In little more than twenty minutes the journey was accomplished. I paused at the gate to wipe my streaming forehead, and recover my breath and some degree of composure. Already the rapid walking had somewhat mitigated my excitement; and with a firm and steady tread I paced the garden-walk. In passing the inhabited wing of the building, I caught a sight of Mrs. Graham, through the open window, slowly pacing up and down her lonely room.
She seemed agitated and even dismayed at my arrival, as if she thought I too was coming to accuse her. I had entered her presence intending to condole with her upon the wickedness of the world, and help her to abuse the vicar and his vile informants, but now I felt positively ashamed to mention the subject, and determined not to refer to it, unless she led the way.
'I am come at an unseasonable hour,' said I, assuming a cheerfulness I did not feel, in order to reassure her; 'but I won't stay many minutes.'
She smiled upon me, faintly it is true, but most kindly - I had almost said thankfully, as her apprehensions were removed.
'How dismal you are, Helen! Why have you no fire?' I said, looking round on the gloomy apartment.
'It is summer yet,' she replied.
'But we always have a fire in the evenings, if we can bear it; and you especially require one in this cold house and dreary room.'
'You should have come a little sooner, and I would have had one lighted for you: but it is not worth while now - you won't stay many minutes, you say, and Arthur is gone to bed.'
'But I have a fancy for a fire, nevertheless. Will you order one, if I ring?'
'Why, Gilbert, you don't look cold!' said she, smilingly regarding my face, which no doubt seemed warm enough.
'No,' replied I, 'but I want to see you comfortable before I go.'
'Me comfortable!' repeated she, with a bitter laugh, as if there were something amusingly absurd in the idea. 'It suits me better as it is,' she added, in a tone of mournful resignation.
But determined to have my own way, I pulled the bell.
'There now, Helen!' I said, as the approaching steps of Rachel were heard in answer to the summons. There was nothing for it but to turn round and desire the maid to light the fire.
I owe Rachel a grudge to this day for the look she cast upon me ere she departed on her mission, the sour, suspicious, inquisitorial look that plainly demanded, 'What are you here for, I wonder?' Her mistress did not fail to notice it, and a shade of uneasiness darkened her brow.
'You must not stay long, Gilbert,' said she, when the door was closed upon us.
'I'm not going to,' said I, somewhat testily, though without a grain of anger in my heart against any one but the meddling old woman. 'But, Helen, I've something to say to you before I go.'
'What is it?'
'No, not now - I don't know yet precisely what it is, or how to say it,' replied I, with more truth than wisdom; and then, fearing lest she should turn me out of the house, I began talking about indifferent matters in order to gain time. Meanwhile Rachel came in to kindle the fire, which was soon effected by thrusting a red- hot poker between the bars of the grate, where the fuel was already disposed for ignition. She honoured me with another of her hard, inhospitable looks in departing, but, little moved thereby, I went on talking; and setting a chair for Mrs. Graham on one side of the hearth, and one for myself on the other, I ventured to sit down, though half suspecting she would rather see me go.
In a little while we both relapsed into silence, and continued for several minutes gazing abstractedly into the fire - she intent upon her own sad thoughts, and I reflecting how delightful it would be to be seated thus beside her with no other presence to restrain our intercourse - not even that of Arthur, our mutual friend, without whom we had never met before - if only I could venture to speak my mind, and disburden my full heart of the feelings that had so long oppressed it, and which it now struggled to retain, with an effort that it seemed impossible to continue much longer, - and revolving the pros and cons for opening my heart to her there and then, and imploring a return of affection, the permission to regard her thenceforth as my own, and the right and the power to defend her from the calumnies of malicious tongues. On the one hand, I felt a new-born confidence in my powers of persuasion - a strong conviction that my own fervour of spirit would grant me eloquence - that my very determination - the absolute necessity for succeeding, that I felt must win me what I sought; while, on the other, I feared to lose the ground I had already gained with so much toil and skill, and destroy all future hope by one rash effort, when time and patience might have won success. It was like setting my life upon the cast of a die; and yet I was ready to resolve upon the attempt. At any rate, I would entreat the explanation she had half promised to give me before; I would demand the reason of this hateful barrier, this mysterious impediment to my happiness, and, as I trusted, to her own.
