Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XIII.

An Old Man’s Heart.

Punctual to the moment, when the half hour’s interval had expired, Mr. Bashwood was announced at the office as waiting to see Mr. Pedgift by special appointment.

The lawyer looked up from his papers with an air of annoyance: he had totally forgotten the meeting by the roadside. “See what he wants,” said Pedgift Senior to Pedgift Junior, working in the same room with him. “And if it’s nothing of importance, put it off to some other time.”

Pedgift Junior swiftly disappeared and swiftly returned.

“Well?” asked the father.

“Well,” answered the son, “he is rather more shaky and unintelligible than usual. I can make nothing out of him, except that he persists in wanting to see you. My own idea,” pursued Pedgift Junior, with his usual, sardonic gravity, “is that he is going to have a fit, and that he wishes to acknowledge your uniform kindness to him by obliging you with a private view of the whole proceeding.”

Pedgift Senior habitually matched everybody — his son included — with their own weapons. “Be good enough to remember, Augustus,” he rejoined, “that my Room is not a Court of Law. A bad joke is not invariably followed by ‘roars of laughter’ here. Let Mr. Bashwood come in.”

Mr. Bashwood was introduced, and Pedgift Junior withdrew. “You mustn’t bleed him, sir,” whispered the incorrigible joker, as he passed the back of his father’s chair. “Hot-water bottles to the soles of his feet, and a mustard plaster on the pit of his stomach — that’s the modern treatment.”

“Sit down, Bashwood,” said Pedgift Senior when they were alone. “And don’t forget that time’s money. Out with it, whatever it is, at the quickest possible rate, and in the fewest possible words.”

These preliminary directions, bluntly but not at all unkindly spoken, rather increased than diminished the painful agitation under which Mr. Bashwood was suffering. He stammered more helplessly, he trembled more continuously than usual, as he made his little speech of thanks, and added his apologies at the end for intruding on his patron in business hours.

“Everybody in the place, Mr. Pedgift, sir, knows your time is valuable. Oh, dear, yes! oh, dear, yes! most valuable, most valuable! Excuse me, sir, I’m coming out with it. Your goodness — or rather your business — no, your goodness gave me half an hour to wait — and I have thought of what I had to say, and prepared it, and put it short.” Having got as far as that, he stopped with a pained, bewildered look. He had put it away in his memory, and now, when the time came, he was too confused to find it. And there was Mr. Pedgift mutely waiting; his face and manner expressive alike of that silent sense of the value of his own time which every patient who has visited a great doctor, every client who has consulted a lawyer in large practice, knows so well. “Have you heard the news, sir?” stammered Mr. Bashwood, shifting his ground in despair, and letting the uppermost idea in his mind escape him, simply because it was the one idea in him that was ready to come out.

“Does it concern me?” asked Pedgift Senior, mercilessly brief, and mercilessly straight in coming to the point.

“It concerns a lady, sir — no, not a lady — a young man, I ought to say, in whom you used to feel some interest. Oh, Mr. Pedgift, sir, what do you think! Mr. Armadale and Miss Gwilt have gone up to London together to-day — alone, sir — alone in a carriage reserved for their two selves. Do you think he’s going to marry her? Do you really think, like the rest of them, he’s going to marry her?”

He put the question with a sudden flush in his face and a sudden energy in his manner. His sense of the value of the lawyer’s time, his conviction of the greatness of the lawyer’s condescension, his constitutional shyness and timidity — all yielded together to his one overwhelming interest in hearing Mr. Pedgift’s answer. He was loud for the first time in his life in putting the question.

“After my experience of Mr. Armadale,” said the lawyer, instantly hardening in look and manner, “I believe him to be infatuated enough to marry Miss Gwilt a dozen times over, if Miss Gwilt chose to ask him. Your news doesn’t surprise me in the least, Bashwood. I’m sorry for him. I can honestly say that, though he has set my advice at defiance. And I’m more sorry still,” he continued, softening again as his mind reverted to his interview with Neelie under the trees of the park —“I’m more sorry still for another person who shall be nameless. But what have I to do with all this? And what on earth is the matter with you?” he resumed, noticing for the first time the abject misery in Mr. Bashwood’s manner, the blank despair in Mr. Bashwood’s face, which his answer had produced. “Are you ill? Is there something behind the curtain that you’re afraid to bring out? I don’t understand it. Have you come here — here in my private room, in business hours — with nothing to tell me but that young Armadale has been fool enough to ruin his prospects for life? Why, I foresaw it all weeks since, and what is more, I as good as told him so at the last conversation I had with him in the great house.”

