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The village of Rickstead lay at some five miles' distance from that suburb of Polterham where dwelt Mr. Toby Liversedge, Mr. Mumbray (the Mayor), Mr. Samuel Quarrier, and sundry other distinguished townsfolk. A walk along the Rickstead Bead was a familiar form of exercise with the less-favoured people who had their homes in narrow streets; for on either side of the highway lay an expanse of meadows, crossed here and there by pleasant paths which led to the surrounding hamlets. In this direction no factories had as yet risen to deform the scene.
Darkness was falling when Quarrier set forth to keep his appointment with Eustace Glazzard at the Coach and Horses Inn. The road-lamps already glimmered; there would be no moon, but a soft dusky glow lingered over half the sky, and gave promise of a fair night. Denzil felt his boyhood revive as he got clear of the new houses, and began to recognize gates, trees, banks, and stiles; he could not say whether he enjoyed the sensation, but it served to combat certain troublesome thoughts which had beset him since the morning. He was experiencing reaction after the excitement of the last two days. A change from the orderly domesticities of his sister's house had become necessary to him, and he looked forward with satisfaction to the evening he had planned.
At a turn of the road, which, as he well remembered, had been a frequent limit of his nurse-guarded walk five-and-twenty years ago, his eye fell upon a garden gate marked with the white inscription, "Pear-tree Cottage." It brought him to a pause. This must be Mrs. Wade's dwelling; the intellectual lady had quite slipped out of his thoughts, and with amusement he stopped to examine the cottage as well as dusk permitted. The front was overgrown with some creeper; the low roof made an irregular line against the sky one window on the ground-floor showed light through a red blind. Mrs. Wade, he had learnt, enjoyed but a small income; the interior was probably very modest. There she sat behind the red blind and meditated on the servitude of her sex. Repressing an inclination to laugh aloud, he stepped briskly forward.
Rickstead consisted of twenty or thirty scattered houses; an ancient, slumberous place, remarkable chiefly for its time-honoured inn, which stood at the crossing of two high roads. The landlord had received notice that two gentlemen would dine under his roof, and the unwonted event was making quite a stir in the hostelry. Quarrier walked in at about a quarter-past six, savoury odours saluted him from the threshold. Glazzard had not yet arrived, but in less than five minutes a private carriage drew up to the door, and the friends hailed each other.
The room prepared for them lay well apart from the bar, with its small traffic. A great fire had been blazing for an hour or two; and the table, not too large, was laid with the best service the house could afford--nothing very grand, to be sure, in these days of its decline, but the general effect was inviting to men with a good appetite and some historical imagination.
"A happy idea of yours!" said Glazzard, as he rubbed his hands before the great hearth. "Are we to begin with a cup of sack?"
Punctually the meal was served; the liquor provided therewith, though of small dignity, did no discredit to the host. They talked and laughed over old Grammar School days, old acquaintances long since dead or lost to sight, boyish ambitions and achievements. Dinner dismissed, a bottle of whisky on the table, a kettle steaming by the fire, Denzil's pipe and Glazzard's cigar comfortably glowing, there came a long pause.
"Well, I have a story to fell you," said Quarrier, at length.
"So I supposed," murmured the other, without eagerness.
"I don't know that I should have told it but for that chance encounter at Kew. But I'm not sorry. I think, Glazzard, you are the one man in the world in whom I have perfect confidence."
The listener just bent his head. His features were impassive.
"It concerns Lilian, of course," Quarrier pursued, when he had taken a few puffs less composedly than hitherto. "I am telling the story without her leave, but--well, in a way, as I said, the necessity is forced upon me. I can't help doing many things just now that I should avoid if I had my choice. I have undertaken to fight society by stratagem. For my own part, I would rather deal it a plain blow in the face, and bid it do its worst; but"----He waved his hand.
Glazzard murmured and nodded comprehension.
"I'll go back to the beginning. That was about three years ago. I was crossing the North Sea (you remember the time; I said good-bye to you in the Academy, where your bust was), and on the boat I got into conversation with a decent kind of man who had his wife and family with him, going to settle for a time at Stockholm; a merchant of some sort. There were three children, and they had a governess-- Lilian, in fact, who was then not much more than eighteen. I liked the look of her from the first. She was very still and grave,--the kind of thing that takes me in a woman, provided she has good features. I managed to get a word or two with her, and I liked her way of speaking. Well, I was sufficiently interested to say to myself that I might as well spend a week or two. at Stockholm and keep up the acquaintance of these people; Becket, their name was. I'm not exactly the kind of fellow who goes about falling in love with nursery governesses, and at that time (perhaps you recollect?) I had somebody else in mind. I dare say it was partly the contrast between that shark of a woman and this modest girl; at all events, I wanted to see more of Lilian, and I did I was in Stockholm, of! and on, for a couple of months. I became good friends with the Beckets, and before coming back to England I made an offer to Miss Allen-- that was the governess's name. She refused me, and I was conceited enough to wonder what the deuce she meant."
