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Chapter 12 FOREWARNED

  • Alethia Debchance sat in a corner of an otherwise empty railway carriage, mor_r less at ease as regarded body, but in some trepidation as to mind.  She ha_mbarked on a social adventure of no little magnitude as compared with th_ccustomed seclusion and stagnation of her past life.  At the age of twenty-
  • eight she could look back on nothing more eventful than the daily round of he_xistence in her aunt’s house at Webblehinton, a hamlet four and a half mile_istant from a country town and about a quarter of a century removed fro_odern times.  Their neighbours had been elderly and few, not much given t_ocial intercourse, but helpful or politely sympathetic in times of illness.
  • Newspapers of the ordinary kind were a rarity; those that Alethia sa_egularly were devoted exclusively either to religion or to poultry, and th_orld of politics was to her an unheeded unexplored region.  Her ideas on lif_n general had been acquired through the medium of popular respectable novel-
  • writers, and modified or emphasised by such knowledge as her aunt, the vicar,
  • and her aunt’s housekeeper had put at her disposal.  And now, in her twenty-
  • ninth year, her aunt’s death had left her, well provided for as regard_ncome, but somewhat isolated in the matter of kith and kin and huma_ompanionship.  She had some cousins who were on terms of friendly, thoug_nfrequent, correspondence with her, but as they lived permanently in Ceylon,
  • a locality about which she knew little, beyond the assurance contained in th_issionary hymn that the human element there was vile, they were not of muc_mmediate use to her.  Other cousins she also possessed, more distant a_egards relationship, but not quite so geographically remote, seeing that the_ived somewhere in the Midlands.  She could hardly remember ever having me_hem, but once or twice in the course of the last three or four years they ha_xpressed a polite wish that she should pay them a visit; they had probabl_ot been unduly depressed by the fact that her aunt’s failing health ha_revented her from accepting their invitation.  The note of condolence tha_ad arrived on the occasion of her aunt’s death had included a vague hope tha_lethia would find time in the near future to spend a few days with he_ousins, and after much deliberation and many hesitations she had written t_ropose herself as a guest for a definite date some weeks ahead.  The family,
  • she reflected with relief, was not a large one; the two daughters were marrie_nd away, there was only old Mrs. Bludward and her son Robert at home.  Mrs.
  • Bludward was something of an invalid, and Robert was a young man who had bee_t Oxford and was going into Parliament.  Further than that Alethia’_nformation did not go; her imagination, founded on her extensive knowledge o_he people one met in novels, had to supply the gaps.  The mother was no_ifficult to place; she would either be an ultra-amiable old lady, bearing he_eeble health with uncomplaining fortitude, and having a kind word for th_ardener’s boy and a sunny smile for the chance visitor, or else she would b_old and peevish, with eyes that pierced you like a gimlet, and an unreasonin_dolatry of her son.  Alethia’s imagination rather inclined her to the latte_iew.  Robert was more of a problem.  There were three dominant types o_anhood to be taken into consideration in working out his classification;
  • there was Hugo, who was strong, good, and beautiful, a rare type and not ver_ften met with; there was Sir Jasper, who was utterly vile and absolutel_nscrupulous, and there was Nevil, who was not really bad at heart, but had _eak mouth and usually required the life-work of two good women to keep hi_rom ultimate disaster.  It was probable, Alethia considered, that Robert cam_nto the last category, in which case she was certain to enjoy th_ompanionship of one or two excellent women, and might possibly catch glimpse_f undesirable adventuresses or come face to face with reckless admiration-
  • seeking married women.  It was altogether an exciting prospect, this sudde_enture into an unexplored world of unknown human beings, and Alethia rathe_ished that she could have taken the vicar with her; she was not, however,
  • rich or important enough to travel with a chaplain, as the Marquis o_oystoncleugh always did in the novel she had just been reading, so sh_ecognised that such a proceeding was out of the question.
  • The train which carried Alethia towards her destination was a local one, wit_he wayside station habit strongly developed.  At most of the stations no on_eemed to want to get into the train or to leave it, but at one there wer_everal market folk on the platform, and two men, of the farmer or smal_attle-dealer class, entered Alethia’s carriage.  Apparently they had jus_oregathered, after a day’s business, and their conversation consisted of _apid exchange of short friendly inquiries as to health, family, stock, and s_orth, and some grumbling remarks on the weather.  Suddenly, however, thei_alk took a dramatically interesting turn, and Alethia listened with wide-eye_ttention.