At those last words, Mr. Bashwood suddenly rallied. The lawyer’s passing reference to the great house had led him back in a moment to the purpose that he had in view.

“That’s it, sir!” he said, eagerly; “that’s what I wanted to speak to you about; that’s what I’ve been preparing in my mind. Mr. Pedgift, sir, the last time you were at the great house, when you came away in your gig, you — you overtook me on the drive.”

“I dare say I did,” remarked Pedgift, resignedly. “My mare happens to be a trifle quicker on her legs than you are on yours, Bashwood. Go on, go on. We shall come in time, I suppose, to what you are driving at.”

“You stopped, and spoke to me, sir,” proceeded Mr. Bashwood, advancing more and more eagerly to his end. “You said you suspected me of feeling some curiosity about Miss Gwilt, and you told me (I remember the exact words, sir)— you told me to gratify my curiosity by all means, for you didn’t object to it.”

Pedgift Senior began for the first time to look interested in hearing more.

“I remember something of the sort,” he replied; “and I also remember thinking it rather remarkable that you should happen — we won’t put it in any more offensive way — to be exactly under Mr. Armadale’s open window while I was talking to him. It might have been accident, of course; but it looked rather more like curiosity. I could only judge by appearances,” concluded Pedgift, pointing his sarcasm with a pinch of snuff; “and appearances, Bashwood, were decidedly against you.”

“I don’t deny it, sir. I only mentioned the circumstance because I wished to acknowledge that I was curious, and am curious about Miss Gwilt.”

“Why?” asked Pedgift Senior, seeing something under the surface in Mr. Bashwood’s face and manner, but utterly in the dark thus far as to what that something might be.

There was silence for a moment. The moment passed, Mr. Bashwood took the refuge usually taken by nervous, unready men, placed in his circumstances, when they are at a loss for an answer. He simply reiterated the assertion that he had just made. “I feel some curiosity sir,” he said, with a strange mixture of doggedness and timidity, “about Miss Gwilt.”

There was another moment of silence. In spite of his practiced acuteness and knowledge of the world, the lawyer was more puzzled than ever. The case of Mr. Bashwood presented the one human riddle of all others which he was least qualified to solve. Though year after year witnesses in thousands and thousands of cases, the remorseless disinheriting of nearest and dearest relations, the unnatural breaking-up of sacred family ties, the deplorable severance of old and firm friendships, due entirely to the intense self-absorption which the sexual passion can produce when it enters the heart of an old man, the association of love with infirmity and gray hairs arouses, nevertheless, all the world over, no other idea than the idea of extravagant improbability or extravagant absurdity in the general mind. If the interview now taking place in Mr. Pedgift’s consulting-room had taken place at his dinner-table instead, when wine had opened his mind to humorous influences, it is possible that he might, by this time, have suspected the truth. But, in his business hours, Pedgift Senior was in the habit of investigating men’s motives seriously from the business point of view; and he was on that very account simply incapable of conceiving any improbability so startling, any absurdity so enormous, as the absurdity and improbability of Mr. Bashwood’s being in love.

Some men in the lawyer’s position would have tried to force their way to enlightenment by obstinately repeating the unanswered question. Pedgift Senior wisely postponed the question until he had moved the conversation on another step. “Well,” he resumed, “let us say you feel a curiosity about Miss Gwilt. What next?”

The palms of Mr. Bashwood’s hands began to moisten under the influence of his agitation, as they had moistened in the past days when he had told the story of his domestic sorrows to Midwinter at the great house. Once more he rolled his handkerchief into a ball, and dabbed it softly to and fro from one hand to the other.

“May I ask if I am right, sir,” he began, “in believing that you have a very unfavorable opinion of Miss Gwilt? You are quite convinced, I think —”

“My good fellow,” interrupted Pedgift Senior, “why need you be in any doubt about it? You were under Mr. Armadale’s open window all the while I was talking to him; and your ears, I presume, were not absolutely shut.”

Mr. Bashwood showed no sense of the interruption. The little sting of the lawyer’s sarcasm was lost in the nobler pain that wrung him from the wound inflicted by Miss Gwilt.

“You are quite convinced, I think, sir,” he resumed, “that there are circumstances in this lady’s past life which would be highly discreditable to her if they were discovered at the present time?”

