'Will you take your hand off the bridle?' said he, quietly—'you're hurting my pony's mouth.'
'You and your pony be—'
'What makes you so coarse and brutal, Markham? I'm quite ashamed of you.'
'You answer my questions—before you leave this spot I will know what you mean by this perfidious duplicity!'
'I shall answer no questions till you let go the bridle,—if you stand till morning.'
'Now then,' said I, unclosing my hand, but still standing before him.
'Ask me some other time, when you can speak like a gentleman,' returned he, and he made an effort to pass me again; but I quickly re-captured the pony, scarce less astonished than its master at such uncivil usage.
'Really, Mr. Markham, this is too much!' said the latter. 'Can I not go to see my tenant on matters of business, without being assaulted in this manner by—?'
'This is no time for business, sir!—I'll tell you, now, what I think of your conduct.'
'You'd better defer your opinion to a more convenient season,' interrupted he in a low tone—'here's the vicar.' And, in truth, the vicar was just behind me, plodding homeward from some remote corner of his parish. I immediately released the squire; and he went on his way, saluting Mr. Millward as he passed.
'What! quarrelling, Markham?' cried the latter, addressing himself to me,—'and about that young widow, I doubt?' he added, reproachfully shaking his head. 'But let me tell you, young man' (here he put his face into mine with an important, confidential air), 'she's not worth it!' and he confirmed the assertion by a solemn nod.
'MR. MILLWARD,' I exclaimed, in a tone of wrathful menace that made the reverend gentleman look round—aghast—astounded at such unwonted insolence, and stare me in the face, with a look that plainly said, 'What, this to me!' But I was too indignant to apologise, or to speak another word to him: I turned away, and hastened homewards, descending with rapid strides the steep, rough lane, and leaving him to follow as he pleased.
You must suppose about three weeks passed over. Mrs. Graham and I were now established friends—or brother and sister, as we rather chose to consider ourselves. She called me Gilbert, by my express desire, and I called her Helen, for I had seen that name written in her books. I seldom attempted to see her above twice a week; and still I made our meetings appear the result of accident as often as I could—for I found it necessary to be extremely careful—and, altogether, I behaved with such exceeding propriety that she never had occasion to reprove me once. Yet I could not but perceive that she was at times unhappy and dissatisfied with herself or her position, and truly I myself was not quite contented with the latter: this assumption of brotherly nonchalance was very hard to sustain, and I often felt myself a most confounded hypocrite with it all; I saw too, or rather I felt, that, in spite of herself, 'I was not indifferent to her,' as the novel heroes modestly express it, and while I thankfully enjoyed my present good fortune, I could not fail to wish and hope for something better in future; but, of course, I kept such dreams entirely to myself.
'Where are you going, Gilbert?' said Rose, one evening, shortly after tea, when I had been busy with the farm all day.
'To take a walk,' was the reply.
'Do you always brush your hat so carefully, and do your hair so nicely, and put on such smart new gloves when you take a walk?'
'You're going to Wildfell Hall, aren't you?'
'What makes you think so?'
'Because you look as if you were—but I wish you wouldn't go so often.'
'Nonsense, child! I don't go once in six weeks—what do you mean?'
'Well, but if I were you, I wouldn't have so much to do with Mrs. Graham.'
'Why, Rose, are you, too, giving in to the prevailing opinion?'
'No,' returned she, hesitatingly—'but I've heard so much about her lately, both at the Wilsons' and the vicarage;—and besides, mamma says, if she were a proper person she would not be living there by herself—and don't you remember last winter, Gilbert, all that about the false name to the picture; and how she explained it—saying she had friends or acquaintances from whom she wished her present residence to be concealed, and that she was afraid of their tracing her out;—and then, how suddenly she started up and left the room when that person came—whom she took good care not to let us catch a glimpse of, and who Arthur, with such an air of mystery, told us was his mamma's friend?'
'Yes, Rose, I remember it all; and I can forgive your uncharitable conclusions; for, perhaps, if I did not know her myself, I should put all these things together, and believe the same as you do; but thank God, I do know her; and I should be unworthy the name of a man, if I could believe anything that was said against her, unless I heard it from her own lips.—I should as soon believe such things of you, Rose.'
'Well, do you think I could believe anything of the kind,—whatever the Wilsons and Millwards dared to whisper?'
'I should hope not indeed!'
'And why not?—Because I know you—Well, and I know her just as well.'
'Oh, no! you know nothing of her former life; and last year, at this time, you did not know that such a person existed.'
'No matter. There is such a thing as looking through a person's eyes into the heart, and learning more of the height, and breadth, and depth of another's soul in one hour than it might take you a lifetime to discover, if he or she were not disposed to reveal it, or if you had not the sense to understand it.'
'Then you are going to see her this evening?'
'To be sure I am!'
'But what would mamma say, Gilbert!'
'Mamma needn't know.'
'But she must know some time, if you go on.'
'Go on!—there's no going on in the matter. Mrs. Graham and I are two friends—and will be; and no man breathing shall hinder it,—or has a right to interfere between us.'
'But if you knew how they talk you would be more careful, for her sake as well as for your own. Jane Wilson thinks your visits to the old hall but another proof of her depravity—'
'Confound Jane Wilson!'
'And Eliza Millward is quite grieved about you.'
'I hope she is.'
'But I wouldn't, if I were you.'
'Wouldn't what?—How do they know that I go there?'
'There's nothing hid from them: they spy out everything.'
'Oh, I never thought of this!—And so they dare to turn my friendship into food for further scandal against her!—That proves the falsehood of their other lies, at all events, if any proof were wanting.—Mind you contradict them, Rose, whenever you can.'
'But they don't speak openly to me about such things: it is only by hints and innuendoes, and by what I hear others say, that I knew what they think.'
'Well, then, I won't go to-day, as it's getting latish. But oh, deuce take their cursed, envenomed tongues!' I muttered, in the bitterness of my soul.
And just at that moment the vicar entered the room: we had been too much absorbed in our conversation to observe his knock. After his customary cheerful and fatherly greeting of Rose, who was rather a favourite with the old gentleman, he turned somewhat sternly to me:—
'Well, sir!' said he, 'you're quite a stranger. It is—let—me—see,' he continued, slowly, as he deposited his ponderous bulk in the arm-chair that Rose officiously brought towards him; 'it is just—six-weeks—by my reckoning, since you darkened—my—door!' He spoke it with emphasis, and struck his stick on the floor.
'Is it, sir?' said I.
'Ay! It is so!' He added an affirmatory nod, and continued to gaze upon me with a kind of irate solemnity, holding his substantial stick between his knees, with his hands clasped upon its head.
'I have been busy,' I said, for an apology was evidently demanded.
'Busy!' repeated he, derisively.
'Yes, you know I've been getting in my hay; and now the harvest is beginning.'
Just then my mother came in, and created a diversion in my favour by her loquacious and animated welcome of the reverend guest. She regretted deeply that he had not come a little earlier, in time for tea, but offered to have some immediately prepared, if he would do her the favour to partake of it.
'Not any for me, I thank you,' replied he; 'I shall be at home in a few minutes.'
'Oh, but do stay and take a little! it will be ready in five minutes.'
But he rejected the offer with a majestic wave of the hand.
'I'll tell you what I'll take, Mrs. Markham,' said he: 'I'll take a glass of your excellent ale.'
'With pleasure!' cried my mother, proceeding with alacrity to pull the bell and order the favoured beverage.
'I thought,' continued he, 'I'd just look in upon you as I passed, and taste your home-brewed ale. I've been to call on Mrs. Graham.'
'Have you, indeed?'
He nodded gravely, and added with awful emphasis—'I thought it incumbent upon me to do so.'
'Really!' ejaculated my mother.
'Why so, Mr. Millward?' asked I.
He looked at me with some severity, and turning again to my mother, repeated,—'I thought it incumbent upon me!' and struck his stick on the floor again. My mother sat opposite, an awe-struck but admiring auditor.
'"Mrs. Graham," said I,' he continued, shaking his head as he spoke, '"these are terrible reports!" "What, sir?" says she, affecting to be ignorant of my meaning. "It is my—duty—as—your pastor," said I, "to tell you both everything that I myself see reprehensible in your conduct, and all I have reason to suspect, and what others tell me concerning you."—So I told her!'
'You did, sir?' cried I, starting from my seat and striking my fist on the table. He merely glanced towards me, and continued—addressing his hostess:—
'It was a painful duty, Mrs. Markham—but I told her!'
'And how did she take it?' asked my mother.
