Mr. Gilfil's Love Story, by George Eliot

Chapter 4

In three months from the time of Caterina’s adoption — namely, in the late autumn of 1773 — the chimneys of Cheverel Manor were sending up unwonted smoke, and the servants were awaiting in excitement the return of their master and mistress after a two years’ absence. Great was the astonishment of Mrs. Bellamy, the housekeeper, when Mr. Warren lifted a little black-eyed child out of the carriage, and great was Mrs. Sharp’s sense of superior information and experience, as she detailed Caterina’s history, interspersed with copious comments, to the rest of the upper servants that evening, as they were taking a comfortable glass of grog together in the housekeeper’s room.

A pleasant room it was as any party need desire to muster in on a cold November evening. The fireplace alone was a picture: a wide and deep recess with a low brick altar in the middle, where great logs of dry wood sent myriad sparks up the dark chimney-throat; and over the front of this recess a large wooden entablature bearing this motto, finely carved in old English letters, ‘Fear God and honour the King’. And beyond the party, who formed a half-moon with their chairs and well-furnished table round this bright fireplace, what a space of chiaroscuro for the imagination to revel in! Stretching across the far end of the room, what an oak table, high enough surely for Homer’s gods, standing on four massive legs, bossed and bulging like sculptured urns! and, lining the distant wall, what vast cupboards, suggestive of inexhaustible apricot jam and promiscuous butler’s perquisites! A stray picture or two had found their way down there, and made agreeable patches of dark brown on the buff-coloured walls. High over the loud-resounding double door hung one which, from some indications of a face looming out of blackness, might, by a great synthetic effort, be pronounced a Magdalen. Considerably lower down hung the similitude of a hat and feathers, with portions of a ruff, stated by Mrs. Bellamy to represent Sir Francis Bacon, who invented gunpowder, and, in her opinion, ‘might ha’ been better emplyed.’

But this evening the mind is but slightly arrested by the great Verulam, and is in the humour to think a dead philosopher less interesting than a living gardener, who sits conspicuous in the half-circle round the fireplace. Mr. Bates is habitually a guest in the housekeeper’s room of an evening, preferring the social pleasures there — the feast of gossip and the flow of grog — to a bachelor’s chair in his charming thatched cottage on a little island, where every sound is remote, but the cawing of rooks and the screaming of wild geese, poetic sounds, doubtless, but, humanly speaking, not convivial.

Mr. Bates was by no means an average person, to be passed without special notice. He was a sturdy Yorkshireman, approaching forty, whose face Nature seemed to have coloured when she was in a hurry, and had no time to attend to nuances, for every inch of him visible above his neckcloth was of one impartial redness; so that when he was at some distance your imagination was at liberty to place his lips anywhere between his nose and chin. Seen closer, his lips were discerned to be of a peculiar cut, and I fancy this had something to do with the peculiarity of his dialect, which, as we shall see, was individual rather than provincial. Mr. Bates was further distinguished from the common herd by a perpetual blinking of the eyes; and this, together with the red-rose tint of his complexion, and a way he had of hanging his head forward, and rolling it from side to side as he walked, gave him the air of a Bacchus in a blue apron, who, in the present reduced circumstances of Olympus, had taken to the management of his own vines. Yet, as gluttons are often thin, so sober men are often rubicund; and Mr. Bates was sober, with that manly, British, churchman-like sobriety which can carry a few glasses of grog without any perceptible clarification of ideas.

‘Dang my boottons!’ observed Mr. Bates, who, at the conclusion of Mrs. Sharp’s narrative, felt himself urged to his strongest interjection, ‘it’s what I shouldn’t ha’ looked for from Sir Cristhifer an’ my ledy, to bring a furrin child into the coonthry; an’ depend on’t, whether you an’ me lives to see’t or noo, it’ll coom to soom harm. The first sitiation iver I held — it was a hold hancient habbey, wi’ the biggest orchard o’ apples an’ pears you ever see — there was a French valet, an’ he stool silk stoockins, an’ shirts, an’ rings, an’ iverythin’ he could ley his hands on, an’ run awey at last wi’ th’ missis’s jewl-box. They’re all alaike, them furriners. It roons i’ th’ blood.’

