Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Evan Harrington - Part 25

EVAN HARRINGTON; or, HE WOULD BE A GENTLEMAN.

BY GEORGE MEREDITH.

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CHAPTER XXXI.THE BATTLE OF THE BULL-DOGS. PART II.

If it be a distinct point of wisdom to hug the hour that is, then does dinner amount to a highly intellectual invitation to man, for it furnishes the occasion; and Britons are the wisest of their race, for more than all others they take advantage of it. In this Nature is undoubtedly our guide, seeing that he who, while feasting his body allows to his soul a thought for the morrow, is in his digestion curst, and becomes a house of evil humours. Now, though the epicure may complain of the cold meats, a dazzling table, a buzzing company, blue sky, and a band of music, are incentives to the forgetfulness of troubles past and imminent, and produce a concentration of the faculties. They may not exactly prove that peace is established between yourself and those who object to your carving of the world, but they testify to an armistice.

Aided by these observations, you will understand how it was that the Countess de Saldar, afflicted and menaced, was inspired, on taking her seat, to give so graceful and stately a sweep to her dress that she was enabled to conceive woman and man alike to be secretly overcome by it. You will not refuse to credit the fact that Mr. John Raikes threw care to the dogs, heavy as was that mysterious lump suddenly precipitated on his bosom; and you will think it not impossible that even the springers of the mine about to explode should lose their subterranean countenances. A generous abandonment to one idea prevailed. As for Evan, the first glass of champagne rushed into reckless nuptials with the music in his head, bringing Rose, warm almost as life, on his heart. Sublime are the visions of lovers! He knew he must leave her on the morrow; he feared he might never behold her again; and yet he tasted exquisite bliss, for it seemed within the contemplation of the gods that he should dance with his darling before dark—haply waltz with her! Oh, heaven! he shuts his eyes, blinded. The band wheels off meltingly in a tune all cadences, and twirls, and risings and sinkings, and passionate outbursts trippingly consoled. Ah! how sweet to waltz through life with the right partner. And what a singular thing it is to look back on the day when we thought something like it! Never mind: there may be spheres where it is so managed—doubtless the planets have their Hanwell and Bedlam.

I admit that I myself am not insensible to the effects of that first glass of champagne. I feel the earthly muse escaping me, and a desire for the larger-eyed heavenly muse. The poetry of my Countess’s achievements waxes rich in manifold colours: I see her by the light of her own pleas to Providence. I doubt almost if the hand be mine which dared to make a hero play second fiddle, and to his beloved. I have placed a bushel over his light, certainly. Poor boy! it was enough that he should have tailordom on his shoulders: I ought to have allowed him to conquer Nature, and so come out of his eclipse. This shall be said of him: that he can play second fiddle without looking foolish, which, for my part, I call a greater triumph than if he were performing the heroics we are more accustomed to. He has steady eyes, can gaze at the right level into the eyes of others, and commands a tongue which is neither struck dumb nor set in a flutter by any startling question. The best instances to be given that he does not lack merit are that the Jocelyns, whom he has offended by his birth, cannot change their treatment of him, and that the hostile women, whatever they may say, do not think Rose utterly insane. At any rate Rose is satisfied, and her self-love makes her a keen critic. The moment Evan appeared, the sickness produced in her by the Countess passed, and she was ready to brave her situation. With no mock humility she permitted Mrs. Shorne to place her in a seat where glances could not be interchanged. She was quite composed, calmly prepared for conversation with anyone. Indeed, her behaviour since the hour of general explanation had been so perfectly well-contained, that Mrs. Melville said to Lady Jocelyn:

“I am only thinking of the damage to her. It will pass over—this fancy. You can see she is not serious. It is mere spirit of opposition. She eats and drinks just like other girls. You can see that the fancy has not taken such very strong hold of her.”

“I can’t agree with you,” replied her ladyship. “I would rather have her sit and sigh by the hour, and loathe roast beef. That would look nearer a cure.”

“She has the notions of a silly country girl,” said Mrs. Shorne.

“Exactly,” Lady Jocelyn replied. “A season in London will give her balance.”

