'A bad motive for a good resolve,' I answered. 'But, however, I know you have better motives, really, for your perseverance: and I counsel you to keep them still in view.'
'Trust me I will. I threaten mamma sometimes that I'll run away, and disgrace the family by earning my own livelihood, if she torments me any more; and then that frightens her a little. But I will do it, in good earnest, if they don't mind.'
'Be quiet and patient a while,' said I, 'and better times will come.'
Poor girl! I wish somebody that was worthy to possess her would come and take her away—don't you, Frederick?
* * * * *
If the perusal of this letter filled me with dismay for Helen's future life and mine, there was one great source of consolation: it was now in my power to clear her name from every foul aspersion. The Millwards and the Wilsons should see with their own eyes the bright sun bursting from the cloud—and they should be scorched and dazzled by its beams;—and my own friends too should see it—they whose suspicions had been such gall and wormwood to my soul. To effect this I had only to drop the seed into the ground, and it would soon become a stately, branching herb: a few words to my mother and sister, I knew, would suffice to spread the news throughout the whole neighbourhood, without any further exertion on my part.
Rose was delighted; and as soon as I had told her all I thought proper—which was all I affected to know—she flew with alacrity to put on her bonnet and shawl, and hasten to carry the glad tidings to the Millwards and Wilsons—glad tidings, I suspect, to none but herself and Mary Millward—that steady, sensible girl, whose sterling worth had been so quickly perceived and duly valued by the supposed Mrs. Graham, in spite of her plain outside; and who, on her part, had been better able to see and appreciate that lady's true character and qualities than the brightest genius among them.
As I may never have occasion to mention her again, I may as well tell you here that she was at this time privately engaged to Richard Wilson—a secret, I believe, to every one but themselves. That worthy student was now at Cambridge, where his most exemplary conduct and his diligent perseverance in the pursuit of learning carried him safely through, and eventually brought him with hard-earned honours, and an untarnished reputation, to the close of his collegiate career. In due time he became Mr. Millward's first and only curate—for that gentleman's declining years forced him at last to acknowledge that the duties of his extensive parish were a little too much for those vaunted energies which he was wont to boast over his younger and less active brethren of the cloth. This was what the patient, faithful lovers had privately planned and quietly waited for years ago; and in due time they were united, to the astonishment of the little world they lived in, that had long since declared them both born to single blessedness; affirming it impossible that the pale, retiring bookworm should ever summon courage to seek a wife, or be able to obtain one if he did, and equally impossible that the plain-looking, plain-dealing, unattractive, unconciliating Miss Millward should ever find a husband.
They still continued to live at the vicarage, the lady dividing her time between her father, her husband, and their poor parishioners,—and subsequently her rising family; and now that the Reverend Michael Millward has been gathered to his fathers, full of years and honours, the Reverend Richard Wilson has succeeded him to the vicarage of Linden-hope, greatly to the satisfaction of its inhabitants, who had so long tried and fully proved his merits, and those of his excellent and well-loved partner.
If you are interested in the after fate of that lady's sister, I can only tell you—what perhaps you have heard from another quarter—that some twelve or thirteen years ago she relieved the happy couple of her presence by marrying a wealthy tradesman of L—; and I don't envy him his bargain. I fear she leads him a rather uncomfortable life, though, happily, he is too dull to perceive the extent of his misfortune. I have little enough to do with her myself: we have not met for many years; but, I am well assured, she has not yet forgotten or forgiven either her former lover, or the lady whose superior qualities first opened his eyes to the folly of his boyish attachment.
As for Richard Wilson's sister, she, having been wholly unable to recapture Mr. Lawrence, or obtain any partner rich and elegant enough to suit her ideas of what the husband of Jane Wilson ought to be, is yet in single blessedness. Shortly after the death of her mother she withdrew the light of her presence from Ryecote Farm, finding it impossible any longer to endure the rough manners and unsophisticated habits of her honest brother Robert and his worthy wife, or the idea of being identified with such vulgar people in the eyes of the world, and took lodgings in — the county town, where she lived, and still lives, I suppose, in a kind of close-fisted, cold, uncomfortable gentility, doing no good to others, and but little to herself; spending her days in fancy-work and scandal; referring frequently to her 'brother the vicar,' and her 'sister, the vicar's lady,' but never to her brother the farmer and her sister the farmer's wife; seeing as much company as she can without too much expense, but loving no one and beloved by none—a cold-hearted, supercilious, keenly, insidiously censorious old maid.
Though Mr. Lawrence's health was now quite re-established, my visits to Woodford were as unremitting as ever; though often less protracted than before. We seldom talked about Mrs. Huntingdon; but yet we never met without mentioning her, for I never sought his company but with the hope of hearing something about her, and he never sought mine at all, because he saw me often enough without. But I always began to talk of other things, and waited first to see if he would introduce the subject. If he did not, I would casually ask, 'Have you heard from your sister lately?' If he said 'No,' the matter was dropped: if he said 'Yes,' I would venture to inquire, 'How is she?' but never 'How is her husband?' though I might be burning to know; because I had not the hypocrisy to profess any anxiety for his recovery, and I had not the face to express any desire for a contrary result. Had I any such desire?—I fear I must plead guilty; but since you have heard my confession, you must hear my justification as well —a few of the excuses, at least, wherewith I sought to pacify my own accusing conscience.
In the first place, you see, his life did harm to others, and evidently no good to himself; and though I wished it to terminate, I would not have hastened its close if, by the lifting of a finger, I could have done so, or if a spirit had whispered in my ear that a single effort of the will would be enough,—unless, indeed, I had the power to exchange him for some other victim of the grave, whose life might be of service to his race, and whose death would be lamented by his friends. But was there any harm in wishing that, among the many thousands whose souls would certainly be required of them before the year was over, this wretched mortal might be one? I thought not; and therefore I wished with all my heart that it might please heaven to remove him to a better world, or if that might not be, still to take him out of this; for if he were unfit to answer the summons now, after a warning sickness, and with such an angel by his side, it seemed but too certain that he never would be—that, on the contrary, returning health would bring returning lust and villainy, and as he grew more certain of recovery, more accustomed to her generous goodness, his feelings would become more callous, his heart more flinty and impervious to her persuasive arguments—but God knew best. Meantime, however, I could not but be anxious for the result of His decrees; knowing, as I did, that (leaving myself entirely out of the question), however Helen might feel interested in her husband's welfare, however she might deplore his fate, still while he lived she must be miserable.
A fortnight passed away, and my inquiries were always answered in the negative. At length a welcome 'yes' drew from me the second question. Lawrence divined my anxious thoughts, and appreciated my reserve. I feared, at first, he was going to torture me by unsatisfactory replies, and either leave me quite in the dark concerning what I wanted to know, or force me to drag the information out of him, morsel by morsel, by direct inquiries. 'And serve you right,' you will say; but he was more merciful; and in a little while he put his sister's letter into my hand. I silently read it, and restored it to him without comment or remark. This mode of procedure suited him so well, that thereafter he always pursued the plan of showing me her letters at once, when 'inquired' after her, if there were any to show—it was so much less trouble than to tell me their contents; and I received such confidences so quietly and discreetly that he was never induced to discontinue them.
But I devoured those precious letters with my eyes, and never let them go till their contents were stamped upon my mind; and when I got home, the most important passages were entered in my diary among the remarkable events of the day.
The first of these communications brought intelligence of a serious relapse in Mr. Huntingdon's illness, entirely the result of his own infatuation in persisting in the indulgence of his appetite for stimulating drink. In vain had she remonstrated, in vain she had mingled his wine with water: her arguments and entreaties were a nuisance, her interference was an insult so intolerable that, at length, on finding she had covertly diluted the pale port that was brought him, he threw the bottle out of the window, swearing he would not be cheated like a baby, ordered the butler, on pain of instant dismissal, to bring a bottle of the strongest wine in the cellar, and affirming that he should have been well long ago if he had been let to have his own way, but she wanted to keep him weak in order that she might have him under her thumb—but, by the Lord Harry, he would have no more humbug—seized a glass in one hand and the bottle in the other, and never rested till he had drunk it dry. Alarming symptoms were the immediate result of this 'imprudence,' as she mildly termed it—symptoms which had rather increased than diminished since; and this was the cause of her delay in writing to her brother. Every former feature of his malady had returned with augmented virulence: the slight external wound, half healed, had broken out afresh; internal inflammation had taken place, which might terminate fatally if not soon removed. Of course, the wretched sufferer's temper was not improved by this calamity—in fact, I suspect it was well nigh insupportable, though his kind nurse did not complain; but she said she had been obliged at last to give her son in charge to Esther Hargrave, as her presence was so constantly required in the sick-room that she could not possibly attend to him herself; and though the child had begged to be allowed to continue with her there, and to help her to nurse his papa, and though she had no doubt he would have been very good and quiet, she could not think of subjecting his young and tender feelings to the sight of so much suffering, or of allowing him to witness his father's impatience, or hear the dreadful language he was wont to use in his paroxysms of pain or irritation.
