While standing thus, absorbed in my gloomy reverie, a gentleman's carriage came round the corner of the road. I did not look at it; and had it rolled quietly by me, I should not have remembered the fact of its appearance at all; but a tiny voice from within it roused me by exclaiming, 'Mamma, mamma, here's Mr. Markham!'
I did not hear the reply, but presently the same voice answered, 'It is indeed, mamma - look for yourself.'
I did not raise my eyes, but I suppose mamma looked, for a clear melodious voice, whose tones thrilled through my nerves, exclaimed, 'Oh, aunt! here's Mr. Markham, Arthur's friend! Stop, Richard!'
There was such evidence of joyous though suppressed excitement in the utterance of those few words - especially that tremulous, 'Oh, aunt' - that it threw me almost off my guard. The carriage stopped immediately, and I looked up and met the eye of a pale, grave, elderly lady surveying me from the open window. She bowed, and so did I, and then she withdrew her head, while Arthur screamed to the footman to let him out; but before that functionary could descend from his box a hand was silently put forth from the carriage window. I knew that hand, though a black glove concealed its delicate whiteness and half its fair proportions, and quickly seizing it, I pressed it in my own - ardently for a moment, but instantly recollecting myself, I dropped it, and it was immediately withdrawn.
'Were you coming to see us, or only passing by?' asked the low voice of its owner, who, I felt, was attentively surveying my countenance from behind the thick black veil which, with the shadowing panels, entirely concealed her own from me.
'I - I came to see the place,' faltered I.
'The place,' repeated she, in a tone which betokened more displeasure or disappointment than surprise.
'Will you not enter it, then?'
'If you wish it.'
'Can you doubt?'
'Yes, yes! he must enter,' cried Arthur, running round from the other door; and seizing my hand in both his, he shook it heartily.
'Do you remember me, sir?' said he.
'Yes, full well, my little man, altered though you are,' replied I, surveying the comparatively tall, slim young gentleman, with his mother's image visibly stamped upon his fair, intelligent features, in spite of the blue eyes beaming with gladness, and the bright locks clustering beneath his cap.
'Am I not grown?' said he, stretching himself up to his full height.
'Grown! three inches, upon my word!'
'I was seven last birthday,' was the proud rejoinder. 'In seven years more I shall be as tall as you nearly.'
'Arthur,' said his mother, 'tell him to come in. Go on, Richard.'
There was a touch of sadness as well as coldness in her voice, but I knew not to what to ascribe it. The carriage drove on and entered the gates before us. My little companion led me up the park, discoursing merrily all the way. Arrived at the hall-door, I paused on the steps and looked round me, waiting to recover my composure, if possible - or, at any rate, to remember my new-formed resolutions and the principles on which they were founded; and it was not till Arthur had been for some time gently pulling my coat, and repeating his invitations to enter, that I at length consented to accompany him into the apartment where the ladies awaited us.
Helen eyed me as I entered with a kind of gentle, serious scrutiny, and politely asked after Mrs. Markham and Rose. I respectfully answered her inquiries. Mrs. Maxwell begged me to be seated, observing it was rather cold, but she supposed I had not travelled far that morning.
'Not quite twenty miles,' I answered.
'Not on foot!'
'No, Madam, by coach.'
'Here's Rachel, sir,' said Arthur, the only truly happy one amongst us, directing my attention to that worthy individual, who had just entered to take her mistress's things. She vouchsafed me an almost friendly smile of recognition - a favour that demanded, at least, a civil salutation on my part, which was accordingly given and respectfully returned - she had seen the error of her former estimation of my character.
When Helen was divested of her lugubrious bonnet and veil, her heavy winter cloak, &c., she looked so like herself that I knew not how to bear it. I was particularly glad to see her beautiful black hair, unstinted still, and unconcealed in its glossy luxuriance.
'Mamma has left off her widow's cap in honour of uncle's marriage,' observed Arthur, reading my looks with a child's mingled simplicity and quickness of observation. Mamma looked grave and Mrs. Maxwell shook her head. 'And aunt Maxwell is never going to leave off hers,' persisted the naughty boy; but when he saw that his pertness was seriously displeasing and painful to his aunt, he went and silently put his arm round her neck, kissed her cheek, and withdrew to the recess of one of the great bay-windows, where he quietly amused himself with his dog, while Mrs. Maxwell gravely discussed with me the interesting topics of the weather, the season, and the roads. I considered her presence very useful as a check upon my natural impulses - an antidote to those emotions of tumultuous excitement which would otherwise have carried me away against my reason and my will; but just then I felt the restraint almost intolerable, and I had the greatest difficulty in forcing myself to attend to her remarks and answer them with ordinary politeness; for I was sensible that Helen was standing within a few feet of me beside the fire. I dared not look at her, but I felt her eye was upon me, and from one hasty, furtive glance, I thought her cheek was slightly flushed, and that her fingers, as she played with her watch-chain, were agitated with that restless, trembling motion which betokens high excitement.
