Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter IV.

Allan at Bay.

Two o’clock came; and Pedgift Junior, punctual to his time, came with it. His vivacity of the morning had all sparkled out; he greeted Allan with his customary politeness, but without his customary smile; and, when the headwaiter came in for orders, his dismissal was instantly pronounced in words never yet heard to issue from the lips of Pedgift in that hotel: “Nothing at present.”

“You seem to be in low spirits,” said Allan. “Can’t we get our information? Can nobody tell you anything about the house in Pimlico?”

“Three different people have told me about it, Mr. Armadale, and they have all three said the same thing.”

Allan eagerly drew his chair nearer to the place occupied by his traveling companion. His reflections in the interval since they had last seen each other had not tended to compose him. That strange connection, so easy to feel, so hard to trace, between the difficulty of approaching Miss Gwilt’s family circumstances and the difficulty of approaching Miss Gwilt’s reference, which had already established itself in his thoughts, had by this time stealthily taken a firmer and firmer hold on his mind. Doubts troubled him which he could neither understand nor express. Curiosity filled him, which he half longed and half dreaded to satisfy.

“I am afraid I must trouble you with a question or two, sir, before I can come to the point,” said Pedgift Junior. “I don’t want to force myself into your confidence. I only want to see my way, in what looks to me like a very awkward business. Do you mind telling me whether others besides yourself are interested in this inquiry of ours?”

“Other people are interested in it,” replied Allan. “There’s no objection to telling you that.”

“Is there any other person who is the object of the inquiry besides Mrs. Mandeville, herself?” pursued Pedgift, winding his way a little deeper into the secret.

“Yes; there is another person,” said Allan, answering rather unwillingly.

“Is the person a young woman, Mr. Armadale?”

Allan started. “How do you come to guess that?” he began, then checked himself, when it was too late. “Don’t ask me any more questions,” he resumed. “I’m a bad hand at defending myself against a sharp fellow like you; and I’m bound in honor toward other people to keep the particulars of this business to myself.”

Pedgift Junior had apparently heard enough for his purpose. He drew his chair, in his turn, nearer to Allan. He was evidently anxious and embarrassed; but his professional manner began to show itself again from sheer force of habit.

“I’ve done with my questions, sir,” he said; “and I have something to say now on my side. In my father’s absence, perhaps you may be kindly disposed to consider me as your legal adviser. If you will take my advice, you will not stir another step in this inquiry.”

“What do you mean?” interposed Allan.

“It is just possible, Mr. Armadale, that the cabman, positive as he is, may have been mistaken. I strongly recommend you to take it for granted that he is mistaken, and to drop it there.”

The caution was kindly intended; but it came too late. Allan did what ninety-nine men out of a hundred in his position would have done — he declined to take his lawyer’s advice.

“Very well, sir,” said Pedgift Junior; “if you will have it, you must have it.”

He leaned forward close to Allan’s ear, and whispered what he had heard of the house in Pimlico, and of the people who occupied it.

“Don’t blame me, Mr. Armadale,” he added, when the irrevocable words had been spoken. “I tried to spare you.”

Allan suffered the shock, as all great shocks are suffered, in silence. His first impulse would have driven him headlong for refuge to that very view of the cabman’s assertion which had just been recommended to him, but for one damning circumstance which placed itself inexorably in his way. Miss Gwilt’s marked reluctance to approach the story of her past life rose irrepressibly on his memory, in indirect but horrible confirmation of the evidence which connected Miss Gwilt’s reference with the house in Pimlico. One conclusion, and one only — the conclusion which any man must have drawn, hearing what he had just heard, and knowing no more than he knew — forced itself into his mind. A miserable, fallen woman, who had abandoned herself in her extremity to the help of wretches skilled in criminal concealment, who had stolen her way back to decent society and a reputable employment by means of a false character, and whose position now imposed on her the dreadful necessity of perpetual secrecy and perpetual deceit in relation to her past life — such was the aspect in which the beautiful governess at Thorpe Ambrose now stood revealed to Allan’s eyes!

