Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Evan Harrington - Part 7

Illustrated by Charles Keene.

Part 6Part 8




On a milestone, under the moonlight, crouched the figure of a woman, huddled with her head against her knees, and careless hair falling to the summer’s dust. Evan came upon this sight within a few miles of Fallowfield. At first he was rather startled, or he had inherited superstitious emotions from his mother, and the road was lone, the moon full. He went up to her and spoke a gentle word, which provoked no reply. He ventured to put his hand on her shoulder, continuing softly to address her. She was flesh and blood. Evan stooped his head to catch a whisper from her mouth, but nothing save a heavier fall of the breath she took, as of one painfully waking, was heard.

A misery beyond our own is a wholesome picture for youth, and though we may not for the moment compare the deep with the lower deep, we, if we have a heart for outer sorrows, can forget ourselves in it. Evan had just been accusing the heavens of conspiracy to disgrace him. Those patient heavens had listened, as is their wont, They had viewed and had not been disordered by his mental frenzies. It is certainly hard that they do not come down to us, and condescend to tell us what they mean, and be dumfounded by the perspicuity of our arguments—the argument, for instance, that they have not fashioned us for the science of the shears, and do yet impel us to wield them. Nevertheless, they to whom mortal life has ceased to be a long matter perceive that our appeals for conviction are answered,—now and then very closely upon the call. When we have cast off the scales of hope and fancy, and surrender our claims on mad chance: when the wild particles of this universe consent to march as they are directed, it is given them to see—if they see at all—that some plan is working out: that the heavens, icy as they are to the pangs of our blood, have been throughout speaking to our souls; and, according to the strength there existing, we learn to comprehend them. But their language is an element of Time, whom primarily we have to know. Thus, a gray tailor (for in our noble days we may suppose such a person gifted with that to which they address themselves),—a tailor in the flourishing of the almond-tree, who looks back on a period when he summoned the bright heavens to consider his indignant protest against the career they have marked out for him; does he not hear huge shouts of laughter echoing round and round the blue ethereal dome? Yet they listened, and silently!

Evan Harrington was young. He wished not to clothe the generation. What was to the remainder of the exiled sons of Adam simply the brand of expulsion from Paradise, was to him hell. In his agony, anything less than an angel, soft-voiced in his path, would not have satisfied the poor boy, and here was this wretched outcast, and instead of being relieved, he was to act the reliever!

Striving to rouse the desolate creature, he shook her slightly. She now raised her head with a slow, gradual motion, like that of a waxwork, showing a white young face, tearless,—dreadfully drawn at the lips. After gazing at him, she turned her head mechanically towards her shoulder, as to ask him why he touched her. He withdrew his hand, saying:

“Why are you here? Pardon me; I want, if possible, to help you.”

A light sprang in her eyes. She jumped from the stone, and ran forward a step or two, with a gasp:

“Oh, my God! I want to go and drown myself.”

Evan lingered behind her till he saw her body sway, and in a fit of trembling she half fell on his outstretched arm. He led her to the stone, not knowing what on earth to do with her. There was no sign of a house near; they were quite solitary; to all his questions she gave an unintelligible moan. He had not heart to leave her, so, taking a sharp seat on a heap of flints, thus possibly furnishing future occupation for one of his craftsmen, he waited, and amused himself by marking out diagrams with his stick in the thick dust.

His thoughts were far away, when he heard, faintly uttered:

“Why do you stop here?”

“To help you.”

“Please, don’t. Let me be. I can’t be helped.”

“My good creature,” said Evan, “it’s quite impossible that I should leave you in this state. Tell me where you were going when your illness seized you?”

“I was going,” she commenced vacantly, “to the sea—the water,” she added, with a shivering lip.

The foolish youth asked her if she could be cold on such a night.

“No, I’m not cold,” she replied, drawing closer over her lap the ends of a shawl which would in that period have been thought rather gaudy for her station.

“You were going to Lymport?”

“Yes,—Lymport’s nearest, I think.”

“And why were you out travelling at this hour?”

She dropped her head, and began rocking to right and left.

While they talked the noise of waggon-wheels was heard approaching. Evan went into the middle of the road and beheld a covered waggon, and a fellow whom he advanced to meet, plodding a little to the rear of the horses. He proved kindly. He was a farmer’s man, he said, and was at that moment employed in removing the furniture of the farmer’s son, who had failed as a corn-chandler in Lymport, to Hillford, which he expected to reach about morn. He answered Evan’s request that he would afford the young woman conveyance as far as Fallowfield:

“Tak’ her in? That I will.”

