At the distance of a mile and a half from Polterham lay an estate which had long borne the name of Highmead. Here had dwelt three successive generations of Glazzards. The present possessor, by name William, was, like his father and grandfather, simply a country gentleman, but, unlike those respectable ancestors, had seen a good deal of the world, and only settled down amid his acres when he was tired of wandering. His age at present was nearing fifty. When quite a young man, he had married rather rashly--a girl whose acquaintance he had made during a voyage. In a few years' time, he and his wife agreed to differ on a great many topics of moment, and consequently to live apart. Mrs. Glazzard died abroad. William, when the desire for retirement came upon him, was glad of the society of a son and a daughter in their early teens. But the lad died of consumption, and the girl, whose name was Ivy, for a long time seemed to be clinging to life with but doubtful tenure. She still lived, however, and kept her father's house.
Ivy Glazzard cared little for the pleasures of the world--knew, indeed, scarcely more about them than she had gathered from books. Her disposition was serious, inclined to a morbid melancholy; she spent much time over devotional literature, but very seldom was heard to speak of religion. Probably her father's avowed indifferentism imposed upon her a timid silence. When the Revivalist services were being held in Polterham, she visited the Hall and the churches with assiduity, and from that period dated her friendship with the daughter of Mr. Mumbray, Mayor of the town. Serena Mumbray was so uncomfortable at home that she engaged eagerly in any occupation which could excuse her absence for as many hours a day as possible. Prior to the outbreak of Revivalism no one had supposed her particularly pious, and, indeed, she had often suffered Mrs. Mumbray's rebukes for levity of speech and indifference to the conventional norm of feminine behaviour. Though her parents had always been prominent in Polterham society, she was ill-educated, and of late years had endeavoured, in a fitful, fretful way, to make amends to herself for this injustice. Disregarding paternal censure, she subscribed to the Literary Institute, and read at hap-hazard with little enough profit. Twenty-three years old, she was now doubly independent, for the will of a maiden aunt (a lady always on the worst of terms with Mr. and Mrs. Mumbray, and therefore glad to encourage Serena against them) had made her an heiress of no slight consideration. Young men of Polterham regarded her as the greatest prize within view, though none could flatter himself that he stood in any sensible degree of favour with her. There seemed no reason why Miss Mumbray should not marry, but it was certain that as yet she behaved disdainfully to all who approached her with the show of intention. She was not handsome, but had agreeable features. As though to prove her contempt of female vanity and vulgar display, she dressed plainly, often carelessly--a fact which of course served to emphasize her importance in the eyes of people who tried to seem richer than they were.
Miss Glazzard rarely came into the town, but Serena visited Highmead at least once a week. According to the state of the weather, the friends either sat talking in Ivy's room or rambled about the grounds, where many a pretty and sheltered spot was discoverable. At such times the master of the house seldom showed himself, and, on the whole, Highmead reminded one of a mansion left in the care of servants whilst the family are abroad. Miss Mumbray was surprised when, on her arrival one afternoon, she was conducted into the presence of three persons, who sat conversing in the large drawing-room. With Ivy and her father was a gentleman whose identity she could only guess; he proved to be Mr. Eustace Glazzard, her friend's uncle.
To the greetings with which she was received Serena responded formally. It happened that her attire was to-day even more careless than usual, for, the weather being wet and cold, she had just thrown a cloak over the frock in which she lounged at home, and driven out in a cab with the thought of stepping directly into Ivy's sanctum. So far from this, she found herself under the scrutiny of two well-dressed men, whose faces, however courteous, manifested the signature of a critical spirit. The elder Mr. Glazzard was bald, wrinkled, and of aristocratic bearing; he wore gold-rimmed glasses, which accentuated the keenness of his gaze. The younger man, though altogether less formidable, had a smile which Miss Mumbray instinctively resented; he seemed to be regarding her with some special interest, and it was clear that her costume did not escape mental comment.
Ivy did her best to overcome the restraint of the situation, and for a quarter of an hour something like conversation was maintained, but, of a sudden, Miss Mumbray rose.
"We will go to my room," said Ivy, regarding her nervously.
"Thank you," was the reply, "I mustn't stay longer to-day."
"Oh, why not? But indeed you must come for a moment; I have something to show you"
Serena took leave of the gentlemen, and with show of reluctance suffered herself to be led to the familiar retreat.
"I'm afraid I have displeased you," Ivy addressed her, when the door was closed. "I ought to have asked your permission."
"It doesn't matter, dear--not a bit. But I wasn't quite in the humour for--for that kind of thing. I came here for quietness, as I always do."
"Do forgive me! I thought--to tell the truth, it was my uncle--I had spoken of you to him, and he said he should so much like to meet you."
