Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter IV.

The March of Events.

Midwinter’s face darkened when the last trace of the carriage had disappeared from view. “I have done my best,” he said, as he turned back gloomily into the house “If Mr. Brock himself were here, Mr. Brock could do no more!”

He looked at the bunch of keys which Allan had thrust into his hand, and a sudden longing to put himself to the test over the steward’s books took possession of his sensitive self-tormenting nature. Inquiring his way to the room in which the various movables of the steward’s office had been provisionally placed after the letting of the cottage, he sat down at the desk, and tried how his own unaided capacity would guide him through the business records of the Thorpe Ambrose estate. The result exposed his own ignorance unanswerably before his own eyes. The ledgers bewildered him; the leases, the plans, and even the correspondence itself, might have been written, for all he could understand of them, in an unknown tongue. His memory reverted bitterly as he left the room again to his two years’ solitary self-instruction in the Shrewsbury book-seller’s shop. “If I could only have worked at a business!” he thought. “If I could only have known that the company of poets and philosophers was company too high for a vagabond like me!”

He sat down alone in the great hall; the silence of it fell heavier and heavier on his sinking spirits; the beauty of it exasperated him, like an insult from a purse-proud man. “Curse the place!” he said, snatching up his hat and stick. “I like the bleakest hillside I ever slept on better than I like this house!”

He impatiently descended the door-steps, and stopped on the drive, considering, by which direction he should leave the park for the country beyond. If he followed the road taken by the carriage, he might risk unsettling Allan by accidentally meeting him in the town. If he went out by the back gate, he knew his own nature well enough to doubt his ability to pass the room of the dream without entering it again. But one other way remained: the way which he had taken, and then abandoned again, in the morning. There was no fear of disturbing Allan and the major’s daughter now. Without further hesitation, Midwinter set forth through the gardens to explore the open country on that side of the estate.

Thrown off its balance by the events of the day, his mind was full of that sourly savage resistance to the inevitable self-assertion of wealth, so amiably deplored by the prosperous and the rich; so bitterly familiar to the unfortunate and the poor. “The heather-bell costs nothing!” he thought, looking contemptuously at the masses of rare and beautiful flowers that surrounded him; “and the buttercups and daisies are as bright as the best of you!” He followed the artfully contrived ovals and squares of the Italian garden with a vagabond indifference to the symmetry of their construction and the ingenuity of their design. “How many pounds a foot did you cost?” he said, looking back with scornful eyes at the last path as he left it. “Wind away over high and low like the sheep-walk on the mountain side, if you can!”

He entered the shrubbery which Allan had entered before him; crossed the paddock and the rustic bridge beyond; and reached the major’s cottage. His ready mind seized the right conclusion at the first sight of it; and he stopped before the garden gate, to look at the trim little residence which would never have been empty, and would never have been let, but for Allan’s ill-advised resolution to force the steward’s situation on his friend.

The summer afternoon was warm; the summer air was faint and still. On the upper and the lower floor of the cottage the windows were all open. From one of them, on the upper story, the sound of voices was startlingly audible in the quiet of the park as Midwinter paused on the outer side of the garden inclosure. The voice of a woman, harsh, high, and angrily complaining — a voice with all the freshness and the melody gone, and with nothing but the hard power of it left — was the discordantly predominant sound. With it, from moment to moment, there mingled the deeper and quieter tones, soothing and compassionate, of the voice of a man. Although the distance was too great to allow Midwinter to distinguish the words that were spoken, he felt the impropriety of remaining within hearing of the voices, and at once stepped forward to continue his walk.

At the same moment, the face of a young girl (easily recognizable as the face of Miss Milroy, from Allan’s description of her) appeared at the open window of the room. In spite of himself, Midwinter paused to look at her. The expression of the bright young face, which had smiled so prettily on Allan, was weary and disheartened. After looking out absently over the park, she suddenly turned her head back into the room, her attention having been apparently struck by something that had just been said in it. “Oh, mamma, mamma,” she exclaimed, indignantly, “how can you say such things!” The words were spoken close to the window; they reached Midwinter’s ears, and hurried him away before he heard more. But the self-disclosure of Major Milroy’s domestic position had not reached its end yet. As Midwinter turned the corner of the garden fence, a tradesman’s boy was handing a parcel in at the wicket gate to the woman servant. “Well,” said the boy, with the irrepressible impudence of his class, “how is the missus?” The woman lifted her hand to box his ears. “How is the missus?” she repeated, with an angry toss of her head, as the boy ran off. “If it would only please God to take the missus, it would be a blessing to everybody in the house.”

