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Disappointed in his matrimonial project, the Rev. Scatchard Vialls devoted himself with acrid zeal to the interests of the Conservative party. He was not the most influential of the Polterham clerics, for women in general rather feared than liked him; a sincere ascetic, he moved but awkwardly in the regions of tea and tattle, and had an uncivil habit of speaking what he thought the truth without regard to time, place, or person. Some of his sermons had given offence, with the result that several ladies betook themselves to gentler preachers. But the awe inspired by his religious enthusiasm was practically useful now that he stood forward as an assailant of the political principles held in dislike by most Polterham church-goers. There was a little band of district-visitors who stood by him the more resolutely for the coldness with which worldly women regarded him; and these persons, with their opportunities of making interest in poor households, constituted a party agency not to be despised. They worked among high and low with an unscrupulous energy to which it is not easy to do justice. Wheedling or menacing--doing everything indeed but argue--they blended the cause of Mr. Welwyn-Baker and that of the Christian religion so inextricably that the wives of humble electors came to regard the Tory candidate as Christ's vicegerent upon earth, and were convinced that their husbands' salvation depended upon a Tory vote.
One Sunday, Mr. Vialls took for his text, "But rather seek ye the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you." He began by pointing out how very improper it would be for a clergyman to make the pulpit an ally of the hustings; far indeed be it from him to discourse in that place of party questions--to speak one word which should have for its motive the advancements of any electioneering cause. But in these times of social discontent and upheaval it must not be forgotten that eternal verities were at stake. There were men--there were multitudes, alas! who made it the object of their life-long endeavour to oust Christianity from the world; if not avowedly, at all events in fact. Therefore would he describe to them in brief, clear sentences what really was implied in a struggle between the parties commonly known as Conservative and Liberal. He judged no individual; he spoke only of principles, of a spirit, an attitude. The designs of Russia, the troubles in Ireland--of these things he knew little and recked less; they were "party shibboleths," and did not concern a Christian minister in his pulpit. But deeper lay the interests for which parties nowadays were in truth contending. It had come to this: are we to believe, or are we not to believe that the "kingdom of God" must have precedence of worldly goods? The working classes of this country--ah, how sad to have to speak with condemnation of the poor!--were being led to think that the only object worth striving after was an improvement of their material condition. Marvellous to say, they were encouraged in this view by people whom Providence had blessed with all the satisfactions that earth can give. When the wealthy, the educated thus repudiated the words of Christ, what could be expected of those whom supreme Goodness has destined to a subordinate lot? No! material improvement was not the first thing, even for those unhappy people (victims for the most part of their own improvident or vicious habits) who had scarcely bread to eat and raiment wherewith to clothe themselves. Let them seek the kingdom of God, and these paltry, temporal things shall surely be added unto them.
This sermon was printed at the office of the Polterham Mercury, and distributed freely throughout the town. He had desired no such thing, said Mr. Vialls, but the pressure of friends was irresistible. In private, meanwhile, he spoke fiercely against the Radical candidate, and never with such acrimony as in Mrs. Mumbray's drawing-room when Serena was present. One afternoon he stood up, tea-cup in hand, and, as his habit was, delivered a set harangue on the burning topic.
"In one respect," he urged, after many other accusations, "I consider that Mr. Quarrier is setting the very worst, the most debasing, the most demoralizing example to these working folk, whose best interests he professes to have at heart. I am assured (and the witness of my own eyes in one instance warrants me in giving credit to the charge) that he constantly enters public-houses, taverns, even low dram-shops, to satisfy his thirst for strong liquor in the very face of day, before the eyes of any one who may happen to be passing. This is simply abominable If an honourable man has one duty --one social duty--more incumbent upon him than another, it is to refrain from setting an example of intemperance."
Serena had listened thus far with a look of growing irritation. At length she could resist no longer the impulse to speak out.
"But surely, Mr. Vialls, you don't charge Mr. Quarrier with intemperance?"
"I do, Miss Mumbray," replied the clergyman, sternly. "Intemperance does not necessarily imply drunkenness. It is intemperate to enter public-houses at all hours and in all places, even if the liquor partaken of has no obvious effect upon the gait or speech of the drinker. I maintain"----
"Mr. Quarrier does not go about as you would have us believe."
