Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Evan Harrington - Part 35

Illustrated by Charles Keene.


EVAN HARRINGTON; or, HE WOULD BE A GENTLEMAN.

BY GEORGE MEREDITH.

Evan Harrington - 39 - Return to Beckley.png

CHAPTER XLV.IN WHICH THE SHOP BECOMES A CENTRE OF ATTRACTION.

Under the first lustre of a May-night, Evan was galloping over the moon-shadowed downs towards Beckley. At the ridge commanding the woods, the park, and the stream, his horse stopped, as if from habit, snorted, and puffed its sides, while he gazed steadily across the long lighted vale. Soon he began to wind down the glaring chalk track, and reached grass levels. Here he broke into a round pace, till, gaining the first straggling cottages of the village, he knocked the head of his whip against the garden-gate of one, and a man came out, who saluted him, and held the reins.

“Animal does work, sir,” said the man.

Evan gave directions for it to be looked to, and went on to the doorway, where he was met by a young woman. She uttered a respectful greeting, and begged him to enter.

The door closed, he flung himself into a chair, and said: “Well, Susan, how is the child?”

“Oh! he’s always well, Mr. Harrington; he don’t know the tricks o’ trouble yet.”

“Will Polly be here soon?”

“At a quarter after nine, she said, sir.”

Evan bade her sit down. After examining her features quietly, he said:

“I’m glad to see you here, Susan. You don’t regret that you followed my advice?”

“No, sir; now it’s over, I don’t. Mother’s kind enough, and father doesn’t mention anything. She’s a-bed with bile—father’s out.”

“But what? There’s something on your mind.”

“I shall cry, if I begin, Mr. Harrington.”

“See how far you can get without.”

“Oh! sir, then,” said Susan, on a sharp rise of her bosom, “it ain’t my fault. I wouldn’t cause trouble to Mr. Harry, or any friend of yours; but, sir, father have got hold of his letters to me, and he says, there’s a promise in ’em—least, one of ’em; and it’s as good as law, he says—he heard it in a public-house; and he’s gone over to Fall’field to a law-gentleman there.” Susan was compelled to give way to some sobs. “It ain’t for me father does it, sir,” she pleaded. “I tried to stop him, knowing how it’d vex you, Mr. Harrington; but he’s heady about points, though a quiet man ordinary; and he says he don’t expect—and I know now no gentleman’d marry such as me—I ain’t such a stupid gaper at words, as I used to be! but father says, it’s for the child’s sake, and he does it to have him provided for. Please, don’t ye be angry with me, sir.”

Susan’s half-controlled spasms here got the better of her.

While Evan was awaiting the return of her calmer senses, the latch was lifted, and Polly appeared.

“At it again!” was her sneering comment, after a short survey of her apron-screened sister; and then she bobbed to Evan.

“It’s whimper, whimper, and squeak, squeak, half their lives with some girls. After that they go wondering they can’t see to thread a needle! The neighbours, I suppose! I should like to lift the top off some o’ their houses. I hope I haven’t kept you, sir.”

“No, Polly,” said Evan; “but you must be charitable, or I shall think you want a lesson yourself. Mr. Raikes tells me you want to see me. What is it? You seem to be correspondents.”

Polly replied: “Oh, no, Mr. Harrington: only accidental ones—when something particular’s to be said. And he dances—like on the paper, so that you can’t help laughing. Isn’t he a very eccentric gentleman, sir?”

“Very,” said Evan. “I’ve no time to lose, Polly.”

“Here, you must go,” the latter called to her sister. “Now, pack at once, Sue. Do rout out, and do leave off thinking you’ve got a candle at your eyes, for Goodness’ sake!”

Susan was too well accustomed to Polly’s usage to complain. She murmured a gentle “Good night, sir,” and retired. Whereupon Polly exclaimed: “Bless her poor dear soft heart! It’s us hard ones that get on best in the world. I’m treated better than her, Mr. Harrington, and I know I ain’t worth half of her. It goes nigh to make one religious, only to see how exactly like Scripture is the way Beckley treats her, whose only sin is her being so soft as to believe in a man! Oh, dear! Mr. Harrington! I wish I had good news for you.”

