Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XI.

Miss Gwilt Among the Quicksands.

1. From the Rev. Decimus Brock to Ozias Midwinter.

“Thursday.

“My Dear Midwinter — No words can tell what a relief it was to me to get your letter this morning, and what a happiness I honestly feel in having been thus far proved to be in the wrong. The precautions you have taken in case the woman should still confirm my apprehensions by venturing herself at Thorpe Ambrose seem to me to be all that can be desired. You are no doubt sure to hear of her from one or other of the people in the lawyer’s office, whom you have asked to inform you of the appearance of a stranger in the town.

“I am the more pleased at finding how entirely I can trust you in this matter; for I am likely to be obliged to leave Allan’s interests longer than I supposed solely in your hands. My visit to Thorpe Ambrose must, I regret to say, be deferred for two months. The only one of my brother-clergymen in London who is able to take my duty for me cannot make it convenient to remove with his family to Somersetshire before that time. I have no alternative but to finish my business here, and be back at my rectory on Saturday next. If anything happens, you will, of course, instantly communicate with me; and, in that case, be the inconvenience what it may, I must leave home for Thorpe Ambrose. If, on the other hand, all goes more smoothly than my own obstinate apprehensions will allow me to suppose, then Allan (to whom I have written) must not expect to see me till this day two months.

“No result has, up to this time, rewarded our exertions to recover the trace lost at the railway. I will keep my letter open, however, until post time, in case the next few hours bring any news.

“Always truly yours,

DECIMUS BROCK.

“P. S. — I have just heard from the lawyers. They have found out the name the woman passed by in London. If this discovery (not a very important one, I am afraid) suggests any new course of proceeding to you, pray act on it at once. The name is — Miss Gwilt.”

2. From Miss Gwilt to Mrs. Oldershaw.

The Cottage, Thorpe Ambrose, Saturday, June 28.

“If you will promise not to be alarmed, Mamma Oldershaw, I will begin this letter in a very odd way, by copying a page of a letter written by somebody else. You have an excellent memory, and you may not have forgotten that I received a note from Major Milroy’s mother (after she had engaged me as governess) on Monday last. It was dated and signed; and here it is, as far as the first page: ‘June 23d, 1851. Dear Madam — Pray excuse my troubling you, before you go to Thorpe Ambrose, with a word more about the habits observed in my son’s household. When I had the pleasure of seeing you at two o’clock to-day, in Kingsdown Crescent, I had another appointment in a distant part of London at three; and, in the hurry of the moment, one or two little matters escaped me which I think I ought to impress on your attention.’ The rest of the letter is not of the slightest importance, but the lines that I have just copied are well worthy of all the attention you can bestow on them. They have saved me from discovery, my dear, before I have been a week in Major Milroy’s service!

“It happened no later than yesterday evening, and it began and ended in this manner:

“There is a gentleman here, (of whom I shall have more to say presently) who is an intimate friend of young Armadale’s, and who bears the strange name of Midwinter. He contrived yesterday to speak to me alone in the park. Almost as soon as he opened his lips, I found that my name had been discovered in London (no doubt by the Somersetshire clergyman); and that Mr. Midwinter had been chosen (evidently by the same person) to identify the Miss Gwilt who had vanished from Brompton with the Miss Gwilt who had appeared at Thorpe Ambrose. You foresaw this danger, I remember; but you could scarcely have imagined that the exposure would threaten me so soon.

“I spare you the details of our conversation to come to the end. Mr. Midwinter put the matter very delicately, declaring, to my great surprise, that he felt quite certain himself that I was not the Miss Gwilt of whom his friend was in search; and that he only acted as he did out of regard to the anxiety of a person whose wishes he was bound to respect. Would I assist him in setting that anxiety completely at rest, as far as I was concerned, by kindly answering one plain question — which he had no other right to ask me than the right my indulgence might give him? The lost ‘Miss Gwilt’ had been missed on Monday last, at two o’clock, in the crowd on the platform of the North-western Railway, in Euston Square. Would I authorize him to say that on that day, and at that hour, the Miss Gwilt who was Major Milroy’s governess had never been near the place?