Glazzard laughed. He was listening with more show of interest.
"Well," pursued Quarrier, after puffing vainly at his extinguished pipe, "there was reason for wondering. Before I took the plunge, I had a confidential talk with Mrs. Becket, who as good as assured me that I had only to speak; in fact, she was rather angry with me for disturbing her family arrangements. Miss Allen, I learnt from her, was an uncommonly good girl--everything I imagined her. Mrs. Becket didn't know her family, but she had engaged her on the strength of excellent testimonials, which didn't seem exaggerated. Yet after that I was floored--told that the thing couldn't be. No weeping and wailing; but a face and a voice that puzzled me. The girl liked me well enough; I felt sure of it. All the same I had to come back to England alone, and in a devilish bad temper. You remember that I half quarrelled with you about something at our first meeting."
"You were rather bearish," remarked Glazzard, knocking the ash off his cigar.
"As I often am. Forgive me, old fellow!"
Denzil relit his pipe.
"The next summer I went over to Sweden again. Miss Allen was still with the Beckets, as I knew; but she was only going to stay a few months more. One of the children had died, and the other two were to be sent to a boarding-school in England. Again I went through the proposing ordeal, and again it was useless. 'Confound it!' I shouted, 'do deal honestly with me! What's the matter? Are you engaged already?' She kept silent for a long time, then said 'Yes!' 'Then why in the name of the Jotuns didn't you tell me so before?' I was brutal (as I often am), and the poor girl began to cry. Then there was a scene--positive stage business. I wouldn't take her refusal. 'This other man, you don't really care for him-- you are going to sacrifice yourself! I won't have it! She wept and moaned, and threatened hysterics; and at last, when I was losing patience (I can't stand women's idiotic way of flinging themselves about and making a disturbance, instead of discussing difficulties calmly), she said at last that, if ever we met in England, she would explain her position. 'Why not now?'--no, not in the Beckets' house. Very well then, at least she might make it certain that I should see her in England. After trouble enough, she at last consented to this. She was to come back with Mr. Becket and the boys, and then go to her people. I got her promise that she would write to me and make an appointment somewhere or other.--More whisky?"
Glazzard declined; so Denzil replenished his own glass, and went on. He was now tremulous with the excitement of his reminiscences; he fidgeted on the chair, and his narrative became more jerky than ever.
"Her letter came, posted in London. She had taken leave of the Becket party, and was supposed to be travelling homewards; but she would keep her word with me. I was to go and see her at an hotel in the West End. Go, I did, punctually enough; I believe I would have gone to Yokohama for half an hour of her society. I found her in a private sitting-room, looking wretched enough, confoundedly ill. And then and there she told me her story. It was a queer one; no one could have guessed it."
He seized the poker and stirred the fire savagely.
"I shall just give you the plain facts. Her father was a builder in a small way, living at Bristol. He had made a little money, and was able to give his children a decent education. There was a son, who died young, and then two girls, Lilian the elder of them. The old man must have been rather eccentric; he brought up the girls very strictly (their mother died when they were children)--would scarcely let them go out of his sight, preached to them a sort of mixture of Christianity and Pantheism, forbade all pleasures except those of home, didn't like them to make acquaintances. Their mother's sister kept the house; a feeble, very pious creature, probably knowing as much about life as the cat or the canary--so Lilian describes her. The man came to a sudden end; a brick fell on his head whilst he was going over a new building. Lilian was then about fifteen. She had passed the Oxford Local, and was preparing herself to teach--or rather, being prepared at a good school.
"Allen left enough money to provide his daughters with about a hundred a year each; this was to be theirs absolutely when they came of age, or when they married. The will had been carefully drawn up, and provided against all sorts of real and imaginary dangers. The one thing it couldn't provide against was the imbecility of the old aunt, who still had the girls in her care.
"A couple of years went by, and Lilian became a teacher in the school she had attended. Do you know anything about Bristol and the neighbourhood? It seems that the people there are in the habit of going to a place called Weston-super-Mare--excursion steamers, and so on. Well, the girls and their aunt went to spend a day at Weston, and on the boat they somehow made acquaintance with a young man named Northway. That means, of course, he made up to them, and the aunt was idiot enough to let him keep talking. He stuck by them all day, and accompanied them back to Bristol.--Pah! it sickens me to tell the story!"