“The window was open at the great house, Bashwood; and your ears, I presume, were not absolutely shut.”

Still impenetrable to the sting, Mr. Bashwood persisted more obstinately than ever.

“Unless I am greatly mistaken,” he said, “your long experience in such things has even suggested to you, sir, that Miss Gwilt might turn out to be known to the police?”

Pedgift Senior’s patience gave way. “You have been over ten minutes in this room,” he broke out. “Can you, or can you not, tell me in plain English what you want?”

In plain English — with the passion that had transformed him, the passion which (in Miss Gwilt’s own words) had made a man of him, burning in his haggard cheeks — Mr. Bashwood met the challenge, and faced the lawyer (as, the worried sheep faces the dog) on his own ground.

“I wish to say, sir,” he answered, “that your opinion in this matter is my opinion too. I believe there is something wrong in Miss Gwilt’s past life which she keeps concealed from everybody, and I want to be the man who knows it.”

Pedgift Senior saw his chance, and instantly reverted to the question that he had postponed. “Why?” he asked for the second time.

For the second time Mr. Bashwood hesitated.

Could he acknowledge that he had been mad enough to love her, and mean enough to be a spy for her? Could he say, She has deceived me from the first, and she has deserted me, now her object is served. After robbing me of my happiness, robbing me of my honor, robbing me of my last hope left in life, she has gone from me forever, and left me nothing but my old man’s longing, slow and sly, and strong and changeless, for revenge. Revenge that I may have, if I can poison her success by dragging her frailties into the public view. Revenge that I will buy (for what is gold or what is life to me?) with the last farthing of my hoarded money and the last drop of my stagnant blood. Could he say that to the man who sat waiting for his answer? No; he could only crush it down and be silent.

The lawyer’s expression began to harden once more.

“One of us must speak out,” he said; “and as you evidently won’t, I will. I can only account for this extraordinary anxiety of yours to make yourself acquainted with Miss Gwilt’s secrets, in one of two ways. Your motive is either an excessively mean one (no offense, Bashwood, I am only putting the case), or an excessively generous one. After my experience of your honest character and your creditable conduct, it is only your due that I should absolve you at once of the mean motive. I believe you are as incapable as I am — I can say no more — of turning to mercenary account any discoveries you might make to Miss Gwilt’s prejudice in Miss Gwilt’s past life. Shall I go on any further? or would you prefer, on second thoughts, opening your mind frankly to me of your own accord?”

“I should prefer not interrupting you, sir,” said Mr. Bashwood.

“As you please,” pursued Pedgift Senior. “Having absolved you of the mean motive, I come to the generous motive next. It is possible that you are an unusually grateful man; and it is certain that Mr. Armadale has been remarkably kind to you. After employing you under Mr. Midwinter, in the steward’s office, he has had confidence enough in your honesty and your capacity, now his friend has left him, to put his business entirely and unreservedly in your hands. It’s not in my experience of human nature — but it may be possible, nevertheless —-that you are so gratefully sensible of that confidence, and so gratefully interested in your employer’s welfare, that you can’t see him, in his friendless position, going straight to his own disgrace and ruin, without making an effort to save him. To put it in two words. Is it your idea that Mr. Armadale might be prevented from marrying Miss Gwilt, if he could be informed in time of her real character? And do you wish to be the man who opens his eyes to the truth? If that is the case —”

He stopped in astonishment. Acting under some uncontrollable impulse, Mr. Bashwood had started to his feet. He stood, with his withered face lit up by a sudden irradiation from within, which made him look younger than his age by a good twenty years — he stood, gasping for breath enough to speak, and gesticulated entreatingly at the lawyer with both hands.

“Say it again, sir!” he burst out, eagerly, recovering his breath before Pedgift Senior had recovered his surprise. “The question about Mr. Armadale, sir! — only once more! — only once more, Mr. Pedgift, please!”

With his practiced observation closely and distrustfully at work on Mr. Bashwood’ s face, Pedgift Senior motioned to him to sit down again, and put the question for the second time.

“Do I think,” said Mr. Bashwood, repeating the sense, but not the words of the question, “that Mr. Armadale might be parted from Miss Gwilt, if she could be shown to him as she really is? Yes, sir! And do I wish to be the man who does it? Yes, sir! yes, sir!! yes, sir!!!”

