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It was natural that Lady Ogram should from the beginning have suspected Miss Bride of a peculiar interest in Lashmar. When first she introduced her friend's name, Constance a little exaggerated the tone of impartiality, and in subsequent conversation she was never quite herself on this topic. Evidently she thought of the young man more often than she cared to have it known; a sort of subdued irritation now and then betrayed itself in her when she assented to a favourable comment regarding him, and a certain suspense of judgment--quite unlike her familiar attitude of mind--always marked her agreement in hopes for his future. The old woman of the world interpreted this by her own lights. At moments it vexed her, for she did not like to be mystified; at others, it touched a chord of sympathy in some very obscure corner of her being. And, as no practical problem could be put before her without her wishing to solve it autocratically, Lady Ogram soon formed a project with regard to these two persons, a project which took firmer consistence, and pleased her more, the more she pondered it.
On the appointed day, Lashmar arrived at Rivenoak. He was allowed to spend an hour in reposeful solitude ere being admitted to his hostess's presence. Conducted at length to the green drawing-room, he found Lady Ogram alone. She scrutinised him with friendly but searching eye, gave him her hand, and bade him be seated near her.
"I have another visitor coming from London to-day; an old friend of mine, Mrs. Toplady."
Where had Dyce heard that name? Somewhere, certainly. He tried hard to remember, but without success.
"I think you will like her," pursued Lady Ogram, "and she will perhaps be useful to you. She likes to know everybody who is, or is going to be, somebody. She'll ask you, no doubt, to her house in Pont Street, where you'll meet a great many fools and some reasonable people. She herself, I may tell you, is no fool, but she has a good deal more patience with that sort than I ever had, and so, of course, has many more friends. She's what they call a leader of Society, yet she doesn't grudge leaving London for a day or two in the beginning of the Season to do me a service."
"I seem to know her name," said Dyce.
"Of course you do, if you ever read about what Society is doing."
Lady Ogram always uttered the word with a contemptuous lip, but plainly she did not dislike to have it understood that Society, in certain of its representatives, took respectful account of her.
"And now," she continued, "I want to tell you about some other friends of mine you're to meet at dinner tomorrow. Most of them belong to Hollingford, and you will have to know them."
Very pungently did she sketch these personages. When her listener showed amusement, Lady Ogram was pleased; if he seemed to find the picture too entertaining, she added--"But he--or she--is not a fool, remember that." So did the talk go on, until a servant entered to announce the arrival of Mrs. Toplady, who had gone to her room, and, being rather tired, would rest there till dinner-time.
"Where is Miss Bride?" asked Lady Ogram.
"Miss Bride has just returned from Hollingford, my lady."
"I remember," said the hostess to her guest. "She had an appointment with Mrs. Gallantry, who has her eye on a house for the training-school. I suppose we must set the thing going; there's no harm in it."
Constance entered in a few minutes, greeted Lashmar as if she saw him every day, and began to talk about Mrs. Gallantry's project.
When, a couple of hours later, Dyce came down dressed for dinner, Mrs. Toplady was already in the drawing-room. He heard her voice, a well-modulated contralto which held the ear, and, looking in that direction, saw a tall, dark-robed woman, of middle age, with a thin face, its lines rather harsh, but in general effect handsome, and a warm complexion, brightly red upon the prominent cheek-bones. Jewelry sparkled in her hair, from her white throat, and on her. fingers. As Lashmar came forward, she finished what she was saying, and turned her eyes upon him with expectant interest; a smile at the corner of her lips had a certain mischievousness, quite good-humoured but a little perturbing to one who encountered it, together with the direct dark gaze, for the first time. Introduction having been performed with Lady Ogram's wonted carelessness, Mrs. Toplady said at once:
"I know a friend of yours, Mr. Lashmar,--Mrs. Woolstan. Perhaps she has spoken to you of me?"
"She has," Dyce replied, remembering now that it was from Mrs. Woolstan he had heard her name.
"Why, how's that?" exclaimed the hostess. "You never told me about it, Mr. Lashmar."
Dyce had much ado to conceal his annoyed embarrassment. He wondered whether Mrs. Woolstan had made known the fact of his tutorship, which he did not care to publish, preferring to represent himself as having always held an independent position. With momentary awkwardness he explained that Mrs. Toplady's name had but once casually passed Mrs. Woolstan's Tips in his hearing, and that till now he had forgotten the circumstance.
