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   Chapter 21 No.21

Eve's Ransom By George Gissing Characters: 9401

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


To-day he had the house to himself. The corn-dealers shop was closed, as on a Sunday; the optician and his blind wife had locked up their rooms and were spending Easter-tide, it might be hoped, amid more cheerful surroundings. Hilliard sat with his door open, that he might easily hear the knock which announced his guests at the entrance below.

It sounded, at length, but timidly. Had he not been listening, he would not have perceived it. Eve's handling of the knocker was firmer than that, and in a different rhythm. Apprehensive of disappointment, he hurried downstairs and opened the door to Patty Ringrose-Patty alone.

With a shy but pleased laugh, her cheeks warm and her eyes bright, she jerked out her hand to him as in the old days.

"I know you won't be glad to see me. I'm so sorry. I said I had better not come."

"Of course I am glad to see you. But where's Eve?"

"It's so unfortunate-she has such a bad headache!" panted the girl. "She couldn't possibly come, and I wanted to stay with her, I said. I should only disappoint you."

"It's a pity, of course; but I'm glad you came, for all that." Hilliard stifled his dissatisfaction and misgivings. "You'll think this a queer sort of place. I'm quite alone here to-day. But after you have rested a little we can go somewhere else."

"Yes. Eve told me you would be so kind as to take me to see things. I'm not tired. I won't come in, if you'd rather--"

"Oh, you may as well see what sort of a den I've made for myself."

He led the way upstairs. When she reached the top, Patty was again breathless, the result of excitement more than exertion. She exclaimed at sight of the sitting-room. How cosy it was! What a scent from the flowers! Did he always buy flowers for his room? No doubt it was to please Eve. What a comfortable chair! Of course Eve always sat in this chair?

Then her babbling ceased, and she looked up at Hilliard, who stood over against her, with nervous delight. He could perceive no change whatever in her, except that she was better dressed than formerly. Not a day seemed to have been added to her age; her voice had precisely the intonations that he remembered. After all, it was little more than half a year since they were together in Paris; but to Hilliard the winter had seemed of interminable length, and he expected to find Miss Ringrose a much altered person.

"When did this headache begin?" he inquired, trying to speak without over-much concern.

"She had a little yesterday, when she met me at the station. I didn't think she was looking at all well."

"I'm surprised to hear that. She looked particularly well when I saw her last. Had you any trouble in making your way here?"

"Oh, not a bit. I found the tram, just as Eve told me. But I'm so sorry! And a fine day too! You don't often have fine days here, do you, Mr. Hilliard?"

"Now and then. So you've seen Dudley at last. What do you think of it?"

"Oh, I like it! I shouldn't mind living there a bit. But of course I like Birmingham better."

"Almost as fine as Paris, isn't it?"

"You don't mean that, of course. But I've only seen a few of the streets, and most of the shops are shut up to-day. Isn't it a pity Eve has to live so far off? Though, of course, it isn't really very far-and I suppose you see each other often?"

Hilliard took a seat, crossed his legs, and grasped his knee. The girl appeared to wait for an answer to her last words, but he said nothing, and stared at the floor.

"If it's fine to-morrow," Patty continued, after observing him furtively, "are you coming to Dudley?"

"Yes, I shall come over. Did she send any message?"

"No-nothing particular--"

Patty looked confused, stroked her dress, and gave a little cough.

"But if it rains-as it very likely will-there's no use in my coming."

"No, she said not."

"Or if her headache is still troubling her--"

"Let's hope it will be better. But-in any case, she'll be able to come with me to Birmingham on Monday, when I go back I must be home again on Monday night."

"Don't you think," said Hilliard carelessly, "that Eve would rather have you to herself, just for the short time you are here?"

Patty made vigorous objection.

"I don't think that at all. It's quite settled that you are to come over to-morrow, if it's fine. Oh, and I do hope it will be! It would be so dreadful to be shut up in the house all day at Dudley. How very awkward that there's no place where she can have you there! If it rains, hadn't we better come here? I'm sure it would be better for Eve. She seems to get into such low spirits-just like she was sometimes in London."

