Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XV.

The Wedding-Day.

The time was nine o’clock in the morning. The place was a private room in one of the old-fashioned inns which still remain on the Borough side of the Thames. The date was Monday, the 11th of August. And the person was Mr. Bashwood, who had traveled to London on a summons from his son, and had taken up his abode at the inn on the previous day.

He had never yet looked so pitiably old and helpless as he looked now. The fever and chill of alternating hope and despair had dried, and withered, and wasted him. The angles of his figure had sharpened. The outline of his face had shrunk. His dress pointed the melancholy change in him with a merciless and shocking emphasis. Never, even in his youth, had he worn such clothes as he wore now. With the desperate resolution to leave no chance untried of producing an impression on Miss Gwilt, he had cast aside his dreary black garments; he had even mustered the courage to wear his blue satin cravat. His coat was a riding-coat of light gray. He had ordered it, with a vindictive subtlety of purpose, to be made on the pattern of a coat that he had seen Allan wear. His waistcoat was white; his trousers were of the gayest summer pattern, in the largest check. His wig was oiled and scented, and brushed round, on either side, to hide the wrinkles on his temples. He was an object to laugh at; he was an object to weep over. His enemies, if a creature so wretched could have had enemies, would have forgiven him, on seeing him in his new dress. His friends — had any of his friends been left — would have been less distressed if they had looked at him in his coffin than if they had looked at him as he was now. Incessantly restless, he paced the room from end to end. Now he looked at his watch; now he looked out of the window; now he looked at the well-furnished breakfast-table — always with the same wistful, uneasy inquiry in his eyes. The waiter coming in, with the urn of boiling water, was addressed for the fiftieth time in the one form of words which the miserable creature seemed to be capable of uttering that morning: “My son is coming to breakfast. My son is very particular. I want everything of the best — hot things and cold things — and tea and coffee — and all the rest of it, waiter; all the rest of it.” For the fiftieth time, he now reiterated those anxious words. For the fiftieth time, the impenetrable waiter had just returned his one pacifying answer, “All right, sir; you may leave it to me”— when the sound of leisurely footsteps was heard on the stairs; the door opened; and the long-expected son sauntered indolently into the room, with a neat little black leather bag in his hand.

“Well done, old gentleman!” said Bashwood the younger, surveying his father’s dress with a smile of sardonic encouragement. “You’re ready to be married to Miss Gwilt at a moment’s notice!”

The father took the son’s hand, and tried to echo the son’s laugh.

“You have such good spirits, Jemmy,” he said, using the name in its familiar form, as he had been accustomed to use it in happier days. “You always had good spirits, my dear, from a child. Come and sit down; I’ve ordered you a nice breakfast. Everything of the best! everything of the best! What a relief it is to see you! Oh, dear, dear, what a relief it is to see you.” He stopped and sat down at the table, his face flushed with the effort to control the impatience that was devouring him. “Tell me about her!” he burst out, giving up the effort with a sudden self-abandonment. “I shall die, Jemmy, if I wait for it any longer. Tell me! tell me! tell me!”

“One thing at a time,” said Bashwood the younger, perfectly unmoved by his father’s impatience. “We’ll try the breakfast first, and come to the lady afterward! Gently does it, old gentleman — gently does it!”

He put his leather bag on a chair, and sat down opposite to his father, composed, and smiling, and humming a little tune.

No ordinary observation, applying the ordinary rules of analysis, would have detected the character of Bashwood the younger in his face. His youthful look, aided by his light hair and his plump beardless cheeks, his easy manner and his ever-ready smile, his eyes which met unshrinkingly the eyes of every one whom he addressed, all combined to make the impression of him a favorable impression in the general mind. No eye for reading character, but such an eye as belongs to one person, perhaps, in ten thousand, could have penetrated the smoothly deceptive surface of this man, and have seen him for what he really was — the vile creature whom the viler need of Society has fashioned for its own use. There he sat — the Confidential Spy of modern times, whose business is steadily enlarging, whose Private Inquiry Offices are steadily on the increase. There he sat — the necessary Detective attendant on the progress of our national civilization; a man who was, in this instance at least, the legitimate and intelligible product of the vocation that employed him; a man professionally ready on the merest suspicion (if the merest suspicion paid him) to get under our beds, and to look through gimlet-holes in our doors; a man who would have been useless to his employers if he could have felt a touch of human sympathy in his father’s presence; and who would have deservedly forfeited his situation if, under any circumstances whatever, he had been personally accessible to a sense of pity or a sense of shame.

“Gently does it, old gentleman,” he repeated, lifting the covers from the dishes, and looking under them one after the other all round the table. “Gently does it!”

“Don’t be angry with me, Jemmy,” pleaded his father. “Try, if you can, to think how anxious I must be. I got your letter so long ago as yesterday morning. I have had to travel all the way from Thorpe Ambrose — I have had to get through the dreadful long evening and the dreadful long night — with your letter telling me that you had found out who she is, and telling me nothing more. Suspense is very hard to bear, Jemmy, when you come to my age. What was it prevented you, my dear, from coming to me when I got here yesterday evening?”

“A little dinner at Richmond,” said Bashwood the younger. “Give me some tea.”

Mr. Bashwood tried to comply with the request; but the hand with which he lifted the teapot trembled so unmanageably that the tea missed the cup and streamed out on the cloth. “I’m very sorry; I can’t help trembling when I’m anxious,” said the old man, as his son took the tea-pot out of his hand. “I’m afraid you bear me malice, Jemmy, for what happened when I was last in town. I own I was obstinate and unreasonable about going back to Thorpe Ambrose. I’m more sensible now. You were quite right in taking it all on yourself, as soon as I showed you the veiled lady when we saw her come out of the hotel; and you were quite right to send me back the same day to my business in the steward’s office at the Great House.” He watched the effect of these concessions on his son, and ventured doubtfully on another entreaty. “If you won’t tell me anything else just yet,” he said, faintly, “will you tell me how you found her out. Do, Jemmy, do!”

Bashwood the younger looked up from his plate. “I’ll tell you that,” he said. “The reckoning up of Miss Gwilt has cost more money and taken more time than I expected; and the sooner we come to a settlement about it, the sooner we shall get to what you want to know.”

Without a word of expostulation, the father laid his dingy old pocket-book and his purse on the table before the son. Bashwood the younger looked into the purse; observed, with a contemptuous elevation of the eyebrows, that it held no more than a sovereign and some silver; and returned it intact. The pocket-book, on being opened next, proved to contain four five-pound notes. Bashwood the younger transferred three of the notes to his own keeping; and handed the pocket-book back to his father, with a bow expressive of mock gratitude and sarcastic respect.

“A thousand thanks,” he said. “Some of it is for the people at our office, and the balance is for myself. One of the few stupid things, my dear sir, that I have done in the course of my life was to write you word, when you first consulted me, that you might have my services gratis. As you see, I hasten to repair the error. An hour or two at odd times I was ready enough to give you. But this business has taken days, and has got in the way of other jobs. I told you I couldn’t be out of pocket by you — I put it in my letter, as plain as words could say it.”

