Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Evan Harrington - Part 11
EVAN HARRINGTON; or, HE WOULD BE A GENTLEMAN.
BY GEORGE MEREDITH.
A CAPTURE.CHAPTER XV.
The three youths were standing in the portico when the Countess appeared among them. She singled out him who was specially obnoxious to her, and sweetly inquired the direction to the village post. With the renowned gallantry of his nation, he offered to accompany her, but presently, with a different exhibition of the same, proposed that they should spare themselves the trouble by dropping the letter she held prominently, in the bag.
“Thanks!” murmured the Countess, “I will go.” Upon which his eager air subsided, and he fell into an awkward silent march at her side, looking so like the victim he was to be, that the Countess could have emulated his power of laughter.
“And you are Mr. Harry Jocelyn, the very famous cricketer?”
He answered, glancing back at his friends, that he was, but did not know about the “famous.”
“Oh! but I saw you—I saw you hit the ball most beautifully, and dearly wished my brother had an equal ability. Brought up in the Court of Portugal, he is barely English. There they have no manly sports. You saw him pass you?”
“Him! Whom?” asked Harry.
“My brother, on the lawn, this moment. Your sweet sister’s friend. Your Uncle Melville’s secretary.”
“What’s his name?” said Harry, in blunt perplexity.
The Countess repeated his name, which in her pronunciation was “Hawington,” adding, “That was my brother. I am his sister. Have you heard of the Countess de Saldar?”
“Countess!” muttered Harry. “Dash it! here’s a mistake.”
She continued, with elegant fan-like motion of her gloved fingers: “They say there is a likeness between us. The dear Queen of Portugal often remarked it, and in her it was a compliment to me, for she thought my brother a model! You should have known from your extreme resemblance to your lovely young sister.”
Coarse food, but then Harry was a youthful Englishman; and the Countess dieted the vanity according to the nationality. With good wine to wash it down, one can swallow anything. The Countess lent him her eyes for that purpose; eyes that had a liquid glow under the dove-like drooping lids. It was a principle of hers, pampering our poor sex with swinish solids or the lightest ambrosia, never to let the accompanying cordial be other than of the finest quality. She knew that clowns, even more than aristocrats, are flattered by the inebriation of delicate celestial liquors.
“Now,” she said, after Harry had gulped as much of the dose as she chose to administer direct from the founts, “you must accord me the favour to tell me all about yourself, for I have heard much of you, Mr. Harry Jocelyn, and you have excited my woman’s interest. Of me you know nothing.”
“Haven’t I?” cried Harry, speaking to the pitch of his new warmth. “My Uncle Melville goes on about you tremendously—makes his wife as jealous as fire. How could I tell that was your brother?”
“Your uncle has deigned to allude to me?” said the Countess, meditatively. “But not of him—of you, Mr. Harry! What does he say?”
“Says you’re so clever you ought to be a man.”
“Ah! generous!” exclaimed the Countess. “The idea, I think, is novel to him. Is it not?”
“Well, I believe, from what I hear, he didn’t back you for much over in Lisbon,” said veracious Harry.
“I fear he is deceived in me now. I fear I am but a woman—I am not to be ‘backed.’ But you are not talking of yourself.”
“Oh! never mind me,” was Harry’s modest answer.
“But I do. Try to imagine me as clever as a man, and talk to me of your doings. Indeed I will endeavour to comprehend you.”
Thus humble, the Countess bade him give her his arm. He stuck it out with abrupt eagerness.
“Not against my cheek.” She laughed forgivingly. “And you need not start back half-a-mile,” she pursued with plain humour, “and please, do not look irresolute and awkward—it is not necessary,” she added. “There!” and she settled her fingers on him, “I am glad I can find one or two things to instruct you in. Begin. You are a great cricketer. What else?”
Ay! what else? Harry might well say he had no wish to talk of himself. He did not know even how to give his arm to a lady! The first flattery and the subsequent chiding clashed in his elated soul, and caused him to deem himself one of the blest suddenly overhauled by an inspecting angel and found wanting: or, in his own more accurate style of reflection, “What a rattling fine woman this is, and what a deuce of a fool she must think me!”
The Countess leaned on his arm with dainty languor.
“You walk well,” she said.
Harry’s backbone straightened immediately.
