The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (emended 1st edition)/Volume 3/Chapter 15
The tardy gig had overtaken me at last. I entered it, and bade the man who brought it drive to Grass-dale Manor—I was too busy with my own thoughts to care to drive it myself. I would see Mrs. Huntingdon—there could be no impropriety in that now that her husband had been dead above a year—and by her indifference or her joy at my unexpected arrival, I could soon tell whether her heart was truly mine. But my companion, a loquacious, forward fellow, was not disposed to leave me to the indulgence of my private cogitations.
"There they go!" said he as the carriages filed away before us. "There'll be brave doings on yonder to-day, as what come to-morra.—Know anything of that family, sir? or you're a stranger in these parts?"
"I know them by report."
"Humph!—There's the best of 'em gone anyhow. And I suppose the old misses is agoing to leave after this stir's gotten overed, and take herself off, somewhere, to live on her bit of a jointure; and the young 'un—at least the new 'un (she's none so very young) is coming down to live at the Grove."
"Is Mr. Hargrave married, then?"
"Ay sir, a few months since. He should a been wed afore, to a widow lady, but they could'nt agree over the money: she'd a rare long purse, and Mr. Hargrave wanted it all to his-self; but she would'nt let it go, and so then they fell out. This one isn't quite as rich—nor as handsome either, but she has'nt been married before. She's very plain they say, and getting on to forty or past, and so, you know, if she did'nt jump at this hopportunity, she thought she'd never get a better. I guess she thought such a handsome young husband was worth all 'at ever she had, and he might take it and welcome; but I lay she'll rue her bargain 'afore long. They say she begins already to see 'at he isn't not altogether that nice, generous, perlite, delightful gentleman 'at she thought him afore marriage—he begins a being careless, and masterful already. Ay, and she'll find him harder and carelesser nor she thinks on."
"You seem to be well acquainted with him," I observed.
"I am, sir; I've known him since he was quite a young gentleman; and a proud 'un he was, and a wilful. I was servant yonder for several years; but I could'nt stand their niggardly ways—she got ever longer and worse did Missis, with her nipping and screwing, and watching and grudging; so I thought I'd find another place as what came."
And then he discoursed upon his present position as ostler at the Rose and Crown, and how greatly superior it was to his former one, in comfort and freedom, though inferior in outward respectability; and entered into various details respecting the domestic economy at the Grove, and the characters of Mrs. Hargrave and her son,—to which I gave no heed, being too much occupied with my own anxious, fluttering anticipations and with the character of the country through which we passed, that, in spite of the leafless trees and snowy ground, had for some time begun to manifest unequivocal signs of the approach to a gentleman's country seat.
"Are we not near the house?" said I, interrupting him in the middle of his discourse.
"Yes, sir; yond's the park."
My heart sank within me to behold that stately mansion in the midst of its expansive grounds—the park as beautiful now, in its wintry garb, as it could be in its summer glory; the majestic sweep, the undulating swell and fall, displayed to full advantage in that robe of dazzling purity, stainless and printless—save one long, winding track left by the trooping deer—the stately timber-trees with their heavy laden branches gleaming white against the dull, grey sky; the deep, encircling woods; the broad expanse of water sleeping in frozen quiet; and the weeping ash and willow drooping their snowclad boughs above it—all presented a picture, striking, indeed, and pleasing to an unencumbered mind, but by no means encouraging to me. There was one comfort however,—all this was entailed upon little Arthur, and could not under any circumstances, strictly speaking, be his mother's. But how was she situated? Overcoming with a sudden effort my repugnance to mention her name to my garrulous companion, I asked him if he knew whether her late husband had left a will, and how the property had been disposed of. Oh yes, he knew all about it; and I was quickly informed that to her had been left the full control and management of the estate during her son's minority, besides the absolute, unconditional possession of her own fortune (but I knew her father had not given her much), and the small additional sum that had been settled upon her before marriage.
Before the close of the explanation, we drew up at the park gates. Now for the trial—if I should find her within—but alas! she might be still at Staningley: her brother had given me no intimation to the contrary. I enquired at the porter's lodge if Mrs. Huntingdon were at home. No, she was with her aunt in ——shire, but was expected to return before Christmas. She usually spent most of her time at Staningley, only coming to Grass-dale occasionally, when the management of affairs, or the interest of her tenants and dependants required her presence.