But while I considered in what manner I could best frame my request, my companion, wakened from her reverie with a scarcely audible sigh, and looking towards the window, where the blood-red harvest moon, just rising over one of the grim, fantastic evergreens, was shining in upon us, said, - 'Gilbert, it is getting late.'
'I see,' said I. 'You want me to go, I suppose?'
'I think you ought. If my kind neighbours get to know of this visit - as no doubt they will - they will not turn it much to my advantage.'
It was with what the vicar would doubtless have called a savage sort of smile that she said this.
'Let them turn it as they will,' said I. 'What are their thoughts to you or me, so long as we are satisfied with ourselves - and each other. Let them go to the deuce with their vile constructions and their lying inventions!'
This outburst brought a flush of colour to her face.
'You have heard, then, what they say of me?'
'I heard some detestable falsehoods; but none but fools would credit them for a moment, Helen, so don't let them trouble you.'
'I did not think Mr. Millward a fool, and he believes it all; but however little you may value the opinions of those about you - however little you may esteem them as individuals, it is not pleasant to be looked upon as a liar and a hypocrite, to be thought to practise what you abhor, and to encourage the vices you would discountenance, to find your good intentions frustrated, and your hands crippled by your supposed unworthiness, and to bring disgrace on the principles you profess.'
'True; and if I, by my thoughtlessness and selfish disregard to appearances, have at all assisted to expose you to these evils, let me entreat you not only to pardon me, but to enable me to make reparation; authorise me to clear your name from every imputation: give me the right to identify your honour with my own, and to defend your reputation as more precious than my life!'
'Are you hero enough to unite yourself to one whom you know to be suspected and despised by all around you, and identify your interests and your honour with hers? Think! it is a serious thing.'
'I should be proud to do it, Helen! - most happy - delighted beyond expression! - and if that be all the obstacle to our union, it is demolished, and you must - you shall be mine!'
And starting from my seat in a frenzy of ardour, I seized her hand and would have pressed it to my lips, but she as suddenly caught it away, exclaiming in the bitterness of intense affliction, - 'No, no, it is not all!'
'What is it, then? You promised I should know some time, and - '
'You shall know some time - but not now - my head aches terribly,' she said, pressing her hand to her forehead, 'and I must have some repose - and surely I have had misery enough to-day!' she added, almost wildly.
'But it could not harm you to tell it,' I persisted: 'it would ease your mind; and I should then know how to comfort you.'
She shook her head despondingly. 'If you knew all, you, too, would blame me - perhaps even more than I deserve - though I have cruelly wronged you,' she added in a low murmur, as if she mused aloud.
'You, Helen? Impossible?'
'Yes, not willingly; for I did not know the strength and depth of your attachment. I thought - at least I endeavoured to think your regard for me was as cold and fraternal as you professed it to be.'
'Or as yours?'
'Or as mine - ought to have been - of such a light and selfish, superficial nature, that - '
'There, indeed, you wronged me.'
I know I did; and, sometimes, I suspected it then; but I thought, upon the whole, there could be no great harm in leaving your fancies and your hopes to dream themselves to nothing - or flutter away to some more fitting object, while your friendly sympathies remained with me; but if I had known the depth of your regard, the generous, disinterested affection you seem to feel - '
'That you do feel, then, I would have acted differently.'
'How? You could not have given me less encouragement, or treated me with greater severity than you did! And if you think you have wronged me by giving me your friendship, and occasionally admitting me to the enjoyment of your company and conversation, when all hopes of closer intimacy were vain - as indeed you always gave me to understand - if you think you have wronged me by this, you are mistaken; for such favours, in themselves alone, are not only delightful to my heart, but purifying, exalting, ennobling to my soul; and I would rather have your friendship than the love of any other woman in the world!'
Little comforted by this, she clasped her hands upon her knee, and glancing upward, seemed, in silent anguish, to implore divine assistance; then, turning to me, she calmly said, - 'To-morrow, if you meet me on the moor about mid-day, I will tell you all you seek to know; and perhaps you will then see the necessity of discontinuing our intimacy - if, indeed, you do not willingly resign me as one no longer worthy of regard.'