In spite of his self-control, Evan breathed quickly and looked eagerly.

“Speak it out, Polly.”

“Oh, dear! I must, I suppose,” Polly answered. “Mr. Laxley’s become a lord now,” Mr. Harrington.”

Evan tasted in his soul the sweets of contrast.

“Well?”

“And my Miss Rose—she—”

“What?”

Moved by the keen hunger of his eyes, Polly hesitated. Her face betrayed a sudden change of mind.

“Wants to see you, sir,” she said, resolutely.

“To see me?”

Evan stood up, so pale that Polly was frightened.

“Where is she? Where can I meet her?”

“Please don’t take it so, Mr. Harrington?”

Evan commanded her to tell him what her mistress had said.

Now up to this point, Polly had spoken truth. She was positive her mistress did want to see him. Polly, also, with a maiden’s tender guile, desired to bring them together for once, though it were for the last time, and for no good on earth. She had been about to confide to him her young mistress’s position towards Lord Laxley, when his sharp interrogation stopped her. Shrinking from absolute invention, she remarked that of course she could not exactly remember Miss Rose’s words; which seemed indeed too much to expect of her.

“She will see me to-night?” said Evan.

“I don’t know about to-night,” Polly replied.

“Go to her instantly. Tell her I am ready. I will be at the West park-gates. This is why you wrote, Polly? Why did you lose time? Don’t delay, my good girl! Come!”

Evan had opened the door. He would not allow Polly an instant for expostulation; but drew her out, saying: “You will attend to the gates yourself. Or come and tell me the day, if she appoints another.”

Polly made a final effort to escape from the pit she was being pushed into.

“Mr. Harrington! it wasn’t to tell you this I wrote. Miss Rose is engaged, sir.”

“I understand,” said Evan, hoarsely, scarcely feeling it, as is the case with men who are shot through the heart.

Ten minutes later he was on horseback by the Fallowfield gates, with the tidings shrieking through his frame. The night was still, and stiller in the pauses of the nightingales. He sat there, neither thinking of them, nor reproached in his manhood for the tears that rolled down his cheeks. Presently his horse’s ears pricked, and the animal gave a low neigh. Evan’s eyes fixed harder on the length of gravel leading to the house. There was no sign, no figure. Out from the smooth grass of the lane a couple of horsemen issued, and came straight to the gates. He heard nothing till one spoke. It was a familiar voice.

“By Jove, Ferdy, here is the fellow, and we’ve been all the way to Lymport!”

Evan started from his trance.

“It’s you, Harrington?”

“Yes, Harry.”

“Sir!” exclaimed that youth, evidently flushed with wine, “what the devil do you mean by addressing me by my christian name?”

Laxley pushed his horse’s head in front of Harry. In a manner apparently somewhat improved by his new dignity, he said: “We have ridden to Lymport to speak to you, sir. Favour me by moving a little ahead of the lodge.”

Evan bowed, and moved beside him a short way down the lane, Harry following.

“The purport of my visit, sir,” Laxley began, “was to make known to you that Miss Jocelyn has done me the honour to accept me as her husband. I learn from her that during the term of your residence in the house, you contrived to extract from her a promise to which she attaches certain scruples. She pleases to consider herself bound to you till you release her. My object is to demand that you will do so immediately.”

Evan did not reply.

“Should you refuse to make this reparation for the harm you have done to her and to her family,” Laxley pursued, “I must let you know that there are means of compelling you to it, and that those means will be employed.”

Harry, fuming at these postured sentences, burst out: “What do you talk to the fellow in that way for? A fellow who makes a fool of my cousin, and then wants to get us to buy off my sister! What’s he spying after here? The place is ours till we troop. I tell you there’s only one way of dealing with him, and if you don’t do it, I will.”

Laxley pulled his reins with a jerk that brought him to the rear.

