Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XIII.

Exit.

It rained all through the night, and when the morning came it was raining still.

Contrary to his ordinary habit, Midwinter was waiting in the breakfast-room when Allan entered it. He looked worn and weary, but his smile was gentler and his manner more composed than usual. To Allan’s surprise he approached the subject of the previous night’s conversation of his own accord as soon as the servant was out of the room.

“I am afraid you thought me very impatient and very abrupt with you last night,” he said. “I will try to make amends for it this morning. I will hear everything you wish to say to me on the subject of Miss Gwilt.”

“I hardly like to worry you,” said Allan. “You look as if you had had a bad night’s rest.”

“I have not slept well for some time past,” replied Midwinter, quietly. “Something has been wrong with me. But I believe I have found out the way to put myself right again without troubling the doctors. Late in the morning I shall have something to say to you about this. Let us get back first to what you were talking of last night. You were speaking of some difficulty —” He hesitated, and finished the sentence in a tone so low that Allan failed to hear him. “Perhaps it would be better,” he went on, “if, instead of speaking to me, you spoke to Mr. Brock?”

“I would rather speak to you,” said Allan. “But tell me first, was I right or wrong last night in thinking you disapproved of my falling in love with Miss Gwilt?”

Midwinter’s lean, nervous fingers began to crumble the bread in his plate. His eyes looked away from Allan for the first time.

“If you have any objection,” persisted Allan, “I should like to hear it.”

Midwinter suddenly looked up again, his cheeks turning ashy pale, and his glittering black eyes fixed full on Allan’s face.

“You love her,” he said. “Does she love you?”

“You won’t think me vain?” returned Allan. “I told you yesterday I had had private opportunities with her —”

Midwinter’s eyes dropped again to the crumbs on his plate. “I understand,” he interposed, quickly. “You were wrong last night. I had no objections to make.”

“Don’t you congratulate me?” asked Allan, a little uneasily. “Such a beautiful woman! such a clever woman!”

Midwinter held out his hand. “I owe you more than mere congratulations,” he said. “In anything which is for your happiness I owe you help.” He took Allan’s hand, and wrung it hard. “Can I help you?” he asked, growing paler and paler as he spoke.

“My dear fellow,” exclaimed Allan, “what is the matter with you? Your hand is as cold as ice.”

Midwinter smiled faintly. “I am always in extremes,” he said; “my hand was as hot as fire the first time you took it at the old west-country inn. Come to that difficulty which you have not come to yet. You are young, rich, your own master — and she loves you. What difficulty can there be?”

Allan hesitated. “I hardly know how to put it,” he replied. “As you said just now, I love her, and she loves me; and yet there is a sort of strangeness between us. One talks a good deal about one’s self when one is in love, at least I do. I’ve told her all about myself and my mother, and how I came in for this place, and the rest of it. Well — though it doesn’t strike me when we are together — it comes across me now and then, when I’m away from her, that she doesn’t say much on her side. In fact, I know no more about her than you do.”

“Do you mean that you know nothing about Miss Gwilt’s family and friends?”

“That’s it, exactly.”

“Have you never asked her about them?”

“I said something of the sort the other day,” returned Allan: “and I’m afraid, as usual, I said it in the wrong way. She looked — I can’t quite tell you how; not exactly displeased, but — oh, what things words are! I’d give the world, Midwinter, if I could only find the right word when I want it as well as you do.”

“Did Miss Gwilt say anything to you in the way of a reply?”

“That’s just what I was coming to. She said, ‘I shall have a melancholy story to tell you one of these days, Mr. Armadale, about myself and my family; but you look so happy, and the circumstances are so distressing, that I have hardly the heart to speak of it now.’ Ah, she can express herself — with the tears in her eyes, my dear fellow, with the tears in her eyes! Of course, I changed the subject directly. And now the difficulty is how to get back to it, delicately, without making her cry again. We must get back to it, you know. Not on my account; I am quite content to marry her first and hear of her family misfortunes, poor thing, afterward. But I know Mr. Brock. If I can’t satisfy him about her family when I write to tell him of this (which, of course, I must do), he will be dead against the whole thing. I’m my own master, of course, and I can do as I like about it. But dear old Brock was such a good friend to my poor mother, and he has been such a good friend to me — you see what I mean, don’t you?”

