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- Our Friend the Charlatan - 80/81 -

if they went straight from church to their home at West Hampstead. And would not a few autumn weeks of Devon be delightful? Again he yielded.

The vicar of Alverholme and his wife, when satisfied that Dyce's betrothed was a respectable person, consented to be present at the marriage. Not easily did Mrs. Lashmar digest her bitter disappointment, which came so close upon that of Dyce's defeat at Hollingford; but she was a practical woman, and, in the state of things at Alverholme, six hundred a year seemed to her not altogether to be despised.

"My fear was," she remarked one day to her husband, "that Dyce would be tempted to marry money. I respect him for the choice he has made; it shows character."

The vicar just gave a glance of surprise, but said nothing. Every day made him an older man in look and bearing. His head was turning white. He had begun to mutter to himself as he walked about the parish. Not a man in England who worried more about his own affairs and those of the world.

In an obscure lodging, Dyce awaited the day of destiny. One evening he went to dine at West Hampstead; though he was rather late, Iris had not yet come home, and she had left no message to explain her absence. He waited a quarter of an hour. When at length his betrothed came hurrying into the room, she wore so strange a countenance that Dyce could not but ask what had happened. Nothing, nothing--she declared. It was only that she had been obliged to hurry so, and was out of breath, and--and--. Whereupon she tottered to a chair, death-pale, all but fainting.

"What the _devil_ is the matter with you?" cried Lashmar, whose over-strong nerves could not endure this kind of thing.

His violence had an excellent effect. Iris recovered herself, and came towards him with hands extended.

"It's nothing at all, dearest. I couldn't bear to keep you waiting, and fretted myself into a fever when I saw what time it was. Don't be angry with me, will you?"

Dyce was satisfied. It seemed to him a very natural explanation; a caress put him into his gracious mood.

"After all, you know," he said, "you're a very womanly woman. I think we shall have to give up pretending that you're not."

"But I've given it up long since!" Iris exclaimed, with large eyes. "Didn't you know that?"

"I'm not sure--" he laughed--"that I'm not glad of it."

And they passed a much more tranquil evening than usual. Iris seemed tired; she sat with her head on Dyce's shoulder, thrilling when his lips touched her hair. He had assured her that her hair was beautiful--that he had always admired its hue of the autumn elm-leaf. Her face, too, he was beginning to find pretty, and seldom did he trouble to reflect that she was seven years older than he.

Already he regarded this house as his own. His books had been transferred hither, and many of his other possessions. Very carefully had Iris put out of sight or got rid of, everything which could remind him of her former marriage. Certain things (portraits and the like) which must be preserved for Leonard's sake were locked away in the boy's room. Of course Lashmar had given her no presents; she, on the other hand, had been very busy in furnishing a study which should please him, buying the pictures and ornaments he liked, and many expensive books of which he said that he had need. Into this room Dyce was not allowed to peep; it waited as a surprise for him on the return from the honeymoon. Drawing-room and dining-room he trod as master, and often felt that, after all, a man could be very comfortable here for a year or two. A box of good cigars invited him after dinner. A womanly woman, the little mistress of the house; and, all things considered, he couldn't be sure that he wasn't glad of it.

One more day only before that of the wedding. Dyce had been on the point of asking whether all the business with Wrybolt was satisfactorily settled; but delicacy withheld him. Really, there was nothing to do; Iris's money simply passed into her own hands on the event of her marriage. It would be time enough to talk of such things presently.

They spent nearly all the last day together. Iris was in the extremity of nervousness; she looked as if she had not slept for two or three nights; often she hid her face against Dyce's shoulder, and shook as if sobbing, but no tears followed.

"Do you love me?" she asked, again and again. "Do you really, really love me?"

"But you know I do," Dyce answered, at length irritably. "How many times must I tell you? It's all very well to be womanly, but don't be womanish."

"You're not sorry you're going to marry me?"

"You're getting hysterical, and I can't stand that."

Hysterical she became as soon as Lashmar had left her. One of the two servants, looking into the dressing-room before going to bed, saw her lying, half on the floor, half against the sofa, in a lamentable state. She wailed incoherent phrases.

"I can't help it--too late--I can't, _can't_ help it oh! oh!"

Unobserved, the domestic drew back, and went to gossip with her fellow-servant of this strange incident.

The hours drove on. Lashmar found himself at the church, accompanied by his father, his mother, his old friend the Home Office clerk. They waited the bride's coming; she was five minutes late, ten minutes late; but came at last. With her were two ladies, kinsfolk of hers. Had Iris risen from a sick bed to go through this ceremony, she could not have shown a more disconcerting visage. But she held herself up before the altar. The book was opened; the words of fate were uttered; the golden circlet slipped onto her trembling hand; and Mrs. Dyce Lashmar passed forth upon her husband's arm to the carriage that awaited them.

A week went by. They were staying at Dawlish, and Lashmar, who had quite come round to his wife's opinion on the subject of the honeymoon, cared not how long these days of contented indolence lulled his ambitious soul; at times he was even touched by the devotion which repaid his sacrifice. A certain timidity which clung to Iris, a tremulous solicitude which marked her behaviour to him, became her, he thought, very well indeed. Constance Bride was right; he could not have been thus at his ease with a woman capable of reading his thoughts, and of criticising them. He talked at large of his prospects, which took a hue from the halcyon sea and sky.

One morning they had strolled along the cliffs, and in a sunny hollow they sat down to rest. Dyce took from his pocket a newspaper he had bought on coming forth.

"Let us see what fools are doing," he said genially.

Iris watched him with uneasy eye. The sight of a newspaper was dreadful to her: yet she always eagerly scanned those that came under her notice. Lying now on the dry turf, she was able to read one page whilst Dyce occupied himself with another. Of a sudden she began to shake; then a half-stifled cry escaped her.

"What is it?" asked her husband, startled.

"Oh, look, Dyce! Look at this!"

She pointed him to a paragraph headed: "Disappearance of a City Man." When Lashmar had read it, he met his wife's anguished look with surprise and misgiving.

"You've had a precious narrow escape. Of course this is nothing to _you_, now?"

"Oh but I'm afraid it is--I'm afraid it is, Dyce--"

"What do you mean? Didn't you get everything out of his hands?"

"I thought it was safe--I left it till we were back at home--"

Lashmar started to his feet, pale as death.

"What? Then all your money is lost?"

"Oh, surely not? How can it be? We must make inquiries at once--"

"Inquiries? Inquiries enough have been made, you may depend upon it, before this got into the papers. Why, read! The fellow has bolted; the police are after him; he has robbed and swindled right and left. Do you imagine _your_ money has escaped his clutches?"

They stood face to face.

"Dear, don't be angry with me!" sounded from Iris in a choking voice. "I am not to blame--I couldn't help it--oh don't look at me like that, dear husband!"

"But you have been outrageously careless! What right had you to expose us to this danger? Ass that I was ass, _ass_ that I was! I wanted to speak of it, and my cursed delicacy prevented me. What right had you to behave so idiotically?"

He set off at a great speed towards Dawlish. Iris ran after him, caught his arm, clung to him.

"Where are you going? You won't leave me?"

"I'm going to London, of course," was his only reply, as he strode on.

Running by his side, Iris told with broken breath of the offer of marriage she had received from Wrybolt not long ago. She understood now why he wished to marry her; no doubt he already found himself in grave difficulties, and saw this as a chance either of obtaining money, or of concealing a fraud he had already practised at her expense.

"Why didn't you fell me that before?" cried Lashmar, savagely. "What right had you to keep it from me?"

Our Friend the Charlatan - 80/81

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