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   Chapter 20 No.20

Eve's Ransom By George Gissing Characters: 15990

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


At the time appointed for their next meeting, Hilliard waited in vain. An hour passed, and Eve, who had the uncommon virtue of punctuality, still did not come. The weather was miserable-rain, fog, and slush-but this had heretofore proved no obstacle, for her lodgings were situated less than half a mile away. Afraid of missing her if he went out, he fretted through another hour, and was at length relieved by the arrival of a letter of explanation. Eve wrote that she had been summoned to Dudley; her father was stricken with alarming illness, and her brother had telegraphed.

For two days he heard nothing; then came a few lines which told him that Mr. Madeley could not live many more hours. On the morrow Eve wrote that her father was dead.

To the letter which he thereupon despatched Hilliard had no reply for nearly a week. When Eve wrote, it was from a new address at Dudley. After thanking him for the kind words with which he had sought to comfort her, she continued-

"I have at last found something to do, and it was quite time, for I have been very miserable, and work is the best thing for me. Mr. Welland, my first employer, when I was twelve years old, has asked me to come and keep his books for him, and I am to live in his house. My brother has gone into lodgings, and we see no more of the cottage on Kate's Hill. It's a pity I have to be so far from you again, but there seems to be no hope of getting anything to do in Birmingham, and here I shall be comfortable enough, as far as mere living goes. On Sunday I shall be quite free, and will come over as often as possible; but I have caught a bad cold, and must be content to keep in the house until this dreadful weather changes. Be more careful of yourself than you generally are, and let me hear often. In a few months' time we shall be able to spend pleasant hours on the Castle Hill. I have heard from Patty, and want to tell you about her letter, but this cold makes me feel too stupid Will write again soon."

It happened that Hilliard himself was just now blind and voiceless with a catarrh. The news from Dudley by no means solaced him. He crouched over his fire through the long, black day, tormented with many miseries, and at eventide drank half a bottle of whisky, piping hot, which at least assured him of a night's sleep.

Just to see what would be the result of his silence, he wrote no reply to this letter. A fortnight elapsed; he strengthened himself in stubbornness, aided by the catarrh, which many bottles of whisky would not overcome. When his solitary confinement grew at length insufferable, he sent for Narramore, and had not long to wait before his friend appeared. Narramore was rosy as ever: satisfaction with life beamed from his countenance.

"I've ordered you in some wine," he exclaimed genially, sinking into the easy-chair which Hilliard had vacated for him-an instance of selfishness in small things which did not affect his generosity in greater. "It isn't easy to get good port nowadays, but they tell me that this is not injurious. Hasn't young Birching been to see you? No, I suppose he would think it infra dig. to come to this neighbourhood. There's a damnable self-conceit in that family: you must have noticed it, eh? It comes out very strongly in the girl. By-the-bye I've done with her-haven't been there for three weeks, and don't think I shall go again, unless it's for the pleasure of saying or doing something that'll irritate her royal highness."

"Did you quarrel?"

"Quarrel? I never quarrel with anyone; it's bad for one's nerves."

"Did you get as far as proposing?"

"Oh, I left her to do that. Women are making such a row about their rights nowadays, that it's as well to show you grant them perfect equality. I gave her every chance of saying something definite. I maintain that she trifled with my affections. She asked me what my views in life were. Ah, thought I, now it's coming; and I answered modestly that everything depended on circumstances. I might have said it depended on the demand for brass bedsteads; but perhaps that would have verged on indelicacy-you know that I am delicacy personified. 'I thought,' said Miss Birching, 'that a man of any energy made his own circumstances?' 'Energy!' I shouted. 'Do you look for energy in me? It's the greatest compliment anyone ever paid me.' At that she seemed desperately annoyed, and wouldn't pursue the subject. That's how it always was, just when the conversation grew interesting."

"I'm sorry to see you so cut up about it," remarked Hilliard.

"None of your irony, old fellow. Well, the truth is, I've seen someone I like better."

"Not surprised."

"It's a queer story; I'll tell it you some day, if it comes to anything. I'm not at all sure that it will, as there seems to be a sort of lurking danger that I may make a damned fool of myself."

"Improbable?" commented the listener. "Your blood is too temperate."

"So I thought; but one never knows. Unexpected feelings crop up in a fellow. We won't talk about it just now. How have things been going in the architectural line?"

"Not amiss. Steadily, I think."

Narramore lay back at full length, his face turned to the ceiling.

