Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter V.

Mother Oldershaw on Her Guard.

1. From Mrs. Oldershaw (Diana Street, Pimlico) to Miss Gwilt (West Place, Old Brompton).

“Ladies’ Toilet Repository, June 20th,

Eight in the Evening.

“My Dear Lydia — About three hours have passed, as well as I can remember, since I pushed you unceremoniously inside my house in West Place, and, merely telling you to wait till you saw me again, banged the door to between us, and left you alone in the hall. I know your sensitive nature, my dear, and I am afraid you have made up your mind by this time that never yet was a guest treated so abominably by her hostess as I have treated you.

“The delay that has prevented me from explaining my strange conduct is, believe me, a delay for which I am not to blame. One of the many delicate little difficulties which beset so essentially confidential a business as mine occurred here (as I have since discovered) while we were taking the air this afternoon in Kensington Gardens. I see no chance of being able to get back to you for some hours to come, and I have a word of very urgent caution for your private ear, which has been too long delayed already. So I must use the spare minutes as they come, and write.

“Here is caution the first. On no account venture outside the door again this evening, and be very careful, while the daylight lasts, not to show yourself at any of the front windows. I have reason to fear that a certain charming person now staying with me may possibly be watched. Don’t be alarmed, and don’t be impatient; you shall know why.

“I can only explain myself by going back to our unlucky meeting in the Gardens with that reverend gentleman who was so obliging as to follow us both back to my house.

“It crossed my mind, just as we were close to the door, that there might be a motive for the parson’s anxiety to trace us home, far less creditable to his taste, and far more dangerous to both of us, than the motive you supposed him to have. In plainer words, Lydia, I rather doubted whether you had met with another admirer; and I strongly suspected that you had encountered another enemy instead . There was no time to tell you this. There was only time to see you safe into the house, and to make sure of the parson (in case my suspicions were right) by treating him as he had treated us; I mean, by following him in his turn.

“I kept some little distance behind him at first, to turn the thing over in my mind, and to be satisfied that my doubts were not misleading me. We have no concealments from each other; and you shall know what my doubts were.

“I was not surprised at your recognizing him; he is not at all a common-looking old man; and you had seen him twice in Somersetshire — once when you asked your way of him to Mrs. Armadale’s house, and once when you saw him again on your way back to the railroad. But I was a little puzzled (considering that you had your veil down on both those occasions, and your veil down also when we were in the Gardens) at his recognizing you. I doubted his remembering your figure in a summer dress after he had only seen it in a winter dress; and though we were talking when he met us, and your voice is one among your many charms, I doubted his remembering your voice, either. And yet I felt persuaded that he knew you. ‘How?’ you will ask. My dear, as ill-luck would have it, we were speaking at the time of young Armadale. I firmly believe that the name was the first thing that struck him; and when he heard that, your voice certainly and your figure perhaps, came back to his memory. ‘And what if it did?’ you may say. Think again, Lydia, and tell me whether the parson of the place where Mrs. Armadale lived was not likely to be Mrs. Armadale’s friend? If he was her friend, the very first person to whom she would apply for advice after the manner in which you frightened her, and after what you most injudiciously said on the subject of appealing to her son, would be the clergyman of the parish — and the magistrate, too, as the landlord at the inn himself told you.

“You will now understand why I left you in that extremely uncivil manner, and I may go on to what happened next.

“I followed the old gentleman till he turned into a quiet street, and then accosted him, with respect for the Church written (I flatter myself) in every line of my face.

“‘Will you excuse me,’ I said, ‘if I venture to inquire, sir, whether you recognized the lady who was walking with me when you happened to pass us in the Gardens?’

“‘Will you excuse my asking, ma’am, why you put that question?’ was all the answer I got.

“‘I will endeavor to tell you, sir,’ I said. ‘If my friend is not an absolute stranger to you, I should wish to request your attention to a very delicate subject, connected with a lady deceased, and with her son who survives her.’

“He was staggered; I could see that. But he was sly enough at the same time to hold his tongue and wait till I said something more.