'Hardened, I fear—hardened!' he replied, with a despondent shake of the head; 'and, at the same time, there was a strong display of unchastened, misdirected passions. She turned white in the face, and drew her breath through her teeth in a savage sort of way;—but she offered no extenuation or defence; and with a kind of shameless calmness—shocking indeed to witness in one so young—as good as told me that my remonstrance was unavailing, and my pastoral advice quite thrown away upon her—nay, that my very presence was displeasing while I spoke such things. And I withdrew at length, too plainly seeing that nothing could be done—and sadly grieved to find her case so hopeless. But I am fully determined, Mrs. Markham, that my daughters—shall—not—consort with her. Do you adopt the same resolution with regard to yours!—As for your sons—as for you, young man,' he continued, sternly turning to me—
'As for ME, sir,' I began, but checked by some impediment in my utterance, and finding that my whole frame trembled with fury, I said no more, but took the wiser part of snatching up my hat and bolting from the room, slamming the door behind me, with a bang that shook the house to its foundations, and made my mother scream, and gave a momentary relief to my excited feelings.
The next minute saw me hurrying with rapid strides in the direction of Wildfell Hall—to what intent or purpose I could scarcely tell, but I must be moving somewhere, and no other goal would do—I must see her too, and speak to her—that was certain; but what to say, or how to act, I had no definite idea. Such stormy thoughts—so many different resolutions crowded in upon me, that my mind was little better than a chaos of conflicting passions.
In little more than twenty minutes the journey was accomplished. I paused at the gate to wipe my streaming forehead, and recover my breath and some degree of composure. Already the rapid walking had somewhat mitigated my excitement; and with a firm and steady tread I paced the garden-walk. In passing the inhabited wing of the building, I caught a sight of Mrs. Graham, through the open window, slowly pacing up and down her lonely room.
She seemed agitated and even dismayed at my arrival, as if she thought I too was coming to accuse her. I had entered her presence intending to condole with her upon the wickedness of the world, and help her to abuse the vicar and his vile informants, but now I felt positively ashamed to mention the subject, and determined not to refer to it, unless she led the way.
'I am come at an unseasonable hour,' said I, assuming a cheerfulness I did not feel, in order to reassure her; 'but I won't stay many minutes.'
She smiled upon me, faintly it is true, but most kindly—I had almost said thankfully, as her apprehensions were removed.
'How dismal you are, Helen! Why have you no fire?' I said, looking round on the gloomy apartment.
'It is summer yet,' she replied.
'But we always have a fire in the evenings, if we can bear it; and you especially require one in this cold house and dreary room.'
'You should have come a little sooner, and I would have had one lighted for you: but it is not worth while now—you won't stay many minutes, you say, and Arthur is gone to bed.'
'But I have a fancy for a fire, nevertheless. Will you order one, if I ring?'
'Why, Gilbert, you don't look cold!' said she, smilingly regarding my face, which no doubt seemed warm enough.
'No,' replied I, 'but I want to see you comfortable before I go.'
'Me comfortable!' repeated she, with a bitter laugh, as if there were something amusingly absurd in the idea. 'It suits me better as it is,' she added, in a tone of mournful resignation.
But determined to have my own way, I pulled the bell.
'There now, Helen!' I said, as the approaching steps of Rachel were heard in answer to the summons. There was nothing for it but to turn round and desire the maid to light the fire.
I owe Rachel a grudge to this day for the look she cast upon me ere she departed on her mission, the sour, suspicious, inquisitorial look that plainly demanded, 'What are you here for, I wonder?' Her mistress did not fail to notice it, and a shade of uneasiness darkened her brow.
'You must not stay long, Gilbert,' said she, when the door was closed upon us.
'I'm not going to,' said I, somewhat testily, though without a grain of anger in my heart against any one but the meddling old woman. 'But, Helen, I've something to say to you before I go.'
'What is it?'
'No, not now—I don't know yet precisely what it is, or how to say it,' replied I, with more truth than wisdom; and then, fearing lest she should turn me out of the house, I began talking about indifferent matters in order to gain time. Meanwhile Rachel came in to kindle the fire, which was soon effected by thrusting a red-hot poker between the bars of the grate, where the fuel was already disposed for ignition. She honoured me with another of her hard, inhospitable looks in departing, but, little moved thereby, I went on talking; and setting a chair for Mrs. Graham on one side of the hearth, and one for myself on the other, I ventured to sit down, though half suspecting she would rather see me go.
In a little while we both relapsed into silence, and continued for several minutes gazing abstractedly into the fire—she intent upon her own sad thoughts, and I reflecting how delightful it would be to be seated thus beside her with no other presence to restrain our intercourse—not even that of Arthur, our mutual friend, without whom we had never met before—if only I could venture to speak my mind, and disburden my full heart of the feelings that had so long oppressed it, and which it now struggled to retain, with an effort that it seemed impossible to continue much longer,—and revolving the pros and cons for opening my heart to her there and then, and imploring a return of affection, the permission to regard her thenceforth as my own, and the right and the power to defend her from the calumnies of malicious tongues. On the one hand, I felt a new-born confidence in my powers of persuasion—a strong conviction that my own fervour of spirit would grant me eloquence—that my very determination—the absolute necessity for succeeding, that I felt must win me what I sought; while, on the other, I feared to lose the ground I had already gained with so much toil and skill, and destroy all future hope by one rash effort, when time and patience might have won success. It was like setting my life upon the cast of a die; and yet I was ready to resolve upon the attempt. At any rate, I would entreat the explanation she had half promised to give me before; I would demand the reason of this hateful barrier, this mysterious impediment to my happiness, and, as I trusted, to her own.
But while I considered in what manner I could best frame my request, my companion, wakened from her reverie with a scarcely audible sigh, and looking towards the window, where the blood-red harvest moon, just rising over one of the grim, fantastic evergreens, was shining in upon us, said,—'Gilbert, it is getting late.'
'I see,' said I. 'You want me to go, I suppose?'
'I think you ought. If my kind neighbours get to know of this visit—as no doubt they will—they will not turn it much to my advantage.' It was with what the vicar would doubtless have called a savage sort of smile that she said this.
'Let them turn it as they will,' said I. 'What are their thoughts to you or me, so long as we are satisfied with ourselves—and each other. Let them go to the deuce with their vile constructions and their lying inventions!'
This outburst brought a flush of colour to her face.
'You have heard, then, what they say of me?'
'I heard some detestable falsehoods; but none but fools would credit them for a moment, Helen, so don't let them trouble you.'
'I did not think Mr. Millward a fool, and he believes it all; but however little you may value the opinions of those about you—however little you may esteem them as individuals, it is not pleasant to be looked upon as a liar and a hypocrite, to be thought to practise what you abhor, and to encourage the vices you would discountenance, to find your good intentions frustrated, and your hands crippled by your supposed unworthiness, and to bring disgrace on the principles you profess.'
'True; and if I, by my thoughtlessness and selfish disregard to appearances, have at all assisted to expose you to these evils, let me entreat you not only to pardon me, but to enable me to make reparation; authorise me to clear your name from every imputation: give me the right to identify your honour with my own, and to defend your reputation as more precious than my life!'
'Are you hero enough to unite yourself to one whom you know to be suspected and despised by all around you, and identify your interests and your honour with hers? Think! it is a serious thing.'
'I should be proud to do it, Helen!—most happy—delighted beyond expression!—and if that be all the obstacle to our union, it is demolished, and you must—you shall be mine!'
And starting from my seat in a frenzy of ardour, I seized her hand and would have pressed it to my lips, but she as suddenly caught it away, exclaiming in the bitterness of intense affliction,—'No, no, it is not all!'
'What is it, then? You promised I should know some time, and—'
'You shall know some time—but not now—my head aches terribly,' she said, pressing her hand to her forehead, 'and I must have some repose—and surely I have had misery enough to-day!' she added, almost wildly.
'But it could not harm you to tell it,' I persisted: 'it would ease your mind; and I should then know how to comfort you.'
She shook her head despondingly. 'If you knew all, you, too, would blame me—perhaps even more than I deserve—though I have cruelly wronged you,' she added in a low murmur, as if she mused aloud.
'You, Helen? Impossible?'
'Yes, not willingly; for I did not know the strength and depth of your attachment. I thought—at least I endeavoured to think your regard for me was as cold and fraternal as you professed it to be.'
'Or as yours?'
'Or as mine—ought to have been—of such a light and selfish, superficial nature, that—'
'There, indeed, you wronged me.'
[Picture: Moorland scene (with cottage), Haworth]
'I know I did; and, sometimes, I suspected it then; but I thought, upon the whole, there could be no great harm in leaving your fancies and your hopes to dream themselves to nothing—or flutter away to some more fitting object, while your friendly sympathies remained with me; but if I had known the depth of your regard, the generous, disinterested affection you seem to feel—'
'That you do feel, then, I would have acted differently.'
