The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte

Chapter 4

Our party, on the 5th of November, passed off very well, in spite of Mrs. Graham’s refusal to grace it with her presence. Indeed, it is probable that, had she been there, there would have been less cordiality, freedom, and frolic amongst us than there was without her.

My mother, as usual, was cheerful and chatty, full of activity and good-nature, and only faulty in being too anxious to make her guests happy, thereby forcing several of them to do what their soul abhorred in the way of eating or drinking, sitting opposite the blazing fire, or talking when they would be silent. Nevertheless, they bore it very well, being all in their holiday humours.

Mr. Millward was mighty in important dogmas and sententious jokes, pompous anecdotes and oracular discourses, dealt out for the edification of the whole assembly in general, and of the admiring Mrs. Markham, the polite Mr. Lawrence, the sedate Mary Millward, the quiet Richard Wilson, and the matter-of-fact Robert in particular — as being the most attentive listeners.

Mrs. Wilson was more brilliant than ever, with her budgets of fresh news and old scandal, strung together with trivial questions and remarks, and oft-repeated observations, uttered apparently for the sole purpose of denying a moment’s rest to her inexhaustible organs of speech. She had brought her knitting with her, and it seemed as if her tongue had laid a wager with her fingers, to outdo them in swift and ceaseless motion.

Her daughter Jane was, of course, as graceful and elegant, as witty and seductive, as she could possibly manage to be; for here were all the ladies to outshine, and all the gentlemen to charm — and Mr. Lawrence, especially, to capture and subdue. Her little arts to effect his subjugation were too subtle and impalpable to attract my observation; but I thought there was a certain refined affectation of superiority, and an ungenial self-consciousness about her, that negatived all her advantages; and after she was gone, Rose interpreted to me her various looks, words, and actions with a mingled acuteness and asperity that made me wonder, equally, at the lady’s artifice and my sister’s penetration, and ask myself if she too had an eye to the squire — but never mind, Halford; she had not.

Richard Wilson, Jane’s younger brother, sat in a corner, apparently good-tempered, but silent and shy, desirous to escape observation, but willing enough to listen and observe: and, although somewhat out of his element, he would have been happy enough in his own quiet way, if my mother could only have let him alone; but in her mistaken kindness, she would keep persecuting him with her attentions — pressing upon him all manner of viands, under the notion that he was too bashful to help himself, and obliging him to shout across the room his monosyllabic replies to the numerous questions and observations by which she vainly attempted to draw him into conversation.

Rose informed me that he never would have favoured us with his company but for the importunities of his sister Jane, who was most anxious to show Mr. Lawrence that she had at least one brother more gentlemanly and refined than Robert. That worthy individual she had been equally solicitous to keep away; but he affirmed that he saw no reason why he should not enjoy a crack with Markham and the old lady (my mother was not old, really), and bonny Miss Rose and the parson, as well as the best; — and he was in the right of it too. So he talked common-place with my mother and Rose, and discussed parish affairs with the vicar, farming matters with me, and politics with us both.

Mary Millward was another mute — not so much tormented with cruel kindness as Dick Wilson, because she had a certain short, decided way of answering and refusing, and was supposed to be rather sullen than diffident. However that might be, she certainly did not give much pleasure to the company; — nor did she appear to derive much from it. Eliza told me she had only come because her father insisted upon it, having taken it into his head that she devoted herself too exclusively to her household duties, to the neglect of such relaxations and innocent enjoyments as were proper to her age and sex. She seemed to me to be good-humoured enough on the whole. Once or twice she was provoked to laughter by the wit or the merriment of some favoured individual amongst us; and then I observed she sought the eye of Richard Wilson, who sat over against her. As he studied with her father, she had some acquaintance with him, in spite of the retiring habits of both, and I suppose there was a kind of fellow-feeling established between them.

