Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XII.

A Scandal at the Station.

An hour later, the landlady at Miss Gwilt’s lodgings was lost in astonishment, and the clamorous tongues of the children were in a state of ungovernable revolt. “Unforeseen circumstances” had suddenly obliged the tenant of the first floor to terminate the occupation of her apartments, and to go to London that day by the eleven o’clock train.

“Please to have a fly at the door at half-past ten,” said Miss Gwilt, as the amazed landlady followed her upstairs. “And excuse me, you good creature, if I beg and pray not to be disturbed till the fly comes. “Once inside the room, she locked the door, and then opened her writing-desk. “Now for my letter to the major!” she said. “How shall I word it?”

A moment’s consideration apparently decided her. Searching through her collection of pens, she carefully selected the worst that could be found, and began the letter by writing the date of the day on a soiled sheet of note-paper, in crooked, clumsy characters, which ended in a blot made purposely with the feather of the pen. Pausing, sometimes to think a little, sometimes to make another blot, she completed the letter in these words:

“HON’D SIR— It is on my conscience to tell you something, which I think you ought to know. You ought to know of the goings-on of Miss, your daughter, with young Mister Armadale. I wish you to make sure, and, what is more, I advise you to be quick about it, if she is going the way you want her to go, when she takes her morning walk before breakfast. I scorn to make mischief, where there is true love on both sides. But I don’t think the young man means truly by Miss. What I mean is, I think Miss only has his fancy. Another person, who shall be nameless betwixt us, has his true heart. Please to pardon my not putting my name; I am only a humble person, and it might get me into trouble. This is all at present, dear sir, from yours,

“A WELL-WISHER.”

“There!” said Miss Gwilt, as she folded the letter up. “If I had been a professed novelist, I could hardly have written more naturally in the character of a servant than that!” She wrote the necessary address to Major Milroy; looked admiringly for the last time at the coarse and clumsy writing which her own delicate hand had produced; and rose to post the letter herself, before she entered next on the serious business of packing up. “Curious!” she thought, when the letter had been posted, and she was back again making her traveling preparations in her own room; “here I am, running headlong into a frightful risk — and I never was in better spirits in my life!”

The boxes were ready when the fly was at the door, and Miss Gwilt was equipped (as becomingly as usual) in her neat traveling costume. The thick veil, which she was accustomed to wear in London, appeared on her country straw bonnet for the first time.” One meets such rude men occasionally in the railway,” she said to the landlady. “And though I dress quietly, my hair is so very remarkable.” She was a little paler than usual; but she had never been so sweet-tempered and engaging, so gracefully cordial and friendly, as now, when the moment of departure had come. The simple people of the house were quite moved at taking leave of her. She insisted on shaking hands with the landlord — on speaking to him in her prettiest way, and sunning him in her brightest smiles. “Come!” she said to the landlady, “you have been so kind, you have been so like a mother to me, you must give me a kiss at parting.” She embraced the children all together in a lump, with a mixture of humor and tenderness delightful to see, and left a shilling among them to buy a cake. “If I was only rich enough to make it a sovereign,” she whispered to the mother, “how glad I should be!” The awkward lad who ran on errands stood waiting at the fly door. He was clumsy, he was frowsy, he had a gaping mouth and a turn-up nose; but the ineradicable female delight in being charming accepted him, for all that, in the character of a last chance. “You dear, dingy John!” she said, kindly, at the carriage door. “I am so poor I have only sixpence to give you — with my very best wishes. Take my advice, John — grow to be a fine man, and find yourself a nice sweetheart! Thank you a thousand times!” She gave him a friendly little pat on the cheek with two of her gloved fingers, and smiled, and nodded, and got into the fly.

“Armadale next!” she said to herself as the carriage drove off.

Allan’s anxiety not to miss the train had brought him to the station in better time than usual. After taking his ticket and putting his portmanteau under the porter’s charge, he was pacing the platform and thinking of Neelie, when he heard the rustling of a lady’s dress behind him, and, turning round to look, found himself face to face with Miss Gwilt.

