Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter II.

The Solid Side of the Scotch Character.

AT ten o’clock the next morning, Mr. Neal — waiting for the medical visit which he had himself appointed for that hour — looked at his watch, and discovered, to his amazement, that he was waiting in vain. It was close on eleven when the door opened at last, and the doctor entered the room.

“I appointed ten o’clock for your visit,” said Mr. Neal. “In my country, a medical man is a punctual man.”

“In my country,” returned the doctor, without the least ill-humor, “a medical man is exactly like other men — he is at the mercy of accidents. Pray grant me your pardon, sir, for being so long after my time; I have been detained by a very distressing case — the case of Mr. Armadale, whose traveling-carriage you passed on the road yesterday.”

Mr. Neal looked at his medical attendant with a sour surprise. There was a latent anxiety in the doctor’s eye, a latent preoccupation in the doctor’s manner, which he was at a loss to account for. For a moment the two faces confronted each other silently, in marked national contrast — the Scotchman’s, long and lean, hard and regular; the German’s, plump and florid, soft and shapeless. One face looked as if it had never been young; the other, as if it would never grow old.

“Might I venture to remind you,” said Mr. Neal, “that the case now under consideration is MY case, and not Mr. Armadale’s?”

“Certainly,” replied the doctor, still vacillating between the case he had come to see and the case he had just left. “You appear to be suffering from lameness; let me look at your foot.”

Mr. Neal’s malady, however serious it might be in his own estimation, was of no extraordinary importance in a medical point of view. He was suffering from a rheumatic affection of the ankle-joint. The necessary questions were asked and answered and the necessary baths were prescribed. In ten minutes the consultation was at an end, and the patient was waiting in significant silence for the medical adviser to take his leave.

“I cannot conceal from myself,” said the doctor, rising, and hesitating a little, “that I am intruding on you. But I am compelled to beg your indulgence if I return to the subject of Mr. Armadale.”

“May I ask what compels you?”

“The duty which I owe as a Christian,” answered the doctor, “to a dying man.”

Mr. Neal started. Those who touched his sense of religious duty touched the quickest sense in his nature.

“You have established your claim on my attention,” he said, gravely. “My time is yours.”

“I will not abuse your kindness,” replied the doctor, resuming his chair. “I will be as short as I can. Mr. Armadale’s case is briefly this: He has passed the greater part of his life in the West Indies — a wild life, and a vicious life, by his own confession. Shortly after his marriage — now some three years since — the first symptoms of an approaching paralytic affection began to show themselves, and his medical advisers ordered him away to try the climate of Europe. Since leaving the West Indies he has lived principally in Italy, with no benefit to his health. From Italy, before the last seizure attacked him, he removed to Switzerland, and from Switzerland he has been sent to this place. So much I know from his doctor’s report; the rest I can tell you from my own personal experience. Mr. Armadale has been sent to Wildbad too late: he is virtually a dead man. The paralysis is fast spreading upward, and disease of the lower part of the spine has already taken place. He can still move his hands a little, but he can hold nothing in his fingers. He can still articulate, but he may wake speechless to-morrow or next day. If I give him a week more to live, I give him what I honestly believe to be the utmost length of his span. At his own request I told him, as carefully and as tenderly as I could, what I have just told you. The result was very distressing; the violence of the patient’s agitation was a violence which I despair of describing to you. I took the liberty of asking him whether his affairs were unsettled. Nothing of the sort. His will is in the hands of is executor in London, and he leaves his wife and child well provided for. My next question succeeded better; it hit the mark: ‘Have you something on your mind to do before you die which is not done yet?’ He gave a great gasp of relief, which said, as no words could have said it, Yes. ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Yes. I have something to write that I must write; can you make me hold a pen?’