My Eliza was charming beyond description, coquettish without affectation, and evidently more desirous to engage my attention than that of all the room besides. Her delight in having me near her, seated or standing by her side, whispering in her ear, or pressing her hand in the dance, was plainly legible in her glowing face and heaving bosom, however belied by saucy words and gestures. But I had better hold my tongue: if I boast of these things now, I shall have to blush hereafter.

To proceed, then, with the various individuals of our party; Rose was simple and natural as usual, and full of mirth and vivacity.

Fergus was impertinent and absurd; but his impertinence and folly served to make others laugh, if they did not raise himself in their estimation.

And finally (for I omit myself), Mr. Lawrence was gentlemanly and inoffensive to all, and polite to the vicar and the ladies, especially his hostess and her daughter, and Miss Wilson — misguided man; he had not the taste to prefer Eliza Millward. Mr. Lawrence and I were on tolerably intimate terms. Essentially of reserved habits, and but seldom quitting the secluded place of his birth, where he had lived in solitary state since the death of his father, he had neither the opportunity nor the inclination for forming many acquaintances; and, of all he had ever known, I (judging by the results) was the companion most agreeable to his taste. I liked the man well enough, but he was too cold, and shy, and self-contained, to obtain my cordial sympathies. A spirit of candour and frankness, when wholly unaccompanied with coarseness, he admired in others, but he could not acquire it himself. His excessive reserve upon all his own concerns was, indeed, provoking and chilly enough; but I forgave it, from a conviction that it originated less in pride and want of confidence in his friends, than in a certain morbid feeling of delicacy, and a peculiar diffidence, that he was sensible of, but wanted energy to overcome. His heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind. And, upon the whole, our intimacy was rather a mutual predilection than a deep and solid friendship, such as has since arisen between myself and you, Halford, whom, in spite of your occasional crustiness, I can liken to nothing so well as an old coat, unimpeachable in texture, but easy and loose — that has conformed itself to the shape of the wearer, and which he may use as he pleases, without being bothered with the fear of spoiling it; — whereas Mr. Lawrence was like a new garment, all very neat and trim to look at, but so tight in the elbows, that you would fear to split the seams by the unrestricted motion of your arms, and so smooth and fine in surface that you scruple to expose it to a single drop of rain.

Soon after the arrival of the guests, my mother mentioned Mrs. Graham, regretted she was not there to meet them, and explained to the Millwards and Wilsons the reasons she had given for neglecting to return their calls, hoping they would excuse her, as she was sure she did not mean to be uncivil, and would be glad to see them at any time. —’But she is a very singular lady, Mr. Lawrence,’ added she; ‘we don’t know what to make of her — but I daresay you can tell us something about her, for she is your tenant, you know, – and she said she knew you a little.’

All eyes were turned to Mr. Lawrence. I thought he looked unnecessarily confused at being so appealed to.

‘I, Mrs. Markham!’ said he; ‘you are mistaken — I don’t — that is — I have seen her, certainly; but I am the last person you should apply to for information respecting Mrs. Graham.’

He then immediately turned to Rose, and asked her to favour the company with a song, or a tune on the piano.

‘No,’ said she, ‘you must ask Miss Wilson: she outshines us all in singing, and music too.’

Miss Wilson demurred.

‘She’ll sing readily enough,’ said Fergus, ‘if you’ll undertake to stand by her, Mr. Lawrence, and turn over the leaves for her.’

‘I shall be most happy to do so, Miss Wilson; will you allow me?’

She bridled her long neck and smiled, and suffered him to lead her to the instrument, where she played and sang, in her very best style, one piece after another; while he stood patiently by, leaning one hand on the back of her chair, and turning over the leaves of her book with the other. Perhaps he was as much charmed with her performance as she was. It was all very fine in its way; but I cannot say that it moved me very deeply. There was plenty of skill and execution, but precious little feeling.

But we had not done with Mrs. Graham yet.

‘I don’t take wine, Mrs. Markham,’ said Mr. Millward, upon the introduction of that beverage; ‘I’ll take a little of your home-brewed ale. I always prefer your home-brewed to anything else.’

