Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter II.

The Man is Found.

Neelie entered the room, carrying the tray with the tea, the dry toast, and the pat of butter which composed the invalid’s invariable breakfast.

“What does this mean?” asked Mrs. Milroy, speaking and looking as she might have spoken and looked if the wrong servant had come into the room.

Neelie put the tray down on the bedside table. “I thought I should like to bring you up your breakfast, mamma, for once in a way,” she replied, “and I asked Rachel to let me.”

“Come here,” said Mrs. Milroy, “and wish me good-morning.”

Neelie obeyed. As she stooped to kiss her mother, Mrs. Milroy caught her by the arm, and turned her roughly to the light. There were plain signs of disturbance and distress in her daughter’s face. A deadly thrill of terror ran through Mrs. Milroy on the instant. She suspected that the opening of the letter had been discovered by Miss Gwilt, and that the nurse was keeping out of the way in consequence.

“Let me go, mamma,” said Neelie, shrinking under her mother’s grasp. “You hurt me.”

“Tell me why you have brought up my breakfast this morning,” persisted Mrs. Milroy.

“I have told you, mamma.”

“You have not! You have made an excuse; I see it in your face. Come! what is it?”

Neelie’s resolution gave way before her mother’s. She looked aside uneasily at the things in the tray. “I have been vexed,” she said, with an effort; “and I didn’t want to stop in the breakfast-room. I wanted to come up here, and to speak to you.”

“Vexed? Who has vexed you? What has happened? Has Miss Gwilt anything to do with it?”

Neelie looked round again at her mother in sudden curiosity and alarm. “Mamma!” she said, “you read my thoughts. I declare you frighten me. It was Miss Gwilt.”

Before Mrs. Milroy could say a word more on her side, the door opened and the nurse looked in.

“Have you got what you want?” she asked, as composedly as usual. “Miss, there, insisted on taking your tray up this morning. Has she broken anything?”

“Go to the window. I want to speak to Rachel,” said Mrs. Milroy.

As soon as her daughter’s back was turned, she beckoned eagerly to the nurse. “Anything wrong?” she asked, in a whisper. “Do you think she suspects us?”

The nurse turned away with her hard, sneering smile. “I told you it should be done,” she said, “and it has been done. She hasn’t the ghost of a suspicion. I waited in the room; and I saw her take up the letter and open it.”

Mrs. Milroy drew a deep breath of relief. “Thank you,” she said, loud enough for her daughter to hear. “I want nothing more.”

The nurse withdrew; and Neelie came back from the window. Mrs. Milroy took her by the hand, and looked at her more attentively and more kindly than usual. Her daughter interested her that morning; for her daughter had something to say on the subject of Miss Gwilt.

“I used to think that you promised to be pretty, child,” she said, cautiously resuming the interrupted conversation in the least direct way. “But you don’t seem to be keeping your promise. You look out of health and out of spirits. What is the matter with you?”

If there had been any sympathy between mother and child, Neelie might have owned the truth. She might have said frankly: “I am looking ill, because my life is miserable to me. I am fond of Mr. Armadale, and Mr. Armadale was once fond of me. We had one little disagreement, only one, in which I was to blame. I wanted to tell him so at the time, and I have wanted to tell him so ever since; and Miss Gwilt stands between us and prevents me. She has made us like strangers; she has altered him, and taken him away from me. He doesn’t look at me as he did; he doesn’t speak to me as he did; he is never alone with me as he used to be; I can’t say the words to him that I long to say; and I can’t write to him, for it would look as if I wanted to get him back. It is all over between me and Mr. Armadale; and it is that woman’s fault. There is ill-blood between Miss Gwilt and me the whole day long; and say what I may, and do what I may, she always gets the better of me, and always puts me in the wrong. Everything I saw at Thorpe Ambrose pleased me, everything I did at Thorpe Ambrose made me happy, before she came. Nothing pleases me, and nothing makes me happy now!” If Neelie had ever been accustomed to ask her mother’s advice and to trust herself to her mother’s love, she might have said such words as these. As. it was, the tears came into her eyes, and she hung her head in silence.

“Come!” said Mrs. Milroy, beginning to lose patience. “You have something to say to me about Miss Gwilt. What is it?”

Neelie forced back her tears, and made an effort to answer.

“She aggravates me beyond endurance, mamma; I can’t bear her; I shall do something —” Neelie stopped, and stamped her foot angrily on the floor. “I shall throw something at her head if we go on much longer like this! I should have thrown something this morning if I hadn’t left the room. Oh, do speak to papa about it! Do find out some reason for sending her away! I’ll go to school — I’ll do anything in the world to get rid of Miss Gwilt!”

To get rid of Miss Gwilt! At those words — at that echo from her daughter’s lips of the one dominant desire kept secret in her own heart — Mrs. Milroy slowly raised herself in bed. What did it mean? Was the help she wanted coming from the very last of all quarters in which she could have thought of looking for it?

