The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (emended 1st edition)/Volume 3/Chapter 8
Well Halford, what do you think of all this? and while you read it, did you ever picture to yourself what my feelings would probably be during its perusal? Most likely not; but I am not going to descant upon them now: I will only make this acknowledgement, little honourable as it may be to human nature, and especially to myself:—that the former half of the narrative was, to me, more painful than the latter; not that I was at all insensible to Mrs. Huntingdon's wrongs or unmoved by her sufferings, but, I must confess, I felt a kind of selfish gratification in watching her husband's gradual decline in her good graces, and seeing how completely he extinguished all her affection at last. The effect of the whole, however, in spite of all my sympathy for her and my fury against him, was to relieve my mind of an intolerable burden and fill my heart with joy, as if some friend had roused me from a dreadful night-mare.
It was now near eight o'clock in the morning, for my candle had expired in the midst of my perusal, leaving me no alternative but to get another, at the expense of alarming the house, or to go to bed and wait the return of daylight. On my mother's account, I chose the latter; but how willingly I sought my pillow, and how much sleep it brought me, I leave you to imagine.
At the first appearance of dawn I rose, and brought the manuscript to the window, but it was impossible to read it yet. I devoted half an hour to dressing, and then returned to it again. Now, with a little difficulty, I could manage; and with intense and eager interest, I devoured the remainder of its contents. When it was ended, and my transient regret at its abrupt conclusion was over, I opened the window and put out my head to catch the cooling breeze, and imbibe deep draughts of the pure morning air. A splendid morning it was; the half-frozen dew lay thick on the grass, the swallows were twittering round me, the rooks cawing and cows lowing in the distance; and early frost and summer sunshine mingled their sweetness in the air. But I did not think of that: a confusion of countless thoughts and varied emotions crowded upon me while I gazed abstractedly on the lovely face of nature. Soon, however, this chaos of thoughts and passions cleared away, giving place to two distinct emotions; joy unspeakable that my adored Helen was all I wished to think her—that through the noisome vapours of the world's aspersions and my own fancied convictions, her character shone bright, and clear, and stainless as that sun I could not bear to look on; and shame and deep remorse for my own conduct.
Immediately after breakfast, I hurried over to Wildfell Hall. Rachel had risen many degrees in my estimation since yesterday. I was ready to greet her quite as an old friend; but every kindly impulse was checked by the look of cold distrust she cast upon me on opening the door. The old virgin had constituted herself the guardian of her lady's honour, I suppose, and doubtless she saw in me another Mr. Hargrave, only the more dangerous in being more esteemed and trusted by her mistress.
"Misses can't see any one to-day, sir—she's poorly," said she in answer to my enquiry for Mrs. Graham.
"But I must see her, Rachel," said I, placing my hand on the door to prevent its being shut against me.
"Indeed, sir, you can't," replied she, settling her countenance in still more iron frigidity than before.
"Be so good as to announce me."
"It's no manner of use, Mr. Markham; she's poorly, I tell you."
Just in time to prevent me from committing the impropriety of taking the citadel by storm, and pushing forward unannounced, an inner door opened, and little Arthur appeared with his frolicsome playfellow the dog. He seized my hand between both his, and smilingly drew me forward.
"Mamma says you're to come in, Mr. Markham," said he, "and I'm to go out and play with Rover."
Rachel retired with a sigh, and I stepped into the parlour and shut the door. There, before the fire-place, stood the tall, graceful figure wasted with many sorrows. I cast the manuscript on the table, and looked in her face. Anxious and pale, it was turned towards me; her clear, dark eyes were fixed on mine with a gaze so intensely earnest that they bound me like a spell.
"Have you looked it over?" she murmured. The spell was broken.
"I've read it through," said I, advancing into the room,—"and I want to know if you'll forgive me—if you can forgive me?"
She did not answer, but her eyes glistened, and a faint red mantled on her lip and cheek. As I approached, she abruptly turned away, and went to the window. It was not in anger, I was well assured, but only to conceal or controul her emotion. I therefore ventured to follow and stand beside her there,—but not to speak. She gave me her hand, without turning her head, and murmured, in a voice she strove in vain to steady,—
"Can you forgive me?"
