have you come to see me?"
She was her old self, the Iris Woolstan on whom first of all Lashmar had tried his "method," who had so devoutly believed in him and given such substantial proof of her faith. The man felt his power, and began to recover self-respect.
"Tell me one thing," he said, bending towards her. "May I remain your debtor for a little longer? Will it put you to inconvenience?"
"Not at all!" was the impulsive reply. "I told you I didn't want the money. I have more than six hundred pounds a year, and never spend quite all of it."
Lashmar durst not raise his eyes lest a gleam of joy should betray him. He knew now what he had so long desired to know. Six hundred a year; it was enough.
"You are very kind. That relieves me. For two or three days I have been in despair. Yes, you shall hear all about it. I owe you the whole truth, for no one ever understood me as you did, and no one ever gave me such help -- of every kind. First of all, about my engagement to Miss Bride. It's at an end. But more than that it wasn't a real engagement at all. We tried to play a comedy, and the end has been tragic."
Iris drew a deep breath of wonder. Her little lips were parted, her little eyebrows made a high arch; she had the face of a child who listens to a strange and half terrifying story.
"Don't you see how it was?" he exclaimed, in a subdued voice of melodious sadness. "Lady Ogram discovered that her niece -- you remember May Tomalin? thought rather too well of me. This did not suit her views; she had planned a marriage between May and Lord Dymchurch. You know what her temper was. One day she gave me the choice: either I married Constance Bride, or I never entered her house again. Imagine my position. Think of me, with my ambitions, my pride, and the debt I had incurred to you. Can you blame me much if, seeing that Lady Ogram's life might end any day, I met her tyranny by stratagem. How I longed to tell you the truth! But I felt bound in honour to silence. Constance Bride, my friend and never anything more, agreed to the pretence of an engagement. Wasn't it brave of her? And so things went on, until the day when Dymchurch came down to Rivenoak, and proposed to May. The silly girl refused him. There was a terrible scene, such as I hope never to behold again. May was driven forth from the house, and Lady Ogram, just as she was bidding me take steps for my immediate marriage, fell to the ground unconscious -- dying."
He paused impressively. The listener was panting as if she had run a race.
"And the will?" she asked.
"It dates from a year ago. May Tomalin is not mentioned in it. I, of course, have nothing."
Iris gazed at the floor. A little sound as of consternation had passed her lips, but she made no attempt to console the victim of destiny who sat with bowed head before her. After a brief silence, Lashmar told of the will as it concerned Constance Bride, insisting on the fact that she was a mere trustee of the wealth bequeathed to her. With a humorously doleful smile, he spoke of Lady Ogram's promise to defray his election expenses, and added that Miss Bride, in virtue of her trusteeship, would carry out this wish. Another exclamation sounded from the listener, this time one of joy.
"Well, that's something! I suppose the expenses are heavy, aren't they?"
"Oh, not very. But what's the use? Of course I withdraw."
He let his hand fall despondently. Again there was silence.
"And that is why you thought of taking poison?" asked Iris, with a quick glance at his lowering visage.
"Isn't it a good reason? All is over with me. If Lady Ogram had lived to make her new will, I should have been provided for. Now I am penniless and hopeless."
"But, if she had lived, you would have had to marry Miss Bride."
Dyce made a sorrowful gesture.
"No. She would never have consented, even if I could have brought myself to such a sacrifice. In any case, I was doomed."
Iris paused, biting her lip.
"You were going to say?"
"Only -- that I suppose you would have been willing to marry that girl, the niece."
"I will answer you frankly." He spoke in the softest tone and his look had a touching candour. "You, better than anyone, know the nature of my ambition. You know it is not merely personal. One doesn't like to talk grandiloquently, but, alone with you, there is no harm in saying that I have a message for our time. We have reached a point in social and political evolution where all the advance of modern life seems to be imperilled by the growing preponderance of the multitude. Our need is of men who are born to guide and rule, and I feel myself one of these. But what can I do as long as I am penniless? And so I answer you frankly: yes, if May Tomalin had inherited Lady Ogram's wealth, I should have felt it my duty to marry her."
Iris listened without a smile. Lashmar had never spoken with a more convincing show of earnestness.
"What is she going to do?" asked the troubled little woman, her eyes cast down.
Dyce told all that he knew of May's position. He was then questioned as to the state of things political at Hollingford: his replies were at once sanguine and disconsolate.
"Well," he said at length, "I have done my best, but fortune is against me. In coming to see you, I discharged what I felt to be a duty. Let me again thank you for your generous kindness. Now I must work, work --"
He stood an image of noble sadness, of magnanimity at issue with cruel fate. Iris glanced timidly at him; her panting showed that she wished to speak, but could not. He offered his hand; Iris took it, but only for an instant.
"I want you to tell me something else," broke from her lips.
"I will tell you anything."
"Are you in love with that girl -- Miss Tomalin?"
With sorrowful dignity, he shook his head; with proud self-consciousness, he smiled.
"Nor with Miss Bride?"
"I think of her exactly as if she were a man."
"If I told you that I very much wished you to do something, would you care to do it?"
"Your wish is for me a command," Dyce answered gently. "If it were not, I should be grossly ungrateful."
"Then promise to go through with the election. Your expenses are provided for. If you win, I am sure some way can be found of providing you with an income -- I am sure it can!"
"It shall be as you wish," said Lashmar, seeming to speak with a resolute cheerfulness. "I will return to Hollingford by the first train to-morrow."
They talked for a few minutes more. Lashmar mentioned where he was going to pass the night. He promised to resume their long-interrupted correspondence, and to let his friend have frequent reports from Hollingford. Then they shook hands, and parted silently.
After dinner, Dyce strayed shorewards. He walked down to the little harbour, and out on to the jetty. A clouded sky had brought night fast upon sunset; green and red lamps shone from the lighthouse at the jetty head, and the wash of the rising tide sounded in darkness on either hand. Not many people had chosen this spot for their evening walk, but, as he drew near to the lighthouse, he saw the figure of a woman against the grey obscurity; she was watching a steamboat slowly making its way through the harbour mouth. He advanced, and at the sound of his nearing step the figure faced to him. There was just light enough to enable him to recognise Iris.
