The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte

Chapter 51

We will now turn to a certain still, cold, cloudy afternoon about the commencement of December, when the first fall of snow lay thinly scattered over the blighted fields and frozen roads, or stored more thickly in the hollows of the deep cart-ruts and footsteps of men and horses impressed in the now petrified mire of last month’s drenching rains. I remember it well, for I was walking home from the vicarage with no less remarkable a personage than Miss Eliza Millward by my side. I had been to call upon her father — a sacrifice to civility undertaken entirely to please my mother, not myself, for I hated to go near the house; not merely on account of my antipathy to the once so bewitching Eliza, but because I had not half forgiven the old gentleman himself for his ill opinion of Mrs. Huntingdon; for though now constrained to acknowledge himself mistaken in his former judgment, he still maintained that she had done wrong to leave her husband; it was a violation of her sacred duties as a wife, and a tempting of Providence by laying herself open to temptation; and nothing short of bodily ill-usage (and that of no trifling nature) could excuse such a step — nor even that, for in such a case she ought to appeal to the laws for protection. But it was not of him I intended to speak; it was of his daughter Eliza. Just as I was taking leave of the vicar, she entered the room, ready equipped for a walk.

‘I was just coming to see, your sister, Mr. Markham,’ said she; ‘and so, if you have no objection, I’ll accompany you home. I like company when I’m walking out — don’t you?’

‘Yes, when it’s agreeable.’

‘That of course,’ rejoined the young lady, smiling archly.

So we proceeded together.

‘Shall I find Rose at home, do you think?’ said she, as we closed the garden gate, and set our faces towards Linden–Car.

‘I believe so.’

‘I trust I shall, for I’ve a little bit of news for her — if you haven’t forestalled me.’

‘I?’

‘Yes: do you know what Mr. Lawrence is gone for?’ She looked up anxiously for my reply.

‘Is he gone?’ said I; and her face brightened.

‘Ah! then he hasn’t told you about his sister?’

‘What of her?’ I demanded in terror, lest some evil should have befallen her.

‘Oh, Mr. Markham, how you blush!’ cried she, with a tormenting laugh. ‘Ha, ha, you have not forgotten her yet. But you had better be quick about it, I can tell you, for — alas, alas! — she’s going to be married next Thursday!’

‘No, Miss Eliza, that’s false.’

‘Do you charge me with a falsehood, sir?’

‘You are misinformed.’

‘Am I? Do you know better, then?’

‘I think I do.’

‘What makes you look so pale then?’ said she, smiling with delight at my emotion. ‘Is it anger at poor me for telling such a fib? Well, I only “tell the tale as ‘twas told to me:” I don’t vouch for the truth of it; but at the same time, I don’t see what reason Sarah should have for deceiving me, or her informant for deceiving her; and that was what she told me the footman told her:— that Mrs. Huntingdon was going to be married on Thursday, and Mr. Lawrence was gone to the wedding. She did tell me the name of the gentleman, but I’ve forgotten that. Perhaps you can assist me to remember it. Is there not some one that lives near — or frequently visits the neighbourhood, that has long been attached to her? — a Mr. — oh, dear! Mr. —’

‘Hargrave?’ suggested I, with a bitter smile.

‘You’re right,’ cried she; ‘that was the very name.’

‘Impossible, Miss Eliza!’ I exclaimed, in a tone that made her start.

‘Well, you know, that’s what they told me,’ said she, composedly staring me in the face. And then she broke out into a long shrill laugh that put me to my wit’s end with fury.

‘Really you must excuse me,’ cried she. ‘I know it’s very rude, but ha, ha, ha! — did you think to marry her yourself? Dear, dear, what a pity! — ha, ha, ha! Gracious, Mr. Markham, are you going to faint? Oh, mercy! shall I call this man? Here, Jacob —’ But checking the word on her lips, I seized her arm and gave it, I think, a pretty severe squeeze, for she shrank into herself with a faint cry of pain or terror; but the spirit within her was not subdued: instantly rallying, she continued, with well-feigned concern, ‘What can I do for you? Will you have some water — some brandy? I daresay they have some in the public-house down there, if you’ll let me run.’