So the guests were tolerably happy, or at least, with scarce an exception, open to the influences of champagne and music. Perhaps Juliana was the wretchedest creature present. She was about to smite on both cheeks him she loved, as well as the woman she despised and had been foiled by. Still she had the consolation that Rose, seeing the vulgar mother, might turn from Evan: poor distant hope, meagre and shapeless like herself. Her most anxious thoughts concerned the means of getting money to lock up Harry’s tongue. She could bear to meet the Countess’s wrath, but not Evan’s offended look. Hark to that Countess!

“Why do you denominate this a pic-nic, Lady Jocelyn? It is in verity a fête!”

“I suppose we ought to lie down à la Grecque to come within the term,” was the reply. “On the whole, I prefer plain English for such matters.”

“But this is assuredly too sumptuous for a pic-nic, Lady Jocelyn. From what I can remember, pic-nic implies contribution from all the guests. It is true I left England a child!”

Mr. George Uploft could not withhold a sharp grimace. The Countess had throttled the inward monitor that tells us when we are lying, so grievously had she practised the habit in the service of her family.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Melville, “I have heard of that fashion, and very stupid it is.”

“Extremely vulgar,” murmured Miss Carrington.

“Possibly,” Lady Jocelyn observed; “but good fun. I have been to pic-nics, in my day. I invariably took cold pie and claret. I clashed with half a dozen, but all the harm we did was to upset the dictum that there can be too much of a good thing. I know for certain that the bottles were left empty.”

“And this woman,” thought the Countess, “this woman, with a soul so essentially vulgar, claims rank above me!” The reflection generated contempt of English society, in the first place, and then a passionate desire for self-assertion.

She was startled by a direct attack which aroused her momentarily lulled energies.

A lady, quite a stranger, a dry simpering lady, caught the Countess’s benevolent passing gaze, and leaning forward, said: “I hope her ladyship bears her affliction as well as can be expected?”

In military parlance, the Countess was taken in flank. Another would have asked—what ladyship? To whom do you allude, may I beg to inquire? The Countess knew better. Rapid as light it shot through her that the relict of Sir Abraham was meant, and this she divined because she was aware that devilish malignity was watching to trip her.

A little conversation happening to buzz at the instant, the Countess merely turned her chin to an angle, agitated her brows very gently, and crowned the performance with a mournful smile. All that a woman must feel at the demise of so precious a thing as a husband, was therein eloquently expressed: and at the same time, if explanations ensued, there were numerous ladyships in the world, whom the Countess did not mind afflicting, should she be hard pressed.

“I knew him so well!” resumed the horrid woman, addressing anybody. “It was so sad! so unexpected! but he was so subject to affection of the throat. And I was so sorry I could not get down to him in time. I had not seen him since his marriage, when I was a girl!—and to meet one of his children!—But, my dear, in quinsey, I have heard that there is nothing on earth like a good hearty laugh.”

Mr. John Raikes hearing this, sucked down the flavour of a glass of champagne, and with a look of fierce jollity, said: “Then our vocation is at last revealed to us! Quinsey-doctor! I remember when a boy, wandering over the paternal mansion, and envying the life of a tinker, which my mother did not think a good omen in me. But the traps of a Quinsey-doctor are even lighter. Say twenty good jokes, and two or three of a practical kind. From place to place he travels on, tracked by the loud guffaw! A man most enviable!—’Gad,” our mercurial friend added, in a fit of profound earnestness, “I know nothing I should like so much!” But lifting his head, and seeing in the face of the ladies that it was not the profession of a gentleman, he exclaimed: “I have better prospects, of course!” and drank anew, inwardly cursing his betraying sincerity.

“It appears,” he remarked aloud to one of the Conley girls, “that quinsey is needed before a joke is properly appreciated.”

“I like fun,” said she. Mr. Raikes looked at her with keen admiration. “I can laugh at a monkey all day long,” she continued. Mr. Raikes drifted leagues away from her.

What did that odious woman mean by perpetually talking about Sir Abraham? The Countess intercepted a glance between her and the hated Juliana. She felt it was a malignant conspiracy: still the vacuous vulgar air of the woman told her that most probably she was but an instrument, not a confederate, and was only trying to push herself into acquaintance with the great: a proceeding scorned and abominated by the Countess, who longed to punish her for her insolent presumption. The bitterness of her situation stung her tenfold when she considered that she dared not.