"It really doesn't matter; but I look rather like the woman who comes to buy old dresses, don't I?"
"Of course not!"
"And what if I do?" exclaimed the other, seating herself by the fire. "I don't know that I've any claim to look better than Mrs. Moss. I suppose she and I are about on a level in understanding and education, if the truth were told. Your uncle would see that, of course."
"Now, don't--don't!" pleaded Ivy, bending over the chair and stroking her friend's shoulder. "It's so wrong of you, dear. My father and Uncle Eustace are both quite capable of judging you rightly."
"What did you tell him about me--your uncle?" asked Serena, pettishly.
"That you were my friend, and that we read together"----
"Oh, of course! What else?"
"I explained who you were."
"That I had a ridiculous name, and was the daughter of silly people!"
"Oh, it is unkind of you!"
"Well, and what else? I insist on knowing, Ivy."
"Indeed, I didn't say one word that you mightn't have heard yourself. I think you can believe me, dear?"
"To be sure I can. But then no doubt your father told him the rest, or has done by this time. There's no harm in that. I like people to know that I am independent. Well, now tell me about him. He isn't a great favourite of yours, is he?"
"No, not a great favourite." Ivy seemed always to weigh her words. "I don't know him very well. He has always lived in London, and I've never seen him more than once a year. I'm afraid he doesn't care much about the things that I prize most, but he is kind and very clever, I believe. Father always says he might have been a great artist if he had chosen."
"Then why didn't he choose?"
"I can't say. So many people seem to fall far short of what they might have been."
"Women do--what else can you expect? But men are free. I suppose he is rich?"
"No, not rich. He seems to have enough for his needs."
Serena indulged her thoughts.
"I felt I disliked him at first," she said, presently. "But he is improved. He can talk well, I should think. I suppose he is always in clever society?"
"I suppose so."
"And why doesn't he invite you to London, and take you to see people?"
"Oh, he knows me better than that!" replied Ivy, with a laugh.
Whilst the girls talked thus, Eustace Glazzard and his brother were also in confidential chat. They had gone to the library and made themselves comfortable with cigars--a cellaret and glasses standing within reach. The rooms at Highmead gave evidence of neglect. Guests were seldom entertained; the servants were few, and not well looked after.
"She has, I dare say, thirty thousand," William Glazzard was saying, with an air of indifference. "I suppose she'll marry some parson. Let us hope it's one of the fifty-pound curates."
"Deep in the old slough?"
"Hopelessly--or Ivy wouldn't be so thick with her."
When he had spoken, William turned with an expressive smile.
"Still, who knows? I rather like the girl. She has no humbug about her--no pretence, that's to say. You see how she dresses."
"A bad sign, I'm afraid."
"Well, no, not in this case, I think. Her home accounts for it. That old ass, Mumbray, and his wife make things pretty sour for her, as the Germans say; at least, I guess so."
"I don't dislike her appearance--intelligent at bottom, I should imagine."
There followed a long silence. Eustace broke it by asking softly:
"And how do things go with you?"
"The same as ever. Steadily down-hill I had better let the place before it gets into a thoroughly bad state. And you?"
His brother made no answer, but sat with bent head.
"You remember Stark," he said at length, "the lawyer? He wants me to stand for Polterham at the next election."
"You? In place of Welwyn-Baker?"
"No; as Liberal candidate; or Radical, if you like."
"You're joking, I suppose!"
"Where's the impossibility?"
Their eyes met.
"There's no absurdity," said William, "in your standing for Parliament; au contraire. But I can't imagine you on the Radical side. And I don't see the necessity of that. Welwyn-Baker is breaking up; they won't let him come forward again, even if he wishes. His son is disliked, and would have a very poor chance. If you cared to put yourself in touch with Mumbray and the rest of them --by love! I believe they would welcome you. I don't know of any one but the Welwyn-Bakers at all likely to stand."
"But," objected his brother, "what's the use of my standing for a party that is pretty sure to be beaten?"
"You think that's the case?"
Eustace repeated Mr. Stark's opinions, and what he had heard from Quarrier. It seemed to cost William an effort to fix his mind on the question; but at length he admitted that the contest would probably be a very close cue, even granting that the Conservatives secured a good candidate.
"That's as much as to say," observed his brother, "that the Liberals stand to win, as things are. Now, there seems to be no doubt that Liversedge would gladly withdraw in favour of a better man. What I want you to do is to set this thing in train for me. I am in earnest."
