Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Evan Harrington - Part 28
EVAN HARRINGTON; or, HE WOULD BE A GENTLEMAN.
BY GEORGE MEREDITH.
CHAPTER XXXIV.A PAGAN SACRIFICE.
Three steps from the Countess's chamber-door, the knot of Evan's resolution began to slacken. The clear light of his simple duty grew cloudy and complex. His pride would not let him think that he was shrinking, but cried out in him, "Will you be believed?" and whispered that few would believe him guilty of such an act. Yet, while something said that full surely Lady Jocelyn would not, a vague dread that Rose might, threw him back on the luxury of her love and faith in him. He found himself hoping that his statement would he laughed at. Then why make it?
No: that was too blind a hope. Many would take him at his word; all—all save Lady Jocelyn! Rose the first! Because he stood so high with her now he feared the fall. Ah, dazzling pinnacle! our darlings shoot us up on a wondrous juggler's pole, and we talk familiarly to the stars, and are so much above everybody, and try to walk like creatures with two legs, forgetting that we have but a pin's point to stand on up there. Probably the absence of natural motion inspires the prophecy that we must ultimately come down: our unused legs wax morbidly restless. Evan thought it good that Rose should lift her head to look at him; nevertheless, he knew that Rose would turn from him the moment he descended from his superior station. Nature is wise in her young children, though they wot not of it, and are always trying to rush away from her. They escape their wits sooner than their instincts.
But was not Rose involved in him, and part of him? Had he not sworn never to renounce her? What was this but a betrayal?
Go on, young man: fight your fight. The little imps pluck at you: the big giant assails you: the seductions of the soft-mouthed syren are not wanting. Slacken the knot an instant, and they will all have play. And the worst is, that you may be wrong, and they may be right! For is it, can it be proper for you to stain the silvery whiteness of your skin by plunging headlong into yonder pitch-bath? Consider the defilement! Contemplate your hideous aspect on issuing from that black baptism!
As to the honour of your family, Mr. Evan Harrington, pray of what sort of metal consists the honour of a tailor's family?
One little impertinent imp ventured upon that question on his own account. The clever beast was torn back and strangled instantaneously by his experienced elders, but not before Evan's pride had answered him. Exalted by Love, he could dread to abase himself and strip off his glittering garments; lowered by the world, he fell back upon his innate worth.
Yes, he was called on to prove it; he was on his way to prove it. Surrendering his dearest and his best, casting aside his dreams, his desires, his aspirations, for this stern duty, he at least would know that he made himself doubly worthy of her who abandoned him, and the world would scorn him by reason of his absolute merit. Coming to this point, the knot of his resolve tightened again: he hugged it with the furious zeal of a martyr.
Religion, the lack of which in him the Countess deplored, would have guided him and silenced the internal strife. But do not despise a virtue purely Pagan. The young who can act readily up to the Christian light are happier, doubtless: but they are led, they are passive: I think they do not make such capital Christians subsequently. They are never in such danger, we know; but some in the flock are more than sheep. The heathen ideal it is not so easy to attain, and those who mount from it to the Christian have, in my humble thought, a firmer footing.
So Evan fought his hard fight from the top of the stairs to the bottom. A Pagan, which means our poor unsupported flesh, is never certain of his victory. Now you will see him kneeling to his gods, and anon drubbing them; or he makes them fight for him, and is complacent at the issue. Evan had ceased to pick his knot with one hand and pull it with the other: but not finding Lady Jocelyn below, and hearing that she had retired for the night, he mounted the stairs, and the strife recommenced from the bottom to the top. Strange to say, he was almost unaware of any struggle going on within him. The suggestion of the foolish little imp alone was loud in the heart of his consciousness; the rest hung more in his nerves than in his brain. He thought: "Well, I will speak it out to her in the morning;" and thought so sincerely, while an ominous sigh of relief at the reprieve rose from his over-burdened bosom.
Hardly had the weary deep breath taken flight, when the figure of Lady Jocelyn was seen advancing along the corridor, with a lamp in her hand. She trod heavily, in a kind of march, as her habit was; her large fully-open grey eyes looking straight ahead. She would have passed him, and he would have let her pass, but seeing the unusual pallor on her face, his love for this lady moved him to step forward and express a hope that she had no present cause for sorrow.