The latter (continued she) most deeply regrets the step that has occasioned his relapse; but, as usual, he throws the blame upon me. If I had reasoned with him like a rational creature, he says, it never would have happened; but to be treated like a baby or a fool was enough to put any man past his patience, and drive him to assert his independence even at the sacrifice of his own interest. He forgets how often I had reasoned him 'past his patience' before. He appears to be sensible of his danger; but nothing can induce him to behold it in the proper light. The other night, while I was waiting on him, and just as I had brought him a draught to assuage his burning thirst, he observed, with a return of his former sarcastic bitterness, 'Yes, you're mighty attentive now! I suppose there's nothing you wouldn't do for me now?'
'You know,' said I, a little surprised at his manner, 'that I am willing to do anything I can to relieve you.'
'Yes, now, my immaculate angel; but when once you have secured your reward, and find yourself safe in heaven, and me howling in hell-fire, catch you lifting a finger to serve me then! No, you'll look complacently on, and not so much as dip the tip of your finger in water to cool my tongue!'
'If so, it will be because of the great gulf over which I cannot pass; and if I could look complacently on in such a case, it would be only from the assurance that you were being purified from your sins, and fitted to enjoy the happiness I felt.—But are you determined, Arthur, that I shall not meet you in heaven?'
'Humph! What should I do there, I should like to know?'
'Indeed, I cannot tell; and I fear it is too certain that your tastes and feelings must be widely altered before you can have any enjoyment there. But do you prefer sinking, without an effort, into the state of torment you picture to yourself?'
'Oh, it's all a fable,' said he, contemptuously.
'Are you sure, Arthur? are you quite sure? Because, if there is any doubt, and if you should find yourself mistaken after all, when it is too late to turn—'
'It would be rather awkward, to be sure,' said he; 'but don't bother me now—I'm not going to die yet. I can't and won't,' he added vehemently, as if suddenly struck with the appalling aspect of that terrible event. 'Helen, you must save me!' And he earnestly seized my hand, and looked into my face with such imploring eagerness that my heart bled for him, and I could not speak for tears.
* * * * *
The next letter brought intelligence that the malady was fast increasing; and the poor sufferer's horror of death was still more distressing than his impatience of bodily pain. All his friends had not forsaken him; for Mr. Hattersley, hearing of his danger, had come to see him from his distant home in the north. His wife had accompanied him, as much for the pleasure of seeing her dear friend, from whom she had been parted so long, as to visit her mother and sister.
Mrs. Huntingdon expressed herself glad to see Milicent once more, and pleased to behold her so happy and well. She is now at the Grove, continued the letter, but she often calls to see me. Mr. Hattersley spends much of his time at Arthur's bed-side. With more good feeling than I gave him credit for, he evinces considerable sympathy for his unhappy friend, and is far more willing than able to comfort him. Sometimes he tries to joke and laugh with him, but that will not do; sometimes he endeavours to cheer him with talk about old times, and this at one time may serve to divert the sufferer from his own sad thoughts; at another, it will only plunge him into deeper melancholy than before; and then Hattersley is confounded, and knows not what to say, unless it be a timid suggestion that the clergyman might be sent for. But Arthur will never consent to that: he knows he has rejected the clergyman's well-meant admonitions with scoffing levity at other times, and cannot dream of turning to him for consolation now.
Mr. Hattersley sometimes offers his services instead of mine, but Arthur will not let me go: that strange whim still increases, as his strength declines—the fancy to have me always by his side. I hardly ever leave him, except to go into the next room, where I sometimes snatch an hour or so of sleep when he is quiet; but even then the door is left ajar, that he may know me to be within call. I am with him now, while I write, and I fear my occupation annoys him; though I frequently break off to attend to him, and though Mr. Hattersley is also by his side. That gentleman came, as he said, to beg a holiday for me, that I might have a run in the park, this fine frosty morning, with Milicent and Esther and little Arthur, whom he had driven over to see me. Our poor invalid evidently felt it a heartless proposition, and would have felt it still more heartless in me to accede to it. I therefore said I would only go and speak to them a minute, and then come back. I did but exchange a few words with them, just outside the portico, inhaling the fresh, bracing air as I stood, and then, resisting the earnest and eloquent entreaties of all three to stay a little longer, and join them in a walk round the garden, I tore myself away and returned to my patient. I had not been absent five minutes, but he reproached me bitterly for my levity and neglect. His friend espoused my cause.
'Nay, nay, Huntingdon,' said he, 'you're too hard upon her; she must have food and sleep, and a mouthful of fresh air now and then, or she can't stand it, I tell you. Look at her, man! she's worn to a shadow already.'
'What are her sufferings to mine?' said the poor invalid. 'You don't grudge me these attentions, do you, Helen?'
'No, Arthur, if I could really serve you by them. I would give my life to save you, if I might.'
'Would you, indeed? No!'
'Most willingly I would.'
'Ah! that's because you think yourself more fit to die!'
There was a painful pause. He was evidently plunged in gloomy reflections; but while I pondered for something to say that might benefit without alarming him, Hattersley, whose mind had been pursuing almost the same course, broke silence with, 'I say, Huntingdon, I would send for a parson of some sort: if you didn't like the vicar, you know, you could have his curate, or somebody else.'
'No; none of them can benefit me if she can't,' was the answer. And the tears gushed from his eyes as he earnestly exclaimed, 'Oh, Helen, if I had listened to you, it never would have come to this! and if I had heard you long ago—oh, God! how different it would have been!'
'Hear me now, then, Arthur,' said I, gently pressing his hand.
'It's too late now,' said he despondingly. And after that another paroxysm of pain came on; and then his mind began to wander, and we feared his death was approaching: but an opiate was administered: his sufferings began to abate, he gradually became more composed, and at length sank into a kind of slumber. He has been quieter since; and now Hattersley has left him, expressing a hope that he shall find him better when he calls to-morrow.
'Perhaps I may recover,' he replied; 'who knows? This may have been the crisis. What do you think, Helen?' Unwilling to depress him, I gave the most cheering answer I could, but still recommended him to prepare for the possibility of what I inly feared was but too certain. But he was determined to hope. Shortly after he relapsed into a kind of doze, but now he groans again.
There is a change. Suddenly he called me to his side, with such a strange, excited manner, that I feared he was delirious, but he was not. 'That was the crisis, Helen!' said he, delightedly. 'I had an infernal pain here—it is quite gone now. I never was so easy since the fall—quite gone, by heaven!' and he clasped and kissed my hand in the very fulness of his heart; but finding I did not participate in his joy, he quickly flung it from him, and bitterly cursed my coldness and insensibility. How could I reply? Kneeling beside him, I took his hand and fondly pressed it to my lips—for the first time since our separation—and told him, as well as tears would let me speak, that it was not that that kept me silent: it was the fear that this sudden cessation of pain was not so favourable a symptom as he supposed. I immediately sent for the doctor: we are now anxiously awaiting him. I will tell you what he says. There is still the same freedom from pain, the same deadness to all sensation where the suffering was most acute.
My worst fears are realised: mortification has commenced. The doctor has told him there is no hope. No words can describe his anguish. I can write no more.
* * * * *
The next was still more distressing in the tenor of its contents. The sufferer was fast approaching dissolution—dragged almost to the verge of that awful chasm he trembled to contemplate, from which no agony of prayers or tears could save him. Nothing could comfort him now; Hattersley's rough attempts at consolation were utterly in vain. The world was nothing to him: life and all its interests, its petty cares and transient pleasures, were a cruel mockery. To talk of the past was to torture him with vain remorse; to refer to the future was to increase his anguish; and yet to be silent was to leave him a prey to his own regrets and apprehensions. Often he dwelt with shuddering minuteness on the fate of his perishing clay—the slow, piecemeal dissolution already invading his frame: the shroud, the coffin, the dark, lonely grave, and all the horrors of corruption.
'If I try,' said his afflicted wife, 'to divert him from these things—to raise his thoughts to higher themes, it is no better:—"Worse and worse!" he groans. "If there be really life beyond the tomb, and judgment after death, how can I face it?"—I cannot do him any good; he will neither be enlightened, nor roused, nor comforted by anything I say; and yet he clings to me with unrelenting pertinacity—with a kind of childish desperation, as if I could save him from the fate he dreads. He keeps me night and day beside him. He is holding my left hand now, while I write; he has held it thus for hours: sometimes quietly, with his pale face upturned to mine: sometimes clutching my arm with violence—the big drops starting from his forehead at the thoughts of what he sees, or thinks he sees, before him. If I withdraw my hand for a moment it distresses him.
