Mr. Gilfil's Love Story, by George Eliot

Chapter 5

The inexorable ticking of the clock is like the throb of pain to sensations made keen by a sickening fear. And so it is with the great clockwork of nature. Daisies and buttercups give way to the brown waving grasses, tinged with the warm red sorrel; the waving grasses are swept away, and the meadows lie like emeralds set in the bushy hedgerows; the tawny-tipped corn begins to bow with the weight of the full ear; the reapers are bending amongst it, and it soon stands in sheaves, then presently, the patches of yellow stubble lie side by side with streaks of dark-red earth, which the plough is turning up in preparation for the new-thrashed seed. And this passage from beauty to beauty, which to the happy is like the flow of a melody, measures for many a human heart the approach of foreseen anguish — seems hurrying on the moment when the shadow of dread will be followed up by the reality of despair.

How cruelly hasty that summer of 1788 seemed to Caterina! Surely the roses vanished earlier, and the berries on the mountain-ash were more impatient to redden, and bring on the autumn, when she would be face to face with her misery, and witness Anthony giving all his gentle tones, tender words, and soft looks to another.

Before the end of July, Captain Wybrow had written word that Lady Assher and her daughter were about to fly from the heat and gaiety of Bath to the shady quiet of their place at Farleigh, and that he was invited to join the party there. His letters implied that he was on an excellent footing with both the ladies, and gave no hint of a rival; so that Sir Christopher was more than usually bright and cheerful after reading them. At length, towards the close of August, came the announcement that Captain Wybrow was an accepted lover, and after much complimentary and congratulatory correspondence between the two families, it was understood that in September Lady Assher and her daughter would pay a visit to Cheverel Manor, when Beatrice would make the acquaintance of her future relatives, and all needful arrangements could be discussed. Captain Wybrow would remain at Farleigh till then, and accompany the ladies on their journey.

In the interval, every one at Cheverel Manor had something to do by way of preparing for the visitors. Sir Christopher was occupied in consultations with his steward and lawyer, and in giving orders to every one else, especially in spurring on Francesco to finish the saloon. Mr. Gilfil had the responsibility of procuring a lady’s horse, Miss Assher being a great rider. Lady Cheverel had unwonted calls to make and invitations to deliver. Mr. Bates’s turf, and gravel, and flower-beds were always at such a point of neatness and finish that nothing extraordinary could be done in the garden, except a little extraordinary scolding of the under-gardener, and this addition Mr. Bates did not neglect.

Happily for Caterina, she too had her task, to fill up the long dreary daytime: it was to finish a chair-cushion which would complete the set of embroidered covers for the drawing-room, Lady Cheverel’s year-long work, and the only noteworthy bit of furniture in the Manor. Over this embroidery she sat with cold lips and a palpitating heart, thankful that this miserable sensation throughout the daytime seemed to counteract the tendency to tears which returned with night and solitude. She was most frightened when Sir Christopher approached her. The Baronet’s eye was brighter and his step more elastic than ever, and it seemed to him that only the most leaden or churlish souls could be otherwise than brisk and exulting in a world where everything went so well. Dear old gentleman! he had gone through life a little flushed with the power of his will, and now his latest plan was succeeding, and Cheverel Manor would be inherited by a grand-nephew, whom he might even yet live to see a fine young fellow with at least the down on his chin. Why not? one is still young at sixty.

Sir Christopher had always something playful to say to Caterina.

‘Now, little monkey, you must be in your best voice: you’re the minstrel of the Manor, you know, and be sure you have a pretty gown and a new ribbon. You must not be dressed in russet, though you are a singing-bird.’ Or perhaps, ‘It is your turn to be courted next, Tina. But don’t you learn any naughty proud airs. I must have Maynard let off easily.’

Caterina’s affection for the old Baronet helped her to summon up a smile as he stroked her cheek and looked at her kindly, but that was the moment at which she felt it most difficult not to burst out crying. Lady Cheverel’s conversation and presence were less trying; for her ladyship felt no more than calm satisfaction in this family event; and besides, she was further sobered by a little jealousy at Sir Christopher’s anticipation of pleasure in seeing Lady Assher, enshrined in his memory as a mild-eyed beauty of sixteen, with whom he had exchanged locks before he went on his first travels. Lady Cheverel would have died rather than confess it, but she couldn’t help hoping that he would be disappointed in Lady Assher, and rather ashamed of having called her so charming.

Mr. Gilfil watched Caterina through these days with mixed feelings. Her suffering went to his heart; but, even for her sake, he was glad that a love which could never come to good should be no longer fed by false hopes; and how could he help saying to himself, ‘Perhaps, after a while, Caterina will be tired of fretting about that cold-hearted puppy, and then . . .’