“Miss Jocelyn has commissioned you to make this demand on me in her name?” said Evan.

“I make it in my own right,” returned Laxley. “I demand a prompt reply.”

“My lord, you shall have it. Miss Jocelyn is not bound to me by any engagement. Should she entertain scruples which I may have it in my power to obliterate, I shall not hesitate to do so—but only to her. What has passed between us I hold sacred.”

“Hark at that!” shouted Harry. “The damned tradesman means money! You ass, Ferdinand! What did we go to Lymport for? Not to bandy words. Here! I’ve got my own quarrel with you, Harrington. You’ve been setting that girl’s father on me. Can you deny that?”

It was enough for Harry that Evan did not deny it. The calm disdain which he read on Evan’s face acted on his fury, and digging his heels into his horse’s flanks he rushed full at him and dealt him a sharp flock with his whip. Evan’s beast reared.

“Accept my conditions, sir, or afford me satisfaction,” cried Laxley.

“You do me great honour, my lord, but I have told you I cannot,” said Evan, curbing his horse.

At that moment Rose came among them. Evan raised his hat, as did Laxley. Harry, a little behind the others, performed a laborious mock salute, and then ordered her back to the house. A quick altercation ensued; the end being that Harry managed to give his sister the context of the previous conversation.

“Now go back, Rose,” said Laxley. “I have particular business with Mr. Harrington.”

“I came to see him,” said Rose, in a clear voice.

Laxley reddened angrily.

“Then tell him at once you want to be rid of him,” her brother called to her.

Rose looked at Evan. Could he not see that she had no word in her soul for him of that kind? Yes: but love is not always to be touched to tenderness even at the sight of love.

“Rose,” he said. “I hear from Lord Laxley, that you fancy yourself not at liberty; and that you require me to disengage you.”

He paused. Did he expect her to say there that she wished nothing of the sort? Her stedfast eyes spoke as much: but misery is wanton, and will pull all down to it. Even Harry was checked by his tone, and Laxley sat silent. The fact that something more than a tailor was speaking seemed to impress them.

“Since I have to say it, Rose, I hold you in no way bound to me. The presumption is forced upon me. May you have all the happiness I pray God to give you! Gentlemen, good night!”

He bowed, and was gone. How keenly she could have retorted on that false prayer for her happiness! Her limbs were nerveless, her tongue speechless. He had thrown her off—there was no barrier now between herself and Ferdinand. Why did Ferdinand speak to her with that air of gentle authority, bidding her return to the house? She was incapable of seeing, what the young lord acutely felt, that he had stooped very much in helping to bring about such a scene. She had no idea of having trifled with him and her own heart, when she talked feebly of her bondage to another, as one who would be warmer to him were she free. Swiftly she compared the two that loved her, and shivered as if she had been tossed to the embrace of a block of ice.

“You are cold, Rose,” said Laxley, bending to lay his hand on her shoulder.

“Pray, never touch me,” she answered, and walked on hastily to the house.

Entering it, she remembered that Evan had dwelt there. A sense of desolation came over her. She turned to Ferdinand remorsefully, saying; “Dear Ferdinand!” and allowed herself both to be touched and taken close to him. When she reached her bed-room, she had time to reflect that he had kissed her on the lips, and then she fell down and shed such tears as had never been drawn from her before.

Next day she rose with an undivided mind. Belonging henceforth to Ferdinand, it was necessary that she should invest him immediately with transcendant qualities. His absence of character rendered this easy. What she had done for Evan, she did for him. But now, as if the Fates had been lying in watch to entrap her and chain her, that they might have her at their mercy, her dreams of Evan’s high nature—hitherto dreams only—were to be realised. With the purposeless waywardness of her sex, Polly Wheedle while dressing her young mistress and though quite aware that the parting had been spoken, must needs relate her sister’s story and Evan’s share in it. Rose praised him like one for ever aloof from him. Nay, she could secretly congratulate herself on not being deceived. Upon that came a letter from Caroline:

“Do not misjudge my brother. He knew Juliana’s love for him, and rejected it. You will soon have proofs of his disinterestedness. Then do not forget that he works to support us all. I write this with no hope save to make you just to him. That is the utmost he will ever anticipate.