“Yes, yes, Jemmy. I don’t complain, my dear, I don’t complain. Never mind the money — tell me how you found her out.”

“Besides,” pursued Bashwood, the younger, proceeding impenetrably with his justification of himself, “I have given you the benefit of my experience; I’ve done it cheap. It would have cost double the money if another man had taken this in hand. Another man would have kept a watch on Mr. Armadale as well as Miss Gwilt. I have saved you that expense. You are certain that Mr. Armadale is bent on marrying her. Very good. In that case, while we have our eye on her, we have, for all useful purposes, got our eye on him. Know where the lady is, and you know that the gentleman can’t be far off.”

“Quite true, Jemmy. But how was it Miss Gwilt came to give you so much trouble?”

“She’s a devilish clever woman,” said Bashwood the younger; “that’s how it was. She gave us the slip at a milliner’s shop. We made it all right with the milliner, and speculated on the chance of her coming back to try on a gown she had ordered. The cleverest women lose the use of their wits in nine cases out of ten where there’s a new dress in the case, and even Miss Gwilt was rash enough to go back. That was all we wanted. One of the women from our office helped to try on her new gown, and put her in the right position to be seen by one of our men behind the door. He instantly suspected who she was, on the strength of what he had been told of her; for she’s a famous woman in her way. Of course, we didn’t trust to that. We traced her to her new address; and we got a man from Scotland Yard, who was certain to know her, if our own man’s idea was the right one. The man from Scotland Yard turned milliner’s lad for the occasion, and took her gown home. He saw her in the passage, and identified her in an instant. You’re in luck, I can tell you. Miss Gwilt’s a public character. If we had had a less notorious woman to deal with, she might have cost us weeks of inquiry, and you might have had to pay hundreds of pounds. A day did it in Miss Gwilt’s case; and another day put the whole story of her life, in black and white, into my hand. There it is at the present moment, old gentleman, in my black bag.”

Bashwood the father made straight for the bag with eager eyes and outstretched hand. Bashwood the son took a little key out of his waistcoat pocket, winked, shook his head, and put the key back again.

“I haven’t done breakfast yet,” he said. “Gently does it, my dear sir — gently does it.”

“I can’t wait!” cried the old man, struggling vainly to preserve his self-control. “It’s past nine! It’s a fortnight to-day since she went to London with Mr. Armadale! She may be married to him in a fortnight! She may be married to him this morning! I can’t wait! I can’t wait!”

“There’s no knowing what you can do till you try,” rejoined Bashwood the younger. “Try, and you’ll find you can wait. What has become of your curiosity?” he went on, feeding the fire ingeniously with a stick at a time. “Why don’t you ask me what I mean by calling Miss Gwilt a public character? Why don’t you wonder how I came to lay my hand on the story of her life, in black and white? If you’ll sit down again, I’ll tell you. If you won’t, I shall confine myself to my breakfast.”

Mr. Bashwood sighed heavily, and went back to his chair.

“I wish you were not so fond of your joke, Jemmy,” he said. “I wish, my dear, you were not quite so fond of your joke.”

“Joke?” repeated his son. “It would be serious enough in some people’s eyes, I can tell you. Miss Gwilt has been tried for her life; and the papers in that black bag are the lawyer’s instructions for the Defense. Do you call that a joke?”

The father started to his feet, and looked straight across the table at the son with a smile of exultation that was terrible to see.

“She’s been tried for her life!” he burst out, with a deep gasp of satisfaction. “She’s been tried for her life!” He broke into a low, prolonged laugh, and snapped his fingers exultingly. “Aha-ha-ha! Something to frighten Mr. Armadale in that!”

Scoundrel as he was, the son was daunted by the explosion of pent-up passion which burst on him in those words.

“Don’t excite yourself,” he said, with a sullen suppression of the mocking manner in which he had spoken thus far.

Mr. Bashwood sat down again, and passed his handkerchief over his forehead. “No,” he said, nodding and smiling at his son. “No, no — no excitement, as you say — I can wait now, Jemmy; I can wait now.”

He waited with immovable patience. At intervals, he nodded, and smiled, and whispered to himself, “Something to frighten Mr. Armadale in that!” But he made no further attempt, by word, look, or action, to hurry his son.

Bashwood the younger finished his breakfast slowly, out of pure bravado; lit a cigar with the utmost deliberation; looked at his father, and, seeing him still as immovably patient as ever, opened the black bag at last, and spread the papers on the table.

“How will you have it?” he asked. “Long or short? I have got her whole life here. The counsel who defended her at the trial was instructed to hammer hard at the sympathies of the jury: he went head over ears into the miseries of her past career, and shocked everybody in court in the most workman-like manner. Shall I take the same line? Do you want to know all about her, from the time when she was in short frocks and frilled trousers? or do you prefer getting on at once to her first appearance as a prisoner in the dock?”

“I want to know all about her,” said his father, eagerly. “The worst, and the best — the worst particularly. Don’t spare my feelings, Jemmy — whatever you do, don’t spare my feelings! Can’t I look at the papers myself?”

“No, you can’t. They would be all Greek and Hebrew to you. Thank your stars that you have got a sharp son, who can take the pith out of these papers, and give it a smack of the right flavor in serving it up. There are not ten men in England who could tell you this woman’s story as I can tell it. It’s a gift, old gentleman, of the sort that is given to very few people — and it lodges here.”

He tapped his forehead smartly, and turned to the first page of the manuscript before him, with an unconcealed triumph at the prospect of exhibiting his own cleverness, which was the first expression of a genuine feeling of any sort that had escaped him yet.

“Miss Gwilt’s story begins,” said Bashwood the younger, “in the market-place at Thorpe Ambrose. One day, something like a quarter of a century ago, a traveling quack doctor, who dealt in perfumery as well as medicines, came to the town with his cart, and exhibited, as a living example of the excellence of his washes and hair-oils and so on, a pretty little girl, with a beautiful complexion and wonderful hair. His name was Oldershaw. He had a wife, who helped him in the perfumery part of his business, and who carried it on by herself after his death. She has risen in the world of late years; and she is identical with that sly old lady who employed me professionally a short time since. As for the pretty little girl, you know who she was as well as I do. While the quack was haranguing the mob and showing them the child’s hair, a young lady, driving through the marketplace, stopped her carriage to hear what it was all about, saw the little girl, and took a violent fancy to her on the spot. The young lady was the daughter of Mr. Blanchard, of Thorpe Ambrose. She went home, and interested her father in the fate of the innocent little victim of the quack doctor. The same evening, the Oldershaws were sent for to the great house and were questioned. They declared themselves to be her uncle and aunt — a lie, of course! — and they were quite willing to let her attend the village school, while they stayed at Thorpe Ambrose, when the proposal was made to them. The new arrangement was carried out the next day. And the day after that, the Oldershaws had disappeared, and had left the little girl on the squire’s hands! She evidently hadn’t answered as they expected in the capacity of an advertisement, and that was the way they took of providing for her for life. There is the first act of the play for you! Clear enough, so far, isn’t it?”

“Clear enough, Jemmy, to clever people. But I’m old and slow. I don’t understand one thing. Whose child was she?”