“It’s rather strange,” remarked the lawyer, looking at him more and more distrustfully, “that you should be so violently agitated, simply because my question happens to have hit the mark.”

The question happened to have hit a mark which Pedgift little dreamed of. It had released Mr. Bashwood’s mind in an instant from the dead pressure of his one dominant idea of revenge, and had shown him a purpose to be achieved by the discovery of Miss Gwilt’s secrets which had never occurred to him till that moment. The marriage which he had blindly regarded as inevitable was a marriage that might be stopped — not in Allan’s interests, but in his own — and the woman whom he believed that he had lost might yet, in spite of circumstances, be a woman won! His brain whirled as he thought of it. His own roused resolution almost daunted him, by its terrible incongruity with all the familiar habits of his mind, and all the customary proceedings of his life.

Finding his last remark unanswered, Pedgift Senior considered a little before he said anything more.

“One thing is clear,” reasoned the lawyer with himself. “His true motive in this matter is a motive which he is afraid to avow. My question evidently offered him a chance of misleading me, and he has accepted it on the spot. That’s enough for me. If I was Mr. Armadale’s lawyer, the mystery might be worth investigating. As things are, it’s no interest of mine to hunt Mr. Bashwood from one lie to another till I run him to earth at last. I have nothing whatever to do with it; and I shall leave him free to follow his own roundabout courses, in his own roundabout way.” Having arrived at that conclusion, Pedgift Senior pushed back his chair, and rose briskly to terminate the interview.

“Don’t be alarmed, Bashwood,” he began. “The subject of our conversation is a subject exhausted, so far as I am concerned. I have only a few last words to say, and it’s a habit of mine, as you know, to say my last words on my legs. Whatever else I may be in the dark about, I have made one discovery, at any rate. I have found out what you really want with me — at last! You want me to help you.”

“If you would be so very, very kind, sir!” stammered Mr. Bashwood. “If you would only give me the great advantage of your opinion and advice.”

“Wait a bit, Bashwood We will separate those two things, if you please. A lawyer may offer an opinion like any other man; but when a lawyer gives his advice — by the Lord Harry, sir, it’s Professional! You’re welcome to my opinion in this matter; I have disguised it from nobody. I believe there have been events in Miss Gwilt’s career which (if they could be discovered) would even make Mr. Armadale, infatuated as he is, afraid to marry her — supposing, of course, that he really is going to marry her; for, though the appearances are in favor of it so far, it is only an assumption, after all. As to the mode of proceeding by which the blots on this woman’s character might or might not be brought to light in time — she may be married by license in a fortnight if she likes — that is a branch of the question on which I positively decline to enter. It implies speaking in my character as a lawyer, and giving you, what I decline positively to give you, my professional advice.”

“Oh, sir, don’t say that!” pleaded Mr. Bashwood. “Don’t deny me the great favor, the inestimable advantage of your advice! I have such a poor head, Mr. Pedgift! I am so old and so slow, sir, and I get so sadly startled and worried when I’m thrown out of my ordinary ways. It’s quite natural you should be a little impatient with me for taking up your time — I know that time is money, to a clever man like you. Would you excuse me — would you please excuse me, if I venture to say that I have saved a little something, a few pounds, sir; and being quite lonely, with nobody dependent on me, I’m sure I may spend my savings as I please?” Blind to every consideration but the one consideration of propitiating Mr. Pedgift, he took out a dingy, ragged old pocket-book, and tried, with trembling fingers, to open it on the lawyer’s table.

“Put your pocket-book back directly,” said Pedgift Senior. “Richer men than you have tried that argument with me, and have found that there is such a thing (off the stage) as a lawyer who is not to be bribed. I will have nothing to do with the case, under existing circumstances. If you want to know why, I beg to inform you that Miss Gwilt ceased to be professionally interesting to me on the day when I ceased to be Mr. Armadale’s lawyer. I may have other reasons besides, which I don’t think it necessary to mention. The reason already given is explicit enough. Go your own way, and take your responsibility on your own shoulders. You may venture within reach of Miss Gwilt’s claws and come out again without being scratched. Time will show. In the meanwhile, I wish you good-morning — and I own, to my shame, that I never knew till today what a hero you were.”

This time, Mr. Bashwood felt the sting. Without another word of expostulation or entreaty, without even saying “Good-morning” on his side, he walked to the door, opened it, softly, and left the room.