Meantime the champagne became as regular in its flow as the bull-dogs, and the monotonous bass of these latter sounded through the music like life behind the murmur of pleasure, if you will. The Countess had a not unfeminine weakness for champagne, and old Mr. Bonner’s cellar was well and choicely stocked. But was this enjoyment to the Countess?—this dreary station in the background! No creatures grinding their teeth with envy of her! None bursting with admiration and the ardent passions! “May I emerge?” she as much as asked her judgment. The petition was infinitely tender. She thought she might, or it may be that nature was strong, and she could not restrain herself.

Taking wine with Sir John, she said:

“This bowing! Do you know how amusing it is deemed by us Portuguese? Why not embrace? as the dear Queen used to say to me.”

“I am decidedly of Her Majesty’s opinion,” observed Sir John, with emphasis, and the Countess drew back into a mingled laugh and blush.

Her fiendish persecutor gave two or three nods. “And you know the Queen!” she said.

She had to repeat the remark: whereupon the Countess murmured, “Intimately.”

“Ah, we have lost a staunch old Tory in Sir Abraham,” said the lady, performing lamentation.

What did it mean? Could design lodge in that empty-looking head with its crisp curls, button nose, and diminishing simper? Was this pic-nic to be made as terrible to the Countess by her putative father as the dinner had been by the great Mel? The deep, hard, level look of Juliana met the Countess’s smile from time to time, and like flimsy light horse before a solid array of infantry, the Countess fell back, only to be worried afresh by her perfectly unwitting tormentor.

“His last days?—without pain? Oh, I hope so!” came after a lapse of general talk.

“Aren’t we getting a little funereal, Mrs. Perkins?” Lady Jocelyn asked, and then rallied her neighbours.

Miss Carrington looked at her vexedly, for the fiendish Perkins was checked, and the Countess in alarm, about to commit herself, was a pleasant sight to Miss Carrington.

“The worst of these indiscriminate meetings is that there is no conversation,” whispered the Countess, thanking Providence for the relief.

Just then she saw Juliana bend her brows at another person. This was George Uploft, who shook his head, and indicated a shrewd-eyed, thin, middle-aged man, of a lawyer-like cast; and then Juliana nodded, and George Uploft touched his arm, and glanced hurriedly behind for champagne. The Countess’s eyes dwelt on the timid young squire most affectionately. You never saw a fortress more unprepared for dread assault.

“Hem!” was heard, terrific. But the proper pause had evidently not yet come, and now to prevent it the Countess strained her energies and tasked her genius intensely. Have you an idea of the difficulty of keeping up the ball among a host of ill-assorted, stupid country people, who have no open topics, and can talk of nothing continuously but scandal of their neighbours, and who, moreover, feel they are not up to the people they are mixing with? Darting upon Seymour Jocelyn, the Countess asked touchingly for news of the partridges. It was like the unlocking of a machine. Seymour was not blythe in his reply, but he was loud and forcible; and when he came to the statistics—oh, then you would have admired the Countess!—for comparisons ensued, braces were enumerated, numbers given were contested, and the shooting of this one jeered at, and another’s sure mark respectfully admitted. And how lay the coveys? And what about the damage done by last winter’s floods? And was there good hope of the pheasants? Outside this clatter the Countess hovered. Twice the awful “Hem!” was heard. She fought on. She kept them at it. If it flagged she wished to know this or that, and finally thought that, really, she should like herself to try one shot. The women and Mr. John Raikes had previously been left behind. This brought in the women. Lady Jocelyn proposed a female expedition for the morrow.

“I believe I used to be something of a shot, formerly,” she said.

“You peppered old Tom once, my lady,” remarked Andrew, and her ladyship laughed, and that foolish Andrew told the story, and the Countess, to revive her subject, had to say: “May I be enrolled to shoot,” though she detested and shrank from fire-arms.

“Here are two!” said the hearty presiding dame. “Ladies, apply immediately to have your names put down.”