It might be deemed a breach of trust, I thought, to convey that lily hand to my lips, so I only gently pressed it between my own, and smilingly replied,—
"I hardly can. You should have told me this before. It shows a want of confidence—"
"Oh, no," cried she, eagerly interrupting me, "it was not that! It was no want of confidence in you; but if I had told you anything of my history, I must have told you all, in order to excuse my conduct; and I might well shrink from such a disclosure, till necessity obliged me to make it. But you forgive me?—I have done very, very wrong, I know; but, as usual, I have reaped the bitter fruits of my own error,—and must reap them to the end."
Bitter indeed, was the tone of anguish, repressed by resolute firmness, in which this was spoken. Now, I raised her hand to my lips, and fervently kissed it again and again; for tears prevented any other reply. She suffered these wild caresses without resistance or resentment; then, suddenly turning from me, she paced twice or thrice through the room. I knew by the contraction of her brow, the tight compression of her lips, and wringing of her hands, that meantime a violent conflict between reason and passion, was silently passing within. At length she paused before the empty fire-place, and turning to me, said calmly—if that might be called calmness, which was so evidently the result of a violent effort—
"Now Gilbert, you must leave me—not this moment, but soon—and you must never come again."
"Never again, Helen? just when I love you more than ever!"
"For that very reason, if it so, we should not meet again. I thought this interview was necessary—at least, I persuaded myself it was so—that we might severally ask and receive each other's pardon for the past; but there can be no excuse for another. I shall leave this place, as soon as I have means to seek another asylum; but our intercourse must end here."
"End here!" echoed I; and approaching the high, carved chimney-piece, I leant my hand against its heavy mouldings, and dropped my forehead upon it in silent, sullen despondency.
"You must not come again," continued she. There was a slight tremour in her voice, but I thought her whole manner was provokingly composed, considering the dreadful sentence she pronounced. "You must know why I tell you so," she resumed; "and you must see that it is better to part at once:—if it be hard to say adieu for ever, you ought to help me." She paused. I did not answer. "Will you promise not to come?—If you won't, and if you do come here again, you will drive me away before I know where to find another place of refuge— or how to seek it."
"Helen," said I, turning impatiently towards her, "I cannot discuss the matter of eternal separation, calmly and dispassionately as you can do. It is no question of mere expedience with me; it is a question of life and death!"
She was silent. Her pale lips quivered, and her fingers trembled with agitation, as she nervously entwined them in the hair chain to which was appended her small gold watch—the only thing of value she had permitted herself to keep. I had said an unjust and cruel thing; but I must needs follow it up with something worse.
"But Helen!" I began in a soft, low tone, not daring to raise my eyes to her face—"that man is not your husband: in the sight of Heaven he has forfeited all claim to—" She seized my arm with a grasp of startling energy.
"Gilbert, don't!" she cried, in a tone that would have pierced a heart of adamant. "For God's sake, don't you attempt these arguments! No fiend could torture me like this!"
"I won't, I won't!" said I, gently laying my hand on hers; almost as much alarmed at her vehemence, as ashamed of my own misconduct.
"Instead of acting like a true friend," continued she, breaking from me and throwing herself into the old arm chair—"and helping me with all your might—or rather taking your own part in the struggle of right against passion—you leave all the burden to me;—and not satisfied with that, you do your utmost to fight against me—when you know that I ——" she paused, and hid her face in her handkerchief.
"Forgive me, Helen!" pleaded I, "I will never utter another word on the subject. But may we not still meet as friends?"
"It will not do," she replied, mournfully shaking her head; and then she raised her eyes to mine, with a mildly reproachful look that seemed to say, "You must know that as well as I."
"Then what must we do?" cried I, passionately. But immediately I added in a quieter tone—"I'll do whatever you desire;—only don't say that this meeting is to be our last."
"And why not? Don't you know that every time we meet, the thoughts of the final parting will become more painful? Don't you feel that every interview makes us dearer to each other than the last?"
The utterance of this last question was hurried and low, and the downcast eyes and burning blush too plainly showed that she, at least had felt it. It was scarcely prudent to make such an admission, or to add—as she presently did—"I have power to bid you go, now: another time it might be different,"—but I was not base enough to attempt to take advantage of her candour.
"But we may write," I timidly suggested—"You will not deny me that consolation?"
"We can hear of each other through my brother."
