Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XVII

Hard and Soft

Before very long it was manifest enough that Mr. Gundry looked down upon Miss Sylvester with a large contempt. But while this raised my opinion of his judgment, it almost deprived me of a great relief — the relief of supposing that he wished his grandson to marry this Pennsylvania. For although her father, with his pigs and cattle, and a low sort of hostelry which he kept, could settle “a good pile of dollars” upon her, and had kept her at the “learnedest ladies’ college” even in San Francisco till he himself trembled at her erudition, still it was scarcely to be believed that a man of the Sawyer’s strong common-sense and disregard of finery would ever accept for his grandchild a girl made of affectation, vulgarity, and conceit. And one day, quite in the early spring, he was so much vexed with the fine lady’s airs that he left no doubt about his meaning.

Miss Sylvester was very proud of the figure she made on horseback; and having been brought up, perhaps as a child, to ride after pigs and so on, she must have had fine opportunities of acquiring a graceful style of horsemanship. And now she dashed through thick and thin in a most commanding manner, caring no more for a snow-drift than ladies do for a scraping of the road. No one with the least observation could doubt that this young woman was extremely anxious to attract Firm Gundry’s notice; and therefore, on the day above spoken of, once more she rode over, with her poor father in waiting upon her as usual.

Now I know very well how many faults I have, and to deny them has never been my practice; but this is the honest and earnest truth, that no smallness of mind, or narrowness of feeling, or want of large or fine sentiments made me bolt my door when that girl was in the house. I simply refused, after seeing her once, to have any thing more to say to her; by no means because of my birth and breeding (which are things that can be most easily waived when the difference is acknowledged), nor yet on account of my being brought up in the company of ladies, nor even by reason of any dislike which her bold brown eyes put into me. My cause was sufficient and just and wise. I felt myself here as a very young girl, in safe and pure and honest hands, yet thrown on my own discretion, without any feminine guidance whatever. And I had learned enough from the wise French sisters to know at a glance that Miss Sylvester was not a young woman who would do me good.

Even Uncle Sam, who was full of thought and delicate care about me, so far as a man can understand, and so far as his simple shrewdness went, in spite of all his hospitable ways and open universal welcome, though he said not a word (as on such a point he was quite right in doing)— even he, as I knew by his manner, was quite content with my decision. But Firm, being young and in many ways stupid, made a little grievance of it. And, of course, Miss Sylvester made a great one.

“Oh, I do declare, I am going away,” through my open window I heard her exclaim in her sweetly affected tone, at the end of that long visit, “without even having the honor of saying a kind word to your young visitor. Do not wait for me, papa; I must pay my devoirs. Such a distinguished and travelled person can hardly be afflicted with mauvaise honte. Why does she not rush to embrace me? All the French people do; and she is so French! Let me see her, for the sake of my accent.”

“We don’t want no French here, ma’am,” replied Uncle Sam, as Sylvester rode off, “and the young lady wants no Doctor Hunt. Her health is as good as your own, and you never catch no French actions from her. If she wanted to see you, she would ‘a come down.”

“Oh, now, this is too barbarous! Colonel Gundry, you are the most tyrannous man; in your own dominions an autocrat. Every body says so, but I never would believe it. Oh, don’t let me go away with that impression. And you do look so good-natured!”

“And so I mean to look, Miss Penny, until you are out of sight.”

The voice of the Sawyer was more dry than that of his oldest and rustiest saw. The fashionable and highly finished girl had no idea what to make of him; but gave her young horse a sharp cut, to show her figure as she reined him; and then galloping off, she kissed her tan gauntlet with crimson net-work down it, and left Uncle Sam to revolve his rudeness, with the dash of the wet road scattered in the air.

“I wouldn’t ‘a spoke to her so course,” he said to Firm, who now returned from opening the gate and delivering his farewell, “if she wasn’t herself so extra particular, gild me, and sky-blue my mouldings fine. How my mother would ‘a stared at the sight of such a gal! Keep free of her, my lad, keep free of her. But no harm to put her on, to keep our missy alive and awake, my boy.”

Immediately I withdrew from ear-shot, more deeply mortified than I can tell, and perhaps doing Firm an injustice by not waiting for his answer. I knew not then how lightly men will speak of such delicate subjects; and it set me more against all thoughts of Firm than a month’s reflection could have done. When I came to know more of the world, I saw that I had been very foolish. At the time, however, I was firmly set in a strong resolve to do that which alone seemed right, or even possible — to quit with all speed a place which could no longer be suited for me.

For several days I feared to say a single word about it, while equally I condemned myself for having so little courage. But it was not as if there were any body to help me, or tell me what to do; sometimes I was bold with a surety of right, and then again I shook with the fear of being wrong. Because, through the whole of it, I felt how wonderfully well I had been treated, and what a great debt I owed of kindness; and it seemed to be only a nasty little pride which made me so particular. And being so unable to settle for myself, I waited for something to settle it.

Something came, in a way which I had not by any means expected. I had told Suan Isco how glad I was that Firm had fixed his liking steadily upon Miss Sylvester. If any woman on earth could be trusted not to say a thing again, that one was this good Indian. Not only because of her provident habits, but also in right of the difficulty which encompassed her in our language. But she managed to get over both of these, and to let Mr. Ephraim know, as cleverly as if she had lived in drawing-rooms, whatever I had said about him. She did it for the best; but it put him in a rage, which he came at once to have out with me.

“And so, Miss Erema,” he said, throwing down his hat upon the table of the little parlor, where I sat with an old book of Norman ballads, “I have your best wishes, then, have I, for a happy marriage with Miss Sylvester?”