She won’t hurt the harses,” he pursued, pointing his whip at the vehicle: “there’s my mat’, Garge Stoakes, he’s in ther’, snorin’ his turn. Can’t you hear’n a-snorin’ thraugh the wheels? I can; I’ve been laughin’! He do snore that loud—Garge do!”

Proceeding to inform Evan how George Stokes had snored in that characteristic manner from boyhood, ever since he and George had slept in a hayloft together; and how he, kept wakeful and driven to distraction by George Stokes’ nose, had been occasionally compelled, in sheer self-defence, madly to start up and hold that pertinacious alarum in tight compression between thumb and forefinger; and how George Stokes, thus severely handled, had burst his hold with a tremendous snort, as big as a bull, and had invariably uttered the exclamation, “Hulloa!—same to you, my lad!” and rolled over to snore as fresh as ever;—all this with singular rustic comparisons, racy of the soil, and in raw Hampshire dialect; the waggoner came to a halt opposite the stone, and, while Evan strode to assist the girl, addressed himself to the great task of arousing the sturdy sleeper and quieting his trumpet, heard by all ears now that the accompaniment of the wheels was at an end.

George, violently awakened, complained that it was before his time, to which he was true; and was for going off again with exalted contentment, though his heels had been tugged, and were dangling some length out of the machine; but his comrade, with a determined blow of the lungs, gave another valiant pull, and George Stokes was on his legs, marvelling at the world and man. Evan had less difficulty with the girl. She rose to meet him, put up her arms for him to clasp her waist, whispering sharply on an inward breath: “What are you going to do with me?” and indifferent to his verbal response, trustingly yielded her limbs to his guidance. He could see blood on her bitten underlip, as, with the help of the waggoner, he lifted her on the mattrass, backed by a portly bundle, which the sagacity of Mr. Stokes had selected for his couch.

The waggoner cracked his whip, laughing at George Stokes, who yawned, and settled into a composed plough-swing, without asking questions; apparently resolved to finish his nap on his legs.

“Warn’t he like that Myzepper chap, I see at the succus, bound athert gray mare!” chuckled the waggoner. “So he’d ’a gone on, had ye ’a let’n. No wulves waddn’t wake Garge till he’d slept it out. Then he’d say, ‘marnin’!’ to ’m. Are ye ’wake now, Garge?”

The admirable sleeper preferred to be a quiet butt, and the waggoner leisurely exhausted the fun that was to be had out of him; returning to it with a persistency that evinced more concentration than variety in his mind. At last Evan said: “Your pace is rather slow. They’ll be shut up in Fallowfield. I’ll go on ahead. You’ll find me at one of the inns—the Green Dragon.

In return for this speech, the waggoner favoured him with a stare, followed by the exclamation:

“Oh, no! dang that!”

“Why, what’s the matter?” quoth Evan.

“You en’t goin’ to be off, for to leave me and Garge in the lurch there, with that ther’ young woman, in that ther’ pickle!” returned the waggoner.

Evan made an appeal to his reason, but finding that impregnable, he pulled out his scanty purse to guarantee his sincerity with an offer of pledge-money. The waggoner waived it aside. He wanted no money, he said.

“Look heer,” he went on; “if you’re for a start, I tells ye plain, I chucks that ther’ young woman int’ the road.”

Evan bade him not to be a brute.

“Nack and crop!” the waggoner doggedly ejaculated.

Very much surprised that a fellow who appeared sound at heart, should threaten to behave so basely, Evan asked an explanation: upon which the waggoner demanded to know what he had eyes for: and as this query failed to enlighten the youth, he let him understand that he was a man of family experience, and that it was easy to tell at a glance that the complaint the young woman laboured under was one common to the daughters of Eve. He added that, should an emergency arise, he, though a family man, would be useless: that he always vacated the premises while those incidental scenes were being enacted at home; and that for him and George Stokes to be left alone with the young woman, why, they would be of no more service to her than a couple of babies new-born themselves. He, for his part, he assured Evan, should take to his heels, and relinquish waggon, and horses, and all; while George probably would stand and gape; and the end of it would be, they would all be had up for murder. He diverged from the alarming prospect, by a renewal of the foregoing alternative to the gentleman who had constituted himself the young woman’s protector. If he parted company with them, they would immediately part company with the young woman, whose condition was evident.