"I saw her yesterday," said the lady of the roguish lips. "She's in trouble about parting with her little boy--just been sent to school."
"Very sweet face, hasn't she? Is the child like her? I never saw him--perhaps you never did, either?"
Mrs. Toplady had a habit, not of looking steadily at an interlocutor, but of casting a succession of quick glances, which seemed to the person thus inspected much more searching than a fixed gaze. Though vastly relieved by the assurance that Mrs. Woolstan had used discretion concerning him, Dyce could not become at ease under that restless look: he felt himself gauged and registered, though with what result was by no means discernible in Mrs. Toplady's countenance. Those eyes of hers must have gauged a vast variety of men; her forehead told of experience and meditation thereon. Of all the women he could remember, she impressed him as the least manageable according to his method. Compared with her, Lady Ogram seemed mere ingenuousness and tractability.
"And, pray, who is Mrs. Woolstan?" the hostess was asking, with a rather dry insistence.
"A charming little woman," replied Mrs. Toplady, sincerity in look and voice. "I knew her before her marriage, which perhaps was not quite--but the poor man is dead. A sister of hers married into my husband's family. She plays beautifully, an exquisite touch."
They were summoned to dinner. At table it was Mrs. Toplady who led the conversation, but in such a way as to assume no undue prominence, rather she seemed to be all attention to other talk, and, her smile notwithstanding, to listen with the most open-minded interest to whatever was said. Her manner to Lady Ogram was marked with deference, at times with something like affectionate gentleness; to Miss Bride she paid the compliment of amiable gravity; and towards Lashmar she could not have borne herself more respectfully--at all events in language--if he had been a member of the Cabinet; every word which fell from him she found suggestive, illuminative, and seemed to treasure it in her mind. After dinner, Dyce received from her his cue for drawing-room oratory; he was led into large discourse, and Mrs. Toplady's eyes beamed the most intelligent sympathy. None the less did roguery still lurk at the corner of her lips, so that from time to time the philosopher fidgeted a little, and asked himself uneasily what that smile meant.
At nine o'clock next morning, Lashmar and Constance sat down to breakfast alone. Mrs. Toplady rarely showed herself much before noon.
"If the sky clears," said Constance, "Lady Ogram will drive at eleven, and you are invited to accompany her."
"And you?" asked Dyce.
"I have work for two or three hours."
Lashmar chipped at an egg, a thoughtful smile upon his countenance.
"Can you tell me anything about Mrs. Toplady?" he inquired.
"Only what I have heard from Lady Ogram."
Constance sketched a biography. The lady had been twice married, first in early youth to a man who had nothing, and who became phthisical; during his illness they suffered from dire poverty and, at her husband's death, the penniless widow received great kindness from Lady Ogram, whose acquaintance she had made accidentally. Two years afterwards, she married a northern manufacturer of more than twice her age; an instance (remarked Miss Bride) of natural reaction. It chanced that a Royal Personage, on a certain public occasion, became the guest of the manufacturer, who had local dignities; and so well did Mrs. Toplady play her part of hostess that Royalty deigned to count her henceforth among its friends. Her husband would have received a title, but an inopportune malady cut short his life. A daughter of the first marriage still lived; she had wedded into the army, and was little heard of. Mrs. Toplady, a widow unattached, took her ease in the world.
"She has seven or eight thousand a year," said Constance, "and spends it all on herself. Naturally, she is a very polished and ornamental person."
"Something more than that, I fancy," returned Dyce, musing.
"Oh, as Lady Ogram would say, she is not a fool."
Dyce smiled, and let the topic pass. He was enjoying his breakfast, and, under this genial influence, presently felt moved to intimate speech.
"You live very comfortably here, don't you? You have no objection on principle to this kind of thing?"--his waving hand indicated the well-spread table.
"I? Certainly not. Why should I object to civilisation?"
"I'm not quite sure that I have got at your point of view yet," answered Dyce, good-humouredly. "You know mine. The tools to him who can use them. A breakfast such as this puts us at an advantage over the poorer world for the rest of the day. But the advantage isn't stolen. How came we here? Is it merely the cost of the railway ticket that transports me from my rasher in a London lodging to reindeer's tongue and so on in the breakfast-room at Rivenoak? I fancy not."