"Serena!" interfered her mother. "Do you contradict Mr. Vialls?"
"Yes, mother, I do, and every one ought to who knows that he is exaggerating. I have heard this calumny before, and I have been told how it has arisen. Mr. Quarrier takes a glass of beer when he is having a long country walk; and why he shouldn't quench his thirst I'm sure I can't understand."
"Miss Mumbray," said the clergyman, glaring at her, yet affecting forbearance, "you seem to forget that our cottagers are not so inhospitable as to refuse a glass of water to the weary pedestrian who knocks at their door."
"I don't forget it, Mr. Vialls," replied Serena, who was trembling at her own boldness, but found a pleasure in persevering. "And I know very well what sort of water one generally gets at cottages about here. I remember the family at Rickstead that died one after another of their temperance beverage."
"Forgive me! That is not at all to the point. Granting that the quality of the water is suspicious, are there not pleasant little shops where lemonade can be obtained? But no; it is not merely to quench a natural thirst that Mr. Quarrier has recourse to those pestilent vendors of poison; the drinking of strong liquor has become a tyrant-habit with him."
"I deny it, Mr. Vialls!" exclaimed the girl, almost angrily. (Mrs. Mumbray in vain tried to interpose, and the other ladies present were partly shocked, partly amused, into silence.) "If so, then my father is a victim to the habit of drink--and so is Mr. Welwyn-Baker himself!"
This was laying a hand upon the Ark. Mrs. Mumbray gave a little scream, and several "Oh's!" were heard. Mr. Vialls shook his head and smiled with grim sadness.
"My dear young lady, I fear we shall not understand each other. I am far from being one of those who deny to ladies the logical faculty, but"----
"But you feel that I am right, and that party prejudice has carried you too far!" interrupted Serena, rising from her chair. "I had better go away, or I shall say disagreeable things about the Conservatives. I am not one of them, and I should like that to be understood."
She walked quietly from the room, and there ensued an awkward silence.
"Poor Serena!" breathed Mrs. Mumbray, with a deep sigh. "She has fallen under the influence of Mrs. Quarrier--a most dangerous person. How such things come to pass I cannot understand."
Mrs. Tenterden's deep voice chimed in:
"We must certainly guard our young people against Mrs. Quarrier. From the look of her, no one could have guessed what she would turn out. The idea of so young a woman going to people's houses and talking polities!"
"Oh, I think nothing of that!" remarked a lady who particularly wished to remind the company that she was still youthful. "I canvass myself; it's quite the proper thing for ladies to do. But I'm told she has rather an impertinent way of speaking to every one who doesn't fall down and worship her husband."
"Mrs. Lester," broke in the grave voice of the clergyman, "I trust you will pardon me, but you have inadvertently made use of a phrase which is, or should be, consecrated by a religious significance."
The lady apologized rather curtly, and Mr. Vialls made a stiff bow.
At this same moment the subject of their conversation was returning home from a bold expedition into the camp of the enemy. Encouraged by the personal friendliness that had been shown her in the family of Mr. Samuel Quarrier, Lilian conceived and nourished the hope that it was within her power to convert the sturdy old Tory himself. Samuel made a joke of this, and entertained himself with a pretence of lending ear to her arguments. This afternoon he had allowed her to talk to him for a long time. Lilian's sweetness was irresistible, and she came back in high spirits with report of progress. Denzil, who had just been badgered by a deputation of voters who wished to discover his mind on seven points of strictly non-practical politics, listened with idle amusement.
"Dear girl," he said presently, "the old fellow is fooling you t You can no more convert him than you could the Dalai-Lama to Christianity."
"But he speaks quite seriously, Denzil! He owns that he doesn't like Beaconsfield, and"----
"Don't waste your time and your patience. It's folly, I assure you. When you are gone he explodes with laughter."
Lilian gazed at him for a moment with wide eyes, then burst into tears.
"Good heavens! what is the matter with you, Lily?" cried Denzil, jumping up. "Come, come, this kind of thing won't do! You are overtaxing yourself. You are getting morbidly excited."
It was true enough, and Lilian was herself conscious of it, but she obeyed an impulse from which there seemed no way of escape. Her conscience and her fears would not leave her at peace; every now and then she found herself starting at unusual sounds, trembling in mental agitation if any one approached her with an unwonted look, dreading the arrival of the post, the sight of a newspaper, faces in the street. Then she hastened to the excitement of canvassing, as another might have turned to more vulgar stimulants. Certainly her health had suffered. She could not engage in quiet study, still less could rest her mind in solitary musing, as in the old days.