“Why, couldn’t you tall that?” said the waggoner, as Evan, tingling at the ears, remained silent.

I know nothing of such things,” he answered, hastily, like one hurt.

I have to repeat the statement, that he was a youth, and a modest one. He felt unaccountably, unreasonably, but horribly, ashamed. The thought of his actual position swamped the sickening disgust at tailordom. Worse, then, might happen to us in this extraordinary world! There was something more abhorrent than sitting with one’s legs crossed, publicly stitching, and scoffed at! He called vehemently to the waggoner to whip the horses, and hurry a-head into Fallowfield; but that worthy, whatever might be his dire alarms, had a regular pace, that was conscious of no spur: the reply of “All right!” satisfied him at least; and Evan’s chaste sighs for the appearance of an assistant petticoat round a turn of the road, were offered up duly, to the measure of the waggoner’s steps.

Suddenly the waggoner came to a halt, and said: “Blest if that Garge bain’t a snorin’ on his pins!”

Evan lingered by him with some curiosity, while the waggoner thumped his thigh to, “Yes he be! no he bain’t!” several times, in eager hesitation.

“It’s a fellow calling from the downs,” said Evan.

“Ay, so!” responded the waggoner. “Dang’d if I didn’t think ’twere that Garge of our’n. Hark awhile.”

At a repetition of the call, the waggoner stopped his team. After a few minutes, a man appeared panting on the bank above them, down which he ran precipitately, knocked against Evan, apologised with the little breath that remained to him, and then held his hand as to entreat a hearing. Evan thought him half-mad; the waggoner was about to imagine him the victim of a midnight assault. He undeceived them by requesting, in rather flowery terms, conveyance on the road and rest for his limbs. It being explained to him that the waggon was already occupied, he comforted himself aloud with the reflection that it was something to be on the road again for one who had been belated, lost, and wandering over the downs for the last six hours.

“Walcome to git in, when young woman gits out,” said the waggoner. “I’ll gi’ ye my sleep on t’Hillford.”

“Thanks, worthy friend,” returned the new comer. “The state of the case is this—I’m happy to take from humankind whatsoever I can get. If this gentleman will accept of my company, and my legs hold out, all will yet be well.”

Though he did not wear a petticoat, Evan was not sorry to have him. Next to the interposition of the gods, we pray for human fellowship when we are in a mess. So he mumbled politely, dropped with him a little to the rear, and they all stepped out to the crack of the waggoner’s whip.

“Rather a slow pace,” said Evan, feeling bound to converse.

“Six hours on the downs, sir, makes it extremely suitable to me,” rejoined the stranger.

“You lost your way?”

“I did, sir. Yes; one does not court those desolate regions wittingly. I am for life and society. The embraces of Diana do not agree with my constitution. My belief—I don’t know whether you have ever thought on the point—but I don’t hesitate to say I haven’t the slightest doubt Endymion was a madman! I go farther: I say this: that the farmer who trusted that young man with his muttons was quite as bad. And if classics there be who differ from me, and do not reserve all their sympathy for those hapless animals, I beg them to take six hours on the downs alone with the moon, and the last prospect of bread and cheese, and a chaste bed, seemingly utterly extinguished. I am cured of my romance. Of course, sir, when I say bread and cheese, I speak figuratively. Food is implied.”

Evan stole a glance at his companion.

“Besides, sir,” the other continued, with an inflexion of grandeur, “for a man accustomed to his hunters, it is, you will confess, somewhat unpleasant for such a man—I speak hypothetically—to be reduced to his legs to that extent that it strikes him shrewdly he will run them into stumps. Nay, who shall say but that he is stumped?”

The stranger laughed, as if he knew the shrewdness of his joke, and questioned the moon aloud: “What sayest thou, O Queen of lunatics?”

The fair lady of the night illumined his face, like one who recognised a subject. Evan thought, too, that he knew the voice. A curious, unconscious struggle therein between native facetiousness and an attempt at dignity, appeared to Evan not unfamiliar; and the egregious failure of ambition and triumph of the instinct, helped him to join the stranger in his mirth.

“Pardon me,” cried the latter, suddenly. “That laugh! Will you favour me by turning your face to the moon?”

“Just a trifle more. She kisses you. ’Twill do!”

Evan smiled at him.

He was silent for some paces, and then cried, in brave simplicity: “Won’t you give your fist to a fellow?”