‘Well,’ said Mrs. Sharp, with the air of a person who held liberal views, but knew where to draw the line, ‘I’m not a-going to defend the furriners, for I’ve as good reason to know what they are as most folks, an’ nobody’ll ever hear me say but what they’re next door to heathens, and the hile they eat wi’ their victuals is enough to turn any Christian’s stomach. But for all that — an’ for all as the trouble in respect o’ washin’ and managin’ has fell upo’ me through the journey — I can’t say but what I think as my Lady an’ Sir Cristifer’s done a right thing by a hinnicent child as doesn’t know its right hand from its left, i’ bringing it where it’ll learn to speak summat better nor gibberish, and be brought up i’ the true religion. For as for them furrin churches as Sir Cristifer is so unaccountable mad after, wi’ pictures o’ men an’ women a-showing themselves just for all the world as God made ’em. I think, for my part, as it’s welly a sin to go into ’em.’

‘You’re likely to have more foreigners, however,’ said Mr. Warren, who liked to provoke the gardener, ‘for Sir Christopher has engaged some Italian workmen to help in the alterations in the house.’

‘Olterations!’ exclaimed Mrs. Bellamy, in alarm. ‘What olterations!’

‘Why,’ answered Mr. Warren, ‘Sir Christopher, as I understand, is going to make a new thing of the old Manor-house both inside and out. And he’s got portfolios full of plans and pictures coming. It is to be cased with stone, in the Gothic style — pretty near like the churches, you know, as far as I can make out; and the ceilings are to be beyond anything that’s been seen in the country. Sir Christopher’s been giving a deal of study to it.’

‘Dear heart alive!’ said Mrs. Bellamy, ‘we shall be pisoned wi’ lime an’ plaster, an’ hev the house full o’ workmen colloguing wi’ the maids, an’ makin’ no end o’ mischief.’

‘That ye may ley your life on, Mrs. Bellamy,’ said Mr. Bates. ‘Howiver, I’ll noot denay that the Goothic stayle’s prithy anoof, an’ it’s woonderful how near them stoon-carvers cuts oot the shapes o’ the pine apples, an’ shamrucks, an’ rooses. I dare sey Sir Cristhifer’ll meck a naice thing o’ the Manor, an’ there woon’t be many gentlemen’s houses i’ the coonthry as’ll coom up to’t, wi’ sich a garden an’ pleasure-groons an’ wall-fruit as King George maight be prood on.’

‘Well, I can’t think as the house can be better nor it is, Gothic or no Gothic,’ said Mrs. Bellamy; ‘an’ I’ve done the picklin’ and preservin’ in it fourteen year Michaelmas was a three weeks. But what does my lady say to’t?’

‘My lady knows better than cross Sir Cristifer in what he’s set his mind on,’ said Mr. Bellamy, who objected to the critical tone of the conversation. ‘Sir Cristifer’ll hev his own way, that you may tek your oath. An’ i’ the right on’t too. He’s a gentleman born, an’s got the money. But come, Mester Bates, fill your glass, an’ we’ll drink health an’ happiness to his honour an’ my lady, and then you shall give us a song. Sir Cristifer doesn’t come hum from Italy ivery night.’

This demonstrable position was accepted without hesitation as ground for a toast; but Mr. Bates, apparently thinking that his song was not an equally reasonable sequence, ignored the second part of Mr. Bellamy’s proposal. So Mrs. Sharp, who had been heard to say that she had no thoughts at all of marrying Mr. Bates, though he was ‘a sensable fresh-coloured man as many a woman ‘ud snap at for a husband,’ enforced Mr. Bellamy’s appeal.

‘Come, Mr. Bates, let us hear “Roy’s Wife.” I’d rether hear a good old song like that, nor all the fine Italian toodlin.’

