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- Our Friend the Charlatan - 30/81 -
send you packing about your business this moment!"
Constance, who had not yet taken a seat, drew back a few steps. Her face darkened. With hands clasped behind her, she regarded the raging old autocrat coldly and sternly.
"If you wish it, Lady Ogram, I am quite ready to go."
Their eyes encountered. Lady Ogram was quivering, mumbling, gasping; her look fell.
"Sit down," she said imperatively.
"I am afraid," was Miss Bride's reply, "we had better not talk whilst you are feeling so unwell."
"Sit down, I tell you! I wasn't unwell at all, till you made me so. Who is this Yabsley? Some low shopkeeper? Some paltry clerk?"
The old lady knew very well that Constance Bride would never tremble before her. It was this proudly independent spirit, unyielding as her own, and stronger still in that it never lost self-command, which had so established the clergyman's daughter in her respect and confidence. Yet the domineering instinct now and then prompted her to outrage a dignity she admired, and her invariable defeat was a new satisfaction when she calmly looked back upon it.
"You mustn't mind me," she said presently, when Constance had quietly refused to make conjectures about the subject under dissuasion. "Isn't it natural enough that I should be upset when I hear such news as this? I wanted to have a talk with May this morning, but now--"
She broke off, and hung her head gloomily.
"In your position," said Constance, "I should find out by a simple inquiry whether Miss Tomalin is engaged or likely to be. She will answer, I am sure, readily enough. She doesn't seem to be at all reticent."
"Of course I shall do so; thank you for the advice, all the same. Would you mind bringing her up here? If you prefer it, I will ring."
Scrupulousness of this kind always followed when Lady Ogram had behaved ill to her secretary. The smile with which Constance responded was a ratification of peace. In a few minutes the old lady and May were chatting together, alone, and without difficulty the great doubt was solved.
"I'm thinking of going to London for a week or two--" thus Lady Ogram approached the point--"and I should rather like to take you with me."
"It's very kind of you," said May, with joy in her eyes.
"But I want to know whether you are quite independent. Is there anyone--beside Mr. and Mrs. Rooke that you would have to consult about it?"
"No one whatever. You know that I am long since of age, Lady Ogram."
"If you like, call me your aunt. It's simpler, you know."
"Certainly I will. I am quite free, aunt."
"Good. I may take it for granted, then, that you have formed no ties of any kind?"
May shook her head, smiling as though at a thought which the words suggested, a thought not unpleasing, but not at all difficult to dismiss. Thereupon Lady Ogram began to talk freely of her projects.
"I shall go up to town in a fortnight--at the end of this month. Of course you must have some things, dresses and so on. I'll see to that. Before we leave Rivenoak, I should like you to meet a few people, my friends at Hollingford particularly, but in a very quiet way; I shall ask them to lunch with us, most likely. Shall you want to go back to Hollingford before leaving for London?"
"Oh, it isn't at all necessary," answered May, with srightliest readiness. "I haven't brought many things with me, but I could send--"
"As for clothing, don't trouble; that's my affair. Then we'll settle that you stay on with me for the present. And now tell me, how do you like Miss Bride?"
"Oh, very much indeed! I'm sure we shall soon quite understand each other."
"I'm glad to hear that. I hope you will. I may say that I have a very high opinion indeed of Miss Bride, and that there's no one in whom I put more confidence."
"Will she go to London with us?"
"Certainly, I couldn't get on without her help."
May was relieved. The prospect of living alone with her great-aunt, even in London, had mingled a little uneasiness with her joyful anticipation. Now she abandoned herself to high spirits, and talked until Lady Ogram began to have a headache. For an hour before luncheon they drove out together, May still gossiping, her aged relative now and then attentive, but for the most part drowsily musing.
That afternoon, when an hour or two of sleep had somewhat restored her, Lady Ogram sketched several letters for her secretary to write. Pausing at length, she looked at Miss Bride, and, for the first time, addressed her by her personal name.
The other responded with a pleased and gratified smile.
"From Mr. Lashmar's talk of him, what sort of idea have you formed of Lord Dymchurch?"
"Rather a vague one, I'm afraid. I have heard him only casually mentioned."
"But Mr. Lashmar has a high opinion of him? He thinks him a man of good principles?"
"Undoubtedly. A very honourable man."
"So I hear from other sources," said Lady Ogram. "It's probably true. I should rather like to know Lord Dymchurch. He would be an interesting man to know, don't you think?"
As not infrequently happened, their eyes met in a mute interchange of thought.
"Interesting--yes," replied Constance, slowly. And she added, pressing the nib of her pen on her finger-nail, "They say he doesn't marry just because he is poor and honourable."
"It's possible," Lady Ogram rejoined, and, after a moment's reflection, said in an absent voice that the day's correspondence was finished.
Though Mrs. Toplady seldom rose much before midday, it was not the mere luxury of repose that kept her in her chamber. As a rule, she awoke from refreshing sleep at eight o'clock. A touch on the electric button near her hand summoned a maid, who appeared with tea, the morning's post, and a mass of printed matter: newspapers, reviews, magazines, volumes, which had arrived by various channels since noon on the previous day. Apparatus of perfected ingenuity, speedily attached to the bed, enabled her to read or write in any position that she found easiest. First of all she went through her letters, always numerous, never disquieting--for Mrs. Toplady had no personal attachments which could for a moment disturb her pulse, and her financial security stood on the firmest attainable basis. Such letters as demanded a reply, she answered at once, and with brevity which in her hands had become an art. Appeals for money, public or private, she carefully considered, responding with a cheque only when she saw some distinct advantage--such as prestige or influence--to be gained by the pecuniary sacrifice. Another touch on the button, and there entered a graceful woman of discreet visage, with whom Mrs. Toplady held colloquy for half an hour; in that time a vast variety of concerns, personal, domestic, mundane, was discussed and set in order. Left to herself again, Mrs. Toplady took up the newspapers; thence she passed to the bulkier periodicals; lastly, to literature in volume. Her manner of reading betokened the quick-witted woman who sees at a glance the thing she cares for, and refuses to spend a moment on anything not immediately attractive. People marvelled at the extent of her acquaintance with current writing; in truth, she never read a book, but skimmed the pages just sufficiently for her amusement and her social credit. In the world of laborious idleness, Mrs. Toplady had a repute for erudition; she was often spoken of as a studious and learned woman; and this estimate of herself she inclined to accept. Having daily opportunity of observing the fathomless ignorance of polite persons, she made it her pride to keep abreast with the day's culture. Genuine curiosity, too, supplied her with a motive, for she had a certain thin, supple, restless intelligence, which took wide surveys of superficial life, and was ever seeking matter for mirth or disdain in the doings of men.
Her first marriage was for love. It cost her seven years of poverty and wretchedness; it cost her, moreover, all the ideals of her youth, and made her a scheming cynic. Having, by natural power and great good fortune, got the world at her feet, she both enjoyed and despised what seemed to her to have been won so easily. The softer emotions were allowed no place in her nature; by careful self-discipline, she had enabled herself wholly to disregard the unhappy side of life, to pass without the least twinge of sympathy all human sorrows and pains. If reminded of them against her will, she hardened herself with the bitter memory of her early years, when, as she said, she had suffered quite enough for one lifetime. The habit of her mind was to regard existence as an entertaining spectacle. She had a most comfortable seat, and flattered herself
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