Hearing her mother's name, Lady Jocelyn was about to return a conventional answer. Recognising Evan, she said:
"Ah! Mr. Harrington! Yes, I fear it's as bad as it can be. She can scarcely outlive the night."
Again he stood alone: his chance was gone. How could he speak to her in her affliction? Her calm, sedate visage had the beauty of its youth, when lighted by the animation that attends meetings or farewells. In her bow to Evan, he beheld a lovely kindness more unique, if less precious, than anything he had ever seen on the face of Rose. Half exultingly, he reflected that no opportunity would be allowed him now to teach that noble head and truest of human hearts to turn from him: the clear-eyed morrow would come: the days of the future would be bright as other days!
Wrapped in the comfort of his cowardice, he started to see Lady Jocelyn advancing to him again.
"Mr. Harrington," she said, "Rose tells me you leave us early in the morning. I may as well shake your hand now. We part very good friends. I shall always be glad to hear of you."
Evan pressed her hand, and bowed. "I thank you, madam," was all he could answer.
"It will be better if you don't write to Rose."
Her tone was rather that of a request than an injunction.
"I have no right to do so, madam."
"She considers that you have: I wish her to have a fair trial."
"Madam!" His voice quavered. The philosophic lady thought it time to leave him.
"So good-bye. I can trust you without extracting a promise. If you ever have need of a friend, you know you are at liberty to write to me."
"You are tired, madam?" He put this question more to dally with what he ought to be saying.
"Tolerably. Your sister, the Countess, relieves me in the night. I fancy my mother finds her the better nurse of the two."
Lady Jocelyn's face lighted in its gracious pleasant way, as she just inclined her head: but the mention of the Countess and her attendance on Mrs. Bonner had nerved Evan: the contrast of her hypocrisy and vile scheming with this most open, noble nature, acted like a new force within him. He begged Lady Jocelyn's permission to speak with her in private. Marking his fervid appearance, she looked at him seriously.
"Is it really important?"
"I cannot rest, madam, till it is spoken."
"I mean, it doesn't pertain to the delirium? We may sleep upon that."
He divined her sufficiently to answer: "It concerns a piece of injustice done by you, madam, and which I can help you to set right."
Lady Jocelyn stared somewhat. "Follow me into my dressing-room," she said, and led the way.
Escape was no longer possible. He was on the march to execution, and into the darkness of his brain danced Mr. John Raikes, with his grotesque tribulations. It was the harsh savour of reality that conjured up this flighty being, who probably never felt a sorrow or a duty, and whose extremest burden was the attachment of a tin plate. The farce Jack lived was all that Evan's tragic bitterness could revolve, and seemed to be the only light in his mind. You might have seen a smile on his mouth when he was ready to ask for a bolt from heaven to crush him.
"Now," said her ladyship, and he found that the four walls enclosed them, "what have I been doing?"
She did not bid him be seated. Her brevity influenced him to speak to the point.
"You have dismissed Mr. Laxley, madam: he is innocent."
"How do you know that?"
"Because, madam,"—a whirl of sensations beset the wretched youth,—"because I am guilty."
His words had run a-head of his wits; and in answer to Lady Jocelyn's singular exclamation he could simply repeat them.
Her head drew back; her face was slightly raised; she looked, as he had seen her sometimes look at the Countess, with a sort of speculative amazement.
"And why do you come to tell me?"
"For the reason that I cannot allow you to be unjust, madam."
"What on earth was your motive?"
Evan stood silent, flinching from her frank eyes.
"Well, well, well!" Her ladyship dropped into a chair, and thumped her knees.
There was lawyer's blood in Lady Jocelyn's veins: she had the judicial mind. A confession was to her a confession. She tracked actions up to a motive; but one who came voluntarily to confess needed no sifting. She had the habit of treating things spoken as facts.
"You absolutely wrote that letter to Mrs. Evremonde's husband!"
Evan bowed, to avoid hearing his own lie.