“A very sensible question. Sorry to inform you that nobody can answer it — Miss Gwilt herself included. These Instructions that I’m refering to are founded, of course, on her own statements, sifted by her attorney. All she could remember, on being questioned, was that she was beaten and half starved, somewhere in the country, by a woman who took in children at nurse. The woman had a card with her, stating that her name was Lydia Gwilt, and got a yearly allowance for taking care of her (paid through a lawyer) till she was eight years old. At that time, the allowance stopped; the lawyer had no explanation to offer; nobody came to look after her; nobody wrote. The Oldershaws saw her, and thought she might answer to exhibit; and the woman parted with her for a trifle to the Oldershaws; and the Oldershaws parted with her for good and all to the Blanchards. That’s the story of her birth, parentage, and education! She may be the daughter of a duke, or the daughter of a costermonger. The circumstances may be highly romantic, or utterly commonplace. Fancy anything you like — there’s nothing to stop you. When you’ve had your fancy out, say the word, and I’ll turn over the leaves and go on.”

“Please to go on, Jemmy — please to go on.”

“The next glimpse of Miss Gwilt,” resumed Bashwood the younger, turning over the papers, “is a glimpse at a family mystery. The deserted child was in luck’s way at last. She had taken the fancy of an amiable young lady with a rich father, and she was petted and made much of at the great house, in the character of Miss Blanchard’s last new plaything. Not long afterward Mr. Blanchard and his daughter went abroad, and took the girl with them in the capacity of Miss Blanchard’s little maid. When they came back, the daughter had married, and become a widow, in the interval; and the pretty little maid, instead of returning with them to Thorpe Ambrose, turns up suddenly, all alone, as a pupil at a school in France. There she was, at a first-rate establishment, with her maintenance and education secured until she married and settled in life, on this understanding — that she never returned to England. Those were all the particulars she could be prevailed on to give the lawyer who drew up these instructions. She declined to say what had happened abroad; she declined even, after all the years that had passed, to mention her mistress’s married name. It’s quite clear, of course, that she was in possession of some family secret; and that the Blanchards paid for her schooling on the Continent to keep her out of the way. And it’s equally plain that she would never have kept her secret as she did if she had not seen her way to trading on it for her own advantage at some future time. A clever woman, as I’ve told you already! A devilish clever woman, who hasn’t been knocked about in the world, and seen the ups and downs of life abroad and at home, for nothing.”

“Yes, yes, Jemmy; quite true. How long did she stop, please, at the school in France?”

Bashwood the younger referred to the papers. “She stopped at the French school,” he replied, “till she was seventeen. At that time something happened at the school which I find mildly described in these papers as ‘something unpleasant.’ The plain fact was that the music-master attached to the establishment fell in love with Miss Gwilt. He was a respectable middle-aged man, with a wife and family; and, finding the circumstances entirely hopeless, he took a pistol, and, rashly assuming that he had brains in his head, tried to blow them out. The doctor saved his life, but not his reason; he ended, where he had better have begun, in an asylum. Miss Gwilt’s beauty having been at the bottom of the scandal, it was, of course, impossible — though she was proved to have been otherwise quite blameless in the matter — for her to remain at the school after what had happened. Her ‘friends’ (the Blanchards) were communicated with. And her friends transferred her to another school; at Brussels, this time — What are you sighing about? What’s wrong now?”

“I can’t help feeling a little for the poor music-master, Jemmy. Go on.”

“According to her own account of it, dad, Miss Gwilt seems to have felt for him too. She took a serious turn; and was ‘converted’ (as they call it) by the lady who had charge of her in the interval before she went to Brussels. The priest at the Belgium school appears to have been a man of some discretion, and to have seen that the girl’s sensibilities were getting into a dangerously excited state. Before he could quiet her down, he fell ill, and was succeeded by another priest, who was a fanatic. You will understand the sort of interest he took in the girl, and the way in which he worked on her feelings, when I tell you that she announced it as her decision, after having been nearly two years at the school, to end her days in a convent! You may well stare! Miss Gwilt, in the character of a Nun, is the sort of female phenomenon you don’t often set eyes on.”

“Did she go into the convent?” asked Mr. Bashwood. “Did they let her go in, so friendless and so young, with nobody to advise her for the best?”

“The Blanchards were consulted, as a matter of form,” pursued Bashwood the younger. “They had no objection to her shutting herself up in a convent, as you may well imagine. The pleasantest letter they ever had from her, I’ll answer for it, was the letter in which she solemnly took leave of them in this world forever. The people at the convent were as careful as usual not to commit themselves. Their rules wouldn’t allow her to take the veil till she had tried the life for a year first, and then, if she had any doubt, for another year after that. She tried the life for the first year, accordingly, and doubted. She tried it for the second year, and was wise enough, by that time, to give it up without further hesitation. Her position was rather an awkward one when she found herself at liberty again. The sisters at the convent had lost their interest in her; the mistress at the school declined to take her back as teacher, on the ground that she was too nice-looking for the place; the priest considered her to be possessed by the devil. There was nothing for it but to write to the Blanchards again, and ask them to start her in life as a teacher of music on her own account. She wrote to her former mistress accordingly. Her former mistress had evidently doubted the genuineness of the girl’s resolution to be a nun, and had seized the opportunity offered by her entry into the convent to cut off all further communication between her ex-waiting-maid and herself. Miss Gwilt’s letter was returned by the post-office. She caused inquiries to be made; and found that Mr. Blanchard was dead, and that his daughter had left the great house for some place of retirement unknown. The next thing she did, upon this, was to write to the heir in possession of the estate. The letter was answered by his solicitors, who were instructed to put the law in force at the first attempt she made to extort money from any member of the family at Thorpe Ambrose. The last chance was to get at the address of her mistress’s place of retirement. The family bankers, to whom she wrote, wrote back to say that they were instructed not to give the lady’s address to any one applying for it, without being previously empowered to do so by the lady herself. That last letter settled the question — Miss Gwilt could do nothing more. With money at her command, she might have gone to England and made the Blanchards think twice before they carried things with too high a hand. Not having a half-penny at command, she was helpless. Without money and without friends, you may wonder how she supported herself while the correspondence was going on. She supported herself by playing the piano-forte at a low concert-room in Brussels. The men laid siege to her, of course, in all directions; but they found her insensible as adamant. One of these rejected gentlemen was a Russian; and he was the means of making her acquainted with a countrywoman of his, whose name is unpronounceable by English lips. Let us give her her title, and call her the baroness. The two women liked each other at their first introduction; and a new scene opened in Miss Gwilt’s life. She became reader and companion to the baroness. Everything was right, everything was smooth on the surface. Everything was rotten and everything was wrong under it.”

“In what way, Jemmy? Please to wait a little, and tell me in what way.”