The possibility of an expedition of ladies now struck Seymour vividly, and, said he: “I’ll be secretary;” and began applying to the ladies for permission to put down their names. Many declined, with brevity, muttering, either aloud or to themselves, “unwomanly;” varied by “unladylike:” some confessed cowardice; some a horror of the noise close to their ears; and there was the plea of nerves. But the names of half a dozen ladies were collected, and then followed much laughter and musical hubbub, and delicate banter. So the ladies and gentlemen fell one and all into the partridge-pit dug for them by the Countess: and that horrible “Hem!” equal in force and terror to the roar of artillery preceding the charge of ten thousand dragoons, was silenced—the pit appeared impassable. Did the Countess crow over her advantage? Mark her: the lady’s face is entirely given up to partridges. “English sports are so much envied abroad,” she says: but what she dreads is a reflection, for that leads off from the point. A portion of her mind she keeps to combat them in Lady Jocelyn and others who have the tendency: the rest she divides between internal prayers for succour, and casting about for another popular subject to follow partridges. Now mere talent, as critics say when they are lighting candles round a genius, mere talent would have hit upon pheasants as the natural sequitur, and then diverged to sports—a great theme, for it ensures a chorus of sneers at foreigners, and so on probably to a discussion of birds and beasts best adapted to enrapture the palate of man. Stories may succeed, but they are doubtful, and not to be trusted, coming after cookery. After an exciting subject which has made the general tongue to wag, and just enough heated the brain to cause it to cry out for spiced food—then start your story: taking care that it be mild; for one too marvellous stops the tide, the sense of climax being strongly implanted in all bosoms. So the Countess told an anecdote—one of Mel’s. Mr. George Uploft was quite familiar with it, and knew of one passage that would have abashed him to relate “before ladies.” The sylph-like ease with which the Countess floated over this foul abysm was miraculous. Mr. George screwed his eye-lids queerly, and closed his jaws with a report, completely beaten. The anecdote was of the character of an apologue, and pertained to game. This was, as it happened, a misfortune; for Mr. John Raikes had felt himself left behind by the subject; and the stuff that was in this young man being naturally ebullient, he lay by to trip it, and take a lead. His remarks brought on him a shrewd cut from the Countess, which made matters worse; for a pun may also breed puns, as doth an anecdote. The Countess’s stroke was so neat and perfect that it was something for the gentlemen to think over; and to punish her for giving way to her cleverness and to petty vexation, “Hem!” sounded once more, and then: “May I ask you if the present Baronet is in England?”

Now Lady Jocelyn perceived that some attack was directed against her guest. She allowed the Countess to answer:

“The eldest was drowned in the Lisbon waters,”

And then said: “But who is it that persists in serving up the funeral baked meats to us?”

Mrs. Shorne spoke for her neighbour: “Mr. Farnley’s cousin was the steward of Sir Abraham Harrington’s estates.”

The Countess held up her head boldly. There is a courageous exaltation of the nerves known to heroes and great generals in action when they feel sure that resources within themselves will spring up to the emergency, and that over simple mortals success is positive.

“I had a great respect for Sir Abraham,” Mr. Farnley explained, “very great. I heard that this lady” (bowing to the Countess) “was his daughter.”

Lady Jocelyn’s face wore an angry look, and Mrs. Shorne gave her the shade of a shrug and an expression implying, “I didn’t!”

Evan was talking to Miss Jenny Graine at the moment rather earnestly. With a rapid glance at him, to see that his ears were closed, the Countess breathed:

“Not the elder branch!—Cadet!”

The sort of noisy silence produced by half-a-dozen people respirating deeply and moving in their seats was heard. The Countess watched Mr. Farnley’s mystified look, and whispered to Sir John: “Est-ce qu’il comprenne le Français, lui?”

It was the final feather-like touch to her triumph. She saw safety and a clear escape, and much joyful gain, and the pleasure of relating her sufferings in days to come. This vista was before her when, harsh as an execution bell, telling her that she had vanquished man, but that Providence opposed her, “Mrs. Melchisedec Harrington!” was announced to Lady Jocelyn.

Perfect stillness reigned immediately, as if the pic-nic had heard its doom.

“Oh! I will go to her,” said her ladyship, whose first thought was to spare the family. “Andrew, come and give me your arm.”