“Certainly, Allan; Mr. Brock has been your second father. Any disagreement between you about such a serious matter as this would be the saddest thing that could happen. You ought to satisfy him that Miss Gwilt is (what I am sure Miss Gwilt will prove to be) worthy, in every way worthy —” His voice sank in spite of him, and he left the sentence unfinished.

“Just my feeling in the matter!” Allan struck in, glibly. “Now we can come to what I particularly wanted to consult you about. If this was your case, Midwinter, you would be able to say the right words to her — you would put it delicately, even though you were putting it quite in the dark. I can’t do that. I’m a blundering sort of fellow; and I’m horribly afraid, if I can’t get some hint at the truth to help me at starting, of saying something to distress her. Family misfortunes are such tender subjects to touch on, especially with such a refined woman, such a tender-hearted woman, as Miss Gwilt. There may have been some dreadful death in the family — some relation who has disgraced himself — some infernal cruelty which has forced the poor thing out on the world as a governess. Well, turning it over in my mind, it struck me that the major might be able to put me on the right tack. It is quite possible that he might have been informed of Miss Gwilt’s family circumstances before he engaged her, isn’t it?”

“It is possible, Allan, certainly.”

“Just my feeling again! My notion is to speak to the major. If I could only get the story from him first, I should know so much better how to speak to Miss Gwilt about it afterward. You advise me to try the major, don’t you?”

There was a pause before Midwinter replied. When he did answer, it was a little reluctantly.

“I hardly know how to advise you, Allan,” he said. “This is a very delicate matter.”

“I believe you would try the major, if you were in my place,” returned Allan, reverting to his inveterately personal way of putting the question.

“Perhaps I might,” said Midwinter, more and more unwillingly. “But if I did speak to the major, I should be very careful, in your place, not to put myself in a false position. I should be very careful to let no one suspect me of the meanness of prying into a woman’s secrets behind her back.”

Allan’s face flushed. “Good heavens, Midwinter,” he exclaimed, “who could suspect me of that?”

“Nobody, Allan, who really knows you.”

“The major knows me. The major is the last man in the world to misunderstand me. All I want him to do is to help me (if he can) to speak about a delicate subject to Miss Gwilt, without hurting her feelings. Can anything be simpler between two gentlemen?”

Instead of replying, Midwinter, still speaking as constrainedly as ever, asked a question on his side. “Do you mean to tell Major Milroy,” he said, “what your intentions really are toward Miss Gwilt?”

Allan’s manner altered. He hesitated, and looked confused.

“I have been thinking of that,” he replied; “and I mean to feel my way first, and then tell him or not afterward, as matters turn out?”

A proceeding so cautious as this was too strikingly inconsistent with Allan’s character not to surprise any one who knew him. Midwinter showed his surprise plainly.

“You forget that foolish flirtation of mine with Miss Milroy,” Allan went on, more and more confusedly. “The major may have noticed it, and may have thought I meant — well, what I didn’t mean. It might be rather awkward, mightn’t it, to propose to his face for his governess instead of his daughter?”

He waited for a word of answer, but none came. Midwinter opened his lips to speak, and suddenly checked himself. Allan, uneasy at his silence, doubly uneasy under certain recollections of the major’s daughter which the conversation had called up, rose from the table and shortened the interview a little impatiently.

“Come! come!” he said, “don’t sit there looking unutterable things; don’t make mountains out of mole-hills. You have such an old, old head, Midwinter, on those young shoulders of yours! Let’s have done with all these pros and cons. Do you mean to tell me in plain words that it won’t do to speak to the major?”

“I can’t take the responsibility, Allan, of telling you that. To be plainer still, I can’t feel confident of the soundness of any advice I may give you in — in our present position toward each other. All I am sure of is that I cannot possibly be wrong in entreating you to do two things.”

“What are they?”

“If you speak to Major Milroy, pray remember the caution I have given you! Pray think of what you say before you say it!”

“I’ll think, never fear! What next?”

“Before you take any serious step in this matter, write and tell Mr. Brock. Will you promise me to do that?”

“With all my heart. Anything more?”

“Nothing more. I have said my last words.”

