Adam Bede, by George Eliot

Chapter 39

The Tidings

ADAM turned his face towards Broxton and walked with his swiftest stride, looking at his watch with the fear that Mr. Irwine might be gone out — hunting, perhaps. The fear and haste together produced a state of strong excitement before he reached the rectory gate, and outside it he saw the deep marks of a recent hoof on the gravel.

But the hoofs were turned towards the gate, not away from it, and though there was a horse against the stable door, it was not Mr. Irwine’s: it had evidently had a journey this morning, and must belong to some one who had come on business. Mr. Irwine was at home, then; but Adam could hardly find breath and calmness to tell Carroll that he wanted to speak to the rector. The double suffering of certain and uncertain sorrow had begun to shake the strong man. The butler looked at him wonderingly, as he threw himself on a bench in the passage and stared absently at the clock on the opposite wall. The master had somebody with him, he said, but he heard the study door open — the stranger seemed to be coming out, and as Adam was in a hurry, he would let the master know at once.

Adam sat looking at the clock: the minute-hand was hurrying along the last five minutes to ten with a loud, hard, indifferent tick, and Adam watched the movement and listened to the sound as if he had had some reason for doing so. In our times of bitter suffering there are almost always these pauses, when our consciousness is benumbed to everything but some trivial perception or sensation. It is as if semi-idiocy came to give us rest from the memory and the dread which refuse to leave us in our sleep.

Carroll, coming back, recalled Adam to the sense of his burden. He was to go into the study immediately. “I can’t think what that strange person’s come about,” the butler added, from mere incontinence of remark, as he preceded Adam to the door, “he’s gone i’ the dining-room. And master looks unaccountable — as if he was frightened.” Adam took no notice of the words: he could not care about other people’s business. But when he entered the study and looked in Mr. Irwine’s face, he felt in an instant that there was a new expression in it, strangely different from the warm friendliness it had always worn for him before. A letter lay open on the table, and Mr. Irwine’s hand was on it, but the changed glance he cast on Adam could not be owing entirely to preoccupation with some disagreeable business, for he was looking eagerly towards the door, as if Adam’s entrance were a matter of poignant anxiety to him.

“You want to speak to me, Adam,” he said, in that low constrainedly quiet tone which a man uses when he is determined to suppress agitation. “Sit down here.” He pointed to a chair just opposite to him, at no more than a yard’s distance from his own, and Adam sat down with a sense that this cold manner of Mr. Irwine’s gave an additional unexpected difficulty to his disclosure. But when Adam had made up his mind to a measure, he was not the man to renounce it for any but imperative reasons.

“I come to you, sir,” he said, “as the gentleman I look up to most of anybody. I’ve something very painful to tell you — something as it’ll pain you to hear as well as me to tell. But if I speak o’ the wrong other people have done, you’ll see I didn’t speak till I’d good reason.”

Mr. Irwine nodded slowly, and Adam went on rather tremulously, “You was t’ ha’ married me and Hetty Sorrel, you know, sir, o’ the fifteenth o’ this month. I thought she loved me, and I was th’ happiest man i’ the parish. But a dreadful blow’s come upon me.”

Mr. Irwine started up from his chair, as if involuntarily, but then, determined to control himself, walked to the window and looked out.

“She’s gone away, sir, and we don’t know where. She said she was going to Snowfield o’ Friday was a fortnight, and I went last Sunday to fetch her back; but she’d never been there, and she took the coach to Stoniton, and beyond that I can’t trace her. But now I’m going a long journey to look for her, and I can’t trust t’ anybody but you where I’m going.”

Mr. Irwine came back from the window and sat down.

“Have you no idea of the reason why she went away?” he said.

“It’s plain enough she didn’t want to marry me, sir,” said Adam. “She didn’t like it when it came so near. But that isn’t all, I doubt. There’s something else I must tell you, sir. There’s somebody else concerned besides me.”

A gleam of something — it was almost like relief or joy — came across the eager anxiety of Mr. Irwine’s face at that moment. Adam was looking on the ground, and paused a little: the next words were hard to speak. But when he went on, he lifted up his head and looked straight at Mr. Irwine. He would do the thing he had resolved to do, without flinching.

“You know who’s the man I’ve reckoned my greatest friend,” he said, “and used to be proud to think as I should pass my life i’ working for him, and had felt so ever since we were lads. . . . ”

Mr. Irwine, as if all self-control had forsaken him, grasped Adam’s arm, which lay on the table, and, clutching it tightly like a man in pain, said, with pale lips and a low hurried voice, “No, Adam, no — don’t say it, for God’s sake!”

