September 1st.—No Mr. Huntingdon yet. Perhaps he will stay among his friends till Christmas; and then, next spring, he will be off again. If he continue this plan, I shall be able to stay at Grassdale well enough—that is, I shall be able to stay, and that is enough; even an occasional bevy of friends at the shooting season may be borne, if Arthur get so firmly attached to me, so well established in good sense and principles before they come that I shall be able, by reason and affection, to keep him pure from their contaminations. Vain hope, I fear! but still, till such a time of trial comes I will forbear to think of my quiet asylum in the beloved old hall.
Mr. and Mrs. Hattersley have been staying at the Grove a fortnight: and as Mr. Hargrave is still absent, and the weather was remarkably fine, I never passed a day without seeing my two friends, Milicent and Esther, either there or here. On one occasion, when Mr. Hattersley had driven them over to Grassdale in the phaeton, with little Helen and Ralph, and we were all enjoying ourselves in the garden—I had a few minutes’ conversation with that gentleman, while the ladies were amusing themselves with the children.
“Do you want to hear anything of your husband, Mrs. Huntingdon?” said he.
“No, unless you can tell me when to expect him home.”
“I can’t.—You don’t want him, do you?” said he, with a broad grin.
“Well, I think you’re better without him, sure enough—for my part, I’m downright weary of him. I told him I’d leave him if he didn’t mend his manners, and he wouldn’t; so I left him. You see, I’m a better man than you think me; and, what’s more, I have serious thoughts of washing my hands of him entirely, and the whole set of ’em, and comporting myself from this day forward with all decency and sobriety, as a Christian and the father of a family should do. What do you think of that?”
“It is a resolution you ought to have formed long ago.”
“Well, I’m not thirty yet; it isn’t too late, is it?”
“No; it is never too late to reform, as long as you have the sense to desire it, and the strength to execute your purpose.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve thought of it often and often before; but he’s such devilish good company, is Huntingdon, after all. You can’t imagine what a jovial good fellow he is when he’s not fairly drunk, only just primed or half-seas-over. We all have a bit of a liking for him at the bottom of our hearts, though we can’t respect him.”
“But should you wish yourself to be like him?”
“No, I’d rather be like myself, bad as I am.”
“You can’t continue as bad as you are without getting worse and more brutalised every day, and therefore more like him.”
I could not help smiling at the comical, half-angry, half-confounded look he put on at this rather unusual mode of address.
“Never mind my plain speaking,” said I; “it is from the best of motives. But tell me, should you wish your sons to be like Mr. Huntingdon—or even like yourself?”
“Hang it! no.”
“Should you wish your daughter to despise you—or, at least, to feel no vestige of respect for you, and no affection but what is mingled with the bitterest regret?”
“Oh, no! I couldn’t stand that.”
“And, finally, should you wish your wife to be ready to sink into the earth when she hears you mentioned; and to loathe the very sound of your voice, and shudder at your approach?”
“She never will; she likes me all the same, whatever I do.”
“Impossible, Mr. Hattersley! you mistake her quiet submission for affection.”
“Fire and fury—”
“Now don’t burst into a tempest at that. I don’t mean to say she does not love you—she does, I know, a great deal better than you deserve; but I am quite sure, that if you behave better, she will love you more, and if you behave worse, she will love you less and less, till all is lost in fear, aversion, and bitterness of soul, if not in secret hatred and contempt. But, dropping the subject of affection, should you wish to be the tyrant of her life—to take away all the sunshine from her existence, and make her thoroughly miserable?”
“Of course not; and I don’t, and I’m not going to.”
“You have done more towards it than you suppose.”
“Pooh, pooh! she’s not the susceptible, anxious, worriting creature you imagine: she’s a little meek, peaceable, affectionate body; apt to be rather sulky at times, but quiet and cool in the main, and ready to take things as they come.”
“Think of what she was five years ago, when you married her, and what she is now.”
“I know she was a little plump lassie then, with a pretty pink and white face: now she’s a poor little bit of a creature, fading and melting away like a snow-wreath. But hang it!—that’s not my fault.”
“What is the cause of it then? Not years, for she’s only five-and-twenty.”
