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Seventh. - Yes, I will hope! To-night I heard Grimsby and Hattersley grumbling together about the inhospitality of their host. They did not know I was near, for I happened to be standing behind the curtain in the bow of the window, watching the moon rising over the clump of tall dark elm-trees below the lawn, and wondering why Arthur was so sentimental as to stand without, leaning against the outer pillar of the portico, apparently watching it too.
'So, I suppose we've seen the last of our merry carousals in this house,' said Mr. Hattersley; 'I thought his good-fellowship wouldn't last long. But,' added he, laughing, 'I didn't expect it would meet its end this way. I rather thought our pretty hostess would be setting up her porcupine quills, and threatening to turn us out of the house if we didn't mind our manners.'
'You didn't foresee this, then?' answered Grimsby, with a guttural chuckle. 'But he'll change again when he's sick of her. If we come here a year or two hence, we shall have all our own way, you'll see.'
'I don't know,' replied the other: 'she's not the style of woman you soon tire of. But be that as it may, it's devilish provoking now that we can't be jolly, because he chooses to be on his good behaviour.'
'It's all these cursed women!' muttered Grimsby: 'they're the very bane of the world! They bring trouble and discomfort wherever they come, with their false, fair faces and their deceitful tongues.'
At this juncture I issued from my retreat, and smiling on Mr. Grimsby as I passed, left the room and went out in search of Arthur. Having seen him bend his course towards the shrubbery, I followed him thither, and found him just entering the shadowy walk. I was so light of heart, so overflowing with affection, that I sprang upon him and clasped him in my arms. This startling conduct had a singular effect upon him: first, he murmured, 'Bless you, darling!' and returned my close embrace with a fervour like old times, and then he started, and, in a tone of absolute terror, exclaimed, 'Helen! what the devil is this?' and I saw, by the faint light gleaming through the overshadowing tree, that he was positively pale with the shock.
How strange that the instinctive impulse of affection should come first, and then the shock of the surprise! It shows, at least, that the affection is genuine: he is not sick of me yet.
'I startled you, Arthur,' said I, laughing in my glee. 'How nervous you are!'
'What the deuce did you do it for?' cried he, quite testily, extricating himself from my arms, and wiping his forehead with his handkerchief. 'Go back, Helen - go back directly! You'll get your death of cold!'
'I won't, till I've told you what I came for. They are blaming you, Arthur, for your temperance and sobriety, and I'm come to thank you for it. They say it is all "these cursed women," and that we are the bane of the world; but don't let them laugh or grumble you out of your good resolutions, or your affection for me.'
He laughed. I squeezed him in my arms again, and cried in tearful earnest, 'Do, do persevere! and I'll love you better than ever I did before!'
'Well, well, I will!' said he, hastily kissing me. 'There, now, go. You mad creature, how could you come out in your light evening dress this chill autumn night?'
'It is a glorious night,' said I.
'It is a night that will give you your death, in another minute. Run away, do!'
'Do you see my death among those trees, Arthur?' said I, for he was gazing intently at the shrubs, as if he saw it coming, and I was reluctant to leave him, in my new-found happiness and revival of hope and love. But he grew angry at my delay, so I kissed him and ran back to the house.
I was in such a good humour that night: Milicent told me I was the life of the party, and whispered she had never seen me so brilliant. Certainly, I talked enough for twenty, and smiled upon them all. Grimsby, Hattersley, Hargrave, Lady Lowborough, all shared my sisterly kindness. Grimsby stared and wondered; Hattersley laughed and jested (in spite of the little wine he had been suffered to imbibe), but still behaved as well as he knew how. Hargrave and Annabella, from different motives and in different ways, emulated me, and doubtless both surpassed me, the former in his discursive versatility and eloquence, the latter in boldness and animation at least. Milicent, delighted to see her husband, her brother, and her over-estimated friend acquitting themselves so well, was lively and gay too, in her quiet way. Even Lord Lowborough caught the general contagion: his dark greenish eyes were lighted up beneath their moody brows; his sombre countenance was beautified by smiles; all traces of gloom and proud or cold reserve had vanished for the time; and he astonished us all, not only by his general cheerfulness and animation, but by the positive flashes of true force and brilliance he emitted from time to time. Arthur did not talk much, but he laughed, and listened to the rest, and was in perfect good-humour, though not excited by wine. So that, altogether, we made a very merry, innocent, and entertaining party.
9th. - Yesterday, when Rachel came to dress me for dinner, I saw that she had been crying. I wanted to know the cause of it, but she seemed reluctant to tell. Was she unwell? No. Had she heard bad news from her friends? No. Had any of the servants vexed her?