“‘If I am wrong, sir, in thinking that you recognized my friend,’ I went on, ‘I beg to apologize. But I could hardly suppose it possible that a gentleman in your profession would follow a lady home who was a total stranger to him.’

“There I had him. He colored up (fancy that, at his age!), and owned the truth, in defense of his own precious character.

“‘I have met with the lady once before, and I acknowledge that I recognized her in the Gardens,’ he said. ‘You will excuse me if I decline entering into the question of whether I did or did not purposely follow her home. If you wish to be assured that your friend is not an absolute stranger to me, you now have that assurance; and if you have anything particular to say to me, I leave you to decide whether the time has come to say it.’

“He waited, and looked about. I waited, and looked about. He said the street was hardly a fit place to speak of a delicate subject in. I said the street was hardly a fit place to speak of a delicate subject in. He didn’t offer to take me to where he lived. I didn’t offer to take him to where I lived. Have you ever seen two strange cats, my dear, nose to nose on the tiles? If you have, you have seen the parson and me done to the life.

“‘Well, ma’am,’ he said, at last, ‘shall we go on with our conversation in spite of circumstances?’

“‘Yes, sir,’ I said; ‘we are both of us, fortunately, of an age to set circumstances at defiance’ (I had seen the old wretch looking at my gray hair, and satisfying himself that his character was safe if he was seen with me).

“After all this snapping and snarling, we came to the point at last. I began by telling him that I feared his interest in you was not of the friendly sort. He admitted that much — of course, in defense of his own character once more. I next repeated to him everything you had told me about your proceedings in Somersetshire, when we first found that he was following us home. Don’t be alarmed my dear — I was acting on principle. If you want to make a dish of lies digestible, always give it a garnish of truth. Well, having appealed to the reverend gentleman’s confidence in this matter, I next declared that you had become an altered woman since he had seen you last. I revived that dead wretch, your husband (without mentioning names, of course), established him (the first place I thought of) in business at the Brazils, and described a letter which he had written, offering to forgive his erring wife, if she would repent and go back to him. I assured the parson that your husband’s noble conduct had softened your obdurate nature; and then, thinking I had produced the right impression, I came boldly to close quarters with him. I said, ‘At the very time when you met us, sir, my unhappy friend was speaking in terms of touching, self-reproach of her conduct to the late Mrs. Armadale. She confided to me her anxiety to make some atonement, if possible, to Mrs. Armadale’s son; and it is at her entreaty (for she cannot prevail on herself to face you) that I now beg to inquire whether Mr. Armadale is still in Somersetshire, and whether he would consent to take back in small installments the sum of money which my friend acknowledges that she received by practicing on Mrs. Armadale’s fears.’ Those were my very words. A neater story (accounting so nicely for everything) was never told; it was a story to melt a stone. But this Somersetshire parson is harder than stone itself. I blush for him, my dear, when I assure you that he was evidently insensible enough to disbelieve every word I said about your reformed character, your husband in the Brazils, and your penitent anxiety to pay the money back. It is really a disgrace that such a man should be in the Church; such cunning as his is in the last degree unbecoming in a member of a sacred profession.

“‘Does your friend propose to join her husband by the next steamer?’ was all he condescended to say, when I had done.

“I acknowledge I was angry. I snapped at him. I said, ‘Yes, she does.’

“‘How am I to communicate with her?’ he asked.

“I snapped at him again. ‘By letter — through me.’

“‘At what address, ma’am?’

“There, I had him once more. ‘You have found my address out for yourself, sir,’ I said. ‘The directory will tell you my name, if you wish to find that out for yourself also; otherwise, you are welcome to my card.’

“‘Many thanks, ma’am. If your friend wishes to communicate with Mr. Armadale, I will give you my card in return.’

“‘Thank you, sir.’

“‘Thank you, ma’am.’

“‘Good-afternoon, sir.’

“‘Good-afternoon, ma’am.’