Falsely revealed, or truly revealed? Had she stolen her way back to decent society and a reputable employment by means of a false character? She had. Did her position impose on her the dreadful necessity of perpetual secrecy and perpetual deceit in relation to her past life? It did. Was she some such pitiable victim to the treachery of a man unknown as Allan had supposed? She was no such pitiable victim. The conclusion which Allan had drawn — the conclusion literally forced into his mind by the facts before him — was, nevertheless, the conclusion of all others that was furthest even from touching on the truth. The true story of Miss Gwilt’s connection with the house in Pimlico and the people who inhabited it — a house rightly described as filled with wicked secrets, and people rightly represented as perpetually in danger of feeling the grasp of the law — was a story which coming events were yet to disclose: a story infinitely less revolting, and yet infinitely more terrible, than Allan or Allan’s companion had either of them supposed.

“I tried to spare you, Mr. Armadale,” repeated Pedgift. “I was anxious, if I could possibly avoid it, not to distress you.”

Allan looked up, and made an effort to control himself. “You have distressed me dreadfully,” he said. “You have quite crushed me down. But it is not your fault. I ought to feel you have done me a service; and what I ought to do I will do, when I am my own man again. There is one thing,” Allan added, after a moment’s painful consideration, “which ought to be understood between us at once. The advice you offered me just now was very kindly meant, and it was the best advice that could be given. I will take it gratefully. We will never talk of this again, if you please; and I beg and entreat you will never speak about it to any other person. Will you promise me that?”

Pedgift gave the promise with very evident sincerity, but without his professional confidence of manner. The distress in Allan’s face seemed to daunt him. After a moment of very uncharacteristic hesitation, he considerately quitted the room.

Left by himself, Allan rang for writing materials, and took out of his pocket-book the fatal letter of introduction to “Mrs. Mandeville” which he had received from the major’s wife.

A man accustomed to consider consequences and to prepare himself for action by previous thought would, in Allan’s present circumstances, have felt some difficulty as to the course which it might now be least embarrassing and least dangerous to pursue. Accustomed to let his impulses direct him on all other occasions, Allan acted on impulse in the serious emergency that now confronted him. Though his attachment to Miss Gwilt was nothing like the deeply rooted feeling which he had himself honestly believed it to be, she had taken no common place in his admiration, and she filled him with no common grief when he thought of her now. His one dominant desire, at that critical moment in his life, was a man’s merciful desire to protect from exposure and ruin the unhappy woman who had lost her place in his estimation, without losing her claim to the forbearance that could spare, and to the compassion that could shield her. “I can’t go back to Thorpe Ambrose; I can’t trust myself to speak to her, or to see her again. But I can keep her miserable secret; and I will!” With that thought in his heart, Allan set himself to perform the first and foremost duty which now claimed him — the duty of communicating with Mrs. Milroy. If he had possessed a higher mental capacity and a clearer mental view, he might have found the letter no easy one to write. As it was, he calculated no consequences, and felt no difficulty. His instinct warned him to withdraw at once from the position in which he now stood toward the major’s wife, and he wrote what his instinct counseled him to write under those circumstances, as rapidly as the pen could travel over the paper:

“Dunn’s Hotel, Covent Garden, Tuesday.

“DEAR MADAM— Pray excuse my not returning to Thorpe Ambrose today, as I said I would. Unforeseen circumstances oblige me to stop in London. I am sorry to say I have not succeeded in seeing Mrs. Mandeville, for which reason I cannot perform your errand; and I beg, therefore, with many apologies, to return the letter of introduction. I hope you will allow me to conclude by saying that I am very much obliged to you for your kindness, and that I will not venture to trespass on it any further.

“I remain, dear madam, yours truly,

“ALLAN ARMADALE.”