“In this way. The baroness was fond of traveling, and she had a select set of friends about her who were quite of her way of thinking. They went from one city on the Continent to another, and were such charming people that they picked up acquaintances everywhere. The acquaintances were invited to the baroness’s receptions, and card-tables were invariably a part of the baroness’s furniture. Do you see it now? or must I tell you, in the strictest confidence, that cards were not considered sinful on these festive occasions, and that the luck, at the end of the evening, turned out to be almost invariably on the side of the baroness and her friends? Swindlers, all of them; and there isn’t a doubt on my mind, whatever there may be on yours, that Miss Gwilt’s manners and appearance made her a valuable member of the society in the capacity of a decoy. Her own statement is that she was innocent of all knowledge of what really went on; that she was quite ignorant of card-playing; that she hadn’t such a thing as a respectable friend to turn to in the world; and that she honestly liked the baroness, for the simple reason that the baroness was a hearty good friend to her from first to last. Believe that or not, as you please. For five years she traveled about all over the Continent with these card-sharpers in high life, and she might have been among them at this moment, for anything I know to the contrary, if the baroness had not caught a Tartar at Naples, in the shape of a rich traveling Englishman, named Waldron. Aha! that name startles you, does it? You’ve read the Trial of the famous Mrs. Waldron, like the rest of the world? And you know who Miss Gwilt is now, without my telling you?”

He paused, and looked at his father in sudden perplexity. Far from being overwhelmed by the discovery which had just burst on him, Mr. Bashwood, after the first natural movement of surprise, faced his son with a self-possession which was nothing short of extraordinary under the circumstances. There was a new brightness in his eyes, and a new color in his face. If it had been possible to conceive such a thing of a man in his position, he seemed to be absolutely encouraged instead of depressed by what he had just heard. “Go on, Jemmy,” he said, quietly; “I am one of the few people who didn’t read the trial; I only heard of it.”

Still wondering inwardly, Bashwood the younger recovered himself, and went on.

“You always were, and you always will be, behind the age,” he said. “When we come to the trial, I can tell you as much about it as you need know. In the meantime, we must go back to the baroness and Mr. Waldron. For a certain number of nights the Englishman let the card-sharpers have it all their own way; in other words, he paid for the privilege of making himself agreeable to Miss Gwilt. When he thought he had produced the necessary impression on her, he exposed the whole confederacy without mercy. The police interfered; the baroness found herself in prison; and Miss Gwilt was put between the two alternatives of accepting Mr. Waldron’s protection or being thrown on the world again. She was amazingly virtuous, or amazingly clever, which you please. To Mr. Waldron’s astonishment, she told him that she could face the prospect of being thrown on the world; and that he must address her honorably or leave her forever. The end of it was what the end always is, where the man is infatuated and the woman is determined. To the disgust of his family and friends, Mr. Waldron made a virtue of necessity, and married her.”

“How old was he?” asked Bashwood the elder, eagerly.

Bashwood the younger burst out laughing. “He was about old enough, daddy, to be your son, and rich enough to have burst that precious pocket-book of yours with thousand-pound notes! Don’t hang your head. It wasn’t a happy marriage, though he was so young and so rich. They lived abroad, and got on well enough at first. He made a new will, of course, as soon as he was married, and provided handsomely for his wife, under the tender pressure of the honey-moon. But women wear out, like other things, with time; and one fine morning Mr. Waldron woke up with a doubt in his mind whether he had not acted like a fool. He was an ill-tempered man; he was discontented with himself; and of course he made his wife feel it. Having begun by quarreling with her, he got on to suspecting her, and became savagely jealous of every male creature who entered the house. They had no incumbrances in the shape of children, and they moved from one place to another, just as his jealousy inclined him, till they moved back to England at last, after having been married close on four years. He had a lonely old house of his own among the Yorkshire moors, and there he shut his wife and himself up from every living creature, except his servants and his dogs. Only one result could come, of course, of treating a high-spirited young woman in that way. It may be her fate, or it may be chance; but, whenever a woman is desperate, there is sure to be a man handy to take advantage of it. The man in this case was rather a ‘dark horse,’ as they say on the turf. He was a certain Captain Manuel, a native of Cuba, and (according to his own account) an ex-officer in the Spanish navy. He had met Mr. Waldron’s beautiful wife on the journey back to England; had contrived to speak to her in spite of her husband’s jealousy; and had followed her to her place of imprisonment in Mr. Waldron’s house on the moors. The captain is described as a clever, determined fellow — of the daring piratical sort — with the dash of mystery about him that women like —”

“She’s not the same as other women!” interposed Mr. Bashwood, suddenly interrupting his son. “Did she —?” His voice failed him, and he stopped without bringing the question to an end.

“Did she like the captain?” suggested Bashwood the younger, with another laugh. “According to her own account of it, she adored him. At the same time her conduct (as represented by herself) was perfectly innocent. Considering how carefully her husband watched her, the statement (incredible as it appears) is probably true. For six weeks or so they confined themselves to corresponding privately, the Cuban captain (who spoke and wrote English perfectly) having contrived to make a go-between of one of the female servants in the Yorkshire house. How it might have ended we needn’t trouble ourselves to inquire — Mr. Waldron himself brought matters to a crisis. Whether he got wind of the clandestine correspondence or not, doesn’t appear. But this is certain, that he came home from a ride one day in a fiercer temper than usual; that his wife showed him a sample of that high spirit of hers which he had never yet been able to break; and that it ended in his striking her across the face with his riding-whip. Ungentlemanly conduct, I am afraid we must admit; but, to all outward appearance, the riding-whip produced the most astonishing results. From that moment the lady submitted as she had never submitted before. For a fortnight afterward he did what he liked, and she never thwarted him; he said what he liked, and she never uttered a word of protest. Some men might have suspected this sudden reformation of hiding something dangerous under the surface. Whether Mr. Waldron looked at it in that light, I can’t tell you. All that is known is that, before the mark of the whip was off his wife’s face, he fell ill, and that in two days afterward he was a dead man. What do you say to that?”

“I say he deserved it!” answered Mr. Bashwood, striking his hand excitedly on the table, as his son paused and looked at him.

“The doctor who attended the dying man was not of your way of thinking,” remarked Bashwood the younger, dryly. “He called in two other medical men, and they all three refused to certify the death. The usual legal investigation followed. The evidence of the doctors and the evidence of the servants pointed irresistibly in one and the same direction; and Mrs. Waldron was committed for trial, on the charge of murdering her husband by poison. A solicitor in first-rate criminal practice was sent for from London to get up the prisoner’s defense, and these ‘Instructions’ took their form and shape accordingly. — What’s the matter? What do you want now?”

Suddenly rising from his chair, Mr. Bashwood stretched across the table, and tried to take the papers from his son. “I want to look at them,” he burst out, eagerly. “I want to see what they say about the captain from Cuba. He was at the bottom of it, Jemmy — I’ll swear he was at the bottom of it!”