"Your brother!" A pang of remorse and shame shot through me. She had not heard of the injury he had sustained at my hands; and I had not the courage to tell her. "Your brother will not help us," I said: "he would have all communion between us to be entirely at an end."
"And he would be right, I suppose. As a friend of both, he would wish us both well; and every friend would tell us it was our interest, as well as our duty, to forget each other, though we might not see it ourselves. But don't be afraid, Gilbert," she added, smiling sadly at my manifest discomposure, "there is little chance of my forgetting you. But I did not mean that Frederick should be the means of transmitting messages between us, only that each might know, through him, of the other's welfare;—and more than this ought not to be; for you are young, Gilbert, and you ought to marry—and will some time, though you may think it impossible now:—and though I hardly can say I wish you to forget me, I know it is right that you should, both for your own happiness and that of your future wife;—and therefore I must and will wish it," she added resolutely.
"And you are young too, Helen," I boldly replied, "and when that profligate scoundrel has run through his career, you will give your hand to me—I'll wait till then."
But she would not leave me this support. Independently of the moral evil of basing our hopes upon the death of another, who, if unfit for this world, was at least no less so for the next, and whose amelioration would thus become our bane and his greatest transgression our greatest benefit,—she maintained it to be madness: many men of Mr. Huntingdon's habits had lived to a ripe though miserable old age;— "and if I," said she, "am young in years I am old in sorrow; but even if trouble should fail to kill me before vice destroys him, think, if he reached but fifty years or so, would you wait twenty or fifteen—in vague uncertainty and suspense—through all the prime of youth and manhood—and marry at last a woman faded and worn as I shall be—without ever having seen me from this day to that?—You would not," she continued interrupting my earnest protestations of unfailing constancy,—"or if you would you should not. Trust me, Gilbert; in this matter I know better than you. You think me cold and stony hearted, and you may, but—"
"I don't Helen."
"Well, never mind; you might if you would—but I have not spent my solitude in utter idleness, and I am not speaking now from the impulse of the moment as you do; I have thought of all these matters again and again; I have argued these questions with myself, and pondered well our past, and present, and future career; and, believe me, I have come to the right conclusion at last. Trust my words rather than your own feelings, now, and in a few years you will see that I was right—though at present I hardly can see it myself," she murmured with a sigh as she rested her head on her hand.—"And don't argue against me any more: all you can say has been already said by my own heart and refuted by my reason. It was bad enough to combat those suggestions as they were whispered within me; in your mouth they are ten times worse, and if you knew how much they pain me you would cease at once, I know. If you knew my present feelings, you would even try to relieve them at the expense of your own.
"I will go—in a minute, if that can relieve you—and never return!" said I with bitter emphasis—"But, if we may never meet, and never hope to meet again, is it a crime to exchange our thoughts by letter? May not kindred spirits meet, and mingle in communion whatever be the fate and circumstances of their earthly tenements?"
"They may, they may!" cried she with a momentary burst of glad enthusiasm. "I thought of that too, Gilbert, but I feared to mention it, because I feared you would not understand my views upon the subject—I fear it even now—I fear any kind friend would tell us we are both deluding ourselves with the idea of keeping up a spiritual intercourse without hope or prospect of anything further—without fostering vain regrets and hurtful aspirations, and feeding thoughts that should be sternly and pitilessly left to perish of inanition—"
"Never mind our kind friends: if they can part our bodies, it is enough; in God's name, let them not sunder our souls!" cried I, in terror lest she should deem it her duty to deny us this last remaining consolation.
"But no letters can pass between us here," said she, "without giving fresh food for scandal; and when I departed, I had intended that my new abode should be unknown to you as to the rest of the world; not that I should doubt your word if you promised not to visit me, but I thought you would be more tranquil in your own mind if you knew you could not do it; and likely to find less difficulty in abstracting yourself from me if you could not picture my situation to your mind. But listen," said she, smilingly putting up her finger to check my impatient reply: in six months you shall hear from Frederick precisely where I am; and if you still retain your wish to write to me, and think you can maintain a correspondence all thought, all spirit—such as disembodied souls or unimpassioned friends, at least, might hold,—write, and I will answer you."
