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Having an imperious Will and an intelligence merely practical, it was natural for Lady Ogram to imagine that, even as she imposed her authority on others in outward things, so had she sway over their minds; what she willed that others should think, that, she took for granted, they thought. Seeing herself as an entirely beneficent potentate; unable to distinguish for a moment between her arbitrary impulses and the well-meaning motives which often directed her; she assumed as perfectly natural that all within her sphere of action must regard her with grateful submissiveness. So, for example, having decided that a marriage between Dyce Lashmar and Constance Bride would be a very good thing for both, and purposing large generosity towards them when it should have come about, she found it very difficult to conceive that either of her young friends could take any other view of the matter. When observation obliged her to doubt the correctness of her first impressions, she grew only the more determined that things should be as she wished. Since the coming of May Tomalin, a new reason--or rather, emotion-- fortified her resolve; seeing a possibility, even a likelihood, that May and Lashmar might attract each other, and having very definite views with regard to her niece, she was impatient for a declared betrothal of Constance and the aspiring politician. Their mutual aloofness irritated her more than she allowed to be seen, and the moment approached when she could no longer endure such playing with her serious purposes.
She knew that she had committed an imprudence in coming to London and entering, however moderately, into the excitements of the season. A day or two sufficed to prove the danger she was incurring; but she refused to take count of symptoms. With a weakness which did not lack its pathos, she had, for the first time in her life, put what she called "a touch of colour" onto her cheeks, and the result so pleased her that she all but forgot the artificiality of this late bloom; each morning, when her maid had performed the office, she viewed herself with satisfaction, and was even heard to remark that London evidently did her good. Lady Ogram tried to believe that even age and disease were amenable to her control.
She consulted doctors--for the form; behaving with cold civility during their visit, and scornfully satirising them when they were gone. None the less did she entertain friends at luncheon or dinner, and often talked to them as if years of activity and enjoyment lay before her. "Wonderful old lady!" was the remark of most who left her presence; but some exchanged glances and let fall ominous words.
On the evening when May and Constance were at the crush in Pont Street, she would not go to bed, but lay on a couch in her chamber, occasionally dozing, more often wide awake and quivering with the agitation of her mind. It was one o'clock when the girls returned, but she had given orders that Miss Tomalin should at once come to see her, and May, flushed, resplendent, entered the dimly-lighted room.
"Well, have you enjoyed yourself?"
The voice was a shock to May's ears. After those to which she had been listening, it sounded sepulchral.
"Very much indeed. A delightful time!"
No token of affection had a place in their greeting. The old autocrat could not bring herself to offer, or ask for, tenderness; but in her eyes, always expressive of admiration when she looked at May, might have been read something like hunger of the heart.
"Sit down, my dear." Even this form of address was exceptional. "Tell me all about it. Who was there?"
"Hundreds of people! I can't remember half of those I was introduced to. Lord Dymchurch--"
"Ha! Lord Dymchurch came? And you had a talk with him?"
"Oh, yes. I find he takes a great interest in Old English, and we talked about Chaucer and so on for a long time. He isn't quite so well up in it as I am; I put him right on one or two points, and he seemed quite grateful. He's very nice, isn't he? There's something so quiet and good-natured about him. I thought perhaps he would have offered to take me down to supper, but he didn't. Perhaps he didn't think of it; I fancy he's rather absentminded."
Lady Ogram knitted her brows.
"Who did go down with you?" she asked.
"Oh, Mr. Lashmar. He was very amusing. Then I talked with--"
"Wait a minute. Did you only have one talk with Lord Dymchurch?"
"Only one. He doesn't care for 'At Homes.' Mrs. Toplady says he hardly ever goes anywhere, and she fancies"--May laughed lightly--"that he came to-night only because I was going to be there. Do you think it likely, aunt?"
"Why, I don't think it impossible," replied Lady Ogram, in a tone of relief. "I have known more unlikely things. And suppose it were true?"
"Oh, it's very complimentary, of course."
The old eyes dwelt upon the young face, and with a puzzled expression. Notwithstanding her own character, it was difficult for Lady Ogram to imagine that the girl seriously regarded herself as superior to Lord Dymchurch.
"Perhaps it's more than a compliment," she said, in rather a mumbling voice; and she added, with an effort to speak distinctly, "I suppose you didn't tire him with that talk about Old English?"