“He might as well have asked me if I could perform a miracle. I could only say No. ‘If I dictate the words,’ he went on, ‘can you write what I tell you to write?’ Once more I could only say No I understand a little English, but I can neither speak it nor write it. Mr. Armadale understands French when it is spoken (as I speak it to him) slowly, but he cannot express himself in that language; and of German he is totally ignorant. In this difficulty, I said, what any one else in my situation would have said: ‘Why ask me? there is Mrs. Armadale at your service in the next room.’ Before I could get up from my chair to fetch her, he stopped me — not by words, but by a look of horror which fixed me, by main force of astonishment, in my place. ‘Surely,’ I said, ‘your wife is the fittest person to write for you as you desire?’ ‘The last person under heaven!’ he answered. ‘What!’ I said, ‘you ask me, a foreigner and a stranger, to write words at your dictation which you keep a secret from your wife!’ Conceive my astonishment when he answered me, without a moment’s hesitation, ‘Yes!’ I sat lost; I sat silent. ‘If you can’t write English,’ he said, ‘find somebody who can.’ I tried to remonstrate. He burst into a dreadful moaning cry — a dumb entreaty, like the entreaty of a dog. ‘Hush! hush!’ I said, ‘I will find somebody.’ ‘To-day!’ he broke out, ‘before my speech fails me, like my hand.’ ‘To-day, in an hour’s time.’ He shut his eyes; he quieted himself instantly. ‘While I am waiting for you,’ he said, ‘let me see my little boy.’ He had shown no tenderness when he spoke of his wife, but I saw the tears on his cheeks when he asked for his child. My profession, sir, has not made me so hard a man as you might think; and my doctor’s heart was as heavy, when I went out to fetch the child, as if I had not been a doctor at all. I am afraid you think this rather weak on my part?”

The doctor looked appealingly at Mr. Neal. He might as well have looked at a rock in the Black Forest. Mr. Neal entirely declined to be drawn by any doctor in Christendom out of the regions of plain fact.

“Go on,” he said. “I presume you have not told me all that you have to tell me, yet?”

“Surely you understand my object in coming here, now?” returned the other

“Your object is plain enough, at last. You invite me to connect myself blindfold with a matter which is in the last degree suspicious, so far. I decline giving you any answer until I know more than I know now. Did you think it necessary to inform this man’s wife of what had passed between you, and to ask her for an explanation?”

“Of course I thought it necessary!” said the doctor, indignant at the reflection on his humanity which the question seemed to imply. “If ever I saw a woman fond of her husband, and sorry for her husband, it is this unhappy Mrs. Armadale. As soon as we were left alone together, I sat down by her side, and I took her hand in mine. Why not? I am an ugly old man, and I may allow myself such liberties as these!”

“Excuse me,” said the impenetrable Scotchman. “I beg to suggest that you are losing the thread of the narrative.”

“Nothing more likely,” returned the doctor, recovering his good humor. “It is in the habit of my nation to be perpetually losing the thread; and it is evidently in the habit of yours, sir, to be perpetually finding it. What an example here of the order of the universe, and the everlasting fitness of things!”

“Will you oblige me, once for all, by confining yourself to the facts,” persisted Mr. Neal, frowning impatiently. “May I inquire, for my own information, whether Mrs. Armadale could tell you what it is her husband wishes me to write, and why it is that he refuses to let her write for him?”

“There is my thread found — and thank you for finding it!” said the doctor. “You shall hear what Mrs. Armadale had to tell me, in Mrs. Armadale’s own words. ‘The cause that now shuts me out of his confidence,’ she said, ‘is, I firmly believe, the same cause that has always shut me out of his heart. I am the wife he has wedded, but I am not the woman he loves. I knew when he married me that another man had won from him the woman he loved. I thought I could make him forget her. I hoped when I married him; I hoped again when I bore him a son. Need I tell you the end of my hopes — you have seen it for yourself.’ (Wait, sir, I entreat you! I have not lost the thread again; I am following it inch by inch.) ‘Is this all you know?’ I asked. ‘All I knew,’ she said, ‘till a short time since. It was when we were in Switzerland, and when his illness was nearly at its worst, that news came to him by accident of that other woman who has been the shadow and the poison of my life — news that she (like me) had borne her husband a son. On the instant of his making that discovery — a trifling discovery, if ever there was one yet — a mortal fear seized on him: not for me, not for himself; a fear for his own child. The same day (without a word to me) he sent for the doctor. I was mean, wicked, what you please — I listened at the door. I heard him say: I have something to tell my son, when my son grows old enough to understand me. Shall I live to tell it? The doctor would say nothing certain. The same night (still without a word to me) he locked himself into his room. What would any woman, treated as I was, have done in my place? She would have done as I did — she would have listened again. I heard him say to himself: I shall not live to tell it: I must; write it before I die. I heard his pen scrape, scrape, scrape over the paper; I heard him groaning and sobbing as he wrote; I implored him for God’s sake to let me in. The cruel pen went scrape, scrape, scrape; the cruel pen was all the answer he gave me. I waited at the door — hours — I don’t know how long. On a sudden, the pen stopped; and I heard no more. I whispered through the keyhole softly; I said I was cold and weary with waiting; I said, Oh, my love, let me in! Not even the cruel pen answered me now: silence answered me. With all the strength of my miserable hands I beat at the door. The servants came up and broke it in. We were too late; the harm was done. Over that fatal letter, the stroke had struck him — over that fatal letter, we found him paralyzed as you see him now. Those words which he wants you to write are the words he would have written himself if the stroke had spared him till the morning. From that time to this there has been a blank place left in the letter; and it is that blank place which he has just asked you to fill up.’— In those words Mrs. Armadale spoke to me; in those words you have the sum and substance of all the information I can give. Say, if you please, sir, have I kept the thread at last? Have I shown you the necessity which brings me here from your countryman’s death-bed?”