He paused. Was it wise to hint before Constance that he had lived rather poorly? He hoped, and believed, that she knew nothing definite as to his circumstances.
"Why, no," she assented, with a smile. "I, for example, have perhaps some part in it."
Dyce gazed at her, surprised at this frankness.
"You certainly have. And it reminds me that I may seem very ungrateful; I have hardly said 'thank you.' Shake hands, and believe that I am not ungrateful."
She hesitated. Not till the hand had been extended to her for an appreciable moment, did she give her own. In doing so, she wore a hard smile.
"So, this evening," went on Dyce, "I meet my supporters. Lady Ogram gave me an account of them yesterday. Tell me what you think. May I be myself with these people? Or must I talk twaddle. I dislike twaddle, as you know, but I don't want to spoil my chances. You understand how I look at this business? My object in life is to gain influence, that I may spread my views. Parliament, I take it, is the best means. Considering the nature of the average elector, I don't think one need worry about the method one pursues to get elected. I won't tell lies; that goes against the grain with me. But I must be practical."
Constance watched him, and seemed to weigh his remarks.
"As for twaddle," she said, "I shouldn't advise much of it in Mrs. Toplady's hearing."
"You are right. That would never do. I suppose that woman may be of real use to me?"
"Yes, I think so," replied Constance, seriously. "You are of course aware that a man doesn't become parliamentary candidate by just walking into a town and saying--'Behold me! Your votes!' There is such a thing as party organisation."
Dyce looked at her with involuntary respect. He reminded himself that "twaddle" was as little likely to have weight with Miss Bride as with Mrs. Toplady.
"She knows political people?" he asked.
"She knows everybody--or can know. I confess I don't understand why. In any case, it'll be well for yon to have her good word. Lady Ogram can do a good deal, here, but I'm not sure that she could make your acceptance by the Liberals a certain thing."
"Of course I have thought of that," said Dyce. Then, fearing he had spoken in too off-hand a way, he added graciously, "I needn't say that I regard your advice as valuable. I shall often ask for it."
Constance was mute.
"I suppose I may take it for granted that you wish for my success?"
"To be sure. I wish for it because Lady Ogram does."
Dyce felt inclined to object to this, but Constance's face did not invite to further talk on the point.
"At all events," he continued, "it seems no other candidate has been spoken of. The party isn't sanguine; they look upon Robb as an unassailable; sedet in aeter-numque sedebit. But we shall see about it. Presently I should like to talk over practical details with you. I suppose I call myself Unionist? These questions of day-to-day politics, how paltry they are! Strange that people can get excited about them. I shall have to look on it as a game, and amuse myself for certain hours of the day--a relaxation from thought and work. You haven't told me, by the bye, what you think of my bio-sociological system."
"I've been considering it. How was it suggested to you?"
Constance asked the question so directly, and with so keen a look, that she all but disconcerted the philosopher.
"Oh, it grew out of my reading and observation grew bit by bit--no armed Pallas leaping to sudden life--"
"You have worked it out pretty thoroughly."
"In outline, yes."
Dyce read the newspapers, and walked a little in the garden. Punctually at eleven, Lady Ogram descended. The carriage was at the door.
This stately drive, alone with the autocrat of Rivenoak, animated the young man. He felt that the days of his insignificance were over, that his career--the career so often talked about--had really begun. A delightful surprise gave piquancy to his sensations; had he cared to tell himself the truth, he would have known that, whatever his self-esteem, he had never quite believed in the brilliant future of which he liked to dream. It is one thing to merit advancement, quite another to secure it. Yet here he was, driving with a great lady, his friend, his admirer; driving towards the excitement of political contest, perhaps towards a seat in Parliament, and who could say what subsequent distinctions. Lady Ogram was not the woman to aid half-heartedly where her feelings were interested. Pretty surely he could count upon large support, so long as he did not disappoint his benefactress. For the present he had no anxieties--thanks to another woman, of whom, in truth, he thought scarcely once in twenty-four hours. He lived at ease; his faculties were expanding under this genial sunshine of prosperity. Even in aspect he was a man of more importance than a few weeks ago; his cheeks had coloured, his eyes rested with a new dignity on all they saw.
