Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter IX.

She Knows the Truth.

1. From Mr. Bashwood to Miss Gwilt.

“Thorpe Ambrose, July 20th, 1851.

“DEAR MADAM— I received yesterday, by private messenger, your obliging note, in which you direct me to communicate with you through the post only, as long as there is reason to believe that any visitors who may come to you are likely to be observed. May I be permitted to say that I look forward with respectful anxiety to the time when I shall again enjoy the only real happiness I have ever experienced — the happiness of personally addressing you?

“In compliance with your desire that I should not allow this day (the Sunday) to pass without privately noticing what went on at the great house, I took the keys, and went this morning to the steward’s office. I accounted for my appearance to the servants by informing them that I had work to do which it was important to complete in the shortest possible time. The same excuse would have done for Mr. Armadale if we had met, but no such meeting happened.

“Although I was at Thorpe Ambrose in what I thought good time, I was too late to see or hear anything myself of a serious quarrel which appeared to have taken place, just before I arrived, between Mr. Armadale and Mr. Midwinter.

“All the little information I can give you in this matter is derived from one of the servants. The man told me that he heard the voices of the two gentlemen loud in Mr. Armadale’s sitting-room. He went in to announce breakfast shortly afterward, and found Mr. Midwinter in such a dreadful state of agitation that he had to be helped out of the room. The servant tried to take him upstairs to lie down and compose himself. He declined, saying he would wait a little first in one of the lower rooms, and begging that he might be left alone. The man had hardly got downstairs again when he heard the front door opened and closed. He ran back, and found that Mr. Midwinter was gone. The rain was pouring at the time, and thunder and lightning came soon afterward. Dreadful weather certainly to go out in. The servant thinks Mr. Midwinter’s mind was unsettled. I sincerely hope not. Mr. Midwinter is one of the few people I have met with in the course of my life who have treated me kindly.

“Hearing that Mr. Armadale still remained in the sitting-room, I went into the steward’s office (which, as you may remember, is on the same side of the house), and left the door ajar, and set the window open, waiting and listening for anything that might happen. Dear madam, there was a time when I might have thought such a position in the house of my employer not a very becoming one. Let me hasten to assure you that this is far from being my feeling now. I glory in any position which makes me serviceable to you.

“The state of the weather seemed hopelessly adverse to that renewal of intercourse between Mr. Armadale and Miss Milroy which you so confidently anticipate, and of which you are so anxious to be made aware. Strangely enough, however, it is actually in consequence of the state of the weather that I am now in a position to give you the very information you require. Mr. Armadale and Miss Milroy met about an hour since. The circumstances were as follows:

“Just at the beginning of the thunder-storm, I saw one of the grooms run across from the stables, and heard him tap at his master’s window. Mr. Armadale opened the window and asked what was the matter. The groom said he came with a message from the coachman’s wife. She had seen from her room over the stables (which looks on to the park) Miss Milroy quite alone, standing for shelter under one of the trees. As that part of the park was at some distance from the major’s cottage, she had thought that her master might wish to send and ask the young lady into the house — especially as she had placed herself, with a thunder-storm coming on, in what might turn out to be a very dangerous position.

“The moment Mr. Armadale understood the man’s message, he called for the water-proof things and the umbrellas, and ran out himself, instead of leaving it to the servants. In a little time he and the groom came back with Miss Milroy between them, as well protected as could be from the rain.

“I ascertained from one of the women-servants, who had taken the young lady into a bedroom, and had supplied her with such dry things as she wanted, that Miss Milroy had been afterward shown into the drawing-room, and that Mr. Armadale was there with her. The only way of following your instructions, and finding out what passed between them, was to go round the house in the pelting rain, and get into the conservatory (which opens into the drawing-room) by the outer door. I hesitate at nothing, dear madam, in your service; I would cheerfully get wet every day, to please you. Besides, though I may at first sight be thought rather an elderly man, a wetting is of no very serious consequence to me. I assure you I am not so old as I look, and I am of a stronger constitution than appears.

“It was impossible for me to get near enough in the conservatory to see what went on in the drawing-room, without the risk of being discovered. But most of the conversation reached me, except when they dropped their voices. This is the substance of what I heard:

“I gathered that Miss Milroy had been prevailed on, against her will, to take refuge from the thunder-storm in Mr. Armadale’s house. She said so, at least, and she gave two reasons. The first was that her father had forbidden all intercourse between the cottage and the great house. Mr. Armadale met this objection by declaring that her father had issued his orders under a total misconception of the truth, and by entreating her not to treat him as cruelly as the major had treated him. He entered, I suspect, into some explanations at this point, but as he dropped his voice I am unable to say what they were. His language, when I did hear it, was confused and ungrammatical. It seemed, however, to be quite intelligible enough to persuade Miss Milroy that her father had been acting under a mistaken impression of the circumstances. At least, I infer this; for, when I next heard the conversation, the young lady was driven back to her second objection to being in the house — which was, that Mr. Armadale had behaved very badly to her, and that he richly deserved that she should never speak to him again.

“In this latter case, Mr. Armadale attempted no defense of any kind. He agreed with her that he had behaved badly; he agreed with her that he richly deserved she should never speak to him again. At the same time he implored her to remember that he had suffered his punishment already. He was disgraced in the neighborhood; and his dearest friend, his one intimate friend in the world, had that very morning turned against him like the rest. Far or near, there was not a living creature whom he was fond of to comfort him, or to say a friendly word to him. He was lonely and miserable, and his heart ached for a little kindness — and that was his only excuse for asking Miss Milroy to forget and forgive the past.