'Oh, no, ma'am!' she answered; 'it's not for myself.'
'What then, Rachel? Have you been reading novels?'
'Bless you, no!' said she, with a sorrowful shake of the head; and then she sighed and continued: 'But to tell you the truth, ma'am, I don't like master's ways of going on.'
'What do you mean, Rachel? He's going on very properly at present.'
'Well, ma'am, if you think so, it's right.'
And she went on dressing my hair, in a hurried way, quite unlike her usual calm, collected manner, murmuring, half to herself, she was sure it was beautiful hair: she 'could like to see 'em match it.' When it was done, she fondly stroked it, and gently patted my head.
'Is that affectionate ebullition intended for my hair, or myself, nurse?' said I, laughingly turning round upon her; but a tear was even now in her eye.
'What do you mean, Rachel?' I exclaimed.
'Well, ma'am, I don't know; but if - '
'Well, if I was you, I wouldn't have that Lady Lowborough in the house another minute - not another minute I wouldn't!
I was thunderstruck; but before I could recover from the shock sufficiently to demand an explanation, Milicent entered my room, as she frequently does when she is dressed before me; and she stayed with me till it was time to go down. She must have found me a very unsociable companion this time, for Rachel's last words rang in my ears. But still I hoped, I trusted they had no foundation but in some idle rumour of the servants from what they had seen in Lady Lowborough's manner last month; or perhaps from something that had passed between their master and her during her former visit. At dinner I narrowly observed both her and Arthur, and saw nothing extraordinary in the conduct of either, nothing calculated to excite suspicion, except in distrustful minds, which mine was not, and therefore I would not suspect.
Almost immediately after dinner Annabella went out with her husband to share his moonlight ramble, for it was a splendid evening like the last. Mr. Hargrave entered the drawing-room a little before the others, and challenged me to a game of chess. He did it without any of that sad but proud humility he usually assumes in addressing me, unless he is excited with wine. I looked at his face to see if that was the case now. His eye met mine keenly, but steadily: there was something about him I did not understand, but he seemed sober enough. Not choosing to engage with him, I referred him to Milicent.
'She plays badly,' said he, 'I want to match my skill with yours. Come now! you can't pretend you are reluctant to lay down your work. I know you never take it up except to pass an idle hour, when there is nothing better you can do.'
'But chess-players are so unsociable,' I objected; 'they are no company for any but themselves.'
'There is no one here but Milicent, and she - '
'Oh, I shall be delighted to watch you!' cried our mutual friend. 'Two such players - it will be quite a treat! I wonder which will conquer.'
'Now, Mrs. Huntingdon,' said Hargrave, as he arranged the men on the board, speaking distinctly, and with a peculiar emphasis, as if he had a double meaning to all his words, 'you are a good player, but I am a better: we shall have a long game, and you will give me some trouble; but I can be as patient as you, and in the end I shall certainly win.' He fixed his eyes upon me with a glance I did not like, keen, crafty, bold, and almost impudent; - already half triumphant in his anticipated success.
'I hope not, Mr. Hargrave!' returned I, with vehemence that must have startled Milicent at least; but he only smiled and murmured, 'Time will show.'
We set to work: he sufficiently interested in the game, but calm and fearless in the consciousness of superior skill: I, intensely eager to disappoint his expectations, for I considered this the type of a more serious contest, as I imagined he did, and I felt an almost superstitious dread of being beaten: at all events, I could ill endure that present success should add one tittle to his conscious power (his insolent self-confidence I ought to say), or encourage for a moment his dream of future conquest. His play was cautious and deep, but I struggled hard against him. For some time the combat was doubtful: at length, to my joy, the victory seemed inclining to my side: I had taken several of his best pieces, and manifestly baffled his projects. He put his hand to his brow and paused, in evident perplexity. I rejoiced in my advantage, but dared not glory in it yet. At length, he lifted his head, and quietly making his move, looked at me and said, calmly, 'Now you think you will win, don't you?'
'I hope so,' replied I, taking his pawn that he had pushed into the way of my bishop with so careless an air that I thought it was an oversight, but was not generous enough, under the circumstances, to direct his attention to it, and too heedless, at the moment, to foresee the after-consequences of my move.
'It is those bishops that trouble me,' said he; 'but the bold knight can overleap the reverend gentlemen,' taking my last bishop with his knight; 'and now, those sacred persons once removed, I shall carry all before me.'