No such ill-omened shadow as this had passed over the bright domestic picture of the inhabitants of the cottage, which Allan’s enthusiasm had painted for the contemplation of his friend. It was plain that the secret of the tenants had been kept from the landlord so far. Five minutes more of walking brought Midwinter to the park gates. “Am I fated to see nothing and hear nothing to-day, which can give me heart and hope for the future?” he thought, as he angrily swung back the lodge gate. “Even the people Allan has let the cottage to are people whose lives are imbittered by a household misery which it is my misfortune to have found out!”

He took the first road that lay before him, and walked on, noticing little, immersed in his own thoughts.

More than an hour passed before the necessity of turning back entered his mind. As soon as the idea occurred to him, he consulted his watch, and determined to retrace his steps, so as to be at the house in good time to meet Allan on his return. Ten minutes of walking brought him back to a point at which three roads met, and one moment’s observation of the place satisfied him that he had entirely failed to notice at the time by which of the three roads he had advanced. No sign-post was to be seen; the country on either side was lonely and flat, intersected by broad drains and ditches. Cattle were grazing here and there, and a windmill rose in the distance above the pollard willows that fringed the low horizon. But not a house was to be seen, and not a human creature appeared on the visible perspective of any one of the three roads. Midwinter glanced back in the only direction left to look at — the direction of the road along which he had just been walking. There, to his relief, was the figure of a man, rapidly advancing toward him, of whom he could ask his way.

The figure came on, clad from head to foot in dreary black — a moving blot on the brilliant white surface of the sun-brightened road. He was a lean, elderly, miserably respectable man. He wore a poor old black dress-coat, and a cheap brown wig, which made no pretense of being his own natural hair. Short black trousers clung like attached old servants round his wizen legs; and rusty black gaiters hid all they could of his knobbed, ungainly feet. Black crape added its mite to the decayed and dingy wretchedness of his old beaver hat; black mohair in the obsolete form of a stock drearily encircled his neck and rose as high as his haggard jaws. The one morsel of color he carried about him was a lawyer’s bag of blue serge, as lean and limp as himself. The one attractive feature in his clean-shaven, weary old face was a neat set of teeth — teeth (as honest as his wig) which said plainly to all inquiring eyes, “We pass our nights on his looking-glass, and our days in his mouth.”

All the little blood in the man’s body faintly reddened his fleshless cheeks as Midwinter advanced to meet him, and asked the way to Thorpe Ambrose. His weak, watery eyes looked hither and thither in a bewilderment painful to see. If he had met with a lion instead of a man, and if the few words addressed to him had been words expressing a threat instead of a question, he could hardly have looked more confused and alarmed than he looked now. For the first time in his life, Midwinter saw his own shy uneasiness in the presence of strangers reflected, with tenfold intensity of nervous suffering, in the face of another man — and that man old enough to be his father.

“Which do you please to mean, sir — the town or the house? I beg your pardon for asking, but they both go by the same name in these parts.”

He spoke with a timid gentleness of tone, an ingratiatory smile, and an anxious courtesy of manner, all distressingly suggestive of his being accustomed to receive rough answers in exchange for his own politeness from the persons whom he habitually addressed.

“I was not aware that both the house and the town went by the same name,” said Midwinter; “I meant the house.” He instinctively conquered his own shyness as he answered in those words, speaking with a cordiality of manner which was very rare with him in his intercourse with strangers.

The man of miserable respectability seemed to feel the warm return of his own politeness gratefully; he brightened and took a little courage. His lean forefinger pointed eagerly to the right road. “That way, sir,” he said, “and when you come to two roads next, please take the left one of the two. I am sorry I have business the other way, I mean in the town. I should have been happy to go with you and show you. Fine summer weather, sir, for walking? You can’t miss your way if you keep to the left. Oh, don’t mention it! I’m afraid I have detained you, sir. I wish you a pleasant walk back, and — good-morning.”

By the time he had made an end of speaking (under an impression apparently that the more he talked the more polite he would be) he had lost his courage again. He darted away down his own road, as if Midwinter’s attempt to thank him involved a series of trials too terrible to confront. In two minutes more, his black retreating figure had lessened in the distance till it looked again, what it had once looked already, a moving blot on the brilliant white surface of the sun-brightened road.