There was no escaping her this time. The station wall was on his right hand, and the line was on his left; a tunnel was behind him, and Miss Gwilt was in front, inquiring in her sweetest tones whether Mr. Armadale was going to London.

Allan colored scarlet with vexation and surprise. There he was obviously waiting for the train; and there was his portmanteau close by, with his name on it, already labeled for London! What answer but the true one could he make after that? Could he let the train go without him, and lose the precious hours so vitally important to Neelie and himself? Impossible! Allan helplessly confirmed the printed statement on his portmanteau, and heartily wished himself at the other end of the world as he said the words.

“How very fortunate!” rejoined Miss Gwilt. “I am going to London too. Might I ask you Mr. Armadale (as you seem to be quite alone), to be my escort on the journey?”

Allan looked at the little assembly of travelers, and travelers’ friends, collected on the platform, near the booking-office door. They were all Thorpe Ambrose people. He was probably known by sight, and Miss Gwilt was probably known by sight, to every one of them. In sheer desperation, hesitating more awkwardly than ever, he produced his cigar case. “I should be delighted,” he said, with an embarrassment which was almost an insult under the circumstances. “But I— I’m what the people who get sick over a cigar call a slave to smoking.”

“I delight in smoking!” said Miss Gwilt, with undiminished vivacity and good humor. “It’s one of the privileges of the men which I have always envied. I’m afraid, Mr. Armadale, you must think I am forcing myself on you. It certainly looks like it. The real truth is, I want particularly to say a word to you in private about Mr. Midwinter.”

The train came up at the same moment. Setting Midwinter out of the question, the common decencies of politeness left Allan no alternative but to submit. After having been the cause of her leaving her situation at Major Milroy’s, after having pointedly avoided her only a few days since on the high-road, to have declined going to London in the same carriage with Miss Gwilt would have been an act of downright brutality which it was simply impossible to commit. “Damn her!” said Allan, internally, as he handed his traveling companion into an empty carriage, officiously placed at his disposal, before all the people at the station, by the guard. “You shan’t be disturbed, sir,” the man whispered, confidentially, with a smile and a touch of his hat. Allan could have knocked him down with the utmost pleasure. “Stop!” he said, from the window. “I don’t want the carriage —” It was useless; the guard was out of hearing; the whistle blew, and the train started for London.

The select assembly of travelers’ friends, left behind on the platform, congregated in a circle on the spot, with the station-master in the center.

The station-master — otherwise Mr. Mack — was a popular character in the neighborhood. He possessed two social qualifications which invariably impress the average English mind — he was an old soldier, and he was a man of few words. The conclave on the platform insisted on taking his opinion, before it committed itself positively to an opinion of its own. A brisk fire of remarks exploded, as a matter of course, on all sides; but everybody’s view of the subject ended interrogatively, in a question aimed pointblank at the station-master’s ears.

“She’s got him, hasn’t she?” “She’ll come back ‘Mrs. Armadale,’ won’t she?” “He’d better have stuck to Miss Milroy, hadn’t he?” “Miss Milroy stuck to him. She paid him a visit at the great house, didn’t she?” “Nothing of the sort; it’s a shame to take the girl’s character away. She was caught in a thunder-storm close by; he was obliged to give her shelter; and she’s never been near the place since. Miss Gwilt’s been there, if you like, with no thunderstorm to force her in; and Miss Gwilt’s off with him to London in a carriage all to themselves, eh, Mr. Mack?” “Ah, he’s a soft one, that Armadale! with all his money, to take up with a red-haired woman, a good eight or nine years older than he is! She’s thirty if she’s a day. That’s what I say, Mr. Mack. What do you say?” “Older or younger, she’ll rule the roast at Thorpe Ambrose; and I say, for the sake of the place, and for the sake of trade, let’s make the best of it; and Mr. Mack, as a man of the world, sees it in the same light as I do, don’t you, sir?”

“Gentlemen,” said the station-master, with his abrupt military accent, and his impenetrable military manner, “she’s a devilish fine woman. And when I was Mr. Armadale’s age, it’s my opinion, if her fancy had laid that way, she might have married Me.”

With that expression of opinion the station-master wheeled to the right, and intrenched himself impregnably in the stronghold of his own office.