The parting look in his face, and the sudden silence that had fallen on him, were not lost on Pedgift Senior. “Bashwood will end badly,” said the lawyer, shuffling his papers, and returning impenetrably to his interrupted work.

The change in Mr. Bashwood’s face and manner to something dogged and self-contained was so startlingly uncharacteristic of him, that it even forced itself on the notice of Pedgift Junior and the clerks as he passed through the outer office. Accustomed to make the old man their butt, they took a boisterously comic view of the marked alteration in him. Deaf to the merciless raillery with which he was assailed on all sides, he stopped opposite young Pedgift, and, looking him attentively in the face, said, in a quiet, absent manner, like a man thinking aloud, “I wonder whether you would help me?”

“Open an account instantly,” said Pedgift Junior to the clerks, “in the name of Mr. Bashwood. Place a chair for Mr. Bashwood, with a footstool close by, in case he wants it. Supply me with a quire of extra double-wove satin paper, and a gross of picked quills, to take notes of Mr. Bashwood’s case; and inform my father instantly that I am going to leave him and set up in business for myself, on the strength of Mr. Bashwood’s patronage. Take a seat, sir, pray take a seat, and express your feelings freely.”

Still impenetrably deaf to the raillery of which he was the object, Mr. Bashwood waited until Pedgift Junior had exhausted himself, and then turned quietly away.

“I ought to have known better,” he said, in the same absent manner as before. “He is his father’s son all over — he would make game of me on my death-bed.” He paused a moment at the door, mechanically brushing his hat with his hand, and went out into the street.

The bright sunshine dazzled his eyes, the passing vehicles and foot-passengers startled and bewildered him. He shrank into a by-street, and put his hand over his eyes. “I’d better go home,” he thought, “and shut myself up, and think about it in my own room.”

His lodging was in a small house, in the poor quarter of the town. He let himself in with his key, and stole softly upstairs. The one little room he possessed met him cruelly, look round it where he might, with silent memorials of Miss Gwilt. On the chimney-piece were the flowers she had given him at various times, all withered long since, and all preserved on a little china pedestal, protected by a glass shade. On the wall hung a wretched colored print of a woman, which he had caused to be nicely framed and glazed, because there was a look in it that reminded him of her face. In his clumsy old mahogany writing-desk were the few letters, brief and peremptory, which she had written to him at the time when he was watching and listening meanly at Thorpe Ambrose to please her. And when, turning his back on these, he sat down wearily on his sofa-bedstead — there, hanging over one end of it, was the gaudy cravat of blue satin, which he had bought because she had told him she liked bright colors, and which he had never yet had the courage to wear, though he had taken it out morning after morning with the resolution to put it on! Habitually quiet in his actions, habitually restrained in his language, he now seized the cravat as if it was a living thing that could feel, and flung it to the other end of the room with an oath.

The time passed; and still, though his resolution to stand between Miss Gwilt and her marriage remained unbroken, he was as far as ever from discovering the means which might lead him to his end. The more he thought and thought of it, the darker and the darker his course in the future looked to him.

He rose again, as wearily as he had sat down, and went to his cupboard. “I’m feverish and thirsty,” he said; “a cup of tea may help me.” He opened his canister, and measured out his small allowance of tea, less carefully than usual. “Even my own hands won’t serve me to-day!” he thought, as he scraped together the few grains of tea that he had spilled, and put them carefully back in the canister.

In that fine summer weather, the one fire in the house was the kitchen fire. He went downstairs for the boiling water, with his teapot in his hand.

Nobody but the landlady was in the kitchen. She was one of the many English matrons whose path through this world is a path of thorns; and who take a dismal pleasure, whenever the opportunity is afforded them, in inspecting the scratched and bleeding feet of other people in a like condition with themselves. Her one vice was of the lighter sort — the vice of curiosity; and among the many counterbalancing virtues she possessed was the virtue of greatly respecting Mr. Bashwood, as a lodger whose rent was regularly paid, and whose ways were always quiet and civil from one year’s end to another.

“What did you please to want, sir?” asked the landlady. “Boiling water, is it? Did you ever know the water boil, Mr. Bashwood, when you wanted it? Did you ever see a sulkier fire than that? I’ll put a stick or two in, if you’ll wait a little, and give me the chance. Dear, dear me, you’ll excuse my mentioning it, sir, but how poorly you do look to-day!”