'Oh, Walter, how you talk!' cried Milicent; 'she has far more pieces than you still.'
'I intend to give you some trouble yet,' said I; 'and perhaps, sir, you will find yourself checkmated before you are aware. Look to your queen.'
The combat deepened. The game was a long one, and I did give him some trouble: but he was a better player than I.
'What keen gamesters you are!' said Mr. Hattersley, who had now entered, and been watching us for some time. 'Why, Mrs. Huntingdon, your hand trembles as if you had staked your all upon it! and, Walter, you dog, you look as deep and cool as if you were certain of success, and as keen and cruel as if you would drain her heart's blood! But if I were you, I wouldn't beat her, for very fear: she'll hate you if you do - she will, by heaven! I see it in her eye.'
'Hold your tongue, will you?' said I: his talk distracted me, for I was driven to extremities. A few more moves, and I was inextricably entangled in the snare of my antagonist.
'Check,' cried he: I sought in agony some means of escape. 'Mate!' he added, quietly, but with evident delight. He had suspended the utterance of that last fatal syllable the better to enjoy my dismay. I was foolishly disconcerted by the event. Hattersley laughed; Milicent was troubled to see me so disturbed. Hargrave placed his hand on mine that rested on the table, and squeezing it with a firm but gentle pressure, murmured, 'Beaten, beaten!' and gazed into my face with a look where exultation was blended with an expression of ardour and tenderness yet more insulting.
'No, never, Mr. Hargrave!' exclaimed I, quickly withdrawing my hand.
'Do you deny?' replied he, smilingly pointing to the board. 'No, no,' I answered, recollecting how strange my conduct must appear: 'you have beaten me in that game.'
'Will you try another, then?'
'You acknowledge my superiority?'
'Yes, as a chess-player.'
I rose to resume my work.
'Where is Annabella?' said Hargrave, gravely, after glancing round the room.
'Gone out with Lord Lowborough,' answered I, for he looked at me for a reply.
'And not yet returned!' he said, seriously.
'I suppose not.'
'Where is Huntingdon?' looking round again.
'Gone out with Grimsby, as you know,' said Hattersley, suppressing a laugh, which broke forth as he concluded the sentence. Why did he laugh? Why did Hargrave connect them thus together? Was it true, then? And was this the dreadful secret he had wished to reveal to me? I must know, and that quickly. I instantly rose and left the room to go in search of Rachel and demand an explanation of her words; but Mr. Hargrave followed me into the anteroom, and before I could open its outer door, gently laid his hand upon the lock. 'May I tell you something, Mrs. Huntingdon?' said he, in a subdued tone, with serious, downcast eyes.
'If it be anything worth hearing,' replied I, struggling to be composed, for I trembled in every limb.
He quietly pushed a chair towards me. I merely leant my hand upon it, and bid him go on.
'Do not be alarmed,' said he: 'what I wish to say is nothing in itself; and I will leave you to draw your own inferences from it. You say that Annabella is not yet returned?'
'Yes, yes - go on!' said I, impatiently; for I feared my forced calmness would leave me before the end of his disclosure, whatever it might be.
'And you hear,' continued he, 'that Huntingdon is gone out with Grimsby?'
'I heard the latter say to your husband - or the man who calls himself so - '
'Go on, sir!'
He bowed submissively, and continued: 'I heard him say, - "I shall manage it, you'll see! They're gone down by the water; I shall meet them there, and tell him I want a bit of talk with him about some things that we needn't trouble the lady with; and she'll say she can be walking back to the house; and then I shall apologise, you know, and all that, and tip her a wink to take the way of the shrubbery. I'll keep him talking there, about those matters I mentioned, and anything else I can think of, as long as I can, and then bring him round the other way, stopping to look at the trees, the fields, and anything else I can find to discourse of."' Mr. Hargrave paused, and looked at me.
Without a word of comment or further questioning, I rose, and darted from the room and out of the house. The torment of suspense was not to be endured: I would not suspect my husband falsely, on this man's accusation, and I would not trust him unworthily - I must know the truth at once. I flew to the shrubbery. Scarcely had I reached it, when a sound of voices arrested my breathless speed.
'We have lingered too long; he will be back,' said Lady Lowborough's voice.
'Surely not, dearest!' was his reply; 'but you can run across the lawn, and get in as quietly as you can; I'll follow in a while.'
My knees trembled under me; my brain swam round. I was ready to faint. She must not see me thus. I shrunk among the bushes, and leant against the trunk of a tree to let her pass.