“Thus far,” said Mr. Neal, “you merely show me that you are exciting yourself. This is too serious a matter to be treated as you are treating it now. You have involved Me in the business, and I insist on seeing my way plainly. Don’t raise your hands; your hands are not a part of the question. If I am to be concerned in the completion of this mysterious letter, it is only an act of justifiable prudence on my part to inquire what the letter is about. Mrs. Armadale appears to have favored you with an infinite number of domestic particulars — in return, I presume, for your polite attention in taking her by the hand. May I ask what she could tell you about her husband’s letter, so far as her husband has written it?”

“Mrs. Armadale could tell me nothing,” replied the doctor, with a sudden formality in his manner, which showed that his forbearance was at last failing him. “Before she was composed enough to think of the letter, her husband had asked for it, and had caused it to be locked up in his desk. She knows that he has since, time after time, tried to finish it, and that, time after time, the pen has dropped from his fingers. She knows, when all other hope of his restoration was at an end, that his medical advisers encouraged him to hope in the famous waters of this place. And last, she knows how that hope has ended; for she knows what I told her husband this morning.”

The frown which had been gathering latterly on Mr. Neal’s face deepened and darkened. He looked at the doctor as if the doctor had personally offended him.

“The more I think of the position you are asking me to take,” he said, “the less I like it. Can you undertake to say positively that Mr. Armadale is in his right mind?”

“Yes; as positively as words can say it.”

“Does his wife sanction your coming here to request my interference?”

“His wife sends me to you — the only Englishman in Wildbad — to write for your dying countryman what he cannot write for himself; and what no one else in this place but you can write for him.”

That answer drove Mr. Neal back to the last inch of ground left him to stand on. Even on that inch the Scotchman resisted still.

“Wait a little!” he said. “You put it strongly; let us be quite sure you put it correctly as well. Let us be quite sure there is nobody to take this responsibility but myself. There is a mayor in Wildbad, to begin with — a man who possesses an official character to justify his interference.”

“A man of a thousand,” said the doctor. “With one fault — he knows no language but his own.”

“There is an English legation at Stuttgart,” persisted Mr. Neal.

“And there are miles on miles of the forest between this and Stuttgart,” rejoined the doctor. “If we sent this moment, we could get no help from the legation before to-morrow; and it is as likely as not, in the state of this dying man’s articulation, that to-morrow may find him speechless. I don’t know whether his last wishes are wishes harmless to his child and to others, wishes hurtful to his child and to others; but I do know that they must be fulfilled at once or never, and that you are the only man that can help him.”

That open declaration brought the discussion to a close. It fixed Mr. Neal fast between the two alternatives of saying Yes, and committing an act of imprudence, or of saying No, and committing an act of inhumanity. There was a silence of some minutes. The Scotchman steadily reflected; and the German steadily watched him.

The responsibility of saying the next words rested on Mr. Neal, and in course of time Mr. Neal took it. He rose from his chair with a sullen sense of injury lowering on his heavy eyebrows, and working sourly in the lines at the corners of his mouth.

“My position is forced on me,” he said. “I have no choice but to accept it.”

The doctor’s impulsive nature rose in revolt against the merciless brevity and gracelessness of that reply. “I wish to God,” he broke out fervently, “I knew English enough to take your place at Mr. Armadale’s bedside!”

“Bating your taking the name of the Almighty in vain,” answered the Scotchman, “I entirely agree with you. I wish you did.”

Without another word on either side, they left the room together — the doctor leading the way.

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