Not many days after this, on a mild sunny morning – rather soft under foot; for the last fall of snow was only just wasted away, leaving yet a thin ridge, here and there, lingering on the fresh green grass beneath the hedges; but beside them already, the young primroses were peeping from among their moist, dark foliage, and the lark above was singing of summer, and hope, and love, and every heavenly thing – I was out on the hill-side, enjoying these delights, and looking after the well-being of my young lambs and their mothers, when, on glancing round me, I beheld three persons ascending from the vale below. They were Eliza Millward, Fergus, and Rose; so I crossed the field to meet them; and, being told they were going to Wildfell Hall, I declared myself willing to go with them, and offering my arm to Eliza, who readily accepted it in lieu of my brother’s, told the latter he might go back, for I would accompany the ladies.
‘I beg your pardon!’ exclaimed he. ‘It’s the ladies that are accompanying me, not I them. You had all had a peep at this wonderful stranger but me, and I could endure my wretched ignorance no longer – come what would, I must be satisfied; so I begged Rose to go with me to the Hall, and introduce me to her at once. She swore she would not, unless Miss Eliza would go too; so I ran to the vicarage and fetched her; and we’ve come hooked all the way, as fond as a pair of lovers – and now you’ve taken her from me; and you want to deprive me of my walk and my visit besides. Go back to your fields and your cattle, you lubberly fellow; you’re not fit to associate with ladies and gentlemen like us, that have nothing to do but to run snooking about to our neighbours’ houses, peeping into their private corners, and scenting out their secrets, and picking holes in their coats, when we don’t find them ready made to our hands – you don’t understand such refined sources of enjoyment.’
‘Can’t you both go?’ suggested Eliza, disregarding the latter half of the speech.
‘Yes, both, to be sure!’ cried Rose; ‘the more the merrier – and I’m sure we shall want all the cheerfulness we can carry with us to that great, dark, gloomy room, with its narrow latticed windows, and its dismal old furniture – unless she shows us into her studio again.’
So we went all in a body; and the meagre old maid-servant, that opened the door, ushered us into an apartment such as Rose had described to me as the scene of her first introduction to Mrs. Graham, a tolerably spacious and lofty room, but obscurely lighted by the old-fashioned windows, the ceiling, panels, and chimney- piece of grim black oak – the latter elaborately but not very tastefully carved, – with tables and chairs to match, an old bookcase on one side of the fire-place, stocked with a motley assemblage of books, and an elderly cabinet piano on the other.
The lady was seated in a stiff, high-backed arm-chair, with a small round table, containing a desk and a work-basket on one side of her, and her little boy on the other, who stood leaning his elbow on her knee, and reading to her, with wonderful fluency, from a small volume that lay in her lap; while she rested her hand on his shoulder, and abstractedly played with the long, wavy curls that fell on his ivory neck. They struck me as forming a pleasing contrast to all the surrounding objects; but of course their position was immediately changed on our entrance. I could only observe the picture during the few brief seconds that Rachel held the door for our admittance.
I do not think Mrs. Graham was particularly delighted to see us: there was something indescribably chilly in her quiet, calm civility; but I did not talk much to her. Seating myself near the window, a little back from the circle, I called Arthur to me, and he and I and Sancho amused ourselves very pleasantly together, while the two young ladies baited his mother with small talk, and Fergus sat opposite with his legs crossed and his hands in his breeches-pockets, leaning back in his chair, and staring now up at the ceiling, now straight forward at his hostess (in a manner that made me strongly inclined to kick him out of the room), now whistling sotto voce to himself a snatch of a favourite air, now interrupting the conversation, or filling up a pause (as the case might be) with some most impertinent question or remark. At one time it was, – ‘It, amazes me, Mrs. Graham, how you could choose such a dilapidated, rickety old place as this to live in. If you couldn’t afford to occupy the whole house, and have it mended up, why couldn’t you take a neat little cottage?’
