Eve – A Novel (Chapter 8)



As Jasper recovered, he saw less of the sisters. June had come, and with it lovely weather, and with the lovely weather the haysel. The air was sweet about the house with the fragrance of hay, and the soft summer breath wafted the pollen and fine strands on its wings into the court and in at the windows of the old house. Hay harvest was a busy time, especially for Barbara Jordan. She engaged extra hands, and saw that cake was baked and beer brewed for the harvesters. Mr. Jordan had become, as years passed, more abstracted from the cares of the farm, and more steeped in his fantastic semi-scientific pursuits. As his eldest daughter put her strong shoulder to the wheel of business, Mr. Jordan edged his from under it and left the whole pressure upon her. Consequently Barbara was very much engaged. All that was necessary to be done for the convalescent was done, quietly and considerately; but Jasper was left considerably to himself. Neither Barbara nor Eve had the leisure, even if they had the inclination, to sit in his room and entertain him with conversation. Eve brought Jasper fresh flowers every morning, and by snatches sang to him. The little parlour opened out of the room he occupied, and in it was her harpsichord, an old instrument, without much tone, but it served to accompany her clear fresh voice. In the evening she and Barbara sang duets. The elder sister had a good alto voice that contrasted well with the warble of her sister’s soprano.

Mr. Jordan came periodically into the sick room, and saluted his guest in a shy, reserved manner, asked how he progressed, made some common remark about the weather, fidgeted with the backs of the chairs or the brim of his hat, and went away. He was a timid man with strangers, a man who lived in his own thoughts, a man with a frightened, far-off look in his eyes. He was ungainly in his movements, through nervousness. He made no friends, he had acquaintances only.

His peculiar circumstances, the connection with Eve’s mother, his natural reserve, had kept him apart from the gentlefolks around. His reserve had deepened of late, and his shyness had become painful to himself and to those with whom he spoke.

As Eve grew up, and her beauty was observed, the neighbours pitied the two girls, condemned through no fault of their own to a life of social exclusion. Of Barbara everyone spoke well, as an excellent manager and thrifty housekeeper, kind of heart, in all things reliable. Of Eve everyone spoke as a beauty. Some little informal conclaves had been held in the neighbourhood, and one good lady had said to the Cloberrys, ‘If you will call, so will I.’ So the Cloberrys of Bradstone, as a leading county family, had taken the initiative and called. As the Cloberry family coach drove up to the gate of Morwell, Mr. Jordan was all but caught, but he had the presence of mind to slip behind a laurel bush, that concealed his body, whilst exposing his legs. There he remained motionless, believing himself unseen, till the carriage drove away. After the Cloberrys had called, other visitors arrived, and the girls received invitations to tea, which they gladly accepted. Mr. Jordan sent his card by his daughters; he would make no calls in person, and the neighbours were relieved not to see him. That affair of seventeen years ago was not forgiven.

Mr. Jordan was well pleased that his daughters should go into society, or rather that his daughter Eve should be received and admired. With Barbara he had not much in common, only the daily cares of the estate, and these worried him. To Eve, and to her alone, he opened out, and spoke of things that lived within, in his mind, to her alone did he exhibit tenderness. Barbara was shut out from his heart; she felt the exclusion, but did not resent the preference shown to Eve. That was natural, it was Eve’s due, for Eve was so beautiful, so bright, so perfect a little fairy. But, though Barbara did not grudge her young sister the love that was given to her, she felt an ache in her heart, and a regret that the father’s love was not so full that it could embrace and envelop both.

One day, when the afternoon sun was streaming into the hall, Barbara crossed it, and came to the convalescent’s room.

‘Come,’ she said, ‘my father and I think you had better sit outside the house; we are carrying the hay, and it may amuse you to watch the waggons. The sweet air will do you good. You must be weary of confinement in this little room.’

‘How can I be weary where I am so kindly treated!—where all speaks to me of rest and peace and culture!’ Jasper was dressed, and was sitting in an armchair reading, or pretending to read, a book.

‘Can you rise, Mr. Jasper?’ she asked.

He tried to leave the chair, but he was still very weak, so she assisted him.

‘And now,’ she said kindly, ‘walk, sir!’

She watched his steps. His face was pale, and the pallor was the more observable from the darkness of his hair. ‘I think,’ said he, forcing a smile, ‘I must beg a little support.’

She went without hesitation to his side, and he put his arm in hers. He had not only lost much blood, but had been bruised and severely shaken, and was not certain of his steps. Barbara was afraid, in crossing the hall, lest he should fall on the stone floor. She disengaged his hand, put her arm about his waist, bade him lean on her shoulder. How strong she seemed!