‘Have done with this nonsense!’ cried I, sternly. She looked confounded — almost frightened again, for a moment. ‘You know I hate such jests,’ I continued.

‘Jests indeed! I wasn’t jesting!’

‘You were laughing, at all events; and I don’t like to be laughed at,’ returned I, making violent efforts to speak with proper dignity and composure, and to say nothing but what was coherent and sensible. ‘And since you are in such a merry mood, Miss Eliza, you must be good enough company for yourself; and therefore I shall leave you to finish your walk alone — for, now I think of it, I have business elsewhere; so good-evening.’

With that I left her (smothering her malicious laughter) and turned aside into the fields, springing up the bank, and pushing through the nearest gap in the hedge. Determined at once to prove the truth — or rather the falsehood — of her story, I hastened to Woodford as fast as my legs could carry me; first veering round by a circuitous course, but the moment I was out of sight of my fair tormentor cutting away across the country, just as a bird might fly, over pasture-land, and fallow, and stubble, and lane, clearing hedges and ditches and hurdles, till I came to the young squire’s gates. Never till now had I known the full fervour of my love — the full strength of my hopes, not wholly crushed even in my hours of deepest despondency, always tenaciously clinging to the thought that one day she might be mine, or, if not that, at least that something of my memory, some slight remembrance of our friendship and our love, would be for ever cherished in her heart. I marched up to the door, determined, if I saw the master, to question him boldly concerning his sister, to wait and hesitate no longer, but cast false delicacy and stupid pride behind my back, and know my fate at once.

‘Is Mr. Lawrence at home?’ I eagerly asked of the servant that opened the door.

‘No, sir, master went yesterday,’ replied he, looking very alert.

‘Went where?’

‘To Grassdale, sir — wasn’t you aware, sir? He’s very close, is master,’ said the fellow, with a foolish, simpering grin. ‘I suppose, sir —’

But I turned and left him, without waiting to hear what he supposed. I was not going to stand there to expose my tortured feelings to the insolent laughter and impertinent curiosity of a fellow like that.

But what was to be done now? Could it be possible that she had left me for that man? I could not believe it. Me she might forsake, but not to give herself to him! Well, I would know the truth; to no concerns of daily life could I attend while this tempest of doubt and dread, of jealousy and rage, distracted me. I would take the morning coach from L—— (the evening one would be already gone), and fly to Grassdale — I must be there before the marriage. And why? Because a thought struck me that perhaps I might prevent it — that if I did not, she and I might both lament it to the latest moment of our lives. It struck me that someone might have belied me to her: perhaps her brother; yes, no doubt her brother had persuaded her that I was false and faithless, and taking advantage of her natural indignation, and perhaps her desponding carelessness about her future life, had urged her, artfully, cruelly, on to this other marriage, in order to secure her from me. If this was the case, and if she should only discover her mistake when too late to repair it — to what a life of misery and vain regret might she be doomed as well as me; and what remorse for me to think my foolish scruples had induced it all! Oh, I must see her — she must know my truth even if I told it at the church door! I might pass for a madman or an impertinent fool — even she might be offended at such an interruption, or at least might tell me it was now too late. But if I could save her, if she might be mine! — it was too rapturous a thought!

Winged by this hope, and goaded by these fears, I hurried homewards to prepare for my departure on the morrow. I told my mother that urgent business which admitted no delay, but which I could not then explain, called me away.

My deep anxiety and serious preoccupation could not be concealed from her maternal eyes; and I had much ado to calm her apprehensions of some disastrous mystery.

That night there came a heavy fall of snow, which so retarded the progress of the coaches on the following day that I was almost driven to distraction. I travelled all night, of course, for this was Wednesday: to-morrow morning, doubtless, the marriage would take place. But the night was long and dark: the snow heavily clogged the wheels and balled the horses’ feet; the animals were consumedly lazy; the coachman most execrably cautious; the passengers confoundedly apathetic in their supine indifference to the rate of our progression. Instead of assisting me to bully the several coachmen and urge them forward, they merely stared and grinned at my impatience: one fellow even ventured to rally me upon it — but I silenced him with a look that quelled him for the rest of the journey; and when, at the last stage, I would have taken the reins into my own hand, they all with one accord opposed it.