“No, no; I do not want you to be a drill-serjeant. Can you not be told you are perfect without seeking to improve, vain boy? You can cricket, and you can walk, and will very soon learn how to give your arm to a lady. I have hopes of you. Of your friends, from whom I have ruthlessly dragged you, I have not much. Am I personally offensive to them, Mr. Harry? I saw them let my brother pass without returning his bow, and they in no way acknowledged my presence as I passed. Are they gentlemen?”
“Yes,” said Harry, stupified by the question. “One ’s Ferdinand Laxley, Lord Laxley’s son, heir to the title; the other ’s William Harvey, son of the Chief Justice—both friends of mine.”
“But not of your manners,” interposed the Countess. “I have not so much compunction as I ought to have in divorcing you from your associates for a few minutes. I think I shall make a scholar of you in one or two essentials. You do want polish. Have I not a right to take you in hand? I have defended you already.”
“Me?” cried Harry.
“None other than Mr. Harry Jocelyn. Will he vouchsafe to me his pardon? It has been whispered in my ears that his ambition is to be the Don Juan of a country district, and have said for him that, however grovelling his undirected tastes, he is too truly noble to plume himself upon the reputation they have procured him. Why did I defend you? Women, you know, do not shrink from Don Juans—even provincial Don Juans—as they should, perhaps, for their own sakes! You are all of you dangerous, if a woman is not strictly on her guard. But you will respect your champion, will you not?”
Harry was about to reply with wonderful briskness. He stopped, and murmured boorishly that he was sure he was very much obliged.
Command of countenance the Countess possessed in common with her sex. Those faces on which we make them depend entirely, women can entirely control. Keenly sensible to humour as the Countess was, her face sidled up to his immovably sweet. Harry looked, and looked away, and looked again. The poor fellow was so profoundly aware of his foolishness that he even doubted whether he was admired.
The Countess trifled with his English nature; quietly watched him bob between tugging humility and airy conceit, and went on:
“Yes! I will trust you, and that is saying very much, for what protection is a brother? I am alone here—defenceless!”
Men, of course, grow virtuously zealous in an instant on behalf of the lovely dame who tells them bewitchingly she is alone and defenceless, with pitiful dimples round the dewy mouth that entreats their guardianship and mercy!
The provincial Don Juan found words—a sign of clearer sensations within. He said:
“Upon my honour, I’d look after you better than fifty brothers!”
The Countess eyed him softly, and then allowed herself the luxury of a laugh.
“No, no! it is not the sheep, it is the wolf I fear.”
And she went through a bit of the concluding portion of the drama of Little Red Riding-Hood very prettily, and tickled him so that he became somewhat less afraid of her.
“Are you truly as bad as report would have you to be, Mr. Harry?” she asked, not at all in the voice of a censor.
“Pray, don’t think me—a—anything you wouldn’t have me,” the youth stumbled into an apt response.
“We shall see,” said the Countess, and varied her admiration for the noble creature beside her with gentle ejaculations on the beauty of the deer that ranged the park of Beckley Court, the grand old oaks and beeches, the clumps of flowering laurel, and the rich air swarming summer.
She swept out her arm. “And this most magnificent estate will be yours? How happy will she be who is led hither to reside by you, Mr. Harry!”
“Mine? No; there’s the bother,” he answered, with unfeigned chagrin. “Beckley isn’t Elburne property, you know. It belongs to old Mrs. Bonner, Rose’s grandmama.”
“Oh!” interjected the Countess, indifferently.
“I shall never get it—no chance,” Harry pursued. “Lost my luck with the old lady long ago.” He waxed excited on a subject that drew him from his shamefacedness. “It goes to Juley Bonner, or to Rosey, it’s a toss-up which. If I’d stuck up to Juley, I might have had a pretty fair chance. They wanted me to, that’s why I scout the premises. But fancy Juley Bonner!”
“You couldn’t, upon your honour!” rhymed the Countess. (And Harry let loose a delighted “Ha! ha!” as at a fine stroke of wit.) “Are we enamoured of a beautiful maiden, Señor Harry?”
“Not a bit,” he assured her, eagerly. “I don’t know any girl. I don’t care for ’em. I don’t, really.”
The Countess impressively declared to him that he must be guided by her; and that she might the better act his monitress, she desired to hear the pedigree of the estate, and the exact relations in which it at present stood towards the Elburne family.
Glad of any theme he could speak on, Harry informed her that Beckley Court was bought by his grandfather Bonner from the proceeds of a successful oil speculation.
“So we ain’t much on that side,” he said.
“Oil!” was the Countess’s weary exclamation. “I imagined Beckley Court to be your ancestral mansion. Oil!”