'How? You could not have given me less encouragement, or treated me with greater severity than you did! And if you think you have wronged me by giving me your friendship, and occasionally admitting me to the enjoyment of your company and conversation, when all hopes of closer intimacy were vain—as indeed you always gave me to understand—if you think you have wronged me by this, you are mistaken; for such favours, in themselves alone, are not only delightful to my heart, but purifying, exalting, ennobling to my soul; and I would rather have your friendship than the love of any other woman in the world!'
Little comforted by this, she clasped her hands upon her knee, and glancing upward, seemed, in silent anguish, to implore divine assistance; then, turning to me, she calmly said,—'To-morrow, if you meet me on the moor about mid-day, I will tell you all you seek to know; and perhaps you will then see the necessity of discontinuing our intimacy—if, indeed, you do not willingly resign me as one no longer worthy of regard.'
'I can safely answer no to that: you cannot have such grave confessions to make—you must be trying my faith, Helen.'
'No, no, no,' she earnestly repeated—'I wish it were so! Thank heaven!' she added, 'I have no great crime to confess; but I have more than you will like to hear, or, perhaps, can readily excuse,—and more than I can tell you now; so let me entreat you to leave me!'
'I will; but answer me this one question first;—do you love me?'
'I will not answer it!'
'Then I will conclude you do; and so good-night.'
She turned from me to hide the emotion she could not quite control; but I took her hand and fervently kissed it.
'Gilbert, do leave me!' she cried, in a tone of such thrilling anguish that I felt it would be cruel to disobey.
But I gave one look back before I closed the door, and saw her leaning forward on the table, with her hands pressed against her eyes, sobbing convulsively; yet I withdrew in silence. I felt that to obtrude my consolations on her then would only serve to aggravate her sufferings.
To tell you all the questionings and conjectures—the fears, and hopes, and wild emotions that jostled and chased each other through my mind as I descended the hill, would almost fill a volume in itself. But before I was half-way down, a sentiment of strong sympathy for her I had left behind me had displaced all other feelings, and seemed imperatively to draw me back: I began to think, 'Why am I hurrying so fast in this direction? Can I find comfort or consolation—peace, certainty, contentment, all—or anything that I want at home? and can I leave all perturbation, sorrow, and anxiety behind me there?'
And I turned round to look at the old Hall. There was little besides the chimneys visible above my contracted horizon. I walked back to get a better view of it. When it rose in sight, I stood still a moment to look, and then continued moving towards the gloomy object of attraction. Something called me nearer—nearer still—and why not, pray? Might I not find more benefit in the contemplation of that venerable pile with the full moon in the cloudless heaven shining so calmly above it—with that warm yellow lustre peculiar to an August night—and the mistress of my soul within, than in returning to my home, where all comparatively was light, and life, and cheerfulness, and therefore inimical to me in my present frame of mind,—and the more so that its inmates all were more or less imbued with that detestable belief, the very thought of which made my blood boil in my veins—and how could I endure to hear it openly declared, or cautiously insinuated—which was worse?—I had had trouble enough already, with some babbling fiend that would keep whispering in my ear, 'It may be true,' till I had shouted aloud, 'It is false! I defy you to make me suppose it!'
I could see the red firelight dimly gleaming from her parlour window. I went up to the garden wall, and stood leaning over it, with my eyes fixed upon the lattice, wondering what she was doing, thinking, or suffering now, and wishing I could speak to her but one word, or even catch one glimpse of her, before I went.
I had not thus looked, and wished, and wondered long, before I vaulted over the barrier, unable to resist the temptation of taking one glance through the window, just to see if she were more composed than when we parted;—and if I found her still in deep distress, perhaps I might venture attempt a word of comfort—to utter one of the many things I should have said before, instead of aggravating her sufferings by my stupid impetuosity. I looked. Her chair was vacant: so was the room. But at that moment some one opened the outer door, and a voice—her voice—said,—'Come out—I want to see the moon, and breathe the evening air: they will do me good—if anything will.'
Here, then, were she and Rachel coming to take a walk in the garden. I wished myself safe back over the wall. I stood, however, in the shadow of the tall holly-bush, which, standing between the window and the porch, at present screened me from observation, but did not prevent me from seeing two figures come forth into the moonlight: Mrs. Graham followed by another—not Rachel, but a young man, slender and rather tall. O heavens, how my temples throbbed! Intense anxiety darkened my sight; but I thought—yes, and the voice confirmed it—it was Mr. Lawrence!
'You should not let it worry you so much, Helen,' said he; 'I will be more cautious in future; and in time—'
I did not hear the rest of the sentence; for he walked close beside her and spoke so gently that I could not catch the words. My heart was splitting with hatred; but I listened intently for her reply. I heard it plainly enough.
'But I must leave this place, Frederick,' she said—'I never can be happy here,—nor anywhere else, indeed,' she added, with a mirthless laugh,—'but I cannot rest here.'
'But where could you find a better place?' replied he, 'so secluded—so near me, if you think anything of that.'
'Yes,' interrupted she, 'it is all I could wish, if they could only have left me alone.'
'But wherever you go, Helen, there will be the same sources of annoyance. I cannot consent to lose you: I must go with you, or come to you; and there are meddling fools elsewhere, as well as here.'
While thus conversing they had sauntered slowly past me, down the walk, and I heard no more of their discourse; but I saw him put his arm round her waist, while she lovingly rested her hand on his shoulder;—and then, a tremulous darkness obscured my sight, my heart sickened and my head burned like fire: I half rushed, half staggered from the spot, where horror had kept me rooted, and leaped or tumbled over the wall—I hardly know which—but I know that, afterwards, like a passionate child, I dashed myself on the ground and lay there in a paroxysm of anger and despair—how long, I cannot undertake to say; but it must have been a considerable time; for when, having partially relieved myself by a torment of tears, and looked up at the moon, shining so calmly and carelessly on, as little influenced by my misery as I was by its peaceful radiance, and earnestly prayed for death or forgetfulness, I had risen and journeyed homewards—little regarding the way, but carried instinctively by my feet to the door, I found it bolted against me, and every one in bed except my mother, who hastened to answer my impatient knocking, and received me with a shower of questions and rebukes.
'Oh, Gilbert! how could you do so? Where have you been? Do come in and take your supper. I've got it all ready, though you don't deserve it, for keeping me in such a fright, after the strange manner you left the house this evening. Mr. Millward was quite— Bless the boy! how ill he looks. Oh, gracious! what is the matter?'
'Nothing, nothing—give me a candle.'
'But won't you take some supper?'
'No; I want to go to bed,' said I, taking a candle and lighting it at the one she held in her hand.
'Oh, Gilbert, how you tremble!' exclaimed my anxious parent. 'How white you look! Do tell me what it is? Has anything happened?'
'It's nothing,' cried I, ready to stamp with vexation because the candle would not light. Then, suppressing my irritation, I added, 'I've been walking too fast, that's all. Good-night,' and marched off to bed, regardless of the 'Walking too fast! where have you been?' that was called after me from below.
My mother followed me to the very door of my room with her questionings and advice concerning my health and my conduct; but I implored her to let me alone till morning; and she withdrew, and at length I had the satisfaction to hear her close her own door. There was no sleep for me, however, that night as I thought; and instead of attempting to solicit it, I employed myself in rapidly pacing the chamber, having first removed my boots, lest my mother should hear me. But the boards creaked, and she was watchful. I had not walked above a quarter of an hour before she was at the door again.
'Gilbert, why are you not in bed—you said you wanted to go?'
'Confound it! I'm going,' said I.
'But why are you so long about it? You must have something on your mind—'
'For heaven's sake, let me alone, and get to bed yourself.'
'Can it be that Mrs. Graham that distresses you so?'
'No, no, I tell you—it's nothing.'
'I wish to goodness it mayn't,' murmured she, with a sigh, as she returned to her own apartment, while I threw myself on the bed, feeling most undutifully disaffected towards her for having deprived me of what seemed the only shadow of a consolation that remained, and chained me to that wretched couch of thorns.
Never did I endure so long, so miserable a night as that. And yet it was not wholly sleepless. Towards morning my distracting thoughts began to lose all pretensions to coherency, and shape themselves into confused and feverish dreams, and, at length, there followed an interval of unconscious slumber. But then the dawn of bitter recollection that succeeded—the waking to find life a blank, and worse than a blank, teeming with torment and misery—not a mere barren wilderness, but full of thorns and briers—to find myself deceived, duped, hopeless, my affections trampled upon, my angel not an angel, and my friend a fiend incarnate—it was worse than if I had not slept at all.
It was a dull, gloomy morning; the weather had changed like my prospects, and the rain was pattering against the window. I rose, nevertheless, and went out; not to look after the farm, though that would serve as my excuse, but to cool my brain, and regain, if possible, a sufficient degree of composure to meet the family at the morning meal without exciting inconvenient remarks. If I got a wetting, that, in conjunction with a pretended over-exertion before breakfast, might excuse my sudden loss of appetite; and if a cold ensued, the severer the better—it would help to account for the sullen moods and moping melancholy likely to cloud my brow for long enough.