Allan led the way to the door. “Come into my room,” he said, “and I’ll give you a cigar. The servants will be in here directly to clear away, and I want to go on talking about Miss Gwilt.”

“Don’t wait for me,” said Midwinter; “I’ll follow you in a minute or two.”

He remained seated until Allan had closed the door, then rose, and took from a corner of the room, where it lay hidden behind one of the curtains, a knapsack ready packed for traveling. As he stood at the window thinking, with the knapsack in his hand, a strangely old, care-worn look stole over his face: he seemed to lose the last of his youth in an instant.

What the woman’s quicker insight had discovered days since, the man’s slower perception had only realized in the past night. The pang that had wrung him when he heard Allan’s avowal had set the truth self-revealed before Midwinter for the first time. He had been conscious of looking at Miss Gwilt with new eyes and a new mind, on the next occasion when they met after the memorable interview in Major Milroy’s garden; but he had never until now known the passion that she had roused in him for what it really was. Knowing it at last, feeling it consciously in full possession of him, he had the courage which no man with a happier experience of life would have possessed — the courage to recall what Allan had confided to him, and to look resolutely at the future through his own grateful remembrances of the past.

Steadfastly, through the sleepless hours of the night, he had bent his mind to the conviction that he must conquer the passion which had taken possession of him, for Allan’s sake; and that the one way to conquer it was — to go. No after-doubt as to the sacrifice had troubled him when morning came; and no after-doubt troubled him now. The one question that kept him hesitating was the question of leaving Thorpe Ambrose. Though Mr. Brock’s letter relieved him from all necessity of keeping watch in Norfolk for a woman who was known to be in Somersetshire; though the duties of the steward’s office were duties which might be safely left in Mr. Bashwood’s tried and trustworthy hands — still, admitting these considerations, his mind was not easy at the thought of leaving Allan, at a time when a crisis was approaching in Allan’s life.

He slung the knapsack loosely over his shoulder and put the question to his conscience for the last time. “Can you trust yourself to see her, day by day as you must see her — can you trust yourself to hear him talk of her, hour by hour, as you must hear him — if you stay in this house?” Again the answer came, as it had come all through the night. Again his heart warned him, in the very interests of the friendship that he held sacred, to go while the time was his own; to go before the woman who had possessed herself of his love had possessed herself of his power of self-sacrifice and his sense of gratitude as well.

He looked round the room mechanically before he turned to leave it. Every remembrance of the conversation that had just taken place between Allan and himself pointed to the same conclusion, and warned him, as his own conscience had warned him, to go.

Had he honestly mentioned any one of the objections which he, or any man, must have seen to Allan’s attachment? Had he — as his knowledge of his friend’s facile character bound him to do — warned Allan to distrust his own hasty impulses, and to test himself by time and absence, before he made sure that the happiness of his whole life was bound up in Miss Gwilt? No. The bare doubt whether, in speaking of these things, he could feel that he was speaking disinterestedly, had closed his lips, and would close his lips for the future, till the time for speaking had gone by. Was the right man to restrain Allan the man who would have given the world, if he had it, to stand in Allan’s place? There was but one plain course of action that an honest man and a grateful man could follow in the position in which he stood. Far removed from all chance of seeing her, and from all chance of hearing of her — alone with his own faithful recollection of what he owed to his friend — he might hope to fight it down, as he had fought down the tears in his childhood under his gypsy master’s stick; as he had fought down the misery of his lonely youth time in the country bookseller’s shop. “I must go,” he said, as he turned wearily from the window, “before she comes to the house again. I must go before another hour is over my head.”

With that resolution he left the room; and, in leaving it, took the irrevocable step from Present to Future.

The rain was still falling. The sullen sky, all round the horizon, still lowered watery and dark, when Midwinter, equipped for traveling, appeared in Allan’s room.

“Good heavens!” cried Allan, pointing to the knapsack, “what does that mean?”

“Nothing very extraordinary,” said Midwinter. “It only means — good-by.”

“Good-by!” repeated Allan, starting to his feet in astonishment.

Midwinter put him back gently into his chair, and drew a seat near to it for himself.