“Why do you want to get rid of Miss Gwilt?” she asked. “What have you got to complain of?”

“Nothing!” said Neelie. “That’s the aggravation of it. Miss Gwilt won’t let me have anything to complain of. She is perfectly detestable; she is driving me mad; and she is the pink of propriety all the time. I dare say it’s wrong, but I don’t care — I hate her!”

Mrs. Milroy’s eyes questioned her daughter’s face as they had never questioned it yet. There was something under the surface, evidently — something which it might be of vital importance to her own purpose to discover — which had not risen into view. She went on probing her way deeper and deeper into Neelie’s mind, with a warmer and warmer interest in Neelie’s secret.

“Pour me out a cup of tea,” she said; “and don’t excite yourself, my dear. Why do you speak to me about this? Why don’t you speak to your father?”

“I have tried to speak to papa,” said Neelie. “But it’s no use; he is too good to know what a wretch she is. She is always on her best behavior with him; she is always contriving to be useful to him. I can’t make him understand why I dislike Miss Gwilt; I can’t make you understand — I only understand it myself.” She tried to pour out the tea, and in trying upset the cup. “I’ll go downstairs again!” exclaimed Neelie, with a burst of tears. “I’m not fit for anything; I can’t even pour out a cup of tea!”

Mrs. Milroy seized her hand and stopped her. Trifling as it was, Neelie’s reference to the relations between the major and Miss Gwilt had roused her mother’s ready jealousy. The restraints which Mrs. Milroy had laid on herself thus far vanished in a moment — vanished even in the presence of a girl of sixteen, and that girl her own child!

“Wait here!” she said, eagerly. “You have come to the right place and the right person. Go on abusing Miss Gwilt. I like to hear you — I hate her, too!”

“You, mamma!” exclaimed Neelie, looking at her mother in astonishment.

For a moment Mrs. Milroy hesitated before she said more. Some last-left instinct of her married life in its earlier and happier time pleaded hard with her to respect the youth and the sex of her child. But jealousy respects nothing; in the heaven above and on the earth beneath, nothing but itself. The slow fire of self-torment, burning night and day in the miserable woman’s breast, flashed its deadly light into her eyes, as the next words dropped slowly and venomously from her lips.

“If you had had eyes in your head, you would never have gone to your father,” she said. “Your father has reasons of his own for hearing nothing that you can say, or that anybody can say, against Miss Gwilt.”

Many girls at Neelie’s age would have failed to see the meaning hidden under those words. It was the daughter’s misfortune, in this instance, to have had experience enough of the mother to understand her. Neelie started back from the bedside, with her face in a glow. “Mamma!” she said, “you are talking horribly! Papa is the best, and dearest, and kindest — oh, I won’t hear it! I won’t hear it!”

Mrs. Milroy’s fierce temper broke out in an instant — broke out all the more violently from her feeling herself, in spite of herself, to have been in the wrong.

“You impudent little fool!” she retorted, furiously. “Do you think I want you to remind me of what I owe to your father? Am I to learn how to speak of your father, and how to think of your father, and how to love and honor your father, from a forward little minx like you! I was finely disappointed, I can tell you, when you were born — I wished for a boy, you impudent hussy! If you ever find a man who is fool enough to marry you, he will be a lucky man if you only love him half as well, a quarter as well, a hundred-thousandth part as well, as I loved your father. Ah, you can cry when it’s too late; you can come creeping back to beg your mother’s pardon after you have insulted her. You little dowdy, half-grown creature! I was handsomer than ever you will be when I married your father. I would have gone through fire and water to serve your father! If he had asked me to cut off one of my arms, I would have done it — I would have done it to please him!” She turned suddenly with her face to the wall, forgetting her daughter, forgetting her husband, forgetting everything but the torturing remembrance of her lost beauty. “My arms!” she repeated to herself, faintly. “What arms I had when I was young!” She snatched up the sleeve of her dressing-gown furtively, with a shudder. “Oh, look at it now! look at it now!”

Neelie fell on her knees at the bedside and hid her face. In sheer despair of finding comfort and help anywhere else, she had cast herself impulsively on her mother’s mercy; and this was how it had ended! “Oh, mamma,” she pleaded, “you know I didn’t mean to offend you! I couldn’t help it when you spoke so of my father. Oh, do, do forgive me!”

Mrs. Milroy turned again on her pillow, and looked at her daughter vacantly. “Forgive you?” she repeated, with her mind still in the past, groping its way back darkly to the present.

“I beg your pardon, mamma — I beg your pardon on my knees. I am so unhappy; I do so want a little kindness! Won’t you forgive me?”

