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- Our Friend the Charlatan - 60/81 -


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 hack 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."


Our Friend the Charlatan - 60/81

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