'"Stay with me, Helen," he says; "let me hold you so: it seems as if harm could not reach me while you are here. But death will come—it is coming now—fast, fast!—and—oh, if I could believe there was nothing after!"
'"Don't try to believe it, Arthur; there is joy and glory after, if you will but try to reach it!"
'"What, for me?" he said, with something like a laugh. "Are we not to be judged according to the deeds done in the body? Where's the use of a probationary existence, if a man may spend it as he pleases, just contrary to God's decrees, and then go to heaven with the best—if the vilest sinner may win the reward of the holiest saint, by merely saying, "I repent!""'
'"But if you sincerely repent—"
'"I can't repent; I only fear."
'"You only regret the past for its consequences to yourself?"
'"Just so—except that I'm sorry to have wronged you, Nell, because you're so good to me."
'"Think of the goodness of God, and you cannot but be grieved to have offended Him."
'"What is God?—I cannot see Him or hear Him.—God is only an idea."
'"God is Infinite Wisdom, and Power, and Goodness—and LOVE; but if this idea is too vast for your human faculties—if your mind loses itself in its overwhelming infinitude, fix it on Him who condescended to take our nature upon Him, who was raised to heaven even in His glorified human body, in whom the fulness of the Godhead shines."
'But he only shook his head and sighed. Then, in another paroxysm of shuddering horror, he tightened his grasp on my hand and arm, and, groaning and lamenting, still clung to me with that wild, desperate earnestness so harrowing to my soul, because I know I cannot help him. I did my best to soothe and comfort him.
'"Death is so terrible," he cried, "I cannot bear it! You don't know, Helen—you can't imagine what it is, because you haven't it before you! and when I'm buried, you'll return to your old ways and be as happy as ever, and all the world will go on just as busy and merry as if I had never been; while I—" He burst into tears.
'"You needn't let that distress you," I said; "we shall all follow you soon enough."
'"I wish to God I could take you with me now!" he exclaimed: "you should plead for me."
'"No man can deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him," I replied: "it cost more to redeem their souls—it cost the blood of an incarnate God, perfect and sinless in Himself, to redeem us from the bondage of the evil one:—let Him plead for you."
'But I seem to speak in vain. He does not now, as formerly, laugh these blessed truths to scorn: but still he cannot trust, or will not comprehend them. He cannot linger long. He suffers dreadfully, and so do those that wait upon him. But I will not harass you with further details: I have said enough, I think, to convince you that I did well to go to him.'
* * * * *
Poor, poor Helen! dreadful indeed her trials must have been! And I could do nothing to lessen them—nay, it almost seemed as if I had brought them upon her myself by my own secret desires; and whether I looked at her husband's sufferings or her own, it seemed almost like a judgment upon myself for having cherished such a wish.
The next day but one there came another letter. That too was put into my hands without a remark, and these are its contents:—
He is gone at last. I sat beside him all night, with my hand fast looked in his, watching the changes of his features and listening to his failing breath. He had been silent a long time, and I thought he would never speak again, when he murmured, faintly but distinctly,—'Pray for me, Helen!'
'I do pray for you, every hour and every minute, Arthur; but you must pray for yourself.'
His lips moved, but emitted no sound;—then his looks became unsettled; and, from the incoherent, half-uttered words that escaped him from time to time, supposing him to be now unconscious, I gently disengaged my hand from his, intending to steal away for a breath of air, for I was almost ready to faint; but a convulsive movement of the fingers, and a faintly whispered 'Don't leave me!' immediately recalled me: I took his hand again, and held it till he was no more—and then I fainted. It was not grief; it was exhaustion, that, till then, I had been enabled successfully to combat. Oh, Frederick! none can imagine the miseries, bodily and mental, of that death-bed! How could I endure to think that that poor trembling soul was hurried away to everlasting torment? it would drive me mad. But, thank God, I have hope—not only from a vague dependence on the possibility that penitence and pardon might have reached him at the last, but from the blessed confidence that, through whatever purging fires the erring spirit may be doomed to pass—whatever fate awaits it—still it is not lost, and God, who hateth nothing that He hath made, will bless it in the end!
His body will be consigned on Thursday to that dark grave he so much dreaded; but the coffin must be closed as soon as possible. If you will attend the funeral, come quickly, for I need help.
On reading this I had no reason to disguise my joy and hope from Frederick Lawrence, for I had none to be ashamed of. I felt no joy but that his sister was at length released from her afflictive, overwhelming toil—no hope but that she would in time recover from the effects of it, and be suffered to rest in peace and quietness, at least, for the remainder of her life. I experienced a painful commiseration for her unhappy husband (though fully aware that he had brought every particle of his sufferings upon himself, and but too well deserved them all), and a profound sympathy for her own afflictions, and deep anxiety for the consequences of those harassing cares, those dreadful vigils, that incessant and deleterious confinement beside a living corpse—for I was persuaded she had not hinted half the sufferings she had had to endure.
'You will go to her, Lawrence?' said I, as I put the letter into his hand.
'That's right! I'll leave you, then, to prepare for your departure.'
'I've done that already, while you were reading the letter, and before you came; and the carriage is now coming round to the door.'
Inly approving his promptitude, I bade him good-morning, and withdrew. He gave me a searching glance as we pressed each other's hands at parting; but whatever he sought in my countenance, he saw there nothing but the most becoming gravity—it might be mingled with a little sternness in momentary resentment at what I suspected to be passing in his mind.
Had I forgotten my own prospects, my ardent love, my pertinacious hopes? It seemed like sacrilege to revert to them now, but I had not forgotten them. It was, however, with a gloomy sense of the darkness of those prospects, the fallacy of those hopes, and the vanity of that affection, that I reflected on those things as I remounted my horse and slowly journeyed homewards. Mrs. Huntingdon was free now; it was no longer a crime to think of her—but did she ever think of me? Not now—of course it was not to be expected—but would she when this shock was over? In all the course of her correspondence with her brother (our mutual friend, as she herself had called him) she had never mentioned me but once—and that was from necessity. This alone afforded strong presumption that I was already forgotten; yet this was not the worst: it might have been her sense of duty that had kept her silent: she might be only trying to forget; but in addition to this, I had a gloomy conviction that the awful realities she had seen and felt, her reconciliation with the man she had once loved, his dreadful sufferings and death, must eventually efface from her mind all traces of her passing love for me. She might recover from these horrors so far as to be restored to her former health, her tranquillity, her cheerfulness even—but never to those feelings which would appear to her, henceforth, as a fleeting fancy, a vain, illusive dream; especially as there was no one to remind her of my existence—no means of assuring her of my fervent constancy, now that we were so far apart, and delicacy forbade me to see her or to write to her, for months to come at least. And how could I engage her brother in my behalf? how could I break that icy crust of shy reserve? Perhaps he would disapprove of my attachment now as highly as before; perhaps he would think me too poor—too lowly born, to match with his sister. Yes, there was another barrier: doubtless there was a wide distinction between the rank and circumstances of Mrs. Huntingdon, the lady of Grassdale Manor, and those of Mrs. Graham, the artist, the tenant of Wildfell Hall. And it might be deemed presumption in me to offer my hand to the former, by the world, by her friends, if not by herself; a penalty I might brave, if I were certain she loved me; but otherwise, how could I? And, finally, her deceased husband, with his usual selfishness, might have so constructed his will as to place restrictions upon her marrying again. So that you see I had reasons enough for despair if I chose to indulge it.
Nevertheless, it was with no small degree of impatience that I looked forward to Mr. Lawrence's return from Grassdale: impatience that increased in proportion as his absence was prolonged. He stayed away some ten or twelve days. All very right that he should remain to comfort and help his sister, but he might have written to tell me how she was, or at least to tell me when to expect his return; for he might have known I was suffering tortures of anxiety for her, and uncertainty for my own future prospects. And when he did return, all he told me about her was, that she had been greatly exhausted and worn by her unremitting exertions in behalf of that man who had been the scourge of her life, and had dragged her with him nearly to the portals of the grave, and was still much shaken and depressed by his melancholy end and the circumstances attendant upon it; but no word in reference to me; no intimation that my name had ever passed her lips, or even been spoken in her presence. To be sure, I asked no questions on the subject; I could not bring my mind to do so, believing, as I did, that Lawrence was indeed averse to the idea of my union with his sister.