"You oughtn't to be here alone," he said.
"Oh, why not?" she replied with a laugh. "I'm old enough to take care of myself."
The wind had begun to moan; waves tide-borne against the jetty made a hollow booming, and at moments scattered spray.
"How black it is to-night!" Iris added. "It will rain. There! I felt a spot."
"Only a splash of sea-water, I think," replied Lashmar, standing close beside her.
Both gazed at the dark vast of sea and sky. A pair of ramblers approached them; a young man and a girl, talking loudly the tongue of lower London.
"I know a young lady," sounded in the feminine voice, "as 'as a keeper set with a di'mond and a hamethys -- lovely!"
"Come away," said Dyce. "What a hateful place this is! How can you bear to be among such brutes?"
Iris moved on by him, but said nothing.
"I felt ashamed," he added, "to find you with people like the Barkers. Do you mean to say they don't disgust you?"
"They are not so bad as that," Iris weakly protested. "But you mustn't think I regard them as intimate friends. It's only that -- I've been rather lonely lately. Len away at school -- and several things --"
"Yes, yes, I understand. But they're no company for you. Do get away as soon as possible."
Another couple went by them talking loudly the same vernacular.
"If I put a book down for a day," said the young woman, "I forget all I've read. I've a hawful bad memory for readin'."
"How I loathe that class!" Lashmar exclaimed. "I never came to this part of the coast, because I knew it was defiled by them. For heaven's sake, get away! Go to some place where your ears won't be perpetually outraged. I can't bear to think of leaving you here."
"I'll go as soon as ever I can -- I promise you," murmured Iris. "There! It really is beginning to rain. We must walk quickly."
"Will you take my arm?"
She did so, and they hurried on.
"That's the democracy," said Lashmar. "Those are the people for whom we are told that the world exists. They get money, and it gives them power. Meanwhile, the true leaders of mankind, as often as not, struggle through their lives in poverty and neglect.
Iris's voice sounded timidly.
"You would feel it of no use to have just enough for independence?"
"For the present," he replied, "it would be all I ask. But I might just as well ask for ten thousand a year."
The rain was beating upon them. During the ascent to Sunrise Terrace, neither spoke a word. At the door of her lodgings, Iris looked into her companion's face, and said in a tremulous voice:
"I am sure you will be elected! I'm certain of it!"
Dyce laughed, pressed her hand, and, as the door opened, walked away through the storm.
Lord Dymchurch went down into Somerset. His younger sister was in a worse state of health than he had been led to suppose; there could be no thought of removing her from home. A day or two later, her malady took a hopeless turn, and by the end of the week she was dead.
A month after this, the surviving daughter of the house, seeking solace in the ancient faith to which she had long inclined, joined a religious community. Dymchurch was left alone.
Since his abrupt departure from Rivenoak, he had lived a silent life, spending the greater part of every day in solitude. Grief was not sufficient to account for the heaviness and muteness which had fallen upon him, or for the sudden change by which his youthful-looking countenance had become that of a middle-aged man. He seemed to shrink before eyes that regarded him, however kind their expression; one might have thought that some secret shame was harassing his mind. He himself, indeed, would have used no other word to describe the ill under which he suffered. Looking back on that strange episode of his life which began with his introduction to Mrs. Toplady and ended in the park at Rivenoak, he was stung almost beyond endurance by a sense of ignominious folly. On his lonely walks, and in the silence of sleepless nights, he often gesticulated and groaned like a man in pain. His nerves became so shaken that at times he could hardly raise a glass or cup to his lips without spilling the contents. Poverty and loneliness be had known, and had learnt to bear them with equanimity; for the first time he was tasting humiliation.
Incessantly be reviewed the stages of his foolishness and, as be deemed it, of his dishonour. But he had lost the power to understand that phantasm of himself which pranked so grotesquely in the retrospect. Was it true that he had reasoned and taken deliberate step after step in the wooing of Lady Ogram's niece? Might he not urge in his excuse, to cloak him from his own and the world's contempt, some unsuspected calenture, for which, had he known, he ought to have taken medical advice? When, in self-chastisement, he tried to summon before his mind's eye the image of May Tomalin, he found it quite impossible; the face no longer existed for him; the voice was as utterly forgotten as any he might have chanced to hear for a few minutes on that fatal evening in Pont Street. And this was what he had seen as an object of romantic tenderness -- this vaporous nothing, this glimmer in a dazed eye!
Calm moments brought a saner self-reproach. "I simply yielded to the common man's common temptation. I am poor, and it was wealth that dazzled and lured me. Pride would explain more subtly; that is but a new ground of shame. I felt a prey to the vulgarest and basest passion; better to burn that truth into my mind, and to make the brand a lifelong warning. I shall the sooner lift up my head again."
He seemed to palliate his act by remembering that he wished to benefit his sisters. Neither of them -- the poor dead girl, and she who lived only for self-forgetfulness -- would have been happier at the cost of his disgrace. How well it was, indeed, that he had been saved from that debasement in their eyes.
He lived on in the silent house, quite alone and desiring no companionship. Few letters came for him, and he rarely saw a newspaper. After a while he was able to forget himself in the reading of books which tranquillised his thought, and held him far from the noises of the passing world. So sequestered was the grey old house that he could go forth when he chose into lanes and meadows without fear of encountering anyone who would disturb his meditation and his enjoyment of nature's beauty. Through the mellow days of the declining summer, he lived amid trees and flowers, slowly recovering health and peace in places where a bird's note, or the ripple of a stream, or the sighing of the wind, were the only sounds under the ever-changing sky.
His thoughts were often of death, but not on that account gloomy. Reading in his Marcus Aurelius, he said to himself that the Stoic Emperor must, after all, have regarded death with some fear: else, why speak of it so persistently, and with such marshalling of arguments to prove it no matter for dread? Dymchurch never wished to shorten his life, yet, without other logic than that of a quiet heart, came to think more than resignedly of the end towards which he moved. He was the last of his family, and no child would ever bear his name. Without bitterness, he approved this extinction of a line which seemed to have outlived its natural energies. He, at all events, would bear no responsibility for suffering or wrongdoing in the days to come.