'Tell me,' said she, availing herself of the first pause in the attempted conversation between her aunt and me, and speaking fast and low, with her eyes bent on the gold chain - for I now ventured another glance - 'Tell me how you all are at Linden-hope - has nothing happened since I left you?'
'I believe not.'
'Nobody dead? nobody married?'
'Or - or expecting to marry? - No old ties dissolved or new ones formed? no old friends forgotten or supplanted?'
She dropped her voice so low in the last sentence that no one could have caught the concluding words but myself, and at the same time turned her eyes upon me with a dawning smile, most sweetly melancholy, and a look of timid though keen inquiry that made my cheeks tingle with inexpressible emotions.
'I believe not,' I answered. 'Certainly not, if others are as little changed as I.' Her face glowed in sympathy with mine.
'And you really did not mean to call?' she exclaimed.
'I feared to intrude.'
'To intrude!' cried she, with an impatient gesture. 'What - ' but as if suddenly recollecting her aunt's presence, she checked herself, and, turning to that lady, continued - 'Why, aunt, this man is my brother's close friend, and was my own intimate acquaintance (for a few short months at least), and professed a great attachment to my boy - and when he passes the house, so many scores of miles from his home, he declines to look in for fear of intruding!'
'Mr. Markham is over-modest,' observed Mrs. Maxwell.
'Over-ceremonious rather,' said her niece - 'over - well, it's no matter.' And turning from me, she seated herself in a chair beside the table, and pulling a book to her by the cover, began to turn over the leaves in an energetic kind of abstraction.
'If I had known,' said I, 'that you would have honoured me by remembering me as an intimate acquaintance, I most likely should not have denied myself the pleasure of calling upon you, but I thought you had forgotten me long ago.'
'You judged of others by yourself,' muttered she without raising her eyes from the book, but reddening as she spoke, and hastily turning over a dozen leaves at once.
There was a pause, of which Arthur thought he might venture to avail himself to introduce his handsome young setter, and show me how wonderfully it was grown and improved, and to ask after the welfare of its father Sancho. Mrs. Maxwell then withdrew to take off her things. Helen immediately pushed the book from her, and after silently surveying her son, his friend, and his dog for a few moments, she dismissed the former from the room under pretence of wishing him to fetch his last new book to show me. The child obeyed with alacrity; but I continued caressing the dog. The silence might have lasted till its master's return, had it depended on me to break it; but, in half a minute or less, my hostess impatiently rose, and, taking her former station on the rug between me and the chimney corner, earnestly exclaimed -
'Gilbert, what is the matter with you? - why are you so changed? It is a very indiscreet question, I know,' she hastened to add: 'perhaps a very rude one - don't answer it if you think so - but I hate mysteries and concealments.'
'I am not changed, Helen - unfortunately I am as keen and passionate as ever - it is not I, it is circumstances that are changed.'
'What circumstances? Do tell me!' Her cheek was blanched with the very anguish of anxiety - could it be with the fear that I had rashly pledged my faith to another?
'I'll tell you at once,' said I. 'I will confess that I came here for the purpose of seeing you (not without some monitory misgivings at my own presumption, and fears that I should be as little welcome as expected when I came), but I did not know that this estate was yours until enlightened on the subject of your inheritance by the conversation of two fellow-passengers in the last stage of my journey; and then I saw at once the folly of the hopes I had cherished, and the madness of retaining them a moment longer; and though I alighted at your gates, I determined not to enter within them; I lingered a few minutes to see the place, but was fully resolved to return to M- without seeing its mistress.'
'And if my aunt and I had not been just returning from our morning drive, I should have seen and heard no more of you?'
'I thought it would be better for both that we should not meet,' replied I, as calmly as I could, but not daring to speak above my breath, from conscious inability to steady my voice, and not daring to look in her face lest my firmness should forsake me altogether. 'I thought an interview would only disturb your peace and madden me. But I am glad, now, of this opportunity of seeing you once more and knowing that you have not forgotten me, and of assuring you that I shall never cease to remember you.'
