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   Chapter 9 No.9

Eve's Ransom By George Gissing Characters: 9413

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


There came an afternoon early in July when Hilliard, tired with a long ramble in search of old City churches-his architectural interests never failed-sought rest and coolness in a Fleet Street tavern of time-honoured name. It was long since he had yielded to any extravagance; to-day his palate demanded wine, and with wine he solaced it. When he went forth again into the roaring highway things glowed before him in a mellow light: the sounds of Fleet Street made music to his ears; he looked with joyous benignity into the faces of men and women, and nowhere discovered a countenance inharmonious with his gallant mood.

No longer weary, he strolled westward, content with the satisfactions of each passing moment. "This," he said to himself, "is the joy of life. Past and future are alike powerless over me; I live in the glorious sunlight of this summer day, under the benediction of a greathearted wine. Noble wine! Friend of the friendless, companion of the solitary, lifter-up of hearts that are oppressed, inspirer of brave thoughts in them that fail beneath the burden of being. Thanks to thee, O priceless wine!"

A bookseller's window arrested him. There, open to the gaze of every pedestrian, stood a volume of which the sight made him thrill with rapture; a finely illustrated folio, a treatise on the Cathedrals of France. Five guineas was the price it bore. A moment's lingering, restrained by some ignoble spirit of thrift which the wine had not utterly overcome, and he entered the shop. He purchased the volume. It would have pleased him to carry it away, but in mere good-nature he allowed the shopman's suggestion to prevail, and gave his address that the great tome might be sent to him.

How cheap it was-five guineas for so much instant delight and such boundless joy of anticipation!

On one of the benches in Trafalgar Square he sat for a long time watching the fountains, and ever and anon letting them lead his eyes upwards to the great snowy clouds that gleamed upon the profound blue. Some ragged children were at play near him; he searched his pocket, collected coppers and small silver, and with a friendly cry of "Holloa, you ragamuffins!" scattered amazement and delight.

St. Martin's Church told him that the hour was turned of six. Then a purpose that had hung vaguely in his mind like a golden mist took form and substance. He set off to walk northward, came out into Holborn, and loitered in the neighbourhood of a certain place of business, which of late he had many times observed. It was not long that he had to wait. Presently there came forth someone whom he knew, and with quick steps he gained her side.

Eve Madeley perceived him without surprise.

"Yes," he said, "I am here again. If it's disagreeable to you, tell me, and I will go my own way at once."

"I have no wish to send you away," she answered, with a smile of self-possession. "But all the same, I think it would be wiser if you did go."

"Ah, then, if you leave me to judge for myself--! You look tired this evening. I have something to say to you; let us turn for a moment up this byway."

"No, let us walk straight on."

"I beg of you!-Now you are kind. I am going to dine at a restaurant. Usually, I eat my dinner at home-a bad dinner and a cheerless room. On such an evening as this I can't go back and appease hunger in that animal way. But when I sit down in the restaurant I shall be alone. It's miserable to see the groups of people enjoying themselves all round and to sit lonely. I can't tell you how long it is since I had a meal in company. Will you come and dine with me?"

"I can't do that."

"Where's the impossibility?"

"I shouldn't like to do it."

"But would it be so very disagreeable to sit and talk? Or, I won't ask you to talk; only to let me talk to you. Give me an hour or two of your time-that's what I ask. It means so much to me, and to you, what does it matter?"

Eve walked on in silence; his entreaties kept pace with her. At length she stopped.

"It's all the same to me-if you wish it--"

"Thank you a thousand times!"

They walked back into Holborn, and Hilliard, talking merely of trifles, led the way to a great hall, where some scores of people were already dining. He selected a nook which gave assurance of privacy, sketched to the waiter a modest but carefully chosen repast, and from his seat on the opposite side of the table laughed silently at Eve as she leaned back on the plush cushions. In no way disconcerted by the show of luxury about her, Eve seemed to be reflecting, not without enjoyment.