It was broad daylight when we entered M—— and drew up at the ‘Rose and Crown.’ I alighted and called aloud for a post-chaise to Grassdale. There was none to be had: the only one in the town was under repair. ‘A gig, then — a fly — car — anything — only be quick!’ There was a gig, but not a horse to spare. I sent into the town to seek one: but they were such an intolerable time about it that I could wait no longer — I thought my own feet could carry me sooner; and bidding them send the conveyance after me, if it were ready within an hour, I set off as fast as I could walk. The distance was little more than six miles, but the road was strange, and I had to keep stopping to inquire my way; hallooing to carters and clodhoppers, and frequently invading the cottages, for there were few abroad that winter’s morning; sometimes knocking up the lazy people from their beds, for where so little work was to be done, perhaps so little food and fire to be had, they cared not to curtail their slumbers. I had no time to think of them, however; aching with weariness and desperation, I hurried on. The gig did not overtake me: and it was well I had not waited for it; vexatious rather, that I had been fool enough to wait so long.

At length, however, I entered the neighbourhood of Grassdale. I approached the little rural church — but lo! there stood a train of carriages before it; it needed not the white favours bedecking the servants and horses, nor the merry voices of the village idlers assembled to witness the show, to apprise me that there was a wedding within. I ran in among them, demanding, with breathless eagerness, had the ceremony long commenced? They only gaped and stared. In my desperation, I pushed past them, and was about to enter the churchyard gate, when a group of ragged urchins, that had been hanging like bees to the window, suddenly dropped off and made a rush for the porch, vociferating in the uncouth dialect of their country something which signified, ‘It’s over — they’re coming out!’

If Eliza Millward had seen me then she might indeed have been delighted. I grasped the gate-post for support, and stood intently gazing towards the door to take my last look on my soul’s delight, my first on that detested mortal who had torn her from my heart, and doomed her, I was certain, to a life of misery and hollow, vain repining — for what happiness could she enjoy with him? I did not wish to shock her with my presence now, but I had not power to move away. Forth came the bride and bridegroom. Him I saw not; I had eyes for none but her. A long veil shrouded half her graceful form, but did not hide it; I could see that while she carried her head erect, her eyes were bent upon the ground, and her face and neck were suffused with a crimson blush; but every feature was radiant with smiles, and gleaming through the misty whiteness of her veil were clusters of golden ringlets! Oh, heavens! it was not my Helen! The first glimpse made me start — but my eyes were darkened with exhaustion and despair. Dare I trust them? ‘Yes — it is not she! It was a younger, slighter, rosier beauty — lovely indeed, but with far less dignity and depth of soul — without that indefinable grace, that keenly spiritual yet gentle charm, that ineffable power to attract and subjugate the heart — my heart at least. I looked at the bridegroom — it was Frederick Lawrence! I wiped away the cold drops that were trickling down my forehead, and stepped back as he approached; but, his eyes fell upon me, and he knew me, altered as my appearance must have been.

‘Is that you, Markham?’ said he, startled and confounded at the apparition — perhaps, too, at the wildness of my looks.

‘Yes, Lawrence; is that you?’ I mustered the presence of mind to reply.

He smiled and coloured, as if half-proud and half-ashamed of his identity; and if he had reason to be proud of the sweet lady on his arm, he had no less cause to be ashamed of having concealed his good fortune so long.

‘Allow me to introduce you to my bride,’ said he, endeavouring to hide his embarrassment by an assumption of careless gaiety. ‘Esther, this is Mr. Markham; my friend Markham, Mrs. Lawrence, late Miss Hargrave.’

I bowed to the bride, and vehemently wrung the bridegroom’s hand.