I saw that he expected to be further questioned concerning his visit, and I saw too, with the keen perception of awakened jealousy, or alarmed self-esteem, or by whatever name I ought to call it, that he rather shrank from that impending scrutiny, and was no less pleased than surprised to find it did not come. Of course, I was burning with anger, but pride obliged me to suppress my feelings, and preserve a smooth face, or at least a stoic calmness, throughout the interview. It was well it did, for, reviewing the matter in my sober judgment, I must say it would have been highly absurd and improper to have quarrelled with him on such an occasion. I must confess, too, that I wronged him in my heart: the truth was, he liked me very well, but he was fully aware that a union between Mrs. Huntingdon and me would be what the world calls a mesalliance; and it was not in his nature to set the world at defiance; especially in such a case as this, for its dread laugh, or ill opinion, would be far more terrible to him directed against his sister than himself. Had he believed that a union was necessary to the happiness of both, or of either, or had he known how fervently I loved her, he would have acted differently; but seeing me so calm and cool, he would not for the world disturb my philosophy; and though refraining entirely from any active opposition to the match, he would yet do nothing to bring it about, and would much rather take the part of prudence, in aiding us to overcome our mutual predilections, than that of feeling, to encourage them. 'And he was in the right of it,' you will say. Perhaps he was; at any rate, I had no business to feel so bitterly against him as I did; but I could not then regard the matter in such a moderate light; and, after a brief conversation upon indifferent topics, I went away, suffering all the pangs of wounded pride and injured friendship, in addition to those resulting from the fear that I was indeed forgotten, and the knowledge that she I loved was alone and afflicted, suffering from injured health and dejected spirits, and I was forbidden to console or assist her: forbidden even to assure her of my sympathy, for the transmission of any such message through Mr. Lawrence was now completely out of the question.
But what should I do? I would wait, and see if she would notice me, which of course she would not, unless by some kind message intrusted to her brother, that, in all probability, he would not deliver, and then, dreadful thought! she would think me cooled and changed for not returning it, or, perhaps, he had already given her to understand that I had ceased to think of her. I would wait, however, till the six months after our parting were fairly passed (which would be about the close of February), and then I would send her a letter, modestly reminding her of her former permission to write to her at the close of that period, and hoping I might avail myself of it—at least to express my heartfelt sorrow for her late afflictions, my just appreciation of her generous conduct, and my hope that her health was now completely re-established, and that she would, some time, be permitted to enjoy those blessings of a peaceful, happy life, which had been denied her so long, but which none could more truly be said to merit than herself—adding a few words of kind remembrance to my little friend Arthur, with a hope that he had not forgotten me, and perhaps a few more in reference to bygone times, to the delightful hours I had passed in her society, and my unfading recollection of them, which was the salt and solace of my life, and a hope that her recent troubles had not entirely banished me from her mind. If she did not answer this, of course I should write no more: if she did (as surely she would, in some fashion), my future proceedings should be regulated by her reply.
Ten weeks was long to wait in such a miserable state of uncertainty; but courage! it must be endured! and meantime I would continue to see Lawrence now and then, though not so often as before, and I would still pursue my habitual inquiries after his sister, if he had lately heard from her, and how she was, but nothing more.
I did so, and the answers I received were always provokingly limited to the letter of the inquiry: she was much as usual: she made no complaints, but the tone of her last letter evinced great depression of mind: she said she was better: and, finally, she said she was well, and very busy with her son's education, and with the management of her late husband's property, and the regulation of his affairs. The rascal had never told me how that property was disposed, or whether Mr. Huntingdon had died intestate or not; and I would sooner die than ask him, lest he should misconstrue into covetousness my desire to know. He never offered to show me his sister's letters now, and I never hinted a wish to see them. February, however, was approaching; December was past; January, at length, was almost over—a few more weeks, and then, certain despair or renewal of hope would put an end to this long agony of suspense.
But alas! it was just about that time she was called to sustain another blow in the death of her uncle—a worthless old fellow enough in himself, I daresay, but he had always shown more kindness and affection to her than to any other creature, and she had always been accustomed to regard him as a parent. She was with him when he died, and had assisted her aunt to nurse him during the last stage of his illness. Her brother went to Staningley to attend the funeral, and told me, upon his return, that she was still there, endeavouring to cheer her aunt with her presence, and likely to remain some time. This was bad news for me, for while she continued there I could not write to her, as I did not know the address, and would not ask it of him. But week followed week, and every time I inquired about her she was still at Staningley.
'Where is Staningley?' I asked at last.
'In —shire,' was the brief reply; and there was something so cold and dry in the manner of it, that I was effectually deterred from requesting a more definite account.
'When will she return to Grassdale?' was my next question.
'I don't know.'
'Confound it!' I muttered.
'Why, Markham?' asked my companion, with an air of innocent surprise. But I did not deign to answer him, save by a look of silent, sullen contempt, at which he turned away, and contemplated the carpet with a slight smile, half pensive, half amused; but quickly looking up, he began to talk of other subjects, trying to draw me into a cheerful and friendly conversation, but I was too much irritated to discourse with him, and soon took leave.
You see Lawrence and I somehow could not manage to get on very well together. The fact is, I believe, we were both of us a little too touchy. It is a troublesome thing, Halford, this susceptibility to affronts where none are intended. I am no martyr to it now, as you can bear me witness: I have learned to be merry and wise, to be more easy with myself and more indulgent to my neighbours, and I can afford to laugh at both Lawrence and you.
Partly from accident, partly from wilful negligence on my part (for I was really beginning to dislike him), several weeks elapsed before I saw my friend again. When we did meet, it was he that sought me out. One bright morning, early in June, he came into the field, where I was just commencing my hay harvest.
'It is long since I saw you, Markham,' said he, after the first few words had passed between us. 'Do you never mean to come to Woodford again?'
'I called once, and you were out.'
'I was sorry, but that was long since; I hoped you would call again, and now I have called, and you were out, which you generally are, or I would do myself the pleasure of calling more frequently; but being determined to see you this time, I have left my pony in the lane, and come over hedge and ditch to join you; for I am about to leave Woodford for a while, and may not have the pleasure of seeing you again for a month or two.'
'Where are you going?'
'To Grassdale first,' said he, with a half-smile he would willingly have suppressed if he could.
'To Grassdale! Is she there, then?'
'Yes, but in a day or two she will leave it to accompany Mrs. Maxwell to F— for the benefit of the sea air, and I shall go with them.' (F— was at that time a quiet but respectable watering-place: it is considerably more frequented now.)
Lawrence seemed to expect me to take advantage of this circumstance to entrust him with some sort of a message to his sister; and I believe he would have undertaken to deliver it without any material objections, if I had had the sense to ask him, though of course he would not offer to do so, if I was content to let it alone. But I could not bring myself to make the request, and it was not till after he was gone, that I saw how fair an opportunity I had lost; and then, indeed, I deeply regretted my stupidity and my foolish pride, but it was now too late to remedy the evil.
He did not return till towards the latter end of August. He wrote to me twice or thrice from F—, but his letters were most provokingly unsatisfactory, dealing in generalities or in trifles that I cared nothing about, or replete with fancies and reflections equally unwelcome to me at the time, saying next to nothing about his sister, and little more about himself. I would wait, however, till he came back; perhaps I could get something more out of him then. At all events, I would not write to her now, while she was with him and her aunt, who doubtless would be still more hostile to my presumptuous aspirations than himself. When she was returned to the silence and solitude of her own home, it would be my fittest opportunity.
When Lawrence came, however, he was as reserved as ever on the subject of my keen anxiety. He told me that his sister had derived considerable benefit from her stay at F— that her son was quite well, and—alas! that both of them were gone, with Mrs. Maxwell, back to Staningley, and there they stayed at least three months. But instead of boring you with my chagrin, my expectations and disappointments, my fluctuations of dull despondency and flickering hope, my varying resolutions, now to drop it, and now to persevere—now to make a bold push, and now to let things pass and patiently abide my time,—I will employ myself in settling the business of one or two of the characters introduced in the course of this narrative, whom I may not have occasion to mention again.
Some time before Mr. Huntingdon's death Lady Lowborough eloped with another gallant to the Continent, where, having lived a while in reckless gaiety and dissipation, they quarrelled and parted. She went dashing on for a season, but years came and money went: she sunk, at length, in difficulty and debt, disgrace and misery; and died at last, as I have heard, in penury, neglect, and utter wretchedness. But this might be only a report: she may be living yet for anything I or any of her relatives or former acquaintances can tell; for they have all lost sight of her long years ago, and would as thoroughly forget her if they could. Her husband, however, upon this second misdemeanour, immediately sought and obtained a divorce, and, not long after, married again. It was well he did, for Lord Lowborough, morose and moody as he seemed, was not the man for a bachelor's life. No public interests, no ambitious projects, or active pursuits,—or ties of friendship even (if he had had any friends), could compensate to him for the absence of domestic comforts and endearments. He had a son and a nominal daughter, it is true, but they too painfully reminded him of their mother, and the unfortunate little Annabella was a source of perpetual bitterness to his soul. He had obliged himself to treat her with paternal kindness: he had forced himself not to hate her, and even, perhaps, to feel some degree of kindly regard for her, at last, in return for her artless and unsuspecting attachment to himself; but the bitterness of his self-condemnation for his inward feelings towards that innocent being, his constant struggles to subdue the evil promptings of his nature (for it was not a generous one), though partly guessed at by those who knew him, could be known to God and his own heart alone;—so also was the hardness of his conflicts with the temptation to return to the vice of his youth, and seek oblivion for past calamities, and deadness to the present misery of a blighted heart a joyless, friendless life, and a morbidly disconsolate mind, by yielding again to that insidious foe to health, and sense, and virtue, which had so deplorably enslaved and degraded him before.