Mr. Bates, urged thus flatteringly, stuck his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat, threw himself back in his chair with his head in that position in which he could look directly towards the zenith, and struck up a remarkably staccato rendering of ‘Roy’s Wife of Aldivalloch’. This melody may certainly be taxed with excessive iteration, but that was precisely its highest recommendation to the present audience, who found it all the easier to swell the chorus. Nor did it at all diminish their pleasure that the only particular concerning ‘Roy’s Wife’, which Mr. Bates’s enunciation allowed them to gather, was that she ‘chated’ him — whether in the matter of garden stuff or of some other commodity, or why her name should, in consequence, be repeatedly reiterated with exultation, remaining an agreeable mystery.

Mr. Bates’s song formed the climax of the evening’s good-fellowship, and the party soon after dispersed — Mrs. Bellamy perhaps to dream of quicklime flying among her preserving-pans, or of love-sick housemaids reckless of unswept corners — and Mrs. Sharp to sink into pleasant visions of independent housekeeping in Mr. Bates’s cottage, with no bells to answer, and with fruit and vegetables ad libitum.

Caterina soon conquered all prejudices against her foreign blood; for what prejudices will hold out against helplessness and broken prattle? She became the pet of the household, thrusting Sir Christopher’s favourite bloodhound of that day, Mrs. Bellamy’s two canaries, and Mr. Bates’s largest Dorking hen, into a merely secondary position. The consequence was, that in the space of a summer’s day she went through a great cycle of experiences, commencing with the somewhat acidulated goodwill of Mrs. Sharp’s nursery discipline. Then came the grave luxury of her ladyship’s sitting-room, and, perhaps, the dignity of a ride on Sir Christopher’s knee, sometimes followed by a visit with him to the stables, where Caterina soon learned to hear without crying the baying of the chained bloodhounds, and say, with ostentatious bravery, clinging to Sir Christopher’s leg all the while, ‘Dey not hurt Tina.’ Then Mrs. Bellamy would perhaps be going out to gather the rose-leaves and lavender, and Tina was made proud and happy by being allowed to carry a handful in her pinafore; happier still, when they were spread out on sheets to dry, so that she could sit down like a frog among them, and have them poured over her in fragrant showers. Another frequent pleasure was to take a journey with Mr. Bates through the kitchen-gardens and the hothouses, where the rich bunches of green and purple grapes hung from the roof, far out of reach of the tiny yellow hand that could not help stretching itself out towards them; though the hand was sure at last to be satisfied with some delicate-flavoured fruit or sweet-scented flower. Indeed, in the long monotonous leisure of that great country-house, you may be sure there was always some one who had nothing better to do than to play with Tina. So that the little southern bird had its northern nest lined with tenderness, and caresses, and pretty things. A loving sensitive nature was too likely, under such nurture, to have its susceptibility heightened into unfitness for an encounter with any harder experience; all the more, because there were gleams of fierce resistance to any discipline that had a harsh or unloving aspect. For the only thing in which Caterina showed any precocity was a certain ingenuity in vindictiveness. When she was five years old she had revenged herself for an unpleasant prohibition by pouring the ink into Mrs. Sharp’s work-basket; and once, when Lady Cheverel took her doll from her, because she was affectionately licking the paint off its face, the little minx straightway climbed on a chair and threw down a flower-vase that stood on a bracket. This was almost the only instance in which her anger overcame her awe of Lady Cheverel, who had the ascendancy always belonging to kindness that never melts into caresses, and is severely but uniformly beneficent.