  • “What do you think of Mister Robert Bludward, eh?”
  • There was a certain scornful ring in his question.
  • “Robert Bludward?  An out-an’-out rotter, that’s what he is.  Ought to b_shamed to look any decent man in the face.  Send him to Parliament t_epresent us—not much!  He’d rob a poor man of his last shilling, he would.”
  • “Ah, that he would.  Tells a pack of lies to get our votes, that’s all tha_e’s after, damn him.  Did you see the way the  _Argus_  showed him up thi_eek?  Properly exposed him, hip and thigh, I tell you.”
  • And so on they ran, in their withering indictment.  There could be no doub_hat it was Alethia’s cousin and prospective host to whom they were referring;
  • the allusion to a Parliamentary candidature settled that.  What could Rober_ludward have done, what manner of man could he be, that people should spea_f him with such obvious reprobation?
  • “He was hissed down at Shoalford yesterday,” said one of the speakers.
  • Hissed!  Had it come to that?  There was something dramatically biblical i_he idea of Robert Bludward’s neighbours and acquaintances hissing him fo_ery scorn.  Lord Hereward Stranglath had been hissed, now Alethia came t_hink of it, in the eighth chapter of  _Matterby Towers_ , while in the act o_pening a Wesleyan bazaar, because he was suspected (unjustly as it turned ou_fterwards) of having beaten the German governess to death.  And in _Tainte_uineas_  Roper Squenderby had been deservedly hissed, on the steps of th_ockey Club, for having handed a rival owner a forged telegram, containin_alse news of his mother’s death, just before the start for an important race,
  • thereby ensuring the withdrawal of his rival’s horse.  In placid Saxon-bloode_ngland people did not demonstrate their feelings lightly and without som_trong compelling cause.  What manner of evildoer was Robert Bludward?
  • The train stopped at another small station, and the two men got out.  One o_hem left behind him a copy of the  _Argus_ , the local paper to which he ha_ade reference.  Alethia pounced on it, in the expectation of finding _ultured literary endorsement of the censure which these rough farming men ha_xpressed in their homely, honest way.  She had not far to look; “Mr. Rober_ludward, Swanker,” was the title of one of the principal articles in th_aper.  She did not exactly know what a swanker was, probably it referred t_ome unspeakable form of cruelty, but she read enough in the first fe_entences of the article to discover that her cousin Robert, the man at whos_ouse she was about to stay, was an unscrupulous, unprincipled character, of _ow order of intelligence, yet cunning withal, and that he and his associate_ere responsible for most of the misery, disease, poverty, and ignorance wit_hich the country was afflicted; never, except in one or two of th_enunciatory Psalms, which she had always supposed to have be written in _pirit of exaggerated Oriental imagery, had she read such an indictment of _uman being.  And this monster was going to meet her at Derrelton Station in _ew short minutes.  She would know him at once; he would have the dar_eetling brows, the quick, furtive glance, the sneering, unsavoury smile tha_lways characterised the Sir Jaspers of this world.  It was too late t_scape; she must force herself to meet him with outward calm.
  • It was a considerable shock to her to find that Robert was fair, with a snu_ose, merry eye, and rather a schoolboy manner.  “A serpent in duckling’_lumage,” was her private comment; merciful chance had revealed him to her i_is true colours.
  • As they drove away from the station a dissipated-looking man of the labourin_lass waved his hat in friendly salute.  “Good luck to you, Mr. Bludward,” h_houted; “you’ll come out on top!  We’ll break old Chobham’s neck for him.”
  • “Who was that man?” asked Alethia quickly.
  • “Oh, one of my supporters,” laughed Robert; “a bit of a poacher and a bit of _ub-loafer, but he’s on the right side.”
  • So these were the sort of associates that Robert Bludward consorted with,
  • thought Alethia.
  • “Who is the person he referred to as old Chobham?” she asked.
  • “Sir John Chobham, the man who is opposing me,” answered Robert; “that is hi_ouse away there among the trees on the right.”
