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   Chapter 25 No.25

Eve's Ransom By George Gissing Characters: 9173

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


She gave no sign of surprise. Hilliard read in her face that she had prepared herself for this encounter.

"Come away where we can talk," he said abruptly.

She walked by him to a part of the station where only a porter passed occasionally. The echoings beneath the vaulted roof allowed them to speak without constraint, for their voices were inaudible a yard or two off. Hilliard would not look into her face, lest he should be softened to foolish clemency.

"It's very kind of you," he began, with no clear purpose save the desire of harsh speech, "to ask me to overlook this trifle, and let things be as before."

"I have said all I can say in the letter. I deserve all your anger."

That was the note he dreaded, the too well remembered note of pathetic submission. It reminded him with intolerable force that he had never held her by any bond save that of her gratitude.

"Do you really imagine," he exclaimed, "that I could go on with make-believe-that I could bring myself to put faith in you again for a moment?"

"I don't ask you to," Eve replied, in firmer accents. "I have lost what little respect you could ever feel for me. I might have repaid you with honesty-I didn't do even that. Say the worst you can of me, and I shall think still worse of myself."

The voice overcame him with a conviction of her sincerity, and he gazed at her, marvelling.

"Are you honest now? Anyone would think so; yet how am I to believe it?"

Eve met his eyes steadily.

"I will never again say one word to you that isn't pure truth. I am at your mercy, and you may punish me as you like."

"There's only one way in which I can punish you. For the loss of my respect, or of my love, you care nothing. If I bring myself to tell Narramore disagreeable things about you, you will suffer a disappointment, and that's all. The cost to me will be much greater, and you know it. You pity yourself. You regard me as holding you ungenerously by an advantage you once gave me. It isn't so at all. It is I who have been held by bonds I couldn't break, and from the day when you pretended a love you never felt, all the blame lay with you."

"What could I do?"

"Be truthful-that was all."

"You were not content with the truth. You forced me to think that I could love you, Only remember what passed between us."

"Honesty was still possible, when you came to know yourself better. You should have said to me in so many words: 'I can't look forward to our future with any courage; if I marry it must be a man who has more to offer.' Do you think I couldn't have endured to hear that? You have never understood me. I should have said: 'Then let us shake hands, and I am your friend to help you all I can.'"

"You say that now--"

"I should have said it at any time."

"But I am not so mean as you think me. If I loved a man I could face poverty with him, much as I hate and dread it. It was because I only liked you, and could not feel more--"

"Your love happens to fall upon a man who has solid possessions."

"It's easy to speak so scornfully. I have not pretended to love the man you mean."

"Yet you have brought him to think that you are willing to marry him."

"Without any word of love from me. If I had been free I would have married him-just because I am sick of the life I lead, and long for the kind of life he offered me."

"When it's too late you are frank enough."

"Despise me as much as you like. You want the truth, and you shall hear nothing else from me."

"Well, we get near to understanding each other. But it astonishes me that you spoilt your excellent chance. How could you hope to carry through this--"

Eve broke in impatiently.

"I told you in the letter that I had no hope of it. It's your mistake to think me a crafty, plotting, selfish woman. I'm only a very miserable one-it went on from this to that, and I meant nothing. I didn't scheme; I was only tempted into foolishness. I felt myself getting into difficulties that would be my ruin, but I hadn't strength to draw back."

"You do yourself injustice," said Hilliard, coldly. "For the past month you have acted a part before me, and acted it well. You seemed to be reconciling yourself to my prospects, indifferent as they were. You encouraged me-talked with unusual cheerfulness-showed a bright face. If this wasn't deliberate acting what did it mean?"

"Yes, it was put on," Eve admitted, after a pause. "But I couldn't help that. I was obliged to keep seeing you, and if I had looked as miserable as I felt--" She broke off. "I tried to behave just like a

friend. You can't charge me with pretending-anything else. I could be your friend: that was honest feeling."

"It's no use to me. I must have more, or nothing."

The flood of passion surged in him again. Some trick of her voice, or some indescribable movement of her head-the trifles which are all-powerful over a man in love-beat down his contending reason.

"You say," he continued, "that you will make amends for your unfair dealing. If you mean it, take the only course that shows itself. Confess to Narramore what you have done; you owe it to him as much as to me."

"I can't do that," said Eve, drawing away. "It's for you to tell him-if you like."

"No. I had my opportunity, and let it pass. I don't mean that you are to inform him of all there has been between us; that's needless. We have agreed to forget everything that suggests the word I hate. But that you and I have been lovers and looked-I, at all events-to be something more, this you must let him know."

"I can never do that."

"Without it, how are you to disentangle yourself?"

"I promise you he shall see no more of me."

"Such a promise is idle, and you know it. Remember, too, that Narramore and I are friends. He will speak to me of you, and I can't play a farce with him. It would be intolerable discomfort to me, and grossly unfair to him. Do, for once, the simple, honourable thing, and make a new beginning. After that, be guided by your own interests. Assuredly I shall not stand in your way."

Eve had turned her eyes in the direction of crowd and bustle. When she faced Hilliard again, he saw that she had come to a resolve.

"There's only one way out of it for me," she said impulsively. "I can't talk any longer. I'll write to you."

She moved from him; Hilliard followed. At a distance of half-a-dozen yards, just as he was about to address her again, she stopped and spoke-

"You hate to hear me talk of 'gratitude.' I have always meant by it less than you thought. I was grateful for the money, not for anything else. When you took me away, perhaps it was the unkindest thing you could have done."

An unwonted vehemence shook her voice. Her muscles were tense; she stood in an attitude of rebellious pride.

"If I had been true to myself then--But it isn't too late. If I am to act honestly, I know very well what I must do. I will take your advice."

Hilliard could not doubt of her meaning. He remembered his last talk with Patty. This was a declaration he had not foreseen, and it affected him otherwise than he could have anticipated.

"My advice had nothing to do with that," was his answer, as he read her face. "But I shall say not a word against it. I could respect you, at all events."

"Yes, and I had rather have your respect than your love."

With that, she left him. He wished to pursue, but a physical languor held him motionless. And when at length he sauntered from the place, it was with a sense of satisfaction at what had happened. Let her carry out that purpose: he faced it, preferred it. Let her be lost to him in that way rather than any other. It cut the knot, and left him with a memory of Eve that would not efface her dishonouring weakness.

Late at night, he walked about the streets near his home, debating with himself whether she would act as she spoke, or had only sought to frighten him with a threat. And still he hoped that her resolve was sincere. He could bear that conclusion of their story better than any other-unless it were her death. Better a thousand times than her marriage with Narramore.

In the morning, fatigue gave voice to conscience. He had bidden her go, when, perchance, a word would have checked her. Should he write, or even go to her straightway and retract what he had said? His will prevailed, and he did nothing.

The night that followed plagued him with other misgivings. It seemed more probable now that she had threatened what she would never have the courage to perform. She meant it at the moment-it declared a truth but an hour after she would listen to commonplace morality or prudence. Narramore would write to her; she might, perhaps, see him again. She would cling to the baser hope.

Might but the morrow bring him a letter from London!

It brought nothing; and day after day disappointed him. More than a week passed: he was ill with suspense, but could take no step for setting his mind at rest. Then, as he sat one morning at his work in the architect's office, there arrived a telegram addressed to him-

"I must see you as soon as possible. Be here before six.-Narramore."

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