The man ran strangely in Midwinter’s thoughts while he took his way back to the house. He was at a loss to account for it. It never occurred to him that he might have been insensibly reminded of himself, when he saw the plain traces of past misfortune and present nervous suffering in the poor wretch’s face. He blindly resented his own perverse interest in this chance foot passenger on the high-road, as he had resented all else that had happened to him since the beginning of the day. “Have I made another unlucky discovery?” he asked himself, impatiently. “Shall I see this man again, I wonder? Who can he be?”

Time was to answer both those questions before many days more had passed over the inquirer’s head.

Allan had not returned when Midwinter reached the house. Nothing had happened but the arrival of a message of apology from the cottage. “Major Milroy’s compliments, and he was sorry that Mrs. Milroy’s illness would prevent his receiving Mr. Armadale that day.” It was plain that Mrs. Milroy’s occasional fits of suffering (or of ill temper) created no mere transitory disturbance of the tranquillity of the household. Drawing this natural inference, after what he had himself heard at the cottage nearly three hours since, Midwinter withdrew into the library to wait patiently among the books until his friend came back.

It was past six o’clock when the well-known hearty voice was heard again in the hall. Allan burst into the library, in a state of irrepressible excitement, and pushed Midwinter back unceremoniously into the chair from which he was just rising, before he could utter a word.

“Here’s a riddle for you, old boy!” cried Allan. “Why am I like the resident manager of the Augean stable, before Hercules was called in to sweep the litter out? Because I have had my place to keep up, and I’ve gone and made an infernal mess of it! Why don’t you laugh? By George, he doesn’t see the point! Let’s try again. Why am I like the resident manager —”

“For God’s sake, Allan, be serious for a moment!” interposed Midwinter. “You don’t know how anxious I am to hear if you have recovered the good opinion of your neighbors.”

“That’s just what the riddle was intended to tell you!” rejoined Allan. “But if you will have it in so many words, my own impression is that you would have done better not to disturb me under that tree in the park. I’ve been calculating it to a nicety, and I beg to inform you that I have sunk exactly three degrees lower in the estimation of the resident gentry since I had the pleasure of seeing you last.”

“You will have your joke out,” said Midwinter, bitterly. “Well, if I can’t laugh, I can wait.”