  • So there was an upright man, possibly a very Hugo in character, who wa_hwarting and defying the evildoer in his nefarious career, and there was _astardly plot afoot to break his neck!  Possibly the attempt would be mad_ithin the next few hours.  He must certainly be warned.  Alethia remembere_ow Lady Sylvia Broomgate, in  _Nightshade Court_ , had pretended to be bolte_ith by her horse up to the front door of a threatened county magnate, and ha_hispered a warning in his ear which saved him from being the victim of fou_urder.  She wondered if there was a quiet pony in the stables on which sh_ould be allowed to ride out alone.  The chances were that she would b_atched.  Robert would come spurring after her and seize her bridle just a_he was turning in at Sir John’s gates.
  • A group of men that they passed in a village street gave them no very friendl_ooks, and Alethia thought she heard a furtive hiss; a moment later they cam_pon an errand boy riding a bicycle.  He had the frank open countenance,
  • neatly brushed hair and tidy clothes that betoken a clear conscience and _ood mother.  He stared straight at the occupants of the car, and, after h_ad passed them, sang in his clear, boyish voice:
  • “We’ll hang Bobby Bludward on the sour apple tree.”
  • Robert merely laughed.  That was how he took the scorn and condemnation of hi_ellow-men.  He had goaded them to desperation with his shameless depravit_ill they spoke openly of putting him to a violent death, and he laughed.
  • Mrs. Bludward proved to be of the type that Alethia had suspected, thin-
  • lipped, cold-eyed, and obviously devoted to her worthless son.  From her n_elp was to be expected.  Alethia locked her door that night, and placed suc_amparts of furniture against it that the maid had great difficulty i_reaking in with the early tea in the morning.
  • After breakfast Alethia, on the pretext of going to look at an outlying rose-
  • garden, slipped away to the village through which they had passed on th_revious evening.  She remembered that Robert had pointed out to her a publi_eading-room, and here she considered it possible that she might meet Sir Joh_hobham, or some one who knew him well and would carry a message to him.  Th_oom was empty when she entered it; a  _Graphic_  twelve days old, a yet olde_opy of  _Punch_ , and one or two local papers lay upon the central table; th_ther tables were stacked for the most part with chess and draughts-boards,
  • and wooden boxes of chessmen and dominoes.  Listlessly she picked up one o_he papers, the  _Sentinel_ , and glanced at its contents.  Suddenly sh_tarted, and began to read with breathless attention a prominently printe_rticle, headed “A Little Limelight on Sir John Chobham.”  The colour ebbe_way from her face, a look of frightened despair crept into her eyes.  Never,
  • in any novel that she had read, had a defenceless young woman been confronte_ith a situation like this.  Sir John, the Hugo of her imagination, was, i_nything, rather more depraved and despicable than Robert Bludward.  He wa_ean, evasive, callously indifferent to his country’s interests, a cheat, _an who habitually broke his word, and who was responsible, with hi_ssociates, for most of the poverty, misery, crime, and national degradatio_ith which the country was afflicted.  He was also a candidate for Parliament,
  • it seemed, and as there was only one seat in this particular locality, it wa_bvious that the success of either Robert or Sir John would mean a check t_he ambitions of the other, hence, no doubt, the rivalry and enmity betwee_hese otherwise kindred souls.  One was seeking to have his enemy done t_eath, the other was apparently trying to stir up his supporters to an act of
  • “Lynch law”.  All this in order that there might be an unopposed election,
  • that one or other of the candidates might go into Parliament with honeye_loquence on his lips and blood on his heart.  Were men really so vile?
  • “I must go back to Webblehinton at once,” Alethia informed her astonishe_ostess at lunch time; “I have had a telegram.  A friend is very seriously il_nd I have been sent for.”
  • It was dreadful to have to concoct lies, but it would be more dreadful to hav_o spend another night under that roof.
  • Alethia reads novels now with even greater appreciation than before.  She ha_een herself in the world outside Webblehinton, the world where the grea_ramas of sin and villainy are played unceasingly.  She had come unscathe_hrough it, but what might have happened if she had gone unsuspectingly t_isit Sir John Chobham and warn him of his danger?  What indeed!  She had bee_aved by the fearless outspokenness of the local Press.