"Since I've been living out yonder, I've got a taste for the country. I have a notion that, if brass bedsteads keep firm, I shall some day build a little house of my own; an inexpensive little house, with a tree or two about it. Just make me a few sketches, will you? When you've nothing better to do, you know."

He played with the idea, till it took strong hold of him, and he began to talk with most unwonted animation.

"Five or six thousand pounds-I ought to be able to sink that in a few years. Not enough, eh? But I don't want a mansion. I'm quite serious about this, Hilliard. When you re feeling ready to start on your own account, you shall have the job."

Hilliard laughed grimly at the supposition that he would ever attain professional independence, but his friend talked on, and overleaped difficulties with a buoyancy of spirit which ultimately had its effect upon the listener. When he was alone again, Hilliard felt better, both in body and mind, and that evening, over the first bottle of Narramore's port, he amused himself with sketching ideal cottages.

"The fellow's in love, at last. When a man thinks of pleasant little country houses, 'with a tree or two' about them--"

He sighed, and ground his teeth, and sketched on.

Before bedtime, a sudden and profound shame possessed him. Was he not behaving outrageously in neglecting to answer Eve's letter? For all he knew the cold of which she complained might have caused her more suffering than he himself had gone through from the like cause, and that was bad enough. He seized paper and wrote to her as he had never written before, borne on the very high flood of passionate longing. Without regard to prudence he left the house at midnight and posted his letter.

"It never occurred to me to blame you for not writing," Eve quickly replied; "I'm afraid you are more sensitive than I am, and, to tell the truth, I believe men generally are more sensitive than women in things of this kind. It pleased me very much to hear of the visit you had had from Mr. Narramore, and that he had cheered you. I do so wish I could have come, but I have really been quite ill, and I must not think of risking a journey till the weather improves. Don't trouble about it; I will write often."

"I told you about a letter I had had from poor Patty, and I want to ask you to do something. Will you write to her? Just a nice, friendly little letter. She would be so delighted, she would indeed. There's no harm in copying a line or two from what she sent me. 'Has Mr. Hilliard forgotten all about me?' she says. 'I would write to him, but I feel afraid. Not afraid of you, dear Eve, but he might feel I was impertinent. What do you think? We had such delicious times together, he and you and I, and I really d

on't want him to forget me altogether?' Now I have told her that there is no fear whatever of your forgetting her, and that we often speak of her. I begin to think that I have been unjust to Patty in calling her silly, and making fun of her. She was anything but foolish in breaking off with that absurd Mr. Dally, and I can see now that she will never give a thought to him again. What I fear is that the poor girl will never find any one good enough for her. The men she meets are very vulgar, and vulgar Patty is not-as you once said to me, you remember. So, if you can spare a minute, write her a few lines, to show that you still think of her. Her address is--, etc."

To Hilliard all this seemed merely a pleasant proof of Eve's amiability, of her freedom from that acrid monopolism which characterises the ignoble female in her love relations. Straightway he did as he was requested, and penned to Miss Ringrose a chatty epistle, with which she could not but be satisfied. A day or two brought him an answer. Patty's handwriting lacked distinction, and in the matter of orthography she was not beyond reproach, but her letter chirped with a prettily expressed gratitude. "I am living with my aunt, and am likely to for a long time. And I get on very well at my new shop, which I have no wish to leave." This was her only allusion to the shattered matrimonial project: "I wish there was any chance of you and Eve coming to live in London, but I suppose that's too good to hope for. We don't get many things as we wish them in this world. And yet I oughtn't to say that either, for if it hadn't been for you I should never have seen Paris, which was so awfully jolly! But you'll be coming for a holiday, won't you? I should so like just to see you, if ever you do. It isn't like it was at the old shop. There's a great deal of business done here, and very little time to talk to anyone in the shop. But many girls have worse things to put up with than I have, and I won't make you think I'm a grumbler."

The whole of January went by before Hilliard and Eve again saw each other. The lover wrote at length that he could bear it no longer, that he was coming to Dudley, if only for the mere sight of Eve's face; she must meet him in the waiting-room at the railway station. She answered by return of post, "I will come over next Sunday, and be with you at twelve o'clock, but I must leave very early, as I am afraid to be out after nightfall." And this engagement was kept.

