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- Our Friend the Charlatan - 10/81 -
being dealt with as a calumniator or a sycophant; all depends on Lady Ogram's mood of the moment. Detesting Mr. Robb, she naturally aims at ousting him from his Parliamentary seat, and no news could be more acceptable to her than that of a possible change in the political temper of Hollingford. The town is Tory, from of old. Mr. Robb is sitting in his second Parliament, and doubtless hopes to enter a third. But he is nearly seventy years old, and we hear that his constituents would not be sorry if he gave place to a more active man. The hope that Hollingford may turn Liberal does not seem to me to be very well founded, and yet I don't regard the thing as an impossibility. Lady Ogram has persuaded herself that a thoroughly good man might carry the seat. That man she is continually seeking, and she carries on a correspondence on the subject with party leaders, whips, caucus directors, and all manner of such folk. If she lives until the next general election, heaven and earth will be moved against Mr. Robb, and I believe she would give the half of her substance to anyone who defeated him."
This epistle caused a commotion in Lashmar's mind. The last paragraph opened before him a vista of brilliant imaginings. He read it times innumerable; day and night he could think of nothing else. Was not here the occasion for which he had been waiting? Had not fortune turned a shining face upon him?
If only he had still been in enjoyment of his three hundred a year. There, indeed, was a troublesome reflection. He thought of writing to his father, of laying before him the facts of his position, and asking seriously whether some financial arrangement could not be made, which would render him independent for a year or two. Another thought occurred to him--but he did not care to dwell upon it for the present. Twenty-four hours' consideration decided him to go down to Hollingford without delay. When he had talked with Lady Ogram, he would be in a better position for making up his mind as to the practical difficulty which beset him.
He esteemed it very friendly on Connie Bride's part to have written such a letter of advice. Why had she taken the trouble? Notwithstanding the coldness of her language, Connie plainly had his interests at heart, and gave no little thought to him. This was agreeable, but no matter of surprise; it never surprised Lashmar that anyone should regard him as a man of importance; and he felt a pleasant conviction that the boyish philandering of years ago would stand him in good stead now that he understood what was due to women--and to himself.
So next morning he packed his bag, drove to Euston, and by mid-day was at Hollingford. The town, hitherto known to him only by name, had little charm of situation or feature, but Dyce, on his way to a hotel, looked about him with lively interest, and persuaded himself that the main streets had a brisk progressive air; he imagined Liberalism in many faces, and noted cheerfully the publishing office of a Liberal newspaper. If his interview with Lady Ogram proved encouraging, he would stay here over the next day, and give himself time to make acquaintance with the borough.
At his hotel, he made inquiry about the way to Rivenoak, a name respectfully received. Lady Ogram's estate was distant some two miles and a half from the edge of the town; it lay hard by the village of Shawe, which was on the highroad to--places wherewith Dyce had no concern. Thus informed, he ordered his luncheon, and requested that a fly might be ready at three o'clock to convey him to Rivenoak. When that hour arrived, he had studied the local directory, carefully looked over the town and county newspapers, and held a little talk with his landlord, who happened to be a political malcontent, cautiously critical of Mr. Robb. Dyce accepted the fact as of good augury. It was long since he had felt so lighthearted and sanguine.
Through an unpleasant quarter, devoted to manufactures, his vehicle bore him out of Hollingford, and then along a flat, uninteresting road, whence at moments he had glimpses of the river Holling, as it flowed between level fields. Presently the country became more agreeable; on one hand it rose gently to wooded slopes, on the other opened a prospect over a breezy common, yellow with gorse. At the village named Shawe, the river was crossed by a fine old bridge, which harmonised well with grey cottages and an ancient low-towered church; but the charm of all this had been lamentably injured by the recent construction of a large paper-mill, as ugly as mill can be, on what was once a delightful meadow by the waterside. Dyce eyed the blot resentfully; but he had begun to think of his attitude and language at the meeting with Lady Ogram, and the gates of Rivenoak quickly engaged his attention.