'I can safely answer no to that: you cannot have such grave confessions to make - you must be trying my faith, Helen.'
'No, no, no,' she earnestly repeated - 'I wish it were so! Thank heaven!' she added, 'I have no great crime to confess; but I have more than you will like to hear, or, perhaps, can readily excuse, - and more than I can tell you now; so let me entreat you to leave me!'
'I will; but answer me this one question first; - do you love me?'
'I will not answer it!'
'Then I will conclude you do; and so good-night.'
She turned from me to hide the emotion she could not quite control; but I took her hand and fervently kissed it.
'Gilbert, do leave me!' she cried, in a tone of such thrilling anguish that I felt it would be cruel to disobey.
But I gave one look back before I closed the door, and saw her leaning forward on the table, with her hands pressed against her eyes, sobbing convulsively; yet I withdrew in silence. I felt that to obtrude my consolations on her then would only serve to aggravate her sufferings.
To tell you all the questionings and conjectures - the fears, and hopes, and wild emotions that jostled and chased each other through my mind as I descended the hill, would almost fill a volume in itself. But before I was half-way down, a sentiment of strong sympathy for her I had left behind me had displaced all other feelings, and seemed imperatively to draw me back: I began to think, 'Why am I hurrying so fast in this direction? Can I find comfort or consolation - peace, certainty, contentment, all - or anything that I want at home? and can I leave all perturbation, sorrow, and anxiety behind me there?'
And I turned round to look at the old Hall. There was little besides the chimneys visible above my contracted horizon. I walked back to get a better view of it. When it rose in sight, I stood still a moment to look, and then continued moving towards the gloomy object of attraction. Something called me nearer - nearer still - and why not, pray? Might I not find more benefit in the contemplation of that venerable pile with the full moon in the cloudless heaven shining so calmly above it - with that warm yellow lustre peculiar to an August night - and the mistress of my soul within, than in returning to my home, where all comparatively was light, and life, and cheerfulness, and therefore inimical to me in my present frame of mind, - and the more so that its inmates all were more or less imbued with that detestable belief, the very thought of which made my blood boil in my veins - and how could I endure to hear it openly declared, or cautiously insinuated - which was worse? - I had had trouble enough already, with some babbling fiend that would keep whispering in my ear, 'It may be true,' till I had shouted aloud, 'It is false! I defy you to make me suppose it!'
I could see the red firelight dimly gleaming from her parlour window. I went up to the garden wall, and stood leaning over it, with my eyes fixed upon the lattice, wondering what she was doing, thinking, or suffering now, and wishing I could speak to her but one word, or even catch one glimpse of her, before I went.
I had not thus looked, and wished, and wondered long, before I vaulted over the barrier, unable to resist the temptation of taking one glance through the window, just to if she were more composed than when we parted; - and if I found her still in deep distress, perhaps I might venture attempt a word of comfort - to utter one of the many things I should have said before, instead of aggravating her sufferings by my stupid impetuosity. I looked. Her chair was vacant: so was the room. But at that moment some one opened the outer door, and a voice - her voice - said, - 'Come out - I want to see the moon, and breathe the evening air: they will do me good - if anything will.'
Here, then, were she and Rachel coming to take a walk in the garden. I wished myself safe back over the wall. I stood, however, in the shadow of the tall holly-bush, which, standing between the window and the porch, at present screened me from observation, but did not prevent me from seeing two figures come forth into the moonlight: Mrs. Graham followed by another - not Rachel, but a young man, slender and rather tall. O heavens, how my temples throbbed! Intense anxiety darkened my sight; but I thought - yes, and the voice confirmed it - it was Mr. Lawrence!
'You should not let it worry you so much, Helen,' said he; 'I will be more cautious in future; and in time - '
I did not hear the rest of the sentence; for he walked close beside her and spoke so gently that I could not catch the words. My heart was splitting with hatred; but I listened intently for her reply. I heard it plainly enough.
'But I must leave this place, Frederick,' she said - 'I never can be happy here, - nor anywhere else, indeed,' she added, with a mirthless laugh, - 'but I cannot rest here.'
'But where could you find a better place?' replied he, 'so secluded - so near me, if you think anything of that.'
