Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter VIII.

She Comes Between Them.

Appointed hours for the various domestic events of the day were things unknown at Thorpe Ambrose. Irregular in all his habits, Allan accommodated himself to no stated times (with the solitary exception of dinner-time) at any hour of the day or night. He retired to rest early or late, and he rose early or late, exactly as he felt inclined. The servants were forbidden to call him; and Mrs. Gripper was accustomed to improvise the breakfast as she best might, from the time when the kitchen fire was first lighted to the time when the clock stood on the stroke of noon.

Toward nine o’clock on the morning after his return Midwinter knocked at Allan’s door, and on entering the room found it empty. After inquiry among the servants, it appeared that Allan had risen that morning before the man who usually attended on him was up, and that his hot water had been brought to the door by one of the house-maids, who was then still in ignorance of Midwinter’s return. Nobody had chanced to see the master, either on the stairs or in the hall; nobody had heard him ring the bell for breakfast, as usual. In brief, nobody knew anything about him, except what was obviously clear to all — that he was not in the house.

Midwinter went out under the great portico. He stood at the head of the flight of steps considering in which direction he should set forth to look for his friend. Allan’s unexpected absence added one more to the disquieting influences which still perplexed his mind. He was in the mood in which trifles irritate a man, and fancies are all-powerful to exalt or depress his spirits.

The sky was cloudy; and the wind blew in puffs from the south; there was every prospect, to weather-wise eyes, of coming rain. While Midwinter was still hesitating, one of the grooms passed him on the drive below. The man proved, on being questioned, to be better informed about his master’s movements than the servants indoors. He had seen Allan pass the stables more than an hour since, going out by the back way into the park with a nosegay in his hand.

A nosegay in his hand? The nosegay hung incomprehensibly on Midwinter’s mind as he walked round, on the chance of meeting Allan, to the back of the house. “What does the nosegay mean?” he asked himself, with an unintelligible sense of irritation, and a petulant kick at a stone that stood in his way.

It meant that Allan had been following his impulses as usual. The one pleasant impression left on his mind after his interview with Pedgift Senior was the impression made by the lawyer’s account of his conversation with Neelie in the park. The anxiety that he should not misjudge her, which the major’s daughter had so earnestly expressed, placed her before Allan’s eyes in an irresistibly attractive character — the character of the one person among all his neighbors who had some respect still left for his good opinion. Acutely sensible of his social isolation, now that there was no Midwinter to keep him company in the empty house, hungering and thirsting in his solitude for a kind word and a friendly look, he began to think more and more regretfully and more and more longingly of the bright young face so pleasantly associated with his first happiest days at Thorpe Ambrose. To be conscious of such a feeling as this was, with a character like Allan’s, to act on it headlong, lead him where it might. He had gone out on the previous morning to look for Neelie with a peace-offering of flowers, but with no very distinct idea of what he should say to her if they met; and failing to find her on the scene of her customary walks, he had characteristically persisted the next morning in making a second attempt with another peace-offering on a larger scale. Still ignorant of his friend’s return, he was now at some distance from the house, searching the park in a direction which he had not tried yet.

After walking out a few hundred yards beyond the stables, and failing to discover any signs of Allan, Midwinter retraced his steps, and waited for his friend’s return, pacing slowly to and fro on the little strip of garden ground at the back of the house.

From time to time, as he passed it, he looked in absently at the room which had formerly been Mrs. Armadale’s, which was now (through his interposition) habitually occupied by her son — the room with the Statuette on the bracket, and the French windows opening to the ground, which had once recalled to him the Second Vision of the Dream. The Shadow of the Man, which Allan had seen standing opposite to him at the long window; the view over a lawn and flower-garden; the pattering of the rain against the glass; the stretching out of the Shadow’s arm, and the fall of the statue in fragments on the floor — these objects and events of the visionary scene, so vividly present to his memory once, were all superseded by later remembrances now, were all left to fade as they might in the dim background of time. He could pass the room again and again, alone and anxious, and never once think of the boat drifting away in the moonlight, and the night’s imprisonment on the Wrecked Ship!