“I must leave you, I fear, to judge for yourself of the effect of this on the young lady; for, though I tried hard, I failed to catch what she said. I am almost certain I heard her crying, and Mr. Armadale entreating her not to break his heart. They whispered a great deal, which aggravated me. I was afterward alarmed by Mr. Armadale coming out into the conservatory to pick some flowers. He did not come as far, fortunately, as the place where I was hidden; and he went in again into the drawing-room, and there was more talking (I suspect at close quarters), which to my great regret I again failed to catch. Pray forgive me for having so little to tell you. I can only add that, when the storm cleared off, Miss Milroy went away with the flowers in her hand, and with Mr. Armadale escorting her from the house. My own humble opinion is that he had a powerful friend at court, all through the interview, in the young lady’s own liking for him.

“This is all I can say at present, with the exception of one other thing I heard, which I blush to mention. But your word is law, and you have ordered me to have no concealments from you.

“Their talk turned once, dear madam, on yourself. I think I heard the word ‘creature’ from Miss Milroy; and I am certain that Mr. Armadale, while acknowledging that he had once admired you, added that circumstances had since satisfied him of ‘his folly.’ I quote his own expression; it made me quite tremble with indignation. If I may be permitted to say so, the man who admires Miss Gwilt lives in Paradise. Respect, if nothing else, ought to have closed Mr. Armadale’s lips. He is my employer, I know; but after his calling it an act of folly to admire you (though I am his deputy-steward), I utterly despise him.

“Trusting that I may have been so happy as to give you satisfaction thus far, and earnestly desirous to deserve the honor of your continued confidence in me, I remain, dear madam,

“Your grateful and devoted servant,

“FELIX BASHWOOD.”

2. From Mrs. Oldershaw to Miss Gwilt.

“Diana Street, Monday, July 21st.

“My Dear LYDIA— I trouble you with a few lines. They are written under a sense of the duty which I owe to myself, in our present position toward each other.

“I am not at all satisfied with the tone of your last two letters; and I am still less pleased at your leaving me this morning without any letter at all — and this when we had arranged, in the doubtful state of our prospects, that I was to hear from you every day. I can only interpret your conduct in one way. I can only infer that matters at Thorpe Ambrose, having been all mismanaged, are all going wrong.

“It is not my present object to reproach you, for why should I waste time, language, and paper? I merely wish to recall to your memory certain considerations which you appear to be disposed to overlook. Shall I put them in the plainest English? Yes; for, with all my faults, I am frankness personified.

“In the first place, then, I have an interest in your becoming Mrs. Armadale of Thorpe Ambrose as well as you. Secondly, I have provided you (to say nothing of good advice) with all the money needed to accomplish our object. Thirdly, I hold your notes of hand, at short dates, for every farthing so advanced. Fourthly and lastly, though I am indulgent to a fault in the capacity of a friend — in the capacity of a woman of business, my dear, I am not to be trifled with. That is all, Lydia, at least for the present.

“Pray don’t suppose I write in anger; I am only sorry and disheartened. My state of mind resembles David’s. If I had the wings of a dove, I would flee away and be at rest.

“Affectionately yours, MARIA OLDERSHAW.”

3. From Mr. Bashwood to Miss Gwilt.

“Thorpe Ambrose, July 21st.

“DEAR MADAM— You will probably receive these lines a few hours after my yesterday’s communication reaches you. I posted my first letter last night, and I shall post this before noon to-day.

“My present object in writing is to give you some more news from this house. I have the inexpressible happiness of announcing that Mr. Armadale’s disgraceful intrusion on your privacy is at an end. The watch set on your actions is to be withdrawn this day. I write, dear madam, with the tears in my eyes — tears of joy, caused by feelings which I ventured to express in my previous letter (see first paragraph toward the end). Pardon me this personal reference. I can speak to you (I don’t know why) so much more readily with my pen than with my tongue.

“Let me try to compose myself, and proceed with my narrative.

“I had just arrived at the steward’s office this morning, when Mr. Pedgift the elder followed me to the great house to see Mr. Armadale by special appointment. It is needless to say that I at once suspended any little business there was to do, feeling that your interests might possibly be concerned. It is also most gratifying to add that this time circumstances favored me. I was able to stand under the open window and to hear the whole interview.

“Mr. Armadale explained himself at once in the plainest terms. He gave orders that the person who had been hired to watch you should be instantly dismissed. On being asked to explain this sudden change of purpose, he did not conceal that it was owing to the effect produced on his mind by what had passed between Mr. Midwinter and himself on the previous day. Mr. Midwinter’s language, cruelly unjust as it was, had nevertheless convinced him that no necessity whatever could excuse any proceeding so essentially base in itself as the employment of a spy, and on that conviction he was now determined to act.

“But for your own positive directions to me to conceal nothing that passes here in which your name is concerned, I should really be ashamed to report what Mr. Pedgift said on his side. He has behaved kindly to me, I know. But if he was my own brother, I could never forgive him the tone in which he spoke of you, and the obstinacy with which he tried to make Mr. Armadale change his mind.