He took the glass to drink, but it slipped from his nervous fingers and crashed on the ground.
"Never mind; let it be there. I have had whisky enough. This damned fellow Northway soon called upon them, and was allowed to come as often as he liked. He was a clerk in a commercial house--gave references which were found to be satisfactory enough, a great talker, and of course a consummate liar. His special interest was the condition of the lower classes; he made speeches here and there, went slumming, called himself a Christian Socialist. This kind of thing was no doubt attractive to Lilian--you know enough of her to understand that. She was a girl of seventeen, remember. In the end, Northway asked her to marry him, and she consented."
"Did he know of the money?" inquired Glazzard.
"Undoubtedly. I shouldn't wonder if the blockhead aunt told. Well, the wedding-day came; they were married; and--just as they came out of the church, up walks a detective, claps his hand on Northway's shoulder, and arrests him for forgery."
"H'm! I see."
"The fellow was tried. Lilian wouldn't tell me the details; she gave me an old newspaper with full report. Northway had already, some years before, been in the hands of the police in London. It came out now that he was keeping a mistress; on the eve of marriage he had dispensed with her services, and the woman, in revenge, went to his employers to let them know certain suspicious facts. He was sent to penal servitude for three years."
"Three years!" murmured Glazzard. "About so ago, I suppose?"
"Yes; perhaps he is already restored to society. Pleasant reflection!"
"Moral and discreet law," remarked the other, "which maintains the validity of such a marriage!"
Denzil uttered a few violent oaths, reminiscences of the Navy.
"And she went at once to Sweden?" Glazzard inquired.
"In a month or two the head-mistress of her school, a sensible woman, helped her to get an engagement--with not a word said of the catastrophe. She went as Miss Allen. It was her firm resolve never again to see Northway. She would not acknowledge that that ceremony in the church made her a wife. Of course, you understand that it wasn't only the forgery that revolted her; that, I suppose, could have been pardoned. In a few days she had learnt more of herself and of the world than in all the previous years. She understood that Northway was really nothing to her. She accepted him because he was the first man who interested her and made love to her --like thousands of girls. Lilian is rather weak, unfortunately. She can't stand by herself. But for me, I am convinced she would now be at the mercy of the blackguard, when he comes out. Horror and despair enabled her to act firmly three years ago; but if she had no one to support her--well, she has!"
"What did you propose," asked Glazzard, "when you persuaded her to live with you?"
Denzil wrinkled his brow and looked gloomily at the fire.
"We agreed to live a life of our own, that was all. To tell you the truth, Glazzard, I had no clear plans. I was desperately in love, and--well, I thought of emigration some day. You know me too well to doubt my honesty. Lilian became my wife, for good and all--no doubt about that! But I didn't trouble much about the future--it's my way."
"She cut herself loose from the Bristol people?"
"No; she has corresponded with them at long intervals. They think she is teaching in London. The tragedy excuses her from visiting them. Aunt and sister are sworn to secrecy concerning her whereabouts. A good thing she has no male relatives to hunt her up."
"Does she draw her income?--I beg your pardon, the question escaped me. Of course it's no business of mine."
"Never mind. Yes, the money is at her disposal; thanks to the settlement required by her father's will. I'm afraid she gives away a lot of it in indiscriminate charity. I needn't say," he added, with a characteristic movement of the head, "that I have nothing to do with it."
"My real position she doesn't understand. I have never told her of how it was changed at my father's death.--Poor girl! About that time she was disappointed of a child, and had a month or two of black misery. I kept trying to make up my mind what course would be the wisest, and in the meanwhile said nothing. She is marvellously patient. In fact, what virtue hasn't she, except that of a strong will? Whatever happens, she and I stand together; nothing on earth would induce me to part from her! I want you to understand that. In what I am now going to do, I am led solely and absolutely by desire for our common good. You see, we are face to face with the world's immoral morality. To brave it would be possible, of course; but then we must either go to a foreign country or live here in isolation. I don't want to live permanently abroad, and I do want to go in for activity--political by preference. The result is we must set our faces, tell lies, and hope that fortune will favour us."
There was a strong contrast between Quarrier's glowing vehemence and the show of calm reflection which the other maintained as he listened. Denzil's face was fully lighted by the fire; his friend's received the shadow of an old-fashioned screen which Glazzard, finding the heat oppressive, had pulled forward a few minutes ago. The frank, fearless gaze with which Denzil's words were accompanied met no response; but to this habit in the listener he was accustomed.