"Tire him?" May exclaimed. "Way, he was delighted!"
"But he seems to have been satisfied with the one talk."
"Oh, he went away because Mr. Lashmar came up, that was all. He's very modest; perhaps he thought he oughtn't to prevent me from talking to other people."
Lady Ogram looked annoyed and worried.
"If I were you, May, I shouldn't talk about Old English next time you see Lord Dymchurch. Men don't care to find themselves at school in a drawing-room."
"I assure you, aunt, that is not my only subject of conversation," replied May, amused and dignified. "And I'm perfectly certain that it was just the thing for Lord Dymchurch. He has a serious mind, and I like him to know that mine is the same."
"That's all right, of course. I dare say you know best what pleases him. And I think it very probable indeed, May, that he went to Pont Street just in the hope of meeting you."
May smiled, and seemed to take the thing as very natural; whereupon Lady Ogram again looked puzzled.
"Well, go to bed, May. I'm very glad Lord Dymchurch was there; very glad. Go to bed, and sleep as late as you like. I'm glad you've enjoyed yourself, and I'm very glad Lord Dymchurch was there-- very."
The voice had become so senile, so indistinct, that May could hardly catch what it said. She lightly kissed her aunt's cheek--a ceremony that passed between them only when decorum seemed to demand it--and left the room.
On the following morning, Dyce Lashmar received a telegram, couched thus:
"Please call at Bunting's Hotel at 3 this afternoon."
In order to respond to this summons, he had to break an engagement; but he did it willingly. Around the hotel in Albemarle Street circled all his thoughts, and he desired nothing more than to direct his steps thither. Arriving with perfect punctuality, he was shown into Lady Ogram's drawing-room, and found Lady Ogram alone. Artificial complexion notwithstanding, the stern old visage wore to-day a look as of nature all but spent. At Lashmar's entrance, his hostess did not move; sunk together in her chair, head drooping forward, she viewed him from under her eyebrows: even to give her hand when he stood before her seemed almost too great an effort, and the shrivelled lips scarce made audible her bidding that he should be seated.
"You are well, I hope?" said Dyce, feeling uncomfortable, but affecting to see nothing unusual in the face before him.
Lady Ogram nodded, impatiently. There was a moment's silence; then, turning her gaze upon him, she said abruptly, in a harsh croak:
"What are you waiting for?"
Lashmar felt a cold touch along his spine. He thought the ghastly old woman had lost her senses, that she was either mad or delirious. Yet her gaze had nothing wild; on the contrary, it searched him with all the wonted keenness.
"Waiting--? I'm afraid I don't understand--"
"Why haven't you done what you know I wish?" pursued the untuneful voice, now better controlled. "I'm speaking of Constance Bride."
Relieved on one side, Dyce fell into trouble on the other.
"To tell you the truth, Lady Ogram," he answered, with his air of utmost candour, "I have found no encouragement to take the step of which you are thinking. I'm afraid I know only too well what the result would be."
"You know nothing about it."
Lady Ogram moved. As always, a hint of opposition increased her force. She was suffering acute physical pain, which appeared in every line of her face, and in the rigid muscles of her arms as she supported herself on the arms of the chair.
"Answer me this," she went on--and her utterance had something which told of those far-off days before education and refined society had softened her tongue. "Will you see Miss Bride this afternoon, and make her an offer of marriage? Are you willing? Just answer me yes or no."
Dyce replied mechanically and smiled as he replied.
"I am quite willing, Lady Ogram. I only wish I could feel assured that Miss Bride--"
He was rudely interrupted.
"Don't talk, but listen to me." For a moment the lips went on moving, yet gave no sound; then words came again. "I've told you once already about Constance, what I think of her, and what I intend for her. I needn't go over all that again. As for you, I think I've given proof that I wish you well. I was led to it at first because I saw that Constance liked you; now I wish you well for your own sake, and you may trust me to do what I can to help you on. But till a man a married, no one can say what he'll make of his life. You've plenty of brains, more than most men, but I don't think you've got too much of what I call backbone. If you make a fool of yourself--as most men do--in marriage, it's all up with you. I want to see you safe. Go where you will, you'll find no better wife, better in every way for you, than Constance Bride. You want a woman with plenty of common sense as well as uncommon ability; the kind of woman that'll keep you going steadily--up--up! Do you understand me?"