The things which had so much occupied him during the last year or two, the state of the time, its perils and its needs, were now but seldom in his mind: he felt himself ripening to that "wise passiveness," which, through all his intellectual disquiet, he had regarded as the unattainable ideal. When, as a very young man, he exercised himself in versifying, the model he more or less consciously kept in view was Matthew Arnold; it amused him now to recall certain of the compositions he had once been rather proud of, and to recognise how closely he had trodden in Arnold's footprints; at the same time, he felt glad that the aspiration of his youth seemed likely to become the settled principle of his maturity. Nowadays he gave much of his thought to Wordsworth, content to study without the desire of imitating. Whether he could do anything, whether he could bear witness in any open way to what he held the truth, must still remain uncertain; sure it was that a profound distrust of himself in every practical direction, a very humble sense of follies committed and dangers barely escaped, would for a long time make him a silent and solitary man. He hoped that some way might be shown him, some modest yet clear way, by following which he would live not wholly to himself; but he had done for ever with schemes of social regeneration, with political theories, with all high-sounding words and phrases. It might well prove that the work appointed him was simply to live as an honest man. Was that so easy, or such a little thing?
Walking one day a mile or two from home, in one of those high-bowered Somerset lanes which are unsurpassed for rural loveliness, he came within sight of a little cottage, which stood apart from a hamlet hidden beyond a near turning of the road. Before it moved a man, white-headed, back-bent, so crippled by some ailment that he tottered slowly and painfully with the aid of two sticks. Just as Dymchurch drew near, the old fellow accidentally let fall his pipe, which he had been smoking as he hobbled along. For him this incident was a disaster; he stared down helplessly at the pipe and the little curl of smoke which rose from it, utterly unable to stoop for its recovery. Dymchurch, seeing the state of things, at once stepped to his assistance.
"I thank you, sir, I thank you," said the hobbler, with pleasant frankness. "A man isn't much use when he can't even keep his pipe in his mouth, to say nothing of picking it up when it drops; what do you think, sir?"
Dymchurch talked with him. The man had spent his life as a gardener, and now for a couple of years, invalided by age and rheumatism, had lived in this cottage on a pension. His daughter, a widow, dwelt with him, but was away working nearly the whole of the day. He got along very well, but one thing there was that grieved him, the state of his little garden. Through the early summer he had been able to look after it as usual, pottering among the flowers and the vegetables for an hour or two each day; but there came rainy weather, and with it one of his attacks, and the garden was now so overgrown with weeds that it "hurt his eyes," it really did, to look that way. The daughter dug potatoes and gathered beans as they were wanted, but she had neither time nor strength to do more.
Interested in a difficulty such as he had never imagined, Dymchurch went up to the garden-wall, and viewed the state of things. Indeed, it was deplorable. Thistles, docks, nettles, wild growths innumerable, were choking the flowers in which the old man so delighted. But the garden was such a small one that little trouble and time would be needed to put it in order.
"Will you let me do it for you?" he asked, good-naturedly. "It's just the kind of job I should like."
"You, sir!" cried the old fellow, all but again losing his pipe in astonishment. "Ho, ho! That's a joke indeed!"
Without another word, Dymchurch opened the wicket, flung off his coat, and got to work. He laboured for more than an hour, the old man leaning on the wall and regarding him with half-ashamed, half-amused countenance. They did not talk much, but, when he had begun to perspire freely, Dymchurch looked at his companion, and said:
"Now here's a thing I never thought of. Neglect your garden for a few weeks, and it becomes a wilderness; nature conquers it back again. Think what that means; how all the cultivated places of the earth are kept for men only by ceaseless fighting with nature, year in, year out."
"And that's true, sir, that's true. I've thought of it sometimes, but then I'm a gardener, you see, and it's my business, as you may say, to have such thoughts."
"It's every man's business," returned Dymchurch, supporting himself on his hoe, and viewing the uprooted weeds. "I never realised as in this half-hour at the cost of what incessant labour the earth is kept at man's service. If I have done you a good turn, you have done me a better."
And he hoed vigorously at a root of dandelion.
Not for years had he felt so well in body and mind as during his walk home. There, there was the thought for which he had been obscurely groping! What were volumes of metaphysics and of sociology to the man who had heard this one little truth whispered from the upturned mould? Henceforth he knew why he was living, and how it behooved him to live. Let theories and poesies follow if they would: for him, the prime duty was that nearest to him, to strive his best that the little corner of earth which he called his own should yield food for man. At this moment there lay upon his table letters informing him of the unsatisfactory state of his Kentish farm; the tenant was doing badly in every sense of the word, and would willingly escape from his lease if opportunity were given. Very well; the man should go.
"I will live there myself. I will get some practical man to live with me, until I understand farming. For profit, I don't care; all will be well if I keep myself alive and furnish food for a certain number of other mortals. This is the work ready to my hand. No preaching, no theorising, no trying to prove that the earth should be parcelled out and every man turn delver. I will cultivate this ground because it is mine, and because no other way offers of living as a man should -- taking some part, however humble, in the eternal strife with nature."
The idea had before now suggested itself to him, but not as the result of a living conviction. If he had then turned to farming, it would have been as an experiment in life; more or less vague reflections on the needs of the time would have seemed to justify him. Now he was indifferent to all "questions" save that prime solicitude of the human race, how to hold its own against the hostile forces everywhere leagued against it. Life was a perpetual struggle, and, let dreamers say what they might, could never be anything else; he, for one, perceived no right that he had to claim exemption from the doom of labour. Had he felt an impulse to any other kind of work, well and good, he would have turned to it; but nothing whatever called to him with imperative voice save this task of tilling his own acres. It might not always satisfy him; he took no vow of one sole vocation; he had no desire to let his mind rust whilst his hands grew horny. Enough that for the present he had an aim which he saw as a reality.
On his return home, he found a London letter awaiting him. It was with a nervous shrug that he saw the writing of Mrs. Toplady. Addressing him at his club, she invited him to dine on an evening a fortnight hence, if he chanced to be in town.