'My dear Gilbert, I wish you would try to be a little more amiable,' said my mother one morning after some display of unjustifiable ill-humour on my part. 'You say there is nothing the matter with you, and nothing has happened to grieve you, and yet I never saw anyone so altered as you within these last few days. You haven't a good word for anybody—friends and strangers, equals and inferiors—it's all the same. I do wish you'd try to check it.'
'Why, your strange temper. You don't know how it spoils you. I'm sure a finer disposition than yours by nature could not be, if you'd let it have fair play: so you've no excuse that way.'
While she thus remonstrated, I took up a book, and laying it open on the table before me, pretended to be deeply absorbed in its perusal, for I was equally unable to justify myself and unwilling to acknowledge my errors; and I wished to have nothing to say on the matter. But my excellent parent went on lecturing, and then came to coaxing, and began to stroke my hair; and I was getting to feel quite a good boy, but my mischievous brother, who was idling about the room, revived my corruption by suddenly calling out,—'Don't touch him, mother! he'll bite! He's a very tiger in human form. I've given him up for my part—fairly disowned him—cast him off, root and branch. It's as much as my life is worth to come within six yards of him. The other day he nearly fractured my skull for singing a pretty, inoffensive love-song, on purpose to amuse him.'
'Oh, Gilbert! how could you?' exclaimed my mother.
'I told you to hold your noise first, you know, Fergus,' said I.
'Yes, but when I assured you it was no trouble and went on with the next verse, thinking you might like it better, you clutched me by the shoulder and dashed me away, right against the wall there, with such force that I thought I had bitten my tongue in two, and expected to see the place plastered with my brains; and when I put my hand to my head, and found my skull not broken, I thought it was a miracle, and no mistake. But, poor fellow!' added he, with a sentimental sigh—'his heart's broken—that's the truth of it—and his head's—'
'Will you be silent NOW?' cried I, starting up, and eyeing the fellow so fiercely that my mother, thinking I meant to inflict some grievous bodily injury, laid her hand on my arm, and besought me to let him alone, and he walked leisurely out, with his hands in his pockets, singing provokingly—'Shall I, because a woman's fair,' &c.
'I'm not going to defile my fingers with him,' said I, in answer to the maternal intercession. 'I wouldn't touch him with the tongs.'
I now recollected that I had business with Robert Wilson, concerning the purchase of a certain field adjoining my farm—a business I had been putting off from day to day; for I had no interest in anything now; and besides, I was misanthropically inclined, and, moreover, had a particular objection to meeting Jane Wilson or her mother; for though I had too good reason, now, to credit their reports concerning Mrs. Graham, I did not like them a bit the better for it—or Eliza Millward either—and the thought of meeting them was the more repugnant to me that I could not, now, defy their seeming calumnies and triumph in my own convictions as before. But to-day I determined to make an effort to return to my duty. Though I found no pleasure in it, it would be less irksome than idleness—at all events it would be more profitable. If life promised no enjoyment within my vocation, at least it offered no allurements out of it; and henceforth I would put my shoulder to the wheel and toil away, like any poor drudge of a cart-horse that was fairly broken in to its labour, and plod through life, not wholly useless if not agreeable, and uncomplaining if not contented with my lot.
Thus resolving, with a kind of sullen resignation, if such a term may be allowed, I wended my way to Ryecote Farm, scarcely expecting to find its owner within at this time of day, but hoping to learn in what part of the premises he was most likely to be found.
Absent he was, but expected home in a few minutes; and I was desired to step into the parlour and wait. Mrs. Wilson was busy in the kitchen, but the room was not empty; and I scarcely checked an involuntary recoil as I entered it; for there sat Miss Wilson chattering with Eliza Millward. However, I determined to be cool and civil. Eliza seemed to have made the same resolution on her part. We had not met since the evening of the tea-party; but there was no visible emotion either of pleasure or pain, no attempt at pathos, no display of injured pride: she was cool in temper, civil in demeanour. There was even an ease and cheerfulness about her air and manner that I made no pretension to; but there was a depth of malice in her too expressive eye that plainly told me I was not forgiven; for, though she no longer hoped to win me to herself, she still hated her rival, and evidently delighted to wreak her spite on me. On the other hand, Miss Wilson was as affable and courteous as heart could wish, and though I was in no very conversable humour myself, the two ladies between them managed to keep up a pretty continuous fire of small talk. But Eliza took advantage of the first convenient pause to ask if I had lately seen Mrs. Graham, in a tone of merely casual inquiry, but with a sidelong glance—intended to be playfully mischievous—really, brimful and running over with malice.
'Not lately,' I replied, in a careless tone, but sternly repelling her odious glances with my eyes; for I was vexed to feel the colour mounting to my forehead, despite my strenuous efforts to appear unmoved.
'What! are you beginning to tire already? I thought so noble a creature would have power to attach you for a year at least!'
'I would rather not speak of her now.'
'Ah! then you are convinced, at last, of your mistake—you have at length discovered that your divinity is not quite the immaculate—'
'I desired you not to speak of her, Miss Eliza.'
'Oh, I beg your pardon! I perceive Cupid's arrows have been too sharp for you: the wounds, being more than skin-deep, are not yet healed, and bleed afresh at every mention of the loved one's name.'
'Say, rather,' interposed Miss Wilson, 'that Mr. Markham feels that name is unworthy to be mentioned in the presence of right-minded females. I wonder, Eliza, you should think of referring to that unfortunate person—you might know the mention of her would be anything but agreeable to any one here present.'
How could this be borne? I rose and was about to clap my hat upon my head and burst away, in wrathful indignation from the house; but recollecting—just in time to save my dignity—the folly of such a proceeding, and how it would only give my fair tormentors a merry laugh at my expense, for the sake of one I acknowledged in my own heart to be unworthy of the slightest sacrifice—though the ghost of my former reverence and love so hung about me still, that I could not bear to hear her name aspersed by others—I merely walked to the window, and having spent a few seconds in vengibly biting my lips and sternly repressing the passionate heavings of my chest, I observed to Miss Wilson, that I could see nothing of her brother, and added that, as my time was precious, it would perhaps be better to call again to-morrow, at some time when I should be sure to find him at home.
'Oh, no!' said she; 'if you wait a minute, he will be sure to come; for he has business at L—' (that was our market-town), 'and will require a little refreshment before he goes.'
I submitted accordingly, with the best grace I could; and, happily, I had not long to wait. Mr. Wilson soon arrived, and, indisposed for business as I was at that moment, and little as I cared for the field or its owner, I forced my attention to the matter in hand, with very creditable determination, and quickly concluded the bargain—perhaps more to the thrifty farmer's satisfaction than he cared to acknowledge. Then, leaving him to the discussion of his substantial 'refreshment,' I gladly quitted the house, and went to look after my reapers.
Leaving them busy at work on the side of the valley, I ascended the hill, intending to visit a corn-field in the more elevated regions, and see when it would be ripe for the sickle. But I did not visit it that day; for, as I approached, I beheld, at no great distance, Mrs. Graham and her son coming down in the opposite direction. They saw me; and Arthur already was running to meet me; but I immediately turned back and walked steadily homeward; for I had fully determined never to encounter his mother again; and regardless of the shrill voice in my ear, calling upon me to 'wait a moment,' I pursued the even tenor of my way; and he soon relinquished the pursuit as hopeless, or was called away by his mother. At all events, when I looked back, five minutes after, not a trace of either was to be seen.
This incident agitated and disturbed me most unaccountably—unless you would account for it by saying that Cupid's arrows not only had been too sharp for me, but they were barbed and deeply rooted, and I had not yet been able to wrench them from my heart. However that be, I was rendered doubly miserable for the remainder of the day.
Next morning, I bethought me, I, too, had business at L—; so I mounted my horse, and set forth on the expedition soon after breakfast. It was a dull, drizzly day; but that was no matter: it was all the more suitable to my frame of mind. It was likely to be a lonely journey; for it was no market-day, and the road I traversed was little frequented at any other time; but that suited me all the better too.
As I trotted along, however, chewing the cud of—bitter fancies, I heard another horse at no great distance behind me; but I never conjectured who the rider might be, or troubled my head about him, till, on slackening my pace to ascend a gentle acclivity, or rather, suffering my horse to slacken his pace into a lazy walk—for, rapt in my own reflections, I was letting it jog on as leisurely as it thought proper—I lost ground, and my fellow-traveller overtook me. He accosted me by name, for it was no stranger—it was Mr. Lawrence! Instinctively the fingers of my whip-hand tingled, and grasped their charge with convulsive energy; but I restrained the impulse, and answering his salutation with a nod, attempted to push on; but he pushed on beside me, and began to talk about the weather and the crops. I gave the briefest possible answers to his queries and observations, and fell back. He fell back too, and asked if my horse was lame. I replied with a look, at which he placidly smiled.
