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   Chapter 19 No.19

Eve's Ransom By George Gissing Characters: 8577

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


After a week's inquiry, Hilliard discovered the lodging that would suit his purpose. It was Camp Hill; two small rooms at the top of a house, the ground-floor of which was occupied as a corn-dealer's shop, and the story above that tenanted by a working optician with a blind wife. On condition of papering the rooms and doing a few repairs necessary to make them habitable, he secured them at the low rent of four shillings a week.

Eve paid her first visit to this delectable abode on a Sunday afternoon; she saw only the sitting-room, which would bear inspection; the appearance of the bed-room was happily left to her surmise. Less than a five-pound note had paid for the whole furnishing. Notwithstanding the reckless invitation to Eve to share his fortunes straightway, Hilliard, after paving his premium of fifty guineas to the Birching Brothers, found but a very small remnant in hand of the money with which he had set forth from Dudley some nine months ago. Yet not for a moment did he repine; he had the value of his outlay; his mind was stored with memories and his heart strengthened with hope.

At her second coming-she herself now occupied a poor little lodging not very far away-Eve beheld sundry improvements. By the fireside stood a great leather chair, deep, high-backed, wondrously self-assertive over against the creaky cane seat which before had dominated the room. Against the wall was a high bookcase, where Hilliard's volumes, previously piled on the floor, stood in loose array; and above the mantelpiece hung a framed engraving of the Parthenon.

"This is dreadful extravagance!" she exclaimed, pausing at the threshold, and eying her welcomer with mock reproof.

"It is, but not on my part. The things came a day or two ago, simply addressed to me from shops."

"Who was the giver, then?"

"Must be Narramore, of course. He was here not long ago, and growled a good deal because I hadn't a decent chair for his lazy bones."

"I am much obliged to him," said Eve, as she sank back in the seat of luxurious repose. "You ought to hang his portrait in the room. Haven't you a photograph?" she added carelessly.

"Such a thing doesn't exist. Like myself, he hasn't had a portrait taken since he was a child. A curious thing, by-the-bye, that you should have had yours taken just when you did. Of course it was because you were going far away for the first time; but it marked a point in your life, and put on record the Eve Madeley whom no one would see again If I can't get that photograph in any other way I shall go and buy, beg, or steal it from Mrs. Brewer."

"Oh, you shall have one if you insist upon it."

"Why did you refuse it before?"

"I hardly know-a fancy-I thought you would keep looking at it, and regretting that I had changed so."

As on her previous visit, she soon ceased to talk, and, in listening to Hilliard, showed unconsciously a tired, despondent face.

"Nothing yet," fell from her lips, when he had watched her silently.

"Never mind; I hate the mention of it."

"By-the-bye," he resumed, "Narramore astounded me by hinting at marriage. It's Miss Birching, the sister of my man. It hasn't come to an engagement yet, and if it ever does I shall give Miss Birching the credit for it. It would have amused you to hear him talking about her, with a pipe in his mouth and half asleep. I understand now why he took young Birching with him to Switzerland. He'll never carry it through; unless, as I said, Miss Birching takes the decisive step."

"Is she the kind of girl to do that?" asked Eve, waking to curiosity.

"I know nothing about her, except from Narramore's sleepy talk. Rather an arrogant beauty, according to him. He told me a story of how, when he was calling upon her, she begged him to ring the bell for something or other, and he was so slow in getting up that she went and rang it herself. 'Her own fault,' he said; 'she asked me to sit on a chair with a seat some six inches above the ground, and how can a man hurry up from a thing of that sort?'"

"He must be a strange man. Of course he doesn't care anything about Miss Birching."

"But I think he does, in his way."

"How did he ever get on at all in business?"

"Oh, he's one of the lucky men." Hilliard replied, with a touch of g

ood-natured bitterness. "He never exerted himself; good things fell into his mouth. People got to like him-that's one explanation, no doubt."

"Don't you think he may have more energy than you imagine?"

"It's possible. I have sometimes wondered."

"What sort of life does he lead? Has he many friends I mean?"

"Very few. I should doubt whether there's anyone he talks with as he does with me. He'll never get much good out of his money; but if he fell into real poverty-poverty like mine-it would kill him. I know he looks at me as an astonishing creature, and marvels that I don't buy a good dose of chloral and have done with it."

Eve did not join in his laugh.

"I can't bear to hear you speak of your poverty," she said in an undertone. "You remind me that I am the cause of it."

"Good Heavens! As if I should mention it if I were capable of such a thought!"

"But it's the fact," she persisted, with something like irritation. "But for me, you would have gone into the architect's office with enough to live upon comfortably for a time."

"That's altogether unlikely," Hilliard declared. "But for you, it's improbable that I should have gone to Birching's at all. At this moment I should be spending my money in idleness, and, in the end, should have gone back to what I did before. You have given me a start in a new life."

This, and much more of the same tenor, failed to bring a light upon Eve's countenance. At length she asked suddenly, with a defiant bluntness--

"Have you ever thought what sort of a wife I am likely to make?"

Hilliard tried to laugh, but was disagreeably impressed by her words and the look that accompanied them.

"I have thought about it, to be sure," he answered carelessly

"And don't you feel a need of courage?"

"Of course. And not only the need but the courage itself."

"Tell me the real, honest truth." She bent forward, and gazed at him with eyes one might have thought hostile. "I demand the truth of you: I have a right to know it. Don't you often wish you had never seen me?"

"You 're in a strange mood."

"Don't put me off. Answer!"

"To ask such a question," he replied quietly, "is to charge me with a great deal of hypocrisy. I did once all but wish I had never seen you. If I lost you now I should lose what seems to me the strongest desire of my life. Do you suppose I sit down and meditate on your capacity as cook or housemaid? It would be very prudent and laudable, but I have other thoughts-that give me trouble enough."

"What thoughts?"

"Such as one doesn't talk about-if you insist on frankness."

Her eyes wandered.

"It's only right to tell you," she said, after silence, "that I dread poverty as much as ever I did. And I think poverty in marriage a thousand times worse than when one is alone."

"Well, we agree in that. But why do you insist upon it just now? Are you beginning to be sorry that we ever met?"

"Not a day passes but I feel sorry for it."

"I suppose you are harping on the old scruple. Why will you plague me about it?"

"I mean," said Eve, with eyes down, "that you are the worse off for having met me, but I mean something else as well. Do you think it possible that anyone can owe too much gratitude, even to a person one likes?"

He regarded her attentively.

"You feel the burden?"

She delayed her answer, glancing at him with a new expression-a deprecating tenderness.

"It's better to tell you. I do feel it, and have always felt it."

"Confound this infernal atmosphere!" Hilliard broke out wrathfully. "It's making you morbid again. Come here to me! Eve-come!"

As she sat motionless, he caught her hands and drew her forward, and sat down again with her passive body resting upon his knees. She was pale, and looked frightened.

"Your gratitude be hanged! Pay me back with your lips-so-and so! Can't you understand that when my lips touch yours, I have a delight that would be well purchased with years of semi-starvation? What is it to me how I won you? You are mine for good and all-that's enough."

She drew herself half away, and stood brightly flushed, touching her hair to set it in order again. Hilliard, with difficulty controlling himself, said in a husky voice-

"Is the mood gone?"

Eve nodded, and sighed.

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