It needed but a word or two further for two old schoolmates to discover one another. Evan exclaimed, “Jack Raikes! Sir John!” while he himself was addressed as “Sir Amadis, Viscount Harrington!” In which, doubtless, they revived certain traits of their earlier days, and with a brisk shaking of hands, and interrogation of countenances, caught up the years that had elapsed since they parted company.

Mr. John Raikes stood about a head under Evan. He had extremely mobile features; thick, flexible eyebrows; a loose, voluble mouth; a ridiculous figure on a dandified foot. He represented to you one who was rehearsing a part he wished to act before the world, and was not aware that he perpetually took the world into his confidence.

“Me, then, you remember,” said Jack, cordially. “You are doubtful concerning the hat and general habiliments? I regret to inform you that they are the same.” He gave a melo-dramatic sigh. “Yes; if there is any gratification in outliving one’s hat, that gratification should be mine. In this hat, in this coat, I dined you the day before you voyaged to Lisboa’s tide. Changes have since ensued. We complain not; but we do deplore. Fortune on Jack has turned her back! You might know it, if only by my regard for the nice distinctions of language. The fact is, I’ve spent my money. A mercurial temperament makes quicksilver of any amount of cash. Mine uncle died ere I had wooed the maiden, Pleasure, and transformed her into the hag, Experience!”

The hand of Mr. Raikes fell against his thigh with theatrical impressiveness.

“But how,” said Evan—“it’s the oddest thing in the world our meeting like this—how did you come here?”

“You thought me cut out for an actor—didn’t you?” asked Jack.

Evan admitted that it was a common opinion at school.

“It was a horrible delusion, Harrington! My patrimony gone, naked I sought the stage—as the needle the pole. Alas! there is no needle to that pole. I was hissed off the boards of a provincial theatre, and thus you see me!”

“Why,” said Evan, “you don’t mean to say you have been running over the downs ever since.”

Mr. Raikes punned bitterly. “No, Harrington, not in your sense. Spare me the particulars. Ruined, the last ignominy endured, I fled from the gay vistas of the Bench—for they live who would thither lead me! and determined, the day before the yesterday—what think’st thou? why to go boldly, and offer myself as Adlatus to blessed old Cudford! Yes! a little Latin is all that remains to me, and I resolved, like the man I am, to turn hie, hæc, hoc, into bread and cheese, and beer. Impute nought foreign to me, in the matter of pride.”

“Usher in our old school—poor old Jack!” exclaimed Evan.

“Lieutenant in the Cudford Academy!” the latter rejoined. “I walked the distance from London. I had my interview with the respected principal. He gave me of mutton nearest the bone, which, they say, is sweetest; and on sweet things you should not regale in excess. O utter scragginess! Endymion watched the sheep that bred that mutton! He gave me the thin beer of our boyhood, that I might the more soberly state my mission. That beer, my friend, was brewed by one who wished to form a study for pantomimic masks. He listened with the gravity which is all his own to the recital of my career; he pleasantly compared me to Phaëton, congratulated the river Thames at my not setting it on fire in my rapid descent, and extended to me the three fingers of affectionate farewell. I am the victim of my antecedents!”

Mr. Raikes uttered this with a stage groan, and rapped his breast.

“So you were compelled to go to old Cudford, and he rejected you—poor Jack!” Evan interjected commiseratingly.

“Because of my antecedents, Harrington. I laid the train in boyhood that blew me up as man. I put the case to him clearly. But what’s the use of talking to an old fellow who has been among boys all his life? All his arguments are prepositions. I told him that, as became a manly nature, I, being stripped, preferred to stand up for myself like a bare stick, rather than act the parasite—the female ivy, or the wanton hop! I joked—he smiled. Those old cocks can’t see you’re serious through a joke. What do you think! He reminded me of that night when you and I slipped out to hear about the prize-fight, and were led home from the pot-house in glory. Well! I replied to him—‘Had you educated us on beer a little stiffer in quality, sir—’ ‘Yes, yes,’ says he; ‘I see you’re the same John Raikes whom I once knew.’ I answered with a quotation: he corrected my quantity, and quoted again: I capped him. I thought I had him. ‘Glad,’ says he, ‘you bear in your head some of the fruits of my teaching.’ ‘Fruits, sir,’ says I, ‘egad! they’re more like nails than fruits; I can feel now, sir, on a portion of my person, which is anywhere but the head, your praiseworthy perseverance in knocking them in.’ There was gratitude for him, but he would treat the whole affair as a joke. ‘You an usher, a rearer of youth, Mr. Raikes? Oh, no! Oh, no!’ That was all I could get out of him. ’Gad! he might have seen that I didn’t joke with the mutton-bone. If I winced at the beer it was imperceptible. Now a man who can do that is what I call a man in earnest. But, Cudford avaunt! Here I am.”

