Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Book the Fourth.

Chapter I.

Miss Gwilt’s Diary.

“NAPLES, October 10th. — It is two months to-day since I declared that I had closed my Diary, never to open it again.

“Why have I broken my resolution? Why have I gone back to this secret friend of my wretchedest and wickedest hours? Because I am more friendless than ever; because I am more lonely than ever, though my husband is sitting writing in the next room to me. My misery is a woman’s misery, and it will speak — here, rather than nowhere; to my second self, in this book, if I have no one else to hear me.

“How happy I was in the first days that followed our marriage, and how happy I made him! Only two months have passed, and that time is a by-gone time already! I try to think of anything I might have said or done wrongly, on my side — of anything he might have said or done wrongly, on his; and I can remember nothing unworthy of my husband, nothing unworthy of myself. I cannot even lay my finger on the day when the cloud first rose between us.

“I could bear it, if I loved him less dearly than I do. I could conquer the misery of our estrangement, if he only showed the change in him as brutally as other men would show it.

“But this never has happened — never will happen. It is not in his nature to inflict suffering on others. Not a hard word, not a hard look, escapes him. It is only at night, when I hear him sighing in his sleep, and sometimes when I see him dreaming in the morning hours, that I know how hopelessly I am losing the love he once felt for me. He hides, or tries to hide, it in the day, for my sake. He is all gentleness, all kindness; but his heart is not on his lips when he kisses me now; his hand tells me nothing when it touches mine. Day after day the hours that he gives to his hateful writing grow longer and longer; day after day he becomes more and more silent in the hours that he gives to me.

“And, with all this, there is nothing that I can complain of — nothing marked enough to justify me in noticing it. His disappointment shrinks from all open confession; his resignation collects itself by such fine degrees that even my watchfulness fails to see the growth of it. Fifty times a day I feel the longing in me to throw my arms round his neck, and say: ‘For God’s sake, do anything to me, rather than treat me like this!’ and fifty times a day the words are forced back into my heart by the cruel considerateness of his conduct; which gives me no excuse for speaking them. I thought I had suffered the sharpest pain that I could feel when my first husband laid his whip across my face. I thought I knew the worst that despair could do on the day when I knew that the other villain, the meaner villain still, had cast me off. Live and learn. There is sharper pain than I felt under Waldron’s whip; there is bitterer despair than the despair I knew when Manuel deserted me.

“Am I too old for him? Surely not yet! Have I lost my beauty? Not a man passes me in the street but his eyes tell me I am as handsome as ever.

“Ah, no! no! the secret lies deeper than that! I have thought and thought about it till a horrible fancy has taken possession of me. He has been noble and good in his past life, and I have been wicked and disgraced. Who can tell what a gap that dreadful difference may make between us, unknown to him and unknown to me? It is folly, it is madness; but, when I lie awake by him in the darkness, I ask myself whether any unconscious disclosure of the truth escapes me in the close intimacy that now unites us? Is there an unutterable Something left by the horror of my past life, which clings invisibly to me still? And is he feeling the influence of it, sensibly, and yet incomprehensibly to himself? Oh me! is there no purifying power in such love as mine? Are there plague-spots of past wickedness on my heart which no after-repentance can wash out?

“Who can tell? There is something wrong in our married life — I can only come back to that. There is some adverse influence that neither he nor I can trace which is parting us further and further from each other day by day. Well! I suppose I shall be hardened in time, and learn to bear it.

“An open carriage has just driven by my window, with a nicely dressed lady in it. She had her husband by her side, and her children on the seat opposite. At the moment when I saw her she was laughing and talking in high spirits — a sparkling, light-hearted, happy woman. Ah, my lady, when you were a few years younger, if you had been left to yourself, and thrown on the world like me —

“October 11th. — The eleventh day of the month was the day (two months since) when we were married. He said nothing about it to me when we woke, nor I to him. But I thought I would make it the occasion, at breakfast-time, of trying to win him back.

“I don’t think I ever took such pains with my toilet before. I don’t think I ever looked better than I looked when I went downstairs this morning. He had breakfasted by himself, and I found a little slip of paper on the table with an apology written on it. The post to England, he said, went out that day and his letter to the newspaper must be finished. In his place I would have let fifty posts go out rather than breakfast without him. I went into his room. There he was, immersed body and soul in his hateful writing! ‘Can’t you give me a little time this morning?’ I asked. He got up with a start. ‘Certainly, if you wish it.’ He never even looked at me as he said the words. The very sound of his voice told me that all his interest was centered in the pen that he had just laid down. ‘I see you are occupied,’ I said; ‘I don’t wish it.’ Before I had closed the door on him he was back at his desk. I have often heard that the wives of authors have been for the most part unhappy women. And now I know why.