Adam, surprised at the violence of Mr. Irwine’s feeling, repented of the words that had passed his lips and sat in distressed silence. The grasp on his arm gradually relaxed, and Mr. Irwine threw himself back in his chair, saying, “Go on — I must know it.”

“That man played with Hetty’s feelings, and behaved to her as he’d no right to do to a girl in her station o’ life — made her presents and used to go and meet her out a-walking. I found it out only two days before he went away — found him a-kissing her as they were parting in the Grove. There’d been nothing said between me and Hetty then, though I’d loved her for a long while, and she knew it. But I reproached him with his wrong actions, and words and blows passed between us; and he said solemnly to me, after that, as it had been all nonsense and no more than a bit o’ flirting. But I made him write a letter to tell Hetty he’d meant nothing, for I saw clear enough, sir, by several things as I hadn’t understood at the time, as he’d got hold of her heart, and I thought she’d belike go on thinking of him and never come to love another man as wanted to marry her. And I gave her the letter, and she seemed to bear it all after a while better than I’d expected . . . and she behaved kinder and kinder to me . . . I daresay she didn’t know her own feelings then, poor thing, and they came back upon her when it was too late . . . I don’t want to blame her . . . I can’t think as she meant to deceive me. But I was encouraged to think she loved me, and — you know the rest, sir. But it’s on my mind as he’s been false to me, and ’ticed her away, and she’s gone to him — and I’m going now to see, for I can never go to work again till I know what’s become of her.”

During Adam’s narrative, Mr. Irwine had had time to recover his self-mastery in spite of the painful thoughts that crowded upon him. It was a bitter remembrance to him now — that morning when Arthur breakfasted with him and seemed as if he were on the verge of a confession. It was plain enough now what he had wanted to confess. And if their words had taken another turn . . . if he himself had been less fastidious about intruding on another man’s secrets . . . it was cruel to think how thin a film had shut out rescue from all this guilt and misery. He saw the whole history now by that terrible illumination which the present sheds back upon the past. But every other feeling as it rushed upon his was thrown into abeyance by pity, deep respectful pity, for the man who sat before him — already so bruised, going forth with sad blind resignedness to an unreal sorrow, while a real one was close upon him, too far beyond the range of common trial for him ever to have feared it. His own agitation was quelled by a certain awe that comes over us in the presence of a great anguish, for the anguish he must inflict on Adam was already present to him. Again he put his hand on the arm that lay on the table, but very gently this time, as he said solemnly:

“Adam, my dear friend, you have had some hard trials in your life. You can bear sorrow manfully, as well as act manfully. God requires both tasks at our hands. And there is a heavier sorrow coming upon you than any you have yet known. But you are not guilty — you have not the worst of all sorrows. God help him who has!”

The two pale faces looked at each other; in Adam’s there was trembling suspense, in Mr. Irwine’s hesitating, shrinking pity. But he went on.

“I have had news of Hetty this morning. She is not gone to him. She is in Stonyshire — at Stoniton.”

Adam started up from his chair, as if he thought he could have leaped to her that moment. But Mr. Irwine laid hold of his arm again and said, persuasively, “Wait, Adam, wait.” So he sat down.

“She is in a very unhappy position — one which will make it worse for you to find her, my poor friend, than to have lost her for ever.”

Adam’s lips moved tremulously, but no sound came. They moved again, and he whispered, “Tell me.”

“She has been arrested . . . she is in prison.”

It was as if an insulting blow had brought back the spirit of resistance into Adam. The blood rushed to his face, and he said, loudly and sharply, “For what?”

“For a great crime — the murder of her child.”

“It CAN’T BE!” Adam almost shouted, starting up from his cnair and making a stride towards the door; but he turned round again, setting his back against the bookcase, and looking fiercely at Mr. Irwine. “It isn’t possible. She never had a child. She can’t be guilty. WHO says it?”

“God grant she may be innocent, Adam. We can still hope she is.”

“But who says she is guilty?” said Adam violently. “Tell me everything.”

