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That day was rainy like its predecessor; but towards evening it began to clear up a little, and the next morning was fair and promising. I was out on the hill with the reapers. A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine. The lark was rejoicing among the silvery floating clouds. The late rain had so sweetly freshened and cleared the air, and washed the sky, and left such glittering gems on branch and blade, that not even the farmers could have the heart to blame it. But no ray of sunshine could reach my heart, no breeze could freshen it; nothing could fill the void my faith, and hope, and joy in Helen Graham had left, or drive away the keen regrets and bitter dregs of lingering love that still oppressed it.
While I stood with folded arms abstractedly gazing on the undulating swell of the corn, not yet disturbed by the reapers, something gently pulled my skirts, and a small voice, no longer welcome to my ears, aroused me with the startling words, - 'Mr. Markham, mamma wants you.'
'Wants me, Arthur?'
'Yes. Why do you look so queer?' said he, half laughing, half frightened at the unexpected aspect of my face in suddenly turning towards him, - 'and why have you kept so long away? Come! Won't you come?'
'I'm busy just now,' I replied, scarce knowing what to answer.
He looked up in childish bewilderment; but before I could speak again the lady herself was at my side.
'Gilbert, I must speak with you!' said she, in a tone of suppressed vehemence.
I looked at her pale cheek and glittering eye, but answered nothing.
'Only for a moment,' pleaded she. 'Just step aside into this other field.' She glanced at the reapers, some of whom were directing looks of impertinent curiosity towards her. 'I won't keep you a minute.'
I accompanied her through the gap.
'Arthur, darling, run and gather those bluebells,' said she, pointing to some that were gleaming at some distance under the hedge along which we walked. The child hesitated, as if unwilling to quit my side. 'Go, love!' repeated she more urgently, and in a tone which, though not unkind, demanded prompt obedience, and obtained it.
'Well, Mrs. Graham?' said I, calmly and coldly; for, though I saw she was miserable, and pitied her, I felt glad to have it in my power to torment her.
She fixed her eyes upon me with a look that pierced me to the heart; and yet it made me smile.
'I don't ask the reason of this change, Gilbert,' said she, with bitter calmness: 'I know it too well; but though I could see myself suspected and condemned by every one else, and bear it with calmness, I cannot endure it from you. - Why did you not come to hear my explanation on the day I appointed to give it?'
'Because I happened, in the interim, to learn all you would have told me - and a trifle more, I imagine.'
'Impossible, for I would have told you all!' cried she, passionately - 'but I won't now, for I see you are not worthy of it!'
And her pale lips quivered with agitation.
'Why not, may I ask?'
She repelled my mocking smile with a glance of scornful indignation.
'Because you never understood me, or you would not soon have listened to my traducers - my confidence would be misplaced in you - you are not the man I thought you. Go! I won't care what you think of me.'
She turned away, and I went; for I thought that would torment her as much as anything; and I believe I was right; for, looking back a minute after, I saw her turn half round, as if hoping or expecting to find me still beside her; and then she stood still, and cast one look behind. It was a look less expressive of anger than of bitter anguish and despair; but I immediately assumed an aspect of indifference, and affected to be gazing carelessly around me, and I suppose she went on; for after lingering awhile to see if she would come back or call, I ventured one more glance, and saw her a good way off, moving rapidly up the field, with little Arthur running by her side and apparently talking as he went; but she kept her face averted from him, as if to hide some uncontrollable emotion. And I returned to my business.
But I soon began to regret my precipitancy in leaving her so soon. It was evident she loved me - probably she was tired of Mr. Lawrence, and wished to exchange him for me; and if I had loved and reverenced her less to begin with, the preference might have gratified and amused me; but now the contrast between her outward seeming and her inward mind, as I supposed, - between my former and my present opinion of her, was so harrowing - so distressing to my feelings, that it swallowed up every lighter consideration.
But still I was curious to know what sort of an explanation she would have given me - or would give now, if I pressed her for it how much she would confess, and how she would endeavour to excuse herself. I longed to know what to despise, and what to admire in her; how much to pity, and how much to hate; - and, what was more, I would know. I would see her once more, and fairly satisfy myself in what light to regard her, before we parted. Lost to me she was, for ever, of course; but still I could not bear to think that we had parted, for the last time, with so much unkindness and misery on both sides. That last look of hers had sunk into my heart; I could not forget it. But what a fool I was! Had she not deceived me, injured me - blighted my happiness for life? 'Well, I'll see her, however,' was my concluding resolve, 'but not to-day: to-day and to-night she may think upon her sins, and be as miserable as she will: to-morrow I will see her once again, and know something more about her. The interview may be serviceable to her, or it may not. At any rate, it will give a breath of excitement to the life she has doomed to stagnation, and may calm with certainty some agitating thoughts.'
