Mr. Gilfil's Love Story, by George Eliot

Chapter 12

‘Pray, what is likely to be the next scene in the drama between you and Miss Sarti?’ said Miss Assher to Captain Wybrow as soon as they were out on the gravel. ‘It would be agreeable to have some idea of what is coming.’

Captain Wybrow was silent. He felt out of humour, wearied, annoyed. There come moments when one almost determines never again to oppose anything but dead silence to an angry woman. ‘Now then, confound it,’ he said to himself, ‘I’m going to be battered on the other flank.’ He looked resolutely at the horizon, with something more like a frown on his face than Beatrice had ever seen there.

After a pause of two or three minutes, she continued in a still haughtier tone, ‘I suppose you are aware, Captain Wybrow, that I expect an explanation of what I have just seen.’

‘I have no explanation, my dear Beatrice,’ he answered at last, making a strong effort over himself, ‘except what I have already given you. I hoped you would never recur to the subject.’

‘Your explanation, however, is very far from satisfactory. I can only say that the airs Miss Sarti thinks herself entitled to put on towards you, are quite incompatible with your position as regards me. And her behaviour to me is most insulting. I shall certainly not stay in the house under such circumstances, and mamma must state the reasons to Sir Christopher.’

‘Beatrice,’ said Captain Wybrow, his irritation giving way to alarm, ‘I beseech you to be patient, and exercise your good feelings in this affair. It is very painful, I know, but I am sure you would be grieved to injure poor Caterina — to bring down my uncle’s anger upon her. Consider what a poor little dependent thing she is.’

‘It is very adroit of you to make these evasions, but do not suppose that they deceive me. Miss Sarti would never dare to behave to you as she does, if you had not flirted with her, or made love to her. I suppose she considers your engagement to me a breach of faith to her. I am much obliged to you, certainly, for making me Miss Sarti’s rival. You have told me a falsehood, Captain Wybrow.’

‘Beatrice, I solemnly declare to you that Caterina is nothing more to me than a girl I naturally feel kindly to — as a favourite of my uncle’s, and a nice little thing enough. I should be glad to see her married to Gilfil tomorrow; that’s a good proof that I’m not in love with her, I should think. As to the past, I may have shown her little attentions, which she has exaggerated and misinterpreted. What man is not liable to that sort of thing?’

‘But what can she found her behaviour on? What had she been saying to you this morning to make her tremble and turn pale in that way?’

‘O, I don’t know. I just said something about her behaving peevishly. With that Italian blood of hers, there’s no knowing how she may take what one says. She’s a fierce little thing, though she seems so quiet generally.’

‘But she ought to be made to know how unbecoming and indelicate her conduct is. For my part, I wonder Lady Cheverel has not noticed her short answers and the airs she puts on.’

‘Let me beg of you, Beatrice, not to hint anything of the kind to Lady Cheverel. You must have observed how strict my aunt is. It never enters her head that a girl can be in love with a man who has not made her an offer.’

‘Well, I shall let Miss Sarti know myself that I have observed her conduct. It will be only a charity to her.’

‘Nay, dear, that will be doing nothing but harm. Caterina’s temper is peculiar. The best thing you can do will be to leave her to herself as much as possible. It will all wear off. I’ve no doubt she’ll be married to Gilfil before long. Girls’ fancies are easily diverted from one object to another. By jove, what a rate my heart is galloping at! These confounded palpitations get worse instead of better.’

Thus ended the conversation, so far as it concerned Caterina, not without leaving a distinct resolution in Captain Wybrow’s mind — a resolution carried into effect the next day, when he was in the library with Sir Christopher for the purpose of discussing some arrangements about the approaching marriage.

‘By the by,’ he said carelessly, when the business came to a pause, and he was sauntering round the room with his hands in his coat-pockets, surveying the backs of the books that lined the walls, ‘when is the wedding between Gilfil and Caterina to come off, sir? I’ve a fellow-feeling for a poor devil so many fathoms deep in love as Maynard. Why shouldn’t their marriage happen as soon as ours? I suppose he has come to an understanding with Tina?’

‘Why,’ said Sir Christopher, ‘I did think of letting the thing be until old Crichley died; he can’t hold out very long, poor fellow; and then Maynard might have entered into matrimony and the rectory both at once. But, after all, that really is no good reason for waiting. There is no need for them to leave the Manor when they are married. The little monkey is quite old enough. It would be pretty to see her a matron, with a baby about the size of a kitten in her arms.’

‘I think that system of waiting is always bad. And if I can further any settlement you would like to make on Caterina, I shall be delighted to carry out your wishes.’