In those artless words, still entirely unsuspicious of the character of the woman he had to deal with, Allan put the weapon she wanted into Mrs. Milroy’s hands.

The letter and its inclosure once sealed up and addressed, he was free to think of himself and his future. As he sat idly drawing lines with his pen on the blotting-paper, the tears came into his eyes for the first time — tears in which the woman who had deceived him had no share. His heart had gone back to his dead mother. “If she had been alive,” he thought, “I might have trusted her, and she would have comforted me.” It was useless to dwell on it; he dashed away the tears, and turned his thoughts, with the heart-sick resignation that we all know, to living and present things.

He wrote a line to Mr. Bashwood, briefly informing the deputy steward that his absence from Thorpe Ambrose was likely to be prolonged for some little time, and that any further instructions which might be necessary, under those circumstances, would reach him through Mr. Pedgift the elder. This done, and the letters sent to the post, his thoughts were forced back once more on himself. Again the blank future waited before him to be filled up; and again his heart shrank from it to the refuge of the past.

This time other images than the image of his mother filled his mind. The one all-absorbing interest of his earlier days stirred living and eager in him again. He thought of the sea; he thought of his yacht lying idle in the fishing harbor at his west-country home. The old longing got possession of him to hear the wash of the waves; to see the filling of the sails; to feel the vessel that his own hands had helped to build bounding under him once more. He rose in his impetuous way to call for the time-table, and to start for Somersetshire by the first train, when the dread of the questions which Mr. Brock might ask, the suspicion of the change which Mr. Brock might see in him, drew him back to his chair. “I’ll write,” he thought, “to have the yacht rigged and refitted, and I’ll wait to go to Somersetshire myself till Midwinter can go with me.” He sighed as his memory reverted to his absent friend. Never had he felt the void made in his life by Midwinter’s departure so painfully as he felt it now, in the dreariest of all social solitudes — the solitude of a stranger in London, left by himself at a hotel.

Before long, Pedgift Junior looked in, with an apology for his intrusion. Allan felt too lonely and too friendless not to welcome his companion’s re-appearance gratefully. “I’m not going back to Thorpe Ambrose,” he said; “I’m going to stay a little while in London. I hope you will be able to stay with me?” To do him justice, Pedgift was touched by the solitary position in which the owner of the great Thorpe Ambrose estate now appeared before him. He had never, in his relations with Allan, so entirely forgotten his business interests as he forgot them now.

“You are quite right, sir, to stop here; London’s the place to divert your mind,” said Pedgift, cheerfully. “All business is more or less elastic in its nature, Mr. Armadale; I’ll spin my business out, and keep you company with the greatest pleasure. We are both of us on the right side of thirty, sir; let’s enjoy ourselves. What do you say to dining early, and going to the play, and trying the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park to-morrow morning, after breakfast? If we only live like fighting-cocks, and go in perpetually for public amusements, we shall arrive in no time at the mens sana in corpore sano of the ancients. Don’t be alarmed at the quotation, sir. I dabble a little in Latin after business hours, and enlarge my sympathies by occasional perusal of the Pagan writers, assisted by a crib. William, dinner at five; and, as it’s particularly important to-day, I’ll see the cook myself.”

The evening passed; the next day passed; Thursday morning came, and brought with it a letter for Allan. The direction was in Mrs. Milroy’s handwriting; and the form of address adopted in the letter warned Allan, the moment he opened it, that something had gone wrong.

[“Private.”]

“The Cottage, Thorpe Ambrose, Wednesday.

“SIR— I have just received your mysterious letter. It has more than surprised, it has really alarmed me. After having made the friendliest advances to you on my side, I find myself suddenly shut out from your confidence in the most unintelligible, and, I must add, the most discourteous manner. It is quite impossible that I can allow the matter to rest where you have left it. The only conclusion I can draw from your letter is that my confidence must have been abused in some way, and that you know a great deal more than you are willing to tell me. Speaking in the interest of my daughter’s welfare, I request that you will inform me what the circumstances are which have prevented your seeing Mrs. Mandeville, and which have led to the withdrawal of the assistance that you unconditionally promised me in your letter of Monday last.