“Yes,” said Evan, suppressing a smile. “I want to know how you came here.”

“Short is the tale, though long the way, friend Harrington. From Bodley is ten miles to Beckley. I walked them. From Beckley is fifteen miles to Fallowfield. Them I was traversing, when, lo! towards sweet eventide, a fair horsewoman riding with her groom at her horse’s heels. ‘Lady, or damsel, or sweet angel,’ says I, addressing her, as much out of the style of the needy as possible, ‘will you condescend to direct me to Fallowfield?’ ‘Are you going to the match?’ says she. I answered boldly that I was. ‘Beckley’s in,’ says she, ‘and you’ll be in time to see them out, if you cut across the downs there.’ I lifted my hat—a deperate measure, for the brim won’t bear much—but honour to women though we perish! She bowed: I cut across the downs. Ah! lovely deceiver! Had I not cut across the downs, to my ruin, once before? In fine, Harrington, old boy, I’ve been wandering among those downs for the last seven or eight hours. I was on the point of turning my back on the road for the twentieth time, I believe—when I heard your welcome vehicular music, and hailed you; and I ask you, isn’t it luck for a fellow who hasn’t got a penny in his pocket, and is as hungry as five hundred hunters, to drop on an old friend like this?”

Evan answered, briefly, “Yes.”

Mr. Raikes looked at him pacing with his head bent, and immediately went behind him and came up on the further side.

“What’s the matter?” said Evan, like one in a dream.

“I was only trying the other shoulder,” remarked his friend.

Evan pressed his hand.

“My dear Jack! pray forgive me. I have a great deal to think about. Whatever I possess I’m happy enough to share with you. I needn’t tell you that.” He paused, and inquired. “Where was it you said you met the young lady?”

“In the first place, O, Amadis! I never said she was young. You’re on the scent, I see.”

“What was she like?” said Evan, with forced gentleness.

“My dear fellow! there’s not the remotest chance of our catching her now. She’s a-bed and asleep, if she’s not a naughty girl.”

“She went on to Beckley, you said?”

Jack dealt him a slap.

“Are you going to the Bar?”

“I only wanted to know,” Evan observed, meditatively progressing.

He was sure that the young lady Jack had met was his own Rose, and if Jack thought himself an unlucky fellow, Evan’s opinion of him was very different.

“Did you notice her complexion?”

This remark, feebly uttered after a profound stillness caused Jack to explode.

“Who called you Amadis, Harrington? I met a girl on horseback, I tell you a word or two she says, and you can’t be quiet about her. Why, she was only passably pretty—talked more like a boy than a girl—opened her mouth wide when she spoke—rather jolly teeth.”

Mr. Raikes had now said enough to paint Rose accurately to the lover’s mind, and bring contempt on his personal judgment. Nursing the fresh image of his darling in his heart’s recesses, Evan, as they entered Fallowfield, laid the state of his purse before Jack, and earned anew the epithet of Amadis when it came to be told that the occupant of the waggon was likewise one of its pensioners.

Sleep had long held its reign in Fallowfield. Nevertheless, Mr. Raikes, though blind windows alone looked on him, and nought foreign was to be imputed to him in the matter of pride, had become exceedingly solicitous concerning his presentation to the inhabitants of that quiet little country town; and while Evan and the waggoner consulted—the former with regard to the chances of procuring beds and supper, the latter as to his prospect of beer and a comfortable riddance of the feminine burden weighing on them all, Mr. Raikes was engaged in persuading his hat to assume something of the gentlemanly polish of its youth, and might have been observed now and then furtively catching up a leg to be dusted. Ere the wheels of the waggon stopped he had gained that easiness of mind which the knowledge that you have done all that man may do and circumstances warrant, establishes. Capacities conscious of their limits may repose even proudly when they reach them; and, if Mr. Raikes had not quite the air of one come out of a bandbox, he at least proved to the discerning intelligence that he knew what sort of manner befitted that happy occasion, and was enabled by the pains he had taken to glance with a cheerful challenge at the sign of the hostelry, under which they were now ranked, and from which, though the hour was late, and Fallowfield a singularly somnolent little town, there issued signs of life approaching to festivity.