Toward ten o’clock the well-remembered sound of Allan’s voice became suddenly audible in the direction of the stables. In a moment more he was visible from the garden. His second morning’s search for Neelie had ended to all appearance in a second defeat of his object. The nosegay was still in his hand; and he was resignedly making a present of it to one of the coachman’s children.

Midwinter impulsively took a step forward toward the stables, and abruptly checked his further progress.

Conscious that his position toward his friend was altered already in relation to Miss Gwilt, the first sight of Allan filled his mind with a sudden distrust of the governess’s influence over him, which was almost a distrust of himself. He knew that he had set forth from the moors on his return to Thorpe Ambrose with the resolution of acknowledging the passion that had mastered him, and of insisting, if necessary, on a second and a longer absence in the interests of the sacrifice which he was bent on making to the happiness of his friend. What had become of that resolution now? The discovery of Miss Gwilt’s altered position, and the declaration that she had voluntarily made of her indifference to Allan, had scattered it to the winds. The first words with which he would have met his friend, if nothing had happened to him on the homeward way, were words already dismissed from his lips. He drew back as he felt it, and struggled, with an instinctive loyalty toward Allan, to free himself at the last moment from the influence of Miss Gwilt.

Having disposed of his useless nosegay, Allan passed on into the garden, and the instant he entered it recognized Midwinter with a loud cry of surprise and delight.

“Am I awake or dreaming?” he exclaimed, seizing his friend excitably by both hands.” You dear old Midwinter, have you sprung up out of the ground, or have you dropped from the clouds?”

It was not till Midwinter had explained the mystery of his unexpected appearance in every particular that Allan could be prevailed on to say a word about himself. When he did speak, he shook his head ruefully, and subdued the hearty loudness of his voice, with a preliminary look round to see if the servants were within hearing.

“I’ve learned to be cautious since you went away and left me,” said Allan. “My dear fellow, you haven’t the least notion what things have happened, and what an awful scrape I’m in at this very moment!”

“You are mistaken, Allan. I have heard more of what has happened than you suppose.”

“What! the dreadful mess I’m in with Miss Gwilt? the row with the major? the infernal scandal-mongering in the neighborhood? You don’t mean to say —?”

“Yes,” interposed Midwinter, quietly; “I have heard of it all.”

“Good heavens! how? Did you stop at Thorpe Ambrose on your way back? Have you been in the coffee-room at the hotel? Have you met Pedgift? Have you dropped into the Reading Rooms, and seen what they call the freedom of the press in the town newspaper?”

Midwinter paused before he answered, and looked up at the sky. The clouds had been gathering unnoticed over their heads, and the first rain-drops were beginning to fall.

“Come in here,” said Allan. “We’ll go up to breakfast this way.” He led Midwinter through the open French window into his own sitting-room. The wind blew toward that side of the house, and the rain followed them in. Midwinter, who was last, turned and closed the window.

Allan was too eager for the answer which the weather had interrupted to wait for it till they reached the breakfast-room. He stopped close at the window, and added two more to his string of questions.

“How can you possibly have heard about me and Miss Gwilt?” he asked. “Who told you?”

“Miss Gwilt herself,” replied Midwinter, gravely.

Allan’s manner changed the moment the governess’s name passed his friend’s lips.

“I wish you had heard my story first,” he said. “Where did you meet with Miss Gwilt?”

There was a momentary pause. They both stood still at the window, absorbed in the interest of the moment. They both forgot that their contemplated place of shelter from the rain had been the breakfast-room upstairs.

“Before I answer your question,” said Midwinter, a little constrainedly, “I want to ask you something, Allan, on my side. Is it really true that you are in some way concerned in Miss Gwilt’s leaving Major Milroy’s service?”