“So we parted. I went my way to an appointment at my place of business, and he went his in a hurry; which is of itself suspicious. What I can’t get over is his heartlessness. Heaven help the people who send for him to comfort them on their death-beds!

“The next consideration is, What are we to do? If we don’t find out the right way to keep this old wretch in the dark, he may be the ruin of us at Thorpe Ambrose just as we are within easy reach of our end in view. Wait up till I come to you, with my mind free, I hope, from the other difficulty which is worrying me here. Was there ever such ill luck as ours? Only think of that man deserting his congregation, and coming to London just at the very time when we have answered Major Milroy’s advertisement, and may expect the inquiries to be made next week! I have no patience with him; his bishop ought to interfere.

“Affectionately yours,

“MARIA OLDERSHAW.”

2. From Miss Gwilt to Mrs. Oldershaw.

“West Place, June 20th.

“MY POOR OLD DEAR— How very little you know of my sensitive nature, as you call it! Instead of feeling offended when you left me, I went to your piano, and forgot all about you till your messenger came. Your letter is irresistible; I have been laughing over it till I am quite out of breath. Of all the absurd stories I ever read, the story you addressed to the Somersetshire clergyman is the most ridiculous. And as for your interview with him in the street, it is a perfect sin to keep it to ourselves. The public ought really to enjoy it in the form of a farce at one of the theaters.

“Luckily for both of us (to come to serious matters), your messenger is a prudent person. He sent upstairs to know if there was an answer. In the midst of my merriment I had presence of mind enough to send downstairs and say ‘Yes.’

“Some brute of a man says, in some book which I once read, that no woman can keep two separate trains of ideas in her mind at the same time. I declare you have almost satisfied me that the man is right. What! when you have escaped unnoticed to your place of business, and when you suspect this house to be watched, you propose to come back here, and to put it in the parson’s power to recover the lost trace of you! What madness! Stop where you are; and when you have got over your difficulty at Pimlico (it is some woman’s business, of course; what worries women are!), be so good as to read what I have got to say about our difficulty at Brompton.

“In the first place, the house (as you supposed) is watched.

“Half an hour after you left me, loud voices in the street interrupted me at the piano, and I went to the window. There was a cab at the house opposite, where they let lodgings; and an old man, who looked like a respectable servant, was wrangling with the driver about his fare. An elderly gentleman came out of the house, and stopped them. An elderly gentleman returned into the house, and appeared cautiously at the front drawing-room window. You know him, you worthy creature; he had the bad taste, some few hours since, to doubt whether you were telling him the truth. Don’t be afraid, he didn’t see me. When he looked up, after settling with the cab driver, I was behind the curtain. I have been behind the curtain once or twice since; and I have seen enough to satisfy me that he and his servant will relieve each other at the window, so as never to lose sight of your house here, night or day. That the parson suspects the real truth is of course impossible. But that he firmly believes I mean some mischief to young Armadale, and that you have entirely confirmed him in that conviction, is as plain as that two and two make four. And this has happened (as you helplessly remind me) just when we have answered the advertisement, and when we may expect the major’s inquiries to be made in a few days’ time.

“Surely, here is a terrible situation for two women to find themselves in? A fiddlestick’s end for the situation! We have got an easy way out of it — thanks, Mother Oldershaw, to what I myself forced you to do, not three hours before the Somersetshire clergyman met with us.

“Has that venomous little quarrel of ours this morning — after we had pounced on the major’s advertisement in the newspaper — quite slipped out of your memory? Have you forgotten how I persisted in my opinion that you were a great deal too well known in London to appear safely as my reference in your own name, or to receive an inquiring lady or gentleman (as you were rash enough to propose) in your own house? Don’t you remember what a passion you were in when I brought our dispute to an end by declining to stir a step in the matter, unless I could conclude my application to Major Milroy by referring him to an address at which you were totally unknown, and to a name which might be anything you pleased, as long as it was not yours? What a look you gave me when you found there was nothing for it but to drop the whole speculation or to let me have my own way! How you fumed over the lodging hunting on the other side of the Park! and how you groaned when you came back, possessed of furnished apartments in respectable Bayswater, over the useless expense I had put you to!

