Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Evan Harrington - Part 27

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The Countess was not in her dressing-room when Evan presented himself. She was in attendance on Mrs. Bonner, Conning said; and the primness of Conning was a thing to have been noticed by anyone save a dreamy youth in love. Conning remained in the room, keeping distinctly aloof. Her duties absorbed her, but a presiding thought mechanically jerked back her head from time to time: being the mute form of, “Well, I never!” in Conning’s rank of life and intellectual capacity. Evan remained quite still in a chair, and Conning was certainly a number of paces beyond suspicion, when the Countess appeared, and hurling at the maid one of those feminine looks which contain huge quartos of meaning, vented the cold query:

“Pray, why did you not come to me, as you were commanded?”

“I was not aware, my lady,” Conning drew up to reply, and performed with her eyes a lofty rejection of the volume cast at her, and a threat of several for offensive operations, if need were.

The Countess spoke nearer to what she was implying: “You know I object to this: it is not the first time.”

“Would your ladyship please to say what your ladyship means?”

In return for this insolent challenge to throw off the mask, the Countess felt justified in punishing her by being explicit. “Your irregularities are not of yesterday,” she said, kindly making use of a word of double signification still.

“Thank you, my lady.” Conning accepted the word in its blackest meaning. “I am obliged to you. If your ladyship is to be believed, my character is not worth much. But I can make distinctions, my lady.”

Something very like an altercation was continued in a sharp, brief undertone; and then Evan, waking up to the affairs of the hour, heard Conning say:

“I shall not ask your ladyship to give me a character.”

The Countess answering, with pathos: “It would, indeed, be to give you one.”

He was astonished that the Countess should burst into tears when Conning had departed, and yet more so that his effort to console her should bring a bolt of wrath upon himself.

“Now, Evan, now see what you have done for us—do, and rejoice at it. The very menials insult us. You heard what that creature said? She can make distinctions. Oh! I could beat her. They know it: all the servants know it: I can see it in their faces. I feel it when I pass them. The insolent wretches treat us as impostors; and this Conning—to defy me! Oh! it comes of my devotion to you. I am properly chastised. I passed Rose’s maid on the stairs, and her reverence was barely perceptible.”

Evan murmured that he was sorry, adding, foolishly: “Do you really care, Louisa, for what servants think and say?”

The Countess sighed deeply: “Oh! you are too thick-skinned! Your mother from top to toe! It is too dreadful! What have I done to deserve it? Oh, Evan, Evan!”

Her head dropped in her lap. There was something ludicrous to Evan in this excess of grief on account of such a business; but he was tender-hearted and wrought upon to declare that, whether or not he was to blame for his mother’s intrusion that afternoon, he was ready to do what he could to make up to the Countess for her sufferings: whereat the Countess sighed again: asked him what he possibly could do, and doubted his willingness to accede to the most trifling request.

“No; I do in verity believe that were I to desire you to do aught for your own good alone, you would demur, Van.”

He assured her that she was mistaken.

“We shall see,” she said.

“And if, once or twice, I have run counter to you, Louisa—”

“Abominable language!” cried the Countess, stopping her ears like a child. “Do not excruciate me so. You laugh! My goodness! what will you come to!”

Evan checked his smile, and, taking her hand, said: “I must tell you—think what you will of me—I must tell you, that, on the whole, I see nothing to regret in what has happened to day. You may notice a change in the manners of the servants and some of the country squiresses, but I find none in the bearing of the real ladies, the true gentlemen, towards me.”

“Because the change is too fine for you to perceive it,” interposed the Countess.

“Rose, then, and her mother, and her father?” Evan cried impetuously.

“As for Lady Jocelyn!” the Countess shrugged: “and Sir Franks!” her head shook: “and Rose, Rose is simply self-willed; a ‘she will’ or ‘she won’t’ sort of little person. No criterion! Henceforth the world is against us. We have to struggle with it: it does not rank us of it!”

“Your feeling on the point is so exaggerated, my dear Louisa,” said Evan, “one can’t bring reason to your ears. The tattle we shall hear we shall outlive. I care extremely for the good opinion of men, but I prefer my own; and I do not lose it because my father was in trade.”

“And your own name, Evan Harrington, is on a shop,” the Countess struck in, and watched him severely from under her brow, glad to mark that he could still blush.

“Oh, Heaven!” she wailed to increase the effect, “on a shop! a brother of mine!”