I was greatly surprised at the tone of his voice, while the flush on his cheeks and the flash of his eyes, and even his quick heavy tread, showed plainly that his mind was a little out of balance. He deserved it, however, and I could not grieve.

“You have my best wishes,” I replied, demurely, “for any state of life to which you may be called. You could scarcely expect any less of me than that.”

“How kind you are! But do you really wish that I should marry old Sylvester’s girl?”

Firm, as he asked this question, looked so bitterly reproachful (as if he were saying, “Do you wish to see me hanged?”), while his eyes took a form which reminded me so of the Sawyer in a furious puzzle, that it was impossible for me to answer as lightly as I meant to do.

“No, I can not say, Firm, that I wish it at all; unless your heart is set on it —”

“Don’t you know, then, where my heart is set?” he asked me, in a deep voice, coming nearer, and taking the ballad-book from my hands. “Why will you feign not to know, Erema, who is the only one I can ever think of twice? Above me, I know, in every possible way — birth and education and mind and appearance, and now far above me in money as well. But what are all these things? Try to think if only you could like me. Liking gets over every thing, and without it nothing is any thing. Why do I like you so, Erema? Is it because of your birth, and teaching, and manners, and sweet looks, and all that, or even because of your troubles?”

“How can I tell, Firm — how can I tell? Perhaps it is just because of myself. And why do you do it at all, Firm?”

“Ah, why do I do it? How I wish I knew! Perhaps then I might cure it. To begin with, what is there, after all, so very wonderful about you?”

“Oh, nothing, I should hope. Most surely nothing. It would grieve me to be at all wonderful. That I leave for American ladies.”

“Now you don’t understand me. I mean, of course, that you are wonderfully good and kind and clever; and your eyes, I am sure, and your lips and smile, and all your other features — there is nothing about them that can be called any thing else but wonderful.”

“Now, Firm, how exceedingly foolish you are! I did hope that you knew better.”

“Erema, I never shall know better. I never can swerve or change, if I live to be a hundred and fifty. You think me presumptuous, no doubt, from what you are brought up to. And you are so young that to seek to bind you, even if you loved me, would be an unmanly thing. But now you are old enough, and you know your own mind surely well enough, just to say whether you feel as if you could ever love me as I love you.”

He turned away, as if he felt that he had no right to press me so, and blamed himself for selfishness; and I liked him better for doing that than for any thing he had done before. Yet I knew that I ought to speak clearly, and though my voice was full of tears, I tried.

“Dear Firm,” I said, as I took his hand and strove to look at him steadily, “I like and admire you very much; and by-and-by — by-and-by, I might, that is, if you did not hurry me. Of all the obstacles you have mentioned, none is worth considering. I am nothing but a poor castaway, owing my life to Uncle Sam and you. But one thing there is which could never be got over, even if I felt as you feel toward me. Never can I think of little matters, or of turning my thoughts to — to any such things as you speak of, as long as a vile reproach and wicked imputation lies on me. And before even that, I have to think of my father, who gave his life for me. Firm, I have been here too long delaying, and wasting my time in trifles. I ought to have been in Europe long ago. If I am old enough for what you talk of, I am old enough to do my duty. If I am old enough for love, as it is called, I am old enough for hate. I have more to do with hate than love, I think.”

“Erema,” cried Firm, “what a puzzle you are! I never even dreamed that you could be so fierce. You are enough to frighten Uncle Sam himself.”

“If I frighten you, Firm, that is quite enough. You see now how vain it is to say another word.”

“I do not see any thing of the sort. Come back, and look at me quite calmly.”

Being frightened at the way in which I had spoken, and having passed the prime of it, I obeyed him in a moment, and came up gently and let him look at me to his liking. For little as I thought of such things till now, I seemed already to know more about them, or at least to wonder — which is the stir of the curtain of knowledge. I did not say any thing, but labored to think nothing and to look up with unconscious eyes. But Firm put me out altogether by his warmth, and made me flutter like a stupid little bird.

“My darling,” he said, smoothing back my hair with a kindness such as I could not resent, and quieting me with his clear blue eyes, “you are not fit for the stormy life to which your high spirit is devoting you. You have not the hardness and bitterness of mind, the cold self-possession and contempt of others, the power of dissembling and the iron will — in a word, the fundamental nastiness, without which you never could get through such a job. Why, you can not be contemptuous even to me!”

“I should hope not. I should earn your contempt, if I could.”

“There, you are ready to cry at the thought. Erema, do not mistake yourself. Remember that your father would never have wished it — would have given his life ten thousand times over to prevent it. Why did he bring you to this remote, inaccessible part of the world except to save you from further thought of evil? He knew that we listen to no rumors here, no social scandals, or malignant lies; but we value people as we find them. He meant this to be a haven for you; and so it shall be if you will only rest; and you shall be the queen of it. Instead of redressing his memory now, you would only distress his spirit. What does he care for the world’s gossip now? But he does care for your happiness. I am not old enough to tell you things as I should like to tell them. I wish I could — how I wish I could! It would make all the difference to me.”

“It would make no difference, Firm, to me; because I should know it was selfishness. Not selfishness of yours, I mean, for you never could be selfish; but the vilest selfishness of mine, the same as starved my father. You can not see things as I see them, or else you would not talk so. When you know that a thing is right, you do it. Can you tell me otherwise? If you did, I should despise you.”

“If you put it so, I can say no more. You will leave us forever, Erema?”

“No, not forever. If the good God wills it, I will come back when my work is done. Forgive me, dear Firm, and forget me.”

“There is nothing to forgive, Erema; but a great deal I never can hope to forgot.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31