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- Our Friend the Charlatan - 70/81 -


conversation with you."

"I think, Mrs. Toplady," said Dyce, with deliberation, "that you had better tell me, if you will, exactly what you have heard from Miss Tomalin. We shall be more sure of understanding each other."

"That's easily done. She told me of your railway journey together, of your subsequent meetings, of what happened with Lord Dymchurch, and, last of all, what happened with Lady Ogram."

"Probably," said Dyce, "not all that happened with Lady Ogram. Did she mention that, instead of remaining loyal to me, as I was all through to her, she did her best to injure me with Lady Ogram by betraying a secret I had entrusted to her?"

"I know what you refer to. Yes, she told me, of that unfortunate incident, and spoke of it with deep regret. The poor girl simply lost her head; for a moment she could think of nothing but self-preservation. Put yourself in her place. She saw utter ruin before her, and was driven almost crazy. I can assure you that she was not responsible for that piece of disloyalty. I am afraid not many girls would have been more heroic in such a terrible situation. You, a philosopher, must take account of human. weakness."

"I hope I can do that," said Lashmar, with a liberal air. "Under other circumstances, I should hardly have mentioned the thing. But it convinced me at the time that Miss Tomalin had deceived herself as to her feeling for me, and now that everything is necessarily at an end between us, I prefer to see it still in the same light, for it assures me that she has suffered no injury at _my_ hands."

"But, pray, why should everything be necessarily at an end?"

"For two or three reasons, Mrs. Toplady. One will suffice. After Miss Tomalin had left the room, Lady Ogram insisted on my making offer of immediate marriage to Miss Bride. Being plainly released from the other obligation, I did so--and Miss Bride gave her consent."

Mrs. Toplady arched her eyebrows, and rippled a pleasant laugh.

"Ah! That, of course, May could not know. I may presume that, _this_ time, the engagement is serious?"

"Undoubtedly," Lashmar replied, grave yet bland.

"Then I can only ask you to pardon my interference."

"Not at all. You have shown great kindness, and, under other circumstances, we should not have differed for a moment as to the course it behooved me to follow."

Dyce had never heard himself speak so magnanimously; he smiled with pleasure, and continued in a peculiarly suave voice.

"I am sure Miss Tomalin will find in you a steadfast friend."

"I shall do. what I can for her, of course," was the rather dry answer. "At the same time, I hold to my view of Miss Bride's responsibility. The girl has really nothing to live upon; a miserable hundred a year; all very well when she belonged to the family at Northampton, but useless now she is adrift. To tell you the truth, I shall wait with no little curiosity for Miss Bride's-- and your--decision."

"Need I say that Miss Bride will be absolutely free to take any step she likes?"

"How could I doubt it?" exclaimed the lady, with her most expressive smile. "Do you allow me to make known the--the renewal. of your engagement?"

"Certainly," Dyce answered, beaming upon her.

Mrs. Toplady rose.

"I am so happy to have been the first to bring you the news. But it a little surprises me that you had not learnt it already from Miss Bride, who knew all about the will two days ago."

"Why should it surprise you?" said Lashmar, gently, as he took her hand. "Naturally I have kept away from Rivenoak, supposing Miss Tomalin to be still there; and Miss Bride was not likely to be in haste to communicate a piece of news which, strictly speaking, hardly concerns me at all."

"Be sure you come to see me when you are in town," were Mrs. Toplady's last words.

And her eyes twinkled with appreciation of Lashmar's demeanour.

CHAPTER XXVI

Dyce walked about the room. Without knowing it, he sang softly to himself. His countenance was radiant.