“Yes, Louisa. It may not last . . . . I did it—is it not better that a son should blush, than cast dishonour on his father’s memory?”

“Ridiculous boy-notion!”

“Rose has pardoned it, Louisa—cannot you? I find that the naturally vulgar and narrow-headed people, and cowards who never forego mean advantages, are those only who would condemn me and my conduct in that.”

“And you have joy in your fraction of the world left to you!” exclaimed his female-elder.

Changing her manner to a winning softness, she said: “Let me also belong to the very small party! You have been really romantic, and most generous and noble; only the shop smells! But, never mind, promise me you will not enter it.”

“I hope not,” said Evan.

“You do hope that you will not officiate? Oh, Evan! the eternal contemplation of gentlemen’s legs! think of that! Think of yourself sculptured in that attitude! A fine young man!”

Innumerable little pricks and stings shot over Evan’s skin.

“There—there, Louisa!” he said, impatiently; “spare your ridicule. We go to London to-morrow, and when there I expect to hear that I have an appointment, and that this engagement is over.” He rose and walked up and down the room.

“I shall not be prepared to go to-morrow,” remarked the Countess, drawing her figure up stiffly.

“Oh! well, if you can stay, Andrew will take charge of you, I dare say.”

“No, my dear, Andrew will not—a nonentity cannot—you must.”

“Impossible, Louisa,” said Evan, as one who imagines he is uttering a thing of little consequence. “I promised Rose.”

“You promised Rose that you would abdicate and retire? Sweet, loving girl!”

Evan made no answer.

“You will stay with me, Evan.”

“I really can’t,” he said in his previous careless tone.

“Come and sit down,” cried the Countess, imperiously. “The first trifle is refused. It does not astonish me. I will honour you now by talking seriously to you. I have treated you hitherto as a child. Or, no—” she stopped her mouth; “it is enough if I tell you, dear, that poor Mrs. Bonner is dying, and that she desires my attendance on her to refresh her spirit with readings on the Prophecies, and Scriptural converse. No other soul in the house can so soothe her.”

“Then stay,” said Evan.

“Unprotected in the midst of enemies! Truly!”

“I think, Louisa, if you can call Lady Jocelyn an enemy, you must read the Scriptures by a false light.”

“The woman is an utter heathen!” interjected the Countess. “An infidel can be no friend. She is therefore the reverse. Her opinions embitter her mother’s last days. But now you will consent to remain with me, dear Van!”

An implacable negative responded to the urgent appeal of her eyes.

“By the way,” he said, for a diversion, “did you know of a girl stopping at an inn in Fallowfield?”

“Know a barmaid?” the Countess left her eyes and mouth wide at the question.

“Did you send Raikes for her to-day?”

“Did Mr. Raikes—ah, Evan! that creature reminds me, you have no sense of contrast. For a Brazilian ape he resembles, if he is not truly one—what contrast is he to an English gentleman! His proximity and acquaintance—rich as he may be—disfigure you. Study contrast!”

Evan had to remind her that she had not answered him: whereat she exclaimed: “One would really think you had never been abroad. Have you not evaded me, rather?”

The Countess commenced fanning her languid brows, and then pursued: “Now, my dear brother, I may conclude that you will acquiesce in my moderate wishes. You remain. My venerable friend cannot last three days. She is on the brink of a better world! I will confide to you that it is of the utmost importance we should be here, on the spot, until the sad termination! That is what I summoned you for. You are now at liberty. Ta-ta as soon as you please.”

She had baffled his little cross-examination with regard to Mr. Raikes, but on the other point he was firm. She would listen to nothing: she affected that her mandate had gone forth, and must be obeyed; tapped with her foot, fanned deliberately, and was a consummate queen, till he turned the handle of the door, when her complexion deadened, she started up, trembling and tripping towards him, caught him by the arm, and said: “Stop! After all that I have sacrificed for you! As well try to raise the dead as a Dawley from the dust he grovels in! Why did I consent to visit this place? It was for you. I came, I heard that you had disgraced yourself in drunkenness at Fallowfield, and I toiled to eclipse that, and I did. Young Jocelyn thought you were what you are: I could spit the word at you! and I dazzled him to give you time to win this minx, who will spin you like a top if you get her. That Mr. Forth knew it as well, and that vile young Laxley. They are gone! Why are they gone? Because they thwarted me—they crossed your interests—I said they should go. George Uploft is going to-day. The house is left to us; and I believe firmly that Mrs. Bonner’s will contains a memento of the effect of our frequent religious conversations. So you would leave now? I suspect nobody, but we are all human, and wills would not have been tampered with for the first time. Besides,” and the Countess’s imagination warmed till she addressed her brother as a confederate, “we shall then see to whom Beckley Court is bequeathed. Either way it may be yours. Yours, and you suffer their plots to drive you forth. Do you not perceive that Mama was brought here to-day on purpose to shame us and cast us out? We are surrounded by conspiracies, but if our faith is pure who can hurt us? If I had not that consolation—would that you had it, too!—would it be endurable to me to see those menials whispering and showing their forced respect? As it is, I am fortified to forgive them. I breathe another atmosphere. Oh, Evan! you did not attend to Mr. Parsley’s beautiful last sermon. The Church should have been your vocation.”