The second object of his choice was widely different from the first. Some wondered at his taste; some even ridiculed it—but in this their folly was more apparent than his. The lady was about his own age—i.e., between thirty and forty—remarkable neither for beauty, nor wealth, nor brilliant accomplishments; nor any other thing that I ever heard of, except genuine good sense, unswerving integrity, active piety, warm-hearted benevolence, and a fund of cheerful spirits. These qualities, however, as you way readily imagine, combined to render her an excellent mother to the children, and an invaluable wife to his lordship. He, with his usual self-depreciation, thought her a world too good for him, and while he wondered at the kindness of Providence in conferring such a gift upon him, and even at her taste in preferring him to other men, he did his best to reciprocate the good she did him, and so far succeeded that she was, and I believe still is, one of the happiest and fondest wives in England; and all who question the good taste of either partner may be thankful if their respective selections afford them half the genuine satisfaction in the end, or repay their preference with affection half as lasting and sincere.
If you are at all interested in the fate of that low scoundrel, Grimsby, I can only tell you that he went from bad to worse, sinking from bathos to bathos of vice and villainy, consorting only with the worst members of his club and the lowest dregs of society—happily for the rest of the world—and at last met his end in a drunken brawl, from the hands, it is said, of some brother scoundrel he had cheated at play.
As for Mr. Hattersley, he had never wholly forgotten his resolution to 'come out from among them,' and behave like a man and a Christian, and the last illness and death of his once jolly friend Huntingdon so deeply and seriously impressed him with the evil of their former practices, that he never needed another lesson of the kind. Avoiding the temptations of the town, he continued to pass his life in the country, immersed in the usual pursuits of a hearty, active, country gentleman; his occupations being those of farming, and breeding horses and cattle, diversified with a little hunting and shooting, and enlivened by the occasional companionship of his friends (better friends than those of his youth), and the society of his happy little wife (now cheerful and confiding as heart could wish), and his fine family of stalwart sons and blooming daughters. His father, the banker, having died some years ago and left him all his riches, he has now full scope for the exercise of his prevailing tastes, and I need not tell you that Ralph Hattersley, Esq., is celebrated throughout the country for his noble breed of horses.
We will now turn to a certain still, cold, cloudy afternoon about the commencement of December, when the first fall of snow lay thinly scattered over the blighted fields and frozen roads, or stored more thickly in the hollows of the deep cart-ruts and footsteps of men and horses impressed in the now petrified mire of last month's drenching rains. I remember it well, for I was walking home from the vicarage with no less remarkable a personage than Miss Eliza Millward by my side. I had been to call upon her father,—a sacrifice to civility undertaken entirely to please my mother, not myself, for I hated to go near the house; not merely on account of my antipathy to the once so bewitching Eliza, but because I had not half forgiven the old gentleman himself for his ill opinion of Mrs. Huntingdon; for though now constrained to acknowledge himself mistaken in his former judgment, he still maintained that she had done wrong to leave her husband; it was a violation of her sacred duties as a wife, and a tempting of Providence by laying herself open to temptation; and nothing short of bodily ill-usage (and that of no trifling nature) could excuse such a step—nor even that, for in such a case she ought to appeal to the laws for protection. But it was not of him I intended to speak; it was of his daughter Eliza. Just as I was taking leave of the vicar, she entered the room, ready equipped for a walk.
'I was just coming to see, your sister, Mr. Markham,' said she; 'and so, if you have no objection, I'll accompany you home. I like company when I'm walking out—don't you?'
'Yes, when it's agreeable.'
'That of course,' rejoined the young lady, smiling archly.
So we proceeded together.
'Shall I find Rose at home, do you think?' said she, as we closed the garden gate, and set our faces towards Linden-Car.
'I believe so.'
'I trust I shall, for I've a little bit of news for her—if you haven't forestalled me.'
'Yes: do you know what Mr. Lawrence is gone for?' She looked up anxiously for my reply.
'Is he gone?' said I; and her face brightened.
'Ah! then he hasn't told you about his sister?'
'What of her?' I demanded in terror, lest some evil should have befallen her.
'Oh, Mr. Markham, how you blush!' cried she, with a tormenting laugh. 'Ha, ha, you have not forgotten her yet. But you had better be quick about it, I can tell you, for—alas, alas!—she's going to be married next Thursday!'
'No, Miss Eliza, that's false.'
'Do you charge me with a falsehood, sir?'
'You are misinformed.'
'Am I? Do you know better, then?'
'I think I do.'
'What makes you look so pale then?' said she, smiling with delight at my emotion. 'Is it anger at poor me for telling such a fib? Well, I only "tell the tale as 'twas told to me:" I don't vouch for the truth of it; but at the same time, I don't see what reason Sarah should have for deceiving me, or her informant for deceiving her; and that was what she told me the footman told her:—that Mrs. Huntingdon was going to be married on Thursday, and Mr. Lawrence was gone to the wedding. She did tell me the name of the gentleman, but I've forgotten that. Perhaps you can assist me to remember it. Is there not some one that lives near—or frequently visits the neighbourhood, that has long been attached to her?—a Mr.—oh, dear! Mr.—'
'Hargrave?' suggested I, with a bitter smile.
'You're right,' cried she; 'that was the very name.'
'Impossible, Miss Eliza!' I exclaimed, in a tone that made her start.
'Well, you know, that's what they told me,' said she, composedly staring me in the face. And then she broke out into a long shrill laugh that put me to my wit's end with fury.
'Really you must excuse me,' cried she. 'I know it's very rude, but ha, ha, ha!—did you think to marry her yourself? Dear, dear, what a pity!—ha, ha, ha! Gracious, Mr. Markham, are you going to faint? Oh, mercy! shall I call this man? Here, Jacob—' But checking the word on her lips, I seized her arm and gave it, I think, a pretty severe squeeze, for she shrank into herself with a faint cry of pain or terror; but the spirit within her was not subdued: instantly rallying, she continued, with well-feigned concern, 'What can I do for you? Will you have some water—some brandy? I daresay they have some in the public-house down there, if you'll let me run.'
'Have done with this nonsense!' cried I, sternly. She looked confounded—almost frightened again, for a moment. 'You know I hate such jests,' I continued.
'Jests indeed! I wasn't jesting!'
'You were laughing, at all events; and I don't like to be laughed at,' returned I, making violent efforts to speak with proper dignity and composure, and to say nothing but what was coherent and sensible. 'And since you are in such a merry mood, Miss Eliza, you must be good enough company for yourself; and therefore I shall leave you to finish your walk alone—for, now I think of it, I have business elsewhere; so good-evening.'
With that I left her (smothering her malicious laughter) and turned aside into the fields, springing up the bank, and pushing through the nearest gap in the hedge. Determined at once to prove the truth—or rather the falsehood—of her story, I hastened to Woodford as fast as my legs could carry me; first veering round by a circuitous course, but the moment I was out of sight of my fair tormentor cutting away across the country, just as a bird might fly, over pasture-land, and fallow, and stubble, and lane, clearing hedges and ditches and hurdles, till I came to the young squire's gates. Never till now had I known the full fervour of my love—the full strength of my hopes, not wholly crushed even in my hours of deepest despondency, always tenaciously clinging to the thought that one day she might be mine, or, if not that, at least that something of my memory, some slight remembrance of our friendship and our love, would be for ever cherished in her heart. I marched up to the door, determined, if I saw the master, to question him boldly concerning his sister, to wait and hesitate no longer, but cast false delicacy and stupid pride behind my back, and know my fate at once.
'Is Mr. Lawrence at home?' I eagerly asked of the servant that opened the door.
'No, sir, master went yesterday,' replied he, looking very alert.
'To Grassdale, sir—wasn't you aware, sir? He's very close, is master,' said the fellow, with a foolish, simpering grin. 'I suppose, sir—'
But I turned and left him, without waiting to hear what he supposed. I was not going to stand there to expose my tortured feelings to the insolent laughter and impertinent curiosity of a fellow like that.