By-and-by the happy monotony of Cheverel Manor was broken in upon in the way Mr. Warren had announced. The roads through the park were cut up by waggons carrying loads of stone from a neighbouring quarry, the green courtyard became dusty with lime, and the peaceful house rang with the sound of tools. For the next ten years Sir Christopher was occupied with the architectural metamorphosis of his old family mansion; thus anticipating, through the prompting of his individual taste, that general reaction from the insipid imitation of the Palladian style, towards a restoration of the Gothic, which marked the close of the eighteenth century. This was the object he had set his heart on, with a singleness of determination which was regarded with not a little contempt by his fox-hunting neighbours, who wondered greatly that a man with some of the best blood in England in his veins, should be mean enough to economize in his cellar, and reduce his stud to two old coach-horses and a hack, for the sake of riding a hobby, and playing the architect. Their wives did not see so much to blame in the matter of the cellar and stables, but they were eloquent in pity for poor Lady Cheverel, who had to live in no more than three rooms at once, and who must be distracted with noises, and have her constitution undermined by unhealthy smells. It was as bad as having a husband with an asthma. Why did not Sir Christopher take a house for her at Bath, or, at least, if he must spend his time in overlooking workmen, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Manor? This pity was quite gratuitous, as the most plentiful pity always is; for though Lady Cheverel did not share her husband’s architectural enthusiasm, she had too rigorous a view of a wife’s duties, and too profound a deference for Sir Christopher, to regard submission as a grievance. As for Sir Christopher, he was perfectly indifferent to criticism. ‘An obstinate, crotchety man,’ said his neighbours. But I, who have seen Cheverel Manor, as he bequeathed it to his heirs, rather attribute that unswerving architectural purpose of his, conceived and carried out through long years of systematic personal exertion, to something of the fervour of genius, as well as inflexibility of will; and in walking through those rooms, with their splendid ceilings and their meagre furniture, which tell how all the spare money had been absorbed before personal comfort was thought of, I have felt that there dwelt in this old English baronet some of that sublime spirit which distinguishes art from luxury, and worships beauty apart from self-indulgence.

While Cheverel Manor was growing from ugliness into beauty, Caterina too was growing from a little yellow bantling into a whiter maiden, with no positive beauty indeed, but with a certain light airy grace, which, with her large appealing dark eyes, and a voice that, in its low-toned tenderness, recalled the love-notes of the stock-dove, gave her a more than usual charm. Unlike the building, however, Caterina’s development was the result of no systematic or careful appliances. She grew up very much like the primroses, which the gardener is not sorry to see within his enclosure, but takes no pains to cultivate. Lady Cheverel taught her to read and write, and say her catechism; Mr. Warren, being a good accountant, gave her lessons in arithmetic, by her ladyship’s desire; and Mrs. Sharp initiated her in all the mysteries of the needle. But, for a long time, there was no thought of giving her any more elaborate education. It is very likely that to her dying day Caterina thought the earth stood still, and that the sun and stars moved round it; but so, for the matter of that, did Helen, and Dido, and Desdemona, and Juliet; whence I hope you will not think my Caterina less worthy to be a heroine on that account. The truth is, that, with one exception, her only talent lay in loving; and there, it is probable, the most astronomical of women could not have surpassed her. Orphan and protegee though she was, this supreme talent of hers found plenty of exercise at Cheverel Manor, and Caterina had more people to love than many a small lady and gentleman affluent in silver mugs and blood relations. I think the first place in her childish heart was given to Sir Christopher, for little girls are apt to attach themselves to the finest-looking gentleman at hand, especially as he seldom has anything to do with discipline. Next to the Baronet came Dorcas, the merry rosy-cheeked damsel who was Mrs. Sharp’s lieutenant in the nursery, and thus played the part of the raisins in a dose of senna. It was a black day for Caterina when Dorcas married the coachman, and went, with a great sense of elevation in the world, to preside over a ‘public’ in the noisy town of Sloppeter. A little china-box, bearing the motto ‘Though lost to sight, to memory dear’, which Dorcas sent her as a remembrance, was among Caterina’s treasures ten years after.

The one other exceptional talent, you already guess, was music. When the fact that Caterina had a remarkable ear for music, and a still more remarkable voice, attracted Lady Cheverel’s notice, the discovery was very welcome both to her and Sir Christopher. Her musical education became at once an object of interest. Lady Cheverel devoted much time to it; and the rapidity of Tina’s progress surpassing all hopes, an Italian singing-master was engaged, for several years, to spend some months together at Cheverel Manor. This unexpected gift made a great alteration in Caterina’s position. After those first years in which little girls are petted like puppies and kittens, there comes a time when it seems less obvious what they can be good for, especially when, like Caterina, they give no particular promise of cleverness or beauty; and it is not surprising that in that uninteresting period there was no particular plan formed as to her future position. She could always help Mrs. Sharp, supposing she were fit for nothing else, as she grew up; but now, this rare gift of song endeared her to Lady Cheverel, who loved music above all things, and it associated her at once with the pleasures of the drawing-room. Insensibly she came to be regarded as one of the family, and the servants began to understand that Miss Sarti was to be a lady after all.

‘And the raight on’t too,’ said Mr. Bates, ‘for she hasn’t the cut of a gell as must work for her bread; she’s as nesh an’ dilicate as a paich-blossom — welly laike a linnet, wi’ on’y joost body anoof to hold her voice.’

But long before Tina had reached this stage of her history, a new era had begun for her, in the arrival of a younger companion than any she had hitherto known. When she was no more than seven, a ward of Sir Christopher’s — a lad of fifteen, Maynard Gilfil by name — began to spend his vacations at Cheverel Manor, and found there no playfellow so much to his mind as Caterina. Maynard was an affectionate lad, who retained a propensity to white rabbits, pet squirrels, and guinea-pigs, perhaps a little beyond the age at which young gentlemen usually look down on such pleasures as puerile. He was also much given to fishing, and to carpentry, considered as a fine art, without any base view to utility. And in all these pleasures it was his delight to have Caterina as his companion, to call her little pet names, answer her wondering questions, and have her toddling after him as you may have seen a Blenheim spaniel trotting after a large setter. Whenever Maynard went back to school, there was a little scene of parting.

‘You won’t forget me, Tina, before I come back again? I shall leave you all the whip-cord we’ve made; and don’t you let Guinea die. Come, give me a kiss, and promise not to forget me.’

As the years wore on, and Maynard passed from school to college, and from a slim lad to a stalwart young man, their companionship in the vacations necessarily took a different form, but it retained a brotherly and sisterly familiarity. With Maynard the boyish affection had insensibly grown into ardent love. Among all the many kinds of first love, that which begins in childish companionship is the strongest and most enduring: when passion comes to unite its force to long affection, love is at its spring-tide. And Maynard Gilfil’s love was of a kind to make him prefer being tormented by Caterina to any pleasure, apart from her, which the most benevolent magician could have devised for him. It is the way with those tall large-limbed men, from Samson downwards. As for Tina, the little minx was perfectly well aware that Maynard was her slave; he was the one person in the world whom she did as she pleased with; and I need not tell you that this was a symptom of her being perfectly heart-whole so far as he was concerned: for a passionate woman’s love is always overshadowed by fear.

Maynard Gilfil did not deceive himself in his interpretation of Caterina’s feelings, but he nursed the hope that some time or other she would at least care enough for him to accept his love. So he waited patiently for the day when he might venture to say, ‘Caterina, I love you!’ You see, he would have been content with very little, being one of those men who pass through life without making the least clamour about themselves; thinking neither the cut of his coat, nor the flavour of his soup, nor the precise depth of a servant’s bow, at all momentous. He thought — foolishly enough, as lovers will think — that it was a good augury for him when he came to be domesticated at Cheverel Manor in the quality of chaplain there, and curate of a neighbouring parish; judging falsely, from his own case, that habit and affection were the likeliest avenues to love. Sir Christopher satisfied several feelings in installing Maynard as chaplain in his house. He liked the old-fashioned dignity of that domestic appendage; he liked his ward’s companionship; and, as Maynard had some private fortune, he might take life easily in that agreeable home, keeping his hunter, and observing a mild regimen of clerical duty, until the Cumbermoor living should fall in, when he might be settled for life in the neighbourhood of the manor. ‘With Caterina for a wife, too,’ Sir Christopher soon began to think; for though the good Baronet was not at all quick to suspect what was unpleasant and opposed to his views of fitness, he was quick to see what would dovetail with his own plans; and he had first guessed, and then ascertained, by direct inquiry, the state of Maynard’s feelings. He at once leaped to the conclusion that Caterina was of the same mind, or at least would be, when she was old enough. But these were too early days for anything definite to be said or done.

Meanwhile, new circumstances were arising, which, though they made no change in Sir Christopher’s plans and prospects, converted Mr. Gilfil’s hopes into anxieties, and made it clear to him not only that Caterina’s heart was never likely to be his, but that it was given entirely to another.

Once or twice in Caterina’s childhood, there had been another boy-visitor at the manor, younger than Maynard Gilfil — a beautiful boy with brown curls and splendid clothes, on whom Caterina had looked with shy admiration. This was Anthony Wybrow, the son of Sir Christopher’s youngest sister, and chosen heir of Cheverel Manor. The Baronet had sacrificed a large sum, and even straitened the resources by which he was to carry out his architectural schemes, for the sake of removing the entail from his estate, and making this boy his heir — moved to the step, I am sorry to say, by an implacable quarrel with his elder sister; for a power of forgiveness was not among Sir Christopher’s virtues. At length, on the death of Anthony’s mother, when he was no longer a curly-headed boy, but a tall young man, with a captain’s commission, Cheverel Manor became his home too, whenever he was absent from his regiment. Caterina was then a little woman, between sixteen and seventeen, and I need not spend many words in explaining what you perceive to be the most natural thing in the world.

There was little company kept at the Manor, and Captain Wybrow would have been much duller if Caterina had not been there. It was pleasant to pay her attentions — to speak to her in gentle tones, to see her little flutter of pleasure, the blush that just lit up her pale cheek, and the momentary timid glance of her dark eyes, when he praised her singing, leaning at her side over the piano. Pleasant, too, to cut out that chaplain with his large calves! What idle man can withstand the temptation of a woman to fascinate, and another man to eclipse? — especially when it is quite clear to himself that he means no mischief, and shall leave everything to come right again by-and-by? At the end of eighteen months, however, during which Captain Wybrow had spent much of his time at the Manor, he found that matters had reached a point which he had not at all contemplated. Gentle tones had led to tender words, and tender words had called forth a response of looks which made it impossible not to carry on the crescendo of love-making. To find one’s self adored by a little, graceful, dark-eyed, sweet-singing woman, whom no one need despise, is an agreeable sensation, comparable to smoking the finest Latakia, and also imposes some return of tenderness as a duty.

Perhaps you think that Captain Wybrow, who knew that it would be ridiculous to dream of his marrying Caterina, must have been a reckless libertine to win her affections in this manner! Not at all. He was a young man of calm passions, who was rarely led into any conduct of which he could not give a plausible account to himself; and the tiny fragile Caterina was a woman who touched the imagination and the affections rather than the senses. He really felt very kindly towards her, and would very likely have loved her — if he had been able to love any one. But nature had not endowed him with that capability. She had given him an admirable figure, the whitest of hands, the most delicate of nostrils, and a large amount of serene self-satisfaction; but, as if to save such a delicate piece of work from any risk of being shattered, she had guarded him from the liability to a strong emotion. There was no list of youthful misdemeanours on record against him, and Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel thought him the best of nephews, the most satisfactory of heirs, full of grateful deference to themselves, and, above all things, guided by a sense of duty. Captain Wybrow always did the thing easiest and most agreeable to him from a sense of duty: he dressed expensively, because it was a duty he owed to his position; from a sense of duty he adapted himself to Sir Christopher’s inflexible will, which it would have been troublesome as well as useless to resist; and, being of a delicate constitution, he took care of his health from a sense of duty. His health was the only point on which he gave anxiety to his friends; and it was owing to this that Sir Christopher wished to see his nephew early married, the more so as a match after the Baronet’s own heart appeared immediately attainable. Anthony had seen and admired Miss Assher, the only child of a lady who had been Sir Christopher’s earliest love, but who, as things will happen in this world, had married another baronet instead of him. Miss Assher’s father was now dead, and she was in possession of a pretty estate. If, as was probable, she should prove susceptible to the merits of Anthony’s person and character, nothing could make Sir Christopher so happy as to see a marriage which might be expected to secure the inheritance of Cheverel Manor from getting into the wrong hands. Anthony had already been kindly received by Lady Assher as the nephew of her early friend; why should he not go to Bath, where she and her daughter were then residing, follow up the acquaintance, and win a handsome, well-born, and sufficiently wealthy bride?

Sir Christopher’s wishes were communicated to his nephew, who at once intimated his willingness to comply with them — from a sense of duty. Caterina was tenderly informed by her lover of the sacrifice demanded from them both; and three days afterwards occurred the parting scene you have witnessed in the gallery, on the eve of Captain Wybrow’s departure for Bath.

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