The strain on Mr. Bashwood’s mind was beginning to tell. Something of the helplessness which he had shown at the station appeared again in his face and manner as he put his teapot on the kitchen table and sat down.

“I’m in trouble, ma’am,” he said, quietly; “and I find trouble gets harder to bear than it used to be.”

“Ah, you may well say that!” groaned the landlady. “I’m ready for the undertaker, Mr. Bashwood, when my time comes, whatever you may be. You’re too lonely, sir. When you’re in trouble, it’s some help — though not much — to shift a share of it off on another person’s shoulders. If your good lady had only been alive now, sir, what a comfort you would have found her, wouldn’t you?”

A momentary spasm of pain passed across Mr. Bashwood’s face. The landlady had ignorantly recalled him to the misfortunes of his married life. He had been long since forced to quiet her curiosity about his family affairs by telling her that he was a widower, and that his domestic circumstances had not been happy ones; but he had taken her no further into his confidence than this. The sad story which he had related to Midwinter, of his drunken wife who had ended her miserable life in a lunatic asylum, was a story which he had shrunk from confiding to the talkative woman, who would have confided it in her turn to every one else in the house.

“What I always say to my husband when he’s low, sir,” pursued the landlady, intent on the kettle, “is, ‘What would you do now, Sam, without me?’ When his temper don’t get the better of him (it will boil directly, Mr. Bashwood), he says, ‘Elizabeth, I could do nothing.’ When his temper does get the better of him, he says, ‘I should try the public-house, missus; and I’ll try it now.’ Ah, I’ve got my troubles! A man with grown-up sons and daughters tippling in a public-house! I don’t call to mind, Mr. Bashwood, whether you ever had any sons and daughters? And yet, now I think of it, I seem to fancy you said yes, you had. Daughters, sir, weren’t they? and, ah, dear! dear! to be sure! all dead.”

“I had one daughter, ma’am,” said Mr. Bashwood, patiently —“only one, who died before she was a year old.”

“Only one!” repeated the sympathizing landlady. “It’s as near boiling as it ever will be, sir; give me the tea-pot. Only one! Ah, it comes heavier (don’t it?) when it’s an only child? You said it was an only child, I think, didn’t you, sir?”

For a moment, Mr. Bashwood looked at the woman with vacant eyes, and without attempting to answer her. After ignorantly recalling the memory of the wife who had disgraced him, she was now, as ignorantly, forcing him back on the miserable remembrance of the son who had ruined and deserted him. For the first time, since he had told his story to Midwinter, at their introductory interview in the great house, his mind reverted once more to the bitter disappointment and disaster of the past. Again he thought of the bygone days, when he had become security for his son, and when that son’s dishonesty had forced him to sell everything he possessed to pay the forfeit that was exacted when the forfeit was due. “I have a son, ma’am,” he said, becoming conscious that the landlady was looking at him in mute and melancholy surprise. “I did my best to help him forward in the world, and he has behaved very badly to me.”

“Did he, now?” rejoined the landlady, with an appearance of the greatest interest. “Behaved badly to you — almost broke your heart, didn’t he? Ah, it will come home to him, sooner or later. Don’t you fear! ‘Honor your father and mother,’ wasn’t put on Moses’s tables of stone for nothing, Mr. Bashwood. Where may he be, and what is he doing now, sir?”

The question was in effect almost the same as the question which Midwinter had put when the circumstances had been described to him. As Mr. Bashwood had answered it on the former occasion, so (in nearly the same words) he answered it now.

“My son is in London, ma’am, for all I know to the contrary. He was employed, when I last heard of him, in no very creditable way, at the Private Inquiry Office —”

At those words he suddenly checked himself. His face flushed, his eyes brightened; he pushed away the cup which had just been filled for him, and rose from his seat. The landlady started back a step. There was something in her lodger’s face that she had never seen in it before.

“I hope I’ve not offended you, sir,” said the woman, recovering her self-possession, and looking a little too ready to take offense on her side, at a moment’s notice.

“Far from it, ma’am, far from it!” he rejoined, in a strangely eager, hurried way. “I have just remembered something — something very important. I must go upstairs — it’s a letter, a letter, a letter. I’ll come back to my tea, ma’am. I beg your pardon, I’m much obliged to you, you’ve been very kind — I’ll say good-by, if you’ll allow me, for the present.” To the landlady’s amazement, he cordially shook hands with her, and made for the door, leaving tea and tea-pot to take care of themselves.