"Near what town is Staningley situated?" I asked. The requisite information was soon obtained. "Now then, my man, give me the reins, and we'll return to M—. I must have some breakfast at the Rose and Crown, and then away to Staningley by the first coach for ****"
"You'll not get there to-day, sir."
"No matter, I don't want to get there today; I want to get there to-morrow, and pass the night on the road."
"At an inn, sir? You'd Letter by half stay at our house; and then start fresh to-morrow, and have the whole day for your journey."
"What, and lose twelve hours? not I."
"Perhaps, sir, you're related to Mrs. Huntingdon?" said he, seeking to indulge his curiosity since his cupidity was not to be gratified.
"I have not that honour."
"Ah! well," returned he with a dubious, sidelong glance at my splashed, grey trousers and rough P jacket. "But," he added, encouragingly, "there's many a fine lady like that 'at has kinsfolks poorer nor what you are, sir, I should think."
"No doubt,—and there's many a fine gentleman would esteem himself vastly honoured to be able to claim kindred with the lady you mention."
He now cunningly glanced at my face. "Perhaps, sir, you mean to—"
I guessed what was coming, and checked the impertinent conjecture with,—"Perhaps you'll be so good as to be quiet a moment. I'm busy."
"Yes, in my mind, and don't want to have my cogitations disturbed."
You will see that my disappointment had not very greatly affected me, or I should not have been able so quietly to bear with the fellow's impertinence. The fact is I thought it as well—nay better, all things considered, that I should not see her to-day,—that I should have time to compose my mind for the interview—to prepare it for a heavier disappointment, after the intoxicating delight experienced by this sudden removal of my former apprehensions; not to mention that, after travelling a night and a day without intermission, and rushing in hot haste through six miles of newfallen snow, I could not possibly be in a very presentable condition.
At M—— I had time before the coach started to replenish my forces with a hearty breakfast, and to obtain the refreshment of my usual morning's ablutions, and the amelioration of some slight change in my toilet,—and also to dispatch a short note to my mother (excellent son that I was) to assure her that I was still in existence and to excuse my nonappearance at the expected time. It was a long journey to Staningley for those slow travelling days; but I did not deny myself needful refreshment on the road, nor even a night's rest at a way-side inn; choosing rather to brook a little delay than to present myself worn, wild, and weatherbeaten before my mistress and her aunt, who would be astonished enough to see me without that. Next morning, therefore, I not only fortified myself with as substantial a breakfast as my excited feelings would allow me to swallow, but I bestowed a little more than usual time and care upon my toilet; and, furnished with a change of linen from my small carpet-bag, well brushed clothes, well polished boots, and neat new gloves,—I mounted "the Lightning," and resumed my journey. I had nearly two stages yet before me, but the coach, I was informed, passed through the neighbourhood of Staningley, and, having desired to be set down as near the Hall is possible, I had nothing to do but to sit with folded arms and speculate upon the coming hour.
It was a clear, frosty morning. The very fact of sitting exalted aloft, surveying the snowy landscape and sweet, sunny sky, inhaling the pure, bracing air, and crunching away over the crisp, frozen snow, was exhilarating enough in itself; but add to this the idea of to what goal I was hastening, and whom I expected to meet, and you may have some faint conception of my frame of mind at the time—only a faint one —though, for my heart swelled with unspeakable delight, and my spirits rose almost to madness—in spite of my prudent endeavours to bind them down to a reasonable platitude by thinking of the undeniable difference between Helen's rank and mine; of all that she had passed through since our parting; of her long, unbroken silence; and, above all, of her cool, cautious aunt, whose counsels she would doubtless be careful not to slight again. These considerations made my heart flutter with anxiety, and my chest heave with impatience to get the crisis over, but they could not dim her image in my mind, or mar the vivid recollection of what had been said and felt between us—or destroy the keen anticipation of what was to be—in fact, I could not realize their terrors now. Towards the close of the journey, however, a couple of my fellow passengers kindly came to my assistance, and brought me low enough.