So, after all, Constance would be his wife. One moment's glimpse of a dread possibility that neither she nor May Tomalin benefited by Lady Ogram's will had sufficed to make him more than contented with the actual issue of his late complications. He had seen himself overwhelmed with disaster, reduced to the alternative of withdrawing into ignominious obscurity or of again seeking aid from Mrs. Woolstan, aid which might or not be granted, and in any case would only enable him to go through with the contest at Hollingford, a useless effort if he had nothing henceforth to live upon. As it was, he saw Constance and seventy thousand pounds, with the prosperous little paper-mill to boot. He did not love Constance, but the feeling of dislike with which he had recently come to regard her had quite passed away. He did not love Constance, but what a capable woman she was!--and what a help she would be to him in his career! Her having detected his philosophic plagiarism seemed to him now rather a good thing than otherwise; it spared him the annoyance of intellectual dishonesty in his domestic life, and put them in a position to discuss freely the political and social views by which he was to stand. After all, Constance was the only woman he knew whose intelligence he really respected. After all, remembering their intimacy long ago at Alverholme, he felt a fitness in this fated sequel. It gave him the pleasant sense of honourable conduct.

He smiled at the thought that he had fancied himself in love with May Tomalin. The girl was a half-educated simpleton, who would only have made him ridiculous. Her anonymous letter pointed to a grave fault of breeding; it would always have been suggestive of disagreeable possibilities. May was thoroughly plebeian in origin, and her resemblance to Lady Ogram might develop in a way it made him shudder to think of. Constance Bride came of gentlefolk, and needed only the favour of circumstances to show herself perfectly at ease in whatever social surroundings. She had a natural dignity, which, now he came to reflect upon it, he had always observed with pleasure. What could have been more difficult than her relations with Lady Ogram? Yet she had always borne herself with graceful independence.

Poor girl! She had gone through a hard time these last four weeks, and no wonder if she broke down under the strain of a situation such as that which ended in Lady Ogram's death. He would make up to her for it all. She should understand him, and rest in perfect confidence. Yes, he would reveal to her his whole heart and mind, so that no doubt of him, no slightest distrust, could ever disturb her peace. Not only did he owe her this complete sincerity; to him it would be no less delightful, no less tranquillising.

He sat down to write a note.

"Dear Constance--" yes, that sufficed. "When can I see you? Let it be as soon as possible. Of course you have understood my silence. Do you stay at Rivenoak a little longer? Let me come to-morrow, if possible."

After a little reflection, he signed himself, "Ever yours, D. L."

Having despatched this by private messenger, he went out and took a walk, choosing the direction away from Rivenoak. As he rambled along an uninteresting road, it occurred to him that he ought to write to Mrs. Woolstan. No need, of course, to say anything about the results of Lady Ogram's decease, but he really owed Iris a letter, just to show that he was not unmindful of her kindness. The foolish little woman had done her best for him; indeed, without her help, where would he have been now? He must pay his debt to her as soon as possible, and it would of course be necessary to speak of the matter to Constance. Not, perhaps, till after their marriage. Well, he would see; he might possibly have an impulse. Happily this was the very last of the unpleasant details he would have to dismiss. The luxury of living without concealment, unembarrassed, and unafraid!

By the bye, how would Constance understand the duties of her trusteeship? What portion of her income would she feel at liberty to set apart for personal uses? In all likelihood, she had spoken of that with Lady Ogram; at their coming interview, she would fully explain her position.

He returned to the hotel, and dined alone. To his disappointment, there came no answer from Rivenoak. Was it possible that Constance had already gone away? Very unlikely, so soon after the funeral. She would reply, no doubt, by post; indeed, there was no hurry, and a little reserve on her part would be quite natural.

Morning brought him the expected letter. "Dear Mr. Lashmar--" Oh, that was nothing; merely the reserve he had anticipated: he liked her the better for it. "I shall be at home all to-morrow, busy with many things. Could you come about three o'clock? Sincerely yours, Constance Bride." What could be in better taste? How else could she write, under the circumstances? His real wooing had not yet begun, and she merely reminded him of that, with all gentleness.

So, in the afternoon he once more presented himself at Rivenoak, and once more followed the servant into the drawing-room; Constance sat there; she rose as he approached, and silently gave her hand. He thought she looked rather pale; that might be the effect of black attire, which made a noticeable change in her appearance. But a certain dignity of which the visitor was very sensible, a grace of movement and of bearing which seemed new to her, could not be attributed to the dress she wore. In a saddened voice, he hoped that


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