But what was to be done now? Could it be possible that she had left me for that man? I could not believe it. Me she might forsake, but not to give herself to him! Well, I would know the truth; to no concerns of daily life could I attend while this tempest of doubt and dread, of jealousy and rage, distracted me. I would take the morning coach from L— (the evening one would be already gone), and fly to Grassdale—I must be there before the marriage. And why? Because a thought struck me that perhaps I might prevent it—that if I did not, she and I might both lament it to the latest moment of our lives. It struck me that someone might have belied me to her: perhaps her brother; yes, no doubt her brother had persuaded her that I was false and faithless, and taking advantage of her natural indignation, and perhaps her desponding carelessness about her future life, had urged her, artfully, cruelly, on to this other marriage, in order to secure her from me. If this was the case, and if she should only discover her mistake when too late to repair it—to what a life of misery and vain regret might she be doomed as well as me; and what remorse for me to think my foolish scruples had induced it all! Oh, I must see her—she must know my truth even if I told it at the church door! I might pass for a madman or an impertinent fool—even she might be offended at such an interruption, or at least might tell me it was now too late. But if I could save her, if she might be mine!—it was too rapturous a thought!
Winged by this hope, and goaded by these fears, I hurried homewards to prepare for my departure on the morrow. I told my mother that urgent business which admitted no delay, but which I could not then explain, called me away.
My deep anxiety and serious preoccupation could not be concealed from her maternal eyes; and I had much ado to calm her apprehensions of some disastrous mystery.
That night there came a heavy fall of snow, which so retarded the progress of the coaches on the following day that I was almost driven to distraction. I travelled all night, of course, for this was Wednesday: to-morrow morning, doubtless, the marriage would take place. But the night was long and dark: the snow heavily clogged the wheels and balled the horses' feet; the animals were consumedly lazy; the coachman most execrably cautious; the passengers confoundedly apathetic in their supine indifference to the rate of our progression. Instead of assisting me to bully the several coachmen and urge them forward, they merely stared and grinned at my impatience: one fellow even ventured to rally me upon it—but I silenced him with a look that quelled him for the rest of the journey; and when, at the last stage, I would have taken the reins into my own hand, they all with one accord opposed it.
It was broad daylight when we entered M— and drew up at the 'Rose and Crown.' I alighted and called aloud for a post-chaise to Grassdale. There was none to be had: the only one in the town was under repair. 'A gig, then—a fly—car—anything—only be quick!' There was a gig, but not a horse to spare. I sent into the town to seek one: but they were such an intolerable time about it that I could wait no longer—I thought my own feet could carry me sooner; and bidding them send the conveyance after me, if it were ready within an hour, I set off as fast as I could walk. The distance was little more than six miles, but the road was strange, and I had to keep stopping to inquire my way; hallooing to carters and clodhoppers, and frequently invading the cottages, for there were few abroad that winter's morning; sometimes knocking up the lazy people from their beds, for where so little work was to be done, perhaps so little food and fire to be had, they cared not to curtail their slumbers. I had no time to think of them, however; aching with weariness and desperation, I hurried on. The gig did not overtake me: and it was well I had not waited for it; vexatious rather, that I had been fool enough to wait so long.
At length, however, I entered the neighbourhood of Grassdale. I approached the little rural church—but lo! there stood a train of carriages before it; it needed not the white favours bedecking the servants and horses, nor the merry voices of the village idlers assembled to witness the show, to apprise me that there was a wedding within. I ran in among them, demanding, with breathless eagerness, had the ceremony long commenced? They only gaped and stared. In my desperation, I pushed past them, and was about to enter the churchyard gate, when a group of ragged urchins, that had been hanging like bees to the window, suddenly dropped off and made a rush for the porch, vociferating in the uncouth dialect of their country something which signified, 'It's over—they're coming out!'
If Eliza Millward had seen me then she might indeed have been delighted. I grasped the gate-post for support, and stood intently gazing towards the door to take my last look on my soul's delight, my first on that detested mortal who had torn her from my heart, and doomed her, I was certain, to a life of misery and hollow, vain repining—for what happiness could she enjoy with him? I did not wish to shock her with my presence now, but I had not power to move away. Forth came the bride and bridegroom. Him I saw not; I had eyes for none but her. A long veil shrouded half her graceful form, but did not hide it; I could see that while she carried her head erect, her eyes were bent upon the ground, and her face and neck were suffused with a crimson blush; but every feature was radiant with smiles, and gleaming through the misty whiteness of her veil were clusters of golden ringlets! Oh, heavens! it was not my Helen! The first glimpse made me start—but my eyes were darkened with exhaustion and despair. Dare I trust them? 'Yes—it is not she! It was a younger, slighter, rosier beauty—lovely indeed, but with far less dignity and depth of soul—without that indefinable grace, that keenly spiritual yet gentle charm, that ineffable power to attract and subjugate the heart—my heart at least. I looked at the bridegroom—it was Frederick Lawrence! I wiped away the cold drops that were trickling down my forehead, and stepped back as he approached; but, his eyes fell upon me, and he knew me, altered as my appearance must have been.
'Is that you, Markham?' said he, startled and confounded at the apparition—perhaps, too, at the wildness of my looks.
'Yes, Lawrence; is that you?' I mustered the presence of mind to reply.
He smiled and coloured, as if half-proud and half-ashamed of his identity; and if he had reason to be proud of the sweet lady on his arm, he had no less cause to be ashamed of having concealed his good fortune so long.
'Allow me to introduce you to my bride,' said he, endeavouring to hide his embarrassment by an assumption of careless gaiety. 'Esther, this is Mr. Markham; my friend Markham, Mrs. Lawrence, late Miss Hargrave.'
I bowed to the bride, and vehemently wrung the bridegroom's hand.
'Why did you not tell me of this?' I said, reproachfully, pretending a resentment I did not feel (for in truth I was almost wild with joy to find myself so happily mistaken, and overflowing with affection to him for this and for the base injustice I felt that I had done him in my mind—he might have wronged me, but not to that extent; and as I had hated him like a demon for the last forty hours, the reaction from such a feeling was so great that I could pardon all offences for the moment—and love him in spite of them too).
'I did tell you,' said he, with an air of guilty confusion; 'you received my letter?'
'The one announcing my intended marriage.'
'I never received the most distant hint of such an intention.'
'It must have crossed you on your way then—it should have reached you yesterday morning—it was rather late, I acknowledge. But what brought you here, then, if you received no information?'
It was now my turn to be confounded; but the young lady, who had been busily patting the snow with her foot during our short sotto-voce colloquy, very opportunely came to my assistance by pinching her companion's arm and whispering a suggestion that his friend should be invited to step into the carriage and go with them; it being scarcely agreeable to stand there among so many gazers, and keeping their friends waiting into the bargain.
'And so cold as it is too!' said he, glancing with dismay at her slight drapery, and immediately handing her into the carriage. 'Markham, will you come? We are going to Paris, but we can drop you anywhere between this and Dover.'
'No, thank you. Good-by—I needn't wish you a pleasant journey; but I shall expect a very handsome apology, some time, mind, and scores of letters, before we meet again.'
He shook my hand, and hastened to take his place beside his lady. This was no time or place for explanation or discourse: we had already stood long enough to excite the wonder of the village sight-seers, and perhaps the wrath of the attendant bridal party; though, of course, all this passed in a much shorter time than I have taken to relate, or even than you will take to read it. I stood beside the carriage, and, the window being down, I saw my happy friend fondly encircle his companion's waist with his arm, while she rested her glowing cheek on his shoulder, looking the very impersonation of loving, trusting bliss. In the interval between the footman's closing the door and taking his place behind she raised her smiling brown eyes to his face, observing, playfully,—'I fear you must think me very insensible, Frederick: I know it is the custom for ladies to cry on these occasions, but I couldn't squeeze a tear for my life.'
He only answered with a kiss, and pressed her still closer to his bosom.
'But what is this?' he murmured. 'Why, Esther, you're crying now!'
'Oh, it's nothing—it's only too much happiness—and the wish,' sobbed she, 'that our dear Helen were as happy as ourselves.'
'Bless you for that wish!' I inwardly responded, as the carriage rolled away—'and heaven grant it be not wholly vain!'
I thought a cloud had suddenly darkened her husband's face as she spoke. What did he think? Could he grudge such happiness to his dear sister and his friend as he now felt himself? At such a moment it was impossible. The contrast between her fate and his must darken his bliss for a time. Perhaps, too, he thought of me: perhaps he regretted the part he had had in preventing our union, by omitting to help us, if not by actually plotting against us. I exonerated him from that charge now, and deeply lamented my former ungenerous suspicions; but he had wronged us, still—I hoped, I trusted that he had. He had not attempted to cheek the course of our love by actually damming up the streams in their passage, but he had passively watched the two currents wandering through life's arid wilderness, declining to clear away the obstructions that divided them, and secretly hoping that both would lose themselves in the sand before they could be joined in one. And meantime he had been quietly proceeding with his own affairs; perhaps, his heart and head had been so full of his fair lady that he had had but little thought to spare for others. Doubtless he had made his first acquaintance with her—his first intimate acquaintance at least—during his three months' sojourn at F—, for I now recollected that he had once casually let fall an intimation that his aunt and sister had a young friend staying with them at the time, and this accounted for at least one-half his silence about all transactions there. Now, too, I saw a reason for many little things that had slightly puzzled me before; among the rest, for sundry departures from Woodford, and absences more or less prolonged, for which he never satisfactorily accounted, and concerning which he hated to be questioned on his return. Well might the servant say his master was 'very close.' But why this strange reserve to me? Partly, from that remarkable idiosyncrasy to which I have before alluded; partly, perhaps, from tenderness to my feelings, or fear to disturb my philosophy by touching upon the infectious theme of love.