The dress of mourning became her well; it heightened her always noticeable air of refinement, and would have constrained to a reverential tenderness even had not Hilliard naturally checked himself from any bolder demonstration of joy. She spoke in a low, soft voice, seldom raised her eyes, and manifested a new gentleness very touching to Hilliard, though at the same time, and he knew not how or why, it did not answer to his desire. A midday meal was in readiness for her; she pretended to eat, but in reality scarce touched the food.

"You must taste old Narramore's port wine," said her entertainer. "The fellow actually sent a couple of dozen."

She was not to be persuaded; her refusal puzzled and annoyed Hilliard, and there followed a long silence. Indeed, it surprised him to find how little they could say to each other to-day. An unknown restraint had come between them.

"Well," he exclaimed at length, "I wrote to Patty, and she answered."

"May I see the letter?"

"Of course. Here it is."

Eve read it, and smiled with pleasure.

"Doesn't she write nicely! Poor girl!"

"Why have you taken so to commiserating her all at once?" Hilliard asked. "She's no worse off than she ever was. Rather better, I think."

"Life isn't the same for her since she was in Paris," said Eve, with peculiar softness.

"Well, perhaps it improved her."

"Oh, it certainly did! But it gave her a feeling of discontent for the old life and the people about her."

"A good many of us have to suffer that. She's nothing like as badly off as you are, my dear girl."

Eve coloured, and kept silence.

"We shall hear of her getting married before long," resumed the other. "She told me herself that marriage was the scourge of music-shops-it carries off their young women at such a rate."

"She told you that? It was in one of your long talks together in London? Patty and you got on capitally together. It was very natural she shouldn't care much for men like Mr. Dally afterwards."

Hilliard puzzled over this remark, and was on the point of making some impatient reply, but discretion restrained him. He turned to Eve's own affairs, questioned her closely about her life in the tradesman's house, and so their conversation followed a smoother course. Presently, half in jest, Hilliard mentioned Narramore's building projects.

"But who knows? It might come to something of importance for me. In two or three years, if all goes well, such a thing might possibly give me a start."

A singular solemnity had settled upon Eve's countenance. She spoke not a word, and seemed unaccountably ill at ease.

"Do you think I am in the clouds?" said Hilliard.

"Oh, no! Why shouldn't you get on-as other men do?"

But she would not dwell upon the hope, and Hilliard, not a little vexed, again became silent.

Her next visit was after a lapse of three weeks. She had again been suffering from a slight illness, and her pallor alarmed Hilliard. Again she began with talk of Patty Ringrose.

"Do you know, there's really a chance that we may see her before long! She'll have a holiday at Easter, from the Thursday night to Monday night, and I have all but got her to promise that she'll come over here. Wouldn't it be fun to let her see the Black Country? You remember her talk about it. I could get her a room, and if it's at all bearable weather, we would all have a day somewhere. Wouldn't you like that?"

"Yes; but I should greatly prefer a day with you alone."

"Oh, of course, the time is coming for that, Would you let us come here one day?"

With a persistence not to be mistaken Eve avoided all intimate topics; at the same time her manner grew more cordial. Through February and March, she decidedly improved in health. Hilliard saw her seldom, but she wrote frequent letters, and their note was as that of her conversation, lively, all but sportive. Once again she had become a mystery to her lover; he pondered over her very much as in the days when they were newly acquainted. Of one thing he felt but too well assured. She did not love him as he desired to be loved. Constant she might be, but it was the constancy of a woman unaffected with ardent emotion. If she granted him her lips they had no fervour respondent to his own; she made a sport of it, forgot it as soon as possible. Upon Hilliard's vehement nature this acted provocatively; at times he was all but frenzied with the violence of his sensual impulses. Yet Eve's control of him grew more assured the less she granted of herself; a look, a motion of her lips, and he drew apart, quivering but subdued. At one such moment he exclaimed:

"You had better not come here at all. I love you too insanely."

Eve looked at him, and silently began to shed tears. He implored her pardon, prostrated himself, behaved in a manner that justified his warning. But Eve stifled the serious drama of the situation, and forced him to laugh with her.

In these days architectural study made little way.

Patty Ringrose was coming for the Easter holidays. She would arrive on Good Friday. "As the weather is so very bad still," wrote Eve to Hilliard, "will you let us come to see you on Saturday? Sunday may be better for an excursion of some sort."

And thus it was arranged. Hilliard made ready his room to receive the fair visitors, who would come at about eleven in the morning. As usual nowadays, he felt discontented, but, after all, Patty's influence might be a help to him, as it had been in worse straits.

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