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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall(chapter2)

2006-07-13 20:42

  CHAPTER 2

  An Interview

  I PERCEIVE, with joy, my most valued friend, that the cloud of your displeasure has passed away; the light of your countenance blesses me once more, and you desire the continuation of my story: therefore, without more ado, you shall have it.

  I think the day I last mentioned was a certain Sunday, the latest in the October of 1827. On the following Tuesday I was out with my dog and gun, in pursuit of such game as I could find within the territory of Linden-Car; but finding none at all, I turned my arms against the hawks and carrion crows, whose depredations, as I suspected, had deprived me of better prey. To this end, I left the more frequented regions, the wooded valleys, the cornfields, and the meadow lands, and proceeded to mount the steep acclivity of Wildfell, the wildest and the loftiest eminence in our neighbourhood, where, as you ascend, the hedges, as well as the flees, become scanty and stunted, the former, at length, giving place to rough stone fences, partly greened over with ivy and moss, the latter to larches and Scotch fir-trees, or isolated blackthorns. The fields, being rough and stony and wholly unfit for the plough, were mostly devoted to the pasturing of sheep and cattle; the soil was thin and poor: bits of grey rock here and there peeped out from the grassy hillocks; bilberry plants and heather——relics of more savage wildness——grew under the walls; and in many of the enclosures, ragweeds and rushes usurped supremacy over the scanty herbage;——but these were not my property.

  Near the top of this hill, about two miles from Linden-Car, stood Wildfell Hall, a superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone,——venerable and picturesque to look at, but, doubtless, cold and gloomy enough to inhabit, with its thick stone mullions and little latticed panes, its time-eaten air-holes, and its too lonely, too unsheltered situation,——only shielded from the war of wind and weather by a group of Scotch firs, themselves half blighted with storms, and looking as stern and gloomy as the hall itself. Behind it lay a few desolate fields, and then, the brown, heath-clad summit of the hill; before it (enclosed by stone walls, and entered by an iron gate with large balls of grey granite——similar to those which decorated the roof and gables——surmounting the gate-posts), was a garden,——once, stocked with such hardy plants and flowers as could best brook the soil and climate, and such trees and shrubs as could best endure the gardener's torturing shears, and most readily assume the shapes he chose to give them,——now, having been left so many years, untilled and untrimmed, abandoned to the weeds and the grass, to the frost and the wind, the rain and the drought, it presented a very singular appearance indeed. The close green walls of privet, that had bordered the principal walk, were two thirds withered away, and the rest grown beyond all reasonable bounds; the old boxwood swan, that sat beside the scraper, had lost its neck and half its body; the castellated towers of laurel in the middle of the garden, the gigantic warrior that stood on one side of the gateway, and the lion that guarded the other, were sprouted into such fantastic shapes as resembled nothing either in heaven or earth, or in the waters under the earth; but, to my young imagination, they presented all of them a goblinish appearance, that harmonized well with the ghostly legends and dark traditions our old nurse had told us respecting the haunted hall and its departed occupants.

  I had succeeded in killing a hawk and two crows when I came within sight of the mansion; and then, relinquishing further depredations, I sauntered on, to have a look at the old place, and see what changes had been wrought in it by its new inhabitant. I did not to go quite to the front and stare in at the gate; but I paused beside the garden wall, and looked, and saw no change——except In one wing, where the broken windows and dilapidated roof had evidently been repaired, and where a thin wreath of smoke was curling up from the stack of chimneys.

  While I thus stood, leaning on my gun, and looking up at the dark gables, sunk in an idle reverie, weaving a tissue of wayward fancies, in which old associations and the fair young hermit, now within those walls, bore a nearly equal part, I heard a slight rustling and scrambling just within the garden; and, glancing in the direction whence the sound proceeded, I beheld a tiny hand elevated above the wall: it clung to the topmost stone, and then another little hand was raised to take a firmer hold, and then appeared a small white forehead, surmounted with wreaths of light brown hair, with a pair of deep blue eyes beneath, and the upper portion of a diminutive ivory nose.

  The eyes did not notice me, but sparkled with glee on beholding Sancho, my beautiful black and white setter, that was coursing about the field with its muzzle to the ground. The little creature raised its face and called aloud to the dog. The good-natured animal paused, looked up, and wagged his tail, but made no further advances. The child (a little boy, apparently about five years old) scrambled up to the top of the wall and called again and again; but finding this of no avail, apparently made up his mind, like Mahomet, to go to the mountain“ since the mountain would not come to him, and attempted to get over; but a crabbed old cherry tree, that grew hard by, caught him by the frock in one of its crooked, scraggy arms that stretched over the wall. In attempt- mpg to disengage himself, his foot slipped, and down be tumbled——but not to the earth;——the tree still kept him suspended. There was a silent struggle, and then a piercing shriek;——but, in an instant, I had dropped my gun on the grass, and caught the little fellow in arms.