"You heard, of course," she added, "of the defeat of Mr. Lashmar at Hollingford. It seems to have been inevitable."
So Lashmar had been defeated. The Hollingford election interested Dymchurch so little that he had never inquired as to its result; in truth, he had forgotten all about it.
"I fear Mr. Lashmar is rather disappointing. Rumour says that the philosophical theory of life and government which he put before us as original was taken word for word from a French book which he took for granted no one would have read. I hope this is not true; it has a very unpleasant sound."
Quite as unpleasant, thought Dymchurch, was Mrs. Toplady's zeal in spreading the rumour. He found no difficulty in crediting it. The bio-sociological theory had occupied his thoughts for a time, and, in reflecting upon it now, he found it as plausible as any other; but it had no more power to interest him. Lashmar, perhaps, was mere sophist, charlatan, an unscrupulous journalist who talked instead of writing. Words, words! How sick he was of the universal babble! The time had taken for its motto that counsel of Mephisto: Vor allem haltet euch an Worte! And how many of these loud talkers believed the words they uttered, or had found them in their own minds?
And how many preachers of Socialism -- in this, that or the other form, had in truth the socialistic spirit? Lashmar, with his emphasis on the obligation of social service -- was he not simply an ambitious struggler and intriguer, careless of everything but his own advancement? Probably enough. And, on the whole, was there ever an age so rank with individualism as this of ours, which chatters ceaselessly of self-subdual to the common cause?
"I, too," thus he thought, "am as much an individualist as the others. If I said that I cared a rap for mankind at large, I should be phrase-making. Only, thank heaven! I don't care to advertise myself, I don't care to make money. I ask only to be left alone, and to satisfy in quiet my sense of self-respect."
On the morrow, he was gone.
"When you receive this letter, you will have already seen the result. I knew how it would be, but tried to hope because you were hoping. My poll is better than that of the last Liberal candidate, but Hollingford remains a Tory stronghold. Shall I come to see you? I am worn out, utterly exhausted, and can scarcely hold the pen. Perhaps a few days at the sea-side would do me good, but what right have I to idle? If you would like me to come, please wire to Alverholme Rectory. Possibly you would rather I didn't bring my gloom, now you have Len with you and are enjoying yourself. Above all, be quite frank. If you are too disappointed to care to see me, in heaven's name, say so! You needn't fear its effect upon me. I should be glad to have done with the world, but I have duties to discharge. I wish you could have heard my last speech, there were good things in it. You shall see my address of thanks to those who voted for me; I must try to get it widely circulated, for, as you know, it has more than local importance. Breakspeare, good fellow, says that I have a great career before me; I grin, and can't tell him the squalid truth. There are many things I should like to speak about; my brain is feverishly active. I must try to rest; another twenty-four hours of this strain, and the results would be serious. In any case, wire to me -- yes or no. If it is no, I shall say 'so be it,' and begin at once to look out for some way of earning bread and cheese. We shall be friends all the same."
Mrs. Woolstan was at Eastbourne. Having read Lashmar's letter, she brooded for a few minutes, then betook herself to the post-office, and telegraphed "Come at once. A few hours later she received a telegram informing her that Lashmar would reach Eastbourne at eleven o'clock on the next morning. At that hour, she waited in her lodgings on the sea-front. A cab drove up; Lashmar was shown into the room.
He looked, indeed, much the worse for his agitations. His hand was hot; he moved languidly, and seemed to be too tired to utter more than a few words.
"Are you alone?"
"Quite. Len is down on the shore, and won't be back till half-past one."
"Would you -- mind -- if I lay down -- on the sofa?"
"Of course not," replied Iris, regarding him anxiously. "You're not ill, I hope?"
He took her hand, and pressed it against his forehead, with the most melancholy of smiles. Having dropped onto the couch, he beckoned Iris to take a chair beside him.
"What can I get for you?" she asked. "You must have some refreshment --"
"Sleep, sleep!" he moaned musically. "If I could but sleep a little! -- But I have so much to say. Don't fuss; you know how I hate fuss. No, no, I don't want anything, I assure you. But I haven't slept for a week Give me your hand. How glad I am to see you again! So you still have faith in me? You don't despise me?"
"What nonsense!" said Iris, allowing him to hold her hand against his breast as he lay motionless, his eyes turned to the ceiling. "You must try again, that's all. At Hollingford, it was evidently hopeless."
"Yes. I made a mistake. If I could have stood as a Conservative, I should have carried all before me. It was Lady Ogram's quarrel with Robb which committed me to the other side."
Iris was silent, panting a little as if she suppressed words which had risen to her lips. He turned his head to look at her.
"Of course you understand that party names haven't the least meaning for me. By necessity, I wear a ticket, but it's a matter of total indifference to me what name it bears. My object has nothing to do with party politics. But for Lady Ogram's squabbles, I should at this moment be Member for Hollingford."
"But would it be possible?" asked Iris, with a flutter, "to call yourself a Conservative next time?"
"I have been thinking about that." He spoke absently, his eyes still upwards. "It is pretty certain that the Conservative side gives me more chance. It enrages me to think how I should have triumphed at Hollingford! I could have roused the place to such enthusiasm as it never knew! The great mistake of my life -- but what choice had I? Lady Ogram was fatal to me."
He groaned, and let his eyelids droop.
"It is possible that, at the general election, a Liberal constituency may invite me. In that case, of course --" He broke off with a weary wave of the band. "But what's the use of thinking about it? I must look for work. Do you know, I have thoughts of going to New Zealand."
"Oh! That's nonsense!"
"Try to realise my position." He raised himself on his elbow. "After my life of the last few months, will it be very enjoyable to become a subordinate, to work for wages, to sink into obscurity? Does it seem to you natural? Do you think I shall be able to bear it?"
He had begun to quiver with excitement. As Iris kept silence, he rose to a sitting position, and continued more vehemently.
"Don't you understand that death would be preferable, a thousand times? Imagine me -- me at the beck and call of paltry every-day people! Does it seem to you fitting that I should pay by such degradation for one or two trivial errors? How I shall bear it, I don't know; but bear it I must. I keep reminding myself that I am not a free man. If once I could pay my debt --"
"Oh, don't talk about that!" exclaimed Iris, on a note of distress. "What do I care about the money?"
