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THE TRUTH ABOUT THE MAN.
In arriving at the bold decision which had caused so much anger and alarm to his enemies, and some searchings of heart among many who still ranked themselves as his friends, the Premier had been moved by more than one motive. The sinister design of overawing the Legislature by the fear of physical force and armed attack did not form part of his intentions, but he did intend and desire what, to a man trained in the traditions of Sir Robert's school, was hardly less unconstitutional and wrong. Through the machinery of his great gatherings, it was to be plainly intimated to the members what course their constituents and masters willed them to follow. He proposed to take every precaution against riot--and the necessary measures fell within the sphere of his own official duties as Chief Secretary; but he was willing and eager that every form of suasion and threat, short of the cudgels for which François Gaspard pined, should be brought to bear on his renegade followers. And, in the second place, it was a vital object to him to probe as deep as he could into the secrets of the popular mind. In six months the life of the Legislative Assembly would expire by effluxion of time: at any moment before he had a right to demand a dissolution, provided that he could convince the Governor of the probability of his coming back with a majority; thus, if the meetings could not avert defeat, they would, he hoped, teach him what course to follow in face of it. Lastly, he anticipated a renewal of energy and confidence in his own followers as the result of an outward manifestation of the support which he believed the masses of the electors accorded to his policy. His plans ignored the mine which was always beneath his feet. He had not forgotten it: it was constantly present to his mind with its menace of sudden explosion, but he was driven to disregard a chance that was entirely incalculable. He could not discern the mind of Benham, or of the man who pulled the strings to which Benham danced, accurately enough to forecast when the moment of attack would come. He felt sure that nothing short of the surrender and renunciation of all his policy could avert the blow--perhaps not even that would serve; if so, the blow must fall, when and where it would; for, whatever its effect on his position or his party, it would not leave him so powerless or so humbled in his own eyes as a voluntary submission to the terms his enemies chose to dictate.
The alternative of surrender would never have crossed his mind, had he been able to think only of the political side of the matter. But there was another, on which Benham's threats played with equal force. The episode of Dick Derosne's banishment had opened his eyes more fully to what the revelation might mean to his daughter; for, when he thought over the abrupt end that had been put to that romance, he could hardly fail to connect it with Benham or with Kilshaw. He shrank from the exposure to Daisy which he would have to undergo, and from the pain which he was doomed to inflict on her. Long years, no less than his own mode of thought, had veiled from him the character of what he would have to avow; the thing took on a new aspect when he forced himself to hear it as it would strike a daughter's ears. And, by this time, he was conscious--he could no longer affect to himself to be unconscious--that the blow which was to fall on Daisy would strike another with equal, perhaps greater, severity. He might remind himself, as he did over and over again, of the improbability, nay, the absurdity of what had happened; he might tell himself that he was no longer young, that time had robbed him of anything that could catch a girl's fancy, that the gulf of birth, associations, and surroundings yawned wide between. His own experience and insight into temperament rose up and contradicted him, and Alicia Derosne's face drove the truth into his mind. Seeking for a hero, she had strangely, almost comically, he thought, made one of him. Hero-worship, shutting out all criticism, had led her on till she made of him, a man whose life bore no close scrutiny, a battered politician, half visionary, half demagogue (for he did not spare himself in his thoughts)--till she had made of him an ideal statesman and a man worthy of all she had to give. A swift and gentle disenchantment was the best that could be wished for her: so he told himself, but he did not wish it. Time had not altogether changed him, and a woman's smile was to him still a force in his life, as much as it had been, or almost, when it led the boy of twenty-three to do all those rash and wrong things long ago. He could not bear to shut the door: dreaming of impossible transformations of obstinate facts, he drifted on, excusing himself for doing nothing by telling himself that there was nothing he could do.
Mr. Kilshaw's information as to the Governor's attitude had not been entirely incorrect, but, after an interview with the Premier, in which the latter explained his action, Lord Eynesford did not feel that more was required than a temperately expressed surprise and a hinted disapproval of the course adopted. He declined his wife's invitation to regard the matter in the most serious light, or to attribute any heinous offence to the Premier, contenting himself with remarking that Medland had a more powerful motive to maintain order than any one else; he also ventured to suggest that the best way of considering the question was not through a mist of prejudice against the Premier and all his belongings.
"Whatever you may do, Mary," he said, "I must keep the private and public sides separate."
"That's just what you don't do," retorted his wife--let it be added that they were alone. "The man has got round you as he gets round everybody."
"You, at least, seem safe so far," laughed the Governor. "Aren't you content with your triumph in the matter of Dick?"
"I heard from him to-day. He wants to come back."
Dick had obtained leave to visit Australia, instead of going home, and was therefore within comparatively easy distance of New Lindsey.
"Oh, I think we'll wait a bit."
"He seems to be having a splendid time, but he says he's lonely without us all."
"How touching!" remarked Lord Eynesford sceptically.
"Willie, be just to him. I was thinking how nice it would be if Alicia could join him for a little while. She's looking pale and wants a change."
"Does she want to go?"
"Well, I don't know."
"Haven't you asked her?"
Lord Eynesford knew his wife's way. He rose and stood with his back to the fireplace.
"You'll be sending me away next, Mary," he remarked. "What's wrong with Alicia? She doesn't show signs of relenting about your friend Coxon, does she? If so, she shall go by the next boat, if I have to exert the prerogative."
"Mr. Coxon? Oh, dear, no! Poor man! There's no danger from him."
"What's in the wind then?"
"She's too intimate with these Medlands."
"My dear Mary! Forgive me, but you're in danger of becoming a monomaniac. The Medlands are not lepers."
Lady Eynesford shut her lips close and made no answer.