“In my state of health, I cannot involve myself in a lengthened correspondence. I must endeavor to anticipate any objections you may make, and I must say all that I have to say in my present letter. In the event (which I am most unwilling to consider possible) of your declining to accede to the request that I have just addressed to you, I beg to say that I shall consider it my duty to my daughter to have this very unpleasant matter cleared up. If I don’t hear from you to my full satisfaction by return of post, I shall be obliged to tell my husband that circumstances have happened which justify us in immediately testing the respectability of Miss Gwilt’s reference. And when he asks me for my authority, I will refer him to you.

“Your obedient servant, ANNE MILROY.”

In those terms the major’s wife threw off the mask, and left her victim to survey at his leisure the trap in which she had caught him. Allan’s belief in Mrs. Milroy’s good faith had been so implicitly sincere that her letter simply bewildered him. He saw vaguely that he had been deceived in some way, and that Mrs. Milroy’s neighborly interest in him was not what it had looked on the surface; and he saw no more. The threat of appealing to the major — on which, with a woman’s ignorance of the natures of men, Mrs. Milroy had relied for producing its effect — was the only part of the letter to which Allan reverted with any satisfaction: it relieved instead of alarming him. “If there is to be a quarrel,” he thought, “it will be a comfort, at any rate, to have it out with a man.”

Firm in his resolution to shield the unhappy woman whose secret he wrongly believed himself to have surprised, Allan sat down to write his apologies to the major’s wife. After setting up three polite declarations, in close marching order, he retired from the field. “He was extremely sorry to have offended Mrs. Milroy. He was innocent of all intention to offend Mrs. Milroy. And he begged to remain Mrs. Milroy’s truly.” Never had Allan’s habitual brevity as a letter-writer done him better service than it did him now. With a little more skillfulness in the use of his pen, he might have given his enemy even a stronger hold on him than the hold she had got already.

The interval day passed, and with the next morning’s post Mrs. Milroy’s threat came realized in the shape of a letter from her husband. The major wrote less formally than his wife had written, but his questions were mercilessly to the point:

[“Private.”]

“The Cottage, Thorpe Ambrose, Friday, July 11, 1851.

“DEAR SIR— When you did me the favor of calling here a few days since, you asked a question relating to my governess, Miss Gwilt, which I thought rather a strange one at the time, and which caused, as you may remember, a momentary embarrassment between us.

“This morning the subject of Miss Gwilt has been brought to my notice again in a manner which has caused me the utmost astonishment. In plain words, Mrs. Milroy has informed me that Miss Gwilt has exposed herself to the suspicion of having deceived us by a false reference. On my expressing the surprise which such an extraordinary statement caused me, and requesting that it might be instantly substantiated, I was still further astonished by being told to apply for all particulars to no less a person than Mr. Armadale. I have vainly requested some further explanation from Mrs. Milroy; she persists in maintaining silence, and in referring me to yourself.

“Under these extraordinary circumstances, I am compelled, in justice to all parties, to ask you certain questions which I will endeavor to put as plainly as possible, and which I am quite ready to believe (from my previous experience of you) that you will answer frankly on your side.

“I beg to inquire, in the first place, whether you admit or deny Mrs. Milroy’s assertion that you have made yourself acquainted with particulars relating either to Miss Gwilt or to Miss Gwilt’s reference, of which I am entirely ignorant? In the second place, if you admit the truth of Mrs. Milroy’s statement, I request to know how you became acquainted with those particulars? Thirdly, and lastly, I beg to ask you what the particulars are?

