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Six weeks had passed away. It was a splendid morning about the close of June. Most of the hay was cut, but the last week had been very unfavourable; and now that fine weather was come at last, being determined to make the most of it, I had gathered all hands together into the hay-field, and was working away myself, in the midst of them, in my shirt-sleeves, with a light, shady straw hat on my head, catching up armfuls of moist, reeking grass, and shaking it out to the four winds of heaven, at the head of a goodly file of servants and hirelings - intending so to labour, from morning till night, with as much zeal and assiduity as I could look for from any of them, as well to prosper the work by my own exertion as to animate the workers by my example - when lo! my resolutions were overthrown in a moment, by the simple fact of my brother's running up to me and putting into my hand a small parcel, just arrived from London, which I had been for some time expecting. I tore off the cover, and disclosed an elegant and portable edition of 'Marmion.'
'I guess I know who that's for,' said Fergus, who stood looking on while I complacently examined the volume. 'That's for Miss Eliza, now.'
He pronounced this with a tone and look so prodigiously knowing, that I was glad to contradict him.
'You're wrong, my lad,' said I; and, taking up my coat, I deposited the book in one of its pockets, and then put it on (i.e. the coat). 'Now come here, you idle dog, and make yourself useful for once,' I continued. 'Pull off your coat, and take my place in the field till I come back.'
'Till you come back? - and where are you going, pray?
'No matter where - the when is all that concerns you; - and I shall be back by dinner, at least.'
'Oh - oh! and I'm to labour away till then, am I? - and to keep all these fellows hard at it besides? Well, well! I'll submit - for once in a way. - Come, my lads, you must look sharp: I'm come to help you now:- and woe be to that man, or woman either, that pauses for a moment amongst you - whether to stare about him, to scratch his head, or blow his nose - no pretext will serve - nothing but work, work, work in the sweat of your face,' &c., &c.
Leaving him thus haranguing the people, more to their amusement than edification, I returned to the house, and, having made some alteration in my toilet, hastened away to Wildfell Hall, with the book in my pocket; for it was destined for the shelves of Mrs. Graham.
'What! then had she and you got on so well together as to come to the giving and receiving of presents?' - Not precisely, old buck; this was my first experiment in that line; and I was very anxious to see the result of it.
We had met several times since the - Bay excursion, and I had found she was not averse to my company, provided I confined my conversation to the discussion of abstract matters, or topics of common interest; - the moment I touched upon the sentimental or the complimentary, or made the slightest approach to tenderness in word or look, I was not only punished by an immediate change in her manner at the time, but doomed to find her more cold and distant, if not entirely inaccessible, when next I sought her company. This circumstance did not greatly disconcert me, however, because I attributed it, not so much to any dislike of my person, as to some absolute resolution against a second marriage formed prior to the time of our acquaintance, whether from excess of affection for her late husband, or because she had had enough of him and the matrimonial state together. At first, indeed, she had seemed to take a pleasure in mortifying my vanity and crushing my presumption - relentlessly nipping off bud by bud as they ventured to appear; and then, I confess, I was deeply wounded, though, at the same time, stimulated to seek revenge; - but latterly finding, beyond a doubt, that I was not that empty-headed coxcomb she had first supposed me, she had repulsed my modest advances in quite a different spirit. It was a kind of serious, almost sorrowful displeasure, which I soon learnt carefully to avoid awakening.
'Let me first establish my position as a friend,' thought I - 'the patron and playfellow of her son, the sober, solid, plain-dealing friend of herself, and then, when I have made myself fairly necessary to her comfort and enjoyment in life (as I believe I can), we'll see what next may be effected.'
So we talked about painting, poetry, and music, theology, geology, and philosophy: once or twice I lent her a book, and once she lent me one in return: I met her in her walks as often as I could; I came to her house as often as I dared. My first pretext for invading the sanctum was to bring Arthur a little waddling puppy of which Sancho was the father, and which delighted the child beyond expression, and, consequently, could not fail to please his mamma. My second was to bring him a book, which, knowing his mother's particularity, I had carefully selected, and which I submitted for her approbation before presenting it to him. Then, I brought her some plants for her garden, in my sister's name - having previously persuaded Rose to send them. Each of these times I inquired after the picture she was painting from the sketch taken on the cliff, and was admitted into the studio, and asked my opinion or advice respecting its progress.