“Here is a letter from the magistrate before whom she was taken, and the constable who arrested her is in the dining-room. She will not confess her name or where she comes from; but I fear, I fear, there can be no doubt it is Hetty. The description of her person corresponds, only that she is said to look very pale and ill. She had a small red-leather pocket-book in her pocket with two names written in it — one at the beginning, ‘Hetty Sorrel, Hayslope,’ and the other near the end, ‘Dinah Morris, Snowfield.’ She will not say which is her own name — she denies everything, and will answer no questions, and application has been made to me, as a magistrate, that I may take measures for identifying her, for it was thought probable that the name which stands first is her own name.”

“But what proof have they got against her, if it IS Hetty?” said Adam, still violently, with an effort that seemed to shake his whole frame. “I’ll not believe it. It couldn’t ha’ been, and none of us know it.”

“Terrible proof that she was under the temptation to commit the crime; but we have room to hope that she did not really commit it. Try and read that letter, Adam.”

Adam took the letter between his shaking hands and tried to fix his eyes steadily on it. Mr. Irwine meanwhile went out to give some orders. When he came back, Adam’s eyes were still on the first page — he couldn’t read — he could not put the words together and make out what they meant. He threw it down at last and clenched his fist.

“It’s HIS doing,” he said; “if there’s been any crime, it’s at his door, not at hers. HE taught her to deceive — HE deceived me first. Let ’em put HIM on his trial — let him stand in court beside her, and I’ll tell ’em how he got hold of her heart, and ’ticed her t’ evil, and then lied to me. Is HE to go free, while they lay all the punishment on her . . . so weak and young?”

The image called up by these last words gave a new direction to poor Adam’s maddened feelings. He was silent, looking at the corner of the room as if he saw something there. Then he burst out again, in a tone of appealing anguish, “I can’t bear it . . . O God, it’s too hard to lay upon me — it’s too hard to think she’s wicked.”

Mr. Irwine had sat down again in silence. He was too wise to utter soothing words at present, and indeed, the sight of Adam before him, with that look of sudden age which sometimes comes over a young face in moments of terrible emotion — the hard bloodless look of the skin, the deep lines about the quivering mouth, the furrows in the brow — the sight of this strong firm man shattered by the invisible stroke of sorrow, moved him so deeply that speech was not easy. Adam stood motionless, with his eyes vacantly fixed in this way for a minute or two; in that short space he was living through all his love again.

“She can’t ha’ done it,” he said, still without moving his eyes, as if he were only talking to himself: “it was fear made her hide it . . . I forgive her for deceiving me . . . I forgive thee, Hetty . . . thee wast deceived too . . . it’s gone hard wi’ thee, my poor Hetty . . . but they’ll never make me believe it.”

He was silent again for a few moments, and then he said, with fierce abruptness, “I’ll go to him — I’ll bring him back — I’ll make him go and look at her in her misery — he shall look at her till he can’t forget it — it shall follow him night and day — as long as he lives it shall follow him — he shan’t escape wi’ lies this time — I’ll fetch him, I’ll drag him myself.”

In the act of going towards the door, Adam paused automatically and looked about for his hat, quite unconscious where he was or who was present with him. Mr. Irwine had followed him, and now took him by the arm, saying, in a quiet but decided tone, “No, Adam, no; I’m sure you will wish to stay and see what good can be done for her, instead of going on a useless errand of vengeance. The punishment will surely fall without your aid. Besides, he is no longer in Ireland. He must be on his way home — or would be, long before you arrived, for his grandfather, I know, wrote for him to come at least ten days ago. I want you now to go with me to Stoniton. I have ordered a horse for you to ride with us, as soon as you can compose yourself.”

While Mr. Irwine was speaking, Adam recovered his consciousness of the actual scene. He rubbed his hair off his forehead and listened.

“Remember,” Mr. Irwine went on, “there are others to think of, and act for, besides yourself, Adam: there are Hetty’s friends, the good Poysers, on whom this stroke will fall more heavily than I can bear to think. I expect it from your strength of mind, Adam — from your sense of duty to God and man — that you will try to act as long as action can be of any use.”

In reality, Mr. Irwine proposed this journey to Stoniton for Adam’s own sake. Movement, with some object before him, was the best means of counteracting the violence of suffering in these first hours.

“You will go with me to Stoniton, Adam?” he said again, after a moment’s pause. “We have to see if it is really Hetty who is there, you know.”

“Yes, sir,” said Adam, “I’ll do what you think right. But the folks at th’ Hall Farm?”

“I wish them not to know till I return to tell them myself. I shall have ascertained things then which I am uncertain about now, and I shall return as soon as possible. Come now, the horses are ready.”

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:42