Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Evan Harrington - Part 33
EVAN HARRINGTON; or, HE WOULD BE A GENTLEMAN.
BY GEORGE MEREDITH.
The sick night-light burned steadily in Juliana’s chamber. On a couch, beside her bed, Caroline lay sleeping, tired with a long watch. Two sentences had been passed on Juliana: one on her heart: one on her body: ‘Thou art not loved’ and, ‘Thou must die.’ The frail passion of her struggle against destiny was over with her. Quiet as that quiet Nature was taking her to, her body reposed. Calm as the solitary night-light before her open eyes, her spirit was wasting away. ‘If I am not loved, then let me die!’ In such a sense she bowed to her fate.
At an hour like this, watching the round of light on the ceiling, with its narrowing inner rings, a sufferer from whom pain has fled, looks back to the shores she is leaving, and would be well with them who walk there. It is false to imagine that schemers and workers in the dark are destitute of the saving gift of conscience. They have it, and it is perhaps made livelier in them than with easy people; and therefore, they are imperatively spurred to hoodwink it. Hence, their self-seclusion is deep, and endures. They march to their object, and gaining or losing it, the voice that calls to them is the voice of a blind creature, whom any answer, provided that the answer is ready, will silence. And at an hour like this, when finally they snatch their minute of sight on the threshold of black night, their souls may compare with yonder shining circle on the ceiling, which, as the light below gasps for air, contracts, and extends but to mingle with the darkness. They would be nobler, better, boundlessly good to all;—to those who have injured them;—to those whom they have injured. Alas! for any definite deed the limit of their circle is immoveable, and they must act within it. The trick they have played themselves imprisons them. Beyond it, they cease to be.
Lying in this utter stillness, Juliana thought of Rose; of her beloved by Evan. The fever that had left her blood, had left it stagnant, and her thoughts were quite emotionless. She looked faintly on a far picture. She saw Rose blooming with pleasures in Elburne House, sliding as a boat borne by the river’s tide to sea, away from her living joy. The breast of Rose was lucid to her, and in that hour of insight she had clear knowledge of her cousin’s heart; how it scoffed at its base love, and unwittingly betrayed the power on her still, by clinging to the world and what it would give her to fill the void; how externally the lake was untroubled, and a mirror to the passing day; and how within there pressed a flood against an iron dam. Evan, too, she saw. The Countess was right in her judgment of Juliana’s love. Juliana looked very little to his qualities. She loved him when she thought him guilty, which made her conceive that her love was of a diviner cast than Rose was capable of. Guilt did not spoil his beauty to her; his gentleness and glowing manhood were unchanged; and when she knew him as he was, the revelation of his high nature simply confirmed her impression of his physical perfections. She had done him a wrong; at her death news would come to him, and it might be that he would bless her name. Because she sighed no longer for those dear lips and strong arms to close about her tremulous frame, it seemed to her that she had quite surrendered him. Generous to Evan, she would be just to Rose. Beneath her pillow she found pencil and paper, and with difficulty, scarce seeing her letters in the brown light, she began to trace lines of farewell to Rose. Her conscience dictated to her thus, “Tell Rose that she was too ready to accept his guilt; and that in this as in all things, she acted with the precipitation of her character. Tell her that you always trusted, and that now you know him innocent. Give her the proofs you have. Show that he did it to shield his intriguing sister. Tell her that you write this only to make her just to him. End with a prayer that Rose may be happy.”
Ere Juliana had finished one sentence, she resigned the pencil. Was it not much, even at the gates of death to be the instrument to send Rose into his arms? The picture swayed before her, helping her weakness. She found herself dreaming that he had kissed her once. Dorothy, she remembered, had danced up to her one day, to relate what the maids of the house said of the gentlemen—(at whom, it is known, they look with the licence of cats towards kings); and Dorothy’s fresh, careless mouth had told how one observant maid, amorously minded, proclaimed of Evan, to a companion of her sex, that “he was the only gentleman who gave you an idea of how he would look when he was kissing you.” Juliana cherished that vision likewise. Young ladies are not supposed to do so, if menial maids are; but Juliana did cherish it, and it possessed her fancy. Bear in your recollection that she was not a healthy person. Diseased little heroines may be made attractive, and are now popular; but strip off the cleverly woven robe which is fashioned to cover them, and you will find them, in certain matters, bearing a resemblance to menial maids.