‘Perhaps I was too proud, Mr. Fergus,’ replied she, smiling; ‘perhaps I took a particular fancy for this romantic, old-fashioned place – but, indeed, it has many advantages over a cottage – in the first place, you see, the rooms are larger and more airy; in the second place, the unoccupied apartments, which I don’t pay for, may serve as lumber-rooms, if I have anything to put in them; and they are very useful for my little boy to run about in on rainy days when he can’t go out; and then there is the garden for him to play in, and for me to work in. You see I have effected some little improvement already,’ continued she, turning to the window. ‘There is a bed of young vegetables in that corner, and here are some snowdrops and primroses already in bloom – and there, too, is a yellow crocus just opening in the sunshine.’
‘But then how can you bear such a situation – your nearest neighbours two miles distant, and nobody looking in or passing by? Rose would go stark mad in such a place. She can’t put on life unless she sees half a dozen fresh gowns and bonnets a day – not to speak of the faces within; but you might sit watching at these windows all day long, and never see so much as an old woman carrying her eggs to market.’
‘I am not sure the loneliness of the place was not one of its chief recommendations. I take no pleasure in watching people pass the windows; and I like to be quiet.’
‘Oh! as good as to say you wish we would all of us mind our own business, and let you alone.’
‘No, I dislike an extensive acquaintance; but if I have a few friends, of course I am glad to see them occasionally. No one can be happy in eternal solitude. Therefore, Mr. Fergus, if you choose to enter my house as a friend, I will make you welcome; if not, I must confess, I would rather you kept away.’ She then turned and addressed some observation to Rose or Eliza.
‘And, Mrs. Graham,’ said he again, five minutes after, ‘we were disputing, as we came along, a question that you can readily decide for us, as it mainly regarded yourself – and, indeed, we often hold discussions about you; for some of us have nothing better to do than to talk about our neighbours’ concerns, and we, the indigenous plants of the soil, have known each other so long, and talked each other over so often, that we are quite sick of that game; so that a stranger coming amongst us makes an invaluable addition to our exhausted sources of amusement. Well, the question, or questions, you are requested to solve – ‘
‘Hold your tongue, Fergus!’ cried Rose, in a fever of apprehension and wrath.
‘I won’t, I tell you. The questions you are requested to solve are these:- First, concerning your birth, extraction, and previous residence. Some will have it that you are a foreigner, and some an Englishwoman; some a native of the north country, and some of the south; some say – ‘
‘Well, Mr. Fergus, I’ll tell you. I’m an Englishwoman – and I don’t see why any one should doubt it – and I was born in the country, neither in the extreme north nor south of our happy isle; and in the country I have chiefly passed my life, and now I hope you are satisfied; for I am not disposed to answer any more questions at present.’
‘Except this – ‘
‘No, not one more!’ laughed she, and, instantly quitting her seat, she sought refuge at the window by which I was seated, and, in very desperation, to escape my brother’s persecutions, endeavoured to draw me into conversation.
‘Mr. Markham,’ said she, her rapid utterance and heightened colour too plainly evincing her disquietude, ‘have you forgotten the fine sea-view we were speaking of some time ago? I think I must trouble you, now, to tell me the nearest way to it; for if this beautiful weather continue, I shall, perhaps, be able to walk there, and take my sketch; I have exhausted every other subject for painting; and I long to see it.’
I was about to comply with her request, but Rose would not suffer me to proceed.
‘Oh, don’t tell her, Gilbert!’ cried she; ‘she shall go with us. It’s – Bay you are thinking about, I suppose, Mrs. Graham? It is a very long walk, too far for you, and out of the question for Arthur. But we were thinking about making a picnic to see it some fine day; and, if you will wait till the settled fine weather comes, I’m sure we shall all be delighted to have you amongst us.’
Poor Mrs. Graham looked dismayed, and attempted to make excuses, but Rose, either compassionating her lonely life, or anxious to cultivate her acquaintance, was determined to have her; and every objection was overruled. She was told it would only be a small party, and all friends, and that the best view of all was from – Cliffs, full five miles distant.
‘Just a nice walk for the gentlemen,’ continued Rose; ‘but the ladies will drive and walk by turns; for we shall have our pony- carriage, which will be plenty large enough to contain little Arthur and three ladies, together with your sketching apparatus, and our provisions.’
