Mr. Gilfil's Love Story, by George Eliot

Chapter 13

The next morning the dreaded moment came. Caterina, stupified by the suffering of the previous night, with that dull mental aching which follows on acute anguish, was in Lady Cheverel’s sitting-room, copying out some charity lists, when her ladyship came in, and said — ‘Tina, Sir Christopher wants you; go down into the library.’

She went down trembling. As soon as she entered, Sir Christopher, who was seated near his writing-table, said, ‘Now, little monkey, come and sit down by me; I have something to tell you.’

Caterina took a footstool, and seated herself on it at the Baronet’s feet. It was her habit to sit on these low stools, and in this way she could hide her face better. She put her little arm round his leg, and leaned her cheek against his knee.

‘Why, you seem out of spirits this morning, Tina. What’s the matter, eh?’

‘Nothing, Padroncello; only my head is bad.’

‘Poor monkey! Well, now, wouldn’t it do the head good if I were to promise you a good husband, and smart little wedding-gowns, and by-and-by a house of your own, where you would be a little mistress, and Padroncello would come and see you sometimes?’

‘O no, no! I shouldn’t like ever to be married. Let me always stay with you!’

‘Pooh, pooh, little simpleton. I shall get old and tiresome, and there will be Anthony’s children putting your nose out of joint. You will want some one to love you best of all, and you must have children of your own to love. I can’t have you withering away into an old maid. I hate old maids: they make me dismal to look at them. I never see Sharp without shuddering. My little black-eyed monkey was never meant for anything so ugly. And there’s Maynard Gilfil the best man in the county, worth his weight in gold, heavy as he is; he loves you better than his eyes. And you love him too, you silly monkey, whatever you may say about not being married.’

‘No, no, dear Padroncello, do not say so; I could not marry him.’

‘Why not, you foolish child? You don’t know your own mind. Why, it is plain to everybody that you love him. My lady has all along said she was sure you loved him — she has seen what little princess airs you put on to him; and Anthony too, he thinks you are in love with Gilfil. Come, what has made you take it into your head that you wouldn’t like to marry him?’

Caterina was now sobbing too deeply to make any answer. Sir Christopher patted her on the back and said, ‘Come, come; why, Tina, you are not well this morning. Go and rest, little one. You will see things in quite another light when you are well. Think over what I have said, and remember there is nothing, after Anthony’s marriage, that I have set my heart on so much as seeing you and Maynard settled for life. I must have no whims and follies — no nonsense.’ This was said with a slight severity; but he presently added, in a soothing tone, There, there, stop crying, and be a good little monkey. Go and lie down and get to sleep.’

Caterina slipped from the stool on to her knees, took the old Baronet’s hand, covered it with tears and kisses, and then ran out of the room.

Before the evening, Captain Wybrow had heard from his uncle the result of the interview with Caterina. He thought, ‘If I could have a long quiet talk with her, I could perhaps persuade her to look more reasonably at things. But there’s no speaking to her in the house without being interrupted, and I can hardly see her anywhere else without Beatrice’s finding it out.’ At last he determined to make it a matter of confidence with Miss Assher — to tell her that he wished to talk to Caterina quietly for the sake of bringing her to a calmer state of mind, and persuade her to listen to Gilfil’s affection. He was very much pleased with this judicious and candid plan, and in the course of the evening he had arranged with himself the time and place of meeting, and had communicated his purpose to Miss Assher, who gave her entire approval. Anthony, she thought, would do well to speak plainly and seriously to Miss Sarti. He was really very patient and kind to her, considering how she behaved.

Tina had kept her room all that day, and had been carefully tended as an invalid, Sir Christopher having told her ladyship how matters stood. This tendance was so irksome to Caterina, she felt so uneasy under attentions and kindness that were based on a misconception, that she exerted herself to appear at breakfast the next morning, and declared herself well, though head and heart were throbbing. To be confined in her own room was intolerable; it was wretched enough to be looked at and spoken to, but it was more wretched to be left alone. She was frightened at her own sensations: she was frightened at the imperious vividness with which pictures of the past and future thrust themselves on her imagination. And there was another feeling, too, which made her want to be down-stairs and moving about. Perhaps she might have an opportunity of speaking to Captain Wybrow alone — of speaking those words of hatred and scorn that burned on her tongue. That opportunity offered itself in a very unexpected manner.

Lady Cheverel having sent Caterina out of the drawing-room to fetch some patterns of embroidery from her sitting-room, Captain Wybrow presently walked out after her, and met her as she was returning down stairs.

‘Caterina,’ he said, laying his hand on her arm as she was hurrying on without looking at him, ‘will you meet me in the Rookery at twelve o’clock? I must speak to you, and we shall be in privacy there. I cannot speak to you in the house.’

To his surprise, there was a flash of pleasure across her face; she answered shortly and decidedly, ‘Yes’, then snatched her arm away from him, and passed down stairs.