While the thoughts of his kiss lasted, she could do nothing; but lay with her two hands out on the bed, and her eyelids closed. Then waking, she took the pencil again. It would not move: her bloodless fingers fell from it.
“If they do not meet, and he never marries, I may claim him in the next world,” she mused.
But conscience continued uneasy. She turned her wrist and trailed a letter from beneath the pillow. It was from Mrs. Shorne. Juliana knew the contents. She raised it unopened as high as her faltering hands permitted, and read like one whose shut eyes read syllables of fire on the darkness.
“Rose has at last definitively engaged herself to Ferdinand, you will be glad to hear, and we may now treat her as a woman.”
Having absorbed these words, Juliana’s hand found strength to write with little difficulty, what she had to say to Rose. She conceived it to be neither sublime nor generous: not even good; merely her peculiar duty. When it was done, she gave a long, low sigh of relief.
Caroline whispered, “Dearest child, are you awake?”
“Yes,” she answered.
Caroline reached her hand over to her, and felt the paper.
“What is this?”
“My good-bye to Rose. I want it folded now.”
Caroline slipped from the couch to fulfil her wish. She enclosed the pencilled scrap of paper, sealed it, and asked, “Is that right?”
“Now unlock my desk,” Juliana uttered feebly. “Put it beside a letter addressed to a law-gentleman. Post both the morning I am gone.”
Caroline promised to obey, and coming to Juliana to mark her looks, observed a faint pleased smile dying away, and had her hand gently squeezed. Juliana’s conscience had preceded her contentedly to its last sleep; and she, beneath that round of light on the ceiling, drew on her counted breaths in peace till dawn.
CHAPTER XLIII. ROSE.
Have you seen a young audacious spirit smitten to the earth? It is a singular study; and, in the case of young women, a trap for inexperienced men. Rose, who had commanded and managed every one surrounding her since infancy, how humble had she now become!—how much more womanly in appearance, and more child like at heart! She was as wax in Lady Elburne’s hands. A hint of that veiled episode, the Beckley campaign, made Rose pliant, as if she had woven for herself a rod of scorpions. The high ground she had taken; the perfect trust in one; the scorn of any judgment, save her own;—these had vanished from her. Rose, the tameless heroine who had once put her mother’s philosophy in action, was the easiest filly that turbaned matron ever yet drove into the straight road of the world. It even surprised Lady Jocelyn to see how wonderfully she had been broken in by her grandmother. Her ladyship wrote to Drummond to tell him of it, and Drummond congratulated her, saying, however:—“Changes of this sort don’t come of conviction. Wait till you see her at home. I think they have been sticking pins into the sore part.”
Drummond knew Rose well. In reality there was no change in her. She was only a suppliant to be spared from ridicule: spared from the application of the scourge she had woven for herself.
And, ah! to one who deigned to think warmly still of such a disgraced silly creature, with what gratitude she turned! He might well suppose love alone could pour that profusion of jewels at his feet.
Ferdinand, now Lord Laxley, understood the merits of his finger-nails better than the nature of young women; but he is not to be blamed for presuming that Rose had learnt to adore him. Else why did she like his company so much? He was not mistaken in thinking she looked up to him. She seemed to beg to be taken into his noble serenity. In truth, she sighed to feel as he did, above everybody—she that hath fallen so low! Above everybody!—born above them, and therefore superior by grace divine! To this Rose Jocelyn had come—she envied the mind of Ferdinand!