The citizens of Thorpe Ambrose looked at the closed door, and gravely shook their heads. Mr. Mack had disappointed them. No opinion which openly recognizes the frailty of human nature is ever a popular opinion with mankind. “It’s as good as saying that any of us might have married her if we had been Mr. Armadale’s age!” Such was the general impression on the minds of the conclave, when the meeting had been adjourned, and the members were leaving the station.

The last of the party to go was a slow old gentleman, with a habit of deliberately looking about him. Pausing at the door, this observant person stared up the platform and down the platform, and discovered in the latter direction, standing behind an angle of the wall, an elderly man in black, who had escaped the notice of everybody up to that time. “Why, bless my soul!” said the old gentleman, advancing inquisitively by a step at a time, “it can’t be Mr. Bashwood!”

It was Mr. Bashwood — Mr. Bashwood, whose constitutional curiosity had taken him privately to the station, bent on solving the mystery of Allan’s sudden journey to London — Mr. Bashwood, who had seen and heard, behind his angle in the wall, what everybody else had seen and heard, and who appeared to have been impressed by it in no ordinary way. He stood stiffly against the wall, like a man petrified, with one hand pressed on his bare head, and the other holding his hat — he stood, with a dull flush on his face, and a dull stare in his eyes, looking straight into the black depths of the tunnel outside the station, as if the train to London had disappeared in it but the moment before.

“Is your head bad?” asked the old gentleman. “Take my advice. Go home and lie down.”

Mr. Bashwood listened mechanically, with his usual attention, and answered mechanically, with his usual politeness.

“Yes, sir,” he said, in a low, lost tone, like a man between dreaming and waking; “I’ll go home and lie down.”

“That’s right,” rejoined the old gentleman, making for the door. “And take a pill, Mr. Bashwood — take a pill.”

Five minutes later, the porter charged with the business of locking up the station found Mr. Bashwood, still standing bare-headed against the wall, and still looking straight into the black depths of the tunnel, as if the train to London had disappeared in it but a moment since.

“Come, sir!” said the porter; “I must lock up. Are you out of sorts? Anything wrong with your inside? Try a drop of gin-and-bitters.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Bashwood, answering the porter, exactly as he had answered the old gentleman; “I’ll try a drop of gin-and-bitters.”

The porter took him by the arm, and led him out. “You’ll get it there,” said the man, pointing confidentially to a public-house; “and you’ll get it good.”

“I shall get it there,” echoed Mr. Bashwood, still mechanically repeating what was said to him; “and I shall get it good.”

His will seemed to be paralyzed; his actions depended absolutely on what other people told him to do. He took a few steps in the direction of the public-house, hesitated, staggered, and caught at the pillar of one of the station lamps near him.

The porter followed, and took him by the arm once more.

“Why, you’ve been drinking already!” exclaimed the man, with a suddenly quickened interest in Mr. Bashwood’s case. “What was it? Beer?”

Mr. Bashwood, in his low, lost tones, echoed the last word.

It was close on the porter’s dinner-time. But, when the lower orders of the English people believe they have discovered an intoxicated man, their sympathy with him is boundless. The porter let his dinner take its chance, and carefully assisted Mr. Bashwood to reach the public-house. “Gin-and-bitters will put you on your legs again,” whispered this Samaritan setter-right of the alcoholic disasters of mankind.

If Mr. Bashwood had really been intoxicated, the effect of the porter’s remedy would have been marvelous indeed. Almost as soon as the glass was emptied, the stimulant did its work. The long-weakened nervous system of the deputy-steward, prostrated for the moment by the shock that had fallen on it, rallied again like a weary horse under the spur. The dull flush on his cheeks, the dull stare in his eyes, disappeared simultaneously. After a momentary effort, he recovered memory enough of what had passed to thank the porter, and to ask whether he would take something himself. The worthy creature instantly accepted a dose of his own remedy — in the capacity of a preventive — and went home to dinner as only those men can go home who are physically warmed by gin-and-bitters and morally elevated by the performance of a good action.

