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"Do you know of any good house to let in or near the town?" inquired Denzil of his sister the next morning, as they chatted after Toby's departure to business.
"A house! What do you want with one?"
"Oh, I must have a local habitation--the more solid the better."
Mrs. Liversedge examined him.
"What is going on, Denzil?"
"My candidature--that's all. Any houses advertised in this rag?" He took up yesterday's Examiner, and began to search the pages.
"You can live very well with us."
Denzil did not reply, and his sister, summoned by a servant, left him. There was indeed an advertisement such as he sought. An old and pleasant family residence, situated on the outskirts of Polterham (he remembered it very well), would be vacant at Christmas. Application could be made on the premises. Still in a state of very high pressure, unable to keep still or engage in any quiet pursuit, he set off the instant to view this house. It stood in a high-walled garden, which was entered through heavy iron-barred gates, one of them now open. The place had rather a forlorn look, due in part to the decay of the foliage which in summer shaded the lawn; blinds were drawn on all the front windows; the porch needed repair. He rang at the door, and was quickly answered by a dame of the housekeeper species. On learning his business, she began to conduct him through the rooms, which were in habitable state, though with furniture muffled.
"The next room, sir, is the library. A lady is there at present. Perhaps you know her?--Mrs. Wade."
"Mrs. Wade! Yes, I know her slightly."
The coincidence amused him.
"She comes here to study, sir--being a friend of the family. Will you go in?"
Foreseeing a lively dialogue, he released his attendant till she should hear his voice again, and, with preface of a discreet knock, entered the room. An agreeable warmth met him, and the aspect of the interior contrasted cheerfully with that of the chambers into which he had looked. There was no great collection of books, but some fine engravings filled the vacancies around. At the smaller of two writing-tables sat the person he was prepared to discover; she had several volumes open before her, and appeared to be making notes. At his entrance she turned and gazed at him fixedly.
"Forgive my intrusion, Mrs. Wade," Denzil began, in a genial voice. "I have come to look over the house, and was just told that you were here. As we are not absolute strangers"----
He had never met her in the social way, though she had been a resident at Polterham for some six years. Through Mrs. Liversedge, her repute had long ago reached him; she was universally considered eccentric, and, by many people, hardly proper for an acquaintance. On her first arrival in the town she wore the garb of recent widowhood; relatives here she had none, but an old friendship existed between her and the occupants of this house, a childless couple named Hornibrook. Her age was now about thirty.
Quarrier was far from regarding her as an attractive woman. He thought better of her intelligence than before hearing her speak, and it was not difficult for him to imagine that the rumour of Polterham went much astray when it concerned itself with her characteristics; but the face now directed to him had no power whatever over his sensibilities. It might be that of a high-spirited and large-brained woman; beautiful it could not be called. There was something amiss with the eyes. All the other features might pass: they were neither plain nor comely: a forehead of good type, a very ordinary nose, largish lips, chin suggesting the masculine; but the eyes, to begin with, were prominent, and they glistened in a way which made it very difficult to determine their colour. They impressed Denzil as of a steely-grey, and seemed hard as the metal itself. His preference was distinctly for soft feminine eyes--such as Lilian gazed with.
Her figure was slight, but seemed strong and active. He had noticed the evening before that, in standing to address an audience, she looked anything but ridiculous--spite of bonnet. Here too, though allowing her surprise to be seen, she had the bearing of perfect self-possession, and perhaps of conscious superiority. Fawn-coloured hair, less than luxuriant, lay in soft folds and plaits on the top of her head; possibly (the thought was not incongruous) she hoped to gain half an inch of seeming stature.
They shook hands, and Denzil explained his object in calling.
"Then you are going to settle at Polterham?"
"Probably--that is, to keep an abode here."
"You are not married, I think, Mr. Quarrier?"
"There was a report at the Institute last night--may I speak of it?"
"Political? I don't think it need be kept a secret. My brother-in-law wishes me to make friends with the Liberals, in his place."
"I dare say you will find them very willing to meet your advances. On one question you have taken a pretty safe line."
