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There needed only two or three days of life at Polterham to allay the uneasiness with which, for all his show of equanimity, Denzil entered upon so perilous a career. By the end of January he had practically forgotten that his position was in any respect insecure. The risk of betraying himself in an unguarded moment was diminished by the mental habit established during eighteen months of secrecy in London. Lilian's name was seldom upon his lips, and any inquiry concerning her at once awakened his caution. Between themselves they never spoke of the past.
Long ago he had silenced every conscientious scruple regarding the relation between Lilian and himself; and as for the man Northway, if ever he thought of him at all, it was with impatient contempt. That he was deceiving his Polterham acquaintances, and in a way which they would deem an unpardonable outrage, no longer caused him the least compunction. Conventional wrong doing, he had satisfied himself, was not wrong-doing at all, unless discovered. He injured no one. The society of such a person as Lilian could be nothing but an advantage to man, woman, and child. Only the sublimation of imbecile prejudice would maintain that she was an unfit companion for the purest creature living. He had even ceased to smile at the success of his stratagem. It was over and done with; their social standing was unassailable.
Anxious to complete his book on the Vikings, he worked at it for several hours each morning; it would be off his hands some time in February, and the spring publishing season should send it forth to the world. The rest of his leisure was given to politics. Chests of volumes were arriving from London, and his library shelves began to make a respectable appearance; as a matter of principle, he bought largely from the local bookseller, who rejoiced at the sudden fillip to his stagnant trade, and went about declaring that Mr. Denzil Quarrier was evidently the man for the borough.
He fell upon history, economics, social speculation, with characteristic vigour. If he got into the House of Commons, those worthies should speedily be aware of his existence among them. It was one of his favourite boasts that whatever subject he choose to tackle, he could master. No smattering for him; a solid foundation of knowledge, such as would ensure authority to his lightest utterances.
In the meantime, he began to perceive that Lilian was not likely to form many acquaintances in the town. With the Liversedges she stood on excellent terms, and one or two families closely connected with them gave her a welcome from which she did not shrink. But she had no gift of social versatility; it cost her painful efforts to converse about bazaars and curates and fashions and babies with the average Polterham matron; she felt that most of the women who came to see her went away with distasteful impressions, and that they were anything but cordial when she returned their call. A life of solitude and study was the worst possible preparation for duties such as were now laid upon her.
"You are dissatisfied with me," she said to Denzil, as they returned from spending the evening with some empty but influential people who had made her exceedingly uncomfortable.
"Dissatisfied? On the contrary, I am very proud of you. It does one good to contrast one's wife with women such as those."
"I tried to talk; but I'm so ignorant of everything they care about. I shall do better when I know more of the people they refer to."
"Chattering apes! Malicious idiots! Heaven forbid that you should ever take a sincere part in their gabble! That lot are about the worst we shall have to deal with. Decent simpletons you can get along with very well."
"How ought I to speak of Mrs. Wade? When people tell downright falsehoods about her, may I contradict?"
"It's a confoundedly difficult matter, that. I half wish Mrs. Wade would hasten her departure. Did she say anything about it when you saw her the other day?"
It appeared that the widow wished to make a friend of Lilian. She had called several times, and on each occasion behaved so charmingly that Lilian was very ready to meet her advances. Though on intellectual and personal grounds he could feel no objection to such an intimacy, Denzil began to fear that it might affect his popularity with some voters who would take the Liberal side if it did not commit them to social heresies. This class is a very large one throughout England. Mrs. Wade had never given occasion of grave scandal; she was even seen, with moderate regularity, at one or other of the churches; but many of the anti-Tory bourgeois suspected her of sympathy with views so very "advanced" as to be socially dangerous. Already it had become known that she was on good terms with Quarrier and his wife. It was rumoured that Quarrier would reconsider the position he had publicly assumed, and stand forth as an advocate of Female Suffrage. For such extremes Polterham was not prepared.
"Mrs. Wade asks me to go and have tea with her to-morrow," Lilian announced one morning, showing a note. "Shall I, or not?"
"You would like to?"
"Not if you think it unwise."
"Hang it!--we can't be slaves. Go by all means, and refresh your mind."
At three o'clock on the day of invitation Lilian alighted from her brougham at Pear-tree Cottage. It was close upon the end of February; the declining sun shot a pleasant glow across the landscape, and in the air reigned a perfect stillness. Mrs. Wade threw open the door herself with laughing welcome.
"Let us have half-an-hour's walk, shall we? It's so dry and warm."
"I should enjoy it," Lilian answered, readily.
"Then allow me two minutes for bonnet and cloak."
She was scarcely longer. They went by the hedge-side path which led towards Bale Water. To-day the papers were full of exciting news. Sir Stafford Northcote had brought forward his resolution for making short work of obstructive Members, and Radicalism stood undecided. Mrs. Wade talked of these things in the liveliest strain, Lilian responding with a lighthearted freedom seldom possible to her.