“I need hardly tell you that I seized the fine opportunity he had given me of disarming all future suspicion. I took a high tone on the spot, and met him with the old lady’s letter. He politely refused to look at it. I insisted on his looking at it. ‘I don’t choose to be mistaken,’ I said, ‘for a woman who may be a bad character, because she happens to bear, or to have assumed, the same name as mine. I insist on your reading the first part of this letter for my satisfaction, if not for your own.’ He was obliged to comply; and there was the proof, in the old lady’s handwriting, that, at two o’clock on Monday last, she and I were together in Kingsdown Crescent, which any directory would tell him is a ‘crescent’ in Bayswater! I leave you to imagine his apologies, and the perfect sweetness with which I received them.

“I might, of course, if I had not preserved the letter, have referred him to you, or to the major’s mother, with similar results. As it is, the object has been gained without trouble or delay. I have been proved not to be myself; and one of the many dangers that threatened me at Thorpe Ambrose is a danger blown over from this moment. Your house-maid’s face may not be a very handsome one; but there is no denying that it has done us excellent service.

“So much for the past; now for the future. You shall hear how I get on with the people about me; and you shall judge for yourself what the chances are for and against my becoming mistress of Thorpe Ambrose.

“Let me begin with young Armadale — because it is beginning with good news. I have produced the right impression on him already, and Heaven knows that is nothing to boast of! Any moderately good-looking woman who chose to take the trouble could make him fall in love with her. He is a rattle-pated young fool — one of those noisy, rosy, light-haired, good-tempered men whom I particularly detest. I had a whole hour alone with him in a boat, the first day I came here, and I have made good use of my time, I can tell you, from that day to this. The only difficulty with him is the difficulty of concealing my own feelings, especially when he turns my dislike of him into downright hatred by sometimes reminding me of his mother. I really never saw a man whom I could use so ill, if I had the opportunity. He will give me the opportunity, I believe, if no accident happens, sooner than we calculated on. I have just returned from a party at the great house, in celebration of the rent-day dinner, and the squire’s attentions to me, and my modest reluctance to receive them, have already excited general remark.

“My pupil, Miss Milroy, comes next. She, too, is rosy and foolish; and, what is more, awkward and squat and freckled, and ill-tempered and ill-dressed. No fear of her, though she hates me like poison, which is a great comfort, for I get rid of her out of lesson time and walking time. It is perfectly easy to see that she has made the most of her opportunities with young Armadale (opportunities, by-the-by, which we never calculated on), and that she has been stupid enough to let him slip through her fingers. When I tell you that she is obliged, for the sake of appearances, to go with her father and me to the little entertainments at Thorpe Ambrose, and to see how young Armadale admires me, you will understand the kind of place I hold in her affections. She would try me past all endurance if I didn’t see that I aggravate her by keeping my temper, so, of course, I keep it. If I do break out, it will be over our lessons — not over our French, our grammar, history, and globes — but over our music. No words can say how I feel for her poor piano. Half the musical girls in England ought to have their fingers chopped off in the interests of society, and, if I had my way, Miss Milroy’s fingers should be executed first.

“As for the major, I can hardly stand higher in his estimation than I stand already. I am always ready to make his breakfast, and his daughter is not. I can always find things for him when he loses them, and his daughter can’t. I never yawn when he proses, and his daughter does. I like the poor dear harmless old gentleman, so I won’t say a word more about him.

“Well, here is a fair prospect for the future surely? My good Oldershaw, there never was a prospect yet without an ugly place in it. My prospect has two ugly places in it. The name of one of them is Mrs. Milroy, and the name of the other is Mr. Midwinter.

“Mrs. Milroy first. Before I had been five minutes in the cottage, on the day of my arrival, what do you think she did? She sent downstairs and asked to see me. The message startled me a little, after hearing from the old lady, in London, that her daughter-in-law was too great a sufferer to see anybody; but, of course, when I got her message, I had no choice but to go up stairs to the sick-room. I found her bedridden with an incurable spinal complaint, and a really horrible object to look at, but with all her wits about her; and, if I am not greatly mistaken, as deceitful a woman, with as vile a temper, as you could find anywhere in all your long experience. Her excessive politeness, and her keeping her own face in the shade of the bed-curtains while she contrived to keep mine in the light, put me on my guard the moment I entered the room. We were more than half an hour together, without my stepping into any one of the many clever little traps she laid for me. The only mystery in her behavior, which I failed to see through at the time, was her perpetually asking me to bring her things (things she evidently did not want) from different parts of the room.

