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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall(chapter29)

2006-07-13 21:00


  The Neighbour

  DEC. 25th, 1823. Another year is gone. My little Arthur lives and thrives. He is healthy but not robust, full of gentle playfulness and vivacity, already affectionate, and susceptible of passions and emotions it will be long ere he can find words to express. He has won his father's heart at last; and now my constant terror is, lest he should be ruined by that father's thoughtless indulgence. But I must beware of my own weakness too, for I never knew till now how strong are a parent's temptations to spoil an only child.

  I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way——but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried——doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!——But, I repeat, I have no right to com plain: only let me state the truth——some of the truth at least,——and see, hereafter, if any darker truths will blot these pages. We have now been full two years united——the `romance' of our attachment must be worn away. Surely I have now got down to the lowest gradation in Arthur's affection, and discovered all the evils of his nature: if there be any further change, it must be for the better, as we become still more accustomed to each other: surely we shall find no lower depth than this. And, If so' I can bear it well——as well, at least, as I have borne it hitherto.

  Arthur is not what is commonly called a bad man: he has many good qualities; but he is a man without self-restraint or lofty aspirations——a lover of pleasure, given up to animal enjoyments: he is not a bad husband, but his notions of matrimonial duties and comforts are not my notions. Judging from appearances, his idea of a wife is a thing to love one devotedly and to stay at home——to wait upon her husband, and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way, while he chooses to stay with her; and, when he is absent, to attend to his interests, domestic or otherwise, and patiently wait his return; no matter how be may be occupied in the meantime.

  Early in spring, be announced his intention of going to London: his affairs there demanded his attendance, he said, and he could refuse it no longer. He expressed his regret at having to leave me, but hoped I would amuse myself with the baby till he returned.

  `But why leave me?' I said. `I can go with you: I can be beady at any time.'

  `You would not take that child to town?'

  `Yes——why not?'

  The thing was absurd: the air of the town would be certain to disagree with him, and with me as a nurse: the late hours and London habits would not suit me under such circumstances; and altogether he assured me that it would be excessively trouble some, injurious, and unsafe. I overruled his objections as well as I could, for I trembled at the thought of his going alone, and would sacrifice almost anything for myself, much even for my child, to prevent it; but at length he told me, plainly, and some what testily, that he could not do with me: he was worn out with the baby's restless nights, and must have some repose. I proposed separate apartments; but it would not do.

  `The truth is, Arthur,' I said, at last, `you are weary of my company, and determined not to have me with you. You might as well have said so at once.'

  He denied it; but I immediately left the room, and flew to the nursery to hide my feelings, if I could not sooth them, there.

  I was too much hurt to express any further dissatisfaction with his plans, or at all to refer to the subject again, except for the necessary arrangements concerning his departure and the conduct of affairs during his absence,——till the day before he went, when I earnestly exhorted him to take care of himself and keep out of the way of temptation. He laughed at my anxiety, but assured me there was no cause for it, and promised to attend to my advice,

  `I suppose it is no use asking you to fix a day for your return?' said I.

  `Why, no: I hardly can, under the circumstances; but be assured, love, I shall not be long away.'

  `I don't wish to keep you a prisoner at home,' I replied: `I should not grumble at your staying whole months away——if you can be happy so long without me——provided I knew you were safe; but I don't like the idea of your being there, among your friends, as you call them.'

  `Pooh, pooh, you silly girl! Do you think I can't take care of myself?'

  `You didn't last time.——But THIS time, Arthur,' I added, earnestly, `show me that you can, and teach me that I need not fear to trust you!'

  He promised fair, but in such a manner as we seek to soothe a child. And did he keep his promise? No;——and, henceforth, I can never trust his word. Bitter, bitter confession! Tears blind me while I write. It was early in March that he went, and he did not return till July. This time, he did not trouble himself to make excuses as before, and his letters were less frequent, and shorter and less affectionate, especially after the first few weeks: they came slower and slower, and more terse and careless every time. But still, when I omitted writing he complained of my neglect. When I wrote sternly and coldly, as I confess I frequently did at the last, he blamed my harshness, and said it was enough to scare hung from his home: when I tried mild persuasion, he was a little more gentle in his replies, and promised to return; but I had learned, at last, to disregard his promises.

