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A CONSCIENTIOUS MAN'S CONSCIENCE.
A very few hours after its occurrence, the scene at the flower-show was regretted by all who took part in it. Medland realised the foolishness of his indiscretion and want of temper; Benham was afraid that he might have set inquiring minds on the track of game which he wished to hunt down for himself; Kilshaw was annoyed at having been forced into such an open display of his relations with and his influence over Benham. Even to himself, his dealings with the man were a delicate subject. Almost every one has one or two matters which he would rather not discuss with his own conscience; and his bargain with Benham was one of these tabooed topics to Kilshaw. For, in spite of what he had done in this instance, he belonged to a class which some righteous and superior people will have it does not exist. He was a conscientious politician--a man who, in the main, was honest and straightforward; prone indeed to think that what he had was necessarily identical with what he ought to have, and that any law not based on a recognition of this fact was an iniquitous law, but loyal to his friends, his class, his party, and his country; ready to spend and work for his own rights' sake, but no niggard of time or money in larger causes; sincere in his convictions, dauntless in affirming and upholding them, hardly conceiving that honest men could differ from them; strong in his self-confidence, believing that the best men always won, suspecting from the bottom of his heart every appeal to sentiment in the mouth of a politician. Such he was--a type of the man of success, with the hardness that success is apt to bring, but with the virtues that attain it; and his defects and merits had made him, for years past, Sir Robert Perry's most valued lieutenant, and a very pillar of the cautious conservative ideas on which that statesman's influence was based.
And now Mr. Kilshaw, impelled less by mere self-interest than by the rankling of a personal feud, had--dipped the end of his fingers in pitch. He had resented fiercely Medland's hardly disguised attack on him, and it had fanned into flame the wrath which the Premier's schemes, threatening the profits of himself and his fellow-capitalists, and the Premier's principles, redolent to his nostrils of the quackery and hypocrisy that he hated, had set alight in his heart. Against such a man and such a policy, was not everything fair? Was it not even fair to use a tool like Benham, if the tool put itself in his hand?
Yet he was ashamed; but, being in secret ashamed, he, as men often do, set his face and went on his way all the more obstinately.
He bought Mr. Benham, Mr. Benham and his secret; they were heartily at his disposal, for he could pay a better price than Puttock could; and he laid them by in his arsenal, for use, he carefully added to himself, only in the very last emergency.
"Not yet, you fool!" he had whispered to his tool in anger and alarm. The tool did not know how dirty it seemed to the hand that was to use it, and yet shrank from using it until the very last. But if it came to the very last--why, he would use it; and Mr. Kilshaw inspected the pitch on the end of his fingers, and almost convinced himself that it was not pitch at all.
Yet was this "very last" very far off? Since the flower-show, the Premier was displaying feverish activity. He was like a man who is stricken by mortal sickness, but has some work that he must finish before the time comes when he can do no more work, and know no more joy in the work he has done. Bill after bill was introduced embodying his schemes, and the popular praise of him and enthusiasm rose higher and higher at the sight of a minister doing, or at least attempting, all and more than he promised. The Ministry was worked to death; the Governor was apprehensive and uneasy; Capital was, as Kilshaw had said, alarmed; only Sir Robert Perry smiled, as he remarked to the Chief Justice at the Club,
"It can't last. His own men won't swallow all this. Medland must be mad to try it."
"Perhaps," suggested Sir John, "he doesn't mean business. He may only want a strong platform to dissolve on."
"Riding for a fall, eh?"
"I shouldn't wonder."
"My experience is," observed Captain Heseltine, looking up from the Stud Book, "that chaps who ride for a fall come more unholy crumplers than anybody else."
"I hope you're right," said Sir Robert, with a smile.
And they discussed the matter with much acumen, and would doubtless have arrived at a true conclusion, had they known anything about the matter. But, as it happened, they were all ignorant of the real reason which dictated Medland's conduct. He had gauged the character of his most uncompromising and powerful enemy to a nicety. He knew that Kilshaw would be loth to make use of Benham, and yet that he would make use of him. He saw that the danger which threatened him had become great and immediate. A stronger hand and a longer purse than Benham's were now against him. The chase had begun. He could not expect much law, and he was riding, not for a fall, but against time. He did not despair of escape, but the chances were against him. He must cover as much ground as he could before the pack was on his heels. So he brought in his bills, made his speeches, fluttered the dovecote of many a prejudice and many an interest, was the idol of the people, and never had a quiet hour.
Besides its more serious effects, the Premier's absorption in public affairs had the result of blinding him to the change that had gradually been coming over his own house. Norburn had always been in and out every hour; he was in and out still, but now he came straight from the street door to the Premier's room, and went straight back thence to the street door again. The visits to Daisy, which had been wont to precede and follow, perhaps even sometimes to occasion, business conferences, ceased almost entirely; and the young Minister's brow bore a weight of care that the precarious position of the Cabinet was not alone enough to account for. It would seem as if Daisy must have noticed Norburn's altered ways, although her father did not; but she made no reference to them, and appeared to be aware of nothing which called for explanation or remark. Perhaps she missed Norburn's visits less because his place was so often filled by Dick Derosne, who, unable to find, or perhaps scorning, any pretext of business, came with the undisguised object of seeing the Premier's daughter, and not the Premier.
