Book II. The Haunted Man
Chapter XX. A Heavy Father
Mr Lindon was excited,--there is no mistaking it when he is, because with him excitement means perspiration, and as soon as he was out of the cab he took off his hat and began to wipe the lining.
'Atherton, I want to speak to you--most particularly--somewhere in private.'
I took him into my laboratory. It is my rule to take no one there; it is a workshop, not a playroom,--the place is private; but, recently, my rules had become dead letters. Directly he was inside, Lindon began puffing and stewing, wiping his forehead, throwing out his chest, as if he were oppressed by a sense of his own importance. Then he started off talking at the top of his voice,--and it is not a low one either.
'Atherton, I--I've always looked on you as a--a kind of a son.'
'That's very kind of you.'
'I've always regarded you as a--a level-headed fellow; a man from whom sound advice can be obtained when sound advice--is--is most to be desired.'
'That also is very kind of you.'
'And therefore I make no apology for coming to you at--at what may be regarded as a--a strictly domestic crisis; at a moment in the history of the Lindons when delicacy and common sense are--are essentially required.'
This time I contented myself with nodding. Already I perceived what was coming; somehow, when I am with a man I feel so much more clear-headed than I do when I am with a woman,--realise so much better the nature of the ground on which I am standing.
'What do you know of this man Lessingham?'
I knew it was coming.
'What all the world knows.'
'And what does all the world know of him?--I ask you that! A flashy, plausible, shallow-pated, carpet-bagger,--that is what all the world knows of him. The man's a political adventurer,--he snatches a precarious, and criminal, notoriety, by trading on the follies of his fellow-countrymen. He is devoid of decency, destitute of principle, and impervious to all the feelings of a gentleman. What do you know of him besides this?'
'I am not prepared to admit that I do know that.'
'Oh yes you do!--don't talk nonsense!--you choose to screen the fellow! I say what I mean,--I always have said, and I always shall say.--What do you know of him outside politics,--of his family--of his private life?'
'Well,--not very much.'
'Of course you don't!--nor does anybody else! The man's a mushroom,--or a toadstool, rather!--sprung up in the course of a single night, apparently out of some dirty ditch.--Why, sir, not only is he without ordinary intelligence, he is even without a Brummagen substitute for manners.'
He had worked himself into a state of heat in which his countenance presented a not too agreeable assortment of scarlets and purples. He flung himself into a chair, threw his coat wide open, and his arms too, and started off again.
'The family of the Lindons is, at this moment, represented by a--a young woman,--by my daughter, sir. She represents me, and it's her duty to represent me adequately--adequately, sir! And what's more, between ourselves, sir, it's her duty to marry. My property's my own, and I wouldn't have it pass to either of my confounded brothers on any account. They're next door to fools, and--and they don't represent me in any possible sense of the word. My daughter, sir, can marry whom she pleases,--whom she pleases! There's no one in England, peer or commoner, who would not esteem it an honour to have her for his wife--I've told her so,--yes, sir, I've told her, though you--you'd think that she, of all people in the world, wouldn't require telling. Yet what do you think she does? She--she actually carries on what I--I can't help calling a--a compromising acquaintance with this man Lessingham!'
'But I say yes!--and I wish to heaven I didn't. I--I've warned her against the scoundrel more than once; I--I've told her to cut him dead. And yet, as--as you saw yourself, last night, in--in the face of the assembled House of Commons, after that twaddling clap- trap speech of his, in which there was not one sound sentiment, nor an idea which--which would hold water, she positively went away with him, in--in the most ostentatious and--and disgraceful fashion, on--on his arm, and--and actually snubbed her father.--It is monstrous that a parent--a father!--should be subjected to such treatment by his child.'
The poor old boy polished his brow with his pocket-handkerchief.
'When I got home I--I told her what I thought of her, I promise you that,--and I told her what I thought of him,--I didn't mince my words with her. There are occasions when plain speaking is demanded,--and that was one. I positively forbade her to speak to the fellow again, or to recognise him if she met him in the street. I pointed out to her, with perfect candour, that the fellow was an infernal scoundrel,--that and nothing else!--and that he would bring disgrace on whoever came into contact with him, even with the end of a barge pole.--And what do you think she said?'