So the proposal was finally acceded to; and, after some further discussion respecting the time and manner of the projected excursion, we rose, and took our leave.
But this was only March: a cold, wet April, and two weeks of May passed over before we could venture forth on our expedition with the reasonable hope of obtaining that pleasure we sought in pleasant prospects, cheerful society, fresh air, good cheer and exercise, without the alloy of bad roads, cold winds, or threatening clouds. Then, on a glorious morning, we gathered our forces and set forth. The company consisted of Mrs. and Master Graham, Mary and Eliza Millward, Jane and Richard Wilson, and Rose, Fergus, and Gilbert Markham.
Mr. Lawrence had been invited to join us, but, for some reason best known to himself, had refused to give us his company. I had solicited the favour myself. When I did so, he hesitated, and asked who were going. Upon my naming Miss Wilson among the rest, he seemed half inclined to go, but when I mentioned Mrs. Graham, thinking it might be a further inducement, it appeared to have a contrary effect, and he declined it altogether, and, to confess the truth, the decision was not displeasing to me, though I could scarcely tell you why.
It was about midday when we reached the place of our destination. Mrs. Graham walked all the way to the cliffs; and little Arthur walked the greater part of it too; for he was now much more hardy and active than when he first entered the neighbourhood, and he did not like being in the carriage with strangers, while all his four friends, mamma, and Sancho, and Mr. Markham, and Miss Millward, were on foot, journeying far behind, or passing through distant fields and lanes.
I have a very pleasant recollection of that walk, along the hard, white, sunny road, shaded here and there with bright green trees, and adorned with flowery banks and blossoming hedges of delicious fragrance; or through pleasant fields and lanes, all glorious in the sweet flowers and brilliant verdure of delightful May. It was true, Eliza was not beside me; but she was with her friends in the pony-carriage, as happy, I trusted, as I was; and even when we pedestrians, having forsaken the highway for a short cut across the fields, beheld the little carriage far away, disappearing amid the green, embowering trees, I did not hate those trees for snatching the dear little bonnet and shawl from my sight, nor did I feel that all those intervening objects lay between my happiness and me; for, to confess the truth, I was too happy in the company of Mrs. Graham to regret the absence of Eliza, Millward.
The former, it is true, was most provokingly unsociable at first – seemingly bent upon talking to no one but Mary Millward and Arthur. She and Mary journeyed along together, generally with the child between them; – but where the road permitted, I always walked on the other side of her, Richard Wilson taking the other side of Miss Millward, and Fergus roving here and there according to his fancy; and, after a while, she became more friendly, and at length I succeeded in securing her attention almost entirely to myself – and then I was happy indeed; for whenever she did condescend to converse, I liked to listen. Where her opinions and sentiments tallied with mine, it was her extreme good sense, her exquisite taste and feeling, that delighted me; where they differed, it was still her uncompromising boldness in the avowal or defence of that difference, her earnestness and keenness, that piqued my fancy: and even when she angered me by her unkind words or looks, and her uncharitable conclusions respecting me, it only made me the more dissatisfied with myself for having so unfavourably impressed her, and the more desirous to vindicate my character and disposition in her eyes, and, if possible, to win her esteem.
At length our walk was ended. The increasing height and boldness of the hills had for some time intercepted the prospect; but, on gaining the summit of a steep acclivity, and looking downward, an opening lay before us – and the blue sea burst upon our sight! – deep violet blue – not deadly calm, but covered with glinting breakers – diminutive white specks twinkling on its bosom, and scarcely to be distinguished, by the keenest vision, from the little seamews that sported above, their white wings glittering in the sunshine: only one or two vessels were visible, and those were far away.