"Yes, to give your present ardour time to cool and try the truth and constancy of your soul's love for mine. And now, enough has been said between us.—Why can't we part at once!" exclaimed she almost wildly, after a moment's pause, as she suddenly rose from her chair with her hands resolutely clasped together. I thought it was my duty to go without delay; and I approached and half extended my hand as if to take leave, she grasped it in silence. But this thought of final separation was too intolerable: it seemed to squeeze the blood out of my heart; and my feet were glued to the floor.
"And must we never meet again?" I murmured in the anguish of my soul.
"We shall meet in Heaven. Let us think of that," said she in a tone of desperate calmness; but her eyes glittered wildly, and her face was deadly pale.
"But not as we are now," I could not help replying. "It gives me little consolation to think I shall next behold you as a disembodied spirit, or an altered being, with a frame perfect and glorious, but not like this!—and a heart, perhaps, entirely estranged from me."
"No Gilbert, there is perfect love in heaven!"
"So perfect, I suppose, that it soars above distinctions, and you will have no closer sympathy with me than with any one of the ten thousand thousand angels and the innumerable multitude of happy spirits round us."
"Whatever I am, you will be the same, and therefore, cannot possibly regret it; and whatever that change may be, we know it must be for the better."
"But if I am to be so changed that I shall cease to adore you with my whole heart and soul, and love you beyond every other creature, I shall not be myself; and, though, if ever I win heaven at all, I must, I know, be infinitely better and happier than I am now, my earthly nature cannot rejoice in the anticipation of such beatitude, from which itself and its chief joy must be excluded."
"Is your love all earthly then?"
"No, but I am supposing we shall have no more intimate communion with each other, than with the rest."
"If so, it will be because we love them more and not each other less. Increase of love brings increase of happiness, when it is mutual, and pure as that will be."
"But can you, Helen, contemplate with delight this prospect of losing me in a sea of glory?"
"I own I cannot; but we know not that it will be so;—and I do know that to regret the exchange of earthly pleasures for the joys of heaven, is as if the grovelling caterpillar should lament that it must one day quit the nibbled leaf to soar aloft and flutter through the air, roving at will from flower to flower, sipping sweet honey from their cups or basking in their sunny petals. If these little creatures knew how great a change awaited them, no doubt they would regret it; but would not all such sorrow be misplaced? And if that illustration will not move you, here is another:—We are children now; we feel as children, and we understand as children: and when we are told that men and women do not play with toys, and that our companions will one day weary of the trivial sports and occupations that interest them and us so deeply now, we cannot help being saddened at the thoughts of such an alteration, because we cannot conceive that as we grow up, our own minds will become so enlarged and elevated that we ourselves shall then regard as trifling those objects and pursuits we now so fondly cherish, and that, though our companions will no longer join us in those childish pastimes, they will drink with us at other fountains of delight, and mingle their souls with ours in higher aims and nobler occupations beyond our present comprehension, but not less deeply relished or less truly good for that,—while yet both we and they remain essentially the same individuals as before. But Gilbert, can you really derive no consolation from the thought that we may meet together where there is no more pain and sorrow, no more striving against sin, and struggling of the spirit against the flesh; where both will behold the same glorious truths, and drink exalted and supreme felicity from the same fountain of light and goodness—that being whom both will worship with the same intensity of holy ardour, and where pure and happy creatures both will love with the same divine affection? If you cannot, never write to me!"
"Helen, I can, if faith would never fail."
"Now, then," exclaimed she, "while this hope is strong within us—"
"We will part," I cried. "You shall not have the pain of another effort to dismiss me: I will go at once; but—"
I did not put my request in words: she understood it instinctively and this time she yielded too—or rather, there was nothing so deliberate as requesting or yielding in the matter: there was a sudden impulse that neither could resist. One moment I stood and looked into her face, the next I held her to my heart, and we seemed to grow together in a close embrace from which no physical or mental force could rend us. A whispered "God bless you!" and "Go—go!" was all she said; but while she spoke, she held me so fast that, without violence, I could not have obeyed her. At length, however, by some heroic effort, we tore ourselves apart, and I rushed from the house.
