The Small House at Allington/Chapter 14

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John Eames watched the party of cavaliers as they rode away from his mother's door, and then started upon a solitary walk, as soon as the noise of the horses' hoofs had passed away out of the street. He was by no means happy in his mind as he did so. Indeed, he was overwhelmed with care and trouble, and as he went along very gloomy thoughts passed through his mind. Had he not better go to Australia, or Vancouver's Island, or——? I will not name the places which the poor fellow suggested to himself as possible terminations of the long journeys which he might not improbably be called upon to take. That very day, just before the Dales had come in, he had received a second letter from his darling Amelia, written very closely upon the heels of the first. Why had he not answered her? Was he ill? Was he untrue? No; she would not believe that, and therefore fell back upon the probability of his illness. If it was so, she would rush down to see him. Nothing on earth should keep her from the bedside of her betrothed. If she did not get an answer from her beloved John by return of post, she would be down with him at Guestwick by the express train. Here was a position for such a young man as John Eames! And of Amelia Roper we may say that she was a young woman who would not give up her game, as long as the least chance remained of her winning it. "I must go somewhere," John said to himself, as he put on his slouched hat and wandered forth through the back streets of Guestwick. What would his mother say when she heard of Amelia Roper? What would she say when she saw her?

He walked away towards the Manor, so that he might roam about the Guestwick woods in solitude. There was a path with a stile, leading off from the high road, about half a mile beyond the lodges through which the Dales had ridden up to the house, and by this path John Eames turned in, and went away till he had left the Manor house behind him, and was in the centre of the Guestwick woods. He knew the whole ground well, having roamed there ever since he was first allowed to go forth upon his walks alone. He had thought of Lily Dale by the hour together, as he had lost himself among the oak-trees; but in those former days he had thought of her with some pleasure. Now he could only think of her as of one gone from him for ever; and then he had also to think of her whom he had taken to himself in Lily's place.

Young men, very young men,—men so young that it may be almost a question whether or no they have as yet reached their manhood,—are more inclined to be earnest and thoughtful when alone than they ever are when with others, even though those others be their elders. I fancy that, as we grow old ourselves, we are apt to forget that it was so with us; and, forgetting it, we do not believe that it is so with our children. We constantly talk of the thoughtlessness of youth. I do not know whether we might not more appropriately speak of its thoughtfulness. It is, however, no doubt, true that thought will not at once produce wisdom. It may almost be a question whether such wisdom as many of us have in our mature years has not come from the dying out of the power of temptation, rather than as the results of thought and resolution. Men, full fledged and at their work, are, for the most part, too busy for much thought; but lads, on whom the work of the world has not yet fallen with all its pressure,—they have time for thinking.

And thus John Eames was thoughtful. They who knew him best accounted him to be a gay, good-hearted, somewhat reckless young man, open to temptation, but also open to good impressions; as to whom no great success could be predicated, but of whom his friends might fairly hope that he might so live as to bring upon them no disgrace and not much trouble. But, above all things, they would have called him thoughtless. In so calling him, they judged him wrong. He was ever thinking,—thinking much of the world as it appeared to him, and of himself as he appeared to the world; and thinking, also, of things beyond the world. What was to be his fate here and hereafter? Lily Dale was gone from him, and Amelia Roper was hanging round his neck like a millstone! What, under such circumstances, was to be his fate here and hereafter?

We may say that the difficulties in his way were not as yet very great. As to Lily, indeed, he had no room for hope; but, then, his love for Lily had, perhaps, been a sentiment rather than a passion. Most young men have to go through that disappointment, and are enabled to bear it without much injury to their prospects or happiness. And in after-life the remembrance of such love is a blessing rather than a curse, enabling the possessor of it to feel that in those early days there was something within him of which he had no cause to be ashamed. I do not pity John Eames much in regard to Lily Dale. And then, as to Amelia Roper,—— had he achieved but a tithe of that lady's experience in the world, or possessed a quarter of her audacity, surely such a difficulty as that need not have stood much in his way! What could Amelia do to him if he fairly told her that he was not minded to marry her? In very truth he had never promised to do so. He was in no way bound to her, not even by honour. Honour, indeed, with such as her! But men are cowards before women until they become tyrants; and are easy dupes, till of a sudden they recognize the fact that it is pleasanter to be the victimizer than the victim,—and as easy. There are men, indeed, who never learn the latter lesson.

