The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1920 John Murray edition)/Chapter 27
October 9th. - It was on the night of the 4th, a little after tea, that Annabella had been singing and playing, with Arthur as usual at her side: she had ended her song, but still she sat at the instrument; and he stood leaning on the back of her chair, conversing in scarcely audible tones, with his face in very close proximity with hers. I looked at Lord Lowborough. He was at the other end of the room, talking with Messrs. Hargrave and Grimsby; but I saw him dart towards his lady and his host a quick, impatient glance, expressive of intense disquietude, at which Grimsby smiled. Determined to interrupt the tete-e-tete, I rose, and, selecting a piece of music from the music stand, stepped up to the piano, intending to ask the lady to play it; but I stood transfixed and speechless on seeing her seated there, listening, with what seemed an exultant smile on her flushed face to his soft murmurings, with her hand quietly surrendered to his clasp. The blood rushed first to my heart, and then to my head; for there was more than this: almost at the moment of my approach, he cast a hurried glance over his shoulder towards the other occupants of the room, and then ardently pressed the unresisting hand to his lips. On raising his eyes, he beheld me, and dropped them again, confounded and dismayed. She saw me too, and confronted me with a look of hard defiance. I laid the music on the piano, and retired. I felt ill; but I did not leave the room: happily, it was getting late, and could not be long before the company dispersed.
I went to the fire, and leant my head against the chimney-piece. In a minute or two, some one asked me if I felt unwell. I did not answer; indeed, at the time, I knew not what was said; but I mechanically looked up, and saw Mr. Hargrave standing beside me on the rug.
'Shall I get you a glass of wine?' said he.
'No, thank you,' I replied; and, turning from him, I looked round. Lady Lowborough was beside her husband, bending over him as he sat, with her hand on his shoulder, softly talking and smiling in his face; and Arthur was at the table, turning over a book of engravings. I seated myself in the nearest chair; and Mr. Hargrave, finding his services were not desired, judiciously withdrew. Shortly after, the company broke up, and, as the guests were retiring to their rooms, Arthur approached me, smiling with the utmost assurance.
'Are you very angry, Helen?' murmured he.
'This is no jest, Arthur,' said I, seriously, but as calmly as I could - 'unless you think it a jest to lose my affection for ever.'
'What! so bitter?' he exclaimed, laughingly, clasping my hand between both his; but I snatched it away, in indignation - almost in disgust, for he was obviously affected with wine.
'Then I must go down on my knees,' said he; and kneeling before me, with clasped hands, uplifted in mock humiliation, he continued imploringly - 'Forgive me, Helen - dear Helen, forgive me, and I'll never do it again!' and, burying his face in his handkerchief, he affected to sob aloud.
Leaving him thus employed, I took my candle, and, slipping quietly from the room, hastened up-stairs as fast as I could. But he soon discovered that I had left him, and, rushing up after me, caught me in his arms, just as I had entered the chamber, and was about to shut the door in his face.
'No, no, by heaven, you sha'n't escape me so!' he cried. Then, alarmed at my agitation, he begged me not to put myself in such a passion, telling me I was white in the face, and should kill myself if I did so.
'Let me go, then,' I murmured; and immediately he released me - and it was well he did, for I was really in a passion. I sank into the easy-chair and endeavoured to compose myself, for I wanted to speak to him calmly. He stood beside me, but did not venture to touch me or to speak for a few seconds; then, approaching a little nearer, he dropped on one knee - not in mock humility, but to bring himself nearer my level, and leaning his hand on the arm of the chair, he began in a low voice: 'It is all nonsense, Helen - a jest, a mere nothing - not worth a thought. Will you never learn,' he continued more boldly, 'that you have nothing to fear from me? that I love you wholly and entirely? - or if,' he added with a lurking smile, 'I ever give a thought to another, you may well spare it, for those fancies are here and gone like a flash of lightning, while my love for you burns on steadily, and for ever, like the sun. You little exorbitant tyrant, will not that -?'
'Be quiet a moment, will you, Arthur?' said I, 'and listen to me - and don't think I'm in a jealous fury: I am perfectly calm. Feel my hand.' And I gravely extended it towards him - but closed it upon his with an energy that seemed to disprove the assertion, and made him smile. 'You needn't smile, sir,' said I, still tightening my grasp, and looking steadfastly on him till he almost quailed before me. 'You may think it all very fine, Mr. Huntingdon, to amuse yourself with rousing my jealousy; but take care you don't rouse my hate instead. And when you have once extinguished my love, you will find it no easy matter to kindle it again.'
'Well, Helen, I won't repeat the offence. But I meant nothing by it, I assure you. I had taken too much wine, and I was scarcely myself at the time.'
'You often take too much; and that is another practice I detest.' He looked up astonished at my warmth. 'Yes,' I continued; 'I never mentioned it before, because I was ashamed to do so; but now I'll tell you that it distresses me, and may disgust me, if you go on and suffer the habit to grow upon you, as it will if you don't check it in time. But the whole system of your conduct to Lady Lowborough is not referable to wine; and this night you knew perfectly well what you were doing.'
'Well, I'm sorry for it,' replied he, with more of sulkiness than contrition: 'what more would you have?'
'You are sorry that I saw you, no doubt,' I answered coldly.
'If you had not seen me,' he muttered, fixing his eyes on the carpet, 'it would have done no harm.'
My heart felt ready to burst; but I resolutely swallowed back my emotion, and answered calmly,
'You think not?'
'No,' replied he, boldly. 'After all, what have I done? It's nothing - except as you choose to make it a subject of accusation and distress.'