“My dear fellow, I’m not joking; I really mean what I say. You shall hear what happened; you shall have a report in full of my first visit. It will do, I can promise you, as a sample for all the rest. Mind this, in the first place, I’ve gone wrong with the best possible intentions. When I started for these visits, I own I was angry with that old brute of a lawyer, and I certainly had a notion of carrying things with a high hand. But it wore off somehow on the road; and the first family I called on, I went in, as I tell you, with the best possible intentions. Oh, dear, dear! there was the same spick-and-span reception-room for me to wait in, with the neat conservatory beyond, which I saw again and again and again at every other house I went to afterward. There was the same choice selection of books for me to look at — a religious book, a book about the Duke of Wellington, a book about sporting, and a book about nothing in particular, beautifully illustrated with pictures. Down came papa with his nice white hair, and mamma with her nice lace cap; down came young mister with the pink face and straw-colored whiskers, and young miss with the plump cheeks and the large petticoats. Don’t suppose there was the least unfriendliness on my side; I always began with them in the same way — I insisted on shaking hands all round. That staggered them to begin with. When I came to the sore subject next — the subject of the public reception — I give you my word of honor I took the greatest possible pains with my apologies. It hadn’t the slightest effect; they let my apologies in at one ear and out at the other, and then waited to hear more. Some men would have been disheartened: I tried another way with them; I addressed myself to the master of the house, and put it pleasantly next. ‘The fact is,’ I said, ‘I wanted to escape the speechifying — my getting up, you know, and telling you to your face you’re the best of men, and I beg to propose your health; and your getting up and telling me to my face I’m the best of men, and you beg to thank me; and so on, man after man, praising each other and pestering each other all round the table.’ That’s how I put it, in an easy, light-handed, convincing sort of way. Do you think any of them took it in the same friendly spirit? Not one! It’s my belief they had got their speeches ready for the reception, with the flags and the flowers, and that they’re secretly angry with me for stopping their open mouths just as they were ready to begin. Anyway, whenever we came to the matter of the speechifying (whether they touched it first or I), down I fell in their estimation the first of those three steps I told you of just now. Don’t suppose I made no efforts to get up again! I made desperate efforts. I found they were all anxious to know what sort of life I had led before I came in for the Thorpe Ambrose property, and I did my best to satisfy them. And what came of that, do you think? Hang me, if I didn’t disappoint them for the second time! When they found out that I had actually never been to Eton or Harrow, or Oxford or Cambridge, they were quite dumb with astonishment. I fancy they thought me a sort of outlaw. At any rate, they all froze up again; and down I fell the second step in their estimation. Never mind! I wasn’t to be beaten; I had promised you to do my best, and I did it. I tried cheerful small-talk about the neighborhood next. The women said nothing in particular; the men, to my unutterable astonishment, all began to condole with me. I shouldn’t be able to find a pack of hounds, they said, within twenty miles of my house; and they thought it only right to prepare me for the disgracefully careless manner in which the Thorpe Ambrose covers had been preserved. I let them go on condoling with me, and then what do you think I did? I put my foot in it again. ‘Oh, don’t take that to heart!’ I said; ‘I don’t care two straws about hunting or shooting, either. When I meet with a bird in my walk, I can’t for the life of me feel eager to kill it; I rather like to see the bird flying about and enjoying itself.’ You should have seen their faces! They had thought me a sort of outlaw before; now they evidently thought me mad. Dead silence fell upon them all; and down I tumbled the third step in the general estimation. It was just the same at the next house, and the next and the next. The devil possessed us all, I think. It would come out, now in one way, and now in another, that I couldn’t make speeches — that I had been brought up without a university education — and that I could enjoy a ride on horseback without galloping after a wretched stinking fox or a poor distracted little hare. These three unlucky defects of mine are not excused, it seems, in a country gentleman (especially when he has dodged a public reception to begin with). I think I got on best, upon the whole, with the wives and daughters. The women and I always fell, sooner or later, on the subject of Mrs. Blanchard and her niece. We invariably agreed that they had done wisely in going to Florence; and the only reason we had to give for our opinion was that we thought their minds would be benefited after their sad bereavement, by the contemplation of the masterpieces of Italian art. Every one of the ladies — I solemnly declare it — at every house I went to, came sooner or later to Mrs. and Miss Blanchard’s bereavement and the masterpieces of Italian art. What we should have done without that bright idea to help us, I really don’t know. The one pleasant thing at any of the visits was when we all shook our heads together, and declared that the masterpieces would console them. As for the rest of it, there’s only one thing more to be said. What I might be in other places I don’t know: I’m the wrong man in the wrong place here. Let me muddle on for the future in my own way, with my own few friends; and ask me anything else in the world, as long as you don’t ask me to make any more calls on my neighbors.”

With that characteristic request, Allan’s report of his exploring expedition among the resident gentry came to a close. For a moment Midwinter remained silent. He had allowed Allan to run on from first to last without uttering a word on his side. The disastrous result of the visits — coming after what had happened earlier in the day; and threatening Allan, as it did, with exclusion from all local sympathies at the very outset of his local career — had broken down Midwinter’s power of resisting the stealthily depressing influence of his own superstition. It was with an effort that he now looked up at Allan; it was with an effort that he roused himself to answer.

“It shall be as you wish,” he said, quietly. “I am sorry for what has happened; but I am not the less obliged to you, Allan, for having done what I asked you.”

His head sank on his breast, and the fatalist resignation which had once already quieted him on board the wreck now quieted him again. “What must be, will be,” he thought once more. “What have I to do with the future, and what has he?”

“Cheer up!” said Allan. “Your affairs are in a thriving condition, at any rate. I paid one pleasant visit in the town, which I haven’t told you of yet. I’ve seen Pedgift, and Pedgift’s son, who helps him in the office. They’re the two jolliest lawyers I ever met with in my life; and, what’s more, they can produce the very man you want to teach you the steward’s business.”

Midwinter looked up quickly. Distrust of Allan’s discovery was plainly written in his face already; but he said nothing.

“I thought of you,” Allan proceeded, “as soon as the two Pedgifts and I had had a glass of wine all round to drink to our friendly connection. The finest sherry I ever tasted in my life; I’ve ordered some of the same — but that’s not the question just now. In two words I told these worthy fellows your difficulty, and in two seconds old Pedgift understood all about it. ‘I have got the man in my office,’ he said, ‘and before the audit-day comes, I’ll place him with the greatest pleasure at your friend’s disposal.’”

At this last announcement, Midwinter’s distrust found its expression in words. He questioned Allan unsparingly.