From vehemence the Countess had subsided to a mournful gentleness. She had been too excited to notice any changes in her brother’s face during her speech, and when he turned from the door, and still eyeing her fixedly, led her to a chair, she fancied from his silence that she had subdued and convinced him. A delicious sense of her power, succeeded by a weary reflection that she had constantly to employ it, occupied her mind, and when presently she looked up from the shade of her hand, it was to agitate her head pitifully at her brother.

“All this you have done for me, Louisa,” he said.

“Yes, Evan,—all!” she fell into his tone.

“And you are the cause of Laxley’s going? Did you know anything of that anonymous letter?”

He was squeezing her hand—with grateful affection, as she was deluded to imagine.

“Perhaps, dear,—a little,” her conceit prompted her to admit.

“Did you write it?”

He gazed intently into her eyes, and as the question shot like a javelin, she tried ineffectually to disengage her fingers; her delusion waned; she took fright, but it was too late; he had struck the truth out of her before she could speak. Her spirit writhed like a snake in his hold. Innumerable things she was ready to say, and strove to; the words would not form on her lips.

“I will be answered, Louisa.”

The stern imperious manner he had assumed gave her no hope of eluding him. With an inward gasp, and a sensation of nakedness altogether new to her, dismal, and alarming, she felt that she could not lie. Like a creature forsaken of her staunchest friend, she could have flung herself to the floor. The next instant her natural courage restored her. She jumped up and stood at bay.

“Yes. I did.”

And now he was weak, and she was strong, and used her strength.

“I wrote it to save you. Yes. Call on your Creator, and be my judge, if you dare. Never, never will you meet a soul more utterly devoted to you, Evan. This Mr. Forth, this Laxley, I said, should go, because they were resolved to ruin you, and make you base. They are gone. The responsibility I take on myself. Nightly—during the remainder of my days—I will pray for pardon.”

He raised his head to ask sombrely: “Is your handwriting like Laxley’s?”

“It seems so,” she answered, with a pitiful sneer for one who could arrest her exaltation to inquire about minutiæ. “Right or wrong, it is done, and if you choose to be my judge, think whether your own conscience is clear. Why did you come here? Why did you stay? You have your free will,—do you deny that? Oh, I will take the entire blame, but you must not be a hypocrite, Van. You know you were aware. We had no confidence. I was obliged to treat you like a child; but for you to pretend to suppose that roses grow in your path—oh, that is paltry! You are a hypocrite or an imbecile, if that is your course.”

Was he not something of the former? The luxurious mist in which he had been living, dispersed before his sister’s bitter words, and, as she designed he should, he felt himself her accomplice. But, again, reason struggled to enlighten him; for surely he would never have done a thing so disproportionate to the end to be gained! It was the unconnected action of his brain that thus advised him. No thoroughly-fashioned, clear-spirited man conceives wickedness impossible to him: but wickedness so largely mixed with folly, the best of us may reject as not among our temptations. Evan, since his love had dawned, had begun to talk with his own nature, and though he knew not yet how much it would stretch or contract, he knew that he was weak and could not perform moral wonders without severe struggles. The cynic may add, if he likes—or without potent liquors.

Could he be his sister’s judge? It is dangerous for young men to be too good. They are so sweeping in their condemnations; so sublime in their conceptions of excellence, and the most finished Puritan cannot out-do their demands upon frail humanity. Evan’s momentary self-examination saved him from this, and he told the Countess, with a sort of cold compassion, that he himself dared not blame her.