“He began by attacking Mr. Midwinter. He declared that Mr. Midwinter’s opinion was the very worst opinion that could be taken; for it was quite plain that you, dear madam, had twisted him round your finger. Producing no effect by this coarse suggestion (which nobody who knows you could for a moment believe), Mr. Pedgift next referred to Miss Milroy, and asked Mr. Armadale if he had given up all idea of protecting her. What this meant I cannot imagine. I can only report it for your private consideration. Mr. Armadale briefly answered that he had his own plan for protecting Miss Milroy, and that the circumstances were altered in that quarter, or words to a similar effect. Still Mr. Pedgift persisted. He went on (I blush to mention) from bad to worse. He tried to persuade Mr. Armadale next to bring an action at law against one or other of the persons who had been most strongly condemning his conduct in the neighborhood, for the purpose — I really hardly know how to write it — of getting you into the witness-box. And worse yet: when Mr. Armadale still said No, Mr. Pedgift, after having, as I suspected by the sound of his voice, been on the point of leaving the room, artfully came back, and proposed sending for a detective officer from London, simply to look at you. ‘The whole of this mystery about Miss Gwilt’s true character,’ he said, ‘may turn on a question of identity. It won’t cost much to have a man down from London; and it’s worth trying whether her face is or is not known at headquarters to the police.’ I again and again assure you, dearest lady, that I only repeat those abominable words from a sense of duty toward yourself. I shook — I declare I shook from head to foot when I heard them.

“To resume, for there is more to tell you.

“Mr. Armadale (to his credit — I don’t deny it, though I don’t like him) still said No. He appeared to be getting irritated under Mr. Pedgift’s persistence, and he spoke in a somewhat hasty way. ‘You persuaded me on the last occasion when we talked about this,’ he said, ‘to do something that I have been since heartily ashamed of. You won’t succeed in persuading me, Mr. Pedgift, a second time.’ Those were his words. Mr. Pedgift took him up short; Mr. Pedgift seemed to be nettled on his side.

“‘If that is the light in which you see my advice, sir,’ he said, ‘the less you have of it for the future, the better. Your character and position are publicly involved in this matter between yourself and Miss Gwilt; and you persist, at a most critical moment, in taking a course of your own, which I believe will end badly. After what I have already said and done in this very serious case, I can’t consent to go on with it with both my hands tied, and I can’t drop it with credit to myself while I remain publicly known as your solicitor. You leave me no alternative, sir, but to resign the honor of acting as your legal adviser.’ ‘I am sorry to hear it,’ says Mr. Armadale, ‘but I have suffered enough already through interfering with Miss Gwilt. I can’t and won’t stir any further in the matter.’ ‘You may not stir any further in it, sir,’ says Mr. Pedgift, ‘and I shall not stir any further in it, for it has ceased to be a question of professional interest to me. But mark my words, Mr. Armadale, you are not at the end of this business yet. Some other person’s curiosity may go on from the point where you (and I) have stopped; and some other person’s hand may let the broad daylight in yet on Miss Gwilt.’

“I report their language, dear madam, almost word for word, I believe, as I heard it. It produced an indescribable impression on me; it filled me, I hardly know why, with quite a panic of alarm. I don’t at all understand it, and I understand still less what happened immediately afterward.

“Mr. Pedgift’s voice, when he said those last words, sounded dreadfully close to me. He must have been speaking at the open window, and he must, I fear, have seen me under it. I had time, before he left the house, to get out quietly from among the laurels, but not to get back to the office. Accordingly I walked away along the drive toward the lodge, as if I was going on some errand connected with the steward’s business.

“Before long, Mr. Pedgift overtook me in his gig, and stopped. ‘So you feel some curiosity about Miss Gwilt, do you?’ he said. ‘Gratify your curiosity by all means; I don’t object to it.’ I felt naturally nervous, but I managed to ask him what he meant. He didn’t answer; he only looked down at me from the gig in a very odd manner, and laughed. ‘I have known stranger things happen even than that!’ he said to himself suddenly, and drove off.

“I have ventured to trouble you with this last incident, though it may seem of no importance in your eyes, in the hope that your superior ability may be able to explain it. My own poor faculties, I confess, are quite unable to penetrate Mr. Pedgift’s meaning. All I know is that he has no right to accuse me of any such impertinent feeling as curiosity in relation to a lady whom I ardently esteem and admire. I dare not put it in warmer words.

“I have only to add that I am in a position to be of continued service to you here if you wish it. Mr. Armadale has just been into the office, and has told me briefly that, in Mr. Midwinter’s continued absence, I am still to act as steward’s deputy till further notice.

“Believe me, dear madam, anxiously and devotedly yours, FELIX BASHWOOD.”

4. From Allan Armadale to the Reverend Decimus Brock.

Thorpe Ambrose, Tuesday.

“My Dear MR. BROCK— I am in sad trouble. Midwinter has quarreled with me and left me; and my lawyer has quarreled with me and left me; and (except dear little Miss Milroy, who has forgiven me) all the neighbors have turned their backs on me. There is a good deal about ‘me’ in this, but I can’t help it. I am very miserable alone in my own house. Do pray come and see me! You are the only old friend I have left, and I do long so to tell you about it.

“N. B. — On my word of honor as a gentleman, I am not to blame. Yours affectionately,

“ALLAN ARMADALE.

“P. S. — I would come to you (for this place is grown quite hateful to me), but I have a reason for not going too far away from Miss Milroy just at present.”

5. From Robert Stapleton to Allan Armadale, Esq.

“Bascombe Rectory, Thursday Morning.

“RESPECTED SIR— I see a letter in your writing, on the table along with the others, which I am sorry to say my master is not well enough to open. He is down with a sort of low fever. The doctor says it has been brought on with worry and anxiety which master was not strong enough to bear. This seems likely; for I was with him when he went to London last month, and what with his own business, and the business of looking after that person who afterward gave us the slip, he was worried and anxious all the time; and for the matter of that, so was I.

“My master was talking of you a day or two since. He seemed unwilling that you should know of his illness, unless he got worse. But I think you ought to know of it. At the same time he is not worse; perhaps a trifle better. The doctor says he must be kept very quiet, and not agitated on any account. So be pleased to take no notice of this — I mean in the way of coming to the rectory. I have the doctor’s orders to say it is not needful, and it would only upset my master in the state he is in now.