‘Can you get on now?’ she asked, looking up. His deep eyes met her.

‘I could get on for ever thus,’ he answered.

She flushed scarlet.

‘I dislike such speeches,’ she said; and disengaged herself from him. Whilst her arm was about him her hand had felt the beating of his heart.

She conducted him to a bench in the garden near a bed of stocks, where the bees were busy.

‘How beautiful the world looks when one has not seen it for many days!’ he said.

‘Yes, there is a good shear of hay, saved in splendid order.’

‘When a child is born into the world there is always a gathering, and a festival to greet it. I am born anew into the beautiful world to-day. I am on the threshold of a new life, and you have nursed me into it. Am I too presumptuous if I ask you to sit here a very little while, and welcome me into it? That will be a festival indeed.’

She smiled good-humouredly, and took her place on the bench. Jasper puzzled her daily more and more. What was he? What was the temptation that had led him away? Was his repentance thorough? Barbara prayed for him daily, with the excuse to her conscience that it was always well to pray for the conversion of a sinner, and that she was bound to pray for the man whom Providence had cast broken and helpless at her feet. The Good Samaritan prayed, doubtless, for the man who fell among thieves.

She was interested in her patient. Her patient he was, as she was the only person in the house to provide and order whatever was done in it. Her patient, Eve and her father called him. Her patient he was, somehow her own heart told her he was; bound to her doubly by the solicitude with which she had nursed him, by the secret of his life which she had surprised.

He puzzled her. He puzzled her more and more daily. There was a gentleness and refinement in his manner and speech that showed her he was not a man of low class, that if he were not a gentleman by birth he was one in mind and culture. There was a grave religiousness about him, moreover, that could not be assumed, and did not comport with a criminal.

Who was he, and what had he done? How far had he sinned, or been sinned against? Barbara’s mind was fretted with these ever-recurring questions. Teased with the enigma, she could not divert her thoughts for long from it—it formed the background to all that occupied her during the day. She considered the dairy, but when the butter was weighed, went back in mind to the riddle. She was withdrawn again by the demands of the cook for groceries from her store closet; when the closet door was shut she was again thinking of the puzzle. She had to calculate the amount of cake required for the harvesters, and went on from the calculations of currants and sugar to the balancing of probabilities in the case of Jasper.

She had avoided seeing him of late more than was necessary, she had resolved not to go near him, and let the maid Jane attend to his requirements, aided by Christopher Davy’s boy, who cleaned the boots and knives, and ran errands, and weeded the paths, and was made generally useful. Yet for all her resolve she did not keep it: she discovered that some little matter had been neglected, which forced her to enter the room.

When she was there she was impatient to be out of it again, and she hardly spoke to Jasper, was short, busy, and away in a moment.

‘It does not do to leave the servants to themselves,’ soliloquized Barbara. ‘They half do whatever they are set at. The sick man would not like to complain. I must see to everything myself.’

Now she complied with his request to sit beside him, but was at once filled with restlessness. She could not speak to him on the one subject that tormented her. She had herself forbidden  mention of it.

She looked askance at Jasper, who was not speaking. He had his hat off, on his lap; his eyes were moist, his lips were moving. She was confident he was praying. He turned in a moment, recovered his head, and said with his sweet smile, ‘God is good. I have already thanked you. I have thanked him now.’

Was this hypocrisy? Barbara could not believe it.

She said, ‘If you have no objection, may we know your name? I have been asked by my father and others. I mean,’ she hesitated, ‘a name by which you would care to be called.’

‘You shall have my real name,’ he said, slightly colouring.

‘For myself to know, or to tell others?’

‘As you will, Miss Jordan. My name is Babb.’

‘Babb!’ echoed Barbara. She thought to herself that it was a name as ugly as it was unusual. At that moment Eve appeared, glowing with life, a wreath of wild roses wound about her hat.

‘Bab! Bab dear!’ she cried, referring to her sister.

Barbara turned crimson, and sprang from her seat.

‘The last cartload is going to start,’ said Eve eagerly, ‘and the men say that I am the Queen and must sit on the top; but I want half-a-crown, Bab dear, to pay my footing up the ladder to the top of the load.’

Barbara drew her sister away. ‘Eve! never call me by that ridiculous pet-name again. When we were children it did not matter. Now I do not wish it.’

‘Why not?’ asked the wondering girl. ‘How hot you are looking, and yet you have been sitting still!’

‘I do not wish it, Eve. You will make me very angry, and I shall feel hurt if you do it again. Bab—think, darling, the name is positively revolting, I assure you. I hate it. If you have any love for me in your heart, any regard for my feelings, you will not call me by it again. Bab——!’

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