Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter VI.

Midwinter in Disguise.

Toward noon on the day of the twenty-first, Miss Milroy was loitering in the cottage garden — released from duty in the sick-room by an improvement in her mother’s health — when her attention was attracted by the sound of voices in the park. One of the voices she instantly recognized as Allan’s; the other was strange to her. She put aside the branches of a shrub near the garden palings, and, peeping through, saw Allan approaching the cottage gate, in company with a slim, dark, undersized man, who was talking and laughing excitably at the top of his voice. Miss Milroy ran indoors to warn her father of Mr. Armadale’s arrival, and to add that he was bringing with him a noisy stranger, who was, in all probability, the friend generally reported to be staying with the squire at the great house.

Had the major’s daughter guessed right? Was the squire’s loud-talking, loud-laughing companion the shy, sensitive Midwinter of other times? It was even so. In Allan’s presence, that morning, an extraordinary change had passed over the ordinarily quiet demeanor of Allan’s friend.

When Midwinter had first appeared in the breakfast-room, after putting aside Mr. Brock’s startling letter, Allan had been too much occupied to pay any special attention to him. The undecided difficulty of choosing the day for the audit dinner had pressed for a settlement once more, and had been fixed at last (under the butler’s advice) for Saturday, the twenty-eighth of the month. It was only on turning round to remind Midwinter of the ample space of time which the new arrangement allowed for mastering the steward’s books, that even Allan’s flighty attention had been arrested by a marked change in the face that confronted him. He had openly noticed the change in his usual blunt manner, and had been instantly silenced by a fretful, almost an angry, reply. The two had sat down together to breakfast without the usual cordiality, and the meal had proceeded gloomily, till Midwinter himself broke the silence by bursting into the strange outbreak of gayety which had revealed in Allan’s eyes a new side to the character of his friend.

As usual with most of Allan’s judgments, here again the conclusion was wrong. It was no new side to Midwinter’s character that now presented itself — it was only a new aspect of the one ever-recurring struggle of Midwinter’s life.

Irritated by Allan’s discovery of the change in him, and dreading the next questions that Allan’s curiosity might put, Midwinter had roused himself to efface, by main force, the impression which his own altered appearance had produced. It was one of those efforts which no men compass so resolutely as the men of his quick temper and his sensitive feminine organization. With his whole mind still possessed by the firm belief that the Fatality had taken one great step nearer to Allan and himself since the rector’s adventure in Kensington Gardens — with his face still betraying what he had suffered, under the renewed conviction that his father’s death-bed warning was now, in event after event, asserting its terrible claim to part him, at any sacrifice, from the one human creature whom he loved — with the fear still busy at his heart that the first mysterious vision of Allan’s Dream might be a vision realized, before the new day that now saw the two Armadales together was a day that had passed over their heads — with these triple bonds, wrought by his own superstition, fettering him at that moment as they had never fettered him yet, he mercilessly spurred his resolution to the desperate effort of rivaling, in Allan’s presence, the gayety and good spirits of Allan himself.

He talked and laughed, and heaped his plate indiscriminately from every dish on the breakfast-table. He made noisily merry with jests that had no humor, and stories that had no point. He first astonished Allan, then amused him, then won his easily encouraged confidence on the subject of Miss Milroy. He shouted with laughter over the sudden development of Allan’s views on marriage, until the servants downstairs began to think that their master’s strange friend had gone mad. Lastly, he had accepted Allan’s proposal that he should be presented to the major’s daughter, and judge of her for himself, as readily, nay, more readily than it would have been accepted by the least diffident man living. There the two now stood at the cottage gate — Midwinter’s voice rising louder and louder over Allan’s — Midwinter’s natural manner disguised (how madly and miserably none but he knew!) in a coarse masquerade of boldness — the outrageous, the unendurable boldness of a shy man.

They were received in the parlor by the major’s daughter, pending the arrival of the major himself.

Allan attempted to present his friend in the usual form. To his astonishment, Midwinter took the words flippantly out of his lips, and introduced himself to Miss Milroy with a confident look, a hard laugh, and a clumsy assumption of ease which presented him at his worst. His artificial spirits, lashed continuously into higher and higher effervescence since the morning, were now mounting hysterically beyond his own control. He looked and spoke with that terrible freedom of license which is the necessary consequence, when a diffident man has thrown off his reserve, of the very effort by which he has broken loose from his own restraints. He involved himself in a confused medley of apologies that were not wanted, and of compliments that might have overflattered the vanity of a savage. He looked backward and forward from Miss Milroy to Allan, and declared jocosely that he understood now why his friend’s morning walks were always taken in the same direction. He asked her questions about her mother, and cut short the answers she gave him by remarks on the weather. In one breath, he said she must feel the day insufferably hot, and in another he protested that he quite envied her in her cool muslin dress.

The major came in.