I was as much astonished as exasperated at this singular pertinacity and imperturbable assurance on his part. I had thought the circumstances of our last meeting would have left such an impression on his mind as to render him cold and distant ever after: instead of that, he appeared not only to have forgotten all former offences, but to be impenetrable to all present incivilities. Formerly, the slightest hint, or mere fancied coldness in tone or glance, had sufficed to repulse him: now, positive rudeness could not drive him away. Had he heard of my disappointment; and was he come to witness the result, and triumph in my despair? I grasped my whip with more determined energy than before—but still forbore to raise it, and rode on in silence, waiting for some more tangible cause of offence, before I opened the floodgates of my soul and poured out the dammed-up fury that was foaming and swelling within.
'Markham,' said he, in his usual quiet tone, 'why do you quarrel with your friends, because you have been disappointed in one quarter? You have found your hopes defeated; but how am I to blame for it? I warned you beforehand, you know, but you would not—'
He said no more; for, impelled by some fiend at my elbow, I had seized my whip by the small end, and—swift and sudden as a flash of lightning—brought the other down upon his head. It was not without a feeling of savage satisfaction that I beheld the instant, deadly pallor that overspread his face, and the few red drops that trickled down his forehead, while he reeled a moment in his saddle, and then fell backward to the ground. The pony, surprised to be so strangely relieved of its burden, started and capered, and kicked a little, and then made use of its freedom to go and crop the grass of the hedge-bank: while its master lay as still and silent as a corpse. Had I killed him?—an icy hand seemed to grasp my heart and check its pulsation, as I bent over him, gazing with breathless intensity upon the ghastly, upturned face. But no; he moved his eyelids and uttered a slight groan. I breathed again—he was only stunned by the fall. It served him right—it would teach him better manners in future. Should I help him to his horse? No. For any other combination of offences I would; but his were too unpardonable. He might mount it himself, if he liked—in a while: already he was beginning to stir and look about him—and there it was for him, quietly browsing on the road-side.
So with a muttered execration I left the fellow to his fate, and clapping spurs to my own horse, galloped away, excited by a combination of feelings it would not be easy to analyse; and perhaps, if I did so, the result would not be very creditable to my disposition; for I am not sure that a species of exultation in what I had done was not one principal concomitant.
Shortly, however, the effervescence began to abate, and not many minutes elapsed before I had turned and gone back to look after the fate of my victim. It was no generous impulse—no kind relentings that led me to this—nor even the fear of what might be the consequences to myself, if I finished my assault upon the squire by leaving him thus neglected, and exposed to further injury; it was, simply, the voice of conscience; and I took great credit to myself for attending so promptly to its dictates—and judging the merit of the deed by the sacrifice it cost, I was not far wrong.
Mr. Lawrence and his pony had both altered their positions in some degree. The pony had wandered eight or ten yards further away; and he had managed, somehow, to remove himself from the middle of the road: I found him seated in a recumbent position on the bank,—looking very white and sickly still, and holding his cambric handkerchief (now more red than white) to his head. It must have been a powerful blow; but half the credit—or the blame of it (which you please) must be attributed to the whip, which was garnished with a massive horse's head of plated metal. The grass, being sodden with rain, afforded the young gentleman a rather inhospitable couch; his clothes were considerably bemired; and his hat was rolling in the mud on the other side of the road. But his thoughts seemed chiefly bent upon his pony, on which he was wistfully gazing—half in helpless anxiety, and half in hopeless abandonment to his fate.
I dismounted, however, and having fastened my own animal to the nearest tree, first picked up his hat, intending to clap it on his head; but either he considered his head unfit for a hat, or the hat, in its present condition, unfit for his head; for shrinking away the one, he took the other from my hand, and scornfully cast it aside.
'It's good enough for you,' I muttered.
My next good office was to catch his pony and bring it to him, which was soon accomplished; for the beast was quiet enough in the main, and only winced and flirted a trifle till I got hold of the bridle—but then, I must see him in the saddle.
'Here, you fellow—scoundrel—dog—give me your hand, and I'll help you to mount.'
No; he turned from me in disgust. I attempted to take him by the arm. He shrank away as if there had been contamination in my touch.
'What, you won't! Well! you may sit there till doomsday, for what I care. But I suppose you don't want to lose all the blood in your body—I'll just condescend to bind that up for you.'
'Let me alone, if you please.'
'Humph; with all my heart. You may go to the d—l, if you choose—and say I sent you.'
But before I abandoned him to his fate I flung his pony's bridle over a stake in the hedge, and threw him my handkerchief, as his own was now saturated with blood. He took it and cast it back to me in abhorrence and contempt, with all the strength he could muster. It wanted but this to fill the measure of his offences. With execrations not loud but deep I left him to live or die as he could, well satisfied that I had done my duty in attempting to save him—but forgetting how I had erred in bringing him into such a condition, and how insultingly my after-services had been offered—and sullenly prepared to meet the consequences if he should choose to say I had attempted to murder him—which I thought not unlikely, as it seemed probable he was actuated by such spiteful motives in so perseveringly refusing my assistance.
Having remounted my horse, I just looked back to see how he was getting on, before I rode away. He had risen from the ground, and grasping his pony's mane, was attempting to resume his seat in the saddle; but scarcely had he put his foot in the stirrup, when a sickness or dizziness seemed to overpower him: he leant forward a moment, with his head drooped on the animal's back, and then made one more effort, which proving ineffectual, he sank back on the bank, where I left him, reposing his head on the oozy turf, and to all appearance, as calmly reclining as if he had been taking his rest on his sofa at home.
I ought to have helped him in spite of himself—to have bound up the wound he was unable to staunch, and insisted upon getting him on his horse and seeing him safe home; but, besides my bitter indignation against himself, there was the question what to say to his servants—and what to my own family. Either I should have to acknowledge the deed, which would set me down as a madman, unless I acknowledged the motive too—and that seemed impossible—or I must get up a lie, which seemed equally out of the question—especially as Mr. Lawrence would probably reveal the whole truth, and thereby bring me to tenfold disgrace—unless I were villain enough, presuming on the absence of witnesses, to persist in my own version of the case, and make him out a still greater scoundrel than he was. No; he had only received a cut above the temple, and perhaps a few bruises from the fall, or the hoofs of his own pony: that could not kill him if he lay there half the day; and, if he could not help himself, surely some one would be coming by: it would be impossible that a whole day should pass and no one traverse the road but ourselves. As for what he might choose to say hereafter, I would take my chance about it: if he told lies, I would contradict him; if he told the truth, I would bear it as best I could. I was not obliged to enter into explanations further than I thought proper. Perhaps he might choose to be silent on the subject, for fear of raising inquiries as to the cause of the quarrel, and drawing the public attention to his connection with Mrs. Graham, which, whether for her sake or his own, he seemed so very desirous to conceal.
Thus reasoning, I trotted away to the town, where I duly transacted my business, and performed various little commissions for my mother and Rose, with very laudable exactitude, considering the different circumstances of the case. In returning home, I was troubled with sundry misgivings about the unfortunate Lawrence. The question, What if I should find him lying still on the damp earth, fairly dying of cold and exhaustion—or already stark and chill? thrust itself most unpleasantly upon my mind, and the appalling possibility pictured itself with painful vividness to my imagination as I approached the spot where I had left him. But no, thank heaven, both man and horse were gone, and nothing was left to witness against me but two objects—unpleasant enough in themselves to be sure, and presenting a very ugly, not to say murderous appearance—in one place, the hat saturated with rain and coated with mud, indented and broken above the brim by that villainous whip-handle; in another, the crimson handkerchief, soaking in a deeply tinctured pool of water—for much rain had fallen in the interim.
Bad news flies fast: it was hardly four o'clock when I got home, but my mother gravely accosted me with—'Oh, Gilbert!—Such an accident! Rose has been shopping in the village, and she's heard that Mr. Lawrence has been thrown from his horse and brought home dying!'
This shocked me a trifle, as you may suppose; but I was comforted to hear that he had frightfully fractured his skull and broken a leg; for, assured of the falsehood of this, I trusted the rest of the story was equally exaggerated; and when I heard my mother and sister so feelingly deploring his condition, I had considerable difficulty in preventing myself from telling them the real extent of the injuries, as far as I knew them.
'You must go and see him to-morrow,' said my mother.
'Or to-day,' suggested Rose: 'there's plenty of time; and you can have the pony, as your horse is tired. Won't you, Gilbert—as soon as you've had something to eat?'