'She promised to obey you, I make no doubt.'
'Did she, sir!--By gad, did she!--That shows how much you know her!--She said, and, by gad, by her manner, and--and the way she went on, you'd--you'd have thought that she was the parent and I was the child--she said that I--I grieved her, that she was disappointed in me, that times have changed,--yes, sir, she said that times have changed!--that, nowadays, parents weren't Russian autocrats--no, sir, not Russian autocrats!--that--that she was sorry she couldn't oblige me,--yes, sir, that was how she put it, --she was sorry she couldn't oblige me, but it was altogether out of the question to suppose that she could put a period to a friendship which she valued, simply on account of-of my unreasonable prejudices,--and--and--and, in short, she--she told me to go the devil, sir!'
'And did you--'
I was on the point of asking him if he went,--but I checked myself in time.
'Let us look at the matter as men of the world. What do you know against Lessingham, apart from his politics?'
'That's just it,--I know nothing.'
'In a sense, isn't that in his favour?'
'I don't see how you make that out. I--I don't mind telling you that I--I've had inquiries made. He's not been in the House six years--this is his second Parliament--he's jumped up like a Jack- in-the-box. His first constituency was Harwich--they've got him still, and much good may he do 'em!--but how he came to stand for the place,--or who, or what, or where he was before he stood for the place, no one seems to have the faintest notion.'
'Hasn't he been a great traveller?'
'I never heard of it.'
'Not in the East?'
'Has he told you so?'
'No,--I was only wondering, Well, it seems to me that to find out that nothing is known against him is something in his favour!'
'My dear Sydney, don't talk nonsense. What it proves is simply,-- that he's a nothing and a nobody. Had he been anything or anyone, something would have been known about him, either for or against. I don't want my daughter to marry a man who--who--who's shot up through a trap, simply because nothing is known against him. Ha- hang me, if I wouldn't ten times sooner she should marry you.'
When he said that, my heart leaped in my bosom. I had to turn away.
'I am afraid that is out of the question.'
He stopped in his tramping, and looked at me askance.
I felt that, if I was not careful, I should be done for,--and, probably, in his present mood, Marjorie too.
'My dear Lindon, I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for your suggestion, but I can only repeat that--unfortunately, anything of the kind is out of the question.'
'I don't see why.'
'You--you're a pretty lot, upon my word!'
'I'm afraid we are.'
'I--I want you to tell her that Lessingham is a damned scoundrel.'
'I see.--But I would suggest that if I am to use the influence with which you credit me to the best advantage, or to preserve a shred of it, I had hardly better state the fact quite so bluntly as that.'
'I don't care how you state it,--state it as you like. Only--only I want you to soak her mind with a loathing of the fellow; I--I--I want you to paint him in his true colours; in--in--in fact, I--I want you to choke him off.'
While he still struggled with his words, and with the perspiration on his brow, Edwards entered. I turned to him.
'What is it?'
'Miss Lindon, sir, wishes to see you particularly, and at once.'
At that moment I found the announcement a trifle perplexing,--it delighted Lindon. He began to stutter and to stammer.
'T-the very thing!--c-couldn't have been belter!--show her in here! H--hide me somewhere,--I don't care where,--behind that screen! Y-you use your influence with her;--g-give her a good talking to;--t-tell her what I've told you; and at--at the critical moment I'll come in, and then--then if we can't manage her between us, it'll be a wonder.'
The proposition staggered me.
'But, my dear Mr Lindon, I fear that I cannot--'
He cut me short.
'Here she comes!'
Ere I could stop him he was behind the screen,--I had not seen him move with such agility before!--and before I could expostulate Marjorie was in the room. Something which was in her bearing, in her face, in her eyes, quickened the beating of my pulses,--she looked as if something had come into her life, and taken the joy clean out of it.