"You would rather be here than going home in the Camden Town 'bus?"

"Of course."

"That's what I like in you.

You have courage to tell the truth. When you said that you couldn't come, it was what you really thought Now that you have learnt your mistake, you confess it."

"I couldn't have done it if I hadn't made up my mind that it was all the same, whether I came or refused."

"All the same to you. Yes; I'm quite willing that you should think it so. It puts me at my ease. I have nothing to reproach myself with. Ah, but how good it is to sit here and talk!"

"Don't you know anyone else who would come with you? Haven't you made any friends?"

"Not one. You and Miss Ringrose are the only persons I know in London."

"I can't understand why you live in that way."

"How should I make friends-among men? Why, it's harder than making money-which I have never done yet, and never shall, I'm afraid."

Eve averted her eyes, and again seemed to meditate.

"I'll tell you," pursued the young man "how the money came to me that I am living on now. It'll fill up the few moments while we are waiting."

He made of it an entertaining narrative, which he concluded just as the soup was laid before them. Eve listened with frank curiosity, with an amused smile. Then came a lull in the conversation. Hilliard began his dinner with appetite and gusto; the girl, after a few sips, neglected her soup and glanced about the neighboring tables.

"In my position," said Hilliard at length, "what would you have done?"

"It's a difficult thing to put myself in your position."

"Is it, really? Why, then, I will tell you something more of myself. You say that Mrs. Brewer gave me an excellent character?"

"I certainly shouldn't have known you from her description."

Hilliard laughed.

"I seem to you so disreputable?"

"Not exactly that," replied Eve thoughtfully. "But you seem altogether a different person from what you seemed to her."

"Yes, I can understand that. And it gives me an opportunity for saying that you, Miss Madeley, are as different as possible from the idea I formed of you when I heard Mrs. Brewer's description."

"She described me? I should so like to hear what she said."

The changing of plates imposed a brief silence. Hilliard drank a glass of wine and saw that Eve just touched hers with her lips.

"You shall hear that-but not now. I want to enable you to judge me, and if I let you know the facts while dinner goes on it won't be so tiresome as if I began solemnly to tell you my life, as people do in novels."

He erred, if anything, on the side of brevity, but in the succeeding quarter of an hour Eve was able to gather from his careless talk, which sedulously avoided the pathetic note, a fair notion of what his existence had been from boyhood upward. It supplemented the account of himself she had received from him when they met for the first time. As he proceeded she grew more attentive, and occasionally allowed her eyes to encounter his.

"There's only one other person who has heard all this from me," he said at length. "That's a friend of mine at Birmingham-a man called Narramore. When I got Dengate's money I went to Narramore, and I told him what use I was going to make of it."

"That's what you haven't told me," remarked the listener.

"I will, now that you can understand me. I resolved to go right away from all the sights and sounds that I hated, and to live a man's life, for just as long as the money would last."

"What do you mean by a man's life?"

"Why, a life of enjoyment, instead of a life not worthy to be called life at all. This is part of it, this evening. I have had enjoyable hours since I left Dudley, but never yet one like this. And because I owe it to you, I shall remember you with gratitude as long as I remember anything at all."

"That's a mistake," said Eve. "You owe the enjoyment, whatever it is, to your money, not to me."

"You prefer to look at it in that way. Be it so. I had a delightful month in Paris, but I was driven back to England by loneliness. Now, if you had been there! If I could have seen you each evening for an hour or two, had dinner with you at the restaurant, talked with you about what I had seen in the day-but that would have been perfection, and I have never hoped for more than moderate, average pleasure-such as ordinary well-to-do men take as their right."

"What did you do in Paris?"

"Saw things I have longed to see any time the last fifteen years or so. Learned to talk a little French. Got to feel a better educated man than I was before."

"Didn't Dudley seem a long way off when you were there?" asked Eve half absently.

"In another planet.-You thought once of going to Paris; Miss Ringrose told me."

Eve knitted her brows, and made no answer.

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