But when she rose Mrs. Mel was no more than the length of an arm from her elbow.

In the midst of the horrible anguish she was enduring, the Countess could not help criticising her mother’s curtsey to Lady Jocelyn. Fine, but a shade too humble. Still it was fine; all might not yet be lost.

“Mama!” she softly exclaimed, and thanked heaven that she had not denied her parent.

Mrs. Mel did not notice her or any of her children. There was in her bosom a terrible determination to cast a devil out of the one she best loved. For this purpose, heedless of all pain to be given, or of impropriety, she had come to speak publicly, and disgrace and humiliate, that she might save him from the devils that had ruined his father.

“My lady,” said the terrible woman, thanking her in reply to an invitation that she should be seated, “I have come for my son. I hear he has been playing the lord in your house, my lady. I humbly thank your ladyship for your kindness to him, but he is nothing more than a tailor’s son, and is bound a tailor himself that his father may be called an honest man. I am come to take him away.”

Mrs. Mel seemed to speak without much effort, though the pale flush of her cheeks showed that she felt what she was doing. Juliana was pale as death, watching Rose. Intensely bright with the gem-like light of her gallant spirit, Rose’s eyes fixed on Evan. He met them and smiled. The words of Ruth passed through his heart, nourishing him. With this angel lifting him up, what need he fear? If he reddened, the blush was taken up by love. But the Countess, who had given Rose to Evan, and the duke to Caroline, where was her supporter? The duke was entertaining Caroline with no less dexterity, and Rose’s eyes said to Evan: “Feel no shame that I do not feel!” but the Countess stood alone. It is ever thus with genius! to quote the numerous illustrious authors who have written of it.

What mattered it now that in the dead hush Lady Jocelyn should assure her mother that she had been misinformed, and that Mrs. Mel was presently quieted, and made to sit with others before the fruits and the wines? All eyes were hateful—the very thought of Providence confused her brain. Almost reduced to imbecility, the Countess imagined, as a reality, that Sir Abraham had borne with her till her public announcement of relationship, and that then the outraged ghost would no longer be restrained, and had struck this blow. She talked, she laughed,—she was unaware of what passed in the world.

The crushed pic-nic tried to get a little air, and made pathetic attempts at conversation. Mrs. Mel sat upon the company with the weight of all tailordom.

And now a messenger came for Harry. Everybody was so zealously employed in the struggle to appear comfortable under Mrs. Mel, that his departure was hardly observed. The general feeling for Evan and his sisters, by their superiors in rank, was one of kindly pity. Laxley, however, did not behave well. He put up his glass and scrutinised Mrs. Mel, and then examined Evan, and Rose thought that in his interchange of glances with anyone there was a lurking revival of the scene gone by. She signalled with her eyebrows for Drummond to correct him, but Drummond had another occupation. Andrew made the diversion. He whispered to his neighbour, and the whisper went round, and the laugh; and Mr. John Raikes grew extremely uneasy in his seat, and betrayed an extraordinary alarm. But he also was soon relieved. A messenger had come from Harry to Mrs. Evremonde, bearing a slip of paper. This the lady glanced at, and handed it to Drummond. A straggling pencil had traced these words:

“Just running by S.W. gates—saw the Captain coming in—couldn’t stop to stop him—tremendous hurry—important. Harry J.”

Drummond sent the paper to Lady Jocelyn. After her perusal of it a scout was despatched to the summit of Olympus, and his report proclaimed the advance in the direction of the bull-dogs of a smart little figure of a man in white hat and white trousers, who kept flicking his legs with a cane.

Mrs. Evremonde rose and conferred with her ladyship an instant, and then Drummond took her arm quietly, and passed round Olympus to the east, and Lady Jocelyn broke up the sitting.

Juliana saw Rose go up to Evan and take his hand, and make him introduce her to his mother. She turned lividly white, and went to a corner of the park by herself, and cried bitterly.

Lady Jocelyn, Sir Franks, and Sir John, remained by the tables, but before the guests were out of ear-shot, the individual signalled from Olympus presented himself.

“There are times when one can’t see what else to do but to lie,” said her ladyship to Sir Franks, “and when we do lie the only way is to lie intrepidly.”

