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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesEve's Ransom - Chapter 24
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Eve's Ransom - Chapter 24 Post by :eagleye Category :Long Stories Author :George Gissing Date :May 2012 Read :3297

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Eve's Ransom - Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV

They shook hands without a word, their eyes meeting for an instant only. Hilliard led the way upstairs; and Patty, still keeping an embarrassed silence, sat down on the easy-chair. Her complexion was as noticeably fresh as Hilliard's was wan and fatigued. Where Patty's skin showed a dimple, his bore a gash, the result of an accident in shaving this morning.

With hands behind he stood in front of the girl.

"She chose not to come, then?"

"Yes. She asked me to come and see you alone."

"No pretence of headache this time."

"I don't think it was a pretence," faltered Patty, who looked very ill at ease, for all the bloom on her cheeks and the clear, childish light in her eyes.

"Well, then, why hasn't she come to-day?"

"She has sent a letter for you, Mr. Hilliard."

Patty handed the missive, and Hilliard laid it upon the table.

"Am I to read it now?"

"I think it's a long letter."

"Feels like it. I'll study it at my leisure. You know what it contains?"

Patty nodded, her face turned away.

"And why has she chosen to-day to write to me?" Patty kept silence. "Anything to do with the call I had yesterday from my friend Narramore?"

"Yes--that's the reason. But she has meant to let you know for some time."

Hilliard drew a long breath. He fixed his eyes on the letter.

"She has told me everything," the girl continued, speaking hurriedly. "Did you know about it before yesterday?"

"I'm not so good an actor as all that. Eve has the advantage of me in that respect. She really thought it possible that Narramore had spoken before?"

"She couldn't be sure."

"H'm! Then she didn't know for certain that Narramore was going to talk to me about her yesterday?"

"She knew it _must come."

"Patty, our friend Miss Madeley is a very sensible person--don't you think so?"

"You mustn't think she made a plan to deceive you. She tells you all about it in the letter, and I'm quite sure it's all true, Mr. Hilliard. I was astonished when I heard of it, and I can't tell you how sorry I feel----"

"I'm not at all sure that there's any cause for sorrow," Hilliard interrupted, drawing up a chair and throwing himself upon it. "Unless you mean that you are sorry for Eve."

"I meant that as well."

"Let us understand each other. How much has she told you?"

"Everything, from beginning to end. I had no idea of what happened in London before we went to Paris. And she does so repent of it! She doesn't know how she could do it. She wishes you had refused her."

"So do I."

"But you saved her--she can never forget that. You mustn't think that she only pretends to be grateful. She will be grateful to you as long as she lives. I know she will."

"On condition that I--what?"

Patty gave him a bewildered look.

"What does she ask of me now?"

"She's ashamed to ask anything. She fears you will never speak to her again."

Hilliard meditated, then glanced at the letter.

"I had better read this now, I think, if you will let me."

"Yes--please do----"

He tore open the envelope, and disclosed two sheets of note-paper, covered with writing. For several minutes there was silence; Patty now and then gave a furtive glance at her companion's face as he was reading. At length he put the letter down again, softly.

"There's something more here than I expected. Can you tell me whether she heard from Narramore this morning?"

"She has had no letter."

"I see. And what does she suppose passed between Narramore and me yesterday?"

"She is wondering what you told him."

"She takes it for granted, in this letter, that I have put an end to everything between them. Well, hadn't I a right to do so?"

"Of course you had," Patty replied, with emphasis. "And she knew it must come. She never really thought that she could marry Mr. Narramore. She gave him no promise."

"Only corresponded with him, and made appointments with him, and allowed him to feel sure that she would be his wife."

"Eve has behaved very strangely. I can't understand her. She ought to have told you that she had been to see him, and that he wrote to her. It's always best to be straightforward. See what trouble she has got herself into!"

Hilliard took up the letter again, and again there was a long silence.

"Have you said good-bye to her?" were his next words.

"She's going to meet me at the station to see me off."

"Did she come from Dudley with you?"

"No."

"It's all very well to make use of you for this disagreeable business----"

"Oh, I didn't mind it!" broke in Patty, with irrelevant cheerfulness.

"A woman 'who does such things as this should have the courage to go through with it. She ought to have come herself, and have told me that. She was aiming at much better things than _I could have promised her. There would have been something to admire in that. The worst of it is she is making me feel ashamed of her. I'd rather have to do with a woman who didn't care a rap for my feelings than with a weak one, who tried to spare me to advantage herself at the same time. There's nothing like courage, whether in good or evil. What do you think? Does she like Narramore?"

"I think she does," faltered Patty, nervously striking her dress.

"Is she in love with him?"

"I--I really don't know!"

"Do you think she ever was in love with anyone, or ever will be?"

Patty sat mute.

"Just tell me what you think."

"I'm afraid she never--Oh, I don't like to say it, Mr. Hilliard!"

"That she never was in love with _me_? I know it."

His tone caused Patty to look up at him, and what she saw in his face made her say quickly:

"I am so sorry; I am indeed! You deserve----"

"Never mind what I deserve," Hilliard interrupted with a grim smile. "Something less than hanging, I hope. That fellow in London; she was fond of _him_?"

The girl whispered an assent.

"A pity I interfered."

