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- Our Friend the Charlatan - 2/81 -
In the afternoon, he had to visit a dying man, an intelligent shopkeeper, who, while accepting the visit as a proof of kindness, altogether refused spiritual comfort, and would speak of nothing but the future of his children. Straightway Mr. Lashmar became the practical consoler, lavish of kindly forethought. Only when he came forth did he ask himself whether he could possibly fulfil half of what he had undertaken.
"It is easier," he reflected, "to make promises for the world to come. Is it not also better? After all, can I not do it with a clearer conscience?"
He walked slowly, worrying about this and fifty other things, feeling a very Atlas under the globe's oppression. Rig way took him across a field in which there was a newly bourgeoned copse; he remembered that, last spring, he had found white violets about the roots of the trees. A desire for their beauty and odour possessed him; he turned across the grass. Presently a perfume guided him to a certain mossy corner where pale sweet florets nestled amid their leaves. He bent over them, and stretched his hand to pluck, but in the same moment checked himself; why should he act the destroyer in this spot of perfect quietness and beauty?
"Dyce would not care much about them," was another thought that came into his mind.
He rose from his stooping posture with ache of muscles and creaking of joints. Alas for the days when he ran and leapt and knew not pain! Walking slowly away, he worried himself about the brevity of life.
By a stile he passed into the highroad, at the lower end of the long village of Alverholme. He had an appointment with his curate at the church school, and, not to be unpunctual, he quickened his pace in that direction. At a little distance behind him was a young lady whom he had not noticed; she, recognizing the vicar, pursued with light, quick step, and soon overtook him.
"How do you do, Mr. Lashmar!"
"Why--Miss Bride!" exclaimed the vicar. "What a long time since we saw you! Have you just come?"
"I'm on a little holiday. How are you? And how is Mrs. Lashmar?"
Miss Bride had a soberly decisive way of speaking, and an aspect which corresponded therewith; her figure was rather short, well-balanced, apt for brisk movement; she held her head very straight, and regarded the world with a pair of dark eyes suggestive of anything but a sentimental nature. Her grey dress, black jacket, and felt hat trimmed with a little brown ribbon declared the practical woman, who thinks about her costume only just as much as is needful; her dark-brown hair was coiled in a plait just above the nape, as if neatly and definitely put out of the way. She looked neither more nor less than her age, which was eight and twenty. At first sight her features struck one as hard and unsympathetic, though tolerably regular; watching her as she talked or listened, one became aware of a mobility which gave large expressiveness, especially in the region of the eyebrows, which seemed to move with her every thought. Her lips were long, and ordinarily compressed in the line of conscious self-control. She had a very shapely neck, the skin white and delicate; her facial complexion was admirably pure and of warmish tint.
"And where are you living, Miss Bride?" asked Mr. Lashmar, regarding her with curiosity.
"At Hollingford; that is to say, near it. I am secretary to Lady Ogram--I don't know whether you ever heard of her?"
"Ogram? I know the name. I am very glad indeed to hear that you have such a pleasant position. And your father? It is very long since I heard from him."
"He has a curacy at Liverpool, and seems to be all right. My mother died about two years ago."
The matter-of-fact tone in which this information was imparted caused Mr. Lashmar to glance at the speaker's face. Though very little of an observer, he was comforted by an assurance that Miss Bride's features were less impassive than her words. Indeed, the cold abruptness with which she spoke was sufficient proof of feeling roughly subdued.
Some six years had now elapsed since the girl's father, after acting for a short time as curate to Mr. Lashmar, accepted a living in another county. The technical term, in this case, was rich in satiric meaning; Mr. Bride's incumbency quickly reduced him to pauperism. At the end of the first twelvemonth in his rural benefice the unfortunate cleric made a calculation that he was legally responsible for rather more than twice the sum of money represented by his stipend and the offertories. The church needed a new roof; the parsonage was barely habitable for long lack of repairs; the church school lost its teacher through default of salary--and so on. With endless difficulty Mr. Bride escaped from his vicarage to freedom and semi-starvation, and deemed himself very lucky indeed when at length he regained levitical harbourage.