“It’s her own delicate health, and confound it, madam! what would you make of me?—and the children, to be sure, that worry her to death between them.”
“No, Mr. Hattersley, the children give her more pleasure than pain: they are fine, well-dispositioned children—”
“I know they are—bless them!”
“Then why lay the blame on them?—I’ll tell you what it is: it’s silent fretting and constant anxiety on your account, mingled, I suspect, with something of bodily fear on her own. When you behave well, she can only rejoice with trembling; she has no security, no confidence in your judgment or principles; but is continually dreading the close of such short-lived felicity; when you behave ill, her causes of terror and misery are more than any one can tell but herself. In patient endurance of evil, she forgets it is our duty to admonish our neighbours of their transgressions. Since you will mistake her silence for indifference, come with me, and I’ll show you one or two of her letters—no breach of confidence, I hope, since you are her other half.”
He followed me into the library. I sought out and put into his hands two of Milicent’s letters: one dated from London, and written during one of his wildest seasons of reckless dissipation; the other in the country, during a lucid interval. The former was full of trouble and anguish; not accusing him, but deeply regretting his connection with his profligate companions, abusing Mr. Grimsby and others, insinuating bitter things against Mr. Huntingdon, and most ingeniously throwing the blame of her husband’s misconduct on to other men’s shoulders. The latter was full of hope and joy, yet with a trembling consciousness that this happiness would not last; praising his goodness to the skies, but with an evident, though but half-expressed wish, that it were based on a surer foundation than the natural impulses of the heart, and a half-prophetic dread of the fall of that house so founded on the sand,—which fall had shortly after taken place, as Hattersley must have been conscious while he read.
Almost at the commencement of the first letter I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing him blush; but he immediately turned his back to me, and finished the perusal at the window. At the second, I saw him, once or twice, raise his hand, and hurriedly pass it across his face. Could it be to dash away a tear? When he had done, there was an interval spent in clearing his throat and staring out of the window, and then, after whistling a few bars of a favourite air, he turned round, gave me back the letters, and silently shook me by the hand.
“I’ve been a cursed rascal, God knows,” said he, as he gave it a hearty squeeze, “but you see if I don’t make amends for it—d—n me if I don’t!”
“Don’t curse yourself, Mr. Hattersley; if God had heard half your invocations of that kind, you would have been in hell long before now—and you cannot make amends for the past by doing your duty for the future, inasmuch as your duty is only what you owe to your Maker, and you cannot do more than fulfil it: another must make amends for your past delinquencies. If you intend to reform, invoke God’s blessing, His mercy, and His aid; not His curse.”
“God help me, then—for I’m sure I need it. Where’s Milicent?”
“She’s there, just coming in with her sister.”
He stepped out at the glass door, and went to meet them. I followed at a little distance. Somewhat to his wife’s astonishment, he lifted her off from the ground, and saluted her with a hearty kiss and a strong embrace; then placing his two hands on her shoulders, he gave her, I suppose, a sketch of the great things he meant to do, for she suddenly threw her arms round him, and burst into tears, exclaiming,—“Do, do, Ralph—we shall be so happy! How very, very good you are!”
“Nay, not I,” said he, turning her round, and pushing her towards me. “Thank her; it’s her doing.”
Milicent flew to thank me, overflowing with gratitude. I disclaimed all title to it, telling her her husband was predisposed to amendment before I added my mite of exhortation and encouragement, and that I had only done what she might, and ought to have done herself.
“Oh, no!” cried she; “I couldn’t have influenced him, I’m sure, by anything that I could have said. I should only have bothered him by my clumsy efforts at persuasion, if I had made the attempt.”
“You never tried me, Milly,” said he.
Shortly after they took their leave. They are now gone on a visit to Hattersley’s father. After that they will repair to their country home. I hope his good resolutions will not fall through, and poor Milicent will not be again disappointed. Her last letter was full of present bliss, and pleasing anticipations for the future; but no particular temptation has yet occurred to put his virtue to the test. Henceforth, however, she will doubtless be somewhat less timid and reserved, and he more kind and thoughtful.—Surely, then, her hopes are not unfounded; and I have one bright spot, at least, whereon to rest my thoughts.