  Those were four miserable months, alternating between intense anxiety, despair, and indignation; pity for him, and pity for myself. And yet, through all, I was not wholly comfortless; I had my darling, sinless, inoffensive little one to console me, but even this consolation was embittered by the constantly recurring thought, `How shall I teach him, hereafter, to respect his father, and yet to avoid his example?'

  But I remembered that I had brought all these afflictions, in a manner wilfully, upon myself; and I determined to bear them without a murmur. At the same time I resolved not to give myself up to misery for the transgressions of another, and endeavoured to divert myself as much as I could; and besides the companionship of my child and my dear, faithful Rachel, who evidently guessed my sorrows and felt for them, though she was too discreet to allude to them,——I had my books and pencil, my domestic affairs, and the welfare and comfort of Arthur's poor tenants and labourers to attend to; and I sometimes sought and obtained amusement in the company of my young friend Esther Hargrave: occasionally, I rode over to see her, and once or twice I had her to spend the day with me at the manor. Mrs Hargrave did not visit London that season: having no daughter to marry, she thought it as well to stay at home and economize; and, for a wonder, Walter came down to join her in the beginning of June and stayed till near the close of August.

  The first time I saw him was on a sweet, warm evening, when I was sauntering in the park with little Arthur and Rachel, who is head-nurse and lady's-maid in one——for, with my secluded life and tolerably active habits, I require but little attendance, and as she had nursed me and coveted to nurse my child, and was moreover so very trustworthy, I preferred committing the important charge to her, with a young nurserymaid under her directions, to engaging anyone else:——besides it saves money; and since I have made acquaintance with Arthur's affairs, I have learned to regard that as no trifling recommendation; for, by my own desire, nearly the whole of the income of my fortune is devoted, for years to come, to the paying off of his debts, and the money he contrives to squander away in London is incomprehensible.——But to return to Mr Hargrave:——I was standing with Rachel beside the water, amusing the laughing baby in her arms with a twig of willow laden with golden catkins, when greatly to my surprise, he entered the park, mounted on his costly black hunter, and crossed over the grass to meet me. He saluted me with a very fine compliment, delicately worded, and modestly delivered withal, which he had doubtless concocted as he rode along. He told me he had brought a message from his mother, who, as he was riding that way, had desired him to call at the manor and beg the pleasure of my company to a friendly, family dinner to-morrow.

  `There is no one to meet but ourselves,' said he; `but Esther is very anxious to see you; and my mother fears you will feel solitary in this great house so much alone, and wishes she could persuade you to give her the pleasure of your company more frequently, and make yourself at home in our more humble dwelling, till Mr Huntingdon's return shall render this a little more conducive to your comfort.'

  `She is very kind,' I answered, `but I am not alone, you see;——and those whose time is fully occupied seldom complain of solitude.'

  `Will you not come tomorrow, then? She will be sadly disappointed if you refuse,'

  I did not relish being thus compassionated for my loneliness; but however, I promised to come.

  `What a sweet evening this is!' observed he, looking round upon the sunny park, with its imposing swell and slope, its placid water, and majestic clumps of trees. `And what a paradise you live in!'

  `It is a lovely evening,' answered I; and I sighed to think how little I had felt its loveliness, and how little of a paradise sweet Grass-dale was to me——how still less to the voluntary exile from its scenes. Whether Mr Hargrave divined my thoughts, I cannot tell, but, with a half-hesitating, sympathizing seriousness of tone and manner, he asked if I had lately heard from Mr Huntingdon.

  `Not lately,' I replied.

  `I thought not,' he muttered, as if to himself, looking thoughtfully on the ground.