"You astonish me! I can't reconcile such an ambition with"----
"No, no; of course not." Glazzard spoke with unwonted animation. "You don't know what my life is and has been. Look I must do something to make my blood circulate, or I shall furnish a case for the coroner one of these mornings. I want excitement. I have taken up one thing after another, and gone just far enough to understand that there's no hope of reaching what I aimed at--superlative excellence; then the thing began to nauseate me. I'm like poor Jackson, the novelist, who groaned to me once that for fifteen years the reviewers had been describing his books as 'above the average.' In whatever I have undertaken the results were 'above the average,' and that's all. This is damned poor consolation for a man with a temperament like mine!"
His voice broke down. He had talked himself into a tremor, and the exhibition of feeling astonished his brother, who--as is so often the case between brothers--had never suspected what lay beneath the surface of Eustace's dilettante life.
"I can enter into that," said the elder, slowly. "But do you imagine that in politics you have found your real line?"
"No such thing. But it offers me a chance of living for a few years. I don't flatter myself that I could make a figure in the House of Commons; but I want to sit there, and be in the full current of existence. I had never dreamt of such a thing until Stark suggested it. But he's a shrewd fellow, and he has guessed my need."
"What about the financial matter?" asked William, after reflection.
"I see no insuperable difficulty. You, I understand, are in no position to help me?"
"Oh, I won't say that," interrupted the other. "A few hundreds will make no difference to me. I suppose you see your way for the ordinary expenses of life?"
"With care, yes. I've been throwing money away, but that shall stop; there'll be no need for it when my nerves are put in tone."
"Well, it strikes me in a comical light, but you must act as you think best. I'll go to work for you. It's a pity I stand so much apart, but I suppose my name is worth something. The Radicals have often tried to draw me into their camp, and of course it's taken for granted that I am rather for than against them. By-the-bye, what is the date? Ah! that's fortunate. To-morrow I am booked to take the chair at the Institute; a lecture--I don't know by whom, or about what. A good opportunity for setting things astir."
"Then you do take some part in town life?"
"Most exceptional thing. I must have refused to lecture and to chairmanize twenty times. But those fellows are persistent; they caught me in a weak moment a few days ago. I suppose you realize the kind of speechifying that would be expected of you? Are you prepared to blaze away against Beaconsfield, and all that sort of thing?"
"I'm not afraid. There are more sides to my character than you suppose."
Eustace spoke excitedly, and tossed off a glass of liqueur. His manner had become more youthful than of wont; his face showed more colour.
"The fact is," he went on, "if I talk politics at all, I can manage the Radical standpoint much more easily than the Tory. I have precious little sympathy with anything popular, that's true; but it's easier for me to adopt the heroic strain of popular leaders than to put my own sentiments into the language of squires and parsons. I should feel I was doing a baser thing if I talked vulgar Toryism than in roaring the democratic note. Do you understand?"
"I have an inkling of what you mean."
Eustace refilled the little glass.
"Of course," he went on, "my true life stands altogether outside popular contention. I am an artist, though only half-baked But I admit most heartily that our form of government is a good one--the most favourable that exists to individual freedom. We are ruled by the balance of two parties; neither could do without the other. This being the case, a man of my mind may conscientiously support either side. Nowadays neither is a foe to liberty; we know that party tall-talk means nothing--mere playing to the gallery. If I throw whatever weight I represent into the Liberal scales, I am only helping, like every other Member of Parliament, to maintain the constitutional equilibrium. You see, this view is not even cynical; any one might proclaim it seriously."
"Yes; but don't do so in Polterham."
The other laughed, and at the same moment remembered how long it was since such an expression of mirth had escaped his lips.
"Well," he exclaimed, "I feel better to-day than for long enough. I've been going through a devilish bad time, I can tell you. To make things worse, some one has fixed an infernal accusation on me--an abominable calumny. I won't talk about it now, but it may be necessary some day."
"Calumny?--nothing that could be made use against you in public?"
"No danger of that, I think. I didn't mean to speak of it."
"You know that a man on the hustings must look out for mud?"
"Of course, of course!--How do you spend your afternoons? What shall we do?"
William threw away the end of a cigar, and stretched himself.
"I do very little but read," he answered. "A man gets the reading habit, just like the morphia habit, or anything else of that kind. I think my average is six novels a week: French, Russian, German, Italian. No English, unless I'm in need of an emetic. What else should I do? It's a way of watching contemporary life.--Would you like to go and talk with Ivy? Oh, I forgot that girl."
"You wouldn't care to ask some people to dinner one of these days-- the right kind of people?"
"Yes, yes; we'll do that. I must warn you not to talk much about art, and above all not to play the piano. It would make a bad impression."
"All right. How shall I deal with Liversedge? I go there this evening, you remember."
"Sound him, if opportunity offers. No hurry, you know. We have probably several months before us. You'll have to live here a good deal."
As the rain had ceased, they presently went out into the garden and strolled aimlessly about.
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