The moment he reached his own room, he locked himself in. For a little while he stood holding by the chimney-piece, waiting to recover his breath. The moment he could move again, he opened his writing-desk on the table. “That for you, Mr. Pedgift and Son!” he said, with a snap of his fingers as he sat down. “I’ve got a son too!”

There was a knock at the door — a knock, soft, considerate, and confidential. The anxious landlady wished to know whether Mr. Bashwood was ill, and begged to intimate for the second time that she earnestly trusted she had given him no offense.

“No! no!” he called through the door. “I’m quite well — I’m writing, ma’am, I’m writing — please to excuse me. She’s a good woman; she’s an excellent woman,” he thought, when the landlady had retired. “I’ll make her a little present. My mind’s so unsettled, I might never have thought of it but for her. Oh, if my boy is at the office still! Oh, if I can only write a letter that will make him pity me!”

He took up his pen, and sat thinking anxiously, thinking long, before he touched the paper. Slowly, with many patient pauses to think and think again, and with more than ordinary care to make his writing legible, he traced these lines:

“My Dear JAMES— You will be surprised, I am afraid, to see my handwriting. Pray don’t suppose I am going to ask you for money, or to reproach you for having sold me out of house and home when you forfeited your security, and I had to pay. I am willing and anxious to let by-gones be by-gones, and to forget the past.

“It is in your power (if you are still at the Private Inquiry Office) to do me a great service. I am in sore anxiety and trouble on the subject of a person in whom I am interested. The person is a lady. Please don’t make game of me for confessing this, if you can help it. If you knew what I am now suffering, I think you would be more inclined to pity than to make game of me.

“I would enter into particulars, only I know your quick temper, and I fear exhausting your patience. Perhaps it may be enough to say that I have reason to believe the lady’s past life has not been a very creditable one, and that I am interested — more interested than words can tell — in finding out what her life has really been, and in making the discovery within a fortnight from the present time.

“Though I know very little about the ways of business in an office like yours, I can understand that, without first having the lady’s present address, nothing can be done to help me. Unfortunately, I am not yet acquainted with her present address. I only know that she went to town to-day, accompanied by a gentleman, in whose employment I now am, and who (as I believe) will be likely to write to me for money before many days more are over his head.

“Is this circumstance of a nature to help us? I venture to say ‘us,’ because I count already, my dear boy, on your kind assistance and advice. Don’t let money stand between us; I have saved a little something, and it is all freely at your disposal. Pray, pray write to me by return of post! If you will only try your best to end the dreadful suspense under which I am now suffering, you will atone for all the grief and disappointment you caused me in times that are past, and you will confer an obligation that he will never forget on

“Your affectionate father,

“FELIX BASHWOOD.”

After waiting a little, to dry his eyes, Mr. Bashwood added the date and address, and directed the letter to his son, at “The Private Inquiry Office, Shadyside Place, London.” That done, he went out at once, and posted his letter with his own hands. It was then Monday; and, if the answer was sent by return of post, the answer would be received on Wednesday morning.

The interval day, the Tuesday, was passed by Mr. Bashwood in the steward’s office at the great house. He had a double motive for absorbing himself as deeply as might be in the various occupations connected with the management of the estate. In the first place, employment helped him to control the devouring impatience with which he looked for the coming of the next day. In the second place, the more forward he was with the business of the office, the more free he would be to join his son in London, without attracting suspicion to himself by openly neglecting the interests placed under his charge.

Toward the Tuesday afternoon, vague rumors of something wrong at the cottage found their way (through Major Milroy’s servants) to the servants at the great house, and attempted ineffectually through this latter channel to engage the attention of Mr. Bashwood, impenetrably fixed on other things. The major and Miss Neelie had been shut up together in mysterious conference; and Miss Neelie’s appearance after the close of the interview plainly showed that she had been crying. This had happened on the Monday afternoon; and on the next day (that present Tuesday) the major had startled the household by announcing briefly that his daughter wanted a change to the air of the seaside, and that he proposed taking her himself, by the next train, to Lowestoft. The two had gone away together, both very serious and silent, but both, apparently, very good friends, for all that. Opinions at the great house attributed this domestic revolution to the reports current on the subject of Allan and Miss Gwilt. Opinions at the cottage rejected that solution of the difficulty, on practical grounds. Miss Neelie had remained inaccessibly shut up in her own room, from the Monday afternoon to the Tuesday morning when her father took her away. The major, during the same interval, had not been outside the door, and had spoken to nobody And Mrs. Milroy, at the first attempt of her new attendant to inform her of the prevailing scandal in the town, had sealed the servant’s lips by flying into one of her terrible passions the instant Miss Gwilt’s name was mentioned. Something must have happened, of course, to take Major Milroy and his daughter so suddenly from home; but that something was certainly not Mr. Armadale’s scandalous elopement, in broad daylight, with Miss Gwilt.