“Nobody doubted that who was in the secret of the case at the time,” rejoined his son. “But nobody could prove it. Sit down again, dad, and compose yourself. There’s nothing here about Captain Manuel but the lawyer’s private suspicions of him, for the counsel to act on or not, at the counsel’s discretion. From first to last she persisted in screening the captain. At the outset of the business she volunteered two statements to the lawyer — both of which he suspected to be false. In the first place she declared that she was innocent of the crime. He wasn’t surprised, of course, so far; his clients were, as a general rule, in the habit of deceiving him in that way. In the second place, while admitting her private correspondence with the Cuban captain, she declared that the letters on both sides related solely to a proposed elopement, to which her husband’s barbarous treatment had induced her to consent. The lawyer naturally asked to see the letters. ‘He has burned all my letters, and I have burned all his,’ was the only answer he got. It was quite possible that Captain Manuel might have burned her letters when he heard there was a coroner’s inquest in the house. But it was in her solicitor’s experience (as it is in my experience too) that, when a woman is fond of a man, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, risk or no risk, she keeps his letters. Having his suspicions roused in this way, the lawyer privately made some inquiries about the foreign captain, and found that he was as short of money as a foreign captain could be. At the same time, he put some questions to his client about her expectations from her deceased husband. She answered, in high indignation, that a will had been found among her husband’s papers, privately executed only a few days before his death, and leaving her no more, out of all his immense fortune, than five thousand pounds. ‘Was there an older will, then,’ says the lawyer, ‘which the new will revoked?’ Yes, there was; a will that he had given into her own possession — a will made when they were first married. ‘Leaving his widow well provided for?’ Leaving her just ten times as much as the second will left her. ‘Had she ever mentioned that first will, now revoked, to Captain Manuel?’ She saw the trap set for her, and said, ‘No, never!’ without an instant’s hesitation. That reply confirmed the lawyer’s suspicions. He tried to frighten her by declaring that her life might pay the forfeit of her deceiving him in this matter. With the usual obstinacy of women, she remained just as immovable as ever. The captain, on his side, behaved in the most exemplary manner. He confessed to planning the elopement; he declared that he had burned all the lady’s letters as they reached him, out of regard for her reputation; he remained in the neighborhood; and he volunteered to attend before the magistrates. Nothing was discovered that could legally connect him with the crime, or that could put him into court on the day of the trial, in any other capacity than the capacity of a witness. I don’t believe myself that there’s any moral doubt (as they call it) that Manuel knew of the will which left her mistress of fifty thousand pounds; and that he was ready and willing, in virtue of that circumstance, to marry her on Mr. Waldron’s death. If anybody tempted her to effect her own release from her husband by making herself a widow, the captain must have been the man. And unless she contrived, guarded and watched as she was, to get the poison for herself, the poison must have come to her in one of the captain’s letters.”

“I don’t believe she used it, if it did come to her!” exclaimed Mr. Bashwood. “I believe it was the captain himself who poisoned her husband!”

Bashwood the younger, without noticing the interruption, folded up the Instructions for the Defense, which had now served their purpose, put them back in his bag, and produced a printed pamphlet in their place.

“Here is one of the published Reports of the Trial,” he said, “which you can read at your leisure, if you like. We needn’t waste time now by going into details. I have told you already how cleverly her counsel paved his way for treating the charge of murder as the crowning calamity of the many that had already fallen on an innocent woman. The two legal points relied on for the defense (after this preliminary flourish) were: First, that there was no evidence to connect her with the possession of poison; and, secondly, that the medical witnesses, while positively declaring that her husband had died by poison, differed in their conclusions as to the particular drug that had killed him. Both good points, and both well worked; but the evidence on the other side bore down everything before it. The prisoner was proved to have had no less than three excellent reasons for killing her husband. He had treated her with almost unexampled barbarity; he had left her in a will (unrevoked so far as she knew) mistress of a fortune on his death; and she was, by her own confession, contemplating an elopement with another man. Having set forth these motives, the prosecution next showed by evidence, which was never once shaken on any single point, that the one person in the house who could by any human possibility have administered the poison was the prisoner at the bar. What could the judge and jury do, with such evidence before them as this? The verdict was Guilty, as a matter of course; and the judge declared that he agreed with it. The female part of the audience was in hysterics; and the male part was not much better. The judge sobbed, and the bar shuddered. She was sentenced to death in such a scene as had never been previously witnessed in an English court of justice. And she is alive and hearty at the present moment; free to do any mischief she pleases, and to poison, at her own entire convenience, any man, woman, or child that happens to stand in her way. A most interesting woman! Keep on good terms with her, my dear sir, whatever you do, for the Law has said to her in the plainest possible English, ‘My charming friend, I have no terrors for you!’”

“How was she pardoned?” asked Mr. Bashwood, breathlessly. “They told me at the time, but I have forgotten. Was it the Home Secretary? If it was, I respect the Home Secretary! I say the Home Secretary was deserving of his place.”

“Quite right, old gentleman!” rejoined Bashwood the younger. “The Home Secretary was the obedient humble servant of an enlightened Free Press, and he was deserving of his place. Is it possible you don’t know how she cheated the gallows? If you don’t, I must tell you. On the evening of the trial, two or three of the young buccaneers of literature went down to two or three newspaper offices, and wrote two or three heart-rending leading articles on the subject of the proceedings in court. The next morning the public caught light like tinder; and the prisoner was tried over again, before an amateur court of justice, in the columns of the newspapers. All the people who had no personal experience whatever on the subject seized their pens, and rushed (by kind permission of the editor) into print. Doctors who had not attended the sick man, and who had not been present at the examination of the body, declared by dozens that he had died a natural death. Barristers without business, who had not heard the evidence, attacked the jury who had heard it, and judged the judge, who had sat on the bench before some of them were born. The general public followed the lead of the barristers and the doctors, and the young buccaneers who had set the thing going. Here was the law that they all paid to protect them actually doing its duty in dreadful earnest! Shocking! shocking! The British Public rose to protest as one man against the working of its own machinery; and the Home Secretary, in a state of distraction, went to the judge. The judge held firm. He had said it was the right verdict at the time, and he said so still. ‘But suppose,’ says the Home Secretary, ‘that the prosecution had tried some other way of proving her guilty at the trial than the way they did try, what would you and the jury have done then?’ Of course it was quite impossible for the judge to say. This comforted the Home Secretary, to begin with. And, when he got the judge’s consent, after that, to having the conflict of medical evidence submitted to one great doctor; and when the one great doctor took the merciful view, after expressly stating, in the first instance, that he knew nothing practically of the merits of the case, the Home Secretary was perfectly satisfied. The prisoner’s death-warrant went into the waste-paper basket; the verdict of the law was reversed by general acclamation; and the verdict of the newspapers carried the day. But the best of it is to come. You know what happened when the people found themselves with the pet object of their sympathy suddenly cast loose on their hands? A general impression prevailed directly that she was not quite innocent enough, after all, to be let out of prison then and there! Punish her a little — that was the state of the popular feeling — punish her a little, Mr. Home Secretary, on general moral grounds. A small course of gentle legal medicine, if you love us, and then we shall feel perfectly easy on the subject to the end of our days.”

“Don’t joke about it!” cried his father. “Don’t, don’t, don’t, Jemmy! Did they try her again? They couldn’t! They dursn’t! Nobody can be tried twice over for the same offense.”