'Yes,' interrupted she, 'it is all I could wish, if they could only have left me alone.'
'But wherever you go, Helen, there will be the same sources of annoyance. I cannot consent to lose you: I must go with you, or come to you; and there are meddling fools elsewhere, as well as here.'
While thus conversing they had sauntered slowly past me, down the walk, and I heard no more of their discourse; but I saw him put his arm round her waist, while she lovingly rested her hand on his shoulder; - and then, a tremulous darkness obscured my sight, my heart sickened and my head burned like fire: I half rushed, half staggered from the spot, where horror had kept me rooted, and leaped or tumbled over the wall - I hardly know which - but I know that, afterwards, like a passionate child, I dashed myself on the ground and lay there in a paroxysm of anger and despair - how long, I cannot undertake to say; but it must have been a considerable time; for when, having partially relieved myself by a torment of tears, and looked up at the moon, shining so calmly and carelessly on, as little influenced by my misery as I was by its peaceful radiance, and earnestly prayed for death or forgetfulness, I had risen and journeyed homewards - little regarding the way, but carried instinctively by my feet to the door, I found it bolted against me, and every one in bed except my mother, who hastened to answer my impatient knocking, and received me with a shower of questions and rebukes.
'Oh, Gilbert! how could you do so? Where have you been? Do come in and take your supper. I've got it all ready, though you don't deserve it, for keeping me in such a fright, after the strange manner you left the house this evening. Mr. Millward was quite - Bless the boy! how ill he looks. Oh, gracious! what is the matter?'
'Nothing, nothing - give me a candle.'
'But won't you take some supper?'
'No; I want to go to bed,' said I, taking a candle and lighting it at the one she held in her hand.
'Oh, Gilbert, how you tremble!' exclaimed my anxious parent. 'How white you look! Do tell me what it is? Has anything happened?'
'It's nothing,' cried I, ready to stamp with vexation because the candle would not light. Then, suppressing my irritation, I added, 'I've been walking too fast, that's all. Good-night,' and marched off to bed, regardless of the 'Walking too fast! where have you been?' that was called after me from below.
My mother followed me to the very door of my room with her questionings and advice concerning my health and my conduct; but I implored her to let me alone till morning; and she withdrew, and at length I had the satisfaction to hear her close her own door. There was no sleep for me, however, that night as I thought; and instead of attempting to solicit it, I employed myself in rapidly pacing the chamber, having first removed my boots, lest my mother should hear me. But the boards creaked, and she was watchful. I had not walked above a quarter of an hour before she was at the door again.
'Gilbert, why are you not in bed - you said you wanted to go?'
'Confound it! I'm going,' said I.
'But why are you so long about it? You must have something on your mind - '
'For heaven's sake, let me alone, and get to bed yourself.'
'Can it be that Mrs. Graham that distresses you so?'
'No, no, I tell you - it's nothing.'
'I wish to goodness it mayn't,' murmured she, with a sigh, as she returned to her own apartment, while I threw myself on the bed, feeling most undutifully disaffected towards her for having deprived me of what seemed the only shadow of a consolation that remained, and chained me to that wretched couch of thorns.
Never did I endure so long, so miserable a night as that. And yet it was not wholly sleepless. Towards morning my distracting thoughts began to lose all pretensions to coherency, and shape themselves into confused and feverish dreams, and, at length, there followed an interval of unconscious slumber. But then the dawn of bitter recollection that succeeded - the waking to find life a blank, and worse than a blank, teeming with torment and misery - not a mere barren wilderness, but full of thorns and briers - to find myself deceived, duped, hopeless, my affections trampled upon, my angel not an angel, and my friend a fiend incarnate - it was worse than if I had not slept at all.
It was a dull, gloomy morning; the weather had changed like my prospects, and the rain was pattering against the window. I rose, nevertheless, and went out; not to look after the farm, though that would serve as my excuse, but to cool my brain, and regain, if possible, a sufficient degree of composure to meet the family at the morning meal without exciting inconvenient remarks. If I got a wetting, that, in conjunction with a pretended over-exertion before breakfast, might excuse my sudden loss of appetite; and if a cold ensued, the severer the better - it would help to account for the sullen moods and moping melancholy likely to cloud my brow for long enough.