“I will write again if you wish it. Please accept of my duty, and believe me to remain, sir, your humble servant,

“ROBERT STAPLETON.

“P. S. — The yacht has been rigged and repainted, waiting your orders. She looks beautiful.”

6. From Mrs. Oldershaw to Miss Gwilt.

“Diana Street, July 24th.

“MISS GWILT— The post hour has passed for three mornings following, and has brought me no answer to my letter. Are you purposely bent on insulting me? or have you left Thorpe Ambrose? In either case, I won’t put up with your conduct any longer. The law shall bring you to book, if I can’t.

“Your first note of hand (for thirty pounds) falls due on Tuesday next, the 29th. If you had behaved with common consideration toward me, I would have let you renew it with pleasure. As things are, I shall have the note presented; and, if it is not paid, I shall instruct my man of business to take the usual course.

“Yours, MARIA OLDERSHAW.”

7. From Miss Gwilt to Mrs. Oldershaw.

“5 Paradise Place, Thorpe Ambrose, July 25th.

MRS. OLDERSHAW— The time of your man of business being, no doubt, of some value, I write a line to assist him when he takes the usual course. He will find me waiting to be arrested in the first-floor apartments, at the above address. In my present situation, and with my present thoughts, the best service you can possibly render me is to lock me up.

“L. G.”

8. From Mrs. Oldershaw to Miss Gwilt.

“Diana Street, July 26th.

“MY DARLING LYDIA— The longer I live in this wicked world the more plainly I see that women’s own tempers are the worst enemies women have to contend with. What a truly regretful style of correspondence we have fallen into! What a sad want of self-restraint, my dear, on your side and on mine!

“Let me, as the oldest in years, be the first to make the needful excuses, the first to blush for my own want of self-control. Your cruel neglect, Lydia, stung me into writing as I did. I am so sensitive to ill treatment, when it is inflicted on me by a person whom I love and admire; and, though turned sixty, I am still (unfortunately for myself) so young at heart. Accept my apologies for having made use of my pen, when I ought to have been content to take refuge in my pocket-handkerchief. Forgive your attached Maria for being still young at heart!

“But oh, my dear — though I own I threatened you — how hard of you to take me at my word! How cruel of you, if your debt had been ten times what it is, to suppose me capable (whatever I might say) of the odious inhumanity of arresting my bosom friend! Heavens! have I deserved to be taken at my word in this unmercifully exact way, after the years of tender intimacy that have united us? But I don’t complain; I only mourn over the frailty of our common human nature. Let us expect as little of each other as possible, my dear; we are both women, and we can’t help it. I declare, when I reflect on the origin of our unfortunate sex — when I remember that we were all originally made of no better material than the rib of a man (and that rib of so little importance to its possessor that he never appears to have missed it afterward), I am quite astonished at our virtues, and not in the least surprised at our faults.

“I am wandering a little; I am losing myself in serious thought, like that sweet character in Shakespeare who was ‘fancy free.’ One last word, dearest, to say that my longing for an answer to this proceeds entirely from my wish to hear from you again in your old friendly tone, and is quite unconnected with any curiosity to know what you are doing at Thorpe Ambrose — except such curiosity as you yourself might approve. Need I add that I beg you as a favor to me to renew, on the customary terms? I refer to the little bill due on Tuesday next, and I venture to suggest that day six weeks.

“Yours, with a truly motherly feeling,

“MARIA OLDERSHAW.”

9. From Miss Gwilt to Mrs. Oldershaw.

“Paradise Place, July 27th.

“I have just got your last letter. The brazen impudence of it has roused me. I am to be treated like a child, am I? — to be threatened first, and then, if threatening fails, to be coaxed afterward? You shall coax me; you shall know, my motherly friend, the sort of child you have to deal with.

“I had a reason, Mrs. Oldershaw, for the silence which has so seriously offended you. I was afraid — actually afraid — to let you into the secret of my thoughts. No such fear troubles me now. My only anxiety this morning is to make you my best acknowledgments for the manner in which you have written to me. After carefully considering it, I think the worst turn I can possibly do you is to tell you what you are burning to know. So here I am at my desk, bent on telling it. If you don’t bitterly repent, when you are at the end of this letter, not having held to your first resolution, and locked me up out of harm’s way while you had the chance, my name is not Lydia Gwilt.

“Where did my last letter end? I don’t remember, and don’t care. Make it out as you can — I am not going back any further than this day week. That is to say, Sunday last.

“There was a thunder-storm in the morning. It began to clear off toward noon. I didn’t go out: I waited to see Midwinter or to hear from him. (Are you surprised at my not writing ‘Mr.’ before his name? We have got so familiar, my dear, that ‘Mr.’ would be quite out of place.) He had left me the evening before, under very interesting circumstances. I had told him that his friend Armadale was persecuting me by means of a hired spy. He had declined to believe it, and had gone straight to Thorpe Ambrose to clear the thing up. I let him kiss my hand before he went. He promised to come back the next day (the Sunday). I felt I had secured my influence over him; and I believed he would keep his word.

“Well, the thunder passed away as I told you. The weather cleared up; the people walked out in their best clothes; the dinners came in from the bakers; I sat dreaming at my wretched little hired piano, nicely dressed and looking my best — and still no Midwinter appeared. It was late in the afternoon, and I was beginning to feel offended, when a letter was brought to me. It had been left by a strange messenger who went away again immediately. I looked at the letter. Midwinter at last — in writing, instead of in person. I began to feel more offended than ever; for, as I told you, I thought I had used my influence over him to better purpose.