The tardy gig had overtaken me at last. I entered it, and bade the man who brought it drive to Grassdale Manor—I was too busy with my own thoughts to care to drive it myself. I would see Mrs. Huntingdon—there could be no impropriety in that now that her husband had been dead above a year—and by her indifference or her joy at my unexpected arrival I could soon tell whether her heart was truly mine. But my companion, a loquacious, forward fellow, was not disposed to leave me to the indulgence of my private cogitations.
'There they go!' said he, as the carriages filed away before us. 'There'll be brave doings on yonder to-day, as what come to-morra.—Know anything of that family, sir? or you're a stranger in these parts?'
'I know them by report.'
'Humph! There's the best of 'em gone, anyhow. And I suppose the old missis is agoing to leave after this stir's gotten overed, and take herself off, somewhere, to live on her bit of a jointure; and the young 'un—at least the new 'un (she's none so very young)—is coming down to live at the Grove.'
'Is Mr. Hargrave married, then?'
'Ay, sir, a few months since. He should a been wed afore, to a widow lady, but they couldn't agree over the money: she'd a rare long purse, and Mr. Hargrave wanted it all to hisself; but she wouldn't let it go, and so then they fell out. This one isn't quite as rich, nor as handsome either, but she hasn't been married before. She's very plain, they say, and getting on to forty or past, and so, you know, if she didn't jump at this hopportunity, she thought she'd never get a better. I guess she thought such a handsome young husband was worth all 'at ever she had, and he might take it and welcome, but I lay she'll rue her bargain afore long. They say she begins already to see 'at he isn't not altogether that nice, generous, perlite, delightful gentleman 'at she thought him afore marriage—he begins a being careless and masterful already. Ay, and she'll find him harder and carelesser nor she thinks on.'
'You seem to be well acquainted with him,' I observed.
'I am, sir; I've known him since he was quite a young gentleman; and a proud 'un he was, and a wilful. I was servant yonder for several years; but I couldn't stand their niggardly ways—she got ever longer and worse, did missis, with her nipping and screwing, and watching and grudging; so I thought I'd find another place.'
'Are we not near the house?' said I, interrupting him.
'Yes, sir; yond's the park.'
My heart sank within me to behold that stately mansion in the midst of its expansive grounds. The park as beautiful now, in its wintry garb, as it could be in its summer glory: the majestic sweep, the undulating swell and fall, displayed to full advantage in that robe of dazzling purity, stainless and printless—save one long, winding track left by the trooping deer—the stately timber-trees with their heavy-laden branches gleaming white against the dull, grey sky; the deep, encircling woods; the broad expanse of water sleeping in frozen quiet; and the weeping ash and willow drooping their snow-clad boughs above it—all presented a picture, striking indeed, and pleasing to an unencumbered mind, but by no means encouraging to me. There was one comfort, however,—all this was entailed upon little Arthur, and could not under any circumstances, strictly speaking, be his mother's. But how was she situated? Overcoming with a sudden effort my repugnance to mention her name to my garrulous companion, I asked him if he knew whether her late husband had left a will, and how the property had been disposed of. Oh, yes, he knew all about it; and I was quickly informed that to her had been left the full control and management of the estate during her son's minority, besides the absolute, unconditional possession of her own fortune (but I knew that her father had not given her much), and the small additional sum that had been settled upon her before marriage.
Before the close of the explanation we drew up at the park-gates. Now for the trial. If I should find her within—but alas! she might be still at Staningley: her brother had given me no intimation to the contrary. I inquired at the porter's lodge if Mrs. Huntingdon were at home. No, she was with her aunt in —shire, but was expected to return before Christmas. She usually spent most of her time at Staningley, only coming to Grassdale occasionally, when the management of affairs, or the interest of her tenants and dependents, required her presence.
'Near what town is Staningley situated?' I asked. The requisite information was soon obtained. 'Now then, my man, give me the reins, and we'll return to M—. I must have some breakfast at the "Rose and Crown," and then away to Staningley by the first coach for —.'
At M— I had time before the coach started to replenish my forces with a hearty breakfast, and to obtain the refreshment of my usual morning's ablutions, and the amelioration of some slight change in my toilet, and also to despatch a short note to my mother (excellent son that I was), to assure her that I was still in existence, and to excuse my non-appearance at the expected time. It was a long journey to Staningley for those slow-travelling days, but I did not deny myself needful refreshment on the road, nor even a night's rest at a wayside inn, choosing rather to brook a little delay than to present myself worn, wild, and weather-beaten before my mistress and her aunt, who would be astonished enough to see me without that. Next morning, therefore, I not only fortified myself with as substantial a breakfast as my excited feelings would allow me to swallow, but I bestowed a little more than usual time and care upon my toilet; and, furnished with a change of linen from my small carpet-bag, well-brushed clothes, well-polished boots, and neat new gloves, I mounted 'The Lightning,' and resumed my journey. I had nearly two stages yet before me, but the coach, I was informed, passed through the neighbourhood of Staningley, and having desired to be set down as near the Hall as possible, I had nothing to do but to sit with folded arms and speculate upon the coming hour.
It was a clear, frosty morning. The very fact of sitting exalted aloft, surveying the snowy landscape and sweet sunny sky, inhaling the pure, bracing air, and crunching away over the crisp frozen snow, was exhilarating enough in itself; but add to this the idea of to what goal I was hastening, and whom I expected to meet, and you may have some faint conception of my frame of mind at the time—only a faint one, though: for my heart swelled with unspeakable delight, and my spirits rose almost to madness, in spite of my prudent endeavours to bind them down to a reasonable platitude by thinking of the undeniable difference between Helen's rank and mine; of all that she had passed through since our parting; of her long, unbroken silence; and, above all, of her cool, cautious aunt, whose counsels she would doubtless be careful not to slight again. These considerations made my heart flutter with anxiety, and my chest heave with impatience to get the crisis over; but they could not dim her image in my mind, or mar the vivid recollection of what had been said and felt between us, or destroy the keen anticipation of what was to be: in fact, I could not realise their terrors now. Towards the close of the journey, however, a couple of my fellow-passengers kindly came to my assistance, and brought me low enough.
'Fine land this,' said one of them, pointing with his umbrella to the wide fields on the right, conspicuous for their compact hedgerows, deep, well-cut ditches, and fine timber-trees, growing sometimes on the borders, sometimes in the midst of the enclosure: 'very fine land, if you saw it in the summer or spring.'
'Ay,' responded the other, a gruff elderly man, with a drab greatcoat buttoned up to the chin, and a cotton umbrella between his knees. 'It's old Maxwell's, I suppose.'
'It was his, sir; but he's dead now, you're aware, and has left it all to his niece.'
'Every rood of it, and the mansion-house and all! every hatom of his worldly goods, except just a trifle, by way of remembrance, to his nephew down in —shire, and an annuity to his wife.'
'It's strange, sir!'
'It is, sir; and she wasn't his own niece neither. But he had no near relations of his own—none but a nephew he'd quarrelled with; and he always had a partiality for this one. And then his wife advised him to it, they say: she'd brought most of the property, and it was her wish that this lady should have it.'
'Humph! She'll be a fine catch for somebody.'
'She will so. She's a widow, but quite young yet, and uncommon handsome: a fortune of her own, besides, and only one child, and she's nursing a fine estate for him in —. There'll be lots to speak for her! 'fraid there's no chance for uz'—(facetiously jogging me with his elbow, as well as his companion)—'ha, ha, ha! No offence, sir, I hope?'—(to me). 'Ahem! I should think she'll marry none but a nobleman myself. Look ye, sir,' resumed he, turning to his other neighbour, and pointing past me with his umbrella, 'that's the Hall: grand park, you see, and all them woods—plenty of timber there, and lots of game. Hallo! what now?'
This exclamation was occasioned by the sudden stoppage of the coach at the park-gates.
'Gen'leman for Staningley Hall?' cried the coachman and I rose and threw my carpet-bag on to the ground, preparatory to dropping myself down after it.
'Sickly, sir?' asked my talkative neighbour, staring me in the face. I daresay it was white enough.
'No. Here, coachman!'
'Thank'ee, sir.—All right!'