"No, but I care about my honour!" cried Lashmar. "If I had won the election, all would have been different; my career would have begun. Do you know what I should have done in that case? I should have come to you, and have said: 'I am a Member of Parliament. It is to you that I owe this, more than to anyone else. Will you do yet more for me? Will you be my companion in the life upon which I am entering -- share all my hopes -- help me to conquer?' -- That is what I meant to do. But I am beaten, and I can only ask you to have patience with your miserable debtor."
He let his face fall onto the head of the sofa, and shook with emotion. There was a short silence, then Iris, her cheeks flushing, lightly touched his hair. At once he looked up, gazed into her face.
"What! You still believe in me? Enough for that?"
"Yes," replied Iris, her eyes down, and her bosom fluttering. "Enough for that."
"Ah! But be careful -- think!" He looked at her with impressive sadness. "Your friends will tell you that you are marrying a penniless adventurer. Have you the courage to face all that kind of thing?"
"I know you better than my friends do," replied Iris, taking in both her own the hand he held to her. "My fear," she added, again dropping her eyes and fluttering, "is that you will some day repent."
"Never! Never! It would be the blackest ingratitude!"
He spoke so fervently that the freckled face became rosy with joy. It was so near to his, that the man in him claimed warmer tribute, and Iris grew rosier still.
"Haven't you always loved me a little?" she whispered.
"If I had only known it!" answered Lashmar, the victor's smile softened with self-reproach. "My ambition has much to answer for. Forgive me, Iris."
"There's something else I must say, dear," she murmured. "After all, I have so little -- and there is Len, you know --"
"Why, of course. Do you imagine I should wish to rob him?"
"No, no, no!" she panted. "But it is such a small income, after all. I'm afraid we ought to -- to be careful, at first --"
"Of course we must. We shall live as simply as possible. And then, you mustn't suppose that I shall never earn money. It's only waiting for one's opportunity."
A silence fell between them. Lashmar's amorous countenance had an under-note of thoughtfulness; Iris, smiling blissfully, none the less reflected.
"What are you thinking of?" he asked, gently.
"Only how happy I am. I haven't the slightest fear. I know you have great things before you. Of course we must make use of our friends. May I write to Mrs. Toplady, and tell her?"
She spoke without looking at him, and so was spared the interpretation of muscular twitches.
"Certainly. Do you know whether she is still in London?"
"I don't know, but probably not. Don't you think she may be very useful to us? I have always found her very nice and kind, and she knows such hosts of people."
Lashmar had his own thoughts about Mrs. Toplady, but the advantage of her friendship was undeniable. Happily, he had put it out of her power to injure him by any revelations she might make concerning May Tomalin; his avowal to Iris that May had been undisguisedly in love with him would suffice to explain anything she might hear about the tragi-comedy at Rivenoak. Whether the lady of Pont Street could be depended upon for genuine good will, was a question that must remain unsettled until he had seen her again. She had bidden him to call upon her, at all events, and plainly it would be advisable to do so as soon as possible.
"Yes," he answered, reflectively. "She is a person to be reckoned with. It's possible her advice might he worth something in the difficulty about Liberal or Conservative. She is intelligent enough, I think, to understand me on that point. Yes, you might write to her at once. If I were you, I would speak quite frankly. You know her well enough for that, don't you?"
"Oh, I mean that you might say we have really been fond of each other for a long time -- and that -- well, that fate has brought us together in spite of everything that kind of thing, you know."
"Yes, yes!" exclaimed Iris. "That's just what I should like to say."
Their talk grew calmly practical; the last half hour of it was concerned with pecuniary detail. Her eye on the clock -- for Leonard was sure to enter very soon -- Mrs. Woolstan gave a full account of her income, enumerating the securities which were in the hands of her trustee, Mr. Wrybolt, and those which she had under her own control. In the event of her re-marriage, Mr. Wrybolt's responsibility came to an end, a circumstance very pleasing to Lashmar. When the schoolboy interrupted them, their conversation was by no means finished. After a cheerful lunch, they resumed it on the sea-shore, Leonard being sent off to amuse himself as he would. By tea-time, it had been agreed that Lashmar should at once give up his expensive London rooms, and come down to Eastbourne, to recruit his health and enjoy Iris's society, until Leonard went back to school. The house at West Hampstead should be their home for the first twelvemonth; by that time they would see how things were going, and be able to make plans. Early in the evening, Lashmar took a train for town.
At his lodgings he found several letters; two of them were important. Constance Bride's handwriting indicated the envelope to be first torn open. She wrote concisely and with her usual clearness. The ill news from Hollingford had been a grief to her, but it was very satisfactory to see that Lashmar had reduced the Conservative majority. "You have gained some very useful experience, which I hope you may before long have an opportunity of using. Please send me a statement of the election expenses as soon as you can; you remember the understanding between us in that matter. I am soon leaving England for a few weeks, but a letter directed as above will always reach me." The address referred to was that of a well-known Society for Social Reform in the west of London.
His hand tremulous with the anger which this curt epistle had excited, Lashmar broke an envelope on the flap of which was printed in red letters the Pont Street address so familiar to him. Mrs. Toplady wrote more at length; she took the trouble to express her disappoint ment at the result of the Hollingford election in courteously rounded terms -- "Our dear old friend of Rivenoak would have found some apt phrase to describe such a man as Butterworth. Wasn't she good at that kind of thing! How I have laughed to hear her talk of the late lamented Robb! You have the satisfaction of knowing that you got more votes than any Liberal has done at Hollingford for many years so the papers tell me. In fact, you have made a very good start indeed, and I am sure the eye of the party will be on you."
Lashmar glowed. He had not expected such words from Mrs. Toplady. After all, Iris had given him good advice. Who knew but this woman might be more useful to him than Lady Ogram had been?