Still strangely abstracted (but conscious now of the way by which he went), Mr. Bashwood left the public-house a few minutes later, in his turn. He walked on mechanically, in his dreary black garments, moving like a blot on the white surface of the sun-brightened road, as Midwinter had seen him move in the early days at Thorpe Ambrose, when they had first met. Arrived at the point where he had to choose between the way that led into the town and the way that led to the great house, he stopped, incapable of deciding, and careless, apparently, even of making the attempt. “I’ll be revenged on her!” he whispered to himself, still absorbed in his jealous frenzy of rage against the woman who had deceived him. “I’ll be revenged on her,” he repeated, in louder tones, “if I spend every half-penny I’ve got!”

Some women of the disorderly sort, passing on their way to the town, heard him. “Ah, you old brute,” they called out, with the measureless license of their class, “whatever she did, she served you right!”

The coarseness of the voices startled him, whether he comprehended the words or not. He shrank away from more interruption and more insult, into the quieter road that led to the great house.

At a solitary place by the wayside he stopped and sat down. He took off his hat and lifted his youthful wig a little from his bald old head, and tried desperately to get beyond the one immovable conviction which lay on his mind like lead — the conviction that Miss Gwilt had been purposely deceiving him from the first. It was useless. No effort would free him from that one dominant impression, and from the one answering idea that it had evoked — the idea of revenge. He got up again, and put on his hat and walked rapidly forward a little way — then turned without knowing why, and slowly walked back again “If I had only dressed a little smarter!” said the poor wretch, helplessly. “If I had only been a little bolder with her, she might have overlooked my being an old man!” The angry fit returned on him. He clinched his clammy, trembling hands, and shook them fiercely in the empty air. “I’ll be revenged on her,” he reiterated. “I’ll be revenged on her, if I spend every half-penny I’ve got!” It was terribly suggestive of the hold she had taken on him, that his vindictive sense of injury could not get far enough away from her to reach the man whom he believed to be his rival, even yet. In his rage, as in his love, he was absorbed, body and soul, by Miss Gwilt.

In a moment more, the noise of running wheels approaching from behind startled him. He turned and looked round. There was Mr. Pedgift the elder, rapidly overtaking him in the gig, just as Mr. Pedgift had overtaken him once already, on that former occasion when he had listened under the window at the great house, and when the lawyer had bluntly charged him with feeling a curiosity about Miss Gwilt!

In an instant the inevitable association of ideas burst on his mind. The opinion of Miss Gwilt, which he had heard the lawyer express to Allan at parting, flashed back into his memory, side by side with Mr. Pedgift’s sarcastic approval of anything in the way of inquiry which his own curiosity might attempt. “I may be even with her yet,” he thought, “if Mr. Pedgift will help me! — Stop, sir!” he called out, desperately, as the gig came up with him. “If you please, sir, I want to speak to you.”

Pedgift Senior slackened the pace of his fast-trotting mare, without pulling up. “Come to the office in half an hour,” he said; “I’m busy now.” Without waiting for an answer, without noticing Mr. Bashwood’s bow, he gave the mare the rein again, and was out of sight in another minute.

Mr. Bashwood sat down once more in a shady place by the roadside. He appeared to be incapable of feeling any slight but the one unpardonable slight put upon him by Miss Gwilt. He not only declined to resent, he even made the best of Mr. Pedgift’s unceremonious treatment of him. “Half an hour,” he said, resignedly. “Time enough to compose myself; and I want time. Very kind of Mr. Pedgift, though he mightn’t have meant it.”

The sense of oppression in his head forced him once again to remove his hat. He sat with it on his lap, deep in thought; his face bent low, and the wavering fingers of one hand drumming absently on the crown of the hat. If Mr. Pedgift the elder, seeing him as he sat now, could only have looked a little way into the future, the monotonously drumming hand of the deputy-steward might have been strong enough, feeble as it was, to stop the lawyer by the roadside. It was the worn, weary, miserable old hand of a worn, weary, miserable old man; but it was, for all that (to use the language of Mr. Pedgift’s own parting prediction to Allan), the hand that was now destined to “let the light in on Miss Gwilt.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/c71a/chapter33.html

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