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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Evan Harrington - Part 34

EVAN HARRINGTON; or, HE WOULD BE A GENTLEMAN.

BY GEORGE MEREDITH.

Evan Harrington - 38 - A Man in the House.png

CHAPTER XLIV.CONTAINS A WARNING TO ALL CONSPIRATORS.

This, if you have done me the favour to read it aright, has been a chronicle of desperate heroism on the part of almost all the principal personages represented. But not the Countess de Saldar, scaling the embattled fortress of Society; or Rose, tossing its keys to her lover from the shining turret-tops; or Evan, keeping bright the lamp of self-respect in his bosom against south wind and east; or Mr. John Raikes, consenting to a plate of tin that his merits and honours may be the better propagated, the more surely acknowledged; none excel friend Andrew Cogglesby, who, having fallen into Old Tom’s plot to humiliate his wife and her sisters, simply for Evan’s sake, and without any distinct notion of the terror, confusion, and universal upset he was bringing on his home, could yet, after a scared contemplation of the scene when he returned from his expedition to Fallowfield, continue to wear his rueful mask; could yet persevere in treacherously outraging his lofty wife, though the dread of possible consequences went far to knock him down sixty times an hour, could yet (we must have a climax) maintain his naughty false bankrupt cheerfulness to that injured lady behind the garrulous curtains!

He did it to vindicate the ties of blood against accidents of position. Was he justified? I am sufficiently wise to ask my own sex alone.

On the other side, be it said (since in our modern days every hero must have his weak heel), that now he had gone this distance it was difficult to recede. It would be no laughing matter to tell his solemn Harriet that he had been playing her a little practical joke. His temptations to give it up were incessant and most agitating; but if to advance seemed terrific, there was, in stopping short, an awfulness so overwhelming that Andrew abandoned himself to the current, his real dismay adding to his acting powers.

The worst was, that the joke was no longer his: it was Old Tom’s. He discovered that he was in Old Tom’s hands completely. Andrew had thought that he would just frighten the women a bit, get them down to Lymport for a week or so, and then announce that matters were not so bad with the Brewery as he had feared; concluding the farce with a few domestic fireworks. Conceive his may, when he entered his house, to find there a man in possession!

Andrew flew into such a rage that he committed an assault on the man. So ungovernable was his passion that for some minutes Harriet’s measured voice summoned him from over the bannisters above, quite in vain. The miserable Englishman refused to be taught that his house had ceased to be his castle. It was something beyond a joke, this! The intruder, perfectly docile, seeing that by accurate calculation every shake he got involved a bottle of wine for him, and ultimate compensation probably to the amount of a couple of sovereigns, allowed himself to be lugged upstairs, in default of summary ejection on the point of Andrew’s toe into the street. There he was faced to the lady of the house, who apologised to him, and requested her husband to state what had made him guilty of this indecent behaviour. The man showed his papers. They were quite in order. “At the suit of Messrs. Grist.”

“My own lawyers!” cried Andrew, smacking his forehead, and Old Tom’s devilry flashed on him at once. He sank into a chair.

“Why did you bring this person up here?” said Harriet, like a speaking statue.

“My dear!” Andrew answered, and spread out his hand, and waggled his head; “My—please!—I—I don’t know. We all want exercise.”

The man laughed, which was kindly of him, but offensive to Mrs. Cogglesby, who gave Andrew a glance which was full payment for his imbecile pleasantry, and promised more.

With a hospitable inquiry as to the condition of his appetite, and a request that he would be pleased to satisfy it to the full, the man was dismissed: whereat, as one delivered of noxious presences, the Countess rustled into sight. Not noticing Andrew, she lisped to Harriet: “Misfortunes are sometimes no curses! I bless the catarrh that has confined Silva to his chamber, and saved him from a bestial exhibition.”

The two ladies then swept from the room, and left Andrew to perspire at leisure.