Whatever differences Eleanor Scaife and other studious inquirers may discover between young communities and old, it is safe to say that there are many points of resemblance: one of them is that, in both, folk talk a good deal about their neighbours' affairs. The stream of gossip, which Dick's indiscreet behaviour at Sir John Oakapple's dance had set a-flowing, was not diminished in current by his subsequent conduct. Some people believed that he was merely amusing himself, and were very much or very little shocked according to their temperaments and their views on such matters; others, with great surprise and regret, were forced to believe him serious, and wondered what he could be thinking of; a third class took the line sanctioned by the eminent authority of Mr. Tomes, and hailed the possibility of a union of more than private importance. Such a diversity of opinion powerfully promoted the interchange of views, and very soon there were but few people in Kirton society, outside the two households most concerned, who were not watching the progress of the affair.
The circulating eddies of report at last reached Mr. Kilshaw, soon after he had, by his bargain with Benham, been put in possession of the facts that gentleman had to dispose of. Kilshaw knew Dick Derosne very well, and for a time he remained quiet, expecting to see Dick's zeal slacken and his infatuation cease of their own accord. When the opposite happened, Kilshaw's anger was stirred within him; he was ready to find, and in consequence at once found, a new sin and a fresh cause of offence in the Premier. Without considering that Medland had many things to do besides watching the course of flirtations or the development of passions, he hastily concluded that he had come upon another scheme and detected another manoeuvre intended to strengthen the Premier's exposed position. He appreciated the advantage that such an alliance would be to a man threatened with the kind of revelation which menaced Medland; it was clear to his mind that Medland had appreciated it too, and had laid a cunning trap for Dick's innocent feet. It did not suit him to produce yet the public explosion which he destined for his enemy; but he lost no time in determining to checkmate this last ingenious move by some private communication which would put Dick--or perhaps better still, Dick's friends--on guard.
Mr. Dick Derosne perhaps was not unaware that many people in Kirton frowned on him as an unprincipled deceiver, or, at best, a fickle light-o'-love; he would have been much more surprised, and also more displeased, to know that there was even one who thought of him as a deluded innocent, and had determined to rescue him from the snares which were set for his destruction. He did not feel like a deluded innocent. He was not sure how he did feel. Perhaps he also, as well as the man who was preparing to rescue him, had a subject which did not bear too much or too candid inward discussion; and he found it easier to stifle any attempt at importunity on the part of his conscience than Kilshaw did. Kilshaw could only appeal to the paramount interests of the public welfare as an excuse for his own doubtful dealing: Dick could and did look into Daisy Medland's eyes and forget that there was any need or occasion for excuse at all. Supposing she were fond of him--and he could not suppose anything else--what did he mean to do? Many people asked that question, but Dick Derosne himself was not among them. He knew that he would be very sorry to lose her, that she was the chief reason now why he found Kirton a pleasant place of residence, and that he resented very highly any other man venturing to engross her conversation. Beyond that he did not go; but the state of mind which these feelings indicated was no doubt quite enough to justify Kilshaw in deciding to have recourse to the Governor, and allow his message to Dick to filter through one who had more right than he had to offer counsel.
In a matter like this, to determine was to do. He got on his horse and rode through the Park towards Government House. In the Park he met Captain Heseltine, also mounted and looking very hot. The Captain mopped his face, and waved an accusing arm towards an inhospitable eucalyptus.
"Call that a tree!" he said. "The beastly thing doesn't give a ha'porth of shade."
"It's the best we've got," replied Kilshaw, in ironical apology for his country.
"As a rule, you know," the Captain continued, "coming out for a ride here, except at midnight, means standing up under a willow and wondering how the deuce you'll get home."
"Well, you're not under a willow now."
"No; I was, but I had to quit. Derosne and Miss Medland turned me out."
"You felt you ought to go?"
"My tact told me so. I say, Kilshaw, what do you make of that?"
"Nothing in it," answered Kilshaw confidently.
Captain Heseltine had but one test of sincerity, and it was a test to which he knew Kilshaw was, as a rule, quite ready to submit. He took out a small note-book from one pocket and a pencil from the other.
"What'll you lay that it doesn't come off?" he asked.
"I won't bet."
"Oh," said the Captain, scornfully implying that he ceased to attach value to Mr. Kilshaw's judgment.
"I won't bet, because I know."
"The deuce you do!" exclaimed Heseltine, promptly re-pocketing his apparatus.
"And, if you want another reason why I won't bet," continued Kilshaw, who did not like the Captain's air of incredulity, "I'll tell you. I'm going to stop it myself."
"Oh, of course, if you object!" said the Captain, with undisguised irony. "I hope, though, that you'll let me have a shot, after Dick."
"You won't want it, if you're a wise man. You wait a bit, my friend," and with a grim nod of his head, Kilshaw rode on.
The Captain looked after him with a meditative stare. Then he glanced at his watch.
"That beggar knows something," said he. "I think I'll go and interrupt friend Richard." And he continued, apostrophising the absent Dick--"To stay out, my boy, may not be easy; but to get out when you're once in, is the deuce!"
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