'Ah, Huntingdon!' said she reproachfully, pausing where I had stood with him the night before - 'it was here you kissed that woman!' she looked back into the leafy shade. Advancing thence, he answered, with a careless laugh, -
'Well, dearest, I couldn't help it. You know I must keep straight with her as long as I can. Haven't I seen you kiss your dolt of a husband scores of times? - and do I ever complain?'
'But tell me, don't you love her still - a little?' said she, placing her hand on his arm, looking earnestly in his face - for I could see them, plainly, the moon shining full upon them from between the branches of the tree that sheltered me.
'Not one bit, by all that's sacred!' he replied, kissing her glowing cheek.
'Good heavens, I must be gone!' cried she, suddenly breaking from him, and away she flew.
There he stood before me; but I had not strength to confront him now: my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth; I was well-nigh sinking to the earth, and I almost wondered he did not hear the beating of my heart above the low sighing of the wind and the fitful rustle of the falling leaves. My senses seemed to fail me, but still I saw his shadowy form pass before me, and through the rushing sound in my ears I distinctly heard him say, as he stood looking up the lawn, - 'There goes the fool! Run, Annabella, run! There - in with you! Ah, - he didn't see! That's right, Grimsby, keep him back!' And even his low laugh reached me as he walked away.
'God help me now!' I murmured, sinking on my knees among the damp weeds and brushwood that surrounded me, and looking up at the moonlit sky, through the scant foliage above. It seemed all dim and quivering now to my darkened sight. My burning, bursting heart strove to pour forth its agony to God, but could not frame its anguish into prayer; until a gust of wind swept over me, which, while it scattered the dead leaves, like blighted hopes, around, cooled my forehead, and seemed a little to revive my sinking frame. Then, while I lifted up my soul in speechless, earnest supplication, some heavenly influence seemed to strengthen me within: I breathed more freely; my vision cleared; I saw distinctly the pure moon shining on, and the light clouds skimming the clear, dark sky; and then I saw the eternal stars twinkling down upon me; I knew their God was mine, and He was strong to save and swift to hear. 'I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,' seemed whispered from above their myriad orbs. No, no; I felt He would not leave me comfortless: in spite of earth and hell I should have strength for all my trials, and win a glorious rest at last!
Refreshed, invigorated, if not composed, I rose and returned to the house. Much of my new-born strength and courage forsook me, I confess, as I entered it, and shut out the fresh wind and the glorious sky: everything I saw and heard seemed to sicken my heart - the hall, the lamp, the staircase, the doors of the different apartments, the social sound of talk and laughter from the drawingroom. How could I bear my future life! In this house, among those people - oh, how could I endure to live! John just then entered the hall, and seeing me, told me he had been sent in search of me, adding that he had taken in the tea, and master wished to know if I were coming.
'Ask Mrs. Hattersley to be so kind as to make the tea, John,' said I. 'Say I am not well to-night, and wish to be excused.'
I retired into the large, empty dining-room, where all was silence and darkness, but for the soft sighing of the wind without, and the faint gleam of moonlight that pierced the blinds and curtains; and there I walked rapidly up and down, thinking of my bitter thoughts alone. How different was this from the evening of yesterday! That, it seems, was the last expiring flash of my life's happiness. Poor, blinded fool that I was to be so happy! I could now see the reason of Arthur's strange reception of me in the shrubbery; the burst of kindness was for his paramour, the start of horror for his wife. Now, too, I could better understand the conversation between Hattersley and Grimsby; it was doubtless of his love for her they spoke, not for me.
I heard the drawing-room door open: a light quick step came out of the ante-room, crossed the hall, and ascended the stairs. It was Milicent, poor Milicent, gone to see how I was - no one else cared for me; but she still was kind. I shed no tears before, but now they came, fast and free. Thus she did me good, without approaching me. Disappointed in her search, I heard her come down, more slowly than she had ascended. Would she come in there, and find me out? No, she turned in the opposite direction and reentered the drawing-room. I was glad, for I knew not how to meet her, or what to say. I wanted no confidante in my distress. I deserved none, and I wanted none. I had taken the burden upon myself; let me bear it alone.
As the usual hour of retirement approached I dried my eyes, and tried to clear my voice and calm my mind. I must see Arthur tonight, and speak to him; but I would do it calmly: there should be no scene - nothing to complain or to boast of to his companions nothing to laugh at with his lady-love. When the company were retiring to their chambers I gently opened the door, and just as he passed, beckoned him in.
'What's to do with you, Helen?' said he. 'Why couldn't you come to make tea for us? and what the deuce are you here for, in the dark? What ails you, young woman: you look like a ghost!' he continued, surveying me by the light of his candle.