Fresh tribulations awaited him when he sat down to dinner. Andrew liked his dinner to be comfortable, good, and in plenty. This may not seem strange. The fact is stated that I may win for him the warm sympathies of the body of his countrymen. He was greeted by a piece of cold boiled neck of mutton and a solitary dish of steaming potatoes. The blank expanse of table-cloth returned his desolate stare.

“Why, what’s the meaning of this?” Andrew brutally exclaimed, as he thumped the table.

The Countess gave a start, and rolled a look as of piteous supplication to spare a lady’s nerves, addressed to a ferocious brigand. Harriet answered: “It means that I will have no butcher’s bills.”

“Butcher’s bills! butcher’s bills!” echoed Andrew; “why, you must have butcher’s bills; why, confound! why, you’ll have a bill for this, won’t you, Harry? eh? of course!”

“There will be no more bills, dating from yesterday,” said his wife.

“What! this is paid for, then?”

“Yes, Mr. Cogglesby; and so will all household expenses be, while my pocket-money lasts.”

Resting his eyes full on Harriet a minute, Andrew dropped them on the savourless white-rimmed chop, which looked as lonely in his plate as its parent dish on the table. The poor dear creature’s pocket-money had paid for it! The thought, mingling with a rush of emotion, made his ideas spin. His imagination surged deliriously. He fancied himself at the Zoological Gardens, exchanging pathetic glances with a melancholy marmoset. Wonderfully like one the chop looked! There was no use in his trying to eat it. He seemed to be fixing his teeth in solid tears. He choked. Twice he took up knife and fork, put them down again, and plucking forth his handkerchief, blew a tremendous trumpet, that sent the Countess’s eyes rolling to the ceiling, as if heaven were her sole refuge from such vulgarity.

“Damn that Old Tom!” he shouted at last, and pitched back in his chair.

“Mr. Cogglesby!” and “in the presence of ladies!” were the admonishing interjections of the sisters, at whom the little man frowned in turns.

“Do you wish us to quit the room, sir?” inquired his wife.

“God bless your soul, you little darling!” he apostrophised that stately person. “Here, come along with me, Harry. A wife’s a wife, I say—hang it! Just outside the room—just a second! or up in a corner will do.”

Mrs. Cogglesby was amazed to see him jump up and run round to her. She was prepared to defend her neck from his caress, and refused to go; but the words, “Something particular to tell you,” awakened her curiosity, which urged her to compliance. She rose and went with him to the door.

“Well, sir; what is it?”

No doubt he was acting under a momentary weakness: he was about to betray the plot and take his chance of forgiveness: but her towering port, her commanding aspect, restored his courage. (There may be a contrary view of the case). He enclosed her briskly in a connubial hug, and remarked with mad ecstasy: “What a duck you are, Harry! What a likeness between you and your mother.”

Mrs. Cogglesby disengaged herself imperiously. Had he called her aside for this gratuitous insult? Contrite, he saw his dreadful error.

“Harry! I declare!——” was all he was allowed to say. Mrs. Cogglesby marched back to her chair, and recommenced the repast in majestic silence.

Andrew sighed; he attempted to do the same. He stuck his fork in the blanched whiskerage of his marmoset, and exclaimed: “I can’t!”

He was unnoticed.

You do not object to plain diet?” said Harriet to Louisa.

“Oh, no! in verity!” murmured the Countess. “However plain it be! Absence of appetite, dearest. You are aware I partook of luncheon at mid-day with the Honourable and Reverend Mr. Duffian. You must not look condemnation at your Louy for that. Luncheon is not conversion!”

Harriet observed that this might be true; but still, to her mind, it was a mistake to be too intimate with dangerous people. “And besides,” she added, “Mr. Duffian is no longer ‘the Reverend.’ We deprive all renegades of their spiritual titles. His worldly ones let him keep!”

Her superb disdain nettled the Countess.

“Dear Harriet!” she said, with less languor, “You are utterly and totally and entirely mistaken. I tell you so positively. Renegade! The application of such a word to such a man! Oh! and it is false, Harriet: quite! Renegade means one who has gone over to the Turks, my dear. I am most certain I saw it in Johnson’s Dictionary, or an improvement upon Johnson, by a more learned author. But there is the fact, if Harriet can only bring her—shall I say stiff-necked prejudices to envisage it?”