He, you may be sure, was quite prepared to accept her homage. Rose he had always known to be just the girl for him; spirited, fresh, and with fine teeth; and once tied to you safe to be staunch. They walked together, rode together, danced together. Her soft humility touched him to eloquence. Say she was a little hypocrite, if you like, when the blood came to her cheeks under his eyes. Say she was a heartless minx for allowing it to be bruited that she and Ferdinand were betrothed. I can but tell you that her blushes were blushes of gratitude to one who could devote his time to such a disgraced silly creature, and that she, in her abject state, felt a secret pleasure in the protection Ferdinand’s name appeared to extend over her: and was hardly willing to lose it.
So far Lady Elburne’s tact and discipline had been highly successful. One morning, in May, Ferdinand, strolling with Rose down the garden, made a positive appeal to her common sense and friendly feeling; by which she understood that he wanted her consent to his marriage with her.
“Who would have me?”
Ferdinand spoke pretty well, and ultimately got possession of her hand. She let him keep it, thinking him noble for forgetting that another had pressed it before him.
Some minutes later the letters were delivered. One of them contained Juliana’s dark-winged missive.
“Poor, poor Juley!” said Rose, dropping her head, after reading all that was on the crumpled leaf with an inflexible face. And then, talking on, long low sighs lifted her bosom at intervals. She gazed from time to time with a wistful conciliatory air on Ferdinand. Rushing to her chamber, the first cry her soul framed was: “He did not kiss me!”
The young have a superstitious sense of something incontestably true in the final protestations of the dead. Evan guiltless! she could not quite take the meaning this revelation involved. That which had been dead was beginning to move within her; but blindly: and now it stirred and troubled; now sank. Guiltless?—all she had thought him! Oh! she knew she could not have been deceived. But why, why had he hidden his sacrifice from her?
“It is better for us both, of course,” said Rose, speaking the world’s wisdom, parrot-like, and bursting into tears the next minute. Guiltless, and gloriously guiltless! but nothing—nothing to her!
She tried to blame him. It would not do. She tried to think of that grovelling loathsome position she had had painted to her by Lady Elburne’s graphic hand. Evan dispersed the gloomy shades like sunshine. Then in a sort of terror she rejoiced to think she was partially engaged to Ferdinand, and found herself crying again with exultation, that he had not kissed her: for a kiss on her mouth was to Rose a pledge and a bond.
The struggle searched her through: bared her weakness, probed her strength: and she, seeing herself, suffered grievously in her self-love. Am I such a coward, inconstant, cold? she asked. Confirmatory answers coming flung her back under the shield of Ferdinand: if, for a moment, her soul stood up armed and defiant, it was Evan’s hand she took.
To whom do I belong? was another terrible question. To her ideas, if Evan was not chargeable with that baseness which had sundered them, he might claim her yet, if he would. If he did, what then? Must she go to him?
Impossible: she was in chains. Besides, what a din of laughter there would be to see her led away by him! Twisting her joined hands: weeping for her cousin, as she thought, Rose passed hours of torment over Juliana’s legacy to her.
“Why did I doubt him?” she cried, jealous that any soul should have known and trusted him better. Jealous: and I am afraid that the kindling of that one feature of love relighted the fire of her passion thus fervidly. To be outstripped in generosity was hateful to her. Rose, naturally, could not reflect that a young creature like herself, fighting against the world, as we call it, has all her faculties at the utmost stretch, and is often betrayed by failing nature when the will is still valiant.
And here she sat—in chains! “Yes! I am fit only to be the wife of an idle brainless man, with money and a title,” she said, in extreme self-contempt. She caught a glimpse of her whole life in the horrid tomb of his embrace, and questions whether she could yield her hand to him—whether it was right in the eyes of Heaven, rushed impetuously to console her, and defied anything in the shape of satisfactory affirmations. Nevertheless, the end of the struggle was, that she felt that she was bound to Ferdinand.
“But this I will do,” said Rose, standing with heat-bright eyes and deep-coloured cheeks before the glass. “I will clear his character at Beckley. I will help him. I will be his friend. I will wipe out the injustice I did him.” And this bride-elect of a lord absolutely added that—she was unworthy to be the wife of a tailor!