These things had his daughter watched with her intent dark eyes; Constance Bride did not feel kindly disposed towards the Church of England as by law established. She had seen her mother sink under penury and humiliation and all unmerited hardship; she had seen her father changed from a vigorous, hopeful, kindly man to an embittered pessimist. As for herself, sound health and a good endowment of brains enabled her to make a way in the world. Luckily, she was a sole child: her father managed to give her a decent education till she was old enough to live by teaching. But teaching was not her vocation. Looking round for possibilities, Constance hit upon the idea of studying pharmaceutics and becoming a dispenser; wherein, with long, steady effort, she at length succeeded. This project had already been shaped whilst the Brides were at Alverholme; Mrs. Lashmar had since heard of Constance as employed in the dispensary of a midland hospital.
"Hollingford?" remarked the vicar, as they walked on. "I think I remember that you have relatives there."
"I was born there, and I have an old aunt still living in the town--she keeps a little baker's shop."
Mr. Lashmar, though a philosopher, was not used to this bluntness of revelation; it gave him a slight shock, evinced in a troublous rolling of the eyes.
"Ha! yes!--I trust you will dine with us this evening, Miss Bride?"
"Thank you, I can't dine; I want to leave by an early evening train. But I should like to see Mrs. Lashmar, if she is at home."
"She will be delighted. I must beg you to pardon me for leaving you--an appointment at the schools; but I will get home as soon as possible. Pray excuse me."
"Why, of course, Mr. Lashmar. I haven't forgotten the way to the vicarage."
She pursued it, and in a few minutes rang the bell. Mrs. Lashmar was in the dining-room, busy with a female parishioner whose self-will in the treatment of infants' maladies had given the vicar's wife a great deal of trouble.
"It's as plain as blessed daylight, mum," the woman was exclaiming, "that this medicine don't agree with her."
"Mrs. Dibbs," broke in the other severely, "you will allow me to be a better judge--_what_ is it?"
The housemaid had opened the door to announce Miss Bride.
"Miss Bride?" echoed the lady in astonishment. "Very well; show her into the drawing-room."
The visitor waited for nearly a quarter of an hour. She had placed herself on one of the least comfortable chairs, and sat there in a very stiff attitude, holding her umbrella across her knees. After a rather nervous survey of the room, (it had changed very little in appearance since her last visit six years ago), she fell into uneasy thoughtfulness, now and then looking impatiently towards the door. When the hostess at length appeared, she rose with deliberation, her lips just relaxed in a half-smile.
"So it is really you!" exclaimed Mrs. Lashmar, in a voice of forced welcome. "I thought you must have altogether forgotten us."
"It's the first time I have returned to Alverholme," replied the other, in a contrasting tone of calmness.
"And what are you doing? Where are you living? Tell me all about yourself. Are you still at the hospital? You did get a place at a hospital, I think? We were told so."
Mrs. Lashmar's patronage was a little more patronizing than usual, her condescension one or two degrees more condescending. She had various reasons for regarding Constance Bride with disapproval, the least of them that sense of natural antipathy which was inevitable between two such women. In briefest sentences Miss Bride made known that she had given up dispensing two years ago, and was now acting as secretary to a baronet's widow.
"A baronet's widow?" repeated the hostess, with some emphasis of candid surprise. "Row did you manage that? Who is she?"
"An old friend of my family," was the balanced reply. "Lady Ogram, of Rivenoak, near Hollingford."
"Oh! Indeed! I wasn't aware--"
Mrs. Lashmar thought better of her inclination to be trenchantly rude, and smoothed off into commonplaces. Presently the vicar entered, and found his wife conversing with the visitor more amiably than he had expected.
"You have seen Miss Bride already," said Mrs. Lashmar. "I am trying to persuade her to stay over-night with us. Is it really impossible?"
Constance civilly but decidedly declined. Addressing herself to the vicar, she spoke with more ease and friendliness than hitherto;
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