“The letter, when I read it, set my mind off in a new direction. It surprised, it puzzled, it interested me. I thought, and thought, and thought of him, all the rest of the day.

“He began by asking my pardon for having doubted what I told him. Mr. Armadale’s own lips had confirmed me. They had quarreled (as I had anticipated they would); and he, and the man who had once been his dearest friend on earth, had parted forever. So far, I was not surprised. I was amused by his telling me in his extravagant way that he and his friend were parted forever; and I rather wondered what he would think when I carried out my plan, and found my way into the great house on pretense of reconciling them.

“But the second part of the letter set me thinking. Here it is, in his own words.

“‘It is only by struggling against myself (and no language can say how hard the struggle has been) that I have decided on writing, instead of speaking to you. A merciless necessity claims my future life. I must leave Thorpe Ambrose, I must leave England, without hesitating, without stopping to look back. There are reasons — terrible reasons, which I have madly trifled with — for my never letting Mr. Armadale set eyes on me, or hear of me again, after what has happened between us. I must go, never more to live under the same roof, never more to breathe the same air with that man. I must hide myself from him under an assumed name; I must put the mountains and the seas between us. I have been warned as no human creature was ever warned before. I believe — I dare not tell you why — I believe that, if the fascination you have for me draws me back to you, fatal consequences will come of it to the man whose life has been so strangely mingled with your life and mine — the man who was once your admirer and my friend. And yet, feeling this, seeing it in my mind as plainly as I see the sky above my head, there is a weakness in me that still shrinks from the one imperative sacrifice of never seeing you again. I am fighting with it as a man fights with the strength of his despair. I have been near enough, not an hour since, to see the house where you live, and have forced myself away again out of sight of it. Can I force myself away further still, now that my letter is written — now, when the useless confession escapes me, and I own to loving you with the first love I have ever known, with the last love I shall ever feel? Let the coming time answer the question; I dare not write of it or think of it more.’

“Those were the last words. In that strange way the letter ended.

“I felt a perfect fever of curiosity to know what he meant. His loving me, of course, was easy enough to understand. But what did he mean by saying he had been warned? Why was he never to live under the same roof, never to breathe the same air again, with young Armadale? What sort of quarrel could it be which obliged one man to hide himself from another under an assumed name, and to put the mountains and the seas between them? Above all, if he came back, and let me fascinate him, why should it be fatal to the hateful lout who possesses the noble fortune and lives in the great house?

“I never longed in my life as I longed to see him again and put these questions to him. I got quite superstitious about it as the day drew on. They gave me a sweet-bread and a cherry pudding for dinner. I actually tried if he would come back by the stones in the plate! He will, he won’t, he will, he won’t — and so on. It ended in ‘He won’t.’ I rang the bell, and had the things taken away. I contradicted Destiny quite fiercely. I said, ‘He will!’ and I waited at home for him.

“You don’t know what a pleasure it is to me to give you all these little particulars. Count up — my bosom friend, my second mother — count up the money you have advanced on the chance of my becoming Mrs. Armadale, and then think of my feeling this breathless interest in another man. Oh, Mrs. Oldershaw, how intensely I enjoy the luxury of irritating you!

“The day got on toward evening. I rang again, and sent down to borrow a railway time-table. What trains were there to take him away on Sunday? The national respect for the Sabbath stood my friend. There was only one train, which had started hours before he wrote to me. I went and consulted my glass. It paid me the compliment of contradicting the divination by cherry-stones. My glass said: ‘Get behind the window-curtain; he won’t pass the long lonely evening without coming back again to look at the house.’ I got behind the window-curtain, and waited with his letter in my hand.

“The dismal Sunday light faded, and the dismal Sunday quietness in the street grew quieter still. The dusk came, and I heard a step coming with it in the silence. My heart gave a little jump — only think of my having any heart left! I said to myself: ‘Midwinter!’ And Midwinter it was.

“When he came in sight he was walking slowly, stopping and hesitating at every two or three steps. My ugly little drawing-room window seemed to be beckoning him on in spite of himself. After waiting till I saw him come to a standstill, a little aside from the house, but still within view of my irresistible window, I put on my things and slipped out by the back way into the garden. The landlord and his family were at supper, and nobody saw me. I opened the door in the wall, and got round by the lane into the street. At that awkward moment I suddenly remembered, what I had forgotten before, the spy set to watch me, who was, no doubt, waiting somewhere in sight of the house.

“It was necessary to get time to think, and it was (in my state of mind) impossible to let Midwinter go without speaking to him. In great difficulties you generally decide at once, if you decide at all. I decided to make an appointment with him for the next evening, and to consider in the interval how to manage the interview so that it might escape observation. This, as I felt at the time, was leaving my own curiosity free to torment me for four-and-twenty mortal hours; but what other choice had I? It was as good as giving up being mistress of Thorpe Ambrose altogether, to come to a private understanding with Midwinter in the sight and possibly in the hearing of Armadale’s spy.

“Finding an old letter of yours in my pocket, I drew back into the lane, and wrote on the blank leaf, with the little pencil that hangs at my watch-chain: ‘I must and will speak to you. It is impossible tonight, but be in the street tomorrow at this time, and leave me afterward forever, if you like. When you have read this, overtake me, and say as you pass, without stopping or looking round, “Yes, I promise.”’