‘My dear boy, that’s very good of you; but Maynard will have enough; and from what I know of him — and I know him well — I think he would rather provide for Caterina himself. However, now you have put this matter into my head, I begin to blame myself for not having thought of it before. I’ve been so wrapt up in Beatrice and you, you rascal, that I had really forgotten poor Maynard. And he’s older than you — it’s high time he was settled in life as a family man.’

Sir Christopher paused, took snuff in a meditative manner, and presently said, more to himself than to Anthony, who was humming a tune at the far end of the room, ‘Yes, yes. It will be a capital plan to finish off all our family business at once.’

Riding out with Miss Assher the same morning, Captain Wybrow mentioned to her incidentally, that Sir Christopher was anxious to bring about the wedding between Gilfil and Caterina as soon as possible, and that he, for his part, should do all he could to further the affair. It would be the best thing in the world for Tina, in whose welfare he was really interested.

With Sir Christopher there was never any long interval between purpose and execution. He made up his mind promptly, and he acted promptly. On rising from luncheon, he said to Mr. Gilfil, ‘Come with me into the library, Maynard. I want to have a word with you.’

‘Maynard, my boy,’ he began, as soon as they were seated, tapping his snuff-box, and looking radiant at the idea of the unexpected pleasure he was about to give, ‘why shouldn’t we have two happy couples instead of one, before the autumn is over, eh?’

‘Eh?’ he repeated, after a moment’s pause, lengthening out the monosyllable, taking a slow pinch, and looking up at Maynard with a sly smile.

‘I’m not quite sure that I understand you, sir,’ answered Mr. Gilfil, who felt annoyed at the consciousness that he was turning pale.

‘Not understand me, you rogue? You know very well whose happiness lies nearest to my heart after Anthony’s. You know you let me into your secrets long ago, so there’s no confession to make. Tina’s quite old enough to be a grave little wife now; and though the Rectory’s not ready for you, that’s no matter. My lady and I shall feel all the more comfortable for having you with us. We should miss our little singing-bird if we lost her all at once.’

Mr. Gilfil felt himself in a painfully difficult position. He dreaded that Sir Christopher should surmise or discover the true state of Caterina’s feelings, and yet he was obliged to make those feelings the ground of his reply.

‘My dear sir,’ he at last said with some effort, ‘you will not suppose that I am not alive to your goodness — that I am not grateful for your fatherly interest in my happiness; but I fear that Caterina’s feelings towards me are not such as to warrant the hope that she would accept a proposal of marriage from me.’

‘Have you ever asked her?’

‘No, sir. But we often know these things too well without asking.’

‘Pooh, pooh! the little monkey must love you. Why, you were her first playfellow; and I remember she used to cry if you cut your finger. Besides, she has always silently admitted that you were her lover. You know I have always spoken of you to her in that light. I took it for granted you had settled the business between yourselves; so did Anthony. Anthony thinks she’s in love with you, and he has young eyes, which are apt enough to see clearly in these matters. He was talking to me about it this morning, and pleased me very much by the friendly interest he showed in you and Tina.’

The blood — more than was wanted — rushed back to Mr. Gilfil’s face; he set his teeth and clenched his hands in the effort to repress a burst of indignation. Sir Christopher noticed the flush, but thought it indicated the fluctuation of hope and fear about Caterina. He went on:—‘You’re too modest by half, Maynard. A fellow who can take a five-barred gate as you can, ought not to be so faint-hearted. If you can’t speak to her yourself, leave me to talk to her.’

‘Sir Christopher,’ said poor Maynard earnestly, ‘I shall really feel it the greatest kindness you can possibly show me not to mention this subject to Caterina at present. I think such a proposal, made prematurely, might only alienate her from me.’

Sir Christopher was getting a little displeased at this contradiction. His tone became a little sharper as he said, ‘Have you any grounds to state for this opinion, beyond your general notion that Tina is not enough in love with you?’

‘I can state none beyond my own very strong impression that she does not love me well enough to marry me.’

‘Then I think that ground is worth nothing at all. I am tolerably correct in my judgement of people; and if I am not very much deceived in Tina, she looks forward to nothing else but to your being her husband. Leave me to manage the matter as I think best. You may rely on me that I shall do no harm to your cause, Maynard.’