Harriet granted her sister permission to apply the phrases she stood in need of without impeaching her intimacy with the most learned among lexicographers.

“And there is such a thing as being too severe,” the Countess resumed. “What our enemies call unchristian!”

“Mr. Duffian has no cause to complain of us,” said Harriet.

“Nor does he do so, dearest. Calumny may assail him; you may utterly denude him—”

“Adam!” interposed Andrew, distractedly listening. He did not disturb the Countess’s flow.

“You may vilify and victimise Mr. Duffian, and strip him of the honours of his birth, but, like the Martyrs, he will still continue the perfect nobleman. Stoned, I assure you that Mr. Duffian would preserve his breeding.”

“Eh? like tomatas?” quoth Andrew, in the same fit of distraction, and to the same deaf audience.

“I suppose his table is good?” said Harriet, almost ruffled by the Countess’s lecture.

“Plate,” was remarked, in the cold tone of supreme indifference.

“Hem! good wines?” Andrew asked, waking up a little, and not wishing to be excluded altogether.

“All is of the very best,” the Countess pursued her eulogy, not looking at him.

“Don’t you think you could—eh, Harry?—manage a pint for me, my dear?” Andrew humbly petitioned. “This cold water—ha! ha! my stomach don’t like cold bathing.”

His wretched joke rebounded from the impenetrable armour of the ladies.

“The wine-cellar is locked,” said his wife. “I have sealed up the key till an inventory can be taken by some agent of the creditors.”

“What creditors?” roared Andrew.

“You can have some of the servants’ beer,” Mrs. Cogglesby appended.

Andrew studied her face to see whether she really was not hoisting him with his own petard. Perceiving that she was sincerely acting according to her sense of principle, he fumed, and departed to his privacy, unable to stand it any longer.

Then like a kite the Countess pounced upon his character. Would the Honourable and Reverend Mr. Duffian decline to participate in the sparest provender? Would he be guilty of the discourtesy of leaving table without a bow or an apology, even if reduced to extremest poverty? No, indeed! which showed that, under all circumstances, a gentleman was a gentleman. And, oh! how she pitied her poor Harriet—eternally tied to a most vulgar little man, without the gilding of wealth.

“And a fool in his business to boot, dear!”

“These comparisons do no good,” said Harriet. “Andrew at least is not a renegade, and never shall be while I live. I will do my duty by him, however poor we are. And now, Louisa, putting my husband out of the question, what are your intentions? I don’t understand bankruptcy, but I imagine they can do nothing to wife and children. My little ones must have a roof over their heads; and, besides, there is little Maxwell. You decline to go down to Lymport, of course.”

“Decline!” cried the Countess, melodiously; “and do not you?”

“As far as I am concerned—yes. But I am not to think of myself.”

The Countess meditated, and said: “Dear Mr. Duffian has offered me his hospitality. Renegades are not absolutely inhuman. They may be generous. I have no moral doubt that Mr. Duffian would, upon my representation—dare I venture?”

“Sleep in his house! break bread with him!” exclaimed Harriet. “What do you think I am made of? I would perish—go to the workhouse, rather!”

“I see you trooping there,” said the Countess, intent on the vision.

“And have you accepted his invitation for yourself, Louisa?”

The Countess was never to be daunted by threatening aspects. She gave her affirmative with calmness and a deliberate smile.

“You are going to live with him?”

“Live with him! What expressions! My husband accompanies me.”

Harriet drew up.

“I know nothing, Louisa, that could give me more pain.”

The Countess patted Harriet’s knee. “It succeeds to bankruptcy, assuredly. But would you have me drag Silva to the—the shop, Harriet, love? Alternatives!”

Mrs. Andrew got up and rang the bell to have the remains of their dinner removed. When this was done, she said,—

“Louisa, I don’t know whether I am justified: you told me to-day I might keep my jewels, trinkets, and lace, and such like. To me, I know they do not belong now: but I will dispose of them to procure you an asylum somewhere—they will fetch I should think, 400l., to prevent your going to Mr. Duffian.”