The drive wound through a pleasant little park, less extensive, perhaps, than the visitor had preconceived it, and circled in front of a plain Georgian mansion, which, again, caused some disappointment. Dyce had learnt from the directory that the house was not very old, but it was spoken of as "stately;" the edifice before him he would rather have described as "commodious." He caught a glimpse of beautiful gardens, and had no time to criticise any more, for the fly stopped and the moment of his adventure was at hand. When he had mechanically paid and dismissed the driver, the folding doors stood open before him; a man-servant, with back at the reverent angle, on hearing his name at once begged him to enter. Considerably more nervous than he would have thought likely, and proportionately annoyed with himself, Dyce passed through a bare, lofty hall, then through a long library, and was ushered into a room so largely constructed of glass, and containing so much verdure, that at first glance it seemed to be a conservatory. It was, however, a drawing-room, converted to this purpose after having served, during the late Baronet's lifetime, for such masculine delights as billiards and smoking. Here, as soon as his vision focussed itself, Dyce became aware of three ladies and a gentleman, seated amid a little bower of plants and shrubs. The hostess was easily distinguished. In a very high-backed chair, made rather throne-like by the embroidery and gilding upon it, sat a meagre lady clad in black silk, with a silvery grey shawl about her shoulders, and an other of the same kind across her knees. She had the aspect of extreme age and of out-worn health; the skin of her face was like shrivelled parchment; her hands were mere skin and bone; she sat as though on the point of sinking across the arm of her chair for very feebleness. But in the whitish-yellow visage shone a pair of eyes which had by no means lost their vitality; so keen were they, so darkly lustrous, that to meet them was to forget every other peculiarity of Lady Ogram's person. Regarding the eyes alone, one seemed to have the vision of a handsome countenance, with proud lips, and carelessly defiant smile. The illusion was aided by a crown of hair such as no woman of Lady Ogram's age ever did, or possibly could, possess in her own right; hair of magnificent abundance, of rich auburn hue, plaited and rolled into an elaborate coiffure.
Before this singular figure, Dyce Lashmar paused and bowed. Pale, breathing uneasily, he supported the scrutiny of those dark eyes for what seemed to him a minute or two of most uncomfortable time. Then, with the faintest of welcoming smiles, Lady Ogram--who had slowly straightened herself--spoke in a voice which startled the hearer, so much louder and firmer was it than he had expected.
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Lashmar. Pray sit down."
Without paying any attention to the rest of the company, Dyce obeyed. His feeling was that he had somehow been admitted to the presence of a sovereign, and that any initiative on his own part would be utterly out of place. Never in his life had he felt so little and so subdued.
"You have come from town this morning?" pursued his hostess, still closely examining him.
"This morning, yes."
Lady Ogram turned to the lady sitting near her right hand, and said abruptly:
"I don't agree with you at all. I should like to see as many women doctors as men. Doctoring is mostly humbug, and if women were attended by women there'd be a good deal less of that. Miss Bride has studied medicine, and a very good doctor she would have made."
Dyce turned towards Constance, of whose proximity he had been aware, though he had scarcely looked at her, and, as she bent her head smiling, he rose and bowed. The lady whom their hostess had addressed--she was middle-aged, very comely and good-humoured of countenance, and very plainly attired--replied to the blunt remarks in an easy, pleasant tone.
"I should have no doubt whatever of Miss Bride's competence. But--"
Lady Ogram interrupted her, seeming not to have heard what she said.
"Let me introduce to you Mr. Dyce Lashmar, who has thought a good deal more about this kind of thing than either you or me. Mrs. Gallantry, Mr. Gallantry."
Again Dyce stood up. Mr. Gallantry, a tall, loose-limbed, thinly thatched gentleman, put on a pair of glasses to inspect him, and did so with an air of extreme interest, as though profoundly gratified by the meeting. Seldom breaking silence himself, he lent the most flattering attention to anyone who spoke, his brows knitted in the resolve to grasp and assimilate whatever wisdom was uttered:
"Did you walk out from Hollingford?" asked Lady Ogram, who again had her eyes fixed on the visitor.
"No, I drove, as I didn't know the way."
"You'd have done much better to walk. Couldn't you ask the way? You look as if you didn't take enough exercise. Driving, one never sees anything. When I'm in new places, I always walk. Miss Bride and I are going to Wales this summer, and we shall walk a great deal. Do you know Brecknock? Few people do, but they tell me it's very fine. Perhaps you are one of the people who always go abroad? I prefer my own country. What did you think of the way from Hollingford?"
To this question she seemed to expect an answer, and Dyce, who was beginning to command himself, met her gaze steadily as he spoke.
"There's very little to see till you come to Shawe. It's a pretty village--or rather, it was, before someone built that hideous paper-mill."
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