But, though the cause for fear was so slight, poor John Eames was thoroughly afraid. Little things which, in connection with so deep a sorrow as his, it is almost ridiculous to mention, added to his embarrassments, and made an escape from them seem to him to be impossible. He could not return to London without going to Burton Crescent, because his clothes were there, and because he owed to Mrs. Roper some small sum of money which on his return to London he would not have immediately in his pocket. He must therefore meet Amelia, and he knew that he had not the courage to tell a girl, face to face, that he did not love her, after he had once been induced to say that he did do so. His boldest conception did not go beyond the writing of a letter in which he would renounce her, and removing himself altogether from that quarter of the town in which Burton Crescent was situated. But then about his clothes, and that debt of his? And what if Amelia should in the meantime come down to Guestwick and claim him? Could he in his mother's presence declare that she had no right to make such claim? The difficulties, in truth, were not very great, but they were too heavy for that poor young clerk from the Income-tax Office.

You will declare that he must have been a fool and a coward. Yet he could read and understand Shakspeare. He knew much,—by far too much,—of Byron's poetry by heart. He was a deep critic, often writing down his criticisms in a lengthy journal which he kept. He could write quickly, and with understanding; and I may declare that men at his office had already ascertained that he was no fool. He knew his business, and could do it,—as many men failed to do who were much less foolish before the world. And as to that matter of cowardice, he would have thought it the greatest blessing in the world to be shut up in a room with Crosbie, having permission to fight with him till one of them should have been brought by stress of battle to give up his claim to Lily Dale. Eames was no coward. He feared no man on earth. But he was terribly afraid of Amelia Roper.

He wandered about through the old Manor woods very ill at ease. The post from Guestwick went out at seven, and he must at once make up his mind whether or no he would write to Amelia on that day. He must also make up his mind as to what he would say to her. He felt that he should at least answer her letter, let his answer be what it might. Should he promise to marry her,—say, in ten or twelve years' time? Should he tell her that he was a blighted being, unfit for love, and with humility entreat of her that he might be excused? Or should he write to her mother, telling her that Burton Crescent would not suit him any longer, promising her to send the balance on receipt of his next payment, and asking her to send his clothes in a bundle to the Income-tax Office? Or should he go home to his own mother, and boldly tell it all to her?

He at last resolved that he must write the letter, and as he composed it in his mind he sat himself down beneath an old tree which stood on a spot at which many of the forest tracks met and crossed each other. The letter, as he framed it here, was not a bad letter, if only he could have got it written and posted. Every word of it he chose with precision, and in his mind he emphasized every expression which told his mind clearly and justified his purpose. "He acknowledged himself to have been wrong in misleading his correspondent, and allowing her to imagine that she possessed his heart. He had not a heart at her disposal. He had been weak not to write to her before, having been deterred from doing so by the fear of giving her pain; but now he felt that he was bound in honour to tell her the truth. Having so told her, he would not return to Burton Crescent, if it would pain her to see him there. He would always have a deep regard for her,"—Oh, Johnny!—"and would hope anxiously that her welfare in life might be complete." That was the letter, as he wrote it on the tablets of his mind under the tree; but the getting it put on to paper was a task, as he knew, of greater difficulty. Then, as he repeated it to himself, he feel asleep.

"Young man," said a voice in his ears as he slept. At first the voice spoke as a voice from his dream without waking him, but when it was repeated, he sat up and saw that a stout gentleman was standing over him. For a moment he did not know where he was, or how he had come there; nor could he recollect, as he saw the trees about him, how long he had been in the wood. But he knew the stout gentleman well enough, though he had not seen him for more than two years. "Young man," said the voice, "if you want to catch rheumatism, that's the way to do it. Why, it's young Eames, isn't it?"

"Yes, my lord," said Johnny, raising himself up so that he was now sitting, instead of lying, as he looked up into the earl's rosy face.

"I knew your father, and a very good man he was; only he shouldn't have taken to farming. People think they can farm without learning the trade, but that's a very great mistake. I can farm, because I've learned it. Don't you think you'd better get up?" Whereupon Johnny raised himself to his feet. "Not but what you're very welcome to lie there if you like it. Only, in October, you know——"

"I'm afraid I'm trespassing, my lord," said Eames. "I came in off the path, and——"

"You're welcome; you're very welcome. If you'll come up to the house, I'll give you some luncheon." This hospitable offer, however, Johnny declined, alleging that it was late, and that he was going home to dinner.