No exhibition of great mindedness which the Countess could perceive, ever found her below it.

“Never, love, never!” she said.

“Then, will you go to Evan?”

“Evan? I hate him!” The olive-hued visage was dark. It brightened as she added, “At least as much as my religious sentiments permit me to. A boy who has thwarted me at every turn!—disgraced us! Indeed, I find it difficult to pardon you the supposition of such a possibility as your own consent to look on him ever again, Harriet.”

“You have no children,” said Mrs. Andrew.

The Countess mournfully admitted it.

“There lies your danger with Mr. Duffian, Louisa.”

“What! do you doubt my virtue?” asked the Countess.

“Pish! I fear something different. You understand me. Mr. Duffian’s moral reputation is none of the best, perhaps.”

“That was before he renegaded,” said the Countess.

Harriet bluntly rejoined: “You will leave that house a Roman Catholic.”

“Now you have spoken,” said the Countess, pluming. “Now let me explain myself. My dear, I have fought worldly battles too long and too earnestly. I am rightly punished. I do but quote Herbert Duffian’s own words: he is no flatterer—though you say he has such soft fingers. I am now engaged in a spiritual contest. He is very wealthy! I have resolved to rescue back to our Church what can benefit the flock of which we form a portion, so exceedingly!”

At this revelation of the Countess’s spiritual contest, Mrs. Andrew shook a worldly head.

“You have no chance with men there, Louisa.”

“My Harriet complains of female weakness!”

“Yes. We are strong in our own element, Louisa. Don’t be tempted out of it.”

Sublime, the Countess rose:

“Element! am I to be confined to one? What but spiritual solaces could assist me to live, after the degradations I have had heaped on me? I renounce the world. I turn my sight to realms where caste is unknown. I feel no shame there of being a tailor’s daughter. You see, I can bring my tongue to name the thing in its actuality. Once, that member would have blistered. Confess to me that, in spite of your children, you are tempted to howl at the idea of Lymport—”

The Countess paused, and like a lady about to fire off a gun, appeared to tighten her nerves, crying out rapidly—

“Shop! Shears! Geese! Cabbage! Snip! Nine to a man!”

Even as the silence after explosions of cannon, that which reigned in the room was deep and dreadful.

“See,” the Countess continued, “you are horrified: you shudder. I name all our titles, and if I wish to be red in my cheeks, I must rouge. It is in verity, as if my senseless clay were pelted, as we heard of Evan at his first Lymport boys’ school. You remember when he told us the story? He lisped a trifle then. ‘I’m the thon of a thnip.’ Oh! it was hell-fire to us, then; but now, what do I feel? Why, I avowed it to Herbert Duffian openly, and he said, that the misfortune of dear papa’s birth did not the less enable him to proclaim himself in conduct a nobleman’s offspring—”

“Which he never was.” Harriet broke the rhapsody in a monotonous low tone: the Countess was not compelled to hear.

“—and that a large outfitter—one of the very largest, was in reality a merchant, whose daughters have often wedded nobles of the land, and become ancestresses! Now, Harriet, do you see what a truly religious mind can do for us in the way of comfort? Oh! I bow in gratitude to Herbert Duffian. I will not rest till I have led him back to our fold, recovered from his error. He was our own preacher and pastor. He quitted us from conviction. He shall return to us from conviction.”

The Countess quoted texts, which I respect, and will not repeat. She descanted further on spiritualism, and on the balm that it was to tailors and their offspring; to all outcasts from society.

Overpowered by her, Harriet thus summed up her opinions: “You were always self-willed, Louisa.”

“Say, full of sacrifice, if you would be just,” added the Countess; “and the victim of basest ingratitude.”

“Well, you are in a dangerous path, Louisa.”

Harriet had the last word, which usually the Countess was not disposed to accord; but now she knew herself strengthened to do so, and was content to smile pityingly on her sister.