“If any special justification for putting these questions be needed — which, purely as a matter of courtesy toward yourself, I am willing to admit — I beg to remind you that the most precious charge in my house, the charge of my daughter, is confided to Miss Gwilt; and that Mrs. Milroy’s statement places you, to all appearance, in the position of being competent to tell me whether that charge is properly bestowed or not.

“I have only to add that, as nothing has thus far occurred to justify me in entertaining the slightest suspicion either of my governess or her reference, I shall wait before I make any appeal to Miss Gwilt until I have received your answer — which I shall expect by return of post. Believe me, dear sir, faithfully yours,

“DAVID MILROY.”

This transparently straightforward letter at once dissipated the confusion which had thus far existed in Allan’s mind. He saw the snare in which he had been caught (though he was still necessarily at a loss to understand why it had been set for him) as he had not seen it yet. Mrs. Milroy had clearly placed him between two alternatives — the alternative of putting himself in the wrong, by declining to answer her husband’s questions; or the alternative of meanly sheltering his responsibility behind the responsibility of a woman, by acknowledging to the major’s own face that the major’s wife had deceived him.

In this difficulty Allan acted as usual, without hesitation. His pledge to Mrs. Milroy to consider their correspondence private still bound him, disgracefully as she had abused it. And his resolution was as immovable as ever to let no earthly consideration tempt him into betraying Miss Gwilt. “I may have behaved like a fool,” he thought, “but I won’t break my word; and I won’t be the means of turning that miserable woman adrift in the world again.”

He wrote to the major as artlessly and briefly as he had written to the major’s wife. He declared his unwillingness to cause a friend and neighbor any disappointment, if he could possibly help it. On this occasion he had no other choice. The questions the major asked him were questions which he could not consent to answer. He was not very clever at explaining himself, and he hoped he might be excused for putting it in that way, and saying no more.

Monday’s post brought with it Major Milroy’s rejoinder, and closed the correspondence.

“The Cottage, Thorpe Ambrose, Sunday.

“SIR— Your refusal to answer my questions, unaccompanied as it is by even the shadow of an excuse for such a proceeding, can be interpreted but in one way. Besides being an implied acknowledgment of the correctness of Mrs. Milroy’s statement, it is also an implied reflection on my governess’s character. As an act of justice toward a lady who lives under the protection of my roof, and who has given me no reason whatever to distrust her, I shall now show our correspondence to Miss Gwilt; and I shall repeat to her the conversation which I had with Mrs. Milroy on the subject, in Mrs. Milroy’s presence.

“One word more respecting the future relations between us, and I have done. My ideas on certain subjects are, I dare say, the ideas of an old-fashioned man. In my time, we had a code of honor by which we regulated our actions. According to that code, if a man made private inquiries into a lady’s affairs, without being either her husband, her father, or her brother, he subjected himself to the responsibility of justifying his conduct in the estimation of others; and, if he evaded that responsibility, he abdicated the position of a gentleman. It is quite possible that this antiquated way of thinking exists no longer; but it is too late for me, at my time of life, to adopt more modern views. I am scrupulously anxious, seeing that we live in a country and a time in which the only court of honor is a police-court, to express myself with the utmost moderation of language upon this the last occasion that I shall have to communicate with you. Allow me, therefore, merely to remark that our ideas of the conduct which is becoming in a gentleman differ seriously; and permit me on this account to request that you will consider yourself for the future as a stranger to my family and to myself.

“Your obedient servant,

“DAVID MILROY.”

The Monday morning on which his client received the major’s letter was the blackest Monday that had yet been marked in Pedgift’s calendar. When Allan’s first angry sense of the tone of contempt in which his friend and neighbor pronounced sentence on him had subsided, it left him sunk in a state of depression from which no efforts made by his traveling companion could rouse him for the rest of the day. Reverting naturally, now that his sentence of banishment had been pronounced, to his early intercourse with the cottage, his memory went back to Neelie, more regretfully and more penitently than it had gone back to her yet.” If she had shut the door on me, instead of her father,” was the bitter reflection with which Allan now reviewed the past, “I shouldn’t have had a word to say against it; I should have felt it served me right.”