  I wiped his eyes with his frock, told him he was all right, and ed Sancho to pacify him. He was just putting his little hand on dog's neck and beginning to smile through his tears, when I heard behind me, a click of the iron gate and a rustle of female garments, and lo! Mrs Graham darted upon me,——her neck uncovered, her black locks streaming in the wind.

  `Give me the child!' she said, in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but with a tone of startling vehemence, and, seizing the boy, she snatched him from me, as if some dire contamination were in my touch, and then stood with one hand firmly Clasping his, the other on his shoulder, fixing upon me her large, luminous, dark eyes——pale, breathless, quivering with agitation.

  `I was not harming the child, madam,' said I, scarce knowing whether to be most astonished or displeased; `he was tumbling off the wall there; and I was so fortunate as to catch him, hung suspended headlong from that tree, and prevent I know not what catastrophe.'

  `I beg your pardon, sir,' stammered she,——suddenly calming down,——the light of reason seeming to break upon her beclouded spirit and a faint blush mantling on her cheek——`I did not know you;——and I thought——'

  She stooped to kiss the child, and fondly clasped her arm round his neck.

  `You thought I was going to kidnap your son, I suppose?'

  She stroked his head with a half-embarrassed laugh, and replied,——

  `I did not know he had attempted to climb the wall.——I have the pleasure of addressing Mr Markham, I believe?' she added, somewhat abruptly.

  I bowed, but ventured to ask how she knew me.

  `Your sister called here, a few days ago, with Mrs Markham.'

  `Is the resemblance so strong then?' I asked, in some surprise, and not so greatly Battered at the idea as I ought to have been.

  `There is a likeness about the eyes and complexion, I think,' replied she, somewhat dubiously surveying my face;——`and I think I saw you at church on Sunday.'

  I smiled.——There was something either in that smile or the recollections it awakened that was particularly displeasing to her, for she suddenly assumed again that proud, chilly look that had so unspeakably roused my corruption at church——a look of repellent scorn, so easily assumed, and so entirely without the least distortion of a single feature that, while there, it seemed like the natural expression of the face, and was the more provoking to me, because I could not think it affected.

  `Good morning, Mr Markham,' said she; and without another word or glance, she withdrew with her child into the garden; and I returned home, angry and dissatisfied——I could scarcely tell you why——and therefore will not attempt it.

  I only stayed to put away my gun and powder-horn, and give some requisite directions to one of the farming-men, and then repaired to the vicarage, to solace my spirit and soothe my ruffled temper with the company and conversation of Eliza Millward.

  I found her, as usual, busy with some piece of soft embroidery (the mania for Berlin wools had not yet commenced), while her sister was seated at the chimney-corner, with the cat on her knee, mending a heap of stockings.

  `Mary——Mary! put them away!' Eliza was hastily saying, just as I entered the room.

  `Not I, indeed!' was the phlegmatic reply; and my appearance prevented further discussion.

  `You're so unfortunate, Mr Markham!' observed the younger sister, with one of her arch, sidelong glances. `Papa's just gone out into the parish, and not likely to be back for an hour!'

  `Never mind; I can manage to spend a few minutes with his daughters, if they'll allow me,' said I, bringing a chair to the fire, and seating myself therein, without waiting to be asked.

  `Well, if you'll be very good and amusing, we shan't object.'

  `Let your permission be unconditional, pray; for I came not to give pleasure, but to seek it,' I answered.

  However, I thought it but reasonable to make some slight exertion to render my company agreeable; and what little effort I made was apparently pretty successful, for Miss Eliza was never in a better humour. We seemed, indeed, to be mutually pleased with each other, and managed to maintain between us a cheerful and animated, though not very profound conversation. It was little better than a tête-à-tête, for Miss Millward never opened her lips, except occasionally to correct some random assertion or exaggerated expression of her sister's, and once to ask her to pick up the ball of cotton, that had rolled under the table. I did this myself, however, as in duty bound.

  `Thank you, Mr Markham,' said she, as I presented it to her. `I would have picked it up myself; only I did not want to disturb the cat.'

  `Mary, dear, that won't excuse you in Mr Markham's eyes,' said Eliza; `he hates cats, I dare say, as cordially as he does old maids——like all other gentlemen——Don't you, Mr Markham?'

  `I believe it is natural for our unamiable sex to dislike the creatures,' replied I; `for you ladies lavish so many caresses upon them'

  `Bless them——little darlings!' cried she, in a sudden burst of enthusiasm, turning round and overwhelming her sister's pet with a shower of kisses.

  `Don't, Eliza!' said Miss Millward, somewhat gruffly as she impatiently pushed her away.

  But it was time for me to be going: make what haste I would, I should still be too late for tea; and my mother was the soul of order and punctuality.

  My fair friend was evidently unwilling to bid me adieu. I tenderly squeezed her little hand at parting; and she repaid me with one of her softest smiles and most bewitching glances. I went home very happy, with a heart brimful of complacency for myself, and overflowing with love for Eliza.

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