“Wait a little,” rejoined Mrs. Milroy. “Ah,” she said, after an interval, “now I know! Forgive you? Yes; I’ll forgive you on one condition.” She lifted Neelie’s head, and looked her searchingly in the face. “Tell me why you hate Miss Gwilt! You’ve a reason of your own for hating her, and you haven’t confessed it yet.”

Neelie’s head dropped again. The burning color that she was hiding by hiding her face showed itself on her neck. Her mother saw it, and gave her time.

“Tell me,” reiterated Mrs. Milroy, more gently, “why do you hate her?”

The answer came reluctantly, a word at a time, in fragments.

“Because she is trying —”

“Trying what?”

“Trying to make somebody who is much —”

“Much what?”

“Much too young for her —”

“Marry her?”

“Yes, mamma.”

Breathlessly interested, Mrs. Milroy leaned forward, and twined her hand caressingly in her daughter’s hair.

“Who is it, Neelie?” she asked, in a whisper.

“You will never say I told you, mamma?”

“Never! Who is it?”

“Mr. Armadale.”

Mrs. Milroy leaned back on her pillow in dead silence. The plain betrayal of her daughter’s first love, by her daughter’s own lips, which would have absorbed the whole attention of other mothers, failed to occupy her for a moment. Her jealousy, distorting all things to fit its own conclusions, was busied in distorting what she had just heard. “A blind,” she thought, “which has deceived my girl. It doesn’t deceive me. Is Miss Gwilt likely to succeed?” she asked, aloud. “Does Mr. Armadale show any sort of interest in her?”

Neelie looked up at her mother for the first time. The hardest part of the confession was over now. She had revealed the truth about Miss Gwilt, and she had openly mentioned Allan’s name.

“He shows the most unaccountable interest,” she said. “It’s impossible to understand it. It’s downright infatuation. I haven’t patience to talk about it!”

“How do you come to be in Mr. Armadale’s secrets?” inquired Mrs. Milroy. “Has he informed you, of all the people in the world, of his interest in Miss Gwilt?”

“Me!” exclaimed Neelie, indignantly. “It’s quite bad enough that he should have told papa.”

At the re-appearance of the major in the narrative, Mrs. Milroy’s interest in the conversation rose to its climax. She raised herself again from the pillow. “Get a chair,” she said. “Sit down, child, and tell me all about it. Every word, mind — every word!”

“I can only tell you, mamma, what papa told me.”

“When?”

“Saturday. I went in with papa’s lunch to the workshop, and he said, ‘I have just had a visit from Mr. Armadale; and I want to give you a caution while I think of it.’ I didn’t say anything, mamma; I only waited. Papa went on, and told me that Mr. Armadale had been speaking to him on the subject of Miss Gwilt, and that he had been asking a question about her which nobody in his position had a right to ask. Papa said he had been obliged, good-humoredly, to warn Mr. Armadale to be a little more delicate, and a little more careful next time. I didn’t feel much interested, mamma; it didn’t matter to me what Mr. Armadale said or did. Why should I care about it?”

“Never mind yourself,” interposed Mrs. Milroy, sharply. “Go on with what your father said. What was he doing when he was talking about Miss Gwilt? How did he look?”

“Much as usual, mamma. He was walking up and down the workshop; and I took his arm and walked up and down with him.”

“I don’t care what you were doing,” said Mrs. Milroy, more and more irritably. “Did your father tell you what Mr. Armadale’s question was, or did he not?”

“Yes, mamma. He said Mr. Armadale began by mentioning that he was very much interested in Miss Gwilt, and he then went on to ask whether papa could tell him anything about her family misfortunes —”

“What!” cried Mrs. Milroy. The word burst from her almost in a scream, and the white enamel on her face cracked in all directions. “Mr. Armadale said that?” she went on, leaning out further and further over the side of the bed.

Neelie started up, and tried to put her mother back on the pillow.

“Mamma!” she exclaimed, “are you in pain? Are you ill? You frighten me!”

“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Mrs. Milroy. She was too violently agitated to make any other than the commonest excuse. “My nerves are bad this morning; don’t notice it. I’ll try the other side of the pillow. Go on! go on!. I’m listening, though I’m not looking at you.” She turned her face to the wall, and clinched her trembling hands convulsively beneath the bedclothes. “I’ve got her!” she whispered to herself, under her breath. “I’ve got her at last!”

“I’m afraid I’ve been talking too much,” said Neelie. “I’m afraid I’ve been stopping here too long. Shall I go downstairs, mamma, and come back later in the day?”

“Go on,” repeated Mrs. Milroy, mechanically. “What did your father say next? Anything more about Mr. Armadale?”