The effort with which she spoke was terrible. Her face began to shine with moisture, and her mouth seemed to be parched. Lashmar must have been of much sterner stuff for these vehement and rough-cut sentences to make no impression upon him; he was held by the dark, fierce eye, and felt in his heart that he had heard truths.
"And mind this," continued Lady Ogram, leaning towards him. "Constance's marriage alters nothing in what I had planned for her before I knew you. She'll have her duties quite apart from your interests and all you aim at. I know her; I'm not afraid to trust her, even when she's married. She's honest--and that's what can be said of few women. This morning I had a talk with her. She knows, now, the responsibility I want her to undertake, and she isn't afraid of it. I said nothing to her about you; not a word: but, when you speak to her, she'll understand what was in my mind. So let us get things settled, and have no more bother about it. On Saturday"--it was three days hence--"I go back to Rivenoak; I've enough of London; I want to be quiet. You are to come down with us. You've business at Hollingford on the 20th, and you ought to see more of the Hollingford people."
Whatever Lady Ogram had proposed (or rather dictated) Dyce would have agreed to. He was under the authority of her eye and voice. The prospect of being down at Rivenoak, and there, of necessity, living in daily communication with May Tomalin, helped him to disregard the other features of his position. He gave a cheerful assent.
"Now go away for half an hour," said Lady Ogram. "Then come back, and ask for Miss Bride, and you'll find her here."
She was at the end of her strength, and could barely make the last words audible. Dyce pressed her hand silently, and withdrew.
After the imposed interval, he returned from a ramble in Piccadilly, where he had seen nothing, and was conducted again to the drawing-room. There Constance sat reading. She was perfectly calm, entirely herself, and, as Lashmar entered, she looked up with the usual smile.
"Have you been out this afternoon?" he began by asking.
"You went on business of Lady Ogram's?"
Dyce gave no answer. He laid aside his hat and stick, sat down not far from Constance, and looked at her steadily.
"I have something rather odd to say to you. As we are both rational persons, I shall talk quite freely, and explain to you exactly the position in which I find myself. It's a queer position, to say the least. When I was at Rivenoak, on the last day of my visit, Lady Ogram had a confidential talk with me; your name came prominently into it, and I went away with certain vague impressions which have kept me, ever since, in a good deal of uneasiness. This afternoon, I have had another private conversation with Lady Ogram. Again your name had a prominent part in it, and this time there was no vagueness whatever in the communication made to me. I was bidden, in plain terms, to make you an offer of marriage."
Constance drooped her eyes, but gave no other sign of disturbance.
"Now," resumed Dyce, leaning forward with hands clasped between his knees, "before I say anything more about this matter as it concerns you, I had better tell you what I think about our friend. I feel pretty sure that she has a very short time to live; it wouldn't surprise me if it were a question of days, but in any case I am convinced she won't live for a month. What is your opinion?"
"I fancy you are right," answered the other, gravely. "If so, this rather grotesque situation becomes more manageable. It is fortunate that you and I know each other so well, and have the habit of straightforward speech. I may assume, no doubt, that, from the very first, our friendship was misinterpreted by Lady Ogram; reasonable relations between man and woman are so very rare, and, in this case, the observer was no very acute psychologist. I feel sure she is actuated by the kindest motives; but what seems to her my inexplicable delay has been too much for her temper, and at last there was nothing for it but to deal roundly with me. One may suspect, too, that she feels she has not much time to spare. Having made up her mind that we are to marry, she wants to see the thing settled. Looking at it philosophically, I suppose one may admit that her views and her behaviour are intelligible. Meanwhile, you and I find ourselves in a very awkward position. We must talk it over-- don't you think?--quite simply, and decide what is best to do."
Constance listened, her eyes conning the carpet. There was silence for a minute, then she spoke.
"What did Lady Ogram tell you about me?"
"She repeated in vague terms something she had already said at Rivenoak. It seems that you are to undertake some great responsibility--to receive some proof of her confidence which will affect all the rest of your life. More than that I don't know, but I understand that there has been a conversation between you, in which everything was fully explained."
Constance nodded. After a moment's reflection she raised her eyes to Lashmar's, and intently regarded him; her expression was one of anxiety severely controlled.
