The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1920 John Murray edition)/Chapter 34
Evening. - Breakfast passed well over: I was calm and cool throughout. I answered composedly all inquiries respecting my health; and whatever was unusual in my look or manner was generally attributed to the trifling indisposition that had occasioned my early retirement last night. But how am I to get over the ten or twelve days that must yet elapse before they go? Yet why so long for their departure? When they are gone, how shall I get through the months or years of my future life in company with that man - my greatest enemy? for none could injure me as he has done. Oh! when I think how fondly, how foolishly I have loved him, how madly I have trusted him, how constantly I have laboured, and studied, and prayed, and struggled for his advantage; and how cruelly he has trampled on my love, betrayed my trust, scorned my prayers and tears, and efforts for his preservation, crushed my hopes, destroyed my youth's best feelings, and doomed me to a life of hopeless misery, as far as man can do it, it is not enough to say that I no longer love my husband - I hate him! The word stares me in the face like a guilty confession, but it is true: I hate him - I hate him! But God have mercy on his miserable soul! and make him see and feel his guilt - I ask no other vengeance! If he could but fully know and truly feel my wrongs I should be well avenged, and I could freely pardon all; but he is so lost, so hardened in his heartless depravity, that in this life I believe he never will. But it is useless dwelling on this theme: let me seek once more to dissipate reflection in the minor details of passing events.
Mr. Hargrave has annoyed me all day long with his serious, sympathising, and (as he thinks) unobtrusive politeness. If it were more obtrusive it would trouble me less, for then I could snub him; but, as it is, he contrives to appear so really kind and thoughtful that I cannot do so without rudeness and seeming ingratitude. I sometimes think I ought to give him credit for the good feeling he simulates so well; and then again, I think it is my duty to suspect him under the peculiar circumstances in which I am placed. His kindness may not all be feigned; but still, let not the purest impulse of gratitude to him induce me to forget myself: let me remember the game of chess, the expressions he used on the occasion, and those indescribable looks of his, that so justly roused my indignation, and I think I shall be safe enough. I have done well to record them so minutely.
I think he wishes to find an opportunity of speaking to me alone: he has seemed to be on the watch all day; but I have taken care to disappoint him - not that I fear anything he could say, but I have trouble enough without the addition of his insulting consolations, condolences, or whatever else he might attempt; and, for Milicent's sake, I do not wish to quarrel with him. He excused himself from going out to shoot with the other gentlemen in the morning, under the pretext of having letters to write; and instead of retiring for that purpose into the library, he sent for his desk into the morning-room, where I was seated with Milicent and Lady Lowborough. They had betaken themselves to their work; I, less to divert my mind than to deprecate conversation, had provided myself with a book. Milicent saw that I wished to be quiet, and accordingly let me alone. Annabella, doubtless, saw it too: but that was no reason why she should restrain her tongue, or curb her cheerful spirits: she accordingly chatted away, addressing herself almost exclusively to me, and with the utmost assurance and familiarity, growing the more animated and friendly the colder and briefer my answers became. Mr. Hargrave saw that I could ill endure it, and, looking up from his desk, he answered her questions and observations for me, as far as he could, and attempted to transfer her social attentions from me to himself; but it would not do. Perhaps she thought I had a headache, and could not bear to talk; at any rate, she saw that her loquacious vivacity annoyed me, as I could tell by the malicious pertinacity with which she persisted. But I checked it effectually by putting into her hand the book I had been trying to read, on the fly-leaf of which I had hastily scribbled, -
'I am too well acquainted with your character and conduct to feel any real friendship for you, and as I am without your talent for dissimulation, I cannot assume the appearance of it. I must, therefore, beg that hereafter all familiar intercourse may cease between us; and if I still continue to treat you with civility, as if you were a woman worthy of consideration and respect, understand that it is out of regard for your cousin Milicent's feelings, not for yours.'
Upon perusing this she turned scarlet, and bit her lip. Covertly tearing away the leaf, she crumpled it up and put it in the fire, and then employed herself in turning over the pages of the book, and, really or apparently, perusing its contents. In a little while Milicent announced it her intention to repair to the nursery, and asked if I would accompany her.
'Annabella will excuse us,' said she; 'she's busy reading.'