There was a moment's pause. Mrs. Huntingdon moved away, and stood in the recess of the window. Did she regard this as an intimation that modesty alone prevented me from asking her hand? and was she considering how to repulse me with the smallest injury to my feelings? Before I could speak to relieve her from such a perplexity, she broke the silence herself by suddenly turning towards me and observing -
'You might have had such an opportunity before - as far, I mean, as regards assuring me of your kindly recollections, and yourself of mine, if you had written to me.'
'I would have done so, but I did not know your address, and did not like to ask your brother, because I thought he would object to my writing; but this would not have deterred me for a moment, if I could have ventured to believe that you expected to hear from me, or even wasted a thought upon your unhappy friend; but your silence naturally led me to conclude myself forgotten.'
'Did you expect me to write to you, then?'
'No, Helen - Mrs. Huntingdon,' said I, blushing at the implied imputation, 'certainly not; but if you had sent me a message through your brother, or even asked him about me now and then - '
'I did ask about you frequently. I was not going to do more,' continued she, smiling, 'so long as you continued to restrict yourself to a few polite inquiries about my health.'
'Your brother never told me that you had mentioned my name.'
'Did you ever ask him?'
'No; for I saw he did not wish to be questioned about you, or to afford the slightest encouragement or assistance to my too obstinate attachment.' Helen did not reply. 'And he was perfectly right,' added I. But she remained in silence, looking out upon the snowy lawn. 'Oh, I will relieve her of my presence,' thought I; and immediately I rose and advanced to take leave, with a most heroic resolution - but pride was at the bottom of it, or it could not have carried me through.
'Are you going already?' said she, taking the hand I offered, and not immediately letting it go.
'Why should I stay any longer?'
'Wait till Arthur comes, at least.'
Only too glad to obey, I stood and leant against the opposite side of the window.
'You told me you were not changed,' said my companion: 'you are - very much so.'
'No, Mrs. Huntingdon, I only ought to be.'
'Do you mean to maintain that you have the same regard for me that you had when last we met?'
'I have; but it would be wrong to talk of it now.'
'It was wrong to talk of it then, Gilbert; it would not now - unless to do so would be to violate the truth.'
I was too much agitated to speak; but, without waiting for an answer, she turned away her glistening eye and crimson cheek, and threw up the window and looked out, whether to calm her own, excited feelings, or to relieve her embarrassment, or only to pluck that beautiful half-blown Christmas-rose that grew upon the little shrub without, just peeping from the snow that had hitherto, no doubt, defended it from the frost, and was now melting away in the sun. Pluck it, however, she did, and having gently dashed the glittering powder from its leaves, approached it to her lips and said:
'This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear: the cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it, or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, Gilbert, it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals. - Will you have it?'
I held out my hand: I dared not speak lest my emotion should overmaster me. She laid the rose across my palm, but I scarcely closed my fingers upon it, so deeply was I absorbed in thinking what might be the meaning of her words, and what I ought to do or say upon the occasion; whether to give way to my feelings or restrain them still. Misconstruing this hesitation into indifference - or reluctance even - to accept her gift, Helen suddenly snatched it from my hand, threw it out on to the snow, shut down the window with an emphasis, and withdrew to the fire.
'Helen, what means this?' I cried, electrified at this startling change in her demeanour.
'You did not understand my gift,' said she - 'or, what is worse, you despised it. I'm sorry I gave it you; but since I did make such a mistake, the only remedy I could think of was to take it away.'
'You misunderstood me cruelly,' I replied, and in a minute I had opened the window again, leaped out, picked up the flower, brought it in, and presented it to her, imploring her to give it me again, and I would keep it for ever for her sake, and prize it more highly than anything in the world I possessed.
'And will this content you?' said she, as she took it in her hand.
'It shall,' I answered.
'There, then; take it.'
I pressed it earnestly to my lips, and put it in my bosom, Mrs. Huntingdon looking on with a half-sarcastic smile.
'Now, are you going?' said she.
'I will if - if I must.'
'You are changed,' persisted she - 'you are grown either very proud or very indifferent.'
'I am neither, Helen - Mrs. Huntingdon. If you could see my heart - '
'You must be one, - if not both. And why Mrs. Huntingdon? - why not Helen, as before?'