"Much to your disgust," said Denzil, who found himself speaking very freely and inclined to face debatable points.
"Disgust is hardly the word. Will you sit down? In Mrs. Hornibrook's absence, I must represent her. They are good enough to let me use the library; my own is poorly supplied."
Denzil took a chair.
"Are you busy with any particular subject?" he asked.
"The history of woman in Greece."
"Profound! I have as good as forgotten my classics. You read the originals?"
"After a fashion. I don't know much about the enclitic de, and I couldn't pass an exam. in the hypothetical sentences; but I pick up the sense as I read on."
Her tone seemed to imply that, after all, she was not ill-versed in grammatical niceties. She curtailed the word "examination" in an off-hand way which smacked of an undergraduate, and her attitude on the chair suggested that she had half a mind to cross her legs and throw her hands behind her head.
"Then," said Quarrier, "you have a good deal more right to speak of woman's claims to independence than most female orators."
She looked at him with a good-humoured curl of the lip.
"Excuse me if I mention it--your tone reminds me of that with which you began last evening. It was rather patronizing."
"Heaven forbid! I am very sorry to have been guilty of such ill-manners."
"In a measure you atoned for it afterwards. When I got up to offer you my thanks, I was thinking of the best part of your lecture-- that where you spoke of girls being entrapped into monstrous marriages. That was generous, and splendidly put. It seemed to me that you must have had cases in mind."
For the second time Denzil was unable to meet the steely gaze. He looked away and laughed.
"Oh, of course I had; who hasn't--that knows anything of the world? But," he changed the subject, "don't you find it rather dull, living in a place like Polterham?"
"I have my work here."
"Work?--the work of propagandism?"
"Precisely. It would be pleasant enough to live in London, and associate with people of my own way of thinking; but what's the good?--there's too much of that centralization. The obscurantists take very good care to spread themselves. Why shouldn't those who love the light try to keep little beacons going in out-of-the-way places?"
"Well, do you make any progress?"
"Oh, I think so. The mere fact of my existence here ensures that. I dare say you have heard tell of me, as the countryfolk say?"
The question helped Denzil to understand why Mrs. Wade was content with Polterham. He smiled.
"Your influence won't be exerted against me, I hope, when the time comes?"
"By no means. Don't you see that I have already begun to help you?"
"By making it clear that my Radicalism is not of the most dangerous type?"
They laughed, together, and Quarrier, though the dialogue entertained him, rose as if to depart.
"I will leave you with your Greeks, Mrs. Wade; though I fear you haven't much pleasure in them from that special point of view."
"I don't know; they have given us important types of womanhood. The astonishing thing is that we have got so little ahead of them in the facts of female life. Woman is still enslaved, though men nowadays think it necessary to disguise it."
"Do you really attach much importance to the right of voting, and so on?"
"'And so on!' That covers a great deal, Mr. Quarrier. I attach all importance to a state of things which takes for granted that women stand on a level with children."
"So they do--with an inappreciable number of exceptions. You must be perfectly well aware of that."
"And so you expect me to be satisfied with it?--I insist on the franchise, because it symbolizes full citizenship. I won't aim at anything less than that. Women must be taught to keep their eyes on that, as the irreducible minimum of their demands."
"We mustn't argue. You know that I think they must be taught to look at quite different things."
"Yes; but what those things are you have left me in doubt. We will talk it over when you have more time to spare. Do you know my address? Pear-tree Cottage, Rickstead Road. I shall be very glad to see you if ever you care to call."
Denzil made his acknowledgments, shook hands, and left the room.
When his step sounded in the hall, the housekeeper appeared and conducted him to the upper stories. He examined everything attentively, but in silence; his features expressed grave thought. Mr. and Mrs. Hornibrook, he was told, were living in Guernsey, and had resolved to make that island their permanent abode. A Polterham solicitor was their agent for the property.
Denzil was given to acting on the spur of the moment. There might be dwellings obtainable that would suit him better than this, but he did not care to linger in the business. As he passed out of the iron gates he made up his mind that the house, with necessary repairs, would do very well; and straightway he turned his steps to the office of the agent.
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