The afternoon passed, and the evening passed, and no other event happened but the purely private and personal event which had taken place at the cottage. Nothing occurred (for nothing in the nature of things could occur) to dissipate the delusion on which Miss Gwilt had counted — the delusion which all Thorpe Ambrose now shared with Mr. Bashwood, that she had gone privately to London with Allan in the character of Allan’s future wife.

On the Wednesday morning, the postman, entering the street in which Mr. Bashwood lived, was encountered by Mr. Bashwood himself, so eager to know if there was a letter for him that he had come out without his hat. There was a letter for him — the letter that he longed for from his vagabond son.

These were the terms in which Bashwood the younger answered his father’s supplication for help — after having previously ruined his father’s prospects for life:

“Shadyside Place. Tuesday, July 29th.

“My Dear DAD— We have some little practice in dealing with mysteries at this office; but the mystery of your letter beats me altogether. Are you speculating on the interesting hidden frailties of some charming woman? Or, after your experience of matrimony, are you actually going to give me a stepmother at this time of day? Whichever it is, upon my life your letter interests me.

“I am not joking, mind — though the temptation is not an easy one to resist. On the contrary, I have given you a quarter of an hour of my valuable time already. The place you date from sounded somehow familiar to me. I referred back to the memorandum book, and found that I was sent down to Thorpe Ambrose to make private inquiries not very long since. My employer was a lively old lady, who was too sly to give us her right name and address. As a matter of course, we set to work at once, and found out who she was. Her name is Mrs. Oldershaw; and, if you think of her for my stepmother, I strongly recommend you to think again before you make her Mrs. Bashwood.

“If it is not Mrs. Oldershaw, then all I can do, so far, is to tell you how you may find out the unknown lady’s address. Come to town yourself as soon as you get the letter you expect from the gentleman who has gone away with her (I hope he is not a handsome young man, for your sake) and call here. I will send somebody to help you in watching his hotel or lodgings; and if he communicates with the lady, or the lady with him, you may consider her address discovered from that moment. Once let me identify her, and know where she is, and you shall see all her charming little secrets as plainly as you see the paper on which your affectionate son is now writing to you.

“A word more about the terms. I am as willing as you are to be friends again; but, though I own you were out of pocket by me once, I can’t afford to be out of pocket by you. It must be understood that you are answerable for all the expenses of the inquiry. We may have to employ some of the women attached to this office, if your lady is too wideawake or too nice-looking to be dealt with by a man. There will be cab hire, and postage-stamps — admissions to public amusements, if she is inclined that way — shillings for pew-openers, if she is serious, and takes our people into churches to hear popular preachers, and so on. My own professional services you shall have gratis; but I can’t lose by you as well. Only remember that, and you shall have your way. By-gones shall be by-gones, and we will forget the past.

“Your affectionate son,

“JAMES BASHWOOD.”

In the ecstasy of seeing help placed at last within his reach, the father put his son’s atrocious letter to his lips. “My good boy!” he murmured, tenderly —“my dear, good boy!”

He put the letter down, and fell into a new train of thought. The next question to face was the serious question of time. Mr. Pedgift had told him Miss Gwilt might be married in a fortnight. One day of the fourteen had passed already, and another was passing. He beat his hand impatiently on the table at his side, wondering how soon the want of money would force Allan to write to him from London. “To-morrow?” he asked himself. “Or next day?”

The morrow passed, and nothing happened. The next day came, and the letter arrived! It was on business, as he had anticipated; it asked for money, as he had anticipated; and there, at the end of it, in a postscript, was the address added, concluding with the words, “You may count on my staying here till further notice.”

He gave one deep gasp of relief, and instantly busied himself — though there were nearly two hours to spare before the train started for London — in packing his bag. The last thing he put in was his blue satin cravat. “She likes bright colors,” he said, “and she may see me in it yet!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/c71a/chapter34.html

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