'Helen, then - dear Helen!' I murmured. I was in an agony of mingled love, hope, delight, uncertainty, and suspense.
'The rose I gave you was an emblem of my heart,' said she; 'would you take it away and leave me here alone?'
'Would you give me your hand too, if I asked it?'
'Have I not said enough?' she answered, with a most enchanting smile. I snatched her hand, and would have fervently kissed it, but suddenly checked myself, and said, -
'But have you considered the consequences?'
'Hardly, I think, or I should not have offered myself to one too proud to take me, or too indifferent to make his affection outweigh my worldly goods.'
Stupid blockhead that I was! - I trembled to clasp her in my arms, but dared not believe in so much joy, and yet restrained myself to say, -
'But if you should repent!'
'It would be your fault,' she replied: 'I never shall, unless you bitterly disappoint me. If you have not sufficient confidence in my affection to believe this, let me alone.'
'My darling angel - my own Helen,' cried I, now passionately kissing the hand I still retained, and throwing my left arm around her, 'you never shall repent, if it depend on me alone. But have you thought of your aunt?' I trembled for the answer, and clasped her closer to my heart in the instinctive dread of losing my new- found treasure.
'My aunt must not know of it yet,' said she. 'She would think it a rash, wild step, because she could not imagine how well I know you; but she must know you herself, and learn to like you. You must leave us now, after lunch, and come again in spring, and make a longer stay, and cultivate her acquaintance, and I know you will like each other.'
'And then you will be mine,' said I, printing a kiss upon her lips, and another, and another; for I was as daring and impetuous now as I had been backward and constrained before.
'No - in another year,' replied she, gently disengaging herself from my embrace, but still fondly clasping my hand.
'Another year! Oh, Helen, I could not wait so long!'
'Where is your fidelity?'
'I mean I could not endure the misery of so long a separation.'
'It would not be a separation: we will write every day: my spirit shall be always with you, and sometimes you shall see me with your bodily eye. I will not be such a hypocrite as to pretend that I desire to wait so long myself, but as my marriage is to please myself, alone, I ought to consult my friends about the time of it.'
'Your friends will disapprove.'
'They will not greatly disapprove, dear Gilbert,' said she, earnestly kissing my hand; 'they cannot, when they know you, or, if they could, they would not be true friends - I should not care for their estrangement. Now are you satisfied?' She looked up in my face with a smile of ineffable tenderness.
'Can I be otherwise, with your love? And you do love me, Helen?' said I, not doubting the fact, but wishing to hear it confirmed by her own acknowledgment.
'If you loved as I do,' she earnestly replied, 'you would not have so nearly lost me - these scruples of false delicacy and pride would never thus have troubled you - you would have seen that the greatest worldly distinctions and discrepancies of rank, birth, and fortune are as dust in the balance compared with the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathising hearts and souls.'
'But this is too much happiness,' said I, embracing her again; 'I have not deserved it, Helen - I dare not believe in such felicity: and the longer I have to wait, the greater will be my dread that something will intervene to snatch you from me - and think, a thousand things may happen in a year! - I shall be in one long fever of restless terror and impatience all the time. And besides, winter is such a dreary season.'
'I thought so too,' replied she gravely: 'I would not be married in winter - in December, at least,' she added, with a shudder - for in that month had occurred both the ill-starred marriage that had bound her to her former husband, and the terrible death that released her - 'and therefore I said another year, in spring.'
'No, no - next autumn, perhaps.'
'Well, the close of summer. There now! be satisfied.'
While she was speaking Arthur re-entered the room - good boy for keeping out so long.
'Mamma, I couldn't find the book in either of the places you told me to look for it' (there was a conscious something in mamma's smile that seemed to say, 'No, dear, I knew you could not'), 'but Rachel got it for me at last. Look, Mr. Markham, a natural history, with all kinds of birds and beasts in it, and the reading as nice as the pictures!'
In great good humour I sat down to examine the book, and drew the little fellow between my knees. Had he come a minute before I should have received him less graciously, but now I affectionately stroked his curling looks, and even kissed his ivory forehead: he was my own Helen's son, and therefore mine; and as such I have ever since regarded him. That pretty child is now a fine young man: he has realised his mother's brightest expectations, and is at present residing in Grassdale Manor with his young wife - the merry little Helen Hattersley of yore.
