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,
“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.