“He! how unequalled he is! There is nothing he fears except shame. Oh, how sad it will be for him to find no woman in his class to understand him and be his helpmate!”
Over this sad subject, of which we must presume her to be accurately cognisant, Rose brooded heavily. By mid-day she gave her grandmother notice that she was going home to Juliana’s funeral.
“Well, Rose, if you think it necessary to join the ceremony,” said Lady Elburne. “Beckley is bad quarters for you, as you have learnt. There was never much love between you cousins.”
“No, and I don’t pretend to it,” Rose answered. “I am sorry poor Juley’s gone.”
“She’s better gone for many reasons—she appears to have been a little venomous toad,” said Lady Elburne; and Rose, thinking of a snake-like death-bite working through her blood, rejoined: “Yes—she isn’t to be pitied: she’s better off than most people.”
So it was arranged that Rose should go. Ferdinand and her aunt, Mrs. Shorne, accompanied her. Mrs. Shorne gave them their opportunities, albeit they were all stowed together in a carriage, and Ferdinand seemed willing to profit by them; but Rose’s hand was dead, and she sat by her future lord forming the vow on her lips that they should never be touched by him.
Arrived at Beckley, she, to her great delight, found Caroline there, waiting for the funeral. In a few minutes she got her alone, and after kisses, looked penetratingly into her lovely eyes, shook her head, and said: “Why were you false to me?”
“False?” echoed Caroline.
“You knew him. You knew why he did that. Why did you not save me?”
Caroline fell upon her neck, asking pardon. Rose spared her the recital of facts further than the broad avowal. Evan’s present condition she plainly stated: and Rose, when the bitter pangs had ceased, made oath to her soul she would rescue him from it.
In addition to the task of clearing Evan’s character, and rescuing him, Rose now conceived that her engagement to Ferdinand must stand ice-bound till Evan had given her back her troth. How could she obtain it from him? How could she take anything from one so noble and so poor! Happily there was no hurry; though, before any bond was ratified, she decided conscientiously that it must be done.
You see that like a lithe snake she turns on herself, and must be tracked in and out. Not being a girl to solve the problem with tears, or outright perfidy, she had to ease her heart to the great shock little by little: sincere as far as she knew: as far as one who loves may be.
The day of the funeral came and went. The Jocelyns were of their mother’s opinion; that for many reasons Juliana was better out of the way. Mrs. Bonner’s bequest had been a severe blow to Sir Franks. However, all was now well. The estate naturally lapsed to Lady Jocelyn. No one in the house dreamed of a Will, signed with Juliana’s name, attested, under due legal forms, being in existence. None of the members of the family imagined that at Beckley Court they were then residing on somebody else’s ground.
Want of hospitable sentiments was not the cause that led to an intimation from Sir Franks to his wife, that Mrs. Strike must not be pressed to remain, and that Rose must not be permitted to have her own way in this. Knowing very well that Mrs. Shorne spoke through her husband’s mouth, Lady Jocelyn still acquiesced, and Rose, who had pressed Caroline publicly, had to be silent when the latter renewed her faint objections: so Caroline said she would leave on the morrow morning.
Juliana, with her fretfulness, her hand-bounties, her petty egotisms, and sudden far-leaping generosities, and all the contradictory impulses of her malady, had now departed utterly. The joys of a landed proprietor mounted into the head of Sir Franks. He was up early the next morning, and he and Harry walked over a good bit of the ground before breakfast. Sir Franks meditated making it entail, and favoured Harry with a lecture on the duty of his shaping the course of his conduct at once after the model of the landed gentry generally.
“And you may think yourself lucky to come into that catalogue—the son of a younger son!” said Sir Franks, tapping Mr. Harry’s shoulder. Harry also began to enjoy the look and smell of land. At the breakfast which, though early, was well attended, Harry spoke of the advisability of felling timber here, planting there, and so forth, after the model his father had held up. Sir Franks nodded approval of his interest in the estate, but reserved his opinion on matters of detail.
“All I beg of you is,” said Lady Jocelyn, “that you won’t sow turnips within the circuit of a mile;” which was obligingly promised.