I had not looked through half the book before Mrs. Maxwell appeared to invite me into the other room to lunch. That lady's cool, distant manners rather chilled me at first; but I did my best to propitiate her, and not entirely without success, I think, even in that first short visit; for when I talked cheerfully to her, she gradually became more kind and cordial, and when I departed she bade me a gracious adieu, hoping ere long to have the pleasure of seeing me again.
'But you must not go till you have seen the conservatory, my aunt's winter garden,' said Helen, as I advanced to take leave of her, with as much philosophy and self-command as I could summon to my aid.
I gladly availed myself of such a respite, and followed her into a large and beautiful conservatory, plentifully furnished with flowers, considering the season - but, of course, I had little attention to spare for them. It was not, however, for any tender colloquy that my companion had brought me there:-
'My aunt is particularly fond of flowers,' she observed, 'and she is fond of Staningley too: I brought you here to offer a petition in her behalf, that this may be her home as long as she lives, and - if it be not our home likewise - that I may often see her and be with her; for I fear she will be sorry to lose me; and though she leads a retired and contemplative life, she is apt to get low- spirited if left too much alone.'
'By all means, dearest Helen! - do what you will with your own. I should not dream of wishing your aunt to leave the place under any circumstances; and we will live either here or elsewhere as you and she may determine, and you shall see her as often as you like. I know she must be pained to part with you, and I am willing to make any reparation in my power. I love her for your sake, and her happiness shall be as dear to me as that of my own mother.'
'Thank you, darling! you shall have a kiss for that. Good-by. There now - there, Gilbert - let me go - here's Arthur; don't astonish his infantile brain with your madness.'
* * * * *
But it is time to bring my narrative to a close. Any one but you would say I had made it too long already. But for your satisfaction I will add a few words more; because I know you will have a fellow-feeling for the old lady, and will wish to know the last of her history. I did come again in spring, and, agreeably to Helen's injunctions, did my best to cultivate her acquaintance. She received me very kindly, having been, doubtless, already prepared to think highly of my character by her niece's too favourable report. I turned my best side out, of course, and we got along marvellously well together. When my ambitious intentions were made known to her, she took it more sensibly than I had ventured to hope. Her only remark on the subject, in my hearing, was -
'And so, Mr. Markham, you are going to rob me of my niece, I understand. Well! I hope God will prosper your union, and make my dear girl happy at last. Could she have been contented to remain single, I own I should have been better satisfied; but if she must marry again, I know of no one, now living and of a suitable age, to whom I would more willingly resign her than yourself, or who would be more likely to appreciate her worth and make, her truly happy, as far as I can tell.'
Of course I was delighted with the compliment, and hoped to show her that she was not mistaken in her favourable judgment.
'I have, however, one request to offer,' continued she. 'It seems I am still to look on Staningley as my home: I wish you to make it yours likewise, for Helen is attached to the place and to me - as I am to her. There are painful associations connected with Grassdale, which she cannot easily overcome; and I shall not molest you with my company or interference here: I am a very quiet person, and shall keep my own apartments, and attend to my own concerns, and only see you now and then.'
Of course I most readily consented to this; and we lived in the greatest harmony with our dear aunt until the day of her death, which melancholy event took place a few years after - melancholy, not to herself (for it came quietly upon her, and she was glad to reach her journey's end), but only to the few loving friends and grateful dependents she left behind.
To return, however, to my own affairs: I was married in summer, on a glorious August morning. It took the whole eight months, and all Helen's kindness and goodness to boot, to overcome my mother's prejudices against my bride-elect, and to reconcile her to the idea of my leaving Linden Grange and living so far away. Yet she was gratified at her son's good fortune after all, and proudly attributed it all to his own superior merits and endowments. I bequeathed the farm to Fergus, with better hopes of its prosperity than I should have had a year ago under similar circumstances; for he had lately fallen in love with the Vicar of L-'s eldest daughter - a lady whose superiority had roused his latent virtues, and stimulated him to the most surprising exertions, not only to gain her affection and esteem, and to obtain a fortune sufficient to aspire to her hand, but to render himself worthy of her, in his own eyes, as well as in those of her parents; and in the end he was successful, as you already know. As for myself, I need not tell you how happily my Helen and I have lived together, and how blessed we still are in each other's society, and in the promising young scions that are growing up about us. We are just now looking forward to the advent of you and Rose, for the time of your annual visit draws nigh, when you must leave your dusty, smoky, noisy, toiling, striving city for a season of invigorating relaxation and social retirement with us.
Till then, farewell,
STANINGLEY: June 10TH, 1847.