At length the much-expected day arrived, and the brightest of September suns was lighting up the yellowing lime-trees, as about five o’clock Lady Assher’s carriage drove under the portico. Caterina, seated at work in her own room, heard the rolling of the wheels, followed presently by the opening and shutting of doors, and the sound of voices in the corridors. Remembering that the dinner-hour was six, and that Lady Cheverel had desired her to be in the drawing-room early, she started up to dress, and was delighted to find herself feeling suddenly brave and strong. Curiosity to see Miss Assher — the thought that Anthony was in the house — the wish not to look unattractive, were feelings that brought some colour to her lips, and made it easy to attend to her toilette. They would ask her to sing this evening, and she would sing well. Miss Assher should not think her utterly insignificant. So she put on her grey silk gown and her cherry coloured ribbon with as much care as if she had been herself the betrothed; not forgetting the pair of round pearl earrings which Sir Christopher had told Lady Cheverel to give her, because Tina’s little ears were so pretty.

Quick as she had been, she found Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel in the drawing-room chatting with Mr. Gilfil, and telling him how handsome Miss Assher was, but how entirely unlike her mother — apparently resembling her father only.

‘Aha!’ said Sir Christopher, as he turned to look at Caterina, ‘what do you think of this, Maynard? Did you ever see Tina look so pretty before? Why, that little grey gown has been made out of a bit of my lady’s, hasn’t it? It doesn’t take anything much larger than a pocket-handkerchief to dress the little monkey.’

Lady Cheverel, too, serenely radiant in the assurance a single glance had given her of Lady Assher’s inferiority, smiled approval, and Caterina was in one of those moods of self possession and indifference which come as the ebb-tide between the struggles of passion. She retired to the piano, and busied herself with arranging her music, not at all insensible to the pleasure of being looked at with admiration the while, and thinking that, the next time the door opened, Captain Wybrow would enter, and she would speak to him quite cheerfully. But when she heard him come in, and the scent of roses floated towards her, her heart gave one great leap. She knew nothing till he was pressing her hand, and saying, in the old easy way, ‘Well, Caterina, how do you do? You look quite blooming.’

She felt her cheeks reddening with anger that he could speak and look with such perfect nonchalance. Ah! he was too deeply in love with some one else to remember anything he had felt for her. But the next moment she was conscious of her folly; —‘as if he could show any feeling then!’ This conflict of emotions stretched into a long interval the few moments that elapsed before the door opened again, and her own attention, as well as that of all the rest, was absorbed by the entrance of the two ladies.

The daughter was the more striking, from the contrast she presented to her mother, a round-shouldered, middle-sized woman, who had once had the transient pink-and-white beauty of a blonde, with ill-defined features and early embonpoint. Miss Assher was tall, and gracefully though substantially formed, carrying herself with an air of mingled graciousness and self-confidence; her dark-brown hair, untouched by powder, hanging in bushy curls round her face, and falling in long thick ringlets nearly to her waist. The brilliant carmine tint of her well-rounded cheeks, and the finely-cut outline of her straight nose, produced an impression of splendid beauty, in spite of commonplace brown eyes, a narrow forehead, and thin lips. She was in mourning, and the dead black of her crape dress, relieved here and there by jet ornaments, gave the fullest effect to her complexion, and to the rounded whiteness of her arms, bare from the elbow. The first coup d’oeil was dazzling, and as she stood looking down with a gracious smile on Caterina, whom Lady Cheverel was presenting to her, the poor little thing seemed to herself to feel, for the first time, all the folly of her former dream.

‘We are enchanted with your place, Sir Christopher,’ said Lady Assher, with a feeble kind of pompousness, which she seemed to be copying from some one else: ‘I’m sure your nephew must have thought Farleigh wretchedly out of order. Poor Sir John was so very careless about keeping up the house and grounds. I often talked to him about it, but he said, “Pooh pooh! as long as my friends find a good dinner and a good bottle of wine, they won’t care about my ceilings being rather smoky.” He was so very hospitable, was Sir John.’

‘I think the view of the house from the park, just after we passed the bridge, particularly fine,’ said Miss Assher, interposing rather eagerly, as if she feared her mother might be making infelicitous speeches, ‘and the pleasure of the first glimpse was all the greater because Anthony would describe nothing to us beforehand. He would not spoil our first impressions by raising false ideas. I long to go over the house, Sir Christopher, and learn the history of all your architectural designs, which Anthony says have cost you so much time and study.’