There was another pause. The disturbance which had begun to appear in Allan’s manner palpably increased.

“It’s rather a long story,” he began. “I have been taken in, Midwinter. I’ve been imposed on by a person, who — I can’t help saying it — who cheated me into promising what I oughtn’t to have promised, and doing what I had better not have done. It isn’t breaking my promise to tell you. I can trust in your discretion, can’t I? You will never say a word, will you?”

“Stop!” said Midwinter. “Don’t trust me with any secrets which are not your own. If you have given a promise, don’t trifle with it, even in speaking to such an intimate friend as I am.” He laid his hand gently and kindly on Allan’s shoulder. “I can’t help seeing that I have made you a little uncomfortable,” he went on. “I can’t help seeing that my question is not so easy a one to answer as I had hoped and supposed. Shall we wait a little? Shall we go upstairs and breakfast first?”

Allan was far too earnestly bent on presenting his conduct to his friend in the right aspect to heed Midwinter’s suggestion. He spoke eagerly on the instant, without moving from the window.

“My dear fellow, it’s a perfectly easy question to answer. Only”— he hesitated —“only it requires what I’m a bad hand at: it requires an explanation.”

“Do you mean,” asked Midwinter, more seriously, but not less gently than before, “that you must first justify yourself, and then answer my question?”

“That’s it!” said Allan, with an air of relief. “You’re hit the right nail on the head, just as usual.”

Midwinter’s face darkened for the first time. “I am sorry to hear it,” he said, his voice sinking low, and his eyes dropping to the ground as he spoke.

The rain was beginning to fall thickly. It swept across the garden, straight on the closed windows, and pattered heavily against the glass.

“Sorry!” repeated Allan. “My dear fellow, you haven’t heard the particulars yet. Wait till I explain the thing first.”

“You are a bad hand at explanations,” said Midwinter, repeating Allan’s own words. “Don’t place yourself at a disadvantage. Don’t explain it.”

Allan looked at him, in silent perplexity and surprise.

“You are my friend — my best and dearest friend,” Midwinter went on. “I can’t bear to let you justify yourself to me as if I was your judge, or as if I doubted you.” He looked up again at Allan frankly and kindly as he said those words. “Besides,” he resumed, “I think, if I look into my memory, I can anticipate your explanation. We had a moment’s talk, before I went away, about some very delicate questions which you proposed putting to Major Milroy. I remember I warned you; I remember I had my misgivings. Should I be guessing right if I guessed that those questions have been in some way the means of leading you into a false position? If it is true that you have been concerned in Miss Gwilt’s leaving her situation, is it also true — is it only doing you justice to believe — that any mischief for which you are responsible has been mischief innocently done?”

“Yes,” said Allan, speaking, for the first time, a little constrainedly on his side. “It is only doing me justice to say that.” He stopped and began drawing lines absently with his finger on the blurred surface of the window-pane. “You’re not like other people, Midwinter,” he resumed, suddenly, with an effort; “and I should have liked you to have heard the particulars all the same.”

“I will hear them if you desire it,” returned Midwinter. “But I am satisfied, without another word, that you have not willingly been the means of depriving Miss Gwilt of her situation. If that is understood between you and me, I think we need say no more. Besides, I have another question to ask, of much greater importance — a question that has been forced on me by what I saw with my own eyes, and heard with my own ears, last night.”

He stopped, recoiling in spite of himself. “Shall we go upstairs first?” he asked, abruptly, leading the way to the door, and trying to gain time.

It was useless. Once again, the room which they were both free to leave, the room which one of them had twice tried to leave already, held them as if they were prisoners.

Without answering, without even appearing to have heard Midwinter’s proposal to go upstairs, Allan followed him mechanically as far as the opposite side of the window. There he stopped. “Midwinter!” he burst out, in a sudden panic of astonishment and alarm, “there seems to be something strange between us! You’re not like yourself. What is it?”