"You skated here, didn't you?" said her companion, as they drew near to the large pond.
"Yes; a day or two after we came. How different it looks now."
They stood on the bank where it rose to a considerable height above the water.
"The rails have spoilt this spot," said Mrs. Wade. "They were only put up last autumn, after an accident. I wonder it was never found necessary before. Some children were gathering blackberries from the bramble there, and one of them reached too far forward, and over she went! I witnessed it from the other side, where I happened to be walking. A great splash, and then a chorus of shrieks from the companions. I began to run forward, though of course I could have done nothing whatever; when all at once I saw a splendid sight. A man who was standing not far off ran to the edge and plunged in--a magnificent 'header!' He had only thrown away his hat and coat. They say it's very deep just here. He disappeared completely, and then in a few seconds I saw that be had hold of the child. He brought her out where the bank slopes yonder--no harm done. I can't tell you bow I enjoyed that scene It made me cry with delight."
As usual, when deeply moved, Lilian stood in a reverie, her eyes wide, her lips tremulous. Then she stepped forward, and, with her hand resting upon the wooden rail, looked down. There was no perceptible movement in the water; it showed a dark greenish surface, smooth to the edge, without a trace of weed.
"How I envy that man his courage!"
"His power, rather," suggested Mrs. Wade. "If we could swim well, and had no foolish petticoats, we should jump in just as readily. It was the power over circumstances that I admired and envied."
Lilian smiled thoughtfully.
"I suppose that is what most attracts us in men?"
"And makes us feel our own dependence. I can't say I like that feeling--do you?"
She seemed to wait for an answer.
"I'm afraid it's in the order of nature," replied Lilian at length with a laugh.
"Very likely. But I am not content with it on that account. I know of a thousand things quite in the order of nature which revolt me. I very often think of nature as an evil force, at war with the good principle of which we are conscious in our souls."
"But," Lilian faltered, "is your ideal an absolute independence?"
Mrs. Wade looked far across the water, and answered, "Yes, absolute!"
"Then you--I don't quite know what would result from that."
"Nor I," returned the other, laughing. "That doesn't affect my ideal. You have heard, of course, of that lecture your husband gave at the Institute before--before your marriage?"
"Yes; I wish I could have heard it."
"You would have sympathized with every word, I am sure. Mr. Quarrier is one of the strong men who find satisfaction in women's weakness."
It was said with perfect good-humour, with a certain indulgent kindness--a tone Mrs. Wade had used from the first in talking with Lilian. A manner of affectionate playfulness, occasionally of caressing protection, distinguished her in this intercourse; quite unlike that by which she was known to people in general. Lilian did not dislike it, rather was drawn by it into a mood of grateful confidence.
"I don't think 'weakness' expresses it," she objected. "He likes women to be subordinate, no doubt of that. His idea is that"----
"I know, I know!" Mrs. Wade turned away with a smile her companion did not observe. "Let us walk back again; it grows chilly. A beautiful sunset, if clouds don't gather. Perhaps it surprises you that I care for such sentimental things?"
"I think I understand you better."
"Frankly--do you think me what the French call hommasse? Just a little?"
"Nothing of the kind, Mrs. Wade," Lilian replied, with courage. "You are a very womanly woman."
The bright, hard eyes darted a quick glance at her.
"Really? That is how I strike you?"
"It is, indeed."
"How I like your way of speaking," said the other, after a moment's pause. "I mean, your voice--accent. Has it anything to do with the long time you have spent abroad, I wonder?"
Lilian smiled and was embarrassed.
"You are certainly not a Londoner?"
"Oh no! I was born in the west of England."
"And I at Newcastle. As a child I had a strong northern accent; you don't notice anything of it now? Oh, I have been about so much. My husband was m the Army. That is the first time I have mentioned him to you, and it will be the last, however long we know each other."
Lilian kept her eyes on the ground. The widow glanced off to a totally different subject, which occupied them the rest of the way back to the cottage.
Daylight lasted until they had finished tea, then a lamp was brought in and the red blind drawn down. Quarrier had gone to spend the day at a neighbouring town, and would not be back before late in the evening, so that Lilian had arranged to go from Mrs. Wade's to the Liversedges'. They still had a couple of hours' talk to enjoy; on Lilian's side, at all events, it was unfeigned enjoyment. The cosy little room put her at ease Its furniture was quite in keeping with the simple appearance of the house, but books and pictures told that no ordinary cottager dwelt here.
"I have had many an hour of happiness in this room," said Mrs. Wade, as they seated themselves by the fire. "The best of all between eleven at night and two in the morning. You know the lines in 'Penseroso.' Most men would declare that a woman can't possibly appreciate them; I know better. I am by nature a student; the life of society is nothing to me; and, in reality, I care very little about politics."