Flattered at this compliment, my mother rang the bell, and a china jug of our best ale was presently brought and set before the worthy gentleman who so well knew how to appreciate its excellences.

‘Now this is the thing!’ cried he, pouring out a glass of the same in a long stream, skilfully directed from the jug to the tumbler, so as to produce much foam without spilling a drop; and, having surveyed it for a moment opposite the candle, he took a deep draught, and then smacked his lips, drew a long breath, and refilled his glass, my mother looking on with the greatest satisfaction.

‘There’s nothing like this, Mrs. Markham!’ said he. ‘I always maintain that there’s nothing to compare with your home-brewed ale.’

‘I’m sure I’m glad you like it, sir. I always look after the brewing myself, as well as the cheese and the butter — I like to have things well done, while we’re about it.’

‘Quite right, Mrs. Markham!’

‘But then, Mr. Millward, you don’t think it wrong to take a little wine now and then — or a little spirits either!’ said my mother, as she handed a smoking tumbler of gin-and-water to Mrs. Wilson, who affirmed that wine sat heavy on her stomach, and whose son Robert was at that moment helping himself to a pretty stiff glass of the same.

‘By no means!’ replied the oracle, with a Jove-like nod; ‘these things are all blessings and mercies, if we only knew how to make use of them.’

‘But Mrs. Graham doesn’t think so. You shall just hear now what she told us the other day — I told her I’d tell you.’

And my mother favoured the company with a particular account of that lady’s mistaken ideas and conduct regarding the matter in hand, concluding with, ‘Now, don’t you think it is wrong?’

‘Wrong!’ repeated the vicar, with more than common solemnity — ‘criminal, I should say — criminal! Not only is it making a fool of the boy, but it is despising the gifts of Providence, and teaching him to trample them under his feet.’

He then entered more fully into the question, and explained at large the folly and impiety of such a proceeding. My mother heard him with profoundest reverence; and even Mrs. Wilson vouchsafed to rest her tongue for a moment, and listen in silence, while she complacently sipped her gin-and-water. Mr. Lawrence sat with his elbow on the table, carelessly playing with his half-empty wine-glass, and covertly smiling to himself.

‘But don’t you think, Mr. Millward,’ suggested he, when at length that gentleman paused in his discourse, ‘that when a child may be naturally prone to intemperance — by the fault of its parents or ancestors, for instance — some precautions are advisable?’ (Now it was generally believed that Mr. Lawrence’s father had shortened his days by intemperance.)

‘Some precautions, it may be; but temperance, sir, is one thing, and abstinence another.’

‘But I have heard that, with some persons, temperance — that is, moderation — is almost impossible; and if abstinence be an evil (which some have doubted), no one will deny that excess is a greater. Some parents have entirely prohibited their children from tasting intoxicating liquors; but a parent’s authority cannot last for ever; children are naturally prone to hanker after forbidden things; and a child, in such a case, would be likely to have a strong curiosity to taste, and try the effect of what has been so lauded and enjoyed by others, so strictly forbidden to himself — which curiosity would generally be gratified on the first convenient opportunity; and the restraint once broken, serious consequences might ensue. I don’t pretend to be a judge of such matters, but it seems to me, that this plan of Mrs. Graham’s, as you describe it, Mrs. Markham, extraordinary as it may be, is not without its advantages; for here you see the child is delivered at once from temptation; he has no secret curiosity, no hankering desire; he is as well acquainted with the tempting liquors as he ever wishes to be; and is thoroughly disgusted with them, without having suffered from their effects.’

‘And is that right, sir? Have I not proven to you how wrong it is – how contrary to Scripture and to reason, to teach a child to look with contempt and disgust upon the blessings of Providence, instead of to use them aright?’

‘You may consider laudanum a blessing of Providence, sir,’ replied Mr. Lawrence, smiling; ‘and yet, you will allow that most of us had better abstain from it, even in moderation; but,’ added he, ‘I would not desire you to follow out my simile too closely — in witness whereof I finish my glass.’