Denzil seated himself by her on the sofa.
"If you are to suffer in this way, little girl, I shall repent sorely that ever I went in for politics."
"How absurd of me! I can't think why I behave so ridiculously!"
But still she sobbed, resting her head against him.
"I have an idea," he said at length, rendered clairvoyant by his affection, "that after next week you will feel much easier in your mind."
"After next week?"
"Yes; when Glazzard is married and gone away."
She would not confess that he was right, but her denials strengthened his surmise.
"I can perfectly understand it, Lily. It certainly was unfortunate; and if it had been any one but Glazzard, I might myself have been wishing the man away. But you know as well as I do that Glazzard would not breathe a syllable."
"Not even to his wife?" she whispered.
"Not even to her! I assure you"--he smiled--"men have no difficulty in keeping important secrets, Samson notwithstanding. Glazzard would think himself for ever dishonoured. But in a week's time they will be gone; and I shouldn't wonder if they remain abroad for years. So brighten up, dearest dear, and leave Sam alone; he's a cynical old fellow, past hope of mending his ways. See more of Molly; she does you good. And, by-the-bye, it's time you called on the Catesbys. They will always be very glad to see you."
This family of Catesby was one of the few really distinguished in the neighbourhood. Colonel Catesby, a long-retired warrior, did not mingle much with local society, but with his wife and daughter he had appeared at Denzil's first political dinner; they all "took to" their hostess, and had since manifested this liking in sundry pleasant ways.
Indeed, Lilian was become a social success--that is to say, with people who were at all capable of appreciating her. Herein, as in other things, she had agreeably surprised Denzil. He had resigned himself to seeing her remain a loving, intelligent, but very unambitious woman; of a sudden she proved equal to all the social claims connected with his candidature--unless the efforts, greater than appeared, were undermining her health. Having learned to trust herself in conversation, she talked with a delightful blending of seriousness and gentle merriment. Her culture declared itself in every thought; there was much within the ordinary knowledge of people trained to the world that she did not know, but the simplicity resulting from this could never be confused with want of education or of tact. When the Catesbys made it evident that they approved her, Quarrier rejoiced exceedingly; he was flattered in his deepest sensibilities, and felt that henceforth nothing essential would be wanting to his happiness--whether Polterham returned him or not.
That he would be returned, he had no doubt. The campaign proceeded gloriously. Whilst Mr. Gladstone flowed on for ever in Midlothian rhetoric, Denzil lost no opportunity of following his leader, and was often astonished at the ease with which he harangued as long as Polterham patience would endure him. To get up and make a two hours' speech no longer cost him the least effort; he played with the stock subjects of eloquence, sported among original jokes and catch-words, burned through perorations with the joy of an improvisatore in happiest mood. The Examiner could not report him for lack of space; the Mercury complained of a headache caused by this "blatant youthfulness striving to emulate garrulous senility"--a phrase which moved Denzil to outrageous laughter. And on the whole he kept well within such limits of opinion as Polterham approved. Now and then Mr. Chown felt moved by the spirit to interrogate him as to the "scope and bearing and significance" of an over-bold expression, but the Radical section was too delighted with a prospect of victory to indulge in "heckling," and the milder Progressives considered their candidate as a man of whom Polterham might be proud, a man pretty sure to "make his mark" at Westminster.
In the hostile ranks there was a good deal of loud talk and frequent cheering, but the speeches were in general made by lieutenants, and the shouts seemed intended to make up for the defective eloquence of their chief. Mr. Welwyn-Baker was too old and too stout and too shaky for the toil of personal electioneering. He gave a few dinners at his big house three miles away, and he addressed (laconically) one or two select meetings; for the rest, his name and fame had to suffice. There was no convincing him that his seat could possibly be in danger. He smiled urbanely over the reports of Quarrier's speeches, called his adversary "a sharp lad," and continued through all the excitement of the borough to conduct himself with this amiable fatuity.
"I vow and protest," said Mr. Mumbray, in a confidential ear, "that if it weren't for the look of the thing, I would withhold my vote altogether! W.-B. is m his dotage. And to think that we might have put new life into the party! Bah!"