Before he could say two words, Midwinter overwhelmed him with the same frenzy of familiarity, and the same feverish fluency of speech. He expressed his interest in Mrs. Milroy’s health in terms which would have been exaggerated on the lips of a friend of the family. He overflowed into a perfect flood of apologies for disturbing the major at his mechanical pursuits. He quoted Allan’s extravagant account of the clock, and expressed his own anxiety to see it in terms more extravagant still. He paraded his superficial book knowledge of the great clock at Strasbourg, with far-fetched jests on the extraordinary automaton figures which that clock puts in motion — on the procession of the Twelve Apostles, which walks out under the dial at noon, and on the toy cock, which crows at St. Peter’s appearance — and this before a man who had studied every wheel in that complex machinery, and who had passed whole years of his life in trying to imitate it. “I hear you have outnumbered the Strasbourg apostles, and outcrowed the Strasbourg cock,” he exclaimed, with the tone and manner of a friend habitually privileged to waive all ceremony; “and I am dying, absolutely dying, major, to see your wonderful clock!”

Major Milroy had entered the room with his mind absorbed in his own mechanical contrivances as usual. But the sudden shock of Midwinter’s familiarity was violent enough to recall him instantly to himself, and to make him master again, for the time, of his social resources as a man of the world.

“Excuse me for interrupting you,” he said, stopping Midwinter for the moment, by a look of steady surprise. “I happen to have seen the clock at Strasbourg; and it sounds almost absurd in my ears (if you will pardon me for saying so) to put my little experiment in any light of comparison with that wonderful achievement. There is nothing else of the kind like it in the world!” He paused, to control his own mounting enthusiasm; the clock at Strasbourg was to Major Milroy what the name of Michael Angelo was to Sir Joshua Reynolds. “Mr. Armadale’s kindness has led him to exaggerate a little,” pursued the major, smiling at Allan, and passing over another attempt of Midwinter’s to seize on the talk, as if no such attempt had been made. “But as there does happen to be this one point of resemblance between the great clock abroad and the little clock at home, that they both show what they can do on the stroke of noon, and as it is close on twelve now, if you still wish to visit my workshop, Mr. Midwinter, the sooner I show you the way to it the better.” He opened the door, and apologized to Midwinter, with marked ceremony, for preceding him out of the room.

“What do you think of my friend?” whispered Allan, as he and Miss Milroy followed.

“Must I tell you the truth, Mr. Armadale?” she whispered back.

“Of course!”

“Then I don’t like him at all!”

“He’s the best and dearest fellow in the world, “ rejoined the outspoken Allan. “You’ll like him better when you know him better — I’m sure you will!”

Miss Milroy made a little grimace, implying supreme indifference to Midwinter, and saucy surprise at Allan’s earnest advocacy of the merits of his friend. “Has he got nothing more interesting to say to me than that,” she wondered, privately, “after kissing my hand twice yesterday morning?”

They were all in the major’s workroom before Allan had the chance of trying a more attractive subject. There, on the top of a rough wooden case, which evidently contained the machinery, was the wonderful clock. The dial was crowned by a glass pedestal placed on rock-work in carved ebony; and on the top of the pedestal sat the inevitable figure of Time, with his everlasting scythe in his hand. Below the dial was a little platform, and at either end of it rose two miniature sentry-boxes, with closed doors. Externally, this was all that appeared, until the magic moment came when the clock struck twelve noon.

It wanted then about three minutes to twelve; and Major Milroy seized the opportunity of explaining what the exhibition was to be, before the exhibition began.

“At the first words, his mind fell back again into its old absorption over the one employment of his life. He turned to Midwinter (who had persisted in talking all the way from the parlor, and who was talking still) without a trace left in his manner of the cool and cutting composure with which he had spoken but a few minutes before. The noisy, familiar man, who had been an ill-bred intruder in the parlor, became a privileged guest in the workshop, for there he possessed the all-atoning social advantage of being new to the performances of the wonderful clock.

“At the first stroke of twelve, Mr. Midwinter,” said the major, quite eagerly, “keep your eye on the figure of Time: he will move his scythe, and point it downward to the glass pedestal. You will next see a little printed card appear behind the glass, which will tell you the day of the month and the day of the week. At the last stroke of the clock, Time will lift his scythe again into its former position, and the chimes will ring a peal. The peal will be succeeded by the playing of a tune — the favorite march of my old regiment — and then the final performance of the clock will follow. The sentry-boxes, which you may observe at each side, will both open at the same moment. In one of them you will see the sentinel appear; and from the other a corporal and two privates will march across the platform to relieve the guard, and will then disappear, leaving the new sentinel at his post. I must ask your kind allowances for this last part of the performance. The machinery is a little complicated, and there are defects in it which I am ashamed to say I have not yet succeeded in remedying as I could wish. Sometimes the figures go all wrong, and sometimes they go all right. I hope they may do their best on the occasion of your seeing them for the first time.”

As the major, posted near his clock, said the last words, his little audience of three, assembled at the opposite end of the room, saw the hour-hand and the minute-hand on the dial point together to twelve. The first stroke sounded, and Time, true to the signal, moved his scythe. The day of the month and the day of the week announced themselves in print through the glass pedestal next; Midwinter applauding their appearance with a noisy exaggeration of surprise, which Miss Milroy mistook for coarse sarcasm directed at her father’s pursuits, and which Allan (seeing that she was offended) attempted to moderate by touching the elbow of his friend. Meanwhile, the performances of the clock went on. At the last stroke of twelve, Time lifted his scythe again, the chimes rang, the march tune of the major’s old regiment followed; and the crowning exhibition of the relief of the guard announced itself in a preliminary trembling of the sentry-boxes, and a sudden disappearance of the major at the back of the clock.