'What would Lord Lowborough, your friend, think, if he knew all? or what would you yourself think, if he or any other had acted the same part to me, throughout, as you have to Annabella?'
'I would blow his brains out.'
'Well, then, Arthur, how can you call it nothing - an offence for which you would think yourself justified in blowing another man's brains out? Is it nothing to trifle with your friend's feelings and mine - to endeavour to steal a woman's affections from her husband - what he values more than his gold, and therefore what it is more dishonest to take? Are the marriage vows a jest; and is it nothing to make it your sport to break them, and to tempt another to do the same? Can I love a man that does such things, and coolly maintains it is nothing?'
'You are breaking your marriage vows yourself,' said he, indignantly rising and pacing to and fro. 'You promised to honour and obey me, and now you attempt to hector over me, and threaten and accuse me, and call me worse than a highwayman. If it were not for your situation, Helen, I would not submit to it so tamely. I won't be dictated to by a woman, though she be my wife.'
'What will you do then? Will you go on till I hate you, and then accuse me of breaking my vows?'
He was silent a. moment, and then replied: 'You never will hate me.' Returning and resuming his former position at my feet, he repeated more vehemently - 'You cannot hate me as long as I love you.'
'But how can I believe that you love me, if you continue to act in this way? Just imagine yourself in my place: would you think I loved you, if I did so? Would you believe my protestations, and honour and trust me under such circumstances? '
'The cases are different,' he replied. 'It is a woman's nature to be constant - to love one and one only, blindly, tenderly, and for ever - bless them, dear creatures! and you above them all; but you must have some commiseration for us, Helen; you must give us a little more licence, for, as Shakespeare has it -
However we do praise ourselves, Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm, More longing, wavering, sooner lost and won Than women's are.'
'Do you mean by that, that your fancies are lost to me, and won by Lady Lowborough?'
'No! heaven is my witness that I think her mere dust and ashes in comparison with you, and shall continue to think so, unless you drive me from you by too much severity. She is a daughter of earth; you are an angel of heaven; only be not too austere in your divinity, and remember that I am a poor, fallible mortal. Come now, Helen; won't you forgive me?' he said, gently taking my hand, and looking up with an innocent smile.
'If I do, you will repeat the offence.'
'I swear by - '
'Don't swear; I'll believe your word as well as your oath. I wish I could have confidence in either.'
'Try me, then, Helen: only trust and pardon me this once, and you shall see! Come, I am in hell's torments till you speak the word.'
I did not speak it, but I put my hand on his shoulder and kissed his forehead, and then burst into tears. He embraced me tenderly; and we have been good friends ever since. He has been decently temperate at table, and well-conducted towards Lady Lowborough. The first day he held himself aloof from her, as far as he could without any flagrant breach of hospitality: since that he has been friendly and civil, but nothing more - in my presence, at least, nor, I think, at any other time; for she seems haughty and displeased, and Lord Lowborough is manifestly more cheerful, and more cordial towards his host than before. But I shall be glad when they are gone, for I have so little love for Annabella that it is quite a task to be civil to her, and as she is the only woman here besides myself, we are necessarily thrown so much together. Next time Mrs. Hargrave calls I shall hail her advent as quite a relief. I have a good mind to ask Arthur's leave to invite the old lady to stay with us till our guests depart. I think I will. She will take it as a kind attention, and, though I have little relish for her society, she will be truly welcome as a third to stand between Lady Lowborough and me.
The first time the latter and I were alone together, after that unhappy evening, was an hour or two after breakfast on the following day, when the gentlemen were gone out, after the usual time spent in the writing of letters, the reading of newspapers, and desultory conversation. We sat silent for two or three minutes. She was busy with her work, and I was running over the columns of a paper from which I had extracted all the pith some twenty minutes before. It was a moment of painful embarrassment to me, and I thought it must be infinitely more so to her; but it seems I was mistaken. She was the first to speak; and, smiling with the coolest assurance, she began, -
'Your husband was merry last night, Helen: is he often so?'
My blood boiled in my face; but it was better she should seem to attribute his conduct to this than to anything else.
'No,' replied I, 'and never will be so again, I trust.'
'You gave him a curtain lecture, did you?'
'No! but I told him I disliked such conduct, and he promised me not to repeat it.'
'I thought he looked rather subdued this morning,' she continued; 'and you, Helen? you've been weeping, I see - that's our grand resource, you know. But doesn't it make your eyes smart? and do you always find it to answer?'
'I never cry for effect; nor can I conceive how any one can.'
'Well, I don't know: I never had occasion to try it; but I think if Lowborough were to commit such improprieties, I'd make him cry. I don't wonder at your being angry, for I'm sure I'd give my husband a lesson he would not soon forget for a lighter offence than that. But then he never will do anything of the kind; for I keep him in too good order for that.'
'Are you sure you don't arrogate too much of the credit to yourself. Lord Lowborough was quite as remarkable for his abstemiousness for some time before you married him, as he is now, I have heard.'
'Oh, about the wine you mean - yes, he's safe enough for that. And as to looking askance to another woman, he's safe enough for that too, while I live, for he worships the very ground I tread on.'
'Indeed! and are you sure you deserve it?'
'Why, as to that, I can't say: you know we're all fallible creatures, Helen; we none of us deserve to be worshipped. But are you sure your darling Huntingdon deserves all the love you give to him?'
I knew not what to answer to this. I was burning with anger; but I suppressed all outward manifestations of it, and only bit my lip and pretended to arrange my work.
'At any rate,' resumed she, pursuing her advantage, 'you can console yourself with the assurance that you are worthy of all the love he gives to you.'
'You flatter me,' said I; 'but, at least, I can try to be worthy of it.' And then I turned the conversation.