I have a confused remembrance of seeing little Arthur running up the garden walk to meet me, and of bolting over the wall to avoid him—and subsequently running down the steep fields, clearing the stone fences and hedges as they came in my way, till I got completely out of sight of the old Hall and down to the bottom of the hill; and then of long hours spent in bitter tears and lamentations, and melancholy musings in the lonely valley, with the eternal music in my ears, of the west wind rushing through the over- shadowing trees, and the brook babbling and gurgling along its stony bed—my eyes, for the most part, vacantly fixed on the deep, checkered shades restlessly playing over the bright sunny grass at my feet, where now and then a withered leaf or two would come dancing to share the revelry, but my heart was away up the hill in that dark room where she was weeping desolate and alone—she whom I was not to comfort, not to see again, till years or suffering had overcome us both, and torn our spirits from their perishing abodes of clay.
There was little business done that day, you may be sure. The farm was abandoned to the labourers, and the labourers were left to their own devices. But one duty must be attended to: I had not forgotten my assault upon Frederick Lawrence; and I must see him to apologize for the unhappy deed. I would fain have put it off till the morrow; but what if he should denounce me to his sister in the mean time? No, no, I must ask his pardon to-day, and intreat him to be lenient in his accusation, if the revelation must be made. I deferred it however, till the evening, when my spirits were more composed and when—oh, wonderful perversity of human nature!—some faint germs of indefinite hopes were beginning to rise in my mind; not that I intended to cherish them after all that had been said on the subject, but there they must lie for a while, uncrushed though not encouraged, till I had learnt to live without them.
Arrived at Woodford, the young squire's abode, I found no little difficulty in obtaining admission to his presence. The servant that opened the door told me his master was very ill, and seemed to think it doubtful whether he would be able to see me. I was not going to be balked however. I waited calmly in the hall to be announced, but inwardly determined to take no denial. The message was such as I expected—a polite intimation that Mr. Lawrence could see no one; he was feverish and must not be disturbed.
"I shall not disturb him long," said I; "but I must see him for a moment: it is on business of importance that I wish to speak to him."
"I'll tell him sir," said the man. And I advanced farther into the hall and followed him nearly to the door of the apartment where his master was—for it seemed he was not in bed. The answer returned, was that Mr. Lawrence hoped I would be so good as to leave a message or a note with the servant, as he could attend to no business at present.
"He may as well see me as you," said I; and, stepping past the astonished footman, I boldly rapped at the door, entered, and closed it behind me. The room was spacious and handsomely furnished—very comfortably, too, for a bachelor. A clear, red fire was burning in the polished grate: a superannuated greyhound, given up to idleness and good living lay basking before it on the thick, soft rug, on one corner of which, beside the sofa, sat a smart young springer, looking wistfully up in its master's face; perhaps, asking permission to share his couch, or, it might be, only soliciting a caress from his hand or a kind word from his lips. The invalid himself looked very interesting as he lay reclining there, in his elegant dressing-gown, with a silk handkerchief bound across his temples. His usually pale face was flushed and feverish; his eyes were half closed, until he became sensible of my presence—and then he opened them wide enough;—one hand was thrown listlessly over the back of the sofa, and held a small volume with which, apparently, he had been vainly attempting to beguile the weary hours. He dropped it, however, in his start of indignant surprise as I advanced into the room and stood before him on the rug. He raised himself on his pillows and gazed upon me with equal degrees of nervous horror, anger, and amazement depicted on his countenance.
"Mr. Markham, I scarcely expected this!" he said; and the blood left his cheek as he spoke.
"I know you didn't," answered I; "but be quiet a minute, and I'll tell you what I came for." Unthinkingly I advanced a step or two nearer. He winced at my approach, with an expression of aversion and instinctive physical fear anything but conciliatory to my feelings. I stepped back however.
"Make your story a short one," said he, putting his hand on the small silver bell that stood on the table beside him,—"or I shall be obliged to call for assistance. I am in no state to bear your brutalities now, or your presence either." And in truth the moisture started from his pores and stood on his pale forehead like dew.
Such a reception was hardly calculated to diminish the difficulties of my unenviable task. It must be performed, however, in some fashion: and so I plunged into it at once, and floundered through it as I could.
"The truth is, Lawrence," said I, "I have not acted quite correctly towards you of late—
especially on this last occasion; and I'm come to—in short, to express my regret for what has been done, and to beg your pardon.—If you don't choose to grant it," I added hastily, not liking the aspect of his face. "It's no matter—only, I've done my duty—that's all."