It gave no beating of the heart to Rose to hear good of Evan now: but an increased serenity of confidence in the accuracy of her judgment of persons.

The arrival of lawyer Perkins supplied the key to Caroline’s communication. No one was less astonished than Rose at the news that Evan renounced the estate. She smiled at Harry’s contrite stupefaction, and her father’s incapacity of belief in conduct so singular, caused her to lift her head and look down on her parent.

“Shows he knows nothing of the world, poor young fellow!” said Sir Franks.

“Nothing more clearly,” observed Lady Jocelyn. “I presume I shall cease to be blamed for having had him here?”

“Upon my honour, he must have the soul of a gentleman!” said the Baronet. “There’s nothing he can expect in return, you know!”

“One would think, papa, you had always been dealing with tradesmen!” remarked Rose, to whom her father now accorded the treatment due to a sensible girl.

Laxley was present at the family consultation. What was his opinion? Rose manifested a slight anxiety to hear it.

“What those sort of fellows do never surprises me,” he said, with a semi-yawn.

Rose felt fire on her cheeks.

“It’s only what the young man is bound to do,” said Mrs. Shorne.

“His duty, aunt? I hope we may all do it!” Rose interjected.

“Championing him again?”

Rose quietly turned her face, too sure of her cold appreciation of him to retort. But yesterday night a word from him might have made her his; and here she sat advocating the nobility of his nature with the zeal of a barrister in full swing of practice. Remember, however, that a kiss separates them: and how many millions of leagues that counts for in love, I leave you to guess.

Now, in what way was Evan to be thanked? how was he to be treated? Sir Franks proposed to go down to him in person, accompanied by Harry. Lady Jocelyn acquiesced. But Rose said to her mother:

“Will not you wound his sensitiveness by going to him there?”

“Possibly,” said her ladyship. “Shall we write and ask him to come to us?”

“No, mama. Could we ask him to make a journey to receive our thanks?”

“Not till we have solid ones to offer, perhaps.”

“He will not let us help him, mama, unless we have all given him our hands.”

“Probably not. There’s always a fund of nonsense in those who are capable of great things, I observe. It shall be a family expedition, if you like.”

“What!” exclaimed Mrs. Shorne. “Do you mean that you intend to allow Rose to make one of the party? Franks! is that your idea?”

Sir Franks looked at his wife.

“What harm?” Lady Jocelyn asked; for Rose’s absence of conscious guile in appealing to her reason had subjugated that great faculty.

“Simply a sense of propriety, Emily,” said Mrs. Shorne, with a glance at Ferdinand.

“You have no objection, I suppose?” Lady Jocelyn addressed him.

“Ferdinand will join us,” said Rose.

“Thank you, Rose, I’d rather not,” he replied. “I thought we had done with the fellow for good last night.”

“Last night?” quoth Lady Jocelyn.

No one spoke. The interrogation was renewed. Was it Rose’s swift instinct which directed her the shortest way to gain her point? or that she was glad to announce that her degrading engagement was at an end?

She said: “Ferdinand and Mr. Harrington came to an understanding last night, in my presence.”

That, strange as it struck on their ears, appeared to be quite sufficient to all, albeit the necessity for it was not so very clear. The carriage was ordered forthwith; Lady Jocelyn went to dress; Rose drew Ferdinand away into the garden. There, with all her powers, she entreated him to join her.

“Thank you, Rose,” he said; “I’ve no taste for tailors.”

“For my sake I beg it, Ferdinand.”

“It’s really too much to ask of me, Rose.”

“If you care for me, you will.”

’Pon my honour, quite impossible!”

“You refuse, Ferdinand?”

“My London tailor’d find me out, and never forgive me.”

This pleasantry stopped her soft looks. Why she wished him to be with her, she could not have said. For a thousand reasons: which implies, no distinct one: something prophetically pressing in her blood.