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   Chapter 18 No.18

Eve's Ransom By George Gissing Characters: 15232

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


By the end of November Hilliard was well at work in the office of Messrs. Birching, encouraged by his progress and looking forward as hopefully as a not very sanguine temperament would allow. He lived penuriously, and toiled at professional study night as well as day. Now and then he passed an evening with Robert Narramore, who had moved to cozy bachelor quarters a little distance out of town, in the Halesowen direction. Once a week, generally on Saturday, he saw Eve. Other society he had none, nor greatly desired any.

But Eve had as yet found no employment. Good fortune in this respect seemed to have deserted her, and at her meetings with Hilliard she grew fretful over repeated disappointments. Of her day-to-day life she made no complaint, but Hilliard saw too clearly that her spirits were failing beneath a burden of monotonous dulness. That the healthy glow she had brought back in her cheeks should give way to pallor was no more than he had expected, but he watched with anxiety the return of mental symptoms which he had tried to cheat himself into believing would not reappear. Eve did not fail in pleasant smiles, in hopeful words; but they cost her an effort which she lacked the art to conceal. He felt a coldness in her, divined a struggle between conscience and inclination. However, for this also he was prepared; all the more need for vigour and animation on his own part.

Hilliard had read of the woman who, in the strength of her love and loyalty, heartens a man through all the labours he must front he believed in her existence, but had never encountered her-as indeed very few men have. From Eve he looked for nothing of the kind. If she would permit herself to rest upon his sinews, that was all he desired. The mood of their last night in Paris might perchance return, but only with like conditions. Of his workaday passion she knew nothing; habit of familiarity and sense of obligation must supply its place with her until a brightening future once more set her emotions to the gladsome tune.

Now that the days of sun and warmth were past, it was difficult to arrange for a meeting under circumstances that allowed of free comfortable colloquy. Eve declared that her father's house offered no sort of convenience; it was only a poor cottage, and Hilliard would be altogether out of place there. To his lodgings she could not come. Of necessity they had recourse to public places in Birmingham, where an hour or two of talk under shelter might make Eve's journey hither worth while. As Hilliard lived at the north end of the town, he suggested Aston Hall as a possible rendezvous, and here they met, early one Saturday afternoon in December.

From the eminence which late years have encompassed with a proletarian suburb, its once noble domain narrowed to the bare acres of a stinted breathing ground, Aston Hall looks forth upon joyless streets and fuming chimneys, a wide welter of squalid strife. Its walls, which bear the dints of Roundhead cannonade, are blackened with ever-driving smoke; its crumbling gateway, opening aforetime upon a stately avenue of chestnuts, shakes as the steam-tram rushes by. Hilliard's imagination was both attracted and repelled by this relic of what he deemed a better age. He enjoyed the antique chambers, the winding staircases, the lordly gallery, with its dark old portraits and vast fireplaces, the dim-lighted nooks where one could hide alone and dream away the present; but in the end, reality threw scorn upon such pleasure. Aston Hall was a mere architectural relic, incongruous and meaningless amid its surroundings; the pathos of its desecrated dignity made him wish that it might be destroyed, and its place fittingly occupied by some People's Palace, brand new, aglare with electric light, ringing to the latest melodies of the street. When he had long gazed at its gloomy front, the old champion of royalism seemed to shrink together, humiliated by Time's insults.

It was raining when he met Eve at the entrance.

"This won't do," were his first words. "You can't come over in such weather as this. If it hadn't seemed to be clearing tip an hour or two ago, I should have telegraphed to stop you."

"Oh, the weather is nothing to me," Eve answered, with resolute gaiety. "I'm only too glad of the change. Besides, it won't go on much longer. I shall get a place."

Hilliard never questioned her about her attempts to obtain an engagement; the subject was too disagreeable to him.

"Nothing yet," she continued, as they walked up the muddy roadway to the Hall. "But I know you don't like to talk about it."

"I have something to propose. How if I take a couple of cheap rooms in some building let out for offices, and put in a few sticks of furniture? Would you come to see me there?"

He watched her face as she listened to the suggestion, and his timidity seemed justified by her expression.

"You would be so uncomfortable in such a place. Don't trouble. We shall manage to meet somehow. I am certain to be living here before long."