“Pooh! pooh! she could be tried a second time for a second offense,” retorted Bashwood the younger —“and tried she was. Luckily for the pacification of the public mind, she had rushed headlong into redressing her own grievances (as women will), when she discovered that her husband had cut her down from a legacy of fifty thousand pounds to a legacy of five thousand by a stroke of his pen. The day before the inquest a locked drawer in Mr. Waldron’s dressing-room table, which contained some valuable jewelry, was discovered to have been opened and emptied; and when the prisoner was committed by the magistrates, the precious stones were found torn out of their settings and sewed up in her stays. The lady considered it a case of justifiable self-compensation. The law declared it to be a robbery committed on the executors of the dead man. The lighter offense — which had been passed over when such a charge as murder was brought against her — was just the thing to revive, to save appearances in the eyes of the public. They had stopped the course of justice, in the case of the prisoner, at one trial; and now all they wanted was to set the course of justice going again, in the case of the prisoner, at another! She was arraigned for the robbery, after having been pardoned for the murder. And, what is more, if her beauty and her misfortunes hadn’t made a strong impression on her lawyer, she would not only have had to stand another trial, but would have had even the five thousand pounds, to which she was entitled by the second will, taken away from her, as a felon, by the Crown.”

“I respect her lawyer! I admire her lawyer!” exclaimed Mr. Bashwood. “I should like to take his hand, and tell him so.”

“He wouldn’t thank you, if you did,” remarked Bashwood the younger. “He is under a comfortable impression that nobody knows how he saved Mrs. Waldron’s legacy for her but himself.”

“I beg your pardon, Jemmy,” interposed his father. “But don’t call her Mrs. Waldron. Speak of her, please, by her name when she was innocent, and young, and a girl at school. Would you mind, for my sake, calling her Miss Gwilt?”

“Not I! It makes no difference to me what name I give her. Bother your sentiment! let’s go on with the facts. This is what the lawyer did before the second trial came off. He told her she would be found guilty again, to a dead certainty. ‘And this time,’ he said, ‘the public will let the law take its course. Have you got an old friend whom you can trust?’ She hadn’t such a thing as an old friend in the world. ‘Very well, then,’ says the lawyer, you must trust me. Sign this paper; and you will have executed a fictitious sale of all your property to myself. When the right time comes, I shall first carefully settle with your husband’s executors; and I shall then reconvey the money to you, securing it properly (in case you ever marry again) in your own possession. The Crown, in other transactions of this kind, frequently waives its right of disputing the validity of the sale; and, if the Crown is no harder on you than on other people, when you come out of prison you will have your five thousand pounds to begin the world with again.’ Neat of the lawyer, when she was going to be tried for robbing the executors, to put her up to a way of robbing the Crown, wasn’t it? Ha! ha! what a world it is!”

The last effort of the son’s sarcasm passed unheeded by the father. “In prison!” he said to himself. “Oh me, after all that misery, in prison again!”

“Yes,” said Bashwood the younger, rising and stretching himself, “that’s how it ended. The verdict was Guilty; and the sentence was imprisonment for two years. She served her time; and came out, as well as I can reckon it, about three years since. If you want to know what she did when she recovered her liberty, and how she went on afterward, I may be able to tell you something about it — say, on another occasion, when you have got an extra note or two in your pocket-book. For the present, all you need know, you do know. There isn’t the shadow of a doubt that this fascinating lady has the double slur on her of having been found guilty of murder, and of having served her term of imprisonment for theft. There’s your money’s worth for your money — with the whole of my wonderful knack at stating a case clearly, thrown in for nothing. If you have any gratitude in you, you ought to do something handsome, one of these days, for your son. But for me, I’ll tell you what you would have done, old gentleman. If you could have had your own way, you would have married Miss Gwilt.”

Mr. Bashwood rose to his feet, and looked his son steadily in the face.

“If I could have my own way,” he said, “I would marry her now.”

Bashwood the younger started back a step. “After all I have told you?” he asked, in the blankest astonishment.

“After all you have told me.”

“With the chance of being poisoned, the first time you happened to offend her?”

“With the chance of being poisoned,” answered Mr. Bashwood, “in four-and-twenty hours.”

The Spy of the Private Inquiry Office dropped back into his chair, cowed by his father’s words and his father’s looks.

“Mad!” he said to himself. “Stark mad, by jingo!”

Mr. Bashwood looked at his watch, and hurriedly took his hat from a side-table.

“I should like to hear the rest of it,” he said. “I should like to hear every word you have to tell me about her, to the very last. But the time, the dreadful, galloping time, is getting on. For all I know, they may be on their way to be married at this very moment.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Bashwood the younger, getting between his father and the door.

“I am going to the hotel,” said the old man, trying to pass him. “I am going to see Mr. Armadale.”

“What for?”

“To tell him everything you have told me.” He paused after making that reply. The terrible smile of triumph which had once already appeared on his face overspread it again. “Mr. Armadale is young; Mr. Armadale has all his life before him,” he whispered, cunningly, with his trembling fingers clutching his son’s arm. “What doesn’t frighten me will frighten him!”

“Wait a minute,” said Bashwood the younger. “Are you as certain as ever that Mr. Armadale is the man?”

“What man?”

“The man who is going to marry her.”

“Yes! yes! yes! Let me go, Jemmy — let me go.”

The spy set his back against the door, and considered for a moment. Mr. Armadale was rich — Mr. Armadale (if he was not stark mad too) might be made to put the right money-value on information that saved him from the disgrace of marrying Miss Gwilt. “It may be a hundred pounds in my pocket if I work it myself,” thought Bashwood the younger. “And it won’t be a half-penny if I leave it to my father.” He took up his hat and his leather bag. “Can you carry it all in your own addled old head, daddy?” he asked, with his easiest impudence of manner. “Not you! I’ll go with you and help you. What do you think of that?”

The father threw his arms in an ecstasy round the son’s neck. “I can’t help it, Jemmy,” he said, in broken tones. “You are so good to me. Take the other note, my dear — I’ll manage without it — take the other note.”

The son threw open the door with a flourish; and magnanimously turned his back on the father’s offered pocket-book. “Hang it, old gentleman, I’m not quite so mercenary as that!” he said, with an appearance of the deepest feeling. “Put up your pocket-book, and let’s be off.” “If I took my respected parent’s last five-pound note,” he thought to himself, as he led the way downstairs, “how do I know he mightn’t cry halves when he sees the color of Mr. Armadale’s money?” “Come along, dad!” he resumed. “We’ll take a cab and catch the happy bridegroom before he starts for the church!”

They hailed a cab in the street, and started for the hotel which had been the residence of Midwinter and Allan during their stay in London. The instant the door of the vehicle had closed, Mr. Bashwood returned to the subject of Miss Gwilt.

“Tell me the rest,” he said, taking his son’s hand, and patting it tenderly. “Let’s go on talking about her all the way to the hotel. Help me through the time, Jemmy — help me through the time.”

Bashwood the younger was in high spirits at the prospect of seeing the color of Mr. Armadale’s money. He trifled with his father’s anxiety to the very last.

“Let’s see if you remember what I’ve told you already,” he began. “There’s a character in the story that’s dropped out of it without being accounted for. Come! can you tell me who it is?”