His tone was distinctly wanting in admiration of her, but she was somewhat over-wrought, and leaned her shoulder against him, and became immediately his affectionate, only too-zealous, sister; dearly to be loved, to be forgiven, to be prized: and on condition of inserting a special petition for pardon in her orisons, to live with a calm conscience, and to be allowed to have her own way with him during the rest of her days.

It was a happy union—a picture that the Countess was lured to admire in the glass.

Sad that so small a murmur should destroy it for ever!

“What?” cried the Countess bursting from his arm.

Go?” she emphasised with the hardness of determined unbelief, as if plucking the words, one by one, out of her reluctant ears. “Go to Lady Jocelyn, and tell her I wrote the letter?”

“You can do no less, I fear,” said Evan, eyeing the floor and breathing a deep breath.

“Then I did hear you correctly? Oh, you must be mad—idiotic! There, pray go away, Evan. Come in the morning. You are too much for my nerves.”

Evan rose, putting out his hand as if to take hers and plead with her. She rejected the first motion, and repeated her desire for him to leave her; saying, cheerfully:

“Good night, dear, I dare say we shan’t meet till the morning.”

“You can’t let this injustice continue a single night, Louisa?” said he.

She was deep in the business of arranging a portion of her attire.

“Go—go; please,” she responded.

Lingering, he said: “If I go, it will be straight to Lady Jocelyn.”

She stamped angrily.

Only go!” and then she found him gone, and she stooped lower to the glass to mark if the recent agitation were observable under her eyes. There, looking at herself, her heart dropped heavily in her bosom. She ran to the door and hurried swiftly after Evan, pulling him back speechlessly.

“Where are you going, Evan?”

“To Lady Jocelyn.”

The unhappy victim of her devotion stood panting.

“If you go, I—I take poison!”

It was for him now to be struck; but he was suffering too strong an anguish to be susceptible to mock tragedy. The Countess paused to study him. She began to fear her brother. “I will!” she reiterated wildly, without moving him at all. And the quiet inflexibility of his face forbade the ultimate hope which lies in giving men a dose of hysterics when they are obstinate. She tried by taunts and angry vituperations to make him look fierce, if but an instant, to precipitate her into an exhibition she was so well prepared for.

“Evan! what! after all my love, my confidence in you—I need not have told you—to expose us! Brother? would you? Oh!”

“I will not let this last another hour,” said Evan, firmly, at the same time seeking to caress her. She spurned his fruitless affection, feeling, nevertheless, how cruel was her fate; for with any other save a brother she had arts at her disposal to melt the manliest resolutions. The glass showed her that her face was pathetically pale; the tones of her voice were rich and harrowing. What did they avail with a brother?

“Promise me,” she cried eagerly, “promise me to stop here—on this spot—till I return.”

The promise was extracted. The Countess went to fetch Caroline.

Evan did not count the minutes. One thought was mounting in his brain—the scorn of Rose. He felt that he had lost her. Lost her when he had just won her! He felt it, without realising it. The first blows of an immense grief are dull, and strike the heart through wool, as it were. The belief of the young in their sorrow has to be flogged into them, on the good old educational principle. Could he do less than this he was about to do? Rose had wedded her noble nature to him, and it was as much her spirit as his own that urged him thus to forfeit her, to be worthy of her by assuming unworthiness. There he sat, neither conning over his determination nor the cause for it, revolving Rose’s words about Laxley, and nothing else. The words were so sweet and so bitter; every now and then the heavy smiting on his heart set it quivering and leaping, as the whip starts a jaded horse.

Meantime the Countess was participating in a witty conversation in the drawing-room with Sir John and the Duke, Miss Current, and others; and it was not till after she had displayed many graces, and, as one or two ladies presumed to consider, marked effrontery, that she rose and drew Caroline away with her. Returning to her dressing-room, she found that Evan had faithfully kept his engagement; he was on the exact spot where she had left him.

Caroline came to him swiftly, and put her hand to his forehead that she might the better peruse his features, saying in her mellow caressing voice: “What is this, dear Van, that you will do? Why do you look so wretched?”

“Has not Louisa told you?”

“She has told me something, dear, but I don’t know what it is. That you are going to expose us? What further exposure do we need? I’m sure, Van, my pride—what I had—is gone. I have none left!”

Evan kissed her brows warmly. An explanation, full of the Countess’s passionate outcries of justification, necessity, and innocence in higher than fleshly eyes, was given, and then the three were silent.

“But, Van,” Caroline commenced, deprecatingly, “my darling! of what use—now! Whether right or wrong, why should you, why should you, when the thing is done, dear?—think!”

