When all were gone, I learnt that the vile slander had indeed been circulated throughout the company, in the very presence of the victim. Rose, however, vowed she did not and would not believe it, and my mother made the same declaration, though not, I fear, with the same amount of real, unwavering incredulity. It seemed to dwell continually on her mind, and she kept irritating me from time to time by such expressions as - 'Dear, dear, who would have thought it! - Well! I always thought there was something odd about her. - You see what it is for women to affect to be different to other people.' And once it was, - 'I misdoubted that appearance of mystery from the very first - I thought there would no good come of it; but this is a sad, sad business, to be sure!'
'Why, mother, you said you didn't believe these tales,' said Fergus.
'No more I do, my dear; but then, you know, there must be some foundation.'
'The foundation is in the wickedness and falsehood of the world,' said I, 'and in the fact that Mr. Lawrence has been seen to go that way once or twice of an evening - and the village gossips say he goes to pay his addresses to the strange lady, and the scandal- mongers have greedily seized the rumour, to make it the basis of their own infernal structure.'
'Well, but, Gilbert, there must be something in her manner to countenance such reports.'
'Did you see anything in her manner?'
'No, certainly; but then, you know, I always said there was something strange about her.'
I believe it was on that very evening that I ventured on another invasion of Wildfell Hall. From the time of our party, which was upwards of a week ago, I had been making daily efforts to meet its mistress in her walks; and always disappointed (she must have managed it so on purpose), had nightly kept revolving in my mind some pretext for another call. At length I concluded that the separation could be endured no longer (by this time, you will see, I was pretty far gone); and, taking from the book-case an old volume that I thought she might be interested in, though, from its unsightly and somewhat dilapidated condition, I had not yet ventured to offer it for perusal, I hastened away, - but not without sundry misgivings as to how she would receive me, or how I could summon courage to present myself with so slight an excuse. But, perhaps, I might see her in the field or the garden, and then there would be no great difficulty: it was the formal knocking at the door, with the prospect of being gravely ushered in by Rachel, to the presence of a surprised, uncordial mistress, that so greatly disturbed me.
My wish, however, was not gratified. Mrs. Graham herself was not to be seen; but there was Arthur playing with his frolicsome little dog in the garden. I looked over the gate and called him to me. He wanted me to come in; but I told him I could not without his mother's leave.
'I'll go and ask her,' said the child.
'No, no, Arthur, you mustn't do that; but if she's not engaged, just ask her to come here a minute. Tell her I want to speak to her.'
He ran to perform my bidding, and quickly returned with his mother. How lovely she looked with her dark ringlets streaming in the light summer breeze, her fair cheek slightly flushed, and her countenance radiant with smiles. Dear Arthur! what did I not owe to you for this and every other happy meeting? Through him I was at once delivered from all formality, and terror, and constraint. In love affairs, there is no mediator like a merry, simple-hearted child - ever ready to cement divided hearts, to span the unfriendly gulf of custom, to melt the ice of cold reserve, and overthrow the separating walls of dread formality and pride.
'Well, Mr. Markham, what is it?' said the young mother, accosting me with a pleasant smile.
'I want you to look at this book, and, if you please, to take it, and peruse it at your leisure. I make no apology for calling you out on such a lovely evening, though it be for a matter of no greater importance.'
'Tell him to come in, mamma,' said Arthur.
'Would you like to come in?' asked the lady.
'Yes; I should like to see your improvements in the garden.'
'And how your sister's roots have prospered in my charge,' added she, as she opened the gate.
And we sauntered through the garden, and talked of the flowers, the trees, and the book, and then of other things. The evening was kind and genial, and so was my companion. By degrees I waxed more warm and tender than, perhaps, I had ever been before; but still I said nothing tangible, and she attempted no repulse, until, in passing a moss rose-tree that I had brought her some weeks since, in my sister's name, she plucked a beautiful half-open bud and bade me give it to Rose.
'May I not keep it myself?' I asked.
'No; but here is another for you.'
Instead of taking it quietly, I likewise took the hand that offered it, and looked into her face. She let me hold it for a moment, and I saw a flash of ecstatic brilliance in her eye, a glow of glad excitement on her face - I thought my hour of victory was come - but instantly a painful recollection seemed to flash upon her; a cloud of anguish darkened her brow, a marble paleness blanched her cheek and lip; there seemed a moment of inward conflict, and, with a sudden effort, she withdrew her hand, and retreated a step or two back.
'Now, Mr. Markham,' said she, with a kind of desperate calmness, 'I must tell you plainly that I cannot do with this. I like your company, because I am alone here, and your conversation pleases me more than that of any other person; but if you cannot be content to regard me as a friend - a plain, cold, motherly, or sisterly friend - I must beg you to leave me now, and let me alone hereafter: in fact, we must be strangers for the future.'
'I will, then - be your friend, or brother, or anything you wish, if you will only let me continue to see you; but tell me why I cannot be anything more?'
There was a perplexed and thoughtful pause.
'Is it in consequence of some rash vow?'
'It is something of the kind,' she answered. 'Some day I may tell you, but at present you had better leave me; and never, Gilbert, put me to the painful necessity of repeating what I have just now said to you,' she earnestly added, giving me her hand in serious kindness. How sweet, how musical my own name sounded in her mouth!
'I will not,' I replied. 'But you pardon this offence?'
'On condition that you never repeat it.'
'And may I come to see you now and then?'
'Perhaps - occasionally; provided you never abuse the privilege.'
'I make no empty promises, but you shall see.'
'The moment you do our intimacy is at an end, that's all.'
'And will you always call me Gilbert? It sounds more sisterly, and it will serve to remind me of our contract.'
She smiled, and once more bid me go; and at length I judged it prudent to obey, and she re-entered the house and I went down the hill. But as I went the tramp of horses' hoofs fell on my ear, and broke the stillness of the dewy evening; and, looking towards the lane, I saw a solitary equestrian coming up. Inclining to dusk as it was, I knew him at a glance: it was Mr. Lawrence on his grey pony. I flew across the field, leaped the stone fence, and then walked down the lane to meet him. On seeing me, he suddenly drew in his little steed, and seemed inclined to turn back, but on second thought apparently judged it better to continue his course as before. He accosted me with a slight bow, and, edging close to the wall, endeavoured to pass on; but I was not so minded. Seizing his horse by the bridle, I exclaimed, - 'Now, Lawrence, I will have this mystery explained! Tell me where you are going, and what you mean to do - at once, and distinctly!'
'Will you take your hand off the bridle?' said he, quietly - 'you're hurting my pony's mouth.'
'You and your pony be - '
'What makes you so coarse and brutal, Markham? I'm quite ashamed of you.'
'You answer my questions - before you leave this spot I will know what you mean by this perfidious duplicity!'
'I shall answer no questions till you let go the bridle, - if you stand till morning.'
'Now then,' said I, unclosing my hand, but still standing before him.
'Ask me some other time, when you can speak like a gentleman,' returned he, and he made an effort to pass me again; but I quickly re-captured the pony, scarce less astonished than its master at such uncivil usage.
'Really, Mr. Markham, this is too much!' said the latter. 'Can I not go to see my tenant on matters of business, without being assaulted in this manner by -?'
'This is no time for business, sir! - I'll tell you, now, what I think of your conduct.'
'You'd better defer your opinion to a more convenient season,' interrupted he in a low tone - 'here's the vicar.' And, in truth, the vicar was just behind me, plodding homeward from some remote corner of his parish. I immediately released the squire; and he went on his way, saluting Mr. Millward as he passed.
'What! quarrelling, Markham?' cried the latter, addressing himself to me, - 'and about that young widow, I doubt?' he added, reproachfully shaking his head. 'But let me tell you, young man' (here he put his face into mine with an important, confidential air), 'she's not worth it!' and he confirmed the assertion by a solemn nod.
'MR. MILLWARD,' I exclaimed, in a tone of wrathful menace that made the reverend gentleman look round - aghast - astounded at such unwonted insolence, and stare me in the face, with a look that plainly said, 'What, this to me!' But I was too indignant to apologise, or to speak another word to him: I turned away, and hastened homewards, descending with rapid strides the steep, rough lane, and leaving him to follow as he pleased.