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- Our Friend the Charlatan - 20/81 -
deceased somewhere about 1840. Since her illness, Lady Ogram had fallen into the habit of brooding over the days long gone by. She revived the memory of her home in Camden Town, of her life as a not-ill-cared-for child, of her experiences in a West-end workroom, her temptations, multiplied as she grew to the age of independence, her contempt of girls who "went wrong," these domestic quarrels and miseries which led to her breaking away and becoming an artists' model. How remote it all was! Had she not lived through it in a prior existence, with rebirth to the life of luxury and command which alone seemed natural to her? All but sixty years had passed since she said good-bye for ever to Camden Town, and for thirty years at least, the greater part of her married life, she had scarce turned a thought in that direction. Long ago her father and mother were dead; she knew of it only from the solicitor, Mr. Kerchever, who, after the death of Sir Quentin, gave her a full account of the baronet's pecuniary relations with the Tomalin household. No blackmailing had ever been practised; the plumber and his wife were content with what they received, (Arabella felt a satisfaction in remembering that of her own accord she had asked her husband to do something for them, when she might very well have disregarded them altogether,) and the two brothers, who were supposed to have left England, had never been heard of again. The failure to discover anyone named Tomalin whom she could regard as of her own blood was now a disappointment to Lady Ogram; sometimes she even fretted about it. Mr. Kerchever had it in charge to renew the inquiry, to use every possible means, and spare no outlay. The old woman yearned for kinsfolk, as the younger sometimes do for offspring of their own.
The engagement of Constance Bride as resident secretary resulted no doubt from this craving in the old lady's mind for human affection. Perhaps she felt that she had behaved with less than justice to the girl's father; moreover, Constance as a little child had greatly won her liking, and in the young woman she perceived a capability, an independence, which strongly appealed to her. Thus far they had got on very well together, and Lady Ogram began to think that she had found in Constance what she had long been looking for--one of her own sex equal to the burden of a great responsibility and actuated by motives pure enough to make her worthy of a high privilege.
Had her girlhood fallen into brutal hands, Arabella's native savagery would doubtless have developed strange excesses in the life of a social outlaw. The companionship of Quentin Ogram, a mild idealist, good-naturedly critical of the commonplace, though it often wearied her and irritated her primitive interests, was a civilising influence, the results of which continued to manifest themselves after the baronet's death. On the aesthetic side Arabella profited not at all; to the beautiful she ever presented a hard insensibility, and in later years she ceased even to affect pleasure in the things of nature or art which people generally admired. Her flowery and leafy drawing-room indicated no personal taste; it came of a suggestion by her gardener when she converted to her own use the former smoking-room; finding that people admired and thought it original, she made the arrangement a permanence, anxious only that the plants exhibited should be nicer and finer than those possessed by her neighbours. On the other hand, her moral life had from the first shown capacity of expansion; it held at its service an intellect, of no very fine quality indeed, but acute and energetic. In all practical affairs she was greatly superior to the average woman, adding to woman's meticulous sense of interest and persistent diplomacy a breadth of view found only in exceptional males; this faculty the circumstances of her life richly fostered, and, by anomaly, advancing age enlarged, instead of contracting, the liberality of her spirit. After fifty years told, when ordinary mortals have long since given their measure in heart and brain, Lady Ogram steadily advanced. Solitary possessor of wealth, autocrat over a little world of her own, instead of fossilising in dull dignity, she proved herself receptive of many influences with which the time was fraught. She cast off beliefs--or what she had held as such-- and adopted others; she exchanged old prejudices for new forms of zeal; above all, she chose to be in touch with youth and aspiration rather than with disillusioned or retrospective age. Only when failing health shadowed the way before her did she begin to lose that confident carriage of the mind which, together with her profound materialism, had made worry and regret and apprehension things unknown to her. Thus, when old but by no means senile, she learnt that disquiet of conscience, so common in our day, which has nothing to do with spiritual perceptiveness, but comes of habitual concentration on every-day cares and woes, on the life of the world as apart from that of the soul. Through sleepless nights, Lady Ogram brooded over the contrast between her own exaltation and the hopeless level of the swinking multitude. What should she do with her money? The question perturbed her with a sense of responsibility which would have had no meaning for her in earlier years. How could she best use the vast opportunity for good which lay to her hand?