"Yes, we must tell lies!" Quarrier emphasized the words savagely. "Social law is stupid and unjust, imposing its obligation without regard to person or circumstance. It presumes that no one can be trusted. I decline to be levelled with the unthinking multitude. You and I can be a law to ourselves. What I shall do is this: On returning to town next week, I shall take Lilian over to Paris. We shall live there for several weeks, and about the end of the time I shall write to my people here, and tell them that I have just been married."
He paused. Glazzard made no motion, and uttered no sound.
"I have already dropped a mysterious word or two to my Mister, which she will be able to interpret afterwards. Happily, I am thought a likely fellow to do odd, unconventional things. Again and again Mary has heard me rail against the idiocies of ordinary weddings; this private marriage will be quite in character. I shall state that Lilian has hitherto been a governess at Stockholm--that I made her acquaintance there--that I sent for her to meet me in Paris. Now, tell me, have you any objection to offer?"
Glazzard shifted his position, coughed, and drew from his case a new cigar, which he scrutinized closely from tip to end--even drawing it along under his nose. Then he spoke very quietly.
"It's feasible--but dangerous."
"But not very dangerous, I think?"
"I can't say. It depends greatly on your wife's character."
"Thank you for using that word, old fellow!" burst from Denzil. "She is my wife, in every sense of the word that merits the consideration of a rational creature!"
"I admit it; but I am afraid of lies."
"I am not only afraid of them; I hate them bitterly. I can say with a clear conscience that I abhor untruthfulness. I have never told a deliberate lie since I was old enough to understand the obligation of truth! But we have to do with monstrous social tyrannies. Lilian can no longer live in hiding. She must have a full and enjoyable life."
"Yes. But is it possible for her, under these conditions?"
"I think so. I have still to speak to her, but I know she will see things as I do."
A very faint smile flitted over Glazzard's lips.
"Good! And you don't fear discovery by--what's his name-- Northway?"
"Not if Lilian can decide to break entirely with her relatives--at all events for some years. She must cease to draw her dividends, of course, and must announce to the Bristol people that she has determined on a step which makes it impossible for her to communicate with them henceforth. I don't think this will be a great sacrifice; her aunt and her sister have no great hold upon her affections.--You must remember that her whole being is transformed since she last saw them. She thinks differently on all and every subject."
"You are assured of that?"
"Absolutely sure! I have educated her. I have freed her from superstitions and conventionalities. To her, as to me, the lies we shall have to tell will be burdensome in the extreme; but we shall both forget in time."
"That is exactly what you can never do!" said Glazzard, deliberately. "You enter upon a lifetime of dissimulation. Ten, twenty years hence you will have to act as careful a part as on the day when you and she first present yourselves in Polterham."
"Oh, in a sense!" cried the other, impatiently.
"A very grave sense.--Quarrier, why have you taken up this political idea? What's the good of it?"
He leaned forward and spoke with a low earnest voice. Denzil could not instantly reply.
"Give it up!" pursued Glazzard. "Take Lilian abroad, and live a life of quiet happiness. Go on with your literary work"----
"Nonsense! I can't draw back now, and I don't wish to."
"Would you--if--if I were willing to become the Liberal candidate?"
Denzil stared in astonishment.
"You? Liberal candidate?"
A peal of laughter rang through the room. Glazzard had spoken as if with a great effort, his voice indistinct, his eyes furtive. When the burst of merriment made answer to him, he fell back in his chair, crossed his legs, and set his features in a hard smile.
"You are joking, old fellow!" said Denzil.
"Yes, if you like."
Quarrier wished to discuss the point, but the other kept an obstinate silence.
"I understand," remarked Denzil, at length. "You hit upon that thought out of kindness to me. You don't like my project, and you wished to save me from its dangers. I understand. Hearty thanks, but I have made up my mind. I won't stunt my life out of regard for an imbecile superstition. The dangers are not great; and if they were, I should prefer to risk them. You electioneering! Ho, ho!"
Glazzard's lips were close drawn, his eyes veiled by the drooping lids. He had ceased to smoke, and when, a few minutes later, he threw away his cigar, it was all but squeezed flat by the two fingers which had seemed to hold it lightly.
"It is settled!" cried Denzil, jumping up, with a return of his extravagant spirits. "You, Glazzard, will stand by and watch--our truest friend. You on the hustings! Ha, ha, ha! Come, one more glass of whisky, and I will tell them to get our cab ready. I say, Glazzard, from this evening forth never a word between us about the secret. That is understood, of course. You may let people know that you were in my confidence about the private marriage. But I can trust your discretion as my own. Your glass--pledge me in the old style!"
Ten minutes more, and they were driving back to Polterham.
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