“I suppose, as I said yesterday, I shall learn to bear it. (What stuff, by-the-by, I seem to have written yesterday! How ashamed I should be if anybody saw it but myself!) I hope the trumpery newspaper he writes for won’t succeed! I hope his rubbishing letter will be well cut up by some other newspaper as soon as it gets into print!

“What am I to do with myself all the morning? I can’t go out, it’s raining. If I open the piano, I shall disturb the industrious journalist who is scribbling in the next room. Oh, dear, it was lonely enough in my lodging in Thorpe Ambrose, but how much lonelier it is here! Shall I read? No; books don’t interest me; I hate the whole tribe of authors. I think I shall look back through these pages, and live my life over again when I was plotting and planning, and finding a new excitement to occupy me in every new hour of the day.

“He might have looked at me, though he was so busy with his writing. — He might have said, ‘How nicely you are dressed this morning!’ He might have remembered — never mind what! All he remembers is the newspaper.

“Twelve o’clock. — I have been reading and thinking; and, thanks to my Diary, I have got through an hour.

“What a time it was — what a life it was, at Thorpe Ambrose! I wonder I kept my senses. It makes my heart beat, it makes my face flush, only to read about it now!

“The rain still falls, and the journalist still scribbles. I don’t want to think the thoughts of that past time over again. And yet, what else can I do?

“Supposing — I only say supposing — I felt now, as I felt when I traveled to London with Armadale; and when I saw my way to his life as plainly as I saw the man himself all through the journey . . .?

“I’ll go and look out of the window. I’ll go and count the people as they pass by.

“A funeral has gone by, with the penitents in their black hoods, and the wax torches sputtering in the wet, and the little bell ringing, and the priests droning their monotonous chant. A pleasant sight to meet me at the window! I shall go back to my Diary.

“Supposing I was not the altered woman I am — I only say, supposing — how would the Grand Risk that I once thought of running look now? I have married Midwinter in the name that is really his own. And by doing that I have taken the first of those three steps which were once to lead me, through Armadale’s life, to the fortune and the station of Armadale’s widow. No matter how innocent my intentions might have been on the wedding- day — and they were innocent — this is one of the unalterable results of the marriage. Well, having taken the first step, then, whether I would or no, how — supposing I meant to take the second step, which I don’t — how would present circumstances stand toward me? Would they warn me to draw back, I wonder? or would they encourage me to go on?

“It will interest me to calculate the chances; and I can easily tear the leaf out, and destroy it, if the prospect looks too encouraging.

“We are living here (for economy’s sake) far away from the expensive English quarter, in a suburb of the city, on the Portici side. We have made no traveling acquaintances among our own country people. Our poverty is against us; Midwinter’s shyness is against us; and (with the women) my personal appearance is against us. The men from whom my husband gets his information for the newspaper meet him at the cafe, and never come here. I discourage his bringing any strangers to see me; for, though years have passed since I was last at Naples, I cannot be sure that some of the many people I once knew in this place may not be living still. The moral of all this is (as the children’s storybooks say), that not a single witness has come to this house who could declare, if any after-inquiry took place in England, that Midwinter and I had been living here as man and wife. So much for present circumstances as they affect me.

“Armadale next. Has any unforeseen accident led him to communicate with Thorpe Ambrose? Has he broken the conditions which the major imposed on him, and asserted himself in the character of Miss Milroy’s promised husband since I saw him last?

“Nothing of the sort has taken place. No unforeseen accident has altered his position — his tempting position — toward myself. I know all that has happened to him since he left England, through the letters which he writes to Midwinter, and which Midwinter shows to me.

“He has been wrecked, to begin with. His trumpery little yacht has actually tried to drown him, after all, and has failed! It happened (as Midwinter warned him it might happen with so small a vessel) in a sudden storm. They were blown ashore on the coast of Portugal. The yacht went to pieces, but the lives, and papers, and so on, were saved. The men have been sent back to Bristol, with recommendations from their master which have already got them employment on board an outward-bound ship. And the master himself is on his way here, after stopping first at Lisbon, and next at Gibraltar, and trying ineffectually in both places to supply himself with another vessel. His third attempt is to be made at Naples, where there is an English yacht ‘laid up,’ as they call it, to be had for sale or hire. He has had no occasion to write home since the wreck; for he took away from Coutts’s the whole of the large sum of money lodged there for him, in circular notes. And he has felt no inclination to go back to England himself; for, with Mr. Brock dead, Miss Milroy at school, and Midwinter here, he has not a living creature in whom he is interested to welcome him if he returned. To see us, and to see the new yacht, are the only two present objects he has in view. Midwinter has been expecting him for a week past, and he may walk into this very room in which I am writing, at this very moment, for all I know to the contrary.