“I folded up the paper, and came on him suddenly from behind. As he started and turned round, I put the note into his hand, pressed his hand, and passed on. Before I had taken ten steps I heard him behind me. I can’t say he didn’t look round — I saw his big black eyes, bright and glittering in the dusk, devour me from head to foot in a moment; but otherwise he did what I told him. ‘I can deny you nothing,’ he whispered; ‘I promise.’ He went on and left me. I couldn’t help thinking at the time how that brute and booby Armadale would have spoiled everything in the same situation.

“I tried hard all night to think of a way of making our interview of the next evening safe from discovery, and tried in vain. Even as early as this, I began to feel as if Midwinter’s letter had, in some unaccountable manner, stupefied me.

“Monday morning made matters worse. News came from my faithful ally, Mr. Bashwood, that Miss Milroy and Armadale had met and become friends again. You may fancy the state I was in! An hour or two later there came more news from Mr. Bashwood — good news this time. The mischievous idiot at Thorpe Ambrose had shown sense enough at last to be ashamed of himself. He had decided on withdrawing the spy that very day, and he and his lawyer had quarreled in consequence.

“So here was the obstacle which I was too stupid to remove for myself obligingly removed for me! No more need to fret about the coming interview with Midwinter; and plenty of time to consider my next proceedings, now that Miss Milroy and her precious swain had come together again. Would you believe it, the letter, or the man himself (I don’t know which), had taken such a hold on me that, though I tried and tried, I could think of nothing else; and this when I had every reason to fear that Miss Milroy was in a fair way of changing her name to Armadale, and when I knew that my heavy debt of obligation to her was not paid yet? Was there ever such perversity? I can’t account for it; can you?

“The dusk of the evening came at last. I looked out of the window — and there he was!

“I joined him at once; the people of the house, as before, being too much absorbed in their eating and drinking to notice anything else. ‘We mustn’t be seen together here,’ I whispered. ‘I must go on first, and you must follow me.’

“He said nothing in the way of reply. What was going on in his mind I can’t pretend to guess; but, after coming to his appointment, he actually hung back as if he was half inclined to go away again.

“‘You look as if you were afraid of me,’ I said.

“‘I am afraid of you,’ he answered —‘of you, and of myself.’

“It was not encouraging; it was not complimentary. But I was in such a frenzy of curiosity by this time that, if he had been ruder still, I should have taken no notice of it. I led the way a few steps toward the new buildings, and stopped and looked round after him.

“‘Must I ask it of you as a favor,’ I said, ‘after your giving me your promise, and after such a letter as you have written to me?’

“Something suddenly changed him; he was at my side in an instant. ‘I beg your pardon, Miss Gwilt; lead the way where you please.’ He dropped back a little after that answer, and I heard him say to himself, ‘What is to be will be. What have I to do with it, and what has she?’

“It could hardly have been the words, for I didn’t understand them — it must have been the tone he spoke in, I suppose, that made me feel a momentary tremor. I was half inclined, without the ghost of a reason for it, to wish him good-night, and go in again. Not much like me, you will say. Not much, indeed! It didn’t last a moment. Your darling Lydia soon came to her senses again.

“I led the way toward the unfinished cottages, and the country beyond. It would have been much more to my taste to have had him into the house, and have talked to him in the light of the candles. But I had risked it once already; and in this scandal-mongering place, and in my critical position, I was afraid to risk it again. The garden was not to be thought of either, for the landlord smokes his pipe there after his supper. There was no alternative but to take him away from the town.

“From time to time, I looked back as I went on. There he was, always at the same distance, dim and ghost-like in the dusk, silently following me.

“I must leave off for a little while. The church bells have broken out, and the jangling of them drives me mad. In these days, when we have all got watches and clocks, why are bells wanted to remind us when the service begins? We don’t require to be rung into the theater. How excessively discreditable to the clergy to be obliged to ring us into the church!


“They have rung the congregation in at last; and I can take up my pen, and go on again.

“I was a little in doubt where to lead him to. The high-road was on one side of me; but, empty as it looked, somebody might be passing when we least expected it. The other way was through the coppice. I led him through the coppice.

“At the outskirts of the trees, on the other side, there was a dip in the ground with some felled timber lying on it, and a little pool beyond, still and white and shining in the twilight. The long grazing-grounds rose over its further shore, with the mist thickening on them, and a dim black line far away of cattle in slow procession going home. There wasn’t a living creature near; there wasn’t a sound to be heard. I sat down on one of the felled trees and looked back for him. ‘Come,’ I said, softly —‘come and sit by me here.’

“Why am I so particular about all this? I hardly know. The place made an unaccountably vivid impression on me, and I can’t help writing about it. If I end badly — suppose we say on the scaffold? — I believe the last thing I shall see, before the hangman pulls the drop, will be the little shining pool, and the long, misty grazing-grounds, and the cattle winding dimly home in the thickening night. Don’t be alarmed, you worthy creature! My fancies play me strange tricks sometimes; and there is a little of last night’s laudanum, I dare say, in this part of my letter.

“He came — in the strangest silent way, like a man walking in his sleep — he came and sat down by me. Either the night was very close, or I was by this time literally in a fever: I couldn’t bear my bonnet on; I couldn’t bear my gloves. The want to look at him, and see what his singular silence meant, and the impossibility of doing it in the darkening light, irritated my nerves, till I thought I should have screamed. I took his hand, to try if that would help me. It was burning hot; and it closed instantly on mine — you know how. Silence, after that, was not to be thought of. The one safe way was to begin talking to him at once.

“‘Don’t despise me,’ I said. ‘I am obliged to bring you to this lonely place; I should lose my character if we were seen together.’

“I waited a little. His hand warned me once more not to let the silence continue. I determined to make him speak to me this time.

“‘You have interested me, and frightened me,’ I went on. ‘You have written me a very strange letter. I must know what it means.’