Turning from her perplexed husband, she exclaimed:

“Ah! Lawson?”

Captain Evremonde lifted his hat, declining an intimacy.

“Where is my wife, madam?”

“Have you just come from the Arctic Regions?”

“I have come for my wife, madam!”

His unsettled grey eyes wandered restlessly on Lady Jocelyn’s face. The Countess, standing apart, near the duke, felt some pity for the wife of that cropped-headed, tight-skinned lunatic at large, but deeper was the Countess’s pity for Lady Jocelyn, in thinking of the account she would have to render on the Day of Judgment, when she heard her ladyship reply:

“Evelyn is not here.”

Captain Evremonde bowed profoundly, trailing his broad white hat along the sward.

“Do me the favour to read this, madam,” he said, and handed a letter to her.

Lady Jocelyn raised her brows as she gathered the contents of the letter.

“Ferdinand’s handwriting!” she exclaimed.

“I accuse no one, madam,—I make no accusation. I have every respect for you, madam,—you have my esteem. I am sorry to intrude, madam, an intrusion is regretted. My wife runs away from her bed, madam,—and I have the law, madam,—the law is with the husband. No force!” He lashed his cane sharply against his white legs. “The law, madam. No brute force!” His cane made a furious whirl, cracking again on his legs, as he reiterated, “The law!”

“Does the law advise you to strike at a tangent all over the country in search for her?” inquired Lady Jocelyn.

Captain Evremonde became ten times more voluble and excited.

Mrs. Mel was heard by the Countess to say: “Her ladyship does not know how to treat madmen.”

Nor did Sir Franks and Sir John. They began expostulating with him.

“A madman gets madder when you talk reason to him,” said Mrs. Mel.

And now the Countess stepped forward to Lady Jocelyn, and hoped she would not be thought impertinent in offering her opinion as to how this frantic person should be treated. The case indeed looked urgent. Many gentlemen considered themselves bound to approach and be ready in case of need. Presently the Countess pressed between Sir Franks and Sir John, and with her hand put up, as if she feared the furious cane, said:

“You will not strike me?”

“Strike a lady, madam?” The cane and hat were simultaneously lowered.

“Lady Jocelyn permits me to fetch for you a gentleman of the law. Or will you accompany me to him?”

In a moment Captain Evremonde’s manners were subdued and civilised, and in perfectly sane speech he thanked the Countess and offered her his arm. The Countess smilingly waved back Sir John, who motioned to attend on her, and away she went with the Captain, with all the glow of a woman who feels that she is heaping coals of fire on the heads of her enemies.

Was she not admired now?

“Upon my honour,” said Lady Jocelyn, “they are a remarkable family,” meaning the Harringtons.

What farther she thought she did not say, but she was a woman who looked to natural gifts more than the gifts of accident; and I think Evan’s chance stood high with her then. So the battle of the bull-dogs was fought, and cruelly as the Countess had been assailed and wounded, she gained a brilliant victory: yea, though Demogorgon, aided by the vindictive ghost of Sir Abraham, took tangible shape in the ranks opposed to her. True, Lady Jocelyn, forgetting her own recent intrepidity, condemned her as a liar; but the fruits of the Countess’s victory were plentiful. Drummond Forth, fearful perhaps of exciting unjust suspicions in the mind of Captain Evremonde, disappeared altogether. Harry was in a mess which threw him almost upon Evan’s mercy, as will be related. And, lastly, Ferdinand Laxley, that insufferable young aristocrat, was thus spoken to by Lady Jocelyn.

“This letter addressed to Lawson, telling him that his wife is here, is in your hand-writing, Ferdinand. I don’t say you wrote it—I don’t think you could have written it. But, to tell you the truth, I have an unpleasant impression about it, and I think we had better shake hands and not see each other for some time.”

Laxley, after one denial of his guilt, disdained to repeat it. He met her ladyship’s hand haughtily, and, bowing to Sir Franks, turned on his heel.

So, then, in glorious complete victory, the battle of the bull-dogs ended!

Of the close of the pic-nic more remains to be told.

For the present I pause, in observance of those rules which demand that after an exhibition of consummate deeds, time be given to the spectator to digest what has passed before him.