The next day brought another letter — a welcome letter this time, from Mr. Brock. Allan had written to Somersetshire on the subject of refitting the yacht some days since. The letter had found the rector engaged, as he innocently supposed, in protecting his old pupil against the woman whom he had watched in London, and whom he now believed to have followed him back to his own home. Acting under the directions sent to her, Mrs. Oldershaw’s house-maid had completed the mystification of Mr. Brock. She had tranquilized all further anxiety on the rector’s part by giving him a written undertaking (in the character of Miss Gwilt), engaging never to approach Mr. Armadale, either personally or by letter! Firmly persuaded that he had won the victory at last, poor Mr. Brock answered Allan’s note in the highest spirits, expressing some natural surprise at his leaving Thorpe Ambrose, but readily promising that the yacht should be refitted, and offering the hospitality of the rectory in the heartiest manner.

This letter did wonders in raising Allan’s spirits. It gave him a new interest to look to, entirely disassociated from his past life in Norfolk. He began to count the days that were still to pass before the return of his absent friend. It was then Tuesday. If Midwinter came back from his walking trip, as he had engaged to come back, in a fortnight, Saturday would find him at Thorpe Ambrose. A note sent to meet the traveler might bring him to London the same night; and, if all went well, before another week was over they might be afloat together in the yacht.

The next day passed, to Allan’s relief, without bringing any letters. The spirits of Pedgift rose sympathetically with the spirits of his client. Toward dinner time he reverted to the mens sana in corpore sano of the ancients, and issued his orders to the head-waiter more royally than ever.

Thursday came, and brought the fatal postman with more news from Norfolk. A letter-writer now stepped on the scene who had not appeared there yet; and the total overthrow of all Allan’s plans for a visit to Somersetshire was accomplished on the spot.

Pedgift Junior happened that morning to be the first at the breakfast table. When Allan came in, he relapsed into his professional manner, and offered a letter to his patron with a bow performed in dreary silence.

“For me?” inquired Allan, shrinking instinctively from a new correspondent.

“For you, sir — from my father,” replied Pedgift, “inclosed in one to myself. Perhaps you will allow me to suggest, by way of preparing you for — for something a little unpleasant — that we shall want a particularly good dinner to-day; and (if they’re not performing any modern German music to-night) I think we should do well to finish the evening melodiously at the Opera.”

“Something wrong at Thorpe Ambrose?” asked Allen.

“Yes, Mr. Armadale; something wrong at Thorpe Ambrose.”

Allan sat down resignedly, and opened the letter.

[“Private and Confidential.”]

“High Street Thorpe Ambrose, 17th July, 1851.

“DEAR SIR— I cannot reconcile it with my sense of duty to your interests to leave you any longer in ignorance of reports current in this town and its neighborhood, which, I regret to say, are reports affecting yourself.

“The first intimation of anything unpleasant reached me on Monday last. It was widely rumored in the town that something had gone wrong at Major Milroy’s with the new governess, and that Mr. Armadale was mixed up in it. I paid no heed to this, believing it to be one of the many trumpery pieces of scandal perpetually set going here, and as necessary as the air they breathe to the comfort of the inhabitants of this highly respectable place.

“Tuesday, however, put the matter in a new light. The most interesting particulars were circulated on the highest authority. On Wednesday, the gentry in the neighborhood took the matter up, and universally sanctioned the view adopted by the town. To-day the public feeling has reached its climax, and I find myself under the necessity of making you acquainted with what has happened.