'No, no—how can we tell that it isn't all a false report? It's highly im-'
'Oh, I'm sure it isn't; for the village is all alive about it; and I saw two people that had seen others that had seen the man that found him. That sounds far-fetched; but it isn't so when you think of it.'
'Well, but Lawrence is a good rider; it is not likely he would fall from his horse at all; and if he did, it is highly improbable he would break his bones in that way. It must be a gross exaggeration at least.'
'No; but the horse kicked him—or something.'
'What, his quiet little pony?'
'How do you know it was that?'
'He seldom rides any other.'
'At any rate,' said my mother, 'you will call to-morrow. Whether it be true or false, exaggerated or otherwise, we shall like to know how he is.'
'Fergus may go.'
'Why not you?'
'He has more time. I am busy just now.'
'Oh! but, Gilbert, how can you be so composed about it? You won't mind business for an hour or two in a case of this sort, when your friend is at the point of death.'
'He is not, I tell you.'
'For anything you know, he may be: you can't tell till you have seen him. At all events, he must have met with some terrible accident, and you ought to see him: he'll take it very unkind if you don't.'
'Confound it! I can't. He and I have not been on good terms of late.'
'Oh, my dear boy! Surely, surely you are not so unforgiving as to carry your little differences to such a length as—'
'Little differences, indeed!' I muttered.
'Well, but only remember the occasion. Think how—'
'Well, well, don't bother me now—I'll see about it,' I replied.
And my seeing about it was to send Fergus next morning, with my mother's compliments, to make the requisite inquiries; for, of course, my going was out of the question—or sending a message either. He brought back intelligence that the young squire was laid up with the complicated evils of a broken head and certain contusions (occasioned by a fall—of which he did not trouble himself to relate the particulars—and the subsequent misconduct of his horse), and a severe cold, the consequence of lying on the wet ground in the rain; but there were no broken bones, and no immediate prospects of dissolution.
It was evident, then, that for Mrs. Graham's sake it was not his intention to criminate me.
That day was rainy like its predecessor; but towards evening it began to clear up a little, and the next morning was fair and promising. I was out on the hill with the reapers. A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine. The lark was rejoicing among the silvery floating clouds. The late rain had so sweetly freshened and cleared the air, and washed the sky, and left such glittering gems on branch and blade, that not even the farmers could have the heart to blame it. But no ray of sunshine could reach my heart, no breeze could freshen it; nothing could fill the void my faith, and hope, and joy in Helen Graham had left, or drive away the keen regrets and bitter dregs of lingering love that still oppressed it.
While I stood with folded arms abstractedly gazing on the undulating swell of the corn, not yet disturbed by the reapers, something gently pulled my skirts, and a small voice, no longer welcome to my ears, aroused me with the startling words,—'Mr. Markham, mamma wants you.'
'Wants me, Arthur?'
'Yes. Why do you look so queer?' said he, half laughing, half frightened at the unexpected aspect of my face in suddenly turning towards him,—'and why have you kept so long away? Come! Won't you come?'
'I'm busy just now,' I replied, scarce knowing what to answer.
He looked up in childish bewilderment; but before I could speak again the lady herself was at my side.
'Gilbert, I must speak with you!' said she, in a tone of suppressed vehemence.
I looked at her pale cheek and glittering eye, but answered nothing.
'Only for a moment,' pleaded she. 'Just step aside into this other field.' She glanced at the reapers, some of whom were directing looks of impertinent curiosity towards her. 'I won't keep you a minute.'
I accompanied her through the gap.
'Arthur, darling, run and gather those bluebells,' said she, pointing to some that were gleaming at some distance under the hedge along which we walked. The child hesitated, as if unwilling to quit my side. 'Go, love!' repeated she more urgently, and in a tone which, though not unkind, demanded prompt obedience, and obtained it.
'Well, Mrs. Graham?' said I, calmly and coldly; for, though I saw she was miserable, and pitied her, I felt glad to have it in my power to torment her.
She fixed her eyes upon me with a look that pierced me to the heart; and yet it made me smile.
'I don't ask the reason of this change, Gilbert,' said she, with bitter calmness: 'I know it too well; but though I could see myself suspected and condemned by every one else, and bear it with calmness, I cannot endure it from you.—Why did you not come to hear my explanation on the day I appointed to give it?'
'Because I happened, in the interim, to learn all you would have told me—and a trifle more, I imagine.'
'Impossible, for I would have told you all!' cried she, passionately—'but I won't now, for I see you are not worthy of it!'
And her pale lips quivered with agitation.
'Why not, may I ask?'
She repelled my mocking smile with a glance of scornful indignation.
'Because you never understood me, or you would not soon have listened to my traducers—my confidence would be misplaced in you—you are not the man I thought you. Go! I won't care what you think of me.'
She turned away, and I went; for I thought that would torment her as much as anything; and I believe I was right; for, looking back a minute after, I saw her turn half round, as if hoping or expecting to find me still beside her; and then she stood still, and cast one look behind. It was a look less expressive of anger than of bitter anguish and despair; but I immediately assumed an aspect of indifference, and affected to be gazing carelessly around me, and I suppose she went on; for after lingering awhile to see if she would come back or call, I ventured one more glance, and saw her a good way off, moving rapidly up the field, with little Arthur running by her side and apparently talking as he went; but she kept her face averted from him, as if to hide some uncontrollable emotion. And I returned to my business.
But I soon began to regret my precipitancy in leaving her so soon. It was evident she loved me—probably she was tired of Mr. Lawrence, and wished to exchange him for me; and if I had loved and reverenced her less to begin with, the preference might have gratified and amused me; but now the contrast between her outward seeming and her inward mind, as I supposed,—between my former and my present opinion of her, was so harrowing—so distressing to my feelings, that it swallowed up every lighter consideration.
But still I was curious to know what sort of an explanation she would have given me—or would give now, if I pressed her for it—how much she would confess, and how she would endeavour to excuse herself. I longed to know what to despise, and what to admire in her; how much to pity, and how much to hate;—and, what was more, I would know. I would see her once more, and fairly satisfy myself in what light to regard her, before we parted. Lost to me she was, for ever, of course; but still I could not bear to think that we had parted, for the last time, with so much unkindness and misery on both sides. That last look of hers had sunk into my heart; I could not forget it. But what a fool I was! Had she not deceived me, injured me—blighted my happiness for life? 'Well, I'll see her, however,' was my concluding resolve, 'but not to-day: to-day and to-night she may think upon her sins, and be as miserable as she will: to-morrow I will see her once again, and know something more about her. The interview may be serviceable to her, or it may not. At any rate, it will give a breath of excitement to the life she has doomed to stagnation, and may calm with certainty some agitating thoughts.'
I did go on the morrow, but not till towards evening, after the business of the day was concluded, that is, between six and seven; and the westering sun was gleaming redly on the old Hall, and flaming in the latticed windows, as I reached it, imparting to the place a cheerfulness not its own. I need not dilate upon the feelings with which I approached the shrine of my former divinity—that spot teeming with a thousand delightful recollections and glorious dreams—all darkened now by one disastrous truth
Rachel admitted me into the parlour, and went to call her mistress, for she was not there: but there was her desk left open on the little round table beside the high-backed chair, with a book laid upon it. Her limited but choice collection of books was almost as familiar to me as my own; but this volume I had not seen before. I took it up. It was Sir Humphry Davy's 'Last Days of a Philosopher,' and on the first leaf was written, 'Frederick Lawrence.' I closed the book, but kept it in my hand, and stood facing the door, with my back to the fire-place, calmly waiting her arrival; for I did not doubt she would come. And soon I heard her step in the hall. My heart was beginning to throb, but I checked it with an internal rebuke, and maintained my composure—outwardly at least. She entered, calm, pale, collected.
'To what am I indebted for this favour, Mr. Markham?' said she, with such severe but quiet dignity as almost disconcerted me; but I answered with a smile, and impudently enough,—
'Well, I am come to hear your explanation.'
'I told you I would not give it,' said she. 'I said you were unworthy of my confidence.'
'Oh, very well,' replied I, moving to the door.
'Stay a moment,' said she. 'This is the last time I shall see you: don't go just yet.'
I remained, awaiting her further commands.
'Tell me,' resumed she, 'on what grounds you believe these things against me; who told you; and what did they say?'
I paused a moment. She met my eye as unflinchingly as if her bosom had been steeled with conscious innocence. She was resolved to know the worst, and determined to dare it too. 'I can crush that bold spirit,' thought I. But while I secretly exulted in my power, I felt disposed to dally with my victim like a cat. Showing her the book that I still held, in my hand, and pointing to the name on the fly-leaf, but fixing my eye upon her face, I asked,—'Do you know that gentleman?'
'Of course I do,' replied she; and a sudden flush suffused her features—whether of shame or anger I could not tell: it rather resembled the latter. 'What next, sir?'
'How long is it since you saw him?'