“‘It is too late to ask. You have taken the way, and I have taken the way, from which there is no turning back.’ He made that strange answer in a tone that was quite new to me — a tone that made me even more uneasy than his silence had made me the moment before. ‘Too late,’ he repeated —‘too late! There is only one question to ask me now.’

“‘What is it?’

“As I said the words, a sudden trembling passed from his hand to mine, and told me instantly that I had better have held my tongue. Before I could move, before I could think, he had me in his arms. ‘Ask me if I love you,’ he whispered. At the same moment his head sank on my bosom; and some unutterable torture that was in him burst its way out, as it does with us, in a passion of sobs and tears.

“My first impulse was the impulse of a fool. I was on the point of making our usual protest and defending myself in our usual way. Luckily or unluckily, I don’t know which, I have lost the fine edge of the sensitiveness of youth; and I checked the first movement of my hands, and the first word on my lips. Oh, dear, how old I felt, while he was sobbing his heart out on my breast! How I thought of the time when he might have possessed himself of my love! All he had possessed himself of now was — my waist.

“I wonder whether I pitied him? It doesn’t matter if I did. At any rate, my hand lifted itself somehow, and my fingers twined themselves softly in his hair. Horrible recollections came back to me of other times, and made me shudder as I touched him. And yet I did it. What fools women are!

“‘I won’t reproach you,’ I said, gently. ‘I won’t say this is a cruel advantage to take of me, in such a position as mine. You are dreadfully agitated; I will let you wait a little and compose yourself.’

“Having got as far as that, I stopped to consider how I should put the questions to him that I was burning to ask. But I was too confused, I suppose, or perhaps too impatient to consider. I let out what was uppermost in my mind, in the words that came first.

“‘I don’t believe you love me,’ I said. ‘You write strange things to me; you frighten me with mysteries. What did you mean by saying in your letter that it would be fatal to Mr. Armadale if you came back to me? What danger can there be to Mr. Armadale —?’

“Before I could finish the question, he suddenly lifted his head and unclasped his arms. I had apparently touched some painful subject which recalled him to himself. Instead of my shrinking from him, it was he who shrank from me. I felt offended with him; why, I don’t know — but offended I was; and I thanked him with my bitterest emphasis for remembering what was due to me, at last!

“‘Do you believe in Dreams?’ he burst out, in the most strangely abrupt manner, without taking the slightest notice of what I had said to him. ‘Tell me,’ he went on, without allowing me time to answer, ‘were you, or was any relation of yours, ever connected with Allan Armadale’s father or mother? Were you, or was anybody belonging to you, ever in the island of Madeira?’

“Conceive my astonishment, if you can. I turned cold. In an instant I turned cold all over. He was plainly in the secret of what had happened when I was in Mrs. Armadale’s service in Madeira — in all probability before he was born! That was startling enough of itself. And he had evidently some reason of his own for trying to connect me with those events — which was more startling still.

“‘No,’ I said, as soon as I could trust myself to speak. ‘I know nothing of his father or mother.’

“‘And nothing of the island of Madeira?’

“‘Nothing of the island of Madeira.’

“He turned his head away, and began talking to himself.

“‘Strange!’ he said. ‘As certainly as I was in the Shadow’s place at the window, she was in the Shadow’s place at the pool!’

“Under other circumstances, his extraordinary behavior might have alarmed me. But after his question about Madeira, there was some greater fear in me which kept all common alarm at a distance. I don’t think I ever determined on anything in my life as I determined on finding out how he had got his information, and who he really was. It was quite plain to me that I had roused some hidden feeling in him by my question about Armadale, which was as strong in its way as his feeling for me. What had become of my influence over him?

“I couldn’t imagine what had become of it; but I could and did set to work to make him feel it again.

“‘Don’t treat me cruelly,’ I said; ‘I didn’t treat you cruelly just now. Oh, Mr. Midwinter, it’s so lonely, it’s so dark — don’t frighten me!’

“‘Frighten you!’ He was close to me again in a moment. ‘Frighten you!’ He repeated the word with as much astonishment as if I had woke him from a dream, and charged him with something that he had said in his sleep.

“It was on the tip of my tongue, finding how I had surprised him, to take him while he was off his guard, and to ask why my question about Armadale had produced such a change in his behavior to me. But after what had happened already, I was afraid to risk returning to the subject too soon. Something or other — what they call an instinct, I dare say — warned me to let Armadale alone for the present, and to talk to him first about himself. As I told you in one of my early letters, I had noticed signs and tokens in his manner and appearance which convinced me, young as he was, that he had done something or suffered something out of the common in his past life. I had asked myself more and more suspiciously every time I saw him whether he was what he appeared to be; and first and foremost among my other doubts was a doubt whether he was passing among us by his real name. Having secrets to keep about my own past life, and having gone myself in other days by more than one assumed name, I suppose I am all the readier to suspect other people when I find something mysterious about them. Any way, having the suspicion in my mind, I determined to startle him, as he had startled me, by an unexpected question on my side — a question about his name.

“While I was thinking, he was thinking; and, as it soon appeared, of what I had just said to him. ‘I am so grieved to have frightened you,’ he whispered, with that gentleness and humility which we all so heartily despise in a man when he speaks to other women, and which we all so dearly like when he speaks to ourselves. ‘I hardly know what I have been saying,’ he went on; ‘my mind is miserably disturbed. Pray forgive me, if you can; I am not myself to-night.’

“‘I am not angry,’ I said; ‘I have nothing to forgive. We are both imprudent; we are both unhappy.’ I laid my head on his shoulder. ‘Do you really love me?’ I asked him, softly, in a whisper.