My last visit had been to return the book she had lent me; and then it was that, in casually discussing the poetry of Sir Walter Scott, she had expressed a wish to see 'Marmion,' and I had conceived the presumptuous idea of making her a present of it, and, on my return home, instantly sent for the smart little volume I had this morning received. But an apology for invading the hermitage was still necessary; so I had furnished myself with a blue morocco collar for Arthur's little dog; and that being given and received, with much more joy and gratitude, on the part of the receiver, than the worth of the gift or the selfish motive of the giver deserved, I ventured to ask Mrs. Graham for one more look at the picture, if it was still there.
'Oh, yes! come in,' said she (for I had met them in the garden). 'It is finished and framed, all ready for sending away; but give me your last opinion, and if you can suggest any further improvement, it shall be - duly considered, at least.'
The picture was strikingly beautiful; it was the very scene itself, transferred as if by magic to the canvas; but I expressed my approbation in guarded terms, and few words, for fear of displeasing her. She, however, attentively watched my looks, and her artist's pride was gratified, no doubt, to read my heartfelt admiration in my eyes. But, while I gazed, I thought upon the book, and wondered how it was to be presented. My heart failed me; but I determined not to be such a fool as to come away without having made the attempt. It was useless waiting for an opportunity, and useless trying to concoct a speech for the occasion. The more plainly and naturally the thing was done, the better, I thought; so I just looked out of the window to screw up my courage, and then pulled out the book, turned round, and put it into her hand, with this short explanation:
'You were wishing to see 'Marmion,' Mrs. Graham; and here it is, if you will be so kind as to take it.'
A momentary blush suffused her face - perhaps, a blush of sympathetic shame for such an awkward style of presentation: she gravely examined the volume on both sides; then silently turned over the leaves, knitting her brows the while, in serious cogitation; then closed the book, and turning from it to me, quietly asked the price of it - I felt the hot blood rush to my face.
'I'm sorry to offend you, Mr. Markham,' said she, 'but unless I pay for the book, I cannot take it.' And she laid it on the table.
'Why cannot you?'
'Because,' - she paused, and looked at the carpet.
'Why cannot you?' I repeated, with a degree of irascibility that roused her to lift her eyes and look me steadily in the face.
'Because I don't like to put myself under obligations that I can never repay - I am obliged to you already for your kindness to my son; but his grateful affection and your own good feelings must reward you for that.'
'Nonsense!' ejaculated I.
She turned her eyes on me again, with a look of quiet, grave surprise, that had the effect of a rebuke, whether intended for such or not.
'Then you won't take the book?' I asked, more mildly than I had yet spoken.
'I will gladly take it, if you will let me pay for it.' I told her the exact price, and the cost of the carriage besides, in as calm a tone as I could command - for, in fact, I was ready to weep with disappointment and vexation.
She produced her purse, and coolly counted out the money, but hesitated to put it into my hand. Attentively regarding me, in a tone of soothing softness, she observed, - 'You think yourself insulted, Mr Markham - I wish I could make you understand that that I - '
'I do understand you, perfectly,' I said. 'You think that if you were to accept that trifle from me now, I should presume upon it hereafter; but you are mistaken:- if you will only oblige me by taking it, believe me, I shall build no hopes upon it, and consider this no precedent for future favours:- and it is nonsense to talk about putting yourself under obligations to me when you must know that in such a case the obligation is entirely on my side, - the favour on yours.'
'Well, then, I'll take you at your word,' she answered, with a most angelic smile, returning the odious money to her purse - 'but remember!'
'I will remember - what I have said; - but do not you punish my presumption by withdrawing your friendship entirely from me, - or expect me to atone for it by being more distant than before,' said I, extending my hand to take leave, for I was too much excited to remain.
'Well, then! let us be as we were,' replied she, frankly placing her hand in mine; and while I held it there, I had much difficulty to refrain from pressing it to my lips; - but that would be suicidal madness: I had been bold enough already, and this premature offering had well-nigh given the death-blow to my hopes.
It was with an agitated, burning heart and brain that I hurried homewards, regardless of that scorching noonday sun - forgetful of everything but her I had just left - regretting nothing but her impenetrability, and my own precipitancy and want of tact - fearing nothing but her hateful resolution, and my inability to overcome it - hoping nothing - but halt, - I will not bore you with my conflicting hopes and fears - my serious cogitations and resolves.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER IX