"What harm can they do her?" pursued the Governor. "Daisy's a nice girl, and Medland--well, the worst he can do is to make her a Radical, and it doesn't matter two straws what she is."
Lady Eynesford's foot tapped on the floor.
"I suppose you'll laugh at me," she said. "Indeed it's absurd enough to make any one laugh, but, Willie, I'm not quite sure that Alicia isn't too much----"
The sentence was cut short by the entrance of Alicia herself.
"Ah! Al!" cried the Governor. "Come here. Would you like to join Dick in Australia?"
"He says he's lonely, and I thought it would be such a nice trip for you," added Lady Eynesford.
"Dick lonely! What nonsense! It only means he wants to come back, Mary."
Dick's pathos was evidently a broken reed. Lady Eynesford let it go, and said,
"Anyhow, you might take advantage of his being there to see Australia."
"I don't want to see Australia," answered Alicia. "I much prefer New Lindsey."
"You don't jump at Mary's proposal?"
"I utterly decline," laughed Alicia, and, taking the book she had come in search of, she went out.
"You see. She won't go," remarked Lady Eynesford.
"I never thought she would. What were you going to say when she came in?"
Lady Eynesford rose and stood by her husband.
"Willie," she said, "what is it about the Medlands? I'm tired of not knowing whether there is anything or whether there isn't."
"I don't know, my dear. There's some gossip, I believe," said Lord Eynesford discreetly.
"Do you know what Mrs. Puttock said to Eleanor? Eleanor ought to have told me at once, but she only did last night. Eleanor asked something about his wife, and Mrs. Puttock said, 'For my part, I don't believe he ever had a wife.'" Lady Eynesford repeated the all-important sentence with scrupulous accuracy.
"By Jove!" exclaimed the Governor. "That was what--" He checked himself before Kilshaw's name could leave his lips.
"Yes? Now, Willie, if that's true or--or anything like it, you know, is it right for Alicia to be constantly with Daisy Medland and--and in and out of the house, you know?"
The Governor looked grave. The thing was tangible enough now, and demanded to be dealt with more urgently than it ever had before.
"It's a pity Eleanor didn't speak sooner," he said.
"She thought less of it because Mrs. Puttock is a vulgar old gossip."
"Yes; but I'm afraid there may be something in it. Why did Eleanor tell you now?"
"Because I was speaking to her about the way Mr. Medland monopolised Alicia in the Park the other afternoon."
"Oh, that was my fault."
"It makes no difference how it came about. Willie, she had eyes and ears for no one else," and Lady Eynesford's voice became very earnest.
"But it's preposterous, Mary. You must be wrong. There couldn't possibly be anything of the kind."
"You know the sort of girl she is," his wife went on. "She's--well, she's easily caught by an idea, and rather romantic, and--really, dear, we ought to be careful."
"I can't believe it. If it's true, Medland has treated me very badly."
"What does he care?" asked Lady Eynesford. "How I wish she would go away! Nothing I say seems to make any impression on her."
"Perhaps Medland has noticed nothing, even if you're right about Alicia."
"He couldn't help noticing."
"What? Do you mean she makes it----?"
"I don't want to say anything unkind, but--well, yes, I'm afraid she does."
The Governor took a pace along the room.
"Upon my word," he exclaimed impatiently, "the way we get mixed up with these people is absurdly awkward. First there's Dick----"
"That's nothing to this. Dick was never really serious, and Alicia's always serious, if she thinks about a thing at all."
"Well, well, of course it must be stopped. What are you going to do?"
"She must be told," said Lady Eynesford.
"I won't tell her."
"Then I must."
"I wonder if you're not wrong after all."
"Oh, watch them!" retorted Lady Eynesford, and, leaving her husband, she sought Alicia and invited her to come and have a talk in the verandah.
Alicia, when thus summoned, was sitting with Eleanor Scaife, and they were both watching Captain Heseltine's fox terrier jump over a walking-stick under his master's tuition. It was a suitable enough amusement for a hot day; and it was engrossing enough to prevent Eleanor raising her eyes at the sound of Lady Eynesford's voice. In fact, she was not over and above anxious to meet that lady's glance. Eleanor had, in the light of recent events, grown rather doubtful of the wisdom of her wonderful discretion, and Lady Eynesford had intimated, with her usual clearness of statement, a decided opinion that not Eleanor, but she herself was the proper person to judge what should and should not be told to Alicia. She had enforced her moral by hinting at very distressing consequences which might follow on Eleanor's unfortunate reticence.
"I sometimes think," Eleanor remarked to Heseltine, when Alicia had left them, "that perfect openness and candour are always best."
Captain Heseltine lowered the walking-stick and looked at her with an air of expectancy.
"It saves so much misunderstanding, if you tell everybody everything right out," continued Eleanor.
"For my part," returned Heseltine, with an earnestness which he rarely displayed, "I differ utterly. I've never in my life told anybody anything without being sorry I hadn't held my tongue."
"Oh, you mean your private affairs."
"Well, and you? Oh, I see. You only mean other people's. Agreed, agreed! Perfect openness and candour about them by all means!"
"I am quite serious. One never knows how much harm may be done by concealing them."
"Got a murder on your conscience?"
"Oh, not exactly," sighed Eleanor.
"You're like that chap Kilshaw. He's always talking as if he had something awful up his sleeve."
"Perhaps he has."
As Eleanor said this, she jumped up and ran to meet Alicia, whom she saw coming towards her. Lady Eynesford had wasted no time over her task.
The Captain, being left alone, did the appropriate thing. He soliloquised.
"She'd have told me in another half-minute," said he, with a chuckle. "It was choking her. Yet she's a sensible one as they go."
Whom or what class he meant by "they" it is merciful to his ignorant prejudices to leave unrevealed.
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