  `Are you not lately returned from London?' I asked.

  `Only yesterday.'

  `And did you see him there?'

  `Was he well?'

  `Yes——that is,' said he, with increasing hesitation and an appearance of suppressed indignation, `he was as well as——as he deserved to be, but under circumstances I should have deemed incredible for a man so favoured as he is.' He here looked up and pointed the sentence with a serious bow to me, I suppose my face was crimson.

  `Pardon me, Mrs Huntingdon,' he continued, `but I cannot sup press my indignation when I behold such infatuated blindness and perversion of taste;——but, perhaps you are not aware——`'He paused,

  `I am aware of nothing, sir——except that he delays his coming longer than I expected; and if at present, he prefers the society of his friends to that of his wife, and the dissipations of the town to the quiet of country life, I suppose I have those friends to thank for it. Their tastes and occupations are similar to his, and I don't see why his conduct should awaken either their indignation or surprise.'

  `You wrong me cruelly,' answered he: `I have shared but little of Mr Huntingdon's society, for the last few weeks; and as for his tastes and occupations, they are quite beyond me——lonely wanderer as I am. Where I have but sipped and tasted, he drains the cup to the dregs; and if ever for a moment I have sought to drown the voice of reflection in madness and folly, or if I have wasted too much of my time and talents among reckless and dissipated companions, God knows I would gladly renounce the entirely and for ever, if I had but half the blessings that man so thanklessly casts behind his back——but half the inducements to virtue and domestic, orderly habits that he despises——but such a home, and such a partner to share it!——It is infamous!' he muttered, between his teeth. `And don't think, Mrs Huntingdon,' he added, aloud, `that I could be guilty of inciting him to persevere in his present pursuits: on the contrary, I have remonstrated with him again and again; I have frequently expressed my surprise at his conduct and reminded him of his duties and his privileges——but to no purpose; he only——`'

  `Enough, Mr Hargrave; you ought to be aware that whatever my husband's faults may be, it can only aggravate the evil for me to hear them from a stranger's lips.'

  `Am I then a stranger?' said he, in a sorrowful tone. `I am your nearest neighbour, your son's godfather, and your husband's friend: may I not be your's also?'

  `Intimate acquaintance must precede real friendship: I know but little of you, Mr Hargrave, except from report.'

  `Have you then forgotten the six or seven weeks I spent under your roof last autumn? I have not forgotten them. And I know enough of you, Mrs Huntingdon, to think that your husband is the most enviable man in the world, and I should be the next if you would deem me worthy of your friendship.'

  `If you knew more of me, you would not think it-or if you did, you would not say it, and expect me to be flattered by the compliment.'

  I stepped backward as I spoke. He saw that I wished the conversation to end; and immediately taking the hint, he gravely bowed, wished me good evening, and turned his horse towards the road. He appeared grieved and hurt at my unkind reception of his sympathizing overtures. I was not sure that I had done right in speaking so harshly to him; but at the time, I had felt irritated——almost insulted——by his conduct; it seemed as if he was prig upon the absence and neglect of my husband, and insinuating even more than the truth against him.

  Rachel had moved on, during our conversation, to some yards' distance, He rode up to her, and asked to see the child, He took it carefully into his arms, looked upon it with an almost paternal smile, and I heard him say, as I approached——

  `And this, too, he has forsaken!'

  He then tenderly kissed it, and restored it to the gratified nurse.

  `Are you fond of children, Mr Hargrave?' said I, a little softened towards him.

  `Not in general,' he replied; `but that is such a sweet child——and so like its mother,' he added, in a lower tone.

  `You are mistaken there; it is its father it resembles.'

  `Am I not right, nurse?' said he, appealing to Rachel.

  `I think, sir, there's a bit of both,' she replied,

  He departed; and Rachel pronounced him a very nice gentle man. I had still my doubts on the subject.

