The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte

Chapter 39

My greatest source of uneasiness, in this time of trial, was my son, whom his father and his father’s friends delighted to encourage in all the embryo vices a little child can show, and to instruct in all the evil habits he could acquire — in a word, to ‘make a man of him’ was one of their staple amusements; and I need say no more to justify my alarm on his account, and my determination to deliver him at any hazard from the hands of such instructors. I first attempted to keep him always with me, or in the nursery, and gave Rachel particular injunctions never to let him come down to dessert as long as these ‘gentlemen’ stayed; but it was no use: these orders were immediately countermanded and overruled by his father; he was not going to have the little fellow moped to death between an old nurse and a cursed fool of a mother. So the little fellow came down every evening in spite of his cross mamma, and learned to tipple wine like papa, to swear like Mr. Hattersley, and to have his own way like a man, and sent mamma to the devil when she tried to prevent him. To see such things done with the roguish naivete of that pretty little child, and hear such things spoken by that small infantile voice, was as peculiarly piquant and irresistibly droll to them as it was inexpressibly distressing and painful to me; and when he had set the table in a roar he would look round delightedly upon them all, and add his shrill laugh to theirs. But if that beaming blue eye rested on me, its light would vanish for a moment, and he would say, in some concern, ‘Mamma, why don’t you laugh? Make her laugh, papa — she never will.’

Hence was I obliged to stay among these human brutes, watching an opportunity to get my child away from them instead of leaving them immediately after the removal of the cloth, as I should always otherwise have done. He was never willing to go, and I frequently had to carry him away by force, for which he thought me very cruel and unjust; and sometimes his father would insist upon my letting him remain; and then I would leave him to his kind friends, and retire to indulge my bitterness and despair alone, or to rack my brains for a remedy to this great evil.

But here again I must do Mr. Hargrave the justice to acknowledge that I never saw him laugh at the child’s misdemeanours, nor heard him utter a word of encouragement to his aspirations after manly accomplishments. But when anything very extraordinary was said or done by the infant profligate, I noticed, at times, a peculiar expression in his face that I could neither interpret nor define: a slight twitching about the muscles of the mouth; a sudden flash in the eye, as he darted a sudden glance at the child and then at me: and then I could fancy there arose a gleam of hard, keen, sombre satisfaction in his countenance at the look of impotent wrath and anguish he was too certain to behold in mine. But on one occasion, when Arthur had been behaving particularly ill, and Mr. Huntingdon and his guests had been particularly provoking and insulting to me in their encouragement of him, and I particularly anxious to get him out of the room, and on the very point of demeaning myself by a burst of uncontrollable passion — Mr. Hargrave suddenly rose from his seat with an aspect of stern determination, lifted the child from his father’s knee, where he was sitting half-tipsy, cocking his head and laughing at me, and execrating me with words he little knew the meaning of, handed him out of the room, and, setting him down in the hall, held the door open for me, gravely bowed as I withdrew, and closed it after me. I heard high words exchanged between him and his already half-inebriated host as I departed, leading away my bewildered and disconcerted boy.

But this should not continue: my child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity, with a fugitive mother, that in luxury and affluence with such a father. These guests might not be with us long, but they would return again: and he, the most injurious of the whole, his child’s worst enemy, would still remain. I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer: the world’s opinion and the feelings of my friends must be alike unheeded here, at least — alike unable to deter me from my duty. But where should I find an asylum, and how obtain subsistence for us both? Oh, I would take my precious charge at early dawn, take the coach to M—— flee to the port of —— cross the Atlantic, and seek a quiet, humble home in New England, where I would support myself and him by the labour of my hands. The palette and the easel, my darling playmates once, must be my sober toil-fellows now. But was I sufficiently skilful as an artist to obtain my livelihood in a strange land, without friends and without recommendation? No; I must wait a little; I must labour hard to improve my talent, and to produce something worth while as a specimen of my powers, something to speak favourably for me, whether as an actual painter or a teacher. Brilliant success, of course, I did not look for, but some degree of security from positive failure was indispensable: I must not take my son to starve. And then I must have money for the journey, the passage, and some little to support us in our retreat in case I should be unsuccessful at first: and not too little either: for who could tell how long I might have to struggle with the indifference or neglect of others, or my own inexperience or inability to suit their tastes?