"You discovered his address and wrote to him, and imitated Mr. Laxley's handwriting, to effect the purpose you may have had?"
Her credulity did require his confirmation of it, and he repeated: "It is my deed, madam."
"Hum! And you sent that premonitory slip of paper to her?"
"To Mrs. Evremonde, madam?"
"Somebody else was the author of that, perhaps?"
"Madam, it is all on me."
"In that case, Mr. Harrington, I can only say that it's quite right you should quit this house to-morrow morning."
Her ladyship commenced rocking in her chair, and then added: "May I ask, have you madness in your family? No? Because when one can't discern a motive, it's natural to ascribe certain acts to madness. Had Mrs. Evremonde offended you? or Ferdinand—but one only hears of such practices towards fortunate rivals, and now you have come to undo what you did! I must admit that, taking the monstrousness of the act and the inconsequence of your proceedings together, the whole affair becomes more incomprehensible to me than it was before. Would it be unpleasant to you to favour me with explanations?"
She saw the pain her question gave him, and, passing it, said:
"Of course you need not be told that Rose must hear of this?"
"Yes," said Evan, "she must hear it."
"You know what that's equivalent to? But, if you like, I will not speak to her till you have left us."
"Instantly," cried Evan. "Now—to-night, madam! I would not have her live a minute in a false estimate of me."
Had Lady Jocelyn's intellect been as penetrating as it was masculine, she would have taken him and turned him inside out in a very short time; for one who would bear to see his love look coldly on him rather than endure a minute's false estimate of his character, and who could yet stoop to concoct a vile plot, must either be mad or simulating the baseness for some reason or other. She perceived no motive for the latter, and she held him to be sound in head, and what was spoken from the mouth she accepted. Perhaps, also, she saw in the complication thus offered an escape for Rose, and was the less inclined to elucidate it herself. But if her intellect was baffled, her heart was unerring. A man proved guilty of writing an anonymous letter would not have been allowed to sit long by her side. She would have shown him to the door of the house speedily; and Evan was aware in his soul that he had not fallen materially in her esteem. He had puzzled and confused her, and partly because she had the feeling that this young man was entirely trustworthy, and because she never relied on her feelings, she let his own words condemn him, and did not personally discard him. In fact, she was a veritable philosopher. She permitted her fellows to move the world on as they would, and had no other passions in the contemplation of the show than a cultured audience will usually exhibit.
"Strange,—most strange! I thought I was getting old!" she said, and eyed the culprit as judges generally are not wont to do. "It will be a shock to Rose. I must tell you that I can't regret it. I would not have employed force with her, but I should have given her as strong a taste of the world as it was in my power to give. Girls get their reason from society. But, come! if you think you can make your case out better to her, you shall speak to her first yourself."
"No, madam," said Even, softly.
"You would rather not?"
"I could not."
"But, I suppose, she'll want to speak to you when she knows it."
"Then she will—madam! I can take death from her hands, but I cannot slay myself."
The language was natural to his condition, though the note was pitched high. Lady Jocelyn hummed till the sound of it was over, and an idea striking her, she said:
"Ah, by the way, have you any tremendous moral notions?"
"I don't think I have, madam." "People act on that mania sometimes, I believe. Do you think it an outrage on decency for a wife to run away from a mad husband whom they won't shut up, and take shelter with a friend? Is that the cause? Mr. Forth is an old friend of mine. I would trust my daughter with him in a desert, and stake my hand on his honour."
"Oh, Lady Jocelyn!" cried Evan. "Would to God you might ever have said that of me! Madam, I love you. I shall never see you again. I shall never meet one to treat me so generously. I leave you, blackened in character—you cannot think of me without contempt. I can never hope that this will change. But, for your kindness let me thank you."
And as speech is poor where emotion is extreme—and he knew his own to be especially so—he took her hand with petitioning eyes, and dropping on one knee, reverentially kissed it.
Lady Jocelyn was human enough to like to be appreciated. She was a veteran Pagan, and may have had the instinct that a peculiar virtue in this young one was the spring of his conduct. She stood up and said: "Don't forget that you have a friend here."