The coachman pocketed his fee and drove away, leaving me, not walking up the park, but pacing to and fro before its gates, with folded arms, and eyes fixed upon the ground, an overwhelming force of images, thoughts, impressions crowding on my mind, and nothing tangibly distinct but this: My love had been cherished in vain—my hope was gone for ever; I must tear myself away at once, and banish or suppress all thoughts of her, like the remembrance of a wild, mad dream. Gladly would I have lingered round the place for hours, in the hope of catching at least one distant glimpse of her before I went, but it must not be—I must not suffer her to see me; for what could have brought me hither but the hope of reviving her attachment, with a view hereafter to obtain her hand? And could I bear that she should think me capable of such a thing?—of presuming upon the acquaintance—the love, if you will—accidentally contracted, or rather forced upon her against her will, when she was an unknown fugitive, toiling for her own support, apparently without fortune, family, or connections; to come upon her now, when she was reinstated in her proper sphere, and claim a share in her prosperity, which, had it never failed her, would most certainly have kept her unknown to me for ever? And this, too, when we had parted sixteen months ago, and she had expressly forbidden me to hope for a re-union in this world, and never sent me a line or a message from that day to this. No! The very idea was intolerable.
And even if she should have a lingering affection for me still, ought I to disturb her peace by awakening those feelings? to subject her to the struggles of conflicting duty and inclination—to whichsoever side the latter might allure, or the former imperatively call her—whether she should deem it her duty to risk the slights and censures of the world, the sorrow and displeasure of those she loved, for a romantic idea of truth and constancy to me, or to sacrifice her individual wishes to the feelings of her friends and her own sense of prudence and the fitness of things? No—and I would not! I would go at once, and she should never know that I had approached the place of her abode: for though I might disclaim all idea of ever aspiring to her hand, or even of soliciting a place in her friendly regard, her peace should not be broken by my presence, nor her heart afflicted by the sight of my fidelity.
'Adieu then, dear Helen, forever! Forever adieu!'
So said I—and yet I could not tear myself away. I moved a few paces, and then looked back, for one last view of her stately home, that I might have its outward form, at least, impressed upon my mind as indelibly as her own image, which, alas! I must not see again—then walked a few steps further; and then, lost in melancholy musings, paused again and leant my back against a rough old tree that grew beside the road.
While standing thus, absorbed in my gloomy reverie, a gentleman's carriage came round the corner of the road. I did not look at it; and had it rolled quietly by me, I should not have remembered the fact of its appearance at all; but a tiny voice from within it roused me by exclaiming, 'Mamma, mamma, here's Mr. Markham!'
I did not hear the reply, but presently the same voice answered, 'It is indeed, mamma—look for yourself.'
I did not raise my eyes, but I suppose mamma looked, for a clear melodious voice, whose tones thrilled through my nerves, exclaimed, 'Oh, aunt! here's Mr. Markham, Arthur's friend! Stop, Richard!'
There was such evidence of joyous though suppressed excitement in the utterance of those few words—especially that tremulous, 'Oh, aunt'—that it threw me almost off my guard. The carriage stopped immediately, and I looked up and met the eye of a pale, grave, elderly lady surveying me from the open window. She bowed, and so did I, and then she withdrew her head, while Arthur screamed to the footman to let him out; but before that functionary could descend from his box a hand was silently put forth from the carriage window. I knew that hand, though a black glove concealed its delicate whiteness and half its fair proportions, and quickly seizing it, I pressed it in my own—ardently for a moment, but instantly recollecting myself, I dropped it, and it was immediately withdrawn.
'Were you coming to see us, or only passing by?' asked the low voice of its owner, who, I felt, was attentively surveying my countenance from behind the thick black veil which, with the shadowing panels, entirely concealed her own from me.
'I—I came to see the place,' faltered I.
'The place,' repeated she, in a tone which betokened more displeasure or disappointment than surprise.
'Will you not enter it, then?'
'If you wish it.'
'Can you doubt?'
'Yes, yes! he must enter,' cried Arthur, running round from the other door; and seizing my hand in both his, he shook it heartily.
'Do you remember me, sir?' said he.
'Yes, full well, my little man, altered though you are,' replied I, surveying the comparatively tall, slim young gentleman, with his mother's image visibly stamped upon his fair, intelligent features, in spite of the blue eyes beaming with gladness, and the bright locks clustering beneath his cap.
'Am I not grown?' said he, stretching himself up to his full height.
'Grown! three inches, upon my word!'
'I was seven last birthday,' was the proud rejoinder. 'In seven years more I shall be as tall as you nearly.'
'Arthur,' said his mother, 'tell him to come in. Go on, Richard.'
There was a touch of sadness as well as coldness in her voice, but I knew not to what to ascribe it. The carriage drove on and entered the gates before us. My little companion led me up the park, discoursing merrily all the way. Arrived at the hall-door, I paused on the steps and looked round me, waiting to recover my composure, if possible—or, at any rate, to remember my new-formed resolutions and the principles on which they were founded; and it was not till Arthur had been for some time gently pulling my coat, and repeating his invitations to enter, that I at length consented to accompany him into the apartment where the ladies awaited us.
Helen eyed me as I entered with a kind of gentle, serious scrutiny, and politely asked after Mrs. Markham and Rose. I respectfully answered her inquiries. Mrs. Maxwell begged me to be seated, observing it was rather cold, but she supposed I had not travelled far that morning.
'Not quite twenty miles,' I answered.
'Not on foot!'
'No, Madam, by coach.'
'Here's Rachel, sir,' said Arthur, the only truly happy one amongst us, directing my attention to that worthy individual, who had just entered to take her mistress's things. She vouchsafed me an almost friendly smile of recognition—a favour that demanded, at least, a civil salutation on my part, which was accordingly given and respectfully returned—she had seen the error of her former estimation of my character.
When Helen was divested of her lugubrious bonnet and veil, her heavy winter cloak, &c., she looked so like herself that I knew not how to bear it. I was particularly glad to see her beautiful black hair, unstinted still, and unconcealed in its glossy luxuriance.
'Mamma has left off her widow's cap in honour of uncle's marriage,' observed Arthur, reading my looks with a child's mingled simplicity and quickness of observation. Mamma looked grave and Mrs. Maxwell shook her head. 'And aunt Maxwell is never going to leave off hers,' persisted the naughty boy; but when he saw that his pertness was seriously displeasing and painful to his aunt, he went and silently put his arm round her neck, kissed her cheek, and withdrew to the recess of one of the great bay-windows, where he quietly amused himself with his dog, while Mrs. Maxwell gravely discussed with me the interesting topics of the weather, the season, and the roads. I considered her presence very useful as a check upon my natural impulses—an antidote to those emotions of tumultuous excitement which would otherwise have carried me away against my reason and my will; but just then I felt the restraint almost intolerable, and I had the greatest difficulty in forcing myself to attend to her remarks and answer them with ordinary politeness; for I was sensible that Helen was standing within a few feet of me beside the fire. I dared not look at her, but I felt her eye was upon me, and from one hasty, furtive glance, I thought her cheek was slightly flushed, and that her fingers, as she played with her watch-chain, were agitated with that restless, trembling motion which betokens high excitement.
'Tell me,' said she, availing herself of the first pause in the attempted conversation between her aunt and me, and speaking fast and low, with her eyes bent on the gold chain—for I now ventured another glance—'Tell me how you all are at Linden-hope—has nothing happened since I left you?'
'I believe not.'
'Nobody dead? nobody married?'
'Or—or expecting to marry?—No old ties dissolved or new ones formed? no old friends forgotten or supplanted?'
She dropped her voice so low in the last sentence that no one could have caught the concluding words but myself, and at the same time turned her eyes upon me with a dawning smile, most sweetly melancholy, and a look of timid though keen inquiry that made my cheeks tingle with inexpressible emotions.
'I believe not,' I answered. 'Certainly not, if others are as little changed as I.' Her face glowed in sympathy with mine.
'And you really did not mean to call?' she exclaimed.
'I feared to intrude.'
'To intrude!' cried she, with an impatient gesture. 'What—' but as if suddenly recollecting her aunt's presence, she checked herself, and, turning to that lady, continued—'Why, aunt, this man is my brother's close friend, and was my own intimate acquaintance (for a few short months at least), and professed a great attachment to my boy—and when he passes the house, so many scores of miles from his home, he declines to look in for fear of intruding!'
'Mr. Markham is over-modest,' observed Mrs. Maxwell.
'Over-ceremonious rather,' said her niece—'over—well, it's no matter.' And turning from me, she seated herself in a chair beside the table, and pulling a book to her by the cover, began to turn over the leaves in an energetic kind of abstraction.
'If I had known,' said I, 'that you would have honoured me by remembering me as an intimate acquaintance, I most likely should not have denied myself the pleasure of calling upon you, but I thought you had forgotten me long ago.'