"Even when you are," he persisted, "we shall only be able to see each other in places like this. I can't talk-can't say half the things I wish to--"

"We'll think about it. Ah, it's warm in here!"

This afternoon the guardians of the Hall were likely to be troubled with few visitors. Eve at once led the way upstairs to a certain suite of rooms, hung with uninteresting pictures, where she and Hilliard had before this spent an hour safe from disturbance. She placed herself in the recess of a window: her companion took a few steps backward and forward.

"Let me do what I wish," he urged. "There's a whole long winter before us. I am sure I could find a couple of rooms at a very low rent, and some old woman would come in to do all that's necessary."

"If you like."

"I may? You would come there?" he asked eagerly.

"Of course I would come. But I sha'n't like to see you in a bare, comfortless place."

"It needn't be that. A few pounds will make a decent sort of sitting-room."

"Anything to tell me?" Eve asked, abruptly quitting the subject.

She seemed to be in better spirits than of late, notwithstanding the evil sky; and Hilliard smiled with pleasure as he regarded her.

"Nothing unusual. Oh, yes; I'm forgetting. I had a letter from Emily, and went to see her."

Hilliard had scarcely seen his quondam sister-in-law since she became Mrs. Marr. On the one occasion of his paying a call, after his return from Paris, it struck him that her husband offered no very genial welcome. He had expected this, and willingly kept aloof.

"Read the letter."

Eve did so. It began, "My dear Maurice," and ended, "Ever affectionately and gratefully yours." The rest of its contents ran thus:

"I am in great trouble-dreadfully unhappy. It would be such a kindness if you would let me see you. I can't put in a letter what I want to say, and I do hope you won't refuse to come. Friday afternoon, at three, would do, if you can get away from business for once. How I look back on the days when you used to come over from Dudley and have tea with us in the dear little room. Do come!"

"Of course," said Hilliard, laughing as he met Eve's surprised look. "I knew what that meant. I would much rather have got out of it, but it would have seemed brutal. So I went. The poor simpleton has begun to find that marriage with one man isn't necessarily the same thing as marriage with another. In Ezra Marr she has caught a Tartar."

"Surely he doesn't ill-use her?"

"Not a bit of it. He is simply a man with a will, and finds it necessary to

teach his wife her duties. Emily knows no more about the duties of life than her little five-year-old girl. She thought she could play with a second husband as she did with the first, and she was gravely mistaken. She complained to me of a thousand acts of tyranny-every one of them, I could see, merely a piece of rude commonsense. The man must be calling himself an idiot for marrying her. I could only listen with a long face. Argument with Emily is out of the question. And I shall take good care not to go there again."

Eve asked many questions, and approved his resolve.

"You are not the person to console and instruct her. But she must look upon you as the best and wisest of men. I can understand that."

"You can understand poor, foolish Emily thinking so--"

"Put all the meaning you like into my words," said Eve, with her pleasantest smile. "Well, I too have had a letter. From Patty. She isn't going to be married, after all."

"Why, I thought it was over by now."

"She broke it off less than a week before the day. I wish I could show you her letter, but, of course, I mustn't. It's very amusing. They had quarrelled about every conceivable thing-all but one, and this came up at last. They were talking about meals, and Mr. Dally said that he liked a bloater for breakfast every morning. 'A bloater!' cried Patty. 'Then I hope you won't ask me to cook it for you. I can't bear them.' 'Oh, very well: if you can't cook a bloater, you're not the wife for me.' And there they broke off, for good and all."

"Which means for a month or two, I suppose."

"Impossible to say. But I have advised her as strongly as I could not to marry until she knows her own mind better. It is too bad of her to have gone so far. The poor man had taken rooms, and all but furnished them. Patty's a silly girl, I'm afraid."

"Wants a strong man to take her in hand-like a good many other girls."

Eve paid no attention to the smile.

"Paris spoilt her for such a man as Mr. Dally. She got all sorts of new ideas, and can't settle down to the things that satisfied her before. It isn't nice to think that perhaps we did her a great deal of harm."

"Nonsense! Nobody was ever harmed by healthy enjoyment."

"Was it healthy-for her? That's the question."

Hilliard mused, and felt disinclined to discuss the matter.

"That isn't the only news I have for you," said Eve presently. "I've had another letter."

Her voice arrested Hilliard's step as he paced near her.