They returned, and as Lady Ogram was entering the hall, a servant made a respectful announcement.
"Mr. Kerchever is here, my lady."
"Mr. Kerchever? Indeed?"
With an unusually quick step, the old lady moved towards the library. There, occupied with a newspaper, sat a man whose fifty years still represented the prime of life, a tall, athletically-built man, his complexion that of a schoolboy after summer holidays, his brown hair abundant and crisp, spring and stay declared in every muscle of his limbs and frame. Lightly he arose, gracefully he swung forward, with the bow and smile of one who knows not constraint. Mr. Kerchever followed the law, but he also, whenever a chance offered, followed the hounds, and with more gusto. At school and University he had won palms; that his place in academic lists was less glorious mattered little to one who had a comfortable seat awaiting him in the paternal office.
"And what brings you here?" asked Lady Ogram, unable to subdue an agitation which confused her utterance.
"I have made a discovery which will interest you," replied Mr. Kerchever, in a voice which sounded very strong and melodious by contrast.
"What is it? Don't keep me waiting."
"I have found a grand-daughter of your brother Joseph Tomalin."
The listener drew a deep, tremulous sigh.
"Can't you go on?" she exclaimed, thickly, just as the lawyer was resuming.
"I'll tell you how I came upon her track--"
"I don't care anything about that!" cried the old lady, with violent irritation. "What is she? Where is she?"
"Miss May Tomalin is twenty-five years old. Her parents are dead. She lives with relatives of her mother in the town of Northampton. She has been well educated, well brought up altogether, and has a little income--about a hundred a year."
Again Lady Ogram drew a deep breath. Her face was hotly flushed; her hands trembled; a great joy shone from the transformed countenance.
"Thank goodness!" broke from her hoarsely. "Thank goodness!" Then, with sudden alarm, "I suppose you're making no idiotic mistake?"
"That kind of mistake, Lady Ogram," responded Mr. Kerchever with a tolerant motion of the eyebrows, "is not quite in my way. Indeed, I'm not in the habit of making mistakes of any kind. You may be sure I have taken every precaution before coming here with such news as this."
"All right! What are you angry about? Lawyers and doctors and parsons--there's no talking with them, they're so touchy. Can't you go on? Here's a girl falls out of the clouds, and I'm to show no curiosity about her! You drive me crazy with your roundabout nonsense. Go on, can't you!"
Mr. Kerchever eyed his client curiously. He was not offended, for he had known Lady Ogram long, and had received traditions regarding her from a time before he was born; but he could not help being struck just now with her face and manner; they made him uneasy.
"I will tell you everything forthwith," he resumed, "but I must beg you to control yourself, Lady Ogram. I do so out of regard for your health. Emotion is natural, but, now that you know the news is all good, your excellent sense should tranquillise you. Pray let us talk quietly."
Lady Ogram glanced at him, but nodded acquiescence.
"I'm as cool as you are. Talk as much as you like."
"A few days ago I had occasion to look through the lists of a London University Calendar. My eye fell on the name Tomalin, and of course I was interested. May Tomalin matriculated at London three years ago. I could find no further record of her, but inquiries were easy, and they guided me to Northampton. There I made the acquaintance of a Mr. Rooke, a manufacturer, in whose house Miss Tomalin is resident, and has been for a good many years; to be precise, since she was nine years old. Without trouble I discovered the girl's history. Her grandfather, Joseph Tomalin, died in Canada forty-seven years ago--"
"How do you know it was Jo--my brother?" asked the listener, sharply.
"All these things you can follow out for yourself in detail in the papers I will leave with you. This Joseph had a brother Thomas, and his age corresponds very well with that of your own brother Joseph. Thomas Tomalin has left no trace, except the memory of his name preserved by the wife of Joseph, and handed on to her son, who, in turn, spoke of Thomas to his wife, who has been heard by Mrs. Rooke (her sister) to mention that fact in the family history. What is more, I find a vague tradition that a sister of Joseph and Thomas made a brilliant marriage."
"How is it that your advertisements were never seen by these people--these Rookes?"