I looked at my companion to see what she thought of this glorious scene. She said nothing: but she stood still, and fixed her eyes upon it with a gaze that assured me she was not disappointed. She had very fine eyes, by-the-by – I don’t know whether I have told you before, but they were full of soul, large, clear, and nearly black – not brown, but very dark grey. A cool, reviving breeze blew from the sea – soft, pure, salubrious: it waved her drooping ringlets, and imparted a livelier colour to her usually too pallid lip and cheek. She felt its exhilarating influence, and so did I – I felt it tingling through my frame, but dared not give way to it while she remained so quiet. There was an aspect of subdued exhilaration in her face, that kindled into almost a smile of exalted, glad intelligence as her eye met mine. Never had she looked so lovely: never had my heart so warmly cleaved to her as now. Had we been left two minutes longer standing there alone, I cannot answer for the consequences. Happily for my discretion, perhaps for my enjoyment during the remainder of the day, we were speedily summoned to the repast – a very respectable collation, which Rose, assisted by Miss Wilson and Eliza, who, having shared her seat in the carriage, had arrived with her a little before the rest, had set out upon an elevated platform overlooking the sea, and sheltered from the hot sun by a shelving rock and overhanging trees.
Mrs. Graham seated herself at a distance from me. Eliza was my nearest neighbour. She exerted herself to be agreeable, in her gentle, unobtrusive way, and was, no doubt, as fascinating and charming as ever, if I could only have felt it. But soon my heart began to warm towards her once again; and we were all very merry and happy together – as far as I could see – throughout the protracted social meal.
When that was over, Rose summoned Fergus to help her to gather up the fragments, and the knives, dishes, &c., and restore them to the baskets; and Mrs. Graham took her camp-stool and drawing materials; and having begged Miss Millward to take charge of her precious son, and strictly enjoined him not to wander from his new guardian’s side, she left us and proceeded along the steep, stony hill, to a loftier, more precipitous eminence at some distance, whence a still finer prospect was to be had, where she preferred taking her sketch, though some of the ladies told her it was a frightful place, and advised her not to attempt it.
When she was gone, I felt as if there was to be no more fun – though it is difficult to say what she had contributed to the hilarity of the party. No jests, and little laughter, had escaped her lips; but her smile had animated my mirth; a keen observation or a cheerful word from her had insensibly sharpened my wits, and thrown an interest over all that was done and said by the rest. Even my conversation with Eliza had been enlivened by her presence, though I knew it not; and now that she was gone, Eliza’s playful nonsense ceased to amuse me – nay, grew wearisome to my soul, and I grew weary of amusing her: I felt myself drawn by an irresistible attraction to that distant point where the fair artist sat and plied her solitary task – and not long did I attempt to resist it: while my little neighbour was exchanging a few words with Miss Wilson, I rose and cannily slipped away. A few rapid strides, and a little active clambering, soon brought me to the place where she was seated – a narrow ledge of rock at the very verge of the cliff, which descended with a steep, precipitous slant, quite down to the rocky shore.
She did not hear me coming: the falling of my shadow across her paper gave her an electric start; and she looked hastily round – any other lady of my acquaintance would have screamed under such a sudden alarm.
‘Oh! I didn’t know it was you. – Why did you startle me so?’ said she, somewhat testily. ‘I hate anybody to come upon me so unexpectedly.’
‘Why, what did you take me for?’ said I: ‘if I had known you were so nervous, I would have been more cautious; but – ‘
‘Well, never mind. What did you come for? are they all coming?’
‘No; this little ledge could scarcely contain them all.’
‘I’m glad, for I’m tired of talking.’
‘Well, then, I won’t talk. I’ll only sit and watch your drawing.’
‘Oh, but you know I don’t like that.’
‘Then I’ll content myself with admiring this magnificent prospect.’
She made no objection to this; and, for some time, sketched away in silence. But I could not help stealing a glance, now and then, from the splendid view at our feet to the elegant white hand that held the pencil, and the graceful neck and glossy raven curls that drooped over the paper.
‘Now,’ thought I, ‘if I had but a pencil and a morsel of paper, I could make a lovelier sketch than hers, admitting I had the power to delineate faithfully what is before me.’
But, though this satisfaction was denied me, I was very well content to sit beside her there, and say nothing.
‘Are you there still, Mr. Markham?’ said she at length, looking round upon me – for I was seated a little behind on a mossy projection of the cliff. – ‘Why don’t you go and amuse yourself with your friends?’