Smiling, she watched the effect of her words.
"You are content with solitude?" said Lilian, gazing at her with a look of deep interest.
"Quite. I have no relatives who care anything about me, and only two or three people I call friends. But I must have more books, and I shall be obliged to go to London."
"Don't go just yet--won't our books be of use to you?"
"I shall see. Have you read this?"
It was a novel from Smith's Library. Lilian knew it, and they discussed its merits. Mrs. Wade mentioned a book by the same author which had appeared more than a year ago.
"Yes, I read that when it came out," said Lilian, and began to talk of it.
Mrs. Wade kept silence, then remarked carelessly:
"You had them in the Tauchnitz series, I suppose?"
Had her eyes been turned that way, she must have observed the strange look which flashed across her companion's countenance. Lilian seemed to draw in her breath, though silently.
"Yes--Tauchnitz," she answered.
Mrs. Wade appeared quite unconscious of anything unusual in the tone. She was gazing at the fire.
"It isn't often I find time for novels," she said; "for new ones, that is. A few of the old are generally all I need. Can you read George Eliot? What a miserably conventional soul that woman has!"
"Oh, I know! But she is British conventionality to the core. I have heard people say that she hasn't the courage of her opinions; but that is precisely what she has, and every page of her work declares it flagrantly. She might have been a great power--she might have speeded the revolution of morals--if the true faith had been in her."
Lilian was still tremulous, and she listened with an intensity which gave her a look of pain. She was about to speak, but Mrs. Wade anticipated her.
"You mustn't trouble much about anything I say when it crosses your own judgment or feeling. There are so few people with whom I can indulge myself in free speech. I talk just for the pleasure of it; don't think I expect or hope that you will always go along with me. But you are not afraid of thinking--that's the great thing. Most women are such paltry creatures that they daren't look into their own minds--for fear nature should have put something 'improper' there."
She broke off with laughter, and, as Lilian kept silence, fell into thought.
In saying that she thought her Companion a "womanly woman," Lilian told the truth. Ever quick with sympathy, she felt a sadness in Mrs. Wade's situation, which led her to interpret all her harsher peculiarities as the result of disappointment and loneliness. Now that the widow had confessed her ill-fortune in marriage, Lilian was assured of having judged rightly, and nursed her sentiment of compassion. Mrs. Wade was still young; impossible that she should have accepted a fate which forbade her the knowledge of woman's happiness. But how difficult for such a one to escape from this narrow and misleading way! Her strong, highly-trained intellect could find no satisfaction in the society of every-day people, yet she was withheld by poverty from seeking her natural sphere. With Lilian, to understand a sorrow was to ask herself what she could do for its assuagement. A thought of characteristic generosity came to her. Why should she not (some day or other, when their friendship was mature) offer Mrs. Wade the money, her own property, which would henceforth be lying idle? There would be practical difficulties in the way, but surely they might be overcome. The idea brought a smile to her face. Yes; she would think of this. She would presently talk of it with Denzil.
"Come now," said Mrs. Wade, rousing herself from meditation, "let us talk about the Irish question."
Lilian addressed herself conscientiously to the subject, but it did not really interest her; she had no personal knowledge of Irish hardships, and was wearied by the endless Parliamentary debate. Her thoughts still busied themselves with the hopeful project for smoothing Mrs. Wade's path in life.
When the carriage came for her, she took her leave with regret, but full of happy imaginings. She had quite forgotten the all but self-betrayal into which she was led during that chat about novels.
Two days later Quarrier was again absent from home on business, and Lilian spent the evening with the Liversedges. Supper was over, and she had begun to think of departure, when the drawing-room door was burst open, and in rushed Denzil, wet from head to foot with rain, and his face a-stream with perspiration.
"They dissolve at Easter!" he cried, waving his hat wildly. "Northcote announced it at five this afternoon. Hammond has a telegram; I met him at the station."
"Ho! ho! this is news!" answered Mr. Liversedge, starting up from his easy-chair.
"News, indeed!" said his wife; "but that's no reason, Denzil, why you should make my carpet all ram and mud. Do go and take your coat off, and clean your boots, there's a good boy!"
"How can I think of coat and boots? Here, Lily, fling this garment somewhere. Give me a duster, or something, to stand on, Molly. Toby, we must have a meeting in a day or two. Can we get the Public Hall for Thursday or Friday? Shall we go round and see our committee-men to-night?"
"Time enough to-morrow; most of them are just going to bed. But how is it no one had an inkling of this? They have kept the secret uncommonly well."
"The blackguards! Ha, ha! Now for a good fight! It'll be old Welwyn-Baker, after all, you'll see. They won t have the courage to set up a new man at a moment's notice. The old buffer will come maudling once more, and we'll bowl him off his pins!"
Lilian sat with her eyes fixed upon him. His excitement infected her, and when they went home together she talked of the coming struggle with joyous animation.
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