“His arm stole round me again; and I felt the quick beat of his heart get quicker and quicker. ‘If you only knew!’ he whispered back; ‘if you only knew —’ He could say no more. I felt his face bending toward mine, and dropped my head lower, and stopped him in the very act of kissing me.

“‘No,’ I said; ‘I am only a woman who has taken your fancy. You are treating me as if I was your promised wife.’

“’Be my promised wife!’ he whispered, eagerly, and tried to raise my head. I kept it down. The horror of these old remembrances that you know of came back and made me tremble a little when he asked me to be his wife. I don’t think I was actually faint; but something like faintness made me close my eyes. The moment I shut them, the darkness seemed to open as if lightning had split it; and the ghosts of those other men rose in the horrid gap, and looked at me.

“‘Speak to me!’ he whispered, tenderly. ‘My darling, my angel, speak to me!’

“His voice helped me to recover myself. I had just sense enough left to remember that the time was passing, and that I had not put my question to him yet about his name.

“‘Suppose I felt for you as you feel for me?’ I said. ‘Suppose I loved you dearly enough to trust you with the happiness of all my life to come?’

“I paused a moment to get my breath. It was unbearably still and close; the air seemed to have died when the night came.

“‘Would you be marrying me honorably,’ I went on, ‘if you married me in your present name?’

“His arm dropped from my waist, and I felt him give one great start. After that he sat by me, still, and cold, and silent, as if my question had struck him dumb. I put my arm round his neck, and lifted my head again on his shoulder. Whatever the spell was I had laid on him, my coming closer in that way seemed to break it.

“‘Who told you?’ He stopped. ‘No,’ he went on, ‘nobody can have told you. What made you suspect —?’ He stopped again.

“‘Nobody told me,’ I said; ‘and I don’t know what made me suspect. Women have strange fancies sometimes. Is Midwinter really your name?’

“‘I can’t deceive you,’ he answered, after another interval of silence; ‘Midwinter is not really my name.’

“I nestled a little closer to him.

“ What is your name?’ I asked.

“He hesitated.

“I lifted my face till my cheek just touched his. I persisted, with my lips close at his ear:

“‘What, no confidence in me even yet! No confidence in the woman who has almost confessed she loves you — who has almost consented to be your wife!’

“He turned his face to mine. For the second time he tried to kiss me, and for the second time I stopped him.

“‘If I tell you my name,’ he said, ‘I must tell you more.’

“I let my cheek touch his again.

“‘Why not?’ I said. ‘How can I love a man — much less marry him — if he keeps himself a stranger to me?’

“There was no answering that, as I thought. But he did answer it.

“‘It is a dreadful story,’ he said. ‘It may darken all your life, if you know it, as it has darkened mine.’

“I put my other arm round him, and persisted. ‘Tell it me; I’m not afraid; tell it me.’

“He began to yield to my other arm.

“‘Will you keep it a sacred secret?’ he said. ‘Never to be breathed — never to be known but to you and me?’

“I promised him it should be a secret. I waited in a perfect frenzy of expectation. Twice he tried to begin, and twice his courage failed him.

“‘I can’t!’ he broke out in a wild, helpless way. I can’t tell it!’

“My curiosity, or more likely my temper, got beyond all control. He had irritated me till I was reckless what I said or what I did. I suddenly clasped him close, and pressed my lips to his. ‘I love you!’ I whispered in a kiss. ‘Now will you tell me?’

“For the moment he was speechless. I don’t know whether I did it purposely to drive him wild. I don’t know whether I did it involuntarily in a burst of rage. Nothing is certain but that I interpreted his silence the wrong way. I pushed him back from me in a fury the instant after I had kissed him. ‘I hate you!’ I said. ‘You have maddened me into forgetting myself. Leave me. I don’t care for the darkness. Leave me instantly, and never see me again!’

“He caught me by the hand and stopped me. He spoke in a new voice; he suddenly commanded, as only men can.

“‘Sit down,’ he said. ‘You have given me back my courage — you shall know who I am.’

“In the silence and the darkness all round us, I obeyed him, and sat down.

“In the silence and the darkness all round us, he took me in his arms again, and told me who he was.


“Shall I trust you with his story? Shall I tell you his real name? Shall I show you, as I threatened, the thoughts that have grown out of my interview with him and out of all that has happened to me since that time?

“Or shall I keep his secret as I promised? and keep my own secret too, by bringing this weary, long letter to an end at the very moment when you are burning to hear more!

“Those are serious questions, Mrs. Oldershaw — more serious than you suppose. I have had time to calm down, and I begin to see, what I failed to see when I first took up my pen to write to you, the wisdom of looking at consequences. Have I frightened myself in trying to frighten you? It is possible — strange as it may seem, it is really possible.

“I have been at the window for the last minute or two, thinking. There is plenty of time for thinking before the post leaves. The people are only now coming out of church.

“I have settled to put my letter on one side, and to take a look at my diary. In plainer words I must see what I risk if I decide on trusting you; and my diary will show me what my head is too weary to calculate without help. I have written the story of my days (and sometimes the story of my nights) much more regularly than usual for the last week, having reasons of my own for being particularly careful in this respect under present circumstances. If I end in doing what it is now in my mind to do, it would be madness to trust to my memory. The smallest forgetfulness of the slightest event that has happened from the night of my interview with Midwinter to the present time might be utter ruin to me.

“‘Utter ruin to her!’ you will say. ‘What kind of ruin does she mean?’

“Wait a little, till I have asked my diary whether I can safely tell you.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/c71a/chapter30.html

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