Conservative canvassers did not fall to make use of thee fact that Mr. Welwyn-Baker had always been regardful of the poor. His alms-houses were so pleasantly situated and so tastefully designed that many Polterham people wished they were for lease on ordinary terms. The Infirmary was indebted to his annual beneficence, and the Union had to thank him--especially through this past winter--for a lightening of its burden. Aware of these things, Lilian never felt able to speak harshly against the old Tory. In theory she acknowledged that the relief of a few families could not weigh against principles which enslaved a whole population (thus Quarrier put it), but her heart pleaded for the man who allayed suffering at his gates; and could Mr. Chown have heard the admissions she made to Welwyn-Baker's advocates, he would have charged her with criminal weakness, if not with secret treachery. She herself had as yet been able to do very little for the poor of the town; with the clergy she had no intimate relations (church-going was for her and Denzil only a politic conformity); and Polterham was not large enough to call for the organization of special efforts. But her face invited the necessitous; in the by-ways she had been appealed to for charity, with results which became known among people inclined to beg. So it happened that she was one day led on a benevolent mission into the poorest part of the town, and had an opportunity of indulging her helpful instincts.
This was in the afternoon. Between nine and ten that evening, as Denzil and she sat together in the library (for once they were alone and at peace), a servant informed her that Mrs. Wade wished to speak for a moment on urgent business. She went out and found her friend in the drawing-room.
"Can you give me a few minutes?"
"As long as ever you like! No one is here, for a wonder. Do you wish to talk privately, or will you come into the study? We were sitting there."
"It's only politics."
"Oh, then come."
Quarrier would rather have been left in quiet over the proof-sheets of his book--it was already going through the press--but he welcomed the visitor with customary friendliness.
"Capital speech of Hartington's yesterday."
"Very good answer to Cross. What do you think of John Bright and the licensed victuallers?"
"Oh," laughed Denzil, "he'll have to talk a good deal before he persuades them that temperance is money in their pockets! I don't see the good of that well-intentioned sophistry. But then, you know, I belong to the habitual drunkards! You have heard that Scatchard Vialls so represents me to all and sundry?"
"I should proceed against him for slander."
"On the contrary, I think it does me good. All the honest topers will rally to me, and the sober Liberals will smile indulgently. Sir Wilfred Lawson would long ago have been stamped out as a bore of the first magnitude but for his saving humour."
Mrs. Wade presently made known her business; but with a preface which disturbed the nerves of both her listeners.
"The enemy have a graver charge against you. I happened, an hour ago, to catch a most alarming rumour. Mr. Quarrier, your wife will be your ruin!"
Notwithstanding the tone of burlesque, Lilian turned pale, and Quarrier stood frowning. Mrs. Wade examined them both, her bright eyes glancing quickly from one face to the other and back again. She did not continue, until Quarrier exclaimed impatiently:
"What is it now?"
"Nothing less than an accusation of bribery and corruption."
Relief was audible in Denzil's laugh.
"It's reported," Mrs. Wade went on, "that Mrs. Quarrier has been distributing money--money in handfuls, through half-a-dozen streets down by the river."
"You don't really mean"----began Lilian, who could not even yet quite command her voice.
"It's positively going about! I thought it my duty to come and tell you at once. What is the foundation?"
"I warned you, Lily," said Denzil, good-humouredly. "The fact is, Mrs. Wade, she gave half-a-crown to some old woman in Water Lane this afternoon. It was imprudent, of course. Who told you about it?"
"Mr. Rook, the stationer. It was talked of up and down High Street, he assures me. We may laugh, but this kind of misrepresentation goes a long way."
"Let the blackguards make the most of it!" cried Quarrier. "I have as good things in store for them. One of Jobson's workmen told me this morning that he and his fellows were being distinctly intimidated; Jobson has told them several times that if the Radicals won, work would be scarce, and that the voters would have only themselves to thank for it. And Thomas Barker has been promising lowered rents at Lady-day."
"But who could have told such falsehoods about me?" asked Lilian.
"Some old woman who didn't get the half-crown, no doubt," replied Mrs. Wade.
"Those poor creatures I went to see have no vote."