What should I do then? Apply to my brother and explain my circumstances and my resolves to him? No, no: even if I told him all my grievances, which I should be very reluctant to do, he would be certain to disapprove of the step: it would seem like madness to him, as it would to my uncle and aunt, or to Milicent. No; I must have patience and gather a hoard of my own. Rachel should be my only confidante — I thought I could persuade her into the scheme; and she should help me, first, to find out a picture-dealer in some distant town; then, through her means, I would privately sell what pictures I had on hand that would do for such a purpose, and some of those I should thereafter paint. Besides this, I would contrive to dispose of my jewels, not the family jewels, but the few I brought with me from home, and those my uncle gave me on my marriage. A few months’ arduous toil might well be borne by me with such an end in view; and in the interim my son could not be much more injured than he was already.

Having formed this resolution, I immediately set to work to accomplish it, I might possibly have been induced to wax cool upon it afterwards, or perhaps to keep weighing the pros and cons in my mind till the latter overbalanced the former, and I was driven to relinquish the project altogether, or delay the execution of it to an indefinite period, had not something occurred to confirm me in that determination, to which I still adhere, which I still think I did well to form, and shall do better to execute.

Since Lord Lowborough’s departure I had regarded the library as entirely my own, a secure retreat at all hours of the day. None of our gentlemen had the smallest pretensions to a literary taste, except Mr. Hargrave; and he, at present, was quite contented with the newspapers and periodicals of the day. And if, by any chance, he should look in here, I felt assured he would soon depart on seeing me, for, instead of becoming less cool and distant towards me, he had become decidedly more so since the departure of his mother and sisters, which was just what I wished. Here, then, I set up my easel, and here I worked at my canvas from daylight till dusk, with very little intermission, saving when pure necessity, or my duties to little Arthur, called me away: for I still thought proper to devote some portion of every day exclusively to his instruction and amusement. But, contrary to my expectation, on the third morning, while I was thus employed, Mr. Hargrave did look in, and did not immediately withdraw on seeing me. He apologized for his intrusion, and said he was only come for a book; but when he had got it, he condescended to cast a glance over my picture. Being a man of taste, he had something to say on this subject as well as another, and having modestly commented on it, without much encouragement from me, he proceeded to expatiate on the art in general. Receiving no encouragement in that either, he dropped it, but did not depart.

‘You don’t give us much of your company, Mrs. Huntingdon,’ observed he, after a brief pause, during which I went on coolly mixing and tempering my colours; ‘and I cannot wonder at it, for you must be heartily sick of us all. I myself am so thoroughly ashamed of my companions, and so weary of their irrational conversation and pursuits — now that there is no one to humanize them and keep them in check, since you have justly abandoned us to our own devices — that I think I shall presently withdraw from amongst them, probably within this week; and I cannot suppose you will regret my departure.’

He paused. I did not answer.

‘Probably,’ he added, with a smile, ‘your only regret on the subject will be that I do not take all my companions along with me. I flatter myself, at times, that though among them I am not of them; but it is natural that you should be glad to get rid of me. I may regret this, but I cannot blame you for it.’

‘I shall not rejoice at your departure, for you can conduct yourself like a gentleman,’ said I, thinking it but right to make some acknowledgment for his good behaviour; ‘but I must confess I shall rejoice to bid adieu. to the rest, inhospitable as it may appear.’

‘No one can blame you for such an avowal,’ replied he gravely: ‘not even the gentlemen themselves, I imagine. I’ll just tell you,’ he continued, as if actuated by a sudden resolution, ‘what was said last night in the dining-room, after you left us: perhaps you will not mind it, as you’re so very philosophical on certain points,’ he added with a slight sneer. ‘They were talking about Lord Lowborough and his delectable lady, the cause of whose sudden departure is no secret amongst them; and her character is so well known to them all, that, nearly related to me as she is, I could not attempt to defend it. Curse me!’ he muttered, par parenthese, ‘if I don’t have vengeance for this! If the villain must disgrace the family, must he blazon it abroad to every low-bred knave of his acquaintance? I beg your pardon, Mrs. Huntingdon. Well, they were talking of these things, and some of them remarked that, as she was separated from her husband, he might see her again when he pleased.’