Mr. Gilfil, afraid to say more, yet wretched in the prospect of what might result from Sir Christopher’s determination, quitted the library in a state of mingled indignation against Captain Wybrow, and distress for himself and Caterina. What would she think of him? She might suppose that he had instigated or sanctioned Sir Christopher’s proceeding. He should perhaps not have an opportunity of speaking to her on the subject in time; he would write her a note, and carry it up to her room after the dressing-bell had rung. No; that would agitate her, and unfit her for appearing at dinner, and passing the evening calmly. He would defer it till bed-time. After prayers, he contrived to lead her back to the drawing-room, and to put a letter in her hand. She carried it up to her own room, wondering, and there read —

‘Dear Caterina, Do not suspect for a moment that anything Sir Christopher may say to you about our marriage has been prompted by me. I have done all I dare do to dissuade him from urging the subject, and have only been prevented from speaking more strongly by the dread of provoking questions which I could not answer without causing you fresh misery. I write this, both to prepare you for anything Sir Christopher may say, and to assure you — but I hope you already believe it — that your feelings are sacred to me. I would rather part with the dearest hope of my life than be the means of adding to your trouble.

‘It is Captain Wybrow who has prompted Sir Christopher to take up the subject at this moment. I tell you this, to save you from hearing it suddenly when you are with Sir Christopher. You see now what sort of stuff that dastard’s heart is made of. Trust in me always, dearest Caterina, as — whatever may come — your faithful friend and brother,

‘Maynard Gilfil.’

Caterina was at first too terribly stung by the words about Captain Wybrow to think of the difficulty which threatened her — to think either of what Sir Christopher would say to her, or of what she could say in reply. Bitter sense of injury, fierce resentment, left no room for fear. With the poisoned garment upon him, the victim writhes under the torture — he has no thought of the coming death.

Anthony could do this! — Of this there could be no explanation but the coolest contempt for her feelings, the basest sacrifice of all the consideration and tenderness he owed her to the ease of his position with Miss Assher. No. It was worse than that: it was deliberate, gratuitous cruelty. He wanted to show her how he despised her; he wanted to make her feel her folly in having ever believed that he loved her.

The last crystal drops of trust and tenderness, she thought, were dried up; all was parched, fiery hatred. Now she need no longer check her resentment by the fear of doing him an injustice: he had trifled with her, as Maynard had said; he had been reckless of her; and now he was base and cruel. She had cause enough for her bitterness and anger; they were not so wicked as they had seemed to her.

As these thoughts were hurrying after each other like so many sharp throbs of fevered pain, she shed no tear. She paced restlessly to and fro, as her habit was — her hands clenched, her eyes gleaming fiercely and wandering uneasily, as if in search of something on which she might throw herself like a tigress.

‘If I could speak to him,’ she whispered, ‘and tell him I hate him, I despise him, I loathe him!’

Suddenly, as if a new thought had struck her, she drew a key from her pocket, and, unlocking an inlaid desk where she stored up her keepsakes, took from it a small miniature. It was in a very slight gold frame, with a ring to it, as if intended to be worn on a chain; and under the glass at the back were two locks of hair, one dark and the other auburn, arranged in a fantastic knot. It was Anthony’s secret present to her a year ago a copy he had had made specially for her. For the last month she had not taken it from its hiding-place: there was no need to heighten the vividness of the past. But now she clutched it fiercely, and dashed it across the room against the bare hearth-stone.

Will she crush it under her feet, and grind it under her high-heeled shoe, till every trace of those false cruel features is gone? Ah, no! She rushed across the room; but when she saw the little treasure she had cherished so fondly, so often smothered with kisses, so often laid under her pillow, and remembered with the first return of consciousness in the morning — when she saw this one visible relic of the too happy past lying with the glass shivered, the hair fallen out, the thin ivory cracked, there was a revulsion of the overstrained feeling: relenting came, and she burst into tears.

Look at her stooping down to gather up her treasure, searching for the hair and replacing it, and then mournfully examining the crack that disfigures the once-loved image. Alas! there is no glass now to guard either the hair or the portrait; but see how carefully she wraps delicate paper round it, and locks it up again in its old place. Poor child! God send the relenting may always come before the worst irrevocable deed!

This action had quieted her, and she sat down to read Maynard’s letter again. She read it two or three times without seeming to take in the sense; her apprehension was dulled by the passion of the last hour, and she found it difficult to call up the ideas suggested by the words. At last she began to have a distinct conception of the impending interview with Sir Christopher. The idea of displeasing the Baronet, of whom every one at the Manor stood in awe, frightened her so much that she thought it would be impossible to resist his wish. He believed that she loved Maynard; he had always spoken as if he were quite sure of it. How could she tell him he was deceived — and what if he were to ask her whether she loved anybody else? To have Sir Christopher looking angrily at her, was more than she could bear, even in imagination. He had always been so good to her! Then she began to think of the pain she might give him, and the more selfish distress of fear gave way to the distress of affection. Unselfish tears began to flow, and sorrowful gratitude to Sir Christopher helped to awaken her sensibility to Mr. Gilfil’s tenderness and generosity.

‘Dear, good Maynard! — what a poor return I make him! If I could but have loved him instead — but I can never love or care for anything again. My heart is broken.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54