The man’s name, it appeared was Bashwood. He had been some time (how long, Allan could not remember) in Mr. Pedgift’s service. He had been previously steward to a Norfolk gentleman (name forgotten) in the westward district of the county. He had lost the steward’s place, through some domestic trouble, in connection with his son, the precise nature of which Allan was not able to specify. Pedgift vouched for him, and Pedgift would send him to Thorpe Ambrose two or three days before the rent-day dinner. He could not be spared, for office reasons, before that time. There was no need to fidget about it; Pedgift laughed at the idea of there being any difficulty with the tenants. Two or three day’s work over the steward’s books with a man to help Midwinter who practically understood that sort of thing would put him all right for the audit; and the other business would keep till afterward.

“Have you seen this Mr. Bashwood yourself, Allan?” asked Midwinter, still obstinately on his guard.

“No,” replied Allan “he was out — out with the bag, as young Pedgift called it. They tell me he’s a decent elderly man. A little broken by his troubles, and a little apt to be nervous and confused in his manner with strangers; but thoroughly competent and thoroughly to be depended on — those are Pedgift’s own words.”

Midwinter paused and considered a little, with a new interest in the subject. The strange man whom he had just heard described, and the strange man of whom he had asked his way where the three roads met, were remarkably like each other. Was this another link in the fast-lengthening chain of events? Midwinter grew doubly determined to be careful, as the bare doubt that it might be so passed through his mind.

“When Mr. Bashwood comes,” he said, “will you let me see him, and speak to him, before anything definite is done?”

“Of course I will!” rejoined Allan. He stopped and looked at his watch. “And I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you, old boy, in the meantime,” he added; “I’ll introduce you to the prettiest girl in Norfolk! There’s just time to run over to the cottage before dinner. Come along, and be introduced to Miss Milroy.”

“You can’t introduce me to Miss Milroy today,” replied Midwinter; and he repeated the message of apology which had been brought from the major that afternoon. Allan was surprised and disappointed; but he was not to be foiled in his resolution to advance himself in the good graces of the inhabitants of the cottage. After a little consideration he hit on a means of turning the present adverse circumstances to good account. “I’ll show a proper anxiety for Mrs. Milroy’s recovery,” he said, gravely. “I’ll send her a basket of strawberries, with my best respects, to-morrow morning.”

Nothing more happened to mark the end of that first day in the new house.

The one noticeable event of the next day was another disclosure of Mrs. Milroy’s infirmity of temper. Half an hour after Allan’s basket of strawberries had been delivered at the cottage, it was returned to him intact (by the hands of the invalid lady’s nurse), with a short and sharp message, shortly and sharply delivered. “Mrs. Milroy’s compliments and thanks. Strawberries invariably disagreed with her.” If this curiously petulant acknowledgment of an act of politeness was intended to irritate Allan, it failed entirely in accomplishing its object. Instead of being offended with the mother, he sympathized with the daughter. “Poor little thing,” was all he said, “she must have a hard life of it with such a mother as that!”

He called at the cottage himself later in the day, but Miss Milroy was not to be seen; she was engaged upstairs. The major received his visitor in his working apron — far more deeply immersed in his wonderful clock, and far less readily accessible to outer influences, than Allan had seen him at their first interview. His manner was as kind as before; but not a word more could be extracted from him on the subject of his wife than that Mrs. Milroy “had not improved since yesterday.”

The two next days passed quietly and uneventfully. Allan persisted in making his inquiries at the cottage; but all he saw of the major’s daughter was a glimpse of her on one occasion at a window on the bedroom floor. Nothing more was heard from Mr. Pedgift; and Mr. Bashwood’s appearance was still delayed. Midwinter declined to move in the matter until time enough had passed to allow of his first hearing from Mr. Brock, in answer to the letter which he had addressed to the rector on the night of his arrival at Thorpe Ambrose. He was unusually silent and quiet, and passed most of his hours in the library among the books. The time wore on wearily. The resident gentry acknowledged Allan’s visit by formally leaving their cards. Nobody came near the house afterward; the weather was monotonously fine. Allan grew a little restless and dissatisfied. He began to resent Mrs. Milroy’s illness; he began to think regretfully of his deserted yacht.

The next day — the twentieth — brought some news with it from the outer world. A message was delivered from Mr. Pedgift, announcing that his clerk, Mr. Bashwood, would personally present himself at Thorpe Ambrose on the following day; and a letter in answer to Midwinter was received from Mr. Brock.