'No matter,' I answered, 'to you; you have no longer any regard for me it appears; and I have no longer any for you.'
'Hal-lo! what the devil is this?' he muttered.
'I would leave you to-morrow,' continued I, 'and never again come under this roof, but for my child' - I paused a moment to steady, my voice.
'What in the devil's name is this, Helen?' cried he. 'What can you be driving at?'
'You know perfectly well. Let us waste no time in useless explanation, but tell me, will you -?'
He vehemently swore he knew nothing about it, and insisted upon hearing what poisonous old woman had been blackening his name, and what infamous lies I had been fool enough to believe.
'Spare yourself the trouble of forswearing yourself and racking your brains to stifle truth with falsehood,' I coldly replied. 'I have trusted to the testimony of no third person. I was in the shrubbery this evening, and I saw and heard for myself.'
This was enough. He uttered a suppressed exclamation of consternation and dismay, and muttering, 'I shall catch it now!' set down his candle on the nearest chair, and rearing his back against the wall, stood confronting me with folded arms.
'Well, what then?' said he, with the calm insolence of mingled shamelessness and desperation.
'Only this,' returned I; 'will you let me take our child and what remains of my fortune, and go?'
'Anywhere, where he will be safe from your contaminating influence, and I shall be delivered from your presence, and you from mine.'
'Will you let me have the child then, without the money?'
'No, nor yourself without the child. Do you think I'm going to be made the talk of the country for your fastidious caprices?'
'Then I must stay here, to be hated and despised. But henceforth we are husband and wife only in the name.'
'I am your child's mother, and your housekeeper, nothing more. So you need not trouble yourself any longer to feign the love you cannot feel: I will exact no more heartless caresses from you, nor offer nor endure them either. I will not be mocked with the empty husk of conjugal endearments, when you have given the substance to another!'
'Very good, if you please. We shall see who will tire first, my lady.'
'If I tire, it will be of living in the world with you: not of living without your mockery of love. When you tire of your sinful ways, and show yourself truly repentant, I will forgive you, and, perhaps, try to love you again, though that will be hard indeed.'
'Humph! and meantime you will go and talk me over to Mrs. Hargrave, and write long letters to aunt Maxwell to complain of the wicked wretch you have married?'
'I shall complain to no one. Hitherto I have struggled hard to hide your vices from every eye, and invest you with virtues you never possessed; but now you must look to yourself.'
I left him muttering bad language to himself, and went up-stairs.
'You are poorly, ma'am,' said Rachel, surveying me with deep anxiety.
'It is too true, Rachel,' said I, answering her sad looks rather than her words.
'I knew it, or I wouldn't have mentioned such a thing.'
'But don't you trouble yourself about it,' said I, kissing her pale, time-wasted cheek. 'I can bear it better than you imagine.'
'Yes, you were always for "bearing." But if I was you I wouldn't bear it; I'd give way to it, and cry right hard! and I'd talk too, I just would - I'd let him know what it was to - '
'I have talked,' said I; 'I've said enough.'
'Then I'd cry,' persisted she. 'I wouldn't look so white and so calm, and burst my heart with keeping it in.'
'I have cried,' said I, smiling, in spite of my misery; 'and I am calm now, really: so don't discompose me again, nurse: let us say no more about it, and don't mention it to the servants. There, you may go now. Good-night; and don't disturb your rest for me: I shall sleep well - if I can.'
Notwithstanding this resolution, I found my bed so intolerable that, before two o'clock, I rose, and lighting my candle by the rushlight that was still burning, I got my desk and sat down in my dressing-gown to recount the events of the past evening. It was better to be so occupied than to be lying in bed torturing my brain with recollections of the far past and anticipations of the dreadful future. I have found relief in describing the very circumstances that have destroyed my peace, as well as the little trivial details attendant upon their discovery. No sleep I could have got this night would have done so much towards composing my mind, and preparing me to meet the trials of the day. I fancy so, at least; and yet, when I cease writing, I find my head aches terribly; and when I look into the glass, I am startled at my haggard, worn appearance.
Rachel has been to dress me, and says I have had a sad night of it, she can see. Milicent has just looked in to ask me how I was. I told her I was better, but to excuse my appearance admitted I had had a restless night. I wish this day were over! I shudder at the thoughts of going down to breakfast. How shall I encounter them all? Yet let me remember it is not I that am guilty: I have no cause to fear; and if they scorn me as a victim of their guilt, I can pity their folly and despise their scorn.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXXIV