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Chapter 8


The Present


Six weeks had passed
away. It was a splendid morning about the close of June. Most of
the hay was cut, but the last week had been very unfavourable; and
now that fine weather was come at last, being determined to make
the most of it, I had gathered all hands together into the
hay-field, and was working away myself, in the midst of them, in my
shirt-sleeves, with a light, shady straw hat on my head, catching
up armfuls of moist, reeking grass, and shaking it out to the four
winds of heaven, at the head of a goodly file of servants and
hirelings - intending so to labour, from morning till night, with
as much zeal and assiduity as I could look for from any of them, as
well to prosper the work by my own exertion as to animate the
workers by my example - when lo! my resolutions were overthrown in
a moment, by the simple fact of my brother's running up to me and
putting into my hand a small parcel, just arrived from London,
which I had been for some time expecting. I tore off the
cover, and disclosed an elegant and portable edition of
'Marmion'.

'I guess I know who
that's for,' said Fergus, who stood looking on while I complacently
examined the volume. 'That's for Miss Eliza, now.'

He pronounced this with
a tone and look so prodigiously knowing, that I was glad to
contradict him.

'You're wrong, my lad,'
said I; and, taking up my coat, I deposited the book in one of its
pockets, and then put it on (i.e. the coat). 'Now come here, you
idle dog, and make yourself useful for once,' I continued - 'Pull
off your coat, and take my place in the field till I come
back.'

'Till you come back? -
and where are you going, pray?

'No matter - where - the when is all that concerns you; - and I shall
be back by dinner, at least.'

'Oh ho! and I'm to
labour away till then, am I? - and to keep all these fellows hard
at it besides - Well, well! I'll submit - for once in a way. -
Come, my lads, you must look sharp: I'm coming to help you
now;- and woe be to that man, or woman either, that pauses for a
moment amongst you - whether to stare about him, to scratch his
head, or blow his nose - no pretext will serve - nothing but work,
work, work in the sweat of your face,' - &c., &c.

Leaving him thus
haranguing the people, more to their amusement than edification, I
returned to the house, and, having made some alteration in my
toilet, hastened away to Wildfell Hall, with the book in my pocket;
for it was destined for the shelves of Mrs. Graham.

'What, then, had she
and you got on so well together as to come to the giving and
receiving of presents?' - Not precisely, old buck; this was my
first experiment in that line; and I was very anxious to see the
result of it.

We had met several
times since the - Bay excursion, and I had found she was not averse
to my company, provided I confined my conversation to the
discussion of abstract matters, or topics of common interest; - the
moment I touched upon the sentimental or the complimentary, or made
the slightest approach to tenderness in word or look, I was not
only punished by an immediate change in her manner at the time, but
doomed to find her more cold and distant, if not entirely
inaccessible, when next I sought her company. This circumstance did
not greatly disconcert me, however, because I attributed it, not so
much to any dislike of my person, as to some absolute resolution
against a second marriage formed prior to the time of our
acquaintance, whether from excess of affection for her late
husband, or because she had had enough of him and the matrimonial
state together. At first, indeed, she had seemed to take a pleasure
in mortifying my vanity and crushing my presumption - relentlessly
nipping off bud by bud as they ventured to appear; and then, I
confess, I was deeply wounded, though, at the same time, stimulated
to seek revenge; - but latterly finding, beyond a doubt, that I was
not that empty-headed coxcomb she had first supposed me, she had
repulsed my modest advances in quite a different spirit. It was a
kind of serious, almost sorrowful displeasure, which I soon learnt
carefully to avoid awakening.

'Let me first establish
my position as a friend,' thought I - 'the patron and playfellow of
her son, the sober, solid, plain-dealing friend of herself, and
then, when I have made myself fairly necessary to her comfort and
enjoyment in life (as I believe I can), we'll see what next may be
effected.'

So we talked about
painting, poetry, and music, theology, geology, and philosophy:
once or twice I lent her a book, and once she lent me one in
return: I met her in her walks as often as I could; I came to her
house as often as I dared. My first pretext for invading the
sanctum was to bring Arthur a little waddling puppy of which Sancho
was the father, and which delighted the child beyond expression,
and, consequently, could not fail to please his mamma. My second
was to bring him a book, which, knowing his mother's particularity,
I had carefully selected, and which I submitted for her approbation
before presenting it to him. Then, I brought her some plants for
her garden, in my sister's name - having previously persuaded Rose
to send them. Each of these times I inquired after the picture she
was painting from the sketch taken on the cliff, and was admitted
into the studio, and asked my opinion or advice respecting its
progress.