The letter was dated the 18th, and the news which it contained raised not Allan’s spirits only, but Midwinter’s as well.

On the day on which he wrote, Mr. Brock announced that he was about to journey to London; having been summoned thither on business connected with the interests of a sick relative, to whom he stood in the position of trustee. The business completed, he had good hope of finding one or other of his clerical friends in the metropolis who would be able and willing to do duty for him at the rectory; and, in that case, he trusted to travel on from London to Thorpe Ambrose in a week’s’ time or less. Under these circumstances, he would leave the majority of the subjects on which Midwinter had written to him to be discussed when they met. But as time might be of importance, in relation to the stewardship of the Thorpe Ambrose estate, he would say at once that he saw no reason why Midwinter should not apply his mind to learning the steward’s duties, and should not succeed in rendering himself invaluably serviceable in that way to the interests of his friend.

Leaving Midwinter reading and re-reading the rector’s cheering letter, as if he was bent on getting every sentence in it by heart, Allan went out rather earlier than usual, to make his daily inquiry at the cottage — or, in plainer words, to make a fourth attempt at improving his acquaintance with Miss Milroy. The day had begun encouragingly, and encouragingly it seemed destined to go on. When Allan turned the corner of the second shrubbery, and entered the little paddock where he and the major’s daughter had first met, there was Miss Milroy herself loitering to and fro on the grass, to all appearance on the watch for somebody.

She gave a little start when Allan appeared, and came forward without hesitation to meet him. She was not in her best looks. Her rosy complexion had suffered under confinement to the house, and a marked expression of embarrassment clouded her pretty face.

“I hardly know how to confess it, Mr. Armadale,” she said, speaking eagerly, before Allan could utter a word, “but I certainly ventured here this morning in the hope of meeting with you. I have been very much distressed; I have only just heard, by accident, of the manner in which mamma received the present of fruit you so kindly sent to her. Will you try to excuse her? She has been miserably ill for years, and she is not always quite herself. After your being so very, very kind to me (and to papa), I really could not help stealing out here in the hope of seeing you, and telling you how sorry I was. Pray forgive and forget, Mr. Armadale — pray do!” her voice faltered over the last words, and, in her eagerness to make her mother’s peace with him, she laid her hand on his arm.

Allan was himself a little confused. Her earnestness took him by surprise, and her evident conviction that he had been offended honestly distressed him. Not knowing what else to do, he followed his instincts, and possessed himself of her hand to begin with.

“My dear Miss Milroy, if you say a word more you will distress me next,” he rejoined, unconsciously pressing her hand closer and closer, in the embarrassment of the moment. “I never was in the least offended; I made allowances — upon my honor I did — for poor Mrs. Milroy’s illness. Offended!” cried Allan, reverting energetically to the old complimentary strain. “I should like to have my basket of fruit sent back every day — if I could only be sure of its bringing you out into the paddock the first thing in the morning.”

Some of Miss Milroy’s missing color began to appear again in her cheeks. “Oh, Mr. Armadale, there is really no end to your kindness,” she said; “you don’t know how you relieve me! She paused; her spirits rallied with as happy a readiness of recovery as if they had been the spirits of a child; and her native brightness of temper sparkled again in her eyes, as she looked up, shyly smiling in Allan’s face. “Don’t you think,” she asked, demurely, “that it is almost time now to let go of my hand?”

Their eyes met. Allan followed his instincts for the second time. Instead of releasing her hand, he lifted it to his lips and kissed it. All the missing tints of the rosier sort returned to Miss Milroy’s complexion on the instant. She snatched away her hand as if Allan had burned it.

“I’m sure that’s wrong, Mr. Armadale,” she said, and turned her head aside quickly, for she was smiling in spite of herself.

“I meant it as an apology for — for holding your hand too long,” stammered Allan. “An apology can’t be wrong — can it?”

There are occasions, though not many, when the female mind accurately appreciates an appeal to the force of pure reason. This was one of the occasions. An abstract proposition had been presented to Miss Milroy, and Miss Milroy was convinced. If it was meant as an apology, that, she admitted, made all the difference. “I only hope,” said the little coquet, looking at him slyly, “you’re not misleading me. Not that it matters much now,” she added, with a serious shake of her head. “If we have committed any improprieties, Mr. Armadale, we are not likely to have the opportunity of committing many more.”