‘”Thank you,” said he; “I’ve had enough of her for the present: I’ll not trouble to see her, unless she comes to me.”

‘”Then what do you mean to do, Huntingdon, when we’re gone?” said Ralph Hattersley. “Do you mean to turn from the error of your ways, and be a good husband, a good father, and so forth; as I do, when I get shut of you and all these rollicking devils you call your friends? I think it’s time; and your wife is fifty times too good for you, you know —”

‘And he added some praise of you, which you would not thank me for repeating, nor him for uttering; proclaiming it aloud, as he did, without delicacy or discrimination, in an audience where it seemed profanation to utter your name: himself utterly incapable of understanding or appreciating your real excellences. Huntingdon, meanwhile, sat quietly drinking his wine — or looking smilingly into his glass and offering no interruption or reply, till Hattersley shouted out — ”Do you hear me, man?”

‘”Yes, go on,” said he.

‘”Nay, I’ve done,” replied the other: “I only want to know if you intend to take my advice.”

‘”What advice?”

‘”To turn over a new leaf, you double-dyed scoundrel,” shouted Ralph, “and beg your wife’s pardon, and be a good boy for the future.”

‘”My wife! what wife? I have no wife,” replied Huntingdon, looking innocently up from his glass, “or if I have, look you, gentlemen: I value her so highly that any one among you, that can fancy her, may have her and welcome: you may, by Jove, and my blessing into the bargain!”

‘I— hem — someone asked if he really meant what he said; upon which he solemnly swore he did, and no mistake. What do you think of that, Mrs. Huntingdon?’ asked Mr. Hargrave, after a short pause, during which I had felt he was keenly examining my half-averted face.

‘I say,’ replied I, calmly, ‘that what he prizes so lightly will not be long in his possession.’

‘You cannot mean that you will break your heart and die for the detestable conduct of an infamous villain like that!’

‘By no means: my heart is too thoroughly dried to be broken in a hurry, and I mean to live as long as I can.’

‘Will you leave him then?’

‘Yes.’

‘When: and how?’ asked he, eagerly.

‘When I am ready, and how I can manage it most effectually.’

‘But your child?’

‘My child goes with me.’

‘He will not allow it.’

‘I shall not ask him.’

‘Ah, then, it is a secret flight you meditate! but with whom, Mrs. Huntingdon?’

‘With my son: and possibly, his nurse.’

‘Alone — and unprotected! But where can you go? what can you do? He will follow you and bring you back.’

‘I have laid my plans too well for that. Let me once get clear of Grassdale, and I shall consider myself safe.’

Mr. Hargrave advanced one step towards me, looked me in the face, and drew in his breath to speak; but that look, that heightened colour, that sudden sparkle of the eye, made my blood rise in wrath: I abruptly turned away, and, snatching up my brush, began to dash away at my canvas with rather too much energy for the good of the picture.

‘Mrs. Huntingdon,’ said he with bitter solemnity, ‘you are cruel — cruel to me — cruel to yourself.’

‘Mr. Hargrave, remember your promise.’

‘I must speak: my heart will burst if I don’t! I have been silent long enough, and you must hear me!’ cried he, boldly intercepting my retreat to the door. ‘You tell me you owe no allegiance to your husband; he openly declares himself weary of you, and calmly gives you up to anybody that will take you; you are about to leave him; no one will believe that you go alone; all the world will say, “She has left him at last, and who can wonder at it? Few can blame her, fewer still can pity him; but who is the companion of her flight?” Thus you will have no credit for your virtue (if you call it such): even your best friends will not believe in it; because it is monstrous, and not to be credited but by those who suffer, from the effects of it, such cruel torments that they know it to be indeed reality. But what can you do in the cold, rough world alone? you, a young and inexperienced woman, delicately nurtured, and utterly — ‘

‘In a word, you would advise me to stay where I am,’ interrupted I. ‘Well, I’ll see about it.’