“What do you think of those furnished apartments now, you obstinate old woman? Here we are, with discovery threatening us at our very door, and with no hope of escape unless we can contrive to disappear from the parson in the dark. And there are the lodgings in Bayswater, to which no inquisitive strangers have traced either you or me, ready and waiting to swallow us up — the lodgings in which we can escape all further molestation, and answer the major’s inquiries at our ease. Can you see, at last, a little further than your poor old nose? Is there anything in the world to prevent your safe disappearance from Pimlico to-night, and your safe establishment at the new lodgings, in the character of my respectable reference, half an hour afterward? Oh, fie, fie, Mother Oldershaw! Go down on your wicked old knees, and thank your stars that you had a she-devil like me to deal with this morning!

“Suppose we come now to the only difficulty worth mentioning — my difficulty. Watched as I am in this house, how am I to join you without bringing the parson or the parson’s servant with me at my heels?

“Being to all intents and purposes a prisoner here, it seems to me that I have no choice but to try the old prison plan of escape: a change of clothes. I have been looking at your house-maid. Except that we are both light, her face and hair and my face and hair are as unlike each other as possible. But she is as nearly as can be my height and size; and (if she only knew how to dress herself, and had smaller feet) her figure is a very much better one than it ought to be for a person in her station in life.

“My idea is to dress her in the clothes I wore in the Gardens to-day; to send her out, with our reverend enemy in full pursuit of her; and, as soon as the coast is clear, to slip away myself and join you. The thing would be quite impossible, of course, if I had been seen with my veil up; but, as events have turned out, it is one advantage of the horrible exposure which followed my marriage that I seldom show myself in public, and never, of course, in such a populous place as London, without wearing a thick veil and keeping that veil down. If the house-maid wears my dress, I don’t really see why the house-maid may not be counted on to represent me to the life.

“The one question is, Can the woman be trusted? If she can, send me a line, telling her, on your authority, that she is to place herself at my disposal. I won’t say a word till I have heard from you first.

“Let me have my answer to-night. As long as we were only talking about my getting the governess’s place, I was careless enough how it ended. But now that we have actually answered Major Milroy’s advertisement, I am in earnest at last. I mean to be Mrs. Armadale of Thorpe Ambrose; and woe to the man or woman who tries to stop me! Yours,

“LYDIA GWILT.

“P.S. — I open my letter again to say that you need have no fear of your messenger being followed on his return to Pimlico. He will drive to a public-house where he is known, will dismiss the cab at the door, and will go out again by a back way which is only used by the landlord and his friends. — L. G.”

3. From Mrs. Oldershaw to Miss Gwilt.

“Diana Street, 10 o’clock.

“My Dear LYDIA— You have written me a heartless letter. If you had been in my trying position, harassed as I was when I wrote to you, I should have made allowances for my friend when I found my friend not so sharp as usual. But the vice of the present age is a want of consideration for persons in the decline of life. Morally speaking, you are in a sad state, my dear; and you stand much in need of a good example. You shall have a good example — I forgive you.

“Having now relieved my mind by the performance of a good action, suppose I show you next (though I protest against the vulgarity of the expression) that I can see a little further than my poor old nose?

“I will answer your question about the house-maid first. You may trust her implicitly. She has had her troubles, and has learned discretion. She also looks your age; though it is only her due to say that, in this particular, she has some years the advantage of you. I inclose the necessary directions which will place her entirely at your disposal.

“And what comes next?

“Your plan for joining me at Bayswater comes next. It is very well as far as it goes; but it stands sadly in need of a little judicious improvement. There is a serious necessity (you shall know why presently) for deceiving the parson far more completely than you propose to deceive him. I want him to see the house-maid’s face under circumstances which will persuade him that it is your face. And then, going a step further, I want him to see the house-maid leave London, under the impression that he has seen you start on the first stage of your journey to the Brazils. He didn’t believe in that journey when I announced it to him this afternoon in the street. He may believe in it yet, if you follow the directions I am now going to give you.