“Tempting circumstances, these — with all the wrongs I have suffered at his mother’s hands and at his, still alive in my memory; with Miss Milroy confidently waiting to take her place at the head of his household; with my dream of living happy and innocent in Midwinter’s love dispelled forever, and with nothing left in its place to help me against myself. I wish it wasn’t raining; I wish I could go out.

“Perhaps something may happen to prevent Armadale from coming to Naples? When he last wrote, he was waiting at Gibraltar for an English steamer in the Mediterranean trade to bring him on here. He may get tired of waiting before the steamer comes, or he may hear of a yacht at some other place than this. A little bird whispers in my ear that it may possibly be the wisest thing he ever did in his life if he breaks his engagement to join us at Naples.

“Shall I tear out the leaf on which all these shocking things have been written? No. My Diary is so nicely bound — it would be positive barbarity to tear out a leaf. Let me occupy myself harmlessly with something else. What shall it be? My dressing-case — I will put my dressing-case tidy, and polish up the few little things in it which my misfortunes have still left in my possession.

“I have shut up the dressing-case again. The first thing I found in it was Armadale’s shabby present to me on my marriage — the rubbishing little ruby ring. That irritated me, to begin with. The second thing that turned up was my bottle of Drops. I caught myself measuring the doses with my eye, and calculating how many of them would be enough to take a living creature over the border-land between sleep and death. Why I should have locked the dressing-case in a fright, before I had quite completed my calculation, I don’t know; but I did lock it. And here I am back again at my Diary, with nothing, absolutely nothing, to write about. Oh, the weary day! the weary day! Will nothing happen to excite me a little in this horrible place?

“October 12th. — Midwinter’s all-important letter to the newspaper was dispatched by the post last night. I was foolish enough to suppose that I might be honored by having some of his spare attention bestowed on me to-day. Nothing of the sort! He had a restless night, after all his writing, and got up with his head aching, and his spirits miserably depressed. When he is in this state, his favorite remedy is to return to his old vagabond habits, and go roaming away by himself nobody knows where. He went through the form this morning (knowing I had no riding habit) of offering to hire a little broken-kneed brute of a pony for me, in case I wished to accompany him! I preferred remaining at home. I will have a handsome horse and a handsome habit, or I won’t ride at all. He went away, without attempting to persuade me to change my mind. I wouldn’t have changed it, of course; but he might have tried to persuade me all the same.

“I can open the piano in his absence — that is one comfort. And I am in a fine humor for playing — that is another. There is a sonata of Beethoven’s (I forget the number), which always suggests to me the agony of lost spirits in a place of torment. Come, my fingers and thumbs, and take me among the lost spirits this morning!

“October 13th. — Our windows look out on the sea. At noon to-day we saw a steamer coming in, with the English flag flying. Midwinter has gone to the port, on the chance that this may be the vessel from Gibraltar, with Armadale on board.

“Two o’clock. — It is the vessel from Gibraltar. Armadale has added one more to the long list of his blunders: he has kept his engagement to join us at Naples.

“How will it end now?

“Who knows?

“October 16th. — Two days missed out of my Diary! I can hardly tell why, unless it is that Armadale irritates me beyond all endurance. The mere sight of him takes me back to Thorpe Ambrose. I fancy I must have been afraid of what I might write about him, in the course of the last two days, if I indulged myself in the dangerous luxury of opening these pages.

“This morning I am afraid of nothing, and I take up my pen again accordingly.

“Is there any limit, I wonder, to the brutish stupidity of some men? I thought I had discovered Armadale’s limit when I was his neighbor in Norfolk; but my later experience at Naples shows me that I was wrong. He is perpetually in and out of this house (crossing over to us in a boat from the hotel at Santa Lucia, where he sleeps); and he has exactly two subjects of conversation — the yacht for sale in the harbor here, and Miss Milroy. Yes! he selects ME as the confidante of his devoted attachment to the major’s daughter! ‘It’s so nice to talk to a woman about it!’ That is all the apology he has thought it necessary to make for appealing to my sympathies — my sympathies! — on the subject of ‘his darling Neelie,’ fifty times a day. He is evidently persuaded (if he thinks about it at all) that I have forgotten, as completely as he has forgotten, all that once passed between us when I was first at Thorpe Ambrose. Such an utter want of the commonest delicacy and the commonest tact, in a creature who is, to all appearance, possessed of a skin, and not a hide, and who does, unless my ears deceive me, talk, and not bray, is really quite incredible when one comes to think of it. But it is, for all that, quite true. He asked me — he actually asked me, last night — how many hundreds a year the wife of a rich man could spend on her dress. ‘Don’t put it too low,’ the idiot added, with his intolerable grin. ‘Neelie shall be one of the best-dressed women in England when I have married her.’ And this to me, after having had him at my feet, and then losing him again through Miss Milroy! This to me, with an alpaca gown on, and a husband whose income must be helped by a newspaper!