“You’re not going away?” exclaimed Allan, in great alarm.

“Worse than that, Mr. Armadale. My new governess is coming.”

“Coming?” repeated Allan. “Coming already?”

“As good as coming, I ought to have said — only I didn’t know you wished me to be so very particular. We got the answers to the advertisements this morning. Papa and I opened them and read them together half an hour ago; and we both picked out the same letter from all the rest. I picked it out, because it was so prettily expressed; and papa picked it out because the terms were so reasonable. He is going to send the letter up to grandmamma in London by today’s post, and, if she finds everything satisfactory on inquiry, the governess is to be engaged You don’t know how dreadfully nervous I am getting about it already; a strange governess is such an awful prospect. But it is not quite so bad as going to school; and I have great hopes of this new lady, because she writes such a nice letter! As I said to papa, it almost reconciles me to her horrid, unromantic name.”

“What is her name?” asked Allan. “Brown? Grubb? Scraggs? Anything of that sort?”

“Hush! hush! Nothing quite so horrible as that. Her name is Gwilt. Dreadfully unpoetical, isn’t it? Her reference must be a respectable person, though; for she lives in the same part of London as grandmamma. Stop, Mr. Armadale! we are going the wrong way. No; I can’t wait to look at those lovely flowers of yours this morning, and, many thanks, I can’t accept your arm. I have stayed here too long already. Papa is waiting for his breakfast; and I must run back every step of the way. Thank you for making those kind allowances for mamma; thank you again and again, and good-by! ”

“Won’t you shake hands?” asked Allan.

She gave him her hand. “No more apologies, if you please, Mr. Armadale,” she said, saucily. Once more their eyes met, and once more the plump, dimpled little hand found its way to Allan’s lips. “It isn’t an apology this time!” cried Allan, precipitately defending himself. “It’s — it’s a mark of respect.”

She started back a few steps, and burst out laughing. “You won’t find me in our grounds again, Mr. Armadale,” she said, merrily, “till I have got Miss Gwilt to take care of me!” With that farewell, she gathered up her skirts, and ran back across the paddock at the top of her speed.

Allan stood watching her in speechless admiration till she was out of sight. His second interview with Miss Milroy had produced an extraordinary effect on him. For the first time since he had become the master of Thorpe Ambrose, he was absorbed in serious consideration of what he owed to his new position in life. “The question is,” pondered Allan, “whether I hadn’t better set myself right with my neighbors by becoming a married man? I’ll take the day to consider; and if I keep in the same mind about it, I’ll consult Midwinter to-morrow morning.”

When the morning came, and when Allan descended to the breakfast-room, resolute to consult his friend on the obligations that he owed to his neighbors in general, and to Miss Milroy in particular, no Midwinter was to he seen. On making inquiry, it appeared that he had been observed in the hall; that he had taken from the table a letter which the morning’s post had brought to him; and that he had gone back immediately to his own room. Allan at once ascended the stairs again, and knocked at his friend’s door.

“May I come in?” he asked.

“Not just now,” was the answer.

“You have got a letter, haven’t you?” persisted Allan. “Any bad news? Anything wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m not very well this morning. Don’t wait breakfast for me; I’ll come down as soon as I can.”

No more was said on either side. Allan returned to the breakfast-room a little disappointed. He had set his heart on rushing headlong into his consultation with Midwinter, and here was the consultation indefinitely delayed. “What an odd fellow he is!” thought Allan. “What on earth can he be doing, locked in there by himself?”

He was doing nothing. He was sitting by the window, with the letter which had reached him that morning open in his hand. The handwriting was Mr. Brock’s, and the words written were these:

“My Dear Midwinter — I have literally only two minutes before post time to tell you that I have just met (in Kensington Gardens) with the woman whom we both only know, thus far, as the woman with the red Paisley shawl. I have traced her and her companion (a respectable-looking elderly lady) to their residence — after having distinctly heard Allan’s name mentioned between them. Depend on my not losing sight of the woman until I am satisfied that she means no mischief at Thorpe Ambrose; and expect to hear from me again as soon as I know how this strange discovery is to end.

“Very truly yours, DECIMUS BROCK.”

After reading the letter for the second time, Midwinter folded it up thoughtfully, and placed it in his pocket-book, side by side with the manuscript narrative of Allan’s dream.

“Your discovery will not end with you, Mr. Brock,” he said. “Do what you will with the woman, when the time comes the woman will be here.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/c71a/chapter12.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30