"Fine land this," said one of them, pointing with his umbrella to the wide fields on the right, conspicuous for their compact hedgerows, deep, well-cut ditches, and fine timber-trees, growing sometimes on the borders, sometimes in the midst of the enclosure;—"very fine land, if you saw it in the summer or spring."
"Ay," responded the other—a gruff elderly man, with a drab great coat buttoned up to the chin and a cotton umbrella between his knees. "It's old Maxwell's I suppose."
"It was his, sir, but he's dead now, you're aware, and has left it all to his niece."
"Every rood of it,—and the mansion-house and all,—every hatom of his worldly goods!—except just a trifle, by way of remembrance to his nephew down in ——shire and an annuity to his wife."
"It's strange, sir!"
"It is sir. And she wasn't his own niece neither; but he had no near relations of his own—none but a nephew he'd quarrelled with—and he always had a partiality for this one. And then his wife advised him to it, they say: she'd brought most of the property, and it was her wish that this lady should have it."
"Humph!—She'll be a fine catch for somebody."
"She will so. She's a widow, but quite young yet, and uncommon handsome—a fortune of her own, besides, and only one child—and she's nursing a fine estate for him in **** There'll be lots to speak for her!—'fraid there's no chance for uz'—(facetiously jogging me with his elbow, as well as his companion)—"ha, ha, ha! No offence, sir, I hope?" (to me) "Ahem!—I should think she'll marry none but a nobleman, myself. Look ye sir," resumed he, turning to his other neighbour, and pointing past me with his umbrella, "that's the hall—grand park, you see—and all them woods—plenty of timber there, and lots of game—hallo! what now?"
This exclamation was occasioned by the sudden stoppage of the coach at the park gates.
"Gen'leman for Staningley Hall?" cried the coachman; and I rose and threw my carpetbag on to the ground, preparatory to dropping myself down after it.
"Sickly, sir?" asked my talkative neighbour, staring me in the face (I dare say it was white enough.)
"No. Here, coachman."
"Thank'ee, sir.— All right!"
The coachman pocketed his fee and drove away, leaving me not walking up the park, but pacing to and fro before its gates, with folded arms and eyes fixed upon the ground—an overwhelming force of images, thoughts, impressions crowding on my mind, and nothing tangibly distinct but this:—My love had been cherished in vain; my hope was gone for ever; I must tear myself away at once, and banish or suppress all thoughts of her like the remembrance of a wild, mad dream. Gladly would I have lingered round the place for hours, in the hope of catching, at least one distant glimpse of her before I went, but it must not be: I must not suffer her to see me; for what could have brought me hither but the hope of reviving her attachment, with a view, hereafter to obtain her hand? And could I bear that she should think me capable of such a thing?—of presuming upon the acquaintance—the love if you will—accidentally contracted, or rather forced upon her against her will, when she was an unknown fugitive, toiling for her own support, apparently without fortune, family or connections—to come upon her now, when she was re-instated in her proper sphere, and claim a share in her prosperity, which, had it never failed her, would most certainly have kept her unknown to me for ever? and this too, when we had parted sixteen months ago, and she had expressly forbidden me to hope for a re-union in this world—and never sent me a line or a message from that day to this? No! The very idea was intolerable.
And even, if she should have a lingering affection for me still, ought I to disturb her peace by awakening those feelings? to subject her to the struggles of conflicting duty and inclination—to whichsoever side the latter might allure, or the former imperatively call her—whether she should deem it her duty to risk the slights and censures of the world, the sorrow and displeasure of those she loved, for a romantic idea of truth and constancy to me, or to sacrifice her individual wishes to the feelings of her friends and her own sense of prudence and the fitness of things? No—and I would not! I would go at once, and she should never know that I had approached the place of her abode; for though I might disclaim all idea of ever aspiring to her hand, or even of soliciting a place in her friendly regard, her peace should not be broken by my presence, nor her heart afflicted by the sight of my fidelity.
"Adieu then, dear Helen, for ever!—For ever adieu!"
So said I—and yet I could not tear myself away. I moved a few paces, and then looked back, for one last view of her stately home, that I might have its outward form, at least impressed upon my mind as indelibly as her own image, which alas! I must not see again—then, walked a few steps farther; and then lost in melancholy musings, paused again and leant my back against a rough old tree that grew beside the road.