Full upon them in this frame of mind, arrived Caroline’s great news from Beckley.

It was then that the Countess’s conduct proved a memorable refutation of cynical philosophy: she rejoiced in the good fortune of him who had offended her! though he was not crushed and annihilated (as he deserved to be) by the wrong he had done, the great-hearted woman pardoned him!

Her first remark was: “Let him thank me for it or not, I will lose no moment in hastening to load him with my congratulations.”

Pleasantly she joked Andrew, and defended him from Harriet now.

“So we are not all bankrupts, you see, dear brother-in-law.”

Andrew had become so demoralised by his own plot, that in every turn of events he scented a similar piece of human ingenuity. Harriet was angry with his disbelief, or, say, the grudging credit he gave to the glorious news. Notwithstanding her calmness, the thoughts of Lymport had sickened her soul, and it was only for the sake of her children, and from a sense of the dishonesty of spending a farthing of the money belonging, as she conceived, to the creditors, that she had consented to go.

“I see your motive, Mr. Cogglesby,” she observed. “Your measures are disconcerted. I will remain here till my brother gives me shelter.”

“Oh, that’ll do, my love; that’s all I want,” said Andrew, sincerely.

“Both of you, fools!” the Countess interjected. “Know you Evan so little? He will receive us anywhere: his arms are open to his kindred: but to his heart the road is through humiliation, and it is to his heart we seek admittance.”

“What do you mean?” Harriet inquired.

“Just this,” the Countess answered in bold English; and her eyes were lively, her figure elastic: “We must all of us go down to the old shop and shake his hand there—every man Jack of us!—I’m only quoting the sailors, Harriet—and that’s the way to win him.”

She snapped her fingers, laughing. Harriet stared at her, and so did Andrew, though for a different reason. She seemed to be transformed. Seeing him inclined to gape, she ran up to him, caught up his chin between her ten fingers, and kissed him on both cheeks, saying:

You needn’t come, if you’re too proud, you know, little man!”

And to Harriet’s look of disgust, the cause for which she divined with her native rapidity, she said: “What does it matter? They will talk, but they can’t look down on us now. Why, this is my doing!”

She came tripping to her tall sister, to ask plaintively: “Mayn’t I be glad?” and bobbed a curtsey.

Harriet desired Andrew to leave them. Flushed and indignant she then faced the Countess.

“So unnecessary!” she began. “What can excuse your indiscretion, Louisa?”

The Countess smiled to hear her talking to her younger sister once more. She shrugged.

“Oh, if you will keep up the fiction, do. Andrew knows—he isn’t an idiot—and to him we can make light of it now. What does anybody’s birth matter, who’s well off?”

It was impossible for Harriet to take that view. The shop, if not the thing, might still have been concealed from her husband, she thought.

“It mattered to me when I was well off,” she said, sternly.

“Yes; and to me when I was: but we’ve had a fall and a lesson since that, my dear. Half the aristocracy of England spring from shops!—Shall I measure you?”

Harriet never felt such a desire to inflict a slap upon mortal cheek. She marched away from her in a tiff. On the other hand, Andrew was half-fascinated by the Countess’s sudden re-assumption of girlhood, and returned—silly fellow! to have another look at her. She had ceased, on reflection, to be altogether so vivacious: her stronger second nature had somewhat resumed its empire: still she was fresh, and could at times be roguishly affectionate: and she patted him, and petted him, and made much of him; slightly railed at him for his uxoriousness and domestic subjection, and proffered him her fingers to try the taste of. The truth must be told: Mr. Duffian not being handy, she in her renewed earthly happiness wanted to see her charms in a woman’s natural mirror: namely, the face of man: if of man on his knees, all the better: and though a little man is not much of a man, and a sister’s husband is, or should be, hardly one at all, still some sort of a reflector he must be. Two or three jests adapted to Andrew’s palate achieved his momentary captivation.

He said: ’Gad, I never kissed you in my life, Louy.”

And she, with a flavour of delicate Irish brogue, “Why don’t ye catch opportunity by the tail, then?”