  When I met him on the morrow, under his own roof, he did not offend me with any more of his virtuous indignation against Arthur or unwelcome sympathy for me; and, indeed, when his mother began, in guarded terms, to intimate her sorrow and surprise at my husband's conduct, he, perceiving my annoyance, instantly came to the rescue, and delicately turned the conversation, at the same time warning her, by a sidelong glance, not to recur to the subject again. He seemed bent upon doing the honours of his house in the most unexceptionable manner, and exerting all his powers for the entertainment of his guest, and the display of his own qualifications as a host, a gentleman, and a companion; and actually succeeded in making himself very agreeable——only that he was too polite.——And yet, Mr Hargrave, I don't much like you; there is a certain want of openness about you that does not take my fancy, and a lurking selfishness, at the bottom of all your fine qualities, that I do not intend to lose sight of. No; for, instead of combating my slight prejudice against you as uncharitable, I mean to cherish it, until I am convinced that I have no reason to distrust this kind, insinuating friendship you are so anxious to push upon me.

  In the course of the following six weeks, I met him several times, but always, save once, in company with his mother or his sister, or both. When I called upon them, he always happened to be at home, and when they called on me, it was always he that drove them over in the phaeton. His mother, evidently, was quite delighted with his dutiful attentions and newly-acquired domestic habits.

  The time that I met him alone was on a bright but not oppressively hot day in the beginning of July: I had taken little Arthur into the wood that skirts the park, and there seated him on the moss-cushioned roots of an old oak; and, having gathered a hand full of bluebells and wild roses, I was kneeling before him, and presenting them, one by one, to the grasp of his tiny fingers; enjoying the heavenly beauty of the flowers, through the medium of his smiling eyes; forgetting, for the moment, all my cares, laughing at his gleeful laughter, and delighting myself with his delight,——when a shadow suddenly eclipsed the little space of sunshine on the grass before us; and, looking up, I beheld Walter Hargrave standing and gazing upon us.

  `Excuse me, Mrs Huntingdon,' said he, `but I was spellbound; I had neither the power to come forward and interrupt you, nor to withdraw from the contemplation of such a scene.——How vigorous my little godson grows! and how merry he is this morning.' He approached the child and stooped to take his hand; but, on seeing that his caresses were likely to produce tears and lamentations instead of a reciprocation of friendly demonstrations, he prudently drew back.

  `What a pleasure and comfort that little creature must be to you, Mrs Huntingdon!' he observed, with a touch of sadness in his intonation, as he admiringly contemplated the infant.

  `It is,' replied I; and then I asked after his mother and sister.

  He politely answered my enquiries, and then returned again to the subject I wished to avoid; though with a degree of timidity that witnessed his fear to offend.

  `You have not heard from Huntingdon lately?' he said.

  `Not this week,' I replied,——Not these three weeks, I might have said.

  `I had a letter from him this morning. I wish it were such a one as I could show to his lady.' He half drew from his waistcoat pocket a letter with Arthur's still beloved hand on the address, scowled at it, and put it back again, adding——`But he tells me he is about to return next week.'

  `He tells me so every time he writes.'

  `Indeed!——Well it is like him.——But to me he always avowed it his intention to stay till the present month.'

  It struck me like a blow, this proof of premeditated transgression and systematic disregard of truth.

  `It is only of a piece with the rest of his conduct,' observed Mr Hargrave, thoughtfully regarding me, and reading, I suppose, my feelings in my face.

  `Then he is really coming next week?' said I, after a pause.

  `You may rely upon it——if the assurance can give you any pleasure.——And is it possible, Mrs Huntingdon, that you can rejoice at his return?' he exclaimed, attentively perusing my features again.

  `Of course, Mr Hargrave; is he not my husband?'

  `Oh, Huntingdon, you know not what you slight!' he passionately murmured.

  I took up my baby and, wishing him good morning, departed, to indulge my thoughts unscrutinized, within the sanctum of my home.

  And was I glad?——Yes, delighted;——though I was angered by Arthur's conduct, and though I felt that he had wronged me, and was determined he should feel it too.

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