The poor youth had to turn his head from her.
"You wish that I should tell Rose what you have told me, at once, Mr. Harrington?"
"Yes, madam; I beg that you will do so."
And the queer look Lady Jocelyn had been wearing dimpled into absolute wonder. A stranger to Love's cunning, she marvelled why he should desire to witness the scorn Rose would feel for him.
"If she's not asleep, then, she shall hear it now," said her ladyship. "You understand that it will be mentioned to no other person."
"Except to Mr. Laxley, madam, to whom I shall offer the satisfaction he may require. But I will undertake that."
"Just as you think proper on that matter," remarked her philosophical ladyship, who held that man was a fighting animal and must not have his nature repressed.
She lighted him part of the way, and then turned off to Rose's chamber.
Would Rose believe it of him? Love combated his dismal foreboding. Strangely, too, now that he had plunged into his pitch-bath, the guilt seemed to cling to him, and instead of hoping serenely, or fearing steadily, his spirit fell in a kind of abject supplication to Rose, and blindly trusted that she would still love even if she believed him base. In his weakness he fell so low as to pray that she might love that crawling reptile who could creep into a house and shrink from no vileness to win her.
CHAPTER XXXV. ROSE WOUNDED.
The light of morning was yet cold along the passages of the house when Polly Wheedle, hurrying to her young mistress, met her loosely dressed and with a troubled face.
"What's the matter, Polly? I was coming to you?"
"O, Miss Rose! and I was coming to you. Miss Bonner's gone back to her convulsions again. She's had them all night. Her hair won't last till thirty, if she keeps on giving way to temper, as I tell her: and I know that from a barber."
"Tush, you stupid Polly! Does she want to see me?"
"You needn't suspect that, Miss. But you quiet her best, and I thought I'd come to you. But, gracious!"
Rose pushed past her without vouchsafing any answer to the look in her face, and turned off to Juliana's chamber, where she was neither welcomed nor repelled. Juliana said she was perfectly well, and that Polly was foolishly officious: whereupon Rose ordered Polly out of the room, and said to Juliana, kindly: "You have not slept, dear, and I have not either. I am so unhappy!"
Whether Rose intended by this communication to make Juliana eagerly attentive, and to distract her from her own affair, cannot be said, but something of the effect was produced.
"You care for him, too," cried Rose, impetuously. "Tell me, Juley: do you think him capable of any base action? Do you think he would do what any gentleman would be ashamed to own? Tell me."
Juliana looked at Rose intently, but did not reply.
Rose jumped up from the bed. "You hesitate, Juley? What! Could you think so?"
Young women after one game are shrewd. Juliana may have seen that Rose was not steady on the plank she walked, and required support.
"I don't know," she said, turning her cheek to her pillow.
"What an answer!" Rose exclaimed. "Have you no opinion? What did you say yesterday? It's silent as the grave with me: but if you do care for him, you must think one thing or the other."
"I suppose not, then—no," said Juliana.
Repeating the languid words bitterly, Rose continued: "What is it to love without having faith in him you love? You make my mind easier."
Juliana caught the implied taunt, and said, fretfully: "I'm ill. You're so passionate. You don't tell me what it is. How can I answer you?"
"Never mind," said Rose, moving to the door, wondering why she had spoken at all: but when Juliana sprang forward, and caught her by the dress to stop her, and with a most unwonted outburst of affection, begged of her to tell her all, the wound in Rose's breast began to bleed, and she was glad to speak.
"Juley, do you—can you believe that he wrote that letter which poor Ferdinand was accused of writing?"
Juliana appeared to muse, and then responded: "Why should he do such a thing?"
"O my goodness, what a girl!" Rose interjected.
"Well, then, to please you, Rose, of course I think he is too honourable."
"You do think so, Juley? But if he himself confessed it—what then? You would not believe him, would you?"
"Oh, then, I can't say. Why should he condemn himself?"
"But you would know—you would know that he was a man to suffer death rather than be guilty of the smallest baseness. His birth—what is that! Rose fillipped her fingers: "But his acts—what he is himself you would be sure of, would you not? Dear Juley! Oh, for heaven's sake speak out plainly to me."