My last visit had been
to return the book she had lent me; and then it was that, in
casually discussing the poetry of Sir Walter Scott, she had
expressed a wish to see 'Marmion', and I had conceived the
presumptuous idea of making her a present of it, and, on my return
home, instantly sent for the smart little volume I had this morning
received. But an apology for invading the hermitage was still
necessary; so I had furnished myself with a blue morocco collar for
Arthur's little dog; and that being given and received, with much
more joy and gratitude, on the part of the receiver, than the worth
of the gift or the selfish motive of the giver deserved, I ventured
to ask Mrs. Graham for one more look at the picture, if it was
still there.

'Oh, yes! come in,'
said she (for I had met them in the garden). 'It is finished and
framed, all ready for sending away; but give me your last opinion,
and if you can suggest any further improvement, it shall be - duly
considered, at least.'

The picture was
strikingly beautiful; it was the very scene itself, transferred as
if by magic to the canvas; but I expressed my approbation in
guarded terms, and few words, for fear of displeasing her. She,
however, attentively watched my looks, and her artist's pride was
gratified, no doubt, to read my heartfelt admiration in my eyes.
But, while I gazed, I thought upon the book, and wondered how it
was to be presented. My heart failed me; but I determined not to be
such a fool as to come away without having made the attempt. It was
useless waiting for an opportunity, and useless trying to concoct a
speech for the occasion. The more plainly and naturally the thing
was done, the better, I thought; so I just looked out of the window
to screw up my courage, and then pulled out the book, turned round,
and put it into her hand, with this short explanation:

'You were wishing to
see 'Marmion,' Mrs. Graham; and here it is, if you will be so kind
as to take it.'

A momentary blush
suffused her face - perhaps, a blush of sympathetic shame for such
an awkward style of presentation: she gravely examined the volume
on both sides; then silently turned over the leaves, knitting her
brows the while, in serious cogitation; then closed the book, and
turning from it to me, quietly asked the price of it. - I felt the
hot blood rush to my face.

'I'm sorry to offend
you, Mr. Markham,' said she, 'but unless I pay for the book, I
cannot take it.' And she laid it on the table.

'Why cannot
you?'

'Because,' - she
paused, and looked at the carpet.

'Why cannot you?' I
repeated, with a degree of irascibility that roused her to lift her
eyes and look me steadily in the face.

'Because I don't like
to put myself under obligations that I can never repay - I
am
obliged to you already for your kindness to my son; but his
grateful affection and your own good feelings must reward you for
that.'

'Nonsense!' ejaculated
I.

She turned her eyes on
me again, with a look of quiet, grave surprise, that had the effect
of a rebuke, whether intended for such or not.

'Then you won't take
the book?' I asked, more mildly than I had yet spoken.

'I will gladly take it,
if you will let me pay for it.'

I told her the exact
price, and the cost of the carriage besides, in as calm a tone as I
could command - for, in fact, I was ready to weep with
disappointment and vexation.

She produced her purse,
and coolly counted out the money, but hesitated to put it into my
hand. Attentively regarding me, in a tone of soothing softness, she
observed, - 'You think yourself insulted, Mr Markham - I wish I
could make you understand that - that I - '

'I do understand you,
perfectly,' I said. 'You think that if you were to accept that
trifle from me now, I should presume upon it hereafter; but you are
mistaken:- if you will only oblige me by taking it, believe me, I
shall build no hopes upon it, and consider this no precedent for
future favours:- and it is nonsense to talk about putting yourself
under obligations to me when you must know that in such a case the
obligation is entirely on my side, - the favour on
yours.'

'Well, then, I'll take
you at your word,' she answered, with a most angelic smile,
returning the odious money to her purse - 'but
remember
!'

'I will remember - what
I have said; - but do not you punish my presumption by withdrawing
your friendship entirely from me, - or expect me to atone for it by
being more distant than before,' said I, extending my hand
to take leave, for I was too much excited to remain.

'Well, then! let us be
as we were,' replied she, frankly placing her hand in mine; and
while I held it there, I had much difficulty to refrain from
pressing it to my lips; - but that would be suicidal madness: I had
been bold enough already, and this premature offering had well-nigh
given the death-blow to my hopes.

It was with an
agitated, burning heart and brain that I hurried homewards,
regardless of that scorching noonday sun - forgetful of everything
but her I had just left - regretting nothing but her
impenetrability, and my own precipitancy and want of tact - fearing
nothing but her hateful resolution, and my inability to overcome it
- hoping nothing - but halt, - I will not bore you with my
conflicting hopes and fears - my serious cogitations and
resolves.


Anne Bronte