“Since then events have enlightened me. My first suspicions were raised by overhearing some of the servants’ gossip; and I have been confirmed in my opinion by the conduct of Mrs. Milroy’s nurse.

“On the few occasions when I have happened to be alone with the major, the nurse has also happened to want something of her master, and has invariably forgotten to announce her appearance by knocking, at the door. Do you understand now why Mrs. Milroy sent for me the moment I got into the house, and what she wanted when she kept me going backward and forward, first for one thing and then for another? There is hardly an attractive light in which my face and figure can be seen, in which that woman’s jealous eyes have not studied them already. I am no longer puzzled to know why the father and daughter started, and looked at each other, when I was first presented to them; or why the servants still stare at me with a mischievous expectation in their eyes when I ring the bell and ask them to do anything. It is useless to disguise the truth, Mother Oldershaw, between you and me. When I went upstairs into that sickroom, I marched blindfold into the clutches of a jealous woman. If Mrs. Milroy can turn me out of the house, Mrs. Milroy will; and, morning and night, she has nothing else to do in that bed prison of hers but to find out the way.

“In this awkward position, my own cautious conduct is admirably seconded by the dear old major’s perfect insensibility. His wife’s jealousy of him is as monstrous a delusion as any that could be found in a mad-house; it is the growth of her own vile temper, under the aggravation of an incurable illness. The poor man hasn’t a thought beyond his mechanical pursuits; and I don’t believe he knows at this moment whether I am a handsome woman or not. With this chance to help me, I may hope to set the nurse’s intrusions and the mistress’s contrivances at defiance — for a time, at any rate. But you know what a jealous woman is, and I think I know what Mrs. Milroy is; and I own I shall breathe more freely on the day when young Armadale opens his foolish lips to some purpose, and sets the major advertising for a new governess.

“Armadale’s name reminds me of Armadale’s friend. There is more danger threatening in that quarter; and, what is worse, I don’t feel half as well armed beforehand against Mr. Midwinter as I do against Mrs. Milroy.

“Everything about this man is more or less mysterious, which I don’t like, to begin with. How does he come to be in the confidence of the Somersetshire clergyman? How much has that clergyman told him? How is it that he was so firmly persuaded, when he spoke to me in the park, that I was not the Miss Gwilt of whom his friend was in search? I haven’t the ghost of an answer to give to any of those three questions. I can’t even discover who he is, or how he and young Armadale first became acquainted. I hate him. No, I don’t; I only want to find out about him. He is very young, little and lean, and active and dark, with bright black eyes which say to me plainly, ‘We belong to a man with brains in his head and a will of his own; a man who hasn’t always been hanging about a country house, in attendance on a fool.’ Yes; I am positively certain Mr. Midwinter has done something or suffered something in his past life, young as he is; and I would give I don’t know what to get at it. Don’t resent my taking up so much space in my writing about him. He has influence enough over young Armadale to be a very awkward obstacle in my way, unless I can secure his good opinion at starting.

“Well, you may ask, and what is to prevent your securing his good opinion? I am sadly afraid, Mother Oldershaw, I have got it on terms I never bargained for I am sadly afraid the man is in love with me already.

“Don’t toss your head and say, ‘Just like her vanity!’ After the horrors I have gone through, I have no vanity left; and a man who admires me is a man who makes me shudder. There was a time, I own — Pooh! what am I writing? Sentiment, I declare! Sentiment to you! Laugh away, my dear. As for me, I neither laugh nor cry; I mend my pen, and get on with my — what do the men call it? — my report.

“The only thing worth inquiring is, whether I am right or wrong in my idea of the impression I have made on him.

