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It was about the close of the month, that, yielding at length to the urgent importunities of Rose, I accompanied her in a visit to Wildfell Hall. To our surprise, we were ushered into a room where the first object that met the eye was a painter's easel, with a table beside it covered with rolls of canvas, bottles of oil and varnish, palette, brushes, paints, &c. Leaning against the wall were several sketches in various stages of progression, and a few finished paintings - mostly of landscapes and figures.
'I must make you welcome to my studio,' said Mrs. Graham; 'there is no fire in the sitting-room to-day, and it is rather too cold to show you into a place with an empty grate.'
And disengaging a couple of chairs from the artistical lumber that usurped them, she bid us be seated, and resumed her place beside the easel - not facing it exactly, but now and then glancing at the picture upon it while she conversed, and giving it an occasional touch with her brush, as if she found it impossible to wean her attention entirely from her occupation to fix it upon her guests. It was a view of Wildfell Hall, as seen at early morning from the field below, rising in dark relief against a sky of clear silvery blue, with a few red streaks on the horizon, faithfully drawn and coloured, and very elegantly and artistically handled.
'I see your heart is in your work, Mrs. Graham,' observed I: 'I must beg you to go on with it; for if you suffer our presence to interrupt you, we shall be constrained to regard ourselves as unwelcome intruders.'
'Oh, no!' replied she, throwing her brush on to the table, as if startled into politeness. 'I am not so beset with visitors but that I can readily spare a few minutes to the few that do favour me with their company.'
'You have almost completed your painting,' said I, approaching to observe it more closely, and surveying it with a greater degree of admiration and delight than I cared to express. 'A few more touches in the foreground will finish it, I should think. But why have you called it Fernley Manor, Cumberland, instead of Wildfell Hall, -shire?' I asked, alluding to the name she had traced in small characters at the bottom of the canvas.
But immediately I was sensible of having committed an act of impertinence in so doing; for she coloured and hesitated; but after a moment's pause, with a kind of desperate frankness, she replied:-
'Because I have friends - acquaintances at least - in the world, from whom I desire my present abode to be concealed; and as they might see the picture, and might possibly recognise the style in spite of the false initials I have put in the corner, I take the precaution to give a false name to the place also, in order to put them on a wrong scent, if they should attempt to trace me out by it.'
'Then you don't intend to keep the picture?' said I, anxious to say anything to change the subject.
'No; I cannot afford to paint for my own amusement.'
'Mamma sends all her pictures to London,' said Arthur; 'and somebody sells them for her there, and sends us the money.'
In looking round upon the other pieces, I remarked a pretty sketch of Linden-hope from the top of the hill; another view of the old hall basking in the sunny haze of a quiet summer afternoon; and a simple but striking little picture of a child brooding, with looks of silent but deep and sorrowful regret, over a handful of withered flowers, with glimpses of dark low hills and autumnal fields behind it, and a dull beclouded sky above.
'You see there is a sad dearth of subjects,' observed the fair artist. 'I took the old hall once on a moonlight night, and I suppose I must take it again on a snowy winter's day, and then again on a dark cloudy evening; for I really have nothing else to paint. I have been told that you have a fine view of the sea somewhere in the neighbourhood. Is it true? - and is it within walking distance?'
'Yes, if you don't object to walking four miles - or nearly so little short of eight miles, there and back - and over a somewhat rough, fatiguing road.'
'In what direction does it lie?'
I described the situation as well as I could, and was entering upon an explanation of the various roads, lanes, and fields to be traversed in order to reach it, the goings straight on, and turnings to the right and the left, when she checked me with, -
'Oh, stop! don't tell me now: I shall forget every word of your directions before I require them. I shall not think about going till next spring; and then, perhaps, I may trouble you. At present we have the winter before us, and - '
She suddenly paused, with a suppressed exclamation, started up from her seat, and saying, 'Excuse me one moment,' hurried from the room, and shut the door behind her.
Curious to see what had startled her so, I looked towards the window - for her eyes had been carelessly fixed upon it the moment before - and just beheld the skirts of a man's coat vanishing behind a large holly-bush that stood between the window and the porch.
'It's mamma's friend,' said Arthur.
Rose and I looked at each other.
'I don't know what to make of her at all,' whispered Rose.
The child looked at her in grave surprise. She straightway began to talk to him on indifferent matters, while I amused myself with looking at the pictures. There was one in an obscure corner that I had not before observed. It was a little child, seated on the grass with its lap full of flowers. The tiny features and large blue eyes, smiling through a shock of light brown curls, shaken over the forehead as it bent above its treasure, bore sufficient resemblance to those of the young gentleman before me to proclaim it a portrait of Arthur Graham in his early infancy.
In taking this up to bring it to the light, I discovered another behind it, with its face to the wall. I ventured to take that up too. It was the portrait of a gentleman in the full prime of youthful manhood - handsome enough, and not badly executed; but if done by the same hand as the others, it was evidently some years before; for there was far more careful minuteness of detail, and less of that freshness of colouring and freedom of handling that delighted and surprised me in them. Nevertheless, I surveyed it with considerable interest. There was a certain individuality in the features and expression that stamped it, at once, a successful likeness. The bright blue eyes regarded the spectator with a kind of lurking drollery - you almost expected to see them wink; the lips - a little too voluptuously full - seemed ready to break into a smile; the warmly-tinted cheeks were embellished with a luxuriant growth of reddish whiskers; while the bright chestnut hair, clustering in abundant, wavy curls, trespassed too much upon the forehead, and seemed to intimate that the owner thereof was prouder of his beauty than his intellect - as, perhaps, he had reason to be; and yet he looked no fool.
I had not had the portrait in my hands two minutes before the fair artist returned.
'Only some one come about the pictures,' said she, in apology for her abrupt departure: 'I told him to wait.'
'I fear it will be considered an act of impertinence,' said 'to presume to look at a picture that the artist has turned to the wall; but may I ask -'
'It is an act of very great impertinence, sir; and therefore I beg you will ask nothing about it, for your curiosity will not be gratified,' replied she, attempting to cover the tartness of her rebuke with a smile; but I could see, by her flushed cheek and kindling eye, that she was seriously annoyed.
'I was only going to ask if you had painted it yourself,' said I, sulkily resigning the picture into her hands; for without a grain of ceremony she took it from me; and quickly restoring it to the dark corner, with its face to the wall, placed the other against it as before, and then turned to me and laughed.
But I was in no humour for jesting. I carelessly turned to the window, and stood looking out upon the desolate garden, leaving her to talk to Rose for a minute or two; and then, telling my sister it was time to go, shook hands with the little gentleman, coolly bowed to the lady, and moved towards the door. But, having bid adieu to Rose, Mrs. Graham presented her hand to me, saying, with a soft voice, and by no means a disagreeable smile, - 'Let not the sun go down upon your wrath, Mr. Markham. I'm sorry I offended you by my abruptness.'
When a lady condescends to apologise, there is no keeping one's anger, of course; so we parted good friends for once; and this time I squeezed her hand with a cordial, not a spiteful pressure.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VI