‘Take care how you set an old man talking about the past, my dear,’ said the Baronet; ‘I hope we shall find something pleasanter for you to do than turning over my old plans and pictures. Our friend Mr. Gilfil here has found a beautiful mare for you and you can scour the country to your heart’s content. Anthony has sent us word what a horsewoman you are.’

Miss Assher turned to Mr. Gilfil with her most beaming smile, and expressed her thanks with the elaborate graciousness of a person who means to be thought charming, and is sure of success.

‘Pray do not thank me,’ said Mr. Gilfil, ‘till you have tried the mare. She has been ridden by Lady Sara Linter for the last two years; but one lady’s taste may not be like another’s in horses, any more than in other matters.’

While this conversation was passing, Captain Wybrow was leaning against the mantelpiece, contenting himself with responding from under his indolent eyelids to the glances Miss Assher was constantly directing towards him as she spoke. ‘She is very much in love with him,’ thought Caterina. But she was relieved that Anthony remained passive in his attentions. She thought, too, that he was looking paler and more languid than usual. ‘If he didn’t love her very much — if he sometimes thought of the past with regret, I think I could bear it all, and be glad to see Sir Christopher made happy.’

During dinner there was a little incident which confirmed these thoughts. When the sweets were on the table, there was a mould of jelly just opposite Captain Wybrow, and being inclined to take some himself, he first invited Miss Assher, who coloured, and said, in rather a sharper key than usual, ‘Have you not learned by this time that I never take jelly?’

‘Don’t you?’ said Captain Wybrow, whose perceptions were not acute enough for him to notice the difference of a semitone. ‘I should have thought you were fond of it. There was always some on the table at Farleigh, I think.’

‘You don’t seem to take much interest in my likes and dislikes.’

‘I’m too much possessed by the happy thought that you like me,’ was the ex officio reply, in silvery tones.

This little episode was unnoticed by every one but Caterina. Sir Christopher was listening with polite attention to Lady Assher’s history of her last man-cook, who was first-rate at gravies, and for that reason pleased Sir John — he was so particular about his gravies, was Sir John: and so they kept the man six years in spite of his bad pastry. Lady Cheverel and Mr. Gilfil were smiling at Rupert the bloodhound, who had pushed his great head under his master’s arm, and was taking a survey of the dishes, after snuffing at the contents of the Baronet’s plate.

When the ladies were in the drawing-room again, Lady Assher was soon deep in a statement to Lady Cheverel of her views about burying people in woollen.

‘To be sure, you must have a woollen dress, because it’s the law, you know; but that need hinder no one from putting linen underneath. I always used to say, “If Sir John died tomorrow, I would bury him in his shirt;” and I did. And let me advise you to do so by Sir Christopher. You never saw Sir John, Lady Cheverel. He was a large tall man, with a nose just like Beatrice, and so very particular about his shirts.’

Miss Assher, meanwhile, had seated herself by Caterina, and, with that smiling affability which seems to say, ‘I am really not at all proud, though you might expect it of me,’ said — ‘Anthony tells me you sing so very beautifully. I hope we shall hear you this evening.’

‘O yes,’ said Caterina, quietly, without smiling; ‘I always sing when I am wanted to sing.’

‘I envy you such a charming talent. Do you know, I have no ear; I cannot hum the smallest tune, and I delight in music so. Is it not unfortunate? But I shall have quite a treat while I am here; Captain Wybrow says you will give us some music every day.’

‘I should have thought you wouldn’t care about music if you had no ear,’ said Caterina, becoming epigrammatic by force of grave simplicity.

‘O, I assure you, I doat on it; and Anthony is so fond of it; it would be so delightful if I could play and sing to him; though he says he likes me best not to sing, because it doesn’t belong to his idea of me. What style of music do you like best?’

‘I don’t know. I like all beautiful music.’

‘And are you as fond of riding as of music?’

‘No; I never ride. I think I should be very frightened.’

‘O no! indeed you would not, after a little practice. I have never been in the least timid. I think Anthony is more afraid for me than I am for myself; and since I have been riding with him, I have been obliged to be more careful, because he is so nervous about me.’

Caterina made no reply; but she said to herself, ‘I wish she would go away and not talk to me. She only wants me to admire her good-nature, and to talk about Anthony.’

Miss Assher was thinking at the same time, ‘This Miss Sarti seems a stupid little thing. Those musical people often are. But she is prettier than I expected; Anthony said she was not pretty.’

Happily at this moment Lady Assher called her daughter’s attention to the embroidered cushions, and Miss Assher, walking to the opposite sofa, was soon in conversation with Lady Cheverel about tapestry and embroidery in general, while her mother, feeling herself superseded there, came and placed herself beside Caterina.