'No, I won't,' cried Annabella, suddenly looking up, and throwing her book on the table; 'I want to speak to Helen a minute. You may go, Milicent, and she'll follow in a while.' (Milicent went.) 'Will you oblige me, Helen?' continued she.
Her impudence astounded me; but I complied, and followed her into the library. She closed the door, and walked up to the fire.
'Who told you this?' said she.
'No one: I am not incapable of seeing for myself.'
'Ah, you are suspicious!' cried she, smiling, with a gleam of hope. Hitherto there had been a kind of desperation in her hardihood; now she was evidently relieved.
'If I were suspicious,' I replied, 'I should have discovered your infamy long before. No, Lady Lowborough, I do not found my charge upon suspicion.'
'On what do you found it, then?' said she, throwing herself into an arm-chair, and stretching out her feet to the fender, with an obvious effort to appear composed.
'I enjoy a moonlight ramble as well as you,' I answered, steadily fixing my eyes upon her; 'and the shrubbery happens to be one of my favourite resorts.'
She coloured again excessively, and remained silent, pressing her finger against her teeth, and gazing into the fire. I watched her a few moments with a feeling of malevolent gratification; then, moving towards the door, I calmly asked if she had anything more to say.
'Yes, yes!' cried she eagerly, starting up from her reclining posture. 'I want to know if you will tell Lord Lowborough?'
'Suppose I do?'
'Well, if you are disposed to publish the matter, I cannot dissuade you, of course - but there will be terrible work if you do - and if you don't, I shall think you the most generous of mortal beings - and if there is anything in the world I can do for you - anything short of - ' she hesitated.
'Short of renouncing your guilty connection with my husband, I suppose you mean?' said I.
She paused, in evident disconcertion and perplexity, mingled with anger she dared not show.
'I cannot renounce what is dearer than life,' she muttered, in a low, hurried tone. Then, suddenly raising her head and fixing her gleaming eyes upon me, she continued earnestly: 'But, Helen - or Mrs. Huntingdon, or whatever you would have me call you - will you tell him? If you are generous, here is a fitting opportunity for the exercise of your magnanimity: if you are proud, here am I - your rival - ready to acknowledge myself your debtor for an act of the most noble forbearance.'
'I shall not tell him.'
'You will not!' cried she, delightedly. 'Accept my sincere thanks, then!'
She sprang up, and offered me her hand. I drew back.
'Give me no thanks; it is not for your sake that I refrain. Neither is it an act of any forbearance: I have no wish to publish your shame. I should be sorry to distress your husband with the knowledge of it.'
'And Milicent? will you tell her?'
'No: on the contrary, I shall do my utmost to conceal it from her. I would not for much that she should know the infamy and disgrace of her relation!'
'You use hard words, Mrs. Huntingdon, but I can pardon you.'
'And now, Lady Lowborough,' continued I, 'let me counsel you to leave this house as soon as possible. You must be aware that your continuance here is excessively disagreeable to me - not for Mr. Huntingdon's sake,' said I, observing the dawn of a malicious smile of triumph on her face - 'you are welcome to him, if you like him, as far as I am concerned - but because it is painful to be always disguising my true sentiments respecting you, and straining to keep up an appearance of civility and respect towards one for whom I have not the most distant shadow of esteem; and because, if you stay, your conduct cannot possibly remain concealed much longer from the only two persons in the house who do not know it already. And, for your husband's sake, Annabella, and even for your own, I wish - I earnestly advise and entreat you to break off this unlawful connection at once, and return to your duty while you may, before the dreadful consequences - '
'Yes, yes, of course,' said she, interrupting me with a gesture of impatience. 'But I cannot go, Helen, before the time appointed for our departure. What possible pretext could I frame for such a thing? Whether I proposed going back alone - which Lowborough would not hear of - or taking him with me, the very circumstance itself would be certain to excite suspicion - and when our visit is so nearly at an end too - little more than a week - surely you can endure my presence so long! I will not annoy you with any more of my friendly impertinences.'
'Well, I have nothing more to say to you.'
'Have you mentioned this affair to Huntingdon?' asked she, as I was leaving the room.
'How dare you mention his name to me!' was the only answer I gave.
No words have passed between us since, but such as outward decency or pure necessity demanded.