"Ah! But think what----"

"We won't discuss it, Patty. It's a horrible thing to be mad about a girl who cares no more for you than for an old glove; but it's a fool's part to try to win her by the way of gratitude. When we came back from Paris I ought to have gone my way, and left her to go hers. Perhaps just possible--if I had seemed to think no more of her----"

Patty waited, but he did not finish his speech.

"What are you going to do, Mr. Hilliard?"

"Yes, that's the question. Shall I hold her to her promise? She says here that she will keep her word if I demand it."

"She says that!" Patty exclaimed, with startled eyes.

"Didn't you know?"

"She told me it was impossible. But perhaps she didn't mean it. Who can tell _what she means?"

For the first time there sounded a petulance in the girl's voice. Her lips closed tightly, and she tapped with her foot on the floor.

"Did she say that the other thing was also impossible--to marry Narramore?"

"She thinks it is, after what you've told him."

"Well, now, as a matter of fact I told him nothing."

Patty stared, a new light in her eyes.

"You told him--nothing?"

"I just let him suppose that I had never heard the girl's name before."

"Oh, how kind of you! How----"

"Please to remember that it wasn't very easy to tell the truth. What sort of figure should I have made?"

"It's too bad of Eve! It's cruel! I can never like her as I did before."

"Oh, she's very interesting. She gives one such a lot to talk about."

"I don't like her, and I shall tell her so before I leave Birmingham. What right has she to make people so miserable?"

"Only one, after all."

"Do you mean that you will let her marry Mr. Narramore?" Patty asked with interest.

"We shall have to talk about that."

"If I were you I should never see her again!"

"The probability is that we shall see each other many a time."

"Then _you haven't much courage, Mr. Hilliard!" exclaimed the girl, with a flush on her cheeks.

"More than you think, perhaps," he answered between his teeth.

"Men are very strange," Patty commented in a low voice of scorn, mitigated by timidity.

"Yes, we play queer pranks when a woman has made a slave of us. I suppose you think I should have too much pride to care any more for her. The truth is that for years to come I shall tremble all through whenever she is near me. Such love as I have felt for Eve won't be trampled out like a spark. It's the best and the worst part of my life. No woman can ever be to me what Eve is."

Abashed by the grave force of this utterance, Patty shrank back into the chair, and held her peace.

"You will very soon know what conies of it all," Hilliard continued with a sudden change of voice. "It has to be decided pretty quickly, one way or another."

"May I tell Eve what you have said to me?" the girl asked with diffidence.

"Yes, anything that I have said."

Patty lingered a little, then, as her companion said no more, she rose.

"I must say good-bye, Mr. Hilliard."

"I am afraid your holiday hasn't been as pleasant as you expected."

"Oh, I have enjoyed myself very much. And I hope"--her voice wavered--"I do hope it'll be all right. I'm sure you'll do what seems best."

"I shall do what I find myself obliged to, Patty. Good-bye. I won't offer to go with you, for I should be poor company."

He conducted her to the foot of the stairs, again shook hands with her, put all his goodwill into a smile, and watched her trip away with a step not so light as usual. Then he returned to Eve's letter. It gave him a detailed account of her relations with Narramore. "I went to him because I couldn't bear to live idle any longer; I had no other thought in my mind. If he had been the means of my finding work, I should have confessed it to you at once. But I was tempted into answering his letters. . . . I knew I was behaving wrongly; I can't defend myself. . . . I have never concealed my faults from you --the greatest of them is my fear of poverty. I believe it is this that has prevented me from returning your love as I wished to do. For a long time I have been playing a deceitful part, and the strange thing is that I _knew my exposure might come at any moment. I seem to have been led on by a sort of despair. Now I am tired of it; whether you were prepared for this or not, I must tell you. . . . I don't ask you to release me. I have been wronging you and acting against my conscience, and if you can forgive me I will try to make up for the ill I have done. . . ."

How much of this could he believe? Gladly he would have fooled himself into believing it all, but the rational soul in him cast out credulity. Every phrase of the letter was calculated for its impression. And the very risk she had run, was not that too a matter of deliberate speculation? She _might succeed in her design upon Narramore; if she failed, the 'poorer man was still to be counted upon, for she knew the extent of her power over him. It was worth the endeavour. Perhaps, in her insolent self-confidence, she did not fear the effect on Narramore of the disclosure that might be made to him. And who could say that her boldness was not likely to be justified?

He burned with wrath against her, the wrath of a hopelessly infatuated man. Thoughts of revenge, no matter how ignoble, harassed his mind. She counted on his slavish spirit. and even in saying that she did not ask him to release her, she saw herself already released. At each reperusal of her letter he felt more resolved to disappoint the hope that inspired it. When she learnt from Patty that Narramore was still ignorant of her history how would she exult! But that joy should be brief. In the name of common honesty he would protect his friend. If Narramore chose to take her with his eyes open----

Jealous frenzy kept him pacing the room for an hour or two. Then he went forth and haunted the neighbourhood of New Street station until within five minutes of the time of departure of Patty's train. If Eve kept her promise to see the girl off he might surprise her upon the platform.

From the bridge crossing the lines he surveyed the crowd of people that waited by the London train, a bank-holiday train taking back a freight of excursionists. There-amid he discovered Eve, noted her position, descended to the platform, and got as near to her as possible. The train moved off. As Eve turned away among the dispersing people, he stepped to meet her.

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