‘I hear you are the most beautiful singer,’ was of course the opening remark. ‘All Italians sing so beautifully. I travelled in Italy with Sir John when we were first married, and we went to Venice, where they go about in gondolas, you know. You don’t wear powder, I see. No more will Beatrice; though many people think her curls would look all the better for powder. She has so much hair, hasn’t she? Our last maid dressed it much better than this; but, do you know, she wore Beatrice’s stockings before they went to the wash, and we couldn’t keep her after that, could we?’

Caterina, accepting the question as a mere bit of rhetorical effect, thought it superfluous to reply, till Lady Assher repeated, ‘Could we, now?’ as if Tina’s sanction were essential to her repose of mind. After a faint ‘No’, she went on.

‘Maids are so very troublesome, and Beatrice is so particular, you can’t imagine. I often say to her, “My dear, you can’t have perfection.” That very gown she has on — to be sure, it fits her beautifully now — but it has been unmade and made up again twice. But she is like poor Sir John — he was so very particular about his own things, was Sir John. Is Lady Cheverel particular?’

‘Rather. But Mrs. Sharp has been her maid twenty years.’

‘I wish there was any chance of our keeping Griffin twenty years. But I am afraid we shall have to part with her because her health is so delicate; and she is so obstinate, she will not take bitters as I want her. You look delicate, now. Let me recommend you to take camomile tea in a morning, fasting. Beatrice is so strong and healthy, she never takes any medicine; but if I had had twenty girls, and they had been delicate, I should have given them all camomile tea. It strengthens the constitution beyond anything. Now, will you promise me to take camomile tea?’

‘Thank you: I’m not at all ill,’ said Caterina. ‘I’ve always been pale and thin.’

Lady Assher was sure camomile tea would make all the difference in the world — Caterina must see if it wouldn’t — and then went dribbling on like a leaky shower-bath, until the early entrance of the gentlemen created a diversion, and she fastened on Sir Christopher, who probably began to think that, for poetical purposes, it would be better not to meet one’s first love again, after a lapse of forty years.

Captain Wybrow, of course, joined his aunt and Miss Assher, and Mr. Gilfil tried to relieve Caterina from the awkwardness of sitting aloof and dumb, by telling her how a friend of his had broken his arm and staked his horse that morning, not at all appearing to heed that she hardly listened, and was looking towards the other side of the room. One of the tortures of jealousy is, that it can never turn its eyes away from the thing that pains it.

‘By-and-by every one felt the need of a relief from chit-chat — Sir Christopher perhaps the most of all — and it was he who made the acceptable proposition —

‘Come, Tina, are we to have no music to-night before we sit down to cards? Your ladyship plays at cards, I think?’ he added, recollecting himself, and turning to Lady Assher.

‘O yes! Poor dear Sir John would have a whist-table every night.’

Caterina sat down to the harpsichord at once, and had no sooner begun to sing than she perceived with delight that Captain Wybrow was gliding towards the harpsichord, and soon standing in the old place. This consciousness gave fresh strength to her voice; and when she noticed that Miss Assher presently followed him with that air of ostentatious admiration which belongs to the absence of real enjoyment, her closing bravura was none the worse for being animated by a little triumphant contempt.

‘Why, you are in better voice than ever, Caterina,’ said Captain Wybrow, when she had ended. ‘This is rather different from Miss Hibbert’s small piping that we used to be glad of at Farleigh, is it not, Beatrice?’

‘Indeed it is. You are a most enviable creature, Miss Sarti — Caterina — may I not call you Caterina? for I have heard Anthony speak of you so often, I seem to know you quite well. You will let me call you Caterina?’

‘O yes, every one calls me Caterina, only when they call me Tina.’

‘Come, come, more singing, more singing, little monkey,’ Sir Christopher called out from the other side of the room. ‘We have not had half enough yet.’

Caterina was ready enough to obey, for while she was singing she was queen of the room, and Miss Assher was reduced to grimacing admiration. Alas! you see what jealousy was doing in this poor young soul. Caterina, who had passed her life as a little unobtrusive singing-bird, nestling so fondly under the wings that were outstretched for her, her heart beating only to the peaceful rhythm of love, or fluttering with some easily stifled fear, had begun to know the fierce palpitations of triumph and hatred.