‘Why did you not tell me of this?’ I said, reproachfully, pretending a resentment I did not feel (for in truth I was almost wild with joy to find myself so happily mistaken, and overflowing with affection to him for this and for the base injustice I felt that I had done him in my mind — he might have wronged me, but not to that extent; and as I had hated him like a demon for the last forty hours, the reaction from such a feeling was so great that I could pardon all offences for the moment — and love him in spite of them too).

‘I did tell you,’ said he, with an air of guilty confusion; ‘you received my letter?’

‘What letter?’

‘The one announcing my intended marriage.’

‘I never received the most distant hint of such an intention.’

‘It must have crossed you on your way then — it should have reached you yesterday morning — it was rather late, I acknowledge. But what brought you here, then, if you received no information?’

It was now my turn to be confounded; but the young lady, who had been busily patting the snow with her foot during our short sotto-voce colloquy, very opportunely came to my assistance by pinching her companion’s arm and whispering a suggestion that his friend should be invited to step into the carriage and go with them; it being scarcely agreeable to stand there among so many gazers, and keeping their friends waiting into the bargain.

‘And so cold as it is too!’ said he, glancing with dismay at her slight drapery, and immediately handing her into the carriage. ‘Markham, will you come? We are going to Paris, but we can drop you anywhere between this and Dover.’

‘No, thank you. Good-by — I needn’t wish you a pleasant journey; but I shall expect a very handsome apology, some time, mind, and scores of letters, before we meet again.’

He shook my hand, and hastened to take his place beside his lady. This was no time or place for explanation or discourse: we had already stood long enough to excite the wonder of the village sight-seers, and perhaps the wrath of the attendant bridal party; though, of course, all this passed in a much shorter time than I have taken to relate, or even than you will take to read it. I stood beside the carriage, and, the window being down, I saw my happy friend fondly encircle his companion’s waist with his arm, while she rested her glowing cheek on his shoulder, looking the very impersonation of loving, trusting bliss. In the interval between the footman’s closing the door and taking his place behind she raised her smiling brown eyes to his face, observing, playfully — ’I fear you must think me very insensible, Frederick: I know it is the custom for ladies to cry on these occasions, but I couldn’t squeeze a tear for my life.’

He only answered with a kiss, and pressed her still closer to his bosom.

‘But what is this?’ he murmured. ‘Why, Esther, you’re crying now!’

‘Oh, it’s nothing — it’s only too much happiness — and the wish,’ sobbed she, ‘that our dear Helen were as happy as ourselves.’

‘Bless you for that wish!’ I inwardly responded, as the carriage rolled away —’and heaven grant it be not wholly vain!’

I thought a cloud had suddenly darkened her husband’s face as she spoke. What did he think? Could he grudge such happiness to his dear sister and his friend as he now felt himself? At such a moment it was impossible. The contrast between her fate and his must darken his bliss for a time. Perhaps, too, he thought of me: perhaps he regretted the part he had had in preventing our union, by omitting to help us, if not by actually plotting against us. I exonerated him from that charge now, and deeply lamented my former ungenerous suspicions; but he had wronged us, still — I hoped, I trusted that he had. He had not attempted to cheek the course of our love by actually damming up the streams in their passage, but he had passively watched the two currents wandering through life’s arid wilderness, declining to clear away the obstructions that divided them, and secretly hoping that both would lose themselves in the sand before they could be joined in one. And meantime he had been quietly proceeding with his own affairs; perhaps, his heart and head had been so full of his fair lady that he had had but little thought to spare for others. Doubtless he had made his first acquaintance with her — his first intimate acquaintance at least — during his three months’ sojourn at F–, for I now recollected that he had once casually let fall an intimation that his aunt and sister had a young friend staying with them at the time, and this accounted for at least one-half his silence about all transactions there. Now, too, I saw a reason for many little things that had slightly puzzled me before; among the rest, for sundry departures from Woodford, and absences more or less prolonged, for which he never satisfactorily accounted, and concerning which he hated to be questioned on his return. Well might the servant say his master was ‘very close.’ But why this strange reserve to me? Partly, from that remarkable idiosyncrasy to which I have before alluded; partly, perhaps, from tenderness to my feelings, or fear to disturb my philosophy by touching upon the infectious theme of love.

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