Harry deprecatingly remarked that oil was money.
“Yes,” she replied; “but you are not one to mix oil with your Elburne blood. Let me see—oil! That, I conceive, is grocery. So, you are grocers on one side!”
“Oh, come! hang it!” cried Harry, turning red.
“Am I leaning on the grocer’s side, or on the lord’s?”
Harry felt dreadfully taken down. “One ranks with one’s father,” he said.
“Yes,” observed the Countess; “but you should ever be careful not to expose the grocer. When I beheld my brother bow to you, and that your only return was to stare at him in that singular way, I was not aware of this, and could not account for it.”
“I declare I’m very sorry,” said Harry, with a nettled air. “Do just let me tell you how it happened. We were at an inn, where there was an odd old fellow gave a supper; and there was your brother, and another fellow—as thorough an upstart as I ever met, and infernally impudent. He got drinking, and wanted to fight us. Now I see it! Your brother, to save his friend’s bones, said he was a tailor! Of course no gentleman could fight a tailor; and it blew over with my saying we’d order our clothes of him.”
“Said he was a ——!” exclaimed the Countess, gazing blankly.
“I don’t wonder at your feeling annoyed,” returned Harry. “I saw him with Rosey next day, and began to smell a rat then, but Laxley won’t give up the tailor. He’s as proud as Lucifer. He wanted to order a suit of your brother to-day; but I said, not while he’s in the house, however he came here.”
The Countess had partially recovered. They were now in the village street, and Harry pointed out the post-office.
“Your divination with regard to my brother’s most eccentric behaviour was doubtless correct,” she said. “He wished to succour his wretched companion. Anywhere—it matters not to him what!—he allies himself with miserable mortals. He is the modern Samaritan. You should thank him for saving you an encounter with some low creature.”
Swaying the letter to and fro, she pursued archly: “I can read your thoughts. You are dying to know to whom this dear letter is addressed!”
Instantly Harry, whose eyes had previously been quite empty of expression, glanced at the letter wistfully.
“Shall I tell you?”
“It’s to somebody I love.”
“Are you in love, then?” was his disconcerted rejoinder.
“Am I not married?”
“Yes; but every woman that’s married isn’t in love with her husband, you know.”
“Oh! Don Juan of the provinces!” she cried, holding the seal of the letter before him in playful reproof. “Fie!”
“Come, who is it?” Harry burst out.
“I am not, surely, obliged to confess my correspondence to you? Remember!” she laughed lightly. “He already assumes the airs of a lord and master! You are rapid, Mr. Harry.”
“Won’t you really tell me?” he pleaded.
She put a corner of the letter in the box. “Must I?”
All was done with the archest elegance: the bewildering condescension of a goddess to a boor.
“I don’t say you must, you know; but I should like to see it,” returned Harry.
“There!” She showed him a glimpse of “Mrs.,” cleverly concealing plebeian “Cogglesby,” and the letter slid into darkness. “Are you satisfied?”
“Yes,” said Harry, wondering why he felt a relief at the sight of “Mrs.” written on a letter by a lady he had only known half an hour.
“And now,” said she, “I shall demand a boon of you, Mr. Harry. Will it be accorded?”
She was hurriedly told that she might count upon him for whatever she chose to ask; and after much trifling and many exaggerations of the boon in question, he heard that she had selected him as her cavalier for the day, and that he was to consent to accompany her to the village church.
“Is it so great a request, the desire that you should sit beside a solitary lady for so short a space?” she asked, noting his rueful visage.
Harry assured her he would be very happy, but hinted at the bother of having to sit and listen to that fool of a Parsley; again assuring her, and with real earnestness, which she now affected to doubt, that he would be extremely happy.
“You know, I haven’t been there for ages,” he explained.
“I hear it!” she sighed, aware of the credit his escort would bring her in Beckley, and especially with Harry’s grandmamma Bonner.
They went together to the village church. The Countess took care to be late, so that all eyes beheld her stately march up the aisle, with her captive beside her. Nor was her captive less happy than he professed he would be. Charming comic side-play, at the expense of Mr. Parsley, she mingled with exceeding devoutness, and a serious attention to Mr. Parsley’s discourse. In her heart this lady really thought her confessed daily sins forgiven her by the recovery of the lost sheep to Mr. Parsley’s fold.
The results of this small passage of arms were that Evan’s disclosure at Fallowfield was annulled in the mind of Harry Jocelyn, and the latter gentleman became the happy slave of the Countess de Saldar.