‘Because I am tired of them, like you; and I shall have enough of them to-morrow – or at any time hence; but you I may not have the pleasure of seeing again for I know not how long.’
‘What was Arthur doing when you came away?’
‘He was with Miss Millward, where you left him – all right, but hoping mamma would not be long away. You didn’t intrust him to me, by-the-by,’ I grumbled, ‘though I had the honour of a much longer acquaintance; but Miss Millward has the art of conciliating and amusing children,’ I carelessly added, ‘if she is good for nothing else.’
‘Miss Millward has many estimable qualities, which such as you cannot be expected to perceive or appreciate. Will you tell Arthur that I shall come in a few minutes?’
‘If that be the case, I will wait, with your permission, till those few minutes are past; and then I can assist you to descend this difficult path.’
‘Thank you – I always manage best, on such occasions, without assistance.’
‘But, at least, I can carry your stool and sketch-book.’
She did not deny me this favour; but I was rather offended at her evident desire to be rid of me, and was beginning to repent of my pertinacity, when she somewhat appeased me by consulting my taste and judgment about some doubtful matter in her drawing. My opinion, happily, met her approbation, and the improvement I suggested was adopted without hesitation.
‘I have often wished in vain,’ said she, ‘for another’s judgment to appeal to when I could scarcely trust the direction of my own eye and head, they having been so long occupied with the contemplation of a single object as to become almost incapable of forming a proper idea respecting it.’
‘That,’ replied I, ‘is only one of many evils to which a solitary life exposes us.’
‘True,’ said she; and again we relapsed into silence.
About two minutes after, however, she declared her sketch completed, and closed the book.
On returning to the scene of our repast we found all the company had deserted it, with the exception of three – Mary Millward, Richard Wilson, and Arthur Graham. The younger gentleman lay fast asleep with his head pillowed on the lady’s lap; the other was seated beside her with a pocket edition of some classic author in his hand. He never went anywhere without such a companion wherewith to improve his leisure moments: all time seemed lost that was not devoted to study, or exacted, by his physical nature, for the bare support of life. Even now he could not abandon himself to the enjoyment of that pure air and balmy sunshine – that splendid prospect, and those soothing sounds, the music of the waves and of the soft wind in the sheltering trees above him – not even with a lady by his side (though not a very charming one, I will allow) – he must pull out his book, and make the most of his time while digesting his temperate meal, and reposing his weary limbs, unused to so much exercise.
Perhaps, however, he spared a moment to exchange a word or a glance with his companion now and then – at any rate, she did not appear at all resentful of his conduct; for her homely features wore an expression of unusual cheerfulness and serenity, and she was studying his pale, thoughtful face with great complacency when we arrived.
The journey homeward was by no means so agreeable to me as the former part of the day: for now Mrs. Graham was in the carriage, and Eliza Millward was the companion of my walk. She had observed my preference for the young widow, and evidently felt herself neglected. She did not manifest her chagrin by keen reproaches, bitter sarcasms, or pouting sullen silence – any or all of these I could easily have endured, or lightly laughed away; but she showed it by a kind of gentle melancholy, a mild, reproachful sadness that cut me to the heart. I tried to cheer her up, and apparently succeeded in some degree, before the walk was over; but in the very act my conscience reproved me, knowing, as I did, that, sooner or later, the tie must be broken, and this was only nourishing false hopes and putting off the evil day.
When the pony-carriage had approached as near Wildfell Hall as the road would permit – unless, indeed, it proceeded up the long rough lane, which Mrs. Graham would not allow – the young widow and her son alighted, relinquishing the driver’s seat to Rose; and I persuaded Eliza to take the latter’s place. Having put her comfortably in, bid her take care of the evening air, and wished her a kind good-night, I felt considerably relieved, and hastened to offer my services to Mrs. Graham to carry her apparatus up the fields, but she had already hung her camp-stool on her arm and taken her sketch-book in her hand, and insisted upon bidding me adieu then and there, with the rest of the company. But this time she declined my proffered aid in so kind and friendly a manner that I almost forgave her.