With his hand on the lock of the door, Midwinter turned, and looked back into the room. The moment had come. His haunting fear of doing his friend an injustice had shown itself in a restraint of word, look, and action which had been marked enough to force its way to Allan’s notice. The one course left now, in the dearest interests of the friendship that united them, was to speak at once, and to speak boldly.

“There’s something strange between us,” reiterated Allan. “For God’s sake, what is it?”

Midwinter took his hand from the door, and came down again to the window, fronting Allan. He occupied the place, of necessity, which Allan had just left. It was the side of the window on which the Statuette stood. The little figure, placed on its projecting bracket, was, close behind him on his right hand. No signs of change appeared in the stormy sky. The rain still swept slanting across the garden, and pattered heavily against the glass.

“Give me your hand, Allan.”

Allan gave it, and Midwinter held it firmly while he spoke.

“There is something strange between us,” he said. “There is something to be set right which touches you nearly; and it has not been set right yet. You asked me just now where I met with Miss Gwilt. I met with her on my way back here, upon the high-road on the further side of the town. She entreated me to protect her from a man who was following and frightening her. I saw the scoundrel with my own eyes, and I should have laid hands on him, if Miss Gwilt herself had not stopped me. She gave a very strange reason for stopping me. She said I didn’t know who his employer was.”

Allan’s ruddy color suddenly deepened; he looked aside quickly through the window at the pouring rain. At the same moment their hands fell apart, and there was a pause of silence on either side. Midwinter was the first to speak again.

“Later in the evening,” he went on, “Miss Gwilt explained herself. She told me two things. She declared that the man whom I had seen following her was a hired spy. I was surprised, but I could not dispute it. She told me next, Allan — what I believe with my whole heart and soul to be a falsehood which has been imposed on her as the truth — she told me that the spy was in your employment!”

Allan turned instantly from the window, and looked Midwinter full in the face again. “I must explain myself this time,” he said, resolutely.

The ashy paleness peculiar to him in moments of strong emotion began to show itself on Midwinter’s cheeks.

“More explanations!” he said, and drew back a step, with his eyes fixed in a sudden terror of inquiry on Allan’s face.

“You don’t know what I know, Midwinter. You don’t know that what I have done has been done with a good reason. And what is more, I have not trusted to myself — I have had good advice.”

“Did you hear what I said just now?” asked Midwinter, incredulously. “You can’t — surely, you can’t have been attending to me?”

“I haven’t missed a word,” rejoined Allan. “I tell you again, you don’t know what I know of Miss Gwilt. She has threatened Miss Milroy. Miss Milroy is in danger while her governess stops in this neighborhood.”

Midwinter dismissed the major’s daughter from the conversation with a contemptuous gesture of his hand.

“I don’t want to hear about Miss, Milroy,” he said. “Don’t mix up Miss Milroy — Good God, Allan, am I to understand that the spy set to watch Miss Gwilt was doing his vile work with your approval?”

“Once for all, my dear fellow, will you, or will you not, let me explain?”

“Explain!” cried Midwinter, his eyes aflame, and his hot Creole blood rushing crimson into his face. “Explain the employment of a spy? What! after having driven Miss Gwilt out of her situation by meddling with her private affairs, you meddle again by the vilest of all means — the means of a paid spy? You set a watch on the woman whom you yourself told me you loved, only a fortnight since — the woman you were thinking of as your wife! I don’t believe it; I won’t believe it. Is my head failing me? Is it Allan Armadale I am speaking to? Is it Allan Armadale’s face looking at me? Stop! you are acting under some mistaken scruple. Some low fellow has crept into your confidence, and has done this in your name without telling you first.”

Allan controlled himself with admirable patience and admirable consideration for the temper of his friend. “If you persist in refusing to hear me,” he said, “I must wait as well as I can till my turn comes.”

“Tell me you are a stranger to the employment of that man, and I will hear you willingly.”