"Do you care for news of Miss Tomalin?" the latter continued. "After spending two or three days with me, she grew restless, and took rooms for herself. I am afraid, to tell you the truth, that she is a little disappointing; it is perhaps quite as well that a certain romantic affair which was confided to me came to nothing. A week after she left my house, I received a very stiff (not to say impertinent) letter, in which the young lady informed me that she was about to marry a Mr. Yabsley of Northampton, a man (to quote her words) 'of the highest powers and with a brilliant future already assured to him.' This seemed to me, I confess, a little sudden, but at least it had the merit of being amusing. Perhaps I may venture to hope that you are already quite consoled? Remember me, I beg. to Miss Bride. Are you likely to be in this part of the world during the holidays? If anywhere near, do come and see me, and we will talk about that striking philosophical theory of yours."
Lashmar bit his lip. All at once he saw Mrs. Toplady's smile, and it troubled him. None the less did he ponder her letter, re-reading it several times. Presently he mused with uneasiness on the fact that Iris might even now be writing to Mrs. Toplady. Would her interest in him -- she seemed indeed to be genuinely interested survive the announcement that, after all, he was not going to marry Constance Bride, but had declined upon an insignificant little widow with a few hundreds a year? Was not this upshot of his adventures too beggarly? Had Mrs. Toplady been within easy reach, he would have gone to see her; but she wrote from the north of Scotland. He could only await the result of Iris's letter.
To the news concerning May Tomalin, he gave scarcely a thought. Mr. Yabsley, of Northampton!
Exceeding weariness sank him for a few hours in sleep; but before dawn he was tossing again on the waves of miserable doubt. Why had he not waited a little before going to see Iris? If only he had received this letter of Mrs. Toplady in time, it would have checked him -- or so he thought. Was it the malice of fate which had ordained that, on his way to Eastbourne, he should not have troubled to look in at his lodgings? How many such wretched accidents he could recall! Was he, instead of being fortune's favourite, simply a poor devil hunted by ill luck, doomed to lose every chance? Why not he as well as another? Such men abound.
He had not yet taken the irretrievable step. Until he was actually married, a hope remained to him. He might postpone the fatal day; his purse was not yet empty. Why should he be too strict in the report of his election expenses to Constance? Every pound in his pocket meant a prolongation of liberty, a new horizon of the possible --
Two days later he was back again at Eastbourne. He had taken a cheap little lodging, and yielded himself to sea-side indolence. A week passed, then Iris heard from Mrs. Toplady. She did not at once show Lashmar the letter; she awaited a moment when he was lulled by physical comfort into a facile and sanguine humour.
"Mrs. Toplady must have been in a hurry when she wrote this," was her remark, as, with seeming carelessness, she produced the letter. "Of course she has an enormous correspondence. I shall hear again from her, no doubt, before long."
One side only of the note-paper was covered. In formal phrase, the writer said that she was glad to hear of her friend's engagement, and wished her all happiness. Not a word about their future meeting; not an allusion to Lashmar's prospects. If Iris had announced her coming marriage with some poor clerk, Mrs. Toplady could not have. written less effusively.
"There's an end of her interest in me," Dyce remarked, with a nervous shrug.
Iris protested, and did her best to put another aspect on the matter, but without success. For twenty-four hours, Lashmar kept away from her; she, offended, tried to disregard his absence, but at length sped to make inquiries, fearful lest he should be driven to despair. At the murky end of a wet evening, they paced the esplanade together.
"You don't love me," said Iris, on a sob.
"It is because I love you," he replied, glooming, "that I can't bear to think of you married to such a luckless fellow as I am."
"Dearest!" she whispered. "Am I ruining you? Do you wish to be free again? Tell me the truth; I think I can bear it."
The next day saw them rambling in sunshine, Lashmar amorous and resigned, Iris flutteringly hopeful. And with such alternations did the holiday go by. When Leonard returned to school, their marriage was fixed for ten days later.
Shortly before leaving Eastbourne, Iris had written to Mr. Wrybolt. Already they had corresponded on the subject of her marriage; this last letter, concerning a point of business which required immediate attention, remained without reply. Puzzled by her trustee's silence, Iris, soon after she reached home, went to see him at his City Office. She learnt that Mr. Wrybolt was out of town, but would certainly return in a day or two.
Again she wrote. Again she waited in vain for a reply. On a dull afternoon near the end of September, as she sat thinking of Lashmar and resolutely seeing him in the glorified aspect dear to her heart and mind, the servant announced Mr. Barker. This was the athletic young man in whose company she had spent some time at Gorleston before Lashmar's coming. His business lay in the City; he knew Mr. Wrybolt, and through him had made Mrs. Woolstan's acquaintance. The face with which he entered the drawing-room portended something more than a friendly chat. Iris had at one time thought that this young man felt disposed to offer her marriage; was that his purpose now, and did it account for his odd look?
"I want to ask you," Mr. Barker began, abruptly, "whether you know anything about Wrybolt? Have you heard from him lately?"
Iris replied that she herself wished to hear of that gentleman, who did not answer her letters, and was said to be out of town.
"That's so, is it?" exclaimed the young man, with a yet stranger look on his face. "You really have no idea where he is?"
"None whatever. And I particularly want to see him."
"So do I," said Mr. Barker, smiling grimly. "So do several people. You'll excuse me, I hope, Mrs. Woolstan. I knew he was a friend of yours, and thought you might perhaps know more about him than we did in the City. I mustn't stay."
Iris stared at him as he rose. A vague alarm began to tremble in her mind.
"You don't mean that anything's wrong?" she panted.
"We'll hope not, but it looks queer."
"Oh!" cried Iris. "He has money of mine. He is my trustee."
"I know that. Please excuse me; I really mustn't stay."
"Oh, but tell me, Mr. Barker!" She clutched at his coat sleeve. "Is my money in danger?"
"I can't say, but you certainly ought to look after it. Get someone to make inquiries at once; that's my advice. I really must go."
He disappeared, leaving Iris motionless in amazement and terror.
The wedding was to be a very quiet one. Lashmar would have preferred the civil ceremony, at the table of the registrar, with musty casuals for witnesses; but Iris shrank from this. It must be at a church, and with a few friends looking on, or surely people would gossip. Had he been marrying an heiress, Dyce would have called for pomp and circumstance, with portraits in the fashion papers, and every form of advertisement which society has contrived. As it was, he desired to slink through the inevitable. He was ashamed; he was confounded; and only did not declare it. To the very eve of the wedding-day, his mind ferreted elusive hopes. Had men and gods utterly forsaken him? In solitude, he groaned and gnashed his teeth. And no deliverance came.