I did go on the morrow, but not till towards evening, after the business of the day was concluded, that is, between six and seven; and the westering sun was gleaming redly on the old Hall, and flaming in the latticed windows, as I reached it, imparting to the place a cheerfulness not its own. I need not dilate upon the feelings with which I approached the shrine of my former divinity that spot teeming with a thousand delightful recollections and glorious dreams - all darkened now by one disastrous truth
Rachel admitted me into the parlour, and went to call her mistress, for she was not there: but there was her desk left open on the little round table beside the high-backed chair, with a book laid upon it. Her limited but choice collection of books was almost as familiar to me as my own; but this volume I had not seen before. I took it up. It was Sir Humphry Davy's 'Last Days of a Philosopher,' and on the first leaf was written, 'Frederick Lawrence.' I closed the book, but kept it in my hand, and stood facing the door, with my back to the fire-place, calmly waiting her arrival; for I did not doubt she would come. And soon I heard her step in the hall. My heart was beginning to throb, but I checked it with an internal rebuke, and maintained my composure - outwardly at least. She entered, calm, pale, collected.
'To what am I indebted for this favour, Mr. Markham?' said she, with such severe but quiet dignity as almost disconcerted me; but I answered with a smile, and impudently enough, -
'Well, I am come to hear your explanation.'
'I told you I would not give it,' said she. 'I said you were unworthy of my confidence.'
'Oh, very well,' replied I, moving to the door.
'Stay a moment,' said she. 'This is the last time I shall see you: don't go just yet.'
I remained, awaiting her further commands.
'Tell me,' resumed she, 'on what grounds you believe these things against me; who told you; and what did they say?'
I paused a moment. She met my eye as unflinchingly as if her bosom had been steeled with conscious innocence. She was resolved to know the worst, and determined to dare it too. 'I can crush that bold spirit,' thought I. But while I secretly exulted in my power, I felt disposed to dally with my victim like a cat. Showing her the book that I still held, in my hand, and pointing to the name on the fly-leaf, but fixing my eye upon her face, I asked, - 'Do you know that gentleman?'
'Of course I do,' replied she; and a sudden flush suffused her features - whether of shame or anger I could not tell: it rather resembled the latter. 'What next, sir?'
'How long is it since you saw him?'
'Who gave you the right to catechize me on this or any other subject?'
'Oh, no one! - it's quite at your option whether to answer or not. And now, let me ask - have you heard what has lately befallen this friend of yours? - because, if you have not - '
'I will not be insulted, Mr. Markham!' cried she, almost infuriated at my manner. 'So you had better leave the house at once, if you came only for that.'
'I did not come to insult you: I came to hear your explanation.'
'And I tell you I won't give it!' retorted she, pacing the room in a state of strong excitement, with her hands clasped tightly together, breathing short, and flashing fires of indignation from her eyes. 'I will not condescend to explain myself to one that can make a jest of such horrible suspicions, and be so easily led to entertain them.'
'I do not make a jest of them, Mrs. Graham,' returned I, dropping at once my tone of taunting sarcasm. 'I heartily wish I could find them a jesting matter. And as to being easily led to suspect, God only knows what a blind, incredulous fool I have hitherto been, perseveringly shutting my eyes and stopping my ears against everything that threatened to shake my confidence in you, till proof itself confounded my infatuation!'
'What proof, sir?'
'Well, I'll tell you. You remember that evening when I was here last?'
'Even then you dropped some hints that might have opened the eyes of a wiser man; but they had no such effect upon me: I went on trusting and believing, hoping against hope, and adoring where I could not comprehend. It so happened, however, that after I left you I turned back - drawn by pure depth of sympathy and ardour of affection - not daring to intrude my presence openly upon you, but unable to resist the temptation of catching one glimpse through the window, just to see how you were: for I had left you apparently in great affliction, and I partly blamed my own want of forbearance and discretion as the cause of it. If I did wrong, love alone was my incentive, and the punishment was severe enough; for it was just as I had reached that tree, that you came out into the garden with your friend. Not choosing to show myself, under the circumstances, I stood still, in the shadow, till you had both passed by.'