A wily look had crept over Juliana's features.
"Certainly," she said, in a tone that belied it, and drawing Rose to her bosom, the groan she heard there was passing sweet to her.
"He has confessed it to mama," sobbed Rose. "Why did he not come to me first? He has confessed it—the abominable thing has come out of his own mouth. He went to her last night . . . ."
Juliana patted her shoulders regularly as they heaved. When words were intelligible between them, Juliana said: "At least, dear, you must admit that he has redeemed it."
"Redeemed it? Could he do less?" Rose dried her eyes vehemently, as if the tears shamed her. "A man who could have let another suffer for his crime—I could never have lifted my head again. I think I would have cut off this hand that plighted itself to him! As it is, I hardly dare look at myself. But you don't think it, dear? You know it to be false! false! false!"
"Why should Mr. Harrington confess it?" said Juliana.
"Oh, speak his name?" cried Rose.
Her cousin smiled. "So many strange things happen?" she said, and sighed.
"Don't sigh: I shall think you believe it!" cried Rose.
An appearance of constrained repose was assumed. Rose glanced up, studied for an instant, and breathlessly uttered: "You do, you do believe it, Juley?"
For answer, Juliana hugged her with much warmth, and recommenced the patting.
"I dare say it's a mistake," she remarked. "He may have been jealous of Ferdinand. You know I have not seen the letter. I have only heard of it. In love, they say, you ought to excuse . . . And the want of religious education! His sister . . . ."
Rose interrupted her with a sharp shudder. Might it not be possible that one who had the same blood as the Countess might stoop to a momentary vileness?
How changed was Rose from the haughty damsel of yesterday!
"Do you think my lover could tell a lie?" "He would not love me long if I did!"
These phrases arose and rang in Juliana's ears while she pursued her task of comforting the broken spirit that now lay prone on the bed, and now impetuously paced the room. But as Rose had entered, she did not leave it. She came, thinking the moment Juliana's name was mentioned, that here was the one to fortify her faith in Evan: one who, because she loved, could not doubt him. She departed in a terror of distrust, loathing her cousin: not asking herself why she needed support. And indeed she was too young for much clear self-questioning, and her blood was flowing too quickly for her brain to perceive more than one thing at a time.
"Does your mother believe it!" said Juliana, evading a direct assault.
"Mama? She never doubts what you speak," answered Rose, disconsolately.
Whereat Juliana looked most grave, and Rose felt that it was hard to breathe.
She had grown very cold and calm, and Juliana had to be expansive unprovoked.
"Believe nothing, dear, till you hear it from his own lips. If he can look in your face and say that he did it . . . . well, then! But of course he cannot. It must be some wonderful piece of generosity to his rival."
"So I thought, Juley! so I thought," cried Rose, at the new light, and Juliana smiled contemptuously, and the light flickered and died, and all was darker than before in the bosom of Rose.
"Of course, it must be that, if it is anything," Juliana pursued. "You were made to be happy, Rose. And consider, if it is true, people of very low birth, till they have lived long with other people, and if they have no religion, are so very likely to do things. You do not judge them as you do real gentlemen, and one must not be too harsh—I only wish to prepare you for the worst.'
A dim form of that very idea had passed through Rose, giving her small comfort.
"Let him tell you with his own lips that what he has told your mother is true, and then, and not till then, believe him," Juliana concluded, and they kissed kindly, and separated. Rose had suddenly lost her firm step, but no sooner was Juliana alone than she left the bed, and addressed her visage to the glass with brightening eyes, as one who saw the glimmer of young hope therein.
"She love him! Not if he told me so ten thousand times would I believe it! and before he has said a syllable she doubts him. Asking me in that frantic way! as if I couldn't see that she wanted me to help her to her faith in him, as she calls it. Not name his name? Mr. Harrington! I may call him Evan: some day!"
Half-uttered, half-mused, the unconscious exclamations issued from her, and for many a weary day since she had dreamed of love, and studied that which is said to attract the creature, she had not been so glowingly elated or looked so much farther in the glass than its pale reflection.