"So it happened, that's all one can say. I have known many such failures. May Tomalin was born at Toronto, where he? father, also a Joseph, died in '80. Her mother, an Englishwoman, came back to England in '81, bringing May, the only child; she settled at Northampton, and, on her death in the following year, May passed into the care of the Rookes. She has no surviving relative of her own name. Her father, a builder, left a little money, which now provides the young lady with her income."
Prom a state of choleric flurry Lady Ogram was passing into irritable delight.
"Better late than never," she exclaimed, "but I can't see why you didn't find the girl ages ago. Haven't you advertised in Canada?"
"No. We knew that your brothers went to Australia. Thomas, no doubt, died there. The story of Joseph's wanderings is irrecoverable; we must be content to have satisfactory evidence of his death, and of this girl's descent from him."
"Well, and why haven't you brought her?"
"I saw no need for such precipitancy. Miss Tomalin has not yet been informed of what is going on. Of course, she is her own mistress, free to accept any invitation that may be offered her. The Rookes seem to be quiet people, in easy circumstances; no trouble of any kind is to be feared from them. You may act at your leisure. Here is the address. Of course if you would like me to return to Northampton--"
"She must come at once!" said Lady Ogram, starting up. "Would the Crows understand a telegram?"
"The Rookes, you mean? I think it would be better to write. Naturally, I have not let them know your name. At first I found Mr. Rooke rather disposed to stand upon his dignity; but a firm of Northampton solicitors vouched for my bona fides, and then things were smoother. No, I don't think I would telegraph."
"Then go to Northampton, and bring the girl back with you."
"If you wish it."
"When is there a train?--Oh, there's the luncheon bell. Of course you must eat. Come and eat. I have some one staying here that I should like you to know our Liberal candidate at the next election."
"Oh, so you have found one?"
"Of course I have. Didn't I write to tell you? A lot of people dine here this evening to meet him. Perhaps you could stay over night? Yes, now I come to think of it, I should like you to dine with us. You shall go to Northampton to-morrow. Write to Rooky this afternoon." Lady Ogram grew sportive. "Prepare him. Come along, now, to lunch; you look hungry."
"Just one word. You are quite sure it will be wise to bring this young lady at once to Rivenoak?"
"You say she knows how to behave herself!"
"Certainly. But the change in her position will be rather sudden, don't you think? And--if I may venture--how can you be sure that Miss Tomalin will recommend herself to you?"
"Isn't she of my own blood?" cried Lady Ogram, in a high croak of exasperation. "Isn't she my brother's grandchild--the only creature of my own blood living?"
"I merely urge a little prudence--"
"Is the girl a fool?"
"I have no reason to think so. But she has led a quiet, provincial life--"
"Come and eat!" cried Lady Ogram. "We'll talk again afterwards."
Mrs. Toplady joined them in the dining-room, as she seated herself. "Everybody's late to-day. Mr. Kerchever--Mr. Lashmar I want you to know each other. Mr. Lashmar, what have you been doing all the morning? Why, of course you had a drive with me--I had forgot ten! Do sit down and let us eat. If everyone's as hungry as I am!"
For all that, she satisfied her appetite with one or two mouthfuls, and talked on in a joyously excited strain, to the astonishment of Constance, who saw that Mr. Kerchever must have brought some very important news. Lashmar, also exhilarated, kept up conversation with Mrs. Toplady. It was a vivacious company, Miss Bride being the only person who spoke little. She was commonly silent amid general talk, but her eyes travelled from face to face, reading, commenting.
Mr. Kerchever consented to stay over night. In the afternoon he had a stroll with Lashmar, but they did not much enjoy each other's society; Dyce took no interest whatever in sports or games, and the athletic lawyer understood by politics a recurring tussle between two parties, neither of which had it in its power to do much good or harm to the country; of philosophy and science (other than that of boxing) he knew about as much as the woman who swept his office. Privately, Mr. Kerehever opined that this young man was a conceited pedant, who stood no chance whatever of being elected to Parliament. When questioned by Lady Ogram, he inquired whether Mr. Lashmar had means.
"Oh, he has money enough," was the careless answer. "But its his brains that we count upon."
"I never heard they went for muck in politics," said Mr. Kerchever.
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