“To begin at the beginning. It is asserted that a correspondence took place last week between Major Milroy and yourself; in which you cast a very serious suspicion on Miss Gwilt’s respectability, without defining your accusations and without (on being applied to) producing your proofs. Upon this, the major appears to have felt it his duty (while assuring his governess of his own firm belief in her respectability) to inform her of what had happened, in order that she might have no future reason to complain of his having had any concealments from her in a matter affecting her character. Very magnanimous on the major’s part; but you will see directly that Miss Gwilt was more magnanimous still. After expressing her thanks in a most becoming manner, she requested permission to withdraw herself from Major Milroy’s service.

“Various reports are in circulation as to the governess’s reason for taking this step.

“The authorized version (as sanctioned by the resident gentry) represents Miss Gwilt to have said that she could not condescend — in justice to herself, and in justice to her highly respectable reference — to defend her reputation against undefined imputations cast on it by a comparative stranger. At the same time it was impossible for her to pursue such a course of conduct as this, unless she possessed a freedom of action which was quite incompatible with her continuing to occupy the dependent position of a governess. For that reason she felt it incumbent on her to leave her situation. But, while doing this, she was equally determined not to lead to any misinterpretation of her motives by leaving the neighborhood. No matter at what inconvenience to herself, she would remain long enough at Thorpe Ambrose to await any more definitely expressed imputations that might be made on her character, and to repel them publicly the instant they assumed a tangible form.

“Such is the position which this high-minded lady has taken up, with an excellent effect on the public mind in these parts. It is clearly her interest, for some reason, to leave her situation, without leaving the neighborhood. On Monday last she established herself in a cheap lodging on the outskirts of the town. And on the same day she probably wrote to her reference, for yesterday there came a letter from that lady to Major Milroy, full of virtuous indignation, and courting the fullest inquiry. The letter has been shown publicly, and has immensely strengthened Miss Gwilt’s position. She is now considered to be quite a heroine. The Thorpe Ambrose Mercury has got a leading article about her, comparing her to Joan of Arc. It is considered probable that she will be referred to in the sermon next Sunday. We reckon five strong-minded single ladies in this neighborhood — and all five have called on her. A testimonial was suggested; but it has been given up at Miss Gwilt’s own request, and a general movement is now on foot to get her employment as a teacher of music. Lastly, I have had the honor of a visit from the lady herself, in her capacity of martyr, to tell me, in the sweetest manner, that she doesn’t blame Mr. Armadale, and that she considers him to be an innocent instrument in the hands of other and more designing people. I was carefully on my guard with her; for I don’t altogether believe in Miss Gwilt, and I have my lawyer’s suspicions of the motive that is at the bottom of her present proceedings.

“I have written thus far, my dear sir, with little hesitation or embarrassment. But there is unfortunately a serious side to this business as well as a ridiculous side; and I must unwillingly come to it before I close my letter.

“It is, I think, quite impossible that you can permit yourself to be spoken of as you are spoken of now, without stirring personally in the matter. You have unluckily made many enemies here, and foremost among them is my colleague, Mr. Darch. He has been showing everywhere a somewhat rashly expressed letter you wrote to him on the subject of letting the cottage to Major Milroy instead of to himself, and it has helped to exasperate the feeling against you. It is roundly stated in so many words that you have been prying into Miss Gwilt’s family affairs, with the most dishonorable motives; that you have tried, for a profligate purpose of your own, to damage her reputation, and to deprive her of the protection of Major Milroy’s roof; and that, after having been asked to substantiate by proof the suspicions that you have cast on the reputation of a defenseless woman, you have maintained a silence which condemns you in the estimation of all honorable men.

“I hope it is quite unnecessary for me to say that I don’t attach the smallest particle of credit to these infamous reports. But they are too widely spread and too widely believed to be treated with contempt. I strongly urge you to return at once to this place, and to take the necessary measures for defending your character, in concert with me, as your legal adviser. I have formed, since my interview with Miss Gwilt, a very strong opinion of my own on the subject of that lady which it is not necessary to commit to paper. Suffice it to say here that I shall have a means to propose to you for silencing the slanderous tongues of your neighbors, on the success of which I stake my professional reputation, if you will only back me by your presence and authority.