Endless were the projects she formed, rejected, took up again. Vast was the correspondence she held with all manner of representative people, seeking for information, accumulating reports, lectures, argumentative pamphlets, theoretic volumes, in mass altogether beyond her ability to cope with; nowadays, her secretary read and digested and summarised with tireless energy. Lady Ogram had never cared much for reading; she admired Constance's quick intelligence and power of grappling with printed matter. But that she had little faith in the future of her own sex, she would have been tempted to say: "There is the coming woman." Miss Bride's companionship was soon indispensable to her; she had begun to dread the thought of being left alone with her multiplying solicitudes and uncertainties.
Her great resource in these days was her savage hatred of Mr. Robb and his family, and of all in any way adhering to him. Whenever she fixed her mind on that, all wider troubles fled into space, and she was the natural woman of her prime once more. Since making the acquaintance of Dyce Lashmar, she had thought of little but this invigorating theme. At last she had found the man to stand against Robb the Grinder, the man of hope, a political and moral enthusiast who might sweep away the mass of rotten privilege and precedent encumbering the borough of Hollingford. She wrote to all her friends, at Hollingford and throughout the country, making known that the ideal candidate in the Liberal cause had at last been discovered. And presently she sent out invitations to a dinner, on a day a fortnight ahead, which should assemble some dozen of her faithful, to meet and hear the eloquent young philosopher.
Excitement was not good for Lady Ogram's health; the doctors agreed in prescribing tranquillity, and she had so far taken their advice as to live of late in comparative retirement. Her observant companion noticed that the conversations with Lashmar had been followed by signs of great fatigue; an agitated manner, a temper even more uncertain than usual, and physical symptoms which Constance had learnt to look for, proved during the ensuing days that the invalid was threatened with another crisis. Acting on her own responsibility, Constance addressed a note to Dr. Baldwin, who presently, as if making a casual call, dropped in to see his patient. The doctor knew how to comport himself with Lady Ogram. He began by remarking cheerfully how well she looked, and asking whether she had settled the details of her summer holiday. Dull and rather sullen of air, Lady Ogram replied with insignificant brevities; then, as the doctor chatted on about local matters, her interest gradually awoke.
"Anything more been done about the new hospital?" she asked.
"Oh, there are promises, but nothing really important. It'll cost far more money than there seems any chance as yet of getting. We ought to buy that bit of land I told you about on Burgess Hill. The price is high, but it's a perfect situation, and I'm afraid it'll be going to the builders if something isn't soon done."
Lady Ogram would have purchased the site in question long since, for it was her purpose to act decisively in this matter of the much-needed hospital, but it happened that the unspeakable Robb was the man who had first drawn public attention to the suitability of Burgess Hill, and Lady Ogram was little inclined to follow where Robb had led. She hoped to find a yet better site, and, by undertaking at once both purchase of land and construction of the building, with a liberal endowment added, to leave in the lurch all philanthropic rivals. For years she had possessed plans and pictures of "The Lady Ogram Hospital." She cared for no enterprise, however laudable, in which she could only be a sharer; the initiative must be hers, and hers the glory.
Discreetly, Dr. Baldwin worked round to the subject of his patient's health. He hoped she was committing no imprudence in the way of excessive mental exertion. It seemed to him--perhaps he was mistaken--that talk agitated her more than usual. Quiet and repose--quiet and repose.
That afternoon Lady Ogram was obliged to lie down, a necessity she always disliked in the daytime, and for two or three days she kept her room. Constance now and then read to her, but persuaded her to speak as little as possible of exciting subjects. She saw no one but this companion. Of late she had been in the habit of fixing her look upon Constance, as though much occupied with thoughts concerning her. When she felt able to move about again, they sat together one morning on the terrace before the house, and Lady Ogram, after a long inspection of her companion's countenance, asked suddenly:
"Do you often hear from your father?"
"Not often. Once in two months, perhaps."
"I suppose you are not what is called a good daughter?"
Constance found the remark rather embarrassing, for it hit a truth of which she had been uneasily aware.
"Father and I have not much in common," she replied. "I respect him, and I hope he isn't quite without some such feeling for me. But we go such different ways."
"Does he believe what he pretends to?"
"He has never made any pretences at all, Lady Ogram. That's his character, and I try to think that it's mine too."
"Well, well," exclaimed the old lady, "I suppose you're not going to quarrel with me because I ask a simple question? You have a touchy temper, you know. If I had had a temper like yours, I should have very few friends at my age."
Constance averted her eyes, and said gravely:
"I try to correct myself by your example."
"You might do worse. By the bye--if you won't snap my nose off-- I suppose your father isn't very well to do?"
"He's very poor. Such men always are."
Lady Ogram lay back and mused. She had no affection for Constance,
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