‘By all means, leave him!’ cried he earnestly; ‘but not alone! Helen! let me protect you!’

‘Never! while heaven spares my reason,’ replied I, snatching away the hand he had presumed to seize and press between his own. But he was in for it now; he had fairly broken the barrier: he was completely roused, and determined to hazard all for victory.

‘I must not be denied!’ exclaimed he, vehemently; and seizing both my hands, he held them very tight, but dropped upon his knee, and looked up in my face with a half-imploring, half-imperious gaze. ‘You have no reason now: you are flying in the face of heaven’s decrees. God has designed me to be your comfort and protector — I feel it, I know it as certainly as if a voice from heaven declared, “Ye twain shall be one flesh”— and you spurn me from you —’

‘Let me go, Mr. Hargrave!’ said I, sternly. But he only tightened his grasp.

‘Let me go!’ I repeated, quivering with indignation.

His face was almost opposite the window as he knelt. With a slight start, I saw him glance towards it; and then a gleam of malicious triumph lit up his countenance. Looking over my shoulder, I beheld a shadow just retiring round the corner.

‘That is Grimsby,’ said he deliberately. ‘He will report what he has seen to Huntingdon and all the rest, with such embellishments as he thinks proper. He has no love for you, Mrs. Huntingdon — no reverence for your sex, no belief in virtue, no admiration for its image. He will give such a version of this story as will leave no doubt at all about your character, in the minds of those who hear it. Your fair fame is gone; and nothing that I or you can say can ever retrieve it. But give me the power to protect you, and show me the villain that dares to insult!’

‘No one has ever dared to insult me as you are doing now!’ said I, at length releasing my hands, and recoiling from him.

‘I do not insult you,’ cried he: ‘I worship you. You are my angel, my divinity! I lay my powers at your feet, and you must and shall accept them!’ he exclaimed, impetuously starting to his feet. ‘I will be your consoler and defender! and if your conscience upbraid you for it, say I overcame you, and you could not choose but yield!’

I never saw a man go terribly excited. He precipitated himself towards me. I snatched up my palette-knife and held it against him. This startled him: he stood and gazed at me in astonishment; I daresay I looked as fierce and resolute as he. I moved to the bell, and put my hand upon the cord. This tamed him still more. With a half-authoritative, half-deprecating wave of the hand, he sought to deter me from ringing.

‘Stand off, then!’ said I; he stepped back. ‘And listen to me. I don’t like you,’ I continued, as deliberately and emphatically as I could, to give the greater efficacy to my words; ‘and if I were divorced from my husband, or if he were dead, I would not marry you. There now! I hope you’re satisfied.’

His face grew blanched with anger.

‘I am satisfied,’ he replied, with bitter emphasis, ‘that you are the most cold-hearted, unnatural, ungrateful woman I ever yet beheld!’

‘Ungrateful, sir?’

‘Ungrateful.’

‘No, Mr. Hargrave, I am not. For all the good you ever did me, or ever wished to do, I most sincerely thank you: for all the evil you have done me, and all you would have done, I pray God to pardon you, and make you of a better mind.’ Here the door was thrown open, and Messrs. Huntingdon and Hattersley appeared without. The latter remained in the hall, busy with his ramrod and his gun; the former walked in, and stood with his back to the fire, surveying Mr. Hargrave and me, particularly the former, with a smile of insupportable meaning, accompanied as it was by the impudence of his brazen brow, and the sly, malicious, twinkle of his eye.

‘Well, sir?’ said Hargrave, interrogatively, and with the air of one prepared to stand on the defensive.

‘Well, sir,’ returned his host.

‘We want to know if you are at liberty to join us in a go at the pheasants, Walter,’ interposed Hattersley from without. ‘Come! there shall be nothing shot besides, except a puss or two; I’ll vouch for that.’

Walter did not answer, but walked to the window to collect his faculties. Arthur uttered a low whistle, and followed him with his eyes. A slight flush of anger rose to Hargrave’s cheek; but in a moment he turned calmly round, and said carelessly:

‘I came here to bid farewell to Mrs. Huntingdon, and tell her I must go to-morrow.’