“Nothing more, except how papa answered him,” replied Neelie. “Papa repeated his own words when he told me about it. He said, ‘In the absence of any confidence volunteered by the lady herself, Mr. Armadale, all I know or wish to know — and you must excuse me for saying, all any one else need know or wish to know — is that Miss Gwilt gave me a perfectly satisfactory reference before she entered my house.’ Severe, mamma, wasn’t it? I don’t pity him in the least; he richly deserved it. The next thing was papa’s caution to me. He told me to check Mr. Armadale’s curiosity if he applied to me next. As if he was likely to apply to me! And as if I should listen to him if he did! That’s all, mamma. You won’t suppose, will you, that I have told you this because I want to hinder Mr. Armadale from marrying Miss Gwilt? Let him marry her if he pleases; I don’t care!” said Neelie, in a voice that faltered a little, and with a face which was hardly composed enough to be in perfect harmony with a declaration of indifference. “All I want is to be relieved from the misery of having Miss Gwilt for my governess. I’d rather go to school. I should like to go to school. My mind’s quite changed about all that, only I haven’t the heart to tell papa. I don’t know what’s come to me, I don’t seem to have heart enough for anything now; and when papa takes me on his knee in the evening, and says, ‘Let’s have a talk, Neelie,’ he makes me cry. Would you mind breaking it to him, mamma, that I’ve changed my mind, and I want to go to school?” The tears rose thickly in her eyes, and she failed to see that her mother never even turned on the pillow to look round at her.

“Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Milroy, vacantly. “You’re a good girl; you shall go to school.”

The cruel brevity of the reply, and the tone in which it was spoken, told Neelie plainly that her mother’s attention had been wandering far away from her, and that it was useless and needless to prolong the interview. She turned aside quietly, without a word of remonstrance. It was nothing new in her experience to find herself shut out from her mother’s sympathies. She looked at her eyes in the glass, and, pouring out some cold water, bathed her face. “Miss Gwilt shan’t see I’ve been crying!” thought Neelie, as she went back to the bedside to take her leave. “I’ve tired you out,” mamma,” she said, gently. “Let me go now; and let me come back a little later when you have had some rest.”

“Yes,” repeated her mother, as mechanically as ever; “a little later when I have had some rest.”

Neelie left the room. The minute after the door had closed on her, Mrs. Milroy rang the bell for her nurse. In the face of the narrative she had just heard, in the face of every reasonable estimate of probabilities, she held to her own jealous conclusions as firmly as ever. “Mr. Armadale may believe her, and my daughter may believe her,” thought the furious woman. “But I know the major; and she can’t deceive me!”

The nurse came in. “Prop me up,” said Mrs. Milroy. “And give me my desk. I want to write.”

“You’re excited,” replied the nurse. “You’re not fit to write.”

“Give me the desk,” reiterated Mrs. Milroy.

“Anything more?” asked Rachel, repeating her invariable formula as she placed the desk on the bed.

“Yes. Come back in half an hour. I shall want you to take a letter to the great house.”

The nurse’s sardonic composure deserted her for once. “Mercy on us!” she exclaimed, with an accent of genuine surprise. “What next? You don’t mean to say you’re going to write —?”

“I am going to write to Mr. Armadale,” interposed Mrs. Milroy; “and you are going to take the letter to him, and wait for an answer; and, mind this, not a living soul but our two selves must know of it in the house.”

“Why are you writing to Mr. Armadale?” asked Rachel. “And why is nobody to know of it but our two selves?”

“Wait,” rejoined Mrs. Milroy, “and you will see.”

The nurse’s curiosity, being a woman’s curiosity, declined to wait.

“I’ll help you with my eyes open,” she said; “but I won’t help you blindfold.”

“Oh, if I only had the use of my limbs!” groaned Mrs. Milroy. “You wretch, if I could only do without you!”

“You have the use of your head,” retorted the impenetrable nurse. “And you ought to know better than to trust me by halves, at this time of day.”

It was brutally put; but it was true — doubly true, after the opening of Miss Gwilt’s letter. Mrs. Milroy gave way.

“What do you want to know?” she asked. “Tell me, and leave me.”

“I want to know what you are writing to Mr. Armadale about?”

“About Miss Gwilt.”

“What has Mr. Armadale to do with you and Miss Gwilt?”

Mrs. Milroy held up the letter that had been returned to her by the authorities at the Post-office.

“Stoop,” she said. “Miss Gwilt may be listening at the door. I’ll whisper.”

The nurse stooped, with her eye on the door. “You know that the postman went with this letter to Kingsdown Crescent?” said Mrs. Milroy. “And you know that he found Mrs. Mandeville gone away, nobody could tell where?”

“Well,” whispered Rachel “what next?”

“This, next. When Mr. Armadale gets the letter that I am going to write to him, he will follow the same road as the postman; and we’ll see what happens when he knocks at Mrs. Mandeville’s door.”

“How do you get him to the door?”

“I tell him to go to Miss Gwilt’s reference.”

“Is he sweet on Miss Gwilt?”

“Yes.”

“Ah!” said the nurse. “I see!”

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