“When you noticed that I looked ill this morning,” he said, “I told you that I had been thinking of a way to recover my health, and that I meant to speak to you about it later in the day. That latter time has come. I have been out of sorts, as the phrase is, for some time past. You have remarked it yourself, Allan, more than once; and, with your usual kindness, you have allowed it to excuse many things in my conduct which would have been otherwise unpardonable, even in your friendly eyes.”

“My dear fellow,” interposed Allan, “you don’t mean to say you are going out on a walking tour in this pouring rain!”

“Never mind the rain,” rejoined Midwinter. “The rain and I are old friends. You know something, Allan, of the life I led before you met with me. From the time when I was a child, I have been used to hardship and exposure. Night and day, sometimes for months together, I never had my head under a roof. For years and years, the life of a wild animal — perhaps I ought to say, the life of a savage — was the life I led, while you were at home and happy. I have the leaven of the vagabond — the vagabond animal, or the vagabond man, I hardly know which — in me still. Does it distress you to hear me talk of myself in this way? I won’t distress you. I will only say that the comfort and the luxury of our life here are, at times, I think, a little too much for a man to whom comforts and luxuries come as strange things. I want nothing to put me right again but more air and exercise; fewer good breakfasts and dinners, my dear friend, than I get here. Let me go back to some of the hardships which this comfortable house is expressly made to shut out. Let me meet the wind and weather as I used to meet them when I was a boy; let me feel weary again for a little while, without a carriage near to pick me up; and hungry when the night falls, with miles of walking between my supper and me. Give me a week or two away, Allan — up northward, on foot, to the Yorkshire moors — and I promise to return to Thorpe Ambrose, better company for you and for your friends. I shall be back before you have time to miss me. Mr. Bashwood will take care of the business in the office; it is only for a fortnight, and it is for my own good — let me go!”

“I don’t like it,” said Allan. “I don’t like your leaving me in this sudden manner. There’s something so strange and dreary about it. Why not try riding, if you want more exercise; all the horses in the stables are at your disposal. At all events, you can’t possibly go to-day. Look at the rain!”

Midwinter looked toward the window, and gently shook his head.

“I thought nothing of the rain,” he said, “when I was a mere child, getting my living with the dancing dogs — why should I think anything of it now? My getting wet, and your getting wet, Allan, are two very different things. When I was a fisherman’s boy in the Hebrides, I hadn’t a dry thread on me for weeks together. ”

“But you’re not in the Hebrides now,” persisted Allan; “and I expect our friends from the cottage to-morrow evening. You can’t start till after to-morrow. Miss Gwilt is going to give us some more music, and you know you like Miss Gwilt’s playing.”

Midwinter turned aside to buckle the straps of his knapsack. “Give me another chance of hearing Miss Gwilt when I come back,” he said, with his head down, and his fingers busy at the straps.

“You have one fault, my dear fellow, and it grows on you,” remonstrated Allan; “when you have once taken a thing into our head, you’re the most obstinate man alive. There’s no persuading you to listen to reason. If you will go,” added Allan, suddenly rising, as Midwinter took up his hat and stick in silence, “I have half a mind to go with you, and try a little roughing it too!”

“Go with me!” repeated Midwinter, with a momentary bitterness in his tone, “and leave Miss Gwilt!”

Allan sat down again, and admitted the force of the objection in significant silence. Without a word more on his side, Midwinter held out his hand to take leave. They were both deeply moved, and each was anxious to hide his agitation from the other. Allan took the last refuge which his friend’s firmness left to him: he tried to lighten the farewell moment by a joke.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I begin to doubt if you’re quite cured yet of your belief in the Dream. I suspect you’re running away from me, after all!”

Midwinter looked at him, uncertain whether he was in jest or earnest. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“What did you tell me,” retorted Allan, “when you took me in here the other day, and made a clean breast of it? What did you say about this room, and the second vision of the dream? By Jupiter!” he exclaimed, starting to his feet once more, “now I look again, here is the Second Vision! There’s the rain pattering against the window-there’s the lawn and the garden outside — here am I where I stood in the Dream — and there are you where the Shadow stood. The whole scene complete, out-of-doors and in; and I’ve discovered it this time!”

A moment’s life stirred again in the dead remains of Midwinter’s superstition. His color changed, and he eagerly, almost fiercely, disputed Allan’s conclusion.