“Let me see; I have been four times in his company. The first time was in the major’s garden, where we met unexpectedly, face to face. He stood looking at me, like a man petrified, without speaking a word. The effect of my horrid red hair, perhaps? Quite likely; let us lay it on my hair. The second time was in going over the Thorpe Ambrose grounds, with young Armadale on one side of me, and my pupil (in the sulks) on the other. Out comes Mr. Midwinter to join us, though he had work to do in the steward’s office, which he had never been known to neglect on any other occasion. Laziness, possibly? or an attachment to Miss Milroy? I can’t say; we will lay it on Miss Milroy, if you like; I only know he did nothing but look at me. The third time was at the private interview in the park, which I have told you of already. I never saw a man so agitated at putting a delicate question to a woman in my life. But that might have been only awkwardness; and his perpetually looking back after me when we had parted might have been only looking back at the view. Lay it on the view; by all means, lay it on the view! The fourth time was this very evening, at the little party. They made me play; and, as the piano was a good one, I did my best. All the company crowded round me, and paid me their compliments (my charming pupil paid hers, with a face like a cat’s just before she spits), except Mr. Midwinter. He waited till it was time to go, and then he caught me alone for a moment in the hall. There was just time for him to take my hand, and say two words. Shall I tell you how he took my hand, and what his voice sounded like when he spoke? Quite needless! You have always told me that the late Mr. Oldershaw doted on you. Just recall the first time he took your hand, and whispered a word or two addressed to your private ear. To what did you attribute his behavior that occasion? I have no doubt, if you had been playing on the piano in the course of the evening, you would have attributed it entirely to the music!

“No! you may take my word for it, the harm is done. This man is no rattle-pated fool, who changes his fancies as readily as he changes his clothes. The fire that lights those big black eyes of his is not an easy fire, when a woman has once kindled it, for that woman to put out. I don’t wish to discourage you; I don’t say the changes are against us. But with Mrs. Milroy threatening me on one side, and Mr. Midwinter on the other, the worst of all risks to run is the risk of losing time. Young Armadale has hinted already, as well as such a lout can hint, at a private interview! Miss Milroy’s eyes are sharp, and the nurse’s eyes are sharper; and I shall lose my place if either of them find me out. No matter! I must take my chance, and give him the interview. Only let me get him alone, only let me escape the prying eyes of the women, and — if his friend doesn’t come between us — I answer for the result!

“In the meantime, have I anything more to tell you? Are there any other people in our way at Thorpe Ambrose? Not another creature! None of the resident families call here, young Armadale being, most fortunately, in bad odor in the neighborhood. There are no handsome highly-bred women to come to the house, and no persons of consequence to protest against his attentions to a governess. The only guests he could collect at his party to-night were the lawyer and his family (a wife, a son, and two daughters), and a deaf old woman and her son — all perfectly unimportant people, and all obedient humble servants of the stupid young squire.

“Talking of obedient humble servants, there is one other person established here, who is employed in the steward’s office — a miserable, shabby, dilapidated old man, named Bashwood. He is a perfect stranger to me, and I am evidently a perfect stranger to him, for he has been asking the house-maid at the cottage who I am. It is paying no great compliment to myself to confess it, but it is not the less true that I produced the most extraordinary impression on this feeble old creature the first time he saw me. He turned all manner of colors, and stood trembling and staring at me, as if there was something perfectly frightful in my face. I felt quite startled for the moment, for, of all the ways in which men have looked at me, no man ever looked at me in that way before. Did you ever see the boa constrictor fed at the Zoological Gardens? They put a live rabbit into his cage, and there is a moment when the two creatures look at each other. I declare Mr. Bashwood reminded me of the rabbit.

“Why do I mention this? I don’t know why. Perhaps I have been writing too long, and my head is beginning to fail me. Perhaps Mr. Bashwood’s manner of admiring me strikes my fancy by its novelty. Absurd! I am exciting myself, and troubling you about nothing. Oh, what a weary, long letter I have written! and how brightly the stars look at me through the window, and how awfully quiet the night is! Send me some more of those sleeping drops, and write me one of your nice, wicked, amusing letters. You shall hear from me again as soon as I know a little better how it is all likely to end. Good-night, and keep a corner in your stony old heart for

L. G.”

3. From Mrs. Oldershaw to Miss Gwilt.

“Diana Street, Pimlico, Monday.