"It's easily done," replied he, with a faint smile bordering on a sneer: "to abuse your friend and knock him on the head, without any assignable cause, and then tell him the deed was not quite correct, but it's no matter whether he pardons it or not."
"I forgot to tell you that it was in consequence of a mistake," muttered I. "I should have made a very handsome apology, but you provoked me so confoundedly with your ——. Well, I suppose it's my fault. The fact is, I didn't know that you were Mrs. Graham's brother, and I saw and heard some things respecting your conduct towards her, which were calculated to awaken unpleasant suspicions, that allow me to say, a little candour and confidence on your part might have removed; and at last, I chanced to overhear a part of a conversation between you and her that made me think I had a right to hate you."
"And how came you to know that I was her brother?" asked he in some anxiety.
"She told me herself. She told me all. She knew I might be trusted. But you needn't disturb yourself about that, Mr. Lawrence, for I've seen the last of her!"
"The last! is she gone then?"
"No, but she has bid adieu to me; and I have promised never to go near that house again while she inhabits it." I could have groaned aloud at the bitter thoughts awakened by this turn in the discourse. But I only clenched my hands, and stamped my foot upon the rug. My companion however, was evidently relieved.
"You have done right!" he said in a tone of unqualified approbation, while his face brightened into almost a sunny expression. "And as for the mistake, I am sorry for both our sakes that it should have occurred. Perhaps you can forgive my want of candour, and, remember, as some partial mitigation of the offence, how little encouragement to friendly confidence you have given me of late."
"Yes, yes, I remember it all: nobody can blame me more than I blame myself in my own heart—at any rate, nobody can regret more sincerely than I do the result of my brutality as you rightly term it."
"Never mind that," said he, faintly smiling; "let us forget all unpleasant words on both sides, as well as deeds, and consign to oblivion everything that we have cause to regret. Have you any objection to take my hand—or you'd rather not?" It trembled through weakness, as he held it out, and dropped before I had time to catch it and give it a hearty squeeze, which he had not the strength to return.
"How dry and burning your hand is Lawrence," said I. "You are really ill, and I have made you worse by all this talk."
"Oh, it is nothing: only a cold got by the rain."
"My doing, too."
"Never mind that—but tell me, did you mention this affair to my sister?"
"To confess the truth, I had not the courage to do so; but when you tell her, will you just say that I deeply regret it, and—"
"Oh, never fear! I shall say nothing against you, as long as you keep your good resolution of remaining aloof from her. She has not heard of my illness then, that you are aware of?"
"I think not."
"I'm glad of that, for I have been all this time tormenting myself with the fear that somebody would tell her I was dying, or desperately ill, and she would be either distressing herself on account of her inability to hear from me or do me any good, or perhaps committing the madness of coming to see me. I must contrive to let her know something about it, if I can," continued he reflectively, "or she will be hearing some such story. Many would be glad to tell her such news, just to see how she would take it and then she might expose herself to fresh scandal."
"I wish I had told her," said I. "If If it were not for my promise, I would tell her now."
"By no means! I am not dreaming of that;—but if I were to write a short note, now—not mentioning you, Markham, but just giving a slight account of my illness, by way of excuse for my not coming to see her, and to put her on her guard against any exaggerated reports she may hear,—and address it in a disguised hand—would you do me the favour to slip it into the post-office as you pass? for I dare not trust any of the servants in such a case."
Most willingly I consented, and immediately brought him his desk. There was little need to disguise his hand, for the poor fellow seemed to have considerable difficulty in writing at all, so as to be legible. When the note was done, I thought it time to retire, and took leave after asking if there was anything in the world I could do for him, little or great, in the way of alleviating his sufferings, and repairing the injury I had done.
"No," said he; "you have already done much towards it; you have done more for me than the most skilful physician could do; for you have relieved my mind of two great burdens—anxiety on my sister's account, and deep regret upon your own, for I do believe these two sources of torment have had more effect in working me up into a fever, than anything else; and I am persuaded I shall soon recover now. There is one more thing you can do for me, and that is, come and see me now and then—for you see I am very lonely here, and I promise your entrance shall not be disputed again."
I engaged to do so, and departed with a cordial pressure of the hand. I posted the letter on my way home, most manfully resisting the temptation of dropping in a word from myself the same time.