“And you, too, would let another suffer under an unjust accusation?” said Evan.

“But, dearest, it is surely your duty to think of your family first. Have we not been afflicted enough? Why should you lay us under this fresh burden?”

“Because it’s better to bear all now than a life of remorse,” answered Evan.

“But this Mr. Laxley—I cannot pity him; he has behaved so insolently to you throughout! Let him suffer.”

“Lady Jocelyn,” said Evan, “has been unintentionally unjust to him, and after her kindness—apart from the right or wrong—I will not—I can’t allow her to continue so.”

“After her kindness!” echoed the Countess, who had been fuming at Caroline’s weak expostulations. “Kindness! Have I not done ten times for these Jocelyns what they have done for us? O mon Dieu! why, I have bestowed on them the membership for Fallowfield: I have saved her from being a convicted liar this very day. Worse! for what would have been talked of the morals of the house, supposing the scandal. Oh! indeed I was tempted to bring that horrid mad Captain into the house face to face with his flighty doll of a wife, as I, perhaps, should have done, acting by the dictates of my conscience. I lied for Lady Jocelyn, and handed the man to a lawyer, who withdrew him. And this they owe to me! Kindness? They have given us bed and board, as the people say. I have repaid them for that.”

“Pray be silent, Louisa,” said Evan, getting up hastily, for the sick sensation Rose had experienced came over him. His sister’s plots, her untruth, her coarseness, clung to him and seemed part of his blood. He now had a personal desire to cut himself loose from the wretched entanglement revealed to him, whatever it cost.

“Are you really, truly going?” Caroline exclaimed, for he was near the door.

“At a quarter to twelve at night!” sneered the Countess, still imagining that he, like herself, must be partly acting.

“But, Van, is it—dearest, think! is it manly for a brother to go and tell of his sister? And how would it look?”

Evan smiled. “Is it that that makes you unhappy? Louisa’s name will not be mentioned—be sure of that.”

Caroline was stooping forward to him. Her figure straightened: “Good Heaven, Evan! you are not going to take it on yourself? Rose!—she will hate you.”

“God help me!” he cried internally.

“Oh, Evan, darling! consider, reflect!” She fell on her knees, catching his hand. “It is worse for us that you should suffer, dearest! Think of the dreadful meanness and baseness of what you will have to acknowledge.”

“Yes!” sighed the youth, and his eyes, in his extreme pain, turned to the Countess reproachfully.

“Think, dear,” Caroline hurried on, “he gains nothing for whom you do this—you lose all. It is not your deed. You will have to speak an untruth. Your ideas are wrong—wrong, I know they are. You will have to lie. But if you are silent, the little, little blame that may attach to us will pass away, and we shall be happy in seeing our brother happy.”

“You are talking to Evan as if he had religion,” said the Countess, with steady sedateness. And at that moment, from the sublimity of his pagan virtue, the young man groaned for some pure certain light to guide him: the question whether he was about to do right made him weak. He took Caroline’s head between his two hands, and kissed her mouth. The act brought Rose to his senses insufferably, and she—his goddess of truth and his sole guiding light—spurred him afresh.

“The dishonour of my family, Caroline, is mine, and on me the public burden of it rests. Say nothing more—don’t think of me. I will not be moved from what I have resolved. I go to Lady Jocelyn to-night. To-morrow we leave, and there’s the end. Louisa, if you have any new schemes for my welfare, I beg you to renounce them.”

“Gratitude I never expected from a Dawley!” the Countess retorted.

“Oh, Louisa! he is going!” cried Caroline; “kneel to him with me: stop him: Rose loves him, and he is going to make her hate him.”

“You can’t talk reason to one who’s mad,” said the Countess, more like the Dawley she sprang from than it would have pleased her to know.

“My darling! My own Evan! it will kill me,” Caroline exclaimed, and passionately imploring him, she looked so hopelessly beautiful, that Evan was agitated, and caressed her, while he said softly: “Where our honour is not involved I would submit to your smallest wish.”

“It involves my life—my destiny!” murmured Caroline.

Could he have known the double meaning in her words, and what a saving this sacrifice of his was to accomplish, he would not have turned to do it feeling abandoned of heaven and earth.

The Countess stood rigidly as he went forth. Caroline was on her knees, sobbing.

“The dishonour of my family is mine, and on me the burden of it rests.”

That was the chant that rose in Caroline’s bosom.