"You shall know what that responsibility is," she said, with a just perceptible tremor in her voice. "Lady Ogram, like a good many other people nowadays, has more money than she knows what to do with. For many years, I think, she has been troubled by a feeling that a woman rich as she ought to make some extraordinary use of her riches-- ought to set an example, in short, to the wealthy world. But she never could discover the best way of doing this. She has an independent mind, and likes to strike out ways for herself. Ordinary Charities didn't satisfy her; to tell the truth, she wanted not only to do substantial good, but to do it in a way which should perpetuate her name--cause her to be more talked about after her death than she has been in her lifetime. Time went on, and she still could hit upon nothing brilliant; all she had decided was to build and endow a great hospital at Hollingford, to be called by her name, and this, for several reasons, she kept postponing. Then came her acquaintance with me--you know the story. She was troubling about the decay of the village, and trying to hit on remedies. Well, I had the good luck to suggest the paper-mill, and it was a success, and Lady Ogram at once had a great opinion of me. From that day--she tells me--the thought grew in her mind that, instead of devoting all her wealth, by will, to definite purposes, she would leave a certain portion of it to me, to be used by me for purposes of public good. I, in short"--Constance smiled nervously--"was to be sole and uncontrolled trustee of a great fund, which would be used, after her death, just as it might have been had she gone on living. The idea is rather fine, it seems to me; it could only have originated in a mind capable of very generous thought, generous in every sense of the word. It implied remarkable confidence, such as few people, especially few women, are capable of. It strikes me as rather pathetic, too--the feeling that she would continue to live in another being, not a mere inheritor of her money, but a true representative of her mind, thinking and acting as she would do, always consulting her memory, desiring her approval. Do you see what I mean?"
"Of course I do," answered Dyce, meditatively. "Yes, it's fine. It increases my respect for our friend."
"I have always respected her," said Constance, "and I am sorry now that I did not respect her more. Often she has irritated me, and in bad temper I have spoken thoughtlessly. I remember that letter I wrote you, before you first came to Rivenoak; it was silly, and, I'm afraid, rather vulgar."
"Nothing of the kind," interposed Lashmar. "It was very clever. You couldn't be vulgar if you tried."
"Have you the letter still?"
"Of course I have."
"Then do me the kindness to destroy it--will you?"
"If you wish."
"I do, seriously. Burn the thing, as soon as you get home."
They avoided each-other's look, and there was a rather long pause.
"I'll go on with my story," said Constance, in a voice still under studious control. "All this happened when Lady Ogram thought she had no living relative. One fine day, Mr. Kerchever came down with news of Miss Tomalin, and straightway the world was altered. Lady Ogram had a natural heiress, and one in whom she delighted. Everything had to be reconsidered. The great hospital became a dream. She wanted May Tomalin to be rich, very rich, to marry brilliantly. I have always suspected that Lady Ogram looked upon her life as a sort of revenge on the aristocratic class for the poverty and ignorance of her own people; did anything of the kind ever occur to you?"
"Was her family really mean?"
"Everyone says so. Mrs. Gallantry tells me that our illustrious M. P. has made laborious searches, hoping to prove something scandalous. Of course she tells it as a proof of Mr. Robb's unscrupulous hatred of Lady Ogram. I daresay the truth is that she came of a low class. At all events, Miss Tomalin, who represents the family in a progressive stage, is to establish its glory for ever. One understands. It's very human."
Lashmar wore the Toplady smile.
"It never occurred to our friend," he said, "that her niece might undertake the great trust instead of you?"
"She has spoken to me quite frankly about that. The trust cannot be so great as it would have been, but it remains with me. Miss Tomalin, it 'nay be hoped, will play not quite an ordinary part in the fashionable world; she has ideas of her own, and"--the voice was modulated--"some faith in herself. But my position is different, and perhaps my mind. Lady Ogram assures me that her faith in me, and her hopes, have suffered no change. For one thing, the mill is to become my property. Then--"
She hesitated, and her eyes passed over the listener's face. Lashmar was very attentive.
"There's no need to go into details," she added quickly. "Lady Ogram told me everything, saying she felt that the time had come for doing so. And I accepted the trust."
"Without knowing, however," said Dyce, "the not unimportant condition which her mind attached to it."
"There was no condition, expressed or reserved."
Constance's tone had become hard again. Her eyes were averted, her lips set in their firmest lines.
"Are you quite sure of that?"
"Quite," was the decisive reply.
"How do you reconcile that with what has passed today between Lady Ogram and me?"
"It was between Lady Ogram and you," said Constance, subduing her voice.