"That's quite news to me," said the listener grave

ly.

"Doesn't she let you know? Then I'm so sorry I mentioned it. You won't tell her I said anything?"

"Wait a moment. Does she say that she is often in low spirits?"

Patty faltered, stroking her dress with the movement of increasing nervousness.

"It's better I should know," Hilliard added, "I'm afraid she keeps all this from me. For several weeks I have thought her in particularly good health."

"But she tells me just the opposite. She says--"

"Says what?"

"Perhaps it's only the place that doesn't agree with her. I don't think Dudley is very healthy, do you?"

"I never heard of doctors sending convalescents there. But Eve must be suffering from some other cause, I think. Does it strike you that she is at all like what she used to be when-when you felt so anxious about her?"

He met the girl's eyes, and saw them expand in alarm.

"I didn't think-I didn't mean--" she stammered.

"No, but I have a reason for asking. Is it so or not?"

"Don't frighten me, Mr. Hilliard! I do so wish I hadn't said anything. She isn't in good health, that's all. How can you think--? That was all over long ago. And she would never-I'm sure she wouldn't, after all you've done for her."

Hilliard ground the carpet with his foot, and all but uttered a violent ejaculation.

"I know she is all gratitude," were the words that became audible.

"She is indeed!" urged Patty. "She says that-even if she wished-she could never break off with you; as I am sure she would never wish!"

"Ah! that's what she says," murmured the other. And abruptly he rose. "There's no use in talking about this. You are here for a holiday, and not to be bored with other people's troubles. The sun is trying to shine. Let us go and see the town, and then-yes, I'll go back with you to Dudley, just to hear whether Eve is feeling any better. You could see her, and then come out and tell me."

"Mr. Hilliard, I'm quite sure you are worrying without any cause-you are, indeed!"

"I know I am. It's all nonsense. Come along, and let us enjoy the sunshine."

They spent three or four hours together, Hilliard resolute in his discharge of hospitable duties, and Miss Ringrose, after a brief spell of unnatural gravity, allowing no reflection to interfere with her holiday mood. Hilliard had never felt quite sure as to the limits of Patty's intelligence; he could not take her seriously, and yet felt unable to treat her altogether as a child or an imbecile. To-day, because of his preoccupied thoughts, and the effort it cost him to be jocose, he talked for the most part in a vein of irony which impressed, but did not much enlighten, his hearer.

"This," said he, when they had reached the centre of things, "is the Acropolis of Birmingham. Here are our great buildings, of which we boast to the world. They signify the triumph of Democracy-and of money. In front of you stands the Town Hall. Here, to the left, is the Midland Institute, where a great deal of lecturing goes on, and the big free library, where you can either read or go to sleep. I have done both in my time. Behind yonder you catch a glimpse of the fountain that plays to the glory of Joseph Chamberlain-did you ever hear of him? And further back still is Mason College, where young men are taught a variety of things, including discontent with a small income. To the right there, that's the Council Hall-splendid, isn't it! We bring our little boys to look at it, and tell them if they make money enough they may some day go in and out as if it were their own house. Behind it you see the Art Gallery. We don't really care for pictures; a great big machine is our genuine delight; but it wouldn't be nice to tell everybody that."

"What a lot I have learnt from you!" exclaimed the girl ingenuously, when at length they turned their steps towards the railway station. "I shall always remember Birmingham. You like it much better than London, don't you?"

"I glory in the place!"

Hilliard was tired out. He repented of his proposal to make the journey to Dudley and back, but his companion did not suspect this.

"I'm sure Eve will come out and have a little walk with us," she said comfortingly. "And she'll think it so kind of you."

At Dudley station there were crowds of people; Patty asked leave to hold by her companion's arm as they made their way to the exit. Just outside Hilliard heard himself hailed in a familiar voice; he turned and saw Narramore.

"I beg your pardon," said his friend, coming near. "I didn't notice-I thought you were alone, or, of course I shouldn't have shouted. Shall you be at home to-morrow afternoon?"

"If it rains."

"It's sure to rain. I shall look in about four."

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