'Who gave you the right to catechize me on this or any other subject?'
'Oh, no one!—it's quite at your option whether to answer or not. And now, let me ask—have you heard what has lately befallen this friend of yours?—because, if you have not—'
'I will not be insulted, Mr. Markham!' cried she, almost infuriated at my manner. 'So you had better leave the house at once, if you came only for that.'
'I did not come to insult you: I came to hear your explanation.'
'And I tell you I won't give it!' retorted she, pacing the room in a state of strong excitement, with her hands clasped tightly together, breathing short, and flashing fires of indignation from her eyes. 'I will not condescend to explain myself to one that can make a jest of such horrible suspicions, and be so easily led to entertain them.'
'I do not make a jest of them, Mrs. Graham,' returned I, dropping at once my tone of taunting sarcasm. 'I heartily wish I could find them a jesting matter. And as to being easily led to suspect, God only knows what a blind, incredulous fool I have hitherto been, perseveringly shutting my eyes and stopping my ears against everything that threatened to shake my confidence in you, till proof itself confounded my infatuation!'
'What proof, sir?'
'Well, I'll tell you. You remember that evening when I was here last?'
'Even then you dropped some hints that might have opened the eyes of a wiser man; but they had no such effect upon me: I went on trusting and believing, hoping against hope, and adoring where I could not comprehend. It so happened, however, that after I left you I turned back—drawn by pure depth of sympathy and ardour of affection—not daring to intrude my presence openly upon you, but unable to resist the temptation of catching one glimpse through the window, just to see how you were: for I had left you apparently in great affliction, and I partly blamed my own want of forbearance and discretion as the cause of it. If I did wrong, love alone was my incentive, and the punishment was severe enough; for it was just as I had reached that tree, that you came out into the garden with your friend. Not choosing to show myself, under the circumstances, I stood still, in the shadow, till you had both passed by.'
'And how much of our conversation did you hear?'
'I heard quite enough, Helen. And it was well for me that I did hear it; for nothing less could have cured my infatuation. I always said and thought, that I would never believe a word against you, unless I heard it from your own lips. All the hints and affirmations of others I treated as malignant, baseless slanders; your own self-accusations I believed to be overstrained; and all that seemed unaccountable in your position I trusted that you could account for if you chose.'
Mrs. Graham had discontinued her walk. She leant against one end of the chimney-piece, opposite that near which I was standing, with her chin resting on her closed hand, her eyes—no longer burning with anger, but gleaming with restless excitement—sometimes glancing at me while I spoke, then coursing the opposite wall, or fixed upon the carpet.
'You should have come to me after all,' said she, 'and heard what I had to say in my own justification. It was ungenerous and wrong to withdraw yourself so secretly and suddenly, immediately after such ardent protestations of attachment, without ever assigning a reason for the change. You should have told me all-no matter how bitterly. It would have been better than this silence.'
'To what end should I have done so? You could not have enlightened me further, on the subject which alone concerned me; nor could you have made me discredit the evidence of my senses. I desired our intimacy to be discontinued at once, as you yourself had acknowledged would probably be the case if I knew all; but I did not wish to upbraid you,—though (as you also acknowledged) you had deeply wronged me. Yes, you have done me an injury you can never repair—or any other either—you have blighted the freshness and promise of youth, and made my life a wilderness! I might live a hundred years, but I could never recover from the effects of this withering blow—and never forget it! Hereafter—You smile, Mrs. Graham,' said I, suddenly stopping short, checked in my passionate declamation by unutterable feelings to behold her actually smiling at the picture of the ruin she had wrought.
'Did I?' replied she, looking seriously up; 'I was not aware of it. If I did, it was not for pleasure at the thoughts of the harm I had done you. Heaven knows I have had torment enough at the bare possibility of that; it was for joy to find that you had some depth of soul and feeling after all, and to hope that I had not been utterly mistaken in your worth. But smiles and tears are so alike with me, they are neither of them confined to any particular feelings: I often cry when I am happy, and smile when I am sad.'
She looked at me again, and seemed to expect a reply; but I continued silent.
'Would you be very glad,' resumed she, 'to find that you were mistaken in your conclusions?'
'How can you ask it, Helen?'
'I don't say I can clear myself altogether,' said she, speaking low and fast, while her heart beat visibly and her bosom heaved with excitement,—'but would you be glad to discover I was better than you think me?'
'Anything that could in the least degree tend to restore my former opinion of you, to excuse the regard I still feel for you, and alleviate the pangs of unutterable regret that accompany it, would be only too gladly, too eagerly received!' Her cheeks burned, and her whole frame trembled, now, with excess of agitation. She did not speak, but flew to her desk, and snatching thence what seemed a thick album or manuscript volume, hastily tore away a few leaves from the end, and thrust the rest into my hand, saying, 'You needn't read it all; but take it home with you,' and hurried from the room. But when I had left the house, and was proceeding down the walk, she opened the window and called me back. It was only to say,—'Bring it back when you have read it; and don't breathe a word of what it tells you to any living being. I trust to your honour.'
Before I could answer she had closed the casement and turned away. I saw her cast herself back in the old oak chair, and cover her face with her hands. Her feelings had been wrought to a pitch that rendered it necessary to seek relief in tears.
Panting with eagerness, and struggling to suppress my hopes, I hurried home, and rushed up-stairs to my room, having first provided myself with a candle, though it was scarcely twilight yet—then, shut and bolted the door, determined to tolerate no interruption; and sitting down before the table, opened out my prize and delivered myself up to its perusal—first hastily turning over the leaves and snatching a sentence here and there, and then setting myself steadily to read it through.
I have it now before me; and though you could not, of course, peruse it with half the interest that I did, I know you would not be satisfied with an abbreviation of its contents, and you shall have the whole, save, perhaps, a few passages here and there of merely temporary interest to the writer, or such as would serve to encumber the story rather than elucidate it. It begins somewhat abruptly, thus—but we will reserve its commencement for another chapter.
June 1st, 1821.—We have just returned to Staningley—that is, we returned some days ago, and I am not yet settled, and feel as if I never should be. We left town sooner than was intended, in consequence of my uncle's indisposition;—I wonder what would have been the result if we had stayed the full time. I am quite ashamed of my new-sprung distaste for country life. All my former occupations seem so tedious and dull, my former amusements so insipid and unprofitable. I cannot enjoy my music, because there is no one to hear it. I cannot enjoy my walks, because there is no one to meet. I cannot enjoy my books, because they have not power to arrest my attention: my head is so haunted with the recollections of the last few weeks, that I cannot attend to them. My drawing suits me best, for I can draw and think at the same time; and if my productions cannot now be seen by any one but myself, and those who do not care about them, they, possibly, may be, hereafter. But, then, there is one face I am always trying to paint or to sketch, and always without success; and that vexes me. As for the owner of that face, I cannot get him out of my mind—and, indeed, I never try. I wonder whether he ever thinks of me; and I wonder whether I shall ever see him again. And then might follow a train of other wonderments—questions for time and fate to answer—concluding with—Supposing all the rest be answered in the affirmative, I wonder whether I shall ever repent it? as my aunt would tell me I should, if she knew what I was thinking about.
How distinctly I remember our conversation that evening before our departure for town, when we were sitting together over the fire, my uncle having gone to bed with a slight attack of the gout.
'Helen,' said she, after a thoughtful silence, 'do you ever think about marriage?'
'Yes, aunt, often.'
'And do you ever contemplate the possibility of being married yourself, or engaged, before the season is over?'
'Sometimes; but I don't think it at all likely that I ever shall.'
'Because, I imagine, there must be only a very, very few men in the world that I should like to marry; and of those few, it is ten to one I may never be acquainted with one; or if I should, it is twenty to one he may not happen to be single, or to take a fancy to me.'
'That is no argument at all. It may be very true—and I hope is true, that there are very few men whom you would choose to marry, of yourself. It is not, indeed, to be supposed that you would wish to marry any one till you were asked: a girl's affections should never be won unsought. But when they are sought—when the citadel of the heart is fairly besieged—it is apt to surrender sooner than the owner is aware of, and often against her better judgment, and in opposition to all her preconceived ideas of what she could have loved, unless she be extremely careful and discreet. Now, I want to warn you, Helen, of these things, and to exhort you to be watchful and circumspect from the very commencement of your career, and not to suffer your heart to be stolen from you by the first foolish or unprincipled person that covets the possession of it.—You know, my dear, you are only just eighteen; there is plenty of time before you, and neither your uncle nor I are in any hurry to get you off our hands, and I may venture to say, there will be no lack of suitors; for you can boast a good family, a pretty considerable fortune and expectations, and, I may as well tell you likewise—for, if I don't, others will—that you have a fair share of beauty besides—and I hope you may never have cause to regret it!'
'I hope not, aunt; but why should you fear it?'