Perfect innocence, I assure you, on both sides.

But mark how stupidity betrays. Andrew failed to understand her, and act on the hint immediately. Had he done so, the affair would have been over without a witness. As it happened, delay permitted Harriet to assist at the ceremony.

“It wasn’t your mouth, Louy,” said Andrew.

“Oh, my mouth!—that I keep for my chosen,” was answered.

’Gad, you make a fellow almost wish—” Andrew’s fingers worked over his poll, and then the spectre of righteous wrath flashed on him—naughty little man that he was! He knew himself naughty, for it was the only time since his marriage that he had ever been sorry to see his wife. This is a comedy, and I must not preach lessons of life here: but I am obliged to remark that the husband must be proof, the sister-in-law perfect, where arrangements exist that keep them under one roof. She may be so like his wife! Or, from the knowledge she has of his circumstances, she may talk to him almost as his wife! He may forget that she is not his wife! And then again, the small beginnings, which are in reality the mighty barriers, are so easily slid over. But what is the use of telling this to a pure generation? My constant error is in supposing that I write for the wicked people who begat us.

Note, however, the difference between the woman and the man! Shame confessed Andrew’s naughtiness: he sniggered pitiably: whereas the Countess jumped up, and pointing at him, asked her sister what she thought of that. Her next sentence, coolly delivered, related to some millinery matter. If this was not innocence, what is?

Nevertheless, I must here state that the scene related, innocent as it was, and, as one would naturally imagine, of puny consequence, if any, did no less a thing than, subsequently, to precipitate the Protestant Countess de Saldar into the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church. A little bit of play!

It seems barely just. But if, as I have heard, a lady had trod on a pebble and broken her nose, tremendous results like these warn us to be careful how we walk. As for play, it was never intended that we should play with flesh and blood.

And, oh, be charitable, matrons of Britain! See here, Andrew Cogglesby, who loved his wife as his very soul, and who almost disliked her sister;—in ten minutes the latter had set his head spinning! The whole of the day he went about the house meditating frantically on the possibility of his Harriet demanding a divorce.

She was not the sort of woman to do that. But one thing she resolved to do; and it was, to go to Lymport with Louisa, and having once got her out of her dwelling-place, never to allow her to enter it, wherever it might be, in the light of a resident again. Whether anything but the menace of a participation in her conjugal possessions could have despatched her to that hateful place, I doubt. She went: she would not let Andrew be out of her sight. Growing haughtier towards him at every step, she advanced to the old strange shop. Evan Harrington over the door! There the Countess, having meantime returned to her state of womanhood, shared her shudders. They entered, and passed in to Mrs. Mel, leaving their footman, apparently, in the rear. Evan was not visible. A man in the shop, with a yard measure negligently adorning his shoulders, said that Mr. Harrington was in the habit of quitting the shop at five.

“Deuced good habit, too,” said Andrew.

“Why, sir,” observed another, stepping forward, “as you truly say—yes. But—ah! Mr. Andrew Cogglesby? Pleasure of meeting you once in Fallowfield! Remember Mr. Perkins?—the lawyer, not the maltster. Will you do me the favour to step out with me?”

Andrew followed him into the street.

“Are you aware of our young friend’s good fortune?” said Lawyer Perkins. “Yes. Ah! Well!—Would you believe that any sane person in his condition, now—nonsense apart—could bring his mind wilfully to continue a beggar? No. Um! Well; Mr. Cogglesby, I may tell you that I hold here in my hands a document by which Mr. Evan Harrington transfers the whole of the property bequeathed to him to Lady Jocelyn, and that I have his orders to execute it instantly, and deliver it over to her ladyship, after the will is settled, probate, and so forth: I presume there will be an arrangement about his father’s debts. Now what do you think of that?”

“Think, sir,—think!” cried Andrew, cocking his head at him like an indignant bird, “I think he’s a damned young idiot to do so, and you’re a confounded old rascal to help him.”

Leaving Mr. Perkins to digest his judgement, which he had solicited, Andrew bounced back into the shop.