The performance began with the opening of the sentry-box on the right-hand side of the platform, as punctually as could be desired; the door on the other side, however, was less tractable — it remained obstinately closed. Unaware of this hitch in the proceedings, the corporal and his two privates appeared in their places in a state of perfect discipline, tottered out across the platform, all three trembling in every limb, dashed themselves headlong against the closed door on the other side, and failed in producing the smallest impression on the immovable sentry presumed to be within. An intermittent clicking, as of the major’s keys and tools at work, was heard in the machinery. The corporal and his two privates suddenly returned, backward, across the platform, and shut themselves up with a bang inside their own door. Exactly at the same moment, the other door opened for the first time, and the provoking sentry appeared with the utmost deliberation at his post, waiting to be relieved. He was allowed to wait. Nothing happened in the other box but an occasional knocking inside the door, as if the corporal and his privates were impatient to be let out. The clicking of the major’s tools was heard again among the machinery; the corporal and his party, suddenly restored to liberty, appeared in a violent hurry, and spun furiously across the platform. Quick as they were, however, the hitherto deliberate sentry on the other side now perversely showed himself to be quicker still. He disappeared like lightning into his own premises, the door closed smartly after him, the corporal and his privates dashed themselves headlong against it for the second time, and the major, appearing again round the corner of the clock, asked his audience innocently “if they would be good enough to tell him whether anything had gone wrong?”

The fantastic absurdity of the exhibition, heightened by Major Milroy’s grave inquiry at the end of it, was so irresistibly ludicrous that the visitors shouted with laughter; and even Miss Milroy, with all her consideration for her father’s sensitive pride in his clock, could not restrain herself from joining in the merriment which the catastrophe of the puppets had provoked. But there are limits even to the license of laughter; and these limits were ere long so outrageously overstepped by one of the little party as to have the effect of almost instantly silencing the other two. The fever of Midwinter’s false spirits flamed out into sheer delirium as the performance of the puppets came to an end. His paroxysms of laughter followed each other with such convulsive violence that Miss Milroy started back from him in alarm, and even the patient major turned on him with a look which said plainly, Leave the room! Allan, wisely impulsive for once in his life, seized Midwinter by the arm, and dragged him out by main force into the garden, and thence into the park beyond.

“Good heavens! what has come to you!” he exclaimed, shrinking back from the tortured face before him, as he stopped and looked close at it for the first time.

For the moment, Midwinter was incapable of answering. The hysterical paroxysm was passing from one extreme to the other. He leaned against a tree, sobbing and gasping for breath, and stretched out his hand in mute entreaty to Allan to give him time.

“You had better not have nursed me through my fever,” he said, faintly, as soon as he could speak. “I’m mad and miserable, Allan; I have never recovered it. Go back and ask them to forgive me; I am ashamed to go and ask them myself. I can’t tell how it happened; I can only ask your pardon and theirs.” He turned aside his head quickly so as to conceal his face. “Don’t stop here,” he said; “don’t look at me; I shall soon get over it.” Allan still hesitated, and begged hard to be allowed to take him back to the house. It was useless. “You break my heart with your kindness,” he burst out, passionately. “For God’s sake, leave me by my self!”

Allan went back to she cottage, and pleaded there for indulgence to Midwinter, with an earnestness and simplicity which raised him immensely in the major’s estimation, but which totally failed to produce the same favorable impression on Miss Milroy. Little as she herself suspected it, she was fond enough of Allan already to be jealous of Allan’s friend.

“How excessively absurd!” she thought, pettishly. “As if either papa or I considered such a person of the slightest consequence!”

“You will kindly suspend your opinion, won’t you, Major Milroy?” said Allan, in his hearty way, at parting.

“With the greatest pleasure! “ replied the major, cordially shaking hands.

“And you, too, Miss Milroy?” added Allan.

Miss Milroy made a mercilessly formal bow. “My opinion, Mr. Armadale, is not of the slightest consequence.”

Allan left the cottage, sorely puzzled to account for Miss Milroy’s sudden coolness toward him. His grand idea of conciliating the whole neighborhood by becoming a married man underwent some modification as he closed the garden gate behind him. The virtue called Prudence and the Squire of Thorpe Ambrose became personally acquainted with each other, on this occasion, for the first time; and Allan, entering headlong as usual on the high-road to moral improvement, actually decided on doing nothing in a hurry!

A man who is entering on a course of reformation ought, if virtue is its own reward, to be a man engaged in an essentially inspiriting pursuit. But virtue is not always its own reward; and the way that leads to reformation is remarkably ill-lighted for so respectable a thoroughfare. Allan seemed to have caught the infection of his friend’s despondency. As he walked home, he, too, began to doubt — in his widely different way, and for his widely different reasons — whether the life at Thorpe Ambrose was promising quite as fairly for the future as it had promised at first.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/c71a/chapter14.html

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