‘Humph! You’re mighty sudden in your resolution. What takes you off so soon, may I ask?’

‘Business,’ returned he, repelling the other’s incredulous sneer with a glance of scornful defiance.

‘Very good,’ was the reply; and Hargrave walked away. Thereupon Mr. Huntingdon, gathering his coat-laps under his arms, and setting his shoulder against the mantel-piece, turned to me, and, addressing me in a low voice, scarcely above his breath, poured forth a volley of the vilest and grossest abuse it was possible for the imagination to conceive or the tongue to utter. I did not attempt to interrupt him; but my spirit kindled within me, and when he had done, I replied, ‘If your accusation were true, Mr. Huntingdon, how dare you blame me?’

‘She’s hit it, by Jove!’ cried Hattersley, rearing his gun against the wall; and, stepping into the room, he took his precious friend by the arm, and attempted to drag him away. ‘Come, my lad,’ he muttered; ‘true or false, you’ve no right to blame her, you know, nor him either; after what you said last night. So come along.’

There was something implied here that I could not endure.

‘Dare you suspect me, Mr. Hattersley?’ said I, almost beside myself with fury.

‘Nay, nay, I suspect nobody. It’s all right, it’s all right. So come along, Huntingdon, you blackguard.’

‘She can’t deny it!’ cried the gentleman thus addressed, grinning in mingled rage and triumph. ‘She can’t deny it if her life depended on it!’ and muttering some more abusive language, he walked into the hall, and took up his hat and gun from the table.

‘I scorn to justify myself to you!’ said I. ‘But you,’ turning to Hattersley, ‘if you presume to have any doubts on the subject, ask Mr. Hargrave.’

At this they simultaneously burst into a rude laugh that made my whole frame tingle to the fingers’ ends.

‘Where is he? I’ll ask him myself!’ said I, advancing towards them.

Suppressing a new burst of merriment, Hattersley pointed to the outer door. It was half open. His brother-in-law was standing on the front without.

‘Mr. Hargrave, will you please to step this way?’ said I.

He turned and looked at me in grave surprise.

‘Step this way, if you please!’ I repeated, in so determined a manner that he could not, or did not choose to resist its authority. Somewhat reluctantly he ascended the steps and advanced a pace or two into the hall.

‘And tell those gentlemen,’ I continued —’these men, whether or not I yielded to your solicitations.’

‘I don’t understand you, Mrs. Huntingdon.’

‘You do understand me, sir; and I charge you, upon your honour as a gentleman (if you have any), to answer truly. Did I, or did I not?’

‘No,’ muttered he, turning away.

‘Speak up, sir; they can’t hear you. Did I grant your request?

‘You did not.’

‘No, I’ll be sworn she didn’t,’ said Hattersley, ‘or he’d never look so black.’

‘I’m willing to grant you the satisfaction of a gentleman, Huntingdon,’ said Mr. Hargrave, calmly addressing his host, but with a bitter sneer upon his countenance.

‘Go to the deuce!’ replied the latter, with an impatient jerk of the head. Hargrave withdrew with a look of cold disdain, saying — ‘You know where to find me, should you feel disposed to send a friend.’

Muttered oaths and curses were all the answer this intimation obtained.

‘Now, Huntingdon, you see!’ said Hattersley. ‘Clear as the day.’

‘I don’t care what he sees,’ said I, ‘or what he imagines; but you, Mr. Hattersley, when you hear my name belied and slandered, will you defend it?’

‘I will.’

I instantly departed and shut myself into the library. What could possess me to make such a request of such a man I cannot tell; but drowning men catch at straws: they had driven me desperate between them; I hardly knew what I said. There was no other to preserve my name from being blackened and aspersed among this nest of boon companions, and through them, perhaps, into the world; and beside my abandoned wretch of a husband, the base, malignant Grimsby, and the false villain Hargrave, this boorish ruffian, coarse and brutal as he was, shone like a glow-worm in the dark, among its fellow worms.