“My Dear LYDIA— I am in no state of mind to write you an amusing letter. Your news is very discouraging, and the recklessness of your tone quite alarms me. Consider the money I have already advanced, and the interests we both have at stake. Whatever else you are, don’t be reckless, for Heaven’s sake!

“What can I do? I ask myself, as a woman of business, what can I do to help you? I can’t give you advice, for I am not on the spot, and I don’t know how circumstances may alter from one day to another. Situated as we are now, I can only be useful in one way. I can discover a new obstacle that threatens you, and I think I can remove it.

“You say, with great truth, that there never was a prospect yet without an ugly place in it, and that there are two ugly places in your prospect. My dear, there may be three ugly places, if I don’t bestir myself to prevent it; and the name of the third place will be — Brock! Is it possible you can refer, as you have done, to the Somersetshire clergyman, and not see that the progress you make with young Armadale will be, sooner or later, reported to him by young Armadale’s friend? Why, now I think of it, you are doubly at the parson’s mercy! You are at the mercy of any fresh suspicion which may bring him into the neighborhood himself at a day’s notice; and you are at the mercy of his interference the moment he hears that the squire is committing himself with a neighbor’s governess. If I can do nothing else, I can keep this additional difficulty out of your way. And oh, Lydia, with what alacrity I shall exert myself, after the manner in which the old wretch insulted me when I told him that pitiable story in the street! I declare I tingle with pleasure at this new prospect of making a fool of Mr. Brock.

“And how is it to be done? Just as we have done it already, to be sure. He has lost ‘Miss Gwilt’ (otherwise my house-maid), hasn’t he? Very well. He shall find her again, wherever he is now, suddenly settled within easy reach of him. As long as she stops in the place, he will stop in it; and as we know he is not at Thorpe Ambrose, there you are free of him! The old gentleman’s suspicions have given us a great deal of trouble so far. Let us turn them to some profitable account at last; let us tie him, by his suspicions, to my house-maid’s apron-string. Most refreshing. Quite a moral retribution, isn’t it?

“The only help I need trouble you for is help you can easily give. Find out from Mr. Midwinter where the parson is now, and let me know by return of post. If he is in London, I will personally assist my housemaid in the necessary mystification of him. If he is anywhere else, I will send her after him, accompanied by a person on whose discretion I can implicitly rely.

“You shall have the sleeping drops to-morrow. In the meantime, I say at the end what I said at the beginning — no recklessness. Don’t encourage poetical feelings by looking at the stars; and don’t talk about the night being awfully quiet. There are people (in observatories) paid to look at the stars for you; leave it to them. And as for the night, do what Providence intended you to do with the night when Providence provided you with eyelids — go to sleep in it. Affectionately yours,

“MARIA OLDERSHAW.”

4. From the Reverend Decimus Brock to Ozias Midwinter.

“Bascombe Rectory, West Somerset, Thursday, July 8.

“My Dear Midwinter — One line before the post goes out, to relieve you of all sense of responsibility at Thorpe Ambrose, and to make my apologies to the lady who lives as governess in Major Milroy’s family.

The Miss Gwilt — or perhaps I ought to say, the woman calling herself by that name — has, to my unspeakable astonishment, openly made her appearance here, in my own parish! She is staying at the inn, accompanied by a plausible-looking man, who passes as her brother. What this audacious proceeding really means — unless it marks a new step in the conspiracy against Allan, taken under new advice — is, of course, more than I can yet find out.

“My own idea is, that they have recognized the impossibility of getting at Allan, without finding me (or you) as an obstacle in their way; and that they are going to make a virtue of necessity by boldly trying to open their communications through me. The man looks capable of any stretch of audacity; and both he and the woman had the impudence to bow when I met them in the village half an hour since. They have been making inquiries already about Allan’s mother here, where her exemplary life may set their closest scrutiny at defiance. If they will only attempt to extort money, as the price of the woman’s silence on the subject of poor Mrs. Armadale’s conduct in Madeira at the time of her marriage, they will find me well prepared for them beforehand. I have written by this post to my lawyers to send a competent man to assist me, and he will stay at the rectory, in any character which he thinks it safest to assume under present circumstances.

“You shall hear what happens in the next day or two.

“Always truly yours, DECIMUS BROCK.”

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