“I had better not dwell on it any longer. I had better think and write of something else.

“The yacht. As a relief from hearing about Miss Milroy, I declare the yacht in the harbor is quite an interesting subject to me! She (the men call a vessel ‘She’; and I suppose, if the women took an interest in such things, they would call a vessel ‘He’)— she is a beautiful model; and her ‘top-sides’ (whatever they may be) are especially distinguished by being built of mahogany. But, with these merits, she has the defect, on the other hand, of being old — which is a sad drawback — and the crew and the sailing-master have been ‘paid off,’ and sent home to England — which is additionally distressing. Still, if a new crew and a new sailing-master can be picked up here, such a beautiful creature (with all her drawbacks), is not to be despised. It might answer to hire her for a cruise, and to see how she behaves. (If she is of my mind, her behavior will rather astonish her new master!) The cruise will determine what faults she has, and what repairs, through the unlucky circumstance of her age, she really stands in need of. And then it will be time to settle whether to buy her outright or not. Such is Armadale’s conversation when he is not talking of ‘his darling Neelie.’ And Midwinter, who can steal no time from his newspaper work for his wife, can steal hours for his friend, and can offer them unreservedly to my irresistible rival, the new yacht.

“I shall write no more to-day. If so lady-like a person as I am could feel a tigerish tingling all over her to the very tips of her fingers, I should suspect myself of being in that condition at the present moment. But, with my manners and accomplishments, the thing is, of course, out of the question. We all know that a lady has no passions.

“October 17th. — A letter for Midwinter this morning from the slave-owners — I mean the newspaper people in London — which has set him at work again harder than ever. A visit at luncheon-time and another visit at dinner-time from Armadale. Conversation at luncheon about the yacht. Conversation at dinner about Miss Milroy. I have been honored, in regard to that young lady, by an invitation to go with Armadale to-morrow to the Toledo, and help him to buy some presents for the beloved object. I didn’t fly out at him — I only made an excuse. Can words express the astonishment I feel at my own patience? No words can express it.

“October 18th. — Armadale came to breakfast this morning, by way of catching Midwinter before he shuts himself up over his work.

“Conversation the same as yesterday’s conversation at lunch. Armadale has made his bargain with the agent for hiring the yacht. The agent (compassionating his total ignorance of the language) has helped him to find an interpreter, but can’t help him to find a crew. The interpreter is civil and willing, but doesn’t understand the sea. Midwinter’s assistance is indispensable; and Midwinter is requested (and consents!) to work harder than ever, so as to make time for helping his friend. When the crew is found, the merits and defects of the vessel are to be tried by a cruise to Sicily, with Midwinter on board to give his opinion. Lastly (in case she should feel lonely), the ladies’ cabin is most obligingly placed at the disposal of Midwinter’s wife. All this was settled at the breakfast-table; and it ended with one of Armadale’s neatly-turned compliments, addressed to myself: ‘I mean to take Neelie sailing with me, when we are married. And you have such good taste, you will be able to tell me everything the ladies’ cabin wants between that time and this.’

“If some women bring such men as this into the world, ought other women to allow them to live? It is a matter of opinion. I think not.

“What maddens me is to see, as I do see plainly, that Midwinter finds in Armadale’s company, and in Armadale’s new yacht, a refuge from me. He is always in better spirits when Armadale is here. He forgets me in Armadale almost as completely as he forgets me in his work. And I bear it! What a pattern wife, what an excellent Christian I am!

“October 19th. — Nothing new. Yesterday over again.

“October 20th. — One piece of news. Midwinter is suffering from nervous headache; and is working in spite of it, to make time for his holiday with his friend.

“October 21st. — Midwinter is worse. Angry and wild and unapproachable, after two bad nights, and two uninterrupted days at his desk. Under any other circumstances he would take the warning and leave off. But nothing warns him now. He is still working as hard as ever, for Armadale’s sake. How much longer will my patience last?