"Oh, but handfuls of money, you know! It's the impression made on the neighbourhood. Seriously, they are driven to desperate resources; and I believe there is a good deal of intimidation going on--especially on the part of district-visitors. Mrs. Alexander told me of several instances. And the wives (of course) are such wretched cowards! That great big carpenter, East, is under his wife's thumb, and she has been imploring him not to vote Liberal for fear of consequences--she sits weeping, and talking about the workhouse. Contemptible idiot! It would gratify me extremely to see her really going to the workhouse."
"And pray," asked Denzil, with a laugh, "what would be the result of giving the franchise to such women?"
"The result might be that, in time to come, there wouldn't be so many of them."
"In time to come--possibly. In the meanwhile, send their girls to school to learn a wholesome contempt for their mothers."
"Well, it sounds brutal, but it's very good sense. All progress involves disagreeable necessities."
Mrs. Wade was looking about the room, smiling, absent. She rose abruptly.
"I mustn't spoil your one quiet evening. How do the proofs go on?"
"Would you care to take a batch of them?" asked Quarrier. "These are revises--you might be able to make a useful suggestion."
She hesitated, but at length held out her band.
"You have rather a long walk," said Lilian. "I hope it's fine."
"No; it drizzles."
"Oh, how kind of you to take so much trouble on our account!"
Mrs. Wade went out into the darkness. It was as disagreeable a night as the time of year could produce; black overhead, slimy under foot, with a cold wind to dash the colder rain in one's face. The walk home took more than half an hour, and she entered her cottage much fatigued. Without speaking to the girl who admitted her, she went upstairs to take off her out-of-door things; on coming down to the sitting-room, she found her lamp lit, her fire burning, and supper on the table--a glass of milk and some slices of bread and butter. Her friends would have felt astonishment and compassion had they learned how plain and slight was the fare that supported her; only by reducing her household expenditure to the strict minimum could she afford to dress in the manner of a lady, supply herself with a few papers and books, and keep up the appearances without which it is difficult to enjoy any society at all.
To-night she ate and drank with a bitter sense of her poverty and loneliness. Before her mind's eye was the picture of Denzil Quarrier's study--its luxury, brightness, wealth of volumes; and Denzil's face made an inseparable part of the scene. That face had never ceased to occupy her imagination since the evening of his lecture at the Institute. Its haunting power was always greatest when she sat here alone in the stillness. This little room, in which she had known the pleasures of independence and retirement, seemed now but a prison. It was a mean dwelling, fit only for labouring folk; the red blind irritated her sight, and she had to turn away from it.
What a hope had come to her of a sudden last autumn! How recklessly she had indulged it, and how the disappointment rankled!
A disappointment which she could not accept with the resignation due to fate. At first she had done so; but then a singular surmise crept into her thoughts--a suspicion which came she knew not whence-- and thereafter was no rest from fantastic suggestions. Her surmise did not remain baseless; evidence of undeniable strength came to its support, yet all was so vague--so unserviceable.
She opened the printed sheets that Quarrier had given her and for a few minutes read with interest. Then her eyes and thoughts wandered.
Her servant knocked and entered, asking if she should remove the supper-tray. In looking up at the girl, Mrs. Wade noticed red eyes and other traces of weeping.
"What is the matter?" she asked, sharply. "Have you any news?"
The girl answered with a faltering negative. She, too, had her unhappy story. A Polterham mechanic who made love to her lost his employment, went to London with hopes and promises, and now for more than half a year had given no sign of his existence. Mrs. Wade had been wont to speak sympathetically on the subject, but to-night it excited her anger.
"Don't be such a simpleton, Annie! If only you knew anything of life, you would be glad of what has happened. You are free again, and freedom is the one thing in the world worth having. To sit and cry because--I'm ashamed of you!"
Surprise and misery caused the tears to break forth again.
"Go to bed, and go to sleep!" said the mistress, harshly. "If ever you are married, you'll remember what I said, and look back to the time when you knew nothing worse than silly girlish troubles. Have you no pride? It's girls like you that make men think so lightly of all women--despise us--say we are unfit for anything but cooking and cradle-rocking! If you go on in this way you must leave me; I won't have a silly, moping creature before my eyes, to make me lose all patience!"
The girl took up the tray and hurried off. Her mistress sat till late in. the night, now reading a page of the proofs, now brooding with dark countenance.
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