Reaction made him at times the fervent lover, and these interludes supported Iris's courage. "Let it once be over!" she kept saying to herself. She trusted in her love and in her womanhood.
"At all events," cried the bridegroom, "we needn't go through the foolery of running away to hide ourselves. It's only waste of money."
But Iris pleaded for the honeymoon. people would think it so strange if they went straight from church to their home at West Hampstead. And would not a few autumn weeks of Devon be delightful? Again he yielded.
The vicar of Alverholme and his wife, when satisfied that Dyce's betrothed was a respectable person, consented to be present at the marriage. Not easily did Mrs. Lashmar digest her bitter disappointment, which came so close upon that of Dyce's defeat at Hollingford; but she was a practical woman, and, in the state of things at Alverholme, six hundred a year seemed to her not altogether to be despised.
"My fear was," she remarked one day to her husband, "that Dyce would be tempted to marry money. I respect him for the choice he has made; it shows character."
The vicar just gave a glance of surprise, but said nothing. Every day made him an older man in look and bearing. His head was turning white. He had begun to mutter to himself as he walked about the parish. Not a man in England who worried more about his own affairs and those of the world.
In an obscure lodging, Dyce awaited the day of destiny. One evening he went to dine at West Hampstead; though he was rather late, Iris had not yet come home, and she had left no message to explain her absence. He waited a quarter of an hour. When at length his betrothed came hurrying into the room, she wore so strange a countenance that Dyce could not but ask what had happened. Nothing, nothing -- she declared. It was only that she had been obliged to hurry so, and was out of breath, and -- and --. Whereupon she tottered to a chair, death-pale, all but fainting.
"What the devil is the matter with you?" cried Lashmar, whose over-strong nerves could not endure this kind of thing.
His violence had an excellent effect. Iris recovered herself, and came towards him with hands extended.
"It's nothing at all, dearest. I couldn't bear to keep you waiting, and fretted myself into a fever when I saw what time it was. Don't be angry with me, will you?"
Dyce was satisfied. It seemed to him a very natural explanation; a caress put him into his gracious mood.
"After all, you know," he said, "you're a very womanly woman. I think we shall have to give up pretending that you're not."
"But I've given it up long since!" Iris exclaimed, with large eyes. "Didn't you know that?"
"I'm not sure --" he laughed -- "that I'm not glad of it."
And they passed a much more tranquil evening than usual. Iris seemed tired; she sat with her head on Dyce's shoulder, thrilling when his lips touched her hair. He had assured her that her hair was beautiful -- that he had always admired its hue of the autumn elm-leaf. Her face, too, he was beginning to find pretty, and seldom did he trouble to reflect that she was seven years older than he.
Already he regarded this house as his own. His books had been transferred hither, and many of his other possessions. Very carefully had Iris put out of sight or got rid of, everything which could remind him of her former marriage. Certain things (portraits and the like) which must be preserved for Leonard's sake were locked away in the boy's room. Of course Lashmar had given her no presents; she, on the other hand, had been very busy in furnishing a study which should please him, buying the pictures and ornaments he liked, and many expensive books of which he said that he had need. Into this room Dyce was not allowed to peep; it waited as a surprise for him on the return from the honeymoon. Drawing-room and dining-room he trod as master, and often felt that, after all, a man could be very comfortable here for a year or two. A box of good cigars invited him after dinner. A womanly woman, the little mistress of the house; and, all things considered, he couldn't be sure that he wasn't glad of it.
One more day only before that of the wedding. Dyce had been on the point of asking whether all the business with Wrybolt was satisfactorily settled; but delicacy withheld him. Really, there was nothing to do; Iris's money simply passed into her own hands on the event of her marriage. It would be time enough to talk of such things presently.
They spent nearly all the last day together. Iris was in the extremity of nervousness; she looked as if she had not slept for two or three nights; often she hid her face against Dyce's shoulder, and shook as if sobbing, but no tears followed.
"Do you love me?" she asked, again and again. "Do you really, really love me?"
"But you know I do," Dyce answered, at length irritably. "How many times must I tell you? It's all very well to be womanly, but don't be womanish."
"You're not sorry you're going to marry me?"
"You're getting hysterical, and I can't stand that."
Hysterical she became as soon as Lashmar had left her. One of the two servants, looking into the dressing-room before going to bed, saw her lying, half on the floor, half against the sofa, in a lamentable state. She wailed incoherent phrases.
"I can't help it -- too late -- I can't, can't help it oh! oh!"
Unobserved, the domestic drew back, and went to gossip with her fellow-servant of this strange incident.
The hours drove on. Lashmar found himself at the church, accompanied by his father, his mother, his old friend the Home Office clerk. They waited the bride's coming; she was five minutes late, ten minutes late; but came at last. With her were two ladies, kinsfolk of hers. Had Iris risen from a sick bed to go through this ceremony, she could not have shown a more disconcerting visage. But she held herself up before the altar. The book was opened; the words of fate were uttered; the golden circlet slipped onto her trembling hand; and Mrs. Dyce Lashmar passed forth upon her husband's arm to the carriage that awaited them.
A week went by. They were staying at Dawlish, and Lashmar, who had quite come round to his wife's opinion on the subject of the honeymoon, cared not how long these days of contented indolence lulled his ambitious soul; at times he was even touched by the devotion which repaid his sacrifice. A certain timidity which clung to Iris, a tremulous solicitude which marked her behaviour to him, became her, he thought, very well indeed. Constance Bride was right; he could not have been thus at his ease with a woman capable of reading his thoughts, and of criticising them. He talked at large of his prospects, which took a hue from the halcyon sea and sky.
One morning they had strolled along the cliffs, and in a sunny hollow they sat down to rest. Dyce took from his pocket a newspaper he had bought on coming forth.
"Let us see what fools are doing," he said genially.