"I see. You mean that I alone am concerned; that your position will in no case be affected?"
"Yes, I mean that," answered Constance, quietly.
Lashmar thought for a moment, then moved on his chair, and spoke in a low tone, which seemed addressed to his hearer's sympathy.
"Perhaps you are right. Probably you are. But there is one thing of which I feel every assurance. If it becomes plain that her project must come to nothing, Lady Ogram's interest in me is at an end. I may say good-bye to Hollingford."
"You are mistaken," replied Constance, in a voice almost of indifference.
"Well, the question will soon be decided." Lashmar seemed to submit himself to the inevitable. "I shall write to Lady Ogram, telling her the result of our conversation. We shall see how she takes it."
He moved as if about to rise, but only turned his chair slightly aside. Constance was regarding him from under her brows. She spoke in her most businesslike tone.
"It was this that you came to tell me?"
"Why, no. It wasn't that at all."
"What had you in mind, then?"
"I was going to ask if you would marry me--or rather, if you would promise to--or rather, if you would make believe to marry me. I thought that, under the circumstances, it was a justifiable thing to do, for I fancied your future, as well as mine, was at stake. Seeing our friend's condition, it appeared to me that a formal engagement between us would be a kindness to her, and involve no serious consequences for us. But the case is altered. You being secure against Lady Ogram's displeasure, I have, of course, no right to ask you to take a part in such a proceeding--which naturally you would feel to be unworthy of you. All I have to do is to thank you for your efforts on my behalf. Who knows? I may hold my own at Hollingford. But at Rivenoak it's all over with me."
He stood up, and assumed an attitude of resigned dignity, smiling to himself. But Constance kept her seat, her eyes on the ground.
"I believe you were going down on Saturday?" she said.
"So it was arranged. Well, I mustn't stay--"
Constance rose, and he offered his hand.
"Between us, it makes no difference, I hope?" said Dyce, with an emphasised effort of cheeriness. "Unless you think me a paltry fellow, ready to do anything to get on?"
"I don't think that," replied Constance, quietly.
"But you feel that what I was going to ask would have been rather a severe test of friendship?"
"Under the circumstances, I could have pardoned you."
"But you wouldn't have got beyond forgiveness?"
Constance smiled coldly, her look wandering.
"How can I tell?"
"But--oh, never mind! Good-bye, for the present."
He pressed her hand again, and turned away. Before he had reached the door, Constance's voice arrested him.
He looked at her as if with disinterested inquiry.
"Think well before you take any irreparable step. It would be a pity."
Dyce moved towards her again.
"Why, what choice have I? The position is impossible. If you hadn't said those unlucky words about being so sure--"
"I don't see that they make the slightest difference," answered Constance, her eyebrows raised. "If you had intended a genuine offer of marriage--yes, perhaps. But as all you meant was to ask me to save the situation, with no harm to anybody, and the certainty of giving great pleasure to our friend--"
"You see it in that light?" cried Lashmar, flinging away his hat. "You really think I should be justified? You are not offended?"
"I credit myself with a certain measure of common sense," answered Constance.
"Then you will allow me to tell Lady Ogram that there is an engagement?"
"You may tell her so, if you like."
He seized her hand, and pressed his lips upon it. But, scarce had he done so, when Constance drew it brusquely away.
"There is no need to play our comedy in private," she said, with cold reproof. "And I hope that at all times you will use the discretion that is owing to me."
"If I don't, I shall deserve to fall into worse difficulties than ever," cried Lashmar.
"As, for instance, to find yourself under the necessity of making your mock contract a real one--which would be sufficiently tragic."
Constance spoke with a laugh, and thereupon, before Dyce could make any rejoinder, walked from the room.
The philosopher stood embarrassed. "What did she mean by that?" he asked himself. He had never felt on very solid ground in his dealings with Constance; had never felt sure in his reading of her character, his interpretation of her ways and looks and speeches. An odd thing that he should have been betrayed by his sense of triumphant diplomacy into that foolish excess. And he remembered that it was the second such indiscretion, though this time, happily, not so compromising as his youthful extravagance at Alverholme.
What if Lady Ogram, feeling that her end drew near, called for their speedy marriage? Was it the thought of such possibility that had supplied Constance with her sharp-edged jest? If she could laugh, the risk did not seem to her very dreadful. And to him?
He could not make up his mind on the point.
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