“Suppose there should be a necessity, that you know nothing about, for employing him?”

“I acknowledge no necessity for the cowardly persecution of a helpless woman.”

A momentary flush of irritation — momentary, and no more — passed over Allan’s face. “You mightn’t think her quite so helpless,” he said, “if you knew the truth.”

“Are you the man to tell me the truth?” retorted the other. “You who have refused to hear her in her own defense! You who have closed the doors of this house against her!”

Allan still controlled himself, but the effort began at last to be visible.

“I know your temper is a hot one,” he said. “But for all that, your violence quite takes me by surprise. I can’t account for it, unless”— he hesitated a moment, and then finished the sentence in his usual frank, outspoken way —“unless you are sweet yourself on Miss Gwilt.”

Those last words heaped fuel on the fire. They stripped the truth instantly of all concealments and disguises, and laid it bare to view. Allan’s instinct had guessed, and the guiding influence stood revealed of Midwinter’s interest in Miss Gwilt.

“What right have you to say that?” he asked, with raised voice and threatening eyes.

“I told you,” said Allan, simply, “when I thought I was sweet on her myself. Come! come! it’s a little hard, I think, even if you are in love with her, to believe everything she tells you, and not to let me say a word. Is that the way you decide between us?”

“Yes, it is!” cried the other, infuriated by Allan’s second allusion to Miss Gwilt. “When I am asked to choose between the employer of a spy and the victim of a spy, I side with the victim!”

“Don’t try me too hard, Midwinter, I have a temper to lose as well as you.”

He stopped, struggling with himself. The torture of passion in Midwinter’s face, from which a less simple and less generous nature might have recoiled in horror, touched Allan suddenly with an artless distress, which, at that moment, was little less than sublime. He advanced, with his eyes moistening, and his hand held out. “You asked me for my hand just now,” he said, “and I gave it you. Will you remember old times, and give me yours, before it’s too late?”

“No!” retorted Midwinter, furiously. “I may meet Miss Gwilt again, and I may want my hand free to deal with your spy!”

He had drawn back along the wall as Allan advanced, until the bracket which supported the Statuette was before instead of behind him. In the madness of his passion he saw nothing but Allan’s face confronting him. In the madness of his passion, he stretched out his right hand as he answered, and shook it threateningly in the air. It struck the forgotten projection of the bracket — and the next instant the Statuette lay in fragments on the floor.

The rain drove slanting over flower-bed and lawn, and pattered heavily against the glass; and the two Armadales stood by the window, as the two Shadows had stood in the Second Vision of the Dream, with the wreck of the image between them.

Allan stooped over the fragments of the little figure, and lifted them one by one from the floor.

“Leave me,” he said, without looking up, “or we shall both repent it.”

Without a word, Midwinter moved back slowly. He stood for the second time with his hand on the door, and looked his last at the room. The horror of the night on the Wreck had got him once more, and the flame of his passion was quenched in an instant.

“The Dream!” he whispered, under his breath. “The Dream again!”

The door was tried from the outside, and a servant appeared with a trivial message about the breakfast.

Midwinter looked at the man with a blank, dreadful helplessness in his face. “Show me the way out,” he said. “The place is dark, and the room turns round with me.”

The servant took him by the arm, and silently led him out.

As the door closed on them, Allan picked up the last fragment of the broken figure. He sat down alone at the table, and hid his face in his hands. The self-control which he had bravely preserved under exasperation renewed again and again now failed him at last in the friendless solitude of his room, and, in the first bitterness of feeling that Midwinter had turned against him like the rest, he burst into tears.

The moments followed each other, the slow time wore on. Little by little the signs of a new elemental disturbance began to show themselves in the summer storm. The shadow of a swiftly deepening darkness swept over the sky. The pattering of the rain lessened with the lessening wind. There was a momentary hush of stillness. Then on a sudden the rain poured down again like a cataract, and the low roll of thunder came up solemnly on the dying air.

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