“No!” he said, pointing to the little marble figure on the bracket, “the scene is not complete — you have forgotten something, as usual. The Dream is wrong this time, thank God — utterly wrong! In the vision you saw, the statue was lying in fragments on the floor, and you were stooping over them with a troubled and an angry mind. There stands the statue safe and sound! and you haven’t the vestige of an angry feeling in your mind, have you?” He seized Allan impulsively by the hand. At the same moment the consciousness came to him that he was speaking and acting as earnestly as if he still believed in the Dream. The color rushed back over his face, and he turned away in confused silence.

“What did I tell you?” said Allan, laughing, a little uneasily. “That night on the Wreck is hanging on your mind as heavily as ever.”

“Nothing hangs heavy on me,” retorted Midwinter, with a sudden outburst of impatience, “but the knapsack on my back, and the time I’m wasting here. I’ll go out, and see if it’s likely to clear up.”

“You’ll come back?” interposed Allan.

Midwinter opened the French window, and stepped out into the garden.

“Yes,” he said, answering with all his former gentleness of manner; “I’ll come back in a fortnight. Good-by, Allan; and good luck with Miss Gwilt!”

He pushed the window to, and was away across the garden before his friend could open it again and follow him.

Allan rose, and took one step into the garden; then checked himself at the window, and returned to his chair. He knew Midwinter well enough to feel the total uselessness of attempting to follow him or to call him back. He was gone, and for two weeks to come there was no hope of seeing him again. An hour or more passed, the rain still fell, and the sky still threatened. A heavier and heavier sense of loneliness and despondency — the sense of all others which his previous life had least fitted him to understand and endure — possessed itself of Allan’s mind. In sheer horror of his own uninhabitably solitary house, he rang for his hat and umbrella, and resolved to take refuge in the major’s cottage.

“I might have gone a little way with him,” thought Allan, his mind still running on Midwinter as he put on his hat. “I should like to have seen the dear old fellow fairly started on his journey.”

He took his umbrella. If he had noticed the face of the servant who gave it to him, he might possibly have asked some questions, and might have heard some news to interest him in his present frame of mind. As it was, he went out without looking at the man, and without suspecting that his servants knew more of Midwinter’s last moments at Thorpe Ambrose than he knew himself. Not ten minutes since, the grocer and butcher had called in to receive payment of their bills, and the grocer and the butcher had seen how Midwinter started on his journey.

The grocer had met him first, not far from the house, stopping on his way, in the pouring rain, to speak to a little ragged imp of a boy, the pest of the neighborhood. The boy’s customary impudence had broken out even more unrestrainedly than usual at the sight of the gentleman’s knapsack. And what had the gentleman done in return? He had stopped and looked distressed, and had put his two hands gently on the boy’s shoulders. The grocer’s own eyes had seen that; and the grocer’s own ears had heard him say, “Poor little chap! I know how the wind gnaws and the rain wets through a ragged jacket, better than most people who have got a good coat on their backs.” And with those words he had put his hand in his pocket, and had rewarded the boy’s impudence with a present of a shilling. “Wrong here-abouts,” said the grocer, touching his forehead. “That’s my opinion of Mr. Armadale’s friend!”

The butcher had seen him further on in the journey, at the other end of the town. He had stopped — again in the pouring rain — and this time to look at nothing more remarkable than a half-starved cur, shivering on a doorstep. “I had my eye on him,” said the butcher; “and what do you think he did? He crossed the road over to my shop, and bought a bit of meat fit for a Christian. Very well. He says good-morning, and crosses back again; and, on the word of a man, down he goes on his knees on the wet doorstep, and out he takes his knife, and cuts up the meat, and gives it to the dog. Meat, I tell you again, fit for a Christian! I’m not a hard man, ma’am,” concluded the butcher, addressing the cook, “but meat’s meat; and it will serve your master’s friend right if he lives to want it.”

With those old unforgotten sympathies of the old unforgotten time to keep him company on his lonely road, he had left the town behind him, and had been lost to view in the misty rain. The grocer and the butcher had seen the last of him, and had judged a great nature, as all natures are judged from the grocer and the butcher point of view.

The End of the Second Book.

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