He had reckoned on finding his father unable to answer the question. But Mr. Bashwood’s memory, for anything that related to Miss Gwilt, was as clear and ready as his son’s. “The foreign scoundrel who tempted her, and let her screen him at the risk of her own life,” he said, without an instant’s hesitation. “Don’t speak of him, Jemmy — don’t speak of him again!”

“I must speak of him,” retorted the other. “You want to know what became of Miss Gwilt when she got out of prison, don’t you? Very good — I’m in a position to tell you. She became Mrs. Manuel. It’s no use staring at me, old gentleman. I know it officially. At the latter part of last year, a foreign lady came to our place, with evidence to prove that she had been lawfully married to Captain Manuel, at a former period of his career, when he had visited England for the first time. She had only lately discovered that he had been in this country again; and she had reason to believe that he had married another woman in Scotland. Our people were employed to make the necessary inquiries. Comparison of dates showed that the Scotch marriage — if it was a marriage at all, and not a sham — had taken place just about the time when Miss Gwilt was a free woman again. And a little further investigation showed us that the second Mrs. Manuel was no other than the heroine of the famous criminal trial — whom we didn’t know then, but whom we do know now, to be identical with your fascinating friend, Miss Gwilt.”

Mr. Bashwood’s head sank on his breast. He clasped his trembling hands fast in each other, and waited in silence to hear the rest.

“Cheer up!” pursued his son. “She was no more the captain’s wife than you are; and what is more, the captain himself is out of your way now. One foggy day in December last he gave us the slip; and was off to the continent, nobody knew where. He had spent the whole of the second Mrs. Manuel’s five thousand pounds, in the time that had elapsed (between two and three years) since she had come out of prison; and the wonder was, where he had got the money to pay his traveling expenses. It turned out that he had got it from the second Mrs. Manuel herself. She had filled his empty pockets; and there she was, waiting confidently in a miserable London lodging, to hear from him and join him as soon as he was safely settled in foreign parts! Where had she got the money, you may ask naturally enough? Nobody could tell at the time. My own notion is, now, that her former mistress must have been still living, and that she must have turned her knowledge of the Blanchards’ family secret to profitable account at last. This is mere guess-work, of course; but there’s a circumstance that makes it likely guess-work to my mind. She had an elderly female friend to apply to at the time, who was just the woman to help her in ferreting out her mistress’s address. Can you guess the name of the elderly female friend? Not you! Mrs. Oldershaw, of course!”

Mr. Bashwood suddenly looked up. “Why should she go back,” he asked, “to the woman who had deserted her when she was a child?”

“I can’t say,” rejoined his son, “unless she went back in the interests of her own magnificent head of hair. The prison-scissors, I needn’t tell you, had made short work of it with Miss Gwilt’s love-locks, in every sense of the word and Mrs. Oldershaw, I beg to add, is the most eminent woman in England, as restorer-general of the dilapidated heads and faces of the female sex. Put two and two together; and perhaps you’ll agree with me, in this case, that they make four.”

“Yes, yes; two and two make four,” repeated his father, impatiently. “But I want to know something else. Did she hear from him again? Did he send for her after he had gone away to foreign parts?”

“The captain? Why, what on earth can you be thinking of? Hadn’t he spent every farthing of her money? and wasn’t he loose on the Continent out of her reach? She waited to hear from him. I dare say, for she persisted in believing in him. But I’ll lay you any wager you like, she never saw the sight of his handwriting again. We did our best at the office to open her eyes; we told her plainly that he had a first wife living, and that she hadn’t the shadow of a claim on him. She wouldn’t believe us, though we met her with the evidence. Obstinate, devilish obstinate. I dare say she waited for months together before she gave up the last hope of ever seeing him again.”

Mr. Bashwood looked aside quickly out of the cab window. “Where could she turn for refuge next?” he said, not to his son, but to himself. “What, in Heaven’s name, could she do?”

“Judging by my experience of women,” remarked Bashwood the younger, overhearing him, “I should say she probably tried to drown herself. But that’s only guess-work again: it’s all guess-work at this part of her story. You catch me at the end of my evidence, dad, when you come to Miss Gwilt’s proceedings in the spring and summer of the present year. She might, or she might not, have been desperate enough to attempt suicide; and she might, or she might not, have been at the bottom of those inquiries that I made for Mrs. Oldershaw. I dare say you’ll see her this morning; and perhaps, if you use your influence, you may he able to make her finish her own story herself.”

Mr. Bashwood, still looking out of the cab window, suddenly laid his hand on his son’s arm.

“Hush! hush!” he exclaimed, in violent agitation. “We have got there at last. Oh, Jemmy, feel how my heart beats! Here is the hotel.”

“Bother your heart,” said Bashwood the younger. “Wait here while I make the inquiries.”

“I’ll come with you!” cried his father. “I can’t wait! I tell you, I can’t wait!”

They went into the hotel together, and asked for “Mr. Armadale.”

The answer, after some little hesitation and delay, was that Mr. Armadale had gone away six days since. A second waiter added that Mr. Armadale’s friend — Mr. Midwinter — had only left that morning. Where had Mr. Armadale gone? Somewhere into the country. Where had Mr. Midwinter gone? Nobody knew.

Mr. Bashwood looked at his son in speechless and helpless dismay.

“Stuff and nonsense!” said Bashwood the younger, pushing his father back roughly into the cab. “He’s safe enough. We shall find him at Miss Gwilt’s.”

The old man took his son’s hand and kissed it. “Thank you, my dear,” he said, gratefully. “Thank you for comforting me.”

The cab was driven next to the second lodging which Miss Gwilt had occupied, in the neighborhood of Tottenham Court Road.

“Stop here,” said the spy, getting out, and shutting his father into the cab. “I mean to manage this part of the business myself.”

He knocked at the house door. “I have got a note for Miss Gwilt,” he said, walking into the passage, the moment the door was opened.

“She’s gone,” answered the servant. “She went away last night.”

Bashwood the younger wasted no more words with the servant. He insisted on seeing the mistress. The mistress confirmed the announcement of Miss Gwilt’s departure on the previous evening. Where had she gone to? The woman couldn’t say. How had she left? On foot. At what hour? Between nine and ten. What had she done with her luggage? She had no luggage. Had a gentleman been to see her on the previous day? Not a soul, gentle or simple, had come to the house to see Miss Gwilt.

The father’s face, pale and wild, was looking out of the cab window as the son descended the house steps. “Isn’t she there, Jemmy?” he asked, faintly —“isn’t she there?”

“Hold your tongue,” cried the spy, with the native coarseness of his nature rising to the surface at last. “I’m not at the end of my inquiries yet.”

He crossed the road, and entered a coffee-shop situated exactly opposite the house he had just left.

In the box nearest the window two men were sitting talking together anxiously.

“Which of you was on duty yesterday evening, between nine and ten o’clock?” asked Bashwood the younger, suddenly joining them, and putting his question in a quick, peremptory whisper.

“I was, sir,” said one of the men, unwillingly.

“Did you lose sight of the house? — Yes! I see you did.”