When the singing was over, Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel sat down to whist with Lady Assher and Mr. Gilfil, and Caterina placed herself at the Baronet’s elbow, as if to watch the game, that she might not appear to thrust herself on the pair of lovers. At first she was glowing with her little triumph, and felt the strength of pride; but her eye would steal to the opposite side of the fireplace, where Captain Wybrow had seated himself close to Miss Assher, and was leaning with his arm over the back of the chair, in the most lover-like position. Caterina began to feel a choking sensation. She could see, almost without looking, that he was taking up her arm to examine her bracelet; their heads were bending close together, her curls touching his cheek — now he was putting his lips to her hand. Caterina felt her cheeks burn — she could sit no longer. She got up, pretended to be gliding about in search of something, and at length slipped out of the room.

Outside, she took a candle, and, hurrying along the passages and up the stairs to her own room, locked the door.

‘O, I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it!’ the poor thing burst out aloud, clasping her little fingers, and pressing them back against her forehead, as if she wanted to break them.

Then she walked hurriedly up and down the room.

‘And this must go on for days and days, and I must see it.’

She looked about nervously for something to clutch. There was a muslin kerchief lying on the table; she took it up and tore it into shreds as she walked up and down, and then pressed it into hard balls in her hand.

‘And Anthony,’ she thought, ‘he can do this without caring for what I feel. O, he can forget everything: how he used to say he loved me — how he used to take my hand in his as we walked — how he used to stand near me in the evenings for the sake of looking into my eyes.’

‘Oh, it is cruel, it is cruel!’ she burst out again aloud, as all those love-moments in the past returned upon her. Then the tears gushed forth, she threw herself on her knees by the bed, and sobbed bitterly.

She did not know how long she had been there, till she was startled by the prayer-bell; when, thinking Lady Cheverel might perhaps send some one to inquire after her, she rose, and began hastily to undress, that there might be no possibility of her going down again. She had hardly unfastened her hair, and thrown a loose gown about her, before there was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Sharp’s voice said —‘Miss Tina, my lady wants to know if you’re ill.’

Caterina opened the door and said, ‘Thank you, dear Mrs. Sharp; I have a bad headache; please tell my lady I felt it come on after singing.’ ‘Then, goodness me! why arn’t you in bed, istid o’ standing shivering there, fit to catch your death? Come, let me fasten up your hair and tuck you up warm.’

‘O no, thank you; I shall really be in bed very soon. Good-night, dear Sharpy; don’t scold; I will be good, and get into bed.’

Caterina kissed her old friend coaxingly, but Mrs. Sharp was not to be ‘come over’ in that way, and insisted on seeing her former charge in bed, taking away the candle which the poor child had wanted to keep as a companion. But it was impossible to lie there long with that beating heart; and the little white figure was soon out of bed again, seeking relief in the very sense of chill and uncomfort. It was light enough for her to see about her room, for the moon, nearly at full, was riding high in the heavens among scattered hurrying clouds. Caterina drew aside the window-curtain; and, sitting with her forehead pressed against the cold pane, looked out on the wide stretch of park and lawn.

How dreary the moonlight is! robbed of all its tenderness and repose by the hard driving wind. The trees are harassed by that tossing motion, when they would like to be at rest; the shivering grass makes her quake with sympathetic cold; and the willows by the pool, bent low and white under that invisible harshness, seem agitated and helpless like herself. But she loves the scene the better for its sadness: there is some pity in it. It is not like that hard unfeeling happiness of lovers, flaunting in the eyes of misery.

She set her teeth tight against the window-frame, and the tears fell thick and fast. She was so thankful she could cry, for the mad passion she had felt when her eyes were dry frightened her. If that dreadful feeling were to come on when Lady Cheverel was present, she should never be able to contain herself.

Then there was Sir Christopher — so good to her — so happy about Anthony’s marriage; and all the while she had these wicked feelings.

‘O, I cannot help it, I cannot help it!’ she said in a loud whisper between her sobs. ‘O God, have pity upon me!’

In this way Tina wore out the long hours of the windy moon-light, till at last, with weary aching limbs, she lay down in bed again, and slept from mere exhaustion.

While this poor little heart was being bruised with a weight too heavy for it, Nature was holding on her calm inexorable way, in unmoved and terrible beauty. The stars were rushing in their eternal courses; the tides swelled to the level of the last expectant weed; the sun was making brilliant day to busy nations on the other side of the swift earth. The stream of human thought and deed was hurrying and broadening onward. The astronomer was at his telescope; the great ships were labouring over the waves; the toiling eagerness of commerce, the fierce spirit of revolution, were only ebbing in brief rest; and sleepless statesmen were dreading the possible crisis of the morrow. What were our little Tina and her trouble in this mighty torrent, rushing from one awful unknown to another? Lighter than the smallest centre of quivering life in the waterdrop, hidden and uncared for as the pulse of anguish in the breast of the tiniest bird that has fluttered down to its nest with the long-sought food, and has found the nest torn and empty.

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