"I had rather not have told you anything about it, but I promised. And I have to give you something."

She held out to him a ten-pound note.

"What's this?"

"He has sent it. He says he shall be able to pay something every three months until he has paid the whole debt. Please to take it."

After a short struggle with himself, Hilliard recovered a manly bearing.

"It's quite right he should return the money, Eve, but you mustn't ask me to have anything to do with it. Use it for your own expenses. I gave it to you, and I can't take it back."

She hesitated, her eyes cast down,

"He has written a long letter. There's not a word in it I should be afraid to show you. Will you read it-just to satisfy me? Do read it!"

Hilliard steadily refused, with perfect self-command.

"I trust you-that's enough. I have absolute faith in you. Answer his letter in the way you think best, and never speak to me of the money again. It's yours; make what use of it you like."

"Then I shall use it," said Eve, after a pause, "to pay for a lodging in Birmingham. I couldn't live much longer at home. If I'm here, I can get books out of the library, and time won't drag so. And I shall be near you."

"Do so, by all means."

As if more completely to dismiss the unpleasant subject, they walked into another room. Hilliard began to speak again of his scheme for providing a place where they could meet and talk at their ease. Eve now entered into it with frank satisfaction.

"Have you said anything yet to Mr. Narramore?" she asked at length.

"No. I have never felt inclined to tell him. Of course I shall some day. But it isn't natural to me to talk of this kind of thing, even with so intimate a friend. Some men couldn't keep it to themselves: for me the difficulty is to speak."

"I asked again, because I have been thinking-mightn't Mr. Narramore be able to help me to get work?"

Hilliard repelled the suggestion with strong distaste. On no account would he seek his friend's help in such a matter. And Eve said no more of it.

On her return journey to Dudley, between eight and nine o'clock, she looked cold and spiritless. Her eyelids dropped wearily as she sat in the corner of the carriage with some papers on her lap, which Hilliard had given her. Rain had ceased, and the weather seemed turning to frost. From Dudley station she had a walk of nearly half an hour, to the top of Kate's Hill.

Kate's Hill is covered with an irregular assemblage of old red-tiled cottages, grimy without, but sometimes, as could be seen through an open door admitting into the chief room, clean and homely-looking within. The steep, narrow alleys leading upward were scarce lighted; here and there glimmered a pale corner-lamp, but on a black night such as this the oil-lit windows of a little shop, and the occasional gleam from doors, proved very serviceable as a help in picking one's path. Towards the top of the hill there was no paving, and mud lay thick. Indescribable the confusion of this toilers' settlement-houses and workshops tumbled together as if by chance, the ways climbing and winding into all manner of pitch-dark recesses, where eats prowled stealthily. In one spot silence and not a hint of life; in another, children noisily at play amid piles of old metal or miscellaneous rubbish. From the labyrinth which was so familiar to her, Eve issued of a sudden on to a sort of terrace, where the air blew shrewdly: beneath lay cottage roofs, and in front a limitless gloom, which by daylight would have been an extensive northward view, comprising the towns of Bilston and Wolverhampton. It was now a black gulf, without form and void, sputtering fire. Flames that leapt out of nothing, and as suddenly disappeared; tongues of yellow or of crimson, quivering, lambent, seeming to snatch and devour and then fall back in satiety. When a cluster of these fires shot forth together, the sky above became illumined with a broad glare, which throbbed and pulsed in the manner of sheet-lightning, though more lurid, and in a few seconds was gone.

She paused here for a moment, rather to rest after her climb than to look at what she had seen so often, then directed her steps to one of the houses within sight. She pushed the door, and entered a little parlour, where a fire and a lamp made cheery welcome. By the hearth, in a round-backed wooden chair, sat a grizzle-headed man, whose hard features proclaimed his relation to Eve, otherwise seeming so improbable. He looked up from the volume open on his knee-a Bible-and said in a rough, kind voice:

"I was thinkin' it 'ud be about toime for you. You look starved, my lass."

"Yes; it has turned very cold."

"I've got a bit o' supper ready for you. I don't want none myself; there's food enough for me here." He laid his hand on the book. "D'you call to mind the eighteenth of Ezekiel, lass?-'But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed--'"

Eve stood motionless till he had read the verse, then nodded and began to take off her out-of-door garments. She was unable to talk, and her eyes wandered absently.

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