“October 22d. — Signs, last night, that Midwinter is taxing his brains beyond what his brains will bear. When he did fall asleep, he was frightfully restless; groaning and talking and grinding his teeth. From some of the words I heard, he seemed at one time to be dreaming of his life when he was a boy, roaming the country with the dancing dogs. At another time he was back again with Armadale, imprisoned all night on the wrecked ship. Toward the early morning hours he grew quieter. I fell asleep; and, waking after a short interval, found myself alone. My first glance round showed me a light burning in Midwinter’s dressing-room. I rose softly, and went to look at him.

“He was seated in the great, ugly, old-fashioned chair, which I ordered to be removed into the dressing-room out of the way when we first came here. His head lay back, and one of his hands hung listlessly over the arm of the chair. The other hand was on his lap. I stole a little nearer, and saw that exhaustion had overpowered him while he was either reading or writing, for there were books, pens, ink, and paper on the table before him. What had he got up to do secretly, at that hour of the morning? I looked closer at the papers on the table. They were all neatly folded (as he usually keeps them), with one exception; and that exception, lying open on the rest, was Mr. Brock’s letter.

“I looked round at him again, after making this discovery, and then noticed for the first time another written paper, lying under the hand that rested on his lap. There was no moving it away without the risk of waking him. Part of the open manuscript, however, was not covered by his hand. I looked at it to see what he had secretly stolen away to read, besides Mr. Brock’s letter; and made out enough to tell me that it was the Narrative of Armadale’s Dream.

“That second discovery sent me back at once to my bed — with something serious to think of.

“Traveling through France, on our way to this place, Midwinter’s shyness was conquered for once, by a very pleasant man — an Irish doctor — whom we met in the railway carriage, and who quite insisted on being friendly and sociable with us all through the day’s journey. Finding that Midwinter was devoting himself to literary pursuits, our traveling companion warned him not to pass too many hours together at his desk. ‘Your face tells me more than you think,’ the doctor said: ‘If you are ever tempted to overwork your brain, you will feel it sooner than most men. When you find your nerves playing you strange tricks, don’t neglect the warning — drop your pen.’

“After my last night’s discovery in the dressing-room, it looks as if Midwinter’s nerves were beginning already to justify the doctor’s opinion of them. If one of the tricks they are playing him is the trick of tormenting him again with his old superstitious terrors, there will be a change in our lives here before long. I shall wait curiously to see whether the conviction that we two are destined to bring fatal danger to Armadale takes possession of Midwinter’s mind once more. If it does, I know what will happen. He will not stir a step toward helping his friend to find a crew for the yacht; and he will certainly refuse to sail with Armadale, or to let me sail with him, on the trial cruise.

“October 23d. — Mr. Brock’s letter has, apparently, not lost its influence yet. Midwinter is working again to-day, and is as anxious as ever for the holiday-time that he is to pass with his friend.

“Two o’clock. — Armadale here as usual; eager to know when Midwinter will be at his service. No definite answer to be given to the question yet, seeing that it all depends on Midwinter’s capacity to continue at his desk. Armadale sat down disappointed; he yawned, and put his great clumsy hands in his pockets. I took up a book. The brute didn’t understand that I wanted to be left alone; he began again on the unendurable subject of Miss Milroy, and of all the fine things she was to have when he married her. Her own riding-horse; her own pony-carriage; her own beautiful little sitting-room upstairs at the great house, and so on. All that I might have had once Miss Milroy is to have now — if I let her.

“Six o’clock. — More of the everlasting Armadale! Half an hour since, Midwinter came in from his writing, giddy and exhausted. I had been pining all day for a little music, and I knew they were giving ‘Norma’ at the theater here. It struck me that an hour or two at the opera might do Midwinter good, as well as me; and I said: ‘Why not take a box at the San Carlo to-night?’ He answered, in a dull, uninterested manner, that he was not rich enough to take a box. Armadale was present, and flourished his well-filled purse in his usual insufferable way. ‘I’m rich enough, old boy, and it comes to the same thing.’ With those words he took up his hat, and trampled out on his great elephant’s feet to get the box. I looked after him from the window as he went down the street. ‘Your widow, with her twelve hundred a year,’ I thought to myself, ‘might take a box at the San Carlo whenever she pleased, without being beholden to anybody.’ The empty-headed wretch whistled as he went his way to the theater, and tossed his loose silver magnificently to every beggar who ran after him.

* * * * *

“Midnight. — I am alone again at last. Have I nerve enough to write the history of this terrible evening, just as it has passed? I have nerve enough, at any rate, to turn to a new leaf, and try.

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