The morning letters were delivered and opened with the customary calmness.
“Letter from old George,” Harry sings out, and buzzes over a few lines. “Halloa!—hum!” He was going to make a communication, but catching sight of Caroline, tossed the letter over to Ferdinand, who read it and tossed it back with the comment of a careless face.
“Read it, Rosey?” says Harry, smiling bluntly.
Rather to his surprise, Rose took the letter. Study her eyes if you wish to gauge the potency of one strong dose of ridicule on an ingenuous young heart. She read that Mr. George Uploft had met “our friend, Mr. Snip” riding, by moonlight, on the road to Beckley. That great orbed night of their deep tender love flashed luminously through her frame, storming at the base epithet by which her lover was mentioned, flooding grandly over the ignominies cast on him by the world. She met the world, as it were, in a death-grapple; she matched the living heroic youth she felt him to be with that dead wooden image of him which it thrust before her. Her heart stood up singing like a craven who sees the tide of victory setting towards him. But this passed beneath her eyelids. When her eyes were lifted, Ferdinand could have discovered nothing in them to complain of, had his suspicions been light to raise: nor could Mrs. Shorne perceive that there was the opening for a shrewd bodkin-thrust. Rose had got a mask at last: her colour, voice, expression, were perfectly at command. She knew it to be a cowardice to wear any mask: but she had been burnt, horribly burnt: how much so you may guess from the supple dissimulation of such a bold clear-visaged girl. She conquered the sneers of the world in her soul: but her sensitive skin was yet alive to the pangs of the scorching it had been subjected to when weak, helpless, and betrayed by Evan, she stood with no philosophic parent to cry fair play for her, among the skilful torturers of Elburne House.
Sir Franks had risen and walked to the window.
“News?” said Lady Jocelyn, wheeling round in her chair.
The one eyebrow up of the easy-going baronet signified trouble of mind. He finished his third perusal of a letter that appeared to be written in a remarkably plain legal hand, and looking as men do when their intelligences are just equal to the comprehension or expression of an oath, handed the letter to his wife, and observed that he should be found in the library. Nevertheless, he waited first to mark its effect on Lady Jocelyn. At one part of the document her forehead wrinkled slightly.
“Doesn’t sound like a joke!” he said.
Sir Franks, apparently quite satisfied by her ready response, turned on his heel and left the room quickly.
An hour afterwards it was rumoured and confirmed that Juliana Bonner had willed all the worldly property she held in her own right, comprising Beckley Court, to Mr. Evan Harrington, of Lymport, tailor. An abstract of the will was forwarded. The lawyer went on to say, that he had conformed to the desire of the testatrix in communicating the existence of the aforesaid will six days subsequent to her death, being the day after her funeral.
There had been railing and jeering at the Countess de Saldar, the clever outwitted exposed adventuress in Elburne House and Beckley Court. What did the crowing cleverer aristocrats think of her now?
On Rose the blow fell bitterly. Was Evan also a foul schemer? Was he of a piece with his intriguing sister? His close kinship with the Countess had led her to think baseness possible to him when it was confessed by his own mouth once. She heard black names cast at him and the whole of the great Mel’s brood, and incapable of quite disbelieving them merited, unable to challenge and rebut them, she dropped into her recent state of self-contempt: into her lately-instilled doubt whether it really was in Nature’s power, unaided by family-portraits, coats-of-arms, ball-room practice, and at least one small phial of Essence of Society, to make a Gentleman.
That evening Ferdinand had another chance. He begged her not to be upset by the family misfortune, assuring her that his own position would shield her from considerations of that kind. She listened to him, understanding him well. Perhaps—for he was coaxing soft under evening influences—the fatal kiss might then have been given, but he, bending his head to her just as the moon slipped over an edge of cloud, the tides of an old emotion began to roll in her bosom, and, by a sudden turn of the head, she received his lips on the shield of her cheek. Love saw the danger. To Ferdinand’s amazement and disgust, Rose grasped his hand, and in her frankest voice wished him good-night.