Miss Assher was this morning busy winding silks, being bent on emulating Lady Cheverel’s embroidery, and Lady Assher chose the passive amusement of holding the skeins. Lady Cheverel had now all her working apparatus about her, and Caterina, thinking she was not wanted, went away and sat down to the harpsichord in the sitting-room. It seemed as if playing massive chords — bringing out volumes of sound, would be the easiest way of passing the long feverish moments before twelve o’clock. Handel’s Messiah stood open on the desk, at the chorus ‘All we like sheep’, and Caterina threw herself at once into the impetuous intricacies of that magnificent fugue. In her happiest moments she could never have played it so well: for now all the passion that made her misery was hurled by a convulsive effort into her music, just as pain gives new force to the clutch of the sinking wrestler, and as terror gives farsounding intensity to the shriek of the feeble.

But at half-past eleven she was interrupted by Lady Cheverel, who said, ‘Tina, go down, will you, and hold Miss Assher’s silks for her. Lady Assher and I have decided on having our drive before luncheon.’

Caterina went down, wondering how she should escape from the drawing-room in time to be in the Rookery at twelve. Nothing should prevent her from going; nothing should rob her of this one precious moment — perhaps the last — when she could speak out the thoughts that were in her. After that, she would be passive; she would bear anything.

But she had scarcely sat down with a skein of yellow silk on her hands, when Miss Assher said, graciously — ‘I know you have an engagement with Captain Wybrow this morning. You must not let me detain you beyond the time.’

‘So he has been talking to her about me,’ thought Caterina. Her hands began to tremble as she held the skein.

Miss Assher continued in the same gracious tone: ‘It is tedious work holding these skeins. I am sure I am very much obliged to you.’

‘No, you are not obliged to me,’ said Caterina, completely mastered by her irritation; ‘I have only done it because Lady Cheverel told me.’

The moment was come when Miss Assher could no longer suppress her long latent desire to ‘let Miss Sarti know the impropriety of her conduct.’ With the malicious anger that assumes the tone of compassion, she said, —‘Miss Sarti, I am really sorry for you, that you are not able to control yourself better. This giving way to unwarrantable feelings is lowering you — it is indeed.’

‘What unwarrantable feelings?’ said Caterina, letting her hands fall, and fixing her great dark eyes steadily on Miss Assher. ‘It is quite unnecessary for me to say more. You must be conscious what I mean. Only summon a sense of duty to your aid. You are paining Captain Wybrow extremely by your want of self-control.’

‘Did he tell you I pained him?’

‘Yes, indeed, he did. He is very much hurt that you should behave to me as if you had a sort of enmity towards me. He would like you to make a friend of me. I assure you we both feel very kindly towards you, and are sorry you should cherish such feelings.’

‘He is very good,’ said Caterina, bitterly. ‘What feelings did he say I cherished?’

This bitter tone increased Miss Assher’s irritation. There was still a lurking suspicion in her mind, though she would not admit it to herself, that Captain Wybrow had told her a falsehood about his conduct and feelings towards Caterina. It was this suspicion, more even than the anger of the moment, which urged her to say something that would test the truth of his statement. That she would be humiliating Caterina at the same time, was only an additional temptation.

‘These are things I do not like to talk of, Miss Sarti. I cannot even understand how a woman can indulge a passion for a man who has never given her the least ground for it, as Captain Wybrow assures me is the case.’

‘He told you that, did he?’ said Caterina, in clear low tones, her lips turning white as she rose from her chair.

‘Yes, indeed, he did. He was bound to tell it me after your strange behaviour.’

Caterina said nothing, but turned round suddenly and left the room.

See how she rushes noiselessly, like a pale meteor, along the passages and up the gallery stairs! Those gleaming eyes, those bloodless lips, that swift silent tread, make her look like the incarnation of a fierce purpose, rather than a woman. The mid-day sun is shining on the armour in the gallery, making mimic suns on bossed sword-hilts and the angles of polished breast-plates. Yes, there are sharp weapons in the gallery. There is a dagger in that cabinet; she knows it well. And as a dragon-fly wheels in its flight to alight for an instant on a leaf, she darts to the cabinet, takes out the dagger, and thrusts it into her pocket. In three minutes more she is out, in hat and cloak, on the gravel-walk, hurrying along towards the thick shades of the distant Rookery. She threads the windings of the plantations, not feeling the golden leaves that rain upon her, not feeling the earth beneath her feet. Her hand is in her pocket, clenching the handle of the dagger, which she holds half out of its sheath.

She has reached the Rookery, and is under the gloom of the interlacing boughs. Her heart throbs as if it would burst her bosom — as if every next leap must be its last. Wait, wait, O heart! — till she has done this one deed. He will be there — he will be before her in a moment. He will come towards her with that false smile, thinking she does not know his baseness — she will plunge that dagger into his heart.

Poor child! poor child! she who used to cry to have the fish put back into the water — who never willingly killed the smallest living thing — dreams now, in the madness of her passion, that she can kill the man whose very voice unnerves her.

But what is that lying among the dank leaves on the path three yards before her?

Good God! it is he — lying motionless — his hat fallen off. He is ill, then — he has fainted. Her hand lets go the dagger, and she rushes towards him. His eyes are fixed; he does not see her. She sinks down on her knees, takes the dear head in her arms, and kisses the cold forehead.

‘Anthony, Anthony! speak to me — it is Tina — speak to me! O God, he is dead!’

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