'Because, my dear, beauty is that quality which, next to money, is generally the most attractive to the worst kinds of men; and, therefore, it is likely to entail a great deal of trouble on the possessor.'
'Have you been troubled in that way, aunt?'
'No, Helen,' said she, with reproachful gravity, 'but I know many that have; and some, through carelessness, have been the wretched victims of deceit; and some, through weakness, have fallen into snares and temptations terrible to relate.'
'Well, I shall be neither careless nor weak.'
'Remember Peter, Helen! Don't boast, but watch. Keep a guard over your eyes and ears as the inlets of your heart, and over your lips as the outlet, lest they betray you in a moment of unwariness. Receive, coldly and dispassionately, every attention, till you have ascertained and duly considered the worth of the aspirant; and let your affections be consequent upon approbation alone. First study; then approve; then love. Let your eyes be blind to all external attractions, your ears deaf to all the fascinations of flattery and light discourse.—These are nothing—and worse than nothing—snares and wiles of the tempter, to lure the thoughtless to their own destruction. Principle is the first thing, after all; and next to that, good sense, respectability, and moderate wealth. If you should marry the handsomest, and most accomplished and superficially agreeable man in the world, you little know the misery that would overwhelm you if, after all, you should find him to be a worthless reprobate, or even an impracticable fool.'
'But what are all the poor fools and reprobates to do, aunt? If everybody followed your advice, the world would soon come to an end.'
'Never fear, my dear! the male fools and reprobates will never want for partners, while there are so many of the other sex to match them; but do you follow my advice. And this is no subject for jesting, Helen—I am sorry to see you treat the matter in that light way. Believe me, matrimony is a serious thing.' And she spoke it so seriously, that one might have fancied she had known it to her cost; but I asked no more impertinent questions, and merely answered,—'I know it is; and I know there is truth and sense in what you say; but you need not fear me, for I not only should think it wrong to marry a man that was deficient in sense or in principle, but I should never be tempted to do it; for I could not like him, if he were ever so handsome, and ever so charming, in other respects; I should hate him—despise him—pity him—anything but love him. My affections not only ought to be founded on approbation, but they will and must be so: for, without approving, I cannot love. It is needless to say, I ought to be able to respect and honour the man I marry, as well as love him, for I cannot love him without. So set your mind at rest.'
'I hope it may be so,' answered she.
'I know it is so,' persisted I.
'You have not been tried yet, Helen—we can but hope,' said she in her cold, cautious way.
'I was vexed at her incredulity; but I am not sure her doubts were entirely without sagacity; I fear I have found it much easier to remember her advice than to profit by it;—indeed, I have sometimes been led to question the soundness of her doctrines on those subjects. Her counsels may be good, as far as they go—in the main points at least;—but there are some things she has overlooked in her calculations. I wonder if she was ever in love.
I commenced my career—or my first campaign, as my uncle calls it—kindling with bright hopes and fancies—chiefly raised by this conversation—and full of confidence in my own discretion. At first, I was delighted with the novelty and excitement of our London life; but soon I began to weary of its mingled turbulence and constraint, and sigh for the freshness and freedom of home. My new acquaintances, both male and female, disappointed my expectations, and vexed and depressed me by turns; for I soon grew tired of studying their peculiarities, and laughing at their foibles—particularly as I was obliged to keep my criticisms to myself, for my aunt would not hear them—and they—the ladies especially—appeared so provokingly mindless, and heartless, and artificial. The gentlemen seemed better, but, perhaps, it was because I knew them less—perhaps, because they flattered me; but I did not fall in love with any of them; and, if their attentions pleased me one moment, they provoked me the next, because they put me out of humour with myself, by revealing my vanity and making me fear I was becoming like some of the ladies I so heartily despised.
There was one elderly gentleman that annoyed me very much; a rich old friend of my uncle's, who, I believe, thought I could not do better than marry him; but, besides being old, he was ugly and disagreeable,—and wicked, I am sure, though my aunt scolded me for saying so; but she allowed he was no saint. And there was another, less hateful, but still more tiresome, because she favoured him, and was always thrusting him upon me, and sounding his praises in my ears—Mr. Boarham by name, Bore'em, as I prefer spelling it, for a terrible bore he was: I shudder still at the remembrance of his voice—drone, drone, drone, in my ear—while he sat beside me, prosing away by the half-hour together, and beguiling himself with the notion that he was improving my mind by useful information, or impressing his dogmas upon me and reforming my errors of judgment, or perhaps that he was talking down to my level, and amusing me with entertaining discourse. Yet he was a decent man enough in the main, I daresay; and if he had kept his distance, I never would have hated him. As it was, it was almost impossible to help it, for he not only bothered me with the infliction of his own presence, but he kept me from the enjoyment of more agreeable society.
One night, however, at a ball, he had been more than usually tormenting, and my patience was quite exhausted. It appeared as if the whole evening was fated to be insupportable: I had just had one dance with an empty-headed coxcomb, and then Mr. Boarham had come upon me and seemed determined to cling to me for the rest of the night. He never danced himself, and there he sat, poking his head in my face, and impressing all beholders with the idea that he was a confirmed, acknowledged lover; my aunt looking complacently on all the time, and wishing him God-speed. In vain I attempted to drive him away by giving a loose to my exasperated feelings, even to positive rudeness: nothing could convince him that his presence was disagreeable. Sullen silence was taken for rapt attention, and gave him greater room to talk; sharp answers were received as smart sallies of girlish vivacity, that only required an indulgent rebuke; and flat contradictions were but as oil to the flames, calling forth new strains of argument to support his dogmas, and bringing down upon me endless floods of reasoning to overwhelm me with conviction.
But there was one present who seemed to have a better appreciation of my frame of mind. A gentleman stood by, who had been watching our conference for some time, evidently much amused at my companion's remorseless pertinacity and my manifest annoyance, and laughing to himself at the asperity and uncompromising spirit of my replies. At length, however, he withdrew, and went to the lady of the house, apparently for the purpose of asking an introduction to me, for, shortly after, they both came up, and she introduced him as Mr. Huntingdon, the son of a late friend of my uncle's. He asked me to dance. I gladly consented, of course; and he was my companion during the remainder of my stay, which was not long, for my aunt, as usual, insisted upon an early departure.
I was sorry to go, for I had found my new acquaintance a very lively and entertaining companion. There was a certain graceful ease and freedom about all he said and did, that gave a sense of repose and expansion to the mind, after so much constraint and formality as I had been doomed to suffer. There might be, it is true, a little too much careless boldness in his manner and address, but I was in so good a humour, and so grateful for my late deliverance from Mr. Boarham, that it did not anger me.
'Well, Helen, how do you like Mr. Boarham now?' said my aunt, as we took our seats in the carriage and drove away.
'Worse than ever,' I replied.
She looked displeased, but said no more on that subject.
'Who was the gentleman you danced with last,' resumed she, after a pause—'that was so officious in helping you on with your shawl?'
'He was not officious at all, aunt: he never attempted to help me till he saw Mr. Boarham coming to do so; and then he stepped laughingly forward and said, "Come, I'll preserve you from that infliction."'
'Who was it, I ask?' said she, with frigid gravity.
'It was Mr. Huntingdon, the son of uncle's old friend.'
'I have heard your uncle speak of young Mr. Huntingdon. I've heard him say, "He's a fine lad, that young Huntingdon, but a bit wildish, I fancy." So I'd have you beware.'
'What does "a bit wildish" mean?' I inquired.
'It means destitute of principle, and prone to every vice that is common to youth.'
'But I've heard uncle say he was a sad wild fellow himself, when he was young.'
She sternly shook her head.
'He was jesting then, I suppose,' said I, 'and here he was speaking at random—at least, I cannot believe there is any harm in those laughing blue eyes.'
'False reasoning, Helen!' said she, with a sigh.
'Well, we ought to be charitable, you know, aunt—besides, I don't think it is false: I am an excellent physiognomist, and I always judge of people's characters by their looks—not by whether they are handsome or ugly, but by the general cast of the countenance. For instance, I should know by your countenance that you were not of a cheerful, sanguine disposition; and I should know by Mr. Wilmot's, that he was a worthless old reprobate; and by Mr. Boarham's, that he was not an agreeable companion; and by Mr. Huntingdon's, that he was neither a fool nor a knave, though, possibly, neither a sage nor a saint—but that is no matter to me, as I am not likely to meet him again—unless as an occasional partner in the ball-room.'
It was not so, however, for I met him again next morning. He came to call upon my uncle, apologising for not having done so before, by saying he was only lately returned from the Continent, and had not heard, till the previous night, of my uncle's arrival in town; and after that I often met him; sometimes in public, sometimes at home; for he was very assiduous in paying his respects to his old friend, who did not, however, consider himself greatly obliged by the attention.