What a scene was this! Could I ever have imagined that I should be doomed to bear such insults under my own roof — to hear such things spoken in my presence; nay, spoken to me and of me; and by those who arrogated to themselves the name of gentlemen? And could I have imagined that I should have been able to endure it as calmly, and to repel their insults as firmly and as boldly as I had done? A hardness such as this is taught by rough experience and despair alone.

Such thoughts as these chased one another through my mind, as I paced to and fro the room, and longed — oh, how I longed — to take my child and leave them now, without an hour’s delay! But it could not be; there was work before me: hard work, that must be done.

‘Then let me do it,’ said I, ‘and lose not a moment in vain repinings and idle chafings against my fate, and those who influence it.’

And conquering my agitation with a powerful effort, I immediately resumed my task, and laboured hard all day.

Mr. Hargrave did depart on the morrow; and I have never seen him since. The others stayed on for two or three weeks longer; but I kept aloof from them as much as possible, and still continued my labour, and have continued it, with almost unabated ardour, to the present day. I soon acquainted Rachel with my design, confiding all my motives and intentions to her ear, and, much to my agreeable surprise, found little difficulty in persuading her to enter into my views. She is a sober, cautious woman, but she so hates her master, and so loves her mistress and her nursling, that after several ejaculations, a few faint objections, and many tears and lamentations that I should be brought to such a pass, she applauded my resolution and consented to aid me with all her might: on one condition only: that she might share my exile: otherwise, she was utterly inexorable, regarding it as perfect madness for me and Arthur to go alone. With touching generosity, she modestly offered to aid me with her little hoard of savings, hoping I would ‘excuse her for the liberty, but really, if I would do her the favour to accept it as a loan, she would be very happy.’ Of course I could not think of such a thing; but now, thank heaven, I have gathered a little hoard of my own, and my preparations are so far advanced that I am looking forward to a speedy emancipation. Only let the stormy severity of this winter weather be somewhat abated, and then, some morning, Mr. Huntingdon will come down to a solitary breakfast-table, and perhaps be clamouring through the house for his invisible wife and child, when they are some fifty miles on their way to the Western world, or it may be more: for we shall leave him hours before the dawn, and it is not probable he will discover the loss of both until the day is far advanced.

I am fully alive to the evils that may and must result upon the step I am about to take; but I never waver in my resolution, because I never forget my son. It was only this morning, while I pursued my usual employment, he was sitting at my feet, quietly playing with the shreds of canvas I had thrown upon the carpet; but his mind was otherwise occupied, for, in a while, he looked up wistfully in my face, and gravely asked — ’Mamma, why are you wicked?’

‘Who told you I was wicked, love?’

‘Rachel.’

‘No, Arthur, Rachel never said so, I am certain.’

‘Well, then, it was papa,’ replied he, thoughtfully. Then, after a reflective pause, he added, ‘At least, I’ll tell you how it was I got to know: when I’m with papa, if I say mamma wants me, or mamma says I’m not to do something that he tells me to do, he always says, “Mamma be damned,” and Rachel says it’s only wicked people that are damned. So, mamma, that’s why I think you must be wicked: and I wish you wouldn’t.’

‘My dear child, I am not. Those are bad words, and wicked people often say them of others better than themselves. Those words cannot make people be damned, nor show that they deserve it. God will judge us by our own thoughts and deeds, not by what others say about us. And when you hear such words spoken, Arthur, remember never to repeat them: it is wicked to say such things of others, not to have them said against you.’

‘Then it’s papa that’s wicked,’ said he, ruefully.

‘Papa is wrong to say such things, and you will be very wrong to imitate him now that you know better.’

‘What is imitate?’

‘To do as he does.’

‘Does he know better?’

‘Perhaps he does; but that is nothing to you.’

‘If he doesn’t, you ought to tell him, mamma.’

‘I have told him.’

The little moralist paused and pondered. I tried in vain to divert his mind from the subject.

‘I’m sorry papa’s wicked,’ said he mournfully, at length, ‘for I don’t want him to go to hell.’ And so saying he burst into tears.

I consoled him with the hope that perhaps his papa would alter and become good before he died —; but is it not time to deliver him from such a parent?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31