“Only for a minute, sir. An infernal blackguard of a soldier came in —”

“That will do,” said Bashwood the younger. “I know what the soldier did, and who sent him to do it. She has given us the slip again. You are the greatest ass living. Consider yourself dismissed.” With those words, and with an oath to emphasize them, he left the coffee-shop and returned to the cab.

“She’s gone!” cried his father. “Oh, Jemmy, Jemmy, I see it in your face!” He fell back into his own corner of the cab, with a faint, wailing cry. “They’re married,” he moaned to himself; his hands falling helplessly on his knees; his hat falling unregarded from his head. “Stop them!” he exclaimed, suddenly rousing himself, and seizing his son in a frenzy by the collar of the coat.

“Go back to the hotel,” shouted Bashwood the younger to the cabman. “Hold your noise!” he added, turning fiercely on his father. “I want to think.”

The varnish of smoothness was all off him by this time. His temper was roused. His pride — even such a man has his pride! — was wounded to the quick. Twice had he matched his wits against a woman’s; and twice the woman had baffled him.

He got out, on reaching the hotel for the second time, and privately tried the servants with the offer of money. The result of the experiment satisfied him that they had, in this instance, really and truly no information to sell. After a moment’s reflection, he stopped, before leaving the hotel, to ask the way to the parish church. “The chance may be worth trying,” he thought to himself, as he gave the address to the driver. “Faster!” he called out, looking first at his watch, and then at his father. “The minutes are precious this morning; and the old one is beginning to give in.”

It was true. Still capable of hearing and of understanding, Mr. Bashwood was past speaking by this time. He clung with both hands to his son’s grudging arm, and let his head fall helplessly on his son’s averted shoulder.

The parish church stood back from the street, protected by gates and railings, and surrounded by a space of open ground. Shaking off his father’s hold, Bashwood the younger made straight for the vestry. The clerk, putting away the books, and the clerk’s assistant, hanging up a surplice, were the only persons in the room when he entered it and asked leave to look at the marriage register for the day.

The clerk gravely opened the book, and stood aside from the desk on which it lay.

The day’s register comprised three marriages solemnized that morning; and the first two signatures on the page were “Allan Armadale” and “Lydia Gwilt!”

Even the spy — ignorant as he was of the truth, unsuspicious as he was of the terrible future consequences to which the act of that morning might lead — even the spy started, when his eye first fell on the page. It was done! Come what might of it, it was done now. There, in black and white, was the registered evidence of the marriage, which was at once a truth in itself, and a lie in the conclusion to which it led! There — through the fatal similarity in the names — there, in Midwinter’s own signature, was the proof to persuade everybody that, not Midwinter, but Allan, was the husband of Miss Gwilt!

Bashwood the younger closed the book, and returned it to the clerk. He descended the vestry steps, with his hands thrust doggedly into his pockets, and with a serious shock inflicted on his professional self-esteem.

The beadle met him under the church wall. He considered for a moment whether it was worth while to spend a shilling in questioning the man, and decided in the affirmative. If they could be traced and overtaken, there might be a chance of seeing the color of Mr. Armadale’s money even yet.

“How long is it,” he asked, “since the first couple married here this morning left the church?”

“About an hour,” said the beadle.

“How did they go away?”

The beadle deferred answering that second question until he had first pocketed his fee.

“You won’t trace them from here, sir,” he said, when he had got his shilling. “They went away on foot.”

“And that is all you know about it?”

“That, sir, is all I know about it.”

Left by himself, even the Detective of the Private Inquiry Office paused for a moment before he returned to his father at the gate. He was roused from his hesitation by the sudden appearance, within the church inclosure, of the driver of the cab.

“I’m afraid the old gentleman is going to be taken ill, sir,” said the man.

Bashwood the younger frowned angrily, and walked back to the cab. As he opened the door and looked in, his father leaned forward and confronted him, with lips that moved speechlessly, and with a white stillness over all the rest of his face.

“She’s done us,” said the spy. “They were married here this morning.”

The old man’s body swayed for a moment from one side to the other. The instant after, his eyes closed and his head fell forward toward the front seat of the cab. “Drive to the hospital!” cried his son. “He’s in a fit. This is what comes of putting myself out of my way to please my father,” he muttered, sullenly raising Mr. Bashwood’s head, and loosening his cravat. “A nice morning’s work. Upon my soul, a nice morning’s work!”

The hospital was near, and the house surgeon was at his post.

“Will he come out of it?” asked Bashwood the younger, roughly.

“Who are you?” asked the surgeon, sharply, on his side.

“I am his son.”

“I shouldn’t have thought it,” rejoined the surgeon, taking the restoratives that were handed to him by the nurse, and turning from the son to the father with an air of relief which he was at no pains to conceal. “Yes,” he added, after a minute or two; “your father will come out of it this time.”

“When can he be moved away from here?”

“He can be moved from the hospital in an hour or two.”

The spy laid a card on the table. “I’ll come back for him or send for him,” he said. “I suppose I can go now, if I leave my name and address?” With those words, he put on his hat, and walked out.

“He’s a brute!” said the nurse.

“No,” said the surgeon, quietly. “He’s a man.”

* * * * * * *

Between nine and ten o’clock that night, Mr. Bashwood awoke in his bed at the inn in the Borough. He had slept for some hours since he had been brought back from the hospital; and his mind and body were now slowly recovering together.

A light was burning on the bedside table, and a letter lay on it, waiting for him till he was awake. It was in his son’s handwriting, and it contained these words:

“My Dear DAD— Having seen you safe out of the hospital, and back at your hotel, I think I may fairly claim to have done my duty by you, and may consider myself free to look after my own affairs. Business will prevent me from seeing you to-night; and I don’t think it at all likely I shall be in your neighborhood to-morrow morning. My advice to you is to go back to Thorpe Ambrose, and to stick to your employment in the steward’s office. Wherever Mr. Armadale may be, he must, sooner or later, write to you on business. I wash my hands of the whole matter, mind, so far as I am concerned, from this time forth. But if you like to go on with it, my professional opinion is (though you couldn’t hinder his marriage), you may part him from his wife.

“Pray take care of yourself.

“Your affectionate son,

“JAMES BASHWOOD.”

The letter dropped from the old man’s feeble hands. “I wish Jemmy could have come to see me to-night,” he thought. “But it’s very kind of him to advise me, all the same.”

He turned wearily on the pillow, and read the letter a second time. “Yes,” he said, “there’s nothing left for me but to go back. I’m too poor and too old to hunt after them all by myself.” He closed his eyes: the tears trickled slowly over his wrinkled cheeks. “I’ve been a trouble to Jemmy,” he murmured, faintly; “I’ve been a sad trouble, I’m afraid, to poor Jemmy!” In a minute more his weakness overpowered him, and he fell asleep again.

The clock of the neighboring church struck. It was ten. As the bell tolled the hour, the tidal train — with Midwinter and his wife among the passengers — was speeding nearer and nearer to Paris. As the bell tolled the hour, the watch on board Allan’s outward-bound yacht had sighted the light-house off the Land’s End, and had set the course of the vessel for Ushant and Finisterre.

The End of the Third Book.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/c71a/chapter36.html

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