“It may, perhaps, help to show you the necessity there is for your return, if I mention one other assertion respecting yourself, which is in everybody’s mouth. Your absence is, I regret to tell you, attributed to the meanest of all motives. It is said that you are remaining in London because you are afraid to show your face at Thorpe Ambrose.

“Believe me, dear sir, your faithful servant,

“A. PEDGIFT, Sen.”

Allan was of an age to feel the sting contained in the last sentence of his lawyer’s letter. He started to his feet in a paroxysm of indignation, which revealed his character to Pedgift Junior in an entirely new light.

“Where’s the time-table?” cried Allan. “I must go back to Thorpe Ambrose by the next train! If it doesn’t start directly, I’ll have a special engine. I must and will go back instantly, and I don’t care two straws for the expense!”

“Suppose we telegraph to my father, sir?” suggested the judicious Pedgift. “It’s the quickest way of expressing your feelings, and the cheapest.”

“So it is,” said Allan. “Thank you for reminding me of it. Telegraph to them! Tell your father to give every man in Thorpe Ambrose the lie direct, in my name. Put it in capital letters, Pedgift — put it in capital letters!”

Pedgift smiled and shook his head. If he was acquainted with no other variety of human nature, he thoroughly knew the variety that exists in country towns.

“It won’t have the least effect on them, Mr. Armadale,” he remarked quietly. “They’ll only go on lying harder than ever. If you want to upset the whole town, one line will do it. With five shillings’ worth of human labor and electric fluid, sir (I dabble a little in science after business hours), we’ll explode a bombshell in Thorpe Ambrose!” He produced the bombshell on a slip of paper as he spoke: “A. Pedgift, Junior, to A. Pedgift, Senior. — Spread it all over the place that Mr. Armadale is coming down by the next train.”

“More words!” suggested Allan, looking over his shoulder. “Make it stronger.”

“Leave my father to make it stronger, sir,” returned the wary Pedgift. “My father is on the spot, and his command of language is something quite extraordinary.” He rang the bell, and dispatched the telegram.

Now that something had been done, Allan subsided gradually into a state of composure. He looked back again at Mr. Pedgift’s letter, and then handed it to Mr. Pedgift’s son.

“Can you guess your father’s plan for setting me right in the neighborhood?” he asked.

Pedgift the younger shook his wise head. “His plan appears to be connected in some way, sir, with his opinion of Miss Gwilt.”

“I wonder what he thinks of her?” said Allan.

“I shouldn’t be surprised, Mr. Armadale,” returned Pedgift Junior, “if his opinion staggers you a little, when you come to hear it. My father has had a large legal experience of the shady side of the sex, and he learned his profession at the Old Bailey.”

Allan made no further inquiries. He seemed to shrink from pursuing the subject, after having started it himself. “Let’s be doing something to kill the time,” he said. “Let’s pack up and pay the bill.”

They packed up and paid the bill. The hour came, and the train left for Norfolk at last.

While the travelers were on their way back, a somewhat longer telegraphic message than Allan’s was flashing its way past them along the wires, in the reverse direction — from Thorpe Ambrose to London. The message was in cipher, and, the signs being interpreted, it ran thus: “From Lydia Gwilt to Maria Oldershaw. — Good news! He is coming back. I mean to have an interview with him. Everything looks well. Now I have left the cottage, I have no women’s prying eyes to dread, and I can come and go as I please. Mr. Midwinter is luckily out of the way. I don’t despair of becoming Mrs. Armadale yet. Whatever happens, depend on my keeping away from London until I am certain of not taking any spies after me to your place. I am in no hurry to leave Thorpe Ambrose. I mean to be even with Miss Milroy first.”

Shortly after that message was received in London, Allan was back again in his own house.

It was evening — Pedgift Junior had just left him — and Pedgift Senior was expected to call on business in half an hour’s time.

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