Iris watched him with uneasy eye. The sight of a newspaper was dreadful to her: yet she always eagerly scanned those that came under her notice. Lying now on the dry turf, she was able to read one page whilst Dyce occupied himself with another. Of a sudden she began to shake; then a half-stifled cry escaped her.
"What is it?" asked her husband, startled.
"Oh, look, Dyce! Look at this!"
She pointed him to a paragraph headed: "Disappearance of a City Man." When Lashmar had read it, he met his wife's anguished look with surprise and misgiving.
"You've had a precious narrow escape. Of course this is nothing to you, now?"
"Oh but I'm afraid it is -- I'm afraid it is, Dyce --"
"What do you mean? Didn't you get everything out of his hands?"
"I thought it was safe -- I left it till we were back at home --"
Lashmar started to his feet, pale as death.
"What? Then all your money is lost?"
"Oh, surely not? How can it be? We must make inquiries at once --"
"Inquiries? Inquiries enough have been made, you may depend upon it, before this got into the papers. Why, read! The fellow has bolted; the police are after him; he has robbed and swindled right and left. Do you imagine your money has escaped his clutches?"
They stood face to face.
"Dear, don't be angry with me!" sounded from Iris in a choking voice. "I am not to blame -- I couldn't help it -- oh don't look at me like that, dear husband!"
"But you have been outrageously careless! What right had you to expose us to this danger? Ass that I was ass, ass that I was! I wanted to speak of it, and my cursed delicacy prevented me. What right had you to behave so idiotically?"
He set off at a great speed towards Dawlish. Iris ran after him, caught his arm, clung to him.
"Where are you going? You won't leave me?"
"I'm going to London, of course," was his only reply, as he strode on.
Running by his side, Iris told with broken breath of the offer of marriage she had received from Wrybolt not long ago. She understood now why he wished to marry her; no doubt he already found himself in grave difficulties, and saw this as a chance either of obtaining money, or of concealing a fraud he had already practised at her expense.
"Why didn't you tell me that before?" cried Lashmar, savagely. "What right had you to keep it from me?"
"I ought to have told you. Oh, do forgive me! Don't walk so quickly, Dyce! I haven't the strength to keep up with you. -- You know that he hadn't everything -- most fortunately not everything --"
With an exclamation of wrathful contempt, the man pursued his way. Iris fell back; she tottered; she sank to her knee upon the grass, moaning, sobbing. Only when he was fifty yards ahead did Dyce pause and look back. Already she was running after him again. He turned, and walked less quickly. At length there was a touch upon his arm.
"Dear -- dear -- don't you love me?" panted a scarce audible voice.
"Don't be a greater idiot than you have been already," was his fierce reply. "I have to get to London, and look after your business; that's enough to think about just now."
In less than an hour they had taken train. By early evening they reached Paddington Station, whence they set forth to call upon the person whom Iris mentioned as most likely to be able to inform them concerning Wrybolt. It was the athletic Mr. Barker, who dwelt with his parents at Highgate. An interview with this gentleman, who was caught at dinner, put an end to the faint hopes Lashmar had tried to entertain. Wrybolt, said Barker, was not a very interesting criminal; the frauds he had perpetrated were not great enough to make his case sensational; but there could be no shadow of doubt that he had turned his trusteeship to the best account.
"He has nothing but his skin to pay with," added the young City man, "and I wouldn't give much for that. Don't distress yourself, Mrs. Lashmar; I know a lady who is let in worse than you -- considerably worse."
The newly-married couple made their way to West Hampstead. The servant who had been left in charge of the house did not conceal her surprise as she admitted them. It was nearly ten o'clock in the evening.
"I suppose we must have something to eat," said Dyce, sullenly.
"You must be very hungry," Iris answered, regarding him like a frightened but affectionate dog that eyes its master. "Jane shall get something at once."
They sat down to such a supper as could he prepared at a moment's notice. By good fortune, a bottle of claret had been found, and, excepting one glass, which his wife thankfully swallowed, Lashmar drank it all. At an ordinary time, this excess would have laid him prostrate; in the present state of his nerves, it did him nothing but good; a healthier hue mantled on his cheeks, and he began to look furtively at Iris with eyes which had lost their evil expression. She, so exhausted that she could scarce support herself on the chair, timidly met these glances, but as yet no word was spoken.
"Why haven't you eaten anything?" asked Dyce at length, breaking the silence with a voice which was almost natural.
"I have, dear."
"Yes, a bit of bread. Come, eat! You'll he ill if you don't."
She tried to obey. Tears began to trickle down her face.
"What's the use of going on like that?" Lashmar exclaimed, petulantly rather than in anger. "You're tired to death. If you really can't eat anything, better go to bed. We shall see how things look in the morning."
Iris rose and came towards him.
"Thank you, dear, for speaking so kindly. I don't deserve it."
"Oh, we won't say anything about that," he replied, with an air of generosity. Then, laughing, "Aren't you going to show me the study?"
"Dyce! I haven't the heart."
She began to weep in earnest.
"Nonsense! Let us go and look at it. I'll carry the lamp."
They left the room, and Iris, struggling with her tears, led the way to the study door. As he entered Dyce gave an exclamation of pleasure. The little room was furnished and adorned very tastefully; book-shelves, with all Lashmar's own books carefully arranged, and many new volumes added, made a pleasant show; a handsome writing-table and chair seemed to invite to penwork.
"I could have done something here," Dyce remarked, with a nodding of the head.
Iris came nearer. Timidly she laid a hand upon his shoulder; appealingly she gazed into his face.
"Dear" -- it was a just audible whisper -- "you are so clever -- you are so far above ordinary men --"
Lashmar smiled. His arm fell lightly about her waist.
"We have still nearly two hundred pounds a year," the whisper continued. "There's Len -- but I must take him from school --"
"Pooh! We'll talk about that."
A cry of gratitude escaped her.
"Dyce! How good you are! How bravely you hear it, my own dear husband. I'll do anything, anything! We needn't have a servant. I'll work -- I don't care anything if you still love me. Say you still love me!"
He kissed her hair.
"It's certain I don't hate you. -- Well, we'll see how things look to-morrow. Who knows? It may be the real beginning of my career!"
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