‘And take another, I hope, Mr. Lawrence,’ said my mother, pushing the bottle towards him.

He politely declined, and pushing his chair a little away from the table, leant back towards me — I was seated a trifle behind, on the sofa beside Eliza Millward — and carelessly asked me if I knew Mrs. Graham.

‘I have met her once or twice,’ I replied.

‘What do you think of her?’

‘I cannot say that I like her much. She is handsome — or rather I should say distinguished and interesting — in her appearance, but by no means amiable — a woman liable to take strong prejudices, I should fancy, and stick to them through thick and thin, twisting everything into conformity with her own preconceived opinions — too hard, too sharp, too bitter for my taste.’

He made no reply, but looked down and bit his lip, and shortly after rose and sauntered up to Miss Wilson, as much repelled by me, I fancy, as attracted by her. I scarcely noticed it at the time, but afterwards I was led to recall this and other trifling facts, of a similar nature, to my remembrance, when — but I must not anticipate.

We wound up the evening with dancing — our worthy pastor thinking it no scandal to be present on the occasion, though one of the village musicians was engaged to direct our evolutions with his violin. But Mary Millward obstinately refused to join us; and so did Richard Wilson, though my mother earnestly entreated him to do so, and even offered to be his partner.

We managed very well without them, however. With a single set of quadrilles, and several country dances, we carried it on to a pretty late hour; and at length, having called upon our musician to strike up a waltz, I was just about to whirl Eliza round in that delightful dance, accompanied by Lawrence and Jane Wilson, and Fergus and Rose, when Mr. Millward interposed with:— ‘No, no; I don’t allow that! Come, it’s time to be going now.’

‘Oh, no, papa!’ pleaded Eliza.

‘High time, my girl — high time! Moderation in all things, remember! That’s the plan —”Let your moderation be known unto all men!”’

But in revenge I followed Eliza into the dimly-lighted passage, where, under pretence of helping her on with her shawl, I fear I must plead guilty to snatching a kiss behind her father’s back, while he was enveloping his throat and chin in the folds of a mighty comforter. But alas! in turning round, there was my mother close beside me. The consequence was, that no sooner were the guests departed, than I was doomed to a very serious remonstrance, which unpleasantly checked the galloping course of my spirits, and made a disagreeable close to the evening.

‘My dear Gilbert,’ said she, ‘I wish you wouldn’t do so! You know how deeply I have your advantage at heart, how I love you and prize you above everything else in the world, and how much I long to see you well settled in life — and how bitterly it would grieve me to see you married to that girl — or any other in the neighbourhood. What you see in her I don’t know. It isn’t only the want of money that I think about — nothing of the kind — but there’s neither beauty, nor cleverness, nor goodness, nor anything else that’s desirable. If you knew your own value, as I do, you wouldn’t dream of it. Do wait awhile and see! If you bind yourself to her, you’ll repent it all your lifetime when you look round and see how many better there are. Take my word for it, you will.’

‘Well, mother, do be quiet! — I hate to be lectured! — I’m not going to marry yet, I tell you; but — dear me! mayn’t I enjoy myself at all?’

‘Yes, my dear boy, but not in that way. Indeed, you shouldn’t do such things. You would be wronging the girl, if she were what she ought to be; but I assure you she is as artful a little hussy as anybody need wish to see; and you’ll got entangled in her snares before you know where you are. And if you marry her, Gilbert, you’ll break my heart — so there’s an end of it.’

‘Well, don’t cry about it, mother,’ said I, for the tears were gushing from her eyes; ‘there, let that kiss efface the one I gave Eliza; don’t abuse her any more, and set your mind at rest; for I’ll promise never — that is, I’ll promise to think twice before I take any important step you seriously disapprove of.’

So saying, I lighted my candle, and went to bed, considerably quenched in spirit.

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