"Come along," said the earl. "You can't go any shorter way than by the house. Dear, dear, how well I remember your father. He was a much cleverer man than I am,—very much; but he didn't know how to send a beast to market any better than a child. By-the-by, they have put you into a public office, haven't they?"

"Yes, my lord."

"And a very good thing, too,—a very good thing, indeed. But why were you asleep in the wood? It isn't warm, you know. I call it rather cold." And the earl stopped, and looked at him, scrutinizing him, as though resolved to inquire into so deep a mystery.

"I was taking a walk, and thinking of something, I sat down."

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"Why, it's young Eames."

"Leave of absence, I suppose?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Have you got into trouble? You look as though you were in trouble. Your poor father used to be in trouble."

"I haven't taken to farming," said Johnny, with an attempt at a smile.

"Ha, ha, ha,—quite right. No, don't take to farming. Unless you learn it, you know, you might just as well take to shoemaking;—just the same. You haven't got into trouble, then; eh?"

"No, my lord, not particularly."

"Not particularly! I know very well that young men do get into trouble when they get up to London. If you want any—any advice, or that sort of thing, you may come to me; for I knew your father well. Do you like shooting?"

"I never did shoot anything."

"Well, perhaps better not. To tell the truth, I'm not very fond of young men who take to shooting without having anything to shoot at. By-the-by, now I think of it, I'll send your mother some game."

It may, however, here be fair to mention that game very often came from Guestwick Manor to Mrs. Eames. "And look here, cold pheasant for breakfast is the best thing I know of. Pheasants at dinner are rubbish,—mere rubbish. Here we are at the house. Will you come in and have a glass of wine?"

But this John Eames declined, pleasing the earl better by doing so than he would have done by accepting it. Not that the lord was inhospitable or insincere in his offer, but he preferred that such a one as John Eames should receive his proffered familiarity without too much immediate assurance. He felt that Eames was a little in awe of his companion's rank, and he liked him the better for it. He liked him the better for it, and was a man apt to remember his likings. "If you won't come in, good-by," and he gave Johnny his hand.

"Good evening, my lord," said Johnny.

"And remember this; it is the deuce of a thing to have rheumatism in your loins. I wouldn't go to sleep under a tree, if I were you,—not in October. But you're always welcome to go anywhere about the place."

"Thank you, my lord."

"And if you should take to shooting,—but I dare say you won't; and if you come to trouble, and want advice, or that sort of thing, write to me. I knew your father well." And so they parted, Eames returning on his road towards Guestwick.

For some reason, which he could not define, he felt better after his interview with the earl. There had been something about the fat, good-natured, sensible old man which had cheered him, in spite of his sorrow. "Pheasants for dinner are rubbish,—mere rubbish," he said to himself, over and over again, as he went along the road; and they were the first words which he spoke to his mother, after entering the house.

"I wish we had some of that sort of rubbish," said she.

"So you will, to-morrow;" and then he described to her his interview.

"The earl was, at any rate, quite right about lying upon the ground. I wonder you can be so foolish. And he is right about your poor father too. But you have got to change your boots; and we shall be ready for dinner almost immediately."

But Johnny Eames, before he sat down to dinner, did write his letter to Amelia, and did go out to post it with his own hands,—much to his mother's annoyance. But the letter would not get itself written in that strong and appropriate language which had come to him as he was roaming through the woods. It was a bald letter, and somewhat cowardly withal.

Dear Amelia (the letter ran),—I have received both of yours; and did not answer the first because I felt that there was a difficulty in expressing what I wish to say; and now it will be better that you should allow the subject to stand over till I am back in town. I shall be there in ten days from this. I have been quite well, and am so; but of course am much obliged by your inquiries. I know you will think this very cold; but when I tell you everything, you will agree with me that it is best. If I were to marry, I know that we should be unhappy, because we should have nothing to live on. If I have ever said anything to deceive you, I beg your pardon with all my heart;—but perhaps it will be better to let the subject remain till we shall meet again in London.
Believe me to be
Your most sincere friend,
And I may say admirer,—[Oh, John Eames!]
John Eames.