“To-morrow is Saturday. Send the housemaid out in your walking dress of to-day, just as you propose; but don’t stir out yourself, and don’t go near the window. Desire the woman to keep her veil down, to take half an hour’s walk (quite unconscious, of course, of the parson or his servant at her heels), and then to come back to you. As soon as she appears, send her instantly to the open window, instructing her to lift her veil carelessly and look out. Let her go away again after a minute or two, take off her bonnet and shawl, and then appear once more at the window, or, better still, in the balcony outside. She may show herself again occasionally (not too often) later in the day. And to-morrow — as we have a professional gentleman to deal with — by all means send her to church. If these proceedings don’t persuade the parson that the house-maid’s face is your face, and if they don’t make him readier to believe in your reformed character than he was when I spoke to him, I have lived sixty years, my love, in this vale of tears to mighty little purpose.

“The next day is Monday. I have looked at the shipping advertisements, and I find that a steamer leaves Liverpool for the Brazils on Tuesday. Nothing could be more convenient; we will start you on your voyage under the parson’s own eyes. You may manage it in this way:

“At one o’clock send out the man who cleans the knives and forks to get a cab; and when he has brought it up to the door, let him go back and get a second cab, which he is to wait in himself, round the corner, in the square. Let the house-maid (still in your dress) drive off, with the necessary boxes, in the first cab to the North-western Railway. When she is gone, slip out yourself to the cab waiting round the corner, and come to me at Bayswater. They may be prepared to follow the house-maid’s cab, because they have seen it at the door; but they won’t be prepared to follow your cab, because it has been hidden round the corner. When the house-maid has got to the station, and has done her best to disappear in the crowd (I have chosen the mixed train at 2:10, so as to give her every chance), you will be safe with me; and whether they do or do not find out that she does not really start for Liverpool won’t matter by that time. They will have lost all trace of you; and they may follow the house-maid half over London, if they like. She has my instructions (inclosed) to leave the empty boxes to find their way to the lost luggage office and to go to her friends in the City, and stay there till I write word that I want her again.

“And what is the object of all this?

“My dear Lydia, the object is your future security (and mine). We may succeed or we may fail, in persuading the parson that you have actually gone to the Brazils. If we succeed, we are relieved of all fear of him. If we fail, he will warn young Armadale to be careful of a woman like my house-maid, and not of a woman like you. This last gain is a very important one; for we don’t know that Mrs. Armadale may not have told him your maiden name. In that event, the ‘Miss Gwilt’ whom he will describe as having slipped through his fingers here will be so entirely unlike the ‘Miss Gwilt’ established at Thorpe Ambrose, as to satisfy everybody that it is not a case of similarity of persons, but only a case of similarity of names.

“What do you say now to my improvement on your idea? Are my brains not quite so addled as you thought them when you wrote? Don’t suppose I’m at all overboastful about my own ingenuity. Cleverer tricks than this trick of mine are played off on the public by swindlers, and are recorded in the newspapers every week. I only want to show you that my assistance is not less necessary to the success of the Armadale speculation now than it was when I made our first important discoveries, by means of the harmless-looking young man and the private inquiry office in Shadyside Place.

“There is nothing more to say that I know of, except that I am just going to start for the new lodging, with a box directed in my new name. The last expiring moments of Mother Oldershaw, of the Toilet Repository, are close at hand, and the birth of Miss Gwilt’s respectable reference, Mrs. Mandeville, will take place in a cab in five minutes’ time. I fancy I must be still young at heart, for I am quite in love already with my romantic name; it sounds almost as pretty as Mrs. Armadale of Thorpe Ambrose, doesn’t it?

“Good-night, my dear, and pleasant dreams. If any accident happens between this and Monday, write to me instantly by post. If no accident happens you will be with me in excellent time for the earliest inquiries that the major can possibly make. My last words are, don’t go out, and don’t venture near the front windows till Monday comes.

“Affectionately yours,

M. O.”

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