'And how much of our conversation did you hear?'
'I heard quite enough, Helen. And it was well for me that I did hear it; for nothing less could have cured my infatuation. I always said and thought, that I would never believe a word against you, unless I heard it from your own lips. All the hints and affirmations of others I treated as malignant, baseless slanders; your own self-accusations I believed to be overstrained; and all that seemed unaccountable in your position I trusted that you could account for if you chose.'
Mrs. Graham had discontinued her walk. She leant against one end of the chimney-piece, opposite that near which I was standing, with her chin resting on her closed hand, her eyes - no longer burning with anger, but gleaming with restless excitement - sometimes glancing at me while I spoke, then coursing the opposite wall, or fixed upon the carpet.
'You should have come to me after all,' said she, 'and heard what I had to say in my own justification. It was ungenerous and wrong to withdraw yourself so secretly and suddenly, immediately after such ardent protestations of attachment, without ever assigning a reason for the change. You should have told me all-no matter how bitterly. It would have been better than this silence.'
'To what end should I have done so? You could not have enlightened me further, on the subject which alone concerned me; nor could you have made me discredit the evidence of my senses. I desired our intimacy to be discontinued at once, as you yourself had acknowledged would probably be the case if I knew all; but I did not wish to upbraid you, - though (as you also acknowledged) you had deeply wronged me. Yes, you have done me an injury you can never repair - or any other either - you have blighted the freshness and promise of youth, and made my life a wilderness! I might live a hundred years, but I could never recover from the effects of this withering blow - and never forget it! Hereafter You smile, Mrs. Graham,' said I, suddenly stopping short, checked in my passionate declamation by unutterable feelings to behold her actually smiling at the picture of the ruin she had wrought.
'Did I?' replied she, looking seriously up; 'I was not aware of it. If I did, it was not for pleasure at the thoughts of the harm I had done you. Heaven knows I have had torment enough at the bare possibility of that; it was for joy to find that you had some depth of soul and feeling after all, and to hope that I had not been utterly mistaken in your worth. But smiles and tears are so alike with me, they are neither of them confined to any particular feelings: I often cry when I am happy, and smile when I am sad.'
She looked at me again, and seemed to expect a reply; but I continued silent.
'Would you be very glad,' resumed she, 'to find that you were mistaken in your conclusions?'
'How can you ask it, Helen?'
'I don't say I can clear myself altogether,' said she, speaking low and fast, while her heart beat visibly and her bosom heaved with excitement, - 'but would you be glad to discover I was better than you think me?'
'Anything that could in the least degree tend to restore my former opinion of you, to excuse the regard I still feel for you, and alleviate the pangs of unutterable regret that accompany it, would be only too gladly, too eagerly received!' Her cheeks burned, and her whole frame trembled, now, with excess of agitation. She did not speak, but flew to her desk, and snatching thence what seemed a thick album or manuscript volume, hastily tore away a few leaves from the end, and thrust the rest into my hand, saying, 'You needn't read it all; but take it home with you,' and hurried from the room. But when I had left the house, and was proceeding down the walk, she opened the window and called me back. It was only to say, - 'Bring it back when you have read it; and don't breathe a word of what it tells you to any living being. I trust to your honour.'
Before I could answer she had closed the casement and turned away. I saw her cast herself back in the old oak chair, and cover her face with her hands. Her feelings had been wrought to a pitch that rendered it necessary to seek relief in tears.
Panting with eagerness, and struggling to suppress my hopes, I hurried home, and rushed up-stairs to my room, having first provided myself with a candle, though it was scarcely twilight yet - then, shut and bolted the door, determined to tolerate no interruption; and sitting down before the table, opened out my prize and delivered myself up to its perusal - first hastily turning over the leaves and snatching a sentence here and there, and then setting myself steadily to read it through.
I have it now before me; and though you could not, of course, peruse it with half the interest that I did, I know you would not be satisfied with an abbreviation of its contents, and you shall have the whole, save, perhaps, a few passages here and there of merely temporary interest to the writer, or such as would serve to encumber the story rather than elucidate it. It begins somewhat abruptly, thus - but we will reserve its commencement for another chapter.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XVI